The Devil's Footprints

Ipswich & Norton Massachusetts



Field Investigation: 26 May 2007

by Daniel V. Boudillion




Note: this is the full text of the abbreviated version published in the book Weird Massachusetts



Here in Massachusetts the Devil really gets around.  And where he goes, he leaves footprints.  In rocks.  You can find evidence of his infernal capering in Auburn, Easton, Holliston, Ipswich, Medfield, Norton, Rochester, and Seekonk, to name a few.


The stories surrounding these footprints are all quite similar.  It seems the Devil only has a few riffs, and like Jerry Garcia, sticks to them.  He accosts a preacher or tries to bargain away a fellow’s soul.  These encounters never seem to work out for Old Scratch and he stomps off, leaving a trail of smoking footprints in the living rock. 

   Wrestling In Ipswich

The best of these tales comes from Ipswich, in Essex County, Massachusetts, which is an ancient New England sea town.  It was founded in 1633 by John Winthrop and twelve partners – a witch’s number – as a semi-military post to keep the French away, and its roots are deep in the grim and unyielding Old Testament Puritanism of that early age. 


Like all good Devil stories, this one tales place in a church, and a famous church at that.  When the Winthrop Thirteen came to Ipswich, "upon ascending the hill above the river they found an outcropping ledge of goodly extent, forming a sort of natural platform, and upon this rock they built their church."  This church, known as The First Church of Ipswich, subsequently became famous throughout the Colony for the learning and piety of its ministers, not to mention their Devil-wresting skills. 


The story unfolds in 1740 on October’s Eve, September 30th.  A traveling preacher, the Rev. George Whitefield, was on a thunder-and-brimstone tour of New England and made the fate-filled move of unleashing a sermon of unparalleled intensity in First Church on the high ledge in Ipswich. 



The First Church of Ipswich

The original structure burned and was rebuilt


Some things will never be completely understood.  For instance, why was there an enormous curved mirror behind the pulpit in First Church?  And why did the Devil live in that mirror? 


However it may be, the congregation had no choice but to contemplate their own reflections in the distorting effects of the primitive looking-glass while the grim words of Puritanism rolled over them every Sabbath.  Not a situation to improve anyone’s demeanor. 


Consider too that the Devil, for reasons known only to himself, had previously taken up residence in said mirror.  Was this mirror-dwelling Devil the projected Shadow Self of the congregation, projected there under the toil and labors of the mighty roiling fist of eye-for-an-eye Puritan pulpit-pounding?  That explanation is far too Jungian.  I prefer to think that His Satanic Majesty had a furnished condo in there and the mirror was his picture window on the world.  Like most monarchs, he liked to keep an eye on things. 


On that October Eve our mirror-ensconced fiend sure got an eye and ear-full.  The Rev. Whitefield was in rare form and unleashed a tremendous sermon, hitting all the high notes.  He thundered, he gave long dramatic pauses, and issued the most dire proclamations on the soul, urging repentance, renunciation, and the giving up the ways of the world. 


This was apparently more then any right-minded Devil could take.  Old Scratch burst out of the mirror in a bang and a flash (the mirror went unscathed) and took furious form among them in full regalia of horns and tail and hooves, much as he was wont to do in those days. 



The Devil vs. George Whitefield

George Whitefield was cross-eyed

The Devil is all class in that coat


But Whitefield, although a young man, was a tough and canny man and was not taken aback by such cheap theatrics.  In fact, the Devil could scarcely have found himself a more powerful opponent had he tried.  The Rev. George Whitefield, enshrined in history as "the first modern celebrity," was the leading figure of the Great Awakening, the first of several sweeping, dramatic revivals of religion and Protestant reformation in America.  More impacting than even John Wesley, the English-born Whitefield routinely preached to crowds in the tens of thousands, a fact verified by a skeptical Ben Franklin. 


Although only 26 years old at the time, the young founding Methodist was a veteran of aggressive evangelism, and simply grabbed the Devil and slammed him to the mat.  They wrestled like maniacs on the floor and eventually rolled clawing and punching outside into the churchyard.  Squaring off again, the young Church of England minister was slowly forced little by little up the side of First Church and onto the roof. 


They pushed and shoved each other back and forth across the roof, trying to cast each other off into destruction, while the congregation watched in horrified amazement, rooted to the spot.  Perhaps it was the wily moves of the Devil, or a situation where Whitefield’s cross-eyed condition was detrimental to close quarter Devil-wrestling, but once again the young orator was forced back further and higher, this time up the very steeple. 


Inch by inch they fought, with Whitefield backing further up the steeple until they battled at the very pinnacle.  With nowhere left to go, Whitefield drew on his massively commanding voice, a voice which could carry to crowds in the tens of thousands.  No one knows what mighty words he spoke, only that it blasted forth from him like a trumpet, and that he emphasized his Lion’s Roar with a mighty push. 



Devil's Footprint is circled in green on the ledge rock

The author surveys the situation


Old Scratch was hurled in a flinging leap off the steeple, landing like a cat on his feet in the rocky ledge below.  He scrambled down the hill in terrified leaps and bounds, never to return.  But where his feet had struck the ledge there "smoldered the indelible print of Satan’s cloven hoof."



My shoe matches Devil's Footprint - coincidence?

Photo credit: Scurv Dawg


Rev. George Whitefield climbed down and dusted himself off, gave thanks to God, and the meeting resumed.  He was a humble man, and all his journal for the day recorded was, "Tuesday, Sept. 30 [1740] Preached at Ipswich about 10 in the morning, to some Thousands; the Lord gave me Freedom, and there was great Melting in the Congregation." 


   A Pact In Norton

The Devil was sticking his foot into things more successfully in Norton, Massachusetts, in 1716, long before mixing it up with Whitefield in Ipswich. 


It all starts with a Man of God, as is usual in these cases.  (The Devil doesn’t seem to care about the rabble; they get by all right on their own.)  This particular Man of God was the Deacon Major Thomas Leonard, who emigrated from Wales to Plymouth, Massachusetts, prior to 1662.  Deacon Leonard was a vain man and claimed descent from a noble family in England, an unfortunate conceit that was passed on to his young son, Major George Leonard, who was born in 1670. 


Young George lusted for the wealth and estates rightly due his alleged noble English heritage.  So much so that as a young man, it is said, that one night when he met a man all in black in the primeval forests of New England, he was ready to hear his pitch.  It was a simple proposition.  George would be wealthy beyond imagining all the days of his life, for only the price of his soul, which the Man in Black said he would collect himself bodily upon George’s demise. 


Artists Conception of George Signing a Pact


Now George didn’t advertise this little business deal, but what did get around was the sudden and wondrous upsurge of his fortunes.  Not only did he marry the beautiful Anna Tisdale in 1695 at the age of 25, but he became "very wealthy and owner of the largest landed estate in New England," according to historian Ellery Bicknell Crane.  Ellery does not tell us how this was accomplished, but you and I both know it had something to do with a little piece of parchment signed in blood in the depths of the forest one dark night in George’s youth.


Young and wealthy, George Leonard built the first frame house in Norton, the country seat of his new estates and settled there with his young bride.  The house became known as the Leonard Mansion as many additions and renovations occurred over the ensuing years. 


Now the Devil (for that is who the Man in Black was) had granted George wealth and estates for all the days of his life.  But the actual length of those days was unspecified, which is an important point any of you at home need to bear in mind if ever you find yourself in a similar situation.  What happened was that George died in 1716, at only 46 years old, with a scant 21 years of living it up under his belt. 


Did he choke on a chicken bone?  History is silent on the cause of his demise.  All we know from the stories that have swirled across the years is that poor George was forthwith laid out in an upstairs room of the Leonard Mansion.  His wife Anna and their nine children (they’d been a busy couple) gathered downstairs in the parlor with friends and relations to mourn his untimely passing. 

Amid the sobs and condolences during that long night, a horrible racket was suddenly heard from the upstairs room.  The family ran upstairs and Anna burst open the door on a truly horrible sight.  There in the room was the Devil himself, come to collect George.  His eyes blazed red, and with a horrible laugh he tucked George’s body under his arm and jumped out the open window.  The black-clad figure landed on a large boulder below, and bounded off into the night shrieking with triumph and trailing the smell of brimstone behind him.  A single parchment fluttered to the floor of the room.  Anna burnt it.


Devil's Footprint, Norton Massachusetts

Photo courtesy of Jim Moore


The next day it was noted that the boulder was marked with a deep impression of the Devil’s infernal foot and remains so marked to this day.  George’s family put an oak log in his coffin to make up for the weight and hurriedly conducted a burial.  Anna was badly shaken and did not remarry for 14 years, preferring to live as a wealthy woman of her own account.  But George’s namesake son and grandson went on to considerable fame, building on the fortune they inherited from Old George’s secret deal. 


George Leonard Jr. rose to the rank of Colonel in the militia and was appointed a Judgeship in 1725.  In a touch of the old taint he was dismissed from the bench in connection with the notorious Land Bank scheme, but was reinstated six years later as Chief Justice.  He lived to be 83 years old.


George Jr.’s son, George Leonard III, graduated from Harvard, practiced law, and became a Chief Justice like his father.  He was a member of the Provincial Assembly during the Revolutionary War, and served in both the State House of Representatives and the State Senate, and was also elected to Congress.  Like his father he also lived to a ripe old age, being 90 years old when he died. 


This suggests that when it comes to lawyers and politicians, the Devil watches over his own.  But no one was watching over the old Leonard Mansion.  By 1960 it was in poor condition.  The owner was unable or unwilling to shoulder the burden of its expense and requested that the Norton Fire Department burn it down for practice, which they did.  The Devil took George in 1716, but he had to wait another 244 years to take the house. 



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Copyright © 2007, 2009 by Daniel V. Boudillion