Giving the devil his due

In researching a project of any scope, you can’t ever read everything touching on the subject, and sometimes that can be a blessing in disguise.

For one thing, it may mean you have to examine points afresh and unguided rather than relying on another’s assumptions or conclusions.

And, for another, you may find reassurance or in seeing how another researcher has come to the same results you have independently or, in another vein, you may strengthen your disagreement.

That’s where I find myself on The Devil of Great Island: Witchcraft and Conflict in Early New England, Emerson W. Baker’s 2007 examination of a paranormal outbreak of flying rocks in an inn on an island in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, ten years before the infamous Salem witch trials just to the south. Now that I’ve finally read it, I can say he’s cleared up some questions I had on events upstream and provided backup for some of my deductions.

My new book, Quaking Dover, takes place one colonial town upriver from Great Island, today’s New Castle, and shares some of the same cultural and historic influences. While I examine a sharp divide in Dover between its English settlers from Devonshire and the Puritans from East Anglia, Baker identifies this in Portsmouth and much of the rest of New England as the Old Planters, of Anglican faith, being pushed aside by the newer Puritans, and their rigid Calvinism. Quite simply, the tensions were more prevalent and widespread than I’d assumed.

The target of the airborne mineral projectiles was innkeeper George Walton, along with his family and guests, evening after evening through an entire summer.

Baker labels Walton repeatedly as a Quaker, as he also does for the identity for Nicholas Shapleigh, continuing a widespread misconception. The prominent Shapleigh proved a valuable ally but, as his descendants point out, he was never a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers). While Major Shapleigh suffers persecution for maintaining some of the Friends positions, nothing in Walton’s life or character suggests he did so. Quite the contrary, there were many reasons he would have been disciplined and disowned, if he had been part of a Quaker Meeting, the closest one being at Hampton.

As Baker, a Salem State University history professor, lays out Walton’s family and neighbors, what becomes clear that just about everyone had good reason to target the contentious innkeeper. As for a devil on Great Island, I’d have to say it was Walton himself.

Baker sees the New Castle incident as a precursor to similar events that culminate in Salem, and he traces individuals who would have been familiar with the Walton stoning incidents to the outbreaks elsewhere. He further finds common elements that include contested land claims and political upheaval, which far outweigh theological issues.

Baker has since written much more about witchcraft, befitting his locale. The Devil of Great Island is a fun and fast read and a fine introduction to a definitive moment in the American experience.

As I’m arguing, there’s much more in New England’s past than you were ever taught. Or maybe even suspected.


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