by Hazel D. Brittingham
Weather conditions have fashioned the fate and fortune of seamen and farmers since men first hoisted a sail or plowed a furrow. People who live in rural areas along the seacoast have a special sensitivity to the weather and its effects upon their lives and livelihood. With todays precision in weather forecasting, it is easy to forget that there was a time when foreboding and a copy of The Old Farmers Almanac were among the few tools to assist in predicting fair weather or foul.
"Wind from the south has water in its mouth" and "A sunshiny shower never lasts an hour" are examples of oft-repeated ditties recited by fisherman and farmers who depended upon their personal store of experience and wisdom in deciding whether or not to climb aboard their vessel or hitch up a team of farm animals. Bible readers were familiar with the assurance that "Fair weather cometh out of the north." An even more familiar rhyme has its foundation in Matthew 16:2-3:
Red sky at night, sailors delight,
Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.
Even the couplet was of no aid to James Drew, captain of the British sloop-of-war DeBraak when he guided the ship toward the relative safety of the Delaware Bay in the area of Cape Henlopen on May 25, 1798, following the rigors of ocean travel. The captain must have had no warning that anything was awry, weather-wise. The time of day was between that of morning and evening——whatever the skys color——and the ships master was prepared to board a small boat to take him to Lewistown to see to provisioning the DeBraak. A sudden gust of wind laid the ship on her beam-ends and, filling at once with water, she sank. Capt. Drew and many of his crew lost their lives in the disaster. The extent of the treasure stored in her hold, if any, remains a mystery to this day, despite numerous attempts over the years to locate and raise the ship. The nearest thing to success came in late summer 1986 when a portion of the hull was raised, but alas, no treasure cache was discovered.
However, the adverse weather conditions confronted by salvagers and seekers of the hoped-for wealth over the years eventually gained a reputation and personalization. Thus was forged the local legend of the wiles of the Bad Weather Witch. As each succeeding salvage attempt was terminated, the chief reason was placed upon the influence of the Witchs jinx on the current efforts.
It was in the fall of 1935 (137 years after the loss of the ship), that Capt. Clayton Morrissey of the Colstad expeditions salvage schooner Liberty decided to take action. Foul weather, once again, had thwarted the activities and hopes of the would-be finders of ship and fortune. The captain, a veteran skipper from Gloucester, called all hands to the deck of the Liberty for a ceremony to reflect the wrath of the superstitious sailors. Morrissey drew a picture of the Witch on a large piece of cardboard; it was a composite figure of all evils known to seafarers. The next step was to punish the Witch, and each sailor took pot shots at the effigy, hurling any item at hand and riddling it with pistol shots. Then a match was touched to the illustration, and the participants watched the Bad Weather Witch as it was burned at the stake. Operations were immediately resumed with renewed hope for success in tranquil waters. As one of the party soon reported, it seemed that the only result of the exercise of exorcism appeared to be an invitation for more bad weather. The seasons work of the salvage expedition concluded in mid-November.
The sentiment that everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it did not hold water with the U.S. government. Doubtless a great deal of talking, starting in the early 1820s, was necessary to obtain approval for the first of two massive federal projects in Delaware Bay. The two breakwaters were constructed to offer a haven of safety for mariners in the area during storms.