October-ganza 3, Day 16: New England’s Alchemists: Pt. 1, John Winthrop the Younger1
October 16, 2016 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
Curious porters and teamers who delivered bottles, bags, or boxes at the small rear door would exchange accounts of the fantastic flasks, crucibles, alembics, and furnaces they saw in the low shelved room; and prophesied in whispers that the close-mouthed “chymist”—by which they meant alchemist—would not be long in finding the Philosopher’s Stone.
— “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”
While in the popular imagination, early New England is thought to be inhabited solely by pious Puritans (and perhaps their menacing evil twins, witches), things were… to borrow a phrase… a lot more nuanced than that. Magic, in European society, was no less a complex
cultural element than any other, be in language or religion, and their were divisions of between different varieties of magic that have become obscured in the modern time as we lumped these equally discarded systems of interacting with the world into a catch-all “supernatural” category (and embraced wholly logical modern concepts like alien abduction, ESP, and “The Secret”).
Moving away from that soapbox, considering the role that alchemy and alchemists have played in various elements of Lovecraft Country – including Mr. Curwen above as just one example – I think it is helpful for Keepers to learn a little bit more about New England’s actual alchemists, of which there were several. These men, unlike those who practiced folk-magic (usually divination and counter-charms against ‘witchcraft’), were generally able to engage in their work openly, and at worst were considered odd rather than dangerous or inherently evil or backwards. Indeed, in the 17th and 18th century, the line between science and magic was all but non existent.. Today’s entry, for example, moved at the highest levels of colonial society and held several major offices…
John Winthrop, Jr. (1606 – 1676)
Likely the most famous of all of New England’s alchemists, Winthrop was a major political figure in colonial New England; son of John Winthrop Sr., the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and himself the governor of Connecticut. Winthrop was born and educated in the United Kingdom, and joined his father in New England in 1631, after studying for the law at Trinity College, serving as a sailor, and after a long sojourn to Italy and the Near East. In New England, Winthrop aided his father in governing the Massachusetts colony, as well as founding several settlements in New England starting with Ipswich (MA) in 1633, Saybrook (CT) in 1635, and New London (CT) in 1646. He served as a colonial administrator and later as governor of Connecticut itself until his death. Winthrop personally had a central role in securing a new charter for Connecticut after the restoration of the British monarchy in 1660. He was also a member of the Royal Society.
Winthrop first took up the study of alchemy while studying law in London, before immigrating to Massachusetts. Part of his intention in founding New London was to create a haven for like-minded scholars of medicine and alchemy, as well as a center for new industries, like an iron-works and mines. He sent out scouts into the wilderness in search of useful metals and minerals and established several mining sites in southern New England, such as a graphite mine in what later became Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Winthrop corresponded widely with scholars in Europe and in the American colonies. He is also said to have conducted experiments with the German physician and explorer John Lederer, who was the first to survey the western parts of Virginia and the Carolinas. His reputation as a talented physician was known throughout New England and the medicines he prepared were very sought after.
Winthrop had a lifelong interest in medicine, chemistry, geology, and philosophy and was considered one of New England’s preeminent scholars, jurists, and physicians. He was considered liberal in spiritual matters, advocating for tolerance of dissenting groups like the Quakers, especially while governor of Connecticut . Because of his reputation as an expert in occult matters, Winthrop was consulted frequently in witchcraft cases. He exerted a significant moderating influence on witchcraft trials in Connecticut, first as a physician brought in to examine the accused, then later as a judge – that there were no executions for witchcraft in Connecticut after 1662 is suggestive (but not definitive proof) of his comparatively rational influence.
Rev. Ezra Stiles (himself also an alchemist… we shall discuss him in the future) mentions one of the younger Winthrop’s mining interest in particular, Great Hill aka Rattlesnake Mountain, a prominence in East Haddam Connecticut, on the shore of Great Hill Pond in Connecticut. The hill, nicknamed “The Governor’s Ring” was supposedly “the place to which Governor Winthrop of New London used to resort with his servant; and after spending three Weeks in the woods of this mountain in roasting ores and assaying Metals and casting gold rings, he used to return home to New London with plenty of gold”. While in later years other metals, primarily cobalt, were discovered on this hill, it was not until the 1980s when a team of geological surveyors from the University of Connecticut were able to locate trace amounts of gold. Stiles goes on to say that he was in touch with the new owner of the hill, one Gosuinus Erkelens, whom Stiles believed was an alchemist himself engaged in cobalt mining there. (I should note that Cobalt, the element, has long been associated with the race of subterranean dwarves or goblins – the kobolds – in European folklore…)
This site is but a few miles away from Cave Hill, the alleged source of the Moodus Noises, which served to inspire some of Lovecraft’s descriptions of strange sounds heard at Dunwich. There are stories (though none can be found predating the mid-19th century) of
an alchemist visiting Moodus in the 18th century and building a house on Cave Hill wherein he used an enchantment to extract a great “carbuncle” from the caves beneath the hill, the creation of which caused the thunder-like reports from within the earth. This curious ‘Dr. Steele’ took the great gem away, ending the noises for a time, but he and the strange great red stone were lost at sea. 19th century writers also claimed that witches would gather in this spot, and before them native shamans (shamen?), but at least in the case of the former, there is no historical evidence supporting these authors.
[…] (You’d be forgiven in thinking that I’d forgotten about our various orphaned posts, but I really do intend to wrap up various series – yes, Derleth Country included! Here’s part 2, of 3, in “New England’s Alchemists”); see part 1 here.) […]