Seven Badass Women of Salem: Survivor or Sorceress? The Life of Bridget Bishop
Updated: Apr 8, 2020
By Diana Dunlap
You might know Bridget Bishop as the first person executed for witchcraft during Salem’s notorious 1692 trials. If you’ve been to Salem, you’ve also likely encountered Bridget as the main character in History Alive’s Cry Innocent: The People vs. Bridget Bishop, the longest-running theatrical production north of Boston. But did you know that Bridget Bishop was married three times, was a survivor of domestic violence, and served as executrix of her husband’s will—even though she couldn’t sign her own name?
The historical record doesn’t tell us anything about her early life, but Bridget Playfer married Samuel Wasselbee on April 13, 1660, in the church of St. Mary-in-the-Marsh in Norwich, England. Bridget probably grew up in the surrounding county of Norfolk, known both for Puritanism and magical folklore, during the divisive and bloody days of England’s Civil War, the execution of the King, and the Puritans’ troubled attempt at a republic. Although their first son was baptized three years later in St. Mary’s massive medieval font, Bridget and Samuel may have been Puritans themselves, for they soon chose to leave the newly crowned King Charles II’s England for New England. By the time Bridget gave birth to her first daughter in Boston in 1665, Samuel had died, and their children died young. Bridget soon remarried to the much-older Thomas Oliver of Salem, and gave birth to her one surviving daughter, Christian.
If this brought Bridget any joy, it was short-lived: one of their neighbors testified in court that she saw Bridget’s “face at one time bloody and at other times black and blue,” and Thomas in turn claimed that Bridget hit him “several blows.” Several years later they were both sentenced for fighting and cursing on the Sabbath, but Thomas’s adult daughter paid a fine on his behalf, and Bridget had to endure the humiliation of a public gagging in the town marketplace all on her own. Some of the accusations made against her in 1692 arose about this time with young men like miller’s son William Stacey, who said that Bridget “professed a great love for [him]“ when he was recovering from smallpox and that her specter sat on his chest at night, suffocating him. Several young men later complained of similar experiences and even described her clothes. William Stacey said Bridget’s specter appeared in “a black cap and a black hat and a red coat [petticoat or skirt] with two eakes [strips] of two colors,” and another described “her red paragon bodice.” Orangey scarlet and earthy brick reds were actually cheap and commonplace, even in Puritan culture, although deep scarlet and deep black were expensive. Bridget’s red bodice was the ancestor of a corset: a stiffened garment of heavy wool, sometimes with tie-on sleeves, that supported her tired upper body while working.
Thomas Oliver finally died in 1679, but Bridget didn’t get to enjoy her newfound peace for long, as she was promptly accused of witchcraft. An enslaved man named Juan described his experiences with Bridget’s troublemaking specter, but it appears that the case did not go to trial. Bridget had been named executrix of her late, unlamented husband’s paltry estate and sold some of his land in order to pay his debts, signing the papers with an X. The Oliver house was on the corner of what are now Washington and Church streets in Salem, and since later accusations make mention of chickens, a sow, fruit trees, and a garden, she and Christian probably relied on these for their support. Bridget’s penchant for quarreling got her into almost continual hot water. Bridget had a falling out with a Quaker couple, the Shattucks, when she discovered their servant was gossiping about her reputation for witchcraft. They then blamed her for the fits and mental deterioration of their little son, sending the child to Bridget’s house with an unnamed acquaintance who may have intended to break the “curse” using folk magic. Bridget lost her temper and scratched the disabled toddler across the face, reversing a counter-magical practice: drawing blood from an accused witch in order to break a curse. This episode did not improve Bridget’s reputation with the Shattucks—though this didn't stop sawyer Edward Bishop from marrying her in 1685. Bridget and her now-married daughter were accused of stealing a mechanism from the Stacey family’s mill a few years later, and the neighborhood spats continued.
While Bridget lived near the seaport, far from the initial outbreak of accusations in rural Salem Village, her reputation clearly preceded her. The afflicted of Salem Village accused her specter of torturing them, and she was apprehended and questioned in mid-April; examiner John Hathorne, who lived around the corner from her, mentioned a rumor that she had murdered her previous husband. Bridget fit the cultural stereotype of a witch: older, quarrelsome, sharp-tongued, female, and poor. This image, together with the enormous quantity of evidence from her Salem neighbors as well as the afflicted girls, sealed Bridget’s fate: she was the first accused witch to be tried and condemned, on June 2, 1692. Unlike fellow accused witch Rebecca Nurse, whom the authorities also wanted to try that day, Bridget’s family did not come to her defense and fight for a delayed trial. Even more cautious courts probably would have condemned her on the testimony of laborers who claimed they found “poppets” in her cellar. She was hanged on June 10 and likely remains in an unmarked grave near Proctor’s Ledge in Salem.
Although Bridget’s granddaughter and her descendants lived peacefully in Salem for many years thereafter, later generations transformed Bridget into a larger-than-life, scandal-courting figure by confusing her with another Goodwife Bishop who ran a tavern in Beverly. She wasn’t “an American Wife of Bath,” as one historian described the legend, but rather someone more difficult, troubled, and fascinating. Tough, gritty, mouthy, and colorful in more ways than one, Bridget Playfer Wassellbee Oliver Bishop survived all but the very last of her trials. Next time you put on your favorite red top, sign a legal document, feed your chickens, or find yourself tempted to yell at your very irritating neighbor, spare a thought for the memory of Bridget Bishop and her fighting spirit.
Want to Learn More? Check out Six Women of Salem by Marilynne K. Roach, A Storm of Witchcraft by Emerson T. Baker, Salem Story by Bernard Rosenthal, and In the Devil’s Snare by Mary Beth Norton. The Salem Witchcraft Papers, including Bridget’s examinations and death warrant, can be found online at http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/home.html
Salem-based theatre-maker and public historian Diana Dunlap specializes in the fusion of the arts and historic interpretation. Diana appeared in many productions with History Alive Inc. and Salem Theatre Company while founding a local Shakespeare project, the Upstart Crows, and directing for Beverly’s Still Small Theatre. Over the course of the last fifteen years she has worked as an educator and interpreter at historic sites across New England, most recently at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum and the Print Shop of Edes and Gill at historic Faneuil Hall. Diana designs and performs first-person and interactive historic interpretation by request for a variety of museums and tour groups, and she is a Trustee and founding member of the Salem Historical Society. She is now Lead Writer and content developer at Intramersive Media and most recently co-directed and co-wrote Daemonologie:Smoke and Mirrors, a partnership with the Peabody Essex Museum and the Creative Collective.