“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 exist that 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. As the Historian for the Town of Ipswich, I highly recommend this excellent novel.
“She began life as the bastard child of a prosperous landowner and his indentured servant. Now her stepmother despises the girl and views her as cursed by God. For Mehitabel Braybrooke, life in Puritan New England becomes unbearable when her orphan cousin arrives to live with her family. Jealousy and lies result in Mehitabel being “sent out” as a servant to a neighbor’s home. There, foolishness and bad judgment lead her to commit the unspeakable: Mehitabel commits crimes that warrant a death sentence: not once, but twice — the first time for arson, the second for witchcraft. Rich in historical detail, In the Shadow of Salem is a fascinating portrayal of a real historical Puritan woman. The history records have not been kind to Mehitabel, but what was the real story behind her scurrilous reputation? Would she ever be redeemed from her lifelong curse? Or was Mehitabel as wicked as the Essex Court Records suggest?”
Jacob and Sarah Perkins lived on Apple Street in Chebacco parish, which is now the town of Essex. Jacob was the son of John Perkins Jr. who was probably living in a house on his father’s 200 acre farm in Chebacco, near his brother Abraham. Timothy Bragg was a neighbor on Apple Street, and and testified in court. This story has been incorrectly associated with the Jacob Perkins house on East Street in Ipswich. Thanks to David Whittredge for helping straighten out the details.
Mehitabel was arrested on suspicion of “incendiarism,” and testified 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.
Records have her as Mehitabel and Mehitabel and Braybrooke, Brabrook and Braybrook. Her husband is also listed as Downing and Downeing.”
She was found guilty of “extreme carelessness if not willfully setting the fire” and was sentenced to be whipped and to pay damages to Perkins. She was the same unfortunate Mehitable Braybrook who was arrested in 1692 during the Salem witchcraft hysteria and was imprisoned in the cold Ipswich jail, oft-described as a dank and vermin-ridden pit.
Mehitabel was not the daughter of Richard Brabrooke’s wife Joan, but was the product of an affair with their serving girl Alice Eliss. On March 30, 1652 Richard Brabrooke was sentenced to be severely whipped for fornication, and Alice Eilss, was freed from his service. The court ruled that Richard and Joan should raise the child, Mehitable in his house, and provide for Alice until she recovered from the birth of their child. Alice was to be whipped after the birth of the child at a time that court judges Mr. Symonds and Maj. Denison shall appoint.
After Mehitabel ‘burnt down’ Jacob Perkins’ home with her smoking pipe she married John Downing.
“Susanna daughter to 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 of that town. On June 12, 1699 soon after David became of age, his father John Downing Sen. and Mehitable, wife of John, both of Ipswich 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.”
In 1692 both Joan Brabrooke and 40-year-old Mehitabel (who Joan despised her entire life) were accused of witchcraft and landed in jail, and are found among the 10 persons petitioning for release. The release was secured the trials having come to an end before the judges heard their cases. Richard Brabrooke apparently took good care of Mehitabel in his will. Despite an ongoing court battle between Joan Braybrook and Mehitabel Downing over the will, 1699 probate records show that John Downing, Sr. and Mehitabel deeded 200 acres, half of their farm known formerly as Richard Brabrooke’s farm, to their son, David Downing.
- The Family of John Perkins of Ipswich Massachusetts
- The Devil in the Shape of a Woman by Carol F. Karlsen
- In the Shadow of Salem by Donna Gawell
- Records and files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts, Vol. IV
- Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County Mass. Vol 4: page 56 & 57 Ipswich Quarterly Court – Sept 29, 1668. Mehitable was committed to prison, Aug. 15, 1666, but her father bound for Mehitabel’s appearance at the next Ipswich court