Long ago, when Provincetown was a thriving whaling port and the town and harbor were full of the hustle and bustle of commerce, there lived an old woman in a decrepit shack in the dunes. A mysterious woman, the townsfolk feared her and referred to her in hushed tones as Old Mother Melt. Stories abounded that late at night strange noises and lights came from her cabin. Others said they saw her dancing in the moonlight on the beach, surely casting a spell or conjuring evil spirits. Anytime misfortune fell upon Provincetown, be it a storm or an outbreak of illness, townspeople blamed her and called her a witch. An unruly child of the day might be scolded with the warning, “Old Mother Melt will get you!” prompting them to obey their parents. Most everyone believed in the powers of this witch, and lived in fear of her, running indoors whenever she made an infrequent trip into town. The sailors prone to superstition made extra efforts to avoid her gaze, fearing she’d put a hex on their next voyage, damning them to a watery grave – all but Captain Samuel Collins.
Collins considered himself a man of science and reason, and scoffed at the claims of witches, potions, and spells. While the story goes that Old Mother Melt lived a solitary life, she must have had a visitor at least once, as she had a teenaged son. Hoping to change their lot in life, Old Mother Melt asked all the whaling captains to take her son on as a cabin boy, but they all refused, fearful of her magical powers. Collins, however, accepted. But on the day of sail, the ship left earlier than scheduled and sailed away without the boy. Old Mother Melt was seen screaming and shrieking at the end of the wharf, placing a “curse” on the ship and all who sail upon her. Just a few weeks into their voyage a freak storm struck, washing half the crew overboard to their deaths. Captain Collins had no choice but to return to Provincetown. And on the journey back to homeport he recalled the curse laid upon the ship by Old Mother Melt and vowed to kill her himself for her wicked ways. Bursting through the door of her cottage, Captain Collins was thwarted in his attempts to rid Provincetown of this wicked witch by Old Mother Melt’s plea for mercy and a promise to never again use her powers. Upon that promise Captain Collins took her son on as an apprentice, and his ship encountered no more ill winds thereafter.
Stories of witches, sorceresses, and daughters of the Devil are plentiful in history throughout the world, appearing in religious texts, literature, music, theater, folklore, Hollywood films, and even in modern day politics when Republican Senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell felt the need to tell the voters of Delaware that she was not a witch. And of course, the Salem Witch Trials, (when 14 women and 6 men were condemned to death accused of being witches), forever ingrained the idea of witches in New England’s collective consciousness. The myths and legends about witches is an interesting view into the role of women, and the methods used to suppress their power, not as magical beings, but as equal members of society. Calling a women a witch in olden days was a surefire way to “put her in her place,” and in modern times it’s a dismissive slur. However, as times have changed and America has moved closer to gender equality, a look back at history shows that many of the real-life women labeled a witch, would in modern day Provincetown be considered absolutely fabulous for their eccentricity, outspokenness, and independence.
“The word witch comes from the old Celtic word wicce, which meant ‘wise’ or ‘to bend’,” says Stacey Tilney, the communications director for the Salem Witch Museum in Salem, Mass. “The power of healing is kind of where it all starts.”
In pre-Christian Europe, particularly in Celtic cultures, the ancient pagan religions had what may be viewed today as gender equality, seeing power in both the sexes. In the Celtic polytheistic tradition, masculine and feminine gods existed and women held important roles in society, particularly as midwives and healers. As the monotheistic and patriarchal Christian beliefs began to spread around Europe, the power of women went from being revered to threatening, says Tilney. The museum’s ongoing exhibit, Witches: Evolving Perceptions, begins in Celtic Europe and goes all the way through the green-faced images of Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. The exhibit shows how, relatively quickly, the idea of a wise woman went from a place of honor to scorn. With the religious patriarchy gaining power in Europe, a woman’s power was a threat. That idea grew, and spread to the New World, where any woman with power – be it as a landowner, or because she was unmarried, unusual, or expressing an unpopular political opinion – was promptly labeled a witch. (Consider the case of poor Old Mother Melt, who really was much like Samantha in the 1960s television show Bewitched where a controlling man forbids her to use her powers.)
Examples of cries of “witch” to control women abound on the Outer Cape. In the late 1800s, a woman who became known as “The Red Shoed Witch of Truro” owned her own farm. When she sold a batch of milk to a sea captain that, in the days before pasteurization, made the crew sick, he accused her of witchcraft. The detail of her wearing daring red shoes was also a remark about this unmarried woman’s virtue. Upon his return to port, the woman left town leaving the captain to take ownership of her land, as the folktale goes. Or consider Cynthia Gross. One of ten sisters in a Wellfleet family, she became known as a prominent midwife and healer in the 1850s. But her talents and skill became the subject of scornful scuttlebutt around Cape Cod, with claims that she’d been seen dancing with skeletons in the cemetery and that on foggy nights near Gull Pond she sang songs to the dead, who responded in a ghostly song conjuring the devil to rise from the Wellfleet woods. It’s an old folktale, but vaguely familiar to women who, a century later attended male-dominated medical schools.
And there is poor Goody Hallet, perhaps the most famous Cape Cod “witch” of all. In 1715, at the age of 15, she was seduced by the pirate captain Sam Bellamy. Pregnant and unmarried she was ostracized. She gave birth in a barn, alone, to a stillborn baby, but was jailed for killing her child. She escaped, with the help of the devil, claimed townspeople in Eastham. Hallett was seen in the dunes waiting for Captain Bellamy to return from sea. And when the Whydah sank in a violent storm in 1717 just off the Cape Cod coast, locals claimed it was a vengeful curse cast by Hallett. A social outcast, Hallett settled in Wellfleet, becoming known as the Sea Witch of Billingsgate Island. The mythology of the time claimed that Hallett would ride the backs of whales hanging lanterns from the flukes to lure ships to crash on the shoals, cackling as the drowning sailors cried out and died. To add to the scary story, the 60-acre Billingsgate Island was battered by storms long after Hallett’s death, and by the early 1940s was, and remains, completely submerged, earning the moniker “the Atlantis of Cape Cod.” And of course, this was Hallett’s fault, too. The story of a love sick, pregnant, unwed teenager sounds more like a case for a caring social worker, than the pitchforks and torches of frightened villagers, but alas, Goody Hallett was a victim of her times.
In these more enlightened times, the view of the women who over the past 2,000 years were labeled witches is shifting, as evidenced by the exhibition at the Salem Witch Museum, the growing respect for Wicca as a religion, and shifts in popular culture, with stories like Harry Potter series, where Hermione’s great power is her intellect. And on Halloween in 2001, Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift, the first woman head of state for the Commonwealth, gave a full pardon to all those convicted of witchcraft in Salem in 1692. Indeed, perhaps someday in the future the term witch will be a most sincere compliment.