NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

October 23, 2013

The Devil went down to Newbury

“Cotton Mather came galloping down

All the way to Newbury town

With his eyes agog and his ears set wide,

And his marvellous inkhorn at his side;

... And the tales he heard and the notes he took

Behold! Are they not in this Wonder-Book?”

— John Greenleaf Whittier

Old Newbury had its share of spectral sensation way before 1692. The “unseen fury” of the Morse home held hostage by an evil presence is colorfully told by Cotton Mather, and court records reveal a herdsman shacking up at the Spencer-Peirce Farm who had “familiarity with the devil,” bewitching the entire countryside: cattle and citizens.

In 1679 the Morse home was the center of a rogue evil possession cooked up by grandson John Stiles whose “juvenile imposture” was “universally received as proof Satan resided there.” Stiles’ hoax “lithobolia attacks” are well documented by Emerson Baker in “The Devil of Great Island: Witchcraft and Conflict in Early New England.”

The little scamp Stiles never did ‘fess up. Poor Caleb Powell, the only one not drinking the Kool-Aid in the matter, knew it was the little whippersnapper, and Coffin’s history calls it a “tragic-comedy” when his well-intentioned intervention turns into a witchcraft conviction. Powell was acquitted by spring; however, Goody Morse was brought up on charges for possessing her home and grandson. She managed to get out alive, but not without a grueling year of trials and jail time.

Another naughty knave coasted into town weaving an abominable web that no one could untangle. John Godfrey, wicked warlock of Essex County, supposedly “accompanied by an evil Spirit,” and “being instigated by the devil,” had “made much hurt & mischief by several acts of witchcraft to the bodies & goods of several persons as by several evidences may appear contrary to the peace” (court records). If truth be told, Godfrey was no more of a black arts augurer than Morse was a witch, but Essex County residents wanted him to get the rope.

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