Season 2, Episode 5: “Mary Webster: The Witch of Hadley”
Directed by Alice Troughton
Written by Alyssa Clark
* For a recap & review of the previous episode, “Prague Clock: The Curse of the Orloj” – click here
* For a recap & review of the finale, “Jack Parsons: The Devil and the Divine” – click here
This episode is about Mary Webster, who lived in Puritan Hadley, Massachusetts, and was alleged to have been a watch. There’s an article on the real story here. Canadian author Margaret Atwood believes Webster was one of her ancestors, dedicating The Handmaid’s Tale to her in 1985, and writing a poem called “Half-Hanged Mary” about her ten years later. More bits and pieces on Mary’s history here.
We start in Hadley, 1682. People spoke of a witch in their town. There were sightings of a woman performing rituals in the night by a fire in the woods. Two young women looked for proof of witchcraft, nearly getting caught by the supposed witch. It was Mary Webster (Paula Malcomson), who was said to have “crawled her way out from Hell.” Everybody told tales of her “covenant with the devil.” She put curses on anybody who crossed her. She was sent for trial elsewhere, only to be acquitted twice. Then she was sent back to Hadley, despite Mayor Philip Smith’s (Paul Rhys) insistence the woman was in league with Satan.
One of the girls who was lurking around Mary’s place was Verity Hollister (Hebe Beardsall). She’d dropped her cross, which Mary returned the next day. The girl found a cloak after the so-called witch left, claiming it was her mother’s, whose death is rumoured to have been caused by Goody Webster. Really, it’s the imposition of religion in a tiny village. Verity reads stuff like John Milton’s Paradise Lost, not taking it as allegory but as reality, and she believes wholehearted in witchcraft.
Smith was on his deathbed and determined to be done with Miss Webster. He asks the two girls what they saw up at Mary’s place. They lie, talking about “dark magic” and a “demonic language” the woman was speaking. They claimed the book they nearly stole was a spell book. They further lie, saying the woman spoke Smith’s name and placed a hex upon him.
From one lie came others, purposeful manipulations of reality in order to fit the inexplicable for people who were too simple, too set in their religious ways to accept death and disease was a natural part of life. This was enough to set the village of Hadley violently against Mary. Even someone like Verity’s brother Levi (Will Tudor), who didn’t believe in witches, was about to partake in a tragic, murderous event solely because he saw it as economically beneficial to have Smith’s family in his corner.
Verity herself saw the error in her ways, though it was too late for her to reconcile her mistakes. She went to see Mary, warning her that men were about to come get her. She tried to tell the woman of the danger. Yet Mary knew there was no escape from the patriarchal rule of society, that misogyny and horror for women is everywhere. So she refused to leave her home. Ironically, Verity’s mother actually helped Mary, and the girl felt a debt to try helping the woman.
Soon the men of the village came for her. Verity urged Mary to go, so she ran into the forest. It didn’t take long until the men caught her. They beat her and strung her up from a tree, then hanged her from the neck with a noose. Verity ran back to town, scared after hiding and witnessing the killing. She saw a vision of herself executed for witchcraft by the scared men of the town, pressed to death, burned at the stake, drowned, and more. If it could happen to Mary, it could happen to any other woman.
“We fear men so much because we fear God so little”
Afterwards, Verity was left traumatised, and she felt the guilt of her lies. And even one of the murderers, her brother, knew that with Mary gone the village would need “someone new to blame” for all their troubles. That’s the problem with religion, and particularly the patriarchy-based religions and cults, is that they’re always looking outward for the problems and finding exterior sources to place blame, when they ought to be looking inward. One woman after another fell victim, and still do, to this system of oppression, given this was just before the time of the Salem Witch Trials and all its horror.
When Verity went back to the woods she couldn’t find any body. Only a snapped noose. She went back to tell the villagers, asking where her body went. They were interrupted by Mary’s bloody face peering into the window of Smith’s home. She pounded at the door, crying for everybody to see what was perpetrated against her. This, of course, led them all to believe even more the woman was a witch, instead of the possibility she survived the hanging. How many tales of MEN do we hear about surviving nasty, brutal violence? Look at The Revenant and the mythic story of the real Hugh Glass, among others. Not so hard to believe a tough woman in the 17th century was able to live through such horrible, violent acts. Real reports from years following said Mary lived another 14 years after the would-be hanging.
Did God save Mary? No. She saved herself, with a little bit of luck, too. Other women were not so lucky.
“I was not a witch”
What a beautiful, horrifying, and important episode. A truly poignant look at history that comes to bear on our present, in so many sad ways. Others have said this season is all supernatural? Makes no sense. This wasn’t at all supernatural, this was a tale of the misogynistic pursuit of men determined to believe in the supernatural, blaming women for their problems, and using it to excuse terrible things.
“Jack Parsons: The Devil and the Divine” is the final episode, coming up next.