Sympathy for the Witch: Gloucester’s Peg Wesson Legend and the Escalation of Vengeance

First, a Bit of History

Vengeance often appears in witch legends, at least, those rooted in the U.S. A woman who might or might not be a witch is exiled or executed for the crime, and before making her exit, she casts a curse. The curse comes true, too, though it’s left unclear if its power stems from Divine Justice or something much more evil. This narrative motif also pops up in Massachusetts’s Peg Wesson legend. A short history lesson might be useful to better understand the context of this folktale.

Before the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), Britain and its North American colonists waged a series of wars against France and its North American colonists. Roughly speaking, the battles took place in Canada’s Maritimes and down the east coast of the United States, though these places weren’t called that then. Different indigenous tribes allied themselves with both sides, and the wars on this side of the Atlantic were intertwined with conflicts in Europe. One point of particular interest was the Fortress of Louisbourg, which sat on the eastern edge of what’s now Cape Breton Island in the province of Nova Scotia. In 1745, militia forces from New England, under the command of William Pepperell, joined with the British Royal Navy to seize that fort. They succeeded. (Incidentally, control went back to France under the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle of 1748, but the British captured it again in 1758. After all — and I’m probably oversimplifying here — that fort regulated access to the St. Lawrence River, which allowed the British to take political power in Québec City, Montreal, and finally all of Canada.)

This sketch of Louisbourg is based on a painting and found in Lieutenant-General Sir William Pepperell, Bart (1887), by Everett Pepperrell Wheeler

Babson’s 1860 Transcription of the Tale

Some of the soldiers who followed Pepperell in 1745 came from Gloucester, Massachusetts. The setting of the legend is that town shortly before those soldiers departed. I’ve found no earlier written record of the tale than what’s in John J. Babson’s History of the Town of Gloucester (1860). His transcription is short, and I’ll shorten it even more. Before heading up to fight the French, a few cocky Gloucester lads decided it’d be fun to pester Peg Wesson, who “was reputed to be witch.” They irritated her enough that “she threatened them with vengeance at Louisb[o]urg.” Once on the battleground, the hooligans noticed a crow stalking them. Unable to kill the bird, “it occurred to one of them that it must be Peg Wesson” and a silver bullet was needed to end her otherworldly counter-pestering. One of the soldiers loaded his gun with some of the silver buttons from his sleeve, and this tactic ended the life of the shape-shifting witch. Or something like that. Back in Gloucester, “at the exact moment the crow was killed, Peg Wesson fell down.” She had somehow broken her leg, and extracted from the wound were “the identical sleeve buttons fired at the crow”! Babson ends the vignette by saying that, while it’s hard to imagine anyone ever believing it, the folktale was told by some Gloucester citizens with “apparent belief in it” within the previous half-century.

Of course, the point of the story is to dazzle the listener with the mystery of the silver button/bullet jumping from Nova Scotia to Massachusetts. Does this prove Wesson was a witch all along? If so, as Babson tells the tale, she is presented as a mostly harmless one. Even when provoked, she just caws a lot. The villains — or, at least, antagonists — are those rowdy soldiers, who might be easily deemed murderers by the end. If the Biblical injunction to “not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18) was part of their motivation, it goes unstated. Instead, after incurring Wesson’s vengeance for their bad behavior, they decide she transformed into a crow to taunt them — and so they kill her! Wow! Hardly a flattering portrait of Gloucester’s bravest!

But maybe this is really a parable about rapidly escalating vengeance. A is rude to B, B retaliates against A with magic, so A kills B. It’s blunt, but it does make a point: don’t be a bully — especially to seemingly defenseless old women — because it can get ugly fast.

This illustration of the gang of Gloucester soldiers incurring the wrath of Peg Wesson comes from Sarah Comstock’s “The Broomstick Trail,” an 1920 article in Harper’s Monthly.

And Duley’s 1892 Adaptation

I have a hunch that the Sarah G. Duley identified as a member of the Cape Ann Scientific and Literary Association in The Gloucester Directory 1882-83 is the very same Sarah G. Duley whose name appears on an interesting retelling of the Peg Wesson legend. If I’m right, the author might have grown up hearing the legend and, though her version adds a level of detail and dialogue typically found in prose fiction, these might have been molded as much by oral tradition as by Duley’s own imagination. I like to think so, anyway.

Acknowledged as having originated in the Boston Transcript, Duley’s 1892 adaptation was reprinted in newspapers from Vermont to Arizona and from North Carolina to the State of Washington. It’s more than a hunch that the legend reached more readers through Duley’s spin on it than through Babson’s history of Gloucester. As I say, she adds some nice touches, such as when the soldiers — now named Martin Sanders, Jacob Ayers, and Tom Goodwin — try to trick Wesson by paying her with fake coins to read their futures. We also get specifics on how the witch-in-feathered-form retaliates: being suspiciously present when Sanders nearly drowns, when Ayers gets his arm crushed, and when Goodwin’s ankle gets chomped by a fox trap. Duley gives A and B clear reasons for retaliation.

Otherwise, Duley’s adaptation echoes Babson’s transcription. The soldiers shoot the crow with silver, and — at the exact moment, roughly 600 miles away — Wesson falls from a broken leg with the same bits of silver found in her wound. Now, though, Wesson dies of her injury and is buried in an unmarked grave. If readers haven’t already been moved to sympathize with the witch, Duley adds another flourish to drive the point home. She rhapsodizes:

Poor maligned, persecuted Peggy! For thee and such as thou there should indeed be, there must be, some happier sphere where the shadows of earth may be forgotten in the glad sunshine of happiness unknown before. 

Even if the soldiers had garnered sorrow for their woes, Duley makes it very clear that Peg Wesson is the real victim of vengeance gone terribly awry. Indeed, Heaven awaits the witch! Instead of not suffering witches to live, then, audiences of the Peg Wesson legend — and others like it circulating in the U.S. during the 1800s — were urged to pity the suffering of witches.


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