Thirteen Mothers Before Me

This quote has been making the internet rounds and while it is a very catchy meme, it has really started to bother me. I like the sentiment, but it confounds the most devastating details of the ‘burning times,’ in many essential ways. Primarily, it implies that those murdered had no family, and that it is only the linage of those who outsmarted persecution, who remain. It erases the generational trauma that these executions created and makes light of the mechanism used to control any who would dare step outside the boundaries of the patriarchy.

This quote is misleading from the start; executions for witchcraft were often by hanging (especially in the US), not burning. It also implies that they were not mothers and grandmothers snuffed out. Those persecuted were not old barren hags who lived alone and apart from the world, perhaps in forest cottages on chicken legs. They were stripped from the arms of loving husbands and children to be taken to the gallows. They left behind daughters and sons, grandchildren, husbands, wives, and siblings. 

The burning times were not a culling of outlying populations; it was the public display of the power and authority of the church to deal-out death, at a whim. A reminder that what didn’t fit the mold of the patriarchy would be destroyed physically, and slandered eternally. 

As a child, my mother was told that one of our ancestors was executed as a witch in colonial times. This story was a way to invoke a woman unjustly accused, a woman history tried to erase. A person that our family was tasked with remembering for who she was, and not how she died. During the not so ancient times of dial up internet, my mom got really into genealogy. She managed traced our ancestors back to Cambridge in the 1600s and Elizebeth Cogan Holly. After coming to the colonies from England, Samuel Holly died, leaving a parcel of land on the South side of the Charles River to his wife, Elizabeth and son, John Holly. Elizabeth soon remarried John Kendall (a younger man. *gasp!*) and became Elizabeth Holly Kendall. All of this can be easily verified though Samuel’s will, marriage records and land deeds.

Elizabeth was a woman of modest standing in Cambridge, but probably most important for this story, a new grandmother. Her daughter-in-law, Mary had 9 children. The first three born in Cambridge right before the family’s life was forever changed but the accusations of a Watertown nurse:

Goody Kendall first person executed on Jones Hill, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This was 50 years before the start of the Salem Witch Trials.

 I reached out to the Cambridge Historical Society to find where the Holly parcel of land was on the South side of the Charles River, I was thinking that if she was hung as a witch that her body would likely have been buried on the family land. There is no record of her in the Old Burial Ground, where many other were buried from that time, but if someone was hung as a witch it seemed unlikely for her to qualify for a church burial.

Court records of the Goody Kendall’s execution are not verifiable, this action seems to have been carried out quickly and without even checking with the parents of the ‘murdered child’ and based on the accusations of the nurse who (according to the parents of the baby) caused the child’s death. Either the execution happened so quickly there was no proper trial, or after the grievous mistake was made clear, the records were destroyed. There is no consensus on the exact date for the hanging, though it is referenced in a great many accounts, of the time and is widely accepted to have happened as the above account details.

The last answer I received from CHS was that some sources site the “Goody Kendall” who was hung, was not Elizabeth Holly Kendall but a different Kendall. This is entirely possible. Elizabeth was an incredibly common name at the time, but there are many facts that point to the likelihood of my ancestor being the murdered woman. In the interest of brevity I will not go into the many details and sources for our conclusions, the verifiable (although situational) evidence is plentiful:

  • Land deeds from the sale of her remaining land, references her as deceased right after the time frame of the execution.
  • The Holly parcel was likely no more than six or seven miles from Watertown where the incident with the nurse happened and only a few miles from the gallows.
  • We cannot find reference of Elizabeth after that date range of the hanging, any record of her death, or her grave. We can locate the death date, location and burial area of most other members of the family, from Samuel through John and down his line, to my mother.
  • John sold all their holdings in Massachusetts and moved to Connecticut, right after the hanging. His first two or three children were born in Cambridge and the rest in Stamford.

There are more official records that support our theory, but for me the most interesting fact is that my mother was told Elizabeth’s story in the 60’s before the internet or genealogy fad. It is possible that Goody Kendall is not our Elizabeth, but as this is one of the least known executions for witchcraft in the colonies, for her grandmother to know of it seems unlikely. This was verbal lore handed down, a tale told by the women of our family in hushed tones. It is a generational trauma we were tasked with remembering and quite a coincidence indeed, if she is not our Elizabeth.

It really doesn’t matter if Goody Kendall was my relative.

That misses the point, just as sure as the meme at the top. What it is important to highlight, is that a woman was killed on a whim, for complementing a baby. This is my way of holding space for a person murdered, while other’s watched.

People were not persecuted as witches because sparks leapt from their fingertips, or for turning neighbors into pigs. They were tortured and killed for celebrating the seasons; knowing how to heal with plants, how to read the land, talk with the animals, or for being any type of oppressed person speaking their mind, as if they were an equal. They were killed so that others would conform, and that is the most important thing to take from this story and the meme. The punishment for making waves has always been death, not only as a means of ending that one life, but to control all who heard about it. It was the only method that could motivate us to part from our Mother Earth, her comfort, knowledge, medicine and love.

I do appreciate the acknowledgement in popular culture the meme represents. It gives me hope that the world my daughter will know will be better than the one that confined my youth. Since I started with meme I’ll end with one for symmetry’s sake. One that I think is far more to the point of the lesson we need to learn.

Goody Kendall may, or may not be my 13th grandmother, Elizabeth Cogan Holly Kendall, but I will tell my daughter about all of it.

It is the parting from indigenous ways and knowledge has lead to the state of the world as our children know it now; polluted, hateful, unhealthy and sad. We must tell the tales of those who have been persecuted in loud sure voices. We need to make clear that any oppression or persecution is unacceptable and inexcusable. For me, way of the witch has always been one of standing up for the marginalized, the exploited and the suppressed. It is insisting that everyone is worthy of medicine, care, knowledge and nourishment.

THAT is why they hung us, burned us, tortured us, and exiled us. It is the thing that has always made us witches, truly dangerous.

Be well.

One Comment on “Thirteen Mothers Before Me

  1. Cousin- Elizabeth is my 10th Great Grandmother. Please e mail me- Joan Kendall

    Thank you

    Like

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