Surname Saturday: Bliss

Bliss CrestThe Bliss surname is believed to have been brought to England during the migration following the Norman Conquest of 1066, possibly a reference to Blois in the Loir-et-Cher region of France.  Another place which might be connected to this surname was “Bleis,” located in a region of northwest France, and recorded in 1077.

Families with this surname settled primarily in Leicestershire and Worcestershire, England.  Some sources believe the village of Stoke Bliss in Worcestershire was named after the Norman family “de Blez,” notably William de Blez.  One home owned by William de Blez in the twelfth century was known as “Stok in Herfordshire,” which then became “Stoke de Blez” and later “Stoke Bliss.”  Similiarly, a manor in Staunton on Wye was first named after its landlords “de Bleez” or “de Blees”.

Another source, P.H. Reaney, author of Dictionary of British Surnames, believes the name was either derived from the de Blez family of Normandy or the Middle English noun “blisse,” which of course means joy or gladness.  Recorded spelling variations include “Bliss”, “Bleys”, “Blois”, “Bloys”, “Bloiss”, “Blisse”, “Blysse” to name a few.

Thomas Bliss

Thomas, son of Thomas Bliss, Sr., was born in 1583.  Like so many who came to New England in the early seventeenth century, Thomas Bliss, Sr. and his family were persecuted for their staunch Puritan faith.  After King Charles I re-assembled both Houses of Parliament in early 1628, his sons Jonathan and Thomas, Jr. traveled to London to view the proceedings and to confront Archbishop Laud, one of their persecutors.  According to family historian John Homer Bliss, they “remained sometime in the city, long enough at least for Charles’ officers and spies to learn their names and condition, and whence they came; and from that time forth they, with others who had come to London on the same errand, were marked for destruction.”

For their non-conformity they were fined a thousand pounds and imprisoned for several weeks.  The elder Thomas was dragged through the streets, and officers of the High Commission also seized their livestock.  The three sons of Thomas, Sr., along with twelve other men, were paraded through the marketplace with ropes around their necks, and Jonathan and Thomas, Sr. were thrown in prison.

After enduring intense and relentless persecution, Thomas, Jr. and his other brother George, decided to immigrate to New England.  Jonathan aspired to go but his physical health had been significantly weakened due to long imprisonments and damp, unhealthy prison cells; he died without ever seeing America.  Jonathan’s son Thomas immigrated in 1636 and joined his uncle who had settled on the south side of Boston Bay.  Thomas and his family soon made their way to the Hartford settlement.  They were farmers and some of the first original land owners of Hartford.  Thomas had several children by his two wives: Thomas, Ann, Sarah, Nathaniel, Mary, Lawrence, Hannah, John, Samuel and twins Hester and Elizabeth, all born in England except the last three.

His daughter Mary married Joseph Parsons, who later became one of the wealthiest men in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1646.  Mary Bliss Parsons, however, had anything but a blissful life – she was accused of witchcraft … repeatedly!

Mary Bliss Parsons

Joseph and Mary Parsons lived for a time in Springfield after their marriage but in 1654 moved to Northampton.  Even before the couple married, Joseph had set himself on the path to prosperity and wealth, perhaps due to trading with the Indians.  Not yet thirty years old he had already served in various local offices and attained a stature not usually accorded someone of his age.

After arriving in Northampton Joseph continued to prosper as a merchant.  He worked with the Pynchon family (perhaps kin of his) who were the principle fur traders in that area, a chartered monopoly actually.  He eventually opened a store in Northampton, along with other enterprises such as a grist and saw mill and was licensed to sell liquor.  With wealth and success, however, came legal entanglements and Joseph was often in court, suing or being sued.

Some cases involved debt settlement or enforcement of covenants and contracts, but some were of a more serious nature.  From Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of New England by John Putnam Demos:

In 1664, for example, he was presented and “admonished” in court for his “lascivious carriage to some women of Northampton.”  A few months later he was fined £5 for his “high contempt of authority” in resisting a constable’s efforts to attach some of his property in another case.  (Witnesses reported some “scuffling in the business, whereby blood was drawn between them.”  Joseph publicly acknowledged his offence, and the court abated part of his fine.)  A year later Joseph was fined again “for contemptuous behavior toward the Northampton commissioners and toward the selectmen, and for disorderly carriage when the company were about the choice of military officers.”  These cases suggest something of his character and personal style.  Defined by his own achievements as a man of authority, Joseph did not easily brook the authority of others.  Energetic, shrewd, resourceful as he evidently was, he displayed a rough edge in dealings with others.  He was, on all these grounds, a figure to be reckoned with.

Mary, of course, shared in the fruits of her husband’s business acumen and success.  Tradition holds that she was remembered in her town as being “possessed of great beauty and talents, but . . . not very amiable . . . exclusive in the choice of her associates, and . . . of haughty manners.”  The attributes of “not very amiable” and “of haughty manners” could have been assigned to her as a result of dealings in her own lawsuits and trials for the crime of witchcraft.

Mary had twelve pregnancies (two sets of twins), fourteen delivered and named, and nine children raised to adulthood.  Perhaps with her husband’s wealth and success and her own success at bearing and raising children, she was envied by some in her community.  At least one source speculates that the community began to circulate rumors of witchcraft, assuming that her husband’s success came as a result of such activity.

One of Mary’s primary accusers, Sarah Bridgeman, was sued by Joseph for slander in 1656.  Some believe that Sarah was envious of the Parsons’ success.  Sarah’s testimony included her assertion that any time a disagreement or argument had ensued with Mary Parsons or her family, the Bridgeman family would experience some unfortunate and unexpected event such as livestock contracting a fatal disease and dying.  In Sarah’s mind, it was Mary’s way of exacting revenge apparently.  Sarah also blamed Mary for an injury one of her children sustained, and even the loss of her infant son.  This is what Sarah imagined and testified to in court:

I [Sarah] being brought to bed, about three days after as I was sitting up, having the child in my lap, there was something that gave a great blow on the door. And that very instant, as I apprehended, my child changed. And I thought with myself and told my girl that I was afraid my child would die…Presently… I looking towards the door, through a hole…I saw…two women pass by the door, with white clothes on their heads; then I concluded my child would die indeed. And I sent my girl out to see who they were, but she could see nobody, and this made me think there is wickedness in the place.

That must have seemed a bit far-fetched and the court agreed.  Sarah’s husband James was ordered to pay a fine of £10 and court costs.  Sarah was required to make a public apology.  After so convincing a verdict, one would think the matter was settled.  However, rumors and accusations persisted for several years.  In 1674 Mary was again accused, but this time she was the defendant, and as you might guess, the aggrieved party was the Bridgeman family.

The Bridgeman’s daughter, Mary Bartlett, had died suddenly in August of 1674.  She left behind her husband Samuel and an infant son.  Samuel Bartlett and James Bridgeman were convinced, and testified to same, that “she came to her end by some unlawful and unnatural means … by means of some evil instrument.”  Who else to blame but Mary Parsons?

The trial began on September 29 and Mary no doubt defended herself vigorously.  According to Annals of Witchcraft in New England:

The Substance of her Speech was, that “she did assert her own Innocency, often mentioning how clear she was of such a Crime, and that the righteous God knew her Innocency, and she left her Cause in his Hand.”

The court wasn’t convinced yet of her innocence and they “appointed a Jury of soberdized, chaste Women to make diligent Search upon the Body of Mary Parsons, whether any Marks of Witchcraft appear, who gave in their Account to the Court on Oath, of what they found.”  Whether or not any evidence was found is not known, but the court deferred action twice until on January 5, 1675 the case was reconvened.  Further testimony was held, and curiously, Mary’s son John was accused of witchcraft as well, but dismissed without cause.

Mary was bound over for another appearance in March, secured by a bond of £50 which was paid by Joseph.  At the March court appearance, Mary was indicted by the grand jury and ordered to prison until the official trial in May.  On May 13, 1675 the official indictment was again read:

. . . in that she had, not having the Fear of God before her Eyes, entered into Familiarity with the Devil, and committed sundry Acts of Witchcraft on the Person or Persons of one or more.

Mary pleaded not guilty and was cleared by the jury.  It’s not likely that Mary Bliss Parsons ever escaped the accusations hurled against her for years.  Some believe that perhaps she was once again accused in 1679 although there don’t appear to be any records to corroborate that theory.  In 1679 or 1680 the Parson family moved back to Springfield, where Joseph died in 1683.  He left behind an impressive estate of £2,088.  Mary passed away in January of 1712.

Tomorrow’s Hymnspiration article will feature another member of the Bliss family, hymn writer and gospel singer Philip P. Bliss, who wrote a stirring hymn inspired by the rallying cry of Union soldiers during the Civil War.

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.

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