In Episode 261, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger explore Old Hadley Cemetery, in Hadley, Massachusetts, which is the final resting place of accused witch, Mary Webster. A ward of the town, Webster was accused of witchcraft in 1683 but found innocent. Though the court’s verdict wasn’t good enough for the people of Hadley. When a prominent church deacon fell under a strange illness in 1684, some locals were sure he was under a spell of Mary Webster, and they took matters into their own hands. They attempted to hang Webster, but she survived to go on an inspire author Margaret Atwood to write The Handmaid’s Tale.
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RAY: We DO spend a lot of time in old New England cemeteries, Jeff.
JEFF: We do, Ray. It’s where a lot of our stories begin. Right here at the end of the line for everyone else.
RAY: We’re currently standing in Old Hadley Cemetery, in Hadley, Massachusetts. And when they say old they mean OLD! We just passed a headstone that was dated 1661!
JEFF: This is the oldest cemetery in town. It was established in 1660, just one year after the town’s founding.
RAY: The cemetery is in a pretty spot. It’s surrounded by farm fields. The Connecticut River is about a quarter of a mile over there. It’s peaceful here.
JEFF: It is. And though the person we’re looking for doesn’t have a headstone, she’s buried here somewhere close by.
RAY: Who are we looking for?
JEFF: Ray, we’re looking for a local woman who was hanged for witchcraft… but survived. We’re on the hunt for Half Hanged Mary.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to Episode 261 of the New England Legends podcast.
JEFF: Thank you for joining us as we explore the ghosts, monsters, witches, warlocks, and other oddities of New England. We’re a community of legend seekers who love exploring the weird side of our region. And there’s plenty here. We love when you get involved because most of our story leads come from you. You should join our super secret Facebook group, follow us on social media, and of course subscribe to our weekly podcast because it’s free wherever you get your podcasts. We don’t want you to miss a thing.
RAY: Before we go looking for this witch of Hadley, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!
JEFF: It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Nuwati Herbals founder Rod Jacks. Rod, what have you guys been up to?
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RAY: Okay, Jeff. So this witch of Hadley is buried in an unmarked grave. What do we know about her?
JEFF: We know her name was Mary Reeves Webster, and we know the best-selling book The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is dedicated to her.
RAY: The Handmaid’s Tale that was made into a television series on Hulu?
JEFF: That’s the one!
RAY: I think Season 5 of that series comes out soon.
JEFF: It does. The book and the series owe their inspiration to a woman buried somewhere close to where we’re standing right now.
RAY: That’s kind of amazing that there’s no monument.
JEFF: Mary Webster was accused of being a witch here in Hadley in 1683. That’s 9 years before the Salem Witch trials, if you’re keeping score.
RAY: We’re ALWAYS keeping score.
JEFF: We are. So let’s head back to 1682, and meet Mary.
[SLOW HORSE AND WAGON TROTTING ALONG]
RAY: It’s the fall of 1682 here in the small farming community of Hadley. And we’re taking our horse-drawn wagon down the middle highway through Hadley.
JEFF: I can see we’re coming up on small house just off the road.
[HORSE/WAGON SUDDENLY STOPS]
JEFF: Why did you stop the horse, Ray?
RAY: I didn’t. He stopped on his own.
JEFF: That’s strange. I mean, this IS the home of William and Mary Webster.
RAY: A little background on this couple. Mary was born in nearby Springfield. She married William in 1670 when she was about in her mid-forties, and he was in his mid-fifties. But since then, the couple have fallen on hard times.
JEFF: Unable to make ends meet, the Websters have occasionally become wards of the town, meaning people in Hadley have been forced to deliver fire wood to them, or food, or other necessities.
RAY: We’ve seen this before. Sometimes locals don’t take kindly to having to take care of others. They may question how come these folks can’t take care of themselves?
JEFF: And it doesn’t help when Mary acts ungrateful for the hand-outs. She can’t help herself when she hears the snide comments. She often fires back with harsh words of her own. Living like this has made Mary bitter toward the world. And the feeling from the world is soon mutual.
RAY: As time passes, stories start to circulate around Hadley that maybe Mary is a witch. Plus, strange things are happening in and around this house.
JEFF: Like what?
RAY: For one, when people are riding their cattle or horses by the house, the animals will stop right here, and refuse to pass.
JEFF: That happened to us!
RAY: When this happens, the neighbors will barge into Mary’s home and beat her. And then the animals will be able to move along once again.
JEFF: Okay, I’m NOT going into that house to beat an old woman.
RAY: I’m with you.
JEFF: I heard another strange tale about this house and Mary. Let’s go inside.
[DOOR OPENS / DOOR CLOSES]
JEFF: More than one neighbor told me they’ve been inside this house when…
JEFF: A hen falls down the chimney right into a boiling pot over the kitchen hearth.
RAY: That’s crazy!
JEFF: Soon after, people noticed a burn mark on Mary.
RAY: I imagine a scared chicken falling into a boiling pot of water would splash hot water everywhere. If you’re nearby, you’re going to get burned!
JEFF: Maybe. Or maybe… Maybe Mary is a witch.
RAY: It’s March 27, 1683 when formal charges of witchcraft are brought against Mary Webster. The charges from the magistrates at Northampton read, and I quote: Mary, wife of William Webster of Hadley, being under strong suspicion of having familiarity with the devil, or using witchcraft, had many testimonies brought in against her, or that did seem to center upon her, relating to such a thing;
JEFF: The court at Northampton, claims they’re not equipped to handle a witchcraft case, so Mary Webster is sent to the Court of Assistants in Boston.
JEFF: Through the month of April and most of May, Mary Webster has to wait in a Boston jail until her court date, which finally arrives May 22nd. Ray, read the charges against her.
RAY: Okay, the court record states, Quote, “The grand-jury being impaneled, they, on perusal of the evidences, returned that they did indict Mary Webster for that she, not having the fear of God before her eyes, and being instigated by the devil, hath entered into covenant and had familiarity with him in the shape of a warraneage…
JEFF: A warraneage is a fisher, or wild black cat. The charges also claims Mary Webster has some strange markings on body.
RAY: So the main evidence is that she didn’t have the fear of God in her eyes, and some marks on her body?
JEFF: That’s right. Plus the testimony of her neighbors saying she’s mean. After her arraignment, Mary is placed back in jail until her trial on June first. The court examines the charges and evidence and renders their verdict. Ray, you might as well read this one too.
RAY: Okay, it says, “Mary Webster was now called and brought to the bar, and was indicted, To which indictment she pleaded not guilty, making no exception against any of the jury, leaving herself to be tried by God and the country. The indictment and evidences in the case were read and committed to the jury, and the jury brought in their verdict that they found her (DRAMA) not guilty.
JEFF: Thank goodness.
RAY: That settles it, right? She’s free to go?
JEFF: Mary Webster is free to go back to her home in Hadley. She’s been away in jail for months!
JEFF: Though the courts ruled Mary not guilty of witchcraft, her neighbors are NOT convinced.
RAY: Still, life returns to normal… well, normal for the Websters. They still need handouts, their neighbors still don’t like Mary, and Mary still scorns and scoffs back.
JEFF: It’s winter of 1684. Late December. And 50-year-old Lieut. Philip Smith of Hadley isn’t feeling well.
JEFF: Philip Smith is a church deacon. He’s a justice in the county court. He’s a prominent man, and now he’s taken with a strange illness. His doctors are perplexed. Smith is growing weaker by the day. He’s delirious.
RAY: Smith is convinced he’s bewitched. He tells his brother who is tending to him that there will be a wonder in Hadley! That he won’t be dead when people think he is. Smith demands that is brother keep careful watch should he appear dead. His brother agrees.
JEFF: In the early days of January, Smith complains that he’s feeling sharp pins pricking him in his toe and in his arm. But there’s nothing there when he’s examined. Smith’s voice is delirious. He’s speaking in strange tones and words.
RAY: For those close to Lt. Smith, they’re convinced he’s being attacked by a witch. And there’s no question as to who is the cause… it MUST be Mary Webster.
JEFF: As a church deacon and justice in the county court, Smith has had dealings with Mary Webster. Now with Smith on his deathbed, a number of young Hadley men march over to Mary Webster’s home.
[POUND ON DOOR]
JEFF: They drag her from her house.
[SOUND OF A SCUFFLE]
RAY: This is terrible! They’re placing a rope around her neck, and tossing the other end over a tree branch. I can’t watch this.
JEFF: This IS awful. Mary is struggling to breath…
RAY: Oh! Her body just went limp. I think she’s dead!
JEFF: The men are bringing her limp body down now. What are they…
RAY: They’re burying her in the snow! And now they’re walking away. This is inhuman!
JEFF: Meanwhile, back at Lt. Smith’s home, his family have already heard the death rattle. Finally, on January 10th…
JEFF: He dies.
RAY: Here’s the craziest thing… Mary Webster? She’s alive. After the men left her buried in the frozen snow, she sat up, and walked home.
JEFF: Given that she was found not guilty at her trial, AND survived a hanging attempt, the people of Hadley believed maybe they should leave her alone.
RAY: And if anyone was on the fence about Mary being a witch before… they’re convinced now. But they’re afraid enough to keep their distance. Anyone who survives a hanging is more powerful than most would care to reckon with.
JEFF: Mary Webster dies 10 years after Lt. Smith in 1696. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: This story is all-too familiar.
JEFF: It is. We’ve covered other stories that sound similar to Half Hanged Mary. There’s Aunt Jinny of Hillsborough, New Hampshire.
RAY: That’s right! Animals refused to pass her house as well.
JEFF: There’s Eunice Cole, the Witch of Hampton, New Hampshire.
RAY: Yup, she was a ward of the town, and no one liked the bitter old woman.
JEFF: But Half-Hanged Mary may be the most famous now because she inspired author Margaret Atwood to write The Handmaid’s Tale, which she published in 1985.
RAY: For those who don’t know, The Handmaid’s Tale is about a modern dystopia where a fundamentalist religious group runs the government. Birth rates are plummeting, so women become the property of the state. And the few fertile women still around are forced into sexual servitude. It’s truly dark, as the story takes you through the brainwashing of the women, and as we see how they attempt to survive living in this hell.
JEFF: In a 2017 interview for The World, Margaret Atwood claimed her grandmother sometimes said she was related to Mary Webster, and sometimes denied it. Either way, it inspired Atwood to write a poem called “Half Hanged Mary.” The first stanza reads:
When they came to harvest my corpse
(open your mouth, close your eyes)
cut my body from the rope,
I was still alive.
And it ends with:
Before, I was not a witch.
But now I am one.
RAY: Mary Webster’s story is dark, whether in poetry or prose.
JEFF: In that same 2017 interview, Atwood said, and I’m quoting here, “I was actually trying to write a novel about her (Meaning Mary), but, unfortunately, I didn’t know enough about the late 17th century to be able to do it.” So Atwood set the tale in modern times.
RAY: If you’re paying attention to politics lately, we all know the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade. Many politicians are mentioning The Handmaid’s Tale specifically. That we’re currently heading for times like those for women.
JEFF: Well, we don’t know for certain what the future holds, but we do know how women have been treated in the past. Accuse one of being a witch, and there was no limit as to how poorly you could treat them.
RAY: And that brings us to After the Legend where we take a deeper dive into the story, and sometimes veer of course.
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Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.