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An Old Town by the Sea 5

OLD STRAWBERRY BANK by TB Aldrich (continued)


Portsmouth did not escape the witchcraft delusion, though I believe that no hangings took place within the boundaries of the township. Dwellers by the sea are generally superstitions; sailors always are. There is something in the illimitable expanse of sky and water that dilates the imagination. The folk who live along the coast live on the edge of a perpetual mystery; only a strip of yellow sand or gray rock separates them from the unknown; they hear strange voices in the winds at midnight, they are haunted by the spectres of the mirage. Their minds quickly take the impress of uncanny things. The witches therefore found a sympathetic atmosphere in Newcastle, at the mouth of the Piscataqua -- that slender paw of land which reaches out into the ocean and terminates in a spread of sharp, flat rocks, like the claws of an amorous cat. What happened to the good folk of that picturesque little fishing-hamlet is worth retelling in brief. In order properly to retell it, a contemporary witness shall be called upon to testify in the case of the Stone Throwing Devils of Newcastle. It is the Rev. Cotton Mather who addresses you --

"On June 11, 1682, showers of stones were thrown by an invisible hand upon the house of George Walton at Portsmouth [Newcastle was then a part of the town]. Whereupon the people going out found the gate wrung off the hinges, and stones -flying and falling thick about them, and striking of them seemingly with a great force, but really affecting 'em no more than if a soft touch were given them. The glass windows were broken by stones that came not from without, but from within; and other instruments were in a like manner hurled about. Nine of the stones they took up, whereof some were as hot as if they came out of the fire; and marking them they laid them on the table; but in a little while they found some of them again flying about. The spit was carried up the chimney, and coming down with the point forward, stuck in the back log, from whence one of the company removing it, it was by an invisible hand thrown out at the window. This disturbance continued from day to day; and some times a dismal hollow whistling would be heard, and sometimes the trotting and snorting of a horse, but nothing to be seen. The man went up the Great Bay in a boat on to a farm which he had there; but there the stones found him out, and carrying from the house to the boat a stirrup iron, the iron came jingling after him through the woods as far as his house; and at last went away and was heard no more. The anchor leaped overboard several times and stopt the boat. A cheese was taken out of the press, and crumbled all over the floor; a piece of iron stuck into the wall, aud a kettle hung thereon. Several cocks of hay, mow'd near the house, were taken up and hung upon the trees, and others made into small whisps, and scattered about the house. A man was much hurt by some of the stones. He was a Quaker, and suspected that a woman, who charged him with injustice in detaining some land from her, did, by witchcraft, occasion these preternatural occurrences. However, at last they came to an end."

Now I have done with thee, O credulous and sour Cotton Mather! so get thee back again to thy tomb in the old burying-ground on Copp's Hill, where, unless thy nature is radically changed, thou makest it uncomfortable for those about thee.

Nearly a hundred years afterward, Portsmouth had another witch -- a tangible witch in this instance -- one Molly Bridget, who cast her malign spell on the eleemosynary pigs at the Almshouse, where she chanced to reside at the moment. The pigs were manifestly bewitched, and Mr. Clement March, the superintendent of the institution, saw only one remedy at hand, and that was to cut off and burn the tips of their tails. But when the tips were cut off they disappeared, and it was in consequence quite impracticable to burn them. Mr. March, who was a gentleman of expedients, ordered that all the chips and underbrush in the yard should be made into heaps and consumed, hoping thus to catch and do away with the mysterious and provoking extremities. The fires were no sooner lighted than Molly Bridget rushed from room to room in a state of frenzy. With the dying flames her own vitality subsided, and she was dead before the ash-piles were cool. I say it seriously when I say that these are facts of which there is authentic proof.

If the woman had recovered, she would have fared badly, even at that late period, had she been in Salem; but the death-penalty has never been hastily inflicted in Portsmouth. The first execution that ever took place there was that of Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenny, for the murder of an infant in 1739. The sheriff was Thomas Packer, the same official who, twenty-nine years later, won unenviable notoriety at the hanging of Ruth Blay. The circumstances are set forth by the late Albert Laighton in a spirited ballad, which is too long to quote in full. The following stanzas, however, give the pith of the story --

"And a voice among them shouted,
  'Pause before the deed is done;
We have asked reprieve and pardon
  For the poor misguided one.'

"But these words of Sheriff Packer
  Rang above the swelling noise:
'Must I wait and lose my dinner ?
  Draw away the cart, my boys I'

"Nearer came the sound and louder,
  Till a steed with panting breath,
From its sides the white foam dripping,
  Halted at the scene of death;

"And a messenger alighted,
  Crying to the crowd, 'Make way!
This I bear to Sheriff Packer;
  'T is a pardon for Ruth Blay I "'

But of course he arrived too late -- the Law led Mercy about twenty minutes. The crowd dispersed, horror-stricken; but it assembled again that night before the sheriff's domicile and expressed its indignation in groans. His effigy, hanged on a miniature gallows, was afterward paraded through the streets.

"Be the name of Thomas Packer
  A reproach forevermore!"

Laighton's ballad reminds me that Portsmouth has been prolific in poets, one of whom, at least, has left a mouthful of perennial rhyme for orators -- Jonathan Sewell with his

"No pent-up Utica contracts your powers,
  But the whole boundless continent is yours."

I have somewhere seen a volume with the alliterative title of "Poets of Portsmouth," in which are embalmed no fewer than sixty immortals!

But to drop into prose again, and have done with this Iliad of odds and ends. Portsmouth has the honor, I believe, of establishing the first recorded pauper work house -- though not in connection with her poets, as might naturally be supposed. The building was completed and tenanted in 1716. Seven years later, an act was passed in England authorizing the establishment of parish workhouses there. The first and only keeper of the Portsmouth almshouse up to 1750 was a woman -- Rebecca Austin.

Speaking of first things, we are told by Mr. Nathaniel Adams, in his "Annals of Portsmouth," that on the 20th of April, 1761, Mr. John Stavers began running a stage from that town to Boston. The carriage was a two-horse curricle, wide enough to accommodate three passengers. The fare was thirteen shillings and sixpence sterling per head. The curricle was presently superseded by a series of fat yellow coaches, one of which -- nearly a century later, and long after that pleasant mode of travel had fallen obsolete -- was the cause of much mental tribulation 1. to the writer of this chronicle.



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