June 21, 2016

Ann Hopkins and The Curse of Fire

As I've mentioned before, one of the nice things about living in New England is that you can find weird folklore almost everywhere. Well, at least I think it's one of the nice things...

I've lived in the Boston area for many years and have walked through Cambridge's Cambridgeport neighborhood hundreds of times. It's only recently that I learned about a weird story involving a witch, a curse, and an old church in that area. And the story might even be true. It first appeared in the Boston Globe in March of 1881, and newspapers don't print false stories, do they?

The church in question is the Cambridgeport Baptist Church. In 1881 a Globe reporter went to investigate some strange happenings at the church. The church had recently burned down, and parishioners and neighbors reported some unusual things:

Strange sounds are heard at night by persons who pass the ruined building - low moans and cries of intense agony, that rise to weird shrieks and die away in long-drawn signs. These unearthly sounds increase in frequency as the the work of clearing away the ruin progresses, and old residents remember that the same sounds were heard after the burning of the old church some sixteen years ago...

That's right. This was the second time the church had burned within a twenty year period. When the church was rebuilt the first time in 1865 people also heard unusual sounds, but they stopped when the cornerstone of the church was laid. Strange.

Equally strange, when that cornerstone was laid in 1865 the documents that were being ceremonially buried under it were burned by a sudden mysterious fire. Stranger still, in 1881 the same thing occurred:

As the stone was being lowered into place a spark of fire was struck out in some unaccountable way and communicated to the documents placed under the stone, but the block was quickly lowered to put the flame out. When the stone was raised the the other day there was nothing under it but a little heap of ashes...

Conveniently, the Globe reporter meets an elderly Cambridgeport man who tells him a story that was told to him by his grandfather. According to the story, many years ago a woman named Ann Hopkins lived in an isolated cabin on the banks of the Charles River. Hopkins was once a beautiful young woman who was courted by two rivals. She loved only one of the men and promised herself to him when he returned from the French and Indian War. As a token of her affection she gave him a ribbon.

The other man, scorned by Ann Hopkins, became bitter and jealous. He too went off to fight against the French, and served alongside Hopkins's true love. During a battle he shot the man Hopkins loved but made it appear he had been killed by the French. When he came back to Cambridge he told Hopkins the sad news. At first she believed his story, but when she saw he was wearing the ribbon she had bestowed upon her true love she realized what had happened. The shock drove her insane.

For many years after this Hopkins lived alone in her cabin, ignored by the Puritans of Cambridge. But that changed when a plague struck the town. As people grew ill, they noticed that Hopkins was unaffected. They also noticed that a cow that had strayed onto her property began to give bloody milk, and a child she had glared at sickened and died. Some people even said they had seen Hopkins flying over head on a broom.

Hopkins was brought to trial and found guilty of witchcraft. The Cambridge elders sentenced her to be burned at the stake. As the flames consumed her body, Hopkins saw among the spectators the man who had killed her lover.

The red light flashes back from her scorched eyeballs upon the throng, her cracked and bleeding lips part, and shaking the arm from which the flesh is dropping in shreds, she shrieks a terrible curse upon her murderers. They shrink back in chill terror, back into the gloom beyond the glare of the ghastly flames, and Ann Hopkins shrieks: "The curse of fire shall be upon this spot forever!"

The site of Ann Hopkins execution was of course the future location of the Cambridgeport Baptist Church. Her curse was the reason the church repeatedly burned down. The old man hints ominously that her spirit still lurks in the area...

Isn't that a good story? The ending is satisfyingly cathartic and also really gruesome. Unfortunately it's probably not true. For one thing, the Puritans didn't burn witches but instead hanged them, so there is no way Hopkins died burning at the stake. Well, maybe Ann Hopkins's curse is fixed on the place she was hanged rather than burned?

Perhaps, but there is no historical record of anyone named Ann Hopkins being accused of witchcraft in Cambridge. The story, with its doomed lovers and woman driven mad by loss, sounds like a 19th century romantic legend than an account of a 17th century witch trial. Real 17th century witch stories usually don't have much romance in them, but New England legends from the 19th century often do.

In his book Ghosts of Cambridge, my friend Sam Baltrusis wonders if the Ann Hopkins legend is a garbled version of the true story of Winifred and Mary Holman, two 17th century Cambridge women accused of witchery but ultimately acquitted. That definitely could be possible, but there is definitely no evidence of someone named Ann Hopkins being executed for witchcraft in Cambridge.

Although the 1881 Globe article doesn't point out the implausibility of a witch being burned at the stake in Cambridge, it does end on a debunking note. The reporter writes:

Here the old man's tale ended, and I looked up and said: "Do you think the ghost of Ann Hopkins stretched these telegraph wires overhead that are making all this weird moaning?" and the old man arose and gazed upon me reproachfully.

Although I like to look at the facts behind a supernatural story, I'm also not a huge fan of debunkers.  I still think there's room for a little mystery and wonder in the world, even in Cambridgeport. Were the parishioners and neighbors really so naive that they would mistake the sound of telegraph wires for ghostly shrieks? That seems unlikely. And what caused the two mysterious fires that burned down the church? Why were there spontaneous flames during two cornerstone ceremonies? Things aren't explained as neatly as the article suggests.

Even if there is a scientific explanation for everything that occurred, I think this story nicely illustrates New England's ambiguous relationship with witches. On one had, people here know that the people accused of witchcraft weren't really witches. They were just innocent victims of religious mania and gossip. Even in this story it's clear that Ann Hopkins isn't really a witch.

On the other hand, although Hopkins isn't a witch she still successfully places a curse on the spot where she died. In this respect she follows in the footsteps of other accused witches who, although innocent of witchcraft, still manage to work some kind of magic as they die. For example, accused Salem witch Sarah Good cursed Reverend Noyes as she died, saying God would give him blood to drink. Near Plymouth a woman named Aunt Rachel cast a curse with her dying breath, while in Bucksport, Maine an accused witch (or maybe her son) cast a curse on the judge who sentenced her to hang.

Those are just a few of the New England stories where accused witches curse the people who execute them. These tales claim that even though witches aren't real, magic and the supernatural are. It can be found anywhere, even a few blocks from downtown Cambridge.


Unknown said...

The only case of execution by burning at the stake I know of in Massachusetts, perhaps New England, was of Philis, an African-American slave, in 1755.


I wonder if that incident in nearby Charlestown had any influence?

Sue Bursztynski said...

Ooh, I love this blog! American folklore is fascinating...:-)

Well, the curse thing is pretty universal. For example, our bushranger, Ned Kelly, told the judge who sentenced him to death, Redmond Barry, that he would be seeing him soon enough and he died a couple of weeks later. Which probably means that Mr Barry was already sick, but still... I should add that Redmond Barry was a fairly decent man, except to the Kelly family. He started the State Library, among other things(and let people borrow from his personal library meanwhile) and shared his pay with the poor. But you can't keep a good curse down eh? ;-)

Peter Muise said...

Hi Bret! Thanks for the comment. That could be a possible explanation. Certainly a burning would have been notable in a society where criminals were usually hanged. Ugh. So grim! I also think there is a tendency for people to forget the history of their own region. If the Cambridgeport people had read that witches were burned in Europe they may have assumed the same was true of New England. Just speculation, of course!

Peter Muise said...

Hi Sue! Glad you like the blog. Curses are fascinating. Bad things will eventually happen to all of us, so curses always come true somehow... or at least it seems that way.