Witch or not, Moll Dyer legend lives on
According to tale, woman burned out of her home on frigid night and froze to a large rock
Friday, Oct. 30, 2009
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The legend of St. Mary's County's witch, Moll Dyer, says she was forced out of her home south of Leonardtown
on the coldest night of the
winter in February 1697. She was later found kneeling on a large rock leaving imprints of her knees and hand, the story goes, where she cursed those who drove her out.
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The story of Moll Dyer, a witch who was driven from her home south of Leonardtown more than 300 years ago, is well known and often repeated in St. Mary's County.
But was she ever real? There are no records of her existence. However, there is a road and stream named after her south of Leonardtown and lands there bore her name since the 1890s.
A large rock, said to be the last resting place of Moll Dyer where she left imprints of her knees and hand on the stone, was moved in 1972 to the front of the circuit courthouse in Leonardtown. The area of Moll Dyer Road was purported to be haunted.
Tradition has it that Moll Dyer was an outcast in the small community between Leonardtown and Redgate. Though she lived in a hut, she survived via the generosity of others through the alms house, located where Leonardtown Middle School is now.
The winter of 1697 was extraordinarily harsh. On March 27 the Council of Maryland proceedings in Annapolis commented on the bad weather: "It hath pleased God that this winter hath been the longest that hath been known in the memory of man, for it began about the middle of November, and little sign of any spring yet. It was very uncertain weather, several frosts and snows, one of which was the greatest hath been known."
Witchcraft was often blamed for such calamitous times. In St. Mary's that year, the legend goes, Moll Dyer fit the description of a witch — a strange old hag.
Witches weren't common, but it was still widely believed they did exist then.
In June 1654, the crew of the ship Charity on route to Maryland from England testified about the hanging of passenger Mary Lee for suspicion of practicing witchcraft, according to the Proceedings of the Council of Maryland.
On Oct. 4, 1659, Edward Prescott was acquitted for "one Elizabeth Richardson hanged in his ship" for witchcraft, according to the proceedings of the Provincial Court. Plaintiff John Washington of Virginia couldn't attend court that day and because there was no testimony, Prescott was released. He blamed John Greene, captain of the ship, for the execution.
In 1674, John Cowman of St. Mary's County was arraigned, convicted and condemned for witchcraft, conjuration or enchantment upon the body of Eliza Goodall, according to an 1885 edition of the Baltimore Times. Cowman was pardoned by Charles Calvert.
On Oct. 9, 1685, Rebecca Fowler of Calvert County was hanged for practicing witchcraft. She was the only person executed in Maryland for witchcraft, according to the 1938 book "Crime and Punishment in Early Maryland."
One story about Moll Dyer says there was careful consultation as Dyer's neighbors decided to force her away after their crops were ruined and their livestock died. Another account says the decision was fueled by binge drinking at the alms house. Both stories say countrymen bore down on Dyer's hut with torches on a cold February night in 1697. Her house set ablaze, Dyer sought refuge in the surrounding woods and the men did not pursue her.
"Nothing was heard of her for several days, until a boy hunting for his cattle in the woods espied her kneeling on a stone with one hand resting thereon and the other raised as if in prayer, or to curse her tormentors, wrote Joseph Morgan of Leonardtown in the 1890s.
"Her life had gone out in the dark, cold night, and she still rested in her suppliant position, frozen stiff with the Winter's cold. The story runs that she offered a prayer to be avenged on her persecutors and that a curse be put on them and their lands," he wrote.
The Beacon newspaper of Sept. 12, 1901, reported the experience of a young man returning to Leonardtown on horseback in the dead of night. "At Moll Dyer's run he stopped to water his horse. He says he noticed that another traveler was at the run and thinking he knew who it was, asked it to move. No attention was paid to the request and it was repeated somewhat more harshly. Surprised at the fright manifested by his horse, he turned and noted that the horseman he thought he knew was riding a headless animal, and while gazing at this unusual appearance he distinctly saw the spectral horse part in the middle and the horseman disappear between the two disjointed ends."
Moll Dyer's Run was cited in a deed from 1857. There were five houses around the run, according to a May 1854 survey of the area, on the east side of Clay Hill Road, which is today's Route 5. The road that later became Moll Dyer Road was already there.
By 1895, 60 acres of land near Clay Hill Road was called Moll Dyer's Hill, just north of Redgate.
In 1968, Philip Love, an editor for The Evening Star, began searching for Moll Dyer's rock. He and his wife found what was supposed to be that rock in the woods of Stephen Foxwell's farm, a farm that is today home of Lil' Margaret's Bluegrass Festival.
But Love was not the first to claim finding the infamous rock. "In a clearing up on Clover Lot, Mr. John T. Yates found in a gully, not far from the run, the legendary Moll Dyer's stone.' The knee prints on the stone are still visible," according to the Beacon of April 13, 1911. According to land records, Clover Lot was then part of Foxwell's farm and is today located at 42660 Moll Dyer Road, home of William and Alice Holly. Next door is Elizabeth Holly, who moved to the first house on the left in 1968.
On Oct. 14, 1972, the local National Guard, which was housed in today's Leonardtown library, hauled the 875-pound rock up from the Clover Lot to the old county jail, owned by the St. Mary's County Historical Society, in front of the circuit courthouse where it rests today.
Elizabeth Holly said she was at work the day they moved the rock, which tore up her driveway in the process. She heard the story of Moll Dyer when she and her husband moved in and was aware of the rock's story, but said recently of the witch, "She ain't bothered us."
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