By Sidney Perley, published March 1899 in the Essex Antiquarian
“Moll Pitcher,” the famous fortune-teller of Lynn, has no birth record. So the place of her first appearance in life cannot be thus determined. The tenement house, known as the ” Old Brig,” situated at the junction of Pond and Orne streets in Marblehead, is the reputed birthplace. The records, however, fail to confirm this.
It is said that she was born in 1738 ; and this date was probably obtained by subtracting her alleged age from the year of her death. Her father, Aholiab Diamond, was living in Lynn in 1735, and, as far as known, ever afterward lived there, being there in 1762. He married Lydia, daughter of Henry and Abigail (Collins) Silsbee of Lynn, being published Sept. 21, 1735. Where he first lived in Lynn is not known. Sept. 12, 1738, his wife’s father, who was a husbandman, conveyed to Aholiab one hundred and forty square rods of land on the road to Marblehead, being the lot laid out to Ephraim Silsbee on the town commons, and a part of the tract known as the “Wood End Rocks.”
Upon this lot of land, which measured fourteen rods on the road and ten rods in-depth, Aholiab erected a dwelling house and barn, and removed thither. Whether Mary was born before or after the erection of the house cannot be determined. This road was lonely, being rough and little traveled. The house stood at the foot of High Rock in the southern part of what was afterwards known as the Rock’s pasture, the whole territory being lonely and wild, with rocks outcropping and stunted red cedars growing here and there. The house occupied a position on a southern slope, fronting towards the sea. In the old days a small, uncared-for garden was in front, and broken rocks, thistles and nettles occupied the rear. The house still stands on the northwesterly side of Essex street, nearly opposite Pearl street. The accompanying engraving shows the house as it formerly appeared.
Of Mary Diamond’s education nothing is known; but the good quality of her signature (shown herewith), as written in 1770, when she was about thirty-two, indicates that she was not wholly deficient. It must be remembered that in her childhood days there were no public schools for girls; and, therefore, what they learned had to be acquired elsewhere and in other ways. Mr. Diamond was a cordwainer, and probably had an apprentice named Robert Pitcher, to whom Mary was married Oct. 2, 1760. They continued to live at her father’s, and had born to them one son, John, and three daughters, Rebecca, Ruth and Lydia. Their descendants are today among the respectable citizens of Lynn. Her brothers, Samson Silsbee Diamond and Richard Diamond, were probably never married, and lived at home, working with their father. Sept. 23, 1762, Mr. Diamond conveyed the house, barn and lot to his son Samson. Sept. 6, 1766, Samson conveyed the premises to his brother Richard. t Richard Diamond died two years later, and the other brother and parents dying about this time, Mrs. Pitcher being the sole heir to the property.
When Mrs. Pitcher began her professional career is not known. Probably the practice grew from isolated instances of successful averments in reference to future events, dating back to her early womanhood. It is said that soon after her marriage she was known as a fortune-teller, having then a clientage which continued to increase in importance during the fifty years that she afterwards lived. Her fame reached every fireside in New England, and her successful predictions, alike astounding to the vulgar and the educated, were the themes of many midnight vigils and forecastle story tellers. Not only was she consulted by the poor and ignorant, but by the rich and intelligent, by the accomplished and vulgar, the timid and the brave, the simple rustic from New Hampshire and the nobleman of Europe. The predictions concerned love affairs, legacies, discovery of crime, successful lottery tickets, and the more common contingencies of life.
These were the subjects of her staple productions but her most important visitors came from those interested in various ways in the commerce of the region. The sailor before the mast, and cabinboy, as well as the ship owner, resorted to her humble abode under High Rock, to ascertain the results of a voyage, vessels sometimes, it is asserted, failing to sail at the time set, as the effect of her predictions, either from the refusal of the crew to start, or the owner to risk his vessel upon a voyage whose end Moll predicted would be disastrous.
Treasure- seekers, who were numerous in her time, frequently sought her assistance in locating stores of hidden treasure along our coast. It is said that she had neither sympathy nor patience with them, and would reply to them sharply, ” Fools, if I knew where money was hurried, do you think I would part with the secret?” It may be that many of Lord Timothy Dexter’s peculiar commercial speculations were due to her shrewdness and foresight, as it is said he was wont to obtain her advice, in which he placed implicit confidence.
The table over which Mrs. Pitcher conducted her interviews with clients is in the possession of the Essex Institute, at Salem. It is a small round table, which, when the lids are raised, measures about thirty inches in diameter. A picture of it is shown herewith. In discovering the secrets of the future, Mrs. Pitcher used tea. When steeped she turned it into a cup, unstrained. The peculiarities of the position assumed by the particles of tea in the bottom of the cup decided the fate of the inquirer.
The only house near Mrs. Pitcher’s was that of Dr. Henry Burchstead, which stood directly opposite on the other side of the road. In 1755, the doctor had two great bones of a whale erected for gate posts before his house. These posts remained there all through the period of Mrs. Pitcher’s professional career. Most of her clients went to her secretly, and many were the sly inquiries of those strangers who were visiting her for the first time for the place where the big whale bones were to be seen, thus learning the residence of Mrs. Pitcher without inquiring for it.
She was not the withered, decrepit and toothless drone of Spencer, or Otway’s wrinkled hag, with age grown double, “Picking dry sticks and mumbling to herself;” but a woman in all respects like other women of her time and place, a devoted wife and mother and a kind neighbor. So much was she like other people,that nothing but the unequivocal testimony of a multitude of witnesses could have established the reputation she acquired as one able to foretell events, which she did sometimes ten or twenty years before they occurred.
Without the extraordinary power which she possessed, concerning which she made no pretence of anything superhuman, she was a woman who must have had commanding influence in every relation of life. She was well-formed, of medium height and size, with a large head. Her forehead was broad and full; and in her earlier years the masses of her dark brown hair shaded her pale thin face, which, though not beautiful, was decidedly interesting. Her countenance was intellectual, with a thoughtful, pensive look, almost approaching to melancholy, as though, as a writer has said, her mind was overburdened with being the depository of so many confidences, perhaps crimes. Her eyes were calm but keenly penetrating, as though she was able to read the secrets in the heart of a client. She was shrewd, and possessed of excellent judgment and acute discernment. Her manners were agreeable, and her native wit often displayed itself. She was benevolent, being thoughtful of the welfare of others, and was known to walk two miles to a mill, before sunrise, for meal to carry to a poor widow, who would otherwise have had no breakfast either for herself or children. An old-fashioned bonnet that Mrs. Pitcher was wont to wear is shown herewith. She died April 9, 181 3, at the age of seventy-five; and her remains were hurried in the old burying-ground near the western end of the common in Lynn.
Her grave remained unmarked until 1887, when Isaac O. Guild and John T. Moulton, to distinguish the spot, erected a neat gravestone bearing the following inscription : Mary Pitcher 1738-1813 Mr. Pitcher survived her, and died May 7, 1822. “Even she, our own weird heroine, Sole Pythoness of ancient Lynn, Sleeps calmly where the living laid her ; And the wide realm of sorcery, Left, by its latest mistress, free. Hath found no gray and skilled invader.”