In Episode 153, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger head to Westerly, Rhode Island, in search of witches. While never formally charged with witchcraft, Granny Mott and Rebecca Sims both had witchy reputations in the eighteenth century. Granny Mott could turn herself into a chicken, and Rebecca Sims was a sucker for fiddle music and night watchmen. Both women may still be casting their spells upon us.
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RAY: What was that?!
JEFF: It sounds like some kind of evil laugh. We must be getting close.
RAY: Close to what? There’s not much out here in rural Hopkinton, Rhode Island.
JEFF: Ray, the rural areas are often where we find the fringe of society. And in my experience, the fringe is the most interesting.
[WALKING IN WOODS]
JEFF: There was a time when Hopkinton was part of nearby Westerly, Rhode Island. And that was a time when some people on the fringe were thought to have magical powers.
RAY: What kind of magical powers?
JEFF: Ray, today we’re searching for the witches of Westerly.
JEFF: Hi, I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to Episode 153 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes we’ll give you something strange to talk about today as we continue our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time.
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RAY: This week we’d like to welcome those folks who listen and subscribe to us through the Pandora music and podcast service. We’re honored to be included in their hand-picked library of podcasts. Wherever you’re listening to us, please hit the subscribe button on your smart phone. It’s free, and we don’t want you to miss a thing.
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RAY: So Jeff, we’re looking for witches in Rhode Island?
JEFF: That we are.
RAY: We’ve looked for witches before.
JEFF: We have.
RAY: We’ve found them in Massachusetts, of course. Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, and now here in Rhode Island too?
JEFF: Though no one in Rhode Island was ever officially labeled by the courts as a witch, that didn’t stop the court of public opinion.
RAY: I’ve read that the hill near Goose Nest Spring in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, is a place where witches held a high carnival.
JEFF: There you have it. Rhode Island is a vacation destination for Witches. As for the witchy women of the southern part of the state, I uncovered these stories while digging through a 1956 thesis from the University of Rhode Island called “Supernatural Folklore of Rhode Island” by Eidola Jean Bourgaize, and that sent me on a quest to learn more. A quest that’s brought us down here to southwestern Rhode Island to find the Witches of Westerly.
RAY: Then let’s head back to the year 1740 and set this up.
RAY: It’s the winter of 1740, and we’re heading inside the house of Thomas Potter of Westerly.
[DOOR OPEN, CLOSES, FOOTSTEPS]
JEFF: Everyone in the house is a little nervous because Granny Mott is coming over… and Granny Mott has a witchy reputation.
RAY: What is she up to?
JEFF: Locals will tell you she can ride a smooth-shod horse on ice with amazing speed.
RAY: A smooth-shod horse refers to the shoes on the animal. Some horseshoes have cogs or spikes to give them better traction, but Granny Mott’s horse, I guess, has none.
JEFF: Nope, and the only way an old woman can speed across the ice on a horse like that must mean the horse is really her familiar, which would make her…
RAY: Which would make her a witch.
JEFF: Right. Managing a horse at high speed on ice may not be explicitly spelled out in Cotton Mather’s Malleus Maleficarum, but it doesn’t matter. The other thing about Granny Mott is she’s reclusive. A loaner. And a widow.
[KNOCKS ON DOOR]
JEFF: It sounds like she’s arrived.
[DOOR OPENS AND CLOSES, FOOTSTEPS]
JEFF: Granny Mott makes her way to the sitting room and sits in a chair by the fireplace.
RAY: I can see one of the children is playing in the corner of the room. (PAUSE) It looks like one of the other kids is whispering something to the boy.
RAY: Hmmm this kid is up to something. While Granny Mott is speaking with Thomas Potter, the boy is sneaking over to the other corner of his room and going through his mother’s sewing basket. (PAUSE) He’s pulled out a stitching awl. It’s this sharp needle at the end of a small handle. You use it to make holes in fabric.
JEFF: I just saw him put the awl behind his back. He’s definitely up to something.
RAY: Now the boy is sneaking up behind the chair where Granny Mott is sitting. He’s sticking the awl into the wood behind the chair.
JEFF: Okay, that was weird. Granny Mott just sat up pretty straight and her eyes have grown wide. The boy stuck the awl in the wood, not her. But she seems… kind of frozen.
RAY: And THAT would be another sign that she’s a witch. The old pin in the chair, and she’s stuck.
JEFF: Once Mr. Potter is finished interviewing Granny Mott, and seems satisfied enough with her answers, one of the children pulls the awl from the back of Granny’s chair, and suddenly the old woman practically jumps to her feet.
[WALKING QUICKLY / DOOR OPEN AND CLOSE]
JEFF: And she’s gone.
RAY: Granny Mott does visit the Potter family a few more times in the coming months, but she never sits in a chair in the house again.
JEFF: Granny Mott’s visits to the Potter family or any other home, for that matter, ends later this same year after a curious incident involving some chickens.
[GROUP OF CHICKENS]
JEFF: One of Granny Mott’s neighbors is not a fan of a group of hens that are constantly harassing him. The hens always seem to gather in front of Granny Mott’s house, and their leader goes for the feet of the neighbor. She pecks. She bats her wings at him, and constantly torments him. This neighbor has had enough.
JEFF: He fires his rifle. He’s sure he hit the bird, but it has no effect.
JEFF: He fires again. Again, he’s sure he hit the bird, but she’s still attacking. That’s when the man cuts a silver button from his coat. He loads it into his rifle. And takes aim one more time.
JEFF: The bird drops dead. And the other hens flee the scene.
RAY: The next day he learns that Granny Mott turned gravely ill yesterday and died with her daughter by her bedside. A few neighbors offered to help the woman tend to Granny Mott, but she wouldn’t have it. She demanded complete privacy as she prepared Granny’s body for the coffin. Folks in town believe the reason for the secrecy is so no one would see the gunshot wound, and the silver coat button that took Granny Mott’s life.
JEFF: From here, we’re going to move ahead in time 50 years to meet another Westerly witch.
JEFF: The year is now 1790, and Westerly’s rumor mill is running at full steam because of the antics of one Rebecca Sims.
RAY: Rebecca Sims loves to dance. And those who have seen her spin herself into a frenzy, claim when she really gets going, Rebecca can dance around the room on the edge of the chair molding that runs along the wall.
JEFF: What?! That molding is maybe an inch wide. No one could dance on that.
[OLD TIME FAST PACED FIDDLE MUSIC]
RAY: And there she goes.
JEFF: Yup, she’s a witch. I’m convinced.
RAY: Dancing on chair molding isn’t all she’s doing. There’s a Westerly man who keeps the night watch in town. He claims the witch Rebecca Sims often visited him on his watches. He said she’d put her witch bridle on him and ride him like a horse for great distances.
[HORSE GALLOP] [FIDDLE MUSIC FADES IN AGAIN]
RAY: She’d ride him until he was exhausted, then hitch him to a post for hours while she goes into a home where there’s fiddles and dancing.
JEFF: Road him like a horse, huh?
RAY: That’s his story, and he’s stickin’ to it.
JEFF: I bet.
RAY: And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: Of course Rhode Island isn’t immune from its share of witches. Before we leave southern Rhode Island, it’s worth mentioning a place called Worden Pond just ten miles east of here because the quaint pond is the place where the witches of Westerly claimed that quote “Fairies used to congregate and dance by moonlight in the olden time when the gods and goddesses made Atlantis their summer abode.”
RAY: Witches, fairies, gods, Atlantis, and deadly silver coat buttons. That’s a lot of legends for one adventure.
JEFF: It is.
RAY: We’ve chased other witch stories throughout New England, Jeff.
JEFF: We have.
RAY: One common thread is that the witches are always outsiders. They’re often wards of the town, so neighbors have to take care of them whether they like it or not, and all of them lay some claim to have the ability to transform and hex others.
JEFF: And the witches of Westerly are no different. They’re outsiders. They’re eccentric. But above all else, we DO remember them. Even centuries after their deaths, they can still cast a spell on us. And THAT is magic.
RAY: We hope we cast a spell on you each week, enough so that you tell a friend or two about our show. Maybe share your favorite episode on social media, or post a review for us. That goes a long way in helping us find and document all of these amazing stories.
JEFF: If you’ve got a story lead for us to check out, feel free to post it in our super secret Facebook group, contact us through our Web site, or you can call or text our legend line anytime at 617-444-9683. You can also leave our show closing on there for us.
RAY: And of course our theme music is by John Judd.
VOICEMAIL: Hi, I’m calling from Wood River Junction, Rhode Island. Until next time remember the bizarre is much closer than you think.