October 15, 2012

Sylvanus Rich and the Witch of Truro

For Halloween season, here's a nice witchy story from Elizabeth Reynard's 1934 collection of Cape Cod folklore, The Narrow Land.


Sylvanus Rich was an elderly yet highly skilled sea captain. He came from a long line of seafaring men (and had fathered several more himself), so he thought nothing of captaining a ship carrying grain from North Carolina to Boston. It would be easy! Yes, the ship's crew was inexperienced, but Sylvanus was not worried. He had made the journey many times. 

On the last leg of their journey, just as the ship was about to round Cape Cod and enter Massachusetts Bay, Captain Sylvanus dropped anchor off the Atlantic shore of Truro. He could tell the weather was bad up ahead at Provincetown's Race Point, and he didn't want to risk his cargo or crew.

As he walked the deck, Captain Sylvanus sighted a small house nestled in the Truro dunes.

"Boys," he said, "I'm tired of dried pork and hardtack for dinner. I'm going to row ashore and see if I can purchase myself some milk from that farm. Lower a boat!"

The crew watched as their captain rowed himself towards Truro. After about an hour he returned with a wooden bucket full of milk.

A view of Longnook Beach in Truro.

When his crew asked about the farm Captain Sylvanus laughed. "There was no farm! Just an old hag in a filthy hut. And she wore shoes with red heels! Ha! But still, she sold me some milk. I guess I've still got my charm."

The weather by this time had cleared, and while the crew prepared to set sail for Boston Sylvanus retired to his cabin to enjoy his milk.

However, as soon as the crew raised anchor a strong gale came in from nowhere. Dark clouds filled the sky, a howling wind raised huge waves, and the ship's sails were blown to tatters as it was pushed out to sea. In a panic, the crew pounded on the door to the captain's cabin, but he didn't answer. Was Captain Sylvanus dead? Had he been poisoned by the milk?

The storm dissipated by morning, and the crew evaluated the damage. It was serious - the sails and rudder had been both seriously damaged, and the ship was adrift far from land.

Around noon Captain Sylvanus emerged from his cabin, hollow-eyed and pale. He said quietly, "The milk was bewitched. After I drank it I fell into a deep sleep. And then ... she came. The Truro hag. The witch! She threw a bridle over my head and climbed onto my back. She rode me up and down Cape Cod like a racehorse. Over the dunes, through the woods, across the swamps and rivers. If I slowed my pace, she dug her red shoes into my sides."

The captain lifted his shirt. The crew gasped! His sides were covered in bruises shaped like heelmarks.

The first mate said, "But captain, we're adrift and the sails..."

The captain wearily raised his hand and silenced the mate. "In due time. But first, I must prepare. Tonight she will visit me again. I must be ready!" He entered his cabin and shut the door, grimacing.

Or, the crew wondered, had he really been smiling? Was he actually looking forward to another visit from the witch of Truro?

The ship drifted aimlessly in the cold Atlantic for days. Each night, Captain Sylvanus locked himself in his cabin and the witch made him her steed. Each day, Captain Sylvanus sat hollow-eyed and exhausted as his crew begged him for guidance. Food and water were low. Starvation seemed imminent.

Just when all seemed lost, a sail was spotted on the horizon. It was a merchant vessel, and was captained by one of Sylvanus Rich's own sons! When he heard about his father's bewitchment he dragged Sylvanus into the cabin and shut the door after them. What transpired within is not recorded, but somehow he broke the witch's spell over his father. Repairs were made to Sylvanus's ship, and it arrived safely in Boston.

When asked by the ship's owners to explain the damage and the delay, Captain Sylvanus Rich blamed them on the "sweet milk of Satan."


Elizabeth Reynard mentions red shoes or heels in a lot of her Cape Cod witch stories, but I haven't seen this in other sources. Perhaps it's a Cape Cod thing, or maybe I just haven't read enough.

Sea captains and sailors are often ridden by land-based witches in folktales. It seems to be a hazard of the profession! There are definitely some pre-Industrial gender role issues at play here. It's nice to see that nothing bad happens to the witch in this story. 

Like the majority of New England witch stories, this one is about a woman, but next week I'm going to post about a male witch. Stay tuned!

No comments: