The story of Mother Crewe, a classic piece of Old Colony lore, is one that is frequently told and re-told in Plymouth as we approach Halloween. Like so many folktales, it is usually recounted in such a manner that history and legend blend together and it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.
The story starts around 1740. Mother Crewe, a frightening, uncanny, bitter, old widow, lived in a cabin in Plympton with her only daughter, and only joy, Bathsheba. Her daughter had a suitor–a handsome sailor from Plymouth named Ansel Ring. The two were soon to be wed, but sadly Bathsheba fell ill. Dr. Lazarus LeBaron of Plymouth sent a local girl, Molly Peach, to help care for Bathsheba. Molly, pretty, yellow-haired and green-eyed, soon captivated the young sailor. One night, instead of tending to poor Bathsheba, they got old Mother Crewe drunk and after she was fast asleep, they spent the evening getting cozy by the fire. Naturally, Bathsheba awoke, saw the two together and died broken-hearted.
Soon after, Ansel and Molly were wed. The minister in Plymouth loathed the idea of marrying them when Ansel’s previous betrothed had only just been buried. So, the couple went to the local magistrate who agreed, but still gave them a stern chastising after they had said their vows. Leaving the magistrate’s house, they encountered an enraged Mother Crewe. Shrieking, the old woman cursed Ansel and Molly Ring and all their children. The curse would, one by one, destroy the Ring family and many who came into contact with them.
Ansel Ring, who had been a good mariner, soon became a Jonah. Ships on which he sailed tended to have back luck. One day he shipped out of Plymouth on a schooner and they encountered a storm while not yet out of Plymouth Bay. His fellow sailors threatened to toss him over board to rid themselves of the curse. Ansel decided to save them the trouble, asking the skipper if he could use one of the boats to row himself ashore. The captain told him to do as he pleased but warned that the surf was too rough and he would surely be drowned. Nonetheless, Ansel departed in the small boat and the sailors watched as waves swamped the dinghy and Ansel’s lifeless body was tossed upon Duxbury Beach.
Ansel and Molly’s children all met grim fates. One of their sons took his father’s profession as well as his name. The younger Ansel sailed on the General Arnold, a privateer during the Revolution. Departing Boston on Christmas Eve 1778, the General Arnold was caught in a fierce winter storm and put into Plymouth Bay. The ship ran aground and partially sank in shallow water. Exposed on the deck of the ship to the freezing storm which did not let up for days, most of the sailors perished, including Ansel Ring. They were interred in a mass grave on Burial Hill in Plymouth, the site marked by a marble obelisk.
Mother Crewe’s curses were not reserved for the Ring family. Towards the end of her life, she moved into a shack on the land of Southard Howland on the Carver Road in Plymouth. He eventually discovered the squatter and demanded that she leave. Crewe refused and warned him that before the week was out he would be in the ground and his wife and children would weep over his grave. A man with a bad temper, Howland came back with a small troop of hired men and threatened to burn the shack down with the witch inside. Crewe confronted him, cursed him, and her cat (black, of course) leaped upon the flank of Howland’s horse. The steed was so frightened it bolted off at terrific speed. Howland’s broken body was discovered in the road not far from Crewe’s shack.
On the day Mother Crewe died, some time after the Revolution, it was said that the skies over Plymouth went dark. Many panicked, thinking it was Judgment Day. The old woman was buried with her beloved Bathsheba in Plympton.
Quite a tale. All fictional, mind you. Well, almost all. The General Arnold tragedy was real and something I’ll write more about here at some point. But there was no Ansel Ring on board. And there never was any Mother Crewe. Yet the story is repeated so often as though it were fact that I’ve heard of people trying to track down Mother Crewe’s grave and the places where she lived. They’ll be a long time looking…
Ironically, fictional Mother Crewe is better-known than the author who created her…Jane Austin. No, not that Jane Austen, but Jane Goodwin Austin (with an “i”), a late 19th century writer who penned historical novels about Plymouth Colony. Mother Crewe is a key character in her 1890 book Dr. LeBaron and His Daughters. She ought to have called it The Curse of Mother Crewe, or something to that extent, because Mother Crewe steals the show.
Part of the Mother Crewe tale was retold by folklorist Charles M. Skinner in his 1896 Myths and Legends of Our Own Land. Skinner was on a mission to perpetuate old American folktales which he feared would vanish in the face of a modernizing society. In his telling, despite the fact that his book is clearly called “Myths and Legends,” Crewe seems to come off as a historical figure.
…And thus myths and history become blurred. And many a Plymouth tourist will hear Mother Crewe’s story over the next few weeks believing it to be true. Which is, I suppose, generally harmless. Except that it would be nice if Austin got the credit.