Jane Hooper was a Newburyport “school dame” in 1760, but after she lost that job she found fame as a fortune-teller and became known in our area as “Madam Hooper, the Witch.” The Madam had very bright grey eyes, and seemed to look through people. Her teeth were double all around, giving her chin a puffy look. Her wardrobe was extravagant — silks and satins beyond price. These antique garments were calculated to inspire credulous people with the awe which she coveted. Children ran at her approach and their elders, fearing the evil eye, were lavish in courtesy. The queerest thing of all was a jet black hen with a clipped bill which was her “familiar” and constant companion. The fowl inspired people with awe as if it were the devil incarnated.
When the Madame made her yearly visit to Ipswich, the young and the old called on her to learn of their fates. She always made her headquarters at the “Old Brick,” a house with brick ends, built by the esteemed Francis Wainwright Jr. at the top of North Main Street, where the Ipswich Inn is now.
Francis Wainwright the immigrant arrived from England in 1630 and moved to Ipswich around 1637. He was among the first to volunteer in the Pequot War against the Indians, and distinguished himself for personal bravery. He was young and vigorous, firing his musket until his powder and shot were spent, then beating off the enemy with the stock of his gun. For his services in this war Francis Wainwright received a land grant from the town of Ipswich. He became a prominent merchant, and bought this property from Robert Paine on Sept. 30, 1690 (Ips. Deeds 5:326), but died only two years later in 1692.
His son, also named Francis, bought the property in 1702, and it was probably he who built the “Old Brick.” He served as Town Clerk, Representative in General Court, and Justice of the General Sessions Court. After his wife died, Wainwright was engaged to Eliza Hirst of Salem. The honorable gentleman took ill just before the planned wedding and died suddenly on a hot summer Day, August 3, 1711 at the age of 48. So that the body might be kept until the invited guests arrived, the coffin was carried into the cellar. Madame Hooper knew that superstitious people thought the cellar of the house was haunted by the ghost of Francis Wainwright, whose widely anticipated wedding had instead become his funeral.
His demise was a complete and surprising disappointment to the stately guests who arrived from far and wide only to find him laid out in his wedding clothes beside the bride’s attire, but no bride and no wedding.
Great provision had been made for their entertainment, and so it was with mixed emotions that they stayed on. Francis Wainwright was laid in a new tomb recently of his making, and his dead first wife was taken out of another and laid with him. At the funeral, the intended bride Betty Hirst became instead the Principal Mourner for the crowd assembled.
But back to the story of Madame Hooper:
One day a company of boys and girls in their teens went to inquire of their fates. Joseph Smith, a frolicsome youth recently employed as a journeyman sailor, was of the number. She speedily turned him to a profound silence by a piercing look of her cat-like grey eyes. Standing before Joseph she said, “You’ll go to sea — you’ll encounter a seven day gale of wind — a great gale — but don’t you be afeard, for not one soul will be lost !” True enough, a few weeks later, off the Highlands of Halifax (Cape Cod), he encountered the predicted gale on September 23, 1815, now known as the Hurricane of 1815.
The vessel was “hove to” seven days and seven nights. The sailors were filled with fears and prayers, but Joseph said later, “I put all my trust in Witch Hooper’s words, and I didn’t have a mite of fear.” Joseph Smith lived to the age of 98 and died in 1881. He is buried at the Old North Burial Ground.
Madame Hooper became the frequent adviser of “Lord Timothy Dexter” the extremely rich and equally insane character from Newburyport. (He, by the way, was once arrested and thrown in the Ipswich Jail for shooting at a person he observed looking at his house, which was surrounded by dozens of statues of himself. Lord Dexter eventually purchased his freedom from Ipswich Jail at a cost that was said to be thousand of dollars.)
During the last years of Jane Hooper’s life she was in destitute circumstances, and was assisted by the town authorities. She died May 16, 1798. The following notice appeared in the Newburyport Herald and Country Gazette on the eighth of June:
“Died at the alms house, a person known by the name of Madam Hooper, aged about 80, for many years a terror to weak and superstitious minds, who honored her with the appellation of witch.”
Madam Hooper’s name remained a household word which was handed down through the generations.
After Jane Hooper’s death the Madam’s followers turned for guidance from clairvoyant Moll Pitcher of Marblehead. Moll Pitcher’s seeming ability to predict the future is documented. Others claimed she was a witch. It was said she could curdle milk directly from the cow and turn it into blue wool. Every odd occurrence seemed to be attributed to old Moll. Ships appeared and were immediately wrecked, then vanished into thin air. Dead men walked on water. The wind could name those sailors who would never return. She caused a man to be chased by a corpse while still in its coffin! Her reputation extended to Amesbury where a man was observed walking the road carrying his head under his arm, somehow all attributed to Moll Pitcher.
Some claim Moll Pitcher’s reputation led to her death at the hands of fellow citizens, but all we know is that she died at the age of 74 on April 9, 1813. The home where she lived still stands in Marblehead. She is the subject of a 900-line poem by John Greenleaf Whittier. Her tombstone has an epitaph from Whittier’s poem:
“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.”
Sources and further reading:
- Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian
- Reminiscences of Joseph Smith
- Essex Antiquarian, Molly Pitcher, by Sidney Perley
- Legends of America
- Moll Pitcher’s prophecies
- Wikipedia: Storm of 1815
- Lord Timothy Dexter
- Wikipedia: Francis Wainwright
- Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony by Thomas Franklin Waters Volume I
- Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony by Thomas Franklin Waters Volume II
- History of Newburyport by Euphemia Vale Blake