Even before the mysterious death of their esteemed Puritan leader, Philip Smith, Mary Webster's neighbors did not doubt that she was a witch who had made a pact with the devil.
They had seen all the signs – the dying crops, the farm animals that refused to come past her door, the baby she weighed out of bed by just looking at it. Some said they had even seen her fly.
According to folklore, witches could be disturbed by violence & # 39; of their game and therefore Mary was often attacked by her villagers.
Margaret Atwood describes Mary Webster as "my favorite ancestor" and added that "if there is anything that I hope I inherited from her, it's her neck"
But after a Massachusetts court – controlled by dark forces – acquitted the English-born Webster of witchcraft, they took the law into their own hands.
They got her out of a tree – but even then they couldn't overcome her. She survived and "Half-Hanged Mary" lived for more than a decade.
Her legacy, however, continues to this day because her name appears on the initiation page of the 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid & # 39; s Tale.
The legacy of Mary Webster continues to this day because her name appears on the initiation page of the 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid & Tale. Pictured, Offred (Elizabeth Moss)
Atwood – who was told as a child that she was a descendant of Mary – is of course the literary superstar of the moment.
The third season of the critically acclaimed TV adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss, has just ended, and tomorrow a sequel to The Handmaid & # 39; s Tale, the most anticipated book of the year, will be released.
The Testaments have already been nominated for the Booker Prize, and bookshops worldwide open to fans tonight at midnight, while an interview with the Canadian novelist is broadcast live from the National Theater in London to 1,300 cinemas around the world.
So what exactly is behind the revival of interest in a novel more than 30 years old?
In the US, the Donald Trump presidency, with its attacks on abortion rights and environmental protection, has been a key factor. The international success of the novel and the subsequent TV series has clearly conquered the spirit of the times.
The story is set in Gilead, an alternative modern America that has been taken over by a Christian fundamentalist theocracy that subjects women to brutal repression.
Devastating pollution has caused widespread infertility, so fertile young women are forced to become "maids of service" to provide Gilead rulers with children.
Atwood says she was partially influenced by the rise of the Christian Right in the US in the 1970s and by the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979.
But an older inspiration was Mary Webster, whose grandmother of Atwood (whose maiden name was Webster) had long ensured that the writer was their ancestor.
Mary & # 39; s condition deeply touched Atwood and in 1995 she wrote a poem titled Half-Hanged Mary.
"I was hanged because I lived alone, because I had blue eyes and sunburned skin, torn skirts, few knots, a weed farm in my own name, and a surefire cure for warts," Atwood wrote.
Those who have read The Handmaid's Tale will recognize that the powerful themes of female submission and insane religious persecution could have had their roots in the true story of Mary.
According to data, she was born around 1624 as Mary Reeve in Salisbury, Wiltshire. Her family emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the so-called & # 39; Great Puritan Migration & # 39 ;, when hardcore Protestants left England en masse to find religious freedom in the New World.
In 1670, Mary, then in his mid 40s, married 53-year-old William Webster. The couple lived in Hadley, Massachusetts, a small and close-knit Puritan community founded by William & # 39; s father.
The Testaments have already been nominated for the Booker Prize, and bookshops worldwide will be open to fans this evening at midnight, while an interview with the Canadian novelist will be broadcast live from the National Theater in London to 1,300 cinemas around the world
William inherited little as a second son and the couple fell on difficult times, often depending on the charity of others.
According to Hadley's 1905 history, "Mary & # 39; s mood, which was not the quietest, was not improved by poverty, and she used harsh words when she was offended."
Some people called her a & # 39; termagant & # 39 ;.
The account continues: "Despised and sometimes abused, she was made hateful to some of her neighbors."
Puritans believed that marriage came from reproduction and that women should be submissive to men. As a childless, temperamental and apparently ungrateful woman, Mary would hardly have made herself loved by her neighbors.
Their literal Bible reading also convinced Puritans that the devil was walking among them forever, that witches were talking to him and that they were out to harm humanity. Inexplicable phenomena and ailments were probably due to evil forces. Even an antisocial temperament.
Gossip grew that Mary was a witch, a fatal development, because in such a hysterically superstitious community, almost any evidence could be cited as evidence of sorcery.
Her husband's whereabouts at present are unclear – data show that he did not die until 1688 – but it is clear that no one protected Maria when her persecution became physical.
Violence against suspect witches was approved on the grounds that witches hit or physically prevented them from speaking out their spells.
So when farmers and shepherds took horses and cattle past Mary & # 39; s house to graze on the meadows of the city claiming to enchant their animals so that they refused to pass her door, the answer was to get her whips over her go – on which the animals were immediately told to have recovered their wits.
A man whose cart full of hay was suddenly destroyed outside of her house was about to attack Mary when he claimed that the hay was mysteriously returned to the cart. Mary was also accused of going to a neighbor's house where, simply by looking at it, she let a baby float three times out of the cradle on the floor and back again & # 39; if no hands arrived & # 39 ;
On another occasion, a chicken fell into a chimney and was scalded in a bubbling pot of water. Neighbors became suspicious when they saw Mary with burns, suggesting that she might have a supernatural bond with the bird.
If the crops failed, there would inevitably be someone who could remember seeing Mary in the neighborhood.
In March 1683, when she was nearly 60, Mary was taken to a district court in nearby Northampton, under strong suspicion that she was familiar with the Devil or used witchcraft.
The third season of the critically acclaimed TV adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss (photo), has just ended, and tomorrow a sequel to The Handmaid & # 39; s Tale will be released, the most anticipated book of the year
Someone even claimed that she could "ride on broomsticks or without them through the air", but if there were specific cases of her, no one survived for posterity.
Witchcraft was punished with death and the case was referred to the Court of Assizes in Boston.
During her trial in September, a jury heard & # 39; many testimonies brought against her & # 39; and how Mary & # 39; without having fear of God in front of her and being urged by the devil, made a covenant and became familiar with him in the form of a wartime (a wild black cat) & # 39; .
Witches were thought to suck the Devil's imps in exchange for help with spells. Mary was accused of doing this, and it was further claimed that local women in Hadley had examined her body and found so-called "witch marks" on her skin to prove it.
When Mary was acquitted (as alleged witches were often), her accusers were furious. They had another chance to see her leave in January when a respected Hadley dignity, Philip Smith, inexplicably fell ill.
Smith – a 50-year-old judge and deacon of the Church – had previously claimed that Mary had become so mad at him when he offered financial help that he was afraid she would harm him.
He then favorably fell ill and went mad and babbled that she had cursed him.
He started getting attacks and shouted about "sharp pins" that pricked him, called Mary and unknown others and said, "Don't you see them? They are there. & # 39;
Witnesses reported strange events surrounding his sickbed, including the strong smell of musk (associated with witches), inexplicably emptied medicine jars, and strange scratching noises.
Margaret Atwood – who was told as a child that she was a descendant of Mary – is of course the literary superstar of the moment
"Various people often felt something moving in bed, a considerable distance from the man," reported Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister and elder educated by Harvard who sniffed witchcraft everywhere and investigated the matter. "It looked like a cat, but they could never understand."
After Smith died, his body covered with inexplicable bruises and wounds, Mather concluded that Mary had been killed with & # 39; horrible witchcraft & # 39 ;.
(Eight years later he caused even greater hysteria in Salem's infamous witch trials – which inspired Arthur Miller's game The Crucible – killing 20 people.)
Even before Smith died, Mary's persecutors had taken action. Convinced that they could help him by hurting her, a group of young men from Hadley – & # 39; sturdy boys & # 39; named in one account – her three or four times to disturb & # 39; her & # 39; and disturb her spells.
On their last visit, they dragged her out the door and hung her on a tree.
She dangled there all night in what must have been unbearable pain until her persecutors held her the next morning and discovered that she was still alive. They rolled her through the deep snow on the ground and had her buried in it.
But even that didn't finish her.
As Margaret Atwood has noted: & # 39; I expect that if everyone thought she had occult powers before hanging, they would be even more convinced afterwards. & # 39;
It seems that the residents then kept their distance from "Half-Hanged Mary". She died 11 years later and left a small estate with a bed, a Bible, a psalm book, and three sermon books. She is buried in the cemetery of the city.
Atwood describes Mary Webster as "my favorite ancestor," and adds that "if there is anything that I hope I inherited from her, it's her neck."
The novelist says that she has dedicated The Handmaid & Tale to Mary (along with a Harvard scholar who taught her about puritanism) because she was an unjustly accused woman who is "somewhat of a symbol of hope because she is actually there failed to kill her '.
She says she still wonders how Mary spent the night hanging on a tree, and what went through her mind when she dangled there.
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