The Witch of Shawshine
Everybody loves a good ghost story around Halloween. We found, not a ghost story per se, but a story that seems to fit the Halloween theme. This story originally appeared in the Bedford Historical Society’s Preservationist Newsletter – November 2011
By: Bob Slechta – The Preservationist – November 2011
This is an old favorite Bedford legend often told by many people with just as many versions and inconsistencies in detail. The version chosen for presentation here is one of the shorter ones, that of warmly remembered Abigail Bacon,1891-1982, descendent of Michael Bacon, original owner of the Bacon-Fitch mill, and one of the last grandchildren of Jonathan Bacon, famed founder of Bedford’s shoe industry in the early 1800’s, and his wife Ann (March).
Passed down from generation to generation, it is a well-worn tale of human strengths and frailties – prejudice, condemnation, exclusion, perseverance, atonement, and redemption. Ms. Bacon’s version appeared in The Bedford Sampler, published by the Friends of the Bedford Public library in 1974 and it is offered here with the inclusion of some editorial comments. (ed.)
Before 1675, Michael Bacon was operating a grist mill on the Shawshine River. Remains of the mill dam may still be found showing huge boulders that must have been placed after many hours of labor by strong men, probably with the help of oxen. By 1730, the corn mill and a sawmill were operated by Michael’s son, Jonathan, one of the incorporators of the town of Bedford in 1729. There is a legend about a later owner of the mill on the Shawshine. (ed., this was Benjamin Fitch, born in 1703, who bought the mill from the Bacon family in 1730) This miller was kept constantly busy by pioneer settlers who brought their corn to be ground into meal. The young bachelor seldom ceased his work except on Sabbath Day, never seeming to give thought to the possibility that a wife could be a helpmate to him in his home nearby. But there came a time in early spring when he was not always at the mill to set the mill wheel turning for the work of the day. When questioned by an inquiring farmer, his young assistant replied, “The miller has gone downstream. He goes often these days.” A few months later at the Sabbath morning church service, an announcement was made by the pastor of the approaching marriage of the miller and Miriam Gray, whose father’s home was on the banks of the Shawshine in Cochichawick, the early name of Andover. In June, the wedding took place, and after the celebration at her father’s home, Miriam and her bridegroom stepped into their canoe at Cochichawick landing, and accompanied by other canoes filled with a gay group of young guests, paddled twenty miles up the river arriving at the miller’s landing in the early morning hours. (ed., the date of the marriage is listed in B. Fitch’s genealogy (A.E. Brown, History of Bedford, 1891) as Feb. 28, 1732 – one of the inconsistencies which probably enhances the old charm of the story.)
On the following Sabbath the arrival of the bride and groom at the village church created great consternation. The bride appeared in a cloak of scarlet, her bonnet gay with plumes of a matching red which contrasted becomingly with her dark eyes and hair. Her appearance was in grave contrast to the subdued dress of the members of the congregation. Then the people remembered an old tale, that at her birth it was predicted that Miriam Gray would turn out to be a witch. (ed., her mother had testified against one of the accused in the Salem witch trials of the 1690’s) her strange appearance seemed to bear out the truth of this prediction.
Poor Miriam came to be called the “Witch of Shawshine” and was shunned by her neighbors. It was said that even the miller’s horse shied away from her in her scarlet cloak. The miller started to suffer from a lack of business. This terrible prejudice continued through the years until a scourge of throat distemper (ed., diphtheria.) visited the village. It was then, with no thought of herself, that Miriam went to the aid of her neighbors and tormentors. (ed., among these neighbors were John and Mary Whitmore who lost three children in the scourge of 1843 and five more in 1850.) She nursed many a child through the illness and administered comfort to the parents. The disease was finally arrested and the grateful people no longer spoke of the “Witch of Shawshine”.
As Miriam grew older, the ugly stories were forgotten and she came to be beloved by the villagers.