May 17, 2019

"Come Away, Come Away": The Necromancer of Boston Harbor

Following up from last week's post, here's another interesting story from the John Winthrop's journal. Winthrop was one of the early Massachusetts Puritan settlers and served for many year's as the Massachusetts Bay Colony's governor. His journal contains lots of details about the politics of the colony but also includes a few weirder little tales.

One of them is this story of a necromancer who died when a ship exploded in Boston Harbor. A necromancer technically means someone who practices magic involving the dead, like raising the dead or communicating with their spirits. It also can be used more generally to mean a warlock or wizard. 

John Winthrop (1587 - 1649)

Winthrop's account doesn't begin with the necromancer, but starts instead with mysterious lights that were seen in the sky over the harbor. From January 18, 1644:

About midnight, three men, coming in a boat to Boston, saw two lights arise out of the water near the north point of the town cove, in form like a man, and went at a small distance to the town, and so the the south point, and there vanished away. They saw them about a quarter of an hour, being between the town and the governor's garden. The like was seen by many, a week after, arising about Castle Island and in one fifth of an hour came to John Gallop's point.

It's kind of a creepy paragraph. What do these lights, "in form like a man," mean? Are they perhaps an entity of some kind? They were seen again a week later:
The 18th of this month two lights were seen near Boston, (as is before mentioned,) and a week after the like was seen again. A light like the moon arose about the N.E. point in Boston, and met the former at Nottles Island, and there they closed in one, and then parted, and closed and parted diverse times, and so went over the hill in the island and vanished. Sometimes they shot out flames and sometimes sparkles. This was about eight of the clock in the evening, and was seen by many.
Now here's where things get really weird. Witnesses heard a strange voice calling out.
About the same time a voice was heard upon the water between Boston and Dorchester, calling out in a most dreadful manner, "Boy, boy, come away, come away": and it suddenly shifted from one place to another a great distance, about twenty times. It was heard by diverse godly persons. About 14 days after, the same voice in the same dreadful manner was heard by others on the other side of town towards Nottles Island.
Winthrop believes that these strange phenomena are tied to a pinnace (a type of small sailing ship) that exploded when a pistol onboard was fired into the ship's gunpowder supply. One of the crew was rumored to be a necromancer and possibly a murderer:
These prodigies having some reference to the place where Captain Chaddock's pinnace was blown up a little before, gave occasion of speech of that man who was the cause of it, who professed himself to have skill in necromancy, and to have done some strange things in his way from Virginia hither, and was suspected to have murdered his master there; but the magistrates here had not notice of him till after he was blown up. This is to be observed that his fellows were all found, and other who were blown up in the former ship were also found, and others also who have miscarried by drowning, etc. have usually been found, but this man was never found.
Winthrop doesn't explicitly explain the strange lights and voice, but I think we can piece together what he's hinting at. As a Puritan Winthrop would believe that a necromancer was in league with the Devil, the one in this story doubly so since he was (perhaps) a murderer. The voice speaking in a "dreadful manner" probably was that of the Devil himself coming to drag the dead necromancer to Hell. It sounds like it took a while for the Evil One to find him, but apparently he did in the end because his body was never recovered from the harbor.

Was there really a necromancer on board the ship when it sank? Maybe, but maybe not. The pinnace in question was owned by Captain John Chaddock, an adventurer who had a bad reputation in Boston. He and his men had sailed as mercenaries to fight in Nova Scotia's Acadian civil war but saw neither combat nor loot. Disappointed, they came to Boston. Three of of Chaddock's men died entering Boston Harbor when they fell from the ship's mast. Once Chaddock and his crew came ashore they drank, brawled and insulted the Puritans. Chaddock was fined 20 shillings for his conduct. The pinnace that exploded was carrying some of Chaddock's men to Trinidad. Overall, Chaddock was bad news.

Winthrop writes disapprovingly of Chaddock's behavior, so perhaps he was willing to believe the rumors that one of his ships carried a murderous necromancer. On the other hand, it's not impossible that one of the sailors may have practiced some type of magic. Books about magic and astrology were very popular in the 17th century, and many people, sailors included, practiced folk magic of one kind or another.

For example, in 1679 a sailor named Caleb Powell was accused of bewitching a teenage boy in Newbury. Several people testified that Powell had bragged about his knowledge of spirits and astrology, and others testified he had been trained in the black arts by a warlock named Norwood. The court ultimately found Powell innocent of the charge of witchcraft but did fine him for knowing too much about magic. 

So who knows, maybe the man who blew up in Boston Harbor really was a necromancer of some kind. Only he and the Devil know for sure.

1 comment:

Rich Clabaugh said...

Thanks for the post Peter! I never heard of this one, creepy!