There’s even an old gray wizard and his conjuring book

My favorite – and least expected – story from Annie Pinkham’s historical sketch of Dover Meeting includes a profile of Ambrose Bampton, who appears in Whittier’s “Snow-Bound” in the couplet, “We stole with her a frightened look / At the gray wizard’s conjuring book.”

Friends carefully avoided anything smacking of superstition, yet Bampton (1717-1790) had a local reputation for possessing “certain powers of disclosing the unknown and declaring the coming of future events with remarkable accuracy. To him resorted farmers who had lost their cattle, matrons whose silvers spoons and other treasures had disappeared, or maidens whose sweethearts were among the missing.”

Known as the Sorcerer, he may have been a continuation of traditions handed down in Devonshire, England, possibly through his mother, Hannah. “The meek-spirited old man received them all kindly, put on his iron-rimmed spectacles, opened his conjuring book, and after a season of deliberation, gave the required answer without money and without price,” in Pinkham’s telling.

Devon, a county southwest of London, is the origin of many of Dover’s early settlers.

Once, when a group of young people came to him for advice, he said to one of the girls,

“If ever thee marries anybody, thee will marry me.” She replied, “I would marry the devil first.”

A clue to her reaction might be hinted at in a notation that at the time of his death, he was said to weigh 400 pounds. I have no idea where Whittier had him already gray at this point.

The girl was a Quaker, Rebekah Austin, the daughter of Nathaniel Austin and Catherine Neal. Contrary to the prediction, she wed in 1745 with Simeon Hill in the manner of Friends. But five years later, as a widow, she did in fact marry Ambrose, again in a Quaker service. He had left First Parish and rejoined Dover Meeting. She predeceased Ambrose in 1802.

Ambrose’s father, John, was a member of Friends by 1705, so there were Quaker threads to build on.

Besides, I look at him as one more confirmation of my sense that some Friends are far more psychic than we’d let on.


Check out my new book, Quaking Dover, available in a Nook edition at Barnes & Noble.

Welcome to Dover’s upcoming 400th anniversary.

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