Blog & News

Witchcraft in Biddeford: Men and Women on Trial - In: Blog

Comments : 0 Author : louisem Date : 01 Nov 2018

This is an excerpt of our Fireside Chat presented by Louise Merriman, Vice President of the Biddeford Historical Society

Welcome. You are sitting in the 1759 pews that generations of Biddeford families sat in for nearly three hundred years. Our Biddeford families bought deeds to these pews and spent thousands of Sundays worshipping here. This first congregational church, our meetinghouse, is the oldest public building in Biddeford/Saco and one of Biddeford’s greatest treasures. It was here that births, marriages and God was celebrated for hundreds of years. It was here that Jeremiah Hill, a Harvard-trained lawyer and a Captain in George Washington’s army, was tried for heresy. It was likely here in that the town read their petition pleading with President James Monroe not to get involved in the War of 1812. They said, “our Biddeford men still have the blood of the American Revolution on its coats. Please do not get us involved in another war.”

Biddeford history does not begin with the white European settlers who came here. Richard Vines was not the founder of Biddeford. He came here to plunder the land of its resources and to enslave human beings. The land we know as Biddeford begins with the Wabanaki, the people of the Dawn who inhabited this land for thousands of years. The English named these indigenous local groups after their geographic location – in our instance, Saco. The French followed native practice and named them based on linguistic or ethnic criteria. The French identified three groups the Gulf of Maine – the Souriquois (ancestors of the Micmac), Etchemin (ancestors of the Maliseet and the Passamaquoddy) and the Amichiquois (today’s Abenaki). By the time the Europeans came here in the early 1600s, the Wabanaki experienced a terrible pandemic. The Wabanaki did not have the antibodies to fight the virulent contagious diseases and between 1616-1619 (right when the European Richard Vines landed in the Gut of Winter Harbor, 75 percent of the population perished.

Biddeford history is rich. It’s culturally complex and it BELONGS TO All OF US. It is not reserved for those with academic titles, nor is it bounded by organization. Biddeford Historical Society is the gateway to its riches, but this beautiful history belongs to everyone in this room tonight. Its requirement is simple – You just need to bring a sense of curiosity, a sense of wonder and awe at what not only has gone on before, but what is happening now. All of us are making history as we speak. All of us come from different ethnicities and cultures, and we all have something very valuable to bring not only to history, but to our community.

I invite all of you here to be discoverers and explorers of Biddeford history, and join our ranks, become a member to help us preserve, promote and educate the community about our rich history.

Help to preserve our beautiful Biddeford meetinghouse that has been sitting on rubble since 1840 when the bottom floor was taken off and the top floor was placed on piles of granite. Built by Nathaniel Perkins, she is on the Register of National Historic Places. She is intertwined with Biddeford history and national history. We all need to save and restore her to her former glory.

I want to acknowledge our fellow Board members who are here tonight – Paul McDonough, Jeff Cabral and Lisa Brunelle, and Charles Butler. I also want to acknowledge the help of Melanie Taylor from the McArthur Library, Raoul from the Franco-American Society and Paul Glynn.

I want to give a big shout-out to someone who has spent 50 years of his life pursuing his passion for Biddeford history. Since 1968, Charles has served on the Biddeford historical society. He has been the go-to historical reference, the passionate protector of historical buildings and artifacts and captivating storyteller of Biddeford history. His stories spark our imagination, make us realize that we are part of something bigger than 2018. Charles has logged hundreds of thousands of hours of his free time for Biddeford. Charles, could you please stand up. At intermission, we will be having a cake for him. Please join me in thanking him for 50 years of unpaid service for our History.

Witchcraft is fundamentally about the Other in society. It touches on the most vulnerable – who through the time and circumstances of the 17th and 18th century did not have power or a voice. In its vicious sweep, it captures people with disabilities; people who are enslaved; people who are homeless; people who are in reduced circumstances; people who do not have the financial means to fight back or the backing of a spouse who will sue for slander.

Witchcraft seems so far away from our lives in 2018, but the category of the Other is still with us in all those categories of people who are marginalized today – the homeless, the people with disabilities, the women who are trafficked and enslaved, women who survive domestic abuse, and the list goes on. I think we need to think about the Other in our society and community now and how we, in our individual capacity, can help them.

Witchcraft fundamentally is about women. The prosecution of women as witches occurred in a society in which men exercised substantial authority – legal, political, ideological and economic – over women.

I think it is auspicious that we discuss this subject tonight because October 9th is the Navratri festival in India. It’s also referred to as Durga Purga. It’s when the feminine presence of God (shakti) is celebrated. The Goddess Durga is symbolic of the feminine energy that is used against the negative forces of evil and wickedness. I have an antique statue of Durga here to remind us of the power of the feminine in our lives.

About three months ago, I didn’t know anything about witchcraft and I still feel that the subject is so vast and complex that I have only touched the surface of this subject. What piqued my interest was a story that I read on the Harpswell Historical Society website. The meetinghouse there is two years older than ours and worth a visit. My family are from Harpswell since 1700, still have pews in this meetinghouse and I thought I could be related to the witch in this story.

The Witch of Harpswell
Goodwife Hannah Stover

In the 1700’s a woman named Hannah became the second wife of Elkniah Stover who lived in the southernmost part of Harpswell Neck. Some Harpswell people said that Goodwife Hannah Stover was a witch. She had come from Freeport and she was a Quaker. She refused to go to church at the Meeting House in Harpswell Center. Stover wasn’t a good person.

When Goodwife Stover died, the men of Harpswell Neck refused to carry her coffin to the Meeting House for a Christian burial, Some of the women of the town went against their husbands’ wishes. Six fisherwives carried the coffin of Hannah Stover all the way from South Harpswell to Harpswell Center.

Ezra Johnson was one of the men that had accused. Hannah Stover, He called her a “witch wife.” When the women finally reached the Meeting House, Ezra Johnson spoke out against Hannah again He said that he had a cow that had been “bewitched” and a broken seine that Hannah Stover hid caused. He said that two days before Hannah Stover died, he had been taken in his sleep to Potts Point where he was dragged up and down the sides of a ship. He accused Hannah because he said he heard her voice while this was happening.

While Ezra Johnson was still accusing Hannah of being a witch her stepdaughter, Mercy Stover, and also Goody Cole spoke up. They reminded people of Hannah Stover’s kindness and the help that she gave to Harpswell people. At this time Parson Eaton took over. He said that Hannah should be buried, The men still refused to touch the coffin, so the women carried it the rest of the way and Hannah Stover was buried in the old graveyard behind the Meeting House.

We have buried a witch!” Ezra Johnson growled.

We have made the grave of a. saint,” Parson Eaton replied.

All the elements of witchcraft are there –

  • She was a Quaker. She didn’t fit in with the religious systems dominant at the time (Anglicanism and Puritanism).
  • She was willful. She refused to go to church at the Meetinghouse.
  • They attributed malefic acts to her. A problem with a cow, a broken seine and someone said she took him to another place in his sleep.
  • Her husband called her a witch wife.

This was certainly enough to have her accused. But what is heartwarming about this story is that women in the community circled the wagons and defended her. They dared to offer a counterpoint to these accusations and point out what she did for the community. She was kind. She helped people. And then, the religious leader of the society, Parson Eaton, took over and righted a terrible wrong done to a woman. He proclaimed it wasn’t a witch that was buried, but we have buried a saint.

The story is the narrative we want to happen, but it didn’t. All the names are right. There was a Hannah Stover in Harpswell and a Parson Eaton and his son preached at the Harpswell Meetinghouse for 80 years, but the story is pure fiction. The reality of what happened to women in colonial New England under the guise of religion is deeply disturbing. For the story of witchcraft is about vulnerability and power. To understand, we must to adopt a different worldview. We must move from a view of our world where rationality and technology are the high points in our culture to a worldview of God being the most powerful presence in the world. And we move into a world where the veil is thin between the visible and the visible.

Tonight, I want to offer you a window into New England witchcraft phenomena of the 17th and 18th century. This is not going to be an exhaustive examination of every aspect of witchcraft. It won’t be a regurgitation of the Salem witch trials that many of you know so well. Next year, we will bring in the experts who have spent their career on the Salem outbreak. After we take this brief journey, I want to move into Biddeford and together, let’s discover what went on here.

Witch trials aren’t new. The persecution of witches has been around since the 1500s and perhaps even earlier. The peak in Europe was between 1580 and 1630. It is estimated that 30,000 to 60,000 people lost their lives. The Witchcraft Act of 1604 called for the death penalty for anyone convicted of invoking evil spirits. It wasn’t until the Witchcraft Act was passed in 1735 in Great Britain that the crime diminished. This 1735 act made it a crime to claim that any human being had magical powers or was guilty of practicing witchcraft.

So, first, let’s start by imagining what it was like to be back in the 16th, 17th century.

Stacy Schiff in her book, The Witches, Salem 1692 captures this well:

In isolated settlements, in dim, smoky, firelit homes, New Englanders lived very much in the dark, where one listens more acutely, feels more passionately, imagines most vividly, where the sacred and the occult thrive. Their fears and fancies differed little from ours, even if the early American witch had as much in common with our pointy-hatted crone as Somali pirates do with Captain Hook. Their dark was a very different dark. The sky over New England was crow black, pitch black, Bible black, so black that it could be difficult at night to keep to the path, so black that a line of trees might freely migrate to another location or you might find yourself pursued at nighttime by a rabid black dog, leaving you to crawl home, bloody and disoriented, on all fours. Indeed eye glasses were rare in the seventeenth century Massachusetts. Hard cider was the drink of choice. For, some of the things that plagued the 17th century New Englander we have modern-day explanations. For others we do not. We have believed in any number of things – the tooth fairy, cold fusion, the benefits of smoking, the free lunch – that turn out not to exist. We all subscribe to preposterous beliefs, we just don’t know yet which ones they are.”

Any questions about this talk, please email louise@biddefordhistoricalsociety.org

50 Years of Service to Biddeford History