Ye Deacon

The Broomstick Train

[With its Companion Poems

How the Old Horse Won the Bet &

The One Hoss Shay]

By Oliver Wendell Holmes

with illustrations by

Howard Pyle



Boston and New York
Houghton, Mifflin and Company

Copyright 1858, 1877, 1886, and 1890, by OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES.
Copyright, 1891,
All rights reserved. The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., U.S.A.
Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Co.

Preface decoration

My publishers suggested the bringing together of the three poems here presented to the reader as being to some extent alike in their general character. "The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay" [the title of the entire volume; that poem is presented in another file online here, shay.html]. . . .

. . . .

The terrible witchcraft drama of 1692 has been seriously treated, as it well deserves to be. The story has been told in two large volumes by the Rev. Charles Wentworth Upham, and in a small and more succinct volume, based upon his work, by his daughter-in-law, Caroline E. Upham.

The delusion commonly spoken of, as if it belonged to Salem, was more widely diffused through the towns of Essex County. Looking upon it as a pitiful and long dead and buried superstition, I trust my poem will no more offend the good people of Essex County than Tam O'Shanter worries the honest folk of Ayrshire.

The localities referred to are those with which I am familiar in my drives about Essex County.

O. W. H.

July, 1891.

end of preface decoration

List of Illustrations

[Text descriptions]


  1. The Deacon.......Frontispiece [26KB]
  2. Half Title.......58 [20KB]
  3. "Clear the track".......59 [30KB]
  4. "An Essex Deacon dropped in to call"......60 [25KB]
  5. "The old dwellings"......61a [17KB]
  6. "The small square windows"......61b [21KB]
  7. "Dark, dim, Dante-like solitudes"......63 [96KB]
  8. "Norman's Woe"......64 [41KB]
  9. "The screeching Woman of Marblehead"......65 [31KB]
  10. "It is n't fair"...................66 [8KB]
  11. "You 're a good old--fellow--come, let us go"......68 [61KB]
  12. "See how tall they 've grown"......69 [57KB]
  13. "They called the cats"......70 [16KB]
  14. "The Essex people had dreadful times"......71 [13KB]
  15. "The withered hags were free"......72 [82KB]
  16. "A strange sea-monster stole their bait"......74 [75KB]
  17. "They could hear him twenty miles"......75 [33KB]
  18. "They came. . .at their master's call"......76 [25KB]
  19. "You can hear her black cat's purr"......78 [25KB]
  20. "Catch a gleam from her wicked eye"......79 [83KB]
  21. Tail piece...........80 [15KB]

Illustrations end decoration

The Broomstick Train, or
The Return of the Witches

The Broomstick Train--Clear the Track!


LOOK out! Look out, boys! Clear the track!
The witches are here! They've all come back!
They hanged them high,--No use! No use!
What cares a witch for a hangman's noose?
They buried them deep, but they would n't lie still,
For cats and witches are hard to kill;

They swore they should n't and would n't die,--
Books said they did, but they lie! they lie!

--A couple of hundred years, or so,
They had knocked about in the world below,
When an Essex Deacon dropped in to call,

"An Essex Deacon dropped
in to call"


And a homesick feeling seized them all;
For he came from a place they knew full well,
And many a tale he had to tell.

They long to visit the haunts of men,
To see the old dwellings they knew again,

"the old dwellings"


And ride on their broomsticks all around
Their wide domain of unhallowed ground.

In Essex county there 's many a roof
Well known to him of the cloven hoof;
The small square windows are full in view
Which the midnight hags went sailing through,

"the small
square windows"


On their well-trained broomsticks mounted high,
Seen like shadows against the sky;
Crossing the track of owls and bats,
Hugging before them their coal-black cats.

Well did they know, those gray old wives,
The sights we see in our daily drives:
Shimmer of lake and shine of sea,
Brown's bare hill with its lonely tree,
(It was n't then as we see it now,

With one scant scalp-lock to shade its brow;)
Dusky nooks in the Essex woods,
Dark, dim, Dante-like solitudes,
Where the tree-toad watches the sinuous snake
Glide through his forests of fern and brake;

"dark, dim,
Dante-like solitudes"


Ipswich River; its old stone bridge;
Far off Andover's Indian Ridge,
And many a scene where history tells

Some shadow of bygone terror dwells,--
Of "Norman's Woe" with its tale of dread,

"Norman's Woe"


Of the Screeching Woman of Marblehead,
(The fearful story that turns men pale:
Don't bid me tell it,--my speech would fail.)

"The Screeching
Woman of Marblehead"


Who would not, will not, if he can,
Bathe in the breezes of fair
Cape Ann,--
Rest in the bowers her bays enfold,
Loved by the sachems and squaws of old?
Home where the white magnolias bloom,
Sweet with the bayberry's chaste perfume,
Hugged by the woods and kissed by the sea!
Where is the Eden like to thee?

For that "couple of hundred years, or so,"
There had been no peace in the world below;
The witches still grumbling, "It is n't fair;
Come, give us a taste of the upper air!
We 've had enough of your sulphur springs,
And the evil odor that round them clings;
We long for a drink that is cool and nice,--
Great buckets of water with Wenham ice;

"It is n't fair!"


We 've served you well up-stairs, you know;
You 're a good old--fellow--come, let us go!"

I don't feel sure of his being good,
But he happened to be in a pleasant mood,--
As fiends with their skins full sometimes are,--
(He 'd been drinking with "roughs" at a Boston bar.)

So what does he do but up and shout
To a graybeard turnkey, "Let 'em out!"

To mind his orders was all he knew;
The gates swung open, and out they flew
"Where are our broomsticks?" the beldams cried.

"You 're a good
old--fellow--come, let us go"


"Here are your broomsticks," an imp replied.
"They 've been in--the place you know--so long
They smell of brimstone uncommon strong;
But they 've gained by being left alone,--
Just look, and you 'll see how tall they 've grown."

"See how tall
they 've grown"


"And where is my cat?" a vixen squalled.
"Yes, where are our cats?" the witches bawled,
And began to call them all by name:

"They called
the cats"


As fast as they called the cats, they came:
There was bob-tailed Tommy and long-tailed Tim,
And wall-eyed Jacky and green-eyed Jim,
And splay-foot Benny and slim-legged Beau,
And Skinny and Squally, and Jerry and Joe,
And many another that came at call,--
It would take too long to count them all
All black,--one could hardly tell which was which,
But every cat knew his own old witch;
And she knew hers as hers knew her,--
Ah, did n't they curl their tails and purr!

"The withered
hags were free"


No sooner the withered hags were free
Than out they swarmed for a midnight spree
I could n't tell all they did in rhymes,
But the Essex people had dreadful times.

"The Essex people
had dreadful times"


The Swampscott fishermen still relate
How a strange sea-monster stole their bait;
How their nets were tangled in loops and knots,
And they found dead crabs in their lobster-pots.

"A strange sea-monster
stole their bait"


Poor Danvers grieved for her blasted crops,--
And Wilmington mourned over mildewed hops.
A blight played havoc with Beverly beans,--
It was all the work of those hateful queans!
A dreadful panic began at "Pride's,"
Where the witches stopped in their midnight rides,
And there rose strange rumors and vague alarms
'Mid the peaceful dwellers at Beverly Farms.

Now when the Boss of the Beldams found
That without his leave they were ramping round,
He called,--they could hear him twenty miles,
From Chelsea beach to the Misery Isles;
The deafest old granny knew his tone
Without the trick of the telephone.

"They could hear
him twenty miles"


"Come here, you witches! Come here!" says he,--
"At your games of old, without asking me!
I 'll give you a little job to do
That will keep you stirring, you godless crew!"

They came, of course, at their master's call,
The witches, the broomsticks, the cats, and all;

"They came. . .at
their master's call"


He led the hags to a railway train
The horses were trying to drag in vain.
"Now, then," says he, "you 've had your fun,
And here are the cars you 've got to run.
The driver may just unhitch his team,
We don't want horses, we don't want steam;
You may keep your old black cats to hug,
But the loaded train you 've got to lug."

Since then on many a car you 'll see
A broomstick plain as plain can be;
On every stick there 's a witch astride,--
The string you see to her leg is tied.
She will do a mischief if she can,
But the string is held by a careful man,
And whenever the evil-minded witch
Would cut some caper, he gives a twitch.

"You can hear her
black cat's purr"


As for the hag, you can't see her,
But hark! you can hear her black cat's purr,
And now and then, as a car goes by,
You may catch a gleam from her wicked eye.

"You can catch
a gleam from her wicked eye"


Often you 've looked on a rushing train,
But just what moved it was not so plain.
It could n't be those wires above,
For they could neither pull nor shove;
Where was the motor that made it go
You could n't guess, but now you know.

Remember my rhymes when you ride again
On the rattling rail by the broomstick train!

The End


Notes to the online edition

This poem was copyrighted in 1890. We use here as copy-text the 1892 edition, The One Hoss Shay, with its Companion Poems, How the Old Horse Won the Bet and The Broomstick Train, Boston Public Library catalog number PS1958.A1 1892, rest of title page as above. GO BACK NOW.

Text description of frontispiece: Under Ye Deacon caption stoops the clever Deacon himself, who is the inventor of the One Hoss Shay that lasted 100 years, and whose gravestone we see in that other poem. We hope he isn't the same deacon who turns up in that place down below, in the poem you are about to read. He is standing, a little old and bent, with his glasses pushed up on his forehead, beneath an old-fashioned three-cornered hat. He is smiling a little and holding a walking-stick in his right hand. With his left he is pushing back the tails of his old-fashioned coat. He is wearing pants just below his knee, stockings, and buckle shoes. Now use your browser's BACK button to return to the text. GO BACK NOW.

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) was a Harvard medical professor and author of famous and witty poems and pieces in the Atlantic Monthly magazine of Boston. He wrote The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, "Old Ironsides," the novel Elsie Venner, and many poems for Harvard reunions. His son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was a distinguished U.S. Supreme Court justice from 1902 to 1932. GO BACK NOW.

Howard Pyle (1853-1911) was an American illustrator famous for characters in early American history; he is known for his Robin Hood drawings of 1883. GO BACK NOW.

1. The two companion poems have been omitted for this online edition in order to save space. GO BACK NOW.

2. Online notes to the illustrations: All illustrations in the original are on the recto; the verso pages are blank except the frontispiece and back of title page. We have slightly adjusted the position of two pictures for the online presentation, by moving lines up to separate illustrations. All illustrations are compressed inline as well as in full size, interlaced GIF format black and white, in external files. The sizes are given so you may estimate download time when you click on the picture or in the list of illustrations. Some of them may take a long time to load, depending on your bandwidth and speed. GO BACK NOW.

Upham was a promising Harvard graduate and Salem clergyman, and Whig politician. His book was favorably reviewed by James Russell Lowell. But he is remembered today more as the man who got Hawthorne fired from the Custom House in Salem and the type for Judge Pyncheon in The House of the Seven Gables. GO BACK NOW.

Tam O'Shanter is the legendary hero, sort of a leprechaun, of a poem by Robert Burns by the same name. (It's also the name of a Scottish cap.) GO BACK NOW.

3. By "drives," Holmes of course means drives in a carriage, since the automobile, or "horseless carriage" was not used yet. How many 100-year-old automobiles are in daily use today? Actually, horse carriage technology developed, too, though much more slowly than automobiles. GO BACK NOW.

Essex County is to the north of Boston, in Massachusetts, and includes Salem and Newburyport. Holmes lived in Essex County in the summer. Holmes here refers to the other poems not included here, but mentioned in the title. GO BACK NOW.

4. Text descriptions for all art, except for purely decorative cuts described with an "ALT" text for text-only browsers, can be read by following the link marked with a capital "D" under the picture inside the poem itself. GO BACK NOW.

[D59] Text description: The Broomstick Train is the title as an electric street trolley car approaches on the tracks. The car is one of those old ones with a platform entrance at each end, large windows, clerestory top, and single pole from the car to the electric power line. Two boys watch the car and the stream of witches flying on brooms overhead. The track runs between two lines of poles holding up the electric power line over the trolley. GO BACK NOW.

Electrically-powered vehicles (omnibuses) running on tracks were introduced in Berlin in 1881, and quickly spread to major cities, and to Boston in 1891. Horse-drawn buses, introduced in 1819 in Paris (1825 in New York) were soon replaced, and subways (first in Boston) were built underground to carry more people in from the suburbs. This enabled the growth of cities, as workers could live farther away, have a yard and garden with their house, and still get to their jobs in less than an hour. Electric "interurban" routes linked many towns. After 1945, automobiles and buses displaced electric trolleys, but some may still be found in Boston and other places, especially European cities. A trolley much like the one pictured here still runs as "The Streetcar Named Desire" from Market Street in New Orleans to Tulane. Note that horses would not run down a person in the tracks, but the introduction of faster electric vehicles caused a new danger requiring warnings when walking across streets. In order to reduce air pollution, some people advocate a return to electric vehicles. GO BACK NOW.

They hanged them high . . .in Salem and other towns, a panic in 1692 caused people to believe there were witches among them. Superstition led people to think that witches could be identified somehow by secret marks, or that they could not be killed. Some were hanged or otherwise put to death if they would not confess. Technically, male witches are sometimes called "warlocks," but some men were accused of witchcraft then too. Supposedly these people had sold their souls to the devil. Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, portrays the events through the context of the McCarthy hearings in Congress of the 1950s, in which suspected Communists were treated like witches. GO BACK NOW.

[D60] Text description: The Deacon from Essex County, tall beaver hat in one hand and walking stick in the other, pays a call or formal visit to the witches in Hell, who are pointing derisively at him. This deacon seems to have an Abe Lincoln beard, so perhaps it is not the same one as in the frontispiece, who designed the One Hoss Shay in 1755. GO BACK NOW.

bayberry. . .is a shrub that grows in sandy soil, as near the sea in Essex County. From the leaves is made a perfume that scents candles burned especially at Christmas. GO BACK NOW.

Cape Ann. . .a peninsula at the northern end of Massachusetts Bay including Rockport and Gloucester. GO BACK NOW.

Who would not, will not, if he can. . .Amusingly, one person who visited Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., at the home quoted this stanza, and both agreed these beautiful lines were the best description of Essex County ever made. Holmes then asked, "But who wrote them?" The answer: "Your father." GO BACK NOW.

Broomsticks. . .were one of the witch symbols. Superstitious belief was that the witches would use them to fly off at night to their devilish gatherings in the forest. Some scientists have postulated that the witches concocted psychedelic drugs and smeared them on the broomsticks; the drugs would have been absorbed through their mucosa as they rubbed the broomsticks between their legs. Others believe that the hallucinations observed in this witchcraft hysteria were generated by another drug, ergot, from a fungus contamination of damp rye harvests. GO BACK NOW.

The devil. . .in many popular religions is thought to be a fallen angel and the king of hell, or the place of eternal punishment for sinners. He is often described as having hooves like a goat (the symbol of a pagan god in animal form), a pointed tail, a pointed goatee, pointed ears, and an oily-smooth disposition. GO BACK NOW.

[D61a] Text description: The old dwellings in Essex County, much like those in Essex, England, where many settlers came from, tend to be close to the ground to get out of the way of strong sea winds. They have huge central chimneys and burn many cords of wood each winter. Outside walls were shingles or planks, unpainted, which turned gray as fungus grew on the wood. GO BACK NOW.

[D61b] Text description: small square windows show in the picture of a witch flying out of an gambrel attic gable window, complete with broomstick, black cat, and large brimmed pointed hat. Window glass in 1692 could not be made large, so windows had many small panes. Often the attic window would be left open to vent moisture. This of course allowed bats, birds, hornets, snow, and witches to fly in and out. In a time before screens, this was the only way to keep the wooden house from rotting. GO BACK NOW.

Brown's hill Text description: . . . a prominent long hill (esker?) in Essex County, scene of "Browne's Folly," a reminiscence by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1860. The allusion "scalped" refers to old Indian raids on villages. GO BACK NOW.

Dante. . .is the Italian poet (1265-1321) of The Divine Comedy. The allusion to the dark woods refers to the first canto of the Inferno, where Dante is lost in a woods and is then conducted underground to visit Hell. There are also some other New England literary allusions here. The poet Longfellow engaged his friends (including Holmes) in weekly efforts to translate Dante. Hawthorne's most famous short story, "Young Goodman Brown," is alike in being set in the woods, with the presence of the devil. GO BACK NOW.

The snake. . .moves in a peculiar "S" or sinuous way, and in the Bible is supposed to prompt Eve tempt Adam in the Garden of Eden, thus becoming a symbol of evil. GO BACK NOW.

[D63] Text description: "Dante-like" or dark woods with large trees, much underbrush, and hanging vines, is in the background as a witch approaches us. She is wearing an apron and cloak, the witch-like pointy brimmed hat, and carrying a basket and stick. She looks old and scary. The cat is probably hanging to her cloak behind, since we don't see it on her shoulder. Either that, or hunting snakes in the forest. GO BACK NOW.

Ipswich. . .is a fast-flowing river. The town of Ipswich, which contains many early 17-century houses, is the locale of several modern John Updike novels. Andover is an old town around Phillips Andover Academy (Holmes graduated from it). Settlers and native American Indians battled several times. Wenham is another Essex town, famous for the ice cut from its ponds during winter, and transported great distances and saved for hot weather (Walden Pond is another famous ice source.) GO BACK NOW.

"Norman's Woe" is a rock off Gloucester, scene of shipwrecks. H. W. Longfellow's poem, "The Wreck of the Hesperus," takes place there. T. S. Eliot lived nearby and wrote poetry about it. GO BACK NOW.

[D64] Text description: "Norman's Woe" has claimed more victims. The picture shows high waves in a great storm around a shipwrecked vessel. A woman is tied high in the broken mast in an effort to save at least one passenger. GO BACK NOW.

[D65] Text description: We started to type in the description for this picture, but our fingers turned cold as ice! Anyway, a ghost-like woman in tattered robes in holding up her arms while standing on a rock at the seashore, screaming. Behind are some cliffs and an old house, typical of Marblehead, which is a port near Salem. GO BACK NOW.

magnolias are large early spring flowers from a small tree that graces New England homes as well as other parts of the country. GO BACK NOW.

sachems and squaws are Indian chiefs and their wives. Actually, women often served as chiefs too of the local tribes. The local tribes were depopulated by disease before the Pilgrims came. Many were converted to Christianity, then were rounded up and sent to a concentration camp at Deer Island, Boston Harbor, where they perished of disease. Others were killed in frequent wars with settlers. A few remain in New England; some run lucrative casinos. GO BACK NOW.

[D66]Text description: The witches in Hell are getting restless since the visit by the Essex deacon has spurred their memories. Here they are reaching out and demanding ice water. GO BACK NOW.

Drinking The United States, and New England with it, went through a tremendous decline in usage of alcoholic beverages from 1840 to 1860. Prohibitionist ministers were particularly effective, even in the absence of laws against alcohol. Strong spirits were associated with sin. This is in contrast to Puritan or colonial times, where parsons expected strong cider or rum to be served at social events, and the tavern was the main political meetingplace. Bars and saloons became symbols of alcoholism and family breakups. GO BACK NOW.

Quean. . .a female, from ME. a term of abuse, specifically, a harlot or bold, impudent, or ill-behaved woman.

Beldam . . .a hag, an old woman, a grandmother, from French, bel = beautiful + Middle English dam = woman. GO BACK NOW.

[D68] Text description: "You're a good--fellow--come, let us go" is the caption. A crowd of pointy-hatted witches pleadingly surrounds the grinning old Devil, who is dashingly dressed in a top hat, cape, white shirt front and dark vest (waistcoat), and smoking a cigar. He has evidently come from his night in a Boston bar, which now close at 2 a.m. GO BACK NOW.

[D69] Text description: "See how tall they've grown" is the caption. The witches fly above an electric trolley, which has a pole about ten feet long connecting it to the electric wire overhead. A man at the curb has his arms stretched out in amazement. Two streetlamps have been lit. You can tell they are gas lamps because of the little crossbar at the top for the lamplighter's ladder. Gas lamps can still be seen operating in such parts of Boston as Beacon Hill. This looks more like the Back Bay, with a large church steeple behind. GO BACK NOW.

[D70] Text description: "They call the cats" and the cats come, all black, with their tails raised. Does your cat come when you call her? GO BACK NOW.

[D72] Text description: "The withered hags were free" and the witches stream across the sky on their broomsticks, with capes flying and black cats perched on their backs. A finely-dressed couple below look on in horror. She has a basket, but what could they be doing out at midnight? GO BACK NOW.

[D71] Text description: "The Essex people had dreadful times," and indeed the people in this picture look shocked and unhappy, as they hold onto their hats and a witch stands directing their fate. GO BACK NOW.

Swampscott, Danvers, Wilmington, Beverly, Pride's Crossing, Beverly Farms, Chelsea, and the Misery Isles are all locations in Essex County immortalized in this poem if nowhere else. In his later years, Holmes spent summers in Beverly Farms and enjoyed riding around in his carriage. GO BACK NOW.

a job to do. Historian David E. Nye in the useful book, Electrifying America, MIT Press, 1990 (ISBN 0-262-64030-9), points out the anti-feminism of Holmes's humor. "[His] pretended ignorance of technology...allows him to regard it as witchcraft under male control ('the string is held by a careful man'), the subjugation of female magic....The [Buffalo Pan-American Exposition of 1901] emphasized the taming of Niagara for commercial and industrial uses, taking control of beautiful but wasted natural forces. Thus the public found it plausible to treat the mastery of electricity in sexual terms, as a victory of science over superstition and of males over erratic female forces." [p151] GO BACK NOW.

[D74]Text description: "The strange sea-monster stole their bait" and the two fishermen look puzzled down at it, from their dory, while the full moon shines in the background. GO BACK NOW.

The telephone was patented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 and 1877 but did not become into wide use until later. For example, the expressions "telephone booth" or "telephone box" are not recorded before 1909 or 1904. GO BACK NOW.

[D75]Text description: "They could hear him twenty miles," which is sufficient to reach from one end of Essex County to the other, as the Devil stands angrily, with his fists up high and his cape like wings behind him, shouting for the witches to mind him. GO BACK NOW.

[D76]Text description: "They came. . . at their master's call" as the cats stand with tails upright (a sign of fright) and the witches scurry to obey the Devil. GO BACK NOW.

Steam as a means for powering vehicles predated electricity by a hundred years, but was always dangerous because of boiler explosions, and required manual feeding of the boiler fire. GO BACK NOW.

A twitch of the line to the pole would cut off electric power to the trolley. This would stop the vehicle, but also remove any danger from the electricity. Frequently, the pole lost its connection with the power line and the driver would have to get out and use the rope to re-connect it. (Actually, this still happens at some curves on some Boston routes, which you will discover if you ride the streetcars enough. Mostly it happens on the electric buses that run on rubber tires and not tracks, since they sometimes drive too far from the power line.) GO BACK NOW.

[D78]Text description: "You can hear her black cat's purr", or if you are less poetic and superstitious, you can hear the whine of the electric motor hidden inside the trolley. The station in the background looks very much like the one on the other side of the Charles river (first bridge across the Charles) from Watertown Square, but probably was a familiar sight in many New England towns. GO BACK NOW.

[D79]Text description: "You may catch a gleam from her wicked eye," reads the caption. The witch is astride the very top of the trolley pole (you can see how it just is a wheel that rides beneath the power line). The full moon behind her shows off the gleam in her eye--or is it the little blue spark from the intermittent electric power connection between the line and the wheel on the pole? GO BACK NOW.

Visitors to Boston can still ride the broomstick train on the MBTA's Green Lines. Don't make the mistake of taking one of the tourist trolleys that are powered by diesel fuel and ignorant guides. You will be one of the few people in Boston to understand this joke about the electric trains. So it's your chance to teach somebody else. Have you memorized the poem yet? END OF NOTES.

[DEND]The broomstick train drives off into the sunset, a great image in American history. Some witches helpfully hover overhead. END OF NOTES.