Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Cavendish Witch

This story has a twofold inspiration 1) An 1871 Cavendish map, which identified the area in back of the Cavendish Village Cemetery as the “witch’s bowl;” and 2) The early “pioneers” of Cavendish who “squatted” on land that was unoccupied. The story unfolds in the early 1800s and uses the names of people who were actually “warned out” of Cavendish.

Additional information appears at that end of the story.

The Cavendish Witch

 “You have to go now!” shouted her mother.

Sukey didn’t want to go. However, she knew better than to say anything. When her mother had the “thunder” across her face, it was best to do as told.

As she wrapped her coat around her, Sukey shivered. Not because she was cold, though it was a freezing night for October, but rather from fear. All she could think of was that the witch would boil her alive, eat her or at the very least, hold her captive.

The kids told lots of stories about the “witch” who rode her horse through town, always with a hood covering her head and face. Just that day they were talking in school about how the witch had come to the Greens house and within just a few hours of her arrival old Mr. Green died. He’d been buried that morning in the Cavendish Village Cemetery, which was near the witch’s cabin. The kids said she lived close to the cemetery so she could feed off the dead. At lunch, her classmates were chanting, “If you go to the witch’s bowl she’ll skin you alive and eat you whole.”

She knew something was wrong with Papa. He had cut his leg while chopping wood and now he had the fever on him. That was a few days ago and Papa couldn’t get out of bed saying his leg pained him so.

Pushing her out the door, without a chance to put on her mittens, her mother told her to run as fast as she could. “Tell Betty to come right quick.”

Since Ma was standing at the door watching, Sukey started off by running, but as soon as she was out of sight, she slowed to a walk. She didn’t want something to happen to her Papa. She had several friends whose fathers had died, and so she understood how quickly a cut could lead to death. “But why go to the witch for help?” Sukey wondered.

She could save time and cut through the Cemetery, but it was so dark and she was fearful of old Mr. Green’s ghost. Instead, she walked the long way around. As she approached the hill to the “witch’s bowl” she found herself wrapping her scarf tighter and tighter around her neck as if it might offer protection.

Witch's Bowl area
Abutting the back wall of the Cemetery was a clearing where the witch lived. Behind her cabin was a gigantic boulder that looked like a cauldron, hence the reason the area was called the “witch’s bowl.” It always seemed that there was a fire going and smoke hung about the place regardless of the season. Even in the summer, if they came up that way to pick black berries, the sight of the “witch’s bowl,” let alone her cabin, sent a chill up Sukey’s spine. 

As she approached the clearing, her breath hung in the air, while the full moon cast a shadow from the trees. Sukey hesitated. Her legs couldn’t move and she felt frozen to the ground.

The sudden bark of a dog caused movement in the house. “That’ll do Basil,” called out the witch as she opened the cabin door. “Whose there?”

Sukey couldn’t say anything. The witch’s eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness, called out again, “Whose there?” “Is that you Sukey?”

“Oh no,” Sukey thought, “She knows my name!”  But still she couldn’t turn and run.

It seemed as if she flew, but the next thing Sukey was aware of she was sitting next to a fire and the witch was rubbing her hands. “Child, what are you doing out on a night like this? You could catch your death.”

Looking around the room, Sukey was amazed not to see skulls, bones, spiders or anything else she assumed witches would have. Instead, there were a lot jars and various plants were hung from the rafters. The most delightful smell, a combination of something cooking and fresh herbs, hung in the air. Maybe it was the bubbling pot on the fireplace hearth that was responsible for the wonderful aroma. In spite of her fears, Sukey found it a very pleasant place to be.

“I was just about to have some soup,” said the witch, as she ladled a bowl full for Sukey. “Eat this so you’ll warm up.”

Sukey was afraid not to do what she was told, so she quickly started eating. She had never tasted such delicious soup. It was filled with potatoes, vegetables and best of all meat. There wasn’t much of this at Sukey’s house since her Dad had been hurt and was unable to hunt or work.

Warm and full, Sukey started to realize that the witch wasn’t going to harm her. In fact, for the first time she actually looked at the witch and realized that while she was older than Ma, she was certainly not the hag the kids described at school.

“Now tell me, why are you out on a night like this?”
“It’s Papa. He cut his leg and now he’s got the fever. Ma said I needed to come get you.”
“Ah,” said the witch. “Let me get my things together, while you finish your soup.”

Sukey continued to eat, watching the witch move about the room putting a variety of things into her bag, including what looked like moldy bread.

“We can both ride Charlie and we’ll be at your house in no time.”

As they got on the horse, Sukey found herself being wrapped in the cape that the witch often wore. Not only was it warm, it covered her face, protecting her from the wind.  She barely realized they were trotting through the village cemetery and right up to the front door of her cabin.

“Oh Betty, I’m so glad you are here,” said Sukey’s mother. “Walton’s mighty sick with fever.”

Without saying a word, Betty quickly went to work. Sukey found herself standing nearby so she could watch.

First she washed her hands. Then she exposed Papa’s leg. It was red and nasty looking. Carefully wiping it clean, she asked Sukey to bring her bag. Next she took out the moldy bread and cut a slice from the outside of the loaf. This was then mixed into a paste with water and applied to the wound with a bandage. Washing her hands again, Betty asked Sukey to get out a packet from her satchel. She then explained to Sukey and Ma to mix the willow bark powder with some tea and give it to him several times a day. “It will help with the fever and pain,” she said.

The look on Ma’s face was now one of relief. “Betty, have a cup of tea and sit a spell.” Pulling up to the fireplace, the two women began a conversation, not only about neighbors but how the family was managing with Papa being ill.

“I heard you were “warned out” by the constable,” said Betty.
“We were because we couldn’t pay the tax bill with Walton being laid up and all. However, with your care, he should be back working in no time and then we can catch up. Heard they served you with the same notice.”
“Yes, they did,” replied Betty. “However, they weren’t aware of the arrangement the previous select board had made with me.”
“Glad you were able to straighten things out. While we can’t always pay you what you deserve, the least we can do is give you a free place to live. We wouldn’t be able to get along without you.”
Smiling Betty said, “I like it here. There are other towns that have asked me to come, but here I have access to wonderful herbs and plants, the river and I love living among the trees.”

Sukey couldn’t contain herself anymore, “But you aren’t a witch, are you?”

Betty laughed. “No child, I am no witch, but many people refer to women who are healers and mid wives as such. However, we’re also called ‘wise women.’ My mother was a midwife and her mother a healer. Many of my treatments have been used for hundreds of years.”

The next morning, Papa was feeling much better and it wasn’t long before he was able to return to work. Betty stopped by several times to check on the leg and each time Sukey would stand by her side and help. On her last visit, Betty said, “Would you like to learn more about what healers do?”

When summer came, and the kids came up to pick the blackberries that grew so plentiful by the “witch’s bowl,” they were surprised to see Sukey stirring the pots and creating the “brews” that were used for healing. Even though she was only 10, Sukey had found what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

Squatters/Pioneer Families: Without deeds or legal claim to the land, these people made a stake in areas that were unoccupied. They would stay for a while and then move when the authorities pressed legal action against them or the area became too populated.

Warning Out: The selectman usually met once or twice a month and decided whether new squatters would be allowed to stay for a while. Did they have relatives in town? What church did they belong to?  Could they support themselves? The intent of a “warning out” was to let them know that “we the permanent residents and taxpayers of the town want you to know that we are concerned about ‘strangers’ in our town and if you cannot support yourselves and your family, we will not be liable for your support.” A newly forming town like Cavendish had little financial resources to take care of extra poor.

The town constable would issue warnings. Many of those who were “warned out” became prosperous and active in the town, while those with limited means moved on.

The names used in the story were taken from Cavendish Warning Out records for Dec. 20, 1802. Sukey was the child of Rufus and Sukey Walton. Most of those warned out were families or married couples. There were a few single men, and occasionally there were single women. Along with the Waltons, Betty Balcom, a single woman, was among eight families “warned out” that month.

Witches/Healers/Midwives: Through out history, women have been healers. With treatments, potions and lotions handed down from one woman to another, their cures and treatments were based on what they observed as having worked, so not surprisingly a number of their treatments were effective. By Medieval times, these women knew that blue mold on bread treated infections (the active ingredient is penicillin).  The main chemical of Willow bark, which would be given as a tea, is salicylic acid or aspirin.  Midwives washed their hands before attending a woman in labor. It took until 1885 for physicians to understand the importance of this practice.

During the Medieval era, the newly emerging male dominated medical community viewed women healers and midwives as “witches”, and many were burned at the stake for “curing.” However, in rural New England of the 18th and 19th centuries, these women were highly respected and were even given land in exchange for moving to a community.

Cavendish’s first physician, Asaph Fletcher, arrived in 1787 and lived near Proctorsville.  A member of the First Constitutional Convention of VT, he held many state offices including terms in the legislature and Senate. He was also a Windsor County Court judge and was one of the electors of James Monroe. Thought president of the Windsor County Medical Society, it’s unclear how much time he had for the practice of medicine. Many families, particularly those who were poor, such as the squatters, would have continued to use the healer/midwife, and all women had a midwife for births. Given that woman averaged six births, and infant/child mortality was high, the midwife, even in a small community like Cavendish, would have been kept very busy.

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