NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Local News

October 28, 2006

Newburyport witch escaped hangman's noose

NEWBURYPORT - She was the witch who got away.

Elizabeth Morse of Newbury 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.

But instead of being hanged or crushed to death by stones - the preferred methods of punishment in Salem for 20 people - Morse was sentenced to a year in jail and the 17th-century equivalent of house arrest with an ankle bracelet.

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.

The Morse Society, a nonprofit organization that researches and compiles Morse family genealogical records in the United States and Canada, placed a bronze commemorative plaque on a building where it is believed Morse's house once stood. The plaque is on the Liberty Street side of Market Square Jewelers in downtown Newburyport. Newburyport was part of Newbury until 1764.

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.

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