Windham Life and Times – October 19, 2018

Witches and Witchcraft

New Hampshire Fold Tales and Beyond

Today our modern minds scoff at the idea of witches, ghosts and paranormal specters. We feel that we are above such nonsense, that once held the minds of the early residents of New England captive.  But before you feel to superior, ask yourself this question. How would you ever see such phenomenon today? You drive a very fast car, there are harsh lights blaring, everywhere, all night long and you can’t even see the stars; how on earth would you ever detect, a witch, a ghost, or a Will-O-Wisp under such conditions. In the day when these things were reported, the night-time was pitch black, and you either walked, rode or were drawn by a very slow moving horse, fully exposed to your surroundings. Men walked in the vast woodlands. Many people today, never venture very far outside at night. So what do you really know of your surroundings, walled off as you are by modernity.

Our first folk tale about witches comes from Morrison’s History of Windham: “Old Rif was a colored man, and slave of Robert Smith’s. One day, while out gunning with George Simpson, they became lost. They thought they knew every inch of ground. The sun was fast sinking behind the western hills, and they came to a halt. At that moment they saw a rabbit standing upon its hind legs, looking at them; they tried to frighten it away, but it would not go away at their bidding. Old Rif  knew that the rabbit was bewitched, and he had heard that to shoot silver sleeve-buttons at a rabbit would destroy the witch. So he loaded his gun, putting in his silver sleeve-buttons, and shot the rabbit. The witch was instantly killed, their minds immediately became clear, the ground at once became familiar, the pathway was plain before them, and they readily and quickly found their way home. Old Rif  was said to be the last slave in New Hampshire, and died not far from 1842.”

The next tale is of Granny Ober of Salem, NH.  “About the time of the Revolution, there lived in the northeastern part of town an old woman called Granny Ober. She used to frequently go to John Wheeler’s house for milk, passing along a path known as Ober’s Path at the east end of Captain’s Pond.”

“One day, Mrs. Wheeler told her there was no milk to be spared. The old woman, very angry, muttered, ‘You’ll be sorry for this,’ and departed. The next morning when Mrs. Wheeler went to milk she found her cow on her back and superstitious fears began to find a place in her mind and were communicated to the neighbors who came to help her rescue her cow. When on the third morning she found the cow in a like position, Mrs. Wheeler was convinced that Granny had bewitched the animal.”

“To break the spell, Mrs. Wheeler took a carving knife and cut off part of the cow’s tail and ears, and put them in the fire where they sputtered and burned angrily. Only a brief time elapsed before Abner Wheeler, calling at the house on an errand asked, ‘Have you heard about Granny Ober?’ ‘No’ said Mrs. Wheeler with quickened breath, ‘what has she done now?’ ‘Granny got out into the bush and was terribly scratched up and then some how or other she got herself afire and burned to death. Her ears were burned off!’ What better proof would anyone of that day ask that Granny was a witch whose witchcraft had been only to thoroughly exercised by Mrs. Wheeler!”

Again from New Hampshire Folk Tales we learn of witches in Peterborough.

“We do not know if Peterborough burned any witches but the early settlers had queer ideas. They firmly believed in the bodily manifestations of the  devil, in the existence of witches and the appearances of ghosts. John Hopkins Morison, in his address at the Centennial of Peterborough, October 24, 1839 told the following incidents: A small, lean, aged woman by the name of Stinson was uniformly regarded as a witch. A cat somewhere in town was observed to act strangely; hot water was thrown upon her and straightway Mrs. Stinson’s back was dreadfully afflicted with St. Anthony’s fire (erysipelas). On another occasion a good man near Sharon shot at a crow many times, but the bird only flew around and laughed at him. He at last took off his silver sleeve button and with it broke the crow’s wing; immediately Mrs. Stinson was found to have broken her arm. At her funeral, which was about 1780, though she was hardly more than a skeleton, the strong men who bore her to the grave were almost crushed to the earth by the weight and sin and their shoulders remained for weeks black and blue.”

“There was a young woman, Hannah Scott by name, who supposed herself bewitched by an old woman named Aspy, near Hancock. The girl lay for more than a month without the power of opening her eyes, but while in this state she could tell exactly who was passing, how he looked, what he had with him, and what was going on in different houses, and in different parts of town. She always said that if old Aspy would come and bless her she would recover. The witch came and passing her hands over her forehead with the words ‘Your God bless you and my God bless you’ ended the charm’ ”

“Old Baker Moore, the village fiddler, to his dying hour firmly believed that he had twice been honored with a personal interview with the devil. Another man, William M’Nee, had horseshoe nails driven into the horns of all of his cattle, to save them from the witches. It was generally believed that horseshoes, witch hazel rods and silver were effectual securities against their influences.”

At this point you may have noticed that “silver bullets” are seen as effective against witches.  Wikipedia notes that “In folklore, a bullet cast from silver is often the only weapon that is effective against a werewolf, witch, or other monsters. The term is also a metaphor for a simple, seemingly magical, solution to a difficult problem: for example, penicillin was a silver bullet that cured many bacterial infections.” The horseshoe as a talisman dates back to a Irish blacksmith named Dunstan. He became Arch-Bishop of Canterbury in 959. It is said that he nailed horseshoes to the feet of the devil and made him promise that he would never enter a home with one over the door. During the middle ages when the belief in witches was rampant it was believed that they feared horseshoes because they were made of iron. Horse-shoes were actually nailed to the coffins of suspected witches to keep them from resurrecting into a new life. Even further back, the horseshoe’s crescent shape was reminiscent of the symbol which represented the moon goddess who brought protection and good luck. Ready to hang a horseshoe over your door? Its important that the opening faces up so that your luck is held in and does not flow outward.




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