Half-Hanged Mary Webster (no relation)

These are personal notes I probably cribbed from Wikipedia. I’m interested in her because 1) she lived in Hadley at the time some of my ancestors also did, and they would surely have known her or at least her family, and 2) my ancestor Rev. Cotton Mather wrote extensively about her, and the Salem witch trials.

Mary Webster, née Reeve, was a resident of Puritan Hadley, Massachusetts, who was accused of witchcraft. She was born in England. Her exact birth year is unknown but is believed to be around 1624. Accounts of her birthdate range from 1617 to 1624, but she most certainly was born in England. She was the daughter of Thomas Reeves (father) of Springfield, Massachusetts, and sister to Thomas Reeves. Her mother is unknown.

She was accused of witchcraft. Later, she was hanged from a tree by some residents of Hadley. According to one of several accounts, she was left hanging all night. It is known that when she was cut down she was still alive and lived for another 14 years. Canadian author Margaret Atwood, who believed Mary to be her ancestor, made Webster the subject of her poem “Half-Hanged Mary,” and dedicated her novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) to her. No records exist of Webster having had any children.

Perhaps the most exhaustive account of Mary Webster’s disputes with Philip Smith and the subsequent accusations and witchcraft trial comes from Cotton Mather’s Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions: A Faithful Account of many Wonderful and Surprising Things, that have befallen several Bewitched and Possessed Persons in New-England. Mather does not identify Mary Reeve Webster personally, but the dates and names that are included leave little doubt that her case is the one being documented. Webster’s case is Cotton Mather’s “second exemple” in the text.


And how can I not love this poem?

HALF-HANGED MARY – by Margaret Atwood

(“Half-hanged Mary” was Mary Webster, who was accused of witchcraft in the 1680’s in a Puritan town in Massachusetts and hanged from a tree – where, according to one of the several surviving accounts, she was left all night. It is known that when she was cut down she was still alive, since she lived for another fourteen years.)


Rumour was loose in the air
hunting for some neck to land on.
I was milking the cow,
the barn door open to the sunset.

I didn’t feel the aimed word hit
and go in like a soft bullet.
I didn’t feel the smashed flesh
closing over it like water
over a thrown stone.

I was hanged for living alone
for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin,
tattered skirts, few buttons,
a weedy farm in my own name,
and a surefire cure for warts;

Oh yes, and breasts,
and a sweet pear hidden in my body.
Whenever there’s talk of demons
these come in handy.


http://web.archive.org/web/20080913014839/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/Bur4Nar.htmlBurr, George Lincoln, 1857-1938. “The Wonders of the Invisible World,” by Cotton Mather, 1693 ; from Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706

Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library


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