Gateway to the Classics: Boys and Girls of Colonial Days by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey
Boys and Girls of Colonial Days by  Carolyn Sherwin Bailey

The Jack-o'-Lantern Witch

T HE grim iron doors of the prison clanged shut and the turnkey fastened them. Hearing the sound, Desire touched the homespun sleeve of the little boy with whom she was walking home from market down the narrow street of the musty old town of Salem.

"Did you hear that sound of the locking of the doors, Jonathan? It means that they've caught and imprisoned another witch."

The boy, a quaint little figure in his long trousers, short jacket, and ruffled shirt looked, wide-eyed, at the little girl. Quite as strangely dressed a child as Jonathan was small Desire, the only daughter of Elder Baxter who was high in authority in old Salem in those far-away days. Although not quite twelve summers and winters of the New England of a stern long-ago had painted Desire's plump cheeks the pink of a rose and burned the shining gold of her hair, her gray frock with its short waist and long skirt nearly trailed the gray cobble stones of the street. Her soft brown hair was braided close to her head and pulled back tightly in front from her white brow and tucked out of sight beneath her stiff cap. A white kerchief was folded closely about her primly held shoulders and over her frock she wore a long, dark cape for the fall day was chill.

Jonathan set down the rush basket of food supplies he was carrying for Desire, and he touched the iron paling that shut in the prison.

"Do you know who the witch is, Desire?" he asked, his voice low with awe.


"Do you know who the witch is, Desire?" he asked

"Not I," the little maid answered, "but they do say that she has been brewing her spells for six months' time before the elders caught her. I heard my father and mother talking about it only this morning. They said that before the day was over the witch that was the cause of all our recent troubles in Salem would be caught and safely imprisoned."

"What troubles?" Jonathan asked.

"Have you not heard, Jonathan?" Desire lowered her voice and looked up and down the street to see that no one was listening to her.

"Abigail Williams was ill of the whooping cough and she had three fits which, as every one knows, is a sign that a witch had cast a spell over her. And Mercy Talcott's teakettle boiled over and nearly scalded Mercy's mother. On the way for some ointment at the doctor's to put on her mother's hand, Mercy saw the witch herself flying over the tops of the trees on Gallows Hill and," Desire's voice was a whisper now, "she was riding on a broomstick."

"How did Mercy know that it was a witch, and how could she be riding on a broomstick?" asked the practical Jonathan.

Desire tossed her head. "I can't explain that to you, Jonathan. It was toward evening and Mercy says that she saw a long, dark form in the trees and she heard the dry leaves rustle."

"Crows!" said Jonathan.

"For shame, Jonathan," said Desire. "Do you not know that the eyes of Mercy Talcott are keen for seeing witches. She is to be at the trial to-morrow, and identify the evil creature." Desire repeated the words of her elders in those far-away Colonial days of ignorance and superstition. "When shall we rid ourselves of this pest of witchcraft in Salem?" she said.

"Well," Jonathan said, swinging the basket upon his shoulder and leading the way along the street again, "[should be t instead of T]There'll probably be one less witch to-morrow for she won't have a chance to escape if that tale-bearing Mercy Talcott is at the trial. Let us go on by the side street and see if Jack is safe at Granny Hewitt's, Desire."

The two children hastened their steps and passed the scattering little brown houses of old Salem. Their quaintly gabled roofs made them look like dolls' cottages. The windows with their tiny diamond-shaped panes were neatly curtained with white. At one house, a little larger than the others and having no garden, they drew their breath.

"The Witches' House," said Desire.

It was here that so many of these unfortunate creatures of the dark days of Salem had been kept in confinement before they met their punishment in prison, on the ducking stool, or on Gallows Hill. A little farther along they passed a great white meeting-house where a gilded weathercock pointed bravely to the sky and high, white pillars stood at either side of the doorway.

"The witch will be tried here in the morning," Jonathan said, and the two children walked a little faster toward a pleasanter stopping place, Governor Endicott's big white house, set in the midst of his fair English garden.

Even now, when the wind blew cold from the water front and rustled the cornstalks and rattled the red pods of the rose hips, the Governor's garden was a pleasant place for a child to see. Bright little marigolds, defying the frost, lifted their orange blossoms along the path. Great beds of scarlet dahlias and purple asters made a mass of color. The late sun marked for itself a long, golden shaft across the sundial, and at the back of the house could be seen a patch of winter squashes and pumpkins mellowing in a sunny spot.

"Was not the Governor kind to give us the pumpkin?" said Jonathan.

"And wasn't Granny kind to show us how to make it into so strange a hobgoblin of a creature as is our Jack?" added Desire. "She said that almost no other granny in old Salem was old enough to remember about carving a pumpkin into a face as they did long ago in England. She told me that we must keep it a secret until All Hallow E'en, and then take the pumpkin with a tallow drip shining inside him, lighting his funny face, down through the street to show the other children."

"I lighted it last night," Jonathan confessed. "I went to Granny's house with a cheese ball that was a gift from my mother to Granny."

"How did the pumpkin look?" asked Desire eagerly.

"Fearsome!" said Jonathan. "We put it in the window and I went outside in the dark to look at it. It had the appearance of a grinning monster," the boy laughed at his memory of the Jack-o'-Lantern.

"Here we are at Granny's. Let us go in a moment," Desire said as the two stopped before a tumble-down cottage at the end of a tiny lane. Granny Hewitt lived alone there, a little wrinkled crone with a face like a brown walnut and eyes that shone like two stars. But her mouth, oh, that was the best part of Granny; all the children said that it made them think of their own dear mother's when she smiled. How could a smile be lovelier than that?

Having no kin of her own, Granny Hewitt loved the boys and girls who passed her cottage every day on their way to and from school. She made molasses cookies and vinegar taffy for them. She put balm on their scratches, and covered their primers and spellers with pieces of bright calico. No wonder Desire and Jonathan wanted to stop a moment at Granny Hewitt's house. They went up the white gravel path with its neat border of clam shells. Desire lifted the big brass knocker on the door, letting it drop with a clang.


Granny Hewitt loved the boys and girls.

There was no sound inside.

"She has gone to market," Jonathan said.

"Well, good-bye, Jonathan," Desire said, taking her basket from the boy's hands. "I probably shall not see you to-morrow. It may be that my father will let me sit in our pew in the meeting-house during the witch's trial."

Jonathan's eyes almost popped out of his head in surprise. "Could I go, too?" he asked.

"I'll see if I can get you in," Desire promised as the two friends parted.

The morning of the witch's trial was as bright and peaceful as the fall sun lighting field and dingy streets and roofs could make it. By half-after seven, although the trial was not to begin until ten, the green common that surrounded the Second Meeting-house was a moving black and gray mass of stern men in their dark capes, buckled shoes, and tall hats, and gray-gowned women.

Inside the meeting-house every pew was filled. The platform was lined with the black-gowned elders, and the Governor himself, a dignified figure in his flowing cloak and powdered wig, occupied the pulpit. Desire sat, prim and quiet beside her mother, her little round head not much above the high back of the pew. On the other side sat Jonathan whose urgent request to come had been granted.

It was rumored that the witch who was about to be tried was of some repute in the practice of magic, and that she was to be made an example for any followers whom she might have.

Jonathan nudged Desire's elbow. "Where is she?" he asked.

"Ssh,"  the little girl put a warning finger to her lips. "They'll bring her out in a minute." As she finished her whispered warning, her father, Elder Baxter, rose and began to speak.

"We are met together to pass judgment upon a woman of Salem town who has wrought her magic arts to the undoing of its citizens. She has cast her spell over a child and thrown it into dire sickness. She has bewitched the kitchen of our neighbor, Elder Talcott. A child of twelve years and well versed in the art of discovering witchcraft saw this same witch after she had practiced her arts. Mercy Talcott will please come to the platform. Bring in the witch."

Desire and Jonathan craned their necks to see better as the black row of the elders parted to let in a bent, trembling little old lady. Two jailers guarded her, one on each side. She still wore her tidy white apron with its knitting pocket, and her white cap was tied neatly under her chin. She was shaking from head to foot with her fright. Her head was bent low so that no one could see her face. She held her Bible clasped closely to her heart.

At the same time Mercy Talcott, a little girl dressed like Desire but with a less winning face, stepped up, also, to the platform. It was the custom of those strange days to believe that certain children could identify witches, and Mercy was one of these children.

The elder spoke again, "I have not made one most important charge of all as I wish to make it in the presence of the prisoner, herself. She has a creature of some other kind than human with whom she consults on matters of witchery. It has been seen at night looking out of her window with glaring eyes and wide-open mouth set in its huge head.

"Look up, witch. Mercy Talcott, is this the witch that you saw leaving your house the day that your mother was burned?"

Slowly, and in terror the little old lady lifted her head. At the same time and in the same sobbing breaths Jonathan and Desire said, "It is Granny Hewitt!"

Mercy saw, too, who it was. She remembered the little rag doll that Granny had made her when she was a very little girl. It wore a gay pink calico dress, and its cheeks were stained red with pokeberry juice. Mercy caught her breath and hesitated. She knew that it was only in fancy that she had seen the broomstick and its wild rider. As she waited, Desire pulled Jonathan from his seat. Before her mother could question or stop them, the two children were at the front of the pulpit, facing the Governor.

Desire clasped her hands and raised them in pleading toward the great man who bent down toward her in surprise. The whole meeting-house was still as Desire spoke in her sweet, high voice.

"Your Excellency, I beg your mercy for our dear Granny. She is not a witch but a kind friend to all the children of Salem. It is I who should be punished in her place. If your Excellency will but think back to the last tithing day, you will remember that you gave two children, Jonathan and me, a pumpkin for our play. We took it to Granny Hewitt's house and she helped us to make it into a Jack whose tallow drip, lighted, in Granny's window some one saw and spoke of to you. My father did not know that it was my fault, else he would not have accused Granny. Oh, speak, Jonathan, and attest to the truth of what I am saying!"

She turned to the little boy but Jonathan, made courageous by Desire's bravery, had gone to Mercy's side.

"It was crows you saw on Gallows Hill," he said in her ear. "You never, never saw Granny Hewitt riding on a broomstick. Say so."

Mercy looked into Granny's tear-stained face. Then, with a rush of love she threw herself into her arms. "I never saw Granny riding on a broomstick. She isn't a witch," Mercy declared.

The white doors of the meeting-house opened wide and the people waited with heads bowed, half in shame and half in joy, as Granny, surrounded by the children, passed into the sunshine and the freedom outside. Then they followed, making a kind of triumphal procession to the cottage at the end of the street. Kind hands led Granny all the way and kind hearts made her forget all about her experiences. In her window there still stood the grinning Jack-o'-lantern, and at sight of it bursts of laughter took away all thought of tears. One of the elders set it upon one of Granny's fence posts and then held Desire up beside it.

"Hurrah for the Jack-o'-lantern witch," some one said, and the crowd shouted their happiness and relief.


The Jack-o'-lantern witch

Copyright (c) 2005 - 2020   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.