The ghost witch of Barnstable, continued

lady and devilThe previous post (link) told how Elizabeth (Lewis) Blachford, 1712-1790, had acquired notoriety among her neighbors in Barnstable, Massachusetts. She kept strong ties with the local church, was an exemplary wife, mother and grandmother, and enjoyed neighborly involvement in the life of her community. Despite that, a delusional accusation, a few marginally mysterious events around town, her own assertiveness and a residence literally off the beaten path  combined to launch a local cottage industry of spinning tall tales about her alter ego, the powerful and vengeful Liza Tower Hill, the Witch of Halfway Pond.

In part because the prime audience for such folk stories included children, the tales survived into the next generation after Elizabeth died. One of those children who heard the fables grew up to be the premier Barnstable genealogist, Amos Otis. Seventy years after Elizabeth’s death, Otis published in the local newspaper some of what he had heard as a boy, with the intention of entertaining a new generation. He also published many facts about the real Mrs. Blachford, whom he believed (mistakenly) to have been a distant relation of his wife.

Otis notes in passing that something he’d said about Elizabeth had soured his relationship with one of her grandsons. The grandchildren stuck up for their beloved grandmother, but they were dying off as Otis was writing in the early 1860’s. By 1900, it was no longer seriously possible that anybody who had actually met Elizabeth was still alive. The stories about Liza Tower Hill had long since detached themselves from anything that really happened. With nobody left to distinguish Elizabeth Blachford from the vivid folk character Liza, the stage was set for a twentieth century woman single-handedly to make church lady Elizabeth over into the devil’s very own femme fatale.

Originally, it wasn’t even a ghost story

Amos Otis wrote that around 1810, twenty long years after Elizabeth died, Richard Bourne, age 71, got roaring drunk at a Christmas party. In those days friends used to let friends ride home under the influence. Fortunately, his horse knew the way, and all went well as Dr Bourne passed through the woods, deeper and deeper in until he was in as deep as he could be, which is half way through, the vicinity of Halfway Pond. Mistaking phosphorescence (“foxfire,” a glow given off by some rotting deadwood) for a real fire, he apparently directed the horse off-path. There he dismounted, removed his boots and tried to warm his feet by a tree stump. Shortly after, he remounted the horse, but forgot his boots. He failed to find his way back to the path in the darkness. He emerged from the forest in the morning, still bootless and still unsure of his way.

On the road, Richard hailed a group of men which included Abner Davis, Esq. (Otis’ source). “Gentlemen,” asked Richard, “can you tell me whether I am in this town or the next?” Abner rose to this comic straight line in true Yankee form. “You are in this town now,” Abner answered, “but if you drive on you will soon be in the next.” Ayuh.

All’s well that ends well. Abner and his companions loaned Richard a pair of boots and arranged some breakfast for him (and for his horse, too, I hope) before sending him finally home. The only lingering effects were Richard’s being made to endure endless jokes about which town he was in and mischievous young boys teasing him about whether he’d found his boots yet.

There is no Liza Tower Hill in the anecdote, and nothing for a witch to do in it. Elizabeth Blachford had lived at Halfway Pond two decades before, but that’s all the connection there is. Had she still been there, Elizabeth might well have helped Richard and his horse find their way home sooner.

Getting warmer

Jeremiah Diggs included the Bourne misadventure in his folksy 1937 book, Cape Cod Pilot. Diggs introduces the story with an atmospheric nod to “Lizzy.”

In East Barnstable, on the old Indian trail across-Cape, there is a pond, and in the woods beside it once stood a lonely house where the Devil was said to have had a standing welcome. For there lived Lizzy Tower Hill, the Witch of Half-Way Pond.

This is followed by a brief summation of the lore of Lizzy and the life of Elizabeth, mostly mined from what was told by Otis, except for a terse reference to

There was unholy dancing o’ nights at Half-Way Pond, so the rumors said, …

Diggs then tells of Bourne’s Christmas ride. The only mention of Lizzy is when Richard leaves the path,

Lizzy Tower Hill had been dead a score of years. Yet there, according to the doctor’s story, he had caught sight of a rotten stump which shone with a warm red light.

Yet? Yet what? Diggs develops no relationship between Liza and what he knows is a natural phenomenon. The Bourne anecdote and the Liza-lore stand as separate elements, placed one after the other but hardly even lightly tossed together.

So why did Diggs bother to flirt with linking two stories which his main source, Otis’ Genealogical Notes, hadn’t connected at all? Diggs had read and cited Elizabeth Reynard’s The Narrow Land, which had just been published in 1934 when Diggs was working on Cape Cod Pilot. Reynard had fully re imagined the comic Bourne incident. She thus created the earliest Liza Tower Hill ghost story on record and the first published professional fiction featuring this folktale character.

Finally, the Christmas story from Hell

Woodcut with in forest

A witch with forest grotesques

Reynard taught literature at Barnard College, and would serve during WW II as second-in-command of the U.S. Navy women’s unit, the WAVES. Her source for what Diggs summarized as “unholy dancing” was a prose fantasy about Liza Tower Hill she’d found in unpublished manuscript notes written by Michael Fitzgerald (1859-1925), a Cape Cod novelist (1812) and journalist. Fitzgerald’s Liza dances barefooted and bare breasted on the surface of the pond, surrounded by grotesque creatures who’ve crawled out from the forest to admire the spectacle.

Reynard also gives an account of Liza’s death. She attributes the story to Hyannis librarian Ora (Adams) Hinckley, 1857-1944. Benjamin Goodspeed (too common a name to know which one is meant) was victimized similarly to Ansil Woods: Liza rode him like a horse at night. Benjamin fled from her in a boat, only to find a black cat swimming behind and giving chase. Benjamin asked a shipmate for advice, and was told to shoot the cat, using paper from a Bible as wadding for his gunpowder. This worked like a charm, so to speak, and the cat sank below the waves. At that very same moment, Liza, who was at home onshore, suddenly slumped over dead at her spinning wheel. Wicked witch Liza was now ready to launch her second career as the ghost of Halfway Pond.

For that story, Reynard darkens a quirk of Dr Bourne that Otis had had some fun with: Bourne knew only one song, “Old King Cole,” which he would sing over and over at parties, but whose tune and rhythm he would vary as he drank. Reynard believes that the song’s title character is a satanic figure (an unusual opinion). So at the Christmas party, she writes that Richard “carols aloud the tune to which devils dance.” When Richard reaches Halfway Pond, the devil is waiting for him, having been summoned, but has the sense to station Liza’s beautiful ghost at the glowing stump while he retreats to the surrounding trees.

Richard and Liza dance for a while, then spend the night together, “cozily,” as Reynard puts it. “When at dawn the ghost witch ceased to warm him, he awoke to see a little old man presenting him with a black book to sign.” Richard, by now sober, understands that that would be a very bad idea and rushes off on horseback, leaving his boots behind in his haste.

Reynard acknowledges that there are “more rational accounts of this midnight adventure,” and summarizes Otis’ version as an example. Her explanation for her own, more lurid short story is simply, “witch gossip says…”

Conclusions

For this Hallowe’en, we’ve sketched the progress of Elizabeth Lewis from an early 1700’s girlhood in the idyllic woods south of Barnstable Village to her spooky portrayal by a present-day street performer who seemingly found her character in Macbeth. Along the way, we’ve tried to distinguish history from fiction, and sincere factual mistakes from fabulous inventions.

Elizabeth Lewis Blachford was an admirable ordinary woman of her time and place. The creation of Liza Tower Hill allowed her neighbors to have things both ways. Those who were cruel or had some score to settle could indulge themselves in a nasty story at a neighbor’s expense. Nevertheless, the storyteller was immune from retaliation in church or a lawsuit, because Liza really wasn’t Elizabeth. Upright and prudent Solomon Otis, Esq. knew that his well-crafted Liza story insinuates that somebody cheated him in a business deal and rustled his cattle. Best that that somebody not be someone who could denounce him to the church brethren and sue him in court.

Unlike Elizabeth, Liza didn’t go to church and Liza didn’t need the law to protect her. Real-life Elizabeth Blachford put up with the stories which so upset her and her family. Liza Tower Hill would have gotten even.

black cat at hearth

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