March 21, 2016

Moll Cramer, the Witch of Woodbury

I'm always happy when I discover a new witch story. (I bet you're the same way if you're reading this blog!) Although New England doesn't have an infinite supply of witch stories, it does have hundreds of them, so hopefully I can keep discovering new stories for years to come.

This week's witch story is new to me, and comes from the charming town of Woodbury, Connecticut. If you've ever seen a horror movie you know that charming New England towns often harbor gruesome secrets. That's sort of true in this case, but not entirely. Let's say the story is probably half charming and half gruesome. It's about a woman named Moll Cramer.

The earliest version of Moll Cramer's legend apparently appears in William Cothren's 1872 book History of Ancient Woodbury, Connecticut: From the First Indian Deed in 1659 to 1854, Volume 2. According to Cothren, Moll lived in the 1700s and was the wife of Adam Cothren, Woodbury's blacksmith.

Adam and Moll didn't really get along, and Adam told friends and neighbors that whenever he and Moll fought strange things would happen around the smithy. Most suspiciously, he claimed that he could not hammer a shoe onto a horse after he and Moll had quarreled. It was believed at the time that witches were afraid of iron, horseshoes in particular, so Adam deduced that Moll was using some type of magic to interfere with his horseshoe work.

In other words, she was a witch.

Adam eventually kicked Moll and their son Adam Jr. out of the house, and with no one to turn to Moll built a small thatched hut out in the woods and became a beggar. She managed to beg enough food and money for her and her son to scrape out a pitiful existence. Although her reputation as a witch made her a pariah it also encouraged people to give her what she needed. They were just too afraid to refuse.

A postcard of the oldest house in Woodbury, from this site. Charming or spooky?

The following story illustrates why. One day Moll went to a farmer who had a barn full of fat, healthy pigs. She asked the man for just a small piece of bacon for her and her son. Please, please, just one small piece sir? The farmer scornfully refused. This poor woman had no right to any of his food, he thought. After all, he worked hard for what he had, while she just wandered around begging. Moll skulked off into the woods, muttering.

A few days later one of the farmer's pigs came down with hog cholera. The next day another fell ill, and then another. Trying to recoup his losses, the farmer slaughtered his remaining pigs so he could sell the pork to his neighbors. But even the meat from the healthy pigs turned black and pestilential as soon as the animals were butchered. The farmer was at his wit's end. How would he make his living if all his pigs were gone? Unfortunately, he didn't have to worry very long. The farmer himself contracted cholera through a scratch on his arm and died a quick but horrible death, grunting and squealing.

So, you can see why most people gave Moll whatever she asked for.

That's the gruesome side of Moll. A more charming version of her story appears in They Found A Way: Connecticut's Restless People (1938) by Iveagh Hunt Sterry and William H. Garrigus. In this version, Moll is married to a man named Bill Cramer who breeds race horse. Unfortunately, even in this version of the story theirs is still not a happy marriage. Whenever Moll is the jockey their horse wins the race. Whenever Bill is the jockey their horse loses. This makes him feel emasculated, and he jealously evicts her from their home.

It doesn't help him win any races, however. The horses refuse to race for Bill, and continually escape from their stable to find their way to Moll's thatched hut. In despair and shame Bill finally hangs himself in the stable. His heirs try to sell his horses but are not successful because horseshoes will not stay attached to their hooves. Moll has by this time earned a reputation as an animal-enchanting witch and is reduced to making a living as a beggar.

Sterry and Garrigus do include the story about the pig farmer, but they also say Moll was kind to animals and children. Moll's hut was located near some abundant berry patches, and while she glared at any adults who picked her berries she smiled kindly when small children picked them. Moll's berries were said to be extra sweet and produced the best pies. That's an unexpectedly domestic side to the same witch who killed a pig farmer through cholera.

It's interesting how the later version of the story gives Moll a kinder and more gentler side. By the 1930s most people in New England did not fear witchcraft, and witch stories could be a little more cheerful. Sterry and Garrigus also add a little romance, claiming that Moll was a great beauty - at least until she aged prematurely from living in the woods.

No one knows what happened to Moll, and this is something that both stories agree on. She and her son (who is absent from the Sterry/Garrigus version) just disappeared from Woodbury. Did they die in some undiscovered place in the woods? Did they move on to a friendlier town where they could start again? Or did Moll ascend to some extra-dimensional witchy plane of existence?

There's no answer, but this site claims that some people in Woodbury believe that Moll's ghost still wanders through the woods, knocking on people's doors on windy nights and begging for food. So maybe if you're down in Woodbury some dark and gloomy night you can ask her yourself.

Just be sure to give her what she wants.

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