Thursday, April 14, 2011

Town column: Background as a 'witch' helps to connect past and present

The Heretic's Daughter: A NovelThat I -- Sara Carrier Clarkson -- am a direct descendant of a documented witch came as no surprise to my husband.
"Explains a lot," he shrugged.

This conversation was held last fall, and witches were on people's minds not just because of Halloween but also because of the supposed Wiccan pursuits of a certain candidate for the United States Senate.
In my family, witches were under review because my daughter and I were getting ready to head to a large family reunion in Salem, Mass., where the descendants of Martha Carrier were meeting. Salem is the site of the famous Witchcraft Trials in the early 1690s where Martha Carrier and 19 others were found guilty of practicing witchcraft and ultimately put to death.

Until a few months ago, I was under the mistaken impressions that by "put to death" that meant that they were burned at the stake and that the only past tense of the verb "to hang" is "hung." Wrong on both counts. Those found guilty of witchcraft, with the exception of Giles Corey who was pressed to death, were hanged, the past tense of the word "hang" when hang means that someone is executed with rope and scaffolding. My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Martha Carrier, was hanged on Gallow's Hill in Salem on Aug. 19, 1692, after a trial in which she bravely faced her accusers and the judges and said, "I see no devils but those seated before me." She had the courage of her convictions with her when she went to trial and when she went to her death, and while some of that courage is documented in New England libraries and courthouses it is also relayed through generations of her family, ensuring her immortality.

Last November, about 200 of Martha Carrier's direct descendants gathered in Salem to commemorate her life and death and to meet one another. We were also there as part of a book launch for the prequel to Kathleen Kent's The Heretic's Daughter, a 2008 novel which was an account of Martha Carrier's family, life, trial and death. The newly released prequel, The Wolves of Andover: A Novel is a fictionalized account of the life of Martha's husband, Thomas Carrier. The author of both novels, Kathleen Kent, is another direct descendant of Martha and Thomas, and she, like me and obviously many others in our "family," grew up hearing the stories of Martha and Thomas. He was supposedly 7-feet tall, lived to be well over 100 years old and may well be one of the executioners of King Charles I in England. Thomas Carrier's place in history is not nearly as well documented as Martha's, and if he was indeed an executioner -- a tall one who would live a long, long, time -- there is no paper trail.

Both people fascinated Kent, who did meticulous research on them. Martha, Kent said, was by all accounts a ferocious woman who again and again proclaimed, "I am wronged" in the Salem courts even though many of the others accused finally relented and admitted their "witchcraft" after being worn down out of fear for their families. Martha, who was perhaps not a warm and fuzzy person, refused to lie or to bear false witness against her neighbors. Two of her five children testified against her, and The Heretic's Daughter not only posits explanations for their betrayal but authentically and compellingly describes life in a Salem jail as well as in a Puritan Massachusetts town during the late 17th century.
At her death, Martha left behind her husband, Thomas, and five children. My own family is descended from her middle son, Thomas, his son Thomas, his son Thomas, his son Darius, his son Edwin, his son Albert Heath who married Sara (for whom I am named), their daughter Catherine (my grandmother), her daughter Mary Ann, my mother. I brought my daughter Sofia, the ninth generation. Our little clan of Carriers included my mother, her brother and their three first cousins all of whom bear the surname Carrier. These five people, one in his late 60s and the others in their 70s, are descended from Albert Heath Carrier and his wife, my namesake, Sara Robertson Carrier. The Robertsons came to the U.S. in the mid-1700s so are sometimes poo-pooed as the Johnny-come-lately family.

While Kathleen Kent's books provided the impetus for the reunion, our own Carrier needs to affirm our connections with past generations as well as a desire to see what seven, eight, nine, ten and even more generations of Martha Carrier's children might look like, spurred many of us from around the United States to attend. Here's what we look like: some of us were old, some young; some were tall like our forefather Thomas and some quite petite like my own grandmother, Catherine Carrier; some were blond and some dark; some heavy and some thin; some had multiple degrees and others carried a laminated copy of their high school diploma in their wallet. We were a motley crew and a microcosm of the U.S. population in many ways. While we sought a connection with the past, we came armed with our own stories of the present to identify us.

One of the descendants is an artist from Colchester, Conn., (a town which Thomas Carrier co-founded after Martha's death) who had a sweatshirt made up which read: "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?"
"Neither," says the answer. "I am a Carrier."

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Original Article on Sun-Times Media

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