December 31, 2008

Christmas Trees on New Year's

Christmas Eve, 1836, by Herman Bokum. From the American Antiquarian Society.

Tonight is New Year's Eve, and the Christmas season is coming (sadly) to an end. No more parties, no more presents, no more trees!

However, in the early 19th century, when Christmas trees first became popular in the United States, many New England families decorated them and exchanged presents on New Year's, rather than on Christmas itself. (This, according to Stephen Nissenbaum). New Year's is now more of an adult holiday, while Christmas day is focused on children and gift giving.

However, the first printed image of a Christmas tree in the U.S. was titled "Christmas Eve", and was engraved by Herman Bokum, a German immigrant who taught at Harvard. It appeared in 1836 in The Stranger's Gift, a Christmas gift book. Amazingly, you can see a facsimile of the entire book online at Google Books!

December 24, 2008

Twelve Days of Weather Predictions

Here's a way to predict the weather for the upcoming year.

According to one of Clifton Johnson's 19th century informants, the weather on each of the twelve days of Christmas predicts what the weather will be for the coming twelve months. I'm assuming they mean only in terms of sunshine, precipitation and cloud cover. Otherwise, for this system to work January 1st would have to be hot and humid to accurately predict August weather. Even with global warming that's not going to happen (yet)!

Christmas in the past, according to Stephen Nissenbaum, used to be an amorphous season that sometimes lasted for months. I'm not sure where the concept of twelve days of Christmas first originated, but there are lots of significant twelves in the world: twelve months, twelve signs of the zodiac, twelve apostles, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve Olympian gods, twelve imams., etc. I recall learning that there was once a numerical system based on the number twelve, from which we get twelve inches in a foot, twelve items in a dozen, and twelve dozen in a gross. Wikipedia (of course) has an article about the number twelve.

December 21, 2008

The Drunken Christmas of Old

Christmas today is a family-focused holiday. When you think of Christmas, you think of kids around a Christmas tree opening presents delivered by Santa.

According to historian Stephen Nissenbaum, Christmas in the past was a very different holiday. Instead of kids opening presents, rowdy bands of drunken laborers roamed from house to house, singing songs and demanding gifts of food, money and alcohol. Sometimes they wore costumes and performed skits (a practice known as mumming), sometimes they would just sing songs that demanded gifts (an ancestor of modern Christmas caroling known as wassailing).

The Puritans discouraged the celebration of most holidays in New England, but particularly Christmas, claiming it was too disruptive and did not have basis in the Bible. From 1659 - 1681 it was actually illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts, but long after that law's repeal (under pressure from England) Christmas celebrations were still frowned upon. Massachusetts didn't legally recognize Christmas as a holiday until 1855.

But many people still celebrated Christmas, despite disapproval from political and religious leaders. An article in the Journal of American Folklore from 1896 describes a visit by Christmas mummers in the 1700's, a time when "Christmas was not kept." The article is based on recollections of a woman who was born in 1752.

Men wearing masks and carrying swords came to her parents' house, and performed a skit involving combat, a miraculous cure for the injured combatant, and nonsensical questions. The skit featured these lines:

Here comes I who never came yet
Great head and little wit,
And though my wit it is so ill,
Before I go I'll please you still.

From the description, it seems as though the men were performing a version of a traditional British play about St. George.

December 15, 2008

A Witch Free Christmas?

According to Ben Franklin's older brother James, evil witches can't harm anyone with their spells during Chrismas. (This quote from his 1729 almanac comes from Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas.)

This month (December) is a great Enemy to evil Spirits, and a great Dissolver of Witchcraft, without the help of Pimpernal, or Quicksilver and Yellow Wax... Some Astrologers indeed confine this Power over evil Spirits to Christmas Eve only; but I know the whole Month ahas as much Power as any Eve in it: Not but that there may be some wandering Spirits here and there, but I am certain they can do no Mischief, nor can they be seen without a Telescope.
Surprisingly in some old Northern European folklore, December and Christmas in particular are actually times when mischievous spirits roam freely, similar to Halloween here in the States. This tradition was even found in England, where it was believed ghosts walked at Christmas (a belief that Dickens later worked into A Christmas Carol). James Franklin seems to be quoting another, contrary tradition here, but both point to the overall remarkable characteristics people attribute to the holiday season.

December 12, 2008

Full Cold Moon

There's a big full moon out tonight, which is visible since the sky is clearing up. Traditionally, this moon is called the Full Cold Moon, for reasons obvious to anyone who had to deal with the giant ice storm that swept through the area. Another name for this moon is the Full Long Nights Moon, again for obvious reasons.

December 08, 2008

No Thor's Day in Boston

I've started reading Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas again. Probably one third of the book covers what Christmas was really like in New England before the industrial revolution. It's a very eye-opening book! Not a lot of sleigh-riding and merrymaking went on back then, but there was some drunken rioting and class warfare.

One interesting factoid I picked up: the New England Puritan's omitted the names of weekdays from their almanacs, since they referred to pagan Germanic gods. For example, Thursday is derived from Thor's Day, Wednesday comes from Woden's Day.

Did they give the days new names, or just leave them blank? I searched the Web for an answer, but only found more mysteries. According to this author, the Puritan almanac makers also omitted the names of months for the same reason. For example, March is named after Mars, and January is named after Janus. No pagan influence allowed!

I'd love to know if they gave months and days new names, but its possible they just assigned numbers instead. Either way, it must have been confusing.

December 06, 2008

Harvard Should Consult Its Magic Books

Last week the media was full of news about Harvard losing a big chunk of its endowment due to the recession. Some writers were gloating, while others were concerned about possible layoffs among the Harvard staff. I definitely have sympathy for the Harvard staff, since I work at a university myself.

I guess the money managers at Harvard didn't consult the stars for guidance, the way some earlier Harvard staff might have.

According to D. Michael Quinn, author of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, divination and practices we now consider "occult" were a standard part of the curriculum at New England colleges before the 19th century. Harvard students learned how to use astrology as part of their medical training, and a working knowledge of astrology was crucial for anyone getting a BA or Master's degree. Harvard students wrote theses on astrology and alchemy as late as 1771, and many Harvard student continued practicing alchemy into the 1800's.

Not to be left out of the Ivy League magic, students at Yale studied astrology and alchemy as well, and Yale's president Ezra Stiles experimented with alchemy and studied the Cabala.

Three interesting points here:

1. Yale and Harvard were founded to train Christian ministers, but the faculty clearly saw no conflict between the occult and Christianity. How times have changed!

2. Pundits like Harold Bloom have complained that universities no longer teach students canonical works. Does this mean faculty should start teaching Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy again?

3.Early Mormonism and the Magic World View is a great and very informative book, with lots of detail about how occult practices were woven into the everyday lives of early Americans. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was born in Vermont and D. Michael Quinn shows how some of Smith's religious practices were influenced (or even identical to) magical practices in New England and New York. I think this book is one of the reasons Quinn was kicked out of the Mormon Church.

November 25, 2008

Weather predictions for Thanksgiving

Here, from 19th century Massachusetts, are some ways on Thanksgiving to predict what the weather will be in the upcoming winter:

Method #1 - Examine the feathers of your chickens. Do they seem particularly thick? If so, a hard winter is on its way.

Method #2 - Examine the breastbones of your chickens (after you have cooked and eaten them). Do they seem particularly light in color? If so, you can expect a lot of snow. If they are dark, you won't get much snow at all.

Method #3 - Look at the breastbone of your goose (again, after you have cooked and eaten him). Is it particularly dark? Yes? You can expect more rain than snow.

Method #1 seems to be the most "scientific" - the chickens will grow heavier feathers if a cold winter is coming, although this assumes that chickens somehow know a cold winter is coming. (Maybe they can sense what color their breastbones are). Method #2 seems more magical, and relies on similarity in color - white breastbone = white snow. Method #3 also relies on magical color similarity, but can't tell you if heavy snow is coming, only the proportion of rain to snow. I guess this is because of the goose's affinity for water!

I suppose someone could try to test the accuracy of these methods, but most people eat turkey now for Thanksgiving, so there aren't too many goose bones lying around. I'm vegetarian and am having seitan loaf, so I'm completely out of the game.

All of this is from Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England.

November 23, 2008

More Costumed Beggars on Thanksgiving

When I posted about Guy Fawkes Day, I mentioned that children in costume would often beg at their neighbors' houses for food on Thanksgiving Day.

George Lunt, in his 1873 book Old New England Traits, also mentions this tradition. He notes that poor people would go door to door, begging for "something for Thanksgiving." Children who weren't poor would often join in as well, dressing up in rags and traveling in gangs around their neighborhood. However, the well-off children did it more as a prank, and would run away after making their request for food.

You can find the entire text of Lunt's book here, but I found this information about Thanksgiving while reading Botkin's Treasury of New England Folklore.

November 18, 2008

Multicultural Headless Ghosts from Kingstown, Rhode Island

After I posted about the Headless Horseman of Canton, Connecticut a few days ago, I realized I knew about additional headless ghosts haunting New England. Two of them, according to Charles Skinner, can be found in part of North Kingston, Rhode Island known as Swamptown.

Headless Ghost #1 - A traveler making his way through Swamptown one night saw the headless ghost of an African-American boy.
It was a dark night, and the figure was revealed in a blaze of blue light. It swayed to and fro for a time, then rose from the ground with a lurch and shot into space, leaving a trail of illumination behind it.
Yow! That's kind of psychedelic, but there's no indication of who the ghost is or why he has no head.

Headless Ghost #2 - A workman repairing a road in Swamptown unearthed an Algonquin Indian skull, and took it home as a souvenir. Since the women in his house wouldn't let him bring it inside, he stuck it on a pole in the yard. That night, he heard a rattling noise from the backyard. Looking out, he saw a large headless skeleton stalking around the house, waving its arms angrily. Everyone inside the house was terrified, except for the workman, who said calmly "I left your head on the pole at the back door." The skeleton put its head on, and stalked off, shaking its fists at the workman. The skeleton now guards other Indian burials in Swamptown, particularly those at Indian Corner, where there is a rock that bleeds when the moon is full.

It's interesting that neither Swamptown ghost is from the ethnic group that was in the majority when Skinner wrote his book. Again, the Headless Horseman of Canton is French, the Horseman of Sleepy Hollow is German. I'm just not sure what it means. This sounds like a good topic for someone's undergraduate thesis paper!

November 11, 2008

Tomorrow night's full moon

According to the Old Farmer's Almanac, tomorrow's full moon is the "full beaver moon," so named because this is when the Algonquians and the English would set their final traps in the swamps. It's also known as the full frost moon (for obvious reasons).

The Headless Horseman ... of Canton, Connecticut

Today I watched Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, one of my favorite movies. Lots of blowing leaves, cloudy skies, and old houses - perfect viewing for a November day. Sleepy Hollow also has some nice authentic foklore touches, like the jack-o-lanterns used for decorations in pre-Halloween America (the film is set in 1799), and the books of spells carried by some characters.

But you don't have to travel to Sleepy Hollow, New York to find a headless horseman. Canton, Connecticut has one of its own.

The story, recorded in David Philips Legendary Connecticut, goes something like this. In the autumn of 1777, a French horseman stopped at the Horsford Inn in Canton. While talking with the innkeeper, he mentioned that he was carrying payroll for the French troops helping the Continental army at Saratoga.

The horseman never arrived at Saratoga. No one in Canton saw him leave town, but the innkeeper claimed he had departed early in the morning after staying just one night. The townspeople doubted the innkeeper (who had a bad reputation), but since there was no evidence of foul play the matter was eventually forgotten.

Several years later, when the Horsford Inn burned to the ground, a headless skeleton (assumed to be the French horseman's) was discovered in the ruins. Soon after, a spectral headless horseman was seen in Canton, always riding westward towards Saratoga. Apparently, he's still riding through Canton today, sometimes even causing traffic accidents. Watch out if you're driving through Canton at night!

This is the second story I've posted about colonial Connecticut residents murdering guests (see Micah Rood). Was it a big problem back then? It's also interesting that the ghosts in this story and Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow are both non-American (French, and Hessian (German)). Maybe xenophobia makes the ghosts even scarier!

November 08, 2008

Crow lore from the Narrangansett

It's a gloomy November day - gray skies, humid, and more leaves are on the ground than the trees now. With so many leaves down, though, it's easier to see birds. There were some big noisy crows flapping around the house earlier today.

According to Roger Williams(the founder of Rhode Island whose corpse was apparently absorbed by an apple tree), the the Narragansett Indians would not kill crows, even though they damaged crops:

"These birds, although they doe the corne also some hurt, yet scarce will one Native amongst an hundred kill them because they have a tradition that the Crow brought them at first an Indian Graine of Corne in one Eare, and an Indian or French Beane in another, from the Great God Kautantouwit's field in the Southwest, from whence they hold came all their Corne and Beanes."(A Key Into the Language of the Americas, 1643).

A messenger from the heavenly realm of the creator god Kautantouwit, the crow (or kaukonttuock in the Narragansett language) was responsible for bringing the two staples of Algonquin agriculture into the human world, and therefore was respected and not harmed. According to William Simmons' book Spirit of the New England Tribes, crows were also one of the familiar spirits that aided Algonquin shamans in their work.

So, let's all be nice to crows!

November 04, 2008

Guy Fawkes Day

Halloween is a relatively new holiday in New England, and wasn't widely celebrated here until the 19th century when immigrants from Ireland and Scotland brought their traditions with them.

However, Guy Fawkes Day (a.k.a Pope Day or Pork Day) was celebrated annually on November 5, until it was eclipsed by Halloween. The two holidays have some interesting similarities. (FYI - Guy Fawkes was a Catholic conspirator who plotted to kill the King and Parliament of England with a hidden keg of gun powder, but was foiled. The holiday celebrates the survival of the King and the Parliament.)

Guy Fawkes Day was celebrated as late as 1893 in Newburyport, MA and Newcastle and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Men and boys in costume would parade through the streets carrying straw effigies (called either "guys" or "popes") which they would burn on a bonfire. Boys also carried lanterns carved from pumpkins, blew horns, and went begging for money and food from door to door. (B.A. Botkin quotes various sources on this).

The pumpkin lanterns, bonfires, costumes and the begging all became Halloween traditions. The anti-Catholic sentiment of Guy Fawkes Day happily died out, presumably because of the waves of Catholic immigration, but also possibly because the Catholic French were instrumental in helping the American Colonies in their war against England.

Interestingly, Alice Morse Earle in her 1893 book Customs and Fashions in Old New England writes that the begging of "ragged fantastics" (i.e. kids in costumes) on Thanksgiving Day (!) was a holdover from Guy Fawkes Day. Lesley Pratt Bannatyne notes that costumed begging was common in New York City for Thanksgiving as well. I guess it's only recently that trick or treating has been confined to Halloween.

Witches and Doughnuts - A Winning Combination

This little piece of lore screams out "Massachusetts!!!", since it combines doughnuts and witchcraft. It comes from George Lyman Kittredge's Witchcraft in Old and New England.

According to a the February 6, 1919 issue of the Boston Herald, a Cape Cod man was cursed by a local elderly witch after he stole some of her doughnuts. She devised a magic bridle, and rode him in his dreams like a horse until he was exhausted. Kittredge claims he heard a similar story himself from a Truro native in 1888. If the story comes from two separate sources, it must be true!

There's a similar story from Kittery, Maine about a group of witches (and their familiars) who rode a fisherman like a horse after he refused to give one of them a piece of halibut. The bridle was made of horse hair, yew bark, and tow rope, and was found years later inside the walls of an old house that was being torn down. It was burned by the workmen who discovered it. (This story comes from Herbert Sylvester's Maine Pioneer Settlements: Old York, quoted in A Treasury of New England Folklore, edited by B.A. Botkin.)

October 31, 2008

Black Cat Lore for Halloween

House cats are not native to the Americas. The Europeans who colonized New England brought their cats with them, and also brought their feline folklore. Cats, particularly black cats, are associated with witchcraft. They are one of the favorite forms that a witch's soul takes when outside her or his body.

During the 17th century New England witch trials, victims of witchcraft would often see their tormentors in the form of cats. Here's and example from Richard Godbeer's Escaping Salem. Katherine Branch, a servant in Stamford, Connecticut, claimed in 1692 that she was bewitched. A cat appeared and spoke to her, asking Katherine to come away to a place where there were "fine folks and fine things." Soon, more and more cats appeared, until she saw a table with ten cats seated around it, eating meat. The cats briefly turned into women, before turning back into cats again. Unfortunately, the court records don't indicate what color the cats were, but doubtless several of them were black.

Beliefs about cats and witches persisted well into the 19th century, as Clifton Johnson records in What They Say in New England. In Western Massachusetts, a man named Jones had a saw mill that kept him very busy, and an attractive wife whom he neglected. One dark night Jones decided he had to work at the mill. His wife used all her wiles to convince him to stay at home with her, but without effect - Jones trudged off to the mill. After he had been at work for a while, a friendly black cat appeared inside the mill. It frisked around the mill, and rubbed up against Jones as he worked. The cat got too close to the saw, though, and lost a claw. With a howl, it ran off. When Mr. Jones got home later that night, he noticed that his wife was looking pale and was hiding one hand from his sight. When he finally got a glimpse of her hand, he saw that she had lost one finger.

In the early 1800's, the Wilbur family was afflicted with poltergeist activity, and it was believed that a witch was causing it. Clothing would be cut and slashed while hanging in the closets, and small items would go missing. Granny Bates, a member of the family, was suspected of being the witch to blame. A large black cat, with facial features similar to Granny, was once found inside a closed bin, and during a prayer meeting this same cat walked through an unopened glass window. The cause of the trouble was never found.

In the 19th century it was also thought that a black cat will bring its owner good luck, in spite of its connections with witchcraft (or perhaps because of its occult power).

Black cats continue to have supernatural connotations in the 21st century. The bad luck that results from a black cat crossing one's path is well-known, but the black cat has other, more surprising connections with the supernatural as well. Large black cats, similar to panthers, are often seen near the Hockomock Swamp in southeastern Massachusetts, an area also inhabited by large hairy humanoids, giant birds, and unusual balls of light. Author Joseph Citro feels that the Hockomock Swamp may be a gateway area, similar to the Bermuda Triangle, and the large cats could be guests from an unknown world.

Spooky! Happy Halloween!

October 27, 2008

Ye Olde Pumpkin Recipe

A pumpkin recipe from John Josselyn's New Englands Rarities Discovered. It sounds like it would make a good Halloween recipe, except for the side effects:

"But the Housewives manner is to slice them when ripe, and cut them into dice, and to fill a pot with them of two or three gallons, and stew them upon a gentle fire a whole day, and as they sink, they fill again with fresh pompions (pumpkins), not putting any liquor to them, and when it is stew'd enough, it will look like bak'd Apples; this they Dish, putting Butter to it, and a little Vinegar (with some spice, as Ginger, &c.) which makes it tart like an Apple, and to serve it up to be eaten like Fish or Flesh; It provokes Urin extreamly and is very windy."

The Boston 1775 blog has some insight into the word pompion, which eventually was replaced by the modern word pumpkin.

October 13, 2008


As the leaves around here change to red, orange and yellow in the fall, one plant sticks out by producing dark purple berries. It's pokeweed!

I really like pokeweed because it's sort of ugly, very distinctive, and one of the handful of wild plants I can easily identify.

According to Just Weeds by Pamela Jones, pokeweed berries were used by American Indians on the East Coast to dye woven baskets. Later, the English settlers in this area used them to make ink. According to Wikipedia, the Declaration of Independence was written with fermented pokeberry juice. Other people share my appreciation for this plant. Down on the Cape, I've seen yards with enormous pokeweed bushes grown for decoration.

A few years ago, I went on an urban nature walk led by a wild foods specialist. He told us that young pokeweed shoots (which appear in the spring) can be eaten like asparagus. However, if you harvest them too late they are toxic, and the mature plant and its berries are poisonous if ingested. I would advise you against even trying to eat this plant - asparagus is available in the supermarket all year round, and it's not poisonous!

October 11, 2008

Salem - Three Flavors of Witch, One Low Train Fare

Last weekend Tony and I met our friend Lori in Salem for a day of witchy wackiness. We try to go every October, when the city really crackles (or cackles?) with touristy Halloween energy.

Although Salem has artistic and historic attractions like the Peabody Essex Museum and the House of Seven Gables, if it weren't for the tragic 17th century witch trials Salem would just be another cute seaside Massachusetts town. Witches are essential to the city's identity as a tourist attraction. When you visit Salem, you get witches in three flavors: historic, folkloric, and Wiccan. All this in one location!

The historic witchcraft trials of the 1690's are what put Salem on the map. The Puritans who settled in Massachusetts brought their witchcraft beliefs with them from England, and the Salem trials (which lead to the deaths of 19 people) are the most famous witchcraft trials in the New World. Although most of the accused witches lived in Salem Village (now the modern town of Danvers), the trials were held in Salem proper. My favorite historic witch tourist attraction is the Witch Museum. I first went there as a child, and was terrified by the light-up dioramas depicting superstitious villagers and their victims. The museum also has a great gift shop selling reprints of historical trial documents.

When we visited Salem this past weekend we didn't go for the history. We went mostly for the folkloric, Halloweeny stuff. The Halloween image of the witch with pointy hat and broomstick shares almost nothing with the historic Salem witches except the name, but you can't build a thriving tourist destination solely around a grim historic incident. Salem, which is probably the Halloween capital of the United States, has enough haunted houses, costume shops and pointy hats to please the spooky child in everyone. Tony still laughs about the time I was terrified in a Salem haunted house (Capt. Scurvy's Cavern of Terror, I believe) by someone in a Creature from the Black Lagoon mask. This year, to preserve our cardiac health, we went instead to Count Orlok's Nightmare Gallery, which is a wax museum of horror films. Highpoints for me included the Carrie mannequin, and winning the Name That Zombie quiz.

We also stopped by some of the Wiccan and Pagan shops in town. We bought some obscure essential oils at Artemisia Botanicals, checked out the giant goat statue in Nu Aeon, and ended the day at Hex, where I bought some shedded wolf hair, which the store buys from from Wolf Hollow sanctuary in Ipswich. Don't let Sarah Palin go near there! Hex is well designed inside, gives you a great shopping bag with your purchase, and is staffed by friendly Goths, including some extra bosomy ones. I think Hex has upped the ante for the other shops in town.

We ended the day with drinks at Rockafellas. Lori and Tony ordered the flight of organic wines, which came in wrought iron stands so elaborate other tourists took photos of them! I ordered a drink called the Salem Witch - booze, mango, and pineapple. I'm not sure what this has to with witchcraft of any kind, but it went down easy.

October 06, 2008

Flesh Eating Apples, Blood-Sucking Pumpkins

As we move into October (Halloween season!), I'm starting to feel spooky.

I eat a lot of apples, but did you know that apple trees eat humans? Shockingly true. The most famous case of a man-eating apple tree comes from Rhode Island.

In 1936, the descendants of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, decided to move his remains to a monument befitting his fame. As they dug into his grave, they make a strange discovery: the roots of a nearby apple tree had worked into his coffin and assumed the shape of his skeleton. Very few bones remained, so the assumption is that the roots absorbed all of the organic matter (i.e., his skeleton). The man-eating root is on view at the John Brown House in Providence.

Apparently other fall produce likes to feast on flesh. The Boston Globe ran an article about a farmer in Sharon, Massachusetts who is on track to grow the world's biggest pumpkin. It already weighs 1,878 pounds and is still growing. What does this pumpkin eat to get so big? The farmer feeds it "ground bone, blood, fish, molasses, and cow and chicken manure." Yikes! The molasses is a nice Yankee touch, but the ground bone and blood are kind of creepy. It's probably better not to ask what type of blood...

September 28, 2008

Aaah! Haunted apples!

There's an old story from Connecticut about a 17th century farmer named Micah Rood. One night a traveling peddler came to stay at Micah's farm; the next morning he was found dead under one of Micah's apple trees, and his money and wares were nowhere to be found. Micah professed his innocence, and since there were no witnesses he wasn't charged with the crime. But ever since that night, the apples growing in his orchard had a deep, blood-red spot in their center.

I suppose this story developed to explain a certain variety of local apples that have a red spot near the core. I've never seen Micha Rood apples for sale, but maybe they're just a Connecticut variety. Charles Skinner's recounting of the legend is online here.

You can see a trailer for Micah Rood horror movie on YouTube. Keep your eyes peeled for the creepy apple doll!

September 23, 2008

How Do Ya Like Them Apples?

I'm a big fan of the farmer's market in my neighborhood, particularly at this time of year. Apples, squash and potatoes - yum!

The other day I was eating an apple (it was a Red Free), when I noticed that the skin was kind of thick. Not inedible, and still tasty, but thick.

"That's funny," I thought.

Then I noticed all the other apples I bought had thick skins.

Something about thick apple skins rang a bell in my mind. I looked through some of my books, and saw an explanation in Clifton Johnson's What They Say In New England:

Thick apple skins mean a cold winter is coming.

The squirrels with extra bushy tails! The unusually chilly September! It all made sense.

I like snow and cold winters, so I'm glad signs are pointing that way. If you don't want to think about winter, peel your apples before you eat them.

September 12, 2008

Olde Gaye Pilgrims!

Plimoth Plantation is holding some special programs for gay families this Saturday, September 13. The museum's historians will discuss what life was like for gays in ye olde dayes (hint: unpleasant), and a member of the Lakota tribe will talk about Two-Spirits, gender and sexuality among Native Americans. Sounds interesting! Naturally, the day ends with a big Thanksgiving style feast.

Hearing about this program piqued my interest, so I pulled out our copy of Improper Bostonians. This handy tome, compiled by the History Project, details the mostly forgotten history of gays and lesbians in Massachusetts since the 17th century.

Not much is known about homosexuality among the Algonquians living in New England in the 17th century. Their population had already been decimated by European diseases when the Pilgrims and Puritans arrived, and war and social disruption soon followed. Improper Bostonians does show some risque ithyphallic rock carvings from the Kennebec River, but those could be interpreted in many ways.

We do know how Puritans and the Pilgrims viewed homosexuality - they didn't like it! Two men were executed for the crime of sodomy in 17th century Massachusetts. Puritan clergy preached against sodomy, fearing it would bring down God's wrath on the colony. Happily, no one is being executed for sodomy these days, though Pat Robertson has warned Disneyworld that God will destroy them with a hurricane for hosting gay events, and other right-wing preachers have blamed New Orleans' inundation by Hurrican Katrina on gays.

Let's send some good vibes to Plimoth Plantation and hope they have good weather this Saturday.

September 10, 2008

A rhyme about crows

This morning when I woke up, I heard a crow cawing loudly outside my window. This little rhyme came into my head:

One crow sorrow
Two crows mirth
Three crows wedding
Four crows birth

I read this years ago in Clifton Johnson's 1896 book, What They Say in New England, a Book of Signs, Sayings, and Superstitions. Johnson traveled around western Massachusetts collecting bits of lore from his neighbors, and compiled them by topic (weather, plants, etc.) in one book.

I've never tested the validity of this rhyme by seeing what befalls me immediately after hearing or seeing a crow. I was sad this morning that I had to wake up, so maybe the rhyme was correct about "one crow=sorrow." This rhyme is contradicted by another bit of lore Johnson collected claiming "An even number of crows flying overhead is a sign of bad luck", but is verified by another that "To have a crow fly over the house is a sign of death."

Scientific validity probably isn't the point. Instead, these rhymes and sayings point to the ominous (omenous!) reputation crows have had in American and European folklore for thousands of years.

The rhyme is definitely catchy - it's been stuck in my head since I read it years ago.

September 07, 2008

Jeff Berlanger's Weird Massachusetts

Author Jeff Berlanger has an article on about weird attractions in Massachusetts. He covers a mix of places historic (Dungeon Rock), paranormal (the Bridgewater Triangle), and kitschy (the birthplace of tupperware in Leominster).

Berlanger is the author of the book Weird Massachusetts , which is brought to us by the same people who produced Weird New England. I own Weird New England - it's an entertaining and heavily illustrated coffee table book. Weird Massachusetts is the same type of book. It would make a good gift for a kid who's interested in these things, or someone who wants a quick overview of the bizarre things in the Bay State. Joseph Citro and Dianne Fould's Curious New England covers similar content, but is aimed at an older audience, is a small paperback, and includes explicit driving directions to the various locations.

It's interesting that all these books use words like "weird" or "curious" to describe things that in the past would have been part of everyday life. "Of course there are little monsters in the woods, sea monsters on the beach, and ghosts almost everywhere else", our ancestors would say. "What else would there be?" It would be weird for them if the world were otherwise. John Josselyn wouldn't be surprised by any of it!

September 03, 2008

Dungeon Rock: Pirates, treasure, and spirits

Jason and Peter eye the entrance to Dungeon Rock.

Pirate treasure! Spirit guides! A mysterious cave! Dungeon Rock in Lynn has all this, and it's right off Route 1 outside of Boston.

The stairway goes down...

The Dungeon Rock story, which is recounted in many books, goes something like this: In 1658, a pirate ship was spotted off the coast of Lynn, Massachusetts. After it departed, one of the pirates, Thomas Veal, took up residence under an enormous rock in a wooded part of Lynn. A rumor spread that Veal had a large treasure with him, but it couldn't be substantiated before he was buried under the rock by an earthquake.

... but the tunnel goes down even deeper!

In 1852, a Spiritualist named Hiram Marble and his family came to Lynn, determined to find the pirate treasure under Dungeon Rock. Guided by spirits, Hiram and his son Edwin chiseled their way into the rock. And chiseled. And chiseled. They dug for 28 years, following the direction of their spirit guides. Hiram died in 1868, and Edwin followed him in 1880, but they never found the treasure.

In July 2008, Tony and I went with our friends Jason and James to explore Dungeon Rock. (If you decide to go, check with the park ranger first to make sure it will be open). Even though the day was insanely hot, and we brought inadequate flashlights ("Are you crazy?", Jason said when he saw our pathetic LED flashlights), the trip was great for 3 reasons:

Jason near the bottom, holding one of our inadequate flashlights.

1. It's easy to get inside Dungeon Rock. There are stairs, and the Marbles' tunnel is large enough to walk upright. But it did get wet and very slippery towards the bottom, so be careful!

2. There are no vermin. The tunnel is sealed with a large iron door at night, so you don't have to worry about raccoons or bats. We didn't even see any spiders. Hmm. Maybe that iron door is designed to keep something inside?

3. The tunnel is just freaky (in a good way). Although the temperature outside was above 90 degrees, the tunnel was so cold we could see our breath. New Enlgand doesn't have a lot of caves, so this may be normal. But as the man-made tunnel spiraled down and down into solid rock, I realized how weird Dungeon Rock is. The Marbles spent years of their lives creating a long dark path to nothing!

Me, dazzled by the flash. Or is it cave madness?

Hiram Marble was hoping to prove the validity of Spiritualism by finding the treasure. Some writers say his tunnel to nowhere proves that Spiritualism is invalid, but wouldn't the Marbles have to be guided by something to spend so many years chiseling away? Maybe they really were guided by spirits, but maybe the spirits wanted to have a good laugh.

You can find out more about Dungeon Rock and Lynn Woods here.

September 01, 2008

Spaniel Puppy - the Culinary Sensation of 1672!

From John Josselyn's New-Englands Rarities Discovered:

The Moose Deer, which is a very goodly Creature, some of them twelve feet high, with exceeding fair Horns with borad Palms ... The flesh of their Fawns is an incomparable dish, beyond the flesh of an Asses Foal so highly esteemed by the Romans, or that of young Spaniel Puppies so much cried up in our days in France and England. (p.19).

I'm glad he doesn't provide any recipes for cocker spaniel dishes. However, he does claim that the Indians he met in Maine used necklaces of moose fawn teeth to ease teething pain in their infants.

August 29, 2008

Good News for the Mohegans

This isn't really folklore, but the Mohegans in Connecticut have reclaimed and blessed their royal burial ground located in Norwich, Connecticut.

Apparently, a Masonic temple was built on the site in the 1920's, although the tribe had been fighting to regain control of the burial ground even before then. Indian Country has a full article here:

A Masonic temple built on an Indian burial ground sounds like the premise for a horror movie, a cross between the Da Vinci Code and Poltergeist. Let's face it, though, the massacre and decimation of the native peoples of America was more horrifying than anything that Hollywood has churned out.

This is good news for the Mohegans and everyone who lives in New England, and it's exciting to hear they used the Mohegan language during the ceremony.

August 25, 2008

Cold Winter Ahead for 2009?

I love the Old Farmer's Almananc! It's full of great information about celestial phenomena, sunrises, full moons, etc. For example, did you know our next full moon on September 15th is called the Harvest Moon? If you didn't, you do now.

The 2009 Farmer's Almanac claims that winter 2009 will be a cold one, according to this article in the Boston Globe:

The editors of the almanac claim an 80 - 85% accuracy rate for their predictions. Their Web site is at:

August 24, 2008

Jenny Lind Tower and Highland Light: Ghosts or Ticks?

I vacationed in Truro last week, and decided to visit Highland Light, a historic lighthouse on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. Nearby is the Jenny Lind Tower, which some people claim is haunted.

Jenny Lind was a famous opera singer in the 19th century. Her 1850 performance at the Boston Opera House was oversold by PT Barnum, and people who couldn't fit into the auditorium began a riot. To soothe them, Lind performed for the mob in the street from a nearby tower. Voila! Riot averted.

In 1927, a local businessman moved the tower from Boston to Truro. According to Thomas D'Agostino's Haunted Massachusetts, the tower is haunted by Jenny Lind's ghost - and she disapproves of modern music.

I visited Highland Light on a sunny, breezy morning. Nothing spooky was going on, but the setting and view are very dramatic. I couldn't get up into the tower because it was filled with other tourists, but I did stop by the Truro Historical Society's museum, which is adjacent to the lighthouse in an old hotel. I could see the Jenny Lind Tower in the distance (near a radar dome), but had no clue how to get there. Perhaps the museum could give me some more information?

I enjoyed visiting the museum, which features local artists, historic artifacts (Algonquian arrowheads, midden heaps, harpoons, etc.), numerous hotel rooms decorated in period style, and the Shipwreck Room, which would make a great name for a bar. There were some photos of Jenny Lind and her eponymous tower on the stairs.

After touring the museum, I asked the volunteers manning the desk if there was any way to get to the Jenny Lind Tower.

"I went there once on a tour," one staffer offered, "but it's on government land. There aren't any roads leading to it. You can't climb it anyway."

Another staffer said, "Well, you can go there if you want, if you don't mind getting covered with ticks."

I do mind getting covered in ticks. My fear of Lyme Disease outweighed my curiosity about Jenny Lind's possible ghost.

Even though I didn't get to see the tower, the trip was still fruitful. Highland Light is worth visiting, the museum was interesting, and I bought a copy of John Josselyn's New-Englands Rarities Discovered in the gift shop. It's a great source of early New England folklore first published in 1672. I'll share some of it's more interesting highlights in the future.