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William Morse

William MORSE [1614-1683] was a key figure in the only recorded case of supposed witchcraft in Newbury that was ever subjected to a full legal investigation. The principal sufferer in what Joshua Coffin (in his SKETCH OF THE HISTORY OF NEWBURY - 1845) calls "this tragi-comedy" was William's wife Elizabeth who resided with him in a house at the head of Market St. [later actually in Newburyport] across from St. Paul's Church for which William had received in the lot in 1645. William was then 65 years of age, a very worthy, but credulous and unsuspecting man who consequently was very easy prey to the taunting antics of a very roguish grandson who lived with them. Not suspecting any deception, the good man readily attributed all his troubles and strange afflictions to the supernatural instead of carefully analyzing the actions of those around him. With a belief in witchcraft almost universal at the time, it afforded a ready solution to anything strange and mysterious. The only person to have suspected the boy as the author of the mischief was a seaman Caleb POWELL who visited the house frequently enough to suspect that the Morse's troubles had human, rather than supernatural, origins. Caleb informed Goodman MORSE that he believed he could readily find and the source of the trouble and solve it. To add credibility to his claims, he hinted that in his many travels he had gained an extensive knowledge of astrology and astronomy. That claim, however innocently intended, led to Caleb being accused of dealing in the black arts himself--he was tried and narrowly escaped with his own life! Anthony MORSE, brother of William, gave the following testimony about the strange goings-on at his brother's house on Dec 8, 1679 [retaining the original spelling for its quaintness...]: "I Anthony Mors ocationlly being att my brother Morse's hous, my brother showed me a pece of a brick which had several tims come down the chimne. I sitting in the cornar towck the pece of brik in my hand. Within a littel spas of tiem the pece of brik was gon from me I know not by what meanes. Quickly aftar, the pece of brik came down the chimne. Also in the chimny corar I saw a hamar on the ground. Their being no person near the hamar it was soddenly gone; by what means I know not, but within a littel spas after, the hamar came down the chimny and within a littell spas of tiem aftar that, came a pece of woud, about a fute loung, and within a littell after that came down a fiar brand, the fiar being out." William MORSE was also asked to give testimony on the same day and reported instances of being in bed and hearing stones and sticks being thrown against the roof or house with great violence, finding a large hog in the house after midnight, and many strange objects being dropped down the chimney. Items in the barn were mysteriously overturned or out-of-place, shoes unexpectedly seemed to fly through the air as if thrown, and doors unexpectedly would open or close. The handwritten testimony concludes with the telling statement: "A mate of of a ship coming often to me [ie: Caleb POWELL] said he much grefed for me and said the boye [William's grandson] was the cause of all my truble and my wife was much Ronged, and was no wich, and if I would let him have the boye but one day, he would warrant me no more truble. I being persuaded to it, he Com the nex day at the brek of day, and the boy was with him untel night and I had not any truble since." When Caleb was finally acquitted, the judges looked for some other person guilty "of being instigated by the devil" for accomplishing such pranks, and for some reason selected Elizabeth MORSE, William's wife, as the culprit. [Elizabeth often served as a town midwife, and perhaps had incurred some male or professional' jealousies?] At a Court of Assistants held at Boston on May 20, 1680, Elizabeth MORSE was indicted as "having familiarity with the Divil contrary to the peace of our sovereign lord the King" and the laws of God. In spite of her protesting her complete innocense, she was found guilty and sentenced by the governor on May 27th as follows: "Elizabeth MORSE, you are to goe from hence to the place from when you came and thence to the place of execution and there to be hanged by the neck, till you be dead, and the Lord have mercy on your soul." Then, for some unexplained reason, Elizabeth was granted a reprieve on June 1, 1680 by Governor BRADSTREET. The deputies of the local court did not agree with the decision, however, and complained in Nov 1680 to have the case reopened. Testimony was again heard in the general court through May 1681. William sent several petitions pleading his wife's innocence and attempting to answer the hysterical allegations of 17 Newbury residents who submitted testimony in writing offering their reasons why they had concluded that Goody MORSE must be a witch and should be hung according to old Mosaic law. Reading the list of "reasons" today quickly strikes the 20th century mind as a dredging up of every petty annoyance, every grudge or neighborhood misunderstanding the townspeople could think of from sick cows to being snubbed in public. It was owing to the firmness of Gov. BRADSTREET in his initial decision that the life of Elizabeth MORSE was saved and the town of Newbury prevented from offering the first victim in Essex County to the witchcraft hysteria. Later town records and other contemporary sources fail to record what happened to the "vile and roguish" grandson whose attempts to torment his elderly grandparents nearly resulted in his grandmother's untimely death.
Submitted by: Carolyn G. Depp -
cdepp@classic.msn.com

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