June 21, 2015

Witchcraft in Littleton: "It Was Necessary to Accuse Someone..."

The Salem witchcraft trials weren't the first witch craze in New England, and they weren't the last either. Even after the mania of 1692 New Englanders believed in witchcraft, but happily they were less likely to execute their neighbors for it, as the following story shows.

Note: this story comes from Thomas Hutchinson's 1767 book The History of the Province of Massachusetts-Bay: From the Charter of King William and Queen Mary in 1691, Until the Year 1750.  That's a really long title, isn't it? Hutchinson doesn't name any names in the following account, but he does editorialize and give his opinion.

Back in 1720, a farmer living in Littleton, Massachusetts had three daughters. The oldest girl, who was 11 years old, had an interest in the supernatural and witchcraft. She would often tell stories about ghosts and witches, and became popular for her storytelling.

I guess it is just a short step from telling stories about witches to experiencing witchcraft. Hutchinson writes:

Pleased with the applause, she went from stories she had heard to some of her own framing, and so on to dreams and visions, and attained the art of swooning and of being to appearance for some time breathless. Upon her revival, she would tell of strange things she had met with in this and other worlds. 

It still sounds kind of harmless, right? Many people experience vivid dreams and visions, even to this day, with no harm. Some psychologists, like those who follow Carl Jung, even actively encourage engagement with the inner spiritual world.

Sadly, this was 1720 and not 2015, and no Jungian therapists were available. Soon the girl was convulsing whenever she heard the words "God," "Christ," and "Holy Ghost," and strange noises began to be heard around the house. Stones thrown by unseen hands rained down her family's chimney. It was a classic witchcraft attack, and the girl blamed one of her neighbors, a woman Hutchinson only identifies as Mrs. D__y.

This allegedly witchy neighbor was blamed for all sorts of trouble. Nieghbors found the girl thrashing around in a pond; she said Mrs. D__y had tried to invisibly drown her. The girl was discovered on top of the house; Mrs. D__y had put her there by magic. Bruises and pinch marks appeared on her stomach; Mrs. D__y's specter had attacked.

Having one bewitched daughter must have been bad enough, but eventually the other two daughters in the family also began to exhibit the same strange behaviors. Three bewitched children is beyond the capability of any parent, so they sought professional help. Physicians were called in, but no medical explanation could be found. The citizens of Littleton began to murmur that maybe Mrs. D__y really was a witch...

Just when the town was ready for an old-fashioned witch hunt Mrs. D__y had spoiled the fun by getting sick and dying. No torch-wielding mobs, no trial, no hanging. Nothing. The witch hunt stopped before it even began. The girls recovered and went on with their lives.

Several years passed, and in 1728 the oldest daughter moved to Medford. She was attending Sunday meeting one week when the minister preached the following:

"He that speaketh lies shall not escape."

She felt like the words were directed specifically at her, and after the sermon she approached the minister. She confessed that she had only been pretending to be bewitched. Once her sisters saw how much attention she was getting they joined in too.

The two sisters, seeing her pitied, had become actors also with her, without being moved to it by her, but when she saw them follow her, they all joined in the secret and acted in concert. They had no particular spite against D__y, but it was necessary to accuse somebody...

And that's where the story ends. The whole thing had simply been made up by children and played their parents as fools. The family and their daughters all fade away into obscurity. 

I like to think that even if Littleton did hold a witch trial Mrs. D__y would have been acquitted. After the Salem trials people in Massachusetts had become skeptical about witchcraft, or at least skeptical that it could be proven in court.

I do find the sentence "...but it was necessary to accuse somebody..." kind of chilling. Those little girls knew that it's hard to have witchcraft without a witch to pin it on. Personally, I put witchcraft in the same category with Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts, etc. There might be something behind all these weird phenomena, but we'll never be able to put our finger on exactly what that thing is. The collective unconscious? The Anima Mundi? Who knows? Whatever it is, it certainly isn't the old lady who lives down the street, and once you start ascribing supernatural powers to your neighbors things are bound to get bad.

One more thought. It's interesting that the children were making it all up, but their parents and neighbors were the ones who believed them. We tend to think of children as superstitious and easy to fool, but clearly that wasn't the case in 1720 Littleton. Let's hope things have changed!


The Hutchinson text is quoted in The Penguin Book of Witches (2014) edited by Katherine Rowe.


Anonymous said...

The same witch accusations came up in "An Historical Sketch of the Town of Littleton by H. J. Harwood [1891]" https://archive.org/stream/cu31924028838823#page/n27/mode/2up

That account identifies the parties as Joseph Blanchard, and his daughters Elizabeth, Joanna, and Mary, who accused Mrs. Dudley, wife of Samuel Dudley.

The witch accusations also came up, and were apparently represented inaccurately in the town history from the 1970s - http://www.boudillion.com/witch/mitchell.htm

Peter Muise said...

Hi Winston! Thanks for the comment and for giving the names of everyone involved. I totally forgot this was mentioned in John Hanson Mitchell's CEREMONIAL TIME, which is a great book that definitely feels more mythic than historic to me.