Joseph Curwen

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Joseph Curwen is a fictional character of the Cthulhu Mythos created by H.P. Lovecraft in his story The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (fiction). He had sandy colored hair, always seemed to be only thirty five years old, had a black mark on his chest, and a semi-circular scar over his brow.

Early Life

Joseph Curwen was born on the 18th of February 1663 in Salem-Village now Danvers, Massachusetts. At the age fifteen he ran away to sea. He returned after nine years and settled in Salem proper. He came back with the mannerisms of an Englishman. He also estranged himself from his family, and spent most of his time with his strange books he brought from Europe, and chemicals he imported.

Curwen spent much of his time with Edward Hutchinson, who was later accused as a sorcerer, and Simon Orne of Salem. During a witchcraft trial, a witness Hepzibah Lawson, swore that on July 10, 1692 Curwen, and Orne as well as others had received a black mark from The Black Man.

Life in Providence

Curwen later fled to Providence where he lived until his burial in 1771. After qualifying as a freeman he bought a plot of land at the foot of Olney Street. There he built a house, which he later replaced in 1761 which is still standing. The original building was a low gambrel-roofed house with wooden shingles. When the house was demolished Joseph Curwen took care to burn every timber. The new building was a plain two story brick building whose carved doorway is still a local relic.

Being a shrewd business man Joseph Curwen began a merchant monopoly around Providence. By 1760 he dominated in the importation of saltpeter, black pepper, cinnamon, brassware, indigo, cotton, woolens, salt, rigging, iron, paper, and other English goods. For a time he also imported slaves for his own use, and later it was suspected that he began importing Egyptian mummies, and perhaps other dead bodies. Many of the shopkeepers in Providence relied completely on his sales.

However he suffered from a bad reputation. Rumors circulated that sailors hired by Curwen disappeared meant he began to have trouble keeping sailors employed on his ships. He had to resort to hiring sailors from Martinique, St. Eustatius, Havana, or Port Royal to keep his ships sailing. He had the same trouble with his captains, but he was able to use strangely obscure family secrets to blackmail them into staying.

Several odd habits also disturbed the townspeople. Curwen frequently was seen in graveyards with an unusual frequency, though he was never spotted doing anything "ghoulish." He also bought heavily in strange chemicals and alchemical equipment which he used for a myriad of strange experiments. In 1758 two Royal regiments were quartered in Providence. Curwen came under suspicion after he was seen talking to soldiers who later disappeared completely.

When Dr. Checkley came to Providence in 1738 to be rector of King's Church he visited Curwen. He left soon after and never spoke of what strange things Curwen had said inside.

Despite his evil reputation Curwen had much civic spirit. He funded the rebuilding of several Providence buildings. When the Colony House burned down he bought heavily in to the lottery to rebuild it in 1761 as well as replace many of the library books lost in the fire. He also helped rebuild the Great Bridge in the same year. He funded Daniel Jenckes bookshop in 1763 and and the struggling Gazette.

He also was reasonably prolific in local politics. In 1743 when the Whitefield adherents broke away from Dr. Cotton's hill church Curwen went with them. He was also well liked when in 1765 he gave an eloquent speech against setting North Providence apart as a separate town and a pro-Ward vote.

To further disperse the cruel gossip Joseph Curwen also began looking for a wife. He pressured one of his captains Dutee Tillinghast, to let him marry his daughter Eliza. Eliza, age eighteen, was already engaged to Ezra Weeden. The engagement was broken off and Joseph Curwen and Elize were married on the 7th of March, 1763 in the Baptist Church. On the 7th of May, 1765 Curwen's only daughter Ann was born.

After his daughter's birth Joseph Curwen sat for a portrait by the Scotsman Cosmo Alexander. The painting was done directly onto the mantle in his Olney Street house.

Pawtuxet Farm

Most of Joseph Curwen's bad reputation came from a farm he owned in Pawtuxet village beside the river.

While he imported slaves most were not sold. They could be seen being driven up the bank of the river from Namquit Point to his farm under cover of nightfall. Later certain smugglers brought strangely shaped boxes to the same place. Many of the sailors who had errands to the farm were never seen again.

His library was equally notorious. In 1746 Mr. John Merritt moved to Providence. Having heard of Curwen's extensive scientific library Mr. Merrit visited his house on Olney Street. Curwen's library contained many alchemical, philosophical and mathematical texts beside the normal Greek and Latin classics. Mr. Merritt was enthusiastic enough about the works that Curwen invited him to his Pawtuxet farm, somewhere were no other man had visited.

There Mr. Merrit was slightly horrified to find a collection of obscure occult texts including the Turba Philosophorum, Geber's Liber Investigationis, and Artephius' Key of Wisdom, Zohar, Peter Jammy's set of Albertus Magnus, Raymond Lully's Ars Magna et Ultima, Robert Bacon's Thesaurus Chemicus, Fludd's Clavis Alchimiae, and Trithemius' De Lapide Philosophico. One book titled Qannoon-e-Islam actually was a copy of the dread Necronomicon. The book that most disturbed Mr. Merritt was a copy of Borellus open to the middle with the passage:

"The essential Saltes of Animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious Man may have the whole Ark of Noah in his own Studie, and raise the fine Shape of an Animal out of its Ashes at his Pleasure; and by the lyke Method from the essential Saltes of humane Dust, a Philosopher may, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the Shape of any dead Ancestour from the Dust whereinto his Bodie has been incinerated."

This passage and the savage underlining and crabbed marginalia that covered it so disturbed Mr. Merritt that he left the house as soon as he could. For ever after he could write the passage by heart.

After his marriage to Eliza Tillinghast, Eliza's ex-fiancee Ezra Weedon began following Curwen and investigating his doings. Any chance he got Weedon watched the farm with his friend Eleazer Smith. They became convinced that a huge network of underground tunnels extended under the farm. Cries, chants, and odd smells emanated from many points underground. Several times when the river flooded bodies and bones were washed from the banks near the farm, and Weedon and Smith later discovered a heavy Oak door set into the bank.

During this period Curwen had begun to act more and more oddly, almost triumphant about some discovery. He spent more and more time at the farm. Suddenly he became worried as if he knew about the plot against him.

In January 1770 the schooner Cygnet was captured by the customs fleet. On board were several Egyptian mummies, to be collected off shore by a "Sailor A. B. C." Many people speculated that this shipment was meant for Joseph Curwen. Since the shipment was not strictly illegal the schooner was set free, but with a prohibition against docking in Providence. It was later seen in the Boston harbor.

In Autumn 1770 Ezra Weedon decided to act. Weedon informed Captain James Mathewson of the Enterprise. Based on the widely accepted speculations about Joseph Curwen, Capt. Mathewson was not hard pressed to believe the claims of Ezra Weedon. He decided to inform important and scientifically minded peoples of Providence of what Weedon had discovered. The group would decide wether to tell the government or to act on their own, if at all. Accordingly he called Dr. Benjamin West, Rev. James Manning, ex-Governer Stephan Hopkins, John Carter, the four Brown brothers, John, Joseph, Nicholas, and Moses, Dr. Jabez Bowen, and Catp. Abraham Whipple.

Raid on the Farm

After a huge naked body was found in January, following a cacophony of dog barks and cries not too far from Curwen's Pawtuxet farm, the group of men decided a raid was needed. Capt. Whipple was a privateer of some bravery so he organized his sailors into a land party. The group staked out the farm on April 12th, 1771. At about 1o'clock at night the group of nearly one hundred men entered the farm and the underground caverns.

The Fenner family who lived in the closest farm observed several musket shots, great flashes of light, strange inhuman, or very human cries, and two burning shapes fled the farm. More musket fire, then the youngest Fenner saw a red mist rising from the farm. A chill wind and a terrible stench blew in. Then a voice thundered around shouting "DEESMEES-JESHET-BONE DOSEFE DUVEMA-ENITEMOSS", an incantation mentioned by Mirandola and Agricola. A horrible shout and insane laughter followed and a large explosion, though no damage to the building was found.

The raiders returned, only eight of which were killed. Each man was covered with a strange and horrible stench. And each and every one was touched by the events of which they would never speak.


After the raid in 1770, Joseph Curwen's body was given to his widow in a strange lead casket. She was told that he had died in a battle with Customs officials. But she was given a hint to the truth, a passage from one of Jebediah Orne's letters:

"I say to you againe, doe not call up Any that you can not put downe; by the Which I meane, Any that can in Turne call up somewhat against you, whereby your Powerfullest Devices may not be of use. Ask of the Lesser, lest the Greater shall not wish to Answer, and shall commande more than you."

The casket was buried "10 ft S. and 5 ft W. of Naphtali Field's grave in ye ---." All record of Curwen, his burial, his wedding, and the birth of his child were struck from the records of Providence. Only scraps in private collections and a few letters to people outside Providence survived. Eliza and Ann Curwen changed their name back to Tillinghast. Ann later married Welcome Potter, the great-great-grandfather of Charles Dexter Ward (fiction) who uncovered most of the facts concerning Joseph Curwen before himself going insane.


  • Lovecraft, H. P. Tales. New York: Library of America, 2005. Print.