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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Witch on a Ship

A haunted passage to Virginia

A current eBay offering is four issues of the 1691 Athenian Mercury, which is all about  GHOSTS & WITCHCRAFT aboard a SHIP BOUND FOR VIRGINIA.

The best-known and longest-lived of all seventeenth-century literary periodicals, The Athenian Mercury was the first advice column and the first newspaper to use the question-and-answer format. A widely-read staple of the coffee houses, it is also generally considered the first major popular periodical in England as well as the first miscellaneous periodical, and the first to appeal to both men and women.

Published twice weekly from 1691-1697 by the eccentric pamphleteer and prolific publisher John Dunton, the Athenian Mercury took its name from Acts 17:21 ("For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing"). Over the course of its 580 numbers, Dunton and his two principal writers, Richard Sault and Samuel Wesley (father of Charles and John Wesley), answered nearly 6000 questions, both weighty and frivolous, on a dizzying array of topics, including theology, philosophy, politics, health, natural history, science, literature, courtship and marriage, sex, etiquette, etc., etc.

These issues of the Athenian Mercury are numbers 10 and 20-22 of Volume 4, published in London in 1691.

It is 20-22 that is interesting, being largely devoted to a lively and fascinating account, accompanied by sworn affidavits, of an apparent case of witchcraft on board an emigrant ship bound for the New World.

The story begins: On the twenty first of October, 1674, putting forth from Plymouth into the Sea, with the Ship Recovery of London: John Wood Commander bound to Virginia, we had very bad Winds as West South West, and at South, with very bad weather, that all our Fore Shrouds broke at times, being good Ropes, our Topmast broke twice, our Mizzen yard broak, our Spritsle yard washt from the Boultspreet, one Main and two Foretops split, most of our running rigging shatter’d, the Ship’s planks working from the Stern-post, our Men tyred with working: Fair weather or foul, it was all one, what was mended one day, would the next day be in pieces…

And it just gets worse. The crew and passengers come to believe that "our ship was bewitched by one Witch aboard,… and that we should not get to Virginia, but lye and spend our provision and liquor in the sea." Eventually, their suspicions fall on one Elizabeth Masters. But even after the Jonah-witch has been arrested and "clapt in chain at a gun in the steerage," the accursed ship's troubles continue…

Fascinated?  The starting bid is $24.99 US, plus shipping. But new customers get a ten-dollar rebate.


Linda Collison said...

I'd love to read this, but I don't want to drive up the e-bay price! Just my cup of tea -- women on ships. And witches. I wrote an unpublished fantasy novel about New England witches on ships. Maybe now's the time to publish it?

Joan Druett said...

Absolutely! Do it! Can't wait to read it