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Known for: first person executed for witchcraft in Massachusetts Bay Colony
Occupation: midwife, herbalist, physician
Dates: died June 15, 1648, executed as a witch in Charlestown (now part of Boston)
Margaret Jones was hanged on an elm tree on June 15, 1648, after being convicted of witchcraft. The first known execution for witchcraft in New England was the year before: Alse (or Alice) Young in Connecticut.
Her execution was reported in an Almanac published by Samuel Danforth, a Harvard College graduate who was then working as a tutor at Harvard. Samuel's brother Thomas was a judge at the Salem witch trials in 1692.
John Hale, who was later involved in the Salem witch trials as the minister in Beverley, Massachusetts, witnessed the execution of Margaret Jones when he was twelve years old. Rev. Hale was called to help Rev. Parris determine the cause of the strange happenings in his home in early 1692; he was later present at court hearings and executions, supportive of the court's actions. Later, he questioned the legality of the proceedings, and his postumously published book, A Modest Inquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft, is one of the few sources for information about Margaret Jones.
Source: Court Records
We know about Margaret Jones from several sources. A court record notes that in April, 1648, a woman and her husband were confined and watched for signs of witchcraft, according to a "course which hath ben taken in England for the discovery of witches." The officer was appointed to this task on April 18. Although the names of those watched were not mentioned, the subsequent events involving Margaret Jones and her husband Thomas lend credence to the conclusion that the husband and wife named were the Joneses.
The court record shows:
"This court beinge desireows that the same course which hath ben taken in England for the discovery of witches, by watchinge, may also be taken here with the witch now in question, & therefore doe order that a strict watch be set about her every night, & that her husband be confined in a private roome, & watched also."
According to the journals of Governor Winthrop, who was a judge at the trial that convicted Margaret Jones, she was found to have caused pain and sickness and even deafness by her touch; she prescribed medicines (aniseed and liquors are mentioned) that had "extraordinary violent effects"; she warned that those who would not use her medicines would not heal, and that some so warned had had relapses that could not be treated; and she had "foretold" things that she had no way to know about. Further, two signs usually ascribed to witches were found: the witch's mark or witch's teat, and being seen with a child who, on further investigation, vanished -- the assumption was that such an apparition was a spirit.
Winthrop also reported a "very great tempest" at Connecticut at the very time of her execution, which people interpreted as confirming that she was truly a witch. Winthrop's journal entry is reproduced below.
At this court one Margaret Jones of Charlestown was indict- ed and found guilty of witchcraft, and hanged for it. The evidence against her was,
1. that she was found to have such a malignant touch, as many persons, (men, women, and children,) whom she stroked or touched with any affection or displeasure, or, etc., were taken with deafness, or vomiting, or other violent pains or sickness,
2. she practising physic, and her medicines being such things as (by her own confession) were harmless, as aniseed, liquors, etc., yet had extraordinary violent effects,
3. she would use to tell such as would not make use of her physic, that they would never be healed, and accordingly their diseases and hurts continued, with relapse against the ordinary course, and beyond the apprehension of all physicians and surgeons,
4. some things which she foretold came to pass accordingly; other things she could tell of (as secret speeches, etc.) which she had no ordinary means to come to the knowledge of,
5. she had (upon search) an apparent teat in her secret parts as fresh as if it had been newly sucked, and after it had been scanned, upon a forced search, that was withered, and another began on the opposite side,
6. in the prison, in the clear day-light, there was seen in her arms, she sitting on the floor, and her clothes up, etc., a little child, which ran from her into another room, and the officer following it, it was vanished. The like child was seen in two other places, to which she had relation; and one maid that saw it, fell sick upon it, and was cured by the said Margaret, who used means to be employed to that end.
Her behavior at her trial was very intemperate, lying notoriously, and railing upon the jury and witnesses, etc., and in the like distemper she died. The same day and hour she was executed, there was a very great tempest at Connecticut, which blew down many trees, etc.
Source: Winthrop's Journal, "History of New England" 1630-1649. Volume 2. John Winthrop. Edited by James Kendall Hosmer. New York, 1908.
A Nineteenth Century History
In the mid-19th century, Samuel Gardner Drake wrote about the case of Margaret Jones, including more information about what may have happened to her husband:
The first Execution for Witchcraft in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, was at Boston on the 15th of June, 1648. Accusations were probably common long before this, but now came a tangible Case, and it was carried through with as much Satisfaction to the Authorities, apparently, as ever the Indians burnt a Prisoner at the Stake.
The Victim was a Female named Margaret Jones, the Wife of Thomas Jones of Charlestown, who perished on the Gallows, as much for her good Offices, as for the evil Influences imputed to her. She had been, like many other Mothers among the early Settlers, a Physician; but being once suspected of Witchcraft, "was found to have such a malignant Touch, as many Persons were taken with Deafness, or Vomiting, or other violent Pains or Sickness." Her Medicines, though harmless in themselves, "yet had extraordinary violent Effects;" that such as refused her Medicines, "she would tell that they would never be healed, and accordingly their Diseases and Hurts continued, with Relapse against the ordinary Course, and beyond the Apprehension of all Physicians and Surgeons." And as she lay in Prison, "a little Child was seen to run from her into another Room, and being followed by an Officer, it was vanished." There was other Testimony against her more ridiculous than this, but not necessary to be recited. To make her Case as bad as possible, the Record or it says "her Behaviour at her Trials was intemperate, lying notoriously, and railing upon the Jury and Witnesses," and that "in like Distemper she died." It is not unlikely that this poor forsake Woman was distracted with Indignation at the Utterances of the false Witnesses, when she saw her Life was sworn away by them. The deluded Court denounced her frantick Denial of the Charges as "lying notoriously." And in the probably honest Belief in Witchcraft, the same Recorder says, in the most complacent Credulity, that "the same Day and Hour she was executed, there was a very great Tempest at Connecticut, which blew down many Trees, &c." Another equally credulous Gentleman, writing a Letter to a Friend, dated at Boston on the 13th of the same Month, says: "The Witche is condemned, and to be hanged Tomorrow, being Lecture Day.
Whether there were any other suspected Persons at the time Margaret Jones was prosecuted, we have no Means of ascertaining, yet it is more than propable that a supposed Spirit of Darkness had been whispering in the Ears of the Men in Authority in Boston; for about a Month before the Execution of Margaret, they had passed this Order: "The Courte desire the Course which hath been takin in England for Discovery of Witches, by watching them a certina Time. It is ordered, that the best and surest Way may forthwith be put in Practice; to being this Night, if it may be, being the 18th of the third Month, and that the Husband may be confined to a private Roome, and be also then watched."
That the Court was stirred up to ferret out Witches, by the late Successes in that Business in England, -- several Persons having been tried, condemned and executed in Feversham about two Years before -- is not improbable. By "the Course which hath been taken in England for the Discovery of Witches," the Court had References to the Employment of Witch-Finders, one Matthew Hopkins having had great Success. By his infernal Pretensions "some scores" of innocent bewildered People met violent Deaths at the Hands of the Executioner, all along from 1634 to 1646. But to return to the Case of Margaret Jones. She having gone down to an ignominious Grave, leaving her Husband to suffer the Taunts and Jeers of the ignorant Multitude, escaped further Prosecution. These were so insufferable that his Means of Living were cut off, and he was compelled to try to seek another Asylum. A ship was lying in the Harbor bound for Barbadoes. In this he took Passage. But he was not thus to escape Persecution. On this "Ship of 300 Tons" were eighty Horses. These caused the Vessel to roll considerably perhaps heavily, wich to Persons of any Sea Experience would have been no Miracle. But Mr. Jones was a Witch, a Warrant was sued out for his Apprehension, and he was hurried thence to Prison, and there left by the Recorder of the Account, who has left his Readers in Ignorance of what became of him. Whether he were the Thomas Joanes of Elzing, who in 1637 took Passage at Yarmouth for New England, cannot be positively stated, although he is probably the same Person. If so, his Age at that Time was 25 Years, and he married subsequently.
Samuel Gardner Drake. Annals of Witchcraft in New England, and Elsewhere in the United States, From Their First Settlement. 1869. Capitalization as in the original.
Another Nineteenth Century Analysis
Also in 1869, William Frederick Poole reacted to the account of the Salem witch trials by Charles Upham. Poole noted that Upham's thesis was largely that Cotton Mather was at fault for the Salem witch trials, to gain glory and out of gullibility, and used the case of Margaret Jones (among other cases) to show that witch executions did not begin with Cotton Mather. Here are excerpts from the section of that article addressing Margaret Jones:
In New England, the earliest witch execution of which any details have been preserved was that of Margaret Jones, of Charlestown, in June, 1648. Governor Winthrop presided at the trial, signed the death-warrant, and wrote the report of the case in his journal. No indictment, process, or other evidence in the case can be found, unless it be an order of the General Court of May 10, 1648, a certain woman, not named, and her husband, be confined and watched.
… Poole inserts the transcript, shown above, of Winthrop's journal…
The facts in relation to Margaret Jones seem to be, that she was a strong-minded woman, with a will of her own, and undertook, with simple remedies, to practise as a female physician. Were she living in our day, she would brandish a diploma of M. D. from the New England Female Medical College, would annually refuse to pay her city taxes unless she had the right to vote, and would make speeches at the meetings of the Universal Suffrage Association. Her touch seemed to be attended with mesmeric powers. Her character and abilities rather commend themselves to our respect. She made anise-seed and good liquors do the good work of huge doses of calomel and Epsom salts, or their equivalents. Her predictions as to the termination of cases treated in the heroic method proved to be true. Who knows but that she practiced homoeopathy? The regulars pounced upon her as a witch, as the monks did upon Faustus for printing the first edition of the Bible, -- put her and her husband into jail, -- set rude men to watch her day and night, -- subjected her person to indignities unmentionable, -- and, with the assistance of Winthrop and the magistrates, hanged her, -- and all this only fifteen years before Cotton Mather, the credulous, was born!
William Frederick Poole. "Cotton Mather and Salem Witchcraft" North American Review, April, 1869. Complete article is on pages 337-397.