December 27, 2010

Top Ten New England Folkore Stories of 2010

There are a lot of top ten lists out this week. The top ten movies, the top ten fashion faux pas, the top ten books, etc.

Here's the only list worth reading - the top ten New England folkore stories of 2010, based on the number of hits they received on this blog. Enjoy, and thanks for reading in 2010!

1. Nathaniel Hawthorne Sees A Ghost
A famous author goes to the library and encounters the ghost of someone he never spoke to. Soul searching ensues! This post is so popular it makes me wonder if local schools assign Hawthorne's story for English class and kids are searching the Web rather than reading the assignment.

2. Dungeon Rock: Pirates, Treasure and Spirits
Pirates? Yes. Buried treasure? Yes. A cave and spirits? Yes. Convenient location in Lynn, Massachusetts? Yes. A photo of me looking insane? Yes. Even though I posted this way back in 2008, clearly Dungeon Rock still has everything people want to read about.

3. Cannibal Giants of the Snowy Northern Forest
This one is another oldie (from 2009), but we all like reading about monsters, particularly when they could be lurking in your own backyard. Great reading for a blizzardy day like today. Make sure you stock up on supplies first...

4. The Dogtown Werewolf
Another monster, another popular post. Does a werewolf really haunt Dogtown Common on Cape Anne? I can't decide, but the evidence and coincidences are definitely creepy.

5. Why Babies Shouldn't See Mirrors and Vampires Have No Reflection
Readers are either interested in supernatural advice for new mothers or the vampire craze has spilled over to this blog. Either way, folklore about reflections and the soul is interesting stuff.

6. Full Buck Moon
A good post for hunters, Native Americans, Wiccans and animal lovers. I think I covered a lot of diverse constituencies with one post!

7. Negro Election Day
Election Day used to be THE holiday in New England, but African Americans weren't allowed to vote so they were missing all the fun. It was a conundrum, but human ingenuity and the need for a party triumphed!

8. Thomas Morton and the Maypole of Merrymount
Very, very briefly a multi-cultural, tolerant, fun-loving utopian outpost flourished in Quincy, Massachusetts. Maybe someday it will return! This was also another post with a Nathaniel Hawthorne connection.

9. Grandmother Woodchuck
We all need a wise, grandmother to look after us. The Algonquian hero Glookskap's grandmother just happened to be a magical woodchuck. Anyone have a problem with that?

10. Indian Pudding
It's sweet, it's salty, it's spicy and it's made with cornmeal. Could Indian pudding be the perfect food? The thousands who have read this post clearly think so.

December 19, 2010

The Nation's First Christmas Cookie Recipe?

Photo from Flickr.

At this time of year I can't stop eating baked goods. I seem to have an endless capacity for sugar and fat in December. Once January arrives I finally say "Enough!" and get back to a normal eating pattern.

Christmas has traditionally been associated with gluttony and baked goods. Here, for example, is a very old Christmas cookie recipe from Amelia Simmons's 1798 book American Cookery (published in Hartford). Since Simmons wrote the first American cookbook, I suppose this is the country's first Christmas cookie recipe.

Another Christmas Cookey.

To three pound flour, sprinkle a tea cup of fine powdered coriander seed, rub in one pound butter, and one and half pound sugar, dissolve three tea spoonfuls of pearl ash in a tea cup of milk, kneed all together well, roll three quarters of an inch thick, and cut or stamp into shape and size you please, bake slowly fifteen or twenty minutes; tho' hard and dry at first, if put into an earthen pot, and dry cellar, or damp room, they will be finer, softer and better when six months old.

A few thoughts here:

1. The recipe is called "Another Christmas Cookey", but there is no other Christmas cookey recipe in the book. The recipe preceding this one is for sugar cookies, and I guess her readers would understand they were for Christmas.

2. Coriander seed has fallen out of fashion as a cookie flavor! Is it time for a revival? This recipe uses a lot of coriander, assuming a tea cup is as big as a modern measuring cup.

3. The recipe calls for pearl ash. Also known as potash or potassium bicarbonate, this was an early chemical leavener similar to baking powder. Apparently, it can still be found at beer-making supply stores. This site compares different leaveners, which I found interesting.

4. If you want these cookies for Christmas, you better start in June since it takes six months for them to soften up! Increasing the amount of butter would probably make these softer right out of the oven, and would also decrease the risk of them getting moldy down in your cellar.

December 14, 2010

A Little Green Man for Christmas

Here's a weird story I first read in Joseph Citro's great book of folklore, Passing Strange.

The place: the woods of Derry, NH, a small town near the Massachusetts border.

The time: December 15, 1956. Fifty four years ago!

A local man was out in the woods, cutting down Christmas trees. He was alone, and as we all know when you're in the woods by yourself things can get spooky. Usually there's no reason to be afraid, but in this case there was.

As the man looked up from a tree he had cut he saw something strange. Really strange.

Standing near him was a little green humanoid. It was about two feet tall, with a big head and large floppy dog-like ears. It had two slits for a nose, and like a reptile it's eyes were covered with protective membranes. It was naked, and had stumpy arms and legs and toeless feet.

The man watched the creature for about twenty minutes, and then tried to capture it. The little green man became terrified and started screeching so loudly and hideously that its would-be captor ran off. I don't know if he took his trees with him, but I kind of doubt it.

Since this encounter took place around Christmas time I'd like to think the creature was an elf, or maybe the Grinch's baby.

We'll never really know what it was, but Derry historian Richard Holmes has traced this story back to its original source, some letters between Derry resident Alfred Horne and UFO researcher Walter Webb. Horne was the man who actually encountered the little green man, and since he wrote to a UFO researcher I guess he thought it was an extraterrestrial of some kind.

This story reminded me of two other stories. First, Derry is the home of Tsieneto, the fairy that allegedly helped Hannah Duston in her escape. I've never read a description of Tsienneto, but maybe she had green skin and snake's eyes.

Second, twenty minutes seems like a long time to watch a scary little humanoid in the woods, but a woman in Winhall, Vermont who encountered another small (but hairy) humanoid said she stared at him for forty minutes. It was almost as if she were in a trance.

The lesson I take away from this story? Buy your tree from a tree farm!

December 05, 2010

Is Mrs. Claus a Wellesley Graduate?

Well, not quite.

But she was first mentioned by Katharine Lee Bates, a Massachusetts native and Wellesley professor, in the year 1889.

In her poem Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride Bates wrote,

Santa, must I tease in vain, Dear? Let me
go and hold the reindeer,
While you clamber down the chimneys.
Don't look savage as a Turk!
Why should you have all the glory of the
joyous Christmas story,
And poor little Goody Santa Claus have
nothing but the work?

Katharine Lee Bates is probably best known for writing America the Beautiful, but introducing Mrs. Claus is also an important accomplishment!

The term "goody" here is not Mrs. Claus's first name (that's unknown) but is short for "goodwife", an old New England term for a married woman. Perhaps Mrs. Claus was a native New Englander who later in life moved to the North Pole?

Katharine Lee Bates herself never legally married, but instead spent twenty-five years in a Boston marriage with Katharine Coman, a Wellesley professor of economics. The relationship only ended when Coman died in 1915.

"Boston marriage" is another interesting term, and was applied to two unmarried women who lived together for a long period of time. Were Bates and Coman lesbians in the modern sense of the word? Like Mrs. Claus's first name, we'll probably never know.

Finally, what about the phrase "savage as a Turk"? If you've ever met anyone from Turkey you'll know they're no more savage than anyone else, so what's up with Bates's Turkophobia?

I think in part it comes from 19th century ethnocentrism - I seriously doubt there were any Turkish students at Wellesley in 1889. The savage Turk image may also come from the old tradition of mummer's plays, which have been performed at Christmas in Britain for centuries and in New England during the 18th century. One of the main characters in these plays is the Turkish Knight, who slays Saint George. Happily, George is brought back to life and everyone (including the Turkish knight) sings, dances and gets drunk. I guess there are no hard feelings!

I got some of this information from Amy Whorf McGuiggan's Christmas in New England. The information about Bates's Boston marriage is from the History Project's Improper Bostonians.

November 30, 2010

Boise Rock!

Tony and I recently went up to northern New Hampshire to visit family, and the trip took us through Franconia Notch near Cannon Mountain. Luckily the weather was good, because when it's bad driving through the Notch is miserable.

In the early 1800s, a local man named Thomas Boise found out just how miserable. Boise was heading through the Notch on a horse-drawn sleigh when a howling snowstorm struck. He tried to drive the horse through to the comparative safety on the other side, but his efforts were futile. There was too much snow, and the horse, sleigh and Boise became stuck in Franconia Notch in blizzard conditions.

The foreboding cliffs of Cannon Mountain seen from Franconia Notch.

Fearful that he would freeze to death, Boise devised a gruesome but ingenious plan. He killed and skinned his horse, and then wrapped himself in its warm bloody hide. A convenient overhanging boulder provided extra shelter during the storm.

His plan worked. The next day a rescue party found Boise alive and wrapped in the horse hide under the boulder. The hide had been frozen solid, and the rescuers had to cut him out of it with axes.

Tony under Boise Rock. Just a light dusting of snow!

Luckily these days most travelers don't need to go to such extreme lengths, but the overhanging boulder (now called Boise Rock) is still around in case you need emergency shelter. It's right off Route 93 and there's a sign guiding you right to it. It's not the most exciting tourist attraction in the area, but I like the legend attached to it.

Thomas Boise's story reminds me a little bit of The Empire Strikes Back, where Han Solo saves Luke from freezing by putting his body into the dead body of a steed called a Tauntaun. Maybe this is a recurring theme in folktales? If anyone has more examples I'd be happy to hear about them!

If you like reading about famous New England rocks, you might like my earlier posts about Anawan Rock and Dungeon Rock.

November 21, 2010

Over the River and Through the Woods to Medford!

I'm a big fan of all the Charlie Brown holiday specials, but over the years my appreciation for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has really grown. I used to consider it the least significant of the Peanuts specials, but now it might be my favorite.

It also has a New England connection. As the show ends, after all the complications and emotional traumas have been resolved, the kids ride off to Charlie Brown's grandmother's house singing "Over the River and Through the Woods." Yay! A happy ending. (Then Woodstock and Snoopy eat turkey, which makes Tony wonder if Woodstock is a cannibal of some kind. I think the turkey is just a symbol of restored social order.)

The happy ending wouldn't be possible without Lydia Marie Child (1802- 1880) a novelist, abolitionist and cookbook author who was a native of Medford, Massachusetts. She wrote "Over the River..." for an 1844 book called Flowers for Children Volume II. The poem was originally titled "A Boy's Thanksgiving." You can see the full poem here.

The poem recalls Child's own trip to see her grandfather who lived near the Mystic River in Medford. His house still stands on South Street and is now owned by Tufts.

Grandfather's house image from this Tufts blog.

The tune for "Over the River and Through the Woods" apparently is from an old French folk tune but I'm not sure how it got connected to Child's poem.

These days some people are confused by the lyrics because they sound so wintry. Sleigh rides in November? Snow in Medford for Thanksgiving? Maybe she wrote it remembering one particularly cold year, or maybe the climate was different then. Global warming strikes again!

Because the lyrics are about snow, the song is sometimes associated with Christmas. I also think most people change the word's "grandfather's house" to "grandmother's house." We may be suffering from global warming but at least we have more equality between the sexes.

Have a great Thanksgiving. And as Charlie Brown says,"There's just one problem. My grandmother lives in a condominium!"

November 17, 2010

Cranberry Sauce and an Unusual Cocktail Recipe

Thanksgiving will be here soon, and most people will be eating turkey with cranberry sauce. This now classic combination was first mentioned in American Cookery, our nation's first cookbook.

Published in Hartford, Connecticut in 1798 the book's full title is: American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life. That's a mouthful!

Of the author Amelia Simmons nothing is known except she was an orphan. We know this because on the title page of American Cookery etc. it bluntly says "By Amelia Simmons, an American orphan." Prior to Amelia's book, Americans had to make do with cookbooks from England. Her innovation was to write a book with recipes using local ingredients like cornmeal, pumpkins and cranberries.

Some recipes in American Cookery are of interest more for historic purposes than practical. After all, how many of us are making mince pies out of calf's feet or need to dress a turtle?

Similarly, here's a cocktail recipe it's unlikely you'll be trying this holiday season:

To make a fine Syllabub from the Cow.
Sweeten a quart of cyder with double refined sugar, grate nutmeg into it, then milk your cow into your liquor, when you have thus added what quantity of milk you think proper, pour half a pint or more, in proportion to the quantity of syllabub you make, of the sweetest cream you can get all over it.

On the other hand, her recipe for cooking a turkey is one that my carnivorous readers might actually use:

To stuff and roast a Turkey, or Fowl.

One pound soft wheat bread, 3 ounces beef suet, 3 eggs, a little sweet thyme, sweet majoram, pepper and salt, and some add a gill of wine; fill the bird therewith and sew up, hand down to a steady solid fire, basting frequently with salt and water, and roast until a steam emits from the breast, put one third of a pound of butter into the gravy, dust flour over the bird and baste with the gravy; serve up with boiled onions and cramberry-sauce, mangoes, pickles or celery.

And there in the last sentence is the first mention of cranberry cranberry sauce (or cramberry sauce, as she spells it) as a side dish with turkey. It's exciting to know people have been eating this combination for at least two hundred years! I guess the mangoes didn't catch on with the public, though.

You can find the full text of American Cookery online at this great site.

November 11, 2010

Satan, the Pope and a Cross Dresser: Guy Fawkes Day

This week I have the post Halloween blues, so I'm writing about another raucous holiday. Halloween wasn't really celebrated in New England until the 19th century, when Irish and Scottish immigrants brought it to this area. However, before that people here did have a holiday with costumes, door-to-door begging, and even jack-o-lanterns: Guy Fawkes Day.

Guy Fawkes was an English Catholic who plotted to blow up the predominantly Protestant British parliament on November 5, 1605. Unfortunately for him, he was seen leaving the basement of the Parliament building, and officials soon discovered the gunpowder kegs he hoped to ignite. He and his co-conspirators were executed. November 5 became a holiday in England known as Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night - it celebrated the foiling of the gunpowder plot.

Guy Fawkes Day didn't become popular in New England until the late 1600s. As I've mentioned many times, the area's Puritan leaders frowned on nearly all holidays, but surprisingly tolerated this one. I think its anti-Catholic tone supported their own theocratic agenda.

To celebrate gangs of boys and men would create one or more effigies, usually of Guy Fawkes, the Pope, and sometimes Satan. Once night fell they'd get drunk, put on costumes and parade around town with their effigies asking for money. At the end of the night they'd burn the effigies and set off fireworks. (It's not expressly documented, but the next morning everyone probably nursed a really bad hangover.)

A 1769 woodcut showing a Boston wagon with Satan and the Pope.

In large cities the celebrations were be quite elaborate. For example, in Boston gangs of lower-class men and boys pulled their effigies around town on large wagons. The gang members also wore matching devil or choirboy costumes and hired musicians to accompany them. Engravings from the 18th century show these wagons topped with large effigies of the Pope and Satan. What they don't show is that one gang member often dressed in drag and danced on the wagon while lasciviously caressing the effigies.

In addition to the anti-Catholic bigotry, Guy Fawkes Day celebrations usually involved violence. Gang members would sometimes abuse people who didn't give them money, and rival gangs often battled to destroy each others effigies. In Boston, the North End and South End gangs were notorious rivals and frequently ended the night clubbing each other senseless. Innocent bystanders often got injured or worse during the festivities - in 1764 an infant in the North End was killed when it fell under the wagon's wheels. That year the constables dispersed the marchers, but they regrouped a few blocks away and continued.

After the American Revolution Guy Fawkes Day celebrations started to fade away. One theory is that New Englanders didn't want to offend their Catholic French allies who helped them in the war against the British, but a more plausible reason is that they no longer wanted to celebrate a holiday commemorating the salvation of the British government.

Guy Fawkes Day was still celebrated as late as 1893 in Newburyport, Massachusetts where boys paraded around an effigy while blowing horns and carrying jack-o-lanterns. (Jack-o-lanterns, which we now associate exclusively with Halloween, were originally used at any autumn party or celebration.) But by this time Halloween was popular in the U.S., and it eventually absorbed the costumes and general mischief of Guy Fawkes Day. The door-to-door begging for money became our modern practice of trick or treat.

I got most of this information and from an essay by Peter Benes in New England Celebrates: Spectacle, Commemoration and Festivity.

November 01, 2010

Election Day Cake!

The Puritans who settled in New England weren't big on holidays. They didn't condone celebrations like Christmas or Halloween, which they thought were pagan and without Biblical validity. (I think some fundamentalist groups feel the same way even today!)

They did celebrate election day, however. Much as we do now, the Puritans would vote for their local officials in the fall, but they didn't take office until the following May. This day in May was celebrated as Election Day. By the mid-18th century parades, parties and athletic contests became part of the celebration.

If only politics were as sweet and tasty as this cake!

One consistent feature of Election Day celebrations since the early 1600s was a special yeasted cake made with nuts, dried fruit and spices. Because these ingredients (and even flour and sugar) were quite expensive the cakes would only be made for special occasions.

I found this information in the 2009 Old Farmer's Almanac, which also had a recipe for the cake. Of course I had to try it! It wasn't too hard to make and was tasty in a mildly sweet way.

But there was something strangely familiar about the taste. It tasted like an Entemann's coffee cake! Maybe the people at Entemann's are using a 400 year old recipe?

If you don't want have last year's almanac lying around and you don't want to buy a coffee cake at the store, you can find recipes for Election Day Cake here and here. But make sure all that baking doesn't keep you from the polls!

October 31, 2010

October Horror Mania: Midnight Mary

I've been super busy at work lately, but I wanted to end this month with one more tale of Yankee style horror: Midnight Mary!

If you visit New Haven Connecticut's Evergreen Cemetery, you might stumble upon the somewhat ominous grave stone of Mary E. Hart. The epitaph reads

At high noon
Just from and about to renew
Her daily work, in her full strength of
Body and mind
Mary E. Hart
Having fallen prostrate
Remained unconscious, until she died at midnight
October 15, 1872
Born December 16, 1824

Above this, large bold letters spell out the following:


In his book Legendary Connecticut David E. Philips explains that because almost nothing is known about the real, historical Mary E. Hart, many legends have arisen to explain her spooky funerary monument.

Most of them are pretty gruesome. For example:

  • A few days after Mary was buried, one of her aunts had a dream that she was still alive in her coffin. To calm the aunt's fears, the family opened Mary's grave. They were horrified to see her body twisted in a painful position and her fingers shredded and bloody. The aunt had been right! They reburied Mary and put up the gravestone to detract attention from her premature burial.
  • Mary had been a witch while she was alive, and threatened on her death bed that anyone who disturbed her grave would die at midnight. Naturally, three teenagers went to her grave at night to test the theory. Ha! Nothing happened. Until, seven years later, one of them was found dead with his throat ripped out. Seven years later the second died the same way. Finally, after another seven years, the last interloper died as well. The throat-ripping murderer was never found.
  • Three sailors visiting New Haven decided to see if the legend of Midnight Mary was true. When they didn't report back for duty the next day police searched the cemetery. Their hats were found near Mary's grave, but their bodies were found impaled on the iron fence surrounding Evergreen Cemetery. Something had frightened them, and all three had died while trying to escape over the fence.
There are a couple Midnight Mary videos on YouTube. This first is a trailer for a horror film. I love that it starts "Sometimes summoning the dead isn't such a good idea." Sometimes?!

And this is footage of some brave college kids who go to see Mary's grave. How will it end?

Have a safe and happy Halloween!

October 17, 2010

October Horror Mania: The Two Lost Hunters

Misty Maine woods from this site.

The Malecite (or Maliseet) are an Indian tribe that live in northern Maine and parts of Canada. Like many other native groups who live in cold climates, their folklore has stories about cannibal monsters and other nasty creatures. This gruesome story collected by the University of Maine Folklife Center is perfect as the days get short and the nights get cold.


Two hunters became lost in the woods. As night came on they happened upon an abandoned cabin. They were cold so naturally they went in.

No one had been inside the cabin for years, but there was still a pile of dry wood next to the fireplace. They would be warm and dry for the night. But there was just one problem - lying in the bunk was a dried out human corpse.

One hunter said nervously "I don't want to stay here with that thing!"

The other one said "Why are you so scared? He's been dead a long time!" and put the body over with the wood.

Both hunters climbed into the bunk, but the more nervous one couldn't fall asleep. Instead, he listened to his friend snoring.

After a while, the snoring became a gurgling sound. The gurgling went on and on. It didn't sound good.

The nervous hunter lit his lantern to see what was going on. He was horrified to see the corpse lying on top of his friend! The corpse had chewed through his neck and was sucking out his blood.

The hunter ran out of the cabin as fast as he could. But as he ran through the woods, a glowing ball of fire flew behind him, howling wildly. Amazingly, in his panic the hunter ran all the way through the woods back to his own home. Just as the ball of fire was about to engulf him he ran inside and slammed the door. Then he passed out on the floor, unconscious.

The next morning he told his neighbors what had happened. They set out for the abandoned cabin, bringing a priest with them. When they reached the cabin they found the dead hunter's bloodless body and the dried out corpse. Its mouth was stained with blood.

They removed the hunter's body for a proper burial, and then they lit the cabin on fire. They could hear a voice inside, screaming for help, but the priest told them to ignore it. The cabin eventually collapsed in flames. As it did a glowing ball shot into the sky where it disappeared, never to be seen again.

October 10, 2010

October Horror Mania: "More Weight!"

This weekend Tony and I visited Salem with our friend Lori. The town was in the grip of Halloween mania! Hundreds of people were walking around in witch hats, friend dough was for sale outside the cemetery, and we had to wait in lines to get into Samantha's costume shop and the witchcraft supply store Hex.

Of course, the hardships we faced as Salem tourists were nothing compared to what Giles Corey endured in 1692.

Fried dough outside the cemetery. Yes, it smelled really good.

Giles Corey was an elderly farmer in Salem Village who had a reputation for being stubborn and mean-tempered. As Marion Starkey writes in The Devil in Massachusetts,

This Giles even at eighty was a powerful brute of a man, slow of comprehension, but quick of temper, and so born to trouble as the sparks fly upward; his life had been punctuated by lawsuits and worse.

Starkey doesn't write what the "worse" was, but according to information at the Salem Wax Museum, Giles was rumored to have beaten one of his servants to death. He doesn't sound like a nice guy.

Giles Corey mannequin at the Salem Wax Museum.

His wife Martha was a strong-willed and outspoken woman, and expressed her doubts about the Salem witch trials when they erupted in 1692. Naturally this led to her being accused of witchcraft herself by the allegedly possessed girls.

Giles was called as a witness at her trial. He said he found it hard to pray when Martha was around and that he once found her mysteriously kneeling by the hearth at midnight. He initially agreed with the court that his wife was a witch, but when he himself was later indicted he changed his tune. He realized that she was as innocent as he was.

Although he wasn't too bright, Giles knew if he was convicted of witchcraft the authorities would confiscate all his property. So rather than stand on trial and lose his family's fortune, Giles refused to speak. If he didn't say a word there couldn't be a trial.

Sheriff George Corwin decided to make him talk. This is where things get gruesome.

The sheriff applied what was known as peine forte et dure, or hard and forceful punishment: slow crushing by heavy weight. Giles was stripped naked and tied to the ground outside the jail. Boards were placed across his chest, and rocks were piled on.

Giles still refused to talk.

The sheriff put on more rocks.

Giles didn't say a word.

The sheriff added more and more rocks. This continued for two days. According to tradition, the words Giles said were "More weight..."

Giles died after two days. His tongue protruded from his mouth due to the pressure on his body, and Sheriff Corwin allegedly pushed it back in using his cane.

Martha was hanged three days later. Their family, however, got to keep their land because Giles refused to speak.

Giles Corey stone at the witchcraft trial memorial.

Martha and Giles had both been excommunicated before their deaths, but this was revoked after the Salem witch trials ended. It doesn't seem to have helped Giles feel any better in his unmarked grave. His ghost is rumored to still haunt Salem, particularly around times of disaster. But unlike ghosts who arrive before disasters to give warning, Giles only seems to show up afterward.

He probably comes to gloat.

October 04, 2010

October Horror Mania: Rufus Goodrich's Funeral

The Beckley Tavern in Berlin, Connecticut. From Catherine North's History of Berlin Connecticut (1916).

Well it's October, and October means Halloween. And Halloween means scary stuff. Stuff even scarier than my usual posts about ghosts, phantom hitchhikers and Bigfoot hiding in the barn.

Last October I blogged about New England monsters, both well-known and obscure. This year I thought I'd start the month with one of the more gruesome tales I've read recently. Apparently it's true.

This story comes from Catherine North's 1916 book History of Berlin, Connecticut. It's an innocuous title for a book that a tale of such ... supernatural evil! (Insert your own maniacal laughter here if you choose.)


Back in the mid-nineteenth century, the hard-working men of Berlin, Connecticut liked to gather at the local cider mill. Why a cider mill? Because back then most cider was alcoholic!

One night while the men were imbibing and talking about work Rufus Goodrich came in. No one paid him any notice. Although he came from a prominent local family, Rufus was lazy and had never amounted to anything. He was a joke around town.

As the other men drank and talked, Rufus sat in the corner silently sipping his cider with a smirk on his face. But the more he drank the less silent he became. First he began to mutter. Then he started to giggle. The other men still ignored him. But when he started to cackle wildly, the conversation in the room stopped.

"What's your problem you lazy idiot?" a prominent farmer finally shouted.

He said, "No problems, not anymore. I'm just laughing because I'm going to be famous while you're all stuck in this miserable little hamlet."

"Famous? For what?! Being an idiot?" The men laughed drunkenly.

Rufus ignored them and continued talking. "This evening I was walking through the woods when I encountered a man dressed all in black. But he wasn't an ordinary man... he was the Dark Man himself. The Devil!"

Some men laughed, but a few remembered their grandmothers' old stories and grew quiet.

"He asked me how much it would cost to buy my soul. 'I don't want to be rich', I said, 'I want to be famous. How famous can you make me?'"

"The Devil said, 'What if I told you that thousands would attend your funeral? Would that be famous enough?' I said 'Thousands at my funeral? You bet! Where do I sign?'"

Rufus drained his glass and slammed it down. "So I sold him my soul. And now gentleman, good night. Fame awaits!"

The next day word spread quickly through Berlin that Rufus Goodrich had sold his soul. People assumed he had left town to find fame because no one had seen him since he left the cider mill.

A few days later a farmer noticed a loud buzzing sound coming from inside one of his barns. He also could smell something awful inside.

When he went into the barn he found the source of the terrible odor. There was Rufus Goodrich's body, wedged between two hayposts. It looked like he had fallen and broken his neck, and had been there a few days.

The buzzing was caused by the fat black flies that crawled over Rufus's bloating corpse and swarmed through barn. The farmer had never seen so many flies! At first he thought there must be hundreds of them.

But then he realized there were even more. The Devil had kept his word. Rufus's funeral was indeed attended by thousands... of flies.

September 22, 2010

Rainsford Island: Quarantine Hospital, Unmarked Graves ... and a Viking?

A couple weeks ago we took a trip to Rainsford Island in Boston Harbor. Even though it's part of the Harbor Islands park system, it's not included on the official ferry route. It's a place most people don't see, so we were lucky to get there on an excursion sponsored by the Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands.

The eastern half of Rainsford Island.

There is a brief legend associated with Rainsford Island. According to Edward Rowe Snow, a prominent local maritime historian, a skeleton carrying an iron sword was unearthed on the island in the 1820s. Snow thought the skeleton belonged to a Viking named Torvald.

That's really not much of a legend, and it probably came from the same Norseman fever that gave rise to wild stories about the Newport Tower. The island's real history is actually a lot more interesting than the legend.

Tony ready to explore!

The island was first used by local Indians for fishing, and was later deeded in 1632 to one Edward Rainsford, who used it as a farm.

I guess farming on a small rocky island didn't work out, and in the 1700s Rainsford Island was used to quarantine sick sailors arriving from other ports. The authorities didn't want them carrying disease into Boston, so they were put in a hospital on the island until they either recovered or died.

Rainsford's cemetery.

And apparently a lot of them died. The island has a large graveyard that may contain thousands of bodies. If there were any headstones they're long gone except for these four stone posts, which probably supported a chain around an important person's monument. We don't know who that important person was.

Rainsford was also used to quarantine Boston citizens who were ill with diseases like yellow fever. Citizens and sailors alike were housed in a large hospital nicknamed the Greek Temple because of its large columns.

The Greek Temple (from this site).

Today, nothing remains of the hospital except a few foundation stones and possibly a stairwell.

The hospital's foundation today.

However, the rocks near the shore below the hospital site are carved with several centuries of graffiti. The oldest seems to be from 1647! It was amazing to see the names and dates of people who were quarantined or worked here over the years.

Rocky shore.

Historic graffiti on the rocks.

After the quarantine hospital was shut down, the island was used as a reform school and a poorhouse. Today, there's nothing on the island except a few foundations, an old well and graffiti.

The well on the eastern part of the island. Anybody down there?

It was definitely a great trip, even if we didn't see any Vikings.

September 20, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft's Grave

My recent posts have been about a trip Tony and I took along Route 44. Our appropriately final stop on the trip was Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island. We went to see the grave of H.P. Lovecraft.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, one of the most influential horror writers of the twentieth century, reinvented this Gothic genre for the modern world by combining New England folklore, science, and a grim materialist worldview. He was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890 to Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft and Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a traveling salesman. Winfield was hospitalized when H.P. was three years old, apparently for a mental breakdown, and died in 1898 from syphilis. (A lot of critics speculate this influenced most of H.P.'s fiction.)Lovecraft and his mother were later supported by his maternal grandfather and aunts, but the death of his grandfather in 1904 placed the family into near poverty.

The man himself.

Lovecraft eked out a living as a pulp writer. Stories with titles like "The Thing on the Doorstep" and "The Haunter of the Dark" appeared in pulp magazines like Weird Tales, Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories. Although he was popular with readers and loved writing, he never made much money. He died in 1937 from intestinal cancer, possibly exacerbated by a poor diet.

Unlike a lot of pulp writers, Lovecraft's work has grown in popularity. Hollywood makes movies influenced by it, and writers continue to emulate it. But why?

Swan Point in Providence.

In some ways, his work is repetitive and cliche ridden. Most tales involve a WASPy introverted narrator who stumbles upon unspeakable ancient evil and is driven insane or transformed into a hideous goopy mess. (See note above about insane syphilitic father.) Personally, I think his work remains popular partly because he created his own pantheon of monstrous deities for the modern world. These extradimensional entities, including the enormous squid-like Cthulhu and the sinister Nyarlathotep, and the mysterious books about them, like the fabled Necronomicon, comprise what fans label the Cthulhu Mythos.

A mournful monument.

Lovecraft himself was an atheist, and was quite explicit that he was writing fiction. But not everyone believes him. Some modern occultists like Phil Hine and Kenneth Grant claim they use his work in real, effective magic. Perhaps, they say, Lovecraft was really a sinister mage who encoded his dark knowledge in fiction. Or maybe he thought he was making things up but in reality was unconsciously accessing occult knowledge through his dreams. Who knows? Maybe the Lovecraftian gods really are lurking out there somewhere. Maybe someday Cthulhuism will become a major world religion, and Providence will be its Vatican City.

Offerings at Lovecraft's grave.

Lovecraft loved Providence and all of New England, and included lots of local folklore in his stories. He used witch lore frequently, but also referenced more obscure folklore as well. For example, "The Dunwich Horror" includes references to whippoorwills, the mysterious Moodus Noises and the standing stones on Burnt Hill. He really liked to ground his cosmic terror in the specific New England milieu. So, if you're out looking for Cthulhu or some other hideous Lovecraftian creature, you don't need to travel very far. A hideous unspeakable horror could be residing behind a gift shop on the Mohawk Trail even as we speak!

His tombstone, which reads "I am Providence", is in his family plot. When we visited it was surrounded by grave side offerings of stones, coins, and crow feathers placed there by fans of this New England original.


The cemetery is lovely, and you can visit Lovecraft's grave yourself following the directions on, a Rhode Island tourist site.

Remember that Swan Point is an operational cemetery, so if you go please be respectful. And don't even think of going on Halloween. My friend Matt, who is a Lovecraft expert, says the cemetery posts extra guards that night.

September 13, 2010

Red-Headed Hitchhiker of Route 44

There's a classic urban legend called the Phantom Hitchhiker, which goes something like this.

One night, a man's driving down a dark country road when he notices a young lady hitchhiking by the side of the road. She's pretty, with long blonde hair, and she's wearing a blue dress. The man thinks, "She looks safe. Why not pick her up?"

The young lady gets in the passenger seat and says "There's a big white farm house about a mile down the road. Could you drop me off there?"

The man agrees. The hitchhiker doesn't say anything else, and he doesn't push her for more information.

After a mile, the man sees a big white farm house. He turns to the young lady and says "Is this the place?"

But she's not there. The passenger seat is empty.

He pulls over in front of the farm house and looks in the back seat. She's not there either.

An old woman comes out of the house and says, "Hey! What's all the commotion?"

The man explains that a young woman just disappeared from his moving car. The old woman says,"What did she look like?"

"She was pretty, with long blonde hair, and a blue dress."

The old woman says "You just described my daughter. She died in a car accident on this road ten years ago tonight."

As far as ghosts go, the Phantom Hitchhiker is pretty innocuous. But there's a hitchhiking ghost on Route 44 in Massachusetts who seems a little more malevolent.

People who have seen the ghost describe him as a red-haired, middle-aged man in a flannel shirt. He doesn't say much, and is pretty quiet - at least at first.

In one story, a driver picks up the red-haired man, who gets in the back seat. Naturally, it's late at night.

"Where are you headed?", the driver asks.

The hitcher says nothing but just points straight ahead. But as they head down the road, he starts to giggle. The giggles become loud laughs.

"You want to tell me what's so funny?", the driver says. The hitchhiker says nothing, and the laughs become howls of wild, derisive laughter.

"You better knock it off if you want a ride!" the driver says.

The hitcher keeps laughing. The driver looks into the rearview mirror, and sees the red-haired man's face distorted with malice, his eyes bugged out with insane glee. And then, suddenly, the red-haired hitchhiker disappears like a soap bubble. Only his laughter lingers on, slowly fading away into the night.

The red-headed hitchhiker haunts Route 44 in Massachusetts along the Seekonk/Rehoboth border at night. It's the same stretch of road where Ananwan Rock is located. Luckily, Tony and I didn't encounter him on our trip down there. We were there during the day!

This story, and others about red-headed hitchhiker, can be found in Thomas D'Agostino's Haunted Massachusetts, and Joseph Citro's Weird New England. Some of the stories are even stranger than this one.

September 03, 2010

The Spirits of Anawan Rock

Someone should write a book called Notable Rocks of New England, because there are just so many of them. For example there's Dungeon Rock, Dighton Rock, and of course Anawan Rock in Rehoboth Mass., where Tony I stopped last weekend on our way to Providence.

An inconspicuous sign on Route 44.

We knew the rock was somewhere on Route 44, but we couldn't quite find it, so we stopped to ask directions. We were hoping to find a grizzled old-timer in a rocking chair who would say "Anawan Rock? Why you be wantin' to go there? Stay away if you know what's good for you..."

Instead, we stopped at a really nice farm, and asked a very pleasant woman if she knew where the rock was. Our hopes for Scooby Doo style mystery rose briefly when she said "Anawan Rock? No one's asked for directions there since that guy on the bike last year..." But they were dashed when her co-worker chimed in, "No, he was looking for some other rock. Anawan Rock's down the street near Uncle Ed's ice cream store!" We followed their directions past the ice cream store (which was not spooky), until we saw the sign for the rock.

Tony clambers up the rock.

Nothing weird or eerie happened on our trip to Anawan Rock, but the rock has a history that is tragic, and there's also a creepy legend attached to it. Why else would we want to visit it?

The tragedy occurred in August of 1676, when the Algonquin sachem Anawan and his men took refuge at the rock as King Philips' War was winding down. Metacom, aka King Philip, had been killed by the English in early August and the tide had clearly turned in favor of the colonists. As one of Metacom's supporters, Anawan knew he was next on the colonists' hit list.

Despite the drought, the rock was still covered with lush moss.

It's not clear why he chose this particularly rock for a last stand, but it could be because it's located near a swamp. The Algonquins often retreated to swampy areas in times of trouble, both for practical defensive reasons and because spirit allies like Hobbomok were more accessible in such places. Whatever the reason he went there, things didn't work out well for Anwan. He was tracked down by Captain Benjamin Church of Plymouth Colony, and surrendered on August 28 after Church promised he would not be executed.

Unfortunately for Anawan, the Pilgrims didn't keep their word. He was beheaded, and his head displayed on a pole at Plymouth for several years.

Another side of Anawan Rock.

With such a tragic history, it's not surprising Anawan Rock is now considered to be haunted. Phantom camp fires have been seen, and voices are sometimes heard in the woods crying out "Iootash!", which means "fight on" in the local Algonquin dialect. Strange screams and shouts can also be heard in the rock's vicinity. And these aren't old ghost stories from the 1700 or 1800s - paranormal researchers claim these phenomena are still happening today.

We didn't see any ghosts, and happily the bug spray kept away mosquitoes and ticks as well.

Tony and I didn't have any weird experiences, but we did have a strange coincidence. We were there on August 28, 2010, 334 years to the day when Anawan surrendered.

I got my information from Thomas D'Agostino's Haunted Massachusetts and Cheri Revai's book, which has the same name. You can also find plenty of information on the Web.

August 27, 2010

A Scary Place with A Silly Name

If you knew a place haunted by supernatural terror, you'd probably give it a scary name. Think of some of the well-known scary New England place names: Purgatory Chasm, Dungeon Rock or Misery Island. You'd want a demonic ghost-haunted locale to have a name like that, wouldn't you?.

Unless, of course, you were from Medway, Massachusetts. The townspeople there knew a place where Satan would gather with his witches, but they gave it a very unscary name: Dinglehole. It sounds like an insult from a second grader!

Dinglehole, which was a large swampy depression filled with fetid water of an unknown depth, was feared for three reasons:

1. A ghostly bell could be heard ringing on dark nights and misty evenings. Locals called it the "spirit bell", and the dingling of the bell gave the hole its name. (I guess the word "dingle" has gone out of fashion. Contemporary people would probably name it Jinglehole, which doesn't sound much better.)

2. A headless ghost haunted Dinglehole, and would lead unwary travelers astray with strange glowing lights. Locals claimed saying a prayer would banish the ghost, his lights and the bell, but only temporarily.

3. Even worse than a headless ghost, the Devil and his local witches met by night at Dinglehole near a large twisted pine tree. The witches came not in human form, but as weasels, raccoons and "other little odiferous animals."

A skeptic might say "Of course you'll find weasels and raccoons in the woods. How did people know they were witches?" Well, Mr. Smarty-Pants (to use another second grade insult), because they were invulnerable to normal weapons, as the following Dinglehole story illustrates.

One evening, a Medway hunter was making his way home when he noticed a large raccoon watching him from a tree. Unable to resist such an easy target, the hunter shot the raccoon and hit it squarely in the chest. Nothing happened to the raccoon. It sat there unharmed, but perhaps with a slight smirk on its face. The hunter fired several more shots, each time hitting the raccoon, which continued to ignore the bullets.

Finally, it dawned on the hunter that this was no ordinary animal. He plucked a branch from a nearby witch hazel shrub, a plant known for its magical powers, and fired it from his rifle like a small harpoon. It hit the raccoon, which vanished. Several days later, the hunter learned that Murky Mullen, a local woman suspected of witchcraft, had an unexplained injury on her face. Clearly, she (or her spirit) had been wandering the woods in the shape of a raccoon.

The accounts of the Dinglehole horrors come from Ephraim Orcutt Jameson and George James La Croix's The History of Medway, Mass. 1713-1885 (1886). Dinglehole is now located somewhere in Millis, though, which separated from Medway in the late 1800s. The Federal Writers' Project book Massachusetts: A Guide to Its Places and People (1937) claims Dinglehole is located somewhere north of Union Street, but has been filled in. Perhaps it should be renamed Dinglefield? Does that sound scarier?

August 20, 2010

A Monster in the Barn!

When most people think of New England, they don't picture suburban sprawl, interstates or bustling metropolises. No, they think of woody hills, charming seaside fishing villages, and quaint white farmhouses with old stone walls in the fields out back.

However, there might be a sinister side to those New England farmhouses. Local fiction, like Thomas Tyron's Harvest Home (you don't want to be a single man when the corn's ripe) or H.P. Lovecraft's Dunwich Horror ("What's that noise up in the attic?"), certainly suggest there is. The spooky side of agriculture also shows up in local folklore, whether it's death by cider or cursed bloody apples.

Now I can hear you say "But modern agriculture is clean and mechanized! Maybe our witch-fearing ancestors were spooked by strange noises in the hayloft, but nothing weird happens on farms in the modern world."

Of course it doesn't...

Except on the night of August 23, 1982. That was the night John Fuller and David Buckley went out to check the cows at the farm where they worked in Ellington, Connecticut.

Sure it was late (after midnight), and it was rainy, but the two men weren't worried. After all, they had checked the cows a hundred times before and never encountered anything weird in the barn. And cows aren't scary, even after dark.

But that night, when they entered the barn, they encountered something different. Something strange and terrifying.

A huge humanoid was sitting near a feed bin, silently observing the cows. It was nearly seven feet tall, massively built, and covered in hair. When it saw John and David, it stood up and began to walk towards them.

The two farmhands, showing Yankee ingenuity, ran the hell away and called the police.

A Minnesota bigfoot from

The cops came, but by then the creature was gone and they couldn't find any tracks in the wet ground. The incident was later written up in the local newspaper. Maybe the publicity scared the creature away, because it has never been seen in Ellington again.

It might have shown up elsewhere in Connecticut, though. The Bigfoot Encounters Web site lists ten reports of large hairy humanoids in the state, the oldest going back to the 1890s.

Most people assume the monster was some kind of home grown Sasquatch. But if you look even further back, this story reminds me of old European folklore about creatures like the urisk, gruagach or brownie, hairy humanoid spirits that lived in barns and farm houses. Sometimes they were tiny, and sometimes they were large. Sometimes they helped out around the farm, and sometimes they caused a lot of trouble.

I found this story in Joseph Citro's excellent book, Passing Strange. True Tales of New England Hauntings and Horrors. He's a great storyteller, and has an entire chapter titled "Barnyard Tales and Terrors."

This week's post is also part of Loving Local, a blogathon to support Mass Farmers Markets, a non-profit that helps farmers markets. The blogathon was the idea of Tinky over at In Our Grandmothers' Kitchens. Be grateful for your local farmers - who knows what type of terrors they have to deal with!

August 12, 2010

A Hyena on Cape Cod?

A few years ago, Tony and I went with some friends to Great Island in Wellfleet. After parking our cars in the lot, we all headed out to the beach. It took us quite a while to walk there (about 45 minutes), and we didn't see any other people on the way. The beach itself was deserted except for us and one Swedish tourist. For such a popular destination, it's surprising how empty parts of the outer Cape still are.

This lesson was reinforced a couple weeks ago when Tony and I visited Truro, which is next to Wellfleet. One afternoon we walked around the woods in the National Seashore for two hours, and one again we didn't see any other people. None. Not even a Swedish tourist! Some of the beaches in Truro were also empty, and it was the middle of summer. Again, there are some very empty places on the outer Cape!

A view onto Longnook Beach in Truro. Where is everybody?

Given all this emptiness, it's not surprising that weird things happen out there. I've already mentioned the Black Flash who roamed around Provincetown in the mid-20th century, but he's not the only monster who's been seen in that part of the Cape.

In the mid-19th century, Wellfleet was supposedly terrorized by a hyena.

A hyena at night, from a travel blog.

It sounds odd, but here are the facts. A large hairy animal was glimpsed lurking in the woods. Strange pawprints were found in the sand. Domestic animals and chickens were killed at night. An eerie howling was heard echoing across the hills, and women and children were afraid to leave their homes.

Eventually, the Wellfleet men armed themselves and set off in pursuit of the creature. They were unsuccessful at capturing it, but apparently successful in driving it away. The howls grew more distant and infrequent, and finally they ceased completely. The creature never returned.

Was this mysterious animal really a hyena? People who glimpsed it thought it resembled one, but had they ever seen a live hyena or even a photo? Perhaps the whole affair was just hysteria. The only written record of the Wellfleet hyena is The Hyena Hunt, an 1869 poem by local physician Thomas Stone. Stone writes about the hyena hunt mockingly in faux epic language, so clearly he thought the whole thing was some kind of joke.

I'm tempted to say the creature was really just a coyote, which are now as common on the Cape as ticks. But sometimes strange animals show up in places where they're not supposed to. For example, there are plenty of people in Massachusetts who swear they've seen large cats (cougar sized!) on Cape Ann and in the Hockomock Swamp in the southeastern part of the state. In fact, according to Loren Coleman's book Mysterious America, in 1972 the Rehoboth police organized a lion hunt to catch a large animal terrorizing their town. But although tracks were found, the lion eluded the police. It's like the Wellfleet hyena hunt all over again.

Was the Wellfleet creature just a coyote? Was it really a hyena that somehow escaped from a zoo? Was it a mountain lion? Maybe, but maybe it was something conjured up in the empty spaces from the wind, the water and the woods.

August 08, 2010

Crazy Cranberry Cures

The Boston Globe ran an article this week about a worldwide cranberry surplus. Farmers are growing more berries than in the past, and prices are dropping! To help increase global demand, the Cranberry Marketing Committee has been touting the alleged anitbacterial and antiaging powers of this tart little berry.

Cranberries are indigenous to New England, and their health benefits been speculated about for centuries. For example, I recently purchased a copy of the Lydia Marie Child's 1828 book, The American Frugal Housewife, which contains home remedies as well as recipes and household tips. Are you suffering from a corn on your foot? Use a cranberry, Mrs. Child says!

A corn may be extracted from the foot by binding on half a raw cranberry, with the cut side of the fruit upon the foot. I have a known a very old and troublesome corn drawn out in this way, in the course of a few nights.

I suppose I can see how this might work. Cranberries are acidic, so maybe the acid helps to dissolve the corn? However, I don't think this next cure would work at all.

The Indians have great belief in the efficacy of poultices of stewed cranberrries, for the the relief of cancers. They apply them fresh and warm every ten or fifteen minutes, night and day. Whether this will effect a cure I know not; I simply know that the Indians strongly recommend it.

OK, not even the Cranberry Marketing Committee would say that's an effective cure for cancer. Part of me wants to laugh at how quaint this cure is, but it also makes me realize how primitive medicine was in the early 19th century. There was no chemo, radiation or surgery available for cancer, so why not apply a poultice of cranberries? It probably couldn't hurt, and there weren't any other effective options.

Although Mrs. Child's medical knowledge seems simple by today's standards, she was quite progressive for her day. Born in Medford, Massachusetts in 1802, she wrote a scandalous novel about a white woman who marries an Indian (Hobomok), was an advocate for women's rights and the abolition of slavery, and published the first monthly American magazine for children. She also wrote the Thanksgiving poem Over the River and Through the Woods, for which she is perhaps most famous.

July 29, 2010

A Ghost of Central Burying Ground

A while ago I made a trip to Boston's Central Burying Ground. It's not as well known as the Copp's Hill, King's Chapel, or Old Granary burial grounds because it doesn't contain any illustrious Puritans or founding fathers. The burials are mostly from the 19th century. The most famous person interred there is Gilbert Stuart, a portraitist best known for his painting of George Washington.

Even though the Central Burying Ground is relatively recent, it seems more decrepit than the other cemeteries. For example, in this photo you can clearly see the rat holes dug into this crypt. I don't really think there's anything left for them to eat in there, however.

I also saw this mass grave for corpses that were disturbed when the Boylston Street subway station was built. Hmm. Bodies here don't seem to enjoy a very restful slumber.

However, the vague sense of creepy neglect was lightened by the fact that there were almost no other visitors. For a living person, Central Burying Ground is a lot more peaceful than the other, more touristy graveyards downtown.

The grave art isn't quite as ominous either. There aren't a lot of skulls and bones carved on the stones. Instead, there are things like this sun, which is almost cheery.

With its dichotomy of creepy and peaceful, Central Burying Ground seems like the perfect place to see a ghost. And indeed, in the 1970s a dentist named Matt Rutger did just that.

Dr. Rutger was walking through the cemetery one afternoon when he saw a young girl in a large, dirty white dress. Something didn't seem quite right about her. Was it the way she stared at him relentlessly? Perhaps. But more likely it was the way she kept appearing wherever he looked, as if she were teleporting around the graveyard.

Realizing this was no ordinary girl, Dr. Rutger ran towards the gate. She appeared in front of him, and then faded away into the air. When he finally reached the sidewalk outside the gate, he felt relief at leaving the cemetery and strange girl behind him.

Dr. Rutger may have been done with her, but she wasn't quite done with him. As he reached to put his car keys in the door, he felt a small, cold hand take them and throw them to the ground. And that was the end of his encounter.

I got the information about the ghost of Central Burying Ground from Cheri Revai's Haunted Massachusetts. I didn't see any ghosts, but it's definitely an interesting place to visit.

July 25, 2010

Full Buck Moon

"It's my moon, so show me a little love!"

Well, according to the Old Farmer's Almanac tonight is the Full Buck Moon. Male deer's antlers start to emerge this time of summer, hence the name.

The last living deer I saw was July 2009, in the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain. It was just walking around and eating shrubbery, completely unconcerned with all the people nearby. Unfortunately, more recently I saw a dead one by the side of Route 93 in New Hampshire. I love seeing deer, but a lot people consider them pests because they eat bushes and gardens.

However, the original inhabitants of this area had a very different opinion about deer. They were very important to the Algonquians of New England, who gave us the name of this month's moon. Venison was one of their main sources of meat, and large numbers of deer were hunted and killed every year in the autumn. The Algonquians roasted venison, boiled it in a stew with dried corn kernels, and would even dry it to make jerky. Drying meat became much easier once the English settlers introduced salt, which became a valuable commodity among the local Indians.

The New England Indians viewed animals as equals deserving respect, and to needlessly kill an animal was considered a grave misdeed. When a hunter did kill an animal, the entire body had to be consumed to show respect. Otherwise, the spirit of an animal whose body was wasted might haunt the person who killed it.

So, in addition to eating a deer, the Algonquians used its body for other purposes. Coastal dwellers made harpoons from antlers, farmers used shoulder blades as hoes to break up hard soil, and archers made arrowheads out of sharp bone shards. The hides were used for clothing, moccasins, and even to make balls for a game similar to lacrosse. The unused bones of any animals were returned to the animal's home environment as a final display of respect.

I'm a vegetarian myself, but if you need to kill an animal the Algonquian way seems like the right way to go. If you see any deer this lunar cycle, try to treat them with respect.

PS - I got all this deer information from Howard Russell's Indian New England Before the Mayflower.

July 18, 2010

More on the Haunted Mill, with a Cross-Dressing Canadian

Surprisingly, I just found another story about Somerville's haunted mill. But before I get to the legend, here's a very short relevant North American history lesson.

Way back in the early 1600s, the part of Canada now called Nova Scotia was colonized by the French, who named it Acadia. (The name is probably derived from Arcadia, with an "r", which was an idyllic wilderness region in ancient Greece.) These colonists, or Acadians, were the dominant social group in eastern Canada until the early 1700's, when Britain wrested control of the area from France.

Say goodbye to Acadia and hello to Somerville! Image from here.

At first the British tolerated the Acadians, but gradually becames suspicious of these French-speaking Catholics and in 1755 they deported thousands of Acadians. The exiles ended up all over the New World, including Louisiana (where they became the Cajuns) and Massachusetts.

What does this have to do with Somerville? Well, according to Edward Samuel and Henry Kimball's Somerville Past and Present (1897), in the mid-1700s a young Acadian woman was given to a Somerville farmer as a servant. He was a cruel master, so she decided to escape.

Hoping to avoid detection, she disguised herself as a man and ran from the farm. On her way out of town she sought refuge with a friendly mill owner, who said she could stay overnight in the mill's upstairs room.

Unfortunately for her, her cruel master discovered her escape and tracked her to the mill. He tricked the miller into unlocking the mill, and crept quietly through the darkness towards the ladder leading upstairs. But unfortunately (for him), he slipped in the darkness and fell off the ladder. He grabbed a rope to break his fall, the mill went into motion, and he was crushed by the millstone. His ghost now haunts the building.

There are some interesting parallels between this story and the version from last week. In both, a young woman is hiding upstairs, and is chased by an evil man who gets crushed and returns as a ghost. This version from Somerville Past and Present doesn't include any romance, but instead has cross-dressing and roots the story in a specific historic moment. It also doesn't mention the ghost swearing and appearing as a ball of blue sparks.

The two versions were written down within a year of each other, so I'm a little puzzled by the discrepancies. I guess the people of Somerville all agreed that the mill was haunted, they just didn't know why. The ghost is a given, but the reason is a mystery.

I found the reference about Somerville Past and Present in Richard Dorson's 1946 book Jonathan Draws the Longbow. And, in the interest of full disclosure, one of my ancestors was an Acadian deported to my Massachusetts in the 1700s!

July 11, 2010

Somerville's Haunted Mill

Tony and I went to a party in Somerville, MA last Friday. Why not stop by a haunted mill on the way?

The mill, which is better known as the powder house in Powder House Square near Tufts, was built in the early 1700's by one John Mallet. Mallet gave the mill to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1747, which used it to store gun powder. In 1774, British governor Thomas Gage confiscated the powder stored there so it wouldn't be used by the American rebels. Even later, the American army used the building to store their gun powder while they were laying siege to Boston.

It's a historic site, but where does the ghost fit in?

According to Charles Skinner in Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, before the Revolution the old mill was the spot where a poor young farmer used to secretly meet his beloved, who was the daughter of a wealthy man. He didn't want his daughter seeing a someone with no money, and became very suspicious of the amount of time she spent at the stone mill.

One moonless night, the wealthy man followed his daughter to the mill. Seeing that her secret was about to be discovered, the girl climbed the stairs up into the loft to hide until either her father left or her lover arrived. As she walked quietly through the pitch black room, she grabbed a rope to steady herself.

Big mistake! The rope set the mill's machinery in motion, and from the first floor she heard a grinding sound and a horrifying scream. Rushing down, she saw that her father's arm had been caught in a millstone and pulverized.

Her lover arrived, and they carried her father home where he received the best in 18th century medical care. Unfortunately his injuries were fatal, but before he died he gave his blessing to his daughter and the poor farmer. They got married several months later.


Even though he gave his blessing while alive, his spirit didn't rest peacefully after death. According to the locals, his spirit haunted the mill on windy nights, cursing and swearing, and appearing as a ball of blue sparks. His ghost was, quite literally, cussing up a blue streak.

Tony and I didn't see any ghosts, but maybe we need to go back on a windy night.