More About Bray Wilkins Sr. Home, Site of

The roots of early colonial settler Bray Wilkins, patriarch of the Wilkins family, who were so instrumental in the accusations and eventual execution of John Willard, are not definitive.  It is thought he was born in England, or perhaps Wales, circa 1610 (based on his age when he died in 1702). Wilkins arrived in the New World in 1630, first settling in Dorchester, Massachusetts (a separate city from Boston at the time) and then Lynn. He married Hannah (maiden name likely Way) circa 1636, and together they had eight children.


Bray Wilkins moved to the Will’s Hill area of western Salem Village (today a part of Middleton) in 1659 with his wife, six sons, two daughters, and friend/business partner (or, some speculate, brother-in-law) John Gingell (alternately spelled Gengell). Some historians claim Bray’s wife was John Gingell’s sister Hannah, but that seems unlikely. Though the two men were very close, a marital tie is not mentioned in the records.


Wilkins and Gingell, a bachelor, had together purchased a 700-acre farm in Salem Village from Richard Bellingham and settled on adjoining lots overlooking a large pond, called Wilkins’ Pond in the seventeenth century but known today as Middleton Pond. It was their hope to find iron ore, a commercial opportunity that would allow them to make their mortgage payments in a timely manner. Iron deposits were not found and the pair found themselves in court due to non-payment.


Wilkins and Gingell soon established a logging and timber-processing venture, but that too was fraught with problems. While initially profitable, Bray and two of his sons were sued for stealing hay in 1661, an episode that Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum described in their 1974 book Salem Possessed: Witchcraft and Social Identity, “Bray Wilkins  ̶  otherwise a notably upright man  ̶  was forced to steal some hay to feed the oxen with which he transported his timber to Salem Town. When Bray was brought to court, his defense was that he has been ‘in great want of hay, and knew not what shift to make.’” Bray Wilkins was brought even lower when his house burned down in the winter of 1664-65.


Two-thirds of the land purchased in 1659 was returned to Bellingham in 1664, and a foreclosure action  followed for the rest in 1666, although Wilkins managed to pay off his mortgage and keep his remaining land. According to Lura Woodside Watkins’ 1970 book Middleton, Massachusetts: A Cultural Colony, “It was not until 1676 that the Bellingham mortgage was paid off in full. Wilkins then bought out Gingell’s interest in the farm.” Wilkins also acquired another 300 acres and, in 1679, he began to deed lands and meadows to his sons. His partner Gingell died in 1685.


While not exactly poor, the Wilkins family found themselves in reduced circumstances after all their setbacks, and were subsistence farmers by the 1680s. Nevertheless, Bray Wilkins remained an important member of the community, a vocal supporter of the effort to create a Salem Village church separate from Salem Town and influential in the choosing of ministers. In 1692, the Wilkins family were supporters of Reverend Samuel Parris, who had arrived in the village in 1689.


Bray Wilkins’ role in the Salem witch trials centered on John Willard, who was married to his granddaughter Margaret. She was the first to marry outside of the tightly-knit Wilkins family and the first to marry outside of Salem Village. Perhaps John Willard’s “other-ness” made him suspicious.


At the time witchcraft accusations began to spread throughout Essex County, John Willard was a deputy constable in Salem Village, responsible for serving warrants and apprehending the accused, among them some supposed “witches.” Willard refused to arrest any more people by the spring of 1692, expressing disapproval of the proceedings after spending time with both accused and accusers. It seems he felt everyone was bewitched.


John Willard’s skeptical stance, as well as his “outsider” status, are likely the things that made him a target of witchcraft accusations himself. The first to accuse him was 12-year-old Ann Putnam Jr., after which Willard sought some advice and prayers from his wife’s grandfather. Although Bray Wilkins promised to pray with him at a future time, it never happened. Instead, while both were attending an Election Day event in Boston shortly thereafter, Bray Wilkins felt that he was given a malevolent look by Willard, after which he became ill, experiencing pain and an inability to urinate. He felt he’d been bewitched by Willard. John Willard was unable to clear his name, even though he confronted Ann Putnam Jr. directly. Then, another Bray Wilkins grandchild, 17-year-old Daniel Wilkins, also fell ill, and Willard was again blamed.


An arrest warrant was issued and Willard fled to property he owned in Lancaster, MA to the west. A second warrant led to his capture, and almost simultaneously, Daniel Wilkins died. Bray Wilkins claimed he was in pain from his own mysterious illness until Willard’s arrest. During John Willard’s questioning and trial, ten members of the Wilkins family testified against him, and he was convicted and hanged on Proctor’s Ledge at Gallows Hill on August 19.


Bray Wilkins died in 1702 at the age of 92. His house no longer stands on Lake Street but that of his grandson, also named Bray Wilkins, was built in 1703 and still stands on Mill Street in Middleton.


The sites of Bray Wilkins Sr.’s house, and John Gingell’s next door, are located at approximately 27-35 Lake Street, overlooking Middleton Pond. Both are private residences. Not open to the public.