April 09, 2020

Molly Bridget and the Bewitched Pigs: A New Hampshire Witchcraft Story

Molly Bridget lived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire during the 1700s. Molly made her living telling fortunes for sailors and young lovers (as fortune tellers do) but over time she developed a reputation for being a witch. People in Portsmouth grew to fear and hate her.

Molly was never wealthy to begin with, and as she grew older she slipped into poverty. Sometime around the Revolutionary War she wound up living in Portsmouth's almshouse (or poorhouse). This was not to her liking so she decided to move south to Boston for a fresh start.

Unfortunately her reputation preceded her and when she arrived in Boston the following occurred:

Finding her way to Boston, the police gave her warning to leave the city forthwith.
"Why?" she asked.
"Is not your name Molly Bridget?"
"No, sir," she replied. "Do you think I am such a despicable creature as Molly?"
(Charles W. Brewster, Rambles About Portsmouth. Second Series. 1869)

The police weren't fooled. Molly realized that she wouldn't be able to leave her old identity behind so with a heavy heart she returned to Portsmouth and the almshouse.

An English woodcut of a witch from 1643
The almshouse was managed by a man named Clement March. One day in 1782 Mr. March noticed that the almshouse's pigs were acting strangely. His thoughts immediately turned to his resident witch, Molly Bridget. Had she bewitched the pigs?

There was only one way to find out. Like many people at that time, Mr. March believed that when a witch cursed something (or someone) they created a magical connection with the object of their curse. If Molly had cursed the pigs there was a connection between her and the animals. Molly's evil magic flowed from her into the pigs through this connection, but Mr. March thought he could use the connection to his advantage. He could make pain flow from the pigs back into Molly. If Molly felt enough pain she would stop cursing the animals.

Putting his plan into action, Mr. March took a knife out to the stye and cut off the pigs' ears and tails. He thought that this would be enough pain to cure the pigs of their strange behavior, but that was not the case.* He then decided to up the ante and burn their severed ears and tails, but when he went to gather them up the ears and tails were missing. Clearly this was more witchcraft! He surmised that Molly had made them disappear somehow.

Not willing to give up, Mr. March gathered the dead leaves and wood chips that were in the pig stye. These were soaked in the pigs' urine, feces, and blood, and therefore still had a connection to the animals and to the witch who had theoretically cursed them. He then burned the chips and leaves in the almshouse's various fireplaces.

The fires had a sudden and violent effect on Molly Bridget:

After the fires were kindled, Molly hastened from room to room in a frenzied manner. She soon went to her own room, and as the flames began to subside her sands of life began to run out, and before the ashes were cold, she was actually a corpse. (Brewster, Rambles About Portsmouth, 1869)

Mr. March and the residents of the Portsmouth almshouse took this as proof that Molly had indeed cursed the pigs. On the day of her funeral a violent storm struck Portsmouth, which was taken as further evidence that she was a witch.


Like last week's post about the witch of Pepperell, this story shows how the belief in witchcraft lingered in New England well past the witch trials of the 1600s. Also like last week's legend, there's no official documentation about Molly Bridget and her witchcraft. The only account I've found is in Charles W. Brewster's Rambles About Portsmouth (1869). 

So is this story true or just a legend? Brewster has the following to say on the matter:

These are facts - how far the results were induced by the superstitious feelings of that day, the reader is left to judge. The poor creature might have believed herself a witch, and the expectation expressed that the burning of the pigs' tails would kill the witch, might have so wrought upon her mind as to produce the result.

I might also suggest that stories like these tend to become more legend-like over time. Perhaps Molly Bridget just died from natural causes and people in Portsmouth created the legend about her death over the years. By the time Brewster wrote down the story 80 years later it had become the traditional witch legend it is now. 

* I don't think cutting off an animal's ears and tail will ever improve its behavior. Be kind to animals!


Sue Bursztynski said...

Those poor pigs!

Peter Muise said...

Yes, I agree!

Rich Clabaugh said...

Thanks as always Peter! Does she have a marked grave? Or was she buried in a potters field type of situation?

Peter Muise said...

Hi Rich! Thanks for the comment and sorry for the late response. I couldn't find any information about her grave or really much beyond this legend. I wonder if Molly Bridget was a nickname?