March 29, 2015

The Witch's Grave of York Maine: Is The Story True?

A while ago someone who reads this blog asked me to post about an alleged witch's grave in York, Maine. What a great idea! I love old graveyards, and I love New England witches. So here's a post that brings those two great tastes together like a Reese's peanut butter cup of the uncanny.

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.
A plaque on the cemetery wall indicates that the stone slab was put there by her family to prevent animals from digging around in Mary's grave. Local folklore gives another explanation: it was put there to keep Mary, who was a witch, from rising from the dead.

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
Those stories indicate that Mary was basically a good person, and if she was a witch she only practiced white magic. Other, creepier stories say Mary was executed for witchcraft and that her gravestone emanates a strange heat. The crows that flock around the cemetery are said to be her familiars. Spooky!

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.

12 comments:

Wade Tarzia said...

Also, suicides were sometimes staked down like vampires, but I am sure about what European/American regions and times this was attested.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Wade! I have read that as well, but like you I am not sure where. I've also read that suicides, murderers, blasphemers of all stripes, etc. were believed to be more likely to become vampires after death.

Rich Clabaugh said...

Great post Peter! Seems odd that most of the hoopla is about the stone slab, which I believe is called a wolf's stone (to keep wolves from digging up the body). These were a common practice for a while but most have disappeared over time. Not sure of the particulars, at work here in Boston without my books! Thanks again!

Peter Muise said...

Hi Rich! I think the slab draws attention because it is the only one in that cemetery and because most people have forgotten there once was a time when you needed to protect your dead from animals. I might have read somewhere that the other slabs in that particular cemetery were used to build the wall? I'm most familiar with the cemeteries in Boston. Some graves here do have slabs on top of them, but they are more crypt-like and usually have inscriptions on them. Of course, there were probably fewer wolves in Boston after a certain point...

Peter Muise said...

Rich and Wade, I've stumbled on a couple pieces of lore that are very similar. Michele Souliere at the Weird Maine Blog has a post about a grave in a Portland cemetery that legend says is either a vampire or a witch. It has a large cross with Latin inscriptions, but it also has a large slab on the ground.

In his book GOATMAN, D.Nathan Crouch mentions some graves in the Midwest that are covered by slabs. Local legend says witches are buried in them.

brokeneyemedia said...

Hmmm... I don't remember any legends about witches being able to rise from the grave, and seeing as they paint her as rising in-corporeally, I'm not sure what the stone would do to stop that. Maybe if the slab were made from iron or salt instead of stone...

Of course, the stone might work if she were a corporeal undead such as a revenant or a vampire, but if you know where a vampire's grave is, you can dig it up and kill it, so you don't need the stone.

Whoever came up with the original legend clearly didn't know very much about traditional European beasties.

-Steve said...

Hi, we were up at the Zoo this past week and after reviewing our pictures of our daughters, we noticed their appeared to be a women's face in an open hole of the butterfly cutout by the Exibit. My wife commented about the flowers in the area on how beautiful they were. To read she was an herbalist, makes these pictures even more surreal! I'd be happy to share the pictures. Please forgive me of this is double post, I had trouble with the login.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Steve! Thanks for the comment. I would love to see your photo. You can send it to me at hilldwellingpete(at)hotmail.com. Very cool!

-Steve said...

Pictures sent, feel free to repost

RaphEmer said...

If she had been executed as a witch, she wouldn't have been buried in a proper grave/cemetery. None of the Salem Witchcraft trial victims received proper burials because they were executed as witches.

Peter Muise said...

Hi RaphEmer! That is a good point. I think the Salem victims were given a cursory group burial on Gallows Hill. Gruesome.

Mr. Rana said...

Hi RaphEmer. This is a main point.He gravestone, in its most literal form, has been around for thousands of years. There is evidence of Neanderthal man having been buried deep inside caves in pits. Thanks share your nice point.jewish memorials