"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Witch of the "Recovery"

17th century sea voyages were no pleasure cruises: Potentially deadly storms, bad food, cramped unsanitary berths, seasickness, learning that one of your fellow passengers is a witch trying to bring down the ship...


On November 29, 1691, the magazine "Athenian Mercury" published an account of the hexed voyage of the "Recovery," which sailed to Virginia from England in October 1674. It probably ranks as the most Fortean Atlantic crossing on record.

The anonymous author of the article (who may have been Samuel Wesley, father of the famed Methodist John Wesley,) informs us that from the moment the "Recovery" set sail, the ship suffered an unusually long streak of problems. The weather was bad, anchors were lost, and virtually any part of the ship that could break, did--often more than once. The captain grumbled, "What was mended one Day would the next Day be in pieces." When the "Recovery" stopped in Portugal to pick up a load of wine, a series of disasters led to the entire shipment being lost. The captain noted, "The People on Shoar," told the "Recovery" "we had a Witch aboard."

Life on the "Recovery" only got worse from there. In separate accidents, two sailors fell overboard and drowned. A passenger toppled over the rail, and also perished in the sea. Nearly everyone on board fell ill, leaving the crew "very Weak and Lame." By the time the ship's carpenter announced the only possible explanation for the "Recovery's" "Miserable Trouble"--namely that the vessel was bewitched--everyone was more than ready to believe him. The only question was, who was responsible for the hex?

One of the passengers, an elderly woman named Elizabeth Masters, was unanimously pointed to as the culprit. She was often seen alone, "with her hands up, as if she were at Prayers." This was seen as highly suspicious. When the tack broke while she was the only person on the deck, it was seen as incontrovertible evidence of her guilt. Masters was immediately hustled down to steerage and put in chains. Unfortunately, this only made matters worse. A black cat began stalking the ship, viciously scratching anyone it met and generally freaking everyone out. It was soon followed by a whole pack of demonic felines. When attacked with swords, they would vanish into thin air. Large shaggy black dogs were seen prowling the deck. A band of ghostly sailors would come and go. Despite her imprisonment below deck, Masters herself would make spectral appearances to the ship's passengers, urging them to join her alliance with Satan. Worst of all, the ship's supply of water and beer mysteriously disappeared. Marks of "the Claws of some Creature, as a Cat or the like," were found on the empty casks.

One of the passengers, William Rennols, revealed that Masters' spirit visited him in the night, informing him that his mother back in England was a witch, as well. He found this charge credible, as Mom "was a very Lewd Liver and kept a brothel house in Dog and Bitch Yard, London, and would often in the night go abroad, and come home very bloody."

Another passenger, Mary Leare, complained that thanks to Masters, she was "Dreadfully pinched at the small of her back, hips, and buttocks." Leare decided that the only thing to do was to smear some of the witch's blood on her wounds. This idea attained instant popularity among her shipmates, with the result that they were all making regular visits to "prick" Masters whenever they felt unwell.

Oddly, the "Mercury" ends its tale on this cliffhanger note. We do not know further details of the "Recovery's" Satanic excursion, or what became of Elizabeth Masters. This lack of resolution, coupled with the fact that we have no other record of this haunted voyage, has led some to suspect that the entire story is fiction. However, there are other documented instances of ship's passengers being accused of witchcraft. In 1654, the "Charity" sailed from England to the Province of Maryland. The voyage was plagued by stormy weather and a ship that "daily grew more Leaky." The "Rumour amongst the Seamen" was that "the malevolence of witches" was responsible for their troubles, and "her own deportment and discourse" caused them to identify a passenger named Mary Lee as the culprit. She was seized by the crew, and after they discovered "some Signall or Marke of a witch upon her," the poor woman was unceremoniously hanged. No one was ever held responsible for this lynching at sea.

Four years later, the ship "Sarah Artch" made the same trip from England to Maryland. During the crossing, a passenger named Elizabeth Richardson was accused of sorcery and quickly hanged. (A side note: the chief complainant against Richardson was one John Washington, the great-grandfather of the first American President.) In this case, the ship's owner, Edward Prescott, was arrested and tried for the "extra-jurisdictional" execution. The governor of Maryland had no particular objection to hanging witches, but he wanted it done on dry land and on his watch. At his trial, Prescott successfully argued that he had no responsibility for Richardson's murder. It was his crew who insisted on hanging the woman, and if he had tried to stop them, they would have mutinied. He was acquitted.

In 1658, another luckless emigrant, Katherine Grady, was blamed for the unusually bad weather plaguing her ship, with the result that she was soon swinging from the yardarm. When the ship arrived in Virginia, the captain, a man named Bennett, was summoned to appear before the General Court at Jamestown to answer for Grady's death. Unfortunately, there is no surviving record of how the case was resolved, but odds are that Bennett also got away with murder.

These cases show that as bizarre as the story of the "Recovery" may be, it is quite likely that at least the essentials of the tale are correct, meaning that a helpless old woman named Elizabeth Masters probably came to a very brutal end.

In short, if you were an elderly woman taking a 17th century sea voyage, you had a very particular reason to pray for an uneventful trip.


  1. Its a damned foolish witch who'd sink the ship she was on, especially when there were so many others.

  2. I would not be surprised if the sickness & hallucinations on this voyage were caused by ergotism, which is caused by a particular kind of fungus infesting rye, wheat, barley, or other grains. Ergot fungus causes a huge laundry list of neurological and pathological symptoms, and I would not be surprised if the disappearing cats and demon dogs were hallucinations with a physical cause. The accidents and breakages on the ship could also be a secondary result of ergotism (caused by physically debilitated or mentally deranged sailors, making dumb mistakes). A little religious mania on top of a powerful hallucinogen: Not a happy combination.

    1. Interesting explanation, and likely in more than one case.

  3. First of all, anyone who lives in Dog and Bitch Yard probably does not lead the cleanest life in London. Secondly, two hundred years later, Mrs Rennols would be featured in the Illustrated Police News. Thirdly, people in the seventeenth century seemed as quick to point finger, illogically, at whomever they liked as people are now. The only difference seems to be that now they do it on Facebook and Twitter.


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