The 'Headers In Life & Legend
by Russell W. Knight

Wine, Women, and Witchcraft

From the day they settled in Marblehead, on what then was a bleak and inhospitable peninsula, Marbleheaders lived a life marked by hardship and want. Neither dour-faced Pilgrims, nor zealous Puritans, they went their own sweet way. They came to fish for cod and haddock, for what Captain John Smith declared was "a treasure greater than gold." They were an earthy, graceless breed, and they stubbornly refused to believe that the years allotted mankind were divided by four: a time for work, a time for prayer, a time for joy and a time for tears. A historically-minded observer, staggered by their errant ways and cheerful disregard for authority, noted that "the world may never see their likes again."

That observer's claim might be questioned. On the other hand, what cannot be questioned as easily are the entries in the surviving early court records--the diaries written by reliable witnesses, and the accounts, memoirs and family correspondence of those days. Who today can state with absolute certainty that the sagas and legends, tall tales, stories and anecdotes, which have survived the many years, lack credibility?

Without a doubt, Marbleheaders were a breed apart. They were never dull or docile, long suffering or subservient. They were truly a race of high-spirited, hard-working fishermen whose seafaring skills, perseverance and achievements were acclaimed throughout the colonies.

Yet at the same time, deep within their beings were qualities that set them apart from their fellow colonists. Some of them could be described as "passing strange," others as outlandish, incredible and capricious, and still others ... as simply mind-boggling. For example, in 1664 the Great and General Court of His Majesty's Province of Massachusetts Bay was so annoyed by the unseemly behavior of Marbleheaders that it decided to bring them to heel. The court had for years condoned the Marbleheaders' exasperating ways and utter disregard for the law, but things had gone from bad to worse as a result; the townspeople had become insolent, contentious and disrespectful. Just before the court's action, Marbleheaders had even made it a practice to regularly greet a King's officer with a barrage of rocks, offal and overripe fish! The Bay Colony's legislature finally figured out a way to put an end to such outrageous acts. It appointed a special judge to enforce its rules and regulations, and hopefully pressure the recalcitrant 'Headers to abide by the laws of the province. Nevertheless, the townspeople continued to carry on as they had earlier--to squael His Majesty's red-coated minions, to play fast and loose with the law. Marbleheaders, no doubt, agreed with one of the town's acid-tongued fishermen who swore that the "Judge was a white-haired limping old rogue and he'd be damned if he'd be ordered around by the likes of him!"

Yet, Marbleheaders had also decided that the time had come for the town to lay down a rule or two of its own. And for the umpteenth time in the history of the world, the older generation considered the conduct of the younger generation beyond the pale. Though chips off the old block, they were now out-of-hand; the younger set had become irresponsible, self-centered, insubordinate and exasperating. Those young bloods, especially the town's lovesick swains -- a group of harum-scarum cavaliers with a penchant for "horsing around" -- were the worst. Their favorite sport was to race their saddle horses through the town's streets at a breakneck clip, risking not only their own necks but the lives and limbs of pedestrians along the way.

The riders also upset their girlfriends' parents when they made it their practice on Sundays to gallop past whatever churches their girlfriends attended. The clatter of hooves and the huffing and puffing of the high-stepping nags may have melted a few female hearts, but not those of the congregation whose devotions were so rudely interrupted.

To curb their wild and thoughtless rides, the townspeople met and enacted a law on the 1st of May 1672. The law made it a misdemeanor to race a horse within two miles of any church, and fined those guilty 40 shillings--a pretty stiff penalty back in those days.

* * * * * * *

Some of the most intriguing happenings occurred during the latter half of the seventeenth century. The era was alive with astral spirits, demons and ministering angels, with kelpies from the depths of the sea, with miracle-working wizards and ethereal witches.

Witches are commonly pictured as skinny old crones, with scraggly, ghoulish faces, deep-set baleful eyes and masses of stringy, unkempt hair. With few exceptions, they are also typically pictured clad in slovenly rags, with their claw-like fingers gripping broomsticks festooned with cobwebs, winging their way through space like fantastic hovercrafts.

But the truth is, such images are all wrong. The witches who scared most people half to death were like any other member of the fair sex ... except for a dissimilarity or two. If a woman's body was marred by an unsightly birthmark or blemish, wart or growth, she was sometimes considered a witch because a disfiguring mark was believed to be one of the symbols the Devil used to identify members of his hellish clan. A woman who fondled or stroked a black cat in a loving manner could also be accused of witchcraft.

Back then, it was common knowledge that practitioners of the black arts possessed some very unusual powers: that in addition to casting spells and laying hexes, they had the ability to ruin garden crops and to turn themselves into black cats, a talent granted them by the Foul Fiend himself.

"Mammy Redd" (Mrs. Samuel Redd) was one of those witches who had practiced the diabolical craft for a good many years. As long as she confined her extraordinary powers to casting spells, curdling milk and spoiling fresh-churned butter, Marbleheaders never protested or filed complaints. But an out-of-towner (a Salemite at that) did what they never tried to do.
Mammy Redd was tried and convicted for practicing witchcraft, but her downfall resulted apparently from her shrewish tongue and feisty disposition. Although it is recorded that Mammy Redd uttered the curse which gave "Mrs. Simms of Salem Town ... the distemper of the dry belly-ache," what prompted her to fly into such a rage and utter such a curse may never be known.

Mammy Redd was hanged on September 22, 1692, on Gallows Hill, but not before she had observed what her judges had failed to note. When Judge John Hathorne asked her what she thought of the girls whose hysterical fits had sired the witchcraft craze, the poor benighted sorceress "hit the nail on the head" when she replied: "My opinion is they are in a sad condition."

She was smarter than the tribunal that sentenced her, and time has proven her right.

* * * * * * *

Eight months after the hangman's noose claimed the life of Mammy Redd for practicing Black Magic, the life of a 12-year-old boy was preserved by white magic -- a benevolent type of witchcraft. It was a truly fortuitous occurrence in this instance, one destined to improve the lot of our hard-pressed, impoverished forefathers, one that instilled new life into the town's sagging economy.

The incident occurred in 1693, the year that a fleet of British warships arrived at Boston with its crews suffering from a highly contagious disease. The virulent malady spread throughout the city within days, snuffing out the lives of scores of men, women and children. And as fate would have it, one of the first to contract the dreaded disease was John Barnard, a youngster whose energy, scholarship and sound business sense in due time revived Marblehead's fisheries and opened up new and lucrative marts of trade.

One night as John lay barely conscious in bed, a strange woman entered his room and placed several small dark-colored pills in his hand. Without explaining why, she next directed him to first soften them in his mouth and then press them one after another against his chest. Barnard, too weak to protest or even question her, did as she directed.

When John awoke the following morning, he was once more sound of mind and body. The pills had snatched him from the jaws of death! His parents were elated to find that their son had been miraculously restored to health ... until he happened to mention the pills, and the woman who had supplied them. Because they had not seen any man or woman entering their home, they were convinced that John was either delirious or disoriented the night before. The boy tried to convince his parents that he did in fact see a woman the evening before, and he lifted his pillow to show them the four pills that the mysterious visitor had left. However, while he and his parents searched every nook and cranny of his bedroom ... they never found one of those pills.

To the day that Parson John Barnard departed this world, he remained convinced that his mysterious benefactress was an angel from heaven, and that his miraculous recovery was a Signal Deliverance.

* * * * * * *

It has been said that "Spirits can assume to themselves bodies of different bulk, figure and conformation of parts." Should this statement be questioned, Peter Pittford -- a fisherman by trade -- claimed that he himself had seen "Goodwife James" step aboard a boat and put to sea "in the likeness of a cat!" Still worse, he insisted that just so long as he lived near her, she employed her evil talent to ruin his corn and beans and "garden frughtes." Jane James, the wife of a ship carpenter, may have been a witch, but she was also Marblehead's most entertaining sorceress.

On one occasion, she was seen in Boston at the same hour and the very day that a neighbor swore she had seen her toiling in her garden. It may sound incredible, but Jane's ability to appear simultaneously in two widely separated places was not beyond belief ... at least in the 1600's. To pull off such a feat was not much of a problem, provided the witch was on good terms with his Satanic Majesty. In Jane's case, all she had to do was to ask him to impersonate her, and the Devil -- ever willing to further the plans of a disciple-- would take her place at any function or party designated!

In 1667, two years before her death, this fascinating woman was hailed into court for the umpteenth time to answer to a complaint lodged by Richard Rowland, a local cooper. According to the plaintiff, she had sneaked uninvited into his bedroom one summer night and attempted to choke him to death while he was asleep, at peace with the world. When he learned that Jane had entered his room by worming her way through a knothole in the wall, he became panic-stricken! It had been a harrowing experience, he said, one that had sent icy fingers of fear coursing up and down his spine. Was Jane a witch, intent on strangling Mr. Rowland? Or was she being falsely accused by the slumbering cooper?

To prove to the court that he was telling the truth, the plaintiff produced two fellow Marbleheaders who were present the night of the attack. Together, they testified that they were roused by their friend's cries for help, and that Rowland was thrashing about, kicking and screaming. They added that Rowland kept shouting that Goody James was tearing at his throat, trying her best to kill him!

When questioned more closely, however, Captain James Smith and Samuel Aborn Jr. ruefully confessed that they had not actually seen or touched the widow James. So, the magistrates of the Essex County Quarterly Court found her innocent because they judged the evidence too weak and the testimony unconvincing. In addition, the witnesses were not above reproach themselves.

It seemed obvious to the magistrates that it was not the spirit of Jane James that had attacked the sleeping Richard Rowland and frightened him nigh to death. They reasoned, instead, that it was more likely the spirit of John Barleycorn!

* * * * * * *

Aholiab Dimond was an outlandish, implausible character whose incomprehensible accomplishments gave our forefathers the creeps. This strange, old recluse who lived down in Barnegat near the Old Burial Hill was a real wizard, according to those who knew him. A warlock active in a era alive with witches, sorcerers, demons, ghosts and conjurers. A wonder-worker who oddly enough never cast a spell or bedeviled any human being. Unlike the mystics who used their black arts for mischievous purposes, Old Dimond used his singular gifts to aid his fellow man, and used his eerie skills for their advantage.
If a townsman had been robbed, he would unmask the culprit and force him to trudge the streets of the town bearing on his back the articles he had stolen! And there they would remain until Old Dimond uttered a magic word permitting the miscreant to rid himself of his shameful burden. On stormy nights, when the wind was howling and sleet was rattling against windows, and the pounding surf was throbbing in their ears, the Marbleheaders huddled by their fireplaces, drew comfort from the knowledge that Old Dimond lived in their midst. If they were worried because their husbands, fathers and sons were far out on the ocean battling the gale and struggling to keep their vessels afloat, they hurriedly enlisted the aid of this remarkable man.

They knew that if there was anyone on earth to whom they could turn for help, that person was Old Dimond. And to his everlasting credit, he never failed them. The moment he was informed that a friend or a neighbor was in danger, he would rush to the top of Old Burial Hill and there -- braced against the wind and rain -- he would peer out over the ocean. It did not make any difference whether it was pitch dark, snowing or thick-a-fog. Old Dimond could see through the murk and spot any vessel in distress, in peril of sinking or about to be cast upon a jagged reef. And instantly, this wizard would know exactly what to do.

The means he employed to rescue those whose lives were in peril were amazingly simple and much more effective than today's radio, telephones, radar screens and navigational instruments. Old Dimond just shouted his instructions. And if the vessel was in nearby waters, the winds would carry his orders to the sailors and tell them what they had to do to save their lives. But if a vessel were out of the range of his voice, he summoned his trusty phantoms -- Redcap and Bluecap -- and sent them winging through the tempest to the beleaguered ship.

Everyone in Marblehead looked upon Old Dimond with considerable awe and deepest respect. For not only did he safeguard the lives of the deepwater sailors, but on many occasions he made certain that the town's fishing schooners returned home laden with fish. If a ship was becalmed far from port, he could whistle up a wind; and if by chance the vessels that were combing the Grand Banks found that the fishing was poor and that they were about to sail home with their bins empty, those troubled fishermen turned to Old Dimond for help. In response, Old Dimond would summon a gang of kelpies from the deep and lo and behold, when the fishermen clambered on deck at daybreak the next morning, they would find the deck knee-deep with cod and haddock, fish plucked from the ocean's floor by Old Dimond's kelpies from the nether world!

Now, one may wonder how the fish miraculously wound up on deck. But Marblehead fishermen out on the fishing grounds were neither perplexed nor mystified. They knew that the fish had been caught by Old Dimond's kelpies, who in obedience to his orders, had hand-lined all night! Although every man, woman and child in town knew Old Dimond was a wizard of extraordinary powers, they nevertheless secretly harbored the idea that he was in league with the Devil.

Today, such notions may sound childish and even ridiculous. But seriously, we should not scoff at our ancestors for placing their faith in the likes of this kindly old wizard. Born on March 16, 1679, in Barnegat, Aholiab Dimond was indeed a remarkable master of the great unknown--a warlock who served the townspeople well. A Marbleheader who sired a son, who in turn fathered a daughter--none other than Lynn's renowned fortune-teller, Moll Pitcher!

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