Thatched cottage by a River by Augustus Spencer

Mehitable Braybrook, who burned down Jacob and Sarah Perkins’ house, married John Downing and was arrested for witchcraft

Jacob Perkins was born in Ipswich in 1643, the son of Quartermaster John Perkins, grandson of John Perkins Sr., an early settler of Ipswich. He married his East St. neighbor Sarah Wainwright in 1667, who died February 3, 1688. He married a year later, Sarah Kinsman, daughter of Robert and Mary Kinsman, born March 19, 1659. He was known as “Corporal Jacob Perkins.” His father gave him the use of a farm of one hundred acres in Chebacco Parish (reserving to himself the right to dispose of it at his death), this being half of a farm which his father bought of William Whitred, carpenter, Aug. 8, 1661. The farm was on Apple Street near the falls of the Chebacco River in Chebacco Parish, which is now the town of Essex. The road is believed to have originally been a part of the Native American coastal route where it bypassed the marshes of the Essex River. Nearby was Jacob’s older brother Abraham, who received rights to the other 100 acres of his father’s farm.

Richard Braybrook had obtained by mortgage the eastern half of the farm of William Whitred of Ipswich on Oct. 15, 1653, abutting Ebben Creek, named after Eben Burnham, which was salt marsh and separate from his actual farm. Richard Braybrook’s daughter Mehitabel Braybrook was not the daughter of his wife Joan, but rather the product of an affair with their serving girl Alice Eliss. As a consequence of this affair, on March 30, 1652 Richard Brabrook was sentenced to be severely whipped for fornication, and Alice Eliss was freed from his service. The court ruled that Richard and Joan should raise the child Mehitable in his house, and must provide for Alice until she recovered from the birth. Alice was to be whipped after the birth of the child at such time that court judges Mr. Samuel Symonds and Maj. Daniel Denison shall appoint. Soon after Jacob Perkins married Sarah, Mehitable became employed in their household.

Perkins farm Apple St. Essex
Map by David Whittredge of the Whitred/Perkins, Brabrook/Downing farms in Chebacco Parish of Ipswich, now Essex. The Whitred farm was on the current Apple St. and the Brabrook farm was on the current Lufkin St.

In 1668 Mehitable was arrested on suspicion of “incendiarism” after burning down the home of Jacob and Sarah Perkins. At the “Examination of Mehitable Brabrook, aged about 16 years, taken on the 15th day of August, 1668,” Mehitabel testified in court that she stood upon the oven on the back side of the house to see if there were any hogs in the corn, and while so doing, she knocked the ashes out of her pipe upon the thatch.

“This examined saith that on Thursday last was seventh night, her master Jacob Perkins and his wife being gone to Town, she was left at home alone. About 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon she was taking tobacco in a pipe and went out of the house with her pipe and got upon the oven on the outside and backside of the house to look if there were any hogs in the corn, and she laid her right hand upon the thatch of the house to stay herself, and with her left hand knocked out her pipe over her right arm upon the thatch of the eaves of the house, not thinking there had been any fire in the pipe, and immediately went down into the corn field to drive out the hogs she saw in it.

“And as she was going toward the rails of the field toward Abraham Perkins’ house, she looked back and saw a smoke upon her Mrs.’ house in the place where she had knocked out her pipe, by which she was much frightened, and went into the said Abraham Perkins house to intreat her to help her about a kettle of clothes,’ and goodwife Perkins sent her to the barn to call her maid to come and look to the child whilst she went to help this examinate, and when she came with the maid the sd goodwife Perkins and this examinate went toward Mr. Jacob Perkins: ‘ In the way we saw the smoke from the house, and then ran and coming to the house found the fire in the place above the oven where I had knocked out my pipe. I ran for a pail of water but before I could fetch out of the well the thatch flamed, and for want of ladders and helpers being ready, the house was burned down.’

Thereon being demanded why upon her first seeing the smoke she did not acquaint goodwife Perkins, she said she was loath to fright her, and asked why when first she saw it she did not go back to quench it. She answered she was so frightened she durst not. She further said as she was coming with goodwife Perkins towards the house she said to sd goodwife Perkins, ‘why do the woods look so blue beyond our house, and so there was a great smoke behind the house?'”

“The confession was signed with her mark before the judge, Daniel Denison, who added, ‘This examinate further addeth that about an hour before the fire kindled on the house, the chimney was on fire a little above the wing at which she was frighted, but she quenched it with Lye she had upon the fire in a kettle of clothes. This addition was made the day above written before me — Daniel Denison.'”

Hannah the wife of Abraham Perkins testified that when she tried to quench the fire, but it gained upon them so rapidly that they ceased their efforts. John Williston, aged about twenty years, deposed that he and Mehitabel were going to the meadow to make hay before the fire, when she told him that her mistress was angry with her, and she “had put a great toad into her kettle of milk.” Timothy Bragg and his wife who were neighbors on Apple Street also testified. Goodwife Bragg said she heard Goodwife Joan Braybrook say that Mehitabell was “a filthy, unchaste creature.”

Mehitable was committed to prison, Aug. 15, 1666, but her father bound for Mehitabel’s appearance at the next Ipswich court. (Source: Records of the Quarterly Essex County Courts)

In October 1669, a year after the fire, Mehitable Braybrook married John Downing, who in a separate case in 1661 had testified in court that in 1654 he, along with several other Irish children and their mothers had been kidnapped In Ireland by Cromwell’s forces, loaded onto the ship Goodfellow and were shipped to New England as indentured servants. Samuel Symonds bought two of the boys, Phillip Welch and William Downing but after working on Symonds’ Argilla Farm for seven years, they refused to continue without pay, and demanded their freedom. Symonds had them arrested and they lost their case, as recorded in the Records and files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County.

In the same year, Mehitable and her new husband were granted part of the farm of her father Richard Braybrook. The deed, dated Oct. 20, 1669, from “Richard Brabrooke of Ipswich, yeoman,” reads, “In consideration of a marriage intended between John Downing of Ipswich and my daughter Mehittabell Brabrooke, I give to said John and Mehittabell, one-half of the farm I now dwell in, on the south side of Jubque (Chebacco) River in Ipswich.” Despite opposition by Richard Brabrook’s wife Joan, inheritance of the land by Mehitable and John Downing was affirmed in Salem Quarterly Court, Nov. 1682.

In 1692, both Joan Brabrooke and the now 40-year-old Mehitabel (who Joan despised her entire life) were accused of witchcraft, were thrown in jail, and are found among 10 persons petitioning for release. The release was secured, the witchcraft trials having come to an end before the judges heard their cases.

For over a century, descendants of John Downing and Mehitable Braybrook lived within fifteen miles of the Apple St. farm. Susanna, the daughter of John Roberts, born about 1682 in Gloucester was married Nov. 5, 1701 in Ipswich to David Downing. He was born about 1677 in Ipswich, son to John and Mehitable Braybrook Downing.. On June 12, 1699 soon after David became of age, his father John Downing and mother Mehitable, “for love & natural affection” conveyed “to David Downing our Son the full half part of that halfe of ye farm we now live upon in Chebacco in Ipswich, formerly called Richard Braybrooks’ farme from whom we derived our right.”

Catching Alewife at the Apple St. bridge in Essex
In the 17th and 18th Centuries, alewives swam by the thousands up Alewife brookin Essex to spawn in Chebacco Lake. The brook crosses under Apple St. at the intersection with Rt. 22, near the farm of Jacob Perkins.

In the Shadow of Salem” by Donna B. Gawell is about the life of Mehitabel Braybrooke of Ipswich, told in the first person. 17th Century court records describe the charges against her, but the author’s comprehensive research gave depth to the portrayal of this unfortunate young woman’s life. The result is a wonderful story of personal failures, faith, betrayal and redemption with an historically accurate cast of characters.

Jacob and Abraham Perkins

At some point after losing his house, Jacob relinquished the Apple St. farm to his father for one at Sagamore Hill, and upon which he resided the remainder of his life, dying in 1719. His brother Abraham apparently assumed ownership of the entire Chebacco farm, and in conjunction with Jacob, acted as attorney for their father during the latter part of his life. Descendants of Abraham Perkins still lived in or owned a house on Apple St. as late as the map of Essex in 1872. The 1765 home of Isaac Perkins still stands.

Abraham Perkins, after the death of his brother, acted as his father’s attorney in his old age, made his home there after the death of his wife. Abraham is said to have built the Ipswich meeting-house. He at one time was the inn-holder after the Quartermaster John Perkins’ inn, as appears from his licenses and from two deeds of land he sold. He was a representative to the General Court in 1710. He owned and cultivated “Perkins Island,” formerly granted to his grandfather, John, senior and employed his brother Luke Perkins to “tend cattle,” etc., with whom he had conflicts. The death of Abraham Perkins was very sudden, and took place on the 27th of April, 1722, and was the result of an accident, ” he being run over by a tumbril which broke many bones across his breast.” At that time he was 82 years old. Abraham Perkins gave all his properties real and personal, to his wife, by his last Will, to be disposed of by her to their children at her death.

Sources and further reading:

3 thoughts on “Mehitable Braybrook, who burned down Jacob and Sarah Perkins’ house, married John Downing and was arrested for witchcraft”

  1. fascinating, amazing that a couple were accused of being witches and ultimately nothing seemed to have happened to them.
    unless I missed something in this extended discussion


  2. According to ‘The Family of John Perkins of Ipswich, Mass,’ by George Augustus Perkins (1889), pp. 15-18, Jacob’s aunt, Mary (Perkins) Bradbury (1620-1700) was also convicted of “the charge of witchcraft or familiarity with the Devil” in 1692. 117 Salisbury residents petitioned on her behalf, her husband and two ministers offered testimonial. “By the efforts of her friends her execution was delayed, the horrid delusion passed away, and she was discharged.”

  3. Hi! I have been thorougly enjoying this excellent blog! I came to it in researching Lawrence Clinton. Lawrence isn’t an ancestor of mine as far as I know, but I became interested in him while trying to sort his descendants out from my own Clintons. That project brought me to YDNA, which now has me thoroughly obsessed with the dramas you write about in early Ipswich. It turns out that a close YDNA match of the documented descendants of Lawrence Clinton is a Downing who appears to descend from Mehitable and John Downing’s son David. I believe that John Downing testified on Rachel Clinton’s behalf at her witch trial. Might they have raised a son of Lawrence Clinton and Rachel as their own?? I have lately thought it odd that Rachel had no children by Lawrence. Or might Lawrence have had a liaiason with Mehitable, since he was a known rapist and adulterer? Or, since John Downing was apparently abducted from Ireland and made a servant, perhaps Lawrence Clinton, also an indentured servant, was abducted with him, and they shared a direct male ancestor? I am hoping higher level testing sorts out the timeline of the connection, but I would love to work with others who have a deeper understanding of the characters and access to records… Jenn Watson

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