TMS couldn’t let Halloween go by without a piece on Seacoast hauntings from our local historian, J. Dennis Robinson! New England is famous for its stories about witches, witchcraft and haunted homes and according to Dennis, the Seacoast was not immune from these beliefs.
An article entitled “Witchcraft in New Hampshire” appeared on the front page of the Portsmouth Journal on July 20, 1839. I own a faded yellowing copy of this newspaper by local historian Charles W. Brewster. Although Brewster did not believe in haunted houses, he knew others did. Children and the elderly were most susceptible to supernatural myths, Brewster noted, especially in a town like Portsmouth that was filled, in his day, with dark abandoned mansions.
Superstitious people, Brewster wrote, should be very careful when passing dilapidated houses at night, “especially in dark and stormy weather.” It was during stormy nights, some believed “the witches would sally out from the house and, if successful in casting a horse’s bridle over the head of any person passing by, would immediately transform the victim into a horse.” After turning you into a nag, the witch would have you “shod with iron shoes,” certainly a painful process. Then she would “ride the animal till it became tired, and just before daylight would turn it loose in the street.”
There were a lot of loose horses wandering the streets in Brewster’s day. And with the economy in bad shape, there were a lot of empty, spooky, old houses, especially in the South End of Portsmouth. If you woke up exhausted or with scratches on your hands, people said you had been “hag ridden” the night before. Witchtrot Road in South Berwick harkens back to that old legend.
Our 17th century forebears truly believed that the devil walked the streets in human form. Prof. Emerson Baker’s excellent book, The Devil of Great Island, is a scientific look at the legend of George Walton. His home, near today’s Trefethen School, was bombarded by mysterious stones that fell from the sky in 1682. A spot called Devil’s Den is all but hidden today by the yachts at Wentworth Marina.
Hampton wins the haunting award as home to New Hampshire’s only official “witch.” Eunice “Goody” Cole was jailed and later stoned to death for her suspected supernatural powers. Turns out, as in New Castle, it was all a battle for real estate. Centuries later, the town of Hampton officially apologized for its treatment of an innocent old lady.
Gen. Jonathan Moulton (his house still stands in Hampton) was accused of trying to bargain with the devil. Another legend claims that, as he slept with his second wife, the ghost of his first wife crawled from under their bed to reclaim her recycled wedding ring. Moulton’s body is reportedly buried under a road somewhere in Hampton.
At least 100 beautiful old mansions, from the Jaffrey House on Daniel Street in Portsmouth to Sparhawk Mansion in Kittery Point, have fallen to fire, neglect, or the wrecking ball. Wentworth by the Sea Hotel fell into such disrepair that after 20 years of neglect, a Hollywood director used it as the setting for a horror movie.
Portsmouth has its share of imaginary hauntings. The Music Hall claims to be visited by an offstage ghost. From her window in the Rockingham Hotel, poet Esther Buffler claimed to have seen the ghost of John Paul Jones next door. She wrote a lengthy poem on that topic. Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Light conduct annual paranormal quests and a host of ghostly tour guides still haunt the Port City streets. The Dark Ages are still upon us, my friends.
Dennis Robinson is editor and owner of the popular website SeacoastNH.com and author of a dozen books about history. His latest release is MYSTERY ON THE ISLES OF SHOALS: Case Closed on the Smuttynose Island Ax Murders of 1873. You can follow his history postings on Facebook. His newest website is SmuttynoseMurders.com