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The Devil of Great Island: Witchcraft & Conflict in Early New England

This entry was posted on Dec 18 2010

Devil of Great Island This past Thursday evening we enjoyed the second  fascinating lecture hosted by Gordon College at Old Town Hall.  Dr. Emerson “Tad” Baker discussed his book The Devil of Great Island:  Witchcraft & Conflict in Early New England, introducing the work as a unique look at New England witchcraft that does not focus on Salem.  Dr. Baker has been a historical archeologist as well as a museum director and is currently a public historian and professor at Salem State College.

Ten years before the Salem outbreak, in a place called Great Island (today New Castle) near Portsmouth, NH, there were reported incidents of “lithobolia.”  Though educated men of the day knew Greek and Latin and would have been familiar with the term, I needed translation:  stone-throwing of the Devil.  Hundreds of flying stones, some as heavy as eight pounds, beset the tavern owned by George and Alice Walton for several months, yet no one had ever seen anyone throwing them.  These occurrences, as many other inexplicable events at that time, were perceived as acts of witchcraft. 

When we look further into the details, the first to come into view are the relationships and territorial boundaries between the key individuals of the story.  I don’t want to give away the delicious unfolding of the narrative, so I’ll share only that the Waltons had been in land disputes with neighbor Hanna Jones, who was accused of being a witch.  There had also been infighting in the vicinity about the establishment of a separate meeting house in which to worship.  Although Dr. Emerson explores this history north of Mass Bay Colony, he does acknowledge that, “…when it comes to witchcraft in early New England, all roads eventually lead to Salem.”

In fact, it seems as though there are many common factors between Great Island and Salem.  Neighbors disagreeing over territorial margins were certainly a dynamic that set the stage for the Salem witchcraft accusations.  Uncannily, heated debates about an independent meeting house in Salem Village were significant to conditions that allowed the events to unfold as they did in 1692.

If you’re as interested in the environment and events leading to the Salem Witchcraft Trials as I am, next week’s post will be dedicated to the aspect of territorial disputes in Salem Village prior to the eruption of witchcraft accusations.  Stay tuned…

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