Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Witches of The Commons

The typical rendering of a New England Witch, taken from art inspired by the events in Salem.

The American witch is something that seems to belong distinctly to the northeast. While adaptable to rural communities in the Midwest, and melded into the form of the voodoo priestess in the Deep South, the most classic version of the old crone is a vision that seems directly uprooted from the old country and planted firmly in the rocky soil of old New England. And that’s where our story will take place, in the stone-ridden ghost town known as the Commons Settlement, a highland area inland from the coast of Gloucester and Rockport on Massachusetts’ Cape Ann.

The trail that was once Main Street in The Commons

Residents of the Commons moved inland to form the settlement due to considerable threats of attack by natives and especially pirates and Ottoman corsairs who prayed upon coastal villages. The settlement was established in 1693 (a year in which the neighboring village Salem was still in the grips of its famed witch trials and the associated hysteria), and provided a main route between Gloucester and Rockport. By the mid 18th century and into the early 19th century, the town boasted between 80-100 families in residence. Citizens of the Commons were notable fixtures in the Revolution, with descendents of the settlers rowing General Washington across the Delaware River before the Battle of Trenton. Resident Isaac Day served as a gunner on The Constitution, affectionately known today as “Old Ironsides”.  But this period also saw events that triggered the decline of the village.

The success of American Revolution and the War of 1812 led to greater defense of the coast, and native tribes in the area had long since been quelled. Now, in the dawning of the 19th century, residents began moving back toward the harbor where industry was more plentiful. The exodus from The Commons was compounded by soil that made agriculture difficult. A thriving fishing and trading community lay east, and the residents of The Commons followed.

Artist rendering of Main Street

All too quickly, the town’s residents became made up of vagabonds and drifters squatting in abandoned houses. A few of the respectable citizens stayed behind in the settlement, widows of sea captains and such. They kept large dogs to guard against their unsavory neighbors. As these residents died off, their dogs began to overrun the community, and it soon earned the name by which it is known today: Dogtown. By this time, the town was known as a collection of riff raff from the coast, and a place where the ill repute would be right at home. Derelicts who begged at the harbor or traded fortune telling for goods, former slaves and a general assemblage of the “tetched” from across the villages of Cape Ann now established and redefined Dogtown.

One such woman, Aunt Becky Rich, sold “Dire Drink”, a brew of foxberry leaves, spruce tips and wild herbs, to those at the harbor to those feeling “Springish” (suffering from spring fever). Other odd denizens included Tie, a female freed slave who wore men’s clothing and employed herself by building stonewalls, hauling wood and doing the roughest work of men. The young people of Rockport occasionally visited Aunt Becky and others in the old village for fortune telling, which was a common skill there. The curiosities of divination and the promises of loose woman brought many sailors and even sons of respectable families calling in Dogtown.

But as time went on, the oddities became odder. Granther Stannard, who had once been a proud sea captain in his younger days, now lived in a small clay and sod hut called “The Boo”. He served as the village’s cobbler and dentist until he became convinced his legs were made of glass and he could no longer walk. Pam Wasson was notorious as a bonafide witch of the old Salem Village tradition. She was accused of flying around on her broomstick and taking the shape of a crow until she was shot by soldiers using a silver button as a bullet. That same day, a doctor was called from Gloucester to attend her for a leg injury and was said to have extracted the silver button from her wound.

The most notorious of the witches of Dogtown was Thomasine “Tammy” Younger. She would visit the docks at the Harbor and demand tribute of goods from sailors, lest they be hexed. Harbor men took this threat seriously, and this was how Tammy Younger and others from Dogtown made a living. Younger had a particular advantage, as her home sat directly on the road between Gloucester and Rockport, allowing her to act as a toll keeper. She would frequently watch for carts on the road and was said to hex a traveler's Oxen to stand still until they paid her in goods.

Known far and wide for her evil eye, it was said of Younger’s talents that she could “hex a load of wood right off the wagon if none was yielded to her without argument.” She was also a great favorite of pirates and buccaneers, who visited her for fortune telling and a general good time. When she died, the residents of her home refused to go to bed until her coffin was removed. Legend has it that the people of Cape Ann were so relieved when she finally died at 76 that they buried her in a coffin inlayed with silver.

The last resident of Dogtown was Black Neil Finson, who resided there in 1814 and was loved by the town’s witches. He cohabitated with several of them until they died and was eventually found living in a cellar hole covered by wood planks and half dead in the middle of winter. He was removed by authorities of Gloucester and taken to the town’s poorhouse, where he died a week later of “sheer comfort”.

One of many boulders carved during the 1930s

The last house in Dogtown was torn down in 1845 and nature has reclaimed most of what remains of the old settlement. Hearthstones and other small markers of civilization, including numerous paths bring hikers, ecologists and historians back to the site. Dogtown regained some of its former color when Roger Babson commissioned unemployed stonecutters to carve inspirational inscriptions on approximately three-dozen boulders during the Great Depression. But the reflection of the village and its mark upon the land still takes on an ethereal, haunting quality that suits a ghost town. This was captured best by Thomas Wentworth Higgins, who wrote of the place:

“Three miles inland we find the hearthstones of a vanished settlement . . . an elevated tableland overspread with great boulders as big as houses and encircling a girdle of green woods and another girdle of blue sea. I know nothing like that gray waste of boulders . . . In that multitude of monsters there seems a sense of suspended life; you feel as if they must speak and answer to each other – the silent nights, but by day only the wandering seabirds seek them on their way across the Cape.”

A quiet trail through a once colorful community


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