"When shriveling like a parched scroll,
The flaming heavens together roll,
And louder yet and yet more dread,
Resounds the trump that wakes the dead!"
Most of the towns and villages in western
Massachusetts were hot-beds of Millerism, and each had its own
experience while awaiting the end of all things terrestrial.
Westford, perched upon a high ridge
of granite boulders, holds a most poignant memory of the last
night of the great delusion. Mr. John Fletcher, a member of one
of the oldest families there, gave the author a vivid account
of it, which he had heard from childhood up from his father, who
was not a believer in Prophet Miller's doctrine, but was deeply
interested as an onlooker, and was a witness of all that happened
to his followers in Westford.
The principal meeting place of the Millerites
there was in a fine old mansion facing the green on the site of
which now stands the Fletcher Memorial Library. It was owned
by a man named Bancroft, and he and his family were held in high
esteem by the townspeople, and it caused much comment that they
and a family of Leightons and also one named Richardson, all well-to-do
people with a certain amount of education, should have fallen
so completely under the spell of the delusion, but they did so
with great enthusiasm and faith, and the Bancroft house was filled
to overflowing with large numbers of persons as deluded as themselves.
Every believer in the prophecy in Westford was an ardent one
- there was not a lukewarm soul among them. According to Mr.
Fletcher's father, many of them had white robes ready, and each
one prayed loud, and sang loud, and shouted loud; and on this
last night the unbelievers who were not up to see what was going
to happen, lay awake listening to the tumult of sound that issued
forth from the Bancroft mansion
Now there was a man who lived near by
who was generally known by the name of "Crazy Amos."
He was somewhat addicted to drink and was one of those queer
characters sometimes found in country districts. He was the possessor
of a very large horn, and it so happened that, as he lay in his
bed listening to the sound of voices that rose and fell like the
waves of an incoming tide, a sudden thought flashed through his
befuddled brain, and jumping out of his bed he hurriedly dressed
himself, and seizing his horn he rushed out upon the village green
and blew a terrific blast upon it. The poor deluded fanatics,
now congregated in the Bancroft house to await the awful summons
of the Holy Angel Gabriel, heard the sound and for a moment a
death-like stillness came over the assembly; then, uttering a
great shout of exaltation, they rushed tumultuously in a body
out of the house and on to the green, hustling and jostling each
other in a frantic attempt to secure an advantageous position
from which they might easily be "caught up into the air."
When they gained the green, they gazed
about in bewilderment, scanning the heavens, looking first at
the east, then at the north and south, then at the west, and to
their astonishment they could see nothing unusual in the night
skies. Then of a sudden came another terrible blast from a horn
- loud and clear - awaking the echoes!
With one accord a great shout went up
- "HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH! GLORY! GLORY!" and believing
the fulfillment of the prophecy to be at hand they strained their
eyes upwards, searching the heavens again, expecting any moment
to see the angelic hosts appear, and they raised their arms high
above their heads in an attitude of prayer and supplication.
Then a regular fanfare rang out, and one of them espied their
neighbor "Crazy Amos" blowing as though for dear life
upon his horn.
A muffled exclamation of dismay, mixed
with anger and resentment, escaped from the lips of the humiliated
enthusiasts, who retreated into the house again in dire confusion,
exhausted and trembling from the high pitch of ecstasy which they
had reached for the space of a few supreme moments, and from the
sense of shame at having been so duped, while they clasped their
hands over their ears so as to deaden the sound of the gibes and
taunts of "Crazy Amos," who shouted after them: "Fools!
Go dig you potatoes - for the Angel Gabriel he won't go a-digging
'em for ye!"
The whole place was stirred with the
occurrence. Some slapped their sides and laughed loud over the
discomfiture of the deluded Millerites, while others shook their
heads, and felt sorry for them, and deplored the act of "Crazy
The members of the Richardson family had escaped the ignominy that these others had suffered because very early that morning they had gone to Littleton, just a few miles away, so as to descend with the Hartwell family with whom the were related. Previous to this they had disposed of all their property, giving away all their furniture, cows, farming utensils, and money, believing that they would have no more need of anything belonging to life upon this earth. When they reached the Hartwell house, they found a great concourse of people assembled there and the house full. There were quite a number of children who had accompanied their parents. One of these, now an old man, gave the author an account of what happened.
"At this place of meeting the people were subdued and solemn. The weight of impending judgment hung heavily upon them, causing long periods of silence through which nervous tremors seemed to percolate. The elders held their Bibles in their laps and tried to read, but every now and then they addressed each other in whispers and the children heard them say: 'It will surely come before morning - along in the small hours, maybe'; and they huddled together in corners, their little hearts shrinking in fear. Straw was laid on the floor so that those who wished could lie down and rest. One or two did so, but the majority sat in chairs and on benches, wide awake and on the watch.
"As the night wore on, one by one the children, who became exhausted from the nervous tension, curled themselves up on the floor and sank into a fitful slumber. The elders, noticing this, exchanged glances and raised their eyebrows, but said nothing. They sat motionless - listening - and waiting for the end with beating pulses. . .
"The next day about noon the
Richardson family, utterly disappointed and disillusioned, wended
its way home, an impoverished, disheartened little band, their
wagon drawn by an old horse as forlorn-looking as themselves.
When they reached a certain point near the top of the hill, from
which they could look down upon their farm, they saw two or three
of their saner relatives harvesting the crops which had been left
untouched because they had truly believed that they would never
have any use for them. One kindly neighbor from a nearby town
went to all those to whom they had recklessly given their money
and begged them to return it to these unfortunate victims of the
delusion. Some of them complied with the request, but there were
one or two who refused."
A quaint statement made by a convert to the doctrine at a meeting which took place in Springfield at this time will show how they made it an act of faith to abandon their crops.
"In the spring of the year,"
she boasted, "husband had not seen the light, and planted
his crops. But now he has found the Lord, and the weeds are higher
than the corn, Glory to God!" (Told
to Mr. Frederick L. Avery, of Ayer, Massachusetts, by the former
Mrs. Eastman, of Springfield, who recalled incidents which happened
in that city to her personal knowledge.)
According to Mrs. Rose P. Preston, of
Fair Haven, Vermont, many of the rural people in that locality
cut down their apple orchards.
At Groton, Massachusetts, the tension
was at breaking point. This was the home town of Elder Boutelle,
but as he, good man, was running with the message all the time,
the leadership was in the hands of Benjamin Hall, a fire-eater
in fanaticism, who was ostensibly a follower of William Miller,
but who in reality disseminated some theories of his own which
were wholly at variance with the latter's doctrine, the result
being that the confusion of ideas in regard to what was portending
was well-nigh distracting to those awaiting the end. Groton had
acquired some reputation as a centre of rebellion to orthodox
creeds, and a few years before, in 1840, had held a convention
of followers of Prophet Miller and Come-Outers. It had attracted
the notice of the public and a number of persons went there largely
from curiosity, to learn upon what grounds they based their theories,
and among others were Theodore Parker, A. Bronson Alcott, George
Ripley, of Brook Farm fame, and Christopher P. Cranch of Newton,
who walked there from Concord. Since then the Millerites had
far outstripped the Come-Outers in number, and many of the foremost
men of the place had succumbed to the delusion that the end of
all things was at hand.
The principal building where the Millerite
meetings were taking place stood upon the site of what is now
the Parent's Club House of Groton School. (Saint John's Episcopal
School. Headmaster, the Reverend Endicott Peabody.) it was a strange
looking structure divided into two parts - one part for the men
and the other for the women. Around the building were scattered
houses where the Groton School buildings now stand, and these
were occupied by Millerites, and they were invariably referred
to as the "Community."
Mr. Phineas Harrington, of Groton, who was born in 1827, gave the author the following items:
"The Millerites had also a meeting place left hand going down to Willowdale, and it was called by the 'scoffers' Polliwog Chapel, the land being swampy there. Services were held every Sunday all day, people bringing their food with them. They came in all sorts of conveyances. Oxen dragged a sleigh loaded with people, men, women, and children out for the day, rain or shine.
"Mr. Pulman would send his
ox team around to get any one. He had meetings in his own house
in West Groton, now occupied by James Hill. They filled all the
rooms downstairs. The final day he took his own family out in
a field with the ox team. People laughed and said, 'What! Going
to take them nice oxen up there?'"
How ruthless the "scoffers"
were, with their gibes and their taunts!
Mrs. Ellen A. Barrows, of Groton, also
has memories of those days which reveal the extent of the delusion.
She remembers distinctly being sent by her mother to the "Community"
a week before the expected end, to try to get a young girl who
lived there to come "help out" with the cooking. "The
man who drove the horse," Mrs. Barrows wrote the author,
"claimed it was all nonsense to go over there, for they were
all getting ready to 'go up,' and making their ascension robes
and everything. When I rang the bell a pale, frightened-looking
woman came to the door, and in answer to my inquiry if she had
a daughter who could come and help my mother, she said: 'I am
very sorry, but I have called my daughter home to prepare her
soul for the great change that is coming. Time will come to an
end and we are going to leave the earth.' I said, 'How are you
going?' She replied, 'The Lord will take all the prepared good
to heaven, and the world will be destroyed.' I said, 'Can she
come over the week after if this doesn't happen?' Young as I
was I never forgot the horrified look that came over her face,
or the tears that filled her large blue eyes!"
Mrs. L. E. Starr, of Pepperell, gives
a quaint account of what happened in her own family.
Her grandfather, Aaron Mason, then lived
in the fine old house now known as the Groton Hospital. He was
a most ardent follower of Prophet Miller, and upon one of the
occasions when the latter lectured in Groton this good man assented
so loudly to everything the Prophet said, and repeatedly exclaimed,
"Amen!" in such resounding tones, that the boys nicknamed
him "Gabriel Mason," because they claimed that the Angel's
trumpet would not ring out louder than his voice did in meeting.
His wife had some vague doubts, but his daughter was equally
convinced of the truth of the prophecy, and Mrs. Lizzie Davis,
who lived in Groton most of her life and is now in the one hundred
and third year of her age, made an ascension robe for Aaron Mason's
daughter, and also one for the daughter's friend to wear when
the Great Moment should arrive. The author has known Mrs. Davis
for years, and has talked over the circumstances a number of times
with her, and this dear old lady explained to her that "Aaron
Mason's daughter had to be satisfied with white cotton cloth that
had a little black sprig pattern scattered over it, because all
the plain white cloth available there had been sold to others
for robes, but," she declared, "you couldn't see the
sprigs from a little distance, so it made no odds."
When the day arrived, the Mason family
decided to go over to the "Community" in order to go
up with their friends, but early in the morning Mrs. Mason, who,
though ostensibly a firm believer, still clung to certain elements
of caution, said that before going "she guessed she'd bake
Her husband was exceedingly outraged
at the remark and said, there was no use baking bread as long
as the world was coming to an end. "Yes," she replied,
nodding her head slowly, "but supposing it doesn't happen?"
At his suggestion Aaron Mason grew exceedingly
wrathful, and then and there forebade her to bake any, "but,"
said Mrs. Starr, "she did bake some on the sly, and put it
in the cupboard, so when they returned next morning she had something
to give him for his breakfast, and after the terrible excitement
of waiting for the end and it not coming, he was hungry enough
for it, goodness knows!"
The inability fully to appreciate the
all-inspiring thought of the Day of Judgment was pitiably evident
everywhere. The majority of brains could not register it; they
were filled with confusion. Prophet Miller and Elder Boutelle
and some of the more spiritual of the brethren dwelt with joy
and reverence upon the expected Second Coming of the Saviour;
but it must be said that in most cases - certainly throughout
the rural districts - this expectation was so shrouded in mystery
that the destruction of the earth and the evil thereon, and the
anticipation of being suddenly caught up into the air with friends
and relatives, took precedence over every other consideration.
If the experience showed nothing else, it revealed how well-nigh
impossible it is for the majority of human minds to divest themselves
of material conceptions. Thus Miss Betsy Farnsworth - "Aunt
Betsy" as she was always called in Groton - feeling very
much confused by all she had been told in regard to what was about
to happen, and exceedingly nervous, declared finally that she
was going to be prepared for anything, no matter what, and forthwith
invested in an expensive set of brand new false teeth, made herself
a white ascension robe, and when she went to the "Community"
in order in order to go up with the others she carried with her
a green silk umbrella, presumably to use as a parachute should
the occasion call for it! The poor soul had given away most of
her property, but fortunately recovered it later.
Dear quaint old characters, where could
any be found nowadays to react thus ingenuously to the expectation
of so overwhelming an experience? It can only be partially equaled
by an account given to the author by Miss Marion R. Sawyer, of
Rockville, Long Island, who told of an old lady now living with
her, whose husband's sister had her home in Edentown, New Jersey,
at the time of the great excitement about the approach of the
end of the world, and who, having listened to all sorts of speculation
as to what in all probability would happen, and heard the views
of various self-appointed preachers, but finding little to cling
to as a certainty, decided to follow her own notions, and the
night before the expected end "she washed her hair with great
care, and the next morning put on an entire new outfit of clothing
so as to be scrupulously clean, and she spent the entire night
praying for her entire family, and that their future life might
be almost as a continuation of the life on earth."
These are individual cases, to be sure,
but they serve to emphasize the limitations of spiritual vision
in even good and conscientious persons.
Different types of minds were differently
affected. Some poor souls, hearing much said about being "caught
up into the air," and being unable to understand how such
a thing could happen, bought big laundry baskets and planned to
sit in them when the time came. Miss Lucy C. Hazelton, of Hampton,
New Hampshire, corroborates thin in a letter to the author. "I
am Hampton born," she writes, "and have heard my relations
tell of a company of Millerites dressed in white taking baskets
along to go up in, and going to Hampton Falls Hill, and remaining
there all day." According to this same letter they returned
after dark dragging the baskets after them.
It must be remembered that there was
good reason for all the confusion of ideas that troubled the minds
of so many throughout the country districts. There was no daily
papers or free rural deliveries at that time to keep those living
in secluded villages or on lonely farms in touch with the big
centres of the world outside. A weekly paper or two might find
their way to some fortunate individuals, and they in turn passed
them on to their neighbors - a slow process of imparting news,
at best. At this time, however, every village was flooded with
literature announcing the coming end of the world and the theories
connected with it, many of which were too involved for the average
mind to grapple with; more than that, a general education was
not available as it is now, and there were many farmers and their
families who could not undertake to decipher the intricacies of
King Nebuchadnezzar's dream nor William Miller's interpretation
of the prophecies of Daniel - all that they dwelt upon was that
the world was coming to an end and so acted according to their
mental ability to absorb such an overwhelming thought. The effect
of this upon some of the more untrained minds was extraordinary.
For instance, Mr. John F. Wilson, of Rutland, Vermont, was personally
acquainted with a man who made a pair of wings for himself, "and
as the hour approached got up on the barn and on the stroke of
the hour started on his flight which ended on the ground within
a few feet of the barn and resulted in a broken leg. This man
afterwards became a deacon in an orthodox church and was highly
respected in the community when I knew him."
This act of jumping from high places
was very prevalent. Mr. George Newhall, of Swampscott, tells
of another case. "I remember very well," he writes,
"of hearing my mother tell about the encampment on the horse
pasture in North Salem, near where we lived in those days. One
incident I remember in particular she said which happened at that
time. A man by the name of Chase (I knew him well in after years)
seemed very much excited and carried away by Millerism. He climbed
a tree about thirty feet high and jumped off, and fortunately
for him landed on a large clump of barberry bushes which saved
his life. I was acquainted with several families of Millerites
- one family named Glidden and one named Hambler."
A correspondent from Worcester contributed
a still more pitiful yet ludicrous incident showing the condition
of the poor warped minds that were at least temporarily unbalanced
by the delusion.
"One man," she writes "(I
will not use names, as his descendants might not like it), put
on turkey wings, got up in a tree and prayed that the Lord would
take him up. He tried to fly, fell, and broke his arm. . . I
remember well my father and mother talking about it. I remember
hearing the say that some went insane over it" [the delusion].
As has been stated further back, statistics
show that the Worcester Insane Asylum was full of unfortunate
men and women at the time whose minds had given way under the
strain of awaiting the summons that would precede the awful destruction
of the world.
Through his stepmother who lived in Springfield during this period and who was interested, though not a believer in the prophecy, and witnessed many demonstrations of the feverish excitement existing at that very time among the adherents of it, Mr. Frederick L. Avery, of Ayer, Massachusetts, was able to give some interesting facts, having listened to her tell of these many times over, and he cited a case along the same lines as the foregoing which was as follows:
When the appointed day arrived a
large number of frightened men and women were led by one of the
Elders to a spot halfway up a hill outside the city, and under
the influence of an abnormal exaltation he was overcome by this
same desire to jump into the air which attacked so many. While
they were all tremulously looking for the signs of the coming
end, and as time went on and nothing happened, the tension grew
very sever. "After a long wait," Mr. Avery states,
"the Elder, in a white robe, got up on a big stump, and with
arms outstretched jumped skyward - but landed on earth. This
delusion," he goes on to say, "resulted in insanity
There is one curious fact in regard
to this extraordinary period which is that the men were even more
prone to commit extravagances than the women, who not infrequently
believed, but with certain reservations. Mrs. Aaron Mason, of
Groton, who baked a loaf or two of bread before preparing to ascend,
so as to be ready, whichever way things went, was only one of
many wives who kept a grain of common sense in the back of their
brains, though their husbands had cast theirs to the four winds.
There was the wife of Dr. Smith, a dentist in Castleton, Vermont,
who exemplified this very clearly. Her husband was a very prominent
man there; he owned a large farm, and was also the possessor of
a fine herd of cattle. As the autumn came on, he fell a victim
to the delusion, and when the appointed time drew near he sat
for three days and nights in his front hall with his wife'' plaid
cloak on awaiting the awful summons. His wife thought a good
deal of her cloak, and she hinted to him that when the moment
came for him to be "caught up into the air he'd best let
the cloak slip from his shoulders!"
We commend her thrift and foresight!
Miss Honora Harrison, aged eighty-nine,
and her sister Miss Sarah N. Harrison, aged eighty-six, of Castleton,
Vermont, knew Dr. Smith and his wife very well and communicated
many things about them to the author, as did also Miss Mary Gerrish
Higly whose father knew all about this incident as well as others.
But when Mrs. E. H. Parmelee, of Brandon, Vermont, wrote of having
met Dr. Smith when he was an old man one Christmas morning and
greeted him with a cheerful "I wish you a Merry Christmas,"
his somewhat startling reply, "You don't know whether the
Lord was born on the Fourth of July or not!" makes it permissible
to suspect that the fogs of delusion had not wholly cleared from
the poor gentleman's brain even then!
It is a curious fact that waves of delusion
produce similar impulses irrespective of geographical latitudes
and longitudes, and while with Lady Hester Stanhope, the eccentric
Englishwoman living in her villa on Mount Lebanon, they took the
form of keeping a white Arab horse on which the Lord could enter
Jerusalem at his Second Advent, so thousands of miles away, in
the little New England town of Castleton, Vermont, they made a
white robe for Him to wear when He should come, and Mrs. Catherine
(White) Grant, of Leicester, Massachusetts, states that "David
Parsons, of Worcester, I have heard my father say, was so certain
of the Lord's coming that he had his shay painted, varnished,
and refitted, so that the Lord should have it to ride in."
And just as the beautiful though eccentric Harriet Livermore
climbed a tree on the Mount of Olives and passed a night in the
branches, so at a distant point on the globe, at Harvard, Massachusetts,
old Mr. Hardy, a most respectable man, but full of rheumatism,
managed to clamber up to the very top of an apple tree that stood
in the pasture, and passed a most uncomfortable night in it, awaiting
the end, and when discovered there by his neighbors the next morning
he had become cast, as it were, and could move neither hand nor
foot, and it took hours to get him down. Mr. Chaffee, the father
of Mrs. W. S. Dudley, of Harvard, was one of the neighbors who
assisted in the undertaking.
An old lady in New Bedford wrote to
the author of a whole family (relatives of hers) who perched on
the branches of an apple tree in their white robes for one whole
night. "It passed," she wrote, "and the father
and his family came down to earth disillusioned and poverty-stricken,
to begin life over again."
In an extract from a paper prepared in connection with the celebration of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the incorporation of the town of Wilbraham, Massachusetts, June 15, 1913, written by Chauncey E. Peck, he says:
"I remember hearing Dr. Abial Bottom, of South Wilbraham, telling my great-uncle, Dr. Gideon Kibbs, of an experience of his while driving along on Main Street toward his home, a little south of the 'Greens.' It was in the early evening, and suddenly his horse stopped, apparently frightened at something he saw up in a tree close at hand. The doctor himself looked and saw a shape resembling a human figure up among the branches, and he asked: 'What are you doing up there at this time of night?' A woman's voice answered substantially: 'Before the morning sun shall rise the fires from heaven will descend and this earth will be melted in the fierce heat. I have on my ascension robe, and am waiting to be wafted to the realms of Light beyond the skies.'
"The sound of the woman's voice
relieved the anxiety of the horse, and the doctor drove on to
his home without giving any advice."
Such actions seem inconceivable to us
in these more enlightened days, yet in all ages there are unfortunate
ones who lack the power to keep their mental balance under the
stress of great emotions, and to await an event fraught with such
terrifying possibilities as the conflagration and complete destruction
of the earth which feels so solid beneath our feet, and the sudden
coming to judgment was enough to befuddle many a brain that under
ordinary circumstances worked with sanity and order. The direful
effects were manifest in the young as well as the old; no age
was immune to the disintegrating processes produced by this overwhelming
anticipation of chaos.
Great numbers of young women at Lowell became subject to the devastating emotions, and Mrs. S. H. Parker, of Pratt's Junction, whose mother lived in Lowell during that period gives the following account of them:
"I well remember mother telling me when I was young," she writes, "about one girl she knew who went out in her ascension robe with many others to the river, after bidding good-bye to those friends who did not get so far as to really think they must ascend then. Those who were convinced spent much time in singing and praying as hour after hour went by, and at last they felt there had been a mistake, so they sadly meandered their way back to their homes or boarding places.
"One girl, by the name of Hannah
Dodge, boarded where my mother was, and when she and others got
to the house they found the doors fastened when they wished to
come in. Some one went to the door and called out, 'Who is there?'
Hannah Dodge gave her name. 'Oh, no!' said the one inside.
'It isn't Hannah Dodge - she's gone up!' Every time Hannah asked
to be let in the answer came, 'Oh, no - she's gone up!' It seemed
rather hard, but Hannah and the other were let in at last."
Many a disillusioned victim of the prophecy
was subjected to this same sort of reception when they returned
to their homes. In the majority of cases it was a method of inflicting
derision that cut the sufferers to the quick. It was not unnatural
that those who had to endure the ridicule which followed the disillusionment
shrank from their fellow men and grew timid and supersensitive.
Here and there, however, the surprise
on the part of those who opened the door for the weary home-comer
was genuine. In the general confusion of thought there were some
professing to be unbelievers of the prophecy who hid within a
lurking sense of uncertainty as to what might or might not happen.
For a long time after the wave of this delusion had receded,
many of the country folk were wont to refer to this period as
"the time when the Millerites went up." There are a
number of cases on record of so-called unbelievers in the prophecy
running to points of vantage where they might get a view of some
especial family of Millerites going up.
Mrs. Caroline F. Austen, of New Bedford,
whose childhood passed on the Island of Nantucket, states that
there was a woman there named Meader whom many expected to see
go up, and the school children, of whom she was one, gathered
about her home in the hope of witnessing her flight. In many
quarters optical delusions were prevalent, and Mrs. Elmira Edson
Titus, who lived in Claremont, New Hampshire, when a young girl,
states that "some of the people there saw angels flying through
the air, going in the direction of Woodstock, Vermont."
People viewed the situation and reacted
to it according to type. What seemed like an individual case
proved to belong to a group, members of which might be separated
and at various parts of the earth, or close at hand; the only
link between them was unconscious similarity of action. Thus
some were impelled to destroy things or to cast from them their
most treasured possessions in their last moments of time. In
Portland, Maine, as the expected time drew near, according to
Mrs. Ellen M. Davenport, of Worcester, whose father remembered
all about it, "the women cut off their hair, cut the ruffles
from their dresses, threw away and gave away their jewelry, and
in fact all their property in some cases." Others broke
up all their furniture declaring that there would be no more use
for tables or chairs or bedsteads, and they demolished them ruthlessly.
Mrs. Delia E. Dalrymple, of Millbury,
Massachusetts, states that her grandfather was a personal friend
of a family who split every piece of furniture they owned into
kindling wood. Other fanatics threw their belongings into the
city streets or out on to the country roads. A shoemaker in New
York City was impelled the day before the looked-for end to throw
all his boots and shoes and cobbler's tools pell-mell into the
street, and the unbelievers in the prophecy made the most of it,
all scrambling for whatever they could lay their hands on.
Miss. Marion R. Sawyer, of Rockville,
Long Island, writes of this occurrence, and states, "To this
day we have in our possession one of the shoemaker's hammers which
my grandfather, then a little chap, brought home with him."
Mr. Henry Kittredge, of Lowell, who has made an intensive study of the ins and outs of Massachusetts history, gave the author the following anecdote, the truth of which she is in a position to confirm, as she had been previously told it by the late Frank B. Sanborn, familiarly known as the "Sage of Concord," whose death removed one of the last links in the chain of eminent men associated with Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Channing, Alcott, etc., living in that picturesque and historic town. Having heard this anecdote repeated, Mr. Sanborn one day asked Mr. Emerson if it was true, and the latter admitted with a smile that it was. It is given herein according to Mr. Kittredge's letter dated July 2, 1921:
"A man quite excited, who accepted the belief that the world was to end on that particular day, met in the roads of Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker. They seemed very calm and undisturbed. The Millerite thought it his duty to inform them and warn them of the momentous fact of which they appeared so unconscious. So he walked up to them with an excited manner and said: 'Gentlemen! Do you KNOW - do you REALIZE that the world is coming to an end today?'
"Mr. Parker said: 'It does
not concern ME, for I live in Boston.' And Mr. Emerson said:
'The end of the world does not affect me; I can get along without
Which goes to show that these serious-minded
gentlemen were not without a certain sense of humor.
Another curious phase of the delusion
showed itself among certain believers in the prophecy at Harvard,
Massachusetts, which is exactly opposed to those who cast away
their belongings or neglected their crops. There was a man named
Andrew Lawrence who sold his cows at great sacrifice, to be sure,
because he said there would be no one to care for them when he
had gone up, but he took good care just the same to hold on tightly
to the money he received for them, and hoped to take it with him.
Another farmer who lived near him almost killed himself trying
to get his crops harvested before October 22nd, the
predicted last day of earth, and he even hired a number of extra
men to help him.
Several sober-minded matrons on Bare
Hill, which is part of Harvard, worked until they were nearly
worn out in order to get their canning and preserving done as
usual. When their mystified and skeptical neighbors asked them
why they did this, they replied that their personal view of it
was "that God approved of thrifty Christians, and that to
leave everything ship-shape would count in their favor."
These are facts that are well known
in Harvard, and that go to show the appalling limitations of spiritual
understanding that can exist in strong, able-bodied, thrifty,
and otherwise sensible men and women.
And while we are recording the effects
of the delusion upon the country folk of Harvard, Massachusetts,
we must tell about Ben Whitcomb, of Stow, for not only was he
a character such as is rarely found outside of a secluded New
England village, but he was also a tragic example of the terrible
effects the prophecy produced on certain types of mind. The author
was fortunate enough to hear his story from those whose memory
of him was still vivid and who could give an accurate description
of this strange man. Mrs. Annie Page, who lives on top of Boxboro
Hill, Miss Sarah Houghton, of Bolton, Mr. Frank Stevens, of Stow,
Mr. Jerome Dwennell and his wife, and Mr. Eliphalet Tenney (known
to his neighbors as "Life" Tenney) all remember him
Ask some of the old people in those parts whether they remember Ben Whitcomb, and they will throw up their hands and exclaim: "REMEMBER him? Well, I guess I do! Why, he used to scare the life out o' me when I was a child! All the grown folks were scared, too, for miles around!"
The following is an outline of his direful experience:
Ben Whitcomb's brother Jim, having been crossed in love, took to drink and hanged himself. It was after this that Ben lived alone in the old homestead on a lonely tract of land outside the village of Stow, which for some unexplained reason went by the name of Monkey Street.
Now on the road between Stow and West
Acton there lived a man who was called by his neighbors "Prophet"
Houghton, because he had taken upon himself the task of preaching
William Miller's prophecy that the world was coming to an end,
and was letting his fine herd of cattle die of starvation because
he declared it to be time and money wasted to feed them, as the
end was so near, and who in a desire to prove himself to be endowed
with supernatural powers stood for one whole day out in his field
gazing full into the face of the sun, so he claimed. It was stated,
however, by some who saw him standing there that Aunt Martha Houghton
went out and held an umbrella over his head a good part of the
time which did much to mar the impression he wished to produce.
However, he was looked upon as a leader, and his house was a
centre for meetings of a most exaggerated and fanatical nature,
and it was there that Ben Whitcomb became an ardent convert to
Prophet Houghton's rendering of William Miller's prophecy, and
lifted up his voice time and again to testify to his belief that
the end was near. The excitement and apprehension were more than
his overwrought brain could stand, and he became the strange,
outlandish creature who is remembered as having terrified the
Ben owned two horses, and after his
wits had gone he explained to his friends that he kept one of
them in fine shape so that he could enter the Kingdom of Heaven
on it when the time came. The other he trained to jump over the
highest fences and stone walls, and to deftly clear at a leap
the neighbor's hen-houses and woodpiles, and to gallop over potato
patches and through cornfields without injuring them; and though
he was liable to be encountered riding over the roads at breakneck
speed, shouting out a warning of impending doom, he more frequently
rode across country, clearing all the obstacles in his path as
though his horse's hoofs had wings attached to them. Sometimes,
to the terror of wayfarers, he would clear the bushes bordering
the road, landing right in their midst and scattering them in
a panic and with hearts thumping against their breasts, for when
he rode he presented a weird and most astonishing appearance,
although, according to Eliphalet Tenney, he sat his horse like
a general and was a commanding figure to look upon, in spite of
his strange attire. Now his attire was so extraordinary as to
deserve minute description. It was the marvel of all who beheld
it. From his shoulders a flaming scarlet cloak blew out in the
wind, covered with what Eliphalet Tenney called "a mess o'
gold stars" that glittered in the sunlight. Sometimes it
would flow out behind him and sometimes at his sides, but it unfurled
itself in great sweeping curves as the wind caught it, like a
battle-flag of strange omen.
Old Mrs. Sawin, who lived farther down
the road, made this cloak for Ben Whitcomb during one of her crazy
spells. She was subject to bad ones at times when the neighbors
had to go in and hold her.
If the cloak was startling, it was no
more so than the huge gray hornet's nest which was cut in two
and worn on his shoulders like mammoth epaulettes that covered
most of his back and chest, giving him the appearance of a great
prehistoric crustacean. A collegian's old rusty black mortar-board
cap surmounted by a tassel covered his head, with a piece of black
cloth sewn to it which was drawn over his ears and under his chin,
so that only his gaunt, pallid face was visible. He varied his
headgear sometimes by putting the tattered brim of an old straw
hat on his head, and placing on top of it the remains of a dilapidated
cloth cap which was puckered into a three-cornered affair with
long narrow strips of red flannel floating out from each corner,
while straight up from his forehead towered a big brush of corn
broom, wrenched from some old broomstick. As if this were not
enough, bells of all sizes and shapes were sewn all over his clothing,
following the seams of his coat and trousers. There were sleigh
bells, cow bells, a large dinner bell, and innumerable smaller
tinkling bells; more than that, all the old rags he could find
he had torn into streamers. These also were sewn all over his
clothes as well as ribbons of every length and color and buttons
of every description, and on his back, attached by a cord from
his neck, hung a good-sized beehive. Sometimes he brandished
two unsheathed swords, while at other times he bore aloft, as
a flag, one of the Millerite charts made of linen, on which was
painted pictures of terrible beats, and of the ram, the he-goat,
and the exceeding great horn, intricately involved in the prophecy.
Surely it was not to be wondered at
that when Ben Whitcomb, astride his horse, came galloping at full
speed along the road, with his wonderful cloak sweeping and swirling
and billowing out behind him, and the beehive jouncing and bouncing
up and down, or from side to side, with the bells all jangling,
and the rags and the ribbons fluttering, and the unsheathed sword
blades flashing, and he shouting that the Day of Doom was at hand,
that the school children playing during the recess hour should
run pell-mell into the schoolhouse at the sight of him and bar
the door, screaming in terror, "Here comes Ben Whitcomb!
Here come Ben Whitcomb! Look out for crazy Ben!" and cower
down in a panic of fear lest he should suspect their hiding place
and search them out.
Mr. Jerome Dwennell's wife, who was
brought up in Stow, experienced this many times in her childhood,
as did also Miss Sarah Houghton at Bolton, and Mrs. Annie Page
at Boxboro, for Ben Whitcomb rode over the length and breadth
of the countryside.
The people called him religious-mad,
and to this, strange to say, he readily assented. "No need
o' being scared o' me," he would sometimes volunteer confidingly
to startled wayfarers he met upon the road; "I'm just religious-mad,
that's all." To strangers, however, this statement was not
always entirely convincing!
But in spite of all these evidences
of derangement, Ben Whitcomb had lucid periods when he seemed
like other people. He was by nature a kindly man, and sometimes
he used to go to Mrs. Dwennell's home when she was a child, and
she would sit upon his knee and listen to the stories he had to
tell, and at such times she had no fear of him. It was when he
was astride his horse and riding at breakneck speed over the country
that he excited alarm.
Sometimes his remarks were singularly
to the point. There was a man who lived in his vicinity who was
addicted to drink, according to Mr. Tenney, and under the influence
of liquor he would go to the barn and cut off the tail of one
of his cows, leaving only a stump. After awhile nearly all his
cows were denuded of tails, and then it was that he fell ill.
Hearing that his friends was dying,
Ben Whitcomb went to see him. He stood looking at him in silence
for several moments.
"Well," he said reflectively, "I'll wager you'll not be cutting off cow-tails where you be going!"
And very probably he was right.
Now one very cold evening in February,
Ben was seen entering the graveyard. The incident was remarked
upon and it aroused a certain amount of curiosity. The next night
when the same thing occurred, however, one of the men in the village
decided to find out the meaning of it and he crept in there after
him. The following morning he interviewed the Selectmen and gave
them the appalling information that Ben Whitcomb had managed to
remove the stone slab from the Whitcomb family tomb and was passing
the nights in it with the thermometer hovering around zero. The
very thought of such a thing as this was dumbfounding, and the
Selectmen were nonplussed as to how to meet such a contingency,
especially as Ben was a large and powerful man and exceedingly
set upon having his own way. The matter was under discussion
when a sound of horses' hoofs was heard, and a turmoil of excitement
immediately broke loose on the village street. People ran out
of their houses, gesticulating and expostulating vehemently, and
then ran in again as though to get under cover as Ben with his
scarlet cloak and all his trappings galloped his horse from one
end of the village to the other, and back again, with the new
addition of a human skull dangling by a string from his neck,
jouncing up and down as he rode, and bumping against the beehive!
Consternation was on every face! "Don't
tell me it's his father's skull!" some cried out excitedly.
"Or his mother's!" the women suggested, rolling their
eyes up in horror.
But Ben Whitcomb divined what they were
saying - "It's my brother Jim's!" he shouted brandishing
his swords, whereupon he dug a pair of old cavalry spurs into
the horse's flanks and disappeared down the road.
It was useless to speculate upon what
was likely to happen next, for Ben Whitcomb's brain took unexpected
turns, as every one knew, but it created a sensation when he began
to walk in upon the village people at meal-times and place the
gruesome relic under the table when they were peacefully eating
their pies and doughnuts. Those of timorous disposition were
completely unnerved at the sight, and some even went into hysterics.
No one dared to interfere with him because he was so strong,
but finally the Selectmen, goaded on by public opinion, took a
stand. They ordered him to put his brother's skull back where
he found it, which he promptly refused to do, but compromised
so far as to carry it about in a paper bag, which was an improvement
to be sure, but not wholly conducive to a complete sense of security,
as one housewife found when she sat down alone in her kitchen
to eat her dinner and in walked Ben Whitcomb with the bag under
"Take away that bag, I tell you!"
she screamed at him in terror - "don't you dare come near
me with that bag, Ben Whitcomb! - I know well enough what's in
it" - and becoming suddenly endowed with strength born of
fear she managed to walk him out of the door and promptly slammed
it and locked it, and then sat down next to the stove and had
a good cry.
Finally a day came when the distracted
Selectmen were able to lay the poor head where it could continue
its long sleep in peace, and Ben looked about for other means
of using up surplus energy. He found it when he rode over to
a camp meeting at Sterling with all his trappings on, and there
he raised such a commotion that he was taken to the asylum at
"No need to get troubled about
me," he assured them pleasantly when he arrived there - "I'm
religious-mad - nothing more." And he behaved so sanely
that they sent him back to Stow, declaring that as far as they
could see he had diagnosed his own case correctly and that he
was harmless. And to this day he haunts the memory of those still
living who can remember him appearing and disappearing on the
country roads or over the fields, with his flame-colored cloak
streaming behind him, and his ribbons and rags and all his outlandish
paraphernalia flapping in the wind, still giving his warning that
the end of all things was at hand, though William Miller and his
prophecy had already passed away and life had continued its course
upon this earth unruffled and unchanged.
It was on the morning of March 11, 1877,
that Ben Whitcomb, tragic victim of that prophecy, slipped away
from earth, leaving only the strange memory of him to show that
he had been here. It happened in this way:
He was tired of life, the poor deluded
man, and he was growing old, and he was unhappy. Those who saw
him reported that he seemed despondent, and they feared that he
would pass out the same way his brother James had. There began
to be a good deal of talk about it in the village. On the evening
of March 10th, three of his neighbors, Jerome Dwennell,
Fred Moore, and Eliphalet Tenney, went to his house prepared to
stay there until morning, for he had appeared especially downcast
It was a cold, blustering night and
the snow was still deep upon the ground. They sat close to the
kitchen stove talking in low voices. Ben had been in there with
them, and had not questioned them as to why they were they, which
surprised them. He had appeared quiet and even cheerful and after
a while had left them to go to bed. The three men continued to
sit by the stove replenishing it with fuel every now and then
as the hours went by and recalling reminiscences of Ben's brother
James, and how he was crossed in love and had taken to drink,
and then hanged himself; and then of his father and mother and
all the family history known in the village. Somewhat after midnight
one of them took a light and went to the door of his bedroom and
opening it gently peered in, and in doing so he uttered an exclamation
that brought the others quickly to his side. The room was empty
- and the window gaped wide open!
"By Heavens - he gone!" one
of them cried; and they looked at each other in a frightened whisper,
and they all glanced at each other again and remained silent for
a few moments. "Maybe 'twere best to take a look in the
barn," suggested the third one nervously, and the others
nodded their heads in assent.
Their search was in vain.
Over in the deep woods where the bitter icy blast could not penetrate, Ben Whitcomb had already snapped the delicate cord of life that bound him to earth, and when in the early dawn Eliphalet Tenney found him hanging from the branch of a pine tree his soul had taken its flight to another and happier sphere.
And the village talked it over; and those who knew him best said of him: "Say what you will, there was no harm in Ben Whitcomb - he meant all right - he was just religious-mad."
So they laid him alongside his brother James in the family tomb in the centre of the old graveyard. May his soul rest in peace.