Witches Marks at the Wilbor House?

It’s Halloween.

I’m sitting in the 325 year old Wilbor House Museum by myself, listening to the wind howl, and staring at 13 Witches Marks.

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They are on the door directly in front of me, one of the doors that leads from my c. 1970 office space to the historic part of the house. There are more marks inside.

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Witches Marks or apotropaic (derived from the Greek word for “averting evil”) marks are good luck signs carved into buildings. They remind me very much of Amish “Hex Signs.”

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For more on Witches Marks see this fascinating article from England by Kirsten Amor which prompted me to write my own story today:

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/apotropaic-witches-marks-carvings?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=atlas-page

In her article Amor writes that 17th-century English property owners inscribed a variety of Witches Marks on doorways and near hearths to prevent witches from creeping into their homes to lurk, unseen in the shadows behind doors and in dark corners, waiting to cause mischief or damage property. Some marks were placed near a family’s (or business’) valuables to ensure their safekeeping. The marks were often tangled together in order to tangle up the witches and better prevent them from entering the home.

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Historian Joanne Pope Melish pointed the marks out to me as superstitious symbols a year ago when she first toured the Wilbor House. There are quite a few. Aside from the 13 or so on the green door, there are about a dozen more over the doorway and hearth of our c. 1740 Long Kitchen. I had seen the marks many times before Professor Melish’s tour, but I thought they were something different. Much less Halloweeny.

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While our former Executive Director Carlton Brownell was training me, over a decade ago, he explained that the boards with the drawings were taken from a workshop in Westport and the tradesmen had doodled them into the wood. I don’t often contradict Carlton, sadly now deceased, but for the sake of Halloween let’s put his practical explanation aside for a bit and focus on superstition instead.

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In 1955-1957 when Carlton restored the Wilbor House its Long Kitchen was in particularly bad shape, and he used a great deal of wood from the Waite-Potter House of Westport, Massachusetts which was destroyed by a hurricane (Carol?) shortly before the Wilbor House restoration. See the Waite Potter House below in a photograph owned by the Westport Historical Society.

Waite Potter House

For more on the Waite-Potter House please see the Westport Historical Society’s on-line collection and an archaeological report (by Little Compton’s very own Kate Johnson):

http://westhist.pastperfectonline.com/photo/EB8C32CF-0214-4702-B45B-395801330791

http://wpthistory.org/explore-2/research/3783-2/

Note the “Potter” brand (weirdly upside down) in a board with many circular marks now positioned over one of our doors. Carlton may very well be correct that the Waite Potter House was used as a workshop sometime in its 250 year history, but before it was a workshop it was a house, originally dated 1677 and now, based on Kate Johnson’s work, more likely to be very-early-18th century. We must decide for ourselves whether it was 18th-century colonists or 19th-century workmen who made the marks.

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Today, on Halloween, I vote for early-18th-century Witches Marks. The tangled designs are so like those in Amor’s article that I find myself convinced. I also wonder why practicing workmen or apprentices would make designs on permanent walls rather than on scrap wood or even paper. More significantly, why would workmen tangle and overlap their designs in confusing ways? It doesn’t make sense. The tangled circles (shown below with a pencil rubbing of the green door) are perfect for trapping witches. They are pretty terrible for showing the skill of a craftsman.

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At least some of Little Compton’s first European settlers were superstitious. Several owners of local historic homes have recently shared the “concealment items” (usually worn shoes) hidden behind their fireplaces by early residents to keep evil spirits out. Why not Witches Marks, too?

There’s one more bit of evidence that I was very happy to discover today. While 90% of our Witches Marks appear on boards most likely brought from the Waite Potter House, I found two very small, very simple marks on a huge beam over the hearth in our c.1690 Great Room. I am certain the beam is original to the house. I am less certain about the significance of the marks, but for the sake of Halloween, let’s just go with it. Perhaps our  good Quakers Samuel and Mary (Potter) Wilbor, like the early Potter’s of Old Dartmouth (was Mary related?) may also have thought it wise to protect their family from stealthy spirits and cowering witches with these symbolic marks.

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No spirits bothered me today.

I have a deal with them that they leave me in peace, and I will do the same for them. But I did find this broom in the Long Kitchen behind the door – maybe waiting for a visit tonight.  It’s getting dark.  I’m going home.

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Happy Halloween from the Little Compton Historical Society and the Wilbor House Museum.

If you have apotropaic marks in your historic home please post them in the comments here, on our facebook page or email me at lchistory@littlecompton.org.  I’d like to learn more.

Marjory O’Toole –  Managing Director

Cider Social – Cow Pie Bingo – Antiques Sale! Monday, October 9

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A four-legged visitor will be the honored guest at this year’s Cider Social celebration at the Little Compton Historical Society on Monday, October 9 (Columbus Day) from 1 to 4 pm. For the fourth year the Society has expanded its annual Cider Social to include local vendors, a Cow Pie Bingo Fundraising event, and a booth selling vintage and antique items donated by the community.

As usual the Cider Social is free and open to the public. There will be complimentary cider and donuts while supplies last, free tours of the Wilbor House Museum, a candy haystack, corn husk-doll making, and the last opportunity to see this year’s special exhibition, “Little Compton’s 20th-Century Artists” all at no charge. The special exhibit ends that day.

On October 9, the Society will also be hosting their annual antiques sale. Anyone with antique or vintage items to donate to this sale is asked to do so before the ninth. Local vendors will be on hand selling variety of hand-crafted items and the Historical Society’s museum shop will be open offering a variety of local history books and gift items. New vendors are welcome and should call 401-635-4035 to reserve a spot.The fee is $20.

The highlight of the day will be the Cow Pie Bingo event taking place between 3 and 4 pm. Oreo, a Belted Galloway, will return for his second year of Cow Pie Bingo. Oreo will be accompanied by his farmer, Pete Dellasanta of Pete’s Farm. Pete, who began his own farm in high school and is now a college freshman, will lead Oreo onto a gridded field promptly at 3 PM and the first square in the grid to receive a cow pie will be the winner. Tickets corresponding to each square on the grid are on sale now at the Historical Society for $10 each or three for $25 and will also be sold the day of the event until 2:55 PM. The holder of the winning ticket will receive a $500 prize. All proceeds from the event will benefit the Historical Society.

Pete and other judges will be on hand to make the final call determining the winning square. If no cow pie is deposited before 4 PM the judges will draw the winning ticket from a hat.

Volunteers are needed to help with the event. Anyone interested in volunteering or in purchasing a vendor’s spot is asked to call the Historical Society at 401-635-4035.

Little Compton Antiques Festival & Classic Car Show

The Little Compton Historical Society is proud to partner with Preserve Rhode Island and Ferguson & D’Arruda Antiques to present the Little Compton Antiques Festival on the grounds of the Wilbor House Museum and to host, for the first time, a Classic Car Show featuring approximately 30 vehicles.

Antiques Festival Preview Party – Fri., Aug. 4 from 6 to 8 pm.

Antiques Festival & Classic Car Show – Sat. Aug. 5 from 9 to 4.

Proceeds from the festival will benefit both the Little Compton Historical Society and Preserve Rhode Island.

The Antiques Festival kicks off with a Preview Party on Friday evening featuring a sunset supper, complimentary beverage, live music and early buying privileges. Admission to Saturday festival included with Preview Party ticket.

For more information, visit http://www.preserveri.org/little-compton-antiques-festival

Antique or vintage donations for the sale are welcome anytime before the event.

Spite Tower Social – Tickets on Sale Now!

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The Samuel Church Estate
Adamsville
Thursday, July 27
6:30-8:30 p.m.

 
Gather with friends old and new to tour the Samuel Church mansion
and explore Adamsville’s famous Spite Tower. Our hosts Kristin and
Adam Silveira have been working for months to renovate and restore
these important historic buildings in preparation for a new chapter
in their history as vacation rental properties. All proceeds from this
community event benefit the Little Compton Historical Society.
$30 per person — Enjoy two complimentary drinks and a picnic supper on the lawn.
Call 401-635-4035 for tickets or click here:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/spite-tower-social-tickets-36039465010

Reservations required by July 25.