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"The Delusion" - No One Was Safe

By Allen Brooks Osgood

When I was younger, a family story would be told that my four-times great-grandmother, Mary Clements Osgood, was a witch. 

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From Harper’s Magazine, December 1892, “Illustration of Salem Witch Trial” by artist Howard Pyle

As I grew older, I got interested in my family’s ancestry. I found that my ancestors came from England and settled in and around Massachusetts. As I researched further, I found that the Osgood family settled in Andover, Massachusetts in the mid-1600s. One of the more prominent members of my Osgood ancestors was Captain John Osgood.


And then my most startling discovery. I found that this long-standing family story – that I always felt was more fairytale than fact – could be true!  Mary Clements Osgood, the wife of Captain Osgood, was indeed accused and jailed as a witch during the Salem Witch Trials in 1692.


This is Mary’s story. 

Mary Clements was born in England in 1637.  Her father, Robert Clements, a minister, and her mother, Sarah, sailed to Massachusetts in 1642. Mary joined her family in about 1653. I do not know how they met, but in November of that year she married Capt. John Osgood. Capt. Osgood was a man of prominence in Andover. He was in the military and captain of a cavalry unit. He served frequently in public offices and church positions.  During Mary’s married life with John they had 13 children. I found records where she is mentioned as a “remarkably pious and good woman.” So, how could she ever be thought a witch?

Well, Salem and surrounding towns in the late 1690s was a place of mass hysteria and paranoia as associations of witchcraft took hold.

Most historical accounts place the beginning of this hysteria on the actions of two teenage girls. In January 1692, with sleet and snow covering the town, these two girls suddenly started acting very strange – twisting their bodies in weird shapes; barking and spitting out words no one could understand; and falling in fits to the floor.  


A wave of fear spread over Salem as more people were “afflicted” and eventually a person was accused as a witch and hanged.  This was the beginning of the nightmare for Mary Osgood and many others. More than 200 people, mostly women, were ultimately accused of practicing witchcraft. Twenty were executed. Most died by hanging. 


witch trials 2.png
Witch trials 1 .png

But how could Mary be caught up in this?


She was well respected, as was her entire family. Her husband was held in high regard. Her son, Peter Osgood, was a constable. And many of her children were either merchants or in the military.


The answer is that none of that made a difference. Everyone was caught up in what has become known as “the delusion.” Neighbors accused neighbors of being witches; friends accused friends; and relatives accused relatives.

There really was no defense if you were accused: you were guilty.  According to records I was able to read, Mary and the other women were then taken from Andover to Salem Village. They were pressured to confess that they were witches. Along with Mary, most did. They were arrested and placed in jail.

John Osgood, Mary’s husband, along with their son, Peter, worked tirelessly to secure Mary’s release from jail. In October of 1692 John, along with eight other men, petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to release their wives and children. This fell on deaf ears. The women prisoners, led by Mary, composed a formal written recantation. They denied being witches and stated that anything they might have said that contributed to their accusations as witches was baseless. They stated that they were “pressed to confess.” 

And so it continued. No one was safe, no one was immune. In fact, in Charles W. Upham’s book Salem Witchcraft, first published in 1867, he talks about judges, magistrates, and clergy (chief among them minister Cotton Mather) using their influence and power to inflame rather than calm the townspeople caught up in this frenzy.

In September 1692, Mary and five other women — Martha Tyler, Deliverance Dane, Abigail Barker, Sarah Wilson, and Hannah Tyler — were suspected of practicing witchcraft. Why they were suspected of this I do not know. But the process to prove a charge that a person was a witch was quite simple. The six accused women were blindfolded and made to place their hands on an “afflicted person.” Afflicted persons, usually young girls, were thought to have the power to detect witches. If the accused was a witch, the afflicted person would fall to the floor in fits. That was all the proof needed to declare a person a witch!  Well, you’ve already guessed what happened next.  Yes, one by one each of these women laid hands on the afflicted young girl and each time she dropped to the floor in fits. 

From Harper’s Magazine, December 1892, “Illustration of Salem Witch Trial” by artist Howard Pyle

From Harper’s Magazine, December 1892, “Illustration of Salem Witch Trial” by artist Howard Pyle

And then fifty Andover townspeople petitioned on behalf of Mary and the others stating that they were innocent and attesting to their “integrity and piety.”


In January 1693 Mary was finally released from prison.  

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1692 petition of John Osgood and eight others on behalf of their wives and daughters. Click to enlarge.

John Osgood did not live very long after his wife’s release from prison. He died on August 21, 1693, at the age of 61. We can certainly assume that the stress and anxiety he endured during Mary’s ordeal contributed to his death. Mary lived for another 17 years, dying at the age of 73 on October 27, 1710.


The Salem witchcraft delusion and trials lasted a relatively short time – between early 1692 and mid-1693. But during that time innocent people were hanged; families were torn apart; and grief and remorse remained in the culture of Salem for years. 


In time, there was something good that came to pass. The abuses of the trial system Mary and others suffered from became a huge influence in forming what is now the bedrock of our legal system: preventing the use of “hearsay” statements; the guarantee of the right to legal representation; the right to cross-examine one’s accuser; and the presumption of innocence rather than of guilt.  Pretty remarkable outcomes when you think of it!  


In the end, after much digging I found that my family story was a fairy tale!  My four-times great-grandmother was not a witch – but she got awfully close to being hanged as one! 

Mr. Osgood is a member of the Friends of the Sandwich Town Archives.

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