18. Witches, Wizards, Ghosts, and Things That Go Bump in the Night

Superstition and magic have no doubt played a role in society ever since there was society. By spanning many countries and several centuries, the genealogist’s craft occasionally uncovers interesting anecdotes that appeal to the modern sense of the offbeat, quirky, and downright spooky. What better time to stir them up from the bottom of a bubbling pot, than Halloween?

Witches

The most elaborate witch story in my background is that of the McQueen witch, who cast her spells around the end of the 17th century. John McQueen of Pollochaig, co. Inverness, Scotland, was a famous sportsman who went out one day hoping to kill a deer. After a long way he came across one, which went down when shot. But when John scoured the area for his prize, it couldn’t be found. He returned home empty-handed, and that night told the story at his fireside.

A_Visit_to_the_Witch_1882

Certain he had killed his quarry, he returned the next morning to the spot. There he met an old woman, who said to him, “Black John son of Dougall, take the lead out of my foot which you put into it yesterday.” This he did, and when finished he asked her for a wish or blessing. She thought a moment, and replied, “Your best day will be your worst day, and your worst day will be your best day.”

Years later this prophecy became true, when John’s son was captured at the Battle of Preston and was subsequently transported overseas. It was John’s worst day for the future of his sept in Scotland.  But it was his best day for the future of his many descendants in America [1, 2].

Other ancestral lines had their witch anecdotes as well, of a much deadlier shade. In 16th century Germany, one of my direct ancestors through the Foster family was Gertrud Stuell, wife of Hans Stuell, a householder near Siegen. In 1590 she was accused of bewitching livestock, found guilty, and burned [1, 3].

Nor were family members absent from the other end of the legal system. My wife’s many-great-uncle John Emerson was one of the accusers in the infamous Salem witch trials in Massachusetts in 1692. That year his own uncle, a minister of the same name, contributed to the witch hysteria by claiming to have witnessed a shooting of three men, who then rose up and fired a silver gun with a type of bullet never seen before. Rev. Emerson wrote:

The Devil and his Agents were the cause of all the Molestations. The Ambushments of the Good People of Glocester were caused by Daemons in the Shape of Armed Indians and Frenchmen. [1, 4]

My favorite witch story, however, had a very different ending from the horrifying ones of Siegen and Salem. My ancestor Jeremiah Collet, Sr., from whom I descend through the Withers family, was a fishmonger of Devizes, co. Wiltshire, England, who immigrated to Pennsylvania. A few months later, in Feb 1683/4, he served on a jury in Chester (now Delaware) county, and heard the case of Margaret Matson. Matson was accused of practicing witchcraft, specifically of killing livestock by bewitching it and appearing in spectral form. After hearing the case, Jeremiah and his fellow jurors returned their verdict. The accused was found guilty not of witchcraft, but of “having the common fame of a witch” — for which she merely had to post bond for good behavior!

The case is considered historically significant in reflecting hostility in the Quaker colony toward witchcraft accusations, in sharp contrast to attitudes that would be revealed in Salem a decade later. There is even a legend, possibly apocryphal, that when dismissing the charge of witchcraft against Matson, William Penn affirmed her right to ride a broomstick [1, 5, 6].

Wizards

The wizards in my family were Thomas Ashton (ca 1394?- aft 1445) and Edmund Trafford (ca 1393-1457/8), ancestors through both the Snyder-Harbour and Ellis families. These co. Lancaster gentlemen claimed to have discovered an elixir that restored youth and changed base metals into gold and silver. In my opinion their major claim to wizardry, however, is that in 1446 they managed to persuade the King to override an earlier law prohibiting alchemy, and to grant them a patent to practice it [1, 7, 8]. Otherwise I presume their deaths, if not their lack of riches, tended to discredit them.

Ghosts

The legend of the ghost of Phillip Babb (ca 1602?-1670/1), my ancestor through the Withers-Davis families, was known to author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Phillip, a fishing master on Hogg Island in the Isles of Shoals off the coast of what is now Maine, was held to have been a crew member for the notorious pirate Capt. Kidd [1, 9]. In 1852, Hawthorne reported:

Old Babb, the ghost, has a ring around his neck, and is supposed either to have been hung or to have had his throat cut, but he steadfastly declines telling the mode of his death. There is a luminous appearance about him as he walks, and his face is pale and very dreadful. [10]

As with all good stories of the supernatural, the legend became more elaborate as time passed. In 1873, a Shoals historian named Celia Thayer reported:

There is a superstition among the islanders that Philip Babb… still haunts Appledore [another Shoals island]; and no consideration would induce the more timid to walk alone after dark over a certain shingly beach on that island, at the top of the cove bearing Babb’s name — for there the uneasy spirit is oftenest seen. He is supposed to have been so desperately wicked when alive that there is no rest for him in his grave. His dress is a coarse, striped butcher’s frock, with a leather belt, to which is attached a sheath containing a ghostly knife, sharp and glittering, which it is his delight to brandish in the face of terrified humanity. One of the Shoalers is perfectly certain that he and Babb have met, and he shudders with real horror, recalling the meeting. This is his story. It was after sunset (of course), and he was coming around the corner of a work-shop, when he saw a wild and dreadful figure advancing toward him; his first thought was that someone wished to make him the victim of a practical joke, and he called out something to the effect that he “wasn’t afraid”; but the thing came near with a ghastly face and hollow eyes, and assuming a fiendish expression, took out the knife from its belt and flourished it in the face of the Shoaler … [10]

In 1929, Oscar Laighton went still further. In his account, also set on Appledore Island, Babb had dug for treasure – presumed to be Capt. Kidd’s – making a deep pit 30 feet wide. An iron chest being discovered at the bottom, Babb and a friend broke it open, upon which smoke and red hot horseshoes flew out. From his death until the Coast Guard built a structure on the spot, Babb’s ghost persisted near the cove’s head — to which no islander would come near [10].

Things That Go Bump in the Night

I end with an anecdote concerning Elizabeth Addams Bull Rossiter (1713/4-1810), my ancestor through the Speece-Robinson familes. In a letter soon after her death, a granddaughter wrote:

. . . our respected grandmother left this world in April; her illness was very short and she was quite sensible until the last few minutes. The day before she died she mentioned to her son and daughter that she had distinctly heard three little taps on the head of her bed, and on that hour the next day she would depart, as her father had heard the same, and she believed it a token for her to be prepared. At the hour mentioned she expired. [11]

Presumably my esteemed many-great-grandmother bequeathed her ancestral death taps to a child other than the daughter who was my ancestor. In my branch of the family they have not been heard this many a generation. But with October 31st fast approaching, one never knows. Happy Halloween!

Notes

[1] Boles, D.B. (2016). The Omnibus Ancestry. Available through Lulu.

[2] The story is traditional, but I am endebted to Donna Hechler Porter (http://theflyingshuttle.blogspot.com/2014_05_01_archive.html) for suggesting which day was the worst and the best, a point left vague in the traditional telling. It’s about as perfect an ending to the story as one could wish.

[3] Boles, H.W., & Boles, D.B. (1990). Foster Ancestors: Some Europeans, Immigrants, Colonists, and Pioneers. Decorah, Iowa: The Anundsen Publishing Co. Available through Lulu.

[4] Information retrieved from http://suite101.com/article/ebenezer-babson-and-the-1692-gloucester-massachusetts-mystery-a328784 (2015).

[5] Boles, D.B., & Boles, H.W. (1998). Withers-Davis Ancestry. Decorah, Iowa: The Anundsen Publishing Co. Available through Lulu.

[6] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Matson (2015).

[7] Boles, D.B. (2005). Snyder-Harbour Ancestry. Available through Lulu.

[8] Boles, H.W., & Boles, D.B. (1994). Ellis Ancestors: Some Immigrants, Colonists, and Pioneers. Kalamazoo, Mich: Private print. Available through Lulu.

[9] Which however was certainly untrue, in that Kidd’s piracy did not occur until a generation after Phillip’s death (Withers-Davis Ancestry, op. cit., available through Lulu).

[10] Rutledge, L.V. (1965). The Isles of Shoals in Lore and Legend. Barre, Mass: Barre Publishers.

[11] Boles, D.B., & Boles, H.W. (1997). Speece-Robinson Ancestry. Ozark, Mo: Dogwood Printing. Available through Lulu.

Picture attribution:

“A Visit to the Witch” by Edward Frederick Brewtnall (1882). Public domain.

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