, Newburyport, MA

October 19, 2009

For this witch, there was no 'night out'

Staff reports

NEWBURYPORT — The city's Witches Night Out will take place on the long-forgotten doorstep of Newburyport's only accused witch.

Elizabeth Morse — whose home once stood opposite Market Square — was found guilty of witchcraft a dozen years before the 1692 Salem hysteria that even now engulfs that city and reaches its peak every Halloween.

Morse was sentenced to a year in jail and the 17th century equivalent of house arrest. She was initially sentenced to be hanged, but the execution was never carried out, and after a year in jail in Boston, Morse was sent home to live with her husband with a catch: She was forbidden to travel more than 16 rods (264 feet) from her property unless she was accompanied by a pastor or a deacon.

A plaque marks the spot where her house is believed to have stood, on the Liberty Street side of Market Square Jewelers in downtown Newburyport.

Elizabeth Morse's troubles actually began when her husband, William, accused someone else of witchcraft in 1679.

The Morses lived on 4 acres between Water and Middle streets. William, a shoemaker about 65 years old, had received the land by grant in 1646. He was "said to have been a very worthy but credulous, unsuspecting man," according to Joshua Coffin's 1845 book, "A Sketch of the History of Newbury, Newburyport and West Newbury."

"He readily attributed all his troubles and afflictions to the supernatural agency of witchcraft instead of watching the actions of those around him, especially of a roguish grandson who lived with them," Coffin wrote.

Strange things began to happen after the grandson, John Stiles, moved in. Objects disappeared and then came clattering down the chimney. William Morse found a large hog in the house after midnight. The couple was awakened by the sound of stones and branches hitting their house, but no one was there when they opened the door.

Caleb Powell, a younger man who visited the Morses often, actually saw Stiles pick up a boot and throw it at his grandfather, according to a story in the October 2000 newsletter of the Historical Society of Old Newbury. Instead of simply confronting the youth or telling Morse what was going on, Powell told William Morse he could determine what was behind his "mysterious disturbances." To make his credentials more impressive, he told Morse that in his travels had had learned astrology and astronomy.

Morse promptly accused Powell of witchcraft. The charges were brought in December 1679, and he was acquitted. The people of Newbury — which in 1679 included what is now Newburyport — began to think that if he weren't the witch, someone else must be.

For reasons unclear in Coffin's book or John J. Currier's "A History of Newbury, Massachusetts, 1635-1902," the people settled on 63-year-old Elizabeth Morse.

Once she was accused, the townspeople lined up to testify against her. Seventeen witnesses submitted written testimony. Zechariah Davis' was the only one still on file when Currier went looking for a trial transcript. The Salisbury man said that after he had failed to remember several times to bring Elizabeth some quills he had promised her, she was offended by his carelessness and told him so.

When he returned home, three of his calves began having seizures and eventually died. He concluded that the previously healthy animals had been put under a spell.

In May 1680, Elizabeth Morse was convicted of "not having the fear of God before her eyes, being instigated by the Divil and had familiarity with the Divil."

William Morse died in 1683. Neither Coffin nor Currier could find a date of death for Elizabeth, but Stafford-Ames Morse, an ancestor of the family, said it was 1690. Stafford-Ames Morse said no one knows where her grave is, but she almost certainly isn't with her husband because witches couldn't be buried in church ground. Morse said no one knows where William is buried, either.