John Henry Fuseli, “The Nightmare” (1781 – via Wikimedia)
Author’s Note: This post is largely based on material I gathered for an entry in the upcoming ABC-CLIO three-volume series, American Myths, Legends, & Tall Tales: An Encyclopedia of American Folklore. The views and lore presented here, however, do not explicitly reflect the views of that publisher, and are entirely my own.
American history—and more generally, legend—contains its share of witches. In most cases, we hear or read about a witch at the receiving end of a lot of harsh accusations: milk stealing, poisoning livestock, and so forth. Not infrequently, however, a witch’s story takes a slightly different turn, and she becomes something more like a protagonist than a villain, albeit one with shades of gray around her morals. One of the best examples of just such a story is from rural nineteenth-century Maine, and it tells of a woman named “Old Betty Booker,” who gets a bit of a raw deal from a local captain and brings the full brunt of her witchcraft to bear on him for a bit of gleeful justice. The account below is found in Benjamin Botkin’s collection, A Treasury of New England Folklore:
HOW OLD BETTY BOOKER RODE SKIPPER PERKINS DOWN TO YORK
These two skippers, Mitchell and Perkins, were both Kittery salts, but of the two Skipper Perkins was the worst curried. Old Betty Booker wanted some fish, and she suggested her need to the skipper, “Bring me a bit o’ hal’but, skipper, when you git in—.”
“Show me your sixpence, ma’am,” was the thrifty reply.
And with an ill-boding scowl, and a shake of—
“Her wicked head, with its wild gray hair,
And nose of a hawk, and eyes like a snake,”
She watched the skipper sail away. The sea beat him up and down. The gale tore his sails, and the fish sheered away from his trawls. His men got sick, and his schooner came home poorer than she went. Then it got bruited about that Betty Booker was making a witch-bridle for the skipper, and was going to ride him down to York some wild night, whereat, the skipper, when it came to his ears, got into a mortal terror. He was sure to be at home, always, before dusk; and his doors were barred double, and he quaked and shivered and shook until the sun came up. Finally Betty sent the skipper word that the first stormy night she would ride him to York…
[H]e waited for Betty Booker; nor was she long in coming. An unearthly wail came down the wind, and there was a scratching of a hundred witch-claws on his door, and above all sounded the cracked notes of Betty Booker’s voice—
“Bring me a bit o’ hal’but, skipper!”…
With the cry of the hag, the gale rose higher, and with rougher buffetings it smote the old door that was built to look out on the sea; and then it began to open so the skipper felt a spatter of rain on his face. He heard the wild chatter of the witches, but he still held to his pushing, until he felt himself sliding along the rough floor. He made a leap for his bed, winding himself about in its coverings; the door flew open and in trooped the witches. They pounced upon the skipper, and stripped him to his skin; and while he cowered in his fear, old Betty bridled him and got upon his back, while the other witches climbed upon hers, and off they raced through the gale to York Harbor. When he lagged, they pricked him with their claws to make him go faster; and so they rode him as long as they wished, to get him back to Kittery before cock-crow, more dead than alive.
“Don’t say sixpence, skipper, to a poor old woman again,” was Betty booker’s parting admonition, as she and her familiars vanished into the mists of the darkest part of the night.
After that the skipper took to his bed, where for three weeks he nursed his wounds and told his story to his neighbors.
Botkin reports that the legend of Old Betty Booker may have been in some part based in real witchcraft performed in the York area, or at least in the practice of regional and maritime folk magic. He notes that one of the Kittery houses was torn down and inside a “witch-bridle” was found, composed of horsehair, tow, and yellow birch. Witch-bridles were thought to be a tool essentially similar in design a horse’s bridle, which a witch could slip over the head and into the mouth of a person or animal to force it to do her bidding. Accounts from both sides of the Atlantic describe situations in which witches use the bridles to force someone (or in some instances, a neighbor’s horse or other livestock) to become a mode of transport for the witch. Belief in witch-bridling was widespread during the Colonial era, and the phenomenon even appeared during the infamous witch trials of Salem. As a mode of transportation, they are coequal to flying ointments and broomsticks in most accounts. In the collection of Irish folktales assembled by Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats, similar stories of spectral bridling pepper legends of witches. George Lyman Kittredge’s Witchcraft in Old and New England contains an account of a man bridled in the same way as Skipper Perkins. In almost all instances, the victim remains aware of what is happening throughout the ride, but his or her memories of the event quickly fade in the morning, leaving only bruises and a battered, weary body as proof of any supernatural occurrence. The folk phenomenon of “hag riding,” which has been linked to sleep apnea and sleep paralysis in modern medical diagnosis, may offer some explanations to the stories behind the malady, if one is inclined to make such connections (I personally tend to keep the two ideas only loosely connected for my purposes, and try not to make assumptions about medical conditions two centuries hence without at least entertaining the supernatural explanation with equal credence). A person under the influence of the witch-bridle felt no control of his or her body, but remained lucid and felt the pressure of someone on top of him or her. In the medical phenomenon of sleep paralysis, sufferers report a feeling like a great weight on their bodies and an inability to control their limbs, which very much resembles the conditions described in the folklore (see Baughman motif G241.2 “Witch rides a person”).
Possibly my favorite element of the Betty Booker story is its clear assumption that Booker is not out of order for her treatment of Perkins. The story seems to recognize that Booker is in a vulnerable position in the community, and that Perkins is not doing his duty by acting in such a miserly way. Women like Old Betty provided social good in some ways, selling outbound sailors magical charms to raise winds or prevent drowning. For example, cords with knots tied in them could be used to raise winds on a becalmed ship, and dried cauls (amniotic sacs which sometimes surround a baby’s head after birth) taken from newborn infants were alleged to protect sailors from drowning. Widowed women and social outcasts were particularly susceptible to suspicions of witchcraft. In stories like that of Old Betty, witches were seen as a form of moral enforcement. The sailor’s miserly behavior goes counter to acceptable standards, and even the structure of the narrative seems to blame him for the misfortunes that follow. Maine witches in other stories often have righteous retribution as motivation for their occult activities. In one tale, a witch named Emma Alley gets slighted by a fish boat skipper in much the same way as Old Betty Booker, and curses him for his stinginess, which results in him not catching anything else for the remainder of the season.
Old Betty is associated with several other witches who lived in the “Brimstone Hill” area of Kittery, namely Mary Greenland and a woman named “Aunt” Polly Belknap. She may also have taken on other names during her tenure as resident witch, including Betsy Booker, Easter Booker (who is also referred to as Esther Booker and associated with a woman named Betty Potter, further adding to the confusion) or a character called “Black Dinah,” who reputedly used weather-pans in her magic and dowsed for buried treasure. According to George Alexander Emery, Old Betty’s home was on the land between Kittery and York, marked by “a stone wall extending north-west and south-east,” on which she and a companion raised a meager patch of vegetables and some chickens. An 1896 newspaper account from the Boston Evening Transcript recounts the Skipper Perkins story, but attributes the storm-raising and subsequent torments directed against the captain to a witch named Hetty Moye, and relocates the narrative to within fifty miles of Boston (to be fair, Maine was a part of Massachusetts until 1820, so the fine line between one state and the other can be muddled in tales from the early-to-mid nineteenth century).
Witch Woodcut (via Wikimedia Commons)
None of this is to say that Old Betty comes out with a completely clean nose in all narratives. Other tales associate her firmly with diabolical activities. In one story, she allegedly dances with the devil out on the village green to fiddle music on moonlit nights. Additionally, witches were believed to have control over weather and storms by using devices such as “weather-pans,” which a sorceress would heat up over a fire to release a tempest out at sea.
In at least one account, however, I find it extremely heartening that a witch comes out very well, even dispensing a bit of needed justice without doing too much serious harm in the process. That seems much better than days spent stealing milk or blighting cattle, in my opinion, which are often ways in which a witch might express her ire in folklore. What do you make of Old Betty? Is she the sort of witch you would include in your spiritual ancestry as an American witch? Or do you see her story as just another sensational portrayal with a slightly positive twist?
Thanks for reading!
- Beck, Horace P. 1957. The Folklore of Maine. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
- Bliss, William Root. 1893. The Old Colony and Other Sketches. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.
- Botkin, Benjamin, ed. 1947. A Treasury of New England Folklore. New York: Crown Publishers.
- Dorson, Richard M. 1946. Jonathan Draws the Long Bow. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
- Dorson, Richard M. 1964. Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
- Emery, George Alexander. 1873. The Ancient City of Georgiana and the Modern Town of York (Maine) from its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. Boston: G.A. Emery.
- Gregory, Isabella Augusta, and William Butler Yeats. 1988. A Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend, & Folklore. New York: Gramercy.
- Kittredge, George Lyman. 1956. Witchcraft in Old and New England. New York: Russell & Russell.
- Muise, Peter. “The Witch Bridle: Ride ‘Em Cowgirl!” New England Folklore Blog. April 10, 2010.
- Sylvester, Herbert M. 1909. Maine Pioneer Settlements: Old York. Boston: W.B. Clarke Co.
“Witchcraft Today: The Belief in Supernatural Feats in a New England Town.” Oct. 10, 1896. Boston Evening Transcript.