While I have thought about assembling a Halloween piece for several years, it wasn’t until I experienced a near brush with death earlier this year that I decided it was time to look it all in the eye.
Gail Mackiernan and I met in the 1960s when we were both graduate students studying phytoplankton ecology.
Mackiernan, who was a student at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, lived on Guinea Neck, where it tapers off into Guinea Marsh, which juts out jointly into the Mobjack and Chesapeake bays. This area has some of the lower Bay’s best water quality and most luxuriant underwater meadows of sea grasses, as well as good fishing.
It was also home to Guineamen, Chesapeake watermen who had been independent since the British were defeated at Yorktown. Guineamen worked the Bay in cycle with the seasons. Most were raised to the water and fished, crabbed or oystered in turn.
Many had a lifelong attitude that if you were destined by the Lord’s will to die on the water, there was no sense learning to swim.
In winter, working alone without a life jacket, encumbered by cold-stiffened top and bottom foul weather gear and rubber knee boots, going overboard in 35-degree water didn’t improve one’s odds. A boat drifting in winter winds would often be out of reach before an overboard waterman could surface and orient himself.
A lot of men died this way in the Chesapeake, and the winter Mackiernan moved onto Guinea Neck was no exception. Someone from the community had gone missing.
It was a point of honor to bring a lost man’s remains home so his family could grieve properly and inter him near loved ones. The community would close ranks and support the bereaved and the circle was never closed without that final bonding.
One morning, during a walk along the beach some time after that fatality, Mackiernan saw a shiny, ivory-hued knob protruding from the sand in the undertow. Something told her this was not an exposed and moistened clam shell. There was something else about it, fibrous material washing to and fro in the waves as they drew back. It was not a simple knob, either, but creased — like a bone.
As she drew nearer, her biologist’s anatomy training informed her that this was a human knee. Beneath the sand, the Guineaman had come home and his family could now grieve.
Death was a familiar part of life in the early colonies. A great deal of the death from “seasoning” — the suite of debilitating fevers and fluxes that afflicted most newcomers — was the result of ignorance: insufficient knowledge of sanitation, dehydration from dysentery, poor nutrition and the virtual absence of medical care as we know it. But superstition and bias also played a role.
Disease was not the only cause of widespread death. As English settlers crowded in, they occupied more and more of the prime coastal plain farmlands where Native American gardeners had once planted their corn, squash and beans against winter’s privation. Voluntary and forced trade squeezed the ability of remaining Native American fields to provision the tribes, and increasing conflicts between the two groups led to many deaths.
The great Powhatan chose to retreat, moving his seat of government along the now-colonized James River north to the York River, above where it bifurcated into the Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers. People who claim his bloodline are still on the reservation there almost four centuries later.
Powhatan’s brother Opechancanough, though, was intractable in his hatred of the white interlopers who kept arriving and settling on his land. He believed that the invaders already present would have to be totally driven out, and he strengthened in this view as Powhatan aged and eventually died.
Despite the inheritance by another of the old chieftain’s family, Opechancanough succeeded, de facto, to command the Powhatan confederation and proposed nothing less than exterminating the English blight upon his people’s land and waters.
With amazing secrecy, a plan was conceived and transmitted, mouth to ear, for a coordinated uprising throughout Virginia.
Years ago, Dr. Susan Brunenmeister, a biometrician working on the Baywide monitoring database, and I shared unusual insights we had experienced in the past.
“When I was a kid, I had a very vivid and violent recurring dream,” Brunenmeister said. “I was in a church, which was under Indian attack and burning. People were dying all around me. I could never interpret what the origin of that was.
“We lived in the Norfolk-Hampton Roads area of Virginia and one Sunday, out for a drive with my parents, (somewhere in the James River watershed) I glimpsed an old church through screening trees, and instantly knew it. I exclaimed to my folks, ‘that’s the church I see in my dream’ but they were intent on some other objective and we drove by, me looking back, wondering. I never was able to find out where that was.”
I’ve remembered her story all these years because in 1622, Opechancanough carried out his uprising “on the Friday morning that fatall day, being the two and twentieth of March” a little before noon. About 347 English settlers were killed outright and many were wounded.
While writing this column, I corresponded with Chesapeake historian and retired Episcopal Canon Arthur Pierce Middleton and shared this story. He responded, “Outlying churches up the James River were involved in the Indian Massacre of 1622 (which killed about a third of all the whites in Virginia) but Jamestown was spared.” Spared, in fact, by the warning of a single Native American defector who warned the fort.
Had Brunenmeister somehow experienced an event deep in the Virginia Colony’s history?
Who knows how these things come to pass? I would dismiss it as a coincidence. So would she, as a trained scientist, but she also lived out west and while there had another recurring dream of a Native American attack, in which she was killed by an arrow and rises above the carnage. Does she have a link to frightening events in the world past?
The English who settled the New World left a society which, according to historian Christopher Hill, “lived in a world of magic, in which God and the devil intervened daily, a world of witches, fairies and charms.” The English brought this whole panoply of superstitions with them to the Chesapeake, and integrated into the body of common law, their laws regarding witchcraft. Colonists viewed the beliefs of Native Americans as the same occult forces at work.
William Crashaw wrote in 1613: “Satan visibly and palpably raigns here, more then in any other place of the world.”
Not content to find these forces outside their own community, colonists turned suspicion similarly upon their neighbors who might have looked or acted a bit out of the norm.
The first recorded allegation of witchcraft against a colonist was leveled in 1626 against “good wiefe Wright.” She was a midwife and her knowledge probably allowed her to predict certain medical outcomes, notably the deaths of a few fellow colonists. She’d also learned some “magic tokens” from her former mistress in Hull, England, and used them to ward off, not do, evil. This fed gossip and jealousy among her neighbors. Of her accusers — who did not prevail in court — Wright said, “God forgive them.”
There were 24 accusations of witchcraft in Virginia and Maryland during the balance of the 17th century. Most seemed to show up in court cases as personal defamation, often one woman against another.
In 1659, Joan Michell of Charles County, MD, “salluted” (spoke to or hailed) another woman in church, after which the latter claimed sudden affliction with aching teeth and “abundance of Miserie by the soares of her mouth,” The claim was that Michell had bewitched her face. Other accusations followed and when hailed into court, Michell asked that her body be “searched by able woemen” to show she had no hidden marks or deformities believed to signify a witch. They found none, demonstrating that the litigious modern Chesapeake has no corner on the market for frivolous suits.
Rebecca Fowler of Calvert County in Maryland was accused in 1685 and proved less fortunate.
She was presented as: “being led by the instigation of the Divell (to practice) certaine evil and diabolicall artes called witchcrafts, inchantments, charmes, and sorceryes” against a laborer named Fransis Sandsbury and others whose “bodyes were very much the worse, consumed, pined and lamed.”
Another Calvert countian, Hannah Edwards, was accused of the same offenses and acquitted, while Fowler was tried, sentenced and hanged, the only person executed for witchcraft in the Chesapeake colonies.
Sometimes, the accusations began before settlers even reached the colonies. In 1685, John Washington, great-grandfather of George, filed a complaint against Edward Prescott aboard whose ship, The Sarah Artch, Elizabeth Richardson was executed for witchcraft as they sailed for the Chesapeake.
Washington, though, failed to appear in court — his son was being baptized that day — so the accused was acquitted and Richardson went unavenged.
The heavens themselves were not beyond speculation. About 8 a.m., Feb. 14, 1649, Daniel Hoare stood at Blunt Point on the James River above Newport News and looked out across what must have been a hazy river, toward the southeast. During that season, the far side of the river and mouth of the Nansemond were distant enough to be almost below the horizon. He witnessed and was amazed by what he called an apparition, great circles and arcs of light surrounding the rising sun.
News traveled slowly across the Atlantic in the 17th century, and it developed that Hoare’s vision had occurred just two weeks after the beheading of England’s King, Charles I, which signaled the commencement of many years of political turmoil. The apparition was thus suspected of auguring subsequent tumult in the colonies.
Hoare thought enough of this bewitching sight to draw, date and sign it. His sketch is now in Britain’s Ashmolean Museum and allows us to interpret what he saw not as an astral sign but as a coincidence of solar halos and supernumerary rainbows associated with cirrus or cirrostratus clouds aloft, a web of light refracting ice crystals.
These phenomena have been well understood since the mid-20th century — if rarely observed in such splendor — and are virtually a catalog of the possible varieties of refractive events from my copy of Nathaniel Bowditch’s “American Practical Navigator.” I’d bet on my mariner’s instincts that within 72 hours the lower Chesapeake had a significant winter storm!
On another winter afternoon in front of our wood stove at Osborn Cove, Middleton related a little-known tale told by a school friend of his father, when they were turn-of-the-century students at the Sidwell Friend’s School in Washington, D.C.
The story, which takes place much earlier, tells how George Washington caught a cold while riding near Mount Vernon on Dec. 12, 1799. When admonished by his secretary to take care of it, he said: “you know I never take anything for a cold. Let it go as it came.”
This particular malady, however, progressed quickly into what could have been a “Quinsy throat” (a streptococcus infection leading to peritonsillar cellulitis and abscess, or alternatively some believe inflammation of the epiglottis by Hematophillus influenza, type B) which constricted the airway and eventually led to his death by asphyxiation.
Washington’s old friend from military campaign days, Dr. James Craik, attended him, calling in his associate Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick, from nearby Alexandria.
Ahead of his time, Dr. Dick proposed a radical surgery to save the president’s life: a tracheotomy during which a chest incision opening the windpipe would be made, permitting him to breath. There was no anesthetic, Washington was unable to swallow laudanum and the procedure was considered too radical. It might well have worked, at least in the short term, had Washington’s constitution been able to surmount the underlying infection.
Around 10 p.m. on Dec. 14, he was suffocating and said with great difficulty: “I am just going. … Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead.”
His physician, mute with grief, bowed in assent, but Washington, concerned that others had been buried while in coma while still living, required more certainty: “Do you understand me?” “Yes” was the response, and Washington said “Tis well.” He expired quietly before 11 p.m.
Dr. William Thornton, a personal friend of Washington, arrived the next morning: “To my unspeakable grief, we found him laid out a stiffened corpse. …The weather was very cold and he remained in a frozen state, for several days. I proposed to attempt his restoration, in the following manner. First to thaw him in cold water, then to lay him on blankets, and by degrees and by friction to give him warmth, and to put into activity the minute blood vessels, at the same time to open a passage to the lungs by the trachea, and to inflate them with air, to produce an artificial respiration, and to transfuse blood into him from a lamb.” It never happened, and aside from the tracheotomy, wouldn’t have worked.
Washington, revered as the “father of his country,” asked to be simply interred in a vault at Mount Vernon, abjuring some showy mausoleum in what was then called the Federal City. He had instructed: “It is my express desire that my corpse be interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral oration.” He was laid to rest Dec. 18 at the age of 67 years.
Decades later, there was a proposal to re-inter Washington in a marble sarcophagus donated by a subscription of his admirers.
Bushrod Washington, who had inherited Mount Vernon and was the son of Washington’s brother, John Augustine Washington, gave his approval. Middleton estimates that this was about 1840.
The school friend’s father was taken by his father to the opening of the original 1799 mahogany coffin. It had been made to fit Washington “1' 9" across shoulders exact, 2' 9' across elbows exact,” and was lined with lead that was soldered shut Dec. 25, 1799, just before the wooden lid was attached. This containment would be opened in an operation that would culminate with the re-interment in the new sarcophagus.
“This,” the father said to his son, “will be the last time anyone will look upon the face of Washington.” And, they lifted the lid. Washington was clearly visible through the preserving bath of alcohol in which he lay, his uniform and unmistakable visage recognizable and still intact. Only a single bit of tissue had sloughed off his cheek and floated to the surface.
They had looked and seen the face that bore the burdens of our country’s earliest woes: “America’s hero, guardian, father, friend.”