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Demystifying Witchcraft in Portsmouth and Salem


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.


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Tuesday, February 20, 2018 
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