June 26, 2022

Don't Mess with Thankful Buck: Witchcraft, Black Cats, and A Punished Husband

In my last post, I wrote about Nathan Selee, an alleged wizard who lived in Easton, Massachusetts in the 18th century. People in New England believed that witchcraft ran in families, so it's not surprising one of his sisters was also considered a witch. Her name was Thankful Selee Buck.

Once again, I get my information about the Selee family from William L. Chaffin’s History of the Town of Easton (1886). The stories about Thankful are not as outrageous as those told about her brother. There are no demonic imps running sawmills, or mysterious strangers presenting books of evil magic. Instead, we mostly have classic New England tales of witchcraft.

For example, Chaffin writes that "Loads of hay were sometimes stopped in front of her house, and could not move until she gave the signal, when a black cat was seen to come out from under the hay and glide away." This type of legend is associated with many other witches across New England, although not always with a black cat involved. And just what (or who?) was that mysterious feline? 

A neighbor was said to have caught a black cat doing some mischief, and to have given her a severe beating on the head; the next day it was observed that Thankful Buck had lost an eye. (Chaffin, History of Easton)

Stories about mysterious animals and injured witches have been told in New England for hundreds of years, starting with the Puritans. It was widely believed that witches could project their souls out of their bodies in the shape of animals. These animals were still subject to physical harm, though, so if someone hurt the animal the injury would appear on the witch's human body. Ouch! In some stories, the animals are even killed, which causes the witch to die.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Chaffin does tell two stories about Thankful Buck that are more unusual. They both relate to her family. First, he writes that she was "said to have performed her incantations at midnight with her daughters, one of whom inherited her name and reputation, by pouring water from one pan into another." As I mentioned, New Englanders believed witchcraft ran in families, so it makes sense people in Easton thought at least one of Thankful's daughters was a witch. The detail about using two pans of water is an interesting one, and I don't think I've seen that one before. If anyone tries this at midnight, let me know the result!

Finally, Chaffin writes that Thankful once sent her husband to buy her a particular type of wool fabric. He returned home empty-handed, and was unable to enter the house due to an angry Thankful's magic. Only when he came home with the fabric was he able to get into the house. This story makes me laugh - do not make a witch angry! - but it also points out how often these stories about the fear of powerful women. Clearly, she was the one in charge of the Buck household. 

William Chaffin claims that even when he was writing in 1886, some of his Easton neighbors still believed these stories were true. Chaffin is skeptical; he wonders, for example, why Thankful Buck didn't use her magic to save her eye, or if perhaps Thankful and her brother Nathan deliberately cultivated reputations as witches to instill fear in their neighbors. 

I suppose that's possible - see for example the Dogtown witches - but I think it's more likely the Selees and Bucks were just unpopular with their neighbors. Perhaps they were demanding, or maybe they were rude and ill-mannered. It didn't take much to get accused of witchcraft in these small New England town. Happily, they lived after the witchcraft trials ended, so they were not brought to court or executed. I appreciate these old witchcraft legends, but I always try to remember they were about real people, not magical witches. 

June 12, 2022

Satanic Imps, A Wizard and Grim Predictions in Easton, Massaschusetts

A while ago my friend Sam Baltrusis asked me if I knew anything about a haunted mill pond in Easton, Massachusetts. I did not – this legend was new to me. I am always excited to learn about a new local legend, so thank you Sam for pointing me towards this one. 

I did some research and found some interesting stories about the pond and the alleged wizard who used to live nearby. If you visit Mill Pond in Easton today, you will find the following sign:

 “Site of the the sawmill built by John Selee in the 18th century and continued by his son, Nathan, a wizard who purportedly used satanic imps to run the mill at night.”

William Seltzer Rice, "Mill on the Stanislaus," 1940

The sign was put up in 1999, and I appreciate that Easton’s Conservation Commission included the legend of Nathan Selee on it. Legends like this one are an interesting and important part of our local history and heritage. And who doesn't love a story about Satanic imps?

Nathan Selee was born in 1733, served as a private in the American Revolution, and died in 1815 at age 82. That’s what Vol. 103 of the Daughters of the American Revolution Lineage Book (1928) tells us. The Lineage Book doesn’t say anything about Selee’s alleged supernatural antics, though. For that, I turned to to William L. Chaffin’s History of the Town of Easton (1886), which says the following about the Selee sawmill:

Nathan Selee sawed lumber there late in the century; and strange stories were told, and even believed by superstitious people, about the Devil or his imps running the mill at night, Nathan Selee being reported as knowing too much about magic arts, and being on too good terms for awhile with their author. But sawing logs by water- power on cold nights seems rather uncongenial work for his Satanic Majesty; it would be more easy to credit his running a steam saw-mill, with a blazing furnace. It is wiser to acquit Mr. Selee of any such questionable partnership, and to think that the rolling and buzzing of wheel and saw, which the belated passers-by supposed they heard, were all in their own brains, and might easily be accounted for by the strength and quantity of hard cider or New England rum they had taken.

According to legend, witches were often given small demons (called familiars or imps) to help them with their work by the Devil, and male witches were often credited with being unnaturally industrious by their superstitious neighbors. These are of course only legends, and Chaffin is basically saying Nathan Selee's neighbors were just drunkards who mistook the routine sounds of the mill for something supernatural. 

This might be true, but it seems Nathan Selee definitely had a sorcerous reputation around Easton, because Chaffin includes another legend about him in his History:

Mr. Selee was a clairvoyant, and many stories are current of what he saw and foretold. He was in Stimson Williams's house on one occasion, and knowing his gifts in that direction, one of Mr. Williams's daughters asked him to tell her fortune, but he declined; and after leaving the house, he said to a man who came out with him that if she could see what the next week would bring her, she would not have asked to have her fortune told. She died the next week.

Spooky! That sounds like a classic legend to me. Despite supposedly having accurate psychic powers, though, Nathan Selee ultimately gave up on the magical arts. He didn't want to deal with the Devil. Again, from Chaffin’s History of the Town of Easton: 

The story is still believed also, that, having sought long for a certain book on magic which he thought would perfect him in the art, the door of his shop opened one day and a stranger handed him the book and vanished. Directly upon the departure of this strange visitant a wild storm began to rage; the winds howled, the lightnings flashed, the thunders roared, and destruction seemed to impend. Mr. Selee took the book and all other books of the kind that he possessed, and threw them into the fire; and then going to the door and looking out he saw the sun shining, and everything beautiful and peaceful. This determined him to have no more to do with the dangerous subject.

I'm not sure why folks in Easton thought Selee was a wizard. In the 1600s, people who were demanding and cantankerous were the ones often accused of witchcraft by their neighbors. I haven't found anything that indicates Selee was either of those things, but that may have still been the case. 

Happily, Nathan Selee was born after the witchcraft trials ended, because otherwise his sorcerous reputation could have led to his execution by hanging. Rather than a tragic tale, he's left a legacy of interesting legends and a nice sign alongside a peaceful pond. 

I wish I had learned about this story while I was writing my book Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts, but maybe I can include it in a second edition? If you want to read lots of other stories about witches in the Bay State, you can find my book wherever you buy books online.