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Sarah Jessica Parker Descended from Accused Witch

'Hocus Pocus' star Sarah Jessica Parker played a Salem witch—turns out she's descended from one of the real-life accused witches. | By Mike Batie

Sarah Jessica Parker flying on a broom stick in Hocus Pocus.
Image via Disney

Disney's Hocus Pocus has become a favorite Halloween classic. For many, the holiday just isn't complete without an annual viewing of the Sanderson sisters wreaking havoc on Salem, Massachusetts with their witchy ways.

Sanderson Sisters as witches in Hocus Pocus.
The Sanderson sisters witches in Hocus Pocus. / Image by Disney

Sarah Jessica Parker played one of these fictional witches—also named Sarah. In reality, Parker is descended from a real woman who was accused of being a witch during the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

Descent from Accused Witch

Sarah Jessica Parker is the 10th great granddaughter of Esther Elwell, who was accused of witchcraft in 1692.

Sarah Jessica Parker's line of descent from an accused witch. Chart by Mike Batie.
Sarah Jessica Parker's line of descent from an accused witch. / Chart by Mike Batie

Esther Dutch was born in September 1639 in Bridport, Dorset, England. Her family traversed the Atlantic Ocean to settle in Massachusetts Colony. Her family was prominent in the Gloucester area, living at the harbor in an area known as Dutch’s Slough.

Esther married a wealthy man, Samuel Elwell, on 7 June 1658 in Salem. Taking her husband's last name, she is known in the history of the Salem Witch Trials as Esther Elwell. Together, Esther and Samuel had many children. To understand Esther's involvement in the Salem Witch Trials, we have to get a basic summary of events.

Salem Witch Trials

In 1692, mass hysteria concerning witchcraft swept over Salem and extended beyond to neighboring towns in the colony. The Puritans of the day firmly believed in the reality of witches—those who had sold their souls to the devil for his assistance. Witches were believed to be able to change from human to animal form, appear as apparitions or "familiar spirits," and ride through the night sky on brooms to secret witch meetings and orgies.

Sarah Jessica Parker portraying a fictional Salem witch in 'Hocus Pocus.' / Image via Disney

The events started in the home of the local minister, when his daughter and niece heard tales of voodoo and learned some fortune telling from Tituba, their enslaved house servant brought up from Barbados. The girls began displaying erratic behavior that turned to "fits," in which they contorted their bodies, screamed, made odd sounds, and said they were being bitten and pinched. When a doctor couldn't diagnose what was ailing them, he declared it to be a supernatural, sinister force.

An 1880s engraving showing Tituba showing voodoo to the Puritan children.
This 1880s engraving romanticizes Tituba sharing stories of fortune telling or voodoo from her time in Barbados to the Puritan children. / Image via Mary Evans Picture Library

The minister pressured the girls to identify who their tormentor was, and the girls claimed to have been bewitched by Tituba and two other women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. All of the accused were marginalized by society: Tituba was a slave, Good was a beggar, and Osborne was an elderly woman. Neither Good or Osborne attended church regularly. It's likely the girls were being young delinquents, and pointing the finger of blame to those that were "other" than themselves, which made for easy targets.

A painting of an accused witch being arrested by Puritans in tall hats.
"The Salem Martyr" by Thomas S. Noble (1869). / Image via Wikimedia Commons

All three of the accused women professed their innocence, but ultimately, after imprisonment, interrogation, and threats, Tituba confessed to witchcraft and told the interrogators what they wanted to hear, and accused Good and Osborne. The confession and accusation saved her life, a precedent that would perpetuate the witch hysteria: confess and accuse others, or be hanged.

The examination of a witch, a painting showing the trial.
Any number of marks on the body, such as birthmarks or moles could be used as evidence of witchcraft, often called "the devil's teet," a place on the body where the devil would suck on the witch. / "Examination of a Witch," by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1853). / Image via Peabody Essex Museum.

More than 200 people would be accused of witchcraft in the Salem Witch Trials, and 20 were executed: 19 by hanging (not the quick neck-breaking kind, but the slow strangulation kind), and one person was pressed to death by rocks. All were executed for maintaining their innocence, rather than confessing and accusing others. Five more died in jail from the horrible conditions.

Sarah Jessica Parker as Sarah Sanderson about to be hung as a witch in Hocus Pocus.
Sarah Jessica Parker portraying a witch about to be hung in the fun Halloween flick 'Hocus Pocus.' / Image via Disney

As the witch trials went on, more children began acting out and accusing others of witch craft, and soon hundreds were accused, including Esther Elwell, the 10th great grandmother of Sarah Jessica Parker.

Esther Elwell Arrested as an Accused Witch

On 5 November 1692, an arrest warrant was issued for Esther Elwell and two others for committing "wickedly and feloniously sundry acts of witchcraft upon the body of Mrs. Mary Fiche of Gloucester." Esther was apprehended and taken to Ipswich where she was jailed to await an examination of the charges against her.

The arrest warrant for Esther Elwell on charges of witchcraft from the Salem Witch Trials.
Arrest Warrant for Esther Elwell on charges of witchcraft. Esther's name is on the sixth line. / Suffolk Court Files vol. 32, docket 2689 p. 17

A girl named Elizabeth Hubbard, age 17, accused Esther and two others of witchcraft against Mary Fitch, by coming to her as apparitions to inflict harm:

"The Deposition of Elizabeth Hubburd aged Seventeen years saith: that she saw Abigall Row Ester Elwell & Rebecca Dike or three in ther likeness o pressing Squezeing & choaking of mary ffitch the wife of John ffitch: which was done on thirsday the third of November 1692 and at Severall other times, & ye last night that. Night she said, fitch did she saw one on one side & another- on ye other side & one at her back. Ipswich 9br the 8th 1692. affirmed before us Daniell Epps, J:P Thos. Wade. J:P."

Old document deposition accusing Esther Elwell of witchcraft - Hollywood Ancestry by Mike Batie
The 1692 deposition accusing Esther Elwell of witchcraft. / Image via the Massachusetts Historical Society

Luckily for Esther Elwell, the witch trial courts were dissolved after the accusations had run too wild and gone so far as to accuse the governor's wife of witchcraft. "Spectral" or supernatural evidence were no longer admissible in court. Esther was released from jail on 7 November 1692. Esther ended up living to the age of 82, passing away in 1721 in Gloucester, Massachusetts Colony.

Rocky ledge now covered in trees and leaves where Salem's accused witches were hung.
The actual site where it is believed the accused witches were hung. / Image by Mike Batie | Hollywood Ancestry

While Esther's life was spared, 20 others were not so lucky, including Mary Ayer Parker, the sister of my (the author's) 9th great grandfather. Mary Parker was hung on 22 September 1692, with several others.

It's amazing how there always seems to be a connection from ancestors to their posterity in the present day. For Sarah Jessica Parker, that's portraying a (fictional) Salem witch in Hocus Pocus, and being in fact descended from a woman accused in the Salem Witch Trials.

Image via Disney

Lessons to be Learned from the Salem Witch Trials

For one, we learn that science is key to understanding the world around us and what causes things to happen. The Puritans of the 1600s didn't have the science and knowledge that we have today. When they didn't have answers, they turned to the religious or mystical for answers, which in this case led to the deaths of so many innocents. Moral of the story: we have a greater scientific understanding of the world around us today—let's use it. It can save lives.

Omrit Katz as Max in Hocus Pocus says "Daylight Savings Time."
"There's a power greater than your magic! And that's knowledge!" —Max in Hocus Pocus / Image via Disney

Many theories have been put forward as to what caused the youth of Salem to have violent fits and accuse hundreds of witchcraft. Some theories include epilepsy, hallucinations and illness caused by an ergot (fungus) outbreak in the rye, and down to the most plausible: children being children. Probably the most terrifying fact of the Salem Witch Trials is that so many people were executed on the accusations of children. Moral: credible evidence should always be used, don't just take someone's word for it.

Bette Midler as Winnifred Sanderson saying "Such a pretty...child."
"Such a pretty...child," but maybe the accusations of children on supernatural occurrences shouldn't be used to hang people. / Image via Disney

One important lesson to remember is that most of the accusations were against those that were "other" than the accusers, those who were:

  • Not active in or members of the same church

  • Looked different

  • Of low status or enslaved

  • Lived a different lifestyle

  • Deemed a burden on society (poor, widowed, mentally ill)

  • Belonged to a different or rival family, village, or "tribe"

Over 300 years have passed since the Salem Witch Trials, and people today still blame those that are "other" for their problems: those of a different race, nationality, socioeconomic class, religion, and so on. The next time you're tempted to lay the blame on someone or a group that is "other" than you, take pause and remember the Salem Witch Trials and those innocents who were accused, given an unfair trial, and hung to death.

Sarah Jessica Parker as Sarah Sanderson jumping up and down chanting amuck.
Don't run amuck blaming people who are "other" for all of life's problems. / Image via Disney

It's Just a Bunch of Hocus Pocus

Okay that was some heavy stuff. This Halloween, take a moment to have some fun pretending that there was such a thing as real witches and enjoy Hocus Pocus on streaming services such as Disney+ or any number of channels it's playing on during the season.

Omri Katz as Max in Hocus Pocus. / Image via Disney

About the Author

Family history research has long been a passion of mine since I was a teenager. Having researched my own family tree extensively, I enjoy looking into the family trees of notable people. It gives me a sense of their background and what shaped them and their family into who they are today. To see their roots and where they come from is always inspiring. Being a history geek, I’m often in awe of the historical experiences of their ancestors and how they connect to the present day. I hope to inspire others to research their own family trees and find out where they come from by sharing interesting insights from the family trees of some of my favorite artists and entertainers.

—Mike Batie



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