A 19th-century illustration depicting the execution of Anne Hibbins in 1656.
Frank Thayer Merril/Lynn and Surroundings by Clarence. W. Hobbs/Lewis & Winship Publishers
Anne Hibbins was not popular in her Boston community in the mid-1600s. There was her privilege, her demanding standards and her penchant for speaking her mind.
When Hibbins’ husband died in 1654, she became vulnerable — on June 19, 1656, she was hanged for being a witch. It would be some 35 years before rampant accusations of witchcraft consumed the nearby town of Salem, but Hibbins’ conviction would lay bare the vulnerability of women in patriarchal New England of the 1600s. It was later said that Hibbins “was hanged for a witch, only for having more wit than her neighbors.”
“The fact that the widow of one of the Governor’s Assistants, one of the most powerful men in the colony, could be accused, convicted and executed for witchcraft, shows that no one was safe from accusations of witchcraft in early Massachusetts,” says Emerson Baker, a historian at Salem State University and author of A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience. “Indeed, widows were all too vulnerable, as their husbands could not defend them in court.”
Hibbins came to Boston from Shropshire, England, with her second husband, William, who became a deputy for Boston to the General Court.
If Anne Hibbins makes any dent in the popular imagination it’s probably in book reports and English lit class term papers that mention her as a fictional character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Throughout Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, Hester Prynne encounters a witch named Mistress Hibbins who at one point invites Hester to come sign “the Black Man’s book” with her own blood. Later, Hibbins reveals she has known Hester’s secrets all along and has kept them to herself, showing disdain for the hypocritical judgment of the Puritans in favor of higher forces.
The real Anne Hibbins was probably less mysterious and more forthright in public, but she certainly would have approved of her fictional counterpart’s view of hypocrisy in Puritanical Massachusetts.
It started with a dispute with carpenters.
Hibbins came to Boston from Shropshire, England, with her second husband, William, who became a deputy for Boston to the General Court. Her first transgression against the community was a 1640 dispute with a carpenter over pricing and the quality of his work. There was a lawsuit, which Hibbins won, but she took her battle further by spreading rumors about the carpenter and implicating other carpenters in a conspiracy against her. Hibbins’ onslaught led to an escalation causing the elders of the church to intervene and call a hearing to settle the matter.
At first, Hibbins refused to speak to the elders, citing concern that it was not legal for her to speak in a church. Eventually, she recounted the dispute in precise detail and refused to admit any problem with her behavior.
The matter transformed into another issue entirely, as if the church was determined to prosecute Hibbins on some grounds, it was just a matter of finding the right charge that worked. With the matter of the carpenter mostly unresolved, Hibbins found herself brought up before the church again. This time the proceedings focused on her spirited behavior, particularly in regard to her husband, from whom they charged she had “usurped authority.” For her individuality, she was excommunicated.
“Early Massachusetts was very patriarchal, and women had limited legal status,” says Emerson Baker, a historian at Salem State University and author of A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience. “It seemed out of place for Ann to be taking legal action that was her husband’s responsibility. The church excommunicated her in part for excommunicating her husband’s authority.”
Her husband died 14 years later and shortly after that, accusations of witchcraft began, presumably the work of her longterm foes recognizing that widowhood left her without the protection of her husband’s connections.
Hibbins faced multiple complaints from her neighbors.
Not many details survive of Hibbins’ trial, and so the specific suspicions have been lost to time, but Baker notes that there were multiple complaints against her and some statements suggest that “people were suspicious that she had used witchcraft to murder her husband.”
Once charged, she was found guilty by a jury, but that was overturned by local magistrates. Her case was then handed over to the General Court. Baker says that this was a rare occurrence and happened only once in the Salem trials, but instead in regard to a “not guilty” verdict for Rebecca Nurse.
Hibbins had pleaded not guilty, but the General Court repeated the original verdict. She spent the last month of her life sorting out her property and preparing a will.
“Traditionally, witchcraft was considered a ‘working class crime,’” Baker says. “That is, most of the accused were the poorer members of society. And, when wealthy and prominent people were accused, they usually were found not guilty. Anne Hibbins was the first high-status New Englander to be executed for witchcraft. “
Hibbins was hanged in the Boston Common at the site of the Great Elm tree, close to what is now known as Frog Pond. Her body was searched for physical signs of witchcraft, but there is no record of anything being found. She was buried in an unmarked and unrecorded grave. But, in the end, Hibbins, or at least a fictional version of Hibbins, would be memorialized in Hawthorne’s novel some 200 years after her death.
Originally published at www.history.com.