Lithobolia – The Stone-Throwing Demons of Great Island

Today, New Castle is a small town of 2.4 square miles at the mouth of the Piscataqua River in New Hampshire bordering the neighboring state of Maine. Today, only 968 people call the town home. Originally settled in 1623, this hamlet was originally populated by a small number of people, primarily fishermen and tradesmen. The island also included farmers from its beginnings and a certain tavern to welcome visitors and shield them from the cold and rain of a coastal New England climate. Though the town is called New Castle, the island itself is known as Great Island and it is the location of one the strangest set of poltergeist-like activity known in early New England. For a period, the small island’s fame grew not only in the early colonies but back in England and Europe. It seems Great Island may have been the home of not one, but many devils.

New Hampshire became an independent colony, separating from Massachusetts in 1680. To give you sense of the timeline, the following year, William Penn would be granted a charter from King Charles II, which would make him the proprietor of Pennsylvania. The following year, invisible spirits began pouring a rain of stones outside and inside the Tavern Inn on Great Island, New Hampshire and the echoes of those falling stones would reach down through the years to a little town known as Salem, Massachusetts. New England was still largely wild and wooded, with the Devil in the form of “Old Scratch” lurking in the forests just outside the village common. Ministers in their pulpits exclaimed the tortures of sinners in the hands of an angry God. Magic was as accepted as science is today and to a large degree, people lived in fear of what they did not understand, which was a considerable amount. This was a land of settlers who had no rescue from the nature that railed against them with storm, cold, drought or snow. An entire ocean separated these people from the aid of their families and friends in England.

George and Alice Walton owned the tavern on Great Island. One night in early June in the year 1682, the couple first witnessed what would later become a plague of stones being thrown at and somehow within their tavern. As the calmness of a spring evening was shattered by not one, but a rain of stones thrown at the house from outside, the guests and family within were held hostage. We know of the events of this night because one of the people staying there, Richard Chamberlain, later wrote of it in his account titled “Lithobolia: or, the Stone-Throwing Devil.” published in 1698. He writes that on that night “about Ten a Clock, many Stones were heard by my self, and the rest of the Family, to be thrown, and (with Noise) hit against the top and all sides of the House.” Calling them “lapidary salutations,” he claimed that this rain of stones continued to assail the inhabitants of the building for four more hours. Looking out of the windows into the moonlit night, no one could see what group of people must be responsible for such a barrage of stones being thrown. Granted, the grasses and wild growth would be fresh and wick in early June, perhaps high enough to hide a garrison of stone-throwers, but a full moon should have helped to illuminate the scene enough to see someone close enough to be responsible for the stone rain.

One can imagine that the Waltons might have angered or upset someone on the island enough to engender their anger and response in the form of rocks being thrown. Almost any able bodied person could hide in a concealed space and throw stones all night if they wanted in an attempt to frighten or at least to pester the Waltons and their guests. What is stranger still is that some of the stones actually appeared to be thrown inside the house and how this would have been possible remains a mystery. After looking outside to see if their was anyone, Chamberlain closed the door and then barely escaped grievous bodily harm when a “great Hammer brushing along the top or roof of the Room from the other end, as I was walking in it, and lighting down by me.”

He also mentions stones fell from the ceiling to the floor in full view of the people in the room and the pewter on the sideboards were hit with stones causing them to tumble to the floor. Stones also fell from the chimney. When he could stay awake no longer, he claims he went to bed and fell asleep, only to be awakened “with the unwelcome disturbance of another Battery of a different sort, it issuing with so prodigious a Noise against the thin Board-wall of my Chamber (which was within another) that I could not imagine it less than the fracture and downfall of great part of the Chamber.” Running from his room and encountering Walton in the downstairs, Chamberlain was shown an eight and a half pound stone that had been responsible for the great commotion, smashing against his door. Strangely enough, not a single pane of glass was broken that night. Whoever had been throwing the stones must have very good aim indeed.

More strangeness ensued the next morning. The chimney spit that had disappeared earlier in the day fell from the chimney wedged as though it had been dropped from a great height. Night had passed, but the stone throwing continued throughout the day. The family and guest, even workmen in the fields witnessed the event but no stone throwers could be seen. What was seen was a black cat walking through the grass, a cat that did not belong to them.

The rocks did not stop flying all summer and they were not only aimed at the tavern. It seemed that George Walton was the main target, after all. When traveling to another property he owned farther up the river, he was the target of stones. His workers gathering hay in the field also were hit. Sounds of snorting and high-pitched whistling were barely audible but definitely there, in the air. George Walton was hit by rocks over forty times, but it did not stop him from attending to his business.

The technical term for stones being thrown by invisible hands is ‘lithobolia.’ Acknowledged by the New Englanders of the time as supernatural in origin, they decided that the only was to beat the Devil tormenting them was to turn to tried and true methods, passed down by generations of wise men and women. First, they boiled a pot of bent pins in urine. This was then put in bottles and buried under the hearth, a bane to witches, personal human servants of Beelzebub. Though this might have worked, the Waltons would never know. Before they could bury the concoction, a stone from the chimney fell and smashed the bottle.

Today we might try to explain away this tale as an exaggerated instance of vandals bothering neighbors and that the witnesses were taking great license with the actual events, over blowing them for the sake of a good read. After all, Chamberlain’s account of the entire affair was written sixteen years after the supposed events. If accounts from the time are to believed, the Walton family was the target of a true paranormal, supernatural onslaught, the kind of attack we seldom hear of or read about in the modern world. Lithobolia is a term that is nearly out of circulation; it simply doesn’t seem to happen in the modern world.

Witchcraft was a real concern in the 1680s. Though people believed in the veracity of witchcraft, no major persecutions had taken place. People walked guardedly and said their prayers and made sure to procure certain remedies against the servants of Satan, but people were also loath to point the accusatory finger or hang a neighbor woman on the mere suspicion of her association with evil. No, that hadn’t yet taken root in the fertile soil of early New England society. That had to start somewhere. The lithobolia event of 1682 would set into motion a series of events that would lead to the Salem Witch trials and the wave of witch hysteria that would blanket much of superstitious New England.

George Walton decided that witchcraft needed a witch and that person must be none other than his neighbor of thirty years, Hannah Jones. A long standing feud over property may have been the seed that urged this evil weed to grow. How an elderly woman could have either thrown the stones herself of obtained a cadre of strong-armed stone throwers to work her evil against the Waltons is illogical. Today we would dismiss Walton’s claims as spurious, but other people witnessed the lithobolia. If she didn’t throw the stones, who did?

Things are seldom what they seem. Ghosts or demons might indeed be the stone-throwers and their ability to appear and disappear at will would account for the stones thrown inside the house. If we recall that the good people of Great Island, New Hampshire in 1682 believed that the Devil prowled in the dark depths of the woods outside their doors, it all begins to take on a weight and gravitas that modern people would simply laugh off. It was real to them. They believed.

What the reader needs to understand is that the Walton family did not usually get along. Those in the employ of the Waltons were not inclined to hold any great love of the owner of the tavern. The Anchor, their tavern, had been cited as a place of drink, fornication, and illicit affairs for years. A favorite haunt of the sailors fresh into neighboring Portsmouth, George Walton kept a household very different from the usual Puritanical homestead. In 1664 George Walton and his wife Alice were convicted’ of being Quakers, at the time a radical Protestant sect and considered dangerous and untrustworthy by mainline Protestants. This had all happened because their daughter, Abishag, had been taken to court for the crime of not showing up for services for many months prior.

A Quaker and a man of the world, he would accept those from the fringe more readily into his company than most. Perhaps Walton’s reputation bought him more than a few enemies. Quakers were social reformers and were open-minded in a close-minded world. Many people found themselves at odds with the innkeeper and his wife. During the time of King Philips’s War (also called the First Indian War June 1675-August 1676) almost all the towns of Maine and New Hampshire were attacked by the Abnaki and most people took arms against them. The Waltons did just the opposite – they joined raiding bands of Abnaki and raided in Maine for plunder. They were tired later, but the crime, it was said, took place in Maine and not New Hampshire and so was not in the court’s jurisdiction. Certainly the knowledge of their escapade into Maine was well-known to the folks in the area, marking the family as one to watch and not one to trust.

Enough enemies and rocks might be the least of things thrown. Great Island had only 512 acres of land. Only a portion of that was tillable, arable soil. The best crop on much of the island was rocks. In 1680, George owned about one fifth of all of the farmland on the island. Land disputes took up a great deal of the time of the courts of the day and were the main item of dispute in many records of town meetings. Boundaries were a stone here, a tree there, and perhaps a river. These were imprecise and loose boundaries, at best. Arguments over even tiny section of land were not uncommon and would lead toward some dark days when accusations were as blurry and as vague as the boundary markers on the land. Richard Chamberlain, our author in residence who had witnessed the lithobolia attack, claimed that the entire affair came about because of some such dispute between Walton and a neighbor named Hannah Jones. His prominence and already large share of the land on the island possibly helped him in winning his claim and taking the small piece of property that she so vigorously claimed was hers. We will never know. Stones began to fly and continued to fly. Walton blamed witchcraft and pointed to his angry neighbor Hannah as the witch.

A long dispute over land had already lingered in Hannah Jone’s life. Her husband now dead and a fifteen year long battle with the courts over another land dispute left her older and poorer than she would have liked. When Hannah finally was awarded a positive outcome by the courts in her battle for her own inheritance, she was now had money and perhaps the tenacity to battle her old neighbor, George Walton. It was probably a bad idea to bother the old Quaker, after all.

In June of 1682, George Walton specifically laid out his charges against his old neighbor, Goodwife Jones. A bond was issued against her to maintain the peace, which meant, presumably, to stop the demons from throwing their stones. On the fourth of July, 1682, Goodwife Jones filed her own charges against Walton, claiming his horse kept breaking into her pasture but she could not do anything about it because of the peace bond paid upon her. Despite the acrimony and charges, Walton and witnesses claimed that the stones kept flying. Finally, George Walton took the next step in his anger toward the old woman and his grasping clutching for land: he confided to a neighbor that he ‘believed in his heart and conscience that Grandma Jones was a witch.’ What had been a fairly common case of neighbors fighting over a parcel of land had quickly devolved into a case of witchcraft. In years to come, events in Salem, Massachusetts would echo these events.

George Walton started his smear campaign against his neighbor, claiming that she and all her women relatives were witches, She countered that the old Quaker was a wizard. The problem with this accusation of Jones was that only a witch would know the identity of a wizard. To the minds of early New Englanders, it was tantamount to a confession. It had long been known that Hannah’s own mother, Jane Walford, had lived for decades with the accusation of witchcraft hanging over her head. In the early days, before the events at Salem, it was not easy to convict someone of being a witch in New England. Extreme claims required extreme evidence in the early days and her mother, Jane, was never actually convicted. That did not stop gossip and goodwives spreading rumors. Mothers passed down their witchcraft to their daughters, it was believed, and so Hannah might indeed be as everyone suspected what her mother was – a bona fide witch, part of a coven that did their malicious deeds throughout the Piscatiqua. White magic was practiced by many, including the boiling of pins in urine – but this was a protective kind of conjuring, done by wise folk and did not harm. Helpful magic was accepted. Black magic was not. In any case, it was usually one person’s word against another. In the world of early New England, witchcraft accusations were not all that uncommon. By many accounts, nearly 140 people had been accused of the crime of witchcraft between 1638 and 1697 and most of these occurred in one county – Essex County in Massachusetts.

What was a witch to an early New Englander? Why would she resort to stone-throwing devils? Wouldn’t a simple curse be more advantageous for her? In the mind of the early settlers, she was not as we in the modern world have stereotyped her. She was not always poor, not always ugly, not always strange. She could be married, have property, be respectable in all other ways except for a singular instance when someone claimed foul play on her part. She didn’t even need to be female. Twenty percent of all witchcraft accusations were made against men. Still, the settlers had come from Europe, where the witch mania was a long tradition.

To George Walton, a witch was a simple explanation for the stones that kept hitting his home and his body no matter where he went. If we only had his word for the stone-throwing, we could very easily dismiss it as a fabrication used to gain advantage over a neighbor in an old land dispute, but we have the testimony of others. To what extent these others would lie to help their friend by perpetrating a false case against Goodwife Jones is unknown, but it does seem unlikely that so many would be involved. Unless Goodwife Jones had a small army to stone throwers who were also adept at disappearing, the case becomes easy to assign to some paranormal source. Perhaps too easy? It is easy to imagine that George Walton’s rather puritanical neighbors might have hated him so much that they sent him a message – in the form of stones. Perhaps it was an early American form of trolling, after all? After all, the first Quakers to arrive in Boston were quickly deported and laws were passed against their entrance into the colony, and four Quakers paid with their lives when they tested the weight of those laws. Puritans and Quakers were near opposites and their interactions were rarely civil. But the Quakers were here to stay, often residing in Maine, where they were safer from persecution than they were in New Hampshire. Kittery was a stronghold for early Quakers. But Quakers would become the targets for witchcraft accusations, as well. It seemed that, at the time, anyone who was not in the mainstream was a fair target, including George Walton for his Quaker beliefs or Hannah Jones for her association with her mother’s prior witchcraft accusation.

In his exhaustively researched book on the topic, The Devil of Great Island, Emerson W. Baker states, “This led some devout Great Islanders to take out their frustration on the Waltons, the family whose presence seemed to mock their desire to maintain a godly community. So the stones flew all summer long. The names of the culprits will probably never be known. The active participants were no doubt joined by others who silently observed the attacks and refused to implicate the guilty.”

Whoever did throw those stones were cause for copycat attacks later that same year. A case of lithobolia in Connecticut and another in Maine occurred shortly after the attack on Walton’s tavern, with the usual demonic source being cited in the service of some witch. The Reverend Joshua Moody of Kittery told Increase Mather, “There are sundry reports among us that seem to bee matters of witchcraft.” The attacks in Portsmouth, Berwick Maine and Connecticut gained notoriety and the word of demonic stone-throwing devils spread throughout the villages and hamlets of old New England. The good people of Salem would, no doubt, have heard of the them, too. Though we will remember the Salem Witch mania mainly by a ghostly attack against a group of young girls, lithobolia attacks were mentioned and were a part of the events that caused so much vitriol and violent repercussions.

The Brown family of Reading, Massachusetts, in 1692, heard footfalls on their roof and stones began to pelt the roof, as well. Ten years had passed since the first attacks in New Hampshire, but it appeared that the devil was back. In the Brown family case a woman named Sarah Cole was held responsible for the stone-throwing and the illness that affected the family.In Gloucester, noises of stones being thrown were reported by their minister, John Emerson. Though it is a far stretch of the imagination to directly link the events in Salem with those in Portsmouth, it is clear that there are parallels. The idea that stones, thrown by humans but attributed to devils, could provide an opening for accusations of witchcraft, is important when considering how the accusers got the ball rolling. All one needed to do was throw stones, or even claim to have been the victim of such lithobolia and have the tacit consent of silent witnesses and then point the finger, fueling the ire of the superstitious populace. One thing would lead to another and fairly soon, there are witches among the people, ruining their crops, making them sick and throwing a barrage of stones that only a demon could manage.

In the end, the land dispute between George Walton and Goodwife Hannah Jones lasted longer than either of them. We do not know when they died – the records have been lost, but we know that George died first. As to the accusations of witchcraft against Goodwife Jones, nothing ever came of it. You can’t try a dead woman. However, the spark that lit the fire of one neighbor against another in New England can be traced back to Great Island and the emnity between people of different religions, different world views and different social standing. It is fairly clear that the Devil did show his ugly head on Great Island, but not in the form of a stone-throwing horned imp. Instead, he may have looked a little like George Walton and a little like Hannah Jones and perhaps, a little like all those who so steadfastly believed in him.


 

SOURCES

PODCAST:
https://mainehumanities.org/blog/podcasts/the-devil-of-great-island/

BOOK: Baker, Emerson W., THE DEVIL OF GREAT ISLAND Witchcraft and Conflict in Early New England, 2007, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Online version of Richard Chamberlain’s – Click Here
Lithobolia: or, the Stone-Throwing Devil. Being an Exact and True Account (by way of Journal) of the various Actions of Infernal Spirits, or (Devils Incarnate) Witches, or both; and the great Disturbance and Amazement they gave to George Waltons Family, at a place call’d Great Island in the Province of New-Hantshire in New-England, chiefly in Throwing about (by an Invisible hand) Stone, Bricks, and Brick-bats of all Sizes, with several other things, as Hammers, Mauls, Iron-Crows, Spits, and other Domestick Utensils, as came into their Hellish Minds, and this for the space of a Quarter of a Year.

Burr, George Lincoln, “Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706”, 1914

 

2 thoughts on “Lithobolia – The Stone-Throwing Demons of Great Island

    1. Wow, I really need to check my messages more often. Of course you may use the artwork. Thanks and good luck – I will need to get a copy of the book once it’s published.

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