August 10, 2013

Mary Hortado's Demonic Assailants

The horror movie The Conjuring was quite successful at the box office this summer. I think one reason for its popularity is because it's supposedly based on a true story. True stories of the supernatural always seem more powerful than fictional ones, and it's probably been that way since people started to tell stories.

Increase Mather. Thanks Wikipedia!

In early New England there were of course no movies, so people read stories of supernatural events. Reverend Increase Mather's 1682 book An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences was chock full of them, including the following one about Mary Hortado of Salmon Falls, Maine and her Portuguese husband Antonio. Mather titled it "A Brief Narrative of sundry Apparitions of Satan unto and Assaults at sundry times and places upon the Person of Mary the Wife of Antonio Hortodo, dwelling near the Salmon Falls: Taken from her own mouth, Aug.13, 1683."

Or, as we would say in the 21st century, "based on a true story."

Mary's troubles started one day in June of 1682. The sun was setting, and Mary heard a voice at her door, but when she opened it no one was there. Weird, but nothing particularly creepy. Maybe Mary thought it was just a prankster, but an hour later when she was standing in the doorway an unseen hand punched her in the eye. Yikes!

The odd occurrences continued that week. A large stone was thrown into the house by invisible hands and then disappeared. Shortly afterwards the Hortados' frying pan rang like a bell, loud enough for the neighbors across the river to hear it.

Perhaps it was good that the assailants were mostly invisible, for the glimpses the Hortados caught of them were a little unnerving. For example, one day Mary and her husband Antonio were canoeing across the river when they noticed that something was swimming in front of them. The creature had the "head of a man new-shorn" and the tail of a white cat. They couldn't see the rest of its body and the creature vanished. It reappeared and followed them again when they returned home across the river. Another apparition appeared twice to Mary in the shape of a woman dressed for travel, once brandishing a fiery brand and laughing silently at her. I think the implication here is that the woman was a witch's spirit, probably from a distant town or city (hence the traveling clothes).

Image taken from this blog about 17th century American women.

The spirits also continued to invisibly assault Mary. She was struck by a stone thrown by unseen hands, bitten on the arms ("the impressions of the Teeth being like Mans Teeth"), and scratched on the breast. Her husband Antonio also experienced strange things, but to a lesser degree. He heard footsteps on the second floor of their house when no one was upstairs, and found large sections of their fence thrown down. Perhaps most troubling, he found large hoof prints near the ruined fence, though no cattle were in the area. Was a demon (or Satan himself) responsible for leaving the prints?

The situation became so bad that the Hortados abandoned their house to live on the other side of the river. Before they did, they tried to keep the spirits away by placing bay leaves at the entrances of their house. Increase Mather writes:

I am further informed, that some (who should have been wiser) advised the poor Woman to stick the House round with Bayes, as an effectual preservative against the power of Evil Spirits. This Counsel was followed. And as long as the Bayes continued green, she had quiet ; but when they began to wither, they were all by an unseen hand carried away, and the Woman again tormented.

Although as a Puritan minister Mather disapproved even of protective magic, it seems like bay leaves were the anti-witchcraft herb of choice in the 17th century seacoast area.

By the next year the invisible assaults stopped, and the Hortados' life returned to normal. As Mather writes, "Since when said Mary has been freed from those Satanical Molestations." (I really wanted to use the phrase "Satanical Molsestations.")

I enjoy these stories for their creepy details (I find the cat-tailed creature particularly spooky) and for their insight into the mythic world of witchcraft our ancestors believed in. However, I can understand that some people want an explanation about what was happening in Salmon Falls during 1682. Increase Mather certainly thought it was an authentic case of demonic assault, and I suppose that explanation is sufficient if you believe in demons.

If you want a more scientific explanation you can find one Emerson Baker's book book The Devil of Great Island. Baker, a historian at Salem State, claims that "a close reading of the story indicates that the attacks covered up a serious case of domestic abuse."

Domestic abuse was a major crime in Colonial New England, and one of the few recorded cases that went to trial actually involved Mary's brother-in-law Moses Worcester. Baker bases his argument on the claim that Mary was alone (or perhaps only with her husband) when the attacks happened. He may be right, but I don't think the text is really detailed enough to make that deduction. You can read An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences for yourself and decide. I'd suggest you keep the lights on, because some of the stories are pretty creepy. 

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