11 January 2010

Outspoken Women Who Didn’t Speak Up

by Jan Alpert, NGS President

I just finished reading two novels that family historians might enjoy. Both feature women whose lives were shaped by their outspoken natures that clashed with their surroundings. The reader faces the question, “Why would these forceful women go silent when faced with such dire situations?” Yet, the two stories are very different.

Time is a River by South Carolinian author, Mary Alice Monroe (NewYork: Pocket Books, 2008), is a story about a breast cancer survivor who learned to fly-fish as part of her emotional recovery. While this book hardly seems relevant for this blog, a secondary theme is how the main character became obsessed with discovering the truth about Kate Watkins, who had lived in the same remote mountain cabin two generations before. Town gossip had accused Watkins of killing her lover about the time of the stock market crash in 1929. Watkins was a noted fly fishing guide at a time when it was clearly a man’s sport.

Why did this independent woman not speak up at the time to clear her name and reputation? Although not a genealogy book, Monroe presents various research techniques and resources in her search, including old newspapers, diaries, family papers, personal interviews, photographs, an old letter, and finally, DNA. She also reveals the conflict with her friend and Watkins’ granddaughter, Belle, who asked her to let her grandmother rest and to not “stir up the mud.” I would recommend the book if you’d like something to read on a trip or vacation. Or if you have friends or family who don’t understand your obsession with family research, it might provide them with a better understanding of why we keep looking for facts to explain what really happened. As a side benefit, my father loved to fly fish, and the story provided me with more insight into why he enjoyed the sport.

The second book, The Heretic’s Daughter, by Kathleen Kent (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2008) is a novel based upon the life of Martha Allen Carrier, one of the witches hanged in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, as told by her daughter, Sarah Carrier. Although detailed records exist of the Salem witch trials, the story is fiction as the author provides one possible explanation of what Martha Carrier and her family might have thought and felt as events unfolded. Martha was an outspoken woman who didn’t adhere to the strict Puritan customs and mores of the day and often threatened neighbors or other townspeople. As such, it is no surprise that she became one of the accused. I believe her trouble started earlier in her life, when she became pregnant before marriage, by Thomas Carrier, approximately twenty-five years her senior. A record of their confession of fornication before marriage can be found in the Middlesex County, Massachusetts, records for 3 May 1674, for which Carrier was fined twenty pounds. They were warned out of Billerica 23 Jun 1676 and later suspected of bringing small pox to Andover, where her parents were living in 1690.

As a descendant of Martha, I had difficulty reading the book. Like her daughter, I wanted to plead with Martha, “Don’t be so stubborn. Just confess and possibly save your life. Your family needs you!” However, having researched this family, I believe Martha would have been hanged regardless of whether or not she confessed. In Wonders of the Invisible World Cotton Mather calls her "this rampant hag" and "agreed that the Devil had promised her she should be Queen of Hell." The judges used spectral evidence to convict mostly women of witchcraft.

I found the story as written by Kathleen Kent generally adhering to the written record except for a few points. She makes the daughter ten years old and a twin of brother Thomas, rather than seven and a half years old, which Sarah would have been at the time of the trials. Also she refers to son Andrew as slow, possibly having some mental defect, which I have not found in the records. I would be happy to share information with others who descend from Martha Allen Carrier.

Kent is apparently working on her second novel about Thomas Carrier, alias Morgan. If anyone is aware of any surviving male Carrier descendants, it would be wonderful to have them participate in a DNA study so that we can possibly learn more about Thomas Carrier’s origins, purportedly from Wales.