May 17, 2015

Mary Toothaker and the Devil's Protection

Although it is warm and sunny out I am in the mood for witchcraft stories. Honestly I am always in the mood for witchcraft, but this month is always the busiest period at my day job, and I think I crave tales of the bizarre and supernatural as an antidote.

So here's a story, which is lurid, upsetting, and weirdly ironic. It comes from the Salem witch trials. The more I read about those dark days the more strange stories I find. This particular one is about a woman named Mary Toothaker, a woman whose life was saved by her confession.

Mary Toothaker lived in Billerica with her husband Roger and daughter Martha. Roger had a reputation as a folk-healer and bragged that he could fight witches with magic. When the witch trials broke out he was naturally accused of witchcraft - it's a fine line between white and black magic, after all - and eventually died in jail. In the summer of 1692 Mary was accused of witchcraft as well.

In addition to being accused of tormenting the usual gaggle of afflicted Salem girls, Mary was also accused of bewitching Timothy Swan of Andover. There was bad blood between Swan and Mary's family. In 1687 he had been accused of raping her relative Elizabeth Emerson, holding his arm against her throat so she could not cry out for help. He was acquitted of rape, but the court still ordered him to pay child support for the child Emerson conceived after his assault.

Swan later contracted a mysterious illness (which eventually killed him in 1693). During her trial, Mary Toothaker confessed that she had hurt Swan using witchcraft, and in particular that her specter had "squeezed his throat." An eye for an eye, I suppose. But revenge (according to her confession) was not the sole reason she had become a witch. The Devil had promised her safety.

It's hard to imagine now, but in 1692 Massachusetts consisted primarily of small rural villages. The colony was merely decades old, and its future was uncertain. The biggest threat came from the local Indians, who were allied with the French. Indian raids were a constant concern for English settlers in Massachusetts, and this concern was only magnified in the 1690s when Essex County was flooded with refugees fleeing Indian attacks in Maine. Billerica is now a cute bedroom community, but when Mary Toothaker lived there in the 1600s it was a frontier settlement whose residents feared for their lives.

So when Mary gave herself to the Devil, she asked for safety from Indian attacks for her and her son, a war veteran who had been wounded in a skirmish with Indians. The Devil, who appeared as a man with a dark complexion, agreed. Mary signed away her soul on a piece of birch bark.

At least that's what she confessed. No one who confessed during the Salem trials was executed, so it was the smart thing to do on Mary's part. After hearing her initial testimony the judges sent her to Salem's jail until they determined her sentence.

Two days later, on August 1, 1692, an Indian raiding party attacked Billerica. Most of Mary's neighbors were killed. It's very likely that if she had been home she would have died as well. Several days later the Indians returned and burned down the Toothaker farm, which was unoccupied.

In 1693 Mary was declared innocent of witchcraft and released from jail. She returned to Billerica with her 12 year old daughter Margaret. A few years later, on February 1, 1695 another Indian raiding party attacked Billerica. Mary was killed. Her daughter taken away as a captive and disappeared from the historical records.

I found this story in historian Emerson Baker's new book A Storm of Witchcraft. Baker speculates that Mary may have actually thought herself a witch. Her family did practice magic, and perhaps she thought Timothy Swan's suffering was caused by her own hatred of him. That's hard to determine, but her fear of Indian attacks was shared by most English settlers, and it's interesting that the Devil appeared to her as a dark-skinned man and that she signed a piece of bark rather than the more traditional European style book that is mentioned in other accounts. It makes sense to ally yourself with what you fear. Her confession provides a good window into the mindset of the time.

I don't think there was any unusual supernatural agency at work here, but it's odd that Mary was safest when she was locked up in jail. She got her wish for protection, even if only for a while.

May 10, 2015

The Ballad of Giles Corey: It's Complicated...

Last year when I was writing my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore I stumbled on something called the "Ballad of Giles Corey." Various sources called it a nineteenth century ballad. I included it in my book.

Giles Corey was a Wizard strong, 
A stubborn wretch was he;
And fitt was he to hang on high
Upon the Locust-Tree.

So when before the magistrates
For triall he did come
He would no confession make
But was compleatlie dumb...

They got them then a heavy beam.
They laid it on his breast;
They loaded it with heavy stones,
And hard upon him prest.

"More weight!" now said this wretched man;
"More weight!" again he cried;
And he did no confession make,
But wickedly he dyed.

One thing that's interesting about this ballad is that it assumes Giles Corey really was a wizard. This is kind of shocking, since as most Massachusetts school children learn Giles Corey was really an elderly farmer who refused to enter a plea to the crime of witchcraft during the Salem trials. Corey had a significant amount of property, and he knew that if he was found guilty the sheriff would seize all his land and goods. Corey hoped that by not speaking when interrogated he could save his estate for his children. The sheriff was determined to get a plea, and piled stones on Corey's chest in an effort to get him to speak. Corey's only words: "More weight!" Corey died without entering a plea, and his children got his estate. Corey was a martyr to political injustice.

I was curious to learn more about the "Ballad of Giles Corey." Why did its composer portray him as an evil wizard? Was there even a composer, or was it a folk song? I finally found the complete version of the ballad in Samuel G. Drake's 1866 book The Witchcraft Delusion in New England. Drake claims the ballad appeared in a newspaper 15 years earlier. The full and original title is "Giles Corey and Goodwyfe Corey. A Ballad of 1692."

Seeing the full title, I can understand better why Corey is portrayed as a wizard. It seems like the author was trying to portray the worldview of Salem circa 1692 (including ye quainte olde tyme spellings).  The ballad appeared anonymously, but Drake seems to think it was written by John Greenleaf Whittier. I can't find any evidence for that myself, but Whittier did like to play up the supernatural in his folk tales and poetry. Whittier experts, chime in!

The field where Giles Corey died is now the Howard Street Cemetery in Salem.

The original ballad gives equal time to Giles Corey's wife Martha, who was accused before Giles was and was ultimately hanged for witchcraft. Like so many women accused of witchcraft she was loud and argumentative.

This Goody Corey was a Witch
The People did believe
Afflicting of the Godly Ones
Did make them Sadlie greave

Giles Corey is usually portrayed as an innocent and brave man, so most accounts of his death leave out the inconvenient fact that he too believed his wife was a witch. He even testified that she had bewitched some of their animals. Only after he himself was arrested did he seem to understand that the trials were a farce. Hopefully he felt some regrets about testifying against her.

Stories about Giles Corey also usually leave out the fact that he was extremely violent, and beat one of his own indentured servants to death in 1676. The man had stolen some apples. The law allowed for the beating of indentured servants so Corey was not charged with murder, but was instead fined. Corey was generally a "very quarrelsome and contentious bad neighbor" according to neighbor Robert Moulton. For example, Giles Corey himself had stolen apples from a neighbor's orchard, and was later accused of sabotaging a neighbor's mill and setting another neighbor's house on fire. In short, he was bad news. You can see why his neighbors might want to get rid of him...

Corey was violent, a bad husband, and a bad neighbor. But he was still innocent of practicing witchcraft.

He was so unpopular the of Salem were willing to overlook that he was killed without even going to trial. Technically he wasn't even officially executed; he just died during questioning, which makes his story even more relevant to today. Just because he was an unpleasant and nasty man doesn't mean his death was right. Life is never black and white, and good and evil adhere to situations, not to people. Hopefully our justice system has improved in the last three hundred years.

May 03, 2015

Ghosts of the Great Elm and The Witching Elm

Many years ago, a great elm tree used to dominate the landscape of Boston Common. It was so large is was just referred to as the Great Elm.

According to Wikipedia, at its height the tree was nearly sixty-five feet high and the canopy of its branches spread out over eighty feet. It was so big that it had a hollow a child could climb into. That's a really big tree!

The tree eventually fell in a winter storm in 1876, but it was estimated to be over 250 years old at its demise. Even in the 1830s the tree was surrounded by a fence to protect it, and a plaque nearby proclaimed that the tree had been in existence since before the English settlers arrived. I don't know if that can be proven, but I like the idea of one last piece of the older, wilder world surviving into the Industrial era.

A 19th century photo of the Great Elm (from Wikipedia)

A lot of stories and legends gathered around this "vegetable patriarch," as it is called it the 1838 book The Boston Common, or Rural Walks in Cities. For example, Samuel Barber claims that Benjamin Franklin used to play under the tree while tending his family's cattle on the Common. Quaint and patriotic!

Not all the legends are quite so charming. The Common wasn't just used for cattle-grazing; it was also used for executions. Executions were a public affair in the Colonial era, and large crowds would turn out to watch. This was the era before television, and executions were often festive (if gruesome) sources of entertainment. For the common people they were a chance to take a break from work, while the government regarded public executions as a good deterrent to future law-breakers.

Murderers and other criminals were executed on the Common, but the definition of "criminal" three hundred years ago was much broader than it is today. Dozens of rebellious Indians were publicly executed, as were four witches and several religious dissenters like Quakers. On some occasions gallows were constructed to do the dirty deed, but in other cases large sturdy trees were used. We do know that Mary Dyer, the famous religious dissident, was hanged from a tree on the Common in 1660 after her final return to Boston from exile.

We don't know exactly which of the many trees on the Common were used for hangings, but tradition assigns the grim role to the Great Elm. It certainly was big enough.

A plaque on Boston Common commemorates the spot where the Great Elm once stood, but ghosts of those unlucky people hanged on its branches may still linger. According to my friend Sam Baltrusis's book Ghosts of Boston: Haunts of the Hub (2012), tenants in a nearby commercial building reported hearing clanking chains in their empty basement. Perhaps they were psychic echoes of the shackles used to restrain doomed criminals as they were led to their deaths? More significantly, the ghost of a woman in Puritan attire has been sighted near the Great Elm site. The ghost weeps and wails before disappearing. Baltrusis speculates that it might be the ghost of the Irish witch Goody Glover, who was hanged on the Common, but there unfortunately are many other possible candidates.


Now to shift gears, from ghost stories to young adult fiction. The Great Elm, or something very much like it, reappears in C.N. Crawford's new young adult novel The Witching Elm. The book's young hero, Tobias Corvin, lives in an alternate universe's version of Boston. The city is called Maremount, and it was founded by Algonquian and English magicians.

In our world's history Maremount, or Merrymount, was a free-loving, multicultural settlement destroyed by the Pilgrims in the early 1600s. In The Witching Elm Maremount is a place where magic is real, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have its problems. Only the upper classes are allowed to practice magic, and as the novel begins Maremount's forces of oppression, led by the mysterious Rawhead, are cleansing the city of illegal magicians and witches. Tobias's family is under suspicion, and for safety Tobias is transformed into a raven and sent to an even stranger city in another dimension: modern-day Boston, Massachusetts.

After regaining his human form Tobias takes shelter at Mather Academy, a prestigious old boarding school located near Boston Common. But things at the school are not quite what they seem. Why are students turning into withered corpses? What's the connection between the Academy, the Salem witches, and Nathaniel Hawthorne? What's up with the weird jewelry some students wear?

After Rawhead's minions appear in Boston to find Tobias, a new tree mysteriously grows at the site of the Great Elm. And then the executions begin...

I really enjoyed reading The Witching Elm, which was sent to me by the authors. (C.N. Crawford is really two people, Christine and Nick Crawford.)  I appreciated the way elements of New England folklore were woven into the book to make a compelling mystery. It's sort of like Harry Potter meets The House of Seven Gables meets this blog. If you like any of those things, or are just a fan of well-written YA fantasy, I'd recommend you purchase a copy. Don't read it too late at night, though, because things do get a little gruesome for the students and faculty at Mather Academy...

April 26, 2015

Rochester's Witch Rock

There are a lot of rocks in New England.

There are a lot of stories about witches in New England.

Therefore, there should be stories about witches and rocks in New England! And there are...

I was recently looking through the United States Geographic Survey for places with the the word "witch" in their name. There are quite a few, and they will probably be featured in an upcoming blog post. I was particularly struck by three rocks named Witch Rock or Witches Rock in southern New England. They each have an interesting story, but today I'm writing about one I was not familiar with.

It's located in Rochester, a town in southeastern Massachusetts near New Bedford. The rock, which sits on private property near an intersection, is quite large and imposing with a height of about 12 feet. The silhouette of a witch on a broomstick is painted on it, along with the words "Witch Rock." There's no mistaking that this is Witch Rock.

The boulder has called Witch Rock for many years. An 1899 edition of The Bay State Monthly called it a "vine-covered, romantic-looking bowlder," and it was apparently a destination for picnickers and tourists who wanted to visit the bucolic countryside.

It's not quite clear how this particular rock got its supernatural reputation. As I said earlier, there are a lot of rocks in New England, and many of them are stranger looking than this one. Why did this boulder get a spooky reputation?

A vintage postcard of Witch Rock from this amazing site about boulders!

One compelling theory is that the rock was initially a Native American holy place. In the spring 2004 issue of the New England Archaeological Society Bulletin, Martin Dudek and Craig Chartier mention a tradition that native shamans (pow-wows in the local Algonquian dialect) would sit and watch mists rise from the crevices in the stone. Perhaps this was some type of divination? English settlers usually labeled native religious practices as witchcraft, so it makes sense that an Algonquian holy rock would be renamed Witch Rock. Rather than a place for divine inspiration it became a place of terror.

The modern legends associated with Witch Rock are less sociological and more supernatural. One is that the soul of a witch hanged during the witch trials is trapped inside the rock, along with various evil spirits. All of them like to howl and sometimes try to escape through the cracks in the rock. Another legend claims the early settlers noticed the Indians avoided the rock, and concluded that it must be bewitched. A third combines all these and says the Indians avoided the rock because there was a dead witch's soul trapped in it.

Whatever the origin of its reputation, Witch Rock probably does have some connection to Native American lore. According to a May 2012 article in Southeastern Massachusetts newspaper The Wanderer, the property the boulder sits on was owned for many years by a family of Abenaki and Pequawket descent. The matriarch of the family, Shirley Vaughn Thompson Norton, told her children that the spirit of a hanged witch lived inside the boulder and would emerge every full moon. On Halloween night the boulder was naturally used as the backdrop for apple-bobbing and other festivities.

Mrs. Norton can probably be credited with maintaining the legend of Witch Rock. For example, in the 1960s she designed commemorative Witch Rock plates and sold them to the local chamber of commerce, and in the 1990s she began painting the witch's silhouette on the boulder. Sadly her family no longer owns the property but the legend seems to be firmly established now! It would be interesting to know how long her family owned the house and how long they had been telling the legend.

Rochester seems to be the place to live if you like spooky rocks. According to Mattapoisset and Old Rochester (1907) by Mary Hall Leonard, the town also has a Devil's Rock which bears the imprint of Satan's footprint. Some towns get all the fun boulders!

April 20, 2015

The Ghost of Ram Tail Mill

This Sunday Tony and I made an excursion down to Foster, Rhode Island to visit the Ram Tail Mill ruins. What better way to spend a sunny spring day than visiting a notorious haunted ghost town?

Ram Tail Mill was founded in the 1813 by William Potter, Peleg Walker, and several other partners. The mill was powered by the nearby Ponangansett River, and mechanically spun and wove woolen cloth. Wool comes from sheep which is why it was called the Ram Tail Mill.



William Potter's two sons managed the operations in tandem with Peleg Walker. Walker was supposedly a cranky, disagreeable man, but managed to find his niche as the mill's night watchman. He would patrol the mill buildings with a lantern in his hand, and then ring the bell after sunrise when it was time for the workers to start their day. Things went well for several year and a small village formed around the mill. 

There was always tension between Peleg Walker and the Potters, but at some point it erupted into a major argument. Neither legends or historical records indicate what it was about, but it was bad. It ended with Walker shouting, "You'll have to take the key to this mill from a dead man's pocket!"


 His warning came true. On the morning of May 19, 1822 the bell did not ring. When the puzzled workers arrived from their houses they found Peleg Walker hanging dead from the bell rope. The key to the mill was tucked into his pocket. Walker was 35 years old.

The locals assumed Walker was a suicide and buried his body nearby. Operations resumed at the mill, and with the cranky night watchman gone the atmosphere at Ram Tail was much calmer. But one night the workers and the Potter family were awakened by the mill's bell ringing wildly. They ran to to investigate but found the mill was empty. The bell was ringing on its own.



The mysterious ringing happened on several other nights (usually at the stroke of midnight) until the Potters took down the bell rope. Maybe the rope was just blowing in the wind? This didn't help - the bell still would ring late at night. They finally removed the bell itself.

This brought peace for a short while, but other strange things started to happen. The water wheel moved backwards, against the flow of the river, and the mill's machinery would run by itself late at night. Even worse, someone could be seen walking around the mill at night carrying a lantern. It looked suspiciously like Peleg Walker...

Fearing that the mill was cursed, the workers began left to find other jobs. Without anyone willing to work there the Potters were forced to shut it down. The little village was abandoned and became a ghost town. No one lived there anymore, but Peleg Walker could still be seen wandering through the empty buildings late at night.



The mill burned down in 1873 but kept its reputation as a haunted location. In fact, the 1885 Rhode Island census lists the Ramtail Mill as haunted, making it the only officially haunted place in the state.

We did not see Peleg Walker's ghost, but we did have one weird thing happen to us. As I was taking a photo of the trail that leads directly to the ruins, my phone's camera went a little haywire. The screen just turned blinding white. This happened to me one other time that day. The same thing happened to Tony, but he didn't notice until we got home that some of his photos were all white. Supernatural phenomenon or just a camera malfunction on a bright sunny day?

One of my all white photos!
I definitely felt a little creeped out as we explored the ruins, but it could have just been my fear of deer ticks combined with a very quiet forest. We only saw two other people, and when we asked them if they knew where the mill was they told us they didn't even know there was such a thing. It was really quiet there.

The conservation land is very beautiful and has some amazing stone walls that run along the main trail and into the woods. The walls are covered in lichen, as was the ground at a nearby historic cemetery where we found the graves of some members of the Walker family. (Peleg Walker is buried in another cemetery about a mile away.)




DIRECTIONS: I've read some accounts online of people having trouble finding the ruins, but we got there relatively easily. Take Route 6 west from Providence until you reach Foster. Go south on Rams Tail Road. You'll know you're going the correct way because you'll pass a cemetery on the left. Rams Tail road becomes a dirt road for a while, but when it ends take a left on Central Pike. A short way down the road you'll see the trail entrance with a fire gate on your left. There is space for one or two cars to park.

Follow the path until you reach a four way crossroad. Go left and follow the path as it curves along the water. When the path splits like a T, take the right and follow the path up along the hill. The ruins are at the top of the hill.

My sources for this post: Joseph Citro and Diane Foulds's Curious New England, Rory Raven's Haunted Providence, Michael Bell's Food for the Dead, and Rhode Island's Haunted Ramtail Factory by Thomas D'Agostino and Arlene Nicholson.