Twilight

Courtesy of Findagrave.com

From our modern perspective, seventeenth-century New England was a strange cultural cosmos: a post-medieval/pre-modern world where metaphysical beliefs, superstition, and fear of the supernatural still prevailed – a world in which people believed that witches were real and that ghosts, “specters,” and spirits from “the invisible world” could directly influence the lives of humans. We look back on that world today with a mixture of amusement and condescension, horror and fascination.

I’m a relative of Martha Carrier of Andover, Massachusetts, who was hanged for witchcraft in Salem in August 1692 after being convicted – largely on the basis of “spectral evidence” – of supernaturally tormenting and killing several neighbors as a minion of the Devil.[1] One of Martha’s nieces, Rebecca (Holt) Grow, is my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother. She was born in Andover in 1688; orphaned at age 10 and raised by neighboring farmers; married Thomas Grow, a young “maltster,” in 1710; and eventually migrated with her husband and six children to the northeastern Connecticut frontier town of Pomfret, where she died in 1762. Several years ago (prior the advent of findagrave.com), my wife and I traveled to Pomfret from our home in Ohio to visit Thomas and Rebecca’s graves, which are among the oldest, if not the oldest, Grow family graves in America.

Locating the cemetery was easy. Locating Thomas and Rebecca’s graves was another matter.

From two old sources – a 1913 genealogy and a 1919 NEHGS Register article – we knew that the couple had been buried in the Old Pomfret Burying Ground.[2] Locating the cemetery was easy. Locating Thomas and Rebecca’s graves was another matter. Navigating our car into the narrow gravel lane that borders the graveyard, we found ourselves gazing out on an acre or more of ancient gravestones packed haphazardly together in jagged rows extending as far as the eye could see. After coming upon a seemingly promising section of pre-revolutionary-war headstones, we immediately embarked on a decidedly unscientific search: wandering up and down row after row in hopes of stumbling upon a headstone bearing the surname “Grow.”

After an hour or so, we gave up. The gravestones were difficult to read. Many of their inscriptions were covered with lichen or badly eroded by weathering and acid rain. And the name “Grow” stubbornly refused to appear on any of those that were readable.

Further searches over the next two days yielded similarly disappointing results. Adding to our bewilderment was our discovery that Thomas and Rebecca’s names were not listed in the town hall’s burial registry for the cemetery. My frustration was becoming palpable, and I remember telling my wife: “The genealogy and the Register article can’t both be wrong. They’ve got to be there somewhere.”

The evening before our return to Ohio, we decided to give it one last try. By the time we arrived at the cemetery, the fading light of impending sunset was rapidly reducing our chances of success. Unbeknownst to me, my wife – the spiritually-inclined partner in the marriage – was saying a silent prayer to “the spirits of the ancestors” soliciting their help in locating the graves. As we stood next to our car deciding on a division of labor for our final search effort, something suddenly drew my eyes to a pair of headstones 30 yards away in a section of the cemetery that we had explored only briefly because most of the gravestones appeared to date stylistically from the nineteenth century. “I’ll start over there,” I said. As I approached the first headstone, a faint glimmer of twilight illuminated the name “Grow,” and then “Rebekah,” followed by the carved face of a Puritan soul effigy staring blank-eyed at me. To the immediate left was Thomas’ headstone.

I consider myself a rational, educated, reasonably enlightened person. When we departed Ohio at the start of our trip, I was 100 percent certain that my seventeenth-century ancestors’ belief in invisible spirits was the irrational product of unenlightened minds warped by fear of the supernatural. By the time I returned home, I was 99 percent certain of it.

Notes

[1] Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), 182–83, 233–35, 241–42, 254–56; Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), 98–100.

[2] George W. Davis, John Grow of Ipswich/John (Groo) Grow of Oxford (Washington, D.C.: privately printed by the Carnahan Press, 1913; reprinted Salem, Mass.: Higginson Book Company, n.d.), 19; “Inscriptions in the Wappaquians Burial Ground, Pomfret, Conn., 1723–1861,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 73 [1919]: 113.

About Michael Grow

Michael Grow, a retired history professor at Ohio University and a longtime NEHGS member, is the author of John Grow of Ipswich, Massachusetts and Some of His Descendants: A Middle-Class Family in Social and Economic Context From the 17th Century to the Present (Amherst, Mass.: Genealogy House, 2020).

11 thoughts on “Twilight

  1. “[A] decidedly unscientific search: wandering up and down row after row in hopes of stumbling upon a headstone bearing the surname . . . .” So few cemeteries in Michigan have any record of their old burials or have cared for any of the old stones I thought this method while asking your target ancestors for help in finding them is mandatory.

  2. Love this! I have conducted many “unscientific searches” in very large graveyards, with my aunt. Good for you for finding it, and I am glad Rebekah decided to help you….

  3. Oh Mr. Grow, you know they only reveal themselves when they are good and ready…..?

    (I think they like watching us walk to and fro through the rows – it must give them all a great chuckle.) But the spirits of your ancestors have been very kind to you. I see a strong 98% in your future. Fun post!!!

    ~ A fellow Carrier descendant.

    1. Thanks, Jeff — and thanks as well to everyone who posted comments. Based on your collective responses, we might want to think about organizing a secret Paranormal Study Group within NEHGS.

  4. Mr. Grow,
    I admire your rational and objective approach immensely; it seems to missing in many of us! It is often difficult to divine cause and effect from coincidence.
    If only education would teach us how to think, not what to think!
    sign me a former Business Assistant Professor

  5. Many is the time my husband and I methodically searched a cemetery, with him taking one row and me taking the next row—and so onward and ever onward. Fortunately, we were almost always successful, though one cemetery stymied us the first time through in extreme heat. It took a second long trip to Madison, Indiana several years later, when we found the markers immediately. Though that led to another question, since the inscription for the oldest son, Avery Hunter, said he had died in 1858 in New Orleans, Louisiana. I have still not figured out the details on that fact.

  6. Great story!
    Thirty five years ago my 8 year old son and I drove up to Maine for a few days of research. While I searched in the courthouse, my son entertained himself going up and down in the elevators. (Can’t imaging that happening today!) In the cemeteries, we took alternate rows and checked each stone for our Maine family names Linnell, Tolman, Cole, Curtis, Keen, etc. I gave him 2 or 3 names to look for, and every 15 minutes or so he’d ask “Hey dad, what were those names again?” In any case, we did have some good luck, and some fun too.
    My own “witch” ancestors are Thomas Farrar and Sarah (Towne) (Bridges) Cloyce, both of whom were released at the end of the hystreria. Sarah’s sister Rebecca wasn’t as lucky.

  7. I enjoyed your story and I find it hard to not believe that sometimes a coincidence is more than a coincidence. For years I was puzzled by what happened to the second wife of Peter Ewing ( my 2nd great grandfather) , Stella Lynch. She married Peter at the age of 17 (he was 60-61). They had two children and then no record of her. Peter’s death record states he was divorced.
    Forward about 15 years ….. I was photographing deer in a local (Pacific Grove, CA) cemetery and something made me look closer at a marker … Stella Olsen. My maiden name was Olson so it caught my attention. I thought…. I wonder if she’s in our family…so starting with her dates on the marker I researched her. Yes…the same Stella Lynch Ewing Olsen, she lived in Monterey near our current home. The Olsen family she married into (obviously a happier marriage) was not My Olson family. More than a coincidence?

  8. Love this :-). Visited Scotland a number of years back, looking for my grandfather’s grave. A group of us (including my husband and some cousins) went up and down the rows for some time. I was starting to think I would not find his grave and we might have abandoned the search – but turned around and there it was – right behind me!!!

  9. Hello Michael,

    Thank you for this enjoyable post.

    I am descended from Roger and Martha Preston of Andover, Massachusetts through their son, Samuel Preston, Sr. (1651-1738) and his wife Susanna Gutterson. Their eldest son, Samuel Preston, Jr. (1672-1717) married Sarah Bridges, the daughter of John Bridges and Sarah Howe. Samuel and Sarah are my 7th great grandparents.

    In 1692, Sarah Bridges was indicted of “wickedly and feloniously covenanting with the Devil” but was found not guilty. In 1694 she married Samuel Preston, Jr. who apparently had a bone to pick with your ancestor Martha Carrier over two dead cows, since he testified against her during the Salem Witch Trials. I always thought it rather curious that Sarah, having survived that ordeal, would marry a man whose testimony helped seal the fate of another woman who lost her life in the hysteria.

    Another interesting family connection, after Roger Preston’s death in Jan.1666, his widow Martha married Nicholas Holt (1608-1685) in May 1666.

    Be Well,

    Alane

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