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.