A mystery? It must be witchcraft

Book examines strange stone attacks of 1682

Emerson Baker, a Salem State College professor, has written a book about witchcraft hysteria in New Castle, N.H., in the late 1600s. Here he sits in the Witch Trials Memorial Park in Salem. Emerson Baker, a Salem State College professor, has written a book about witchcraft hysteria in New Castle, N.H., in the late 1600s. Here he sits in the Witch Trials Memorial Park in Salem. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / June 26, 2008

All of a sudden, late on a moonlit June night, the assault began.

Flying rocks - hundreds of them. Some the size of apples; some weighing as much as 8 pounds; others blazing hot, as if retrieved from a fire.

During the four-hour onslaught, launched by invisible attackers, stones pummeled the tavern walls, coming in like a horizontal rain. They plummeted down the chimney. They seemed to clatter out of nowhere on the ceiling. They shattered windows.

The attack ceased at dawn, but others spontaneously erupted - always rocks, always thrown by unseen hands - over the summer of 1682 on Great Island, a boxy, 512-acre spot of land now known as New Castle, N.H.

As far as witchcraft cases go, this siege is nowhere near the most notorious - nothing seems to be able to rival the stamina of the Salem Witch Trials - and in fact, it's become little more than a historical footnote.

Still, to Salem State College history professor Emerson Baker, who has written a book on the incident, it is a perfect petri dish from which to analyze witchcraft hysteria in early New England.

"I did something no one in Salem has done before: I wrote a book about witchcraft that isn't about Salem," 49-year-old Baker said, sitting on a patio behind his 200-year-old white colonial in York, Maine. "Witchcraft is a timeless crime."

But it is also, in many cases, fueled by much more than fears of spirits or the wrath of Lucifer. As Baker explains in his 207-page tome, "The Devil of Great Island," although people firmly believed in witchcraft, incidents linked to it were most often the result of a swirl of politics, religion, and property disputes.

For starters, let us describe the "victim," 67-year-old George Walton. He was:

A Quaker - a group that always raised suspicion because, although they worshiped God, they didn't follow strict Puritan beliefs.

A royalist - he supported England, bristling other colonists.

A rowdy tavern owner - drunken, boisterous sailors from all over the world populated his salty establishment.

Most of all, a contentious man.

He was "a graspy, greedy neighbor" involved in all kinds of land quibbles, explained Baker.

With all these affronts,"Who wouldn't throw rocks at these folks?" Baker said. And unknown culprits did, launching the assault on the silver-dappled night of June 11, 1682.

During the onslaught, which didn't cease until September, it was said that rocks, boulders, and bricks periodically smashed through windows, battered walls, and flew through fields.

"You would have needed the Red Sox pitching staff to carry out this attack," said Baker, occasionally diverting into side avenues about town meeting votes and the maneuvers of the British crown at the time of the attacks.

Along with the flying rocks, hammers reportedly moved unguided. Black cats appeared like dark harbingers of sorcery. Guests reported demonic noises.

Because no one ever saw a human hand at work, the town quickly came to call this so-called invisible force Lithobolia, or the "stone-throwing devil."

Exasperated after several weeks of barrages, Walton and his wife attempted a traditional folk remedy: A stewed concoction of bent pins and urine. Yet as they did this, bricks are reported to have clattered down the chimney.

Failing with the remedy, Walton accused his neighbor, the widowed Hannah Jones, of witchcraft. She quickly rebutted by denouncing him as a wizard.

The two, coincidentally or not, were involved in a years-long dispute over a few acres of land.

But then, after three months, the onslaught abruptly ended, the "demon" never to return.

Since then, the events have largely disappeared from record. Although one eyewitness wrote a 7,000-word account and others signed affidavits, Walton left no papers. (Baker calls this lack of a paper trail the plague of historians.)

Still, as is common to small towns, the story swirled and morphed over the centuries, manifesting in present-day ghost tales.

"It's one of the strangest events in witchcraft history," explained Mary Beth Norton, a Cornell University professor who penned "In the Devil's Snare" about the Salem hysteria and has collaborated with Baker. "There hasn't been any explanation for it."

But Baker, who has overseen local archeological digs and consulted on PBS's "Colonial House," offers at least two hypotheses.

First: The trouble-making Walton could have masterminded the mischief himself.

Second: Because there was such a widespread dislike of the tavern owner, it could have been a collective chaos organized by neighbors and a saboteur on the inside, which would explain the floating hammers.

The latter is the most likely scenario, noted Baker, comparing it with Agatha Christie's detective novel, "Murder on the Orient Express."

"Everyone did it," he said.

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