NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

October 23, 2013

The Devil went down to Newbury

As I See It
Melissa Berry

---- — “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.

Godfrey arrived on the ship Mary and John with John Spencer to work the farm in Newbury herding cattle. Spencer locked horns with the local Puritan posse and returned to England, leaving the estate to his nephew, John Spencer. Godfrey stayed on and mastered a position as local herdsman. However, his deviant lifestyle was more wolf than shepherd.

Godfrey’s plebian nature (cursing, drunkenness, tobacco smoking, traveling on Sabbath, slander) was constantly landing him in front of the magistrates who administered heavy fines and public humiliation, one sentence ordering him to stand “upon pillory with inscription written in Capital letters upon a paper: for suborning witnesses.”

Godfrey had a side profession selling and deeding properties. His methods for collecting were anything but orthodox. He had filed 100-plus laws suits and counter-suits over property, goods and services. He won more than he lost, ticking off the community and earning a reputation as a bullying loan shark. Fed up with “the devilish rogue,” the town folk cried witchery on him.

The Spencer farm would be the subject of his witch convictions (1669) when William Osgood, a carpenter, was hired by Spencer to build a barn. Godfrey had words with Osgood and years later he bought land from him. Both transactions were not harmonious; and after 20 years of bad blood and Osgood’s relatives and friends getting the screws from Godfrey, they all came together to testify in a series of court appearances.

Godfrey became an infamous “perennial witchcraft suspect” often found “suspiciously guilty” but not “legally guilty” and was released with a verbal warning to discontinue his “blasphemous” way of life. He always returned to the nest of his accusers and almost immediately resorted back into his cheeky lifestyle and no one got free from his tyrant web. He did visit the gallows and was sentenced to stand with a halter about his neck followed with a whipping, but that was for setting fire to a home he had tried to foreclose on.

Baker points out that these earlier cases “demonstrated that witches could be held accountable for a wide range of evil deeds, not just unleashing their specters to harm people.” Furthermore, Baker adds, “the fact that all these earlier cases were convicted but spared shows just how reluctant the government of Massachusetts had become, by the 1680s, to execute a witch. These facts make the cases a most interesting contrast with the trial and execution of so many witches in Salem a decade later.”

Thanks Emerson Baker, www.salemstate.edu/~ebaker. And look for “A Storm of Witchcraft: The Trials of Salem and a Nation” in 2014.

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Godfrey tales to continue! Visit Melissa Berry at http://ancestoryarchives.blogspot.com/.