There are some “firsts” that you probably shouldn’t wear as a badge of honor and being the first execution in the Salem Witch Trials is one of them.
But, alas, Bridget Bishop didn’t really have a say in the matter and has gone down in history as the number one casualty of the fear-inspired mass hysteria that plagued Massachusetts in the 1600s. Though she was accused of witchcraft and consorting with the devil, her true crime, as Bernard Rosenthal’s book Salem Story points out, may have simply been not following the cultural norms of the time.
So Who Was Bridget Bishop?
Bridget Bishop was born somewhere between 1632 and 1635 in England.
Probably the first way Bridget stood out amongst most women of the time was in her approach to marriage. In total, Bishop was married three times and widowed twice prior to her trial.
Her first marriage, to Samuel Wasselby, seems to have gone without incident before he died in 1664. the important thing to note about this marriage is that it ultimately led to Bridget emigrating to the newly colonized Americas and settling in the Massachusetts Bay area in Salem.
Her second marriage, to Thomas Oliver in 1666, was way more turbulent. Oliver was already a widower with children and the couple is said to have fought frequently. These fights caught the attention of local authorities and the Olivers were publicly harangued for their behavior. In one incident, Bishop was accused of calling her husband profane names on the Sabbath and the two were publicly forced to stand “in the public marketplace, both gagged, for about an hour, with a paper fastened to each other’s foreheads upon which their offense should be fairly written.” It’s also suspected that Oliver physically abused Bishop as her face was often bruised and injured during her marriage to Oliver.
Oliver’s death in 1679 triggered the first accusations of witchcraft against Bishop from Oliver’s children, who claimed that their father died as a result of Bishop bewitching him. The case was eventually thrown out due to lack of evidence and suspicions that the Oliver children were more interested in snagging Bishop’s inherited property since Oliver didn’t leave a will at the time of his death.
Bishop’s final marriage was to a man named Edward Bishop.
A Bewitching Amount of Evidence
Bishop was brought to trial for witchcraft once again in 1692 after Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Parris named her as one of the reasons behind their mysterious illnesses. Bishop joined a roster of 13 women and five men, including Elizabeth Proctor, Giles Corey and Rebecca Nurse (you may recognize these names from Arthur Miller’s famous play, The Crucible).
Neighbors and even family members spoke out against Bishop, accusing her of attacking them and killing their children, making pets disappear and sending bewitched animals (including a talking monkey) to their homes as revenge for misdeeds against her. Bishop and the other accused were also subjected to a physical examination of their genitals which revealed “a preternatural excrescence of flesh between the pudendum [genitals] and anus much like to teats & not usual in women & much unlike to the other three that hath been searched by us & that they were in all the three women near the same place.”
So, yeah, basically nipples where nipples didn’t belong.
Through it all, however, Bishop maintained her innocence, responding, when asked if she was a witch: “I am innocent to a witch. I know not what a witch is–I am clear: if I were any such person you should know it.”1
Unfortunately, none of this was enough to save Bridget Bishop. She became the first woman to be executed in the Salem hysteria on June 10, 1692. She was hanged from an oak tree and the town was said to have been relieved that “the Shape of Bridget would trouble them no more.”
But Wait, There Was Another Bishop– So This Just Became a “Tale of Two Bishops”
Bridget Bishop was not the only Bishop who became a casualty of the Salem Witch trials. In fact, Bishop’s stepdaughter-in-law Sarah Bishop met a similar fate, and the two are now often confused in historical narratives.
The initial mistaken identification was made by Charles Upham in his 1867 book Salem Witchcraft, wherein he erroneously described Bridget Bishop as keeping “a house of refreshment for travellers, and a shovel-board for the entertainment of her guests, and generally seems to have countenanced amusements and gayeties to an extent that exposed her to some scandal.” Bishop was also said to wear a very showy and atypical red corset, which was really worn by Sarah, not Bridget..
This case of mistaken identities would live on for another 100-plus years until 1981 when David L. Green finally cleared up the misunderstanding and correctly distinguished the two women. The source of the confusion between Sarah Bishop and Bridget Bishop appears to be the fact that both women were married to men named Edward Bishop and thereby each known as Goodwife Bishop.2 The combining of the two Bishops appears to have been the result of a slightly unclear testimony by the Reverend John Hale, which identified Sarah Bishop only as “Goodwife Bishop…wife of Edward Bishop Jun’r.”
Reverend John Hale also noted in his testimony that Sarah Bishop “did entertaine [sic] people in her house at unseasonable houres in the night to keep drinking and playing at shovel-board whereby… young people were in danger to bee [sic] corrupted.”3 Sarah, in fact, was more likely the one who was known for dressing in red and given the side-eye for her unorthodox social life.
Punishment that Reeally Didn’t Fit the Crime
Even though Bridget Bishop was the first person to die as a result of the Salem witch trials, she wasn’t the first accused. Her accusers also eventually retracted their claims (too little, too late much?) and in the early 1700s the Massachusetts government cleared the names of most of the people who had been wrongly accused of witchcraft, Bridget Bishop not included.
Unfortunately, Bishop wouldn’t benefit from exoneration until more than two centuries later, when in 2001, the names of the remaining accused were cleared.
But Bishop’s status as the first witch hunt martyr remains today. Her unusual situation of being a thrice-married, twice-widowed woman who also owned property is said to have made her an anomaly amongst her counterparts and may have painted the target on her back for her being accused.
Whatever the case, Bishop’s death is a testament to the damage that mass hysteria can do, as well as the fact that it often takes more time to right a wrong than it takes to commit the wrong in the first place.
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- Walsh, Sarah Nell, Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature, 2001 Rosenthal, Bernard, Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692
- Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice Bridget Bishop: Witch or Easy Target?, 2011