Biography of Mary Sibley, Witness in the Salem Witch Trials

Salem Village Map from Upham
Public Domain Image, originally from Salem Witchcraft by Charles W. Upham, 1867.

Mary Sibley (April 21, 1660–ca. 1761) was a key but minor figure in the historical record of the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts Colony of 1692. She was the neighbor of the Parris family who advised John Indian to make a witch’s cake. The denouncing of that act has been seen as one of the triggers of the witch craze that followed.

Fast Facts: Mary Sibley

  • Known For: Key role in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
  • Born: April 21, 1660, Salem, Essex County, Massachusetts.
  • Parents: Benjamin and Rebecca Canterbury Woodrow.
  • Died: circa 1761.
  • Education: Unknown. 
  • Spouse: Samuel Sibley (or Siblehahy or Sibly), February 12, 1656/7–1708. m. 1686. 
  • Children: at least 7.

Early Life

Mary Sibley was a real person, born Mary Woodrow on April 21, 1660 in Salem, in Essex County, Massachusetts. Her parents, Benjamin Woodrow (1635–1697) and Rebecca Canterbury (spelled Catebruy or Cantlebury, 1630–1663), were born in Salem to parents from England. Mary had at least one brother Jospeh/Joseph, born about 1663. Rebecca died when Mary was about 3 years old.

Nothing is known of her education, but in 1686, when Mary was about 26 years old, she married Samuel Sibley. Their first two children were born before 1692, one was born in 1692 (a son, William), and four more were born after the events at Salem, after 1693.

Samuel Sibley's Connection to Salem Accusers

Mary Sibley's husband, Samuel Sibley, had a sister Mary, who was married to Captain Jonathan Walcott or Wolcott, and their daughter was Mary Wolcott. Mary Wolcott became one of the accusers of witches in Salem community in May of 1692 when she was about 17 years old. Those she accused included Ann Foster

Mary Wolcott’s father John had remarried after Samuel's sister Mary died, and Mary Wolcott's new stepmother was Deliverance Putnam Wolcott, a sister of Thomas Putnam, Jr. Thomas Putnam Jr. was one of the accusers at Salem as were his wife and daughter, Ann Putnam, Sr. and Ann Putnam, Jr.

Salem 1692

In January of 1692, two girls in the home of the Rev. Samuel Parris, Elizabeth (Betty) Parris and Abigail Williams, ages 9 and 12, began exhibiting very strange symptoms, and a Caribbean slave, Tituba, also experienced images of the devil—all according to later testimony. A doctor diagnosed the “Evil Hand” as the cause, and Mary Sibley offered the idea of the witch’s cake to John Indian, a Caribbean slave of the Parris family.

The primary evidence in the trial against the group was the witch's cake, a common folk magic tool which was made using the urine of the afflicted girls. Supposedly, sympathetic magic meant that the "evil" afflicting them would be in the cake, and, when a dog consumed the cake, it would point to the witches who had afflicted them. While this was apparently a known practice in English folk culture to identify likely witches, the Rev. Parris in his Sunday sermon denounced even such well-intentioned uses of magic, as they could also be “diabolical” (works of the devil).

The witch's cake didn't stop the afflictions of the two girls. Instead, two additional girls began to show some afflictions: Ann Putnam Jr., connected to Mary Sibley through her husband's brother-in-law, and Elizabeth Hubbard.

Confession and Restoration

Mary Sibley confessed in church that she had erred, and the congregation acknowledged their satisfaction with her confession by a show of hands. She probably thereby avoided being accused as a witch.

The next month, the town records note her suspension from communion and restoration to full congregational inclusion when she made her confession.

March 11, 1692 – "Mary, the wife of Samuel Sibley, having been suspended from communion with the church there, for the advices she gave John [husband of Tituba] to make the above experiment, is restored on confession that her purpose was innocent."

Neither Mary nor Samuel Sibley appears on the 1689 register of covenanted church members of the Salem Village church, so they must have joined after that date. According to genealogical records, she lived well into her nineties, dying about 1761.

Fictional Representations

In the 2014 Salem-based supernatural scripted series from WGN America, Salem, Janet Montgomery stared as Mary Sibley, who, in this fictional representation, is an actual witch. She is, in the fictional universe, the most powerful witch in Salem. Her maiden name is Mary Walcott, similar but not the same as the maiden name, Woodrow, of the real-life Mary Sibley. Another Mary Walcott in the real Salem universe was one of the key accusers at age 17, a niece of Ann Putnam Sr. and cousin of Ann Putnam Jr. That Mary Walcott or Wolcott in the real Salem was a niece of Samuel Sibley, husband of the Mary Sibley who baked the "witch cake." The producers of the Salem series seem to have combined the characters of Mary Walcott and Mary Sibley, niece, and aunt, to create a completely fictionalized account of the witchcraft since there is no such thing as witchcraft.

In the pilot of the series, the fictional Mary Sibley assists her husband in throwing up a frog. In this version of the Salem witch history, Mary Sibley is married to George Sibley and is a former lover of John Alden (who is much younger in the show than he was in the real Salem.) The Salem show even introduced a character, Countess Marburg, a German witch and terrible villain who has had an unnaturally long life. At the end of Season 2, Tituba and the Countess die, but Mary goes on for another season. Ultimately, Mary comes to wholeheartedly regret her choices; and she and her lover are reconciled, and fight for the future together.

Sources

  • Ancestry.com. Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Original data: Town and City Clerks of Massachusetts. Massachusetts Vital and Town Records. Provo, UT: Holbrook Research Institute (Jay and Delene Holbrook). Note that the image clearly shows 1660 as the birth date, though the text at the site interprets it as 1666.
  • Mary Sibley. Geni, January 22, 2019.
  • Yates Publishing. U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004.
  • Jalalzai, Zubeda. "Historical Fiction and Maryse Condé's 'I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem'." African American Review 43.2/3 (2009): 413–25. Print.
  • Latner, Richard. ""Here Are No Newters": Witchcraft and Religious Discord in Salem Village and Andover." The New England Quarterly 79.1 (2006): 92–122. Print.
  • Ray, Benjamin C. ""The Salem Witch Mania": Recent Scholarship and American History Textbooks." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78.1 (2010): 40–64. Print.
  • ---. "Satan's War against the Covenant in Salem Village, 1692." The New England Quarterly 80.1 (2007): 69–95. Print.