Wednesday, 3 August 2016

John Alden, Junior (1626-1702): Salem Witch Trial Survivor

The popular image of a witch is the one we have from Hallowe'en: a grotesque broom-riding evil woman in black. The accused witches during the Salem witch hysteria of the late seventeenth century were nothing like this. They were predominantly ordinary women in the community - wives, mothers, church members. (More information about the Salem witches can be found in my story about another Salem ancestor Robert Moulton.)

John Alden would discover to his shock and dismay that even successful well-respected men were not immune from accusation.

"Captain Alden Denounced" from "A Popular History of the United States", Vol 2
by William Cullen Bryant, New York: Scribner's Sons, 1878, p 463
Alfred Fredericks, Designer; A Bobbett, Engraver
Obtained from Wikimedia Commons

This John Alden was my 9th great grand uncle, next-oldest brother to my 9th great grandfather Joseph Alden. Born in 1626 as the eldest son to Mayflower passengers and Plymouth founders John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, John rose to prominence as a member of the Boston elite. He was a respected merchant, soldier and sea captain. He was a charter member of Reverend Willard's Old South Meeting House and Third Church.

He was also a family man. John became a widower in 1659 when his first wife died in childbirth with their first child. He then married in 1660 the widow Elizabeth (Phillips) Everill who had two children from her own first marriage. John and Elizabeth went on to have an additional 13 children of their own. He was a man widely known in the community, either personally or by reputation.

Nevertheless, on 28 May 1692 his name appeared among the list of those accused of witchcraft. At the age of 66, he made his appearance in a makeshift Salem courthouse. With the witchcraft hysteria in full swing, Chief Justice Stephen Sewall had summoned a total of 66 men to serve as jurors in the trials. Three of his fellow church members were part of the witchcraft court in which he found himself.

Alden's home was Boston, not Salem. He had simply stopped in Salem on his way home from Quebec where he had negotiated the release of some British soldiers. No doubt he often wished he had just carried on down the road that day.

These proceedings were generally a foregone conclusion with anyone accused being presumed guilty. No lawyers acted on behalf of the accused.  Spectral evidence based on dreams and visions was allowed. When newly appointed king's attorney Thomas Newton first witnessed these trials, he was dumbfounded by what he saw. Perhaps because of this, Alden's accusers were tested again and he was at first permitted to attend the hearing without a guard. It is said that Alden strode into the courtroom, sword at his side and took his place amidst the crowd. When the accusers failed to point him out, they were prompted to identify him. Moved outside into better light, the accusing girls circled him, taunting him with insults.

Alden had been active throughout the frontier. He had served in King Philip's War and had been a supplier of arms. His close ties with the Native Americans and with the French were often useful, but also seen as suspicious. Some of the girls in Salem had lost family in King Philip's War and it could have been tempting to attach blame to a prominent man thought to be somehow complicit in their deaths.

The bewitched girls accused Alden of selling munitions to the enemy and of sleeping with Indian women. When the girls said he afflicted them with his sword, it was removed from him. A marshal led him out to await his interrogation until after they dealt with another accused witch.

When John Alden returned to the meetinghouse later that afternoon, he was humiliated by being forced to stand on a chair with bound hands. Undeterred, he protested his innocence, asking why in the world would he come all the way to Salem village to hurt people he neither knew nor had ever met? When urged to confess, he said he had no intention of gratifying the devil with a lie. He challenged the assembly to supply a shred of evidence that he practiced witchcraft. Magistrate Hawthorne arranged for a touch test - a bewitched girl became calm as soon as Alden put a finger on her. Bartholomew Gedney said he'd known Alden for 2 years and  they had sailed together and were business associates. Gedney said that he had always looked on Alden as an honest man but now he had to alter his judgment. He couldn't disregard the touch test. (One wonders how anyone could NOT disregard such an illogical and unfair test of guilt!) Even fellow church member Samuel Sewall did not step forward to his defense although the Sewall family had trusted Alden to sail their ships across the ocean.

Alden was certain that God would clear his name. He swore that he, like Job, would maintain his integrity until he died.

When he was ordered to look at his accusers, they tumbled to the ground. He asked why his gaze had no such effect on Gedney. He then spoke passionately about the plight of the innocents, but was silenced by Reverend Noyes. Alden swore that there wasn't a bit of truth to the accusations.

Logic and truth were not to prevail this day. God did not clear his name. Judged guilty, John Alden found himself locked in a Boston prison later that same evening.

By mid September, he managed to escape from prison just before the killing of 9 convicted witches. It is believed that he may have first hid from the authorities in Duxbury where he would have found willing accomplices. Duxbury had been home to his parents John (senior) and Priscilla Alden and the extended Alden family. He may have joined other fugitives in New York, but one gets the sense that there wasn't much of a search made for him.

Alden House, Duxbury, Massachusetts
Photo by Graham Barnard, 1999
By December it was generally known that he had returned to Boston. When he failed to show up at his church for communion on December 18, it was speculated that he no longer trusted his friends and fellow church members. Reverend Willard's wife spoke out about this, holding Judge Sewall responsible. Several months later, Sewall called on the Aldens saying he regretted their troubles and was delighted by Alden's rehabilitation. Few others followed this lead.

After the witch hysteria died down and the killings stopped, John Alden returned to Salem where he was cleared by proclamation of all charges of witchcraft in April of 1693.

John Alden died in March 1702 with his sometimes-friend Judge Stephen Sewall at his side. His tombstone was found generations later during excavations near Boston's Old South Church and is now preserved on the outside wall of the church.

John Alden's Headstone
Image from
Courtesy David Allan Lambert

Other Family Connections to the Witchcraft Hysteria

  • John Alden's father, John senior, had himself been part of a Plymouth jury in a witch trial. In that case, the jury had found the accused person to be innocent, with the accuser being found guilty of libel and punished accordingly. 
  • Several other family members were likely living out their lives in Salem during the time of the witchcraft hysteria: Mary Cook Moulton, Benjamin Green, John Green, Joseph Green, Martha Green, Sarah Green, Thomas Green, Thomas Greene, Martha Moulton, Robert Moulton, Mary (Newbury) Green and David Perkins. Fortunately, they seem to have avoided being caught up in the witchcraft hysteria in any named capacity, but it must have been a bewildering and terrifying time for anyone living there. 
  • Other more distant but associated family members that do show up in the witchcraft records include Israel Stoughton, Thomas Perkins, Mehitabel Downing and Simon Bradstreet.

Further Reading:

  • "John Alden's Account of His Witch Trial Examination",website at
  • "Salem Witch Trials", University of Virginia website at
  • Schiff, Stacy, The Witches: Salem, 1692, Little, Brown and Company 2015
  • Roser, Susan E, Mayflower Increasings 2nd Edition, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. 1995