13 April 2016

Dorcas Hoar really was a witch

Image: Chris 73/Wikimedia Commons
It could be an omen that John and Florence Galley were fined by the Essex Quarterly Court in 1635 for fornication before marriage. Born shortly thereafter, their daughter Dorcas had several confrontations with the law and clergy throughout her married life. Growing up, however, she lived a comfortable but not overly religious life. Her father was admitted to the church in Beverly, Massachusetts, in his early 60s, so it’s likely the Galley household was not as God-fearing as their neighbors. And, at his death in 1683, John Galley, planter, left an estate worth £200.

Living in a Puritan church-state and believing in its teachings are not one and the same. After settling into married life about 1655 and having children, Dorcas and her husband, fisherman William Hoar, strayed from the gospel. In 1661 and 1662, William was brought before the court for “allowing tippling” and celebrating Christmas at his house. All along, Puritans discouraged holidays as pure popery—especially Christmas, which not only had no celebratory date in the Bible, it also usurped a pagan solstice festival. In fact, from 1659 to 1681 the Massachusetts Bay Colony outlawed Christmas.

Around the same time, Dorcas started dabbling in the dark arts.

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live

Dorcas admitted she learned witchcraft from a book of palmistry and from a practicing healer. She and her daughters married poor men, and her skills at fortunetelling and predicting illnesses (even death) supplemented a meager income, not only for her household but for her grown children’s households too. Even though Puritan theology denounced divination as trespassing on God’s all-knowing plan, people still wanted to know what the future held for them. Badgered by the local minister, Mr. John Hale, in 1670 Dorcas repented for her sins.

Unfortunately, the good reverend didn’t understand her needs.

People in Beverly started noticing small things went missing, like an apron or a pillowcase of flour. After a while, John Hale realized the criminals in their midst were specifically targeting him and his house of plenty. At first, blame was placed on his servant, Margaret Lord, but stolen items appeared throughout Dorcas Hoar’s extended family, making her the mastermind behind the burglary ring. (Margaret Lord threatened the Hales' daughter into silence by telling her Dorcas Hoar was a witch.) In 1678, Dorcas was in court listening to a catalog of the bushels of foodstuff, the yards of cloth, the items of apparel, coins, and jewelry that were stolen, most of which was bartered off to keep the Hoars fed.

The court records don’t provide a verdict. Two years later, however, William Hoar was put in charge of sweeping the Beverly meetinghouse, keeping the time (using an hourglass!), and ringing the bell at nine o’clock every night. In recompense, he received one peck of corn yearly from every family in Beverly.

Escaping the Noose

Not surprisingly, in 1692 widow Dorcas Hoar was convicted of witchcraft and condemned to hang on September 22. She confessed and received a reprieve, with supporting testimony from none other than Mr. Hale. Given a month to prepare her soul for death, she fortunately survived the witch hunt and was set free. 

* As a footnote to Dorcas Hoar’s story, Deodat Lawson claimed she had an “elf-lock,” a matted section of hair different from the rest that was four feet and seven inches long—further evidence of being a witch. 

See also: Using restitution lists from the 1692 Salem witch trials to rebuild Dorcas Hoar’s family


'Where Thieves Break Through and Steal': John Hale versus Dorcas Hoar 1672-1692 by Barbara Ritter Dailey in Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. 128, (1992). 

Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts

Deodat Lawson, A Brief and True Narrative of Some Remarkable Passages Relating to Sundry Persons Afflicted by Witchcraft, at Salem Village (1704)

Bernard Rosenthal et al, Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt

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