Myths And Legends Of Our Own Land, Complete

Page: 92

About forty years ago a couple of young farmers went to the Leap—which then had no name—to pry out some blocks of the schistose rock for a foundation wall. They found a good exposure of the rock beneath the turf and began to quarry it. In the earnestness of the work one of the men forgot that he was standing on the verge of a precipice, and through a slip of his crowbar he lost his balance and went reeling into the gulf. His horrified companion crept to the edge, expecting to see his mangled corpse tossing in the whirlpool, but, to his amazement, the unfortunate was crawling up the face of a huge table of stone that had fallen from the opposite wall and lay canted against it.

"Hello!" shouted the man overhead. "Are you hurt much?"

The victim of the accident slowly got upon his feet, felt cautiously of his legs and ribs, and began to search through his pockets, his face betraying an anxiety that grew deeper and deeper as the search went on. In due time the answer came back, deliberate, sad, and nasal, but distinct above the roar of the torrent: "Waal, I ain't hurt much, but I'll be durned if I haven't lost my jack-knife!"

And he was pulled out of the gorge without it.


The extraordinary delusion recorded as Salem witchcraft was but a reflection of a kindred insanity in the Old World that was not extirpated until its victims had been counted by thousands. That human beings should be accused of leaguing themselves with Satan to plague their fellows and overthrow the powers of righteousness is remarkable, but that they should admit their guilt is incomprehensible, albeit the history of every popular delusion shows that weak minds are so affected as to lose control of themselves and that a whimsey can be as epidemic as small-pox.

Such was the case in 1692 when the witchcraft madness, which might have been stayed by a seasonable spanking, broke out in Danvers, Massachusetts, the first victim being a wild Irishwoman, named Glover, and speedily involved the neighboring community of Salem. The mischiefs done by witches were usually trifling, and it never occurred to their prosecutors that there was an inconsistency between their pretended powers and their feeble deeds, or that it was strange that those who might live in regal luxury should be so wretchedly poor. Aches and pains, blight of crops, disease of cattle, were charged to them; children complained of being pricked with thorns and pins (the pins are still preserved in Salem), and if hysterical girls spoke the name of any feeble old woman, while in flighty talk, they virtually sentenced her to die. The word of a child of eleven years sufficed to hang, burn, or drown a witch.

Giles Corey, a blameless man of eighty, was condemned to the mediaeval peine forte et dure, his body being crushed beneath a load of rocks and timbers. He refused to plead in court, and when the beams were laid upon him he only cried, "More weight!" The shade of the unhappy victim haunted the scene of his execution for years, and always came to warn the people of calamities. A child of five and a dog were also hanged after formal condemnation. Gallows Hill, near Salem, witnessed many sad tragedies, and the old elm that stood on Boston Common until 1876 was said to have served as a gallows for witches and Quakers. The accuser of one day was the prisoner of the next, and not even the clergy were safe.

A few escapes were made, like that of a blue-eyed maid of Wenham, whose lover aided her to break the wooden jail and carried her safely beyond the Merrimac, finding a home for her among the Quakers; and that of Miss Wheeler, of Salem, who had fallen under suspicion, and whose brothers hurried her into a boat, rowed around Cape Ann, and safely bestowed her in "the witch house" at Pigeon Cove. Many, however, fled to other towns rather than run the risk of accusation, which commonly meant death.