By Anne O’Connor
PEPPERELL — According to legend, an old woman, unknown to the community, moved into an abandoned building in North Pepperell, right after the war of 1812. She dressed strangely and the yard soon filled up with stones and rubble, according to “No One Shall Live in This Town!” written by Mabel Willard and published by “Yankee Magazine” in November 1971.
The neighbors believed the old woman was a witch and a murderer and branded her with a hot iron in the middle of her forehead.
The woman fled the town with a curse. She swore the river would dry up, fire would consume the buildings and the community would flee the area.
Could this legend be true?
In early New England, each town was responsible for the paupers within its borders. During Town Meeting, officials auctioned off individuals to whoever asked for the smallest stipend. Records of early Town Meetings show the process. For example, in Fitchburg, during the Aug. 24, 1790, Town Meeting, Mary Wares was “Let out to board to Lowest bidder until March next.”
The town paid the fee, and the pauper might earn part of his or her keep by performing labor. That landowner was not financially responsible for the pauper’s debts.
If the pauper was not a part of the community, but a passer-by, the town would remove the person to eliminate the expense or warn out the indigent. The pauper might stay, but was notified that the town would not be financially responsible, according to “Poverty in America: An Encyclopedia” by Russell M. Lawson.
Towns were still auctioning off their poor as late as 1832. An image of the March 19, 1832, Town Meeting in Sandown, N.H., lists three women in need of homes. The purchaser was required to support the poor for the amount he bid.
Sandown paid the purchaser and agreed to pay for the clothing and doctor’s bill for the poor. The image can be seen at poorhousestory.com/AUCTION_POOR.htm.
It is possible that a badly-dressed old woman showed up in North Pepperell. Perhaps she was homeless because she could not provide for herself. There were few asylums or treatment centers for mentally ill or cognitively disabled people.
Poor houses became more common after the Embargo of 1807, when towns could not afford individual relief, according to a masters thesis by Timothy T. Orwig. The first state lunatic asylum was built in Worcester in 1833.
North Pepperell was a prosperous area in the early 1800s. A sawmill and a gristmill served the surrounding farms. A strange, unkempt squatter would not be welcome.
Was she a witch?
The famous Salem witch trials happened in 1692. Of the many tried for witchcraft, 19 were found guilty and executed.
The colonists quickly regretted the trial. Five years later, the town of Salem held a day of fasting, called a “day of official humiliation,” to honor the victims.
After 1812, when the unknown woman arrived, the witch-hunting craze was long over.
Was she branded?
In 17th-century America, branding was used for various crimes including robbery and adultery. By 1812, this type of human branding was a thing of the past, at least in New England.
Did she leave town with a curse?
Many indigents were unable to care for themselves due to mental illness. If the neighbors had joined forces against her, the unfortunate woman probably did not wish them the best.
Did her curse work?
There were dry spells and fires aplenty in North Pepperell. The once-thriving community is now part of the larger town of Pepperell.
New England streams and rivers flow strongest in the spring when the snowmelt hits. By late summer, the waterways might have been just a trickle, with or without a curse.
Fire was a fact of life in early mills. The buildings were tinder kegs, filled with flammable materials.
During the 1800s, factories making shoes, paper and cloth were built in North Pepperell.
They burned and were sometimes rebuilt.
By the late 19th century, factory owners stopped rebuilding the mills. Workers moved away in search of other work.
Today, North Pepperell is just another picturesque part of an old New England town.
Did the Nissitissit witch cause the community to fail, or did the community change with changing times?
You be the judge.
Thanks to Lawrence Library for help with research.
Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter and Tout @a1oconnor.