In Episode 199, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger search for the lost village of North Pepperell, Massachusetts. Once a bustling center of commerce back in the early 1800s, all that’s left today are a few cellar holes and former foundations sinking into the woods. The reason the village disappeared is because of a witch’s curse placed on the town after the locals drove out a peculiar old woman by branding her face.
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JEFF: Okay, let’s pull over right up here by the banks of the Nissitissit River.
[CAR STOPS DOORS SHUT]
JEFF: This is the northern part of Pepperell, Massachusetts. We’re going to take a stroll into the woods near the Nissitissit River.
[WALKING IN WOODS]
RAY: This is a pretty spot, Jeff. Lots of trees, some rolling grassy hills. We’re pretty close to the New Hampshire border. It’s both rural and charming.
JEFF: I agree. And though there are a few houses around here, they’re pretty spread out.
RAY: What are we looking for in these woods?
JEFF: There used to be a village where we’re standing, Ray.
RAY: Okayyy. Yeah, I can see a few stone cellar holes, but not much else. It doesn’t really look like a former town.
JEFF: Nope, the village of North Pepperell, Massachusetts, has vanished… thanks to the curse of a witch.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 199 of the New England Legends Podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Pepperell, Massachusetts, is the next stop on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We’re a community of legend seekers who love sharing these strange stories from the fringe. So many of our leads come from you legendary listeners! Like this one. Thanks to Tina McEvoy from the Pepperell Library for sharing the research on this one.
JEFF: Before we go searching for the Witch of Pepperell, we want to take just a minute to thank our Patreon Patrons for everything they do for us. For just $3 bucks per month, these folks get early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. We appreciate you folks more than we can say. You keep us going and growing. Just head to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
RAY: And if you don’t already subscribe to our podcast, you should because it’s free! And we also appreciate it when you post a review for us on Apple Podcast. It just takes a second and goes a long way to helping others find our show. The more people listening means more people sharing new leads and great stories. Okay, let’s look for this witch.
[WALKING IN WOODS]
JEFF: This area used to be the village of North Pepperell, Massachusetts. Of course today it’s just one town called Pepperell.
RAY: A little background, Pepperell was first settled in 1702. The town was made up of various farms and orchards. But soon, an industrial center emerged right up here on the banks of the Nissitissit River just south of the Col. William Prescott Homestead. The town of officially incorporated in 1775. By all accounts, North Pepperell was on its way, growing into a great community. But then something happened when a strange woman moved to town. Let’s head back to 1815 and meet her.
[OLD MILL WATER WHEEL]
JEFF: It’s the summer of 1815 here in the village of North Pepperell. Today the village is bustling. There’s a gristmill, a sawmill, a store, and a post office called Paugus named after a local Indian chief. There’s also a red brick schoolhouse, and a blacksmith shop.
[IRON CLANKING BLACKSMITH]
JEFF: The blacksmith is hard at work, the gristmill is grinding up flour, and the good, hardworking people of the village are tending to their daily duties. There’s plenty of water power thanks to the nearby dam these folks built on the river. Everyone knows everyone in this small community. These are the kind of people you can set your clocks by. With the War of 1812 finished, prospects are looking good for the future. It’s time to build this new country.
JEFF: But then a strange woman arrives in the village.
[FOOTSTEPS FADE OUT]
RAY: The woman is older. She’s alone, and we soon learn she’s a widow. She’s dressed funny as well. She looks out of place. She doesn’t make an effort to meet anyone, she doesn’t smile, she just moves herself into rude-made cabin, where stones pile up in broken walls, near a stagnant marsh where twilight hears the whippoorwill’s call.
RAY: While there’s nothing wrong with keeping to yourself, the fact that she’s alone makes people suspicious. She’s already an outsider, and now it seems like she’s an outsider with secrets.
JEFF: What’s she hiding, anyway? How come she doesn’t talk to anyone? When they do see her walking through the village, what’s with those sideways glances muttering something? Some believe she’s a widow because she’s a murderess!
RAY: Could it be that the people of North Pepperell are giving HER dirty looks, so she’s just giving them back?
JEFF: Nooooo. Of course not. SHE’S the outsider!
RAY: As weeks fade into months, North Pepperell’s relationship with this strange, old woman is NOT improving. Anything she does only arouses more disdain from her neighbors. She allows her farm animals to wander into other’s fields, she doesn’t take care of her property, and pretty soon people start whispering even more rumors.
CROWD: I think she’s a witch. She’s a witch. A witch!
JEFF: Pretty soon, that word starts to spread through the village like a cancer, infecting almost every home it touches. The men sip their ale in the tavern at night telling each other they need to do something about this.
RAY: It doesn’t take long for the villagers to be convinced that they old woman IS a witch. So the men decide to take action.
RAY: Some North Pepperell men march up to old woman’s shack.
[POUNDING ON DOOR]
RAY: They pull her from her house, and drag her to the blacksmith’s forge.
RAY: They brand her forehead with a hot poker!
WITCH: [Shrieks in pain]
JEFF: This is too awful to watch!
RAY: The old woman is on her knees catching her breath. Suddenly, the expression on her face turns from one of agony into a face of rage.
WITCH: The river will dry up and run away. The mills and houses will be consumed by fire. The inhabitance of the village will flee from the village as from a pestilence. In just a few decades, no one will be living here. And the farms… the nearby farms shall not escape my wrath! In every home the death angel will make his entry in an unusual manner!
RAY: After spitting those cursed words from her mouth, the old woman rises to her feat…
RAY: And races off into the woods. She’s never seen again.
JEFF: With the old woman gone, the men who branded her can’t stop congratulating themselves for ridding the village of North Pepperell of their witch. Soon, the crowd disperses, and the village goes back to its former self. They work their jobs, they nod and offer a polite smile to each other, and are grateful there are no outsiders disturbing the peace.
RAY: Still, there’s an uneasiness in North Pepperell right now. Sure, they’re glad the strange old woman is gone, but did they really do the right thing? Could there be any power in those angry words she spoke?
JEFF: Days go by, and people in the village calm their nerves, but then… something happens.
JEFF: The gristmill burns to the ground in a mysterious fire. Accidents happen. Buildings burn sometimes, and no one was hurt, thankfully. But what caused this fire? Folks in North Pepperell find themselves looking over their shoulders. You need to remember that the gristmill is critical to any community. It’s the places where all of the area farms bring their grains to make flour, meal for their livestock, and other grinding needs. With the gristmill gone, life just got more challenging.
RAY: A few month pass, and just as the people in the village start to let their guard down… another fire breaks out.
RAY: This time the sawmill burns to the ground.
JEFF: Another mysterious fire.
RAY: And with no sawmill, rebuilding is also more challenging.
JEFF: Maybe these two fires are just a coincidence, maybe bad luck… or maybe, just maybe… this village is cursed.
RAY: These two fires, are only the beginning of the problems. It’s pretty much one disaster after another in the coming years. A new shop is built, and then it burns. The local economy is falling apart, and folks in the village no longer think this is a run of bad luck. This is the work of the witch’s curse.
JEFF: It’s 1840, and four mills have been rebuilt in North Pepperell, and all four burned to the ground. But that’s only part of the problem. The mills are run by water from the Nissitissit River. The reason the water levels are what they are in North Pepperell is because of a dam built a little further down the river.
RAY: Late one night, the dam mysteriously gives out, dropping the level of the river by several feet because there’s nothing to back up the flow anymore. It’s just enough to recede the riverbank to the point where the mills are no longer on the water’s edge.
JEFF: North Pepperell is in a downward spiral. There’s hardly a home that hasn’t seen some tragic event. In more than one home, there was suicide. In another home a man choked to death on a piece of meat. In another house, a man fell over in his chair and broke his neck. Another neighbor was killed by a runaway horse after he fell off of his wagon. There was a murder. A four-year-old boy who drowned in the river, and in one family, a woman walked down to a farm to get some milk and was never seen again.
RAY: By the year 1900, there are only two old women left in this village living in a house by themselves, as the remains of the other structures rotted away. One night, the women see a fire break out in the woods behind her house.
RAY: One of the women tries to stamp out the fire, but is consumed by the flames. Another year passes and the only remaining resident of North Pepperell passes away. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: So it would seem like the witch’s curse was fully realized. The village DID disappear.
JEFF: And just to add one more layer to this intriguing story, we have to talk about the biggest source for this legend. Back in 1910, Miss Florence Sibley wrote up a story called “The Witch’s Prophecy” to be read at a local Daughters of the American Revolution meeting. She did her reading to the delight of the audience. I mean, this story would explain why North Pepperell faded into the woods. And to add one last wrinkle to the story, Miss Sibley died in 1920 all alone from starvation.
JEFF: What’s really cool is that Tina McEvoy from the Pepperell Library sent me a photograph of Florence Sibley’s original 1910 hand-written account of this legend. We posted it to our Web site. Just click on Episode 199 to see it.
RAY: This begs a huge question: Did all of those horrible things actually happen?
JEFF: Right. That IS the big question. Today we hear this story and think of the people of North Pepperell as practically Puritans burning witches at the stake. But we need to remember this is about 130 years after the Salem witch trials. It’s a more enlightened time. Sure there’s some leftover influence, but for the most part, no one is getting branded for witchcraft anymore.
RAY: Still, some of these old cellar holes and foundations are still here.
JEFF: Right! And back in 1910, they would have been even more prominent. There would still have been some walls and other signs of buildings. So you see this abandoned village, and you start to wonder why it was left to rot. You hear there were some fires that burned some buildings, a dam did break, making the mills defunct, and the more you stare at these creepy ruins, the more you get that tingly feeling up your spine that something sinister must have intervened here. Maybe there’s something to a witch’s curse.
RAY: We’ve said it before: curses are real if you believe in them.
JEFF: We’d like to dedicate this episode in loving memory of Lee-ann Wilber from the Lizzie Borden House who passed away this week. She was one of my favorite witchy women. Always so generous with her house and time. You will be missed, Lee-ann.
RAY: I only got to meet her once when she allowed us in there to record last year’s Halloween episode. Rest in Peace, Lee-ann.
JEFF: We’d like to thank Lorna Nougeira for lending her voice acting talent this week, and our theme music is by John Judd.
VOICEMAIL: Hi there, this is Jo from Paxton, Massachusetts, reminding you that the bizarre is closer than you think.