Hidden in the pages of the many books written about the North Shore’s remarkable history are occasional tales of strange and mysterious happenings and characters. And true or not, such stories are a part of our region’s long and colorful past.
There are, of course, the old standbys, like the Screeching Woman of Marblehead. There are many variations to this tale, but the gist of it seems to be that a noblewoman being held captive on a pirate ship tried to escape — or maybe was taken ashore — when the vessel stopped in Marblehead’s Lovis Cove to gather provisions. Once on shore, the woman was murdered by her captors, and terrified area residents who chose to ignore her cries of “Lord save me. Mercy. O Lord Jesus save me” and their future generations were supposedly forced to relive the horrible event on stormy nights when the cries for help could once again be heard emanating from the dark.
Beverly Farms was home to a pair of much more benign shadows of the dark. In her charming “When I Lived in Salem,” Caroline King recalled that her summer neighbors in mid-19th-century Beverly Farms included an “uncanny old black woman” who lived all alone in a nearby cottage and was looked upon as the local witch and a possessor of a third eye. It turns out, King says, the woman was quite benevolent. More frightening to a child was “Heady,” a local ghost who carried his head under his arm. Heady, the author claims, was occasionally spotted by members of the King family and their neighbors as he roamed through the local “Witch Woods” and roadways of Beverly Farms.
At Witch Hollow Farm in Boxford, the ghost of Mary Tyler supposedly still roams freely on the property. Mary was accused of witchcraft during the horrible witch delusion in 1692 and, like so many other accused witches, saved her own life by confessing to the charges brought against her. Since her death, Mary’s shape can be seen roaming about the farm property, traveling from room to room and between buildings.
Another popular North Shore tale is said to have taken place in the Georgetown home of Moody Spofford around 1780. A young domestic, Hannah Hazen, was sifting meal in the family meal chest when she realized that every time she or her clothing touched the wooden meal chest it would move away from her in increments of a few inches. Hannah began having the same effect on other pieces of furniture, and when her clothing touched the door, the latch would rise and fall in an agitated manner.
Crowds gathered to watch the terrified Hannah in action. Eventually, the troubled young lass was sent to live elsewhere, and prayers were offered in the Spofford home in a sort of exorcism. Mr. Moody banned all future experiments and, from that time forward, the furniture “obeyed the laws of gravitation.”
A community exorcism also seemed to have driven a frightening spirit from a home on Water Street in Ipswich. The ghost was believed to have been that of a previous occupant, the infamous Harry Main, who had lived in Ipswich in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. An entrepreneur gone bad, Main became one of a number of New Englanders who made a decent living by luring vessels onto the dangerous Ipswich sandbars, finishing off any crew members who didn’t drown when the craft sank, and salvaging and selling the ship’s cargo.
While the townspeople were seemingly able to drive Harry’s ghost from his house, the sandbars were a different story. Tradition has it that the piratical Main was chained to one of the stretches of sand he used in his murderous game, on Plum Island. It has been said that Harry can still be heard growling and shrieking on the dunes on stormy nights.
Occasionally, a brave soul would attempt to find the vast treasure it was believed Harry had buried somewhere on his property. One man actually hit pay dirt in the form of a gold bar, but at that moment he found himself surrounded by a squad of malefic-looking cats who, mercifully, vanished when he screamed in their direction. His treasure-hunting venture came to an abrupt and permanent halt.
Salem historian Jim McAllister is a regular contributor to these pages.