Sarah Wildes was one of three women living in the Topsfield area in 1692 who was executed for witchcraft.
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Sarah Wildes (alternate spellings Wild, Wilds), accused of witchcraft in 1692 when she was about the age of 65, lived with her husband John Wildes near the intersection of Perkins Row and Meetinghouse Lane. The area feels distant from the town center today, but it’s actually quite close to the site of the very first meeting house (at the intersection of Meetinghouse Lane and Howlett Street), which was used from approximately 1655 until 1663, when a second meeting house was built on land that is now the oldest part of the Pine Grove Cemetery. Said George Francis Dow in his History of Topsfield, Massachusetts, “Old residents now living recall that years ago they were told that the section around where the first meeting house stood on this lane near the junction of Howlett Street was considered the centre of the town.”
Sarah was the second wife of John Wildes, who was a carpenter in Topsfield. Goodman Wildes was born in England in 1618 and arrived in Ipswich by 1635-9. He married Priscilla Gould around 1645. She was the daughter of Zaccheus Gould, one of the early residents of Topsfield (arriving by 1644) and a significant landowner. Gould amassed more than 3,000 acres by the time he died in 1668. Wildes’ first wife Priscilla was also the niece of Priscilla (Gould) Putnam and her husband John Putnam of Salem Village, whose grandson Thomas Putnam and his family were the principal accusers during the 1692 witch trials. This relationship likely had a bearing on what was to come.
John and Priscilla Wildes had seven children, among whom were two daughters who were also accused of witchcraft in 1692 – Sarah, married to Edward Bishop (both were accused) and Phebe, married to Timothy Day.
Priscilla died in April of 1663. Seven months later, in November, John Wildes married 36-year-old Sarah Averell (alternate spelling Averill), one of seven children born to William and Abigail Averell. The couple had one son, Ephraim, born in 1665.
Relatively little is known about Sarah Averell’s early life, although historian Marilynne Roach notes in The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege, “As a young woman, Sarah Wildes had been considered flashy and forward.” In 1649, when she was 22 years old, Sarah appears in the Quarterly Courts of Essex County record for having committed fornication with a man named Thomas Wardwell.
The Gould siblings, particularly Priscilla’s brother John and her sister Mary (married to John Redington), seem to have had great resentment toward Sarah. Whether this was due to the speed with which their former brother-in-law remarried or for a personal dislike of Sarah due to other community gossip is not clear. The Gould family relationship to the Putnams of Salem Village, who were always losing border disputes to Topsfield residents, may have also contributed to Sarah’s troubles. Whatever the reasons, it was gossip spread by Mary Redington that appears to have had the greatest impact on Sarah’s reputation.
On April 21, an arrest warrant was issued for nine people: Sarah Wildes, Mary Easty, Nehemiah Abbot, William and Deliverance Hobbs, all of Topsfield; Mary English of Salem; Edward and Sarah Bishop (Sarah Wildes’ stepdaughter) and Nathaniel Putnam’s slave Mary Black, of Salem Village. They were all said to have tormented Ann Putnam Jr., Mercy Lewis, Mary Walcott, and Abigail Williams. It was Marshal George Herrick’s job to bring them to Ingersoll’s ordinary for examination the following day.
Sarah and John Wildes’ only son Ephraim, about 27 years old, was then the constable of Topsfield. When Marshall Herrick arrived to arrest Ephraim’s mother Sarah, it must have been a shock. Adding to his misery, Ephraim was ordered by Herrick to arrest Topsfield’s William and Deliverance Hobbs for examination. Ephraim claimed later that Deliverance looked at him with such maliciousness, that he was sure she was inspired to testify against his mother in revenge.
During her April 22 examination, Sarah Wildes claimed she was innocent but the afflicted girls all said they were tormented by Sarah’s specter, and they acted, as usual, with great drama and distress. In addition, stories from the past, tales of disagreements and bad behavior, accumulated against her.
As previously mentioned, Mary (Gould) Redington was the most relentless and outspoken enemy of Sarah Wildes. Mary complained to Beverly’s Reverend John Hale sixteen years earlier that Sarah had bewitched her, “…telling [Hale] many particular stories how and when she troubled her,” according to the minister. Gossip began to spread as early as the 1670s, leading John Wildes to confront Mary’s husband John Redington, threatening to sue him for his wife’s slander. Mary denied she had ever said anything. Mary’s brother, Lt. John Gould, testified that his sister told him some fifteen years earlier that Sarah had pulled her backward off a horse and held her down in a brook. One wonders, did the two actually have a physical altercation, perhaps because of Mary’s gossip? It is impossible to know.
Stories from other neighbors included that of brothers John and Joseph Andrews, of whom it was said that eighteen years earlier, when they borrowed a scythe from Sarah’s son without her permission, their oxen and hay cart became “bewitched,” surely the work of Sarah’s witchcraft. Zacheus Perkins also suffered from unwieldy hay; Thomas Dorman lost some geese and cattle, which Ann Putnam Jr. later told him was the work of Sarah; Humphrey Clark saw Sarah’s specter standing by his bed at night.
Sarah’s son, constable Ephraim Wildes, testified that he was denied the hand of one of Samuel Symonds’ daughters a few years earlier because Mary Redington’s gossip that his mother was a witch was believed. When confronted, again, the gossipers denied that they ever spread the rumors. Ephraim also testified that any accusations from Deliverance Hobbs against his mother were in retaliation for his being Hobbs’ arresting officer.
One more tale from nearly a decade past likely added to the animosity between the Gould and Wildes families. In his History of Topsfield, Massachusetts, George Francis Dow explains: after King James II ascended the throne in England in 1685, some Topsfield men voiced their discontent with restrictions put in place by the newly-appointed Massachusetts Governor Edmund Andros. John Wildes and John How both swore against Lt. John Gould in 1686 for his “treasonous and seditious words.” (Dow points out this was hypocritical, because John Wildes also spoke out against new restrictions from England.) Lt. Gould was jailed in Boston, tried, and convicted. After he petitioned for release, apologized, and paid £50 in costs plus £100 bond for good behavior, he returned home to his wife and eight children. His Topsfield neighbors apparently did not hold this episode against him, as he was re-elected as a town selectman and was later a deputy to the General Court. Lt. Gould, however, must have harbored resentment against John Wildes.
The myriad of complaints against her found Sarah Wildes held for trial, first taken to Salem jail, then to Boston jail on May 2, then to Ipswich jail which stood behind the meeting house there. (Her stepdaughter Phebe (Wildes) Day, accused of witchcraft herself, was also held in Ipswich jail. She was released in September without trial.)
Sarah’s trial was on July 2. She was specifically charged with tormenting Putnam servant Mercy Lewis. Despite her claims of innocence, she was convicted and hanged with four others (Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth How, Sarah Good, and Susannah Martin) on July 19.
It is not known what happened to the body of Sarah Wildes after her death. The executed were first deposited in a rocky crevasse at the hanging site on Proctor’s ledge, but it is believed that some families retrieved the remains of their loved ones for burial at home. It is impossible to know for sure. After the trials were over, families attempted to gain reparations and reversal of convictions. Sarah Wildes was among the innocent victims who was formally cleared by an act passed in 1711. Her family received £14 in reparation.
The Wildes and Averell families continued to live in Topsfield. Ephraim Wildes lived on the family homestead, raising a large and prosperous family.
Additional note: After the trials were over, many fascinating relationships formed. One of the most intriguing was that of John Wildes and the widow of George Jacobs. Jacobs was hanged for witchcraft on August 19. Wildes and Mary Jacobs were married on June 26, 1693. Did they meet while visiting their spouses in jail?
Intersection of Perkins Row and Meetinghouse Lane
Intersection of Perkins Row and Meetinghouse Lane
The April 21 arrest warrant which included Sarah Wildes and Mary Easty, on display in the Peabody Essex Museum.
Caption in the Peabody Essex Museum exhibit.
The beautiful Zaccheus Gould House on River Road. The earliest portion is circa 1670, built by Lt. John Gould for his son Zaccheus.
The Topsfield memorial to three women executed for witchcraft in 1692 was dedicated in 1992.
Sarah Wildes bench, Salem Witch Trials Memorial, Salem MA