The Stone-throwing Devil was an unusual Poltergeist case that occurred at Great Island, New Hampshire, in the late 17th century, characterized by lithoboly, or a mysterious hail of stones that pelted the victims.
Many poltergeist cases include stone throwings and hail. In the 17th century, such incidents were suspected of being caused by witchcraft or Demonic possession.
The Stone-throwing Devil case occurred in 1682. Some details were recorded and published by an eyewitness, Richard Chamberlain, who was secretary of what was then the Province of New Hampshire. Chamberlain witnessed disturbances while a guest at the home of the victim, George Walton, a wealthy landowner. Chamberlain wrote a pamphlet, Lithobolia, or the Stone-throwing Devil, etc., published under his initials, R.C. Esq., in London in 1698. An earlier secondhand account was published in 1684 by the American Puritan minister, Increase Mather, in his book An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences. Neither account is specific or clear.
The exact start of the stone attacks is unknown, but numerous incidents were recorded between May and August of 1682. According to Chamberlain, one Sunday night in May at about 10:00, Walton and his family, servants and guests were surprised by a great pounding of stones upon the roof and all sides of the house. Walton and several persons ran outside, but they could see nothing despite the bright moonlight. Walton found his fence gate torn off its hinges. He and the others were pelted by stones that rained down from the sky.
They returned to the house, where everyone was in a panic; stones apparently were coming through the front door and dropping through the ceiling. Some of them were as large as fists. The occupants immediately suspected a preternatural cause. Though they withdrew from the outer rooms, stones continued to attack them. Stones also battered the windows from the inside, striking them so hard that holes were punched in the leaded glass and bars covering the windows were bent. The stones bounced back into the rooms. Some of the stones seemed to fly out of the fire, and were hot. More stones sent brass and pewter pots and candlesticks flying.
For four hours, stones flew about the house and rained down the chimney. Despite this furious attack, no one in the house was seriously injured.
The next day, servants discovered that household objects were missing. Some were found outside in the yard and in other odd places, while others mysteriously reappeared by falling down the chimney or into rooms as though dropped through the ceiling. Walton’s fields were littered with stones. Suspicions about witchcraft were raised when employees spotted a black cat in the orchard. They shot at it, but it escaped unharmed.
A veritable avalanche of stones flew about inside the house that evening. In addition, a hand was seen thrusting out from a hall window (no one was in the hall at the time), tossing more stones upon the porch.
The rains of stones and disturbances of household objects continued for weeks. Occasionally there would be a break of a day or two, and then the stone attacks would resume with greater force and with larger stones. Two stones weighing more than 30 pounds apiece struck the door of a guest room. Walton’s field hands also continued to be attacked by stones that rained down from the sky and then disappeared from the ground, only to fall on them again.
One of the severest stone attacks occurred on Monday, June 28, when stones fell on members of the household as they ate supper in the kitchen; the table was broken into pieces. Chamberlain wrote:
. . . many Stones (some great ones) came thick and threefold among us, and an old howing Iron, from a Room hard by, where such Utensils lay. Then, as if I had been the designed Object for that time, most of the Stones that came (the smaller I mean) hit me, (sometimes pretty hard), to the number of above 20, near 30 . . . and whether I moved, sit, or walk’d, I had them, and great ones sometimes lighting gently on me . . . Then was a Room over the Kitchen infested, that had not been so before, and many Stones greater than usual lumbering there over our Heads, not only to ours, but to the great Disturbance and Affrightment of some Children that lay there.
Walton continued to work the fields with his men despite the stone attacks. On one day Walton claimed to have been struck by more than 40 of them. His injuries left him suffering chronic pain for the rest of his life. In addition, he found corn mysteriously cut off at the roots or uprooted. No agent of the damage was ever seen by anyone; the men said they heard a strange “snorting and whistling” while they worked.
In other incidents, a maid was struck on the head by a falling porringer, and hay baled one day was found the next day strewn about the ground and tossed into the trees. One night, stones and brickbats crashed through a window, toppled books off a case, and tore a foot-long hole in a picture.
No single member of the household seemed to be the focal point of the attacks—all were attacked on occasion— yet most incidents seemed to occur when Walton himself was present. The governor of West Jersey and seven other individuals signed statements attesting to their witnessing some of the disturbances.
Chamberlain, who most probably was a skeptic about witchcraft and the supernatural, seemed convinced otherwise by these terrifying events. He wrote that the incident “has confirmed myself and others in the opinion that there are such things as witches and the effects of witchcraft, or at least the mischievous actions of evil spirits, which some of us do little give credit to, as in the case of witches, utterly rejecting both their operations and their beings.” Mather also took the case as an example of the formidable and diabolical powers of witches.
The suspect in this case was a neighbour of Walton’s, an elderly woman believed to be a witch. She and Walton were involved in a dispute over a piece of land. They both claimed ownership, and Walton succeeded in securing it. The angry woman was overheard to remark that Walton would “never quietly enjoy that piece of Ground.” When the stone attacks started, Walton believed himself to cursed by her.
In August 1682, Walton decided to fight witchcraft with witchcraft. With the help of someone knowledgeable about witchcraft, he attempted to cast a spell to undo the curse and punish his neighbour. This effort consisted of boiling a pot of urine and crooked pins on the fire. But before the urine could boil, a stone fell into it and spilled it. The Waltons refilled the pot with more urine and crooked pins. Another stone fell in the pot and spilled the contents again. Then the handles fell off the pot, and the pot split into pieces. The Waltons gave up.
Meanwhile, the hail of stones continued, destroying Walton’s fences and smashing his farm tools. He lodged a complaint with the council in Portsmouth, which summoned both him and the neighbour for interrogation. En route to his appointment, Walton was struck by three fist-sized stones. He showed a head wound to the president of the council.
The outcome of the affair is not recorded. At some point after the council became involved, the lithoboly apparently stopped. The fate of the disputed land is not known; however, Walton’s health was ruined.
It is difficult to speculate what may have been the cause of the Stone-throwing Devil due to the limited descriptions extant. Fraud on the part of Walton is unlikely, due to the great amount of suffering and personal injury inflicted upon him and members of his family. Walton may have been an unwitting agent, perhaps due in part to the stress of his dispute with his neighbour, though he does not fit the profile of living agents that has been established by modern researchers. Typically, such agents are adolescents. Witchcraft cannot be ruled out, but it is virtually impossible to prove.
In The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (1959), author Rossell Hope Robbins opined that the stones were thrown by persons who opposed Chamberlain, whose administration was unpopular after two years in office. This, too, is unlikely. In his account, Chamberlain repeatedly stated that no sources of the attacks were visible. Furthermore, it is not likely that Chamberlain would have remained a guest in a house under attack by his own critics.
- Mather, Increase. An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences. 1684.
- Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, with introduction by James A. Levernier. Owen, A. R. G. Can We Explain the Poltergeist? New York: HelixPress/Garrett Publications, 1964.
- R. C. Esq. (Richard Chamberlain). Lithobolia: or, the Stonethrowing Devil, etc. London: 1698.
- Robbins, Rossell Hope. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. New York: Bonanza Books, 1981. First published 1959.