By Bill Forry
Every year around this time, the town of Salem,
MA observes a rather macabre part of their local
history as they mark the executions of 14 women and
five men, all accused witches, that occurred there
over several days in 1692.
But decades before Salem began its bloody purge,
Dorchester was the site of an apparent "witch"
In 1648, eighteen years after Dorchester's first
English settlers arrived, Alice Lake was arrested
right here in Dorchester for witchcraft and,
according to historical documents recently
uncovered by a distant relative, was executed.
The story behind the story begins with a part
time genealogist in Winnetka, California named Sean
Wilson, who contacted the Reporter in 1997. Mr.
Wilson, who makes part of his living tracing family
histories for others, had set out on a search of
his own roots, just around Halloween time. Like
most people, Mr. Wilson had always believed that
Salem was the birthplace of the witch hunt in
"Every year I'd see on the news, they'd be
talking about Salem and really hyping it up," says
Wilson. "I happened to have a note that one of my
ancestors was accused of being a witch and
executed. I decided to dive into it last Halloween
when I saw all the footage."
When Wilson consulted some source books that
included a family history of one of his lines, the
Lake family, he struck a gold mine. In one study of
families in Rhode Island, he found that one of his
ancestors,Henry Lake, had come to Dorchester from
Chidwell, a parish near Riverpool in Lancashire,
"He married Alice," says the author. "His wife
was arrested for witchcraft. She must have been
executed after 4 June 1648."
Digging deeper, Mr. Wilson next consulted a copy
of The American Genealogist by G. Andrews Moriarty.
In that work we find the most compelling evidence
that Alice Lake was in fact executed for witchcraft
in Dorchester. In referring to Henry Lake, the
study says that "His wife was one of the earliest
victims of witchcraft mania in New England."
The American Genealogist goes on to mention a
correspondence from Nathaniel Mather, a minister in
Dublin, Ireland to his brother, Increase Mather, in
Dorchester that is dated 31 December 1684. Increase
and Nathaniel Mather were the sons of Richard
Mather, who was pastor of Dorchester's First Parish
Church on Meetinghouse Hill until his death in
In that letter, Nathaniel asks his brother why
he did not mention a certain incident in Dorchester
in a book he had recently written.
Nathaniel writes: "Why did you not put in the
story of ... H.Lake's wife, of Dorchester, whom, as
I have heard, the Devil deceived by appearing to
her in the likeness and acting the part of a child
of hers lately dead on whom her heart was much
Nathaniel, the American Genealogist suggests,
had left New England prior to March 23 1650, so
Alice Lake "must have been executed" sometime
before that. We can only assume that Nathaniel had
first hand knowledge of Alice's execution.
One other vital piece of evidence from the
American Genealogist: "Dorchester town records," it
reads, "under the date of 12 (11) 1651, stated that
it was agreed with 'brother Tolman' to take care of
Henry Lake's child..."
Henry Lake, we are told in both sources, left
Dorchester after his wife's execution, and must
have left the care of a remaining child to his
brother, Tolman. Henry left for Portsmouth, Rhode
Island, where his branch of the family flourished,
while other Lakes remained and are buried in "the
old burial ground at Dorchester," according to one
family history. However, questions remain about the
last resting places of the Lakes, since no Lakes
are listed in the roster of persons buried in
Uphams Corner's Old North Burying Ground.
Earl Taylor, president of the Dorchestrer
Historical Society, points to another important
source. A book entitled A Modest Enquiry into the
Nature of Witchcraft, written in 1702 by John Hale,
makes the following reference to the Lake
"Another [Alice Lake] that suffered on
that account some time after, was a Dorchester
woman. And upon the day of her execution Mr.
Thompson minister at Braintree, and J.P. Her former
master took pains with her to bring her to
repentance. And she utterly denied her guilt of
witchcraft; yet justified God for bringing her to
that punishment: for she had when a single woman
played the harlot, and being with child used means
to destroy the fruit of her body to conceal her sin
and shame, and although she did not effect it, yet
she was a murderer in the sight of God for her
endeavors, and showed great penitency for that sin;
but owned nothing of the crime laid to her
The Hale book indicates that Alice was the
mother of four young children at the time of her
For Sean Wilson, though he admits it's a great
conversation piece, it's frustrating not knowing
the reasons behind his ancestor's demise. He
surmises from Nathaniel Mather's letter that Alice
had lost a young child, a common occurrence in the
settlement, and that her grief was misinterpreted
as witchcraft. Wilson hopes that further
investigation will uncover questions to many more
of his questions.
One thing is fairly certain: It is likely that
if Alice was executed, she was hung, rather than
burned. Common punishment for witchcraft in
colonial America was hanging.
Another fascinating part of the Dorchester
connection is the role of the Mather family.
Richard Mather served as pastor of the First Parish
Church from his arrival in Dorchester in 1635 until
his death in 1669, and it is likely that he could
have been involved in a case involving witchcraft
in the community. His grandson, the famous minister
Cotton Mather, played a key role in the persecution
of the Salem trials in 1692. Is it a mere
Not according to Sean Wilson, who believes there
may have been many other witch executions in
Dorchester in the years leading up to Salem.
"The phenomenon started, in my estimate, in the
heart of Boston," says Wilson. "I think that
Dorchester is really the heartbeat of the whole
A version of this article first appeared in the
October 30, 1997 edition of the Dorchester
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