January 31, 2016

The Dogtown Witches

Most of the witches in New England history bore that label unwillingly. They were innocents accused of witchcraft during one of the area's witch crazes, or they were social outcasts called witches by their suspicious neighbors.

But in a desolate part of Massachusetts's Cape Anne, a group of women seemed to have taken on the mantle of witch deliberately as a way to survive harsh economic times. They were the Dogtown witches.

Their story starts in the early 18th century. In the year 1721 the town elders of Gloucester, Massachusetts decided to open up more land for settlement. This coastal community north of Boston had been growing for almost 100 years, and space was growing tight in the main part of town.

Dogtown is very, very rocky.

When Gloucester was first established much of the land was covered with thick forest. Over time most trees had been cut down for firewood or lumber, and by 1721 a high, rocky plateau just outside town was almost completely treeless. The elders named this plateau the Commons Settlement and encouraged young families to build homes there.

At first all went well. The land was too rocky for farming, but craftsmen like barrel makers, blacksmiths and millers settled the area. Livestock grazed among the plateau's many large boulders. The Commons Settlement thrived.

Things were good for several decades, but when the Revolutionary War began many of the Commons' men were called away as sailors and soldiers. To make matters worse, Gloucester's meeting house was relocated. The meeting house was the town's civic and religious center, and it was originally located close to the Commons Settlement. However, wealthy families who lived on the waterfront resented the long commute to Sunday services and eventually persuaded the town to move the meeting house closer to the harbor. With this move the Commons Settlement changed from an up and coming neighborhood to an isolated backwater.

Old boundary walls in Dogtown.
Families began to leave the settlement for better locations, abandoning their homes and businesses, and people from the lowest levels of Gloucester society began to move into the empty houses. Freed slaves and elderly widows soon made up most of the Commons' population. Wealthier Gloucesterites began to derogatorily call the place Dogtown, and the nickname stuck.

The area is officially called Dogtown Common even today. Legend says it was called Dogtown because of the feral dogs who roamed its empty streets. That's quite possible, but there are other poor marginal communities in the US that share the same name. It may just be a standard American name for a bad place to live.

Boulder marking the site of Dogtown's old public square, now overgrown with trees. 

Some of the Dogtowners survived on charity and working menial jobs in town, but many of the elderly widows made their living as herbalists... and witches. This was of course risky work. Less than 100 years earlier the Salem witch trials had wreaked havoc in Massachusetts, but the Dogtown witches somehow avoided legal problems or violence.

Some of the women positioned themselves as healers and fortune tellers. For example, Daffy Archer sold a medicine made of snail mucous. Rachel Rich also sold a healing tonic, but hers was made of fox berry leaves, spruce tops, and other herbs, which sounds less icky. She also told fortunes by examining coffee grounds. Her daughter Becky did similar work but preferred to use tea leaves instead.

The Riches were mostly benevolent, but some of their neighbors followed a more malevolent path. Molly Jacobs was also a fortune-tellers but also threatened anyone who didn't give her money. Luce George operated in a similar way, but the most-feared witch in Dogtown was Thomazine "Tammy" Younger, Luce's niece.

House foundation.

Tammy Younger lived in a collapsing house near the main road that passed through Dogtown to Gloucester. Whenever she heard a wagon or horse approaching her house she would throw open the shutters and glare at the oncoming travelers. Then Tammy would threaten to curse them unless they gave her money to pass by safely. She was quite fearsome in appearance and was quite successful at collecting tolls from terrified travelers.

Tammy's reputation lingered even after her death in 1829. When she died her nephew ordered a coffin from John Hodgkins, a local carpenter. The Hodgkins family was used to having coffins in their home, but Mrs. Hodgkins felt an unnatural chill around Tammy's coffin - even though it was empty. She believed Tammy's ghost was lurking around their house and demanded that her husband move the coffin to the barn.

The last inhabitant of Dogtown, a freed slave named Cornelius Finson, died in 1839. After his death the settlement became the ghost town that it still is today. For many years it was a popular spot for picnickers, and wealthy philanthropist Roger Babson hired local masons to carve motivational slogans into some of the boulders. Babson came from one of Gloucester's prominent families, and he wanted people to remember the hard-working craftsmen who founded the settlement, not the witches who lived there at its demise.

One of Babson's boulders.

Over time the forest reclaimed Dogtown, and it's now 3,000 acres of thickly-wooded, rock-strewn wilderness. It's beautiful, magical and kind of spooky. Babson's boulders are still there, but they're hidden by the trees, and whenever I visit I don't think about hard-working craftsmen. I think about the Dogtown witches.


There are quite a few books about historic Gloucester and Dogtown, but one of the best is probably Elyssa East's Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town (2009). If you decide to visit Dogtown go with a friend. It is large, rocky, and there have been a couple murders there. The locals also claim there have been some unexplained disappearances.

Me wandering through Dogtown.


Ravenlyn said...

Another reason they moved the town center was that it was a really tough trip uphill in the winter to church--I can't believe the residents even got down into town for supplies. Some women took advantage of the many bayberry bushes to make candles to sell (and it takes a LOT of bayberries to make a candle). There are a lot of beautiful stone walls all through the area, which were made by a stoneworker who may have been a transman. I love Dogtown!

tericay said...

Harry Chapin wrote a song about Dogtown

tericay said...

Harry Chapin wrote a song about Dogtown

Zohak said...

I was lost there just a week ago