Protecting the Home from Evil Spirits in Early New England

Closeup of a distressed wooden door with grayish green paint. A series of conjoined circles is carved upon the surface.
Conjoined circles in a back staircase door at Hartwell Tavern
In many of the historic houses at Minute Man National Historical Park, some dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, there are strange symbols scratched into the woodwork. Some markings are quite mundane, like Roman numerals carved into framing elements by the carpenters who built the house. Others are not so easy to explain: conjoined circles, circlies with a dot in the middle, hashmarks or grids with diagonal lines cutting across them. What could they be?

As strange as it may sound, these symbols were deliberately created by earlier occupants of the house to protect themselves from evil spirits: witches and demons. According to Dr. Emerson Baker of Salem State University and other noted scholars, this practice was very common in colonial New England and persisted even into the early 20th century! The symbols were placed at vulnerable areas of the home, such as fireplaces, doors and windows, where evil spirits might enter. This form of ritual protection was a cultural hold-over from Medieval England where they have been documented in churches as well as vernacular buildings and private homes.

Today we might dismiss such beliefs and practices as “superstition.” However, early New Englanders did not consider themselves superstitious at all. In their world view the devil was REAL, and he caused harm through his human agents, witches, who were likewise REAL. To them it was not superstition but an essential matter of their Puritan faith. That said, the use of protective magic was not condoned by the clergy. In the words of Cotton Mather, the practice was like using a "Devil's Shield against a Devil's Sword."

Another common way to protect the home from evil spirits was to conceal personal items, shoes in particular. in the walls of the home, again, near doors, windows and fireplaces. The belief was that a personal item like an old shoe had absorbed the "essence" of the former wearer. Thus, the witch or demon would mistake the essence for their intended victim and become trapped. Iron was also sometimes used, in the form of horseshoes or old knifes or axe heads. As with the protective symbols, several examples of ritually concealed objects have been found at Minute Man during the restoration of many of the park's historic houses.

Conary, Alyssa G.A. "Behind the Devil's Shield: Ritual Protection Marks on the Vernacular Architecture of Colonial New England" Salem State University, School of Graduate Studies, 2020

Easton, Timothy and Hodgkinson, Jeremy "Apotropaic Symbols on Cast-Iron Firebacks" Journal of Antique Metalware Society, Vol. 21, 2013

Last updated: October 24, 2021