It’s the end of September, and I have been thinking about Halloween for a while now. There’s something about the changing leaves and shortening days that make this time of year perfect for this holiday. And, having grown up going to high school within the bounds of a 17th century village named Salem, I got my fair share of Halloween history as a child.
The Salem witch hysteria never made it all the way down to Lexington, although there were a handful of people in Woburn and Billerica who were thrown in jail. I often wonder what the citizens of Lexington (then called Cambridge Farms) thought about what was happening. At the time, we were in the process of building our first meeting house and newly appointed minister Benjamin Estabrook may have felt that he was in over his head.
But that doesn’t mean that people in Lexington didn’t believe in witches or the supernatural, and it took a long time for some of these beliefs, and the traditions associated with them, to die out. One of the most popular items on the tour of the Hancock-Clarke House are a series of shoes, neatly laid behind the plaster wall of the minister’s study. There is an astonishing variety in the little collection: shoes for men and women, adults and children, leather and wool. All well-worn, and very deliberately placed there, hidden away during the house’s construction.
These are called “concealments”, and are thought to be a good luck charm, a way to ward off any evil spirits that might be inhabiting your new home. Sometimes they are accompanied by “witch bottles” full of other magic charms to ward off specific evildoers. The Northampton Museum in England has compiled an index of nearly 2,000 concealments (including ours), which is set to be made digitally accessible next year.
These shoes would have been placed in the wall during the construction of the Hancock-Clarke House in 1737, 45 years after the infamous witch trials. Not so long a time, actually! It is easy for us to think of our Age of Enlightenment patriots having any connection with the superstitions of the past, but they were only a generation or two removed from that fading world (Ben Franklin’s aunt Bethshua famously took off her shoe and threw it at Martha Corey’s head during her trial). Superstitions and folk magic tend to linger for centuries.
By the mid-18th century, however, most on both sides of the Atlantic were trying to distance themselves from the beliefs of their ancestors by putting a stop to any further superstitious persecution. This news article from 1751 is a good example, reporting on the “barbarity” that ensued in England when John and Ruth Osborne, “inoffensive people near 70 years of age” were accused of witchcraft and tortured by their neighbors, leaving Ruth dead.
An addendum to the article proudly revealed that of the entirety of the mob, 29 members were subsequently being tried for murder. One of the men was eventually executed.
- Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.