June 27, 2018

Colonel Buck and The WItch's Curse

I've read a lot of New England folklore in my time, and here's one thing I've learned: if a gravestone looks weird it will probably have a strange story attached to it. Is there a cage around the grave? The occupant must be a vampire. Is there a giant slab covering the entire grave? It must be there to keep the occupant down.

One of the area's most famous strange graves can be found in Bucksport, Maine. It is the grave of Colonel Jonathan Buck, who founded Bucksport in 1763. Buck was born in Woburn, Massachusetts in 1719 but grew up in Haverhill, Massachusetts (which coincidentally is my hometown). Buck attempted but failed to start a shipbuilding business in Haverhill and eventually headed north to Maine where he founded a settlement. Buck fought against the British in the Revolutionary War, and as he grew older the settlement was named after him. He died in 1795. In 1852 his descendants honored him with a larger, more impressive funerary monument.


Colonel Buck's monument, with boot stain. Edited from Wikimedia.
So here's the weird thing about Buck's large, impressive gravestone: it is marred by a strange stain in the shape of a boot. By the 1880s a rumor began to circulate that Buck had been cursed back when he was alive, and a story to that point appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper. The story was reprinted a few months later in The Haverhill Gazette on March 22, 1889:

Buck was a severe and Puritannical judge who once ordered the execution of a woman accused of witchcraft. The woman went to her death cursing Buck, who stood unmoved. At the moment of her death she allegedly shouted this prophecy: 
"Jonathan Buck, listen to these words, the last my tongue will utter. Is is the spirit of the one and only true living God which bids me speak them to you. You will die soon. Over your grave they will erect a stone, that all may know where your bones are crumbling into dust. But listen, upon that stone the imprint of my foot will appear, and for all time, long after you and your accursed race has vanished from this earth, will the people from far and near know that you murdered a woman." (Haverhill Gazette article quoted in Leslye Bannatyne's Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History.)

This is the most popular version of the tale, but several variations have appeared since then. In some, the witch says she will dance on Jonathan Buck's grave when he is dead (Lisa Rogak, Stones and Bones of New England, 2004). In others, the woman is not even a witch at all. For example, Joseph Citro cites one version in Cursed In New England (2004) that claims Buck impregnated a young Indian woman. To hide his infidelity he burned the young woman (and her unborn child) alive. As her corpse burned one her legs rolled out from the fire in accusation. The woman's mother, a shaman, cursed Buck for killing her daughter. 

An even more lurid version can be found in Oscar Morrill Heath's Composts of Tradition: A Book of Short Stories Dealing with Traditional Sex and Domestic Situations (1913). In this version, Colonel Buck has secretly had an illegitimate son with a young woman who is the town pariah. When he once again impregnates her against her will he accuses her of witchcraft. The citizens of Bucksport tie her to her house and light it on fire, but as the flaming body falls apart her son grabs one of her burning legs and strikes Buck with it. Yikes! Later, Colonel Buck paints an image of her leg on his own tomb using his blood before he dies.

Heath's version is pure fiction, but all of the other versions are probably fictional as well. There is no record of Jonathan Buck ever convicting a woman of witchcraft, either in Maine or Haverhill. New England's last witchcraft executions occurred in the 1692 Salem trials, many years before Buck was even born. There's also no evidence that he executed an illicit lover either.

But like the stain itself, the story of the vengeful witch endures to this day. It helps to explain the mysterious stain, which is perhaps caused by a vein of iron in the stone reacting with the atmosphere. It also attests to the power that the archetypal image of the witch holds over the local imagination. New Englanders know there were witches in this region, and we know they were executed by Puritans. Can you really fault someone for wanting to ascribe a strange phenomenon to a witch? New England is a weird and wonderful place, and stories like these try to explain why. 

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