In Episode 217, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger head to Pownal, Vermont, to explore the witch trial of the widow Mrs. Krieger. In 1765, the widow Krieger was accused of being in league with the devil. She was given a choice to face one of two horrible tests to see if she was indeed a witch. Though a century had passed since Salem’s infamous trials, belief in New England witches has not gone away.
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RAY: October in Vermont is beautiful!
JEFF: It is!
RAY: The leaves are peaking, the air is getting cold… Halloween is getting close. I love all of it.
JEFF: And the smell of pumpkin spice everything is in the air! We can’t seem to help ourselves. But things are quiet here in the small town of Pownal – down in the southwestern corner of the state.
RAY: It’s a small town. There’s not really a downtown here. Just a town hall, a few businesses, otherwise it’s mostly houses spread out among some pretty hills. What brings us here today, Jeff?
JEFF: Ray, Pownal has the state’s dubious distinction of being home to Vermont’s only witch trial.
JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 217 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. Thanks for joining us 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 stories with others. So many of our story leads come from you! So please keep them coming, whether you reach out to us through our Web site, through social media, our super secret facebook group, or by calling or texting our legend line anytime at 617-444-9683.
JEFF: Also, if you enjoy our stories of strangeness each and every week, please take just a minute to post a review on Apple podcasts. Or tell a friend or two about us. It helps more than you know.
RAY: Before we go looking for a witch in Pownal, Vermont, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!
JEFF: As the weather gets colder, I find myself making more tea than ever. A hot cup of Honey and Spice tea gets me going in the morning. Then in the afternoon, I may take a more self-care kind of tea break with the Healer Tea or Warrior Tea.
RAY: As we’ve been learning these past few weeks, so many herbs and roots have long been considered magical. Our ancestors may not have understood what was happening inside their bodies when these ingredients were consumed, but they knew some of these plants steeped in hot water, and then drank, tasted good and made you feel good. It was true then and still true today.
JEFF: Nuwati Herbals teas and balms include all natural ingredients from Mother Earth. Their products have become a big part of my life and daily routine. Especially their Healer Tea as I find myself out there in front of audiences again. I want to keep my immune system as strong as possible.
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JEFF: Ray, we’ve covered a witch trial or two over the years.
RAY: Sure. New England’s first witch trials were in Hartford, Connecticut. Everyone knows about Salem in 1692. Then we’ve covered stories of witches in almost all of the New England states… but now that you mention it… this would be our first witch story in Vermont.
JEFF: It is! Which is surprising because Vermont has a unique bit of architecture seen on a bunch of houses in the state.
RAY: Oh right! You’re talking about the Witch Window.
JEFF: I am! I can see one on that house over there.
RAY: You can’t miss the witch window when you see one on a house. Right now we’re looking at an older farm house. It’s got a gabled roof, so it’s kind of like the house was built in sections. The gable isn’t another story taller than the roof below, it’s only about five or six feet. And in that gable, tilted at a 45-degree angle, is a normal-looking window, just turned a bit to line up with the angle of the roof.
JEFF: The superstition is that witches can’t fly on their broomsticks into your home if you have this window. I guess the angle throws them off. But these windows also have a second name.
RAY: What’s that?
JEFF: They’re also called coffin windows because it was believed that they could get a body and coffin out of the second floor easier through that window.
RAY: Come onnnnn….
JEFF: Yeah, that one is a little ridiculous. I mean people DO die on the second floor of houses. But it’s infinitely easier to carry the body down the stairs and outside to a waiting coffin, than to bring an empty coffin inside, up the stairs, fill it, and then try to get the whole thing back outside.
JEFF: It’s also called a coffin window because the window kind of looks a little like a coffin.
RAY: Either way, the window looks strange and out of place. No offense to anyone who owns a house with one of these windows, but it’s not really my taste.
JEFF: I agree. It looks like an architectural mistake to me. Theses windows are also called a Vermont windows. They show up in 19th century construction, and the main reason they exist is that it allows more light and air movement in otherwise dark sections of the house. Either way, it’s pretty cool that the Witch Window is found almost exclusively in Vermont. However, the witch story we’re checking out this week predates these windows by almost a century.
RAY: Let’s head back to 1760 and meet this alleged Witch.
RAY: It’s the Autumn of 1760 and one of the town’s earliest settlers, a Dutch immigrant named Mr. Krieger…
RAY: Has just died. Kreiger left behind a son and a wife. The widow Krieger and her son continue to work the mill her late husband built. This goes on for five more years until…
RAY: Mrs. Kreiger’s son also dies. Being a widow, and with no one around to take care of her, Mrs. Kreiger is now a ward of the town of Pownal.
JEFF: Right. Women aren’t allowed to own land. So now it’s up to Pownal to take care of her. Mrs. Krieger doesn’t like it one bit… and neither do the townsfolk.
RAY: No they don’t. Nearby families have to take turns bringing firewood and food to the widow Krieger. They need to help tend to her home. It doesn’t take long for everyone to get bitter about the whole thing.
JEFF: Mrs. Krieger isn’t happy. She’s an independent kind of woman. She doesn’t want to be a ward to her neighbors. She wants to run her family mill and earn her own living. But she’s not allowed. The laws forbid it. Everyone… it seems… is stuck.
RAY: As the weeks melt into months, a few curious problems turn up around town.
JEFF: What kinds of problems?
RAY: One week a cow won’t give milk. Another week there’s an animal attack, and some chickens go missing.
JEFF: Sure, but these things happen.
RAY: They do, but once someone in town whispers that maybe the old widow Krieger has put a hex on them… suddenly there’s talk of a witch in Pownal.
JEFF: Got it. A few problems around town, a bitter old woman who is a burden, and now everyone has a place to focus their anger. They have a scapegoat.
RAY: And Mrs. Krieger soon transitions from an angry old woman to a witch in league with the devil. The accusations build to the point where a trial is held on a cold winter’s day.
[GAVEL BANG ON BENCH]
JEFF: Though the witch trials of Salem occurred just over a century ago… shocking the world with the outcome and number dead… it doesn’t matter. People still believe in witches and witchcraft. To the folks of Pownal, they want to reach a verdict to see if Mrs. Krieger is indeed a minion of Satan. So they offer her a choice. Both are a trial by fire, so to speak.
RAY: What are her options?
JEFF: The elders of Pownal tell Mrs. Kreiger she can climb a tall tree. Once at the top, some men will chop down the tree. If she survives the fall, she’s promised her freedom, because God had clearly spared her.
RAY: THAT sounds pretty horrible. What’s her second choice?
JEFF: She can be dropped through a hole cut in the ice of the Hoosick River. If she’s in league with Satan, she will float and be found guilty. If she sinks, then she’s innocent.
RAY: These are two horrible choices.
JEFF: Mrs. Krieger chooses to be dropped into the icy waters of the Hossick River.
RAY: The day of her witchy test arrives, and it’s a cold one. Earlier today some local men cut a hole in the ice big enough for a person. There’s already a thin layer of ice reforming over the hole. (PAUSE) Okay… I can see they’re moving Mrs. Krieger into position at the edge of the ice.
JEFF: Oh man… she was pushed into the water and sunk like a stone. Let’s get closer.
RAY: I can’t see anything down there but dark water.
JEFF: Me neither. This is awful!
RAY: Check out the faces of some of the elders. They look like they’re going to be sick.
JEFF: It must be hitting them that they’ve just condemned an innocent woman to death.
LOCAL: She’s just washed ashore down here!
JEFF: Ray, look! Mrs. Krieger is being helped from the water just down a ways.
RAY: The river’s current must have carried her over there. She’s still alive!
JEFF: And THAT would be by the grace of God.
RAY: The folks of Pownal agree. The near-frozen Mrs. Krieger is innocent of witchcraft. And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: Most of what we know about this story comes from the 1912 book, The Hoosac Valley: Its Legends and Its History by Grace Greylock Niles, who pulled this bit of history from some papers penned by a local lawyer and historian named T.E. Brownell.
RAY: What amazes me is how similar this story sounds to other witch tales we’ve explored before.
JEFF: It DOES sound eerily familiar.
RAY: There’s Goody Cole from Hampton, New Hampshire. We covered her story way back in Episode 34. And there’s Hannah Cranna, the wicked witch of Monroe, Connecticut. We covered her story back in Episode 62. Or Aunt Jinny from Hillsborough, New Hampshire, we covered her tale in episode 86. All of these women were widows, wards of their respective towns, and accused of being witches.
JEFF: Those are just three examples. There are more, of course. In those cases, sometimes the widows would use their witchy reputation to get more firewood or food. It’s all they had to make sure they were cared for. And if those in town felt the widows were getting too greedy, they could always accuse them of being witches, and if that story plays itself out to the end, it could cost a woman her life.
RAY: We explore legends like these because we know witch trials still happen today.
JEFF: They do.
RAY: They play out on social media, they happen in our offices, our PTA meetings, local and national politics, and everywhere in between. Stories like the Widow Kreiger’s reminds us that sometimes, rumors and false accusations can have deadly consequences.
JEFF: Sometimes it feels like we’ve come so far, and other times it feels like we’ve made so little progress.
RAY: But I can tell you there are some people that have helped us make a lot of progress. I’m talking about our Patreon patrons! These folks kick in just $3 bucks per month to get early access to new episodes plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. Just head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
JEFF: Just a reminder that my fall story tour is happening almost every single night during the month of October. And many of these programs are virtual so you can join us from anywhere. Check out our Web site for dates and links to sign up.
RAY: If you love stories and history related to New England witches, you should check out the Witchcraft episode of the New England Legends television series. You can watch that right now on Amazon Prime.
JEFF: We’d like to thank our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals, and our theme music is by John Judd.
RAY: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.