The historical record of Angeline Tubbs, popularly known as the Witch of Saratoga, is a hodge-podge of facts, legends, errors, and some outright fabrications. Her principle biographer, William Leete Stone, Jr., was an author and journalist who briefly practiced law and had close ties with the city of Saratoga Springs in upstate New York.
In the process of examining the primary sources concerning Angeline Tubbs, they can be easily divided into two categories: census data from 1850 and 1855, and the various testimonials provided by Mr. William L. Stone, Jr. Outside of these two sources, and despite the protestations of amateur historians, there is no information relating to Angeline Tubbs that was contemporary with her lifetime.
Her name first appears in the April 29th, 1869 issue of The Saratogian, a newspaper servicing Saratoga Springs. In a long article written by William Stone, titled “Reminiscences of Saratoga” and subtitled “Who was he?” Mr. Stone says that in 1864, he was hiking with two friends in the area of Mount Vista approximately one mile north of the city. While descending from the mountain, they found a skeleton lodged between some rocks and assumed the man had killed himself by jumping from the summit.
While collecting the remains to be brought to the village, Mr. Stone discovered a journal inside a tin box in the man's pocket. The journal had the name “Shelley” on the cover, which Stone and his companions took to mean English poet Percy Shelley (husband to Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame). The writer of the journal relates a series of stories about his arrival and travel through Saratoga Springs from August 1st through August 9th of 1828, confirming a doctor's suspicion that the body had been decaying for about 30 years when it was found.
William Stone then goes on to provide the journal entries in the order they were written. On the first day, the author tells about a meeting with former King of Naples and Spain, Joseph Bonaparte, who had been visiting Saratoga Springs with his sister, Princess Caroline Murat. The next entry concerned his remembrance of having met General LaFayette in the very same house just three years before. Then, on August 4th, he went for a hike with Francis Wayland and had an encounter with the witch Angeline Tubbs and her wizard associate, Mr. Crabb. Two more entries record convoluted political discussions that occurred between prominent members of the town. In the final entry, dated August 9th, the author confesses he is ready to kill himself by jumping off the rocks and doesn't know why he started the journal in the first place. The last writing in the journal is the initials J.H.B.
Starting with the fact that Mr. Stone, a professional writer and journalist, supposedly read the journal, but did nothing with it for five years, seems very unusual. Then there is the article's post-script in which Stone claims, by happenstance, he was glancing through an 1828 issue of the N.Y. Courier and Enquirer when a missing persons report for “James H. Breslin” of New Bedford, Massachusetts caught his eye. This inspired him to have a friend in Saratoga comb through local newspapers from the same period. The friend uncovered a blurb in the August 12th 1828 issue of the Saratoga Sentinel which noted a mysterious poet had disappeared after a brief stay in the town.
Upon making these discoveries, Mr. Stone got around to writing the article which eventually appeared in the 1869 issue of The Saratogian. The only trouble with the story about the dead body and the tragic journal is that it's a complete fabrication. William Stone, in 1869, lacked the digital resources we have today.
To begin with, there is no mention of a mysterious poet in the August 12th 1828 issue of the Saratoga Sentinel. Taken as is, the journal has many inconsistencies. How would an unknown, traveling poet have the occasion to be introduced to King Joseph Bonaparte and General LaFayette three years apart in the same place where he had never been before and nobody knew him?
On August 4th, his walking companion, Reverend Francis Wayland, a “young divine of much promise and a son of the beloved Baptist pastor of this village,” sounds suspiciously identical to Reverend Francis Wayland who served as President of Brown University, which was William Stone's alma mater. It's no coincidence that the name was changed in later re-printings of the story.
There are even more telling signs of fraud: the August 8th journal entry says the author attended a reception for General Jackson along with “ex-president” John Quincy Adams. However, in 1828, John Quincy Adams was still president. In fact, his opponent in that year's election was Andrew Jackson! Adams' own journal does make note of a visit to Saratoga Springs, but not until 1843. In any case, it's highly improbable that these two colossal figures would have both been in a drawing room in Saratoga Springs in 1828 having a friendly chat while a complete stranger records their every word. Additionally, much of the political commentary supposedly made during this encounter is nearly identical to William Stone's later political writings.
Then there is the fact that when the anecdotes from the mystery journal were later re-published in the Northern Monthly magazine, the dates were changed completely. The story about General LaFayette went from a simple remembrance to having happened on August 4th, 1828 (LaFayette's visit to the U.S. occurred in 1824). “General” Jackson was changed to “President” Jackson (still incorrect for the time) and the author's final suicide entry is dated August 19th instead of August 9th. The post-script is still printed, but Stone wisely removed the date of the supposed N.Y. Courier and Enquirer missing persons article, probably to prevent anyone from trying to look it up. Also, the date of the Saratoga Sentinel article about the poet who had disappeared was changed from August 12th to August 20th, an adjustment Stone had to make because the journal entries now extended to August 19th instead of August 9th. Finally, he changed the name of the last witness to have seen the missing poet from “Col. E. D. S. Young” to “Judge Walworth.”
There are further alterations, but the point is clear: these changes could not have been made if the journal documenting the encounter with Angeline Tubbs was authentic and had been recovered in the way William Stone claimed.
Furthermore, when Stone adapted the stories from the journal for his own 1875 book, Reminiscences of Saratoga and Ballston, he made even more changes, such as completely omitting the presence of Angeline Tubbs at the invocation ritual Mr. Crabb was performing. Mr. Stone also blatantly lies, claiming he personally had the encounter with the two magicians, but instead of being in the company of the President of Brown University, who obviously wouldn't be mucking around in a swamp, his companion's name was changed to “the late Dr. R. L. Allen,” conveniently the same person in charge of the suicidal poet's remains found on the mountain.
In the story about Mr. Crabb, Stone provides an exhaustive list of ailments the old astrologer professed to cure. This list, presented as a direct quote from Mr. Crabb, was actually a plagiarized passage from John Milton's Paradise Lost—which goes a long way to explaining how a poor swamp-dweller who can't read or write can produce an eloquent line like “moping melancholy and moon-struck madness.”
Let us now focus on Angeline Tubbs herself. Did she exist? This is not a question, but a fact. Yes, she did. Her information given for the 1850 and 1855 censuses confirm the basic information about her: she was old, she was poor, and she was an outcast. As for the rest, most of it seems to have been fabricated by William Stone himself.
Tubb's entire characterization was pulled from a book written by his father, William L. Stone, Sr. in 1834 titled Tales and Sketches: Such as They Are. The first story in the book, about a girl named Mercy Disborough who gets involved with a witch named Elizabeth “Goody” Clawson, provided the framework for Angeline Tubbs: an old woman who lived alone in the woods and practiced ritual magic by invoking the demon Azazel. The most damning evidence is that Stone, Jr.'s physical description of Tubbs was copied nearly word for word from his father's book.
“Goodwife Clawson—was a poor decrepit old woman, bending under accumulated troubles and the weight of many years. She had deeply sunken eyes, of piercing blackness, with a hooked nose, and features very much withered and wrinkled—lived secluded, and nobody knew how.”
So William Stone, Jr. took a few bits of knowledge about Saratoga Springs, threw in a dash of his dad's stories, and cooked up a whopper of a tale about a dead poet's journal to make it all seem real and indisputable. Of course, it helped that all potential witnesses to these events were dead by the time he published the story.
But what about that creepy photo reputed to depict Angeline Tubbs as a 90-year-old woman? It's actually a photograph of a dummy made up to look like Moll Pitcher, a Massachusetts fortune-teller active during the Revolutionary War (did you really think it was a real person?!). The photo was created for postcards sold as souvenirs by the Boston Post Card Company. The oldest published version of this photograph bears a copyright notice giving the year as 1906, but it was reprinted without credit and claimed to be Angeline Tubbs as early as 1915 in the March 7th issue of The Knickerbocker Press.
Even more damning is the fact that the dummy in the picture is dressed and posed to perfectly match the engraving of Moll Pitcher on the cover of Moll Pitcher's Dream and Fortune Telling Book, published in 1840 by the American Novelty Company of Cleveland, Ohio. It would be quite a stretch to believe a photographer somehow obtained an obscure fortune telling book, then tracked down Angeline Tubbs in the wilds of upstate New York and convinced her to dress up and pose exactly like the engraving on the cover.
The most unbelievable aspect of the Tubbs/Pitcher photograph is that in 1996, the Saratoga Springs Public Library provided the picture to The Post-Star newspaper, where it appeared on the front page of their Halloween issue with an article about the Witch of Saratoga. Their copy of the picture is better than all previously published versions, suggesting they have an original postcard and know it's not really showing Angeline Tubbs. Or an actual, live human being.
What about “Mount Vista,” where both the mystery journal with the original story about Angeline was found as well as the location where Angeline was said to have lived? Both William Stone and the alleged journal writer give the location of Mount Vista as being one mile north of town in a wild, undeveloped area. The only viable location that close to town is Skidmore North Woods, a tract of forest on the north side of Skidmore College, which runs along Glen Mitchell Road.
The problem is that a “bald promontory,” where the entire town and surrounding area may be viewed, does not exist anywhere near the Skidmore North Woods. There also isn't a high rock ledge where someone could have leapt to their death. William Stone may have been describing a feature further north of Saratoga Springs in the Daniels Road State Forest called “Devil's Den.” It's at a much higher elevation and features a bare, exposed rock. Plus, the name suggests it might have a wicked history.
In a not-so-funny twist, a 1940 article in The Saratogian leads with a headline “Where is Angeline Hill?” It then proceeds to delve into the legend of Angeline Tubbs, calling the rocky overhang where Angeline supposedly lived “Angeline Hill” instead of “Mount Vista.” Ironically, the article opens by stating that nobody in Saratoga Springs has ever heard of these places, aside from one woman, named Annie James, who presents herself as the world's foremost authority on the Witch of Saratoga. The entirety of Mrs. James' knowledge about Angeline Tubbs, the paper explains, was derived from a “clipping from an Albany newspaper” which rehashed the earlier articles using William Stone's story.
Bear Swamp, where Mr. Crabb and Angeline Tubbs supposedly performed their longevity spell by vivisecting a frog, is a real place located east of Saratoga Springs and north of Lake Lonely. The surrounding area is still mostly a big swamp called Bog Meadow. It retains much of its wildness, although the Saratoga National golf course now abuts the approximate location where the Crabb house may have been, making the mire a little less magical than it was in 1850.
We will never know for certain if the real Angeline Tubbs was some kind of forest witch or if she performed ritual invocations to the demon Azazel to please her army of cats. None of the census data lists her occupation, but she must have survived somehow, and casting horoscopes for love-struck local girls is as good a guess as any.
Special thanks to A.F. Liney for pointing me in the direction of the 1850 census, you can read her article on Angeline Tubbs here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/40067514
If you'd like to learn more about Angeline Tubbs, check out her biography in my book, "Magicians, Martyrs, and Madmen."