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The witches among us

Ah, Halloween in the Left Hand Valley! Trick-or-treaters, haunted houses, maybe a surprise blizzard… it’s a spookily festive time. But as you prepare to revel beneath your Barbie wig or Cousin It’s hair, be forewarned: this is the Season of the Witch. And the Left Hand Valley Courier has learned that sorcery may lurk in the local DNA.

Go ahead; laugh it up. The proof lies in prominent family trees.

“I’m a researcher. People who know me know about my research.”

Donlyn Arbuthnot is a passionate historian, especially in the area of ancestral roots. She was an avid genealogist at The Boulder Genealogical Society, helping people discover their family histories. It turns out, though, that some of her most fascinating finds were buried in her own lineage.

“My family settled Haystack Mountain. They arrived in 1859.” Arbuthnot’s great-grandparents bought Haystack from the federal government for $1.25 an acre. “My grandfather was present when the very first train came through Niwot. He was five years old and ran into a house near the train tracks and hid under the bed.”

While that does sound scary, it’s not “Halloween scary,” so let’s get back to the witch thing. To do that, we have to travel 200 years further back into Arbuthnot’s family history.

In 1692, a Massachusetts widow named Susannah North Martin was eking out a living when local law enforcement showed up with the 17th century version of an arrest warrant. “Goody” Martin would undergo questioning and “examination, Relating to high suspicion of sundry acts of Witchcraft donne or committed by her…” The place, of course, was Salem.

Documentation of these events appears on Wikipedia, and Arbuthnot confirmed them with her own research. While official court documents are lost, a record of events was kept by a zealous Puritan minister named Cotton Mather.

“He was somethin’,” Arbuthnot said.

Susannah Martin was not represented by counsel at her trial, and a line of accusers came forward to describe her crimes.

Abigail Williams testified “She hath hurt me often.”

Marcy Lewis could not testify, because when she pointed at Martin she fell into “a fit.”

John Allen claimed that Martin cast a spell that forced his oxen into a river, where they drowned.

According to Mather’s notes, Martin laughed at the evidence against her.

“’Magistrate: ‘What! Do you laugh at it?’ Martin: ‘Well I may at such folly.’ Magistrate: ‘Is this folly? The hurt of persons?’ Martin: ‘I never hurt man or woman or child.’”

A key to Martin’s defense was a belief of the time that true witches were incapable of quoting the Bible.

“Susannah knew the Bible and could quote it very, very well,” Arbuthnot said. Her defense unraveled, though, when Cotton Mather proclaimed the Devil’s servants were perfectly capable of putting on a show of false innocence.

Perhaps the most damning evidence against Martin was the physical “examination” to which she was forced to submit. It was a search for a “witch’s teat,” a third nipple by which a sorceress could nourish her familiar. While examiners never found the witch’s teat on Martin, they claimed her breasts were full of milk in the morning and drained by late afternoon.

Goody Martin was hanged in Salem on July 19, 1692.

Arbuthnot admitted there’s some disagreement about whether she’s actually descended from Martin’s bloodline, but there’s no dispute over her family connection to two other accused Salem witches. One was Samuel Wardwell.

“He’s my seventh great-grandfather on my father’s side,” she explained.

Arbuthnot only recently discovered the Wardwell connection, but learned quickly that Wardwell’s wife owned a 180-acre estate. He was in his late 40s when Massachusetts’ colonial government passed a law declaring that anyone convicted of “conjuration, witchcraft, and dealing with evil and wicked spirits” would automatically forfeit their property to the powers that be.

Wardwell was accused of witchcraft by a 14-year-old boy and arrested. He confessed, but under some sort of duress. The boy later retracted his confession, but Wardwell was hanged anyway on Sept. 22, 1692.

Arbuthnot’s third claim to Salem fame comes through her mother’s side. Martha Allen Carrier was around 40 years old when her family moved to Andover, Massachusetts. Shortly after, in 1690, smallpox ran through the city. The Carriers were accused of bringing smallpox to Andover, and were barred from public places thereafter.

Martha Carrier was formally accused of witchcraft in May, 1692, by some of the same “afflicted girls” who sealed Susannah Martin’s fate. According to the History Channel, they were between nine and twenty years old and formed a core group that “screamed, writhed, barked and displayed other horrifying symptoms they claimed were signs of Satanic possession.”

Once again, Rev. Cotton Mather ensured the trial proceedings were transcribed. The “afflicted girls” claimed Carrier used her sinister powers to inflict disease as a means of murder. Their wild antics included screaming at what they swore were the ghosts of Andover’s smallpox victims. Carrier resolutely denied all charges, even as she was led to the gallows. She admonished all who contributed to her sham trial: “It is false and a shame for you to mind what these say, that are out of their wits!” She was hanged on Aug. 19, 1692.

“She was my 8th great-grandmother,” Arbuthnot said. “She’s also a great-grandmother of Laura Ingalls Wilder.”

But wait there’s more.

“She is Biff’s 11th great-grandmother.” Yes, that Biff… Biff Warren, one of the founders of the Left Hand Valley Courier and co-manager of Rock & Rails, beloved Niwot Youth Sports coach, leader of the Niwot Community Semi-Marching Free Grange Band, and all-around Niwot statesman.

“It’s so cool that Biff and I are cousins,” Arbuthnot mused, “probably ten times removed.”

This present-day descendant of witches cleverly denies exhibiting any special powers herself. “I feel more cursed than having special powers,” she laughed. She suffers from generalized myasthenia gravis, an auto-immune disease that causes muscle weakness and severely affects her mobility. “I’m cursed with fun even with the challenges I face.”

And just to be clear, Arbuthnot doubts that her ancestors were sorcerers of any kind.

“It makes me sad that they had this experience,” she said. “It also gives me strength, because I know they had to have a heck of a lot of courage to face up to this accusation. As human beings, there’s times when things happen around us that are hard to deal with, and we tend to accuse others. Someday I hope we can get to a point where we can be accepting of each other’s differences and challenges.”

Sorceress or no, that’s an enchantment we can all only hope to fall under.


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