Like many people, former Florence resident Carolyn Lindsey-Roy likes to explore her family genealogy.
While she has an interesting family line, there are three people in particular who intrigue her.
They are Lindsey-Roy’s aunts from eight generations ago. For years, she has studied their lives, so much so that she simply refers to them as Rebecca, Mary and Sarah.
In the late 1600s, however, the trio were known by a different title: witches.
The three Lindsey-Roy ancestors were accused in the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693.
More than 200 people were accused of being witches and 20 were executed, according to the Smithsonian Institute.
Those killed included two of Lindsey-Roy’s aunts, Rebecca Nurse and Mary Easty. The other aunt, Sarah Cloyce, was accused but never formally tried.
Massachusetts officials later would denounce the trials, and the state would officially apologize centuries later.
For Nurse and Easty, though, the damage was done. They were hanged.
Lindsey-Roy, who now lives in Mount Pleasant, Tenn., said it is chilling to know such hysteria could be taken so far as to kill innocent people.
“It was one of the worst things that ever happened in our history,” she said.
“It literally was a witch hunt. It was horrible what they were doing to all those people.
“One man was even stoned to death.”
The aunts were the daughters of William and Joanna Towne, who came to the United States from England, said Lindsey-Roy, a retired librarian from the University of North Alabama’s psychology department.
Through the years, Lindsey-Roy has compiled massive amounts of material about her aunts and the accusations against them.
“It’s really interesting history ... how ignorant people were back then.”
She discovered her connection to the aunts from someone in south Alabama who had done research on the Perryman family. John Perryman, Lindsey-Roy’s grandfather, had a great deal of land in Birmingham and the family was well known.
Perryman, who later moved to Florence and is buried in Florence City Cemetery, never told anyone about the Salem ancestry. Instead, he claimed he was born in Ireland and came to the United States on a boat.
Lindsey-Roy learned Perryman was from Georgia. Her grandfather was the son of Mary Margaret Vining, who married Harmon Perryman.
“We are related to the witches in Salem through the Vinings,” she said.
Documents from various historians state the trials were the result of hysteria about the devil turning women into witches. Part of it had to do with a preacher, Samuel Parris, whose 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old niece started having “fits,” according to the Smithsonian research.
A report by Smithsonian states the girls threw things, uttered odd sounds, screamed and “contorted themselves into strange positions.” A local doctor blamed witchcraft. Then another 11-year-old had similar experiences. Under pressure from magistrates, the girls started blaming witches.
Lindsey-Roy’s aunts were in their presence during one of their fits, so the women were accused of causing it by witchcraft, she said.
Lindsey-Roy said Nurse’s body was tossed into a shallow grave after the hanging and dirt thrown on her.
“The family came back that night and dug her up and gave her a Christian burial, where nobody would know they did that,” she said.
By mid-1693, clearer heads prevailed and the trials ended. Anyone accused who was still alive was pardoned. Five years later, officials ordered a day of fasting and soul-searching for the tragedy. In 1702, the trials were declared unlawful, and the colony passed a bill restoring the rights and good names of the accused. Massachusetts formally apologized in the 20th century.
Today, a large monument honors Nurse. Similar monuments have been erected at burial spots of other victims.
“I’d like to go one of these days and see that,” Lindsey-Roy said.
She said a great lesson can be learned from the Salem tragedy. She said, to this day, many people don’t understand what happened. “I would just love to see it cleared up in people’s mind.”
She said there are examples, even in more modern times, of broad false accusations. Lindsey-Roy points to the so-called McCarthyism scare in the 1950s, when accusations were made about innocent people being involved in the Communist Party.
“There was a witch hunt then, accusing people of being communists,” she said. “So many people were blacklisted. I’ve always heard people say that was reminiscent of the witch trials.”
Bernie Delinski can be reached at 256-740-5739 or bernie.delinski@TimesDaily.com.