The Troubles of the Farnsworths
By Brian Bixby. Copyright 2012 by Brian Bixby.
The late frost damaged or killed the crops in town. But people noticed that the fields of the Farnsworth family were unharmed. As the summer progressed, and the Farnsworths’ wheat grew higher, the other farmers surveyed their fields, and cursed the Farnsworths under their breaths. But none would speak of it openly, for Jeremiah Farnsworth was not a man to be trifled with, and his wife Rebecca was said by some to be a witch.
It was this year that Reverend Martin retired, after 32 years of service. Many begged him to stay on, for the controversy between the orthodox party and the unitarians threatened to split the congregation. Jeremiah Farnsworth was of the unitarian party, it was said at his wife’s urgings, for his brothers and cousins were of the orthodox party. Many took this as a sign that the unitarians were at best ungodly.
Rev. Martin was generally of the orthodox persuasion. But on his last Sunday in the pulpit, he offered the name of a young man from Harvard, Daniel Foster, who was suspected of being unitarian in sentiments. People whispered that Rev. Martin had dined at Jeremiah Farnsworth’s the night before, and that Rebecca has used her arts upon him.
So Daniel Foster was invited for a trial as the parish minister. Foster was indeed of the unitarian persuasion, but his sermons were Christian without being controversial, and pleased both parties. He was dignified in the pulpit, affable to the townspeople, and a spiritual comfort to the afflicted. In general, the congregation was pleased with him.
It was his bearing to Rebecca Farnsworth that provided the sole complaint people had against him. He was often to dine at the Farnsworths’, even when Jeremiah was away on business. And it was not uncommon for people to visit the minister in the parish house, and find Rebecca there already.
While the orthodox party feared that Rebecca was working her supernatural arts upon the young minister, the unitarian party feared that Rebecca’s natural arts were the problem. For she was comely and young, with a sharp mind and a persuasive tongue when she chose to use them. Daniel Foster would not be the first man in town whose head had been turned by Rebecca. And the freedom of Rebecca’s conduct worried those who noted that her husband Jeremiah was more than twenty years her senior, and often away from home on business.
The two parties agreed to call upon old Rev. Martin in his retirement and ask him to speak to his successor and to Rebecca, for the sake of their reputations and their souls. With a heavy heart, he agreed, though he declared he thought the two were merely young and careless, and not hardened in wickedness. He went into town the following day to speak to them. There are different accounts of what happened next. Some say Rev. Martin went to see Daniel Foster at the parish house, others that he met with Rebecca Farnsworth in the street and walked home with her. But they all agree that later in the day Rev. Martin staggered into Thomas Hill’s store with a look of horror on his face, and died on the spot without saying a word.
Rebecca was noted for wearing fine clothes, which her husband bought her in Albany. She foolishly wore a fancy black dress to Rev. Martin’s funeral. To the townspeople in their sober mourning, it looked as if Rebecca had come to rejoice at Rev. Martin’s death. All their dislike and fear of Rebecca came to a boil. The cry of “witch” went up. Rebecca was seized, stripped of her fine clothing, and beaten. When she could no longer stand, she was put on a horse and driven out of town.
Daniel Foster resigned his pulpit the next day and left town to return to Cambridge. The townspeople were satisfied that the miscreants were gone. But they had to face the consequences. They had no minister. And Jeremiah Farnsworth would soon return from his trip to Albany. He would want an explanation and an accounting. And no account could be given of Rebecca. It was as if she had vanished after being driven from the town.
Jeremiah’s dismay in not finding his wife at home when he returned changed to rage when he learned what had happened to her. Before he could be stopped, he thrashed three of the leaders of the orthodox party, killing one of them. It took four men to restrain him, and, once bound, he continued to curse and blaspheme. Losing Rebecca had unhinged his mind. He was sent to the county jail, and was found hanging in his cell the next morning, dead.
Jeremiah’s children from his first marriage divided up his property. Nathaniel, the youngest son, took possession of the old house and farm. The children had not cared for their stepmother Rebecca, whom they feared had been trying to turn their father against them. So they made it clear that unless new evidence came to light on Rebecca’s fate, they were willing to overlook what had happened.
The town against the Farnsworths
The snows came early that fall, with the first flakes falling in October, and two feet in November. And with the snows came a terrible epidemic: consumption, the white death. What caused it, no one knew. It seemed to strike at random. But that winter it struck hardest at the children among the orthodox party. And people began to whisper. They said that sometimes, if you looked up suddenly from the bedside of an ailing child, you could catch a momentary glimpse of a white face in the window, the face of Rebecca Farnsworth.
As November passed into December, and more children were struck down, people searched desperately for remedies. Some thought Rebecca was dead, a revenant sucking the life from the living, and that her curse could only be lifted if her body were found and burned. Others thought she lived and was hiding in town. Naturally, their suspicions fell on the Farnsworths, and Nathaniel Farnsworth twice had to allow members of the orthodox party to search the old house for any trace of Rebecca.
When someone tried to set fire to the Farnsworth home, Nathaniel realized that the very lives of his entire family were in jeopardy. The church had been shut up since Daniel Foster had left, but Nathaniel called a meeting there the following Sunday. At the meeting, he announced that he was offering a reward of one hundred dollars in good Suffolk Bank notes for any information leading to the discovery of Rebecca Farnsworth or her corpse. He held up the notes for all to see, and then gave them into the keeping of the town’s treasurer, Amos Hunter. And finally, he asked if there was anyone in the town who was not satisfied that the Farnsworths stood with the town, and that if witchcraft was abroad, the Farnsworths would have no truck with it. The people at the meeting approved his statement, and the hostility against the Farnsworths abated. In the days to come, it became common to see people hunting through the countryside, looking for traces of Rebecca.
Nathaniel knew he had only bought time for his family, and at great cost, for he had offered the farm as security for that one hundred dollars. He did not think the townspeople would find Rebecca. Stronger measures were needed. Nathaniel wrote to his cousin Israel Farnsworth in Boston, asking for his help. Israel was a retired merchant. He was by reputation clever, had seen the world, and knew many curious things. But he and Jeremiah had quarreled some years before, and not spoken to each other since. So Nathaniel was uncertain whether Israel would deign to respond, or what help he would offer. Two weeks went by without any reply from Israel. And then on a cold sunny winter’s day, a gayly decorated sleigh carrying a man all dressed in black pulled up at Nathaniel’s door. Israel Farnsworth had arrived.
Israel Farnsworth investigates
As a merchant, Israel had learned that information was often more valuable than money. So he set about gathering information from the townspeople about Rebecca Farnsworth. To them, he frankly explained that he was gathering information about Rebecca’s past so that he could determine whether or not she was an unnatural creature, and whom she might be relying upon for shelter and assistance if she were still alive. He questioned them closely and often repeatedly. Between his penetrating mind and the knowledge he was assembling about the people in town, he amazed people with the cunning questions he asked, and not a few revealed matters they would rather have left unspoken.
Information could be more valuable than money. Israel spent his wisely. He bought plentifully from the farmers, artisans, and tradesmen of the town. Among the poorer people, he offered a kindly word, called in a doctor, bought them medicine, had firewood delivered to them. Those that resented his inquiries found themselves an unpopular minority in town. To fail to answer Israel’s questions became tantamount to being in league with Rebecca Farnsworth.
Jonathan Farnsworth, one of Nathaniel’s older brothers, had initially been curt to Israel. But the pressure from Israel and the townspeople finally broke his resolve, and he confessed all to Israel. Against the laws of God and Man, he had lain with his stepmother, Rebecca Farnsworth. He told Israel he had done it the first time out of lust, and then sickened of the deed. But that one act had put him under Rebecca’s spell, and she could summon him to her any time she desired. Even after she had been driven out of town, she would summon him into the woods, and he would not feel the cold, so hot were the fires she produced in him.
Jonathan told Israel all this on a Wednesday. Thursday morning, he was found dead in the woods near his house, frozen, with his nightshirt lying on top of the snow not ten feet away.
When Israel heard of Jonathan’s death, he upbraided himself for not anticipating such a thing, and instantly rose from the breakfast table to go to Jonathan’s house. There his frustration was compounded. The family had taken in the body, washed it, and prepared it for burial. The grounds around where the body had been found had been trampled down. And Jonathan’s widow Hannah would not allow Israel to call in a doctor to determine the cause of death. She said that would be unchristian, and that anyone with sense would know that her husband had been killed by the witch Rebecca Farnsworth. Defeated, Israel went back to Nathaniel’s, packed up his possessions, and left on his sleigh.
Although Jonathan was a Farnsworth himself, his death and Israel’s departure once again set the town against the Farnsworths. Those who had been struck down by consumption at the beginning of winter were now in a piteous state, and their cries hardened people’s hearts against the Farnsworths. Nathaniel racked his brains for any measure he could take to turn the people’s anger away from his family, and regretted the departure of his cousin Israel. He could only hope that the cold weather and heavy snow on the ground would keep people indoors and inactive until spring.
But quickly upon Jonathan’s death came another incident that seemed to show witchcraft at work. Jonathan’s body had been taken to the winter crypt in the town’s graveyard, for it was impossible to bury a man in that cold, solid ground. Only three days after he had been placed there, the crypt’s door was found open, its lock forced, and Jonathan’s body nowhere to be found.
Ten days went by in which Nathaniel’s hopes sunk lower and lower. On the eleventh day, he received a letter sent from Albany. It was from his cousin Israel. Far from abandoning him, Israel Farnsworth had gone to Cambridge to speak with Daniel Foster, the minister who had been overfriendly with Rebecca. From there, he had traveled to Albany, where, according to Daniel, Rebecca and Jeremiah Farnsworth had met and married. He had found the marriage certificate and discovered Rebecca’s maiden name, which was Grimes. Now he was searching out her family and background. He expected to be at his researches for another two weeks, after which he would return to Nathaniel’s to solve the mysteries surrounding Rebecca. And he gave Nathaniel permission to circulate this news among the people of the town.
The townspeople did not see how Israel could solve their problems while in Albany. But he had enough credit and good will from his earlier stay in town that the people were willing to hold off and see what Israel Farnsworth would do when he arrived. Their interest rose when a large package from Boston was delivered to Nathaniel’s house, with instructions that it was to be kept secure and unopened until Israel took possession of it.
Between relief that the townspeople had abated their hostility, and worry that Israel’s plans would go awry, Nathaniel was in a pitiable state during those two weeks. But one day short of the specified two weeks, Israel arrived on his sleigh. The gray eyes under his heavy black eyebrows looked tired, and his expression was grim. He asked Nathaniel to have a bed made up for him, for he intended to sleep the rest of the day. And he told Nathaniel to send the other members of Nathaniel’s family away for the night. What was to be done that night, he told Nathaniel, was a matter he would entrust to Nathaniel alone, and no other.
Israel rose as dusk fell. Nathaniel noticed that Israel was walking with a limp, and asked him if he was hurt. As they sat down to a cold supper of pie and beer, Israel admitted he was indeed limping. He lamented that he should have taken another day at the baths in Saratoga Springs to recover from the attempt to assassinate him. Nathaniel expressed his astonishment at this news. With a sad chuckle, running his hand through his iron-gray hair, Israel said it was his own fault. He had wanted his presence in Albany to be known in order to invite such an attack, but had not realized how much his advancing age would slow him down compared to a younger man. To avoid a similar attack, he had returned to town a day earlier than promised, and had come by the old road.
“But I see from your reaction that I have stolen a march on Rebecca Grimes Farnsworth, and made it back here before the news of the attack has come hither,” concluded Israel. “For that, I am willing to bear with the limp. We shall be safe enough for our work tonight.”
“So Rebecca is indeed behind all this, cousin?” asked Nathaniel.
Israel shook his head. “‘All this,’ cousin? No. But she is the active instrument behind the troubles that bedevil this family. Tonight and tomorrow shall see that threat lifted. As for the rest . . . well, as the universalists say, people shall have to account for their own sins, and those alone.”
If Nathaniel was mystified by Israel’s pronouncement, he was equally baffled by the items Israel removed from the package that had been awaiting him for some days. There were white robes and candles, bottles of odd-colored fluids and powders, swords, canes, rods, chalk, copper vessels, and three thick tomes. Israel cleared a large space on the floor in front of the great fireplace, and proceeded to draw a complex diagram on the floor. The main design was a circle with a seven-pointed star inscribed within. But there were many other figures, few of which Nathaniel recognized. Israel set copper basins at five of the seven points, and filled each with a different mix of fluids and chemicals. He ordered Nathaniel to put on a robe and belt on a sword, which he did himself. He took up a position at one of the vacant star points, instructed Nathaniel to light the contents of the five basins, and then take up his position on the last vacant star point. Above all, Israel instructed Nathaniel, he was not to move or speak except at Israel’s order, and under no circumstance should he leave the circle until Israel finished the operation.
By this time, Nathaniel felt queer in the head from the fumes given off by the contents of the five copper bowls, but he took up his position. Israel opened one of the heavy tomes, and in an oddly disturbing voice began reading from it. Nathaniel thought at first he could make out some words in Latin, but Israel’s odd way of speaking and Nathaniel’s growing mental confusion from the fumes put an end to his understanding. Indeed, soon he was grateful for the confusion, for strange shapes began to emerge out of the great fireplace and surround the circle within which the two men stood. Afterwards, Nathaniel could not be sure exactly what they had looked like, but he remembered they had eyes and teeth, and was happy to have forgotten the rest. And he remembered that Israel had lifted up his sword at one point and run it through one of the creatures, which had screamed as the others fell upon it and tore it apart. Horrified, Nathaniel closed his eyes at that point, and knew nothing more until he heard Israel telling him that the operation was over.
Nathaniel opened his eyes. He felt clear-headed but unnaturally tired. And he noticed the fumes were gone. Indeed, whatever had been in the five copper bowls had burnt cleanly, so that there was no residue in any of them. Nathaniel wondered if he had just taken part in an act of witchcraft. Yet he did not feel as if he had committed any evil, nor that there was any new stain on his soul. And if it had been witchcraft, well, it was to oppose a witch, and Israel bore the responsibility. With that happy thought, he helped Israel gather up his equipment and clean off the floor. And then both men took to bed for a sound night’s sleep.
The next morning, after Nathaniel’s family had returned home, Israel set out alone in his sleigh. Nathaniel had wanted to come with him, but Israel had refused. He knew what sort of person he was about to face, and was ready to cope with whatever means she used. Nathaniel was not so prepared, and might even prove to be a danger to Israel should he accompany him. Besides, Israel had the pride of most men. He had labored for more than a month unraveling this mystery, and wanted to reserve its dénouement to himself alone. That is, himself, and his adversary.
His sleigh ride took him up the valley and over the hills into the next town, where a family named Gardner lived. They were not liked by their neighbors, for they were Quakers, and in the eyes of many, the Quaker unwillingness to take an oath meant they could not be trusted. Israel, whose experience was that trustworthy people and liars could be found in any faith, was privately amused at this belief about the Quakers. Though, he added to himself, the Gardners had recently had to lie a great deal. But that was not their fault.
Israel pulled up his sleigh, tied up his horses, and went to rap on the door. He was greeted by William Gardner, the young man who headed the family. When William asked him his business, Israel loudly identified himself, and replied that he had come to see Rebecca Farnsworth. William started to say that he knew of no Rebecca Farnsworth, but a voice from inside the house made him pause, then step aside and invite Israel inside. The Gardner house was an old house, built in simpler times. Israel stepped directly into the main room of the house from the front door. He looked about. William’s wife and young daughter stood to one side of the fireplace, staring fearfully at Israel. And on the other side sat Rebecca Farnsworth, looking as composed as if she had been expecting Israel as a visitor.
Rebecca and Israel stared at each other for a long minute. And then Rebecca told the Gardners to be about their business, and offered Israel a chair. Once the Gardners had left the room, Rebecca opened the conversation by allowing that she had not expected Israel to discover her refuge so quickly.
Israel replied, “It would normally have taken me longer. But I have studied the writings of philosophers of the mind. Enough to understand what you have been doing, in large measure. And enough not only to be acquainted with the writings of your cousin J. Stanley Grimes, but to have met and spoken with him on sundry occasions. Once I discovered your maiden name, I applied to Grimes for more information. I thought it highly probable that he was your relation, based on what I had learned about your practices. In the event I was correct, and Grimes saved me a week or two of wandering the hills of New York and Vermont.”
Rebecca smiled, and with a touch of irony in her voice, said, “You are a knowledgeable man, Israel Farnsworth. Is there anything you do not know?”
Israel did not answer immediately. Instead, he reached into the one of the large pockets in his inner coat, and pulled out a book. He thumbed through it to the desired page and held it up so that Rebecca could see it. It was the diagram of the same design he had drawn on the floor of his cousin’s house the previous night. Although she did her best to hide her reaction, Israel could see that Rebecca was surprised and dismayed.
Rebecca then surprised Israel by asking if he wanted some hot cider, calling to Lydia, Mrs. Gardner, to bring out some mugs and a pot of cider. The two women spent several minutes by the fire preparing the cider. Lydia took away mugs for herself and William. Israel declined the cider, whereupon Rebecca laughed and asked him if he thought she was trying to poison him, before sitting down with a mug herself.
“No,” replied Israel, “for judging by your attempt to have me killed in Albany, I do not think you much experienced in killing people. Which leads me to wonder why you killed Jonathan Farnsworth and left him for dead outside his home.”
Rebecca frowned and shook her head. With an air of sadness, she said, “It was neither my intention nor so much my doing as not. After I heard how he had confessed to you, I called him out of the house to reestablish my influence over him. But I could neither succeed nor fail. Jonathan wanted me and wanted to be away from me. In the end, I do not know whether our struggle or the cold killed him. It does not matter. In the end, you will all hold me responsible for his death, and so much more, and have me killed.”
Israel frowned in turn. “No doubt they would clamor for your execution. And you will have to go back to town to be arrested and charged for your crimes. But I think I can convince them to release you to my custody and take you to Boston. Neither you nor they would be safe so long as you are out here, whether in jail or at liberty.”
Rebecca looked at Israel with wonder, for what he said confounded her expectations. And then the hope died within her, and she shook her head. “They would not let you take me away. And I have already provided against their retribution.” Saying which, she drained her mug, put it down, and clutched at her chest. Israel, realizing the import of her words and actions, was at her side in a moment. But his efforts were in vain.
And then a horrible thought came to him, and he went storming into the other rooms of the house, calling for the Gardners. The only one still in the house was the daughter, who, frightened by Israel’s alarm, could not tell him where her parents were. Israel burst out of the house and ran to the barn. There he found the Gardners, peacefully about their chores, their mugs of cider drained and set aside. It was with a strange mixture of regret and thankfulness that Israel realized that he had been right in one point: Rebecca was not only unskilled in murder, but had not wanted the opportunity to become so.
It was a saddened Israel Farnsworth who returned to his cousin Nathaniel’s house late that day. He sat silent through supper. Nathaniel, though he was worried about what Israel might say, let him be until after the evening’s chores were done and the children were put to bed. He then asked Israel to join him in the main room and tell him what had happened. And Nathaniel’s wife Deborah laid out good beer for the three of them, and settled down with her sewing. For she was curious herself as to what had happened.
Israel began by telling Nathaniel that the family’s problems were over, for Rebecca was dead, a suicide. Nathaniel was stunned at first, but then called upon Jehovah to have mercy on Rebecca’s soul. And his wife Deborah gave him a fond glance. This surprised Israel, for though his cousin’s mild temper was widely known, Deborah had spoken fiercely against Rebecca on his previous visit. After a moment’s thought, Israel attributed Deborah’s apparent change in attitude to the affection in which husband and wife held each other. He reminded himself with an inner smile that Nathaniel’s and Deborah’s first child had been born only five months after their marriage, and that, though it was only two years later, Deborah was carrying their third.
Israel resumed speaking. “You will be wanting an explanation of what happened, and what Rebecca’s role was in all of this, and why she should end her life. I cannot explain everything with certainty, cousin. There are many details that remain obscure. I had hoped Rebecca would supply the answers, and she did answer the most important question in our interview. But her death means some matters will remain a mystery, though not beyond conjecture. In brief, there were three things that led to Rebecca’s destruction. One was her parents’ faith. Another was her father’s cousin. And the last was her mother’s heritage.”
Israel paused to drink some beer, then continued his explanation. “Rebecca’s parents were perfectionists. They believed that one could become so perfect in living as Christians, that one would become free from sin. Thereafter, one would never be able to sin again.”
Nathaniel, who adhered to the orthodox party, shook his head. “No one is free from sin, not just their own, but original sin. To be able to become free of sin by your own efforts would imply Christ had died in vain, for his sacrifice would be unnecessary for salvation.”
Israel smiled at his cousin. “You are a good theologian, Nathaniel, better than I expected. But the belief that one could become free from sin is probably older than John Calvin’s theology. There were those in Apostolic times who believed that living as a Christian could make you free from sin. They saw it as the logical consequence of Jesus’ life, not its repudiation. The idea has kept cropping up in history. It is said the Anabaptists of Munster were perfectionists. The Shakers, who have a community I recently visited out near Albany, apparently believed in perfectionism in their early days. And the followers of Rev. Noyes believe in perfectionism today.
“The Anabaptists and Rev. Noyes have this in common as well: since sin has died for those who have become perfect, so they are all married in Christ and to each other. So they have practiced the marriage of the whole. All of the perfect are married to each other, are wives and husbands to all in the community, and may have relations with each other. Rebecca’s parents held such beliefs, and were part of such a community. And it is in that community Rebecca grew up. From the stories I was able to gather from the remaining members of that community, Rebecca was a perfectionist in belief and in practice. Can you imagine how confused she was when she left the perfectionists, and came among us?”
The room was quiet for a while as Nathaniel and his wife considered the horrors and temptations of group marriage. Finally, it was Deborah who spoke up. “Why then, Israel, did Rebecca leave the perfectionists?”
Israel replied, “I am not entirely certain. The perfectionists themselves were willing to discuss Rebecca’s life generally, but would not speak about why she left them. Yet one can draw conclusions from the evidence. When I first began interviewing people in town, I knew not whether Rebecca was alive or dead, nor whether she was responsible for the many things attributed to her. It was in my interview with Jonathan, when he confessed his unnatural love for his stepmother, that I found the first evidence that Rebecca was alive, and how she might have accomplished what she was accused of doing. Jonathan showed definite signs of having been influenced by animal magnetism.
“This animal magnetism, which some call mesmerism and which the Scotsman Braid calls hypnotism, allows one person to influence another, and in ways that are truly remarkable. I suspected that Rebecca had used animal magnetism to control Jonathan. From that, it was a short step to presume that she might have used it on others. You recall that I left town immediately after Jonathan’s death. I wanted to examine another of Rebecca’s allies, without possibility of her interference. Daniel Foster had gone back to Cambridge after resigning his pulpit here. He was almost certainly out of Rebecca’s reach, and hence the logical choice. I have some skill in the use of animal magnetism myself, and was able to break Rebecca’s control over Daniel.”
Israel paused for a moment to take another sip of beer before continuing. “Up to that point, we knew nothing about Rebecca’s past before she came home with Jeremiah. She never spoke of her past. Nor did Jeremiah. I suspect Rebecca influenced him to say nothing about it. And without knowing her past, it was difficult to gauge her powers and intentions in the present. But she had let slip to Daniel that she and Jeremiah had been in Albany together. And so it was to Albany I went next to uncover Rebecca’s past. It would lead me to the perfectionists, but not immediately.”
Israel again paused to drink some more beer, as his throat was becoming dry, before continuing. “Once I arrived in Albany, I found the marriage certificate for Jeremiah and Rebecca, which gave me her maiden name of Grimes. The name was familiar to me. Professor J. Stanley Grimes, who teaches up at Castleton Medical School, has written and lectured extensively on the phenomena of the mind, including animal magnetism. He is a good practical experimentalist, but tends to theorize far beyond his evidence, sometimes indeed in contradiction to his evidence. I had attended some of his lectures and corresponded with him. So I knew two people named Grimes who practiced animal magnetism. It seemed quite possible they were related. So I applied by letter to Professor Grimes, seeking information on Rebecca.
“Professor Grimes’s return letter explained a great deal. Rebecca’s father was his first cousin. They had rarely met. Several years ago, when Rebecca was sixteen, Grimes had visited the perfectionists, and demonstrated animal magnetism to them. Now, you should understand that it is common for practitioners to select a girl or young woman to be their subject, the somnambulist. Grimes selected his cousin Rebecca. But he found she was completely immune to his influence. Grimes tried repeatedly and failed. Rebecca, who had watched him carefully, then tried to duplicate his methods on one of her fellow perfectionists, and succeeded the first time. By the time Grimes left, Rebecca had become proficient in the use of animal magnetism.
“It would not surprise me if Rebecca had a purpose in mind, learning animal magnetism from her cousin, the professor. As the perfectionists told me, when I met with them, Rebecca was a full member of the community by then. As we know, she was a handsome woman, and had few problems attracting the men in the community. But love, as we know can be blind and fickle. There were men, not many, whom Rebecca found attractive, who did not find her attractive. And, perfect though Rebecca might be, she was afflicted with jealousy.” Israel gave a sad chuckle. “Once she had learned the art of animal magnetism, she was able to influence those men in her favor. And with that, she was content for a while.”
With a deep sigh, Israel continued, “And here we come to the point where all is enveloped in uncertainty. The perfectionists expelled Rebecca two years after Professor Grimes taught her how to influence people with animal magnetism. They would not tell me why. But Grimes’s letter offered a lead. He mentioned that Rebecca’s mother’s maiden name was Gardner, and that she had originally come from Nantucket. I had often visited Nantucket in my seafaring days, and remember well hearing stories about witchcraft on the island. Grimes mentioned that Rebecca’s mother had a manuscript featuring a curious design involving a seven-pointed star.”
Nathaniel exclaimed, “Such as the one you drew on the floor last night!”
Israel nodded. He took up a book he had brought with him, the same book he had shown Rebecca earlier that day, and opened it to the same page, which he showed to Nathaniel and Deborah. Closing the book and putting it aside, he said, “That is the full text as printed by an acquaintance of mine, the Stuttgart bookseller Johann Scheible, which I acquired on a trip to Europe some years ago. It is one of many such works on magic Scheible has published. In going through Rebecca’s possessions after her death, I found a manuscript, a partial text of the same work. Presumably Rebecca got it from her mother, possibly surreptitiously. My guess, and I acknowledge it is only a guess, is that Rebecca tried to use the manuscript to some end, was exposed, and then expelled by the perfectionists.
“There is little more to tell. Rebecca made her way to Albany, the nearest city. She had no money and no friends. But she could influence people, and she may have engaged in the use of magic from the manuscript. She never paid for her lodgings, for her landlord was under her influence. She made a wide circle of acquaintances. One of them was Jeremiah Farnsworth. Why she chose to marry Jeremiah and come away from Albany, I do not know. Perhaps she thought she might live as most people do. But the hostility of the townspeople and her own inclinations upset that scheme, and set her on the path to destruction.”
A silence fell upon the room. After a while, Nathaniel got up and tended to the fire. He sat down again, drank some beer, and said to Israel, “No, cousin, your explanation is too concise. Some of the rest I can piece out. I can understand why Rebecca would lean toward the unitarians, since her perfectionism would be unacceptable among the orthodox. And between the men she lured to the unitarian party, and how well our crops did this last year, I can understand why people called her a witch, even if they knew nothing of her seven-pointed stars. But what of the children with consumption? What of what happened to my brother Jonathan? What of the assassin who attacked you, of whom you have said nothing else?”
Israel nodded. “Those are fair questions, Nathaniel. I think the key to them all lies in Rebecca’s perfectionism. Until she was driven from town, by her own lights she never harmed anyone. It was months before people fell sick with the consumption. What was she doing all that time, hiding away at her mother’s relatives? Did she come back and revenge herself on her tormenters? Certainly not at first. I suspect, cousin, that Rebecca did not bring the white death into the town. Rather, the consumption brought her. Perhaps she heard how the family of one of her enemies was afflicted, went to peer in their window, and was seen. Once she realized she was being blamed as a witch, she could have used her influence upon her men in the town to spread stories, and taken her revenge that way. Perhaps she used animal magnetism or magic to afflict some children. I do not know for sure. But note that none of the children have died so far. And do not be surprised if several children recover now that she has died.
“It was only when I began my investigation that Rebecca caused a death, that of your brother Jonathan. And that, she confessed to me, was not her intention. I believe her. I have good reason to do so. Rebecca did not steal Jonathan’s body from the crypt. I had it stolen, so that I might have a doctor perform a post mortem examination of the body. What the doctor found was consistent with Rebecca’s account. And now that Rebecca is dead, and the body need not be kept for evidence, I will have it returned.”
Nathaniel frowned. He did not like to hear that his brother’s body had been mutilated after death. But he understood Israel’s reasons, and decided he would keep quiet on the matter. Still, he would find some way to have Israel compensate Hannah, Jonathan’s widow. Which reminded him of one other matter Israel had not covered. “And what about the assassin Rebecca sent after you, Israel?” he asked.
Israel shook his head and replied, “A poor assassin that, a farmer, a neighbor of the Gardners, someone Rebecca influenced. By that time she was desperate. You had told people I was in Albany conducting my investigations, and she must have heard about it, as I intended her to do. She was afraid I would discover the truth about her and drag her back to town and leave her to the mercies of the people, so she sent the man after me. For all she had learned from her cousin Professor Grimes, she did not realize that it is easy to influence people to do what they might like to do, but hard to influence them to do what they would not want to do. Making men fall in love with her was easy. Turning a farmer into a killer was not. And I was on my guard for such an attempt. Even so, it came close to succeeding. I was caught off guard and wounded in the leg, but the would-be assassin could not bring himself to attack me again when I cried out in pain. I examined him myself using animal magnetism before having him committed to Albany jail. With Rebecca dead, he is harmless, and there is no reason to keep him there.”
“And the magic, Israel, Rebecca’s magic, and the magic we performed last night?” asked Nathaniel, to the amazement of his wife Deborah. “What of that?”
Israel regarded his cousin in silence for a while. He ran his fingers through his gray hair several times, thinking of what to say. Finally, he answered, “Rebecca used animal magnetism. According to Grimes, and to Mesmer before him, animal magnetism is a real force. Yet the Scotsman Braid claims it is a delusion, manufactured entirely in the mind of the subject. How do we tell which is true, Nathaniel? So with magic. So with what we did. Perhaps it was real magic, perhaps it was a delusion. How would we tell?”
Israel would have preferred to have left it at that, but he could see that his cousin was not satisfied. So he added, “I presumed Rebecca had been using magic, perhaps to save the crops, perhaps to afflict the children, perhaps for other purposes. So we conducted a ceremony, using the same kind of magic, to reverse her magic. When I showed her the diagram of the seven-pointed star, Rebecca knew she had been defeated. She believed it was magic, at least.”
Israel’s answer was not quite everything Nathaniel wanted to know. But he knew he was in Israel’s debt and let the subject alone. And after little more conversation on indifferent matters, the three retired for the night.
The next morning, after Nathaniel did his rising chores and sat down to break his fast with Deborah and with Israel, Israel said he would be off and back to Boston. Nathaniel regretted seeing his cousin go, and said to him, “Israel, by all rights, the reward I posted of one hundred dollars for discovering Rebecca should go to you.”
Israel laughed at that. “Nay, cousin, you summon me out here to help save the family name, and then threaten it with ruin once again? I know how you raised that money, taking out a loan you can ill-afford from the Suffolk Bank and offering this farm for security. Instead of your paying me, I should pay you, for I have not had such an adventure in several years, and can afford the expense, whilst you cannot. So I will do so. I will pay the Suffolk Bank. Take those bank notes and use them to help those in town who suffered from this affair, and win a good name for yourself.”
Despite all that Nathaniel argued to the contrary, Israel would not be turned. So finally Nathaniel agreed. Privately, he decided that he would see that Israel got much of the credit, and that his sister-in-law Hannah would get some of the money in payment for what had been done to Jonathan’s corpse. And then Nathaniel went out to hitch up Israel’s horses to his sleigh.
Deborah had said little in the discussion, but with her husband no longer present, she had two questions of her own to put to Israel. “You know, Israel, that some of those who have suffered were among those who drove Rebecca out of town. Is it just to reward them?”
Israel shook his head. “In this world, Deborah, there is no justice for the dead. If there is justice for Rebecca, it will be in another world, not this one. Perhaps because I am an old man, I will do nothing to increase the miseries of the world, even for vengeance.”
Deborah took all this in, and then said in reply, “But you pity Rebecca, do you not?”
Israel looked at her sharply, and then slowly nodded. “And you, do you pity Rebecca, Deborah?”
She shook her head. “No, I pity you, Israel.” And with that she got up and began cleaning up the meal.
Israel said nothing more. But once he got up, and just before he went out the door to board his sleigh and leave town, he reached over to Deborah’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze.
Author’s addendum: a few words on the history behind this story
The old Puritan church did split up into unitarian and orthodox factions in the early nineteenth century, which sometimes even came to blows with each other in disputing control of the old parish churches. The universalists developed out of revivals in the New England and New York countryside. The modern Unitarian Universalist Church embodies two of these groups, while the orthodox became the Congregationalists, now part of the United Church of Christ. Harvard had been founded to educate ministers for the old Puritan church. When the church split into parties, Harvard inclined so strongly to the unitarian side, that the orthodox founded the Andover Theological Seminary in response.
Consumption, the white plague, were names used to describe what we would call tuberculosis. There was no good explanation in those days for why it would strike some people and leave others unharmed, so it spawned superstitions. One of the superstitions was that people who died from the disease would come back to claim their friends and relatives, “consumption vampires,” so to speak.
The Suffolk Bank is real. In those days, banks printed their own currency. If the bank was sound, as the Suffolk Bank was, then its notes circulated near to or at par with silver coins. If the bank was considered risky, its notes would circulate at a discount to silver. The (Second) Bank of the United States in Philadelphia, the nation’s largest bank in the 1820s and 1830s, accepted Suffolk Bank notes at a 1% discount, while it was not unusual for it to discount notes from banks in Tennessee by 25%.
J. Stanley Grimes, John Humphrey Noyes, and Johann Scheible are all real people who did things similar to what I have described here. I have a copy of Grimes’s book on mesmerism and phrenology on my shelves, and can vouch that he was indeed inclined to speculative theories. Noyes was the founder of the famous Oneida community, in which they practiced a complicated and disciplined form of group marriage. And Scheible did publish twelve volumes of magical works between 1845 and 1849.
Animal magnetism was first popularized by Franz Mesmer, which is why it is sometimes called mesmerism. He explained it as a magnetic fluid passing between the operator and the subject. It was the Scotsman James Braid who not only claimed that it was the result of suggestion in the subject’s mind and not a fluid, but gave the phenomena its modern name: hypnosis.
The Gardner family of Nantucket is real. So are the belief that corpses should not be mutilated because they will be resurrected, town cemetery crypts for winter storage, the Quaker refusal to take oaths, the Anabaptists of Munster, and Castleton Medical School (though Castleton State College no longer has a medical school).