Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Devil's Footprint - Norton, Ma

The Devil's Footprint

I think its safe to say that New Englanders have always had a weird love hate relationship with Lucifer. Seriously, even John Adams, who could probably be considered the prototype Yankee, had a dog named Satan. I’ve always wondered what that was all about. To old school New Englanders the Devil was not simply some theoretical evil being. Like Medieval Europeans, colonial Yankees believed God and Satan were forces that acted on their daily lives. This belief was so ingrained in the culture that people died and were killed for it. If these Yankees were to be believed, Satan showed up all over the place in colonial New England. Settlers even incorporated some pre-Columbian Native traditions into their Christian perspective, labeling Native American spirits like Hockomock as Lucifer. Hey look, they’d say, Satan was even here before we were.

Apparently, Satan not only hung around in New England frequently, but he is supposed to have left his footprints here too. In fact, he appears to have left quite a lot of them. Sites bearing the name “The Devil’s Footprint” appear in Ipswich, Easton, Seekonk, Holliston, and Rochester to name just a few. There are even a couple footprints in Maine and more well outside of New England. However, the most well known in my area is the Devil’s Footprint in Norton, Ma.

I was lucky that my fiancé was going to pick up her wedding dress in North Attleboro last weekend, so I tagged along with her (don’t worry, I didn’t see the dress) and she agreed to stop by the site where Lucifer left his mark in Norton. This site and the legend that goes along with it are fascinating. One of the reasons why I wanted to explore this legend is because a lot of the history actually checks out. Not only that, but it’s a great example of the Yankee/Satan romance.

According to Weird Massachusetts, this particular story about Satan begins with the prominent Leonard family of Taunton and Norton, Ma. As the tale is told, the Leonards were nobility in England and Wales. When the originator of the line, Thomas Leonard, arrived in colonial Massachusetts sometime around 1660, he was apparently focused on gaining the status of nobility in New England as well. He, in turn, passed this need onto his own sons, who also sought fame, fortune, and power. His third son, George Leonard, took this quest very seriously.
The Honorable Major George Leonard
As the legend goes, George was born in Massachusetts in 1671, when he was a young man it is said that he was riding in the forests of New England when he met a tall man in black. The stranger had a proposition for George. If George would be willing to part with ownership of his soul, he would make George rich and powerful for as long as he lived. The stranger said he would come again to collect his due upon George’s death. Apparently George agreed to this deal, which seems like a terrible idea. Folklore tells us that George Leonard mysteriously and suddenly became one of the most powerful and influential men in the area. He became a judge, a major in the local militia, he married the beautiful Anna Tisdale, and built the famous Leonard Mansion in Norton. Clearly the tall, dark, man in black was Satan.
George Leonard Mansion circa 1960

The folklorist, Daniel Boudillion, and numerous other sources on this legend make it clear that this deal had one little snag. Satan and George never agreed on how long he would actually live for. George died in 1716, at the age of 45.

George’s body was laid out in an upstairs room of the Leonard Mansion. During the night a horrible noise was heard from the bedroom containing George’s body. Anna ran into the room to find she was suddenly and unexpectedly entertaining a famous guest, Satan. Lucifer snatched up George’s body under his arm and launched himself out the nearest window. The Devil and his burden landed on a large rock nearby the mansion, planting his feet so hard they left his footprints embedded on the rock's surface. They can be seen even today. Satan and George disappeared into the New England night and at least George was never heard from again.

Anna and the Leonard family still continued with the funeral, as quickly as possible it seems. As the body was missing, they filled George’s coffin with an oak log. Some sources indicate that George’s original contract, signed in blood of course, was left behind in the empty bedroom. These sources say that Anna quickly destroyed it. So I obviously never found a digital copy of that particular document.
The Devil's own footprint.
I guess I expected a hoof
If you were interested, these footprints can be seen on a large rock near the parking lot of the JC Solmonese Elementary school in Norton. The school has an entrance off North Worcester Street. The area on which George’s original mansion sat is now called Chartley Corner Plaza. It sits on the north corner of West Main Street and North Worcester Street. The jump between the rock containing the footprint and the area of the former mansion is substantial. Google Earth shows a distance of 132 yards. This would be an impossible human jump, but if you already survived a fall from Heaven, its probably no big deal.
The former Leonard Mansion
How the mighty have fallen.

As I said, some of this history actually checks out. The New England Historical and Genealogical Society (NEHGS) and several other genealogical resources have a good deal of information on the Leonard family, which was a prominent and powerful family in Taunton and Norton between the 16th and 18th centuries.

First, George Leonard of Norton was absolutely a real person. According to the NEHGS and Taunton Vital Records, he was born in Raynham, Ma in April of 1671. He was certainly a prominent and influential businessman. I would argue that his actual life and the lives of his family are just as interesting as the legend of his supposed deal with the Devil.  In addition, his meteoric rise to wealth and power is not much of a mystery. In fact the power of the entire family had less to do with Satan and more to do with old fashioned Yankee work ethic, entrepreneurial foresight, and business savvy.

The Leonard family line (at least in New England) seems to actually start with James Leonard, who was born in England or Wales in 1620. He arrived sometime before 1650 with his son Thomas to the area of Providence, Rhode Island. Like his decedents would, James became involved in the budding and profitable iron industry in New England. He would later be called the “Ironmaster of Taunton.” 

Though they labored originally at the Iron works in Saugus, James was soon invited to the Taunton Ironworks to become master workmen, a position which James held for the rest of his life. James erected several hearths and forges in the Taunton area, which he passed on to his sons, one of which was Thomas Leonard.

James was such a prominent citizen of the area that he actually befriended the Wampanoag Sachem Massasoit and his young son Metacom, the man who would later be called King Philip by the English colonists. I swear, when it comes to New England history and folklore, it always comes back to Massasoit and Metacom. Its like Six Degrees to Kevin Bacon with these gentlemen. When relations turned ugly between the Natives and the colonists during the King Philip’s War of 1675 and 1676, Metacom ordered that his men were never to harm a Leonard of Taunton because of the friendship James and his father shared. Its interesting that Taunton, Ma was largely spared during the King Philip’s War. Some guess that this could have had something to do with the Leonards and their Wampanoag friendships. Certainly, Metacom, having grown up with the English his entire life, had many close friendships among the colonists.

James Leonard had nine children. The first son, Thomas, was born in 1641. Thomas Leonard seems to have inherited his understanding of business from his father. According to genealogist and descendent, Elisha Clark Leonard:

"It is evident from the habits displayed in the various offices he held and the conditions under which he had to perform the duties connected with the same that he was a man of rare judgment, of great ability, and of untiring industry."

Thomas was a self educated man, and through the guidance of his father from an early age, he also became influential in the iron industry of Taunton. In fact, he became skilled enough in the refining business that his father allowed him to manage the iron forges in Taunton at the age of 25. In 1696, along with his brother James, Thomas purchased land and began building forges in the “North Purchase,” the land which would eventually be incorporated into the town of Norton, or as it was originally called, “North Taunton.”

Like his father, Thomas became a very influential man and powerful businessman. He became a Captain in the Taunton Militia, a selectman of Taunton, a Deputy to the Plymouth court, and a Representative to the General Court in Boston. On top of all this, according to Elisha Clark Leonard, he studied medicine, solemnized marriages in Taunton, and also ran a large farm. This guy knew how to work.

Thomas Leonard had eleven children, the fourth of whom was the subject of our legend, George Leonard. According to the Vital Records of Taunton, George was born April 18, 1871. Like his father, and his grandfather, before him, George began his training as an iron refiner at a very early age. According to Elisha Clark Leonard:

"The Hon. Goege, Leonard, the third son of Judge Thomas, inherited from his father and from the Watson family, untiring industry, ability, and sound common sense, which carried him successfully through his undertaking."
George, at least in this description, sounds a lot like his father. Through the tutelage of his father, he gained skill in business and refining.

Like the legendary George, the actual George Leonard was married to Anna Tisdale. According to Massachusetts Vital Records, the two wed in Taunton on July 4, 1695. Elisha Clark Leonard mentions this as being about the same time that his father Thomas and his uncle James were beginning to open forges in the North Purchase. They both invited George and his young wife to move to the North Purchase and supervise the construction of the ironworks.

Elisha Clark Leonard goes on to state that over the next six years, while working as the manager of his father’s ironworks George began to buy lands and rights in the North Purchase for himself. In October of 1707, he actually purchased his uncle’s shares in the North Purchase ironworks as well.

Though the original legend does not give an exact date for his alleged meet up with Satan, I suppose his later accusers would look at this time period of rapid advancement between 1695 and 1707 as being suspicious. To me, it seems like he was simply following the family tradition. Sure, he might have received a helping hand from Dad and Uncle James, but that’s not really sinister.

Still, it wasn’t just a family leg up that bought George’s success in life. Elisha’ Leonard’s manuscript points out that George purchased land all over Massachusetts during this time. He bought 100 acres in Cedar Swamp, 25 acres in Attenborough, and even 5 acres Rehoboth. According to Elisha Clark, "With lands he already had, he must now have had some 500 Acres."

In the 18th century 500 acres would make you a major landowner. I think in the 21st century 500 acres would still make you at least a substantial landowner. Considering I (really the bank) own .55 acres, I am now hanging my head in shame.

I also have to give credit to Anna Tisdale for her helping hand in making a profit for the family as well. According to the papers of Thomas Leonard, Anna sold him several articles of clothing she must have made herself.

One can still examine the business records of George and Thomas’ “Chartley Iron Works” for the years in which George managed the company. The records are neat, succinct, and very organized. They detail George’s hard work and business know-how during this time period, rather than his satanic handouts. According to his business records, George split the profits of the North Purchase Ironworks with his father in 1710, yet still earned about $350 that year. According to Elisha Leonard, this was substantial in a time when land cost about 50 cents an acre. He further states that this income was earned for five or six months of work. The rest of the year George involved himself in farming and other projects to continue making a family profit.

In March 1710 the area of the North Purchase officially became part of North Taunton (Norton) and George was elected selectman. In addition, in 1715, he was appointed the Judge of the Court of Common Pleas as well as holding the position of Major in the militia. Like his father, George was a busy guy.

However, as too often happens in life, George passed away seemingly in his prime. According to Massachusetts Vital Records, George died on September 5, 1716. His father, Thomas, had only died three years earlier. The cause of death is not listed, but Elisha Leonard states he died as a result of fever. There were, of course no antibiotics at the time, or any fever reducers, so this seems pretty likely.

Elisha Leonard does mention George’s alleged connection to Satan in his late 19th century manuscript. He states:


"His great success had been a marvel to his townsmen, and they attributed it to un-natural causes. The story was told that George Leonard had made a league with the Devil to acquire great wealth. In 1716, while he was sick with the fever of which he died the Devil came and claimed his body and carried it off."
So, this story was at least well known by his decedents in the 19th century and was included in a manuscript that was primarily genealogy and history. Elisha Leonard goes on to say that the family claimed that George’s body was not fit to be seen at the funeral. He seems to say that townspeople included the story of his coffin being filled with an oak log. At the very least, he does not state this detail as fact. George was buried in “The Central Buying Ground” with his wife Anna.

As stated in the legend, Anna did re-marry to a Nathaniel Thomas of Plymouth, Ma in 1730 according to Plymouth Vital Records. Anna died three years later, according to Elisha Leonard and Massachusetts Vital Records. Not too long for a second marriage, but that's colonial New England for you.

George and Anna had 11 children, many of whom went on to increase the fame and wealth of the family, or at least to do as well as George, Thomas, and James had. There are many decedents of George Leonard in New England still, as can be seen by the amount of genealogical research that has been completed on this family.

When I began researching the Devil’s Footprint in Norton, I thought the legend would be story enough, but the deeper I got into the story and the characters, I was honestly more focused on the history. It seems to me George did not deserve his reputation as a demonic collaborator. He did not sell his soul for wealth; he earned it the hard way.

I really began to wonder what earned him this reputation. Honestly, I think the origin of the legend had more to do with the historical context of the time, and with George himself.

In Salem and Danvers, Ma, during the winter of 1692 – 1693 over 150 people were arrested and accused of witchcraft, and by the end of that winter 19 men and women were executed. Many were actually convicted in courts, which allowed the use of “spectral evidence,” which could include visions, premonitions, or the dreams of the supposed victims of witchcraft.

In addition, many of the people who were accused of witchcraft were up and coming citizens of Danvers and Salem, who had become wealthy in recent years by participating in the growing trade between the colonies and Europe. These citizens had the audacity to begin buying things that were not only functional, but perhaps slightly indulgent. They might have purchased things that were not needed on a daily basis. They actually began to resemble what would become middle class citizens, which was quite offensive to some early Yankee Protestants.

This event would obviously be in the recent memory of many in 1716. Plus, there are a few similarities between these two cases. George Leonard was certainly exceptional in the amount of land and wealth he had amassed. He built one of the first “mansions” in the area. In addition, he was also a judge in the court of common pleas. He could have definitely made some enemies in that position. As in Salem, this could have made him a target.

The times were, of course, different. If I were to say that “Snooki” Polizzi (puke) had made a deal with the Devil to ensure that people would be entertained by her vacuous personality, I might be right, but no one would believe me. In 1716, religious Yanks would probably think I was serious and she might then be in danger. Add to that a stone outside her back window in Satan-leaping distance with cool marks on it, and she might be marched through the streets like Mussolini.

Running with the Devil
To conclude this piece, If I were George Leonard taking stock of my reputation from the Great Beyond, I would actually be a little miffed. If George actually cut a deal with Lucifer, it seems like the Devil could have made it a little easier for the guy. George’s wealth, his influence, and his success were really a product of three generations of business minded, die hard colonists, each encouraging and training the next generation in the family business. Yes, George might have been a little lucky, but he also had the foresight to purchase land when it was available and turn that land into more profit. This legend certainly has New England written all over it, but I have gotta say, George and the Ironmaster Leonards . . They were wicked Yankee! Look, I used it again.


13 comments:

  1. Powerful post and I enjoyed reading your blog.

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  2. Thanks. This subject was really fun to look into. Thanks for stopping by.

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  3. Glad to see it seems my ancester was a hard working businessman, not some souless man of greed.

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    1. I agree. George Leonard was an interesting man who probably did not derserve his satanic rep. I think it speaks more to how odd New Englanders can be sometimes. What an interesting story though.

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  4. Great story! I lived in Norton from age 5 to age 8 and attended JC Solomese. This legend was VERY well known among the local children including the very rock being in front of the school. I remember being terrified of the thought of the Devil coming in your house and snatching you away. The story you've told is dead on. Although one of my young friends claimed that the Devil's face was also burned into the side of the rock. I remember being too scared to even look at the footprint but my Mom did when she picked me up from school one day and I told her about "Devils Rock" Thanks so very much for the trip down memory lane!

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    1. Thanks for reading. I wish I saw the Devil's face burned into the side of the rock. I guess it would have meant he face planted when he jumped so far from Leornard's house. It would have made for an even better story.

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  5. Thanks for the article. I have been doing extensive genealogical research and recently found out that I am a descendant of George Leonard. I was a bit surprised when I came across articles talking about my ancestor "selling his soul to the devil", but this is interesting stuff. I would love to make a trip to Norton and see the footprint for myself. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Wow, that's a really interesting genealogical find. Fortunately the rock, its marks, and the story remain as a tribute to you ancestor. The Leonards were really influential in early New England, and of course they left some really fun stories behind as well. Thanks for stopping by.

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  6. hi my name is Nancy Leonard daughter of George f leonard of Taunton and i have an uncle named James leonard and his son is named Thomas leonard. my grand father George Leonard was from Raynham and they were in the ironworks business and its weird that my father was the third son and they chose to name him george leonard instead of the first son, i love this story thanks for writing it

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    1. Thanks for reading. I love this story too. I think the Devil's Footprint is a great classic New England story. It's great that your family has this lore and connection to the area.

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  7. The word "fiancé" refers to a man who is engaged to be married, "fiancée" refers to a woman engaged to be married. You should correct "fiancé" to "fiancée", because the sentence refers to the person whom you are engaged to as a "her".

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  8. My research topic is on George Leonard and how the pact with the devil impacted his life. I was woundering if i could have your email for more information.
    Thank you :)

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