Bridget Bishop: Iconic style queen or evil witch? The first is absolutely true, while the second is debatable (but probably not true).
This is my first post in the series of Bad Ass Witches, so of course I would have to kick things off with Bridget Bishop. You probably learned about her in school, when your exhausted teacher skimmed over her story before moving onto “Other Terrible Things White People Have Done, Volume III.”
Let’s do a quick refresher: In 1692, Bridget Bishop was the first of 20 to be executed for alleged witchcraft.
Was Bridget an actual witch? I don’t know, and honestly it doesn’t matter. This series is not so much about the belief systems as it is honoring women who do awesome things, and she certainly qualifies for that.
Born Bridget Playfer in 1632, she was married three times. Women today who are married three times get a lot of shit for it, so imagine being in her shoes then. Her first husband was Captain Samuel Wesselby, with whom she had a son and a daughter. It’s hard to find any information on Mr. Wesselby, other than he died.
Bridget’s next husband was Thomas Oliver, a “prominent businessman” according to Wikipedia. He too was a widower, and his first wife was the town Karen. Her name was Mary Leman and she was known for her “constant and unpleasant public comments,” resulting in them being exiled from the colony and returning to England.
Imagine being such a bitch that you get kicked out of a town. Imagine being allowed to kick someone out of a town for being a bitch. My kick-out list would be a mile long, and I’m sure I’d be at the top of several lists myself. I guess this was the old school way of getting #canceled.
After returning to England in 1649, Mary died somehow but that information is hard to find. Oliver then returned to his property in Salem. He married Bridget in 1666 and they had a daughter together.
Oliver is important because his death was the first time Bridget was put on trial for witchcraft. It was not the first time she was accused, however. She had long been suspected of being a witch, but we’ll get into that later.
Bridget was acquitted, but her in-laws continued to hate her because they were pissed that she got an inheritance from Oliver.
Bridget’s final husband was Edward Bishop, a sawyer. Apparently, a sawyer is someone who saws wood. You could probably make a lot of money with that back when America still had trees on it. They married in 1687 and had no children together.
So, why was Bridget Bishop accused of Witchcraft?
Bishop was known around town for being “outspoken and deliberately dressed differently,” as opposed to accidentally dressing differently.
Deliberately dressing differently, even today, is frowned upon for women. She had a trademark red tunic, and it is amazing to know that she had her own style. Unfortunately there aren’t any photos and they certainly wouldn’t be in color, but I like to imagine it like this:
She was said to have owned a tavern that belonged to her late husband Thomas Oliver. However, that information is conflicted because others say she didn’t own it, but frequented it.
She also played shuffleboard, which was a bad thing? I don’t know, I feel like anything fun back then was a sin.
In 1692, five young women accused Bridget Bishop of bewitching them. They sound like the quintessential “Mean Girls,” but let’s for a moment believe that there was something actually happening.
The girls were said to have been thrown into fits, but some have said this could be the result of Ergotism. This is an illness that causes convulsions, mania and psychosis. People got it from fungus found in rye, which was a staple food back then.
So, they’re all breaking into fits and convulsing, and someone has to be at fault. What about that crazy chick who plays shuffleboard in her signature red tunic?? It’s probably her!
Other people apparently said that “the shape of Bishop” would appear before them and bite or choke them. Little known fact: Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” is actually about being choked by Bridget Bishop* (*not a fact).
Another woman said that the shape of Bishop tore her coat, and her coat was “torn in the exact spot.” Like, lol, what? “I imagined my coat being torn here, and LOOK IT’S TORN HERE.” How is that evidence? But the courtroom ate it up.
Bridget also made the mistake of confiding to a man that other people in town had long considered her to be a witch. He then said that she was tormenting him with witchcraft. Probably should be careful of who you confide in ladies, amirite? Especially since this story is extremely vague and I would bet you a straw penny that he wanted to bang her, she said no, and thus “tormented” him.
A town dyer (someone who dyes things colors) said that Bishop asked him to dye lace. He claimed that the lace was “too small to be used on anything but a poppet.” A poppet is like a voodoo doll but with dyed lace, apparently. Also, couldn’t this be proven or disproven? Where is the lace? How much was there, and what else could it be used for?
However, this dude also said Bridget hit his son with a large gardening tool, which is not witchcraft but is generally frowned upon.
Other people said they found poppets in her house, but those were never produced as evidence. The most obvious explanation is that she shape shifted, collected the poppets and made them disappear, duh.
The TL;DR of all of this is that everyone in colonial times was a huge liar.
There were so many blatantly obvious lies, from everyone involved, that it really was a doomed outcome from the start. People didn’t like Bridget Bishop and wanted to get rid of her, and the combined groupthink of witchcraft punishment and the idea that they could make the town better was too tempting to resist.
Bridget herself lied many times on the stand, saying that she didn’t know certain people she clearly knew. However, her previous experience with witchcraft trials had likely prepared her to go in denying everything. It worked before, but not this time, unfortunately.
One question I have is, where was her third husband during all of this? He’s notably absent during the trials, and I feel like he could have shed some light on certain things. Was he so busy sawing wood that he couldn’t attend the trial? Did he not want to incriminate himself? Was the law about not having to testify against your spouse in place back then? It’s weird, and I didn’t see anything about her kids being there either.
Guess who was there though? Her ex-in-laws.
Remember Thomas Oliver’s family who hated her because she got his property? One of the women was married to a police official, who was involved in getting the whole trial started. This is a deeply woven story and could totally be a soap opera plot. Or, a version of “Better Call Saul” where he’s a defense attorney for Salem Witch Trial defendants.
Bridget Bishop was sentenced to death and hanged on June 10th, 1692.
Let’s recap why people thought she was a witch:
- young girls having convulsions
- flamboyant style
- married three times
- played shuffleboard
- dyed lace
- Also hit a kid with a shovel, but again, I haven’t seen any spell that requires that act.
The biggest issue though, in my opinion, was the fact that she either owned or frequented the tavern that her late husband owned, and she got inheritance from him. Since her in-laws were connected to the law and wanted revenge, they were easily able to get it.
This is both a bizarre historical story and also a cautionary tale, even in today’s time. You could easily be punished for pissing off the wrong people today. You might not be hanged for witchcraft, but you could be punished in other ways and if enough people say enough dumb shit about you, eventually everyone could just believe it.
There isn’t really a moral to this story, other than “maybe search for evidence in a trial and don’t be a lying dick hole.” I’m certainly not going to blame Bridget for any of her behavior (except the shovel throwing). Playing shuffleboard and being married three times is not witchcraft.
I will say, though, if she was a witch, she did a bad job of hiding it. If you’re going to shape shift and bite people, shift into someone they don’t recognize. If you’re dying lace to make poppets, do it in the next town over. Avoid throwing shovels at children.
For what it’s worth, The Smithsonian says this about the trials:
In 1702, the court declared the trials unlawful. In 1711, the colony passed a bill restoring the rights and good names of those accused and granted £600 restitution to their heirs. However, it was not until 1957—more than 250 years later—that Massachusetts formally apologized for the events of 1692.-Bloomberg, J. (2007, October). A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials. Smithsonian Magazine
Bridget Bishop is notable not for her outlandish personality, but for her tragic and awful death. She is remembered for being the first, but certainly not the last, to be accused of witchcraft simply because her personality was less-than-agreeable at times. It’s important to remember her and the others who suffered during this time. They were doomed long before the trials even started, and no amount of witchcraft could have saved them.
Darby Ginsberg says
I love it. Keep up the writing. Very interesting read.
As a fellow redhead, even as a kid, I always figured I’d be taken for a witch back then. I find this subject fascinating. Maybe that was a reason I kept my thoughts to myself for years?? Always lurking in the back of my head was the thought of someone pointing that finger and saying, “Ah-hah!! We knew it! String her up!”
Why did it take me until my 50s to let it loose?
Haha I always felt like maybe I was accused of it in a past life (if those exist)? I’ve always kept my thoughts quiet for that reason also! Now I’m less afraid to say what I want but not completely. This blog is helping me come into it! 🙂