Since the earliest Neanderthal burials, our humanity has been defined by how we treat our dead.
Today I submitted the following piece for inclusion in the March issue of the Burrillville Historical and Preservation Society newsletter. There is a lot more to this story. I have a feeling I’ll be working on it for a good long time.
BURRILLVILLE, Rhode Island — Thanks to last summer’s blockbuster supernatural thriller, The Conjuring, almost everyone in town—if not the entire country—has heard of Bathsheba Sherman. As The Conjuring’s main villain, Bathsheba was a witch, a child killer, and a suicide who turned into a demon after death.
The movie is said to be based on the files of a demon-hunting couple from Connecticut, Ed and Lorraine Warren, best known for their role in The Amityville Horror (1979). In The Conjuring, the Warrens come to the rescue of a family under supernatural siege in their 18th century farmhouse in Burrillville’s Round Top neighborhood.
Bathsheba Sherman, who supposedly hanged herself on the property many years before, is blamed for the worst of the attacks in the movie. Spoiler alert—the tale ends happily after the Warrens drive Bathsheba back to the underworld.
While The Conjuring is pure fantasy aimed at captivating the school vacation crowd, Bathsheba Sherman was very real. The accusations heaped on her 128 years after her death raise important questions about how we treat the people who lived and died before our time.
The real Bathsheba appears to be far from a figure of evil. She first saw light in 1812, the seventh and youngest child of Ephraim Thayer, who came to Burrillville from Braintree, Mass. She grew up near Ironmine and West Ironstone roads, a short walk from the home of her uncle, Dr. Enoch Thayer. Dr. Thayer is said to have run a smallpox asylum near Douglas Pike.
Bathsheba married well, if a bit late, tying the knot on her 32nd birthday at Vernon Stiles’ inn in Thompson, Conn. Her new husband, Judson Sherman, owned a respectable farm off Collins Taft Road near Round Top. She and Judson suffered the loss of three children to childhood disease. Their fourth, Herbert Leander Sherman, survived to adulthood and later made his home at what has since become the state fishing area on Round Top Road. He eventually moved out of state.
Judson died in 1881. Bathsheba was buried beside him in Riverside Cemetery, Harrisville, after her death from a stroke in 1885. As befits a devout member of the First Baptist Church, her funeral service was officiated by the Rev. Abraham Holley Granger, a leading light of the Baptist creed in Rhode Island and a founder of Burrillville’s Berean Baptist Church. Her obituary says Bathsheba was the last of her line.
Although Bathsheba Sherman left no descendants in town, she ended up with an undeserved legacy. At some point, possibly during the 1970s, she became a “legend,” a demon, a witch, the descendant of a Salem witch, a Satanist who sold her soul to preserve her beauty, a child killer who inserted a needle into an infant’s skull and got away with it at the inquest, a cruel mistress, a suicide who hanged herself from a tree on the Arnold property, and finally a member of the Arnold family itself.
None of these myths applies to the Bathsheba Sherman we know from history. In some cases, particularly the genealogy, the allegations are simply wrong. But in others, the values reflected in the myths point to more recent origins, particularly the 1960s and ’70s. The evidence suggests that Bathsheba the Witch was a modern invention. Before that, the record shows, she was just an ordinary resident of a busy neighborhood close by the Massachusetts border.
Today, in Riverside Cemetery, Bathsheba Sherman rests beneath a headstone cracked and in need of permanent repair. After the battering she received in film, in print, and on websites that purport to tell “the true story” behind The Conjuring, her reputation also needs permanent repair. The headstone may prove to be the easier job.
Update, July 25, 2015: Someone on the Internet misidentified the following image as that of “the witch” Bathsheba Sherman in 1879. I haven’t found out anything about the original image. It may well be of a woman named Bathsheba Sherman, for there were at least two living in Rhode Island at the time. But it definitely is not our Bathsheba—or she’s looking mighty sprightly at age 67.
Update, August 31, 2017: I redacted a phrase in the original Stone Wings article of Feb. 17, 2014, indicating Bathsheba Sherman may have remarried after Judson died. I’ve had reason to question my source’s credibility and found no corroborating evidence in the ensuing years.