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

Unfreedom in Westport, MA

PLEASE NOTE:  This talk will be held at the Little Compton Community Center.

Tony Connors, PhD, the President of the Westport Historical Society will deliver the final talk in the Little Compton Historical Society’s Slavery and Freedom Speakers’ Series on Thursday, February 23, 2017 at 7 pm at the Little Compton Community Center on the Commons. Dr. Connors will present “tony-connorsWestport’s Stories of Unfreedom” based on his extensive research using Westport’s primary source documents. Because of changing borders and family connections, the ties between Westport’s and Little Compton’s historic people of color are especially strong.

Anthony J. “Tony” Connors is an independent historian from Westport, Massachusetts. He has a PhD in American History from Clark University, and is the author of Ingenious Machinists: Two Inventive Lives from the American Industrial Revolution (SUNY Press, 2014), and “Andrew Craigie: Patriot and Scoundrel,” Harvard Magazine (November-December 2011), and editor of Conflicts in American History: The Colonial and Revolutionary Eras (Facts on File, 2010).

The talk is sponsored by the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities, an independent state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is free and open to the public.

The Little Compton Historical Society’s Slavery and Freedom Speaker Series is part of a year-long project honoring the 200th anniversary of the end of slavery in Little Compton. The Society has spent three years investigating the history of slavery in Little Compton and now offers a book and a special exhibition on the subject entitled “If Jane Should Want to Be Sold, Stories of Enslavement, Indenture and Freedom in Little Compton, Rhode Island.” The exhibition is open every Saturday from 1 to 5 PM and by appointment at other times. It will close in Little Compton February 28 and then travel to the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities at Brown University. Admission to the exhibition is free to members of the Little Compton Historical Society and $5 for non-members. For more information please call 401-635-4035.

 

Two Generations of Freedom: From Kofi to Paul Cuffe

 JOIN US on Wednesday, February 1, 2017 at 7 PM at the Little Compton Community Center, when Jeffrey Fortiprofessor-jeffrey-fortinn will present “Two Generations of Freedom: From Kofi to Paul Cuffe.” Professor Fortin will share the stories of Kofi Slocum, an African man enslaved in Westport, MA, who secured his freedom, and his son, Quaker businessman and sea captain, Paul Cuffe. During his lifetime, Paul Cuffe (1759-1817) was one of the most prosperous and politically active men of color in America. Dr. Fortin is the Paul Cuffe Fellow at Mystic Seaport Museum and Assistant Professor of History at Emmanuel College. His book on the life of Paul Cuffe will be published shortly.

The talk is free and open to the public.

It is part of the Little Compton Historical Society’s Slavery and Freedom Speakers’ Series and is sponsored by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, an independent state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Later in the month the last talk in the series will take place on Thursday, February 23, 2017 at 7PM, when Tony Connors, President of the Westport Historical Society, will present “Westport’s Stories of Unfreedom” based on his extensive research using Westport’s primary source documents. Through the years changing borders and family connections have created strong ties between Westport’s and Little Compton’s historic people of color.

Tickets Available to Patron’s Brunch at Wyndfield Farm

The Little Compton Historical Society has a long history of offering historic house tours. This year for the first time we are also Dora's house (2)offering a special Patron’s Brunch prior to the tour.

On Sunday, September 20, 2015 generous donors who have purchased a Patron’s ticket at either the silver or gold level will be welcomed at Wyndfield Farm, the home of Little Compton Historical Society Board President Dora Millikin. Patrons will be treated to a delicious brunch catered by The Westporter, self-guided tours of Wyndfield Farm, a ticket to the historic house tour taking place that day in Little Compton and a copy of the Historical Society’s new book “The Stories Houses Tell” that explores the history of each of houses on the tour.

Anyone interested in supporting the work of the Little Compton Historical Society is welcome to purchase a Patron’s ticket at the $100 or $250 level, and may do so in person at the Wilbor House Museum (548 West Main Road, LC, RI)  by calling 401-635-4035 or visiting littlecompton.org. The brunch takes place from 10 am to noon and is immediately followed by the Little Compton Historic House Tour from noon to 5 pm.

Tickets – https://lchistorical.wordpress.com/programs-events/historic-house-tour/

Dora's cows (2)Located in nearby Westport, MA with a breathtaking view of the Westport River, Wyndfield farm is home to a number of historic buildings including two that have recently been saved from demolition by Dora and her husband Trip.

Wren House, an impressive Federal-style home, is the newest addition to the property. Originally build in 1709 on Horseneck Road in Westport, the home was dismantled in 1835 and rebuilt as a larger Federal-style home reusing the same materials by the Frederick Allen family.

For most of its history the house was a quiet New England farmers’ residence, but in recent years it served as a movie set that included an explosive pyrotechnical scene that burned the home’s Victorian-era windows.

In 2012 the building was slated for demolition. Due to building codes the family that owned the building could not maintain its structural integrity for use as a commercial space. A demo delay ruling left just one month to find new owners who could move and preserve the building.

Dora and Trip Millikin came forward. They were given the house for free and paid a nominal fee for its cut granite foundation stones. They hired Steve Tyson of the Architectural Preservation Group to take the house apart in four quadrants according to the original timber and peg framing so that no beams needed to be cut. The sections including four original fireboxes and chimneys traveled on a flatbed truck to its current location on Wyndfield Farm. Each timber and plank had been numbered and were now carefully reassembled on the original foundation stones purchased by the Millikins.

The couple christened the building “Wren House” because a pair of wrens claimed it as their home during the reconstruction process. While planning this preservation effort, the Millikins were also given the Blossom Farm Barn from Blossom Road in Fall River.  Timbers from this structure were repurposed to create a garage, a mudroom and a two story ell.

Visitors to the Wren House will see its early eighteenth-century summer beams, original pegged sheathing, hearths, exposed timbers, floors, and hardware.  A great deal is known about the Wren House because of a Journal kept by Federick Allen Junior during its construction. The Millikins are now the proud owners of the journal and have enjoyed tracing the history of their new home.

Dora’s art studio is another rescued historic building on the property. It consists of a late eighteen-century barn made of American Chestnut and rescued from Depot Street in North Attleboro. Additions to the barn were made using timbers from an early house from Cranston, RI. The iron work used throughout the studio was created by Westport artist Tony Newton Millham of Star Forge.

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Photos by Bart Brownell