Attack of the Rock-Throwing
"At Night a great Stone fell in
the Kitchin, as I was going to Bed, and the Pewter was thrown down; many
Stones flew about, and the Candles by them put out 3 or 4 times, and the
Stones rained on New Castle Island in the summer of 1682. For three months rocks tossed by unseen hands battered the New Hampshire home of George and Alice Walton and crashed through their small leaded glass windows. A torturing hail of stones followed them into the fields, pelting their arms and legs, bruising the flesh. George Walton, an elderly tavern keeper and planter was struck full in the back. When he crossed from "Great Island" to the Portsmouth mainland by boat to report what was happening to him, a flying rock "broke his head".
The mysterious flying stones came and went all that summer. As many as 100 were reported in one session, always focused on Walton or anyone who happened to be near him. Walton reported being struck as many as 30 or 40 times. When he visited his son who lived up along Great Bay, the rocks flew at him in a field, but mostly they hammered at the Walton’s home. Some were hot, as if just taken from an oven, while some were cold as death. They ranged from tiny pebbles, to stones the size of a man’s fist, or as large as a human head.
Historians largely owe the detailed account of the flying stones to an
"ocular witness", Richard Chamberlain, who lodged with the Waltons at
their tavern in 1682. Chamberlain was secretary of the British Colony of
New Hampshire and agent to the Mason family in England who had inherited
title to all the land here at the time. He was sleeping on the second
floor of Walton’s "ordinary" or tavern at 10 pm on a Sunday in June when
the stones began to fall. Chamberlain published his journal of the events
16 years later and entitled it "Lithobolia", a Greek-sounding word he
apparently created that translates to "Stone-Throwing Devil". (The
full title, that runs to nearly 100-words is reprinted at the end of this
It’s a fascinating diary with a few genuinely strange tales. Some of
the stones, Chamberlain recounted, seemed to move slowly through the air
and land with almost no impact. He was convinced that the stones sometime
flew by themselves, propelled from inside the house toward the outdoors.
Recovered stones lined up on the table disappeared and reappeared. When
the Waltons tried to ward off the devil by boiling crooked pins in a pot
of urine, a flying stone hit the pot and the contents spilled. Refilled
and replaced, the pot was again knocked from the fireplace by invisible
Besides tossing stones, Chamberlain’s "devil" was blamed for a rash of mischief. A gate from the Chamberlain’s to the Amazeen house nearby is found tossed off its hinges twice. A spit from the fireplace disappears and then hurdles down the chimney and sticks into a log. A wheel of cheese is found broken to bits. The drainage stopper in George Walton’s boat is missing. Household appliances are found tossed into the yard. Rocks are heard rolling in the upstairs room at night, and often there is the sound of snorting, heavy breathing and the echo of distant hoof beats.
This scientific analysis came from a highly superstitious and fearsome age. Walton was a first generation settler who made the dangerous journey to this large and mysterious New World in 1638. New England was a country of immeasurable peril from wild animals, frozen winters, Native American reprisals, disease and starvation. Most colonists believed in the devil, many in witchcraft. "Goody" Cole of nearby Hampton was convicted of witchcraft during this era and imprisoned in a Boston jail.
Walton, a Quaker, had himself been accused of wizardry after he accused his neighbor Hannah Jones of being a witch. The Waltons were, by 17th century standards, wealthy New Castle property owners. Neighbor "Goody" Jones was poor. Their property dispute broke out over the use of a small field to which each laid claim. In an era when women could be arrested for speaking out, Jones called Walton "an old rogue and so he would be hang'd."
According to Chamberlain, Hannah Jones angrily told Walton that he
"should never quietly injoy that piece of Ground". Her comment was taken
for a bewitching curse and, therefore, evidence that Jones’ witchery had
likely summoned the Stone-Throwing Devil.
Increase and Cotton Mather, among the most powerful
men in the colonial Puritan "regime" also wrote about the remarkable
phenomenon in New Castle. Cotton Mather served as a judge less than a
decade later at the deadly Salem Witch Trials. Emerson "Tad" Baker, head
of the History Department at Salem State College
in Massachusetts sees the New Castle incident as a
forerunner of the hysteria that later bubbled over in Salem. Baker is
currently completing a book-length study of the Lithobolia story.
On close examination, most of Chamberlain’s 6,500-word report on the
fiendish stone-throwing demon sounds, to the modern reader, like an
elaborate teenage prank. Chamberlain even admits that many New Castle
residents were unconvinced by his theory that supernatural forces were at
work. It was likely just "the waggery of some unlucky Boys" many said. One
witness, Chamberlain reports, however, became a believer.
One Person would not be perswaded but that the Boys at Work might throw
them, and strait her little Boy standing by her was struck with a Stone on
the Back, which caused him to fall a crying, and her (being convinc’d) to
carry him away forth-with.
In his upcoming book, Baker details the near volcanic cultural and economic conditions in late 19th century New Castle. The Great Island was, just two days before stone throwing began, petitioning to separate from nearby Portsmouth. The petition had been denied. To make matters worse, the heirs of John Mason, who had been granted all the lands in New Hampshire by the King in 1623, wanted their land back. At the very least the "Masonian Proprietors" wanted to collect taxes on every resident of the colony. Richard Chamberlain was the lawyer for the Mason family, certainly a likely target for locals who did not want to have to pay for land they already felt they owned. And Chamberlain was staying with Walton, who was sympathetic to the Masonian claim.
Worse, Baker notes, George and Alice Walton were avowed Quakers. Quakers in nearby Puritan Massachusetts could be hanged just for setting foot in the province. In New Hampshire, though less severe than the Mass Bay Colony, a group of Quaker women had been stripped to the waist and beaten in one town square after another. The man who halted this early New Hampshire "hate crime", was Captain Walter Barefoot, one of Walton’s neighbors. Capt. Barefoot, a doctor, was among a party of respectable local men who had witnessed the flying stones at Walton'’ tavern.
A wealthy Quaker housing a Masonian lawyer was bad enough, but George Walton’s household also included an African man and an Indian woman, both servants in an era of great racial intolerance. In the late 1600s much of colonial New England was ravaged by Native American reprisals, the deadly King Williams war. Mary Agawam had gained public disdain years earlier by conceiving an illegitimate son with a visiting sailor at Walton’s tavern – and on the "Lord’s Day" to boot. Her son, William Indian, had been indentured as a servant to Walton until his 24th birthday.
Like most modern crimes, Baker suggests, George Walton may have known his mysterious attackers intimately. Very elderly for their era, George and Alice Walton had outlived many of their children. That left them with a house full of dependent grandchildren. Whether the kids fell under the influence of angry neighbors, hoped to collect their family inheritance early or just teamed up with some rowdy friends is sheer conjecture. But signs point now, as then, to an inside job. It was the boys, after all, who heard the snorting devils. The girls sleeping upstairs were awakened by rocks rolled by an invisible hand. These same children also ran outside during the rain of stones and reported seeing no visible enemy. Did they invent ways to catapult stones from within and without the tavern, or simply fling them behind their backs in the dim candle-lit kitchen?
The Stone-Throwing Devil miraculously disappeared just after Richard
Chamberlain checked out of Walton’s tavern and returned to England. Two
and a half years later, George Walton signed his worldly goods over to his
wife Alice and provided legacies to his grandchildren – Alice, Priscilla,
Grace, Samuel, Thomas, Elizabeth and Walton and to his surviving sons and
daughters. George Walton was 70 when he signed that will and he died the
following year in 1686, still plagued by wounds from flying stones.
ADDITIONAL NOTE: Following is the full title of Richard Cmaberlains’s 1682 journal published in London in 1698:
Lithobolia: or, the Stone-Throwing Devil. Being an Exact and True Account (by way of Journal) of the various Actions of Infernal Spirits, or (Devils Incarnate) Witches, or both; and the great Disturbance and Amazement they gave to George Waltons Family, at a place call’d Great Island in the Province of New-Hantshire in New-England, chiefly in Throwing about (by an Invisible hand) Stone, Bricks, and Brick-bats of all Sizes, with several other things, as Hammers, Mauls, Iron-Crows, Spits, and other Domestick Utensils, as came into their Hellish Minds, and this for the space of a Quarter of a Year.
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