Estimated reading time — 6 minutes
The people of Acton, Massachusetts knew the devil walked among them. How else could they explain how routine death was? Their only bulwark against oblivion was the small stone chapel that had been erected in the center of town. It was there that the congregation met every Sunday for service. It was there that the local farmers established some sense of community, and it was there that the people of Acton went to escape the bitter cold. Stone church walls kept out the elements better than rickety log cabins, and everyone in Acton knew to risk staying away from the church when the winter storms rolled in was certain death.
Everyone, except for Hunter Solomon. Hunter was a strange man in a time when any semblance of strangeness lead to rumors of witchcraft and wizardry. A tall, hairy, hawkish man Hunter lived on the outskirts of Acton, in a cramped, decaying cabin. Few spoke to him, and the only person who regularly contacted him was Old Nan, a kindly old woman known and loved for her treatment of children. Though many were suspicious of Hunter, none dared accuse him directly of any wrong doing, due entirely to his immense hunting skills. Every week Hunter would stride into town to leave a freshly slaughtered deer on the steps of the church for any hungry man or woman.
No man in their right mind went into the woods around Acton alone; too many had disappeared. When the grandparents of the current generation of settlers had first arrived, the land that became Acton was completely abandoned. There were no Indians and no apparent trails, despite the rich farmland. Those original settlers had been a hardy crew, and hacked a life out of the oppressive woods, despite the dangers posed by the wolf pack that lived in the shadow of Acton. This current generation had learned fear from their forbears, and so, whenever fresh meat was needed, a hunting party was formed to ensure that no man had to go into the woods and brave the wolves alone.
Hunter Solomon went into the woods alone. Rumors swirled among the townspeople that Hunter had sold his soul so that he could safely walk among the wolves. Some said that when Hunter had been a young man he and his father had gone into the woods on a hunting trip, where they had been attacked by the pack. Days later, the people of Acton said, Hunter had emerged from the woods, limping and trying his best to hold his scalp to his head. Old man Solomon was never seen again. That hunting trip left Hunter silent and covered in scars. No one could fight off wolves, the townspeople said. The Devil must have protected his servant. Few remembered the sociable young man Hunter had been before this trip, but all knew the silent, reclusive hermit who had returned.
It didn’t take much for the people of Acton to turn on Hunter. When Reverend McGarvey passed away during the winter of 1701 the people of Acton desperately sent out requests for a new minister. When spring arrived so did Reverend O’Brien, a red-headed fire and brimstone preacher who inspired a new level of devotion among the frontier faithful. With him was his eight year old daughter, a small, wild lass who shared his red hair. Her name was Lucy.
No one in town knew for certain when Lucy and Hunter first met. All they knew was that Lucy adored Hunter. Whenever Hunter would stride into town, bringing fresh food from his hunt, Lucy would run out to greet him. Hunter always brought something for her, an interesting leaf, a small carving, a poorly made doll. Soon other children started running out with Lucy to greet Hunter. Hunter always had toys for the children, and they soon came to adore Acton’s hermit almost as much as they adored Old Nan and her stories. Some saw this as a sign that Hunter was, at least partially, a decent man. Others, including Reverend O’Brien, knew that the Satan worshipping Hunter was corrupting his daughter, and the other town children.
Reverend O’Brien took no small amount of pleasure from his first sermon about witchcraft. The townspeople, already suspicious of Hunter Solomon, hung on his every word. Vivid descriptions of covens and curses drove the townspeople into a fervor. Soon, they began to notice every misfortune. Farmer Jones’s cow died suddenly. Little Danny Gilman fell severely ill, and died several weeks later. Rachel Jones miscarried. James Sloan’s wife was caught with another man, and swore on the Holy Bible that an outside force had seized control of her body.
The breaking point came early in the winter of 1702, when Lucy disappeared. That Sunday, Reverend O’Brien poured his heart and soul into his sermon, calling for the people of the town to drive out the devil. All knew to whom he referred. The enraged congregation loaded their muskets, and lit their torches. It was time to kill Hunter Solomon. It was time to drive out the devil.
When the mob reached Hunter’s cabin they found it to be abandoned. Reverend O’Brien and James Sloan led a select group of village elders into the cabin to see if there was any sign of where Hunter had gone, or if he was to return. They found a small cot, numerous hunting trophies, and a set of manacles chained to the wall of the cabin. The manacles were solidly built, and showed signs of frequent use. Along the cuffs of the manacles were several thick, dark hairs. Reverend O’Brien proudly announced that the manacles were proof that Hunter had been summoning and enslaving demons to his will. Soon though, the bitter cold and howls of wolves drove the mob back to the safety of Acton and the church.
The second child to disappear was Annie Smith, daughter of Giles Smith, the town drunk. Reverend O’Brien’s sermons became even more impassioned, and soon the witch hunt began. Any woman accused of being in Hunter Solomon’s coven found themselves speedily tried by a council lead by Reverend O’Brien and James Sloan. None of the accused were found innocent, and the degree that witchcraft had infiltrated the village caused a panic. In short order Peggy Sullivan, Lindsey Anderson, and Jane Sloan (James Sloan’s adulterous wife) were burned. Still, more children continued to disappear, and Reverend O’Brien led his flock in a great purge, claiming the lives of many young women in the village. The townspeople rallied behind Reverend O’Brien, the holy man they knew to be a crusader for justice. Despite their faith the number of missing children continued all through that long November and December.
The message appeared the night after the blizzard. Though all of the townspeople had taken shelter in the church, Giles Smith was the only one who saw it. Despite the poor visibility caused by the snow flurries, Giles swore that the beast was easily the size of a horse. No one really believed him, and the following morning offered no proof of Giles Smith’s claims. The heavy snow had obscured any tracks, and Reverend O’Brien was quick to dismiss the drunk’s claims. That was, until he saw the door of the church. Crudely carved into the door of the church were two words, “I know”. Reverend O’Brien turned pale, and hurried to his home, stating he needed to prepare the following day’s sermon.
That sermon was never given. All throughout the night, the townspeople were kept awake by loud, lonely howls that sounded like they were coming from just outside the village. The next morning, as the people of Acton exited their homes in their Sunday best, they were greeted by a ghastly sight. Sprawled on the steps of the church was the mangled body of James Sloan. Reverend O’Brien was incensed, and immediately called a meeting of the council. It didn’t take the council long to accuse Old Nan of witchcraft and conspiracy with Hunter Solomon. The remaining children looked on in horror as their storyteller was seized by the council, and Reverend O’Brien sent his congregation out to gather wood for a pyre. Soon they returned, and dumped their wood around the stake Old Nan was now bound too.
Here, standing next the pyre, was where Reverend O’Brien was in his element. As Old Nan sobbed and begged for mercy Reverend O’Brien hollered about evil, the Devil, and all the depraved acts Hunter Solomon and Old Nan had been responsible for. Descriptions of demon summoning and secret meetings in the woods with Satan drove the crowd into a screaming frenzy.
A deafening snarl silenced the mob. Pacing around a house at the edge of town was the wolf. If anything, Giles Smith had underestimated the size of the beast, which was easily larger than any horse. The crowd panicked. Some fainted, some fired their muskets, some ran, and Reverend O’Brien stood rooted in place, holding the torch he had planned on using to ignite the pyre.
The wolf charged forward, surging through the crowd directly towards Reverend O’Brien. Panicking, Reverend O’Brien dropped the torch on the pyre, turned, and ran. As the flames began to lick up the pile of dry wood towards the desperately praying Old Nan, the wolf altered its course. Throwing its weight into the air it sailed through the pyre, snapping the stake and sending Old Nan tumbling free. The wolf lay thrashing on the ground, trying its best to extinguish the fur that was now ablaze. With a desperate howl it rolled into a nearby snow bank, extinguishing its fur, and ran out of town.
No one could have predicted that a badly burned Hunter Solomon would knock on Farmer Jones’s door later that night, or that the next morning, Farmer Jones would gather a group of townsmen, kick in the door to Reverend O’Brien’s house, and hang him from a tree at the edge of the forest. Fewer still could have predicted the remains of the missing children were recovered from the basement of that very house. Hunter Solomon has not been seen since, but the townspeople of Acton no longer avoid the woods. Hunters go out alone, unafraid. Children play in the places that were once forbidden to them. Every now and then a hunter will hear a lonely howl, every now and then a child will find a poorly made doll, but no one goes missing, and no more rumors spread about Hunter Solomon.
Credit: Billy Purdom