Tag Archives: Biddeford

Message in a bottle

Dodging Creditors by Drowning

A scribbled note sealed in a bottle and tossed into the capricious waves was the only hope some shipwrecked sailors had of letting their sad fate be known. Occasionally, such messages did make it to shore. Sometimes they turned up many miles away and many years later but the closure they brought to loved ones was almost always appreciated.

Old newspapers are full of poignant message-in-a-bottle stories. The first Minot Ledge Light, off Cohasset, Mass., was a barrel-shaped structure held high above the waves on iron stilts. When one by one those spider-like legs snapped during the great nor’easter of 1851, lighthouse assistants Joseph Antoine and Joseph Wilson tossed their bottled good-byes into the sea that would soon swallow them up.

United States Navy Collier, USS Cyclops, mysteriously disappeared between Barbados and Baltimore, Md. in March of 1918. No trace of the vessel or her crew were ever found. Theories have been floated ever since that she succumbed to the mysterious forces of the Bermuda Triangle or that she sank suddenly in a ferocious storm. A message in a bottle purporting to be from the USS Cyclops washed ashore at Baltimore in August 1918. It said, “Captured by German submarine off coast of Virginia our ship Cyclops. John Ramann Chicago, Ill.” Another message in a bottle supposedly written by one of the engineers of the Cyclops appeared northeast of Cape Lookout Lighthouse near Beaufort, N.C. in 1922. This note stated that a German submarine was close by, that all hands had been ordered on board the U-boat and that the ship was to be torpedoed.

In November 1922 a message in a bottle was thrown into the surf by the crew of the schooner Lizzie D Small ashore off New Bedford, Mass. The bottle was found by Frank Columbia of Westport Point. He organized a search party and the shipwrecked crew was rescued after having been exposed to the elements and starvation for four days.

A misleading message in a bottle could occasionally provide an alibi for those who wished to disappear for one reason or another. Such was the case in 1894 when a corked bottle was found on Old Orchard Beach. A scrap of paper in the neck of the bottle had been torn from a notebook. On one side of the paper the words “Henry Schambier, Merchant of Medicine, Lewiston, Me.,” were imprinted with a rubber stamp. On the other side of the paper the following words were handwritten, “Dr. Hudson of Manchester, NH and Dr. Schambier of Lewiston, ME, lost at sea while fishing Monday Oct. 8.”

An investigative reporter from the Boston Daily Globe traveled to Lewiston to find the poor Dr. Schambier’s next of kin. There he spoke to Henry’s sister, a Mrs. Eugene Rimfret. Last she knew, the 25 year old traveling cough medicine salesman had been living in Biddeford. Though Mrs Rimfret knew Henry to be fond of fishing she hadn’t heard from him in months and could offer very little additional information about his habits.

On Oct. 26, another item appeared in the Boston Daily Globe. Dr. Henry Schambier, previously thought to be at the bottom of the ocean, is alive and well and peddling his Menthol cough drops in the peaceful little village of Kennebunk.” Diligent investigation by the reporter had revealed that Schambier had skipped out on his bill at hotels in Saco and Biddeford.

The proprietor at one of the hotels remembered that Henry and his companion did go fishing quite often while he was a guest. On Oct. 15, a full week after they had supposedly drowned but before the story appeared in the paper, a man called at the hotel and said that Dr Schambier, who was stopping in Kennebunk, had sent for his clothes. That same day, the dandy young doctor was seen in Saco.

A later update in the Globe read, “The rubber stamp that made the impression on the piece of paper found in the bottle was discovered in Dr. Schambier’s Kennebunk room today, as was the note book from which the scrap was torn.”

Much to the public embarrassment of Henry’s sister in Lewiston, all of his clothing and belongings were confiscated and divided up to satisfy irate hotel proprietors in coastal York County.

Treasure buried in southern Maine

Mr. Labbe finds a cache of Spanish coins

When the Labbe family unearthed a box of Spanish gold and silver coins at their Biddeford floral establishment in 1931, many speculated that a West Indies pirate had buried it there.

Lots of gold and silver coins have been dug up — mostly by gardeners — along the coast of southern Maine. In June of 1849, William P. Fessenden’s gardener dug up a silver sixpence dated 1579 at his employer’s State Street, Portland property. Two months later another rare old coin was discovered on a vacant lot at the corner of Brackett and Vaughan streets in Portland. It proved to be a 1655 “leg dollar,” so-called for the military figure depicted with only one leg showing on the face of the coin.

A stone pot full of gold and silver coins, all dated before 1630, were dug up with a plow near the center of Richmond Island on May 11, 1855. The amazing discovery was chronicled in the Eastern Argus on May 24, 1855. “Mr. Hanscom, the tenant of Dr. Cummings, was holding the plow, and his son, twelve years old, was driving. When the boy came to the place, he observed the pot, bottom up, and picking it up, said to his father, ‘I have found it!’” Rumors of buried pirate’s treasure on the little island off the southern shore of Cape Elizabeth had not escaped the Hanscom boy. After careful scholarly study by chronicler, Hon. Wm Willis, the treasure was thought more likely to belong to Walter Bagnell, an early settler on Richmond Island who was killed by Indians in 1631.

William Edgecomb was working in his garden on the Ferry Road in Saco during the spring of 1931 when a gold coin bearing the date 1723 was turned over in the soil before him.

Later that summer, on July 22, 1931, Elie T. Labbe was transplanting flowers with employees Ralph Labbe and Ovila Bouthot — to make way for a new greenhouse at the florist shop he co-owned with his brother Joseph. The men uncovered a rotted wooden box that had once contained the 63 Spanish gold and silver coins scattered around it in the dirt. One of the coins was described in the Biddeford Journal the following day. “Elie T. Labbe took one of the coins in a splendid state of preservation bearing the date 1805 to a local bank this morning where he was told that it was a $1 Spanish coin of the reign of Charles IV of Spain. He was also informed that the value of the coin at this time is $65.”

Labbe told the Journal reporter that he intended to do some more digging before totaling up his buried treasure, but he didn’t believe it would ever amount to enough for him to be able to retire from the florist business. He also made a plea for help from local historians in solving the mystery of how Spanish coins might have come to be buried on his land at 200 Pool St.

Though a little late to be of benefit to Elie Labbe, your Old News columnist will explore some of the possibilities.

Spanish coins were the most common currency in Colonial America and they remained in circulation in the United States until 1857. Spanish coins dated 1800-1805 did not necessarily belong to a Spanish pirate. For the most part, piracy on the coast of Maine had long ceased by the time these coins were minted. There was one incident with a Spanish ship in 1817, but that is a story for another day.

According to an article in the Lewiston Eve Journal on June 4, 1872, a wooden box of gold and silver coins was stolen during the previous week from the Hubbard residence on Oak Street in Biddeford. The thief was later apprehended with jewelry taken from the same house but the box of coins was never recovered. Perhaps he buried the box on the 200 Pool Street property that Thomas Potts had acquired a few weeks earlier.

Another possibility is that the coins were buried for safe-keeping when Biddeford Pool was attacked by the British man-of-war Bulwark on June 16, 1814. John Staples Locke wrote of the incident in his 1880 book, “Shores of Saco Bay.”

“Messengers were dispatched through the country on horseback, to alarm the inhabitants. All the men capable of bearing arms left their fields and hastened towards the Pool. Women and children fled to the woods with their valuables. One aged lady tells of taking the silver of a wealthy Saco family and burying it in the woods near where is now the Eastern Depot.”

In all the confusion of the day, some residents of the Pool buried their money hastily and later forgot at what exact location. Through the years a few other gold and silver pieces have been unearthed in gardens along Pool Street.

In 1814, Joseph Morrill and his wife Mary Jordan owned the lot at 200 Pool St. that would later become the Biddeford Floral Company. They had inherited it from Mary’s father, Judge Rishworth Jordan, when he died in 1808. Perhaps the coins belonged to members of the Jordan family or of the Morrill family.

It cannot be stated with certainty exactly how the Spanish treasure ended up in Labbe’s garden, but one thing seems certain, gardening in southern Maine can be very rewarding.

History of the Saco River tugboat A. G. Prentiss

AG Prentiss – A Nautical Workhorse

Paul Larivierre, owner of Southern Maine Marine in Arundel, believes he has recovered the huge propeller of the tugboat A. G. Prentiss — from the Saco River where, according to local tradition, she grounded and burned.

In a recent conversation Larivierre said “The A.G. Prentiss towed derelict vessels back and forth in front of the Biddeford Pool Gun Battery for target practice.” Biddeford Pool was under the umbrella of the Portland Harbor Defense Command in World War II. A temporary battery of four 155mm guns was emplaced at East Point from 1942-1945.

Tugboats played an integral role in the history of the Saco River. Biddeford’s manufacturing industry was heavily dependant upon coal — the Pepperell Company alone using 22,000 tons a year during its heyday. Coal arrived on schooners and later on barges carrying up to 850 tons of coal per trip. All were towed up the Saco River to Factory Island by tugboats.

Some of the tugboats that berthed at Biddeford Pool over the years were The Ellen, The Joseph Baker, The Hersey, The Cumberland, The Bailey, The Castor, The Morrison, The Express,and The Willard & Clapp, to name just a few. At least two of the Saco River tugboats were built on the Kennebunk River. The Robert L. Darragh was launched in 1879 from the Crawford and Ward shipyard in Kennebunkport.

The 46-ton tugboat A. G. Prentiss was built by the next generation of the same family of shipbuilders. She was launched from the Charles Ward Shipyard in Kennebunk Lower Village on Feb. 6, 1912. Her first pilot was Captain Clarence Goldthwait of Biddeford Pool and Captain Tristram N. Goldthwaite took over as her pilot during the ’20s.

The A. G. Prentiss, named for her original owner, was well known on the Saco River for many years. She towed coal barges from Biddeford Pool and from Portland to the factories upriver along with an occasional lumber barge for the Deering Lumber company. She was also employed to break the ice in the river, keeping a shipping channel open as long into the winter as possible. In 1918, the Prentiss towed the newly built schooner Jere G. Shaw out of the river for her maiden voyage.

Before the United States got involved in World War I, The Pepperell Company’s shrewd treasurer foresaw the effect the war would have on coal supplies and used the A.G. Prentiss to help stockpile fuel. His anticipation of the Coal Shortage of 1918 was for naught, however.

In February 1918, the National Fuel Administrator ordered a five-day shutdown and a shortened workweek for every manufacturing plant east of the Mississippi.

These measures caused financial strain on the Saco River Mills and on the population of Biddeford. A frustrated reporter for the Biddeford newspaper wrote “Nearly 3500 Pepperell workers are to lose some $30,000 in wages in order to save $3,600 worth of coal.”

The tug A. G. Prentiss was commissioned by the Navy on March 28, 1918 and renamed the U.S.S. A.G. Prentiss. According to U.S. Navy records she served in the 3rd Naval District and was decommissioned and returned to owners, The Crescent Towing Line Company, on Dec. 2, 1918.

When the Crescent Co. went bankrupt in 1921, a new company, The Saco River Towing Company was organized with capital stock of $25,000, to take over towing on the Saco River. The A. G. Prentiss, reportedly worth $52,000 in 1920, was sold to the new towing company on July 28, 1921 for $25,000.

Tugboats were often used by the Biddeford Pool Lifesaving Station to prevent shipwrecks. A severe snowstorm on April 15, 1923 blew the steamer Annahuac onto the ledges of Fortunes Rocks. The storm continued through the next morning. The tugboat A.G. Prentiss was the first vessel on the scene to help pull her off. The Annahuac was so seriously damaged that she listed 45 degrees to the starboard. It took The Prentiss, another Biddeford tug, the Cumberland, and the United States Coast Guard cutter Ossipee to tow her to Portland for repairs.

The 13-year-old tug A. G. Prentiss needed a complete overhaul in spring 1925. She was hauled out of the water in Portland and was shipshape before the 1925 shipping season began.

An article in the Biddeford Journal on Oct. 14, 1954 reveals that the A.G. Prentiss was still afloat in 1954 and had found her way back to Kennebunk.

“The Kennebunk River breakwater at Kennebunkport is being repaired. The tugboat which is servicing it is the AG Prentiss which worked on the Saco River for many years.”

Wyoming Construction Company of East Boston had presented the lowest bid on the breakwater repairs and was awarded the contract in July of 1954 by Colonel R.W. Pearson of the New England Division, Army Corps of Engineers.

Details about the demise of the Kennebunk-built tugboat A.G. Prentiss have not yet been found in old news, but her contribution to shipping on the Saco River will long be remembered.

Yellow journalism in 19th Century Biddeford, ME

All the Fitted News to Print

All the Fitted News to Print

The term Yellow Journalism was coined to describe a sensationalistic style of reporting that was typically unfettered by facts. It was popularized by the likes of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst at their competing New York newspapers in the 1890s. The provocative style was already entertaining Biddeford Daily Times readers in 1872.

Marcus Watson revived the daily paper in 1872. It had been introduced in 1868 but had lasted only 14 days. Watson acquired the right to use the name and hired two talented young writers, Phillip McIntyre and Francis Goodwin, to be his co-editors. In 1906, Phillip McIntyre, who was by then a seasoned newspaperman in Portland, recalled the early days at the Biddeford Daily Times.

“Francis Goodwin and I did not exactly paint Biddeford red during our connection with the Times, both of us being young men of abstemious habits, but we did give the paper a saffron hue. In fact we were undoubtedly the pioneers of “yellow journalism” in this state long before that term of reproach was coined.”

McIntyre fondly recalled one piece of juicy news that was of his own making. While he lived at the Biddeford House during the summer of 1872, the big front door of the Main Street hotel was always securely locked at 10 pm. McIntyre often arrived home long after lock-up time. Normally, he would rap on the lamppost in front of the hotel to summon Amos Brackett, the beat cop who carried the key to the hotel. But in this instance Brackett seemed to have either fallen asleep or deserted his post.

Finally, out of patience, the newspaperman picked up a loose brick from the sidewalk and smashed the window just over the bunk where the hotel night watchman slept. The brick dropped on the poor man’s head causing him to bolt up yelling “Burglars!” The whole house was aroused and someone rushed out the front door to find Officer Brackett. McIntyre quietly passed amid the commotion and went to bed. “The next evening the Times contained a thrilling account of an attempted burglary at the Biddeford House,” reminisced the journalist, “foiled by the bravery and presence of mind of Patsy, the wakeful and intrepid watchman.”

Watson sold the Biddeford Times in 1876 to Andrew J. Small, who ran a most dignified paper until his death in 1885. His sisters Josephine and Addie Small took over and continued in his responsible journalistic style. The Smalls also started the weekly edition of the Times and a summer paper, Old Orchard Sea Shell, in the mid-1880s.

Wishing to retire after working hard all their lives, the Small sisters sold all three papers to Francis L. Finch in 1894 for $10,000. Finch had only just graduated from Thornton Academy in 1892. When he came of age he inherited $70,000 from a guardian but being immature the boy ran through the money at once. He spent it on a fancy Saco estate, servants, horses, a grand European tour, and investments in business ventures he didn’t have the wherewithal to maintain. The Small sisters were forced to repossess the newspapers within a few months.

The final publisher of the Biddeford Daily Times bought the distressed paper at a bargain price in 1895. William A. Roberts had for many years been a life insurance man and then the proprietor of the Biddeford House that had by then been renamed the Thacher Hotel. He did not take possession of the newspaper until January 1896 because he was deeply embroiled in a court case that year over the death of his 26 year old stenographer. She had died in his company after an illegal operation in Boston.

This wasn’t the first time Roberts had been to court and it was far from the last. He was also sued for the damages caused by his passenger paddleboat in the Saco River. He had built it to run paying customers out to Biddeford Pool but he soon had several law suits on his hands when the unstable vessel ran into about every boat it passed. Roberts was also the edge-dwelling local politician who eventually settled in a campaign finance embezzlement case in 1899.

His proprietorship at the Biddeford Daily Times however was well received. One reviewer raved that Roberts had “converted the paper into one of the warmest little sheets that ever “sassed the mighty” in the State of Maine.” Another journalist wrote, “As Editor and Publisher, he pens editorials that curl the hair. He isn’t bashful and never a man walked the earth who could make him cast down his eye or check his speech.”

Roberts did seem to love to stir up trouble, especially against his political opponents but sometimes it was just to entertain his readers and probably himself. He later recalled that on one particularly slow news day he bought a skeleton from a local doctor and had one of his reporters “dig it up” to furnish the paper with a local sensation for the day. After a few years Roberts lost interest in the daily news business and allowed the paper to expire in 1897.

Throughout the 25 or so years the newspaper was in existence it was also known as The Biddeford Times and The Evening Times. Though relatively short-lived, The Times played a significant role in the history of Maine journalism, especially during the Yellow years of 1872 and 1896.

French Espionage in Colonial Wells

White-Flag Ploy Thwarted

White-Flag Ploy Thwarted

Less than 100 families lived in Wells when blacksmith, Louis Allain arrived from France around 1684. The colonists probably received him with some trepidation, given the alliance between his countrymen in Canada and the Indians that had plagued them, off and on, for a decade. Little did they know that Allain would one day use their acquaintance to spy for the Governor of l’Acadie.

 French Protestants or Huguenots fled religious persecution in France during the reign of King Louis XIV, many of them settling in New England. Louis Allain’s indentured apprentice, Anthony Coombs, was a Huguenot. Louis, himself may also have represented himself as such to the people of Wells. He would later prove his loyalty was really to his pocketbook.

At thirty years old, Allain was already a man of means. He purchased ½ of Samuel Storer’s Cape Neddick-built brigantine, Endeavor, in August of 1685. A month later, he purchased a mill on the western bank of the Little River, lots on both sides of the river and the home of William Frost.

Territorial tensions grew between the colonists from France and England and between the Indian tribes allied to both monarchies. Allain decided to move toPort Royal, Nova Scotia, leaving Anthony Coombs behind to protect his Wells property.

In 1687, he obtained permission to build windmills along the river that has since been known as Allain’s River. He raised a family there and his fortunes grew. Within a few years Louis owned a grain mill, a saw mill, a store and several coasting vessels that made regular trading voyages to the English city of Boston. He and his partner shipped lumber and flour from their mills in Port Royal and brought back Boston goods to sell to their Acadian customers. Andre Faneuil, the wealthy Boston Huguenot whose fortune financed the building of Faneuil Hall, traded regularly with the Acadians, even as Governor William Phipps burned Port Royalin 1690. When the legality of their trading arrangement was questioned, Allain and other Acadian businessmen declared their allegiance to the English King. At the same time they were supplying the French Navy with mast timbers.

Indians attacked the villages along the York County coast in 1703. It was a horrible year for Wells. Thirty-nine of her inhabitants were either killed or made prisoner.

The following Spring Colonel Benjamin Church led an expedition through Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and theBay of Fundy, collecting French prisoners and Indian scalps for bounty along the way. Under orders from Massachusetts Governor Dudley, he left Port Royal unscathed. Some people of Massachusetts, including Puritan minister Cotton Mather, suspected that Dudley was trying to preserve illegal trade between Boston and Nova Scotia.

Feeding prisoners of war became expensive for both the French and the English. An agreement was made to exchange prisoners in 1705. Allain and his business partner, who were fluent in English and familiar with Boston, were sent to seal the deal. According to the September 10, 1705 issue of the “Boston News-letter”, Allain arrived in Boston on the 20th of August under a flag of truce, with the signed agreement. He returned to Port Royal at the end of September carrying a few French prisoners back as a show of good faith. A January 1706 report in the same paper indicates that he sailed again for Massachusetts a few months later.

“On Thursday last the 26th day of December there arrived at Nanguncket [Ogunquit] near to Wells in the Province of Maine, A Flag of Truce from Port-Royal with 34 English Prisoners.”

E.E. Bourne writes in his “History of Wells” that Lewis Allen came to Wells under the Flag of Truce and was authorized to trade prisoners. The people of Wells were immediately suspicious of the Frenchman’s motives and searched his pocketbook. In it, they found incriminating instructions for Allain to report, to the French Governor of Acadia, any efforts underway to fortify Wells against the Indians.

“If any enterprise was afoot that he should join L.A. the two first letters of his name, close together. If it was only in agitation, place them at some distance; but if nothing was in motion, then to sign a cross.”

Allain was clasped in irons and sent to Bostonto be dealt with. In a surprising twist that Bourne does not reveal, Governor Dudley released Allain. He made some excuse about owing Louis his life and sent him back to Port Royal to continue his lucrative lumber and flour trade.

Anthony Coombs, whose indenture expired, had long since deserted Allain’s Wells mill on the Little River. Louis hired his “trusty and well-beloved friend Lewis Bane of York,” (who had represented the English in treaty negotiations atPort Royal) to recover his title to the Wells property. Bane eventually bought the property from him in 1720 and Louis boldly appeared at the courthouse in Biddeford to acknowledge the instrument May 9, 1733. When he died inPort Royal several years later Louis Allain was one of the richest men in town.

Presidential visits to Biddeford Pool

A tragic Capsizing

A tragic Capsizing

The people of Biddeford began preparing for a Presidential visit as soon as William Howard Taft was inaugurated on March 4, 1909. The first lady’s sister, Eleanor More, had a summer cottage at Biddeford Pool. Her husband, the noted evolutionist, Dr. Louis T More, told the local press to expect an August visit by the first family.

Unfortunately, Nellie Taft suffered a stroke soon after moving into the Whitehouse and the family’s vacation plans were curtailed. Mrs. More stood in for her convalescing sister at all official events and accompanied her to Beverly Massachusetts for the summer. By the end of July Eleanor felt confident enough about her sister’s condition to slip away to her cottage at Biddeford Pool for a few days. To facilitate the trip, the Presidential yacht, “Sylph”, was placed at her disposal.

The impressive 123 foot vessel was anchored near the mouth of the Saco River on the evening of July, 30, 1909. As an entrepreneurial venture, Captain Earnest Vinton of Saco offered a moonlight excursion to closely view the Presidential yacht from his motor launch, the “Item”. Twenty-nine tickets were sold. Captain Vinton had to borrow extra life preservers from the Captain of the “Nimrod” to comply with federal safety regulations that he carry one for each passenger aboard.

It was reported in the Boston Daily Globe that the overcrowded little launch set out from Island Wharf at twilight. After rounding Wood Island she approached the illuminated “Sylph” and passengers gathered on her port side to get a closer look. The little party boat heeled dramatically with the shifting weight. Following an instinct to compensate, the passengers all “jockeyed about” causing the “Item” to suddenly “turn turtle” near Sharps Rocks, spilling her human cargo into the inky water.

Commander of the Presidential Yacht, Lieutenant Roger Williams, heard some of the women cry for help as they struggled to stay afloat in their heavy layers of clothing. He immediately ordered the “Sylph’s” tender, with a five man crew, to the scene of the accident and trained his searchlight on the overturned party boat.

The launch “Nimrod” was the second boat to reach the scene. She carried all the rescued passengers to Saco and Biddeford; all but Mrs. Eugene A. Cutts who had sustained internal injuries when she became entangled in the gearing of the power boat. Mrs. Cutts was taken to the McBride cottage where she died the following day. As the capsized “Item” was towed to Basket Island and beached, the body of a 19 year old Biddeford girl, Miss Katie Lynch, who had probably been trapped inside the cabin, washed ashore on the island. Her companion, Miss Margaret Harvey, 25, was later reported missing but her body would not be recovered until two weeks later.

The accident was investigated by the County Coroner’s office. Benjamin Jackson of Biddeford Pool, who had built the “Item” in 1903, testified that she was designed to carry an engine weighing over 2 tons. A few months before the accident, Vinton had replaced her original engine with one that weighed only 10% as much. While examining the “Item’s” seaworthiness one juryman stepped down from the wharf into the boat and as he did she heeled over very suddenly. “We find from the evidence and from inspection that the said boat “Item”, owing to its form, is unstable, easily capsized and entirely unsafe for the carrying of passengers,” reported Coroner Walter Dennett. Captain Vinton had fulfilled the only existing safety requirement of carrying a life preserver for each passenger so no charges were filed but the loss of three lives rocked the towns of Saco and Biddeford.

At the time of the tragic accident, President Taft was in Florida witnessing Wilbur Wright’s record breaking 10 mile flight, during which the homemade plane reached amazing speeds in excess of 42 miles per hour. Mr. Taft was a big fan of new-fangled modes of transportation. He was finally persuaded to spend one night in Biddeford Pool in 1910. He arrived on an even larger official yacht, the 275 foot “Mayflower”. After enjoying a motorcar ride through the Pool he gave an informal speech at the Abenaki Country Club. The President spent the night at his sister in-law’s cottage and sailed away on the “Mayflower” at 10 o’clock the next morning.

Taft quietly returned to the Pool to visit his family once again just before Woodrow Wilson won the Presidency away from him in 1912. Even in Biddeford, William Howard Taft came in a distant third, after Wilson and Taft’s predecessor, President Theodore Roosevelt.

The Witches of York County

The Plague of Blind Belief

The Plague of Blind Belief

Wells minister, Rev. George Burroughs was hanged as a witch during the Salem delirium of 1692. A century later, Widow Elizabeth Smith of Arundel was accused of witchcraft at the York County Court of Common Pleas and Sessions in Biddeford.

Rev. Burroughs was probably a hothead and a show off who liked to impress his neighbors with feats of amazing strength. According to testimony at his trial he could lift a molasses barrel with one finger.

George might not have been a perfect husband, either. When his second wife died her funeral expenses went unpaid. As the preacher at Danvers, Massachusetts he was embroiled in a turf war within the Salem religious hierarchy and could not get them to pay his salary. John Putnam, the keeper of the coin at the Danvers church, also allowed him to buy two gallons of rum on account. Burroughs skipped town with a new wife, leaving word that his salary would easily cover the bills he had with Putnam. A debt charge was filed against him in Salem.

Burroughs preached in Portland, Maine until the Indians drove his family south to Wells during King Williams War. They were living in Wells on April 30, 1692, when John Putnam’s 12 year old niece, Ann and George’s former maid, Mercy Lewis, accused the minister of witchcraft. The girls testified that he had appeared to them in a vision and admitted to killing his first two wives. Three constables were sent to Wells to deliver the accused to Salem. Burroughs was confident that the preposterous charges would be dropped once he appeared before Judge Jonathan Corwin who owned considerable acreage and mill rights along the Mousam River. Emerson W. Baker, of Salem State College, proposes a connection between Maine land dealings by the likes of Judge Corwin and the escalation of the Salem witch mania, in his article “Maine, Indian Land Speculation, and the Essex County Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692”

Burroughs offered to show the authorities the shortest route back to Salem through the woods to South Berwick. The constables were apparently compelled by some magic spell to follow his advice. Along the way a lightning storm spooked their horses and caused them to rush through the trees at a high-speed trot. The path they traveled- thenceforth known as Witchtrot Road- eventually led them out of the woods and on to Salem, but the constables were convinced that the minister had caused the storm with witchcraft. They testified to that effect at his trial. Judge Corwin and his brother in-law, Judge Hawthorne found Rev. George Burroughs guilty of witchcraft and he was hanged August 19, 1692.

One hundred and four years later witchcraft hysteria visited the good people of Arundel. John Hilton was walking home one evening when Widow Smith appeared on the road six yards ahead of him. The ox goad he was carrying started slipping through his hand by some power that he decided must be witchcraft. He caught up to the old woman and tried to strike her with the stick. Instead of injuring her he somehow received a violent blow to his own lower back.

John was in a state of insanity when he got home. His father in-law, Eaton Cleaves confined the young man and asked Widow Smith to visit him. While she was in his presence John spoke rationally but as soon as she was gone he was again insensible. The widow, in an effort to make peace, shed her own blood as an antidote to the bewitching but John’s condition did not improve.

Things got really ugly when the women of the family got involved. John’s sister Elizabeth Smith, his wife Sarah and nieces Dolly Smith and Molly Hilton tried to do away with the widow by concocting an incantation of their own involving home grown herbs and some of John’s bodily fluids. When that didn’t kill the old woman they told her “she ought to have been long ago in hell with the damned; that they would let loose the man whom she had bewitched to kill her.”

John Hilton did escape confinement. He violently beat Widow Smith with a stick and almost choked her to death. Nearby, his niece egged him on. “Kill her, Uncle John,” she cried. The witchcraft delusion spread throughout their Cleaves Cove neighborhood causing one house to be entirely demolished.

With this bizarre case before him at the Biddeford court, Justice Wells refused to hear any arguments about magic spells. According to a November 17, 1796 article published in “The Eastern Herald and Gazette of Maine,” he told John Hilton’s family that the difficulties and the dissention in their neighborhood arose from their ignorance, not the poor old woman’s witchcraft. The accusers were convicted of assault and battery. Each was required to pay $100 bond that would be returned to them if they kept peace with the Widow Smith until the following August.

What a difference a century makes. In Salem, it had been the Judges and the religious leaders who fueled the fires of hysteria. The wise Biddeford Judge put a quick end to the Arundel witch hunt by making it clear that accusing someone of witchcraft would be expensive.