Roger Toothaker was a farmer and folk-healer from Billerica who specialized in detecting and punishing witches. Toothaker was accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials but his case never went to trial because he died in jail.
Toothaker was born in England about 1634 and sailed from London, England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony with his family in 1635. The family settled in Billerica.
In 1638, Toothaker’s father died and his mother married a man named Ralph Hill who owned a farm in the south end of Billerica.
Although Toothaker never had any formal medical training, he had a medical apprenticeship with Dr. Samuel Eldred, who often used mystical folk remedies.
When Toothaker was 31 years old, he married Mary Allen, the eldest child from a prosperous family in Andover. The couple ran a farm on a small piece of land only a few miles away from a nearby Indian camp.
Possibly due to increased competition from other practicing midwives, Toothaker later left his family for a while to set up his medical practice in Salem, according to the book Death in Salem: The Private Lives Behind the 1692 Witch Hunt:
“There were other practicing midwives by then, which might explain why Roger left his family for a time and moved to Salem. Perhaps he found it a lucrative place to set up a practice, at least until a direct competitor – Dr. William Griggs – arrived from Boston in 1690. Dr. Grigg’s wife, Rachel Hubbard Griggs, was from an influential family. One of her kin, Elizabeth Hubbard, was living with them in 1692 when the witch hunt erupted. On May 18, Hubbard and two of her friends, Ann Putnam Jr and Mary Walcott, named Roger Toothaker as a witch. He was arrested and sent to Boston jail the same day.”
Roger Toothaker was arrested for witchcraft on May 18, 1692, by Salem constable Joseph Neall, after he was accused by Elizabeth Hubbard, Ann Putnam, Jr., and Mary Walcott. Toothaker was brought before the court that same day for his pre-trial examination but there is no surviving record of this examination.
The only surviving records of Toothaker’s case are that of his arrest warrant, a document stating he was sent to the Boston jail, one piece of testimony by Thomas Gage against Toothaker and the jury’s report on Toothaker’s death.
Thomas Gage’s testimony sheds some light on why Toothaker may have been accused of witchcraft. According to Gage’s testimony, a year before the Salem Witch Trials started, Toothaker told Gage that he and his daughter, Mary Emerson, wife of Joseph Emerson, practiced counter magic against witches and claimed his daughter had killed a witch:
“The Deposition of Thomas Gage aged about six thirty six years. This deponant saith & doth testified that sometime this last spring of the year, that Doctor Toothaker was in his house in Beverly (upon some occasion) & we discoursed about John Mastons child of Salem that was then sick & having unwonted fits: & likewise another child of Phillip Whites of Beverly who was then strangely sick. I persuaded said Toothaker to go & see said children and said Toothaker answered he had seen them both already and that his opinion was they were under an evil hand and farther said Toothaker said that his daughter had killed a witch & I asked him how she did it, & said Toothaker answered readily that his daughter had learned something from him I asked by what means she did it, & he said that there was a certain person bewitched & said person complained of being afflicted by another person that was suspected by the afflicted person: & farther said Toothaker said that his said daughter got some of the afflicted persons urine & put it into an earthen pot & stopped said pot very close & put said pot very close into a hot oven & stopped up said oven & the next morning said witch was dead other things I have forgotten & farther saith not.”
According to the book The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege, the alleged witch is believed to possibly be Mathias Button of Haverhill, Mass. It is not known if Mathias Button or anyone in his family was a suspected witch or the victim of the Toothaker counter magic. Button was never accused of being a witch in his lifetime, although he served as a witness in a witchcraft case against his neighbor John Godfrey in 1665.
Mathias Button later sued Godfrey in 1669 for allegedly setting a fire in his house that killed his wife, Ann Teagle Button. Mathias Button later remarried, to a woman named Elizabeth Wheeler, before dying of natural causes in August of 1672 at the age of 67.
No other testimony was given in Roger Toothaker’s case and no other witnesses were called because the case ended when Roger Toothaker died on June 16, 1692 in the Boston jail.
The jury was summoned to the jail at the request of the coroner of Suffolk County, Edward Willis. Upon viewing Toothaker’s body, the jury stated Toothaker died of natural causes:
“We whose names are underwritten being summoned by virtue of a warrant from Mr. Edward Willis one of their Maj’sts Coroners of the County of Suffolk to view the body of Roger Toothaker who died in the goal of Boston, in above said, to which we have viewed the same and obtained the best information we can from the persons near and present at his death and do find he came to his end by a natural death as witness our hand, this 16 of June 1692
The said Toothaker was an inhabitant of the town of Billerica in the County of Essex
Benjamin Walker foreman
Unfortunately, around the same time Toothaker had been arrested in May, his wife, Mary, and daughter, Martha Emerson, were also arrested on charges of witchcraft after they were accused by Mary Warren and Mary Lacey, Jr.
Several sources state that the Toothaker’s nine-year-old daughter, Margaret, was also arrested but that are no records of her arrest, examination or imprisonment.
It was very common for relatives of accused witches to be accused of witchcraft too. Mary Toothaker was not only the widow of an accused witch but also the sister of another, Martha Carrier, who had been arrested on charges of witchcraft in May.
During Mary Toothaker’s examination on July 30, she was questioned by Judge Gidney, Judge John Hathorne, Judge Corwin and Judge Higginson.
After denying all charges at first, Mary eventually confessed to being a witch and confirmed that her husband had once spoken to their daughter about killing a witch named Button.
Not only did Mary confess and incriminate her daughter, she also accused several other people by claiming to see them at witch meetings.
It is not known why she confessed but from her statements made during her examination it appears she may have actually believed she was a witch because her family practiced counter magic.
Mary Toothaker stated that she became a witch when she signed a pact with the Devil so he would protect her from Indians. She explained that she had a great fear of Indians (as many colonists did) and often had nightmares about being attacked by them, according to court records:
“She saith now the Devil appeared to her in ye shape of a tawny man & promised to keep her from ye Indians & should have happy days with her son. She was asked if she did not sign ye Devils book, answered he brought me like which she thought to be a piece of birch bark & she made a mark with her finger by rubbing of ye white scruff & he promised if she would serve him she should be safe from ye Indians (she was then a little stopped again & believed it was ye Devil yet did it) being asked if ye Devil did not say she was to serve him a yes and signed ye mark upon that condition & was to praise him with her whole heart & it was to yet appearance she prayed at all times for he said he was able to deliver her from ye Indians and it was ye fear of ye Indians yet put her upon it. She confesses she hurt Timothy Swan and thinks she was twice at Salem Village witch meeting & that Goody Bridges was one of her company…She confesses yet her sister was with her at all ye meetings & particularly at Salem Village & their went with her Goody Bridges, Foster, Green & Goody Broomage. Several of ye afflicted persons said they saw ye black man before her in ye time of her examination and she now herself confesses she saw him upon ye table before her she says further there was a minister, a little man whose name is Burroughs, yet preached at ye Village Meeting of witches, & she heard yet they used bread & wine at these meeting & yet they did talk of 305 witches in ye country…”
Mary was also accused of bewitching a local man named Timothy Swan, which she confessed to. Swan had been suffering from a mysterious illness and suspected it was the result of witchcraft.
The reason Mary was a suspect was because he had raped her relative, Elizabeth Emerson, years ago and was found not guilty. Ever since then, Mary had harbored ill will towards Swan and even she herself worried she may have actually harmed him with her negative thoughts towards him, according to the book A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Witch Trials and the American Experience:
“The troubled story of Elizabeth Emerson and Timothy Swan was a factor, too, for ‘she confessed she hurt Timothy Swan…and is afraid that she the said Toothaker squeezed his throat,’ harming Timothy just as he had done to Elizabeth while he raped her. Clearly Mary Toothaker harbored ill will towards Swan. When he actually did suffer illness, Mary believed that her hard feelings could have been the cause – that she may indeed have invoked Satan’s powers just by these feelings, as well as her concern for safety from the war for herself and her family.”
During Martha Emerson’s examination on July 23, upon hearing of her father’s claims that she had killed a witch, she confessed that she had practiced counter magic and kept a woman’s urine in a glass jar but did not identify the woman.
Emerson then stated that the spirits of her Aunt Martha Carrier and Goody Green were in front of her, grabbing her throat and stopping her from confessing to witchcraft.
According to the court records, at some point Martha recanted her confession and stated she was just trying to save herself:
“but after ward she denied all and said what she had said was in hopes to have favor and now she could not deny God: that had kept her from that sin and after said though he slay me I will trust in him.”
Martha Emerson’s case was eventually thrown out of court due to a lack of evidence and she was released from jail.
Mary Toothaker was also cleared of all charges and released from jail sometime in 1693.
Levack, Brian P. New Perspectives on Witchcraft, Magic, and Demonology. Taylor & Francis, 2001
Roach, Marilynne K. The Salem Witch Trials: a Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege. Taylor Trade Publishing, 2002
Hall, David D. Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England. Northeastern University Press, 1991
Foulds, Diane. Death in Salem: The Private Lives Behind the 1693 Witch Hunts. Globe Pequot Press, 2010
Baker, Emerson W. A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Witch Trials and the American Experience. Oxford University Press, 2014