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Demystifying Witchcraft in Portsmouth and Salem

Salem Witchcraft Museum /

“Oh God, it’s October again!” Prof. Emerson Baker groans over the phone, and I can almost hear his eyeballs roll up towards the heavens. Reporters by the dozen call “Tad” Baker this time of year for their annual Halloween fix. (Continued below)


But it’s his own fault. Dr. Baker teaches history at Salem State College in Salem, Massachusetts. He specializes in the 17th century and often teaches a course entitled “Witchcraft and Magic in Early New England.” His popular book The Devil of Great Island is an entertaining yet scholarly study of the mysterious flying rocks that pelted tavern-keeper George Walton in New Castle, NH in 1682. Now Baker is deep into the research for his next book. Storm of Witchcraft will focus on the Salem Witch Trials for the prestigious Oxford University Press. And he will appear on-camera next month in the National Geographic television special "Salem: Unmasking the Devil."

The curse of Witch City

Prof. Emerson Baker author of "The Devil of Great Island" / Macmillan photoSalem, like Portsmouth, was once among the most active ports on the Atlantic coast. Its history is rich with maritime tales of the China Trade and privateering and famous figures like navigator Nathaniel Bowditch and writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Since its seaport trade collapsed and its industrial era faded, Salem has become dependant, again like Portsmouth, on heritage tourism. But despite its rich past, Salem has been branded as “Witch City.”

“It’s really too bad,” Baker says. “It [witchcraft] really has more to do with Danvers than with Salem. Only the trials and executions took place in what is now Salem. It took up less than a year of Salem’s history, and yet it has overtaken all of this other stuff historically.”

What began as clever “branding” has morphed, for many, into a cheesy stereotype of Hollywood-influenced fiction – more Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter than historic Salem. Shops focused on the supernatural litter the historic district selling plastic human skulls and glow-in-the dark fangs. Directly across from the prestigious Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) visitors can pose for photos wearing rented witch costumes gathered around a fake boiling cauldron. Baker quotes from one tourist brochure that claims: “This is Salem’s only authentic paranormal tour.”

“Historians and locals want to tell the Salem story correctly,” Baker says. “But when we tell it correctly, people aren’t going to come for the witchcraft and Halloween tourism.”





The devil next door

Portsmouth has its share of spooky legends, but lucky for us, little blood was shed, and no witches were executed. Baker has written the definitive study of the “Stone Throwing Devil” of New Castle, a fascinating incident that preceded the Salem Witch Trials by 10 years. His book Devil of Great Island has sold over 5,000 copies and is now available in paperback and e-book formats. Baker’s careful analysis shows how family infighting, political turmoil, religious intolerance, turf wars, and superstitious beliefs all conspired to create a thrilling legend that refuses to die.

“Here was this case of witchcraft that was exciting,” Baker says, “because it broke the stereotype in so many ways. It’s not taking place in Massachusetts. It’s not witchcraft as we think of it today. And it’s not just Puritans, but here [in New Hampshire] we have Quakers and Anglicans and Baptists – and, of course, flying stones.”

Baker uses the New Castle story in his college classes, he says, to teach people about the “other New England.”

“Once you get north of the Merrimack River and into New Hampshire and Maine you’re reaching an area that is not a stereotypical New England village at all. We have cases of witchcraft in the Piscataqua that are well before anything in Salem,” he says.

Hag-ridden in Portsmouth

Baker, who lives in nearby York, Maine, is familiar with well-known local cases like Goodwife Cole in Hampton who was frequently jailed for her supposed witchcraft in what, essentially, was a dispute over property ownership. Portsmouth’s legends have survived, like so much local hsitory, from the pen of Charles W. Brewster, who wrote and published newspapers here for 50 years in the first half of the 19th century. It was Brewster who kept the skeletal legend of the Stone Throwing Devil alive until Baker fleshed it out.

Brewster did not treat the legends as fact, but passed them along to entertain his newspaper readers. An article entitled “Witchcraft in New Hampshire” appeared on the front page of the Portsmouth Journal on July 20, 1839 and was later adapted into Brewster’s two-volume history of Portsmouth. He noted that children and the elderly were most susceptible to supernatural myths, especially in a town filled in his day with dark abandoned mansions.

Referring to a dilapidated house in the South End Brewster wrote:

“The superstitious were therefore very careful about passing such houses by night, especially in dark and stormy weather, when, as many believed in those days, the witches would sally out from the house and, if successful in casting a horse's bridle over the head of any person passing by, would immediately transform the victim into a horse, and after having him shod with iron shoes, would ride the animal till it became tired, and just before daylight would turn it loose in the street. The persons thus afflicted would the next day find prints of the horse nails on their hands.”

“That’s where you get the term ‘hag-ridden,’” Baker says without a pause. His mind is an encyclopedia of the Dark Arts. The term reminds him of a major outbreak of witchcraft in the Piscataqua region in 1656. That’s when Eunice Cole and Jane Walford and William Ham and Thomas Turpin were accused of witchery.

“Witchcraft is a working class crime,” Baker says, and even in its heyday was rarely taken seriously by the learned judges of the era. “It was sort of a way to slander your neighbors or to get back at people who have done something to you.”

Local accusations against Jane Walford, Baker suggests, appear to be attempts to get back at her husband Thomas who was a powerful person in the community. Walford was in charge of redoing the seating plan in the meeting house in Portsmouth. It was highly contentious, he says, as to what citizens would get the best spot in church. Seating determined who was the richest in the community and who was the most devout.

“People got really bent out of shape over these seating plans,” Baker says. It brought the original Royalists or “Old Planters” in town directly into conflict with the newly arriving Puritans. When John Pickering, one of the founders of Portsmouth and owner of the mill and much of the land in the South End, saw another revised seating plan in 1659, he furiously tore it off the church wall.

Unable to fight back politically or legally, Baker says, citizens during these turbulent times resorted to calling each other witches and wizards. The most vulnerable person to attack in this case, Baker suggests, was Walford’s wife.




Just think “terrorist”

Brewster all but ridicules those who take the stories literally. Even in the 1830s, he points out; intelligent Portsmouth citizens had cast aside such beliefs. The man who claimed he was seduced by witches and hag-ridden, Brewster explains, was also seen drinking heavily at a Portsmouth tavern late that same night. And when superstitious locals shivered over invisible specters who knocked on their doors, Brewster offers a scientific explanation. The knocker was activated by a thin string pulled by young pranksters hiding in the bushes, he says. Boys will be boys.

Brewster was bothered towards the end of his life by the rise of Spiritualism and Mesmerism that offered scientific explanations for ghostly and supernatural events. “It is science now,” he scoffs, “it was witchcraft then.” The Age of Enlightenment, he implies, might be giving way again to superstition.

“It [spiritualism] really starts again in the wake of the Civil War when everyone is trying to connect to their lost loved ones,” Baker says. The revival of superstition seems to be on the rise again as evidenced by the modern fascination with all things paranormal, from vampire films and TV ghost hunters to the boom in Halloween tourism.

But, hopefully, Baker says, there is a difference. When we’re talking about witches in the 17th century, it’s not superstition; it’s the accepted belief system of the day.

“If you’re living in Portsmouth in the 1650s or Salem in 1692, you know witches are real,” Baker says. “You know they can kill you. They don’t even have to be in your town. They could be 50 or 100 miles away and still strike you dead, or cause all kinds of harm to you and your family or your livestock, ruin your lives, sink ships at sea, you name it.”

How does 17th century New England stop this? They have to get rid of the witches, Baker says. “But if we don’t know who they are, how can we do that?”

The early residents of the Piscataqua faced harsh weather, darkness, wild animals, Native Americans, sickness, and mystifying events – not to mention the very real existence of witches and the devil. If you swap the word “terrorist” for “witch,” Baker says, modern Americans can begin to understand the problem our ancestors faced. We have not advanced so far as we may think.

“People today think we’re so sophisticated,” Baker says, “and we don’t believe in superstition. Well – do you believe in terrorists? Yes? Well, have you ever met a terrorist? Have you ever been harmed by a terrorist? What do they look like?”

It’s even more scary, Baker points out, if the terrorists look just like you, and might be sitting right next to you in church. This region was far from the civilized world of Europe in the 17th century, sometimes referred to as “the dark corners of piety” where anything could happen.

“This was the howling wilderness, a place of chaos and disorder. It was the devil’s lair. Living in the Piscataqua you were barely in civilized land.”

Baker pauses, unable to resist. “Some would say we’re still barely civilized. Go out in the woods tonight without a flashlight and let’s see what happens.”


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site His newest hardcover history book is America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812.

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