George Jacobs: The man who left Bishop's Stortford in the mid 17th century for a new life in America – and became the oldest victim of the infamous Salem witch trials
Amateur historian and author Adrian Andrews is a self-confessed taphophile – fascinated by cemeteries, funerals and gravestones. After he shared a photo on the Memories of Bishop's Stortford Facebook page of stocks in Great Canfield, where Elizabeth Abbott was executed in 1683, accused of witchcraft, another poster reminded him of Stortford's link to the infamous Salem witch trials in Massachusetts. Between February 1692 and May 1693, more than 200 people were accused, 30 were found guilty and one of the 19 souls executed by hanging was George Jacobs Senior. Adrian, who lives in Stortford with wife Gunta, decided to find out more...
The start of the trouble is not altogether clear from the records, but it was in late February or early March 1692. A number of adolescent women began to have seizures, uncontrollable spasms and be subject to pinches, needle pricks and bites from unseen (at least to the majority) assailants.
At 81, George Jacobs Snr was the oldest of Salem's victims. The circumstances that brought him to New England are lost to time. It is known that his father, also George Jacobs, was a barber-surgeon and that his mother Priscilla was from Bishop's Stortford.
George was married to his first wife on June 27, 1639, at St Michael's Church, less than a five-minute walk from my door.
Leaving the shores of England for a New England with her, the first record of George Jacobs in America concerns the purchase on November 20, 1658 of a property in Salem village, close to the estuary of Waters River, with ten acres of land, which the Jacobs family went on to tend.
George fathered three children in Salem by his first wife: George Jr, Ann and Mary. What became of the first Mrs Jacobs is unknown, but he is known to have married Mary Fetcher in Salem on January 12, 1673.
It was on May 10, 1692, three months into the supernatural commotion, that judges John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin issued an arrest warrant for George Jacobs Senior and Junior along with that of granddaughter Margaret Jacobs.
The arrests were made by Joseph Neale, a Salem constable, on the same day. At George Snr's first examination, it became apparent that his accuser was Sarah Churchill, his domestic servant.
Churchill confronted her employer in court: "Last night I was afflicted at Deacon Ingersolls, and Mary Walcot said it was a man with two staffs, it was my master." Jacobs walked with the assistance of two canes.
He denied these claims of beating Sarah Churchill when in a spectral form (the court acknowledged that he was on the other side of Waters River when the alleged assault occurred).
When the magistrate urged Jacobs to confess to the charges, George Snr countered: "You tax me for a wizard, you may as well tax me for a buzzard – I have done no harm."
When challenged as to how his accuser witnessed him in spectral form, he stated that the Devil can assume anyone's likeness.
This was a contention that was to provoke much legal and theological discussion in the trials that followed. Could the Devil use a person for the purposes of affliction and murder without the consent of the 'witch' or 'wizard'? That is to say, could someone harming someone by means of witchcraft be as innocent as the person afflicted?
When asked to recite The Lord's Prayer, Jacobs stumbled over some of the words. This was considered to be a task beyond the ability of genuine witches and wizards.
Other girls testified on May 10 that George Snr, in spectral form, had visited them and done them harm.
At the conclusion of the hearing, he uttered the prophetic words: "Well burn me, or hang me, I will stand in the truth of Christ, I know nothing of it."
Margaret, George's granddaughter, was also examined. According to the testimony of another witness, Joseph Flint, she confessed that she was a witch. She went further, accusing her grandfather and the Rev George Burroughs of being 'witches'. This was a confession that she would later sorrowfully retract.
A court order of May 12 directed a local officer to escort George Snr and nine other accused residents to the jail in Salem town.
Two days later, warrants were issued for the arrest of his son, George Jr, and daughter-in-law Rebecca Jacobs. George fled and evaded arrest, but his wife was brought in. Witness to their mother's arrest, Rebecca's four young children followed the cart that carried her away as far as their young legs could take them before they were taken in by neighbours.
Rebecca and her daughter Margaret languished in jail for eight months before their trial and acquittal in January 1693. In this time, Margaret recanted her earlier confession, stating that she had confessed only because she was told that was the only way her life would be spared.
The trial of George Jacobs Snr began in the first week of August 1692. On the 4th, George Herrick testified that in May he had travelled to Salem jail to conduct a physical examination of Jacobs in the presence of constable Joseph Neale, the arresting officer, and jail keeper William Dounton.
The purpose of the examination was to identify any "witch marks" on the prisoner's body. Lo and behold, one such mark was observed on George's right shoulder.
George was convicted on the grounds of this mark and the spectral evidence alone. He was found guilty of one charge of witchcraft and sentenced to death by hanging. The date of execution was set as August 19 and he would be joined on the gallows by John Proctor, Rev George Burrows, Martha Carrier and John Willard. All five protested their innocence until their final moments.
George Snr was the last of the prisoners to be pushed off the gallows platform into the abyss.
Legend has it that his body was reclaimed from the execution site, under cover of night, and reburied at the family's property. Support for this comes from the discovery of human remains on the former Jacobs property in the 19th century.
According to Charles Upham: "The tradition has descended through the family that the body, after having been obtained at the place of execution, was strapped by a young grandson on the back of a horse, brought home to the farm and buried beneath the shade of his own trees. Two sunken and weather-worn stones marked the spot."
As reported in the 2014 publication A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience, by Emerson W Baker: "There was a tradition in the Jacobs family that George Jacobs' body had been taken from Gallows Hill after his death and buried on his farm, which is located within the town's borders.
"A skeleton exhumed and then reburied on the farm in the mid-19th century was believed to be his, and this skeleton was rediscovered by a bulldozer when the property was developed in the 1950s.
"Safeguarded for years by Danvers [the new name for Salem] officials, the skeleton was quietly reburied on the Rebecca Nurse farm, complete with replica 17th-century coffin and gravestone, in 1992."
In the years that followed the Salem tragedy, the events of 1692-93 were hushed up. In the immediate aftermath, the proceedings of the court sessions, although not the judges, were called into question. Eventually, over a long period of time, it was accepted that 20 innocent people had perished – 19 by hanging and one by pressing. Salem remains an embarrassment to the American nation and a warning of how legal proceedings can escalate out of control.
May the last word go to George's stricken granddaughter Margeret, who wrote to her father on the day of George's execution: "The reason of my confinement is this, I having, through the magistrates' threatenings, and my own vile and wretched heart, confessed several things contrary to my conscience and knowledge, though to the wounding of my own soul, the Lord pardon me for it; but Oh! the terrors of a wounded conscience who can bear…"
* Adrian Andrews' full blog post and further investigations can be enjoyed at adigbeyondthegrave.blogspot.com.