Editor’s note: In the spirit of the season, we’re resurrecting this classic 2004 column from Jim McAllister.
The local business of fortunetelling and seances, especially prevalent in today’s Salem, is hardly a new development. Instead, it is a continuation of a long tradition of psychic activity on the North Shore.
One of the area’s pre-eminent seers was Edward Dimond of Marblehead. Dimond, it is said, was able to send his voice across the sea, and he often used that power to aid Marblehead vessels in distress. The popular wizard could also help townspeople find items that had been lost or stolen and, when called for, punish the thief. On one occasion, Dimond supposedly used his powers to force a wood stealer to walk the town streets for an entire night carrying a heavy log.
Dimond’s granddaughter, Moll Pitcher, apparently inherited some of his psychic abilities. Moll was born in Marblehead (she moved to Lynn after she married) and became known the world over for her supernatural feats and her prognostications. She foretold the advent of the telephone and the telegraph and predicted that someday men would build skyscrapers. During the American Revolution, soldiers from both sides sought her advice. And local sailors dared not go to sea without first consulting Pitcher about the fate of their planned voyage.
Pitcher was immortalized by John Greenleaf Whittier in his epic poem “Moll Pitcher” (1831). Unfortunately, the poet chose to depict the benign seeress as a demonic hag intent on doing evil.
Perhaps the most bizarre of the area’s “visionaries” was another Salemite, George Crowninshield Jr. A member of one of the town’s most important mercantile families, George was known for his flamboyant dress and behavior. In 1817, he had built what is believed to be America’s first pleasure yacht, an opulently furnished hermaphrodite brigantine of 192 tons christened Cleopatra’s Barge.