When I was a kid my family went to York, Maine a few times for vacations. I remember going to the beach, and visiting the zoo there. When I was a kid I think it was called York Wild Animal Farm, but these days it's York's Wild Kingdom.
As far as I know, we did not visit the Old Burying Ground, which is located in charming and historic York Village. It's too bad, because as with most charming cemeteries around here it has a weird legend is attached to it. I probably would have enjoyed hearing it.
The legend is about the grave of Mary Nasson, who who passed away in 1774. Her gravestone is a little different than the others. It has a portrait of Mary on it, and is covered with a big stone slab.
|Photo from The Journal Inquirer.|
I think the stone succeeded in keeping the animals away, but it hasn't kept Mary's ghost from coming up to the surface. According to Joseph Citro's Weird New England, her ghost has reportedly been seen pushing local children on swings and giving them wildflowers. Hmmm. For a witch's ghost she doesn't seem particularly menacing. Online I've found quite a few sites claiming that Mary Nasson only acquired her witchy reputation because she was an effective herbalist. Her neighbors didn't understand how her cures worked and therefore thought they were magic. Oh, and maybe she could perform exorcisms...
|Image from Atlas Obscura|
So, was Mary Nasson a good witch, or a bad witch, or just someone who has an unusual gravestone? Are any of these legends true?
I don't know if they are true, but they definitely are old. I thought they might just be recent urban folklore but found they date back to at least the 19th century. I found this passage in 1894's Ancient City of Gorgeana and Modern Town of York (Maine) from Its Earliest Settlement: Also Its Beaches and Summer Resorts by George Alexander Emery:
Near the southwest corner of the old burying-ground is a grave, with head and foot stones, between which and lying on the grave is a large flat rock, as large as the grave itself. The inscription reads thus: - "Mary Nasson, wife of Samuel Nasson, died August 28, 1774, aged 29 years." No one, at least in this town, seems to know anything about her origin, death or even of the singular looking grave. No other occupant of a grave bearing this cognomen can be found in this cemetery, and the name is unknown in the town. A great many surmises and conjectures have been advanced in regard to this matter, in order to arrive at the facts, if there be any, and to clear up the dark affair, but nothing definite has ever come out of the effort. The writer of this, when a youth, living in York, was given to understand that this stone was placed there to keep down a witch that was buried beneath it.
In short, no one knows the real, historically-documented truth about Mary Nasson. Although George Alexander Emery doesn't believe Mary Nasson was a witch, he adds fuel to the fire by providing yet another legend. According to this one, a disembodied evil spirit used to haunt some rooms in an old house near the cemetery. It was banished from the house, but now roams the cemetery's perimeter, waiting for Mary to arise from her grave and join it.
I don't like to debunk legends; I like to savor them, so I'll just close with a couple thoughts. First, anomalous gravestones often attract legends. Rightly or wrongly, people tend to think that strange graves must contain strange occupants.
Second, the idea is very old that special effort is required to restrain a restless spirit. For example, in old European vampire lore a stake to the heart literally nails a vampire into its grave. Closer to home, Eunice Cole, an accused witch of Hampton, New Hampshire, was supposedly staked through the heart after death and had a horseshoe placed on top of her. It's not unreasonable (in folk belief) to think that a big rock might keep a ghost from coming out of the grave.
One last note: I am now writing a bi-monthly column for Spare Change News called Bizarre Boston. If you live or work in Boston be sure to buy an issue and help the city's homeless community. You can see one of my columns (about a Boston smallpox epidemic) here.