The ghost witch of Barnstable, Massachusetts

pond view

Mary Dunn Pond

In the charming Cape Cod district of Yarmouth Port, a street actress entertained patrons of a twenty-first century haunted house tour. She played Elizabeth (Lewis) Blachford, 1712-1790, who lived just across the town line in Barnstable. Michael Feist (link) describes the performance:

… satanic Elizabeth Lewis … invited us to watch her stir fish scales into an already merrily boiling pot sporting ear of warthog and eye of newt. “My mother died when I was young,” she explained, to furnish living proof of why she had lived in the woods of those days alone with her father. Now, she cackled, she stays totally alone on Mary Dunn Road, next to Halfway Pond, where strange dancing lights are wont to hover.

Ms. Lewis unwound the yarn of how she had turned herself into a cat for swimming across the ocean. “All witches wear red shoes,” she hissed in near-feline abandon…

However, about 140 years earlier, Cape Cod historian Frederick Freeman wrote of this same woman,

[William Blachford’s] wife was of good order of mind, connected with the best families in town, and 53 years (to the day of her death), a member of the Barnstable church, ” exemplary and pious.” Thirty-five years she was a widow, and, left with a young family and small estate in an obscure portion of the township, contrived by rare industry, uncommon energy, and good management, to bring up her children respectably, she at last going to her grave under the weight of nearly four-score and ten years, 1790, honored and commended by her pastor.

How could a pious church lady and community pillar in real life be remembered in death as a reclusive shape-shifting minion of Satan? Could it be because her ghost seduced a midnight visitor to her former home who’d unwittingly summoned the devil?

A brief life

Elizabeth Lewis was born almost twenty years after the notorious Salem Village hysteria. No remotely comparable witch hunt blighted southeastern Massachusetts. Britain had yet to adopt the calendar we use today when Elizabeth was born, so her birth year was recorded as either 1711 or 1711/12. In our contemporary calendar, the year was 1712.

Her father Benjamin Lewis farmed at Crooked Pond, now Lamson Pond, then and today surrounded by woodlands. Father and daughter didn’t live there alone, contrary to the actress’ spiel. Elizabeth’s mother, Margaret (Folland) Lewis, had four other children who lived to adulthood, two of them younger than Elizabeth. Her mother apparently survived her father. He died when Elizabeth was 14.

town record

Barnstable town record of Elizabeth’s parents

Although the Lewis family was locally prominent, when Freeman connects Elizabeth to the best families, plural, he may be confused. In 1708, a different Benjamin Lewis married Hannah from the stellar Hinckley family. Although the generally reliable genealogist Amos Otis believed Hannah to be Elizabeth’s mother, in fact Hannah and her Benjamin moved to Falmouth and started a family there.

Elizabeth left Crooked Pond at age 16, when she married William Blachford, said to be from England, from a neighborhood near the Tower of London. The young couple moved a short distance to Halfway Pond, now Mary Dunn Pond, where Elizabeth would reside for the remaining six decades of her life (that is, she died when she was nearly 80, not 90 as Freeman reported above, possibly relying on an 1860 newspaper typo). Peter Blachford, the first of eight children, arrived just six months after the wedding. No criticism of Elizabeth reaches us on account of the close timing.

Barnstable’s East Parish church was located less than three miles from Halfway Pond. When Elizabeth married, Reverend Joseph Greene, pastor of that church from 1725 to 1770, solemnized the union. All of her children were christened in the church, spanning the years through 1750. She was accepted into full communion there at age 25, presumably following some public profession of her commitment to the Christian faith. This status allowed her to participate in the church’s Lord’s Supper rites. Her husband did not enter into full communion until the day before he died in 1758. When her own life ended, she was buried in the church’s graveyard.

Full communion subjected complaints about her behavior to review by the brethren of the church. There is only one complaint against Elizabeth in the church records. A younger woman accused her of “abuse” in 1771 (probably that year; the dating of the entry is irregular). There is nothing in the brief note about any “witchy” behavior. What happened was apparently an unchristian shouting match. Elizabeth simply confessed her guilt. The assembled brethren of the church accepted that as the resolution of the matter, “by a large majority,” albeit after some deliberation (the confession was read several times before it was approved).

There is no evidence that she was ever a recluse, or that she ever lived alone at Halfway Pond for any long period. Apart from her church life, she had her children, one of whom appears to have remained living with her always, and visits with her grandchildren, whose fond recollections of her informed Amos Otis’ 1860-62 reconstructions of her life. The pond itself is only about a minute’s walk off of what was a heavily traveled public path (much of that path is still in use, now paved for automobiles.)

Otis also collected an anecdote told by an old man recalling his boyhood. He and his father had gone to help elderly Elizabeth plow her field. She did the hardest part, and was unfazed when an unseen buried tree stump caused her to fall. The anecdote shows a strong woman, and it also shows a woman whom her neighbors come to help.

Blake's Hecate

A witch and her horse

Real incidents from when she was alive

Reports reach us of four mysterious events dating from Elizabeth’s lifetime which are plausibly rooted in reality. Only one of them includes testimony, absurd and proven false at the time, of her personal involvement in the supernatural. That and one other story mention Elizabeth’s assertiveness, a trait suggested by the church complaint and a traditional risk factor for women to be denounced as witches.

After an unspecified dispute with Elizabeth, young Ansil Wood (born 1765) believed that on some nights, she changed him into a horse using a “witch’s bridle” (a trope in English witch lore), rode him to witches’ gatherings at Plymouth’s Clam Pudding Pond, and then rode him back, about fifty miles round-trip. Practical minded neighbors asked Ansil to make a mark the next time it happened, on the tree where Elizabeth tied him up at the pond. When he did, the mark was found on his bed at home.

Ansil’s is a clear case of sleep paralysis hallucination and delusion, now a well-known sleep disorder, then suspicious of demonic mischief. His ridiculous adventures didn’t happen, but to Ansil it vividly and convincingly seemed that they had. Apparently. he considered filing formal charges against Elizabeth, but nothing came of it. Nevertheless, even tangible evidence that he was home in bed and not in Plymouth didn’t convince him, and he told his tale widely and often.

Three other strange events occurred that had no direct connection with Elizabeth, but the context provided by Ansil’s delusion may have allowed stray dots to be connected anyway. Shortly after a dispute with Elizabeth about mistreatment of her daughter Lydia, James Allyn’s household furniture was disturbed. Elizabeth wasn’t around when this happened, but a strange black cat was. One day, a Mrs. David Loring’s horse repeatedly circled Halfway Pond, an area of about twelve acres, despite Mrs. Loring’s attempts to get the horse back on the main path. Sisters Thankful and Remember Cobb (born 1757 and 1760) could cross their room without their feet touching the floor (by holding onto defects in the exposed wooden beams in the ceiling, but nobody noticed that at the time).

Better stories soon follow

Building on these remarkable but unincriminating roots, spinning witch tales apparently became a popular local indoor pastime. In the stories, an alias was used, Liza Tower Hill (a reference to where Elizabeth’s husband reputedly came from). It is unclear whether anybody used that nickname for any other purpose. Of Liza’s weird powers, Amos Otis wrote, “all her neighbors believed, or at least pretended to believe,” emphasis added.

No grown-up could believe one example that Otis recounted in his 1860 article. Liza wasn’t invited to a neighborhood party. She went anyway in the form of a black cat. We know the cat was Liza because one guest, the seventh son of a seventh son, saw her in her true form. Sitting in the corner, she hexed all the food in terrible ways, climaxing in stuffing the pastries full of black wool.

Unsurprisingly, Otis reports that such tall tales upset Elizabeth’s family, both during her lifetime and on into the old age of her grandchildren. It is easy to imagine that the cruelty of children to one another may have been a factor in spreading the tales across two generations. In Amos Otis’ youth, adults still enjoyed scaring children with the stories.

However, at least one story displays mature craftsmanship and sober restraint. Genealogist Otis attributes it to the distinguished and Harvard educated Solomon Otis, Esq., 1696-1778. Solomon said that he bought a calf from Elizabeth. Before delivery, Elizabeth asked to renegotiate the price. Solomon refused. Elizabeth warned him he’d be sorry, but went ahead with the bargain as she’d agreed.

On delivery day, Solomon rode his horse to Halfway Pond. Elizabeth warned him again that he’d be sorry if he didn’t pay her a bit more. Solomon again refused, and rode off with his calf in tow. While passing through the surrounding woods, he and the calf heard the lowing of spectral cattle. The calf ran off to join them, disappeared among the trees, and Solomon never saw his calf again.

What did Solomon do about it? Nothing, not even to ride back to Halfway Pond and complain. Why not? Because the experience gave him something valuable to compensate for his material loss. As Amos Otis put it, Solomon “solaced himself with the thought that he should be able to tell as good a witch story as any of her neighbors.”

Next time at the Uncertaintist: some stories told after Elizabeth died: Bible verses as a murder weapon, topless dancing on the pond, and a chilling tryst with her ghost, arranged by the devil himself.

===

Chief sources

Frederick Freeman, History of Cape Cod, volume 2, 1862, p.298 (note), available at https://archive.org/details/historycapecoda01freegoog

George Lyman Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, 1929, pp.20-21(Loring), p. 219 (bridle)
https://archive.org/details/witchcraftinoldn00kitt_0

Amos Otis, Liza Towerhill, Barnstable Patriot, March 20, 1860, p.1
http://digital.olivesoftware.com/Olive/APA/Sturgis/default.aspx#panel=search&search=1

Amos Otis, Genealogical Notes of Barnstable Families, v. 1, 1888, pp, 10-11 (Allyn), 99-103 (Blachford), and 122-125 (Bourne); edited reprints of articles from the 1860’s
https://archive.org/details/cu31924028819212

Amos Otis, Genealogical Notes of Barnstable Families, v. 2, p. 131 (church discipline)
https://archive.org/details/genealogicalnot00swifgoog

Images and transcript of some church records, page references are to the physical page in the online viewer document, not the page as numbered in the book (which is 6 less than the physical page number):  p. 43 (her full communion), p. 63 (her baptism and then of her first two children; follow the chronology of baptism records for the other six children, 1738-1750); p. 100 (her discipline); p. 111 (her husband’s communion and death), p.168 (her death); click on “Church Records” at
http://www.congregationallibrary.org/nehh/series1/BarnstableMAEast5158

Photo credits

Halfway (Mary Dunn) Pond, the Uncertaintist

Lewis-Folland family record: Massachusetts, Town Clerk, Vital and Town Records, 1626-2001, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q29G-PK7C : 13 July 2016), FHL microfilm 947,061, image 00363 (detail).

William Blake 1757-1827, Hecate

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