More on the Polhemus Grist Mill – The Clarksville Witch

Here is the story of the Mill from the last post. I have taken part of this from Now and Then in Rockland County, NY, compiled by Cornellia F Bedell. 1941 edition. The house where the witch lived was probably where my house is today.

The Clarksville Witch – 1816

The belief in witchcraft in our county is shown in the following story. I not only gives information regarding the locality, but it is undoubtedly true.
The supposed victim of demoniac power in this Clarksville case, was the widow of a Scotch physician, named Jane Kannif, who moved into the hamlet prior to 1816, took a small house situated a few rods west of the old church on the New City Road, and devoted herself to the care of her only child, a son by a previous marriage, named Tobias Lowrie.
Jane, or she was called in the Vernacular of the Clarksville people, “Naut Kannif” seems to have been exceedingly eccentric, a person who would now be regarded by alienists as insane, but her vagaries at the worst took a harmless form.
She was odd in dress, preferred part-colors of wondrous diversity, queer in the fashion of arranging her hair. She was unsocial in a neighborhood where everyone knew each other; and morose and erratic when forced to meet people. From her deceased husband she had a smattering of medicine, and now, when placed where she could get at the herbs known to her, she made wondrous concoctions which she treated such as came to her for aid, and I have been informed by those who knew her, with most excellent results.

She was brought to trial on witchcraft after neighbors complained of “difficulty in making the churning come off”, cows not giving milk, and sleepless nights.
No legitimate judge would hear the case.

It was finally agreed to put “Naut” to a test that would prove her innocence or guilt, namely to bind her hand and foot, and throw her in the mill pond. If she floated, she must necessarily be a witch, but if she drowned then her innocence would be established beyond a doubt.

They brought the woman to the mill pond, across from my house, where they tied her up and were about to throw her in. Squire Yaupy Vanderbilt and Jake Clark (both ancestors of mine) came and stopped it.

Then other counsels prevailed. Instead of the water test, it was decided to take “Naut” to Auert Polhemus’s grist mill and in his great flour scales weigh her against the old Holland Dutch family Bible, iron bound, with wooden covers and iron chain to carry it by.
If outweighed by the Bible, she must be a witch beyond any doubt, and must suffer accordingly. She was taken to the mill against her most earnest protest, put on the scales, and weighed. Weighing more than the Bible, the committee released her.

Shortly after the trial ended, at Pye’s fulling mill, down the street from the grist mill, a large hammer used for beating cloth weighing 200 pounds fell on one of Pye’s sons and immediately crushed him to death. The Pyes were one of the most vocal speaking against “Naut” at the trial.

This ended the last trial for witchcraft in New York State and probably one of the last witch trials in the country. She is buried in the cemetery next to my house and her grave is defaced to show her year of birth as 1247.


  1. Anonymous wrote:

    Since the accident in which the Pye child died at the fulling mill occurred about forty years before Naut Kannif’s trial, this looks like a case of ignoring the facts to make a good story!

    Sunday, July 22, 2007 at 4:07 am | Permalink
  2. Keith wrote:

    It sounds like that. I had always heard about the Pie boy being killed, when I was growing up – it was the proper way to end the spooky tale. I guess it came from the Now and Then book or my Father heard the story, through my Polhemus line, this way. It may be that the story was good enough that the real facts were long forgotten.

    I don’t know if there are any primary sources left for this. I don’t now of any journals or diaries from the time, or newspapers that carried the story. The people of Clarksville were very rustic, by all accounts. They spoke Dutch right through the 19th century and did not much associated with the Englishers of Nyack. I have heard stories about the Cedars and other changes in the area and how they clung to their old traditions. Although the gentry spoke English, these people would have only spoken Dutch and probably could not read or write.

    Next time identify yourself, it would be nice to know someone who has a deeper knowledge about the county’s history. Also, I need another poker player for Tuesday nights.

    Sunday, July 22, 2007 at 1:45 pm | Permalink
  3. Anonymous wrote:

    Poker would be difficult any night as I live on the other side of the Atlantic, but thanks anyway.
    Try “Rockland County New York in the 1790s” by Jacquetta Haley, which quotes from David Pye’s diary; I ordered a copy from Hope Farm Press, Saugerties NY last week. David Pye’s father was my 8 x great grandfather. My name’s Christopher Pyrah. Unfortunately I don’t understand the technicalities of blogging.

    Monday, July 23, 2007 at 7:54 am | Permalink
  4. christopher wrote:

    Someone’s waved a blogging wand?
    As I was saying, there are some primary sources in archives. I don’t know if the Pye mill accident is mentioned in them, maybe it’s noted in contemporary church records; Pye births,marriages and deaths certainly were. David Pye married into a local Dutch family (Martine) and seems to have had both Dutch and English friends; he would have been classed as gentry (he was known as Squire Pye, became County Clerk, later State senator.) but his old family back in England were no way gentry. America proved to be the land of opportunity for David.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 5:26 am | Permalink
  5. geri wrote:

    would like to speak or email you with regards to this witch story
    in west nyack

    please correspond at your earliest convenience

    thank you

    Friday, May 18, 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  6. alan trybus wrote:

    does anyone know if a family named greany had anything to do with this?

    Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  7. Candi wrote:

    What ever happened with Tobias Lowrie and his mother, Jane?

    The stories always end here.

    Sunday, February 5, 2017 at 10:10 am | Permalink