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

by Emerson W. Baker

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In 1682, ten years before the infamous Salem witch trials, the town of Great Island, New Hampshire, was plagued by mysterious events: strange, demonic noises; unexplainable movement of objects; and hundreds of stones that rained upon a local tavern and appeared at random inside its walls. Town residents blamed what they called "Lithobolia" or "the


In 1682, ten years before the infamous Salem witch trials, the town of Great Island, New Hampshire, was plagued by mysterious events: strange, demonic noises; unexplainable movement of objects; and hundreds of stones that rained upon a local tavern and appeared at random inside its walls. Town residents blamed what they called "Lithobolia" or "the stone-throwing devil." In this lively account, Emerson Baker shows how witchcraft hysteria overtook one town and spawned copycat incidents elsewhere in New England, prefiguring the horrors of Salem. In the process, he illuminates a cross-section of colonial society and overturns many popular assumptions about witchcraft in the seventeenth century.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Baker, who teaches history at Salem State College, examines a witchcraft accusation made a decade before the more famous Salem outbreak. In June 1682, someone showered stones at a Great Island, N.H., tavern owned by a Quaker named George Walton. When the stone-throwing continued through the summer, Walton accused his neighbor, widow Hannah Jones, of witchcraft. The neighbor, in turn, charged that Walton was a wizard. Baker helpfully connects the Great Island event to other stone-throwing episodes in early New England, and he uncovers some of the social factors-including town politics, a property dispute, and struggles between Walton and his servants-that lurked underneath the Great Island drama. His examination of anti-Quaker sentiment is especially nuanced. Baker is widely read in the academic literature on witchcraft; in fact, his analysis is mostly derivative, leaning heavily on works by John Demos, Carol Karlsen, Mary Beth Norton and others. Baker's use of anachronistic analogies like "the witchcraft accusation... might be seen as the seventeenth-century equivalent of 'playing the race card' " do more to obscure than illuminate. Still, colonial history buffs will appreciate this account of the strange happenings in Great Island. Maps. (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
A weird early-17th-century occurrence of "lithobolia, or the stone-throwing devil" in a religiously fraught area of coastal New Hampshire ten years before Massachusetts was gripped by witchcraft panic. Baker (History/Salem State Coll.), who has done his research almost too thoroughly, frequently gets overwhelmed by an abundance of material as he surveys the many instances of alleged witchcraft that erupted in colonial America. Faced with such strange events as showers of stones coming out of nowhere, people pointed accusing fingers at suspicious neighbors, usually widows or women without men to protect them. In the case of Great Island, N.H., the tavern of prosperous Quaker landowner George Walton was considerably damaged by unexplained barrages of stones over the course of several months in 1682. Litigious Walton promptly accused his elderly neighbor Hannah Jones, with whom he had been involved in a bitter 30-year property dispute. He called her a witch, while she in turn dubbed him a wizard. Long-simmering tensions emerged. Walton ran an unruly tavern and attracted riffraff on the small island, where land was at a premium and owners guarded their plots jealously. He treated his servants badly. He had joined the Quakers, a radical minority excoriated by other Protestant sects, and even held meetings at his tavern. Walton had close ties to the royalist Mason family, which aimed to wrest control of New Hampshire from the colonists' control. Worst of all, he was against the town's desire to form a parish separate from Portsmouth and hire its own minister. "This led some devout Great Islanders to take out their frustration on the Waltons, the family whose presence seemed to mock their desireto maintain a godly community," Baker asserts. He studies copycat cases in the surrounding regions and overall does a fine job of bringing to life a little-known aspect of the tumultuous Puritan era, even if all the detail occasionally makes it a somewhat bewildering. Dark, heavy-going and minutely researched-not for everyone, but history buffs will enjoy it.
From the Publisher

“Does a fine job of bringing to life a little-known aspect of the tumultuous Puritan era.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Enthralling . . . Baker's welcome account throws a strong light on an American witchcraft episode that has not hitherto received the attention it clearly deserves.” —The Historian

“With deft insights, Tad Baker illuminates a supernatural mystery from seventeenth-century New England. Thoroughly researched and clearly written, The Devil of Great Island leaves no stone unturned, revealing a popular culture of marvels and wonders. And it offers a gripping tale well told.” —Alan Taylor, author of American Colonies

“Thoroughly fascinating and fascinatingly thorough, Baker's lively narrative of a witchcraft episode in early New Hampshire exposes the many reasons why a 'stone-throwing devil' attacked George Walton and his tavern. In learning about life on Great Island, at the mouth of the Piscataqua River, readers also learn much about a part of New England that does not fit our standard Puritan stereotypes and thus about a diverse aspect of our collective past that will now become better known.” —Mary Beth Norton, author of In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692

“The witch trials of seventeenth-century New England have been extensively worked over by historians, and yet, as this fascinating book shows, there are new insights to be gained by moving the focus beyond Massachusetts and the Puritans. In this meticulously researched case study, Emerson W. Baker not only makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of supernatural beliefs in colonial North America, but also weaves an enjoyable and accessible story that leads the reader up to the events at Salem.” —Dr. Owen Davies, author of Popular Magic: Cunning-Folk in English History

“Emerson Baker combines his talents as historian of early New England and historical archaeologist to untangle the web of personal conflicts, property disputes, and tensions political and religious that underlay the events on Great Island. The Devil of Great Island will surely take its place among the must-read books on witchcraft in seventeenth-century New England.” —James Leamon, author of Revolution Downeast: The War for American Independence in Maine

“In Baker's expert hands, this long ignored witchcraft episode yields important insight into the bizarre imagination and rich social diversity of late 17th century northern New England. Here we encounter the contrasting beliefs of Quakers, Puritans, Baptists, Antinomians, and Godless fishermen as well as the clashing political interests of Native Americans, Europeans, Puritans, and Royalists. This masterful narrative of religious and social pluralism in early New England helps to refocus our vision of the foundations of America and also puts other New England witchcraft events into useful perspective.” —Benjamin C. Ray, Director, Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive, University of Virginia

“Emerson W. Baker tells a fascinating story essential to an appreciation and understanding of stone throwing by the Devil throughout the summer of 1682 in Great Island, New Hampshire...He successfully shows that there was contact between some of those involved in or tangential to this 1682 incident and to the more famous witchcraft trials in Salem in 1692...Baker's welcome account throws a strong light on an American witchcraft episode that has not hitherto received the attention it clearly deserves.” —P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, The Historian

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The Devil of Great Island

Witchcraft and Conflict in Early New England

By Emerson W. Baker

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2007 Emerson W. Baker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-60683-8


The First Stone Is Cast

It was ten o'clock at night on June 11, 1682—the end of a Sunday evening on the peaceful island at the mouth of New Hampshire's Piscataqua River. The light of the full moon shimmered on the ocean as aged George Walton and several companions were strolling toward his home and tavern. The serenity was shattered unexpectedly however, when invisible assailants furiously assaulted them with a barrage of flying stones. As they ran into the tavern, the stones slammed repeatedly into the building. The noise woke Walton's sleeping family and guests, and soon a terrified household had gathered at the entry of the enclosed porch. Boarder and attorney Richard Chamberlain was one of those who observed the stones, some as big as his fist, flying into the porch. The onslaught soon forced everyone to retreat to a more protected part of the tavern. Still they could not escape the fury. Flying rocks appeared inside the tavern and struck two boys in the legs, and Chamberlain was nearly hit in the head. Outside, the rocks continued to batter the Walton tavern, breaking windows and causing other considerable damage. Chamberlain noted that some of the missiles were hot, as if the unseen thrower had snatched them from the fire. The meticulous lawyer even gathered nine of the stones on a table and labeled them. Yet, some of them were soon flying about the room again.

The attack of these "lapidary salutations" continued for over four hours without abatement or explanation. As they peered out the windows into the moonlit night, Chamberlain and his companions were not able to see the culprits. Admittedly, it would have been difficult even in broad daylight to see clearly through typical seventeenth-century windows, which were composed of small imperfect panes of greenish glass held together by lead strips. Still, the invisibility of the attackers seemed to imply something ominous and possibly supernatural, an impression made even stronger by the full moon overhead. In part, the assault seemed to originate inside the house itself. Stones came down the chimney, a large hammer flew across the room, and rocks drove a candlestick off the table top. Several rocks seemed to fall out of the ceiling and others forced the lead strips and frames of the windows outward, suggesting that they had been thrown from inside. In the absence of any logical explanation for what they observed, the household believed it was a supernatural attack perpetrated by the devil himself.

At two in the morning, an exhausted Chamberlain bid goodnight and retired to his chamber hoping to get some sleep. No sooner had he dozed off than he was awakened by a noise so great that it made him think his room was in danger of collapse. Getting out of bed, he realized that the largest stone yet, weighing eight and a half pounds, had broken through his chamber door. He again went back to bed, only to be jarred awake by another missile: a whole brick that clattered down his chimney. Fortunately, the clay intruder was the last of the night. As dawn approached, Chamberlain was finally able to drift off to a brief slumber.

The next morning the stones continued to fly, and more objects moved around the house. The spit disappeared from the fireplace, only to come clanging down the chimney later in the day, while a vanished clothes iron miraculously reappeared in the yard. Still George Walton did not let the mayhem keep him from his tasks. He may have been over sixty, but he was also stubborn and industrious. He and several of his workers headed out to the fields to tend his crops, but the flying stones followed them, as did a mysterious black cat. More rocks inexplicably hit the tavern at ten o'clock on both Monday and Tuesday nights. The long siege that Chamberlain would dub "lithobolia, or the stone-throwing devil" had begun.

Throughout the summer of 1682, the stones continued to fly, occasionally even seeming to follow George Walton when he left his home on Great Island. Walton would often sail eight miles up the Piscataqua River and into Great Bay to the farmstead he owned at Herrod's Cove, in present-day Newington, New Hampshire. Walton's son Shadrach and his young family occupied the property, which also served as the family's woodlot. One time George and several workmen were cutting trees when they were caught in a hail of stones. Walton painstakingly gathered up a hatful of the rocks and then carried a load of firewood to his boat. Upon his return the hat and stones had disappeared, and rocks soon took to the air again. Meanwhile, back at Shadrach's house, a brick bat flew into a cradle just a moment after one of the Walton grandchildren had been removed from it. On another trip upriver, Walton's boat nearly sank when the bilge plug mysteriously disappeared.

Even the Walton's farm produce suffered an attack. Unknown agents removed and broke up a cheese press, cut down corn crops, and destroyed haystacks, leaving the hay scattered all about—even in the trees. On another occasion, as the Waltons were reaping hay, flying rocks broke three sickles in the hands of workers, as if demanding the harvest be halted. Near the fields people repeatedly heard an eerie snorting and whistling. Others working in the field and orchard heard a humming that sounded like a bullet fired from a gun, yet they heard no gunfire. Despite these supernatural events, and despite being hit over forty times with stones, old George Walton obstinately continued to work in his fields.

Richard Chamberlain attributed the events to supernatural forces, pointing to such evidence as the black cat, the strange noises, and the fact that no one had been seen throwing even one of the thousands of rocks. George Walton and his wife, Alice, shared the belief that witchcraft was at work. After suffering nearly two months of lithobolia, they finally attempted a traditional form of countermagic in hopes of stopping the attacks. They cooked a pot of bent pins in a pot of urine, a concoction often bottled and placed under the hearth of a house to ward off witches. Unfortunately, though, the forces of evil would not stand such a remedy being applied this time: As the liquor grew hot, a stone fell down the chimney, broke the mouth off the pot, and spilled the contents. When the Waltons refilled the pot, a second stone flew in, breaking the handle and again spattering the contents on the floor. They mounted a third and final try, only to have a stone hit the pot once again, this time shattering it to pieces.

The Waltons must have been truly desperate to resort to countermagic. Although such well-intentioned folk remedies had been around for hundreds of years, ministers and magistrates still classified them as illegal and dangerous satanic magic. The Waltons risked public reprimand or even punishment for their failed efforts. The old couple had recently suffered a series of family tragedies and the last thing they needed was more trouble.

By this time, the family had already decided who was responsible, and George Walton publicly accused neighbor Hannah Jones of witchcraft. The family of this poor and elderly—but far from de fenseless—widow had been involved in a bitter thirty-year-old property dispute with the Waltons over the ownership of a mere two acres of marshy field. The fishwife retaliated by calling George Walton a wizard, and her family accused him of trespassing.

Despite the charge and countercharges, the stone throwing continued intermittently through August and came to an end only in September after one final assault on George Walton. Early in the month, Walton took his canoe from Great Island to the mainland of Portsmouth to attend the Governor's Council, which was finally scheduled to discuss the case. En route, Walton was battered by three fist-sized cobbles. One blow fractured his skull. He would be in pain from this and the other attacks for the rest of his life. After this incident, the devil made just one more appearance, briefly reemerging to carry off some axes that the Waltons had securely locked up. This was the last recorded incident at the Walton tavern, though people in the region continued to complain of strange events for months to come, including the "monstrous birth" of a baby delivered stillborn with severe physical defects. Seventeenth-century New Englanders considered such births punishment for past sins, as well as portents of terrible events to come.

On the surface, lithobolia appears to be an easy phenomenon for the modern-day observer to explain: Hannah Jones or her family engineered the attacks as a part of her ancient land feud with the Waltons. Whether or not George Walton really believed he was under attack from a "stone-throwing devil" or knew that his tormentor was just an angry neighbor, the accusation of witchcraft was an effective tactic. As one modern observer has suggested, Walton used witchcraft as his ultimate legal weapon against Jones in their endless property dispute.

When looked at closely, however, the pieces just do not fit. Lithobolia was far more than a simple dispute among neighbors. First, Richard Chamberlain's and Increase Mather's published accounts of the episode suggest that Hannah Jones was probably innocent—indeed, she may have been framed for the crime. Even if she was involved, the elderly woman would have needed a legion of accomplices to carry out such vigorous and prolonged attacks in a variety of settings, including the distant home of Shadrach Walton. For the culprits behind such public assaults to remain "invisible" on a small, populous island, numerous witnesses would have had to maintain silence and perhaps even join the attack. Many people would have had to despise the Waltons to allow the attack to continue. Moreover, the family's enemies would have had to include an insider—an employee or boarder who threw things about the inside of the tavern and made axes under lock and key disappear. Clearly, a multitude of residents of Great Island, including possibly even Walton family members, had to actively participate in or silently support the conspiracy.

The identities and motives of the attackers are part of a story that provides a seldom seen view of New England. The tale bubbles with political and legal intrigue, religious controversy, and criminal activity—ranging from fornication to ax murder—carried out by a multicultural cast. The principle setting is the Walton tavern, a place filled with mystery. Why was Richard Chamberlain, the agent for the Mason family (the would-be royalist proprietors of New Hampshire), boarding at the tavern? Why did some of the leading Quakers in America also gather at the tavern that summer? Why was the tavern an issue in Great Island's efforts to separate from Portsmouth? Before investigating these questions, we first need to look back to long before 1682. To modern observers, lithobolia appears bizarre and unusual. The eyewitnesses on Great Island would have had a very different reaction for, in their minds, demons and witches had been throwing stones and other objects for centuries, if not millennia. Such supernatural occurrences were all too real to people in 1682.


Evil Things

Men and spirits have thrown stones in anger since before the dawn of recorded history. Stoning was often a ritualized form of violence, a collective means to punish wrongdoers and to purge community tensions. In this ancient practice we can find the inspiration for the attack on the Walton tavern. Chamberlain drew the name of his pamphlet from the festival of Lithobolia, annually held in Trozen in ancient Greece to commemorate the mythical sacrifice of sixteen maidens who were stoned to death in order to resolve community conflict. Greek writer and traveler Pausanias described Lithobolia in the second century A.D. Supernatural stone throwers may have been at work centuries earlier for the Roman historian Livy recorded the numerous showers of stones that terrified the Romans during the Second Punic Wars (218 B.C. to 201 B.C.). Modern observers have suggested that these were fragmented meteorites, but the Romans saw them as evil omens.

Saint Daniel the Stylite encountered stone-throwing devils in fifth-century Syria. After learning that a coastal church was inhabited by demons who threw stones, sinking ships and injuring passersby, he went to the chapel to do battle with them. When night fell, the imps threw stones at him and caused an uproar. On subsequent nights, the demons became even more menacing, appearing as screaming phantoms and brandishing swords at Daniel. Eventually, however, he drove the demons out of the church.

The first recorded incident of supernatural stone-throwing in Western Europe occurred in A.D. 858, when a demon threw stones, hammered at walls, and sent terror through the community of Bingen on the Rhine River. In the late twelfth century Gerald of Wales reported attacks on houses in Pembrokeshire in his Itinerary through Wales. In the early thirteenth century, Gervase of Tilbury recorded similar incidents in his Otia Imperialia, a lengthy work on history, theology, and popular piety written for his patron, Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV. Gervase called the stone-throwing demons foletti. They were invisible and threw sticks, stones, and household implements at those who dared enter any home they haunted. By the fourteenth century, Englishmen were recording the use of St. John's wort and other remedies to keep "evyll thynges" out of their houses.

Authorities might not have agreed on a name for such phenomena, yet from an early time there seems to have been consensus that the evils existed. Satan could unleash a range of supernatural agents on mankind: fairies, pixies, kobolds, gnomes, boggarts, staines, bilwiz, and goblins are just a few of the names given to these harmful spirits. Elves, foletti, ghosts, or stone-throwing devils wreaked havoc in homes and churches. Probably the most common term for them today is the German word poltergeist, which was first used in England and America in the nineteenth century. Today, many of these demons are known through J. K. Rowling's novels, where they are usually tamed by Harry Potter's magic. In earlier times, they seemed much more menacing and real.

The first detailed European descriptions of poltergeist-like activity date to the late 1500s. A local priest, for example, recorded the 1581 affliction of a family in Tuttelstadt, Germany. Unseen hands began to throw lumps of dirt, clay, and rocks at the family and their home. Over time the violence escalated, as plates, spoons, dishes, a range of household goods, and even a two-pound iron ball flew about. Demons spooked the family's cattle and horses and freed them from their stalls. They knotted the horses' manes and tails and hailed the mother with stones when she tried to milk her cows. One night something tried to strangle her oldest son. The next day the family vacated the house amid a shower of objects, including axes, hatchets, excrement, and many of the household furnishings. The assaults only ended after the Catholic bishop came to the house, set up an altar, and celebrated Mass.

A similar attack took place eleven years later in North Ashton, Oxfordshire—the first English case of lithobolia for which there is a substantial contemporary account. For several months, mysterious stone throwing took place in the farmhouse of a prominent local family. Inexplicably, stones ranging from two to more than twenty pounds crashed through the roof of the house. The assaults, witnessed by numerous people, temporarily drove the family from their homestead. When a son came back to stay in the house to see if the danger had passed, his blankets were pulled off his and other beds in the middle of the night. Failing to heed this warning, the family returned and soon the disturbances were worse than ever. In addition to the stone throwing, bloodstains appeared on the hall table, the house was lit up as if by fire, and strange apparitions were observed. Even the high sheriff of Oxford came to investigate. The attacks seemed to be aimed at the homeowner himself, for the stones followed him around and flew most violently when he was in the house. When he died, the violence came to an immediate halt. Perhaps this man's enemies were harassing him just as George Walton's enemies would pester him a century later.

It is difficult to determine what influence the somewhat obscure Tuttelstadt and North Ashton cases had on subsequent events in England and America. The similarities in these and later cases, however, suggest that such incidents may have been common throughout Europe, with stories of them circulating widely though local folklore and the popular press. Comparable incidents continued throughout the seventeenth century in England, and some of these were known to Increase Mather, Richard Chamberlain, and the residents of Great Island.

Odd occurrences like lithobolia attacks, comets, and great tempests, along with mermaids, witches, and other supernatural beasts, were all a part of the seventeenth-century imagination. God could unleash powerful and unexplained forces to vent his anger, or he could give providential signs to warn of troubles ahead. Some people attributed the harm not to God but to the evil spirit itself. Other observers believed that such attacks, while carried out by inhuman forces, had their origins in human witchcraft. A witch called upon Satan to inflict damage on homes and to harm the people who lived in them, generally as a way to seek revenge for a perceived wrong committed against the sorcerer.


Excerpted from The Devil of Great Island by Emerson W. Baker. Copyright © 2007 Emerson W. Baker. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Emerson W. Baker teaches history at Salem State College in Salem, Massachusetts. He lives in York, Maine.

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