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Flint, MI– Linda Lou Woodruff slid into the seat across from her sister-in-law in a booth in the back room of the Apollo Family Restaurant.
They had just come from church, and this Davison diner was their usual spot for lunch. They know all of the waitresses.
“OK, now let me get this straight, Linda,” her sister-in-law said. “Your grandfather murdered my grandfather?”
Their waitress, a woman who knew them well, was on her way over with the tray of food and heard the question. She stepped back a couple paces, then set the tray down on the table, and told the women not to say another word until she came back to pull up a chair for herself.
But the gossip wasn’t what the waitress was expecting–the two women could hardly believe it themselves.
When Woodruff’s sister-in-law said “grandfather,” she was eliminating eight very important preceding ‘greats.’ Her “grandfather” was accused of witchcraft and murdered in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1600s.
Woodruff’s “grandfather” was the head executioner who killed him.
Woodruff’s brother-in-law became somewhat obsessed with genealogy, she said. He has books and books on the subject, and was able to trace back his ancestry all the way to the 16th century.
While he was looking back at his family history, Woodruff’s sister started to do the same for their family. Some of the stuff she found was fun– like the woman in her family who married an orchestra leader named Johnny Pineapple from Hawaii.
Then one day, two years ago, Woodruff got a call from her sister telling her that they had a relative who was the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony and a very well-known scientist.
“I thought this was pretty good, but then came the bad part,” Woodruff said. “His son was plopped out into Salem, and he became the executioner and sheriff. What does that mean? He hung all the witches.”
More than 200 people were accused of witchcraft and put to trial in Salem between 1692 and 1693, in what Woodruff calls a “mass hysteria.” She’s devoted the last couple years to researching the subject and learning about the victims her relative murdered.
It’s been hard on her emotionally.
Woodruff said there have been a few times where she’s just sat out in her garden full of hundreds of day lilies and cried.
“I feel a little responsible or something,” Woodruff said. “You know my person did that, my ancestor did that, and it’s kind of a real hard realization.”
She remembered a time she was drawing, pen in hand, and stopped to look down at her wrist.
“I just kept thinking, these people are my blood,” she said.
Woodruff, 73 (she says she doesn’t know how she got that old) said she was glad she didn’t find out about this piece of family history any earlier in her life.
“I’ve had enough life experiences that I can cope with it and put it in perspective and honor it,” she said. “And atone.”
Atonement By Proxy
It didn’t take long for Woodruff to realize she wanted to do something to atone for the actions of her grandfather.
“Writing it in my journal wasn’t enough,” she said. “I had to do this expression about it in my art.”
Woodruff has always been an artist. She loves felting, beading, making mittens, and quilting, but drawing is what is nearest and dearest to her heart. She decided to honor the lives lost by creating a series of pen and paper drawings to represent them. She calls it “Atonement By Proxy.”
“I can’t make it go away but I can atone for it,” she said. “I can atone for my relatives who did this terrible thing.”
Colorful birds and creatures are her usual subjects– she just recently made a three-foot-long piece depicting vibrant fish for her son. These drawings are different.
She used black pen on white paper. Many of the drawings have skulls or a skeleton, but they’re not gorey or Halloween-ish. She didn’t want the drawings to be hokey.
She used precise circular patterns, a technique she loves, to weave the names of the victims into the art in a way that looks like yarn.
“The names were a very important part of each work to me,” Woodruff said. “I didn’t want anybody to ever not know who was being honored.”
She spent the last couple of years reading books from the library about the witch trials, and researching the people who were killed. She used what she learned about each victim to make a drawing to represent them personally.
There was Sarah Good, and Lil Dorothy, who was just five years old when she was murdered. Woodruff decided to draw a pair of mittens for these girls, along with a small doll she said would have been called a “poppet” back then. Dorothy’s poppet was said to have been evil, which was why she was murdered.
The drawing for Martha Carrier features six cats, and a skeleton wearing a crown. Carrier was accused of bewitching cats, by her son, who also said she would be the “queen of hell.”
Mary Esty and Suzanna Martin’s drawing has a beaded necklace between two hearts and two skulls. There are 14 beads, one for each of their children who were left without their mothers.
Woodruff is working on a couple more drawings, but the completed works are hanging in Buckham Gallery.
“I saw a photo online of my pictures kind of hanging there, and it just made me feel so relieved and good that they’re on a wall somewhere and out of my closet,” Woodruff said.
She said she felt like this information about her grandfather came into her life for a reason, and that this project was something she was meant to do.
“Somehow God wanted this done,” she said. “It’s just really strange. I have thought about it a lot, like why did this come to me?”
Woodruff feels like a lot of things in her life were fated the same way.
“I think I have a bunch of nudgers in my life I don’t see,” she said.
She said she’s tried to check out books from the library to read for pleasure that have ended up being about the Salem Witch Trials.
“Every book I checked out that was supposed to be about a western or something else, would suddenly mention Salem,” Woodruff said.
Since learning about her family’s past, she said she’s had vivid flashbacks to the time she got her first television, and ate popcorn and watched a live presentation of the play “The Crucible” with her mom.
“I just remember watching that play with my mother, and thought never in a million years would we have thought this was about our family history,” she said. “So that was kind of another nudge.”
Not to mention the fact that she is now connected to someone whose relative was murdered by her relative 400-ish years ago.
“I’m not a good mathematician but what are the odds? I hate to almost tell people this or even accept it because it’s so unbelievable,” Woodruff said.
Even the way she met her husband seemed fated, she said.
She had just been visiting her friend in a lower part of Michigan on her family’s peach orchard, and was on a bus on her way back to Flint.
She had to rush back so she wouldn’t miss watching a play at the theatre downtown. The bus was slogging, and her bag of peaches kept smashing against her the whole ride home.
Once she got home she had to grab the tickets for her and her friends, get dressed, and get down to the theatre. After they watched the play, she was exhausted, but her friends encouraged her to stay out for a drink.
“I don’t go to bars,” she tried to tell them.
“Come on, you had a rough day,” they said.
So she went, and sure enough her future husband, Larry Cunningham, was sitting at the bar. Woodruff found out later that it was a bar he hardly ever went to.
She pointed him out to her friends saying she thought he was cute, and her friends took it from there. They brought him over saying their friend wanted to meet him, and the two made a date.
Her friends laughed about the whole event, and teased her that the only time she went to a bar, she walked out with a husband. It also turned out that he worked with her father at the old Chevrolet factory.
When Cunningham came to her house to pick her up, her father opened the door and said, “What the hell are you doing here?”
When they were married she decided to keep her last name.
“I knew it would cause a ruckus, but I was born a Woodruff and I wanted to die a Woodruff,” she said.
A gallery in Salem
Woodruff said her husband has been her biggest supporter and sympathizer as she’s learned about her family history and worked on this project.
“I worked on this every day for over a year, even on Sunday,” she said. “And he would be the one to come over to me at my little table in the living room and say, ‘wiggle your fingers,’ and remind me to eat lunch.”
He bought her a necklace with two Swarovski crystal skulls to wear at her grand opening, since so many of her drawings have skulls in them. Because of COVID-19, there won’t be a grand opening, but she said she might just start wearing them around the house.
Woodruff said her husband also put “outrageous prices” on each one of her drawings, but she’s insistent on not selling them.
“I just don’t want them to be separated,” she said. “It’s kinda funny, but I think they belong together.”
She hopes one day she can get all of her art into a small gallery in Salem. For now, you can see them at Buckham Gallery through Feb. 13.