Home Crime and Scandal Nathaniel Ingersoll, Host of the Salem Witch Trials

Nathaniel Ingersoll, Host of the Salem Witch Trials

The witchcraft controversy was centered in his tavern

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Nathaniel Ingersoll in 1692 stood as a prominent figure in the town of Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony. He served as a deacon of the church, a militia lieutenant and the proprietor of Ingersoll’s Ordinary. As a tavern, it functioned as a hub for town meetings, military matters and social gatherings.

Most New England towns then had an ordinary, or their equivalent. Ingersoll’s Ordinary had one added feature: it stood at the epicenter of the Salem witch trials. The trials started there, the accused were held there and accusers, jurors and witnesses all met there. And Nathaniel Ingersoll filed complaints and testified against a number of the alleged witches.

Ingersoll accused 11 innocent people of witchcraft, and he testified against seven others. He had also fought in King Philip’s War. A 19th-century Ingersoll family history notes, ironically, “He seems to have been equally valiant at the time of the witchcraft delusion fighting an unseen foe.”

Nathaniel Ingersoll

Nathaniel Ingersoll was born in 1633 in Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony, British America, to Richard and Agnes Langley Ingersoll. His parents had arrived in Plymouth Colony from Gravesend, England, on May 15, 1629, and moved north to Salem. Salem itself was settled in 1628, so the Ingersolls belonged to the earliest group of residents.

In 1670, Nathaniel Ingersoll built what would become his place of business. The ordinary quickly emerged as the center of village life. The farmers and townsfolk of Salem came to gather, eat and drink. Puritans were strict about many things, but not alcohol, so long as people consumed it in moderation.

Ingersoll’s Ordinary hosted local government meetings there. Conveniently located, it also enticed churchgoers leaving services. The tavern had rooms on the second floor for travelers and a taproom serving food and drink. It also had a large fireplace, an important feature for those cold New England winters.

Nathaniel Ingersoll served as a lieutenant in the local militia. He was thought to have taken part in the Great Swamp Fight in December 1675, the only real battle in King Philip’s War.  During the fight, the joint colonial forces of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth and Connecticut attacked a Narragansett village. Though not at war with the Narragansetts, they killed 97 warriors and between 300 and 1,000 women and children. The colonists touted it as a great victory, but it was nothing more than a murder of innocents.

Engraving depicting the colonial assault on the Narragansetts’ fort in the Great Swamp Massacre in December 1675

After the defeat and death of King Philip, life returned to normal in Salem. The history of Salem would then have been unremarkable. But in 1692 everything changed. The world would ever after know it for imagined witchcraft, and the injustice and brutality that ensued.

The Witch Hysteria Begins

In February 1692, two cousins, Betty Parris, 9, and Abigail Williams, 12,  began to behave unusually. The girls screamed, crawled around, made strange sounds, used strange language and claimed they felt pinched and pricked.

Samuel Parris

It didn’t help that they were the daughter and niece of a minister, the Rev. Samuel Parris. It also didn’t help that it was an age where the devil was everywhere waiting to lead God’s people astray. And it didn’t help that only the religious teachings of the time could explain the girls’ behavior.

Throughout the village, people paid attention to the girls, far beyond what they normally would. The girls soon discovered their power — over life and death. That set them on a course from which they could not stray for fear of discovery and exposure.

It did not take long for the girls to start accusing people of afflicting them. Other young girls started exhibiting the same behavior. And it did not take long for the accusations to spread beyond Salem, to Topsfield and Andover and 16 other towns. The mechanism of spread of the “disease” appears to usually have been the Salem girls, some of whom visited the neighboring villages to make accusations. At least 200 people were accused, and before the Province of Massachusetts Bay ended the trials, 19 had been hanged, one died under torture and at least five died in custody. When it all ended, many more were awaiting execution.

The Salem Witch Trials.

Nathaniel Ingersoll Points a Finger

Because the girls were under-age, and women had little official presence in Puritan New England,  male adults filed complaints against the people the girls named. They were family or friends. Nathaniel Ingersoll was one of them. In concert with two other men, he filed 11 complaints in April and May of 1692. Perhaps he did believe the girls’ accusations. We will never know for sure. But at least 46 others filed complaints. Many of the accusers were well-respected community members, a real problem for the accused.

Nathaniel Ingersoll was one of the most prominent and most respected. Nineteenth-century century historian Charles Upham described him as “the Father of the Village.” Not only did he file complaints, he also testified to observing symptoms of affliction from the young girl accusers when seven of the accused were examined. Anything he said would have been taken seriously since no one could believe that he would fabricate the stories. And as one of the adults too naïve or gullible to detect the fraud, he undoubtedly did see these symptoms.

Cotton Mather had warned in a letter not to put too much credibility on spectral evidence. People, including Nathaniel Ingersoll, disregarded his advice.


Cotton Mather

The initial magistrate’s hearings for the witchcraft accusations were scheduled to be held in the Ingersoll Ordinary’s barroom. The tavern’s upstairs rooms could also act as holding cells. The first three accused were taken here, but so many showed up to watch the proceedings that trials had to be moved to the town meeting house.

Nathaniel Ingersoll didn’t suffer financially from the move, however, since people continued to gather at the ordinary for drink, gossip and news of the trials. In addition, the judges and spectators came there for lunch and drinks during breaks in the trials. It was also the scene of what would today be a farce played out with deadly intent.

A Telling Admission

Perhaps the most telling reality about the witch accusations occurred at Ingersol’s Ordinary, witnessed by two men and Hannah Collins Ingersoll, Nathaniel’s wife. On March 28, 1692, some of the girls claimed to see a the specter of Goody Proctor, one of the accused. Of course, no one else could see it. One of the girls then proclaimed, “Goody Proctor, old, witch, I’ll have her hang.” Interestingly, Hannah Ingersoll was having none of this. She berated the girls, who then admitted they were doing it “for sport, they must have some sport.”

In fact, confronting them was a very brave thing to do, since the girls could easily have accused Hannah of witchcraft. It’s unknown why she wasn’t accused for confronting the girls. Perhaps it was because her prominent husband was supporting their delusion. At least not all the adults in Salem were completely gullible. This event would have quickly spread among the town’s adults, and they would clearly have known that fakery was afoot. But they chose to ignore it. Perhaps they were too heavily invested in the lie to stop now.


Drawing of the execution of George Burroughs, ca. 1900.

A Bizarre Scene in the Ordinary

The ordinary continued to be at the center of the witchcraft controversy, which only got more bizarre.  On April 21, 1692, Abigail Williams, one of the original accusers, claimed to see the specter of accused witch George Burroughs standing in the road as she walked passed the ordinary. Conveniently, she was the only one who could see him. But Benjamin Hutchinson, Nathaniel Ingersoll’s foster son, took up the cause and threw his pitchfork at the alleged entity (which of course, he could not actually see). Throwing a fit, Abigail then told Hutchinson that he had succeeded in tearing the apparition’s coat.

Moving inside the ordinary, the farce continued. Abigail could still see the apparition, so Hutchinson pulled a rapier and engaged in a spectral duel. It must have been quite a sight for the patrons in the ordinary. Some of them might have wondered if they had too much to drink as they watched a grown man fight the air. It only got worse when Abigail Williams then told Hutchinson she also saw a spectral cat in the room. While Hutchinson did not manage to kill the specter of Burroughs, apparently he did manage to kill the cat.

One has to wonder how Abigail Williams kept a straight face through all of this. It would be funny if it didn’t result in lives forfeited and ruined. Abigail Williams alone accused 42 men and women of witchcraft.

Apologies, at Least

As for George Burroughs, his specter apparently vanished as he was hanged protesting his innocence on Aug. 19, 1692. Four others hanged with him. It is impossible to say how far the witch hunts would have eroded the fabric of New England society had Gov. William Phips not stopped them.

Regrets, blame or shame, at least publicly, did not manifest in most of the accusers, but did in some that sat as jurors. Furthermore, efforts to get the convictions reversed were met with various obstacles that would drag on forr 300 years. The Salem Village church itself, after two months’ debate, voted on Feb. 14, 1703 to reverse the excommunication of convicted “witch” Martha Corey. And Ann Putnam publicly asked for forgiveness on Aug. 25, 1706 in the Salem Village church. She claimed the devil made her accuse 42 people and testify against 27 others. Not surprisingly, they accepted her explanation, not the least probably because many of them were as guilty. The devil was still a convenient scapegoat for actions that went far beyond the pale of decency.

The Ingersoll Ordinary today. Image courtesy Google Maps.

Nathaniel Ingersoll, Unrepentant to the End?

Not until 1709 did the Massachusetts General Court pass a bill vacating the judgment against 22 of the convictions. Not until Dec. 17, 1711, did it grant some monetary compensation for the victims. And not until Oct. 31, 2001, did Massachusetts Acting Gov. Jane Swift sign a bill proclaiming the innocence of all the convicted.

Described as honest and fair, Nathaniel Ingersoll was at least gullible. He certainly bore some blame for the judicial murder of innocents, because his status gave weight and credibility to otherwise incredible accusations.

In 1701, still a prominent citizen, he donated land to the village for a second meeting house, next to his ordinary. Perhaps he had ulterior motives, as anyone going to the meeting house had direct access to his ordinary. He died, apparently unrepentant, in 1719.

The Nathaniel Ingersoll Ordinary still stands, now a private residence on Hobart Street in Danvers. Danvers separated from Salem Village in 1752.

The devil was certainly about in Salem Village in 1692. But he was in the souls of the accusers, not the victims. He was a  convenient excuse for otherwise inexcusable conduct.

Nathaniel Ingersoll was the author’s 7th Great Granduncle

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