Rhoda Dustin rode a broomstick – or was it a possessed, flying horse? ‘The Witch of Weare’ revisited
Now that another Greater Nashua landmark that enjoyed – or at least gracefully acknowledged – its reputation as a place to go to encounter otherworldly spirits has gone the way of the wrecking ball in the name of progress, finding spooky, or mysterious, or even mythical, Halloween-themed tales to share has become that much more of a challenge.
Yes, the Country Tavern is no more. But ever since it was decided to raze the 18th century former ship captain’s residence to make way for a Cumby’s, I’ve been wondering: What became of Elizabeth?
Did the resident spirit who played tricks on Country Tavern employees and guests for many decades disappear with the building, or is she still on the property, perhaps having resurrected her trademark trickery while floating around Cumby’s aisles?
As we ponder Elizabeth’s fate, I turn to the folks over at the New England Historical Society with thanks for sharing, and allowing me to share, a most interesting tidbit that, although it reaches all the way back to Colonial times, can still raise one’s curosity with the best of the local and regional Halloween-themed tales.
The setting is Colonial America in a newly incorporated northwesternHillsborough County town that its incorporator, Gov. Benning Wentworth, named Weare, in honor of Meshech Weare, the town’s first clerk who later became New Hampshire’s first governor.
At roughly the same time that Wentworth incorporated Weare, a young man and woman, both born Rockingham County – some references say Salem – got married in Haverhill, Massachusetts.
Two or three years later, the couple decided to head north and settle in the newly incorporated town of Weare, population at the time a bit shy of 2,000.
Lt. William P. Dustin, who fought with Gen. John Stark’s militia in the American Revolution, was also a farmer. He and his wife, Rhoda Pettee Dustin, arrived in Weare with very few possessions; some sources say William had only an axe and a jug.
Still, the couple would prosper. William became a successful farmer, while Rhoda operated the inn the couple bought after settling in Weare.
The inn proved quite popular – and profitable. “Farmers traveling to and from markets in Massachusetts liked to stop at the Dustins’ inn,” according to the NEHS story.
Typical of the Colonial era, the Dustins had a large family – nine children – and also typical of the era, two or three were stillborn or died very young.
Their first child, Sarah Pettee Dustin, was born in 1765. The next, Peter Dustin, was born and died in 1766. Asa, the next child, was born in 1768, and in stark contrast to most all his siblings, was 97 when he died in 1865.
It was while William and Ronda were raising their first few children that the fun began.
“To an outsider travelling through New Hampshire in the late 1700s, Rhoda Dustin seemed a peaceful innkeeper,” reads the NEHS story. “But the tongue-wagging gossips around her hometown called her The Witch of Weare.”
Meanwhile, author Connie Evans, in her 2018 book, “Tales of Survival in Colonial New England,” noted that “it was very easy to blame Rhoda Dustin, the ‘Great Witch of Weare,’ for every bad outcome – the death of one’s best milking cow or cream not churning into butter.”
Indeed, Rhoda had quite a reputation around town for her powers of witchcraft, which, according to the NEHS story, she supposedly deployed “to plague her neighbors.”
Now, was Rhoda a prankster-at-heart who picked up on her neighbors’ suspicions and, rather than angrily denying the rumors, decided to have some fun with them by taking things to the next level?
It’s not clear whether she did anything to encourage the superstitions, the NEHS story says. But what is clear is that Rhoda’s neighbors “accused her of making all sorts of mischief.”
For instance, if something made her angry, she could prevent butter from forming in people’s churns. The only way to remove the “curse” was to take a flat iron and burn out the inside of the churn.
If a farm animal took sick, according to the NEHS story, its owner would immediately blame Rhoda. The only way to remove the spell was a rather cruel process: Chop off the animal’s tail or an ear and burn it.
Eventually, the ritual supposedly caused a boil to form on Rhoda’s body, but the account doesn’t say where it formed or how big it was.
Allegedly casting a spell on farm animals was bad enough, but when Rhoda supposedly graduated to putting the whammy on a human villager, fear and furor followed.
When a young man named Reuben Favor took ill, his family, for reasons unknown, blamed Rhoda and her supposed ability to conjure spirits for nefarious purposes.
Evidently, members of Reuben Favor’s family were believers in the “fight fire with fire” adage, or in this case, “fight a spell with a spell.”
So where does one start when conjuring a retaliatory spell? The best place, apparently, was to start collecting the cursed person’s urine.
When enough was collected, the next step was to build a robust fire and set the pot, or whatever container they used, over the flames.
“In this unusual ceremony,” according to the NEHS story, “everyone in the room had to remain silent while the urine came to a boil.”
Don’t know about you, but I imagine it would be pretty easy to remain silent while sitting around a fire waiting for a pot of urine to boil. It’s hard to make noise when you’re unconscious.
Alas, someone “slipped and spoke,” the NEHS story says, which the family believed prevented the reverse-the-curse ceremony from working.
On to Plan B, a far more fundamental and best-practices approach that really should have been Plan A.
Not long after the failed hot-urine experiment, Reuben’s father and a group of his friends marched over to Rhoda’s place and confronted her with an axe.
Demanding that Rhoda “leave the boy alone,” the small posse of vigilantes may have been taken aback when Rhoda, without hesitation, “promised to stop any tormenting.”
Maybe it’s just me, but I envision Rhoda making that promise with tongue firmly planted in cheek and biting back laughter, not wanting to spoil her fun by telling the men that she had no superpowers, she did not, and could not have, made Reuben sick, and he recovered merely because his illness had run its course.
Anyway, they almost certainly wouldn’t have believed her (most likely true) explanation of Reuben’s situation, because so steeped in the belief that Rhoda was a practicing witch were most of her Weare neighbors that they chalked up another, more bizzare occurance to her supernatural “abilities.”
One night, according to the NEHS story, Rhoda, in order to tend to her pregnant daughter, traveled from Weare to the town of Whitefield, a distance of roughly 110 miles, in a remarkable six hours.
“Ain’t no horse anywhere that could make that kinda time,” I imagine a few men of the town saying as they shook their heads.
What made it possible, townfolk learned, and willingly accepted, is that Rhoda accomplished the fete by fitting her horse with a special bridle – provided by the devil – that allowed the horse to fly.”
Happy Halloween, all; and watch out for flying horses – and cantankerous witches.
Dean Shalhoup’s column appears weekly in The Sunday Telegraph. He may be reached at 594-1256 or email@example.com.