June 08, 2014

Aunt Rachel's Curse: A Witch Story From Plymouth

This is the story I meant to tell last week, before I got distracted by the consumptive vampire legend. The story comes from Plymouth on Massachusetts's Cape Cod.

As most American school kids know, Plymouth and Cape Cod were colonized by the Pilgrims. Although they were similar in many ways to the Puritans who settled Connecticut and the rest of Massachusetts, the Pilgrims were also quite different. One important difference is that the Pilgrims never executed anyone for witchcraft, and there weren't many witch trials on Cape Cod. But Cape Cod still has a rich tradition of witch stories - this was one seems to be have been first written in the 1840s, but may be much older.


Aunt Rachel lived on the outskirts of Plymouth in a small rundown house. Many years ago her husband and only son had died in a shipwreck in the town's harbor. Since that time Rachel lived off her neighbor's charity and whatever money she could make telling fortunes.

Most of Rachel's clients were sailors who wanted to know if their voyages would be successful. Would they get rich? Would they get home safely? Rachel would answer their questions by reading their palms. Her talent for deciphering the lines and mounds of a client's hand was exceptional, and her predictions were quite accurate. Some townspeople whispered they were too accurate, and that that old Aunt Rachel was a witch.

One day a group of sailors came to her home to get their fortunes told. They were departing on a merchant ship for a long voyage the next day and wanted to know if they would return safely. Rachel peered at their hands and told them what she saw, but when she held the hand of the last sailor she gasped. She dropped his hand and stood up from her chair. Pointing one bony finger at him she said:

"You have set false beacons and wrecked ships for plunder. It was your fathers and mothers who decoyed a brig to these sands and left me childless and a widow. He who rides the pale horse be your guide, and you be of the number who follow him!"

The sailor laughed coldly at the old woman and walked out. That night Aunt Rachel's house was set on fire, and her neighbors saw her flee into the dark night, howling with rage and sorrow.

The air still smelled like smoke the next morning when the people of Plymouth gathered to watch the merchant ship set sail. As the ship raised anchor and sailed across the harbor a gaunt figure clad only in scorched rags appeared in the crowd. It was Aunt Rachel.

As the ship sailed safely past the various sand bars and shoals in the harbor, Rachel muttered strange words under her breath. Just as the ship was about to leave the harbor her muttering became a loud chant, and a wild look filled her eyes. The ship foundered and stood still in the water. It seemed to have hit a rock, even though no rock had ever been there before. The townspeople watched helplessly as the crew took to the life boats, and within minutes the ship sank to the bottom of the harbor. All the men on board escaped safely except for one - the sailor that Aunt Rachel had cursed the night before.

In the commotion of the shipwreck no one at first noticed that Rachel had collapsed onto the ground. She was dead, but her mouth was set in a grim smile that stayed on her face until she was buried. The rock that mysteriously appeared in the harbor is now called Rachel's Curse in her honor.

This story appears in Charles Skinner's Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, but it seems to have first been recorded in the same 1842 edition of The United States Gazette where I found last week's story. Like many other Cape Cod witch stories, it's focused on a conflict between witches and seafaring men. Land and sea, male and female, magic and mercantilism - there's a lot going on in these old stories!

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