March 21, 2017

Fairies, Lost Children, and Cannibalism in 1830s Maine

Last year I did a lot of research into New England fairy folklore for an upcoming project. I found a some strange and wonderful things, including an article called "The Water-Fairies" by Harley Stamp in the July - September 1915 issue of The Journal of American Folklore.

The article is an allegedly true account of an encounter four Penobscot hunters had with some supernatural creatures in Maine in 1835. I say "allegedly true" only because the narrative doesn't match the current normative culture's standards for reality, but standards (and perhaps reality itself) may have been different two hundred years ago.

The story starts off with the Penosbscot hunters traveling into the wilderness to find game. They canoe up the Kenduskeag (an offshoot of the Penobscot River) and make camp near what is now the town of Kenduskeag. As they eat their evening meal they are besieged by strange noises:

Suddenly, while we were eating, we heard a noise or rumbling, like water rushing down from the mountains which surrounded us. We all stopped eating to listen. The noises continued, and then at intervals of about two minutes we heard what seemed to be millers driving their dogs into the logs and throwing their bars across them, then the filing of saws. We heard the sails of vessels flapping, the blowing of horns and drums... then from the south we came a rolling noise like thunder, and also one like a whistle heard through a tunnel; besides these, many strange sounds (forty-two every two minutes); and it seemed as if each one was louder and more distinct than the others. 

One of the hunters thinks the noises are coming from witches on the mountains, while another thinks they are being produced by devils. They consult the oldest and wisest member of their party, a man named Neptune. He thinks the sounds are coming from a nearby lake, which he has been told is inhabited - but he doesn't say by what. (Suspense!)

The next morning the hunters hike up into the nearby mountains, where they find a large wigwam made of whale bones. No one is inside, but a big pot is boiling on the cooking fire. When they open it they find the arm, foot, and head of a child. Yikes! They also notice large forks and spoons (each about six feet long) resting against the wigwam's walls. They run back to their camp in terror, and that night they again hear the same sounds.

If I can interject here, I will just say that this is a very creepy set-up. Hunters alone in the wilderness, strange nocturnal noises, and a pot full of child body parts. At this point I would turn around and head home, but the hunters don't do this. They need to catch some game to feed their families, so the next morning they canoe further up the river.

The banks of the river are wide and sandy, and they see what at first look like multiple otter tracks in the sand. But on closer inspection they discover the tracks are actually tiny human footprints. Weird, but things get even weirder as they go further up the river. They come upon a miniature village made entirely of clay. It contains houses, stables, horses, and even people, but all child-sized, inanimate and sculpted of river clay. As they look through the village, Neptune tells them that it was made by water-fairies, or warnungmeksooark in Penobscot. He had heard they lived nearby and had always hoped to see them because they can foretell the future. They are known to create sculptures from clay.

The Kenduskeag, from Wikipedia.

They return to their canoe and plan to continue up the river, but when they turn a bend they come across a huge crowd of water fairies running in many directions along the bank. The hunters don't really get a good idea of what they look like though, because the fairies see the hunters and dive into the water.

Again, I would probably turn around and head home at this point, but one of the hunters, Sauk Ketch, decides to capture a warnungmeksooark. His friends bury him in the sand and then hide in the bushes. When the water-fairies finally emerge from the river and he rises up from the sand and grabs two of them. The rest disappear into the river.

The hunters are shocked when they see what a water fairy looks like:

... he had the most beautiful fine long hair; but his face was narrow, with so long a chin that it rested on his breast. His nose was so big and broad that you could see it on each side of his head when his back was toward you. His eyes were very narrow up and down; and his mouth was the shape of a sharp A, the point running up under his nose. He wore no clothing...

The hunters are even more shocked when the water fairies eventually lead them to see the king of their tribe, who is sleeping nearby.

... we saw before us, on the rock, a huge man. His gray hair was long and in ringlets. His neck was as large as a barrel. His feet were large, and he had on a strange sort of dress. On his feet were black shining moccasins with silver clasps. He had close-fitting leggings. His coat was olive-green outside, and bright blue and red inside... As his mouth was open, I saw he had two large teeth only, on his upper jaw, one of which was broken off. 

The water fairies explain that their race is divided into twelve tribes, each ruled over by a king. The kings are able to travel through the air, and can live in water or on land. The kings catch children who fall into lakes or rivers and bring them to someplace safe.

That sounds nice, but what finally happens to the children that they save? Well, once a year the twelve kings gather together, kill the children, and eat them. Apparently the pot the hunters found contained the remains (or the beginnings) of their feast.

At this point I would definitely leave. And you know what? The hunters leave and head back home. That's the end of the story.

There are a lot of interesting things about this article. Water-dwelling fairies are found in the folklore of many northern New England Algonquin tribes, and they are generally benevolent. Even in this story the warnungmeksooark themselves seem pretty nice, but their kings are another matter entirely. Algonquin folklore also often describes malevolent beings who lure children to their doom, and the water-fairy kings seem to be a variant of this.

The sleeping king, particularly with his shiny buckled shoes, curly hair, and his brightly colored coat, seems to resemble someone of European descent. Maybe it could be a little bit of political commentary?

I really like the narrative arc of this story. The hunters slowly learn more as they travel further into the wilderness, and the strange noises and gruesome wigwam set a creepy mood. Neptune has always wanted to meet the water-fairies because they can tell the future. They do tell him they can do this, but he never gets to ask them any questions. My expectations for the story were foiled!

People do still see fairies in New England, but not quite like the warnungmeksooark. However, the frantic running of the water fairies does remind me of the these tiny high-speed cavemen seen on the Connecticut River. Perhaps they are the same entities? If so, let's just hope their kings aren't anywhere nearby.

March 14, 2017

Becoming A Witch, New England Style

The following letter appeared in my mailbox the other day:

Dear New England Folklore,

Thank you for writing such an awesome blog. I really love reading your posts about witches and witchcraft. I have some annoying neighbors and would like to ruin their butter, sicken their livestock and cause their crops to fail. How can I become a witch? It sounds like fun.

Your faithful reader,

Darlene in Dunwich

Gee Darlene! Thanks for the wonderful letter. Personally I don't think you should use malevolent magic to revenge yourself on your neighbors, but you do ask a good question. How does one become a witch? There are several different opinions on the matter.

For many modern spiritual witches (Wiccans and others who follow witchcraft as a religious path*), becoming a witch involves being initiated by someone who already is one. These initiations usually involve sacred oaths, nudity, some good-natured torture, and the imparting of secret knowledge. This initiatory model was started by Gerald Gardner (1884 - 1964), the father of modern witchcraft and the first person to declare himself a Wiccan. Gardner claimed that he himself was initiated by a pre-existing coven, but the rituals he created include many elements from other sources, including Freemasonry and the works of Aleister Crowley.

This type of initiation would be quite foreign to a traditional New England witch. All those candles and chants and incense - why, it's downright Popish! The stories about Puritan witchcraft initiations describe something simpler and much more bare-bones. The Puritans sought to strip away all extraneous elements from Christianity, and this impulse is also reflected in their stories about witchcraft, which they viewed as Christianity's evil twin.

A modern witchcraft initiation. Nothing this exciting happens in traditional New England folklore!

Most stories simply involve someone signing their name in the Devil's big black book. Often it is implied that they are signing in blood. A lot of these stories come from confessions collected during the witch trials. Puritan magistrates thought the Devil was behind all witchcraft, and they would get people to confess the Evil One's involvement any way they could. I mentioned that there may be some good-natured torture in a Wiccan initiation. The torture used by the Puritans was not in any way good-natured.

For example, during the Salem trials teenaged witch suspect Richard Carrier and his brother Andrew were bent over backwards and tied head to ankle. They had initially plead innocent but - no surprise - after this painful torture they confessed to signing the Devil's book in an apple orchard in their own blood. They also said the Devil had baptized them in a waterfall in Newbury. Several other Salem suspects also claimed the Devil baptized them.

The Satanic baptism is obviously an inversion of the Christian baptism, while the Devil's black book is the dark twin of the book that Puritans signed when becoming members of their local Puritan congregation. The classic New England witchcraft initiation is basically a distorted reflection of Puritan religion. Interestingly, some suspects confessed that the Devil only wanted their service for a set number of years. This is also a reflection of New England Puritan society, where many people were indentured servants who sold themselves to masters for a set period of time.

I realize this may sound a little tame to you, Darlene. Like eating at a Dunkin' Donuts, New England witchcraft is effective but doesn't have a lot of sex appeal. Well, if you want something a little more sexy, I'd suggest reading Vance Randolph's Ozark Magic and Folklore (1947), which contains folklore he gathered in the 1930s and 1940s. There are some interesting parallels between Ozark and New England folklore, but the stories about witchcraft initiations are much different.

Well, that's how you can become a witch. But don't rush into it, because you may already be one! Some modern witches think that witches are born, not made. A few go so far as to claim that some people carry "witch-blood" inside them and are descended from the Nephelim, the fallen angels from the Book of Genesis. I suspect the idea of witch-blood was popularized in the modern era by Jack Williamson's 1948 pulp novel Darker Than You Think, but it does have deep roots in European folklore. For example, Merlin is often said to be the half-human offspring of a human woman and a demon.

Some European cultures claim that children born in strange ways or at strange times are destined to become magical beings, regardless of their parentage. For example, in Renaissance Italy children born feet-first were said to mature into either witches or witch-fighters, while in Greece babies born on Christmas day grew up to be kallikantzaroi, hideous evil monsters. So perhaps you are already a witch! (More details on this idea can be found in Carlo Ginzburg's Ecstasies: Deciphering The Witches' Sabbath (1993)).

I haven't found any comparable lore from New England, but many stories from this region don't really indicate how people become witches. They tend to focus instead on how to detect and defeat them. The Puritan leaders were convinced that all witches got their power from Satan, but this opinion wasn't shared by everyone. The average person didn't really care where witches came from. For many people they were not part of a demonic conspiracy but were instead, like March blizzards or stony soil, just part of New England they had to deal with.
*Mandatory disclaimer - Unlike the witches from folklore, modern spiritual witches are mostly nice people and don't go around cursing livestock or ruining your butter. Don't confuse modern witches with the witches from folklore!

March 08, 2017

Ducking Witches in Old Connecticut

Imagine yourself as a Puritan colonist, living in New England during the 1600s.

Things aren't going all that great. Your cow keeps acting strangely, sitting down when you want her to move and running away when you want her to stay put. That Indian pudding you made for dinner the other day came out blood red rather than the traditional muddy brown color. You had to throw it away. Your spouse made cheese but it got infected with maggots, and one of your children has a weird illness that won't go away. And to top it all off, your maid servant can't sleep at night and swears something comes invisibly into the house to pinch her.

Clearly, a witch is causing all your problems. Luckily, like all New England Puritans, you live in a small tightly-knit community bound together by mutual obligation and gossip, and there are a few cranky folks that everyone hates who are obviously witches.

You tell the town magistrates that they need to do something about these witches. They happily arrest the cranky suspects (whom no one likes anyway), but during the trial the magistrates want proof that they are witches.

Proof? What the...?!?!

You testify about the cow, the Indian pudding, the maggoty cheese, and your sick child. "Well sure," the magistrates say, "but maybe there are natural explanations for all those. Got anything else?'

The maid servant testifies about the thing that attacks her in the night when she sleeps. Some other neighbors jump in to testify that they've seen strange beasts lurking in the dark woods, or had something sit on their chests in the middle of the night. Spooky!

"Yes, it sounds like witchcraft," the magistrates say, "but how do we know if was really Goody Smith and Goody Jones doing all this? Of course no one likes them, but that doesn't mean they're witches."

The magistrates confer and decide to examine the women for witches teats, which are strange bodily growths witches use to suckle their demonic familiars. They do find some strange growths, but aren't sure if they are really any stranger than the pimples and warts non-witches have on their bodies.

The magistrates debate if they should try other tests. Maybe they should see if the suspects can say the Lord's Prayer? Maybe they should see what happens if they touch the afflicted maid servant?

One thing the magistrates would not do, however, was throw them in a pond to see if they could float. That never happened in New England.
Well, almost never. It did happen at least once, in the year 1692. While a giant witch hunt raged through Massachusetts that year, a smaller one was occurring in Connecticut. It centered around two women, Elizabeth Clawson and Mercy Disborough, who were accused of bewitching a servant girl named Katherine Branch.

Unlike their Puritan brethren to the north, the Connecticut magistrates took a more cautious approach to witch-hunting. Deputy Governor William Jones even wrote a document explaining what type of evidence would be considered sufficient, and which would be insufficient, during the trial. He considered the following methods for proving someone is a witch:

Less sufficient are those used in former ages such as by red-hot iron and scalding water, the party to put his hand in one or take up the other. If not hurt the party cleared, if hurt convicted for a witch. But this way utterly condemned in some countries. Another proof justified by some of the learned is by casting casting the party bound into water. If she sinks counted innocent, if she sink not then guilty (quoted in Richard Godbeer's Escaping Salem (2005))

The magistrates agreed that the first two tests weren't good - and for obvious reasons. Everyone burns their hands touching hot metal or boiling water, regardless of their guilt or innocence. But they didn't rule out the water test. Also known as "ducking," the test operates on the principal that since water is used in Christian baptism it will reject anyone that is allied with Satan. If the accused person floated, that meant the water rejected her because she was a witch. If she sank, she was innocent. Of course, being innocent also meant possibly drowning, but it was better than being guilty of witchcraft, right?

Both accused witches agreed to be ducked, and on September 15 both were thrown into a pond.

...two eyewitnesses of the sorry exhibition of cruelty and delusion made oath that they saw Mercy and Elizabeth bound hand and foot and put into the water, and that they swam upon the water like a cork, and when one labored to press them into the water they buoyed up like cork (from John Taylor's 1908 book The Witchcraft Delusion in Connecticut, 1647 - 1697)

So based on the results of the water test, Clawson and Disborough should have been found guilty of witchcraft. But they weren't. Jones had noted that "some of the learned" thought ducking was sufficient evidence, but some others didn't. Increase Mather, the president of Harvard and one of New England's leading Puritan ministers, was one of those who didn't.

Mather attacked the reasoning behind the water test in An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684). Not all water is sacred, he argued, only the water actually used in a baptism. Besides, the Bible didn't state that God approved of ducking witches, so it seemed likely the water test had actually been created by Satan to cause confusion. The water test was itself actually a form of witchcraft.

The magistrates threw out the water test as evidence, and after lengthy trials both Clawson and Disborough were found innocent. They were freed partly because the magistrates didn't see any good evidence, but also because many people thought Katherine Branch, the afflicted servant, was simply making everything up. Still, it's interesting to see how Puritans grappled with the difficult task of proving witchcraft.

Most of the information for this week's post come from Richard Godbeer's brief but informative book Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692

March 01, 2017

New Englanders See A Lot Of UFOs!

The headline for this weeks blog post says it all.

The National UFO Reporting Center (UFORC) recently released some global statistics regarding UFO sightings. Guess what? People in New England see more UFOs per capita than most other people in the United States. I have always suspected that our part of the country was spookier than others. Perhaps this is some tangible proof.

Here is a map of the United States showing per capita UFO sightings. As you can see, New England is redder than much of the country. Red = more UFO sightings/person.

Map from VizThis.
The northern New England states (Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont) are all way above average. It seems like Vermont is definitely the place to go if you are eager to see a UFO. Rhode Island and Connecticut are also above average. Oddly, although Massachusetts leads the nation in many measures, it is only average for UFO sightings. Massholes, we need to step it up! Turn off Netflix and go outside more please.

The map raises a lot of questions. For example, at first I thought "Oh, the rural states tend to see more UFOs than the heavily urbanized states. They have less light pollution so people can see the night sky more clearly." But on second thought, I realized that some relatively rural states don't see many UFOs at all, particularly in the South. So much for that theory. And Rhode Island and Connecticut have a lot of cities and big suburbs anyway.

I also thought that maybe UFO sightings were correlated to political affiliations. Did states that voted for Clinton tend to see more UFOs? It looks like they did, but people in the big Western also states see a lot of UFOs and they voted for Trump. So maybe that correlation doesn't really work.

I have read that some UFOlogists think the number of sightings is declining. That may be the case elsewhere in the world, but the number here in the United States has actually increased in the last few decades. Here is another graphic showing that UFORC data:

Chart from VizThis
Are people actually seeing more UFOs, or are they just reporting them more. The big spike in sightings happened after the Internet was created, and along with it multiple ways to report sightings. Prior to the Internet it was not easy to find a UFO research organization, never mind report a sighting. People might just be reporting more of them since it is now easier to do.

One other fun fact from the UFORC report: the type of UFOs people see has changed over time. These days more people report strange lights in the sky than any other form of UFO. Actual flying saucers are now in a distant second place, followed by spherical, triangular, and cigar-shaped objects.

If you want more information, check out VisThis, which is where I found the graphics for this week's post. It is a great site! They have many more charts explaining the UFORC report.

February 21, 2017

The Truro Panther

This past weekend I was talking at a party to someone who lives in Provincetown. At some point in the conversation I mentioned that I write about local folklore. Eventually our conversation turned to the Truro Panther.

"I think I saw it once," he said. "It was late at night, and I was driving down Route Six past Pilgrim Lake into town."

That stretch of the road is really dark, I remarked. He agreed.

"I saw an animal run across the road in front of my car. I just caught a glimpse of it, almost like a shadow. Whatever it was, it had a long curving tail."

I asked him if maybe it had just been a coyote.

"No, definitely not. It had a long tail, just like a cat."

Had my friend seen the elusive Truro Panther? Maybe he had.


The Truro Panther is also known as the Pamet Panther and the Beast of Truro. If you've never been to the town of Truro on Cape Cod, you might not understand why people think a panther might be living there.

Located on the outer Cape, Truro is very busy on summer days. Route Six is filled with cars passing through to Provincetown, and Truro's beaches are bustling with families of tourists. But the summer hustle and bustle is deceptive. There isn't really much of a town center in Truro, and most of the houses are surrounded by a dense scrubby forest of wind-stunted pines and oaks. Much of the town's land is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore and can't be developed. There are deer and coyotes in the woods, and seals and sharks swim offshore. 

Last year in August we saw a school of bluefish feeding on a school of minnows in the shallows off Longnook Beach. Then a group of seals arrived and began to feed on the bluefish. There were big pools of blood in the water. Needless to say, I didn't go swimming. Truro can feel like the edge of the world, particularly to a city person like me.

In the mid-19th century people in Truro reported seeing a strange creature lurking around their farms and in the woods. They couldn't quite identify it. Was it a wolf? Was it some type of big cat? Apparently some locals thought it might have been a lioness that escaped from a ship en route from Africa. Whatever the creature was, people called it the the Truro Hyena because of the eerie sounds it made at night. Livestock went missing. Paw-prints were seen in the sand. Women and children refused to leave their homes after dark. 

Eventually a hunting party was formed. Boys and men armed with guns searched through the woods and along the beaches, and although they found paw-prints they never captured the animal. The whole incident was parodied by Thomas Stone, a physician who lived in nearby Wellfleet, in a poem called The Hyena Hunt:

Some vow it is a lioness, bore
By ships from Afric's sunny shore,
That paces now our Cape sands o'er;
Moaning for whelps, most piteously.

Some still, a hyena, whose fearful howl,
Had shook the woods of Tonegal,
In company with the fierce jackal,
Fighting the Fellah, hideously.

Some unbelievers, with taunting sneer,
Swore 'twas a goat, a dog, a deer,
Whose footsteps, magnified by fear,
Had seized the fearful hearted.

But there those fearful footsteps stand,
Imbedded on Atlantic's strand,
And the moaning cry runs through the land,
As if from loved ones parted.

It was easy for Stone to characterize those 19th century Truro citizens as yokels. After all, even back then people knew there were no giant cats living on Cape Cod.

Well, no one told the giant cat, because in 1981 it reappeared. The first signs appeared in September, when about a dozen house cats were found dead across town. Police believed the cats were probably the victims of feral dogs.

Later that fall, William and Marcia Medeiros of Truro were walking on a path through the woods near Head of the Meadow Beach when they saw a large cat-like animal. It was broad daylight, and they watched the animal for about five minutes before it disappeared into the woods. They said the animal had a long curving tail and probably weighed about 80 pounds.

On December 16, Truro police officer David Costa returned home from duck hunting when he noticed that one of his pigs had been attacked.

"He was just barely alive. The claw marks were long and almost looked like someone did it with a razor blade. The marks were horizontal," he said, not up and down the pig's body, an indication that the attacking animal had jumped on the hog's back. (The Boston Globe, January 4 1982, "Is A Mountain Lion Loose on Cape Dunes?", p.13)

Costa's pig was so grievously wounded it had to be slaughtered. On December 20, two other pigs in South Truro were also attacked, but their wounds were much less serious.

Animal tracks were found near the South Truro pig pen, and state wildllife officials thought a single dog had carried out the attack. However, the soil was too sandy to tell for sure what had made the tracks. Dogs tend to hunt in packs, so would just one dog attack two pigs?

A woman living in North Truro was awakened in the middle of the night by an animal shrieking loudly outside her home. When she and her husband investigated the next day they found animal tracks around their yard. Again, the soil was too sandy to determine with certainty what made them. Later, a tourist visiting from New York called town selectman Edward Oswalt to report seeing a large cat-like animal in North Truro.

Various theories were proposed. The official one was that the attacks had been carried out by wild dogs, but many people thought the creature was a mountain lion. This could be possible (there is enough open space and game in Truro), but it's unclear how a mountain lion would make it all the way to the Outer Cape. The animal would need to either swim across the Cape Cod canal or walk over all bridge, and then make its way down to Truro. It doesn't seem plausible. And besides, Massachusetts wildlife officials believe that mountain lions are extinct in the state.

Other locals thought that perhaps a camper had set loose a pet mountain lion, and a rumor spread that  someone had been seen in Provincetown walking a panther on a leash. Maybe that panther had escaped?

In the end there was no clear resolution. The sightings and livestock killings stopped, and the creature became part of Truro folklore. Is something still lurking out there in the scrubby forests of the Outer Cape? My fried saw something strange crossing the road, so maybe there is.