The Hard Artifacts
Up in Maine, there’s a legend about a woman who — moments before being hanged for witchcraft — cursed the vehement witch hunter, Jonathan Buck. The curse is manifested in the image of a leg that cannot be removed from Buck’s cemetery monument. The history of this is doubtful, of course, but something that looks like a leg is indeed on Buck’s gravestone. It can seen today.
That tale is similar to one down in Maryland, and like the Buck headstone, a very solid artifact remains. However, here, instead of the witch hunter being named, we know who the vengeful victim was: Moll Dyer. The legend is transcribed in an 1892 issue of the Saint Mary’s Beacon, a county newspaper published in Leonardtown. Like many legends, this story is set in a murky period “when witchcraft was more believed in than now” and during “such a Winter as the old times knew.” Some forgotten calamity inspired settlers near Leonardtown to accuse Dyer, a defenseless and impoverished woman, of being witch. A nameless mob of witch hunters rose to exile her by burning down her hut. A few days later, Dyer’s body was found frozen to death. The position of the corpse, however, was remarkable. The writer explains that Dyer had died upright while
kneeling on a stone with one hand resting thereon and the other raised as if in prayer.... The story runs that she offered a prayer to be avenged on her persecutors and that a curse be put upon them and their lands.... [T]he stream by the hut is known to this day as Moll Dyer's Run, and the stone but a short distance away, upon which she knelt, is now pointed out to the curious, bearing upon its face the clear impressions of her knees and hand.
The rock is now on display at the Saint Mary’s County Historical Society, and Atlas Obscura has some of the best photographs of it I can find. Personally, I don’t see any marks left by knees or a hand, but we can blame that on erosion or on my not seeing the rock up close.
Trouble Tracking the Transcriber
When I was researching that Maine legend about Buck’s headstone, I had a pretty easy time tracking an anonymous newspaper article to a reprint of it in a magazine, the latter identifying the author. This time, though, my detective work has fizzled. The first paragraph of the anonymous Saint Mary’s Beacon article is quoted at the end of a footnote in James W. Thomas’s Chronicles of Colonial Maryland (1913) with “J.F. Morgan” named as the author. That’s about as far as I’ve gotten. The initials aren’t much to go on, and Morgan is a common surname. Still, I like to imagine that this is the same person who offered medical services in an earlier issue of the Beacon.
Who knows? Maybe Dr. Morgan transcribed local legends as he waited at Uncle Joe’s for his next patient. As I say, though, this is disappointing detective work. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to go on in this case — including an absence of old accounts of the legend itself.
Trouble Tracking Other Early Records of the Legend
There’s another legendary witch’s rock with a curse that’s said to be near West Greenwich, Rhode Island. It’s said to be there, but no one really knows where it is. Nonetheless, I found accounts of that legend in sources dated 1885, 1896, and 1904. Maybe I was just very lucky in that case because — other than the article discussed above — I’m not able to find anything comparable regarding the cursed witch’s rock now on public display in Leonardtown.
I had high hopes for Annie Weston Whitney and Caroline Canfield Bullock’s Folk-Lore from Maryland, published in 1925. But there are no references to the Moll Dyer tale, not even in a section titled “Stories of Witchcraft, Devil’s Babies, Etc.” I’ve been thwarted (cursed?) when looking for pre-1925 records of the legend on Google Books, Chronicling America, Hathitrust, and other helpful digital archives.
Yet if you do an Internet search for “Moll Dyer” or “Leonardtown witch,” you’ll find all kinds of information about the legend, including some interesting attempts to uncover historical information about Dyer herself. (I can recommend this site, for instance. ) I’d suspect this legend was a fairly recent invention — if not for that 1892 article in the Beacon. A part of the legend noted on the Web is how touching the rock is rumored to affect one’s health, for better or worse. That significant detail isn’t mentioned in the Beacon article. Maybe that’s the real value of locating old transcriptions of legends. While confirming that a particular legend has been around for, say, over a century, such records also suggest how such legends evolve across time.