The Salem Witch Trials were a strange time. Many don’t even realize that all of the trials happened in a relatively short period of time, spanning February 1692 to May 1693. It resulted in 19 people being put to death, most for frankly absurd reasons. For instance, did you know that being in possession of spoiled milk was used as evidence of one’s witchiness?
Or if your neighbors were having trouble conceiving a child that it was probably your fault, you know, because your witchly omnipresence was interfering with the process…or something. But did you know you could be hanged as a witch just for being sarcastic? That brings us to John Willard. Out of the 19 people put to death for witchcraft in Salem Witch Trials. Only five of them were men. One of those men being John Willard.
Who is John Willard
Willard was a fairly respected man, originally from Lancaster, Massachusetts. He worked under Major Simon Willard, no relation, who was a prominent land speculator in Massachusetts at the time. In other words, John Willard was not a beggar or a poor man, but he wasn’t English royalty either. A hard working, middle-class man who wanted success for his life and in this new world.
John married Margaret Wilkins, of the Wilkins family. The Wilkins family were a family of farmers, as much of the colonial families were. Margaret was the first in three generations to marry someone who wasn’t a Salem Village farmer. John Willard was perceived as a “young, upwardly mobile outsider who married into an established Salem Village family”.
Suffice it to say that he was not necessarily viewed kindly. When have you ever heard of an outsider being viewed kindly? The family viewed him as having an unreliable profession—land speculation was an irregular source of income and was very risky. Farming, on the other hand, was as regular as the seasons, and everyone needs to eat so income was guaranteed.
Eventually, this led to Willard working on the Putnam family farm in Salem as a hired hand. The Putnam family were an important family to Salem Village, and John Willard was taken in with open arms. As a hired hand he did practically anything that was asked of him.
A Case Is Built Against Willard
After a time he was designated as the caretaker for a new baby, Sarah Putnam, daughter of Thomas and Ann Putnam Sr, and sister of Ann Putnam Jr. The Putnam family, particularly Ann Sr and Ann Jr, were some of the most prolific accusers of witchcraft.
The baby John was looking after, only a few months old, would soon die. The Putnam family was distraught, and they placed the blame on John Willard, but this is not what led to claims of his witchiness.
It’s unclear exactly how or why Willard left the Putnam family farm, but the death of the child he was looking after is cited as the most probable cause. He took a position as a constable in the village. This was around the time the witch trials were starting up.
While only 19 people were actually killed (which, to be fair, is a lot of people to put to death in a year), over 200 people were accused of being a witch. When the accused were, well, accused, somebody had to go collect them. That was John Willard’s job. Someone’s neighbor let their milk spoil? John, go arrest that man.
You and your wife cannot conceive a child and you think your neighbor is putting a hex on you? John, go arrest those neighbors. After doing this a couple dozen times, Willard, who was not a simple man, started feeling like he was enabling a bad system. Just about anybody was a witch, apparently. Willard was getting fed up.
Hanged At Salem Witch Trials For Not Believing in Witches
At some point, Willard bellowed, loud and quite sarcastically, “Hang them all! They’re all witches”. He promptly discontinued his service as constable, unwilling to go around town arresting anyone someone had accused of being a witch.
Unfortunately, his sarcasm and subsequent leaving of his job as constable led to serious suspicion of Willard as a witch. Why didn’t he want to help Salem Village root out the witches? Because John Willard was a witch.
Formally accused by Ann Putnam Jr, whose sister died on his watch, John Willard was not in a good position. Already viewed as an outsider from his first moment in Salem Village, and then for the respected Putnam family’s young child to die on his watch, and then to sarcastically say “what if everybody’s a witch, guys”, it’s clear that John WIllard practically had a death wish, The basis for her accusation was that Willard had come to her in a vision, tormenting her.
Other women came forward, also claiming to have spectral visions of Willard tormenting them. WIllard fled Salem when a warrant was issued for his arrest. Funny enough, the new arresting constable was John Putnam Jr, of the Putnam family.
John Willard in Salem Witch Trials
In less than a week Willard was arrested and returned to Salem. At his Salem witch trials the women confirmed their torments in his presence. The presiding judge asked Willard to recite the Lord’s prayer, something any respecting Puritan of the day should have been able to do. Unfortunately, Willard could not.
In surviving documents, it’s reported that Willard said “it is a strange thing, I can say it at another time. I think I am bewitched as well as they,” and that he was laughing nervously. More than likely, Willard was not a highly religious man and realized at this moment he would pass no test. He was hanged on August 5, 1692 at the age of 35.
Read these books to know more about the horrifying period of Salem Witch Trials
The Salem Witch Hunt: A Captivating Guide to the Hunt and Trials of People Accused of Witchcraft in Colonial Massachusetts
A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience (Pivotal Moments in American History)