Happy weekend from the witch trials survivor

My mother claimed to see demons lurking in corners, hiding behind TV anchors’ smiles, sitting on cashiers’ shoulders. The devil’s minions were always hovering, she said, waiting to leap the second you gave them an opening, which was easy to do. Letting a stranger touch your head, listening to rock music, or falling asleep with the TV on were just a few of the things that would leave you exposed. You might already be possessed by spirits, in fact, and not even know it.

Maybe this is why the Salem witch trials — the stories of women drowned for their alleged allegiance to Satan — have always been a particular source of fascination for me, and why I was so sucked into Kathleen Kent’s wonderful first novel, The Heretic’s Daughter. I’ll be posting a conversation with Kent in the next week or two, so keep an eye out for that.

Reading the book prompted me to delve further into the life of Mary Bliss Parsons, my own 9th great-grandmother, who, long before the Salem trials, beat witchcraft charges — twice. (Longtime readers may recall that the Parsons family isn’t exactly overjoyed to have me as a cousin.)

Joseph Cornet Parsons, Mary’s husband, moved his family to Northampton, Massachusetts, because his wife couldn’t get along with the people of Springfield. She was beautiful and opinionated, with a “harsh,” “often accusatory” manner, and she was given to “fits” that incited Joseph to lock her in the basement. According to the authors of Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England,

She and her husband were frequently and notoriously at odds with one another. During part of their time at Springfield he had sought to confine her to their house. (Otherwise, he said, “she would go out in the night … and when she went out a woman went with her and came in with her.”) When this tactic failed, he locked her in the basement. It was then, she claimed later on, that she had first encountered her “spirits.” There was at least one quite public episode — again at Springfield — that amounted to a family free-for-all. Joseph was “beating one of his little children, for losing its shoe,” when Mary came running “to save it, because she had beaten it before as she said.” Whereupon Joseph thrust her away, and the two of them continued to struggle until he “had in a sort beaten [her].”

Witchcraft accusations surfaced against Goody Parsons shortly after the family moved to Northampton. Mary gave birth to a healthy baby boy — Ebenezer, her fifth child — and the following year a neighbor’s newborn died. Sarah Bridgman, the grieving mother, claimed Mary had cursed the baby.

Joseph tried to spare the family’s good(?) name by going on the offensive. No stranger to the courtroom, he initiated a defamation suit against Sarah Bridgman, the neighbor who started the rumors after her own baby died. This was a tricky approach. While the “immediate outcome of these actions was usually favorable to the plaintiff,” the “long-range effects were mixed.”

Sure enough, Joseph prevailed at trial, but suspicion and ill-feeling roiled until new witchcraft claims landed Mary in court again 18 years later. This time she was the defendant. Most of the evidence from the trial has been lost, but the indictment remains:

Mary Parsons, the wife of Joseph Parsons, … being instigated by the Devil, hath … entered into familiarity with the Devil, and committed several acts of witchcraft on the person or persons of one or more.

Ultimately the jury acquitted Mary, but her case is seen as a precursor to the Salem Witch Hysteria of 1692.

On a personal level, what interests me most is the way Mary’s behavior and the suspicion against her have echoed down through my mother’s line, from mere nonconformism to madness, the seeing of “spirits,” and the accusations of Devil Worship. When I was a child, the Presbyterians and Baptists all but called Mom a Satanist as they showed us the door.

The legacy of loudmouthed, intractable women might run back generations in the other direction, too. By all accounts Mary’s mother Margaret was prickly and litigious. The image at the top of this post is a reportedly a transcription of Margaret’s testimony in Mary’s slander trial.

Happy weekend from the possible murder victim

Whatever I paid to search the Dallas Morning News archives last month allowed me access to something like 50 articles, but only for 24 hours. So after I found what I was looking for (confirmation that one of my mom’s father’s wives really did shoot him), and had exhausted all possible searches on the subject, I typed in other Texan ancestors’ names for the hell of it.

Lo and behold, I learned that my great-grandmother Alma’s relatives once spent a couple days trying to figure out — from afar — whether she was the woman found dead and battered on a Galveston beach. (Clipping from first story pictured above.)

According to an article dated July 22, 1914, Alma had sent her mother a card saying, “This is Monday a.m. We are ready to start for dearer Dallas.” But when word of the murder reached Dallas the following week and Alma’s family hadn’t turned up — likely as not, because Great-Grampa Zone was off chasing tail — her kinfolk must’ve gotten worried. A childhood friend viewed the battered corpse, identified Alma, and fainted.

Fortunately mother Martha Caroline and sister-in-law Gertie back at home weren’t too worried. Some of the authorities’ details about the corpse didn’t really point to Alma. For one thing, the deceased didn’t have gold teeth.

“I feel,” said Gertie, “that it is not she.” (Pause for appreciation of correct pronoun usage. Gertie, I should add, was Zone’s sister. This was a family where, according to my mom, everyone, including the women, “carried a can around to spit in and after a meal we all would sit in the living room and each one would spit from time to time and argue and fight.”) And indeed, it was not.

This is so my family, I can’t even tell you. Okay, maybe I could, but I’m off to Newport, Rhode Island in the morning to celebrate the hitching of some friends.

Hope you have a great weekend planned, too.

Happy weekend from the apparently sweet-dispositioned Gran Newt

Gran Newt

I’m amazed at how radiant and kind-faced Gran Newt, my great-great grandmother on my dad’s father’s father’s side, looks in this photo, considering she raised her children in a house without a ceiling. Her son told the Drew, Mississippi newspaper it was so frigid on winter mornings that “when papa would walk through the hall to the other side of the house his mustache would freeze.”

I wish I had a tenth of her fortitude. My drafty railroad apartment has a (sometimes leaky) ceiling and (sort of) working radiators, but when the wind chill dips to zero, out come the fingerless gloves and turtleneck, and, while typing at the kitchen table, I start to look a lot like another great-great grandmother, Martha Caroline. That kind of frown has a way of becoming permanent.

Happy weekend from the unknown cause of death department

This shot of my mom’s father in front of Honolulu’s Ilikai Hotel is undated, but I tell myself it’s one of the last photos taken of him before his death in Phoenix, in 1970. I like to think he went out partying.

My grandmother always claimed he died of cirrhosis of the liver. My mom, as I recall, disputes this, saying that he had many health problems, partly as a result of being shot.

The obituary (below) is of course no help at all.

Robert Bruce obit

Happy weekend from Bob Bruce Real Estate

At one time my maternal grandfather was a garment cutter. Later he had an auto repair shop. It’s unclear what all happened during the intervening years of carousing and various jobs and one near-fatal shooting, but he wound up in Phoenix, Arizona, where he became — of course — a successful real estate agent.

According to my mom’s note, this is a photo of Robert Bruce with his last wife, Eleanore, “in front of Daddy’s realty co. He was the first industrial realtor in Phoenix.” So now you know who to blame…

Happy weekend from the Anheuser-Busch distributor

For a woman who claimed to dislike drunks, my grandmother sure had a knack for attracting them.

Of course she wasn’t responsible for her gallivanting father, Zone. And we have to give her a pass on the very charming first husband, Robert Bruce, who, Granny claimed, squandered so much of her money on booze, she couldn’t even afford to buy my mother a toothbrush.

But years after kicking Robert out, she married again — to another alcoholic, an older man. Smith was at least doting, and had some money of his own, but he still stumbled home, raving, from the bar, whereupon he would have to be restrained and dragged to bed. My mother recalls him standing at the window, in his underwear, with a shotgun.

Granny even worked for a beer distributor. In this photo she stands outside Ben E. Keith, an Anheuser-Busch outlet where she worked as a secretary/office manager. I believe she started working there shortly after ridding herself of Robert in the early 1940s. This shot, according to my mother’s notes, was taken around 1960, when my grandmother was in her mid-fifties.

Happy weekend from a walk with… the first wife?

Periodically readers write in to ask if my maternal grandfather really married thirteen times. I never met the man; he died the year before I was born. So all I can say is, that’s what my mother tells me. My grandmother corroborated some of the wilder tales, and told a few of her own, but mostly she didn’t like to talk about him.

Not only did Robert Bruce tend to leave his women, he was constantly switching jobs, and he moved around a lot. Supposedly he did a stint in Hollywood, courting actresses. I haven’t been able to track all the divorces and unions. I don’t even know how to go about finding a record of the woman who may have shot him near the SMU campus.

My mother believes that the “unidentified lady” walking with him in this photo (above) is his first wife. Mom was (amazingly) his only (known) surviving child, but according to Robert the first woman he married had a baby who died at birth.

For more on Robert Bruce, including the adultery letters, go here, here, here, here, and here.

Happy weekend from the animal hoarders

The last time I visited my mother, she had sixteen or seventeen dogs. During my high school years, there were also birds. Hundreds of them. And before she met my father, she kept more than thirty cats in a small apartment. She was encouraged in these animal hoarding tendencies from a young age. Mom was five when my grandmother, who was a single parent and worked all day, started sending her alone on the bus into downtown Dallas on Saturdays to have lunch, see a movie, and buy a pet. She came home with puppies and kittens, naturally. And there were bunnies and hamsters and turtles and fish, and God knows what all else.

Granny said there was a monkey who didn’t like to come down out of the curtains. My favorite story was the one about the baby alligator that kept growing and growing until he finally got loose in the neighborhood and was carted off to the zoo. I am not making this up.

My grandmother liked to complain about Mom’s menagerie, but she was an animal-lover, too. In the top photo, she (at left) and her sister Louise (at right) hold some puppies. Below she plays with her dog, “Bingo II,” presumably the replacement for the first Bingo, at Christmastime. And below that she’s the one in the foreground, crouching with some unnamed pooch, while her mother (who also loved puppies) holds the baby and her father waits for the photo to be over.

Happy weekend from the Kinchen family portrait

You know why this old photo of the Kinchens looks even more like a portrait to accompany a Poe story than previous installments? Because my mother was sent, and forwarded to me, a photocopy of the original photo.

Never mind print shops, don’t bother with scanners. No, in my family, we’ll just slap that baby down on the Xerox machine.

One of my maternal great-great grandmothers, Martha Caroline Kinchen, sits in the center of this photo, holding one of her grandbabies, Alma Honor Harris. Martha Caroline’s children stand around them. My great-grandmother, Alma Kinchen Johnston, is to her left. According to my mom’s notes, this photo dates to 1901 or ’02.

Prior Kinchen photos (not from photocopies) are here, here, and here.

Happy weekend from the Delta research dept., now with Eudora Welty references

As far as I can tell, some twenty-odd years after the events of Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, andĀ about eight years beforeĀ the novel appeared, my great-grandfather was hired to manage the plantation Welty fictionalized in it.

The book is set in September 1923, at Shellmound, just north of Greenwood, Mississippi. Very little happens in Delta Wedding, and apparently that was intentional. “The Delta enclave was, [the author] told Charles Bunting, ‘all such a fragile, temporary thing…. At least I hope it was. That’s why I searched so hard to find the year in which that could be most evident.'”

The book is probably my least favorite of Welty’s, but its insights into the pretensions of cotton gentility are considerable. The wedding of the title is of the plantation owner’s daughter to the young man who manages the plantation. Her family is not exactly over the moon about the match.

“Mama, I think it’s so tacky the way Troy comes in from the side door,” said Shelley [another daughter] all at once. “It’s like somebody just walks in the house from the fields and marries Dabney.”….

“Well, one thing,” said Tempe [an aunt] in a low voice to Shelley, … with a sigh of finality, “when people marry beneath them, it’s the woman that determines what comes. It’s the woman that coarsens the man. The man doesn’t really do much to the woman, I’ve observed.” This week’s photos are of my great aunt and grandmother. I believe they’re in the fields at Shellmound.

Happy weekend from Four-Fifths plantation

I’d like to believe my Mississippi forebears were too poor to own anyone and too far down the Antebellum social ladder to oversee plantations. That’s not the way it’s been presented, but, as a Mississippian once told me, “Delta Aristocracy is redundant. Completely. They all think they’re aristocracy, even the trailer park occupants.” So I’ve got a lot of research left to do.

This summer I dragged my beloved Aunt L. through the Mississippi Delta. On the way we stopped in Memphis to visit my great aunt and uncle, both in their 80s, who told us which little church in Acona to stop at and where exactly we would find Four-Fifths plantation, which my great-grandfather managed in the ’40s and ’50s.

Great Aunt E. waved her hand magisterially around her apartment, which is filled with lovely things she’s picked up on her travels. Trees etched of jade. Delicate porcelain bunnies. Crystal and china, all perfectly arranged. “Well, you know,” she said, in an accent that makes Eudora Welty sound like a Yankee, “it’s not popular anymore to have a plantation in your background.”

A thousand sarcastic rejoinders leapt to mind, but I bit them back. The woman is 86 years old. She’s recovering from a mastectomy. What’s the point?

As we drove down into the Delta, Aunt L. helped me differentiate between the cotton crops and the soybeans. The corn, a newly viable crop down there with the advent of biofuel, was easier to pick out. Everywhere there were deteriorating shacks and rusted-out cars and overgrown lots. The slow gentrification of downtown Greenwood and blues hot spots of Clarksdale notwithstanding, the Delta remains shockingly poor. And man, it is hot. Hot and dusty and — despite the lush green of the fields and the trees beyond them — grim.

I’ll be honest: I went on the trip partly to figure out my dad’s family. I didn’t find out much. Why I have this urge to know about my ancestors, I don’t know fully yet, but I guess I feel that it will explain something about my parents and me and my sister. Maybe that’s why, standing out in front of the Four-Fifths sign, I felt so implicated.

The man in the Firestone ad below is my great-grandfather, Daddy Joe. Below that are two buildings still on the plantation site; Aunt L. thinks the top one was Daddy Joe’s office, and the other was a convenience store.

Happy weekend from Drew, Mississippi’s last cotton buyer

When my dad’s father’s dad — we called him Granddaddy — closed down his cotton business, this article ran in the Drew, Mississippi newspaper.

Granddaddy probably really did grow up in a house without a ceiling, a house so cold that “when papa would talk through the hall to the other side of the house his mustache would freeze.” And he was sweet to me the few times I met him; I’m the “pixyish brown-haired great-granddaughter” he tells the reporter about.

But based on the stories I’ve heard, most of the platitudes ascribed to him here — apart from “save something out of every dollar you earn” and “I was always conservative” — are offered for posterity, not from the heart. He was, by all reports, incredibly racist; so it’s hard to know where to begin with lines like these: “I have touched the lives of many, both black and white during this span of years. Because I have done so, it has made me a better person.”

When my mother first met the Newton patriarch, he took the whole family to dinner at a local restaurant — and then he instructed everyone at the table what to order. (This did not sit well. You don’t tell a Texan woman what to do.)

She also claims that my grandpa told her that Granddaddy fairly often sent him get out into fields to pull a plow. While Grandpa was dragging it through the earth, in the sweltering heat, Granddaddy would sit under a tree, drinking lemonade and laughing at him.

Grandpa is in no condition now to confirm or deny this story, and he probably wouldn’t be inclined to talk about it with me anyway. But he does tell everyone in his Nashville assisted living facility that he grew up pulling a plow in the Mississippi Delta.

Happy weekend from the Mobley welcome committee

I’m coming down with a cold or something, so in lieu of the great-grandfather story I’d planned to tell, here’s a shot of Grandpa, my dad’s father, standing with the rest of the committee to welcome Mary Ann Mobley, Miss America 1959, home to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. (Larger version here.)

Grandpa stands to Ms. Mobley’s right, wearing sunglasses.

Happy weekend from Mamma & Granddaddy Newton

Of everyone in his family, my dad is said to be most like his grandfather (above, right). In personality, I mean. Not in appearance.

The elder Newton apparently was so severe and domineering that his wife, Louise (above, left; not to be confused with Great Aunt Louise), rejoiced when her hearing started to go. No longer did she have to adjust her bathroom breaks to his schedule or listen to his lectures about household finances or how to buy cotton. She just turned down the volume on her hearing aid and moved through her days unmolested.

After they sold their house in the Delta, and moved down to live near my dad’s parents on the Gulf Coast, she swore she’d never speak to her husband again. And she stuck to it. She stayed in her apartment, reading romance novels and watching soap operas and talking walks alone on the beach. She never visited him in the nursing home. She even declined to attend his funeral.

Happy weekend from the Stardust dinner party

My mom was about 26, and her father, Robert, was in his 50s, when this photo of the two of them with their spouses, her first and his 12th(?), was taken at Las Vegas’ now-demolished Stardust in 1965.

They were estranged for most of Mom’s childhood, partly at her stepfather’s insistence. But they got back in touch sometime before one of Robert’s wives shot him in the gut.

Mom sits to the right of her first sociopathic lawyer husband, Chuck, who is not my dad. (Any confusion on that score is completely understandable, but my father has at least never been a himbo.)

Robert is at the far right, next to his last wife, Eleanore. She had money, apparently.

Happy weekend from the banished father

I used to wonder why my mom stayed with my father for so long when they were so ferociously ill-matched, but she always said it was better to have an overbearing father than no father at all, and when I look at this photo, of her own dad, Robert, holding her as a baby, I think I understand the marriage better. Robert looks so shrunken and defeated to me here, and her own wave seems to match the sentiment. It wasn’t too long after this that my grandparents divorced.

As a child, Mom kept this picture glued in her scrapbook alongside almost all the other photos we have of him. I wonder how many times she leafed through it after he disappeared, when he was off marrying women and starting service stations and grocery stores and realty firms.

Robert Bruce must have executed the holographic will (below) leaving Mom all of his property around the time my grandmother decided to divorce him.