The Witch Who Got Away

We’re all heard tales of the Salem witch trials. It was the year 1692. A few young girls accused three women — two outcasts (Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne) and a slave (Tituba) — of pinching them and sending them into fits. The women were put on trial, given no representation, and found guilty of the heinous crime of associating with Satan: witchcraft. People were frightened. If their neighbors could be witches, anyone could be harboring the devil, right?

Over the next year, more than 200 people were accused of being witches and 19 people were executed, including a man named Giles Corey, who was crushed to death by stones. It was a terrible incident in history. It has also led to great industry in current day Salem, which generates a staggering $100 million annually from Halloween-based tourism.

With all the attention, one story doesn’t get the press it deserves: the witch who escaped (and later helped Abraham Lincoln) (kinda).

John Alden was a sailor on board the Mayflower in 1620. He decided to stay with the Pilgrims, married, and held a number of important positions in Plymouth, including assistant governor, treasurer, and member of the General Court. Of all original Pilgrim families, the Aldens have the most descendants; John and his wife Priscilla had ten children alone. One of those children included John Jr.

As the son of a prominent member of Plymouth, John Alden, Jr. became a well known figure in colonial Massachusetts. He was a ship captain, wealthy merchant, and fought as a commander against the French in King William’s War.

Being an important and famous military figure, Alden was given the task in 1692 to ransom French captives in northern city of Quebec. On his way back home to Boston that May, Alden stopped in Salem. It proved to be a poor decision on his part. He arrived in the midst of hysteria. Aimless accusations flew about town; this was not the best time for a famous stranger to wander though.

Like other outsiders, Alden was quickly charged with associating with Satan. When he appeared in court, the girls who accused him screamed and fell to the floor, proving without a doubt John Alden, Jr. was a witch. Alden astutely pointed out to the judges that if he was a witch, why didn’t everyone in the courtroom fall down? The judges ignored such rational thinking and proceeded with the examination. Here’s Alden’s description of the examination:

“Those Wenches being present, who plaid their jugling tricks, falling down, crying out, and staring in peoples faces; the Magistrates demanded of them several times, who it was of all the people in the Room that hurt them? One of these Accusers pointed several times at one Captain Hill, there present, but spoke nothing; the same accuser had a man standing at her back to hold her up; he stooped down to her ear, then she cried out, Alden, Alden afflicted her. One of the Magistrates asked her if she had ever seen Alden, she answered no, he asked her how she knew it was Alden? She said, the Man told her so.”

In the late 1600s, rumors had been floating around New England that Alden was selling weapons to the French. That meant that when he walked into town, a number of people would have jumped at the chance to get revenge, such as the many who had lost family members in recent wars with the French. Motive of the accusers was never questioned in Salem, so as arbitrary as the indictment was, Alden was in for a legal battle.

Assuming (correctly) that a fair trial wasn’t in the cards, Alden decided to skip town and fled to New York. By the time he returned to Massachusetts, hysteria subsided and he was free to continue his witchy ways.

Another descendant of John Alden, James, later rose to prominence during the American Civil War as Rear Admiral. There was even a US Navy destroyer named after him. Abraham Lincoln might have been a vampire slayer, but witches? Well, he could get down with them.

photo credit: Connecticut State Library