BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — Where does Bathsheba Sherman go to get her reputation back?
For more than a century, the farmwife had moldered in her grave next to her first husband and their children in the small cemetery in Harrisville, R.I. Her simple marble headstone, erected sometime after her death in May 1885, eventually cracked over years of harsh weather. She’d been an ordinary woman, who’d lived an ordinary life, and the family plot enclosed by a wrought iron fence saw few visitors.
Then came “The Conjuring.”
The 2013 blockbuster horror movie, loosely based on the papers of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, yanked this simple woman out of the obscurity of the past.
The Warrens had conducted a seance in a 300-year-old farmhouse on Round Top Road to rid it of supposed spirits haunting the Perron family in the early 1970s. The eldest daughter, Andrea Perron, wrote a memoir about the family’s experiences in the house: In “House of Darkness House of Light” she noted that the Warrens suggested that Bathsheba was the name of an entity disturbing the family.
Hollywood took that story much further.
In the movie, Bathsheba is a demon witch who sacrificed her baby and hung herself, returning to haunt the Perrons and anyone living in that farmhouse.
The real Bathsheba Sherman hasn’t been able to rest in peace since.
Since the movie’s premiere, paranormal enthusiasts have taken the legend and run with it — to the Harrisville cemetery, where the gravestone has become a target of vandals and ghost hunters.
“She’s not at rest,” said Betty Mencucci, president of the Burrillville Historical Society, standing next to the broken remains of Sherman’s gravestone, which ghosthunters appear to use as a messy altar. “She’s waking up every time somebody takes out the Ouija board.”
The spirit game board is one of the oddities that local historians have found left by visitors to Sherman’s grave, along with animal skulls, crystals, money, and random trinkets. Vandals knocked off the decorative metal ball that sat on one of the fence posts and splashed red paint over the remaining decorative ball.
Mencucci and her husband, Carlo, trained by the Association for Gravestone Studies, had carefully restored Sherman’s gravestone several years ago. But the repaired gravestone was damaged by vandals as soon as it was returned, so now it’s in a secret location somewhere in Burrillville. Mencucci refused to say where, “because if we tell people where it is, they’ll all come.”
The once-sleepy little cemetery is pilgrimage site for horror fans from all over the country. “I see somebody drive in and I know why they’re here, because hardly did anybody visit the cemetery until this,” Mencucci said. “Now it’s crowded, and the road’s getting worn out.”
Common sense should tell anyone that “The Conjuring” was only a movie, and that ghost stories are just that. But, people believe what they want to believe, and what they apparently want to believe is that a woman who raised her family here in the 1800s was a devil-worshipping, baby-killing monster and is still haunting a farmhouse she never lived in at 1677 Round Top Road.
“The accusations made against her posthumously are all lies. She was never accused of any wrongdoing whatsoever in her lifetime,” said J’aime Rubio, an author and historical investigative journalist in California, who dove into the history of Bathsheba Sherman’s life and the house after watching “The Conjuring.”
“There are absolutely no records to substantiate any of the claims made by the Warrens or the Perrons. The story about her being a witch, being related to a witch from Salem, having killed a child, being a murderer, all of these are untruths made up in the 1970s.”
Rubio wrote about her findings in her book, “Stories Of The Forgotten: Infamous, Famous & Unremembered,” in the chapter titled “Bathsheba Sherman’s Vindication.”
“I had a feeling from the beginning that it was complete and utter nonsense,” Rubio said of the movie and memoir. “After thorough and diligent research, I learned that my assumptions were correct, neither the film nor the book was based on facts regarding the history of the home.”
The real Bathsheba Sherman was born on March 10, 1812, to Ephraim Thayer and Hannah Taft. She married Judson Sherman when she was 32, and they had four children. Only one, Herbert, lived to adulthood; it wasn’t unusual in those days for children to die young.
Sherman had lived on what’s now known as Collins Taft Road, which is a ways from the so-called Conjuring house on Round Top Road, Mencucci said. “You could go through the woods, and maybe it was fields back then, but who’s gonna traipse across the field back then?” she said. “You’ve got a farm to run. You’ve got vegetables to grow. You don’t just go hang out in somebody’s house.”
After Judson died, Bathsheba married a farmer from Providence. Bathsheba died on May 25, 1885, from “a sudden attack of paralysis” at the age of 72, according to the obituary that Rubio found in the Burrillville Gazette. A Baptist minister officiated at her funeral services. The newspaper said Bathsheba was “the last member of the Thayer family, once numerous and well known in this town.”
That’s pretty much it. There are no photos of Bathsheba, no “inquest” or investigation into witchcraft, no murders, no records of anything sinister. “The true story is, there is no story,” Mencucci said. “If something, anything like this would ever happened, they’d be blown up in the newspapers. The newspapers back then loved that stuff.”
It’s unknown why Bathsheba Sherman’s name was pulled into ghost lore in the first place.
“Bathsheba lived and died without any mark against her name. Her obituary was that of a decent Christian woman,” Rubio said in an email. “The real crime is that someone decided to make up horrific lies about Bathsheba in the 1970s, and it’s gone on too long.”
Meanwhile, books, social media, and breathless videos by so-called paranormal investigators continue to feed the legend of the Conjuring witch.
“You would not believe how many calls I get from Hollywood film people at the Historical Society,” Mencucci said. “Like, ‘Hi, I want to come in and film Bathsheba’s grave site.’ Or they want an interview, they want to ‘set Bathsheba’s story straight,’ but then they always twist it.”
The “Conjuring” house on Round Top Road is now a tourist attraction, with special events and pricey tours or overnight stays for people who want to be their own ghostbusters. Even though the historical society’s tour of the house didn’t spook Mencucci, she understands the appeal of a ghost story. Just don’t lie about a real person.
“If some people really believe [in the paranormal], I’m not going to contradict because I don’t,” Mencucci said. “Just don’t take somebody out of the blue and damage their reputation. If you did it to somebody that was living, you’d get a lawsuit. It would be easy to prove, because the person could come and speak for themselves. But there’s nobody to speak for her.”
The historians are trying.
However, none of the TV paranormal celebrities had any interest, Rubio said. ”It’s funny, so many are interested in the ‘Conjuring’ franchise when they are invited to the Richardson-Arnold House to do investigations or to appear in television programs, but when it came to helping restore the headstone of the woman whose name was viciously sullied in books and the film, no one wanted to right that egregious wrong.”
Ocean State Monument in nearby Glocester is carving the new stone out of hardy granite, Mencucci said. They hope it will be able to withstand the attention from paranormal fans, which shows no sign of abating.
In the meantime, the historical society would like to raise interest in the real history of Burrillville. When they last held a tour of this cemetery, volunteers dressed up as the dead and told their life stories to visitors.
Of course, Bathsheba Sherman was there, Mencucci said. “She just said, ‘I am not a witch.’”