Tag Archives: witch

Accusations of Witchcraft at Spruce Creek

Alleged: Seven Horses Fourteen Witches

As Halloween approaches, images of witches magically appear in shop windows. We indulge our fancies with an annual flight to a charmingly spooky world where witches wear identifying head gear and brooms fly. At one time in New England, an accusation of witchcraft could end at the gallows, as it did for Wells minister Rev. George Burroughs during the Salem, Massachusetts delirium of 1692.On Oct. 21, 1725 widow Sarah Keen of Kittery was publically accused of being a witch by her Spruce Creek neighbor, John Spinney, the weaver — long after the horrors of Salem neighbors used accusations of witchcraft to ostracize neighbors.

Sarah wasted little time in calling upon Kittery Justice of the Peace, Col. William Pepperrell, to have her accuser arrested. Once Spinney was in custody, Pepperrell heard testimony from a few witnesses to the accusation and he imposed a moderate fine of five shillings plus court fees. If Spinney had paid the fine that might have been the end of it but John had personal reasons for slandering Sarah.

The justice system in colonial York County had three levels: Local Justices of the Peace were like police. They could arrest and fine for minor offenses. Justice William Pepperell Sr. made those decisions at Kittery. If a suspect like Spinney appealed the judgment of the Justice of the Peace with reasonable cause, his case was escalated to the next session of the Court of Common Pleas. That court, held in the Town of York in 1725,  had regular sessions three times a year and quarterly sessions four times a year. The General Assembly met just once a year for only the highest level cases.

Spinney did appeal Pepperrell’s ruling, complaining that he had not had sufficient time to call his own witnesses. His appeal was heard Jan. 1, 1726. Though Spinney denied calling Sarah a witch, his many witnesses described a variety of incidents that served to reinforce the notion. A few of those alleged acts of witchcraft follow.

Elizabeth Pettegrew claimed that one night at about 9 or 10 o’clock, she saw a coven of witches frolicking in the moonlight with Sarah Keen. Elizabeth heard noises down the country road toward the Keen house, from her doorway that night. She moved a little closer to investigate and saw Keen on horseback with a riding hood pulled up over her head and a white handkerchief about her neck. The moon shone brightly on a coven of 14 women riding double on seven horses behind her. They seemed to be very merry, talking and laughing loudly as they rode on by. Clearly the behavior of witches.

John Harmon and Samuel Remich testified that they were with Paul Wentworth at a tavern in Portsmouth one night. Wentworth told them that he saw Mistress Keen strike the fire and make it fly all over the house, thereby bewitching her daughter.

Paul Williams testified that he had been present when Sarah threatened to put a bridle on Spinney and ride him like a horse to Justice Pepperrell’s house. Others reported that Sarah had ridden Spinney from the eastward and kept him tied to her plum tree all night.

Reference was made to widow Keen’s extra nipple. It made even Sarah wonder, from time to time, if it might not be there to nourish the devil. She had expressed concern to other women in town that around the time of the Salem hysteria she thought she might be a witch and not know it.

Many of Keen’s neighbors from the tiny hamlet of Spruce Creek turned up to support Spinney’s claim. When all was said and done the judgment against Spinney was reversed for insufficient evidence.

Examination of earlier court documents reveals some possible clues as to why Sarah’s neighbors were so willing to throw her under the wagon. Throughout their residence at Spruce Creek, Sarah and her deceased husband, Nathaniel Keen had made plenty of enemies.

Nathaniel Keen fought with his neighbor Paul Williams over ownership of a field between their properties. Keen and Spinney’s in-laws, the Shepards, had been in and out of court for  13 years over ownership of a  10-acre parcel of land between their houses. Keen’s ownership of the land was eventually affirmed. Samuel Spinney, John the accuser’s father, was among those who petitioned Kittery selectmen to install a landing on the creek. The approved road to the landing encroached on Keen’s property and he legally succeeded in blocking Spinney’s access to the creek.

Nathaniel Keen was also notorious for his temper that on more than one occasion turned to physical violence. He was arrested for beating his slave Rachel to death in 1694. The value of a slave’s life being what it was at the time, charges were reduced from murder to cruelty and Keen was fined five pounds plus court costs.

Sarah Keen also had a volatile temperament. In one instance she went after William Godsoe with an axe. When chided for unchristian-like behavior by one of her neighbors, she reportedly replied, “I did not profess no Christianity.”

It seems that when an opportunity presented itself to exact revenge the Keen’s neighbors lined up to take it out on Sarah in court.

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.