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Monday, January 11, 2010

Local Witch Trials Represent Perennial Impulse

Joe Durwin
Advocate Weekly Oct. 20, 2005

By virtue of timing, this area was, for the most part, free of the witchcraft hysteria that once swept New England.

The history of formal court proceedings was already winding down when the notorious affair at Salem took place in 1692. That same year saw the first settlement in what is now Berkshire County by Dutch farmers in Mount Washington, and the settling of neighboring southwest Vermont did not begin until the late 18th century.

Just because all official witch trials ended in the 1690s, though, does not mean that everyone suddenly altogether stopped being afraid of witches. As John Putnam Demos notes in his classic study, Entertaining Satan, “As a matter of individual preoccupation, and even of informal action, witchcraft was part of New England life well into the 19th century.”

It is in this later category that the witch “incidents” of this region fit. My friend Joe Citro, an inveterate digger into New England lore, came across an example of one such incident in the early days of Pownal, Vermont, recorded by lawyer/historian T.E. Brownell.

A Dutch woman identified only as “Mrs Krieger” (records indicate that there were several Kriegers among the town’s early settlers) was accused of certain diabolical acts. What specifically these acts were was not recorded, but they appear to have been taken very seriously- she was subjected to a testing system developed centuries before in Europe, the “water trial.” Stemming from a pre-Christian belief that water was sacred, it involved tying up the accused witch and casting her into water. If she sank, it indicated her innocence. If she floated, it meant that the water had rejected her because she was in league with Evil.

It was decided that the Mrs. Krieger would be pushed through a hole in the ice on the Hoosick River. Not surprisingly, she sank, demonstrating her virtue… and gravity. Luckier than most, Krieger even survived the ordeal. She emerged a bit downstream, was plucked from the icy water and revived.

The conversation that followed must have been extremely awkward.

Another legend dating back to the 18th century depicts an even more extreme confrontation in southern Berkshire County. The story speaks of a dilapidated old house in Guilder Hollow in Egremont, which had come to be thought of as haunted. The house had been the property of a man named Lloyd, who kept company with the Mohican of the Housatonic area and was believed to have been taught “the bloodcurdling magic arts of the Indian medicine man.”

When he was very old, the man disappeared, and was thought to have died. The house fell into disrepair. A few years later a woman known as Maria Lloyd, thought to be his daughter, took up residence there.

Soon after, the usual complaints associated with witchcraft begin: dogs died mysteriously, birds dropped dead in great numbers close to the house, children complained of being pinched by unseen hands. Strange lights were seen in the house by people passing on the road, and the sound of bells from a phantom sleigh were reportedly coming and going from the old house. Rumors began circulating that the Lloyd woman was consorting with spirits there.

These ill occurrences gradually escalated, according to the legend. A man named Job Hollenbeck lost a horse, and his neighbor Seth Porter’s chicken coop burned down for no apparent reason. Finally, it was decided that no further proof of sorcery was needed, and that the mysterious Maria Lloyd must be driven away for the safety of the community.

A large party of villagers, lead by Hollenbeck, set out for the house one night. Many of them armed with muskets, the mob surrounded the Lloyd house and called out to her gather her things and leave the premises. Maria mocked them from an upstairs window, threatening all manner of magical retribution. At this point, the tale continues, the mob was split on how to proceed. The timid were already backing away from the place, while a few of the more intrepid uneasily circled the door.

Suddenly, someone cried out that the house had caught on fire. A great explosion was heard inside, and soon the entire place was ablaze.

“Come and join me in the witches’ fire dance!” Maria Lloyd is supposed to have shouted from the window as the flames rose around her. At the last moment, say some, she seemed to repent, calling out to be saved from Satan’s hand… but by this time, the inferno had conveniently grown too wild for anyone to enter the house.

Later, some would claim that they had seen the form of a woman rise above the burning house and vanish into the night. As the tale has it, no remains were found in the ruins the next day.

Whether or not there is any nucleus of historical truth underlying this story is unclear. There is a record of one “Jan Hollenbeck” Egrement around the 1750s, but whether this is the Hollenbeck from the story is anyone’s guess. I cannot help but wonder if there perhaps was some poor woman living out in a shack in Guilder Hollow, arousing suspicion. Did some hysterical group of individuals set the place on fire, and in a subsequent guilty revision blame it on the devil?

Real or not, the existence of these narratives themselves suggest that while legal witch proceedings had ceased, the fear of witchcraft still thrived. In some ways, such superstitions have never faded. A cursory glance at the “ritual abuse” scares of the 1980s and 90s (from which one Pittsfield man, a victim of this hysteria, languished in jail nearly 20 years) shows that the sort of impulse which drove the atrocities in Salem and throughout New England is never far beneath the surface.
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Joseph A. Citro said...

Joe-- Glad to see you're still around. Have tried to contact you several times, but maybe the email address I have is dead. Where are you these days? How do I get in touch with you? Happy 2010! --Joe C.

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Timm Clade