Before we get to the story let me give you some perspective. George Walton is the Father of Abishag who married Robert Taprill. Their daughter Grace was the 3rd wife of Sampson Babb (1-4). Sampson was Grace’s 2nd Husband. She had 6 young children from her first marriage to Isreal Hoyt.
The only Babb’s who can claim George as their ancestor are those that descend from their one child in common Benjamin, who happened to be Sampson’s 10th child! That is a full house!
George moved to Great Island circa 1649 when he bought a piece of Land at Mosquito Neck. The land became a point of controversy and Grace’s mother would have been witness to the events in this article. So without further delay:
Holiday 2007 • Vol. 8, No. 5
Tales from the Courthouse
The Case of the Stone-Throwing Devil by Diane Rapaport
In 1682, ten years before the infamous Salem witch trials, New England faced another baffling witchcraft scare. For weeks over a long summer, residents of a New Hampshire island found themselves under siege, attacked in the dark of night by an unseen foe that hurled rocks and vandalized property. The prime suspect was an elderly widow, Hannah Jones, who had spent decades feuding with her neighbor, George Walton, about title to a piece of marshland. But one frail woman hardly seemed capable of so much furtive destruction, night after night, unless she had supernatural powers. Rumors spread — did the widow Jones resort to witchcraft when she could not beat Walton in court? — and reports of the “stone-throwing devil” circulated as far away as London.
The site of this seventeenth-century mystery, New Castle, New Hampshire, is the state’s smallest town today, a cluster of islands connected by bridges to Portsmouth, at the mouth of the Piscataqua River. Despite its small size — less than one square mile of land — this seacoast community was once an important maritime center known as Great Island, home to some of New England’s earliest settlers. Both the Walton and Jones families were longtime residents of Great Island, and much of what we know about them comes from the old court records.
George Walton, like many colonists of his day, was a jack-of-all-trades who earned his living from multiple employments: innkeeper, ferryman, vintner, tailor, lumberman, seaman, merchant, and farmer. He attracted controversy — and kept the courts busy — for many years before the strange events of 1682. He and his wife, Alice, refused to attend church, and in 1664 they were “convicted as Quakers.” George ran afoul of the liquor laws, delivering wine to fishermen (“more than would do them good”) at islands along the Maine/New Hampshire coastline. He sued trading partners — for debt, for shares of oil from a fishing voyage — and they sued him. George’s many business ventures required a large staff of laborers — English, African, and Native American servants — who also wound up in court, sometimes complaining about their master.
But it was the land itself, there at Great Island, which caused George the most trouble. Family tragedy, and a persistent cloud on the title to his property, may have led George to wonder whether someone had put a curse on him — or his land. As early as 1656, George became embroiled in a court fight with Hannah and Alexander Jones, who claimed that they were the rightful owners of marshland on Great Island’s Mosquito Neck, which George believed belonged to him. Over the objections of the Jones family, George continued to clear and mow the land, and the case remained unresolved when disaster struck.
One horrific spring day in 1657, the marshy ground near the Walton house swallowed up one of their children. Alice Walton had just carried George’s dinner to the field where he worked, leaving their youngest child in the care of an older daughter, and Alice returned a few minutes later to find that the child had vanished. The frantic mother and daughter called to neighbors, who made search, but they were too late. An inquest jury, summoned to investigate, reached this sorrowful conclusion: “the child . . . accedentalie drowned in a hole of water beinge open & not fenced.”
Perhaps in response to this heartbreaking incident, George erected fences around the disputed marshland at Mosquito Neck. An outraged Hannah Jones pulled down the gates and fences, and drove her cattle onto the land. Nasty recriminations followed — in and out of court. George called her a witch, and she retorted that he was a wizard and “an old rogue and so he would be hang’d.” A series of court hearings and appeals kept the controversy alive for years. And in the midst of this title debate, George faced land losses on another front: government authorities forced him to tear down his house and move it to another part of Great Island, when they wanted the home site for military fortifications.
By the summer of 1682, Hannah Jones was a widow, still arguing with George about the piece of marshland that both had claimed for twenty five years. Some heard her say that he would “never quietly enjoy that piece of ground,” an ominous prediction that soon came true. One Sunday night, after the Walton family and guests had gone to bed, they woke to the sound of stones hitting the house. People rushed outside in the bright moonlight but saw no one; they did, however, see the nearby fence gate “wrung off the hinges, and cast upon the ground.” Suddenly “they were all assaulted with a peal of stones,” again “by unseen hands or agents,” and everyone fled back inside. The house was no refuge, however, for more stones thumped and ricocheted through the dark rooms and hallways. And the same frightening attacks occurred — a hail of rocks and bricks — inside and out, all through that summer, usually at night, but no one managed to catch the perpetrator. Candlesticks seemed to fall off tables, pewter dishes flew through the kitchen, corn was uprooted in the fields, hay was scattered, and witnesses heard strange noises — knocking, humming, whistling, snorting.
George, of course, blamed his widowed neighbor, and he took her to court. Many witnesses believed, as did George, that the summer’s strange happenings could only have a supernatural cause, but the evidence was insufficient to prove witchcraft. The court, nonetheless, ordered Hannah to post a bond, to ensure that she keep peace with her Walton neighbors.
The stone throwing stopped, as did Hannah’s fight to regain the disputed piece of marshland. But George, perhaps, wanted to be certain that Widow Jones (or the Devil himself) would lift the long-running curse, and he decided to divest himself of his Great Island land holdings. In 1685, George deeded virtually everything to his only son, Shadrach — two “dwelling houses,” a brewhouse, nearly two hundred acres of land, livestock and servants. George’s days were numbered — he died soon after — but Hannah outlived him by at least a few more years, appearing on the tax rolls as late as 1688.
Great Island’s rock-hurling marauder never returned to frighten people in the night, and the culprit’s identity remains unknown today. Or perhaps a twenty-first-century researcher finally has solved the mystery. Just before this issue of New England Ancestors went to press, I discovered that a history professor at Salem State College, Emerson W. Baker, has authored a new book, The Devil of Great Island: Witchcraft and Conflict in Early New England (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2007). Professor Baker’s book was not yet available when I wrote this column, but I look forward to reading his new perspectives on the case of the “stone-throwing devil.”
Davis, Walter Goodwin, The Ancestry of Lydia Harmon, 1755–1836 (Boston: Stanhope Press, 1924), 81–108 (reprinting Lithobolia: Or the Stone-Throwing Devil (London, 1698), with biographical information about the Walton family).
Hammond, Otis G., ed., New Hampshire Court Records 1640–1692, Court Papers 1652–1668, State Papers Series, Vol. 40 (Concord: State of New Hampshire, 1943), 6, 8, 11, 20–21, 27, 40–41, 49, 60–62, 79, 83, 89, 91–92, 98, 107, 110–11, 113, 118–19, 121–23, 125, 127, 129–31, 134, 137, 141, 145, 147–50, 152, 161, 177, 179, 187, 189, 193–94, 196, 203, 208, 216, 245–46, 252, 284, 307, 309, 336, 338, 342, 353, 357, 359, 362, 364, 370, 375, 380, 391, 413–14, 455–60, 464, 477, 489, 490, 505, 509, 515, 522–23.
Savage, James, ed., A Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England, 4 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1860–62; reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1965), 2: 385; 4: 717.
Shurtleff, Nathaniel B., ed., Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, 5 vols. in 6 (Boston: W. White, 1853–54), 1: 245; 4(2): 445, 454.
Diane Rapaport is an award-winning author and former trial attorney. Her new book, The Naked Quaker: True Crimes and Controversies from the Courts of Colonial New England, was published October 2007 (CommonwealthEditions.com, 978-921-0747). Diane’s first book, New England Court Records: A Research Guide for Genealogists and Historians, was published in 2006 (QuillPenPress.com, 866-784-5573). Visit Diane-Rapaport.com for more information about Diane’s publications and lecture schedule.
Repost: Originally posted on May 6, 10