January 06, 2020

Aunt Mose, the Rocks Village Witch

Aunt Mose was reputed to be a witch and the people of Rocks Village (a rural part of Haverhill, Massachusetts) blamed their misfortunes on her. If the butter didn't churn properly they blamed Aunt Mose. If the lamps flickered and went out at a party they blamed her too. One of her neighbors, Captain Peaslee, covered his house and barn with horse shoes to deflect her evil magic. 

Once a group of neighbors who had gathered together for a corn-husking were troubled by a junebug that kept flying around their heads. The insect was quite persistent and wouldn't leave. Finally someone swatted it to the ground with a stick. The next day Aunt Mose was seen limping around the Village. She said she had fallen down the stairs but no one believed her. Clearly, people whispered, she had assumed the form of a junebug and been injured when it was swatted. Clearly she was a witch.

Like many people accused of witchcraft, Aunt Mose did not have much money. She lived for many years in a small house but was forced to sell it. On the day of the sale she angrily told the family who bought it that they would never be happy there. She was right. The family's spinning wheel stopped working as soon as they moved in and only worked properly when Aunt Mose borrowed it. When she returned it to them it stopped working again. Even worse, the mother of the family sickened and died eighteen months after moving in. At her funeral everyone remembered Aunt Mose's angry words...

Of course, the rumors infuriated Aunt Mose and she always denied she was a witch. In an effort to preserve her reputation she went to the local Justice of the Peace and asked him to draft and notarize a document declaring she was not a witch. The JP didn't have any such document, but he wrote one and signed it just to humor the elderly woman.

A 19th century daguerreotype
A young man once fell in love with Aunt Mose's daughter. His friends warned him that her mother was a witch but he just laughed at them. When he told them he was going to Aunt Mose's house that night to announce his intentions they decided to play a prank. They arranged big old chains above the door of her house that would fall when he opened it and scare him off. But things didn't quite work the way they planned. As the young man approached the house a strange light illuminated the doorway and he saw the chains. The prank didn't go off the way they wanted, but the young man was frightened by the strange light and decided not to court Aunt Mose's daughter. 

When Aunt Mose finally died no one could find her will but it was believed to be held by the local wealthy squire. The squire, however, had plenty of other things on his mind and was in no rush to find the document. 

A few months later the squire was sitting next to his fireplace when he got the strange impression he was not alone. Looking up he saw Aunt Mose sitting next to him. He was frightened since she had seen her put into the ground. They sat there in silence, Aunt Mose puffing ferociously on her pipe, until the squire finally spoke:

"Aunt Mose," he said at length, "for the Lord's sake, get right back to the burying-ground! What on earth are you here for?" 
The apparition took her pipe deliberately from her mouth and informed him that she came to see justice done with her will; and that nobody need think of cheating her, dead or alive." (quoted in William Sloane Kennedy, John G. Whittier, the Poet of Freedom, 1892. Note: Kennedy's text calls her "Aunt Morse.")

Aunt Mose then stepped out in the dark night. The squire made sure the will was executed according to her dying wishes the following day. 


I think most small New England towns had their "witches," usually eccentric elderly women that were convenient scapegoats for life's misfortunes. Most of them have been forgotten now but the legends about Aunt Mose have survived thanks to John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 - 1892), the famous poet who was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Aunt Mose lived on Corliss Hill behind Whittier's childhood home and he mentioned her in his poems and other writings. Other local residents added their remembrances to Whittier's, giving us the colorful stories we have today. 

John Greenleaf Whittier
Aunt Mose was a real person but it's not entirely clear who she was. In some stories she is called Aunt Mose and in others she is called Aunt Morse, which makes things complicated. The Rocks Village Historical Society suggests that she was Sarah Flanders Chase, who was born in 1762 and was the wife of Moses Chase. Perhaps she was called Aunt Mose because his name was Moses, or perhaps because she was called Aunt Morse because she was related to the Morse family. The Society also suggests that another woman named Chase may have been involved in the sales of the cursed house, not Aunt Mose, so several legends might be conflated. 

In the 17th century being accused of witchcraft was a serious matter, but by the early 19th century being called the town witch was much less dangerous. It was still inconvenient and unpleasant though. I find the stories about Aunt Mose charming (and maybe a little spooky) but I suspect her life was not an easy one. I like reading these old witch tales but have no desire to live in the past. 

My other main source for this post was Rebecca Ingersoll Davis's Gleanings from Merrimac Valley, Sheaf Number Two, 1886.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I was raised in West Newbury, MA and know of Rocks Village as well as drove over Rocks Village bridge many time. I'd never heard the story of Aunt Mose but found this very interesting indeed. Suzanne (Mesle) Benn

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Rich Clabaugh said...

Thanks for the interesting story, Peter, always entertaining!

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