October 24, 2016

Proctor's Ledge: Site of the Salem Witch Executions

This past weekend Tony and I went up to Salem with some friends. It's almost Halloween, so it's time to indulge in all the spooky goodness the Witch City offers in October, like pumpkin-flavored cocktails, haunted attractions staffed by people in rubber monster masks, and shopping at the Wiccan shops.

We go up every October, but this year we took a somber detour before we went downtown to the Halloween festivities. We went to find Proctor's Ledge, the site where the city's famous nineteen accused witches were executed in 1692.

Historians were only recently able to accurately determine where the witch trial's gallows stood. It was known the executions happened on Gallows Hill, but not precisely where. In the 18th century two locust trees had been planted at the site as a memorial, but by the 19th century they were gone and there was no record of where they had been. Most historians in the 1800s simply assumed the executions had occurred at the top of Gallows Hill.

In the 1920s Salem historian Sidney Perley put forth an alternate theory. The doomed prisoners were brought to the gallows by ox cart, and Perley felt that the top of Gallows Hill was too steep for an ox cart to ascend. Based on eyewitness testimonials he instead argued that the gallows were built lower down the hill in an area known as Proctor's Ledge.

Perley's theory was verified just this year by seven scholars who worked together as the Gallows Hill Project. They combed through thousands of records trying to find references to the site. The final piece in the puzzle was found by historian Marilynne Roach in an account from the trial of Boxford's Rebecca Eames.

On August 19, 1692 Eames was being brought into Salem by Boxford constables when they encountered Salem constables bringing five accused witches to the gallows for execution. They were accompanied by a large crowd. Not wishing to miss the execution, the Boxford men left Eames at "a house below the hill" owned by John Macarter. During her examination later that day Eames testified that she had been able to see the hangings from Macarter's house.

This was the key that historians were looking for. The location of Macarter's house was well-documented, and it would have had a view of Proctor's Ledge, confirming Perley's theory. Further, Eames would not have been able to see the top of Gallows Hill from the house, ruling out the other theory. (As an FYI, Rebecca Eames was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to hang but happily was never executed.)

Proctor's Ledge today is an empty lot owned by the City of Salem. Located at 15 Proctor Street, it's nestled between some houses and hidden away behind a Walgreens. It's an incongruous location for someplace so infamous and darkly legendary. Happily it is located several miles from the busy downtown area, so I don't think anyone will be selling fried dough or souvenir t-shirts outside it any time soon. And I write that as someone who later that day ate fried Oreos on Salem Common and owns a Salem t-shirt. I have no problem with people making money off tourism or having fun. I love the carnival atmosphere of Salem in October, but Proctor's Ledge shouldn't be part of it.

A memorial ring of shells someone left on the ledge.
The city is developing plans for a memorial of some kind, but until then I think it's best if the site is left untouched. This is a spot where nineteen people were executed for crimes they never committed. It's one of the most infamous places in American history. Visiting it was a somber and quite frankly unnerving experience.

My sources for this week's post: Benjamin Ray's Satan and Salem, plus this article in The Salem News.

October 19, 2016

Foul-Mouthed Fairies and Spirit Possession in 1846

The Massachusetts town of Wrentham is perhaps currently best known as the location of some famous outlet malls, but the town is actually quite old. It was founded in the 1600s, and like a lot of old New England towns has at least one weird incident in its history. And so I relate the following set of bizarre events...

A prominent physician named Dr. Larkin lived in Wrentham in the early 1800s. Larkin was married, had at least one child, and was a member of one of the local Protestant churches. In short, he was part of the town establishment.

Unlike most of his neighbors, though, Dr. Larkin became interested in mesmerism in the year 1837. Also known as animal magnetism, mesmerism was founded by the German Franz Mesmer in the late 18th century. Mesmer believed that all animals were filled with a vital life force which could be manipulated to produce healing effects. Mesmerists would manipulate the life force through a variety of means including the laying-on of hands and hypnosis.

Franz Anton Mesmer (from Wikipedia)

A young servant girl named Mary Jane lived with the Larkin family at this time. The Larkins were upstanding members of the community, but Mary Jane was something of an outsider. She had been born in Nova Scotia, was Roman Catholic (how shocking!), and was subject to strange fits. Dr. Larkin tried but was unable to find a physical cause for her fits or to treat them.

One day in 1844 Dr. Larkin had an "a-ha!" moment. Why not try to cure Mary Jane's fits through mesmerism? Mary Jane's fits improved slightly, but surprisingly when she was under hypnosis she was able to accurately diagnose the ailments of Dr. Larkin's other patients. Her diagnoses were so reliable that Larkin depended on her whenever he encountered an illness he couldn't diagnose.

So far so good. What doctor wouldn't want a magical office assistant? But of course that's not the end of the story.

Mary Jane claimed that while she was hypnotized she was attended to by a group of spirits. Some of them were quite benevolent. For example, a group of kind and lovely fairies from Germany would appear to her. Their leader was a female spirit named Katy whom Mary Jane claimed was her guardian angel. Katy was described as being beautiful and good, and it was she who supposedly diagnosed the patients. Sometimes when the good fairies appeared strange knocking sounds would be heard throughout the Larkin house, which seemed unusual, but they were minor inconveniences compared to the help the fairies provided.

Unfortunately, sometimes other spirits spoke through Mary Jane. These spirits were foul-mouthed and loved to spout obscenities at the doctor and his family. These nasty beings didn't just stop at swearing. They also engaged in poltergeist activity.

Her entranced lips, as if moved by automatic action over which she had no control, gave utterance to the most blasphemous oaths and rude speeches; at the same time the furniture was often moved about violently by unseen hands, and heavy weights were lifted from place to place. On one occasion, the whole family being assembled round the couch of the magnetized sleeper, and every door being shut, a heavy flat-iron, last seen in the kitchen - quite distant off - was suddenly placed in their midst, and at the request of Mrs. Larkin, as suddenly disappeared, and was next found in the kitchen...(American Spiritualism: A Twenty Years Record of the Communion Between Earth and the World of Spirits, Emma Hardinge, 1870)

The leader of the foul-mouthed spirits was a deceased sailor who swore as much in death as he did in life. Mary Jane sometimes called this spirit Captain Goodhue, and declared that he was king of the fairies. Goodhue could accurately (if obscenely) describe what Dr. Larkin did even when he was away from home. He also drank copious amounts of rum through Mary Jane.

The ghosts of other deceased spirits also began to speak through Mary Jane, and Larkin recorded the life stories of more than 270 of these entities. He supposedly was able to verify that many of their stories were true.

By 1846 Mary Jane's behavior had become even stranger. The drunken sailor's spirit would pull Mary Jane's limbs out of joint, and although this caused her no pain it made her unable to move until Dr. Larkin put them back in place. Other spirits hovered around Mary Jane, pinching her and causing her great pain. She told the doctor she was willing to endure this suffering because it would help stave off Mrs. Larkin's death, whose impending approach the spirits had warned her of. Mary Jane had accurately foretold the death of one of Dr. Larkin's children so he took her warning (and sufferings) quite seriously.

All these bizarre events drew the attention of Dr. Larkin's neighbors, and many of them began to mutter unfavorably about him. As you can imagine, people in a small 19th century New England town didn't take well to spirit possession, heavy drinking, and swearing maid-servants. Some neighbors were particularly annoyed because they were often called in to help the doctor put Mary Jane's limbs back into their sockets. A committee was convened to investigate, and Mary Jane was found guilty of disturbing the peace. (Some sources say the charge was actually necromancy.)

Dr. Larkin pleaded with the police not to arrest Mary Jane until she had completed the painful suffering necessary to save his wife. Although skeptical they honored the doctor's wishes, and waited the allotted time before arresting the servant girl. She was finally sentenced to sixty days in Dedham's jail for lewdness, indecency, profanity, and disturbing the peace. Upon hearing the sentence Mary Jane is reported to have said, "Is that all? Well, I think I can stand it."

As for Dr. Larkin, he was threatened with excommunication from his church unless he signed a document declaring that he didn't believe the living could communicate with the dead. Church membership was crucial for his professional success, so he signed.

There's so much happening in this story that I don't know where to begin. I guess I can start by saying I used two sources: Emma Hardinge's book and a newspaper article from the December 5, 1846 issue of The Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics. Hardinge was a Spiritualist and believed that everything that occurred at Larkin's was really caused by spirits. The Portsmouth Journal is quite skeptical and believes Dr. Larkin was taken in by a conniving servant. Real spirits or a hoax? I will let you decide for yourselves.

There is very little fairy lore from early New England, which makes this story even more unusual than it is. The Puritans who colonized this region brought over plenty of witch, ghost and Devil lore from England, but almost no fairy lore. I think it's significant that Katy was Roman Catholic and from Nova Scotia, a region whose colonizers did bring fairy stories to the New World. I suspect that she was probably Irish or Scottish.

Some of her behavior while possessed by the spirits was reminiscent of that shown by the afflicted girls in the Salem witch trials. I wonder if the town leaders had that in mind when they arrested her for disturbing the peace? They may not have wanted others in Wrentham to emulate her behavior.

Most modern Americans don't group fairies and dead spirits together, but the connection between the two is strong in some older European folklore. For example people often reported seeing deceased humans living among fairies, and it's not a coincidence that fairies dress in old-fashioned clothes. So-called fairy mounds in Britain and Ireland are often actually ancient burial mounds. And much like ghosts, fairies are often active around the dark time of year, including Halloween.


Special thanks to Simon Young of the Fairy Investigation Society for forwarding me the article from The Portsmouth Journal which inspired this post!

October 10, 2016

Creepy Clowns Invade New England (Again) In October 2016

Phantom clowns. Evil clowns. Creepy clowns. Whatever you call them, they're back with a vengeance in New England this October.

The nation's first phantom clown scare took place here in the Boston area way back in the spring of 1981. Several small children in Boston and Brookline reported in April of that year that they had been approached by clowns in a van. The clowns allegedly offered the kids candy if they would get in their van, but the kids wisely refused. By May children from across Boston and neighboring cities were reporting the sinister clowns, but the police were never able to find any evidence to support the children's claims. The hysteria died down by the summer, but small children in other cities across the country did report creepy clowns later that year. The 1981 clown craze had started in Boston and spread to the other cities.

There have been other creepy clown crazes since then, but the current one is the largest that I can recall. This year's clown craze started in the summer when children in South Carolina reported clowns in the the woods behind their apartment building. It has since spread to at least 26 states.

There are some big differences between the 1981 clown scare and this one. In 1981 the clowns were reported almost exclusively by small children. Although young children started the current scare, here in New England the people reporting the clowns have tended to be older. Middle school, high school, and even college students are at the heart of this year's clown craze. I think that's because social media has played a huge part in the current hysteria. Rumors of clowns have spread on Twitter and Facebook, and tweens, teens, and young adults are heavy social media users.

The phenomena can be broken down into three components: internet rumors spread through text messaging and social media, pranksters who act out the rumors by donning clown masks, and unsubstantiated sightings. No one has actually been hurt by evil clowns. Let's face it, there probably aren't any evil clowns out there.

Here's a list of creepy clown sightings that have happened recently in New England. All of these have occurred between October 3 and October 10. It's amazing how quickly this has spread! Let's hope it ends soon before some hoaxer dressed in a clown outfit gets hurt by an angry mob. 

CONNECTICUT: On the night of Monday, October 3, the police department in Storrs was flooded with calls from concerned University of Connecticut students claiming that scary clowns had been seen on campus. The police received nearly 30 calls, but very few of the callers had actually seen the clowns themselves. They had merely heard reports they were on campus. However, a few callers did say they had seen clowns near dormitories and near the Storrs cemetery. The police investigated and did not find any clowns.

The rumors continued to spread across campus through social media, and as the night went on students left their dorms armed with hockey sticks and golf clubs to find the clowns. Police estimate that hundreds of students made their way to the Storrs cemetery to confront the rumored clowns. By 1:00 a.m. the students finally returned to campus. Similar scares happened the same night at Quinnipiac and Sacred Heart Universities, but apparently without bloodthirsty mobs forming.

From the Connecticut State Police.

In unrelated incidents six teenagers were arrested in Ansonia, Naugatuck and Prospect for making threats while posing online as clowns, but none of the threats were deemed credible. In Meriden, police investigated five reports of people dressed as clowns, including one  who swung a baseball bat at a car. 

MAINE: The first creepy clown in Maine was reported in Orono (home to a large state university), and another shortly thereafter was seen in Bath on Front Street. Those two sightings seem kind of innocuous, but things took a darker turn when students at a middle school in Naples learned on Facebook that their school was going to be attacked by evil clowns. The police later arrested the 12-year old male student who made the threat and charged him with terrorizing the school. The police also explained he had no intention of actually carrying out an attack.

Things got even hairier in Auburn, Maine. A woman was sitting on the porch of her Gamage Avenue house when an SUV stopped in front of it. The passenger window rolled down to reveal a man wearing creepy clown makeup. The woman laughed and said "I'm not afraid of clowns."

Then the clown formed a gun shape with his fingers, the woman said, and mouthed the word 'bang.'
"I picked up my 9 mm — I didn't point it at him directly," the woman said, "and said, 'Back at ya, clown.'"
The driver of the SUV decided Gamage Avenue was no longer the place for hijinks.
The woman, who did not want to be identified, reported the weird incident to police. She handled the clown encounter with finesse, she said, but once the SUV was gone, she started to feel unsettled.
There were people walking in the area when the encounter occurred, she said. There were children outside playing and she shuddered at the thought of how things might have played out if the situation had turned ugly.
"It seems like something bad is going to happen," she said.

Clowns have also been reported in Wells, Kennebunk, Gorham, and Standish. Most of these reports have been made on Twitter.

MASSACHUSETTS: On Monday, October 3, police were called to Merrimack College in North Andover to investigate reports of a clown carrying a pitchfork. One dorm was evacuated (a clown had been seen on the third floor) and all students were ordered to shelter in place, but police did not find any clowns. A clown was also reportedly seen lurking in the woods near campus.

Several other Massachusetts colleges also experienced clown scares around the same time. Police at Boston's Emmanuel College were flooded with calls about a clown on campus, as were police at UMass Amherst. Again, no clowns were found. Clown scares were also reported at high schools in various towns including Dedham, Walpole and Hanover.

Photo from the Auburn Police department.
Several people have been arrested in Massachusetts for making clown threats. A student in Methuen was arrested after he wore a clown mask to Methuen High School and brandished his cell phone like a gun, while a 17-year old in Rehoboth was arrested for making threats online against Dighton-Rehoboth Regional High School. In Auburn, a man was arrested for disturbing the peace when he donned a clown mask and drove behind a school bus full of elementary school students. It turns out he was the father of one of the students and was playing a poorly-timed joke.

A resident of Northhampton was sent an anonymous text message that showed a clown smashing a pie onto a car. When they returned home they found pie all over the front of their vehicle. Clowns were also seen lurking near a McDonald's restaurant. In Agawam, a video of a clown standing outside an shopping plaza caused a social media frenzy until it was revealed to be a promotion for a local haunted Halloween attraction. 

NEW HAMPSHIRE: Someone wearing a clown outfit used a megaphone to scream at passing students on the UNH campus in Durham. Some students took the situation very seriously because they saw police and emergency vehicles heading onto campus, but it turns out the vehicles were actually responding to an unrelated fire alarm at a dorm. A UNH football player later posted a photo on Twitter of himself with the person he said had been doing the clowning.

Clowns were also reported near the Keene State campus (no one was found), and in the town of Berlin (again, no one was found). In Fremont, a woman claimed she saw a clown holding balloons near the side of a road, while a video reportedly showed a creepy clown in the woods behind Fremont's Ellis school. Meanwhile, administrators at Bedford's Lurgio Middle School heard rumors of evil clowns from students and decided to investigate. They found the students were simply repeating stories they had read on Twitter.

In the town of Dover, police responded to a report that someone was being chased down the street by a clown. They didn't find anything. A Dover middle school student also reported seeing a clown in the woods behind the school. Again, nothing was found.

RHODE ISLAND: New England's smallest state has had a small number of clown sightings - for now. Police in Pawtucket investigated alleged clown threats against two schools but found nothing to substantiate them. There have been rumors that clowns have been hanging around outside schools, and a story was circulating that a clown had chased someone out of Slater Park with a machete. When police investigated the machete rumor they found it had originated in a message on Pokemon Go! Ugh.
"This thing's a national phenomenon," Public Safety Commissioner Antonio Pires said of the clown reports that have surfaced in at least 26 states, including all 6 in New England. It has been particularly troubling for schoolchildren, he said. "They have a high level of anxiety over it. When you begin to see it running like wildfire, the concern is the kids' psyche."
VERMONT: Two students at Bellow Free Academy (BFA) in St. Albans received text messages from someone named "Clide Daklowns" indicating he was planning to scare students at BFA and nearby Missisquoi Valley Union Middle/High School. The police were brought in and quickly learned the messages had been sent by a student at another high school. The student claimed he was just passing along messages he received from someone else. No charges were filed.

October 03, 2016

A Terrible Critter with Eyes Like Fire Coals: Revisiting the Dogtown Werewolf

A few years ago I blogged about the Dogtown werewolf, but it seems like a good time to revisit this topic. I was just recently researching this topic for my friend Sam Baltrusis's upcoming book about haunted crime scenes, and a producer from a paranormal show had also asked me what I knew about the topic. But most importantly, I really like werewolves!

New England folklore is filled with stories about witches, ghosts and the Devil himself, but there aren't very many about werewolves. Although the French Canadians of Vermont and Maine tell some tales about the loup-garou you don't find many werewolf stories in southern New England. One of the few comes from Dogtown on Massachusetts's Cape Ann.

Dogtown Common is a large park situated between the cities of Gloucester and Rockport. Once a thriving Colonial village, today Dogtown is 3,000 acres of forest, swamps and boulders. The ruins of the old village can be still be seen among the trees, along with boulders that wealthy Gloucester financier Roger Babson carved with motivational slogans. It's a weird landscape that has inspired artists and poets, and is haunted by legends of witches and strange disappearances.

Dogtown may also be home to a werewolf, at least according to the late author Robert Ellis Cahill (b.1934 - d. 2005). Cahill is an interesting figure in New England folklore. Before becoming a writer Cahill had worked as a Massachusetts politician and spent four years as Essex County sheriff, operating out of nearby Salem in that latter job until he suffered a major cardiac arrest in 1978. Heart attacks had long been a professional hazard of Salem's sheriffs, a problem supposedly dating back to the witch trials of 1692. During those trials accused wizard Giles Corey supposedly cursed Sheriff George Corwin, who died of a painful heart attack at a young age. Many of his successors suffered from heart attacks as well. The curse only ended after the sheriff's office was moved from Salem to nearby Middleton.

Robert Ellis Cahill (from Wikipedia).
Perhaps his encounter with a folkloric curse led Cahill to the next phase of his career, which was writing books about New England's weird and spooky history. He published more than thirty short books which had titles like New England's Cruel and Unusual Punishments, New England's Mountain Madness, and Haunted Ships of the North Atlantic. It was in one of these books (New England's Things That Go Bump in The Night) that he discussed the Dogtown werewolf.

On the evening of March 17, 1984 a Boston man named David Myska saw a large, mysterious animal loping along the cliffs near Crane Beach in Ipswich. Myska thought it might be a mountain lion, but those felines have been extinct in Massachusetts for centuries. Myksa claimed it was too large to be a coyote. So what was it? The creature was also seen in nearby Rowley, and four days later a dead deer was found near Crane Beach. Its throat had been slashed and large tooth marks were found around its neck and chest. Oddly, none of the deer's flesh had been eaten.

Ipswich and Rowley are not Dogtown, but they are located just a few miles away across the Annisquam River. Could the animal seen in those towns been the same one sighted a few days later by two teens running down Raynard Street in Gloucester? They described it as “gray monstrous dog-like animal… It had big teeth and was foaming at the mouth.” Yikes. Raynard Steet leads directly into Dogtown.

According to Cahill, the history of Dogtown is littered with hints about werewolves. For example, he claims that the Indians who originally inhabited Cape Ann said they were descended from a race of dog-headed men. He claims they also believed that anyone who ate the wolfbane plant would revert to their ancestral form: hairy, fanged, clawed, and lupine. I haven't seen this folklore anywhere except in Cahill's book, so take it with a grain of salt. And whatever you do, don't eat wolfbane, which is highly poisonous, with or without salt.

Dogtown is famous for the witches who lived there in the 18th and early 19th century, and Cahill notes that one of these witches, Daffy Archer, wore a wolf's tooth around her neck as a pendant. Witches are famous shape-shifters, so I suppose it's not much of a leap to connect witches with werewolves. If Peg Wesson, an infamous Gloucester witch, could send out her soul in the shape of a crow perhaps some other witch could transform into a wolf.

Me in Dogtown. I didn't see a werewolf that day (that I know...)

Cahill also interprets a famous incident from Dogtown's history as a possible werewolf attack. On September 10, 1892, a Gloucester sailor named James Merry drunkenly decided to wrestle a bull pastured in Dogtown. The previous year Merry, inspired by toreadors he had seen in Spain, had successfully wrestled the same bull to the ground, so why not try it again? In his drunken stupor Merry forgot that bulls grow quickly, and the bull was much, much larger than it had been twelve months earlier. It won the rematch and gored Merry to death. The sailor's lifeless body was found the next morning in the pasture.

That's the official story, but Cahill claims that the moon was full the night of September 10, and that Merry was found with his throat torn out, something no bull would do. Cahill asks: could Merry have been killed by a werewolf?

I would say this is all pretty slender evidence for a werewolf, but Cahill does cite one story that makes me hesitate in saying he concocted the whole thing. In her 1879 book Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian, Sarah Emery tells the following tale about Amos Pillsbury, a man who lived in Dogtown and worked for her Emery's father as a laborer. One night Pillsbury was walking home from work, a route that took him through thick woods. As he traveled this dark road he encountered a "terrible critter":

"A terrible critter? What was it like Pillsbury?" father inquired.

"Oh, Mr. Smith, it was a terrible big critter, as big as Brindle's calf; its eyes were like fire coals, and it ran past me through the bushes, about a rod from the road, with every hair whistling like a bell. It must have been the wolverine."

"The what, Pillsbury?"

"The wolverine. My old granny used to keep us young 'uns quiet with stories about the wolverine out beyond in the woods. I used to be afeared to stir ten yards from the door o' nights; but, as I had never seen the critter afore, I had begun to think it was one of granny's stories, but I seed him last night, sartin sure ; and his eyes were like fire coals, and every hair whistled like a bell." 

Pillsbury here is using the word wolverine to refer to a wolfish creature, not to the Hugh Jackman character from the X-men movies or the large burrowing animal found in Alaska. It was something his grandmother had told him about since childhood, and he was so obviously scared by seeing it that local men hunted for the creature for two days. They didn't find any sign of it.

So does this all add up to a bona fide werewolf? I'd like to think so, but it might just be wishful thinking on my part. If it is, I'm not the only one who feels that way. A couple years ago we went to a performance/haunted house in Salem called Gallow's Hill, which re-enacts legends from the North Shore's past. According to the performers at Gallow's Hill, the Dogtown witches used werewolves to guard their houses. So, whether it's true or not, the legend of the Dogtown werewolf lives on.

September 27, 2016

Swamp Woman and Other Dangerous Spirits

If you are out alone in the woods please be cautious if you hear someone crying and moaning. It could be Swamp Woman trying to to trick you, particularly if you are a man.

Swamp Woman is a spirit found in Penobscot folklore from Maine. In Algonquian her names are  Swaktemus and Pskegdemus, but most people think both names simply refer to the same being. She should be avoided at all costs whatever name you give her.

Swamp Woman lives alone in the forest, and wears only moss. Moss also grows in her hair, which is so long that it covers most of her body. I think that's a pretty distinctive look, so you'll probably know if you encounter her.

Poor Swamp Woman is lonely, and cries out in the woods for men and children to come live with her. She is particularly fond of hunters, but perhaps they are just the men she sees is the most familiar with. Maybe she would like high-tech nerds or Uber drivers just as much if she encountered them more often. Regardless of their profession, anyone who responds to her call is never seen again. Do they die? Do they live with her forever in her swampy forest home? It's not clear, but it's probably not good either way.

Swamp Woman sounds easy to avoid. Just stay out of the woods, right? Unfortunately it's not that simple. If a man sincerely wishes to see Swamp Woman she will come to him wherever he is, and any man who even pities her will never marry a mortal woman. In other words, not only do you have to avoid Swamp Woman, you have to avoid thinking about her. Ugh. I bet you're thinking about her right now, aren't you? She will also snatch children, and they are often warned to behave lest Swamp Woman come and steal them away.

The Penobscot also tell of another, similar creature called Maskiksu, a.k.a. Toad Creature, who appears as a small dwarfish woman clad in moss. She also seduces men and cries out in loneliness for children. Toad Creature likes to nurse human babies, but any child she nurses will fall into an endless sleep. Again, best to be avoided.

Other beings in New England folklore lure men and children to their dooms too. For example, a while ago I wrote about the Abenaki swamp spirit of Vermont, while further south the Wampanoag of Cape Cod tell tales of Granny Squannit. Granny Squannit's long hair covers her face (which is rumored to be strangely ugly), and she sometimes kidnaps men and young boys. Granny Squannit also has a benevolent side, teaching people about healing plants and feeding people who are shipwrecked. Granny Squannit is probably a modern version of the ancient Algonquian women's goddess Squauanit who was mentioned by Roger Williams in 1643.

Are all these beings distinct entities, or are they just different versions of each other? They sound similar in some ways to those seductive fairies who enchant questing knights in Medieval romances, or even to folkloric fairies like the Skogsnuva, or Wood Women, of Sweden. Fairies are not a laughing matter. Some death certificates from 17th century Sweden have been found where the cause of death is listed as "involvement with a Skogsnuva." My mind also drifts to the succubi of Christian demonology, the demoness Lilith from Jewish folklore, and even the seductive ghostly witch who haunts the Freetown State Forest here in Massachusetts. .

There is definitely a pattern here. Maybe there actually is a supernatural force (or forces) behind these different legends, or maybe the stories just reflect a male fear of female sexuality.The forests and swamps are dark and unknowable, making them a perfect blank slate to project one's fears onto. But still, if you see a long-haired woman covered in moss it's probably safest to run in the other direction.