September 25, 2019

Abducted to the Witches' Sabbath: Joseph Ring and A Devilish Debt

The Devil must have really wanted Joseph Ring to become a witch. Over the course of two years poor Joseph was spirited away to the Witches' Sabbath against his will dozens of times. It often happened at night while he was asleep but also happened during the day. Some neighbors even claimed to have seen him walking down the road and then vanish in broad daylight. 

Joseph Ring was born in Salisbury, Massachusetts in 1664. There isn't much known about his early years, but when he was twenty-six he enlisted in a military expedition to Casco, Maine. The English settlement at Casco had been besieged by French troops and their Indian allies and the Puritans sent four ships to relieve the settlers. The expedition was in vain. When the ships arrived they found that Casco had been burned to the ground and most of the inhabitants slaughtered. 

This was probably a traumatic thing for Joseph to see. There was a lot of anxiety and trauma about the war with the French and Indians in New England in general at that time. Everyone knew a story about a burned village, a massacre, or some other atrocity. 

 

But surprisingly Joseph claimed that seeing the burning settlement was not the most frightening thing about the expedition. No, the most frightening thing was that he made a bet with Thomas Hardy. 

On this way to Maine Joseph had stopped at a tavern on New Hampshire's Great Island. While he was there he met Thomas Hardy who invited him to play shuffleboard, a game of chance played by sliding a coin down a table. Joseph was young and didn't have any money, but Hardy loaned him some money to play. Joseph lost the game and left the tavern owing him two pounds. 

After the expedition Hardy frequently asked Joseph for the money he was owed. But was he just interested in money or something more? He was quite insistent and appeared to Joseph at odd times and in almost unnatural circumstances. For example, Joseph once encountered him on an isolated road where Hardy was riding on horseback with a strange group of men and women. Joseph later stumbled upon Hardy drinking cider with two women in the middle of dense woods. The woods were dangerous, full of wild animals and angry Indians, but Hardy and his companions seemed unconcerned. 

Each time they met Hardy asked Joseph for the money he was owed. Joseph didn't have two pounds and was unable to repay the debt. Hardy was sympathetic and suggested instead that if Joseph simply signed his name in a black book his debt would be forgiven. In fact, signing the book might even bring good things into his life. Wouldn't he like to sign his name?

Something about the book made Joseph uneasy and he refused to sign. Other things made him even uneasier. Once after leaving Hardy and his strange companions in the woods Joseph thought they had turned into black pigs and run off into the trees. At other times Hardy and his friends had appeared as flaming balls of fire. 

 

Joseph realized that Hardy was a witch, and while Joseph owed him two pounds he didn't want to repay the debt with his soul.

The situation went from bad to worse. He refused to sign the book but Joseph began to be abducted to the Witches' Sabbath, being taken bodily to the eerie gathering where the witches celebrated their service to the Devil. The abductions happened frequently and in the same manner each time. Strange figures would appear and carry him away through the air. Joseph would suddenly find himself at the Sabbath and then feel a painful blow upon his back that immobilized him. He was unable to move and could only watch the witches feast and celebrate. Someone would present him with a book to sign, which he always refused. The scene would dissolve into terrifying noise and chaos, and Joseph would find himself back in the normal world.

Although neighbors allegedly saw him vanish he was not able to tell them what was happening. Thomas Hardy and the other witches had enchanted Joseph so he was unable to talk about the Sabbath and his unwilling sojourns there. In August of 1691 the spell upon him worsened and he became unable to speak at all. 

The spell was finally broken in April of 1692 when Susannah Martin, a widow who lived nearby, appeared in Joseph's bedroom while he slept. Joseph had seen her before with Thomas Hardy and knew she was a witch. As he lay immobile in bed she viciously pinched his feet. She vanished from his room, but for some reason her attack had released him from the spell that silenced him. He could speak again. 

The name "Susannah Martin" may be familiar to you from the Salem Witch trials. She was one of the nineteen people hanged for witchcraft, and Joseph Ring's testimony helped seal her fate. He told the magistrates about his abductions, the debt he owed Thomas Hardy, and about Susannah Martin's friendship with him. Joseph's brother Jarvis also testified against Martin, claiming that she had appeared in his bedroom and lain upon his immobilized body.

Joseph and his brother were only two of many people who testified against Susannah Martin, but their statements helped convict her. She was executed on July 19, 1692 on Salem's Gallows Hill. Thomas Hardy was not convicted of any crimes, despite Joseph's insistence that he was a witch of the most devilish kind. 

Joseph Ring's story gives me a lot to think about. Some historians think his intense fear and fantasies about Thomas Hardy were misplaced traumas actually caused by what he saw at Casco, Maine or by stories he heard about Indian attacks. Psychologically that makes a lot of sense to me. His mind focused on the minor issue of a two pound debt rather than process the horror he saw in Maine. 

As someone who likes weird stories I'm also intrigued by his account of being abducted by witches, which echo accounts of people abducted by fairies or even UFOs. The phenomenon remains constant but the explanation changes over time and across cultures. 

I'm also saddened that his testimony contributed to the death of Susannah Martin. Joseph clearly believed Thomas Hardy was the witch most responsible for tormenting him, but in 17th century Massachusetts women were much more likely than men to be convicted of witchcraft. Something psychological was clearly happening to Joseph but it was not Susannah Martin's fault.

It probably wasn't Thomas Hardy's either. I do wonder if Joseph continued to live in fear of Hardy and the debt he owed even after the Salem witch trials concluded. Sadly Joseph Ring died only twelve years after the Salem witch trials ended. In 1704 he was captured by Indians in a raid and burned alive. Ironically, Joseph Ring's life ended right back where his trauma began. 

*****

Information about Joseph Ring can be found in the Salem witch trial transcripts and in documents from that time by Cotton Mather and Robert Calef. There is also some good information online. Marilynne Roach's The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege was also incredibly helpful.

3 comments:

Rich Clabaugh said...

Thanks for the post Peter, I love he creepier elements where Ring just 'happened' to bump into Hrdy and his group.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Rich! Thanks for commenting. All in all, this is a creepy story. It's pretty unsettling!

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