Folktale Friday: Ruth Buck, the “Witch of Westborough” (Forbes and History)

Ruth Buck’s “Confession and Apology for Sin,” 1778.

From The Hundredth Town by Harriette Merrifield Forbes, 1889, pp. 146-153.

Of Ruth Buck’s ancestry we know nothing, nor was she associated with any particular locality. The Town Records mention her first in 1763, about seventy-one years before her death. In the warrant for the town-meeting, May 9, 1763, one article was, “To see what ye Town will do with respect to Ruth Buck, which ye Selectmen of this Town have sent to Southboro’, for ye Selectmen of Southboro’ refuse to take y’e sd Ruth Buck as their proper charge.” They “voted not to stand Toyal (trial) with Southboro’ with respect to Ruth Buck.” In October of the same year, Mr. Samuel Allen prayed “that ye Town would Relieve Him someway or other with respect to Ruth Buck and her child.” They afterwards appropriated money for her support, and so in the early days of her unfortunate motherhood she became a town charge.

What became of the little one whose babyhood was so overshadowed with trouble and want we do not know. The fact of his existence faded from the minds of most. In 1778 Ruth appeared before the church, confessed her sin, and was “admitted into full communion.” Of the next years of her life we know nothing; perhaps they were the best years, spent in the care of her boy.

Full communion with the church did not mean full social fellowship with the good people of the town. It is not long before we find her regarded with distrust, though still going from house to house, following her profession of tailoress, looked upon with fear by the little children, and by many of their elders as a social outcast and witch.

What she herself thought has come down to us in a very negative way. Old David Fay, a rough, eccentric man, called out to her one morning as she was passing his house: —

“Well, Ruth, they say you are a witch.”

“If I’m a witch,” she answered, as she trudged on, “you are the devil.”

She is remembered as a very stout woman, with large, strong features. Her temper was uncertain, and many a sharp retort came from her lips. It was a bad thing to arouse her opposition, and feel the sting of her venomous hate.

She always wore a cap or handkerchief on her head, sometimes of white material, more commonly of plaid. Below it was seen a bit of the lobe of each ear, with a little gold knob fastened into it. She was never seen without this covering, and it was said and believed that she had a very good reason for wearing it. One day she had asked a farmer to do some ploughing for her. His refusal displeased her, and she angrily said, “You will have trouble with your oxen to-day.” The farmer found she was right; the usually docile beasts refused to move. At last, feeling sure that they were bewitched, he resorted to the usual method of letting out the evil spirit, and cut off the tops of their ears. From that time dates Ruth’s wearing of the head covering, and it was generally understood that the few who, in some unguarded moment, had obtained a glimpse beneath it had seen that her ears were cropped.

Across her throat she had a long purple mark, which she covered with a handkerchief crossed in front. There was a farmer living in Grafton whose sheep one day showed the familiar and unmistakable signs of being bewitched, not onlv by their erratic actions, but even more by the blindness which had suddenly come upon the whole flock. At last he resorted to the “sharp medicine” of the knife, cutting the throat of the worst one. He had no more trouble with them; but, until her death, Ruth was marked with a livid line just where the farmer’s knife had cut the bewitched sheep.

She seems to have oftener used her uncanny influence over inanimate things. One day she met Mr. Joseph Belknap, soon after he had started from his farm at Rocklawn, to “go below,” as was the phrase commonly used of a trip to Boston, with a large number of eggs for the market. She asked for some; but he refused to sell them, as his box was even, full, and closely packed. “Well, as you please,” she answered; “but you will never get those eggs safe to the market.”

In some unaccountable way, near the end of his long drive, the board in the back of his wagon came out, and the box of eggs slid to the ground. Every one was broken.

Another time, a farmer, against whom she had previously vowed vengeance, passed her as he was carrying a load of wood to the school-house, now known as No. 2, near the H. A. Gilmore farm. She told him he would never reach there safely with his load. She passed on, but the oxen refused to move; he took off part of the load, but, after a short distance, they stopped again. This was repeated, until, just before reaching his destination, he threw off the last stick, and the oxen, starting on a dead run, rushed by the school-house.

There were innumerable slight annoyances to which the good woman of the house was subjected, against whom Ruth Buck had a spite. When she lighted her candles, she found that all below the rim of the old-fashioned candlestick was gone; only the wick was left. These candlesticks were made with a long socket, which held more than half the candle; a small slide raised or lowered at will made it possible to burn them almost the entire length. She believed the witch had come in an invisible shape and eaten the candles.

Mrs. Samuel Grout was one of the ladies most annoyed by Ruth’s pranks: her bread wouldn’t rise; it refused to bake, no matter how hot the oven might be; the butter wouldn’t come, and many other things went wrong in her work. One day, after churning for a long time, she tried, on a large scale, the remedy mentioned by Whittier in his New England Legend, —

“The goodwife’s churn no more refuses

Its wonted culinary uses,

Until with heated needle burned,

The witch has to her place returned,” —

and dropped a hot brick into the offending cream. The butter soon came, but not long afterwards a neighbor ran in saying that Ruth Buck had been dreadfully burned.

Mrs. Grout, seeing Ruth soon after with her hand in a poultice, asked her what the matter was.

“You know what is the matter,” was her answer, “and you’ll find yourself well paid.”

The same day, one of. Mr. Grout’s cows was found with a broken leg, with no apparent reason for the accident.

This was not the only burn that Ruth received. One day Mrs. Beeman was very much troubled with the behavior of her spinning-wheel. It refused to turn, the thread broke, and the good-woman’s patience was well-nigh exhausted. She took an old horseshoe, heated it red-hot, and laid it on the wheel. Everything went smoothly after that, but Ruth bore the scar for many a day.

This woman, so the farmers’ wives thought, had the power of knowing when she was talked about, and hearing what was said. Perhaps the low tones thcy thought necessary to use when telling each other about the afflictions she had brought upon them, may account in part for the lasting impression of curiosity and awe which her character left on the little children of the day, now most of them past their eightieth year.

One day she was trudging up a long hill in Upton, when a girl named Lackey looked out from one of the windows of a house on top of the hill, and saw her coming. “Oh dear,” she said to her mother,” here comes Ruth Buck. I hope she isn’t coming to stay.”

Ruth came on, made a pleasant call, but refused all their invitations to lay aside her wraps. When she stepped over the threshold after bidding them good-by, her expression changed. Looking sharply at her late hostesses, she said: “Oh dear, here comes Ruth Buck. I hope she isn’t coming to stay. Won’t you take off your things? I don’t want you to stay.”

She went off repeating these words to herself.

The last years of her life she was obliged, to a great extent, to give up her wandering habits. After the manner of dealing with paupers in the early part of this century, she was knocked down at auction to the person offering to board her for the least sum, and so fell to the thrifty hospitality of John Fay, who lived about two miles from the station, on the North Grafton road.

She finally, in 1834, at the age of ninety-two, ended her days in the poor-house.

Since her day there has been no one in town invested with her peculiar gifts.

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From More Old Houses in Westborough, Mass. and Their Occupants, Westborough Historical Society, 1908.

At this house [Morse Homestead] Ruth Buck came to make the boys’ clothes and Patty was so afraid to sleep alone that she willingly ran the risk of being bewitched by her bed fellow. But grandmother said though she watched closely, Ruth never removed her turban either night or day in her presence. Patty was dying of curiosity to see for herself whether Ruth’s ear-tips were gone, cut off, as tradition said, when she was a pig.

Written by Grace W. Bates, September 1908

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References to Ruth Buck in Historical Records

Ruth Buck’s “Relation of Faith,” 1778. (Also see her “Confession and Apology for Sin” at the beginning of this blog post.)

Parkman’s Diary

1778 July 30 (Thursday).   Ruth Buck desires to be propounded in Order to her Humiliation and joining with the Church, is Examined.

1778 August 2 (Sunday).  Ruth Buck was propounded.

1778 August 3 (Monday).   Mrs. [Jemima Hardy?] was here with Objections against Ruth Buck.  I [advised?] Mrs. Hardy to go to her, and discourse with her.  [illegible] She said she had Seen and spoke with her.  [But to?] little [effect?].

1778 August 11 (Tuesday).  Capt. Morse here in Defence of Ruth Buck against Mrs. Hardy; and insists on her (the latter) being distracted.

1778 August 12 (Wednesday).  [I then went?], and Mr. Elijah Hardy with me, to Mr. Isaac Parker’s where dwells the widow Jemima Hardy, that I might direct her with respect to Ruth Buck.  But I found her much out of her Head, and incapable of any regular Conversation.  Dr. Stimson has been here, is soon going to settle at Great Barrington.

1778 August 15 (Saturday).  Miss Ruth Buck came with her Confession and Relation; and it proved a yet greater Interruption, as I was obliged to new methodize and wholly transcribe her writings for the public Reading of them.  But there is no material Objection against her.

1778 August 16 (Sunday).  At noon Miss Ruth Buck was here, and I read and She signed the Address she is about to make to the Church.

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Blake’s Worcester County, Massachusetts, Warnings

 1763 May 10.  Buck, Ruth, from Southborough.  March 16, ’63.

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