The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

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III. A Search and an Evocation

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Charles Ward, as we have seen, first learned in 1918 of his descent from Joseph Curwen. That he at once took an intense interest in everything pertaining to the bygone mystery is not to be wondered at; for every vague rumour that he had heard of Curwen now became something vital to himself, in whom flowed Curwen’s blood. No spirited and imaginative genealogist could have done otherwise than begin forthwith an avid and systematic collection of Curwen data.
In his first delvings there was not the slightest attempt at secrecy; so that even Dr. Lyman hesitates to date the youth’s madness from any period before the close of 1919. He talked freely with his family—though his mother was not particularly pleased to own an ancestor like Curwen—and with the officials of the various museums and libraries he visited. In applying to private families for records thought to be in their possession he made no concealment of his object, and shared the somewhat amused scepticism with which the accounts of the old diarists and letter-writers were regarded. He often expressed a keen wonder as to what really had taken place a century and a half before at that Pawtuxet farmhouse whose site he vainly tried to find, and what Joseph Curwen really had been.
When he came across the Smith diary and archives and encountered the letter from Jedediah Orne he decided to visit Salem and look up Curwen’s early activities and connexions there, which he did during the Easter vacation of 1919. At the Essex Institute, which was well known to him from former sojourns in the glamorous old town of crumbling Puritan gables and clustered gambrel roofs, he was very kindly received, and unearthed there a considerable amount of Curwen data. He found that his ancestor was born in Salem-Village, now Danvers, seven miles from town, on the eighteenth of February (O.S.) 1662–3; and that he had run away to sea at the age of fifteen, not appearing again for nine years, when he returned with the speech, dress, and manners of a native Englishman and settled in Salem proper. At that time he had little to do with his family, but spent most of his hours with the curious books he had brought from Europe, and the strange chemicals which came for him on ships from England, France, and Holland. Certain trips of his into the country were the objects of much local inquisitiveness, and were whisperingly associated with vague rumours of fires on the hills at night.
Curwen’s only close friends had been one Edward Hutchinson of Salem-Village and one Simon Orne of Salem. With these men he was often seen in conference about the Common, and visits among them were by no means infrequent. Hutchinson had a house well out toward the woods, and it was not altogether liked by sensitive people because of the sounds heard there at night. He was said to entertain strange visitors, and the lights seen from his windows were not always of the same colour. The knowledge he displayed concerning long-dead persons and long-forgotten events was considered distinctly unwholesome, and he disappeared about the time the witchcraft panic began, never to be heard from again. At that time Joseph Curwen also departed, but his settlement in Providence was soon learned of. Simon Orne lived in Salem until 1720, when his failure to grow visibly old began to excite attention. He thereafter disappeared, though thirty years later his precise counterpart and self-styled son turned up to claim his property. The claim was allowed on the strength of documents in Simon Orne’s known hand, and Jedediah Orne continued to dwell in Salem till 1771, when certain letters from Providence citizens to the Rev. Thomas Barnard and others brought about his quiet removal to parts unknown.
Certain documents by and about all of these strange characters were available at the Essex Institute, the Court House, and the Registry of Deeds, and included both harmless commonplaces such as land titles and bills of sale, and furtive fragments of a more provocative nature. There were four or five unmistakable allusions to them on the witchcraft trial records; as when one Hepzibah Lawson swore on July 10, 1692, at the Court of Oyer and Terminer under Judge Hathorne, that ‘fortie Witches and the Blacke Man were wont to meete in the Woodes behind Mr. Hutchinson’s house’, and one Amity How declared at a session of August 8th before Judge Gedney that ‘Mr. G. B. (Rev. George Burroughs) on that Nighte putt ye Divell his Marke upon Bridget S., Jonathan A., Simon O., Deliverance W., Joseph C., Susan P., Mehitable C., and Deborah B.’ Then there was a catalogue of Hutchinson’s uncanny library as found after his disappearance, and an unfinished manuscript in his handwriting, couched in a cipher none could read. Ward had a photostatic copy of this manuscript made, and began to work casually on the cipher as soon as it was delivered to him. After the following August his labours on the cipher became intense and feverish, and there is reason to believe from his speech and conduct that he hit upon the key before October or November. He never stated, though, whether or not he had succeeded.
But of the greatest immediate interest was the Orne material. It took Ward only a short time to prove from identity of penmanship a thing he had already considered established from the text of the letter to Curwen; namely, that Simon Orne and his supposed son were one and the same person. As Orne had said to his correspondent, it was hardly safe to live too long in Salem, hence he resorted to a thirty-year sojourn abroad, and did not return to claim his lands except as a representative of a new generation. Orne had apparently been careful to destroy most of his correspondence, but the citizens who took action in 1771 found and preserved a few letters and papers which excited their wonder. There were cryptic formulae and diagrams in his and other hands which Ward now either copied with care or had photographed, and one extremely mysterious letter in a chirography that the searcher recognised from items in the Registry of Deeds as positively Joseph Curwen’s.
This Curwen letter, though undated as to the year, was evidently not the one in answer to which Orne had written the confiscated missive; and from internal evidence Ward placed it not much later than 1750. It may not be amiss to give the text in full, as a sample of the style of one whose history was so dark and terrible. The recipient is addressed as “Simon”, but a line (whether drawn by Curwen or Orne Ward could not tell) is run through the word.
Prouidence, I. May (Ut. vulgo)
Brother:—
My honour’d Antient ffriende, due Respects and earnest Wishes to Him whom we serve for yr eternall Power. I am just come upon That which you ought to knowe, concern’g the Matter of the Laste Extremitie and what to doe regard’g yt. I am not dispos’d to followe you in go’g Away on acct. of my Yeares, for Prouidence hath not ye Sharpeness of ye Bay in hunt’g oute uncommon Things and bringinge to Tryall. I am ty’d up in Shippes and Goodes, and cou’d not doe as you did, besides the Whiche my ffarme at Patuxet hath under it What you Knowe, that wou’d not waite for my com’g Backe as an Other.
But I am not unreadie for harde ffortunes, as I haue tolde you, and haue longe work’d upon ye Way of get’g Backe after ye Laste. I laste Night strucke on ye Wordes that bringe up YOGGE-SOTHOTHE, and sawe for ye firste Time that fface spoke of by Ibn Schacabao in ye ——. And IT said, that ye III Psalme in ye Liber-Damnatus holdes ye Clauicle. With Sunne in V House, Saturne in Trine, drawe ye Pentagram of Fire, and saye ye ninth Uerse thrice. This Uerse repeate eache Roodemas and Hallow’s Eue; and ye Thing will breede in ye Outside Spheres.
And of ye Seede of Olde shal One be borne who shal looke Backe, tho’ know’g not what he seekes.
Yett will this availe Nothing if there be no Heir, and if the Saltes, or the Way to make the Saltes, bee not Readie for his Hande; and here I will owne, I have not taken needed Stepps nor founde Much. Ye Process is plaguy harde to come neare; and it uses up such a Store of Specimens, I am harde putte to it to get Enough, notwithstand’g the Sailors I have from ye Indies. Ye People aboute are become curious, but I can stande them off. Ye Gentry are worse than the Populace, be’g more Circumstantiall in their Accts. and more believ’d in what they tell. That Parson and Mr. Merritt have talk’d some, I am fearfull, but no Thing soe far is Dangerous. Ye Chymical substances are easie of get’g, there be’g II. goode Chymists in Towne, Dr. Bowen and Sam: Carew. I am foll’g oute what Borellus saith, and haue Helpe in Abdool Al-Hazred his VII. Booke. Whatever I gette, you shal haue. And in ye meane while, do not neglect to make use of ye Wordes I haue here giuen. I haue them Righte, but if you Desire to see HIM, imploy the Writings on ye Piece of —— that I am putt’g in this Packet. Saye ye Uerses every Roodmas and Hallow’s Eue; and if yr Line runn out not, one shall bee in yeares to come that shal looke backe and use what Saltes or Stuff for Saltes you shal leaue him. Job XIV. XIV.
I rejoice you are again at Salem, and hope I may see you not longe hence. I have a goode Stallion, and am think’g of get’g a Coach, there be’g one (Mr. Merritt’s) in Prouidence already, tho’ ye Roades are bad. If you are dispos’d to Travel, doe not pass me bye. From Boston take ye Post Rd. thro’ Dedham, Wrentham, and Attleborough, goode Taverns be’g at all these Townes. Stop at Mr. Bolcom’s in Wrentham, where ye Beddes are finer than Mr. Hatch’s, but eate at ye other House for their Cooke is better. Turne into Prou. by Patucket ffalls, and ye Rd. past Mr. Sayles’s Tavern. My House opp. Mr. Epenetus Olney’s Tavern off ye Towne Street, Ist on ye N. side of Olney’s Court. Distance from Boston Stone abt. XLIV Miles.
Sir, I am yr olde and true ffriend and Servt. in Almousin-Metraton.
Josephus C.
To Mr. Simon Orne,
William’s-Lane, in Salem.
This letter, oddly enough, was what first gave Ward the exact location of Curwen’s Providence home; for none of the records encountered up to that time had been at all specific. The discovery was doubly striking because it indicated as the newer Curwen house built in 1761 on the site of the old, a dilapidated building still standing in Olney Court and well known to Ward in his antiquarian rambles over Stampers’ Hill. The place was indeed only a few squares from his own home on the great hill’s higher ground, and was now the abode of a negro family much esteemed for occasional washing, housecleaning, and furnace-tending services. To find, in distant Salem, such sudden proof of the significance of this familiar rookery in his own family history, was a highly impressive thing to Ward; and he resolved to explore the place immediately upon his return. The more mystical phases of the letter, which he took to be some extravagant kind of symbolism, frankly baffled him; though he noted with a thrill of curiosity that the Biblical passage referred to—Job 14, 14—was the familiar verse, “If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come.”

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