Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Family Witch: An Essay

The Family Witch

By Mark Wright

My family has a dark side. It’s a sordid tale of witchcraft and devil worship. … And it’s available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and video on-demand. Whether the tale is true depends on who’s telling it – Hollywood or historians. Either way, it makes for one hell of an interesting family tree.
I am a Georgian by birth, but I’ve spent my formative years in Texas. Yet, there’s something Northern in my blood. My paternal grandmother, who was raised in Missouri (pronounced Missouruh), had deep New England roots on her mother’s side. One of those Yankee families from which I descend is named the Shermans. In 1844, Rhode Island denizen Bathsheba Thayer married into said Sherman family. Bathsheba was the wife of Judson Sherman and daughter-in-law of my fifth great grandparents Asahel Sherman (who died in 1830) and Rowena Ballou Sherman (who lived until 1859). My fourth great grandfather Dutee Sherman (born in 1790) was Judson’s older brother and Bathsheba’s brother-in-law.
Horror movie enthusiasts know Bathsheba Thayer Sherman for a different reason than marrying into the Sherman family. In the 2013 film The Conjuring, Bathsheba is portrayed as a malevolent spirit haunting a young couple and their daughters in the early 1970s in rural Burrillville, Rhode Island. Ah yes, my fourth great grand uncle’s wife was a witch who came back from beyond the grave to haunt a family.
Betty Mencucci, president of the Burrillville Historical& Preservation Society, assures me that genealogists have found no evidence to support claims that Bathsheba Thayer Sherman was accused of killing a child or practicing witchcraft or worshiping the devil, contrary to what the film suggests. Furthermore, records indicate that she died, not from a suicide brought on by madness, but rather from complications from a stroke.
"As a historical society we researched all the claims made against Bathsheba and it is all nonsense," Mencucci said.
Bathsheba, who was born in 1812, is recorded as a housewife of Burrillville, Rhode Island, in the 1880 U.S. Census. She died about 1885 and was buried on a quiet burial plot with a nice marble headstone. No one in the community, then, seems to have feared that this old woman would return from beyond the grave as a wicked ghost. But in the Internet age, a significant segment of the population, mainly horror-movie fanatics and gullible teens, will forever regard Bathsheba Thayer Sherman as an evil witch who returned from the dead to terrorize an innocent family. The film The Conjuring was based on a book series by Andrea Perron called House of Darkness: House of Light. The author was one of the children living in the reportedly haunted farm house. The book series is positioned as a work of non-fiction, but Perron's claims about Bathsheba have no merit, based on records that exist from Bathsheba’s lifetime. Plus, one should probably always question any claims of paranormal activity in an old house. Dark, creaky buildings get the imagination bubbling over. But no objective evidence ever seems to emerge from those who report the haunting. Instead, ghost stories rely on the willingness of the audience to accept these wild tales on faith, an odd little phenomenon given the general skepticism of the current day.
Whether she's a witch is no real concern to me. But Bathsheba is buried in the same graveyard as my fifth great grandparents. Because her tombstone attracts movie buffs and cannabis-inhaling college kids, I am concerned for the ongoing preservation of the Shermans’ graves. Incidents of vandalism have already occurred, and a local law enforcement official damaged Asahel's gravestone during a botched repair job. I am also concerned for the family’s reputation. The Shermans were a prominent farming family with ties to the founding of Rhode Island. And these Shermans are related to other famous Shermans, namely, Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and Constitution signer the Honorable Roger Sherman. I hope mostly people simply view those buried alongside Bathsheba as God-fearing early residents of the bucolic Blackstone River Valley of Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts and not as the family of a witch.
Regardless of what folks think of the Sherman family, I remain proud of my New England ancestors. My direct Sherman ancestors achieved less fame than our distant cousins William Tecumseh and Roger, but the Rhode Island Shermans nonetheless played a pivotal role in the early history of this nation. Rowena Ballou Sherman’s father, Pvt. Eleazer Ballou, fought in the Revolutionary War. Rowena and Asahel’s daughter-in-law Nancy Emerson Sherman, my fourth great grandmother, was the granddaughter of two Revolutionary War Patriots, Capt. John Emerson of the 3rd Worcester County regiment of the Massachusetts Militia and Capt. David Burlingame of the Rhode Island Militia. In fact, Pvt. Ballou served in a horse troop under command of Capt. Burlingame. Nancy’s father, Ezekiel Emerson, is recognized by the Daughters of 1812 as a veteran of the War of 1812, the conflict in which this fledgling nation repelled British attempts to forcefully retake its former American colonies.
The Daughters of the American Revolution documentation for my paternal grandmother, Frances Ann Sunderland Wright (AKA Grandma Sundie) authenticates Capt. John Emerson as her fourth great grandfather and certifies that he served in the Revolution. The same record shows her great-great grandparents are Dutee Sherman and Nancy Emerson Sherman. Therefore, my grandmother could have also claimed Eleazer Ballou and David Burlingame as Patriot direct ancestors on her application.
The Shermans also provide me with a direct link to the Pilgrims. Robert Hicks, my tenth great grandfather, brought his family to the Plymouth Colony a year after the arrival of the Mayflower. His granddaughter Dorcas Hicks married Edmund Sherman, and they are, respectively, my eighth great grandmother and grandfather.  
Edmund’s father, my ninth great grandfather Philip Sherman, made quite a name for himself in the early days of New England. Philip, who was born around 1610 in southeastern England and migrated to Massachusetts Bay in his early 20s, had the fortitude and convictions to question the rigid Puritan doctrine. He was banished from the colony for his beliefs during the Antinomian Controversy but found his way to what became Rhode Island, where he was one of the purchasers of Aquidneck Island. He served as the colony’s first secretary and later as the town clerk of Portsmouth. Presidents George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush and famed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill are my distant cousins through our shared ancestor from the 17th century, the aforementioned Philip Sherman.
My brother and my dad find it hard to believe we are scions of these old New England families. "How could we be related to presidents?" my brother said, underscoring our status as average Joes from Texas (kind of like the Bushes often claim to be). But, indeed, my paternal grandmother was the great granddaughter of Ora Sherman Sinclair, the daughter of the aforementioned Nancy and Dutee Sherman. The only family lore I heard during my childhood was that we were related to Roger Sherman, who signed the Declaration of Independence. And he is a relative, but it’s a far more distant relationship than my grandmother’s stories implied. Indeed, several of my aunts are reticent to accept my genealogical findings because I found old Rog to be a fourth cousin seven times removed – hardly the close relative the family imagined him to be. Still, we Wrights inherit quite a colorful and illustrious history through our direct ancestors: the Rhode Island Shermans and related families. For instance, a ninth great grandfather Joseph Emerson was a Puritan minister who links us to distant relative Ralph Waldo Emerson.
My New England ancestors established themselves as early landowners and prominent citizens in the American colonies and played an active role in the struggle for independence from Britain. And if you ever visit a bookstore or rent a film on demand, you might see something about a witch who married into my family. And if you believe my family had a witch in it, maybe there is a pair of ruby slippers I can sell you.