April 26, 2015

Rochester's Witch Rock

There are a lot of rocks in New England.

There are a lot of stories about witches in New England.

Therefore, there should be stories about witches and rocks in New England! And there are...

I was recently looking through the United States Geographic Survey for places with the the word "witch" in their name. There are quite a few, and they will probably be featured in an upcoming blog post. I was particularly struck by three rocks named Witch Rock or Witches Rock in southern New England. They each have an interesting story, but today I'm writing about one I was not familiar with.

It's located in Rochester, a town in southeastern Massachusetts near New Bedford. The rock, which sits on private property near an intersection, is quite large and imposing with a height of about 12 feet. The silhouette of a witch on a broomstick is painted on it, along with the words "Witch Rock." There's no mistaking that this is Witch Rock.

The boulder has called Witch Rock for many years. An 1899 edition of The Bay State Monthly called it a "vine-covered, romantic-looking bowlder," and it was apparently a destination for picnickers and tourists who wanted to visit the bucolic countryside.

It's not quite clear how this particular rock got its supernatural reputation. As I said earlier, there are a lot of rocks in New England, and many of them are stranger looking than this one. Why did this boulder get a spooky reputation?

A vintage postcard of Witch Rock from this amazing site about boulders!

One compelling theory is that the rock was initially a Native American holy place. In the spring 2004 issue of the New England Archaeological Society Bulletin, Martin Dudek and Craig Chartier mention a tradition that native shamans (pow-wows in the local Algonquian dialect) would sit and watch mists rise from the crevices in the stone. Perhaps this was some type of divination? English settlers usually labeled native religious practices as witchcraft, so it makes sense that an Algonquian holy rock would be renamed Witch Rock. Rather than a place for divine inspiration it became a place of terror.

The modern legends associated with Witch Rock are less sociological and more supernatural. One is that the soul of a witch hanged during the witch trials is trapped inside the rock, along with various evil spirits. All of them like to howl and sometimes try to escape through the cracks in the rock. Another legend claims the early settlers noticed the Indians avoided the rock, and concluded that it must be bewitched. A third combines all these and says the Indians avoided the rock because there was a dead witch's soul trapped in it.

Whatever the origin of its reputation, Witch Rock probably does have some connection to Native American lore. According to a May 2012 article in Southeastern Massachusetts newspaper The Wanderer, the property the boulder sits on was owned for many years by a family of Abenaki and Pequawket descent. The matriarch of the family, Shirley Vaughn Thompson Norton, told her children that the spirit of a hanged witch lived inside the boulder and would emerge every full moon. On Halloween night the boulder was naturally used as the backdrop for apple-bobbing and other festivities.

Mrs. Norton can probably be credited with maintaining the legend of Witch Rock. For example, in the 1960s she designed commemorative Witch Rock plates and sold them to the local chamber of commerce, and in the 1990s she began painting the witch's silhouette on the boulder. Sadly her family no longer owns the property but the legend seems to be firmly established now! It would be interesting to know how long her family owned the house and how long they had been telling the legend.

Rochester seems to be the place to live if you like spooky rocks. According to Mattapoisset and Old Rochester (1907) by Mary Hall Leonard, the town also has a Devil's Rock which bears the imprint of Satan's footprint. Some towns get all the fun boulders!

7 comments:

brokeneyemedia said...

I was not aware that a boulder could be "romantic looking"

Peter Muise said...

Hi Brokeneye,

I think the boulder is romantic looking in a capital "R" sense of the word, relating to the Romantic movement in literature and art which found beauty in the natural world and in old legends and folklore. Think more Goethe and Byron, and less Harlequin novels. Does that make more sense?

Curtis Hartley said...

What's funny is I'm from Rochester Massachusetts and part of one of the founding families of the area and I never heard that story's and I knew the vaughns too

Peter Muise said...

Hi Curtis,

Thanks for the comment. Isn't it strange what we know and don't know about the places we grew up? When I was a kid I never knew one of the Salem witch trial judges was buried a mile from my parents house, or that several people from my home town had been accused of witchcraft in the Salem trials and even earlier. It's only 30 years later that I found all that out!

Anonymous said...

Hi Curtis,
I am a Thompson that grew up at "Witch Rock", and I think that you didn't necessarily know this history, because my mother Shirley Vaughn-Thompson-Norton, wasn't related to the Vaughan's in Rochester.
However, we had this made known many years ago when the Standard-Times did an article about the rock.
I had been interviewed for information a few years ago by a writer for the Wanderer.
There was some misinformation that they wrote, but it was Indians that lived on the property many years ago, that believed the witches that had died from hangings, and their spirits came out on the full moon. We lived their from about 1945 - 1972, when the property was sold.

Anonymous said...

My name is William T Pittsley, and I must say this,"there is nothing supernatural about Mark Witchcraft Haskells Rock." If you want to know the reason why this rock earned its name I'll inform you, and you can Google it also. The Pittsley's and The Haskell's are very old Southeastern Massachusetts Colonial English family's who have inhabited Dighton, Freetown, and Rochester since the very early 1600's. It was even believed by early historians that the Pittsleys were fishermen who fished off the coast of New England for decades before the settling of Plymouth Colony. These families had members else where throughout the English colonies. Roger Haskel (my Great x 7th or 8th Grandfather) had a son named Mark Haskell who was a citizen of Salem MA.. During the Salem Witch trials the towns people of Salem ordered Mark Haskell to serve as a juror. He refused and they accused him of being a witch. Mark then fled to Rochester where his Brother and cousins the Pittsley's hid him out near the rock. After the Salem Witch Trials came to an end Mark Haskell ended up settling in Rochester and the rock became known to everyone in the area as "Mark Witchcraft Haskells Rock. In and around the 1690's the British evicted all of the French , Dutch and English Neutralists from Arcadia some of them were Pittsleys, cousins to the New England Pittsley's. According to the articles written in the 1880's and 90's about the Pink Eyed Pittsley's some Pittsley's were released at Assonet where they took to the woods and in the words of that day and age became Gypsies or Indians and folklore has it they settled around Mark Witchcraft Rock in Rochester. Where their cousins the New England Pittsley's also resided. This is where I believe the Indian connection came from to the rock. Google "the Pink Eyed Pittsley' of Cape Cod and read for yourselves.

Mongruella said...

Thank you Mr Pittsley! I'm Mark "Witchcraft" Haskell's great (x7 or so) grand daughter. I'd been looking for information about the family when Google brought me to this post. I appreciate it!