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“Black” Dinah Prince – an 18th century ‘witch’ in York, Maine; pt. 1

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August 16, 2017 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)

One of my interests is account of witchcraft (you can imagine I’m always using air quotes around that term unless I’m actually discussing someone who engaged in some actual form of magical tradition) after the Salem trials of 1692.  I’ve been compiling a dossier of sorts on various “witches” I’ve come across in various primary (town histories, personal remembrances) and secondary (folklore and weird histories) sources; I’ve even made a map of some of the more notable post-Salem incidents.  Most of these witches are local eccentrics — marginalized outsiders who lived on the fringes of their respective communities — with little specific in the way of their alleged supernatural activities aside from a few shared activities like fortunetelling.

Recently I came across the case of Dinah Prince aka Black Dinah, an African-American “witch” who lived in York, Maine in the late 18th and early 19th century.  The longest source I’ve found is George A. Emery’s The Ancient City of Gorgeana and Modern Town of York (Maine) from Its Earliest Settlement (1873), which I quote below.

Keep in mind the era when this passage was written, as it contains some overtly racist sentiments about Africans and African-Americans (called Negroes throughout).

I’ll highlight some of the interesting elements of Dinah Prince’s case in a subsequent post.

On the surface of a rock on the hill over-looking the mill-dam, and at the intersection of three roads, formerly lived an old Negress called Dinah, in a one-story hut, who was thought by some, at that time, — as Negroes were not so plenty as they now are, — to be a very mysterious personage, although nothing ever occurred during her lifetime, either to herself or anybody else, to warrant this belief. Many rumors of mysterious occurrences were circulated about her, but nothing had happened, to the knowledge of either the oldest or youngest inhabitant, except that, soon after she was first known in York, a young child, supposed to be hers, died, and that she buried it in two bread-trays, in her garden. By some she was held in superstitious dread, and was called a witch and sorcerer, who could foretell events. It was said she was in possession of a weather-pan, which, on being hung over her fire, brought frightful hurricanes, storms, tempests, whirlwinds, and sometimes earthquakes. In regard to this, we may well say, “What the mind imagines has often more reality for it than what it believes.”

She never wished to be introduced to or become acquainted with strangers. Children, unaccustomed to black people, being scared on seeing her, she would fly into a violent passion; and although very sensitive in regard to being called or thought black, she often uttered the expression: “I ‘se so brack I shame’ go nowhere.” Whether from bashfulness or fear, her custom was to close the door, and peep through the cracks and crevices — and these were not few — in the door and walls, on the approach of passersby, as though fearing they were coming to see her, instead of looking out of the window — the architect had vouchsafed her two — or the open door.

Her hut or shanty consisted merely of a structure composed of boards, black as Time  could paint them; entirely devoid of clapboards without, or a particle of lath or plastering within.  This not being at all tenantable in rainy weather, her time was then spent in visiting white acquaintances whom she took a fancy to. During the winter months she resided on the south side of the river, with the family of Mr. Nathaniel Raynes.  It is not known whether Dinah was a relative of black Phillis, who also lived with a family named Raynes.

Being of a morose and sullen disposition, easily vexed, very sensitive, and suspicious of strangers, her circle of acquaintances was rather circumscribed. Young people, and  particularly children not afraid of her, she would entertain and amuse in a pleasing manner. In common with most colored people, she had the gift of song, which she frequently exercised with great fervor. One of her songs, chanted with especial unction,

DinahPrinceSong

But an elder brother, knowing she adapted the words to suit herself, told her she didn’t sing it right; for “tobacco grew, and Negroes chewed it, in Guinea, but they didn’t like to be told of it; for Negroes also came from that place, and were the first to bring it here.” He told her the right way to sing it was

” Tobacco is a Guinea weed;
It was the Devil that sowed the seed.”

And the reason they were saved the trouble of planting it , themselves was, that the Negroes — whether in Guinea or America — were too lazy to do it for themselves, and his Satanic majesty performed the task for them, thereby saving them both toil and trouble.

Dinah’s abhorrence of a toad or frog was well known, and amounted almost to a frenzy.  When absent from home, school-boys, knowing her weakness in that respect, would contrive in some way to squeeze them, without killing, under her door or through crevices and knot-holes — and these were abundant — into her abode, and on returning her fears knew no bounds.

While Dinah, in the waning of her days, lived with the Misses Raynes, she seldom went abroad, and was so rarely seen or heard of by those among whom she used to live in the town, that it was thought she had gone to her long home, from which no traveler ever returns; but the knowledge that she had not departed this life was ascertained by a tax-collector, while performing the functions of his office, some time between the years 1836 and 1838. He says, “I called on the Misses Raynes, for their taxes, and was ushered into a dark, large, and low kitchen, and while awaiting their return a long time from another room, where they had gone to get the money, I spoke aloud, that’ I wished they would hurry up,’ as the’ shades of night were falling fast,’ and my road out to the highway a very blind one, when, to my surprise and astonishment, a voice, picked and squeaking, answered, ‘Dey will be out presently.’  I looked around the room for the owner of the voice, and all I could then discern in the dimmed expanse was what appeared to my vision to be a white night-cap hanging on a chair-post.  The Misses Raynes soon appeared, and by their light I saw it was Dinah’s cap on Dinah’s head, and the voice belonged to Dinah, who was sitting beside an old James’s cooking-stove, which was about the same color as her face.”

Tradition says: ” Some years before her death, and about the time she gave up living alone on the hill, she disposed of all the paraphernalia appertaining to a sorcerer and money-digger. In her younger days, the islands in York river and the harbor, and ofif Portsmouth, particularly the Isles of Shoals, were said to contain buried money ; and an old negro has often been seen by sailors wandering along the shores, but who she was, or how she got to or from the islands, remains to this day a mystery.”

Before Black Dinah Rollins, who was a plebeian devotee of St. John’s Church, Portsmouth, N. H., died, which was about the year 1808, she bequeathed to a brother of the writer of this, who had been kind to her, an “indicator,” to indicate the location, and a ” divining-rod,” to designate the exact spot where the precious metals lie concealed that may once have belonged to the York Dinah. The indicator consisted of a small quantity of metallic mercury, sewed up in sections in a piece of black velvet; and the use made of, was, to hold it in a horizontal position near the ground supposed to contain the treasure, and if any was present agitation took place, and the location of the mercury became changed. However, the wife of the donee, unaware of its immense value and importance, unwittingly consigned it to the flames. The rod resembled a common walking-cane, only much longer, with a ferrule at least one quarter of its whole length, pointed at the extremity, and made of metal resembling silver in appearance. The use made of this was to stick it into the ground, and if either silver or gold were present, a peculiar sound was produced and a sensation felt by the operator, when they came in contact.

Dinah Prince, as before mentioned, was fond of children, and to her the writer of this is indebted for the first sight of the military, or a company of soldiers dressed in uniform.

He also heard at the same time martial music, especially drums, which he detested then, and ever since has held in utter abhorrence, as an invention of the arch-fiend. This old negro took him in her arms and carried him about midway of M’Intire’s large field, to a wall which then divided it, and sat down on it, remarking that she meant to keep at a “safe distance” from the booming cannon of the artillery, and discharge of guns from the infantry; and ever and anon he slid from the wall and ensconced himself behind it when the firing became continuous, supposing, that the more noise the greater the danger.

The pomp, pride, and ceremony of this military display, and the noise produced on that day, affected the nerves of Dinah for at least a month afterwards. According to her expression:

“Couldn’t sleep in her bed;
Buzzy, buzzy, in her head! ”

At one time she received a pension from the United States government ; but subsequently had taken refuge in the York almshouse, and died there about the year 1840, at a very advanced age. Many events that occurred during the Revolution she well remembered, as if of recent occurrence.

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