"Half-hanged Mary" was Mary Webster, who was accused of witchcraft in the 1680's in a Puritan town in Massachusetts and hanged from a tree - where, according to one of the several surviving accounts, she was left all night. It is known that when she was cut down she was still alive, since she lived for another fourteen years.) One of Mary Webster’s descendants is the now well-known Canadian novelist and poet, Margaret Atwood, who wrote a poem, “Half-Hanged Mary,” (1995) about her notorious ancestor, and one of her most popular novels, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), is dedicated to her. The poem has also been made into several stage productions and interpretations. Atwood’s poem is in sections, each chronicling an hour of Mary’s hanging from the tree, beginning at 7 at night and concluding at 8 the next morning. Click here to find more information on some of the topics touched on in Bill Moyers' conversation with Margaret Atwood.
Rumour was loose in the air
hunting for some neck to land on.
I was milking the cow,
the barn door open to the sunset.
I didn't feel the aimed word hit
and go in like a soft bullet.
I didn't feel the smashed flesh
closing over it like water
over a thrown stone.
I was hanged for living alone
for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin,
tattered skirts, few buttons,
a weedy farm in my own name,
and a surefire cure for warts;
Oh yes, and breasts,
and a sweet pear hidden in my body.
Whenever there's talk of demons
these come in handy.
Full Poem here.