J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, September 01, 2016

How Moll Pitcher Told Fortunes

When Lynn historian and poet Alonzo Lewis first wrote about Mary “Moll” Pitcher in 1829, he described her reading tea leaves. But he immediately stated the real source of her insights:
She also availed herself of every ordinary mode of information, particularly by causing one of her domestics to talk with her visitors, to elicit the nature of their business, while she remained in an adjoining room, pretending to be absent. These arts, added to her natural shrewdness, and readiness to seize the slightest hint which might assist her in her surmises, appear to have constituted the whole amount of her power.
Likewise, in his 1852 Life of Lord Timothy Dexter Samuel L. Knapp described how Pitcher won the trust of that eccentric and superstitious merchant:
The first time he visited the dame he went in disguise; but she soon found him out, but, concealing the fact, told all that had happened to him for many years past, and this chained him at once to the full belief of the potency of her spells.
An article about Pitcher in the 12 July 1879 Boston Traveller went further in presenting Pitcher as a deliberate con artist. That was more than sixty years after she had died, and it’s quite possible the stories had been made more entertaining in those decades. Even the anonymous chronicler cited his or her sources with ambivalence: “according to all reports—they are nothing more.” But that article said:
It was always the aim of Moll to find out as much as she could, from whoever wished to consult her, of the circumstances which led to their desired consultation with herself. She could not do it herself, for that would be too suspicious.

Just here the daughter “Becky” was of value. She was to receive the visitors and talk with them. She was to tell them that her mother was away, but would be back presently. The truth is, however, that Moll was hid in one of the adjoining rooms, and was intently listening to the conversation, which of course was very material to her. When she had gathered all she cared to know and was ready to enter, she slipped out and entered by the door. Then with a wonderful accuracy she proceeded to tell all the circumstances, and fairly startled her visitors with her knowledge. . . .

Moll sometimes demanded a high price for her tales, and woe be to the person who refused it. Here, again, “Becky” is said to have been required. In the upper chamber of the hovel was kept a large ox-chain, but sufficiently light for a woman to drag about upon the floor. This chain was supposed to be attached to the devil: really it was attached to “Becky,” and she moved it about when required. If any visitors refused to pay the price which Moll demanded, they were told that the devil would be after them. Immediately the ox-chain is dragged across the floor above by Becky, and then the visitors immediately “come down,” and on the instant the clanking of the chain ceases. The result was that the visitors were so terribly frightened that they really believed the devil was in the house.
The Traveller had some other unflattering things to say about Moll Pitcher and her children. It reported her son John “did not like to work, and his mother humored his aversion to labor by supporting him.” He became known for his fashionable clothes, “the crack young man of the town.” The author said John Pitcher “married a Marblehead girl” and “died young,” and indeed the town vital records say a John Pitcher married in 1799 and died in 1803 at age twenty-five.

Most damning, the Traveller article included this anecdote about Moll Pitcher, though the author added a cautionary “if true”:
She was peculiar, and had many eccentricities. One was to wear two very large pockets in her dress. They were on each side, and would hold a peck each. Why she wore these pockets was long a mystery. At last it was solved.

One day she visited the grocery and apothecary store of Dr. Lummus, and while he was engaged Moll quietly slipped some articles of merchandise into the pockets, such as tea, coffee, sugar, &c. Unfortunately, Dr. Lummus saw her. He did not openly accuse her at first, but, approaching her, he said: “Moll, I want my fortune told. I have lost a number of articles from my store, and I want to detect the thief.”

Moll tried to turn him aside from his purpose, and laughed at his temporary anxiety to have his fortune told, and promised to tell it at some future time. Dr. Lummus then said: “I know the thief.” And, he emptied the pockets of Moll, much to her discomfiture and displeasure.
The only Lynn apothecary I could find named Lummus was Edward Augustus Lummus, who was born in 1820, seven years after Moll Pitcher died. So if that story had a factual basis, it was mangled in the telling.

Pitcher’s daughters married in Lynn, and their descendants remained in town, preserving some of her possessions. It’s therefore possible the inside stories about her methods to support her family telling fortunes came from straight-talking descendants, or from neighbors, or from locals looking for good tales about the local witch.

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