More About Elizabeth Morse Homestead, Site of

The elderly couple were bothered by strange events in their home beginning in late 1679: sticks and stones were thrown against the side of the house, they themselves were pelted with similar items when they ventured outside to investigate, and inside, tables, pots, and trays moved on their own, and small objects such as pens, hats, and inkwells simply disappeared. William Morse’s written description of events sounds as if they were troubled by a poltergeist.


A seafaring man named Caleb Powell who was familiar with the occult, who some Newbury neighbors considered a “wizard,” became aware of the situation and said he could explain the problem. It was their young grandson, John Stiles, who was causing all the mischief, he said. The Morses had taken the boy into their home some time before. Powell convinced the couple to allow him to remove their grandson from the home. The troubles immediately ceased.


Surprisingly, rather than believing that Powell was correct in his judgment, the Morse’s instead came to the conclusion that Powell himself was behind their torment. William filed a complaint with the local magistrate, charging that Powell had worked with the Devil to molest his family. Historian John Demos suggests that William may have tried to re-direct charges of witchcraft toward Powell, and away from his wife Elizabeth, who had been gossiped about for years as a possible witch.


Whatever the reason, Powell ended up jailed and young Stiles was back in the Morse home. Shortly thereafter, the boy became “afflicted,” experiencing fits, saying he was pinched and pricked, making animal sounds, swooning, and being found with sharp objects stuck into his body. He soon started to blame the specter of the jailed Powell for his affliction.


However, in January of 1680, several Newbury neighbors gave depositions to the local judge, implicating Elizabeth Morse as a witch. These testimonies led to her arrest in March on charges of witchcraft and she was held in Ipswich jail until her trial. Demos speculates that Powell, out on bail, may have encouraged people to speak against her. When Powell was tried, he was not convicted due to lack of evidence.


Elizabeth Morse was moved to Boston jail in preparation for her May trial. More testimony was given against her and she was convicted, sentenced to hang by Gov. Simon Bradstreet. Prior to the Salem witch trials, however, it was rare for executions to be carried out. Goody Morse was no different. Her hanging was delayed until October, and then again. She remained in jail. William sought her release the following spring, and Elizabeth herself petitioned the court for some resolution to her case.


Her death sentence was not lifted, but she was finally allowed to return to her home in Newbury in the spring of 1681, “provided she go not above sixteen rods from her own house and land at any time, except to the meeting house.” The court did not pursue her execution. William died two years later. It is not clear when Elizabeth died, but she remained in the family home. Rev. John Hale of Beverly wrote of her in his book A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft, saying, “In her last sickness she was much in darkness and trouble of spirit … she sought her pardon and comfort from God in Christ, and died so far as I understood praying to and resting upon God in Christ for salvation.”


The witchcraft accusations that were to come twelve years later, which would come to be known as the Salem witch trials, resulted in a far more deadly end for twenty-plus innocent souls.


22 Market Square

The Morse home and 4-acre property was on the southeast side of Market Square, in the very heart of today’s downtown Newburyport. It is hard to imagine the area, not as a bustling and crowded coastal city, but rather a fishing and agricultural part of Newbury. There is a small plaque on the Liberty Street side of 22 Market Street, at the intersection of State Street. It was placed by the Morse Society in 1999 and notes Morse’s conviction and states that Elizabeth was eventually reprieved.