John Willard was a deputy constable in Salem who was accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
Not much is known about Willard’s life before the Salem Witch Trials. What historians do know is that he was about 30 years old at the time of the trials and previously lived in the town of Groton, Massachusetts, which was a frontier town about 40 miles northeast of Salem.
John Willard married a woman from Salem Village, Margaret Wilkins, sometime prior to 1690. Wilkins came from a large established family of subsistence farmers in Will’s Hill, a remote area of Salem Village in the far western section of Salem Village. Wilkins was the first person in three generations of her family to break the tradition of only marrying Salem Village farmers.
The book Salem Possessed refers Willard as “a young, upwardly mobile outsider who married into an established Salem Village family.”
Wilkins and Willard are believed to have lived in Groton, Massachusetts for a short time after they were married but Wilkins eventually brought Willard back to Salem Village and the couple later had three children there.
Since Willard was considered an outsider to Salem Village and had no interest in farming, the Wilkins family reportedly became uneasy when Willard took up an interest in land speculation in the village.
Bray Wilkins, Margaret’s grandfather, had made a failed attempt at land speculation in 1658 when he invested in a timber-processing business and mortgaged 700 acres of land for its timber. The business failed to make any profits, Wilkins got caught stealing hay to feed his oxen and he had to return two-thirds of the land.
According to the book The Story of the Salem Witch Trials, in March of 1690 John Willard and two other partners purchased a village lot about 400 to 500 acres in size, just north of Salem Village, from George Corwin’s widow, divided it into smaller lots and sold them for a considerable profit. Within just a few months, two large plots from this land were sold to “outsiders.” The Wilkins family reportedly resented Willard for making this happen. The book Death in Salem: The Private Lives Behind the 1692 Witch Hunt also suggests that Bray Wilkins may have even been jealous of Willard’s land speculating success.
According to Ann Putnam, Jr‘s., later testimony, when Ann first became afflicted, Willard visited the Putnam home and offered his sympathy and help to the girl, probably in March or early April of 1692.
Philip Knight later also testified that Willard was at Knight’s house at the end of April while a group of people were discussing the latest accused witches when Willard suddenly said “Hang them. They are all witches.”
According to Robert Calef in his book, More Wonders of the Invisible World, Willard was a constable who was in charge of arresting accused witches but at some point had his doubts about the legitimacy of the accusations and quit his job in protest:
“John Willard had been employed to fetch in several that were accused; but taking dissatisfaction from his being sent to fetch up some that he had better thoughts of, he declined the service; and presently after he himself was accused of the same crime, and that with such vehemency, that they sent after him to apprehend him. He had made his escape as far as Nashawag, about forty miles from Salem; yet it is said those accusers did then presently tell the exact time, saying, Now Willard is taken.”
It’s not clear if Willard actually arrested anyone accused of the crime or if he quit before he had to do so. His name does not appear on any of the arrest warrants of the accused witches. It’s also not clear who it was exactly that Willard was ordered to arrest that gave him doubts about the validity of the accusations. Most of the arrest warrants requested a specific officer or constable to conduct the arrest and Willard was never named in any of the arrest warrants.
The only arrests Willard may have specifically been ordered to conduct occurred on April 21 when a massive arrest warrant was issued for nine people: Sarah Wildes, William Hobbs, Deliverance Hobbs, Nehemiah Abbott, Jr., Mary Easty, Edward Bishop, Jr., Sarah Bishop, Mary Black and Mary English. Due to the large number of people being pursued, the warrant requested “Geo: Herrick Marshall of Essex and any or all of the Constables in Salem — or Topsfield or any other Towne” to conduct the arrests.
Although it is not certain and it is only speculation, this massive arrest warrant may have possibly been the reason Willard began to doubt the legitimacy of the accusations and it may have been what spurred him to quit his job.
After Willard quit his job, he soon found himself accused of witchcraft by Ann Putnam, Jr., at the end of April. She later claimed, during his trial, that his spirit had appeared at her home several times in late April and tormented her and tried to get her to touch the Devil’s book. Surrounded by friends and family, she cried out his name in front of everyone and rumors quickly began to swirl that Willard was a witch.
The next day, on Monday April 25, after hearing these rumors, Willard went to confront Ann Putnam, Jr., at her house. She again accused him of tormenting her with his spirit, which he denied. She bargained with him and said that if he stopped tormenting her she would stop accusing him. Willard still denied that he was afflicting her and left.
Ann Putnam, Jr.,’s affliction stopped for a few days after that until Thursday when she stated that his spirit returned again and continued to afflict her.
Although Willard had been accused, no arrest warrant was issued for him. After Ann Putnam, Jr’s, accusation, Willard went to visit his grandfather-in-law, Bray Wilkins, and asked for advice and asked Wilkins to pray with him, according to Wilkins testimony during Willard’s trial:
“When John Willard was first complained of by the afflicted persons for afflicting them, he came to my house, greatly troubled, desiring me, with some other neighbors, to pray for him. I told him I was then going from home, and could not stay; but, if I could come home before night, I should not be unwilling. But it was near night before I cam home, and so I did not answer his desire; but I heard no more of him upon that account. Whether my not answering his desire did not offend him, I cannot tell; but I was jealous, afterwards, that it did.”
Shortly after, Willard made plans to go to Boston during election week with one of his in-laws Henry Wilkins, Jr. Henry’s son, Daniel, had heard of the rumors about Willard and advised his father against going to Boston with him, stating “It were well if the said Willard were hanged.”
On election-day, Bray Wilkins and his wife, Henry Wilkins, Jr., John Willard, Deodat Lawson and his wife all met for dinner at Lieutenant Richard Way’s house in Dorchester.
At some point during the dinner, Willard reportedly gave Bray Wilkins a cross look, after which Wilkins began to feel ill and suspected Willard had bewitched him. Wilkins was ill for three or four days in Boston before he finally returned home.
When Wilkins got back to Salem Village, he found his grandson, Daniel (the one who expressed concern about his father traveling with Willard), gravely ill.
Upon seeing his grandson, Bray Wilkins had a relapse of his own health and fell ill again. Reverend Samuel Parris came to the house to offer his assistance and several of the afflicted girls, Mercy Lewis, Ann Putnam, Jr., and Mary Walcott, were brought in to see if they could identify who was bewitching the Wilkins family. The girls immediately named Sarah Buckley and John Willard, claiming they could see their spirits sitting on top of the victims.
An arrest warrant was issued for John Willard on May 10, but John Putnam, Jr., returned to the court two days later stating that he had searched Willard’s house and other places but couldn’t find him and heard from his family that he had fled Salem.
Another search warrant was issued on May 15, after receiving official complaints against Willard from Thomas Fuller, Jr., and Benjamin Wilkins, Sr. The search warrant advised constable John Putnam, Jr., to “Convey from town to town from constable to constable, until he be brought before us or such as may be in authority here in Salem, and hereof you are not failed.”
Some sources states that Willard was caught in his hometown of Groton while others say he was caught in nearby Lancaster. Yet, Salem Marshall George Herrick stated in the court records that Willard was caught in a place called Nasahway which is believed to be Nashua, NH. Nashua is just over the New Hampshire border and is only about 15 miles from Groton. Willard was brought before the court for his examination on May 18.
At some point during this time Daniel Wilkins died. On May 17, a jury of twelve men viewed his body and determined he died at the hands of witchcraft. The men on the jury were Nathaniel Putnam, Thomas Fuller, Sr., Jonathan Walcott, Sr., Nathaniel Ingersoll, Thomas Flint, William Way, Thomas Fuller, Joseph Harrick, Thomas Haynes, Edward Putnam, Daniel Rea and John Putnam, Jr.
During Willard’s examination, which was recorded by Reverend Samuel Parris, the magistrate (who was most likely either John Hathorne or Jonathan Corwin or both) stated that Willard’s flight from Salem was considered an admission of guilt and asked him to explain his behavior. Willard responded by stating that he fled because he was afraid and continued to proclaim his innocence:
“I shall, as I hope, I shall be assisted by the Lord of Heaven, & for my flying away I going away I was affrighted & I thought by my withdrawing it might be better, I fear not but the Lord in his due time will make me as white as snow.”
During the examination, the magistrate brought up the earlier testimony of several witnesses who accused Willard of murder and of abusing his wife, Margaret. When given the opportunity to defend himself, Parris merely recorded that Willard “offered large talk” and the magistrate promptly cut Willard off, stating “We do not send for you to preach.”
The examination ended with the magistrate urging Willard to confess and take council while it is offered, to which Willard responded “I desire to take good council, but if it was the last time I was to speak, I am innocent.”
Willard was indicted on seven charges of witchcraft (three of the indictments are missing from the court records.) and was sent to the jail in Boston.
On June 2, Willard, along with John Proctor, was physically examined in jail for signs of the devil’s mark by seven men; John Rogers, Joshua Rea, Jr, John Cooke, Doctor J. Barton, John Gyles, William Hine and Ezekiel Cheever, but nothing was found.
Numerous people testified against Willard and gave damning testimonies. These witnesses include: Abigail Williams, Mary Walcott, Ann Putnam, Jr., Ann Putnam, Sr., John Putnam, Jr., Thomas Putnam, Edward Putnam, Benjamin Wilkins, Rebecca Wilkins, Samuel Wilkins, John Wilkins, Henry Wilkins, Sr., Bray Wilkins, Elizabeth Bailey, Thomas Bailey, Nathaniel Richardson, Mercy Lewis, Philip Knight, Margaret Knight, Thomas Nichols, Lydia Nichols, Thomas Flint, Elizabeth Booth, Elizabeth Hubbard, Sarah Bibber, Reverend Samuel Parris, Nathaniel Ingersoll and Susannah Sheldon. Not a single person testified in Willard’s defense.
Most of the afflicted girls testified about seeing Willard’s spirit afflicting them or other people. Other witnesses accused Willard of murdering numerous people. Ann Putnam, Sr., stated that the spirits of Samuel Fuller and Lydia Wilkins appeared before her one day and told her to tell Judge John Hathorne that Willard had murdered them.
Ann Putnam, Sr,, also stated that the spirit of Willard appeared before her at the same time and confessed that he had murdered Samuel Fuller, Lydia Wilkins, Goody Shaw, Fuller’s second wife, Aaron Way’s child, Phillip Knight’s child, Jonathan Knight’s child, two of Ezekiel Cheever’s children, Anna Elliot, Isak Nichols and Ben Fuller’s child as well as her own child, Sarah, who died at six weeks old. She also said that Samuel Fuller and Lydia Wilkins’ spirits offered to appear before Judge John Hathorne if he did not believe her. In addition, Ann stated that the spirit of Joseph Fuller also appeared to her that day and told her that Giles Corey had killed him.
Several other people testified that Willard had beaten his wife, Margaret. Lydia Nichols and Margaret Knight stated that Willard’s wife was at her father’s house one evening and heard her say “how cruelly her husband had beaten her. She thought herself that she should never recover from the blows he had given her.” They went on to say that his wife fled the house when Willard began acting strangely, hiding in a small hole under the stairs and suddenly running up a hill that she deemed was impossible for a human to run up. They said when members of her family went to confront Willard, they found him running in a strange manner.
The Bailey family also testified against Willard and told eerie stories about him. Thomas Bailey said while walking with Willard one night he heard a strange noise surrounding them and became frightened:
“That I being at Groton some short time after John Willard as the report went had beaten his wife I went to call him home and coming home with him in the night I heard such a hideous noise of strange creatures I was much affrighted for I never had heard the like noise I fearing they might be some evil spirits I inquired of the said Willard what might it be that made such a hideous noise the said Willard said they ware Locust: the next days as I suppose the said Williard’s wife with a young child and her mother being upon my mare, riding between Groton Mill and Chensford they being willing to go on foot a little desired me to ride. Then I taking my mare being willing to let her feed a little there as I remember I apprehend I heard the same noise again where at my mare started and got from me.”
Elizabeth Bailey stated that she saw Willard one day and he told her that he was frightened because he thought the Devil was following him:
“The testimony of Elizabeth Bailey aged twenty seven years or there about testified and said that John Willard looking his oxen met with this deponent and told her that all the way from Francis Eliott’s house to his own home he veryly thought that the Devil came before him or behind him all the way which dreadfully frighted him the said deponent asked him why he thought so he answered he could not tell and immediately fell a singing.”
The Wilkins family told the stories about Daniel and Bray Wilkins sudden illnesses and explained that the afflicted girls visited their home and told them it was Willard who was afflicting them.
Benjamin and John Wilkins testified that John’s wife, Lydia, gave birth one day and seemed fine until a few days later when she began to suffer from a violent fever and then died after four days. They don’t say when this occurred but it appears to have happened when Willard was on the run because they also said that a man in Nashua, Nathaniel Richardson, stated that Willard was in a profound sleep around the time this happened (suggesting that his spirit had escaped his body and was afflicting Lydia.)
Ann Putnam, Jr., also testified against Willard and accused him of murdering her baby sister, Sarah. The book The Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692, speculates that one of the reasons Ann Putnam, Jr., may have done this was because the Putnam children were being abused by their parents and Ann was directing her anger over the abuse at others:
“We might note that on June 3, 1692, Ann Putnam, testifying against John Willard, who would hang as a convicted witch, asserted that the apparition of her deceased 6-week-old sister Sarah cried out for vengeance against John Willard for having whipped her to death…Sarah’s mother, Ann Putnam, Sr., was herself an accuser in some of the cases, a woman who claimed to see specters. Who could fault one for speculating that she could not come to terms with having killed her own child, that she found some relief in the fantasy world of blaming witches? Ann Jr. may unwittingly have revealed the family secret; she may have responded to the beating death of her sister by lashing out at the community.”
Ann Putnam, Jr., also testified that she saw the spirit of Lydia Wilkes who told her that Willard had murdered her and Ann confirmed the story about visiting the Wilkes house on May 15 and seeing that spirit of Willard afflicting his Bray and Daniel Wilkes.
John Willard was brought to trial on August 5 and found guilty. On August 19, 1692, Willard was brought to the execution site near Gallows Hill and hanged along with John Proctor, George Burroughs, Martha Carrier and George Jacobs, Sr.
A few years after Willard’s death, on August 22, 1694, Willard’s widow, Margaret, married William Towne, son of Edmund and Mary Towne and nephew of accused witches Rebecca Towne Nurse, Sarah Towne Cloyce and Mary Towne Easty. The couple moved to Topsfield and had six children together.
In September of 1710, Margaret Willard Towne was asked by the general court to submit a list of damages she incurred from Willard’s imprisonment and death. She submitted a document describing the hardship caused by her husband’s imprisonment and death and estimated her damages came to about £30:
“I say besides that reproach & the grief & sorrow I was exposed to by that means I do account our damage as to our outward estate to have been very considerable. for by reason of my said former husband being seized by order of the civil authority & imprisoned all our husbands concerns were laid by for that summer we had not opportunity to plant or sow whereas we were wont to raise our own bread corn I reckon (which your Honors may please more certainly to inform your selves from the records of those unhappy times & things that happened) I say according to my best remembrance from the time of his first imprisonment to the time of his suffering was near upon half a year all which time I was at the trouble & charge to provide for him in prison what he stood in need of out of our own estate, my aforesaid husband was 3 weeks a prisoner at Boston which occasioned me to be at yet more charge & trouble & altho I had after his sentence of death was past upon him obtained a replevin for him for a little time which not coming as was expected at the time appointed I was forced to hire a horse at Salem & go to Boston to see what was the reason of the failure.”
In 1711, the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill clearing the names of numerous convicted witches and awarded the restitution to the families. Willard’s name was listed in the bill and Margaret was awarded restitution for his imprisonment and death.
John Willard’s memorial marker is located at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial in Salem, Mass.
John Willard Historical Sites:
Salem Witch Trials Memorial
Address: Liberty Street, Salem Mass
Admission Price: Free
Former Site of the Salem Courthouse
Address: Washington Street (about 100 feet south of Lynde Street), opposite the Masonic Temple, Salem, Mass. Memorial plaque located on Masonic Temple.
Site of the Salem Witch Trials Executions
Address: Proctor’s Ledge, wooded area between Proctor Street and Pope Street, Salem, Mass
Six Women of Salem; Marilynne K. Roach; 2013
Death in Salem; Diane Foulds; 2013
Groton in the Witchcraft Times; Samuel Abbott Green, Samuel Willard; 1883
History of Essex County, Massachusetts; Volume 1; edited by Duane Hamilton Hurd; 1888
Salem Possessed; Paul Boyer, Stephen Nissenbaum; 1974
The Salem Witch Trials: A Reference Guide; K. David Goss; 2008
Salem Witchcraft: With an Account of Salem Village; Charles Wentworth Upham; 1867
More Wonders of the Invisible World; Robert Calef; 1700
The Story of the Salem Witch Trials; Bryan F LeBeau, 1998
The New England Magazine; Volume 12; 1892