May 21, 2016

Aunt Jinny, the Witch of Hillsborough, New Hampshire

When some people think about New England witchcraft, they think "Oh yeah, that terrible stuff that happened in Salem in 1692."

Other people, and this probably includes you gentle reader, know that witchcraft beliefs in New England started before the Salem trials and continued well after them. Interesting witch stories can be found all across New England and well into the 20th century. I even read one recently from the 21st century!

One good source for witch stories is Eva Speare's book New Hampshire Folk Tales (1932). Speare's book has a wide variety of folk stories but includes twelve specifically about witches from different towns in the the Granite State.

I like this one about a woman named Jenny Gilchrist who lived in Hillsborough, New Hampshire on Barden Hill Road. Gilchrist was known in town as Aunt Jinny, but she doesn't seem very lovable:

Aunt Jinny, as she was commonly called, has been described as a little, sallow, weazened (sic), old woman with a fiery temper and vitriolic tongue, whose unhappy experiences in early life had so embittered her nature that she distrusted and shunned her neighbors...

Several stories tell how she terrorized the local miller and scared small children into doing chores for her, but the witchiest stories relate to how she died.

Aunt Jinny was never wealthy, but as she became older she grew ever more destitute. The town officials eventually decided that she should be removed from her home and taken to the poorhouse where she could be taken care of.

The Franklin Pierce homestead in Hillsborough.
When the town constable came to Jinny's house he was prepared for an argument, but she obediently and silently climbed onto his horse behind him. Then they set off for the poorhouse, which was many miles away.

They rode all night but when the sun rose the constable nearly fell off his horse in surprise. Instead of arriving at the poorhouse he realized they were riding back into Aunt Jinny's yard! Jinny had bewitched the horse so she wouldn't have to leave her home.

Jinny ended up dying at home soon after in the following way. One day one of her neighbors noticed one of his sheep was acting strangely. Fearing it was sick and would infect the other sheep he killed it with a club. At that very instant Jinny collapsed in her house. She had of course been bewitching the sheep, and the damage inflicted on the animal was also inflicted on her.

A kind woman who lived nearby came to watch over Jinny as she lay stricken. Wise old people in town warned that woman that if she wanted Jinny to live she should never avert her gaze from her. Witches didn't like to die when people were watching, they said. As long as she kept watch Jinny would refuse to die.

For many hours the woman kept close watch over Jinny, determine that she should live. But eventually she looked away, just for one second. That was all it took. When she looked back Jinny was dead.

There are a couple things I find very interesting about these stories. Aunt Jinny is an archetypal post-Puritan New England witch: a cantankerous and hated old woman who wants to live independently. But it's interesting that the community does try to care for her, even though she doesn't want their help.

I am also intrigued by the idea that a witch won't die while someone watches, which I haven't encountered before. It make sense though in the context of other New England witch lore. While they are alive witches are alleged to work much of their mischief by sending their souls out of their bodies. They do this secretly while no one is watching, often during the night when their families and spouses are sleeping.

When a witch dies, they send their soul out one last final time. They would want to die they way they lived, privately and secretly, unseen by the prying eyes of their neighbors.

One last note: stories about Aunt Jinny also appear in George Waldo Browne's 1921 book The History of Hillsborough, New Hampshire, so she must have been an important part of town folklore. 


Unknown said...

An interesting read! Here's a link to the Browne book -

Peter Muise said...

Hi Bret! Thanks for the comment. It's nice that the Browne book includes more details about the neighbor who borrows the horse. If it's in a history book it must be true, right?

Unknown said...

Cool story. One I had never heard.