THE WITCH OF SHAWSHINE.
The Pilgrim‘s century was taking a last look at the world when the humble farmhouse of Solomon Gray received a new tenant; and the new century had but just dawned when Rev. Thomas Barnard dipped his goose-quill and entered in the records of the North Parish Church of Cochichawick, “Baptized Miriam, daughter of Solomon Gray.”
“A precarious time to be ushered into the world,” muttered the parson, when making the sixth entry of baptism on the first Sabbath of the opening year. These had all been born within a week, and through this ordinance the parents had tried to secure for their respective babes a safe passport to the realm of bliss in case the fates decreed that their little hands should be folded in death before their lips could be taught to lisp their Maker’s praise. [*1][*2]
No one can wonder that the parson shook his head in foreboding as he entered the name of the new-born child. The unsettled state of society in this town and the others round about cast a gloom over the present and future. The scenes on Gallows Hill, in the neighboring town, where the condemned witches had been hanged, were still fresh in the minds of the people. [^1][*3] It was well known that the mother who had welcomed her ninth babe with the rising sun of this Sabbath morning, was one who gave testimony against Martha Carrier in the trial of August, 1692.
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Born beneath the shadow of such a scourge as Salem witchcraft, and of a mother who had fallen a prey to the deluding influence, it would not be strange if this new babe, and others that were hastened out of the rude cradle, only to see their places filled by their counterparts in swaddling clothes, should suffer from unfortunate birth-marks. [*4]
There was a seeming rustle in the congregation in the primitive meeting-house when Parson Barnard dipped water from the pewter basin, laid his reverent hand upon the little brow, and, in measured tones, uttered the prescribed words: “Miriam, I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.” The deacons, in their elevated seats beneath the more elevated pulpit, were seen to exchange glances, and their wives, on the “woman’s” side of the meeting-house were staring at their companions, while others, versed in the Old Testament Scriptures, gave involuntary nods of their heads.
When leaving the house of worship some were heard to say, “This one is to be a prophetess.” When Deacon Goodwin had joined his family he dared to quote in this connection the song of Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, “May she sing to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” [*5] Miriam was the acknowledged queen of the cradle, and entitled to the service of the older children, until in turn after two years she was tumbled out to make way for a burly successor.
The children growing up together were regularly seen in the family pew at church each Sabbath, and in the winter their presence could be detected by as
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many breaths puffed out between the ornamental balusters of the partition walls into the frosty atmosphere of the meeting-house, like the steam of an equal number of teakettles hanging from a kitchen crane.
[ object sketch ]
A Family Cradle.
Not one of the children of Solomon Gray was more regular at school than Miriam, the ninth. She was the first to answer the questions of the pastor when catechising the pupils in the old log school-house. Not one in the school was more sure of keeping her feet at the recitation-crack of the rude floor than this black-eyed girl; while at the home of the Grays, Miriam was a leading member. [^2] At the age of twelve she could turn off a good skein of linen, and about match her mother in the knots of yarn from the great wheel, as they counted up a day’s work in the busy season of preparation for the winter. She learned many of the out-door mysteries of the farm before reaching her “teens,” and often put her elder brothers to shame by taking less time to get a brimming pail of milk than they required. The boys declared that “Old Chestnut” and ”High Horn” knew when
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Miriam pressed her soft hands to their flesh, and rewarded her gentle touch with but little effort on her part, but stubbornly withheld the white nectar when they sat down to press it from the udder. Whether the boys were right in their opinion, or whether they, as many others, did not like to admit the superior ability of a girl, we will not decide.
In the church records of a town twenty miles nearer the source of the river there was recorded, on the second Sabbath of the eighteenth century, the baptism of Benjamin, son of Solomon Fay. He was one of a large family in the town which for a while bore the name of the stream that winds through its eastern acres. After attaining his majority Benjamin bought of Michael Bacon the corn-mill on the Shawshine and began business for himself. The legacy from his father’s estate was sufficient to purchase this place of business and the rude dwelling near the mill-house. [*6] The river was a convenient highway between the villages of Cochichawick *1 and Shawshine, *2 and in the absence of trodden paths through the forests, intercourse between the villages was commonly carried on by the way of the stream. On either side of it were remnants of Indian villages, and now and then a scattering group of the original owners of the soil could be seen in the distance. They offered no sign of hostility. Their war-like leaders were gone, and their courage had abated, while not a few had learned of the gospel of peace from Eliot and Gookin, and come to regard the white men as friends.
When nearing Shawshine the rolling and tumbling of the water indicated an obstruction in the channel, and the traveller was obliged to abandon his canoe.
*2 Bedford. [*7]
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Here was the mill where Benjamin Fay had begun business. His customers were the brave pioneers for miles about the stream. The hours were few in the week when some one dressed in sheepskin breeches and homespun frock was not seen standing by, waiting to have his yellow corn ground into the steaming meal.
[ landscape sketch ]
The modern Mill on the Shawshine.
Benjamin’s need of a helpmeet was generally conceded by the people of the town. [*8] But he seldom went away from his business except on the Sabbath, and it was thought for a while that he was not fully aware of his greatest need.
“Benjamin, the miller, has gone down stream. He goes often these days,” said the youth in charge of the stones to an inquisitive customer on an early Monday morning.
“I, I,” said the inquiring farmer, who impatiently waited for his grist, “guess that means something.” [^3]
The miller was never known to go so happily about his work as when returning from one of these journeys down the stream. The reason of this could only
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be conjectured for some months, but at last became apparent. At a Sabbath morning service in the month of May, the clerk of Shawshine arose in his seat and read with measured words: “Marriage intended between Benjamin Fay of Shawshine and Miriam Gray of Cochichawick.”
The announcement was made according to law on three successive Sabbaths, and so the people knew full well that the miller would not make the important trip down the river until the prescribed time had passed.
The months of extra spinning and weaving at the farm-house of Solomon Gray now began to have a meaning to the people of that neighborhood, for the same intention had been proclaimed to them by the clerk of that town, and Miriam’s companions had learned who the sly visitor was that anchored his boat at her father’s landing. The misses made haste to add articles to her stock of linen, and the matronly neighbors gathered about the quilting-frames and plied their deft fingers until “herring-bones” and “tortoise shells” were seen on each patchwork square. There were the venerable mothers, in cap and spectacles, who recalled the days of old, who had heard Mrs. Gray give that memorable testimony against the witch, and who had tossed their knowing heads when Parson Barnard laid his hands in baptism upon the infant brow. One did not fail to whisper what many thought: “Does the miller know that she may turn out a witch?”
The weeks passed rapidly at the village of Shawshine, and the miller’s assistant was again in charge. The news spread through the village, and many a curious farmer filled his little sack with rye or corn,
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and made haste to the mill, impatient for a fresh grist. The miller’s boat was not at its usual mooring. This was the only suggestive sign besides the absence of the skilful miller.
“Will soon arrive,” was whispered from home to home. Curiosity seasoned with fear filled the minds of many good people. Coming events had cast their shadows before, and the people of the village of Shawshine were not ignorant of the superstitions of Cochichawick. Not a few declared that their quiet neighborhood was doomed, for a witch was coming to take up her abode at the miller’s house, and, what was worse than all, to be the miller’s wife.
While the villagers south of the “Dam” were busy in speculation and wonder, the inhabitants on the shores of the stream twenty miles to the northward were making merry at the home of Solomon Gray.
In the pale moonlight of a June evening a happy group was seen to weigh anchors and paddle away from the farmer’s landing. Such a fleet had never before glided over the surface of this Indian stream. The chatting in the bridal bark could well be compared to that of the robins already mated for their summer’s bliss, while the friendly canoes which led and followed carried those whose mating was not yet perfected. [*9]
The moon seemed never to have shed more silvery rays than those which fell upon the bridal party as they glided over the water. On the marshy edges of the sluggish river could be seen now and then the purple petals of a tardy rhodora, and the overhanging maples dropped their brilliant keys on the bridal party as it neared the winding banks.
Solomon Gray had a tithing of an income from an
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[ outdoor sketch ]
The Bridal Party.
“A strange order indeed!” said the family agent, when enclosing Solomon Gray’s with those of the other nine, and giving orders to his associate across the water. The brightest tints of the early flowers could not be compared with the scarlet drapery that enfolded the graceful form of Miriam, the miller’s bride. Her full black eyes and raven locks were in
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striking contrast to the mantle, while the brilliant plumes that decked her broad-brimmed jaunty hat rose far above the less pretentious costumes of the escorting party. It was a question whether it was not the brilliant moonlight scene that aroused the nesting red-breast and called forth his early matin notes as the ten canoes drew near the miller’s landing. [*10]
The weary eyelids of anxious neighbors had closed, and the youthful band who kept midnight vigil had broken up before the bridal party moored their boats, hence the merry company reached their destination all unnoticed. The flickering lights of numerous candles in the miller’s home were not detected by any one at Shawshine, and the happy voices of the departing escort were unnoticed as the company weighed anchor in the twilight of early morning and left the miller alone with his bride.
More than one housewife of the town declared her meal chest empty that week, and the tall bin of Benjamin Fay was brimming full long before Saturday night.
“Never mind,” said his assistant. ”There’ll be a lull in business after Sunday, and you’ll have no further use for me.”
The miller was fortunately ignorant of the gossip of the town, for no busybody had warned him of impending evil; no traveller had asked a seat with him when on his pleasant trips up or down the river, and so his cup of happiness was full.
The homes about the river were scattering. Farther up the stream was the Shawshine house — an old Indian trading-post, where the natives were wont to barter with the white pioneers. [*11] The home of Captain Page, the old Indian hunter, was not far
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[ house sketch ]
The Shawshine House.
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away. [*12] These, with Michael Bacon’s, that stood on a bluff farther down, and some distance from the stream, were the only houses of the neighborhood, save that which belonged to the miller’s estate. The miller’s house was often known as “number twelve” — a garrison in Philip’s war, where Bacon’s mill, now Benjamin Fay’s, had been guarded from the skulking red men by two soldiers, allowed for its protection by the order of Stephen Tyng, the commander of his Majesty‘s troops.
[ house sketch ]
Michael Bacon’s Home.
The notes of the old bell never sounded sweeter to Benjamin Fay than on the morning of that June Sabbath when he placed the noon lunch for two in the saddle-bag, helped his bride to the pillion, placed his feet in the stirrups, and galloped off to the village meeting-house.
They passed many a bare-foot lad, with shoes in hand, who cast inquiring eyes, and not a few of more mature years slackened their pace as the miller’s horse drew near. There were those who lingered
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about as the bridal couple approached the house of worship, but all were too busy in their talk to offer assistance at the horse-block. Benjamin managed his nettling steed with one hand, and with the other aided his bride in alighting. [*13] The actions of the miller’s horse plainly indicated that he was not accustomed to the burden of the morning, and the reinsman betrayed inexperience to the bystanders.
[ outdoor sketch ]
[[ Going to “Meetin’.” ]]
It required urgent circumstances to detain any one from this morning service, and the pews were well filled before the miller arrived. All eyes were on the family-seat of the elder Fay, not knowing that the young man had purchased all but the widow’s thirds in the Fassett pew. So Benjamin and his bride
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were well seated before many were aware that they had entered the house. The scarlet plumes were soon detected by the most observing, but some of the more devout had not grasped the situation until the congregation rose for the “long prayer”, when all had plenty of time to “see the bride”. The prayer was never so long as on this morning, thought Benjamin and Miriam. It was not altogether in their feelings, for it was of unusual length, as many had asked a share in its interest. Madam Jones had buried her husband since the last Sabbath, so she had presented a petition to the Throne of Grace that the bereavement “might be sanctified to her and her family for their spiritual good.” Deacon Merriam had narrowly escaped a watery grave, and had requested the parson to “return thanks” for him. Phoebe Smith desired prayers that she might be safely delivered from impending danger, while others had requested and received attention in the morning petition.
The bride could not have selected a more unfortunate color for her costume, although it contrasted finely with her eyes and hair. A people who already believed that the new comer was doomed from birth saw enough in the brilliant clothes to convince them that there was truth in the rumor which had gone out from the last quilting of winter.
“I told you so!” were the whispered words from one to another, as the congregation broke up. Not a few of the worshipers made haste to the burial ground to eat their lunch, and offered no greetings to the miller and his bride during the noon intermission.
Time passed on. The miller pursued his business, and his faithful wife performed her part in the rude dwelling. The Rev. Nicholas Bond and his wife
[ p 186 ]
made their accustomed call at the miller’s home, but no liquor was served with the wedding cake. This breach of etiquette was not reported by the first callers, but the few parishioners who afterward discharged the claims of society did not hesitate to lay this omission to the bride. They were ready to charge any unwelcome change of affairs to her. The slightest unusual phenomenon was attributed to a mystical power which they had been led to believe was the birth-mark of Miriam Gray. Many of the people of Shawshine never called upon the new resident until the scarlet garments were temporarily exchanged for those of a more sombre hue, and some not then.
The words of the miller’s assistant had now become true, and he was able to carry on his business alone and had much time to spare. Other troubles followed the promising marriage. A protracted drought caused the Shawshine River to dwindle to a trickling brook; the mill was silent; the farmers had no means of grinding their corn, and water for their cattle could only be obtained at great pains. Prayers were offered at the meeting-house “that the bottles of heaven might be unstopped.” [*14] When the faith of the people had been long and severely tried, and their wrath had been kindled against the innocent wife of the miller, the equinoctial rains came on, and all nature assumed its wonted condition; [*15] but the superstitions of many of the people did not abate, and the most friendly advances of the innocent woman were rudely spurned.
Years rolled on, and new subjects for conversation came and went. Some parents did not fail to whisper to their children that there was a mystery about the miller’s wife, and they were taught to believe that the scarlet cloak and plumes would yet appear to cast some unfriendly shadow.
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Benjamin Fay and his wife were regular in their accustomed pew at meeting. They brought one after another of their infants and dedicated them to the Lord after the custom of the age; but all this did not change the sentiment of many of the people of Shawshine. Even the schoolmaster’s reports of the kindness of Mrs. Fay during his “boarding round” had but little effect in allaying the prejudices of the people of the district. The black-eyed children of the miller found but few associates at the school, and they were the first to reveal to the faithful wife and mother the mystery of her life at Shawshine.
Benjamin Fay was faithful to his marriage vows, and shielded his companion from the sorrow which would have filled her life had she known that her peculiar treatment was due to her parentage and early life.
Age began to make its furrows on the once rosy face of Miriam, and to silver with gray her once raven locks; but her earnest expression of countenance plainly indicated that she was bent on breaking down the superstitions of years, and removing the jealousies of blinded ignorance.
The alarming scourge of throat distemper visited the colony, and the village of Shawshine did not escape. Child after child died of the dreadful disease, but it did not enter the home of the miller. “Few people ever call on the Fays” was the reason assigned by one, when the third little coffin was carried out from the home of John Whitmore, and the group of mourners marched off with measured step to add one more to the long line of new-made graves in the burial ground. [*16]
The heart of Miriam Fay was filled with sympathy
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for her stricken neighbors, and so, after using all known precautions in her own family, she started out to the relief of others. The first thing that met the eyes of the afflicted Whitmores on their sad return to the surviving members of the family, was the scarlet cloak of the miller’s wife. The dreaded woman was busily engaged in packing the throats of the remaining children with what seemed to Mrs. Whitmore to be a compress of the tansy that grew by her door, and a decoction of the same herb was being prepared by the open fire. “This is what I have used with my children, and by the blessing of God they are all spared to us.” With these encouraging words Mrs. Fay left the family.
This woman had not failed to profit by her mother’s instructions. She had often longed to help others in distress, but the scarlet wrap which defied the wear of a lifetime, was looked upon as a shroud of mystery, and had often debarred the innocent owner from administering comfort to neighbors in distress, and her inherited spirit of independence had added strength to the barrier. In one case, at least, the obstruction was removed, and the heart of Miriam Fay was found to throb with love for God and man.
The disease was arrested in the Whitmore family, and the simple means of prevention were effectually applied in other homes, and by people who reluctantly concluded that it might be possible for a witch to do one good deed with many evil ones.
Love of freedom was a lesson faithfully taught by example and precept in the home of Solomon Gray, and Miriam had imbibed the spirit. She had been called to mourn the loss of two brothers, who perished with Lovewell at Pigwacket in that
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most deadly conflict of Indian warfare. This did not deter her from action: it rather made her more bold and determined. She was left one day alone with two soldiers, who had charge of the garrison; her keen black eyes detected a skulking Indian near the house, and failing to arouse the sluggish guards and convince them of impending danger, she took a musket and discharged it at what they said was only a clump of brush; but she had the gratification of seeing a dead Indian roll from his hiding-place. [*17]
Miriam Fay seemed inspired with the ardor of youth as the days of the Revolution drew near, and her bending form became more erect as she fitted out her sons for the army. She discarded tea and everything of foreign flavor long before the people of Shawshine adopted the bill of non-intercourse, and she was seldom seen in her scarlet cloak, for there was a tinge of royalty about those thread-bare folds. The minute-men were drilling twice each week in the training-field of Shawshine, and the wits of men and women alike were exercised to thwart the encroachments of the “Red-coats.”
People of this town, like others of the colony, hardly knew whether they were looking into the face of friend or foe, as they went about their accustomed walks. It required but the slightest indication to brand one with the stigma of “Tory.”
While the excitement was raging at Shawshine, Miriam Fay, then past threescore years and ten, was seen at early dawn, dressed in her scarlet cloak, dashing towards her home on the miller’s horse. She was now classed among the Tories — a companion of Hezekiah Pendleton. The miller’s life and property were threatened, and had it not been for the mystical
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power supposed to be vested in her, the family would have been separated and the property confiscated by the government, before she could have proved her loyalty to the cause of the Colonists.
The scarlet broadcloth and plumes, although dingy with age, were a good match for the red-coats, which were plentiful in Boston, and not infrequently seen on the backs of soldiers skulking about this neighborhood.
The British generals, eager to get information of the movements of the Colonists, were ready to adopt any means, and extended a welcome to any one who offered assistance.
They had no doubt that the woman in scarlet was a friend of the Royal cause, and gave diligent heed to her story and plans. They agreed to meet her at a time and place appointed, and thankfully bade her good-night, as she dashed out from their quarters in her haste to reach her home before the break of day.
It was past the following midnight when John Whitmore was called from his bed by a man in military costume, and being mistaken for a Tory was entrusted with the secret of the distressed man and his associates.
A woman in a scarlet cloak had visited their headquarters on the previous night and agreed to reveal a secret, if they would come on the following midnight and bring a reward.
Believing that she had the key to the colonial storehouse, they had made sure to meet her. The supposed Tory in scarlet had led them by the light of a flickering candle through a subterranean passage and over the swollen stream by means of a narrow plank to a cavern beyond, where she had extinguished the
[ p 191 ]
light and retraced her steps, pulled the bridge after her, emptied their saddle-bags of the golden crowns, and retired to her house.
In the darkness and mystery of the hour, foiled by the shrewdness of a woman, the proud generals were directed back to their quarters by one who was as great an enemy to their cause as the woman in scarlet had proved to be. [*18]
During the long and trying years of the war for independence a more loyal woman or more faithful spinner and weaver could not be found than Miriam Fay.
No one sent more helpful packages to the sufferers in camp and hospital, and all of the service was given without drawing on the limited treasury of the town or colony.
The helpful words of this patriotic woman gave cheer to the people of Shawshine in their struggles to meet the demands for men and money, and when they all assembled at the meeting-house to engage in a service of thanksgiving after the surrender of Cornwallis, the cracked voice of Miriam Fay, “the Witch of Shawshine,” could be plainly heard through the congregation as it joined in the words of Miriam of old, “Sing to the Lord for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” [*5]
- A. E. Brown’s “The witch of Shawshine” 
in Glimpses of old New England life (pp 173-191)
- hanged, ∨ hung,
- Grays, ∨ Gray’s,
- said ∨ says
- “ordinance”: (religious) ceremony
- “lisp”: (clumsily) speak
- Considering that no actual witches ever existed, “the condemned witches” would be more accurately rendered “those condemned as witches”.
- “rude”: rough-hewn
- cf. KJV’s Exodus 15:20-21
- “the rude dwelling”: the Michael Bacon House: 229 Old Billerica Road
- Technically, this was Billerica (before the incorporation of Bedford).
- “helpmeet”: companion
- “bark”: boat
- “matin”: morning
- “the Shawshine house”: the Shawsheen House
The location of this structure is disputed. (HPN) p 400
- “the home of Captain Page”: the Christopher Page House: 2 Meyers Lane
- “nettling”: [ presumably ] bristling
- “unstopped”: uncorked
- “wonted”: usual
- “the burial ground”: the Old Burying Ground: 7 Springs Road
- cf. Brown’s History of the town of Bedford (1891) p 21
- cf. Brown’s History of the town of Bedford (1891) p 42