Sunday, March 7, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are?

Family historian at work

“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.”
—Hanh

Orlando Bagley III is number eleven in my line of ghosts. He was a constable in Amesbury, Massachusetts in 1690. In his position as a rural policeman he was at the center of a terribly sad situation involving his parent's friend, Susanna North Martin.

Susanna was born in England and met her future husband, George Martin (a blacksmith) on the voyage to North America. Her father was the town crier and bell ringer for the tiny church on the green in Salisbury, Massachusetts when Susanna and George married 11 August 1646.

Friends to the end

The young, strong-willed couple was one of the first to settle across the river in Amesbury at the same time as Orlando Bagley, his wife Sarah, and their young son Orlando. George and Susanna had six sons and four daughters before George died in 1686, leaving his wife to manage the farm. She was out-spoken and made a reputation for herself as blunt, brusque and bitter.

Witch trial in New England

Susanna was age 67 when the community became caught up in the hysteria of witchcraft. People were suspected if there was "evidence of an evil hand," or if they exhibited "peculiar or strange mannerisms, or unaccountable conversation," and were quickly accused by their neighbors.

Accusation against Susanna Martin

For a time those who were accused were of the lower classes, but later people of rank and character were seized and imprisoned. Symptoms of menopause, depression, Alzheimer's disease and other conditions probably contributed to the behavior society condemned. Superstition and gossip were a deadly combination.

Constable takes a woman to trial.

Constable Orlando Bagley, age 35, was told of accusations towards Susanna and ordered to arrest her. Unwilling to follow through with this responsibility, he was assured by the judge that she would receive a fair and civil trial which would exonerate her, and "make citizens aware of the peril of such slander." Amesbury town records say "Constable Bagley knocked on his old friend's door reluctantly to take her to Salem where she was tried."


Much has been written about Susanna's ordeal as she was accused, tried and hanged as a witch, 2 May 1692. She went to the gallows a martyr to the delusions of the time and perhaps a victim of her own wit and sharp tongue. This episode is documented in Amesbury records as the "saddest event of the year, a dark stain which can never be blotted from history."

There's a little Nancy Drew in me. (Maybe she's an ancestor!) Ferreting out primary sources and obscure details to fill in the blanks, traipsing through wet graveyards to verify dates, digging through old books to meet ghosts from my past—that's my detective work. And now there's a TV show about what I do!

The other night I was played by Sarah Jessica Parker on a new show called Who Do You Think You Are? (I'm being played by Susan Sarandon in a couple of weeks. That's brilliant casting.) A show about people (celebrities in this case) who are searching for their roots, it's an example of why it's fun to find out where we come from. Sarah Jessica was practically in tears (she is an actress, or course) when she found out her ancestor was accused as a witch, astounded that her line didn't start in Cincinnati in 1850.

We all started before 1850, and you don't have to be a celebrity to find yourself inside historic times. Where were your ancestors in 1776? Somebody was alive then, even if they lived in China. And something interesting was going on. Look it up.

For instance, I have ancestors that went on the Crusades. I haven't found out many details, but it suddenly makes reading about the Crusades more relevant. My ancient kin lived in London when the plague was rampant. Where were yours? Was someone on a slave ship? Why? You're probably illegitimate somewhere along the line—is there a passionate love story revealed somewhere in the family scrapbook?

Look for the stories in your personal hiSTORY. Picture your name, birthdate and place of birth typed on a piece of paper. What if that was the only information your grandchildren ever had about you?

Imagine listening to some 3rd cousin of your niece's mother-in-law saying to your grandson, "We've got your grandma's info already written on the chart. Don't worry about her anymore." Wouldn't you want to shout out your story, and tell him what happened between the day you were born and the day you died? Tell him you were shy, too, and loved music, too, and hoped that he'd have curly hair like your husband? There's more to genealogy than dates.

Who do you think you are? Do a little digging and find out.

8 comments:

Kay Dennison said...

I have my family tree and while I don't know too many stories, I was blessed to know my grandparents on both sides and several of my great grandparents. What I do know is that my multi-great grandfather was here before this country was a country circa 1730 and that he went west as soon as he could and that our family was here in Ohio before Ohio was Ohio and when the going gets tough, I remind myself that I can survive anything because of my sturdy pioneer genes.

Misty said...

I'm not usually into "genealogy" -- but you've piqued my curiosity. Think I'll do some digging around.

In the meantime, you have put this song into my head and I can't get it out. (The youtube video is kind of weird, but the song's amazing.) Hear it here
.

kenju said...

We eagerly watched that show and look forward to the rest of the series.

Kristie Lynne said...

My great Grandmother was from a rich family in Sweden. She craved some adventure so she stowed away on a boat to Boston when she was 18. She had some seriosu gumption.

~Kristina said...

Oma, how did you start? I'm giving this one a go as it's always been on my list of to-do-somedays. I was fortunate enough to have met three of my great-grandparents from my maternal lineage. The stories are fading too fast from my memory. I'm trying as best I can to write them in my words, from my eyes.

polly said...

i love to read histories of our family. it makes them seem so real. i think that is why it is important for us to write our stories down as well, so that the people that come after us will know and understand us. (i'm sure i would have been one of those condemned as a witch had i lived back then, wow! i'm grateful i live now)

Janet said...

you are always so inspirational! there is so much more to family history than dates. my mom loved the stories behind the names and this reminds me i need to continue on with that tradition.

Sheri said...

What did you think of "Who Do You Thing You Are?" I think they did a good job of pulling you in & hooking you. However, I think SJP could have said "Oh my G--!" a few less times.