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.
Morse promptly accused Powell of witchcraft. The charges were brought in December 1679, and Powell was tried in Ipswich the following March. Powell was acquitted, and the people of Newbury 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."
Gov. Simon Bradstreet ordered that she be hanged but granted her a reprieve until October.
While she was imprisoned in Boston, no one seemed in a hurry to carry out her execution. Indeed, members of the colony's House of Deputies wrote that they couldn't understand why she hadn't been executed.
Her husband petitioned the court, attempting to refute each of the 17 witnesses individually and asking the governor for mercy. Additional testimony in her case was taken in 1681.
Morse Society President Stafford-Ames Morse of Seattle, Wash., said there was some sort of dispute within the court system about whether to go ahead with her execution.
Eventually, she was sent home, with the restriction on her movements.
William Morse died in 1683. Neither Coffin nor Currier could find a date of death for Elizabeth, but Stafford-Ames Morse 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.
The Morse Society plaque reads as follows:
Mrs. Elizabeth Morse
Witch of Newbury
1679-1681 arrested, tried, imprisoned and reprieved. Confined to her husband William Morse 4 acre house lot on the SE side of Market Square until her death.