October 28, 2020

The Hideous Crone of Fall River

This story allegedly first appeared in the April 3, 1845 edition of The Weekly News, a Fall River newspaper. Newspapers at that time often published some pretty outrageous stories, so take this one with a grain of salt, or maybe even a tablespoon of salt. Still, it's a good story for Halloween and has a weird surprise ending. 


In the mid-1700s, a dilapidated old hut stood on the banks of the Quequechan River in Fall River. The hut had been abandoned for many years and was perched perilously on the river bank:

By whom it was created, and why in that uninviting, if not dangerous spot, nobody could tell. It had long been deserted except by bats and reptiles, and was fast going to decay under the alternate action of the sun and rain.

The hut was widely believed to be haunted, and locals avoided walking by it, particularly at night. An elderly woman, called the Crone of the Quequechan, was sometimes seen near the hut, and some people claimed she was a witch. These same people suggested burning the hut down or pushing it into the river, but these drastic actions were not taken. 

Francisco Goya, "Wicked Woman" 1819 - 1823

One December night, though, bright lights were seen shining forth from the cracks and holes in the hut. Smoke rose up from its chimney. Someone - or something - was inside! Fearfully, the people who lived nearby gathered together to decide a course of action. 

Some thought they should approach the hut as a group (for safety) and with a Bible (for even more safety). Some thought they should send for a minister. Others thought an armed group should attack the hut and burn it down. 

As they deliberated an elderly women appeared in the crowd. It was the Crone of the Quequechan herself. 

Her head was thrust forward, exhibiting a nose of uncommon magnitude, covered with warts and carbuncles, beneath which a mouth, half open, extending almost from eager to ear, showed here and there a few long dark tusks projecting out like half burnt stumps in a newly cleared field... Her large bony hands, foul with sore and accumulated filth, were thrust forward, and her long hooked fingers, incessantly in motion, seemed eager to seize whoever or whatever might come in her way.

Angrily, the crone surveyed the gathered crowd. "Who talks of throwing me or mine into the Quequechan? Who talks of priests and Bibles? Who talks of guns and fire?" she said as stalked among them. At first the citizens of Fall River shrank back in terror from her hideous gaze, but soon their fear turned to anger and they pushed her to ground. 

When the crone collapsed to the floor the crowd gasped. Everyone came to their senses. She was just a poor old woman, and they had nothing to fear from her. They regretted even thinking about burning down her hut.  

Their regret was short-lived, though. The crone stood up, grabbed an infant child from its mother's arms, and dashed off into the night. The crowd (or perhaps mob is really a better term?) followed after her. 

They pursued her to the dilapidated hut, where they managed to wrest the child from her arms. Holding her down, the mob prepared to burn the hut down. Other than a wooden stool and a pile of straw, the only piece of furniture was a small wooden chest. "Please!" begged the crone. "Don't throw that in the fire!"

One man in the mob opened the chest. Inside was a letter, which he read aloud:

Boston, June ye 10, 1700


I am in the iron grip of the king's bloodhounds! Take care of thyself.


The mob turned to look at the crone. "It's true," she said. "I am the last mistress of Captain Kidd, the pirate!" The mob was stunned. The crone grabbed the letter and stalked off into the night, never to be seen again in Fall River.  


The story allegedly first appeared in The Weekly News in 1845, but the version I worked from appeared in 1953 in The Herald News. There are a few different versions of the story. For example, Massachusetts: A Guide to the Bay State (1937) claims the mob only learned the crone was Captain Kidd's mistress after they stoned her to death. That's really grim. I like the 1953 version better since it has a more dramatic ending. Her announcement and subsequent disappearance into the night is like an 18th century mic drop. 

Painting of Captain Kidd by Howard Pyle

The story plays with the tropes of the classic New England witchcraft tale: the old woman with the spooky reputation, the crowd of suspicious neighbors, and the threat of mob violence. But there's a twist - the crone is not a witch, and she's not just an ordinary old woman. She was once the lover of Captain Kidd, the notorious pirate imprisoned in Boston before being sent to England for trial and execution. Witches were quite common, but pirate mistresses were rare and unusual. 

Was there really a Crone of Quequechan? All the pieces individually are plausible: an old woman suspected of witchcraft, an imprisoned pirate, and of course those suspicious and intolerant New Englanders. If the story is true I think it's been reshaped for dramatic effect. The ending is ridiculous and over-the-top, and I love it. 

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