July 05, 2015

Judith Howard's Funeral: A Maine Witch Story

This legend comes from Harpswell, Maine.

Way back in the 1700s, a woman named Judith Howard lived on Sebascodegan, one of the islands that make up the town of Harpswell. Judith made her living as a healer, treating people's wounds and illnesses with various herbal remedies.

This was always a risky trade to practice in the pre-Industrial era. If your cures weren't effective you would lose clients, but if your cures were TOO effective people might think you were a witch. For example, Margaret Jones of Charlestown, Massachusetts was executed as a witch for this very reason in 1648. Talk about being too good at your job!

Judith Howard's cures were very effective, so her neighbors of course muttered that she was in witch. How else could one woman's salves and teas cure so many illnesses? Clearly the Devil must have something to do with it. Luckily Judith lived in the 1700s when people were no longer hanged for witchcraft. She suffered from social ostracization but still lived a long life.

It's often believed that female herbalists were unjustly accused of witchcraft. In many historical cases, like Margaret Jones, that seems to be true. It doesn't quite turn out that way in the legend about Judith Howard.

Most accounts of Judith's life indicate that she was good natured and kind, and didn't demand much from her neighbors. But when she died, all Hell broke loose.

On her deathbed, she had one dying wish. "Please don't bury me next to Old Lambo," she said. Old Lambo was a local Native American buried near Cundy's Harbor. The stories don't say why she didn't want to be buried next to him. Was he a rival healer, a profession many Native Americans followed? Was she a racist? Who knows? Maybe they had an affair that ended poorly. Perhaps he was buried in a pauper's grave or outside of the cemetery walls. The stories just don't say.

After Judith died her neighbors breathed a sigh of relief. They had all benefited from her cures, but they had also been spooked by living so close to someone who was possibly a witch. They put her body in a pine coffin, brought her over to Cundy's Harbor, and buried her right next to Old Lambo.

No one on Harpswell got any sleep that night. Barn doors slammed open and shut all night long. At first some people blamed the wind, but then the doors inside people's homes began slamming open and shut too. Cats ran around in the darkness, howling in agony, and less identifiable but even uncannier noises were also heard.

This went on for several nights, until one morning a group of brave Harpswell citizens went to Cundy's Harbor and dug up Judith's coffin. They carried it two miles across the island and buried her near the main road. Apparently this location was more to her liking, because the hauntings and weird apparitions stopped. Judith and the island had peace.

This is of course a legend, and not a piece of history, and it's not clear if Judith Howard even existed. However, the story does show that people believed witch's powers continued even after they died. (See the story about Hannah Cranna or the witch's grave in York for similar legends). Witches have powerful souls while they live, and their souls continue to exert strange powers even after their bodies die.

This story appears in a few different places, but I found it in Dorothy Simpson's The Maine Islands in Story and Legend (1960).


Anonymous said...

Very Interesting stuff keep it up

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the encouragement! I love doing this! There are so many strange and wonderful stories to share.