February 02, 2014

Witchcraft, Poltergeists and Animal Magnetism

Absolom Lawrence of Pepperell, Massachusetts had a pretty good life. He had a loving wife, he had land to farm, and he had healthy children.

Well, most of them were healthy. At some point in her thirteenth year, one of his daughters had begun to act strangely and suffer from painful fits. At random times she would curl into a fetal position with her head contorted head backwards. When this happened her jaws would clamp shut and she could only ingest liquids when a damp cloth was stuck into her mouth.

At first Absolom thought his daughter had an illness, but he changed his mind when some other strange things began happening around the house. No matter how much Mrs. Lawrence churned the butter it wouldn't come together. The pots and pans hanging in the kitchen would rattle and bang when no one was in the room. Uncanny groans emanated from thin air. It seemed as though something supernatural was assaulting their home. Were they being attacked by a witch?

If the Lawrences had lived in the 1600s they would have thrown their daughter's urine into the fire to break the witch's hold on her, but this happened in 1843. Science and industry were changing America, so the Lawrences looked through their local newspaper to find professional help. They decided to hire Dr. J.M. Nevens.

Dr. Nevens was a wandering magnetist. This doesn't mean that he worked with magnets, but rather he was versed in "animal magnetism", or hypnosis. Nevens traveled with a female colleague whom he put into a trance so she could cure "cure all complaints the human frame is subject to."

Nevens claimed to be skeptical about witchcraft, but he took the job anyway. When he and his co-worker arrived at the Lawrence's house he hypnotized her so she could diagnose the young girl. After she went into the trance she saw something uncanny.

An unknown woman was riding towards the Lawrence's house on a white horse which had no horseshoes. When it reached the front yard the woman dismounted and walked to the front door, which was closed. She squeezed herself under the door and entered the house through a tiny crack.

The woman, who was apparently a witch, clearly intended to once again torment the Lawrence's daughter but this time she was unable to reach her. The mangetic power that surrounded Dr. Nevens repelled her from the house, and she fled through a cellar door. As she did her groans and footsteps could be heard.

After being treated by Dr. Nevens things got better for the Lawrence's daughter, but only improved completely once the family moved to another farm.


What a great account! It's from Owen Davies' new book America Bewitched, and originally appeared in the Nashua Gazette in 1843. I'd love to get my hands on the original newspaper to see if there are any more details.

In a lot of witchcraft stories there is a certain person, usually a jealous or angry neighbor, who is suspected of being the witch. But there's no mention of a neighborly feud in this story. Instead we get the cryptic woman on a white horse. Is she even a real woman? Maybe she's a purely spiritual or psychological being. She's like a bad fairy come to cause trouble. It's significant that her horse has no shoes, because of course horseshoes repel witches. White horses are also associated with magic in a lot of New England folklore. Dreaming of a white horse meant trouble was on the way.

The mysterious groans and banging pots remind me of stories about poltergeists. Poltergeists are often associated with troubled adolescents, and in the past they were also associated with witches. Poltergeists (and troubled adolescents) are still encountered today but usually without the witchcraft. They're now attributed to demonic activity or the latent psychic powers of repressed teens.

I think what I find most interesting about this story is the tension between the old, supernatural, witch-haunted view of the world and the newer, scientific worldview.  Young farm-girls have been afflicted by witches for centuries, but in 1843 you could consult your local newspaper and hire a scientific professional to help out. Well, maybe Dr. Nevens was really pseudo-scientific but it seemed to work.

If the Lawrences were alive today and had these problems they'd probably consult Google to find the nearest ghost-hunters or paranormal investigators. The same phenomena keep popping up but we just deal with them in new ways. The more things change...

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