Not a Witch: Public History in a Maine Graveyard – Daniel Bottino and Hannah Peterson

The most famous gravestone in the “old burial ground” of York, Maine is not that of a politician, soldier, or notable author. Rather, it is the gravestone of an ordinary eighteenth-century housewife and mother that draws a constant stream of visitors from across the United States. Standing in an area of the graveyard relatively empty of stones, the finely carved slate marker has endured over two hundred years and remains in good condition today. Mary Nasson, the young woman it memorializes, died in 1774 at the age of twenty-nine. She was interred in the burial ground of the First Parish Congregational Church, across the street from the meetinghouse and below the hill on which the town’s prison still stands. Beneath a finely fashioned portrait, the only one of its kind in the graveyard, a tender epitaph reads:

Here rests quite free from Lifes / Distressing Care, / A loving Wife / A tender Parent dear; / Cut down in midst of days / As you may see, / But—stop—my Grief! / I, soon, shall equal be, / When death shall stop my breath / And end my Time; / God grant my Dust / May mingle, then, with thine.

Behind the headstone lies a large stone covering the grave, likely placed there by Mary’s widowed husband to prevent animals from disturbing her body.

Figure 1. Lucy Moody’s headstone dated 1705, like Mary Nasson’s stone, is one of many in York’s Old Burial Ground. Photo by Kevin Freeman.

Popular stories today present a different image of Mary Nasson. Likely beginning in the nineteenth century, wholly inaccurate legends of a “witch’s grave” arose—no doubt because of the large stone slab, the unusual portrait, the grave’s apparent distance from other burials, and the personal nature of the epitaph. Visitors to the grave today marvel at the stone slab, which according to stories available online was put there to keep Mary’s maleficent ghost from rising from her coffin and bewitching the townspeople of York.1 No matter how many attempts are made to clean the slab, it is always cluttered with coins and a wide variety of various tokens.  

There is no evidence that Mary Nasson was ever considered a witch during her lifetime, a fact that has not stopped the popularity of the witch’s grave legend. She was an ordinary woman; that is what makes her story interesting. The historical fantasy of Mary as a witch distracts us from learning about the lives of women like Mary in early New England and presents an erroneous image of her which would have shocked both her and her family. For the last two years, Old York Historical Society has hosted an annual graveyard walk in which interpreters portray various figures interred in the burial ground. Co-author Hannah Peterson has portrayed Mary in an effort to educate visitors and redirect false narratives about Mary’s life.     

Figure 2. The headstone of John Bragdon, another grave marker in York’s Old Burial Ground. Photo by Kevin Freeman.

We believe that the best way to address legends of the “witch’s grave” is through a robust program of public history interpretation. But what is public history? It is history that bridges the discoveries of the academic world and the knowledge of the everyday world. Its value lies in interpreting historical sites like Mary Nasson’s grave to make them accessible for both visitors and local residents alike. Public history reveals the stories of ordinary people from the past and links their lives to ordinary people today. Most casual visitors to a graveyard will not take the time to access academic literature on the site’s history. In fact, most people would not even know where to look! They are nevertheless keen and eager consumers of history. But if that interest is not supplied by accessible and well-researched public history, inaccurate popular stories will persist.  

The witch legends surrounding Mary Nasson are a clear example of this. To provide well-researched and accessible public history, co-author Daniel Bottino has worked with Old York’s staff to write walking tours for the museum’s visitors. The burial ground is a key site on these tours.  It has remained remarkably unchanged since the nineteenth century—here the past reaches out to touch the present, and the stories and experiences of long-dead eighteenth- and nineteenth-century people can be brought to life for a modern audience. 

Figure 3. The headstone of Mary Nasson. Photo by Kevin Freeman.

To connect the lives of ordinary people of the past to ordinary people of the present—this is the pre-eminent goal of public history. Although life in New England two or three hundred years ago differed in many respects from today, public historians can point to common experiences shared between people of the past and modern visitors. During the Covid pandemic, tours of the burial ground highlighted the graves of victims of the deadly New England diphtheria outbreak of the 1730s. And when we show visitors Mary Nasson’s grave, we highlight her busy life as a young housewife and mother, and the grief her family must have felt at her untimely death. Rather than believing in fantastical and false legends, such public history interpretation encourages people to forge meaningful ties between their present experiences and the lives of those whose only memorial today is a weathered gravestone in a quiet village burial yard.    

Daniel Bottino is currently a doctoral candidate in history at Rutgers University and expects to complete his dissertation in 2024. He is a student of the social and cultural history of early modern Europe and early America, specializing in histories of landscape, memory, and religion.

Hannah Peterson is a seamstress, tailor, historical reenactor, and independent historical scholar. Her research interests include the history of clothing in early America, ethnobotany, and the Narrative of Patience Boston.

Read Bottino and Peterson’s article “I Hope I Have a Treasure in Heaven, Because My Heart Is There”: Salvation and Damnation in the Conversion Narrative of Patience Boston” in EAS’s Summer 2023 issue.

  1. Some of the stories circulating online regarding Mary’s supposed witchcraft can be read at the following webpages: “Weird Fridays: You Cant Keep a Good Witch Down,” May 31, 2013, Diving into History; Lori Gross, “Old York Cemetery,” Oct. 23, 2016, Haunted Cemeteries in Maine – HubPages; “Old York Cemetery – Old Parish Cemetery,” Haunted Places; Thomas D’Agostino, “Old York’s “witches,” Feb. 2022, The Yankee Xpress; “York Witch Grave,” Atlas Obscura. For an excellent reflection on the damaging consequences of the witch’s grave legend, see James Kences, “Witch’s Grave, Myth and History,” The York Weekly, Oct. 27, 2020, Seacoastonline.