October 30, 2011
Witchcraft in Rocks Village and Beyond
When I was in grade school in Haverhill, I spoke with some kids who lived in the Rocks Village neighborhood. They said that on Halloween night, they were going to wait at a crossroads to see if a dead countess buried in a nearby graveyard would walk down the street. I'm not sure what they'd do if they did see her, but the story really impressed me. At the time, I didn't wonder too much about why a countess would be buried in Massachusetts.
When I was in high school, I drove with my friends Christine and Cesar to the countess's grave one night after we saw Nightmare on Elm Street at the movie theater. We were spooked to see that her grave was surrounded by an iron cage! Then Cesar scraped his hand across the roof of the car a la Freddy Krueger, we all screamed, and drove home.
It was only later I learned why there was a cage around Countess Mary Ingalls's grave. She was the first countess in the US, a Rocks Village native who married refugee Count Francois Vipardi in the 1700s. Their romance became the subject of a popular poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, and the cage was to protect the gravestone from souvenir seekers. The stone is now kept in a building to protect it from vandalism.
I don't know where the spooky story about the countess originated. Perhaps it's just that when Americans of a certain generation see the word "count", they think of vampires.
The countess may not be a ghost or vampire, but there is some interesting folklore about witches in Rocks Village. Charles Skinner in Myths and Legends of Our Own Land relates the following stories:
Some people having a party one night in Rocks Village were pestered by a large beetle. The beetle flew in their faces relentlessly, buzzing its wings angrily. Finally, one of the partygoers swatted the insect and crushed it with his foot. At that very moment, Goody Mose, a local woman with a sinister reputation, fell down the stair in her house. Clearly, the beetle had been sent by her to disrupt the party.
Goodman Nichols, another Rocks Village inhabitant, cast a spell on a neighbor's son, "compelling him to run up one end of the house, along the ridge, and down the other end, troubling the family extremely by his strange proceedings..." Skinner doesn't share what caused Nichols to cast the spell, or how the bewitchment was resolved.
Rocks Village lies along the shore of the Merrimack River, and some neighboring towns also had their share of alleged witches. In Amesbury, Barrow Hill was supposedly where both Indian shamans and witches gathered. (The two were identical to the Puritans.) Fires burned on top of the hill late at night, and figures could be seen dancing around it. Even in the 19th century some locals said strange lights could be seen on the hill at night. Amesbury was also the home of Goody Whitcher, whose loom kept moving and making noise long after she was dead.
In West Newbury, Goody Sloper had a reputation as a witch, but redeemed herself when she rescued two people from drowning in the river. And in Newburyport, Goodwife Elizabeth Morse was accused of witchcraft in 1679 by neighbors who had grudges against her. One neighbor even claimed that she made his calves dance on their hand legs and roar. She was sentenced to death but ultimately pardoned by the governor.
I feel lucky to live someplace where there is so much folklore waiting to be discovered. Have a great Halloween!