Stones raining on tavern set stage for witchcraft hysteria in Salem

  • Follow Your Faith

NEW CASTLE, N.H. - A 2-foot-high rock wall borders the elementary school near the spot where a satanic spirit purportedly showered George and Alice Walton's home and tavern with stones 325 years ago. It set off a wave of hysteria that foreshadowed the Salem witch trials.

Could some of the rocks now neatly arranged outside Mabel H. Trefethen School be among those that came crashing down on Walton's property on the night of June 11, 1682, creating the belief that a stone-throwing devil was on the loose?

"Who knows where (the rocks) came from? Your guess is as good as mine," says historian Emerson W. Baker, whose new book, "The Devil of Great Island," uses the historical footnote as an opening to explore witchcraft and devilry in the Colonial New England mind-set.

The moon was full that Sunday night when stones rained onto George Walton and several companions as they headed toward the tavern, according to an eyewitness. The rocks, some as large as a man's fist, continued to fly even after those targeted by the barrage took shelter inside. Some of the rocks were hot, as if they had just been pulled from a fire.

There were other signs of supernatural forces, including eerie, demonic noises and objects inexplicably moving about and standing at odd angles.

Richard Chamberlain, an attorney who was staying at the tavern, witnessed the strange doings and 16 years later in London published a detailed pamphlet describing what he had seen. He gave the stone-throwing devil the name lithobolia, a word derived from classical Greek references.

The attacks continued throughout the summer, even following Walton when he traveled up the Piscataqua River to his farm along Great Bay in what is now Newington. Walton was struck several times and suffered head and back injuries. The stone throwing abated by fall, although copycat incidents followed in other towns.

Baker, a history professor at Salem State College in Massachusetts, first learned about lithobolia about 10 years ago while reading Chamberlain's account and an earlier description of the incident in a book by Increase Mather, the prominent Boston minister.

"I was taken with it right off the bat. It was such a bizarre case, and it raised so many questions for me," he said in an interview at his home in York, Maine.

A few years later, after Baker presented a paper on the subject in Boston, he was approached by publishers who asked him to expand it into a book. He combed archives and libraries to fill in details about Walton, his neighbors and what might have triggered the bizarre events.

Baker's research into the history of Great Island, a settlement that later broke away from Portsmouth to become the town of New Castle, revealed a society riven by conflict over religion, politics and land ownership.

The author found, however, that Walton's dealings with other settlers, including neighbors and members of his own family, made him a much-hated figure who was all too eager to turn to the courts to settle scores.

The Waltons, he said, were "an incredibly dysfunctional family. They're suing each other, they've got problems with their servants, all sorts of orphaned kids, lawsuits over inheritances."

The tavern, where drunkenness, rowdiness and brawls would occur with alarming regularity, was also a source of annoyance to settlers.

"They were the neighbors from hell. It was like living next to a crack house. You'd expect there to be trouble at the tavern all the time," Baker said.

With so many enemies, a lot of people had reason to harm Walton, a wealthy Quaker whose religion put him at odds with the region's dominant Puritans. But Baker doesn't provide an answer to the whodunit, except to conclude that it probably wasn't the likeliest suspect, Hannah Jones, whom he suggests was framed, perhaps by a member of Walton's family.

Jones had been embroiled in a decades-long land dispute with Walton that rekindled not long before the rocks began to fly. The Waltons accused Jones of triggering the attacks through witchcraft. She responded by charging Walton with wizardry. Court records about the case's outcome have been lost.

The story unfolded at a time of deep religious belief, when events good and bad were interpreted as signs from God, and belief in witchcraft and devilry was widespread.

The witchcraft frenzy culminated with the notorious witch trials of 1692 in Salem, Mass., about 50 miles south of New Castle, a village today of 512 acres with a population of slightly more than 1,000.

Baker, who teaches a graduate course in witchcraft, suggests that the stone-throwing episode reflects similar local tensions and ferment that proved to be fertile ground for fears of devils and witches.

A part of Salem, like Great Island, was pushing to become a separate town. And leaders in both communities were pressing to maintain Puritan orthodoxy.

While the events in Salem are among the best-known in Colonial history, New Castle's brush with lithobolia has drawn little notice over the years.

"It's an amazing story and one that's been around for a long time," said Rodney Rowland, president of the New Castle Historical Society.


Top headlines

'Go Downtown' initiative gets mixed reviews

The "Go Downtown" initiative aims to foster a downtown environment that welcomes the college community and creates business for merchants. The event is held every third Thursday of the month ...
Search Augusta jobs