The Lingering Leg: A Witch Legend in Bucksport, Maine

Starting at the End

An etiological myth is one designed to explain how something came to be. Where does lightning come from? Zeus. Why don’t snakes have legs? God’s punishment for its deceptions and harmfulness. What accounts for the Great Lakes? Paul Bunyan dug them, of course, because his logger buddies were thirsty. Structurally, these are a bit like a detective story: 1) there’s an observable thing, be it a lightning bolt, a slithery snake, a Great Lake, or a dead body; 2) construct a narrative — believable or otherwise — that leads up to and accounts for that thing.

This is pretty clearly what happened in the case of a witch legend centered in Bucksport, Maine. There’s a headstone there for the town’s founder, Colonel Jonathan Buck, and his family. On the back of that monument is an image that’s permanently embedded in the granite. One source describes it as looking like “a woman’s stocking-clad foot, or maybe a boot.” That might be a touch too specific. It’s a pretty sketchy outline.

A photograph, possibly enhanced to better show the leg, from James O. Whittemore’s “The Witch’s Curse,” an important chronicle of the legend.

But how to account for this odd image? Well, on July 17, 1898, an anonymous article appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, and it was reprinted in newspapers from New Jersey over to Kansas and from the Dakota Territory down to New Mexico. James O. Whittemore was identified as the author when the article was appeared yet again in the September, 1902, issue of The New England Magazine. It’s probably one of the best written records of the legend passed around orally by Bucksport residents to explain the headstone leg.

The History of Colonel Buck

Before getting to that legend, let’s look at the actual history of the man buried below the headstone. Jonathan Buck (1719-1795) was born in Massachusetts and became an officer in the American Revolutionary War. According to a history written by the Bucksport’s Bicentennial Committee, Buck had begun the work of developing what had been designated “Planation 1” in Maine prior to the war, but afterward, the area was named for him: first, Buckstown and then Bucksport. In another document written for the bicentennial celebration, Valerie Van Winkle writes:

Buck might have remained a traditional local hero, but in August of 1852, his grandchildren erected a monument near his grave site. As the monument weathered, an image in the form of a woman’s leg and foot appeared under the Buck name.

In the wake of this appearance, the legend rose, becoming a tantalizing tale in Bucksport’s local lore. Whittemore’s 1898 Inquirer article, Van Winkle implies, was the first record of it in print.

The Legend of the Lingering Leg

In summary, Whittemore’s version of the legend goes like this: Buck “was most Puritanical, and to him, witchcraft was the incarnation of blasphemy.” At some undated time, Buck use his civil authority to order that a woman accused of witchcraft be imprisoned, swiftly tried, and executed for that crime. The woman — probably innocent but, at least, illegally condemned — stood on the gallows and cast a curse on Buck:

"You will soon die. Over your grave they will erect a stone.... Listen all ye people -- tell it to your children and your children's children -- upon that stone will appear the imprint of my foot, and for all time long, long after your accursed race has perished from the earth, the people will come far and near, and the unborn generations will say, 'There lies the man who murdered a woman.'"

This curse, according to Whittmore, was remembered once the granite monument was put in place and the apparition of the appendage came into sight. Sure enough, it drew in spectators “from miles around to gaze and wonder.”

In other words, it became a tourist attraction. And it remains one today.

This detail of an 1875 map of Bucksport shows the location of the cemetery. The site can still be visited today, and it’s still at the corner of Main and Hinks Streets.

Problems with Reconciliation and Such Like

Unfortunately, the history and legend don’t match. Even Whittmore notes that some people will “pooh-pooh the legend and call attention to the historical discrepancy between the date of the witchcraft era and the régime of Colonel Buck.” I’ll put myself among those pooh-poohers. The belief in witchcraft as tied to Satanic allegiance, which is how the Puritans understood it, died out surprisingly quickly after the late 1600s. (Remember that the Salem witch trials occurred in 1692-93, and allegations of witchcraft were already controversial then.) Buck, born in the early 1700s, would have been raised with a very different mindset, one mingling with Enlightenment-era movements such as deism and scientific skepticism. If the adult Buck had ordered the execution of a woman for practicing witchcraft, he would have been promptly removed from any position of authority amid astonishment and snickers.

There’s also the problem with marking a murder with a rough outline of a leg. That’s just lazy legend-ing. A heart? Sure. An eye? Ooo, that would be cool! A raised middle finger would be awesome! But a leg? Van Winkle’s article cites versions of the legend written after Whittmore’s, and while these better account for the vengeful leg, they also push the legend into the realm of outright fiction.

There’s also the issue of the legend fitting a formula. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who knew quite a lot about turning legends into fiction, opens The House of the Seven Gables (1851) with a similar story of Matthew Maule being falsely accused of witchcraft by Colonel Pyncheon. Prefiguring the curse hurled at Colonel Buck, Hawthorne writes:

At the moment of execution—with the halter about his neck, and while Colonel Pyncheon sat on horseback, grimly gazing at the scene Maule had addressed him from the scaffold, and uttered a prophecy, of which history, as well as fireside tradition, has preserved the very words. 'God,' said the dying man, pointing his finger, with a ghastly look, at the undismayed countenance of his enemy,—'God will give him blood to drink!'

Moll Dyer is featured in a similar legend about a Maryland woman driven from her home by witch-hunting zealots. She extracted her revenge in the form of a rock forever marked by her hand. Touching this rock, it is said, will bring misfortune. I suspect there are additional tales that follow the pattern, too.

So We’re Left to Ask…

Why, then, do such witchy legends appear and appeal, persist and propagate? This is endlessly debatable, I suppose, but I’ll try to spark that debate with some ideas. At first, the victim-turned-vengeful-villain might seem like a contradiction. The one unfairly accused of witchcraft is revealed to have supernatural power. Maybe that power isn’t gained through a deal with the Devil, though. Maybe it comes from a higher source of justice, since it punishes the guilty. We seem to like such stories. For instance, most detective stories do the same, even though the Hand of God stuff usually goes unstated.

Come to think of it, stories in which the guilty wind up punished fill bookshelves everywhere. So let’s ask: why witches? Are these legends meant to remind those living from the 1700s onward of the dangers of clinging to old superstitions — while not abandoning the idea of Divine Justice? Do the tales represent lingering guilt over the victimization of those accused of witchcraft and, perhaps by association, any and all other groups preyed upon by a fearful and more powerful opposition?

Debatable. Luckily, none of this deep analysis has the power to destroy the pure entertainment of a kooky story about a headstone with something that looks vaguely like a leg on it. Legends are fun, and the one about the unnamed and ill-treated woman who kicked Colonel Buck where it counts is, too.


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