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The Heartland Never Lies

Cape Fear

A small portion of the Massachusetts coastline is home to America’s biggest witch-hunt, a history of savage wife mobs, the occasional 400 percent increase of unlucky pregnancies, and the world’s largest deposits of black crystals.

Bo Bartlett, Burning Broom, 2006. Courtesy of P.P.O.W, New York.

One

Tensions in Massachusetts were high in the summer of 1677. King Philip’s War had ended the year before when Philip (also known as Metacomet, chief of the Wampanoag) was shot in a swamp south of Providence, RI. He was drawn and quartered, and his head was sent to Plymouth where it was paraded through town then put on a stake for the following two decades. Philip’s hand was given as a souvenir to his killer, Alderman, a Wampanoag who had sided with the English after Philip shot his brother.

In the two years of war, 800 English had died—with 52,000 Europeans living in New England, that’s twice the death rate of the Civil War and seven times that of World War II. Everyone in the two colonies, Plymouth and Massachusetts, knew somebody, friend or family, killed in the war. For their part, the English had killed 15 percent of the Wampanoag and Narragansett populations. Hatred built on both sides as they hacked away at each other.

After Philip’s death, the English launched small expeditions to exterminate the remaining Wampanoag leaders: King Philip’s extended family was killed or sold into slavery and shipped to Hispaniola; Philip’s advisors were hunted down, sent to Boston, and hung. Massachusetts Bay Colony declared that any native involved in English deaths would be killed or sold into slavery. Tribes were forced to sign unjust treaties and they saw their place in New England swiftly disappear.

In one final strategy to reignite a campaign against the English, a group of Abenaki Indians north of Massachusetts overtook English fishing boats to storm coastal garrisons—in July 1677, they captured 20 English boats.

Most of those boats sailed out of Salem and Marblehead—towns on Massachusetts’s north shore. On July 7th Marblehead fisherman Robert Roules was anchored near Penobscot, Maine, when a group Abenakis boarded his boat. After a violent scuffle, he and his crew recaptured the boat and planned to sail the Abenakis to face the courts in Boston. When they reached Marblehead, they marched the men ashore. They were met by group of Marblehead townswomen, who surrounded the Abanekis, beat them, and beheaded them with their bare hands. Here’s an excerpt from Roules’s account:

The women surrounded them…and laid violent hands upon the captives, some stoning us in the meantime, because we would protect them, other seizing them by the hair, got full possession of them…Then with stones, billets of wood, and what else they might, they made an end of these Indians. We were kept at such a distance that we could not see them till they were dead, and then we found them with their heads off and gone, and their flesh in a manner pulled from their bones. And such was the tumultation these women made, that for my life I could not tell who these women were, or the names of any of them. They suffered neither constable nor mandrake, nor any other person to come near them, until they had finished their bloody purpose.

Roules’s protective flourish at the end—“I could not tell who these women were, or the names of any of them”—says something of the perpetrators. Colonists witnessed violence throughout King Philip’s War (accounts of flaying captives alive, breaking fingers off, and various other mutilations fill colonists’ accounts), but never committed by women. Though colonial women sometimes beat their husbands (see Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750), this degree of frenzied, mob violence is the only of its kind.

Two

Fifteen years later and one town over, preteens Anne Putnam, Betty Parris, and her cousin Abigail Williams started convulsing, contorting, and hallucinating. A local doctor called in to examine the girls determined they were “afflicted by an evil hand.” Pressured by the town magistrates for the source of the evil, the girls blamed three women: Sarah Goode, Sarah Osbourne, and Tituba, a Caribbean slave owned by Betty Parris’s father. The Salem witch trials were born.

The hallucinatory accounts that followed are wonderfully vivid: The afflicted girls and women, whose numbers increased as the trials continued, saw bright yellow birds fluttering around a minister’s pulpit, a man nursing two black pigs at his breast, a talking black dog who told girls to “serve me.” One little girl saw a dead cat, its blood splattered across the floor.

The afflicted girls and women, whose numbers increased as the trials continued, saw bright yellow birds fluttering around a minister’s pulpit, a man nursing two black pigs at his breast, a talking black dog who told girls to “serve me.”

The consensus now is that they made it up. In 1702 Massachusetts General Court declared the trials had been unlawful, and Massachusetts issued a formal apology in 1957. (See this succinct Smithsonian article on the causes and effects of the false convictions.) A 1976 article in Science by psychologist Linnda Caporael (“Ergotism: Satan Loosed in Salem?”) explained that a fungus-infested rye in Salem’s granaries gave the girls muscle spasms, vomiting, and hallucinations. The fungus, ergot, contains a few of the same alkaloids in LSD and morning glory seeds. It infests rye and grain after warm, damp springs, and, accordingly, diarist Samuel Sewall noted that it had been an unusually warm and damp summer that year. In its early stages, ergot looks like little black beans nestled in the grain. After storing the grains before threshing, slimy umber mushrooms sprout from the black kernels.

Here’s the trouble: It wasn’t just Salem’s girls and young women eating rye bread. Yet, for instance, on March 20, 1692, it was an all-female group of seven who convulsed and fell into fits at a town meeting. Why didn’t the town magistrates also see talking dogs? And why didn’t Boston’s or Plymouth’s or any of the other surrounding towns’ rye sprout with ergot in after that warm spring? If it did, the afflicted must have been tight-lipped, enjoying showers of bright lights and talking animals in quiet solitude. It was a group of North Shore girls who spoke up.

Three

In 1749 sailor Ashley Bowen decided to take a room at Mr. Simpson Boden’s boarding house in Marblehead. A group of servant girls at the boarding house snuck into his room at night and placed a plate, knife, fork, and blade bone of lamb all tied up in a napkin under his head. For the same reason that girls of Salem spilled egg whites into glasses and asked “what trade their sweethearts should be of,” these girls were divining for Ashley who his future wife may be. That night he dreamed of an old women and a 10-year-old girl standing side-by-side, and assumed the young girl was the one “I was to have.” As his journal suggests, the girl would not appear to him, in more clarity, for some time.

Eight years later as Bowen slept in his bunk on the sloop Olive, 300 miles off Marblehead, he dreamed of a woman with five moles on her right cheek sitting on his sea chest by his bed. She was so real, he wrote, that he “expected” he was awake—awake enough to examine closely her moles. He thought of the Marblehead girls’ trick.

He arrived back in Marblehead that month and took note of the right cheeks of most women he encountered, determined to meet his wife. Walking into a shoe shop Andover, he found her: Dorothy Chadwick, five moles spread over her right cheek. He “examined her real moles,” courted her for a year, and married her. They had six children, and she died after miscarrying the seventh.

The servant girls of Marblehead had given Ashley his vision.

Four

Just north of Salem and Marblehead is Cape Ann, a point of land jutting out into the Atlantic with a bunch of good, deep-water harbors that attracted fishermen in the 1600s. At tip of Cape Anne is Gloucester. There, in 2008, 18 Gloucester High School girls, none older than 16, got pregnant at the same time.

The principal of the school, Joseph Sullivan, was the first to tell reporters that the girls had made what he called a “pact,” that the High School was not seeing a random fourfold increase of pregnancy rates from the year before. Nurses at the school health clinic supported Sullivan, saying the girls came to the clinic multiple times for tests and gave each other high fives when their results came back positive.

In 1988, 10 percent of Gloucester residents were heroin addicts. That was 62 percent higher than the statewide average. Gloucester has twice the heroin-overdose rate as surrounding cities.

But when asked for details about the so-called pact, Sullivan said couldn’t remember any of his sources. “He was foggy in his memory,” Gloucester’s mayor Carolyn Kirk said. “When pressed, his memory failed.” Sullivan never got to defend himself. Kirk excluded him from press conferences.

Ten days after the story broke, one of the girls went on Good Morning America to say the pact was to support each other in pregnancy, not to become pregnant. Her boyfriend, a pale, soft-eyed 20-year-old, agreed. The interviewer pressed: But why the jump in pregnancies from last year? “Unlucky, I guess,” said the boyfriend.

Gloucester Times reporter Kristen Grieco—who refuted Sullivan’s claims of a pact—said in an interview that she “had no idea or explanation” as to why Gloucester witnessed a sudden pregnancy frenzy, whether group-designed or not. “Something happened,” she said.

Five

On Sept. 1, 1719, John Roberts, deputy sheriff of Exeter, north of Gloucester, knocked on colonist Richard Hilton’s door. Roberts was attempting to serve him a writ. Hilton answered the door, refused the writ and choked the sheriff while his wife “furiously assaulted him,” pulled his hair, and tore the writ to pieces. When Roberts returned two days later with an arrest warrant, there were 40 men all dressed in women’s clothes waiting inside Hilton’s house.

Six

The epicenter of the largest earthquake in New England’s history, felt from Nova Scotia to North Carolina in November 1755, was just east of Cape Ann, underwater. The quake struck in the early morning, 4:00 a.m., and has been calculated as a 6.3 on the Richter scale—the same magnitude as New Zealand’s quake this past February, which, along with the accompanying aftershocks, cost the country $12.6 billion. Sidney Perley, a Salem lawyer born in 1853, describes in his book Historic Storms of New England more than 1,600 shattered chimneys in Boston, and the ground in Connecticut moving like a wave.

Edward Holyoke of Salem wrote of that night the he “thought of nothing less than being buried instantly in the ruins of the house.” The pastors of Gloucester ordered a town fast—fasting equaled repentance. John Winthrop, Puritan, wrote of fasting as a kind of spiritual “revival.” Climatologic, atmospheric, and seismographic phenomena in the 17th and 18th centuries were often interpreted as expressions of God. A comet streaking across the New England in the early 1600s, for instance, appeared to colonist Thomas Morton “to be sent immediately by God to awake the secure world,” and a century later, when the midday sky inexplicably darkened over Hartford, Conn., Col. Abraham Davenport of the Connecticut House of Representatives demanded his House remain in session, for “the day of judgment is at hand.”

Cape Ann has felt more than 20 earthquakes since 1700. If you look at a hydrographic map of the seafloor east of the cape, you’ll see scattered knolls and banks left by the glaciers. Stallwagen Bank and Jeffrey’s Bank, two underwater plateaus, swirl around a single, deep basin.

Seven

In 1988, 10 percent of Gloucester residents were heroin addicts. That was 62 percent higher than the statewide average. Gloucester has twice the heroin-overdose rate as surrounding cities.

Eight

In early fall 2009 I lived in Gloucester, where I was an artist-in-residence. I was given a studio and house near the docks. It was quiet in town, and I spent much time walking along the shoreline, watching sea ducks bob in the gray Atlantic and fishing boats leave port through the evening. Walking around Rockport, just north of Gloucester, I noticed large stretches of pale granite sloping into the water. The granite had been scraped clean of sedimentary rock by receding glaciers 15,000 years earlier. Because of the exposed, easily accessible bedrock, Cape Ann became Boston’s source for granite in the 19th century. In 1868, a brand new rock was found: Annite, a black crystal named after the Cape. More Annite is found in the North Shore than anywhere else in the world. It looks like a shiny chunk of coal.

So, yes: The largest deposits of black crystals in the world are under the hometown of the America’s largest witch-hunt, under the docks of flesh-tearing mobs of wives, under boarding houses filled with divining servant girls, under the school home to a spontaneous, 400 percent increase of unlucky pregnancies, and packed into hyperactive seismographic plates.

The other large deposite of Annite? Across and in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—on San Miguel Island, Azores, deep in the Agua de Pau volcano.

Ben Shattuck has written for The Paris Review Daily, Salon.com, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, ReadyMade, and Once Magazine, among other publications. More by Ben Shattuck