Pam Peterson peels back the myths of Marblehead

From fables of pirates and haunted shores to soothsayers and witches, Historical Commission member and former Marblehead Historical Society Executive Director Pam Peterson knows her town’s past — real and fictional — inside and out.

Long before she wrote “Marblehead Myths, Legends and Lore,” a tapestry of historical and mythological stories, Peterson kicked off her career as a town historian training tour guides at the Jeremiah Lee Mansion for the Marblehead Museum.

While checking the tour guides’ historical anecdotes for factual accuracy, Peterson said she noticed some of their stories weren’t exactly based in documented history.

“They were the old legends of the town. At the museum, we had this discussion about how we shouldn’t be telling people those things, so I met with the guides and said, ‘You know, I think we’re going to try to not use those myths in the guided tour,’ and the guide said, ‘Oh, but that’s what people like the best. It’s what they remember and what they would really like to hear about,’” Peterson said.

Peterson’s interaction with the tour guides sparked her interest in sharing the town’s folktales, myths, and embellished historical legends. She began collecting Marblehead stories that had been passed down through the ages, with the goal of preserving them for generations to come.

Many of the stories travel far from reality — such as that of Moll Pincher, a magic-endowed 18th-century soothsayer who met with George Washington and predicted the Continental Army’s victory in the American Revolution. Nonetheless, Peterson said these tales play a crucial role in a community’s culture and tradition.

“These stories are really important to the whole history of any place because oftentimes they tell a story or they have a moral. There’s a reason why those stories are popular and that they’re told over and over again,” Peterson said.

After Peterson published her book in 2007, she said the public’s interest seemed to gravitate toward the town’s pirate tales — particularly that of the screaming woman at Lovis Cove.

“There were, in fact, pirates in Marblehead, so there are a couple of stories about the pirates — this one is definitely a myth,” Peterson said.

According to the legend, pirates plundered a ship off the coast of Marblehead Harbor, killing everyone on board except for an elegantly-dressed young woman who refused to surrender her jewelry.

The pirates brought her to Lovis Cove, the beach below the Barnacle Restaurant on Front Street, to murder her, cutting off her fingers to steal her rings. Legend has it that the woman’s scream for help echoed through Marblehead, and is still reported by beachgoers today.

“What’s fascinating is people still sometimes say that they hear screaming down there. Even as late as the 20th century, there are police reports of people hearing screaming in that area, and when they go down they can’t find anything,” Peterson said.

Peterson said the tale of the screaming woman sparked interest from a “paranormal investigator,” who reached out to her and invited her ghost-hunting at the cove. After setting up a series of devices supposedly capable of detecting paranormal activity, Peterson said she and the investigator stayed at the beach late into the night and heard nothing.

“Nothing happened. At one point we heard something walking behind us and we turned around — it was a cat,” she said.

Ghosts aside, Peterson said she particularly enjoys the Marblehead myths that blend with true historical fact. Old Burial Hill, she said, makes its way into a number of stories. One suggests it was the town’s first settled area in the early 1600s, which Peterson said could very well be true.

Peterson said the town, regardless of the mythology that follows it, is rich with history — from its ties to the USS Constitution, to its significant role in the Civil War — that connects it to the rest of the country.

“Marblehead, in particular, loves its history, and people love all these stories. It’s just part of the whole character of the town in a way,” Peterson said. “All these things that continually bring the history of Marblehead back into the history of the United States.”