July 11, 2018

H.P Lovecraft and The Witch from Boston

Rhode Island native and horror writer extraordinaire H.P. Lovecraft liked to incorporate New England history and folklore into his stories. He was particularly fond of local witch-lore, which shows up in many of his best known stories.

For example, Richard Upman Pickman, the crazed artist in "Pickman's Model" (1927), is descended from "old Salem stock" and had an ancestor executed for witchcraft. In "Dreams in The Witch House" (1933), a hapless college student finds trouble when he rents a room once inhabited by a witch, while the title character in "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" (1927) discovers through genealogical research that one of his ancestors fled Salem in 1692 due to suspicions about his "queer chemical or alchemical experiments."

H.P. Lovecraft, 1890 - 1937
Those are all fiction, but Lovecraft may have encountered a real-live New England witch in 1929 - or at least someone who claimed to be one. After Lovecraft's story "The Dunwich Horror" was published in Weird Tales he received a fan letter from a woman who lived in Boston. Lovecraft wrote about her to his friend Clark Ashton Smith on March 22, 1929:

By the way - that tale has just earned me an interesting letter from a curious old lady in Boston, a direct lineal descendant of the Salem witch Mary Easty, who was hanged on Gallows Hill Aug. 19, 1692. She hints at strange gifts and traditions handed down in her family, & asks me if I have access to any antient (ancient) secret witch-lore of New England... I shall answer the letter, & see if I can get the good old soul to relate some of the whispered witch-traditions! A story of Salem horror based on actual "inside dope" from a witch-blooded crone would surely be a striking novelty!

On April 14, 1929 he wrote Ashton Smith with a little more information about the woman:

It appears that her forebears were well acquainted with the Marblehead witches Edward Dimond and his daughter Moll Pitcher... & that she herself, through the Easty or Este line, is a scion of the D'Estes of Ferrara, Italy, & a descendant of no less a malign character than Lucrezia Borgia! Some ancestry!

Lovecraft and the Boston woman kept up a correspondence over several years. He wrote about it in an October 24, 1930 letter to his friend Elizabeth Toldridge:

... As for my spectrally affiliated New England correspondents - I have not again heard from the grotesque Maine person, but hear frequently from the old lady descended from Salem witches. She sent several modernly gruesome legends lately, but in general I find it more natural to invent cosmic horrors of my own than to utilize actual folklore incidents. I use actual local colour in treating of geography and customs; but when it comes to actual incidents and types of unreal phenomena, I have so far preferred to invent rather than adopt.

The woman died in 1933, as he indicated in a letter to his friend Robert Barlow:

An old lady in Boston whole I knew - & who died just a year ago - was a direct descendant of Mary Easty, one of the Salem witches hung in 1692 - & therefore a collateral descendant of the more famous Rebecca Nurse (Mrs. Easty's sister), whose ancient house (built 1636) in Danvers, Mass. [near Salem - formerly called Salem-Village] is still in existence...

Unfortunately, to my knowledge Lovecraft never mentioned the woman's name, at least not in any published letters. It would be fascinating to know who she was! Did she really have the ancestry she claimed? It seems unlikely she was descended from the D'Estes of Italy (and therefore Lucrezia Borgia), since the Easty/Esty family of Salem can be traced back to at least 1450 in England; Borgia was not born until 1480. Lovecraft's correspondent could have been descended from Mary Easty though.

Also, did she really have any arcane knowledge, either passed down through her family or even just learned from books? And did she say she actually claim she was a witch? Lovecraft's letters suggest that she was a witch but doesn't make it explicit. The Wiccan/pagan revival didn't really start until the late 1940s, but there were still a few people here and there who identified as witches (including at least one famous New England writer). It's possible this woman was one of them.

If anyone has more information about her please post it in the comments section. I would love to know more about the "curious old lady in Boston."

Lovecraft's grave in Providence, Rhode Island
Lovecraft was a materialist and skeptical of religion and the occult, but while he was alive some people thought his stories were about real occult phenomena. The elderly Boston woman seems to have been one of them, as was his acquaintance William Lumley. Lumley was an avowed occultist whom Lovecraft collaborated with on the 1938 story "The Diary of Alonzo Typer." In a letter to the author Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft noted that Lumley believed Lovecraft and some of his friends were "genuine agents of unseen Powers in distributing hints too dark and profound for human conception or comprehension." Lovecraft thought Lumley was a little crazy...

After his death, an increasing number of people thought that Lovecraft's stories contained real supernatural truths. His work inspired a host of occultists, including Kenneth Grant, Anton LaVey, and a slew of Chaos Magickians. So maybe there was something behind his stories after all? Somewhere, the ghost of an elderly lady from Boston is laughing.


I want to thank two friends for helping me with this post. My friend Steve loaned me issue #31 of Lovecraft Studies, and my friend David Goudsward sent me the text of Lovecraft's letters. David is the author of H.P. Lovecraft in The Merrimack Valley and many other books on interesting topics. 

One additional note: Mary Este was not actually a witch, but an innocent person caught who was unjustly executed. Witches are one of the iconic images in New England folklore, but it's important to differentiate between folklore and reality. 


Peter Muise said...

Hi Sue! That's funny! Years ago I was at the Boston Public Library and I looked up the Necronomicon in their catalogue. They had several copies but they all were marked as missing. I guess people had stolen them.

Unknown said...

Interested in hearing whether you were successful in conclusively identifying the Boston witch or any theories you have on whom it may be. Please email me! Thank you!

Unknown said...

Not sure why it came up anonymous but my email is:

Peter Muise said...

Unfortunately I hit a dead end on this one. I'm not sure if anyone knows who she was. To find her identity II feel like we'd need to find the original letters she wrote with a return address on them. If you ever find any clues please let me know!