Go to Your Room: The Witch of Newbury

October 17, 2016 — Imagine, if you will, a mob of colonial New Englanders clustered in front of a small cobbler’s house. They are carrying the requisite pitchforks and torches. They are pretty steamed about something. They are screaming: “House arrest the witch! House arrest the witch!”

That’s not how it happened with Elizabeth Morse, the Witch of Newbury. But that is how she ended up.

Newburyport, Massachusetts, is about 25 miles north of Salem, not too far away from the New Hampshire line. It’s one of those jaunty, coastal towns that would love it if you dropped by during the tourist season and had some fried clams and bought something with a lighthouse on it. If you head downtown to its Market Square, the corner of State Street and Liberty Street to be more specific, you’ll find a jewelry shop. On the exterior of that jewelry shop is a plaque that reads thus:

Today, Newbury is south of Newburyport. But back then, it was all Newbury. And, like most of colonial New England, all about witches. Finding them, arresting them, trying them, and executing them.

The year 1679 was a bad one for 65-year-old cobbler William Morse and his wife Elizabeth. They were under frequent supernatural attack. Rocks would fly at the house, shoes would float around, brick pieces and tools would rattle down the chimney. Not really demonic power at its strongest, but still real annoying stuff. Mischievous. Almost childish. And, probably, actually childish as their young grandson lived with them. He whistled a lot and clasped his hands behind his back anytime his granddad brought up the strange occurrences to other townsfolk.

A neighbor, Caleb Powell, suspected the boy and offered to teach him a lesson, but the people of the village misunderstood and thought he meant to use counter-magic. Powell was arrested and tried. Fortunately, he was acquitted and, since witch hunters abhor a vacuum even more than nature, they immediately turned to the nearest woman connected with the situation: Elizabeth Morse herself. She was arrest and tried. But she was not acquitted. She was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

The only thing that stopped her execution was a reprieve from the governor, whose reasoning I assume went something like this: “They want to break the neck of elderly woman because they think she can levitate shoes?”

However, the people of Newbury did get some protection against the town witch. Elizabeth was given the colonial equivalent of an ankle monitor. She was not allowed to leave her husband’s property, the only exception being if she were accompanied by a man of God.

She lived for another decade, I assume under those conditions (although her husband died just a few years later). Which must have been weird. I mean, Colonial New Englanders were used to having suspected witches as neighbors, even when they weren't actively hunting them, but to have an actual convicted witch in town, one which they wanted to hang but weren't allowed to? That's some awkward meetinghouse potlucks there. And then for the Morses. I can image Elizabeth kneeling stiffly at the hearth, "Welp, Husband William," she'd say as she stirred dirty socks in a small kettle over the fire, "I guess I'm the town witch now." He'd harrumph and bang a nail into the sole of a boot with a satisfying thud, "You've always been the town witch to me."

Thirteen years later, kids from a neighboring Massachusetts town were much more successful at getting people executed.

Of course, staring at a plaque in the middle of a busy, quaint little square while chewing on a thick square of fudge isn’t much of a way to reflect on Morse and humanity in general. So I went to find her grave.

Turns out, all she has is an epitaph.

The First Burying Ground of the Settlers of Newbury dates back to 1635. You can find it at 238 High Road in Newbury, about four miles from the site of the plaque. If you look hard enough. It’s tiny and set back a bit from the road.

Inside is a scattering of beat-up stones dating to the 17th century. Most of the dead here were born on English soil, and the epitaphs attest to that. Some stones bear the winged skull so popular on New England stones, although they’re often hard to make out through the blooms of lichen. Some are weathered down to nubs, others are crumbling to pieces. The latter are sometimes held together by rusty metal straps from some preservation project long ago.

However, some of the stones are clean, dark, new-looking markers that have obviously been recently placed (or re-placed, I guess). William Morse’s stone is one of these and easy to find as a result. Although his grave doesn’t say much. Just the basics.

However, if you look on the back, it says:

“May she lay in peace beyond these walls.” That’s a strange line to find in an epitaph. But it acknowledges that since Elizabeth was a convicted witch, she couldn’t be buried alongside any Christians, so she’s probably not there with the dark dirt of her husband. It’s one of the sadder epitaphs I’ve read.

Sort of, anyway.

In the end, the actual end, grave markers are meant to be memorials. To help us remember the dead. And Elizabeth Morse, well, due to her strange, terrible final decade, had already been guaranteed that.