In 1968, Washington Evening Star editor Philip Love and his wife attempted to uncover a large piece of evidence in a very old mystery. What they were looking for was an 875-pound rock located somewhere in the woods to the south of Leonardtown, Maryland, that was said to hold the form of the hand of a murdered witch who had cursed the town more than 270 years before.
According to legend, the impression belonged to a woman named Moll Dyer who traded healing herbs and lived on the outskirts of Leonardtown, largely depending on the generosity of its citizens for her survival. In part because she was unattractive and in part because she gave everyone the heebie jeebies, it was generally believed she was a witch.
The accusation wasn’t uncommon in the era, particularly in Maryland which had tried a number of women for witchcraft and had even executed one. But what was uncommon about 1696, the year Moll Dyer allegedly squished her handprint into a solid rock, was the extremely harsh winter the people of Maryland experienced.
As the dim cold days and long snowy nights dragged on, suspicion began to grow in the town that their devastating weather pattern had been summoned by the witch in their midst, the woman who was said to fly above the town at night, “half ghost, half scarecrow, but all witch,” casting her nefarious spells on the local children.
By February of that year, when the snow came down hard and fast yet again, producing rare and heebie-jeebie-inducing snowstorm thunder, the non-witch citizenry of Leonardtown had had enough. They grabbed their torches and their pitchforks and they burned Moll Dyer’s house to the ground, driving her into the bitter cold with nothing but the clothing on her back.
Her body was found a few days later, frozen solid, one hand outstretched, the other pressed into the boulder where she fell, cursing her tormentors.
Now, I can’t say whether there’s any truth to the tale of poor Moll Dyer and I hope there’s not. There isn’t great evidence that anyone by that name existed in the area, though there were some Dyers and records from that period are often a little sketchy. The tale was handed down orally for 160 years before a written record of the name turns up in a deed identifying a portion of land as “Moll Dyer’s Run.”
But to some extent, most of the residents of the area seem to believe it. Or at least they’re a little nervous about tromping through the woods south of town where bizarre weather events, unexplained accidents, and heebie-jeebies abound. Some insist that on particularly cold nights, you can even see Moll Dyer walking through her woods in a particularly unfriendly mood.
Personally I’m kind of a skeptic about these kinds of stories, but my husband, who has spent most of his life in the Midwest, did spend several formative early elementary years in Southern Maryland. While putting this story together I casually asked him if he’d ever heard of the Leonardtown witch. His eyes got big and he asked, “Do you know where I grew up?”
I’m a little directionally challenged anyway and though I’ve heard him mention the road he lived on and the name of his school, I had to admit I didn’t know what town or precisely where in the state it was located. So he explained to me that he lived on the outskirts of Leonardtown, Maryland, just to the south, across the street from a wood he was warned never to enter and where he’d always believed strange things happened.
And that’s when I got the heebie jeebies.
But thanks to the efforts of Philip Love, you don’t even have to venture into the forbidden wood to experience the tale of the unfortunate witch yourself, because he did finally locate the stone on which Moll Dyer was said to utter her final curse. Since 1972 it has been sitting, without much pomp, in front of the courthouse in downtown Leonardtown.
Rumor has it that if you squint really hard and look at it from just the right angle, you can convince yourself there’s a handprint visible in the stone. And if you’re the sort of person who might do this kind of thing, you can even place your own hand in the outline. Just know the experience will probably leave you with a good case of the heebie-jeebies.