Debut author Adriana Mather draws from her own family legacy in How to Hang a Witch, a twisty mixture of history and horror. The protagonist, Samantha, shares her last name with the author, as Mather is a real-life descendant of Cotton Mather, one of the men responsible for the Salem Witch Trials. As a fictional descendant of Cotton Mather, Samantha finds herself caught up in a centuries-old curse when she moves to Salem, as well as encounters with real ghosts and classmates who don't appreciate her heritage. Mather shares more of her family connection to this dark side of American history.
My ancestors came over on the Mayflower, fought in the Revolutionary War, lived in Sleepy Hollow and survived the Titanic. They have everything under their belts from failed inventions to the first American-born presidency at Harvard. But nothing tops the infamy of my ancestor Cotton Mather who instigated the Salem Witch Trials. In How to Hang a Witch, I explore that piece of my family’s history and bring it into present day with a pinch of magic and a good old-fashioned mystery.
History is woven into the very fabric of the culture in modern Salem in a way I’ve never seen before. A world of tall tales, oddities and tragedies burgeon from its black houses and cobblestone streets. It’s just too amazing of a town not to set a story in . . . preferably in autumn. Throw in a handsome ghost and some spiced apple cider, and something wonderfully witchy happens.
And the research! It was one of my absolute favorite parts of the writing process—I could continue it for the next 20 years and still learn new and creepy things. Here is a quick list of what I discovered along the way:
- Salem, Massachusetts, is home to Hocus Pocus, haunted tours and more magical potions than you can shake a stick at.
- Curses are a thing in Salem. When Giles Corey was accused of witchcraft in 1692, he refused to plea guilty or not guilty. He was pressed to death over three days and right before he died he supposedly cursed Sheriff Corwin. People say even now that the sheriffs of Salem have always died mysteriously, either of heart attacks or blood disease.
- My ancestor Nathanael Mather (Cotton’s brother) is buried in Salem’s Old Burying Point. He entered Harvard at 12 years old and died when he was 19. His epitaph reads, “An Aged person that had seen but nineteen Winters in the World.”
- The first accusations of witchcraft came from girls who were 9, 11 and 12 years old. The adults around them went very quickly from asking, “What is ailing you?” to “Who is ailing you?” Knowing how young these girls were altered my perspective of how the events unfolded in Salem and had me greatly questioning the motives of the adults around them.
- The youngest person accused of witchcraft was Sarah Good’s daughter, Dorothy Good. She was between 4 and 5 years old. She was both accused and jailed. She spent almost nine months locked up before she was released on bond.
- Apparently just before Sarah Good’s death, she said to Rev. Noyes, “God will give you blood to drink.” And sure enough, in 1717 Noyes died from an internal hemorrhage, choking on his own blood.
- Interestingly, Salem means “peace.”
I make it a point to go to Salem a few times a year, walk the old brick sideways pushed up by tree roots and enjoy the ancient architecture. I know my way around so well now that I could have a back up career as a tour guide. But even I avoid the graveyards in the dark . . . because you just never know.
Author photo credit James Bird.