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.
On March 30, Crowninshield set sail for ports of call in Europe and the Mediterranean. The primary purpose of the voyage was to find a royal wife — any princess would do — for bachelor George.
The saga of the voyage of Cleopatra’s Barge is filled with bizarre subplots, none stranger than George’s approach to navigation. In “Cleopatra’s Barge,” author David Ferguson notes that Crowninshield had a “penchant for being guided by dreams, of which he had a great many. Should he, for example, dream of wild horses, a storm was imminent and the vessel had accordingly to be prepared for foul weather on even the most benign of days.”
In other dreams, it came to the vessel’s owner that she would sail faster if the hatches were left open. And so they remained for the rest of the voyage, “... no matter that rain might be falling on the Atlantic in solid sheets.”
America Burnham of Essex was another local character with a propensity for prophesy. Through a combination of impromptu sermons on local street corners and printed handbills signed “America Burnham-Prophet,” the part-time clammer, fisherman and boat builder shared his vision of what was to come with local townspeople.
His prophesies were harmless enough, except on the rare occasion when he acted on them. In “Frame-Up,” Essex historian and author Dana Story recounts the time when America, after foretelling of the coming of the day when men would fly, donned a homemade device not unlike a parachute and jumped off the roof of a building.
“It must have worked to some extent,” Story says, “because the leap didn’t kill him.”
Thomas Watson, Alexander Graham Bell’s famous assistant and a Salem native, also had numerous dealings with the “other world” in his younger years. In his autobiography, “Exploring Life,” Watson tells how when he was a teenager, he and his friends George Phillips and John Raymond conducted a number of successful seances. Over the course of a few months in 1872-1873, the youths were able to communicate with deceased family members through table tipping, table rapping and slate writing.
The success of these seances Watson attributed to George Phillips, who for a short time seemed to have all the powers attributed to a medium. Watson, a longtime member of the Society for Psychical Research, gradually developed his own hypothesis about such powers. “Mediums are endowed with the power to transform some subtle, bodily radiation into a mechanical force that produces the raps, movements and slate writings as a steam engine changes heat into mechanical motion or a telegraph instrument transforms pulsations of electricity into the taps of the Morse code.”
Salem historian Jim McAllister writes a regular column for these pages.