The Witch in the Curio Cabinet

In a curio cabinet of a historical society in a small New England town is the story of the town’s witch.  She was a woman who lived in the mid-1700s and was called a witch but was, most likely, not someone who healed with herbs or practiced a non-Christian spirituality.  She did wear a long red cape.  In the 1700s in New England, apparently this was enough to cause an entire town to ostracize a woman and call her a “witch,” no small thing given that it was within living memory in her time that people were hanged as witches not too far away. 

She had received the cape as a gift and liked to wear it when she went out and about.  Of course, given that the consequences of doing this showed that it was clearly more significant than just a fashion faux pas in the culture in which she lived, her wearing of it was possibly just one of many other rebellious acts.  Maybe she spoke out against some of the small hypocrisies and tyrannies that she saw going on in the town.  Perhaps she refused to do some of the duties of the meek and mild perfect wife and mother that were expected of her.  It isn’t too hard to see her reading books that were not the Bible; questioning religious, political, and social assumptions; talking back to her “betters,” as any man in the town would have been considered to be.  It could be that she was just plain cranky, Goddess bless her.

To me, her story holds much significance.  First and foremost, lots and lots of women were born, lived, raised families, and died in that town.  Almost all of them did exactly what they were supposed to do and were buried with, one can imagine, the minister praising their obedience, their lives of unselfish service, and their blessed silence when it came to any issue of importance.  Not a one of them has her story told in any curio cabinet in the historical society.  I think our witch – somehow I think of her as belonging more to our time than hers – would have enjoyed the fact that women like you are reading her story nearly 300 years after she lived. 

Second, you have to wonder how many other women’s stories that would inspire and speak to the real lives of women in past times are hidden in curio cabinets in small town historical societies.  Only when I happened to be in the back room of a public building housing the curio cabinet did I read our witch’s story.  If we all did a little digging, perhaps we could, together, write new chapters of American and women’s history.

Last, we only have to read the newspaper or examine our own lives to see that times have not significantly changed.  Intolerance of people who do not do as they are expected and seem to challenge authority has certainly not gone away.  Our society still has its own lethal witch-hunts.  Women, especially those who are born into communities or families with strict rules about what women should be and do, must still look and act within very narrow bounds in order to survive.  We may shake our heads at the idea of a woman being shunned and called a witch for wearing a red cape, but it is not hard to figure out what the “red capes” of our time are, especially if you happen to “wear” one of those “red capes.”

I love that woman with the red cape, and if I could, I would put flowers on her grave and invite every young woman in that town to come with me to celebrate her by doing the same.  Unfortunately, I don’t know where she is buried.  But, there are plenty of women with “red capes” in my own time and place: women who fight back against abuse, women who question authority and have their jobs and family’s well being threatened because of it, really, all of us have our own “red capes.”  Maybe the best thing to do is to honor her by working even harder to make it so that it is less than 300 years before people shake their heads that women could be alienated for such things.
 

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lillithmother
    Sep 30, 2007 @ 22:01:26

    What a great story Carolyn! I like people with ‘red capes’, het I suspect I didn’t in my youth because I wasn’t as ‘open minded’ back then as I am now…

    And some people never become open minded…as I suspect was what happened to our, erm, your witch! 😉

    Peace in,
    Lil

    Reply

  2. carolynlboyd
    Sep 30, 2007 @ 22:09:20

    Yes – even though I know nothing about her except her red cape, she has become one of my favorite people in New England history! Actually, now that I think about it, I wonder if she had anything to do with “The Scarlet Letter.” Hawthorne lived not too far from this town and may have heard the story, then put it together with his own family history? Hmmm…

    Reply

  3. Diane
    Oct 02, 2007 @ 03:13:01

    What a wonderful story!

    I actually own a red cape, and when the weather cools down just a bit more, plan to wear it in honor of this brave woman.

    Reply

  4. Cynthia
    Oct 05, 2007 @ 21:18:51

    Fascinating.

    Was it late 1700’s or early?

    As a reproduction historical costumer I can say that the folks might have simply misunderstood a Fashion trend. Probably simply because they hadn’t been to a big enough town or city where red cloaks were very fashionable from about 1790 – 1830.

    http://www.songsmyth.com/shawlsandpelisses.html

    Reply

  5. Cynthia
    Oct 05, 2007 @ 21:20:00

    Oh, and I love this new blog discovery. 🙂

    Reply

  6. carolynlboyd
    Oct 05, 2007 @ 21:37:15

    What an interesting perspective! You made me curious, so I went back to find her dates and found a historical society document that said that she was born in 1713 and died in 1797. There are two ends to the story: either she endeared herself to people late in life by nursing children through an epidemic of some kind and tricking Tory generals or she was tried for fraud. The small town is nearish what was a port town, so it is quite possible that she may have gotten her cape as a fashion item from Europe that was not understood by the rural population, though a bit earlier than then time it was a trend.

    By the way, I love your website, too! I’ve always had an interest in antique clothing (and social history of women in general) and I really enjoyed looking at your pictures and reading the information.

    Reply

  7. inooshi
    Oct 17, 2007 @ 13:26:43

    What a great story! Yes, I can see why she is one of your favorite New England women. So much of women’s history has been “written on the water,” i.e. lost to us. That is why women’s family stories are so important.

    “Written on the water” — what a wonderful phrase! Thank you!

    Reply

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