Witches and Wizards of Rocks Village

The Witch

There are many recountings of the stories of the witch of Rocks Village. She seemed to have lived there as an old woman in the early 1800’s. John Greenleaf Whittier says he remembers seeing her as an old woman when he was a boy. He was born in 1807. Several of the stories of her bewitchings refer to her as Aunt Morse or Aunt Mose, including Whittier himself. However, later Whittier published a different story of Aunt Morse where she appeared as an apparition from the burying ground before a local squire. From Squire S. she demanded that her will be executed according to her stated wishes. Since the squire, according to Whittier, fought in the Battle of Fayal in 1814, and Aunt Morse had certainly died by then, this story is likely from the 1820’s or 1830’s.

Another story is that the witch, or Aunt Morse, was forced to sell her house when she was widowed. She placed a curse on the family that bought the house. She then moved to Corliss Hill. Corliss Hill is located behind the Whittier birthplace near the Plaistow NH line.

There are specific references to Aunt Morse being the aunt of Aaron Chase (Aaron born Mar. 13, 1804), ie the wife of his uncle Moses Chase. We have determined with near certainty that this person is Sarah Flanders Chase and that her husband Moses died in 1837, in debt, leaving his two real estate deeds to pay off his debts (it seems the properties were in Plaistow). Sarah was born in 1762 but we don’t have her death date. We found no connection with the name Morse except that there was some intermarrying between the large Chase and Morse clans, both long associated with the village. For example, Aaron’s granduncle Wells Chase married a Morse.

There was a sale of a house on Colby Lane in the village in 1834 (Deed 279/65) that involved the widow and other heirs of Benjamin Chase who had died in 1831. They sold it to their neighbor and relative, Simeon Chase. The descendants of Simeon have passed down the curse story through the generations. The widow selling her house was Betsy Ladd Chase. The deed was witnessed by Sarah Chase. The JP was Nathaniel Ladd. Betsy died in 1841.

In some places Whittier refers to Moses Chase and his wife as living at Corliss Hill. In other stories after the house was sold the widow was forced to move to Corliss Hill to live with her relative Josiah Chase. We know that Josiah Chase and his relatives did live on Corliss Hill at this time. But they were not directly related to Moses Chase, Aaron’s uncle.

Of course it is possible that there were multiple stories/events that over the years became conflated. In 1837 Moses Chase died, so his widow might have been forced to move since Moses was not a landholder but rather called “laborer” in several documents. In 1834 Betsy Chase sold her house to Simeon Chase. With the same last names, the stories could have been inadvertently combined.

It remains a mystery where the name “Morse” or “Mose” fits in. The name Morse was often spelled Mors or Morss or Mose. There were a few women with the last name Morse of the right age in the vicinity of the village at the time. There is however no evidence that they had to sell property on widowhood, and they do not seem to be related to either Aaron Chase or Josiah Chase. Betsy Ladd Chase’s father-in-law Benjamin Sr. was a cousin of Abigail Chase who married Oliver Morse, and they settled in the Millvale area. He died in 1838 but Abigail lived until 1850. Her mother-in-law (Oliver’s mother), Rhoda George Morse, lived nearby with her husband Henry Morse, and she died before 1818 when Henry drew up his will. Rhoda’s daughter by her first marriage to Austin George, named Rhoda George, lived in Henry’s household for many years and is named in his will.

Lydia Dustin Chase, distantly related to Josiah Chase, married Timothy Flanders and settled in Haverhill. Timothy, along with Stephen Morse, bought land in the village and surrounds. Timothy might be related to Sarah Flanders.

Here are excerpts from various sources related to the witch:

From Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier by Samuel T. Pickard:
“A reminiscence of the same period, pertaining to witchcraft fancies of the time, occurs in a letter by Mr. Whittier, in 1883, to his old schoolmate Mr. C. C. Chase: –  “It was old Mrs. C —-, wife of Moses C—–, of Rocks Village, a brother of Uncle Aaron’s father, who lived at Corliss Hill, whose relatives believed her a witch, and one of her nieces knocked her down in the shape of a persistent bug that troubled her, and at the same time the old woman fell and hurt her head! Old Aunt Morse, on one occasion, went before Squire Ladd, the old blacksmith and JP at the Rocks and took her oath that she was not a witch!” (70, pg 32)

From Rebecca I. Davis*’ Gleanings: Sheaf Two page 41, 1886:

“Of her strange doings we heard far back in our childhood and hardly dared to cross the threshold of the house where she had lived…Whittier, who saw her in his youthful days…Among her evil arts they (the neighbors) affirmed that she bewitched their cream so that it yielded no butter and their lights were often extinguished when met together for an evening’s enjoyment.” The author continues to relate the bug story, see elsewhere. Then she says that when “Goody Mose” lived at Corliss Hill in a house owned by Mr. Josiah Chase, a young man came to visit one of her daughters. He had been warned that the mother was a witch but didn’t believe it until…some young boys of the household hung tin pans, chains, and bells over the entrance door. That apparently convinced him. And he never visited the daughter again.

[*Rebecca Ingersoll Davis was born to Lydia Morse and James Davis, who lived on a farm on Merrimack St. in the upper village. Lydia Morse’s brother Joseph was the village bridge tender who died under mysterious circumstances on the bridge (see Morse family page http://www.rocksvillage.org/families/morse-family/) Her brother Stephen also owned real estate around the area. Rebecca is named after James Davis’s first wife, Rebecca Ingersoll, daughter of Zebulon Ingersoll who lived on Wharf Lane. In a strange twist, the Pickard book describes the death of Joseph Morse but mistakenly calls him “Mr. Davis”.]

Aunt Morse (Mose) From Whittier-Land: A Handbook of North Essex by Samuel T. Pickard (page 31/32):
“He (Aaron Chase) told this story of the tipsy wife: She sent her son for brush to heat the over. He brought such a nice load that she thought it too bad to waste it in the oven. So she sent her son with it to the grocery, and he brought back the liquor he received in payment. But this made her short of oven wood, and to eke out her supply of fuel she burned a loose board of the cellar stairs. The next time she had occasion  to go to the cellar, she forgot the hiatus she made and broke her leg. After Chase left us, Whittier told me that his schoolmate was a nephew of the last person usually accounted a witch in his neighborhood. She was the wife of Moses Chase of Rocks Village. Her relatives believed her a witch, and one of her nieces knocked her down in the shape of a persistent but that troubled her. At the moment it happened that old woman fell and hurt her head. The old lady on one occasion went before Squire Ladd, the blacksmith and Justice of the Peace at the Rocks, and took her oath that she was not a witch.”

Aunt Morse reference from Life and Letters p 38:

Letter by Whittier to a friend, also a native of E Haverhill, in 1875:

“Your note carries me back to my boyhood to the time when I used to know you at ‘Rocks Village’.”  Whittier then reminisces about Col Johnson, Esq. Frost (note: probably Foot) and his store, Esq (Nathaniel) Ladd and his blacksmith shop, Orne and his combs, Poyen and his cigars, Dr. Weld, Col Poor, widow Pettee (seamstress), and old ‘aunt Morse’ “who was regarded by the average juvenile mind as a witch”.

Story of the curse:

From Gleanings:

(Referring to Aunt Morse) “It was probably about this time that she sold her house to a neighbor, telling him ‘his family would never prosper, if they lived therein’, and in cases of ill luck in the family, some of the neighbors recalled her prophecy.

“…In a few months after removing into “Goody Mose’s” house, the mother was taken strangely sick with blindness and palsy, suffering much before her death, which took place in a year and a half from their occupancy, and of course some of the superstitious ones of the neighborhood affirmed’ that the old witch was being revenged upon the family for purchasing her house” which in her widowhood she was obliged to sell.” The author goes on to describe the “witch” signing an oath before a Justice of the Peace that she was not a witch but rather a good honest woman.

Apparition story:

From pp 285-6 March 1847 Volume 0020 Issue 105 The Unites States Democratic Review, Notices of New Books: Supernaturalism of New-England by J. G. Whittier. They give a quote of one section:

Some years ago, an elderly woman, familiarly known as “Aunt Morse”, died, leaving a handsome little property. No will was found, although it was understood before her decease that such a document was in the hands of Squire S., one of her neighbors. One cold winter evening, some weeks after her departure, Squire S. sat in his parlor looking over his papers, when, hearing someone cough in a familiar way, he looked up, and saw before him a little crooked old woman, in an oil-nut colored woollen frock, blue and white tow and linen apron, and striped blanket, leaning her sharp, pinched face on one hand, while the other supported a short black tobacco pipe, at which she was puffing in the most vehement and spiteful manner conceivable.

The squire was a man of some nerve; but his first thought was to escape, from which he was deterred only by the consideration, that any effort to that effect would necessarily bring him nearer to his unwelcome visitor.

“Aunt Morse”, he said at length, “for the Lords sake, get right back to the burying-ground! What on earth are you here for?”

The apparition took her pipe deliberately from her mouth, and informed him that she came to see justice done to her will; and that nobody need think of cheating her, dead or alive; concluding her remark with a shrill emphasis, she replaced her pipe, and puffed away with renewed vigor. The squire had reasons for retaining the document at issue, which he had supposed conclusive; but he had not reckoned upon the interference of the testatrix in this matter. Aunt Morse, when living, he had always regarded as a very shrew of a woman; and he now began to suspect that her recent change of condition had improved her, like Sheridan’s ghost, “the wrong way”. He saw nothing better to be done, under the circumstances, than to promise to see the matter set right that very evening.

The ghost nodded her head approvingly, and knocking the ashes out of her pipe against the chimney, proceeded to fill it anew with a handful of tobacco from her side pocket. “And now, squire,” she said, “if you’d light my pipe for me, I’ll be a-going.”

The squire was, as has been intimated, no coward; he had been out during the war in a Merrimack privateer, and seen some sharp work off Fayal; but, as he said afterwards, “it was no touch to lighting Aunt Morse’s pipe.” No slave of a pipe-bearer ever handed chibouque to the Grand Turk with more care and reverence, than the squire manifested on this occasion. Aunt Morse drew two or three long preliminary whiffs, to see that all was right, pulled her blanket over her head, and slowly hobbled out of the door. The squire being true to his promise, was never again disturbed. It is right, in conclusion, to say, that there were strong suspicions at that time that the ghost was in reality of flesh and blood — in short, one of the living heirs of Aunt Morse, and not the old lady herself.

(Also from book: John G. Whittier, the Poet of Freedom (pg 15) (Harper’s Magazine Feb 1883):

Goodman Nichols, of Rocks village, who “spelled” a neighbor’s son, compelling him to run up one end of the house, along the ridge, and down the other end, “troubling the family extremely by his strange proceedings;” Susie Martin, also of Rocks, who was hanged in spite of her devotions in jail, though the rope danced so that it could not be tied, but a crow overhead called for a withe and the law was executed with that