An old legend about the Gloucester witch Peg Wesson is often mentioned, but never was it told in such detail as in this story, written by Sarah G. Daley and published in the Boston Evening Transcript, October 14, 1892. It was carried in papers throughout the country.
It was March, 1745, and the company raised in Gloucester to join the expedition against Louisburg was to leave the town with the rising of the morrow’s sun. In the spring twilight, three young men made their way, with noisy jest and song toward a wretched cottage that stood in the outskirts of the town. They rapped loudly for admittance, and the door was opened by a withered old crone. A candle, burning on a small table, dimly revealed the blackened walls of the interior, the bunches of herbs hanging from the ceiling, a scant supply of battered pewter plates and coarse earthenware on some shelves in a corner, a few old chairs and a pack of worn and greasy cards apparently just flung down.
“What ye here for? Off with ye” cried the old woman when she saw who her visitors were.
“Oh, now Peggy,” said the tallest of the three in a wheedling tone, “We’re off in the morning for Louisburg, you know, and we thought we’d pay you a farewell visit and get our fortunes told.”
“I’ll warrant ye’ve no silver to pay me with, Martin Sanders.” said Peggy, keeping a firm grip on the door and pushing it as she talked.
“Here’s a bright new silver sixpence for ye”, said Martin, displaying it as he spoke. “And Tom and Job have more of the same sort. So now let us come in and give us a good send off.”
The money proved an argument to be gainsaid, and Peggy admitted them. When they were seated she took up her cards, shuffled them and proceeded to tell the young men’s fortunes. Job Ayers came first, then Tom Goodwin. When Martin Sanders’ turn came, and Goody Wesson crossed his palm with the coin he handed her, his imperturbable gravity contrasted with the irrepressible snickering of his companions, made her suddenly suspicious. She gave him a searching glance, then as she was about to place the coin on the table with the two others she scrutinized it keenly with her old eyes in the dim room, and balanced it on her hand.
Ayers and Goodwin giggled and moved toward the door, but not the ghost of a smile passed over Martin Sanders’ face. Peg struck the coin smartly against the base of the iron candlestick and listened to the sound, then pressed it against the edge of the table. It bent with the pressure.
“Curse ye, Mart Sanders,” she cried in a sudden fury, “It’s lead.” Then martin Sanders laughed, and the three, roaring with laughter at the result of their poor trick, opened the door of Goody Wesson’s cottage and rushed out into the night. She ran after them, brandishing her staff and raving like a mad woman. “Curse ye Mart Sanders!” she screamed, “Curse the three of ye, body and breath, flesh and bone! Curse ye lying down and rising up, sleeping and walking, living and dying! I’ll take vengeance on ye at Louisburg!”
The night wind bore the dismal threat and its repetition to their ears and silenced their laughter as they ran down the hill to their homes in the more thickly settled part of town.
The great fleet of nearly 100 vessels that made up the expedition against Louisburg sailed from Boston on the 1st day of April. Favored by wind and weather it soon reached Cape Breton, and was coasting along the shore of that island toward its destined haven. In many of the vessels the soldiers were watching the hills and woods on shore with the interest inspired by new scenes, but every indentation of the coast was familiar to most of the Gloucester men, for they had often been there on their fishing voyages. Their attention was attracted to the singular movements of a solitary crow that hovered persistently above them, now and then alighting on the topmast.
As they were entering the harbor of Louisburg, Martin Sanders was sent forward to assist in furling the jib. A rope parted suddenly under his feet and he fell headlong into the sea. The last sound that fell upon his ears before the rushing waters closed over him was the hoarse screaming of the crow. A powerful current was running and it was only with great difficulty that Sanders was rescued. When the excitement was over, and the half drowned man was once more safely on deck, the crow had disappeared.
The fleet cast anchor in the harbor and countless boats took the men on shore. Before the siege could commence, the cannon must be landed and placed in favorable position. It was an arduous toil, for this soil was boggy and the men often sank to their knees, but all worked with a will, and the guns, one after another were landed.
Goodwin and Ayers, with others, were dragging a cannon on a sledge through half-frozen mud when suddenly with a whir of wings a crow alighted on it. Job Ayers made a dash at it with his cap. At the very instant that he did so, the rear of the sledge sank in the treacherous soil, the cannon gave a sudden lurch, and the arm he had flung out was caught between the cannon and sledge and hopelessly crushed. The unfortunate man was carried into camp and his arm amputated.
The work of the siege went on day after day. Foraging parties were sent out sometimes, for the rations were somewhat stale and monotonous, and there was excellent game in abundance in the vicinity. Sanders and Goodwin made two of such a party one pleasant May afternoon. Once during their hunting they noticed a crow circling near them. They were returning to camp when Goodwin, striding across some low shrubbery in search of a fallen bird, thrust his foot into an open fox trap, which closed around his ankle, the sharp points penetrating into his flesh. His cry for help was echoed by the “Caw! caw”” of the crow. It was with infinite difficulty that his companions released him.
Pale and half-fainting with pain and loss of blood, he looked up at the crow, still near. “I believe it’s a witch,” he cried. “Peg Wesson, by heavens!” exclaimed Sanders, recalling the witch’s curse. He lifted his loaded fowling piece, took steady aim and fired. “Caw! caw! caw!” screamed the crow, derisively winging its onward way unhurt. Martin Sanders was a renowned shot and never known to miss such a mark before. His companions noted his failure with amazement, and though they thought it was a poor use for good powder and shot, another and another fired, but with the same result.
“It is surely a witch,” cried Goodwin, who lying on the grass with hastily bandaged ankle, was looking grimly on. “It is surely a witch, and not to be brought down by a leaden bullet. Nothing but silver will bring down a witch.”
“That’s true,” cried Martin Sanders. He hastily tore his silver sleeve buttons from his wrist and wrenched them asunder. It was the work of a minute to load his gun with one of the pieces. The crow was still within gunshot. He took deliberate aim and fired. Wounded in the leg, the bird fluttered downward in lessening circles and apparently fell in some bushes close by. But careful and prolonged search failed to discover it.
For some days the woodmen who passed Peg Wesson’s hut morning and night on their way to and from their work in the forest noticed that there was no smoke in the chimney. “Peg’s off on her broomstick,” said one. “There’s ill luck for somebody somewhere,” said another.
It was a mild and sunny May afternoon and they were busily hewing in the woods when they heard a faint moaning, and at length, following the sound, they came upon Peg Wesson lying on the ground and unable to get up. How came she there? They could have sworn that she had not passed them on the path, and who could have made her way through the impenetrable jungle beyond?
Though loath to touch her they helped her to her feet. She was unable to take a step. Her leg was broken. A rude litter was made and she was taken home, uttering maledictions all the way. A doctor was called. When he examined the fracture he extracted there a small piece of silver which he carefully preserved.
When the soldiers returned from Louisburg, victorious and jubilant at having destroyed the hornet’s nest that had long been a torment to Gloucester, they heard with amazement what had befallen Peg Wesson, for in comparing dates they found that she had fallen with the broken leg at the very time that the crow had been shot. Sanders produced his part of the sleeve buttons. The doctor produced his. They were precisely alike. They were linked together again and carefully preserved by Martin Sanders and his descendants. Indeed, they are kept to this day in the family, for naught I know to the contrary. They were brought out and exhibited whenever this remarkable story was told, and it was very often told.
Peg Wesson never recovered from her injury. She died soon after and received decent burial, but there is no stone bearing her name in the old graveyard.
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.
Peggy’s cottage, untenanted after her death, long the sport of the elements fell into decay. But if one cares to know where it stood, its site near the old garrison can be pointed out by any of the older inhabitants, for this is no tale of the imagination, but one in which our forefathers and foremothers implicitly believed.