December 18, 2019

The Witch with Twenty Cats: A Classic New England Curse

Today was very dark and gloomy, with a snowy morning turning into a rainy afternoon. There was barely any sun at all. I suppose I should write about some cheery holiday topic, but I want to write about witches instead. Sometimes a spooky story can lighten up a gloomy day just as easily as a shiny Christmas tree!

The story comes from Robert Ellis Cahill's little book Olde New England's Strange Superstitions (1990, third edition) and takes place in Sutton, Massachusetts. Sutton is a small town in Worcester County and is perhaps most famous for the geologic formation Purgatory Chasm. It seems it also was once the home of at least one witch. Or maybe she was just an innocent old woman?

The story, as Cahill relates it, goes something like this. Many years ago an elderly widow named Goody Wakefield resided in Sutton. She was something of a curmudgeon and lived by herself near the river. Well, to clarify, she lived without human companionship but she did live with a lot cats. Twenty of them, to be exact.

Goody Wakefield was quite poor but never went hungry. Her cats kept her fed. Every day they would troop down to the river and catch pickerel. They'd then bring the fish home to Goody Wakefield. She kept the pickerel in the pockets of the wool coat that she wore all year long. People in Sutton would see her wandering through town with fish in her pockets, and in the summer heat they would smell her as well.

A daguerrotype from the 1860s
As an eccentric elderly woman with a lot of cats she developed a reputation as a witch. Most townspeople avoided her. They feared the evil eye and the malodorous smell that emitted from her coat pockets. But two young men decided to do something about this eccentric woman who disturbed people in Sutton. They devised a plan to kill Goody Wakefield's cats.

The two men hid in the bushes by the river, and as Goody Wakefield's cats paraded down to catch fish they killed them one by one. Seventeen of the felines met their doom that day - only three escaped. When the men were done they piled the bodies on a stone in front of Goody Wakefield's house and shouted until she came outside.

Goody Wakefield emerged from her house and was horrified to see her cats had been slaughtered. As she wept the two men laughed and laughed, mocking the old woman's tears. They continued laughing even as she pointed a trembling finger at them and shrieked:


Several neighbors were drawn by the commotion and witnessed Goody Wakefield's curse. The two young men laughed at the old woman but the neighbors didn't. They were filled with dread. And one year later they remembered her curse when one of the young cat killers drowned in the river. They remembered again when the second young man caught a strange disease that left him a babbling maniac for the rest of his life.

The neighbors didn't know if the two men were punished by God or cursed by the Devil, but they remembered Goody Wakefield's curse.

Well, that's the story. I hope it cleared up your winter gloom! There are a few things about it that I find interesting. First, I have only seen it in Cahill's Olde New England's Strange Superstitions.  It doesn't appear in History of the town of Sutton, Massachusetts, from 1704 to 1876 : including Grafton until 1735; Millbury until 1813; and parts of Northbridge, Upton and Auburn so I'm not sure where Robert Cahill heard the story.

It certainly follows the format for a classic New England witch's curse story. In these stories, an innocent person (like Goody Wakefield) curses the people who are persecuting them as a witch. The curse then comes true. These stories are a kind of ambiguous about why the curse work, but I think it is usually implied that God himself is punishing the people who persecuted the witch. I mentioned one of these last week (Sarah Good's dying curse on Samuel Noyes), but others include this curse on Colonel Buck, or this one cast by an alleged witch named Aunt Rachel. 

Robert Ellis Cahill claimed that he himself was the object of a dying witch's curse, one that was centuries old. During the Salem witch trials an elderly farmer named Giles Corey was accused of being a witch. He refused to speak to the judges so Salem sheriff George Corwin staked Giles to the ground and piled rocks upon his chest. The sheriff thought this form of torture would make Giles talk but it didn't. The sheriff piled on more and more rocks, but according to tradition Giles's only words were: "More weight." He died without speaking. 

According to legend, every sheriff of Essex County since that time was cursed with heart problems and blood disease. George Corwin died of a heart attack at a young age as did many of his successors. One of those successors, centuries later, was Robert Ellis Cahill who served as sheriff from 1974 until 1978. Cahill suffered a heart attack and stroke in 1978 at the age of 44. The curse was only broken when the Essex County sheriff's office was moved from Salem to its current location in Middleton. 

After he retired as sheriff Cahill devoted his time to writing books about local New England folklore. He wrote more than thirty books (I have several of them), so I guess something good came out of Giles Corey's curse in the end. 


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Rich Clabaugh said...

Thanks for the story Peter! I love Cahill's books and have many myself, most bought from Salem gift shops.

Peter Muise said...

Thanks Rich! Cahill's books are like great relics from another era. They're idiosyncratic and very entertaining.