December 29, 2013

Witches Woods in Beverly: A Headless Ghost, A Mystery Farm, and of Course Witches

I'm working on a book about North Shore folklore (which hopefully will come out in the fall of 2014), and I've found a lot of interesting stories. I'm saving most of them for the book, but I thought this was a good one to share for a gloomy early winter day.

In the town of Beverly, Massachusetts is a large wooded conservation area officially called Beverly Commons, but which has also been know for many years as Witches Woods. The story most currently told about the name is that Giles Corey supposedly hid out in these woods while trying to escape from the Salem witch trials. I'm not sure how true that story is. Giles Corey was quite elderly when he was accused of witchcraft and it wasn't easy to get from Salem Village to Beverly back in the 1600s. Still, it's a good story.

Even better stories about Witches Woods can be found in Caroline Howard King's When I Lived in Salem, 1822 -1866. This book, which is a collection of reminiscences about daily life on the North Shore in the early 19th century, is fascinating. Do you want to know what people ate for dessert in 1836? Marlborough pudding and cranberry pie, of course. What happened to a woman if she fell asleep during the interminable Sunday church services? A church official called the Tidy Man (aka the Tithing Man) would tickle her awake with a fox-tail mounted on a pole. Drowsy men weren't treated so gently - they were whacked back into consciousness with a wooden knob mounted on the other end.

Caroline Howard King's family owned a summer home in Beverly called Thisselwood, which abutted Witches Woods. She doesn't mention any stories about witches, but does write about some other spooky occurrences happening in the area.

Thisselwood, from the Harvard University Library.
 According to her book, the locals believed that a headless ghost wandered through the woods. Although they were reluctant to speak of him, many had seem him walking forlornly among the trees carrying his head under his arm. No one knew what tragedy had led him to this doom. Caroline King and her family jokingly named him Heady, but Caroline didn't laugh on late night carriage rides through the woods. She was quite afraid of seeing Heady.

She never did see the decapitated ghost, but had instead another odd experience in Witches Woods. One summer morning in 1841 Caroline (who was nineteen at the time) set off for a stroll in Witches Woods with her nine-year old cousin Nony and a maid named Lucy Anne. After walking for while the group decided to have a snack and rest under some hemlock trees a short distance from the path. When they were done eating they walked back to the path - but it wasn't there. Despite searching in all directions no path could be seen at all. It was if it had vanished.

Caroline and her companions wandered through the woods for hours, but somehow always came back to the exact same spot. They could hear the ocean and knew they weren't far from home but were unable to get there.

Trying one last time to find the path they stumbled upon a clearing in the woods, in the middle of which stood the remains of a long-abandoned house: a chimney, a cellar-hole, and a stone stoop with an enormous lilac bush growing next to it. This ruin, Caroline knew, was called by her neighbors the Homestead, and was shunned and said to be haunted.

A path led from the clearing up a small hill, and the group decided to follow it. From the top of the hill they had a view over the woods, and could see nearby at the foot of the hill a cozy farmhouse with smoke rising from the chimney. The house had a broad stone stoop, and as they watched a woman came outside and scattered feed for the chickens. Excitedly, Lucy Anne ran down towards the house to ask for directions home.

Caroline and her cousin waited, and waited, and finally a dejected Lucy Anne returned. No matter how many times she had walked around the hill she couldn't find the farmhouse. In fact, all she saw were "hateful solemn old pine trees." However, she had found a dry stream bed which they followed out of the woods to the beach and eventually home to Thisselwood.

James Russell Lowell, from Wikipedia.

The writer James Russell Lowell was staying with the King family at the time. Lowell claimed he had the second sight and had seen a ghost at Elmwood, his family's estate in Cambridge (now the home of Harvard University's president), so he set off into the woods determined to find the haunted farm. He never found either the abandoned ruin or the elusive farmhouse (which was clearly a ghostly image of the ruin as it formerly appeared).

What would have happened if he or Lucy Anne actually had found the house and asked the farm wife (if that's what she was) for directions? What if they went inside for a drink of water or a bite to eat? I think they should be thankful they never found they house, because fairy tales and ghost stories suggest they might still be inside today.

December 22, 2013

Is the Ghost of Charles Dickens in Boston?

This is my second haunted hotel story in a month, but I'm just going with it. So...

Did you know that the ghost of Charles Dickens possibly haunts the Omni Parker House Hotel in Boston? Yes, the author of A Christmas Carol's spirit could be here with us Yankees, which I think is pretty cool.

We're all so familiar with Dickens's most famous story now that we don't realize how innovative it was when it was published. A Christmas Carol is not just a great story, but it's a transformational book that helped change Christmas from a drunken revel into a holiday about charity and giving. Along with Clement Moore's A Visit from Saint Nicholas it has influenced how generations of Americans think about the Christmas holiday. For example, the phrase "Merry Christmas" was popularized by Dickens book.

Although it was an immediate hit in England when it was published in 1843, it took time for A Christmas Carol to gain popularity here in the United States. But by the late 1860s A Christmas Carol was enormously popular on this side of the Atlantic too and Charles Dickens had become a literary sensation. Christmas had long been suppressed in New England, and many people actually thought that he had invented the holiday. Dickens had initially visited the United States in 1842 for his first reading tour, but when he arrived in Boston in November of 1867 he was a bona fide celebrity.

Literary superstar Charles Dickens
His first reading of the book was for the Saturday Club, a private literary club whose members included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Agassiz. The club met one Saturday a month for dinner at the Parker House Hotel, which was the same hotel that Dickens made his headquarters while in Boston.

On November 30 Dickens gave his first public American reading of A Christmas Carol at the Tremont Temple near Boston Common. 'Reading' apparently does not do justice to what Dickens did on the stage. He paced back and forth, he voiced each character differently, and he acted out key scenes. In short, he gave a complete one man show, and the audience was reportedly reduced to tears by the end of his performance. A follow-up performance on Christmas Eve had the same effect. He was so popular that guards had to be stationed outside his hotel room to keep away the eager fans.

Dickens left Boston for a tour of the East Coast, but returned to the city for one last visit in April 1868 before he departed for London. The tour took a lot of his energy, and he died in 1870 at the age of fifty-eight.

The Parker House has been in business for a long time, and it's hard say if the paranormal phenomena happening there are actually linked to Dickens. He stayed on the third floor of the Parker House, and even today one of the elevators supposedly will travel to the third floor without the buttons being pushed. Who (or what) is so eager to get to the third floor? It could be Dickens's ghost, or it could be one of the other famous people who've stayed at the Parker House. Actress Charlotte Cushman loved to stay in the Dickens Suite, so perhaps it's her spirit. Or perhaps it's actor John Wilkes Booth, who may have plotted Lincoln's assassination at the Parker House, or more happily hotel founder Harry Parker, whose ghost has appeared to guests and inquired about their stay.

Other than poking around on the web I found this information in Holly Mascott Nadler's Ghosts of Boston Town, Susan Wilson's The Omni Parker House - A Brief History of America's Longest Continuously Operating Hotel, and Amy Whorf McGuiggan's Christmas in New England.

December 15, 2013

Traditions and Magic for a Snowy Day

The first snowstorm of the year is always exciting to me. I like the way it transforms the city into someplace magical, even just for a little while. Everything is so quiet and bright. Of course then the plows come...

Not surprisingly, there are quite a few traditions and divinations associated with snow from New England. Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks it's magical.

I think most people associate Christmas with snow in their minds, but even though we're all dreaming of a white Christmas in reality there's no guarantee of one in much of New England, particularly in the southern parts. I suspect we all want a white Christmas because snow is pretty and makes a nice backdrop for holiday lights, but there's also an old saying that "A green Christmas means a full graveyard." Not only is it pretty but I guess snow is good for your health.

However maybe we shouldn't literally be dreaming of a white Christmas, but rather just hoping for one, because another tradition claims that to dream of a snowstorm is a sign of the speedy death of a relative.

Not all the New England snow traditions are quite so gloomy. People in Winn, Maine used to say that if you rub your hands with the first snow of winter you won't have sore hands all season. I'm sure this was good advice for the hard-working farmers of Winn, and probably would still be useful for those of us who spend our lives at keyboards today. If you try it out let me know if it works.

This next belief may or may not be gloomy, depending on how much you like snow. In the nineteenth century people in Massachusetts believed the following:

The day of the month of the first snowstorm indicates the number of storms in the year.  

Let's see, yesterday was the fourteenth so that means we'll have fourteen storms this year. If we count the one we just had we'll only have thirteen. Depending on your feelings about snow this could be good news or it could be devastating.

Lastly, here's something to remember for next year: if you wish on the first snowflake of the season you'll get your wish. 

I found this information in Fanny Bergen's 1896 book Current Superstitions.

December 08, 2013

The Haunted Mt. Washington Hotel

Have you ever seen The Shining or the read the book? When I was young I thought the haunted Overlook Hotel was based on the Mt. Washington Hotel in New Hampshire.

I was wrong. The Overlook Hotel was actually based on a hotel in Colorado where Stephen King worked when he was young, but sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. Even though the Mt. Washington Hotel doesn't have a connection to The Shining, it does have a resident ghost.

Moonrise over the Mt. Washington Hotel.

Here's the story. Construction on the Mt. Washington Hotel was started in 1900 and completed in 1902. The largest wooden building in New England, the hotel was the brainchild of Joseph Stickney, a wealthy industrialist. Unfortunately Mr. Stickney didn't get to enjoy his hotel very long, dying only one year after it opened to the public.

Carolyn Stickney
You might think the ghost that haunts the Mt. Washington is poor Joseph Stickney's, but apparently it is his wife's. Carolyn Stickney remarried a European prince shortly after Joseph's death and enjoyed spending her summers at the hotel. She built a private dining room for her and her friends, and also had a special balcony constructed that overlooked the hotel's main dining room. This allowed her to see what other guests were wearing and change her clothes to ensure she was the best dressed woman in the room.

Carolyn Stickney's private dining room is now a bar.
After Carolyn died in 1936 the staff at the hotel started to report strange things. During the empty winter months caretakers claimed they saw an elegant woman walking into the dining room and that lights would turn themselves on and off. When a posed photo of the summer staff was developed a shadowy woman could be seen looking at them through a window, but no one had been at the window when the photo was taken. Creepy!

That's a big empty lobby!
Interestingly, the architects who designed the hotel incorporated what they considered an anti-ghost measure. The hotel has several towers, and the number of stairs leading up to each tower is different. This is supposed to confuse ghosts and encourage them to leave, but I suppose since Carolyn Stickney was so intimately involved with the hotel her spirit is not fazed by oddly numbered steps.

Stay here if you dare!
Luckily for hotel guests Carolyn's ghost is harmless. As a former hotelier she's not going to do anything to hurt business! Still, the unprepared might find themselves frightened, particularly if they stay in room 314. This elegant room used to be Carolyn Stickney's private apartment and it still contains the giant four-poster bed she slept in.

Guests staying there often report uncanny incidents. For example, according to this review on Trip Advisor, one family staying there experienced a flickering lamp, the fireplace turning itself off and then back on again, and a child's toy disappearing and then reappearing. The management's response on Trip Advisor? "Thank you for sharing your experience from your recent stay with us at the hotel. We are very pleased that we were able to meet your expectations..."

Fireplace in the main lobby.
The hotel's management doesn't make any secret of the ghost, and actually recount the ghost legend on their website. A clever marketing ploy? Perhaps, or maybe they're just notifying guests of what they might experience. When Tony and I were staying at the Mt. Washington in November we had dinner with some family who live in the area, and conversation turned to the hotel's ghost. One family member had attended a conference at the Mt. Washington where supplies kept strangely vanishing, and she also had a friend who had stayed in Room 314. The friend had indeed witnessed flickering lights and the shower turning itself on and off when no one was using the bathroom. Again, creepy!

If you want the full haunted hotel experience I recommend visiting in early November like Tony and I did. It's between foliage and ski season, and the hotel when we were there was pleasantly quiet despite the presence of three small conferences. It's a really big hotel! If you tire of ghost hunting the Mt. Washington has a spa, activities like horse back riding, and miles of trails. I hiked into the woods for three hours and didn't see a single other person. I did see an otter and pileated woodpecker. Not as exciting as a ghost but still pretty cool.

December 01, 2013

Folklore in the Media: Magic Shoes, Sea Monsters, and New England Vikings

There were three stories related to New England folklore in the media this week. Very often there are none, so it's a bonanza!

Newport's Old Colony House once served as Rhode Island's State House.

First, my good friend Ed directed me to this article in The Providence Journal about some very old shoes found underneath the floorboards at the Old Colony House in Newport. The brown leather shoes date from the 1830s, and were probably left there when the Old Colony House was being renovated in the 1840s. Shoes are often found in the walls and chimneys of old buildings, and it's believed they were placed there while the buildings were under construction to bring luck. The Old Colony House is still standing so I guess the shoes worked their magic.

Second, Atlas Obscura recently published this fun map showing various water monsters across the United States.

New England is represented by four aquatic oddities. In Vermont's Lake Champlain  you can find Champ, a cousin of the Loch Ness Monster who has been seen swimming in the lake since the 1600s. In Maine, the White Monkey (a small pale-skinned man with webbed hands) haunts the Saco River and was last seen in the 1970s. Also in Maine, Lake Pocomoonshine is inhabited by a serpentine monster who leaves enormous snake trails through the woods surrounding the lake. And last but not least, a sea monster has been seen of the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts for hundreds of years. 

Many other New England lake monsters and sea serpents are not shown on this map, but I still learned a lot from it. I never knew there was an aquatic goatman in Texas or a lake monster called Slimy Slim in Idaho!

Boston's Leif Erikson statue outside Kenmore Square.
Finally, the Boston Globe's travel section has an article about places the Vikings visited in New England. Or, more accurately, places people have at one time or another said the Vikings visited. There is no firm proof Leif Erikson amd his crew made it this far down the coast when they visited North America, but the article lists some fun places to visit including stone towers in Weston, Mass. and Newport, Rhode Island.

That's all for this week. Next week, a haunted hotel in the White Mountains!

November 24, 2013

Strange Gravestones of Whitefield, New Hampshire

Tony and I were recently up in the White Mountains, and I paid visit to Pine Street Cemetery in Whitefield, New Hampshire.

Pine Street is just outside downtown Whitefield and has some nice old gravestones dating back to the 18th century. It's very peaceful. On the day I went I was the only person there.

Some of the 19th century stones have a finger pointing up, indicating the deceased is bound for heaven. Take for example this stone which memorializes the fantastically-named Varnom Blood:

The text above the finger reads "Gone Home." It's a nice sentiment.

The same upward-pointing finger appears on the memorials for Varnom's wife Lydia and for George Parker, who died when he was only thirteen.

But apparently the people of Whitefield did not think all their neighbors were going home to Jesus. Here is the gravestone for poor Henry Lane, deceased at age twenty-two. 

Clearly whoever made this stone didn't think Henry was going to heaven. I'm surprised that Henry's family would pay for such a judgmental gravestone but maybe Henry really was that bad. The stone indicates he was bad enough to make Jesus cry, which is pretty bad. 

According to Joseph Citro's Weird New England there is another stone like this in Whitefield. That one is for Ira Bowles (dead at age 63) and is located in the Methodist Cemetery nearby. Apparently stones with the downward-pointing fingers are quite rare, and only two have been found outside of  Whitefield.

No one knows what Henry Lane and Ira Bowles did to deserve such damning gravestones. Were they murderers? Thieves? Drunkards? 

Or maybe none of the above. Charles Jordan suggests in his book Tales Told In the Shadows of the White Mountains that the downward fingers may have actually reflected Seventh Day Adventist beliefs that were popular at the time. Rather than believing that the dead went immediately to heaven, the Adventists felt they waited in the grave until Judgment Day. The finger points just to the soil, not to Hell. It's not as dramatic as the other explanation, but it does make me feel better about Henry and Ira's families.

November 17, 2013

America's Oldest Pumpkin Pie Recipe?

You often hear the saying "As American as apple pie," but as Thanksgiving draws near pumpkin pie looms ever larger in the national consciousness.

Pumpkins originated here in North America, but even before our continent was permanently colonized by Europeans they brought pumpkins back to the Old World and started baking pies. These European pumpkin pies were quite different from the ones we consume today. Recipes from seventeenth century England involve slicing and frying the pumpkin in a batter of eggs and sugar, and then layering the slices with apples and currants in a pastry shell. Your guests would be very confused if you served that to them this Thanksgiving.

Pumpkin pie went out of style in England, and at first it seemed it would do the same in New England. In 1650, Edward Johnson wrote happily in his book Wonder Working Providence of Sions Savior in New England that colonists were making more pies from traditional European fruits like apples and quinces instead of "their former Pumpkin Pies." For Edward Johnson pumpkin pie was a low-class, tacky dessert and it was good that it was slowly disappearing.

Luckily for us it didn't. Pumpkins grow well in New England and were a dependable food source for the English. A ballad called "New England's Annoyances" praises the humble gourd:

If flesh meat be wanting to fill up our dish, 
We have carrets and pumpkins and turnips and fish...
...Instead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies,
Our pumkins and parsnips are common supplies;
We have pumkin at morning and pumkin at noon,
If it was not for pumkin we should be undoon.

The earliest known American pumpkin pie recipe is one that was written down by Anne Gibbons Gardiner of Boston in the 1700s. It was very similar to the old English recipes, and involved layering sliced pumpkin with apples. The Gardiners sympathized with the British during the Revolution and fled to England, taking their pie recipe with them. They later returned to New England and lived in Maine, but Mrs. Gardiner's recipes weren't published until the 1930s.

The first published pumpkin pie recipes appears in Amelia Simmons's book American Cookery, which was printed in Connecticut in 1796. Her two recipes are very similar to modern ones. The old-fashioned layered pumpkin slices have been replaced by the pumpkin custard we're familiar with today:

No. 1. One quart (pompkin) stewed and strained, 3 pints cream, 9 beaten eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg, ginger, laid into paste No. 7 or 3, and with a dough spur, cross and chequer, and baked in dishes three quarters of an hour.

No. 2. One quart of milk, 1 pint pompkin, 4 eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour.

The big difference between her recipes and contemporary ones is that she tops the pie with a lattice crust. Most modern modern cooks omit a top crust. Still, I think you could follow her recipe and safely serve it to your guests this Thanksgiving for a historically authentic yet delicious dessert.

I found this information in James Baker's Thanksgving. The Biography of an American Holiday and Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald's America's Founding Food. The Story of New England Cooking

November 10, 2013

A Mohegan Witch Story from 1904

Here's a nice witch story from the Mohegans of Connecticut that anthropologist Frank Speck published in 1904. The English settlers weren't the only ones who believed in witches, and the local Indian groups maintained their own witch folklore well after the area was thoroughly colonized by the British.The story goes something like this.


Many years ago an old Mohegan woman set out to walk all the way to New London to sell some brooms she had made. Making brooms was a common way for Indian women to make money at the time, and there was a bigger market for them in the city that out in the country.

However before the woman reached New London the sun began to set, and soon it was very dark. She grew concerned and wondered where she was going to spend the night.

Luckily she came upon a house with light shining from the windows and smoke coming from the chimney. It looked very inviting, so she knocked on the door.

A white woman answered the door, and invited the elderly Mohegan lady to come in. The Mohegan woman said, "Thank you! I am walking all the way to New London and need a place to stay. Could I please stay here tonight?"

The white woman smiled and said, "Of course. You will be my guest tonight. But you must tell no one that you saw me here."

The Mohegan woman thought this was an odd request, but agreed to it anyway. The white woman then brought out some bread and cheese and offered it to the elderly woman.

The Mohegan woman accepted the food, but said, "Thank you, but I'm not hungry right now. I will eat this tomorrow before I finish my journey." She then lay down near the fire and went to sleep.

When she awoke in the morning, she was amazed to find herself lying outside in the woods. Nearby her was a giant boulder which was the same size as the house she had seen the night before. When she reached in her pocket for the bread and cheese she was horrified to find they had been turned into a hard piece of cow dung and old white bone.


I like this story quite a bit. Apparently the "house turning into a rock" theme appears in stories from other Algonquin tribes, and the white woman whose hospitality is a lie certainly makes sense as a comment on the Mohegan's political situation. I can also see connections to European fairy lore, where the gifts given by the fairies often turn out to be worthless in the daylight and the fairies swear those who see them to secrecy. I don't know if those similarities are the result of recent historical enculturation or come from a much older historical or psychological strata.

Frank Speck himself is an interesting character. He was born in Brooklyn, but was as a sickly child and was sent to live with a family friend in the healthier, more rural environment of Connecticut. The family friend was a Mohegan woman named Fidelia Fielding, and under her tutelage young Frank developed an enthusiasm for Indian culture, eventually becoming one of the preeminent anthropologists who studied the Indian cultures of the Northeast. 

If you like this story, I'd suggest reading William Simmons's Spirit of the New England Tribes, which is full of them. A truly great book!

November 03, 2013

The Pigman Returns!

A couple years ago I posted about the Pigman of Northfield, Vermont. It was one of my more popular posts, but I didn't think I had much more to say about this porcine creature of the night.

However, while poking around on the web recently I found some more Pigman stories. I usually try to cite books or other traditional sources for this blog, but even thought the Pigman stories are just on message boards they are too good to resist. I like to think of these as good campfire stories, but the campfire is my computer. (If you're not up to speed on the Pigman, you can read my original post here.)

The newer version of the Pigman story claims that way back in 1951 the Pigman was just a normal seventeen year old boy named Sam Harris. On October 30, the night before Halloween, Sam set out with some eggs and toilet paper to cause trouble and vandalize his neighbors' houses. It was a tradition for the local teens. You see, in Sam's hometown of Northfield October 30 was called Picket Night, and it was the designated night for mischief.

Unfortunately, Sam never returned. His concerned parents called the police and hundreds of volunteers searched the woods around Northfield, but they found nothing. Sam Harris was never seen again.

But something else was seen that gloomy autumn, something disturbing: a hideous humanoid with the head of a pig. The creature was seen lurking in the woods at night, particularly in an area called the Devil's Washbowl, where he terrorized teenagers in parked cars. The rumor began to spread that this monster was really Sam Harris, and that he had given himself to Satan. People said he ate the raw entrails of pigs, and wore the head of one over his own.

Sam's family and friends were outraged at the rumors, and a local historian wrote an article debunking them in the local newspaper. She disappeared shortly after it was published. Her body was found several years later in the Devil's Washbowl with the words "Picket Night" carved in her skull.

One morning in 1954, Sam's mother told a neighbor that Sam had come to her house the previous night. He had dragged a pile of pig entrails across the porch floor as a gift for her, and squealed with feral glee at the bloody organs before disappearing into the darkness. His eyes were like an animal's. Thirteen days later, Mrs. Harris committed suicide by throwing herself into a neighbor's pig pen, where the hungry swine devoured her.

Ever since, the Pigman has roamed through the dark woods around Northfield. The creature has been blamed for many animal deaths and several human disappearances, but has never been caught.


There's the new Pigman story. It's entirely possible this tale is just being spread by one person on message boards across the web, but there are some things about it that I find interesting.

As I've mentioned before, the nights around Halloween often have different names in different areas. I find it interesting that October 30 is called Picket Night in this story, which seems like it could refer to a real tradition in Northfield. If you know anything about Picket Night, please leave a comment - I'd love to know more!

It's also significant that the Pigman lurks around the Devil's Washbowl. Areas named after the Devil tend to accumulate legends about supernatural happenings.

Finally, there seems to be some implicit message about men and women in this story. Sam Harris begins the story as mischievous teen, and then devolves from boy prankster all the way to a hideous man-beast that lives outside of society and eats raw flesh. The female historian who tries to defend his reputation and symbolically reclaim him as human meets a horrible fate, while poor Mrs. Harris is destroyed by the realization that her son really is an animal who has resisted all her years of mothering. I don't think it's true, but the message seems to be that men are wild, and women are doomed in their attempts to civilize them. It sounds like a great topic for someone's Master's dissertation!

October 26, 2013

Halloween Magic: Grab Your Cabbage

A few weeks ago I was talking with some people at Boston's History Project about the misbehavior that is allowed during Halloween. During the conversation my friend Andrew, who grew up in western Massachusetts and is in his early 30s, said that when he was a kid the night before Halloween was called "Cabbage Night", and it was the designated time for pulling pranks on neighbors.

Halloween in the past was often a multiple day celebration, and each day had its own name. This tradition continues in some places. Detroit is infamous for its Devil's Night on October 30, and a few years ago I wrote about the multiple days of Halloween in Haverhill, Massachusetts in the 1930s. In Haverhill a Beggar's Night was celebrated on October 30, but the local youths also practiced vandalism on Cabbage Night on October 28.

So what's up with Cabbage Night? The connection between the humble cabbage and Halloween is not readily apparent unless you are a gardener, in which case you know that cabbage grows well in cooler temperatures. It can be harvested well into the autumn, and in the past when more people kept vegetable gardens heads of cabbage would have been easy targets for pranksters to steal (and throw).

A vintage Halloween postcard with cabbages, from this great Pinterest board.

Happily, there were also more beneficial Halloween roles for cabbage to play. In Ireland, for example, cabbage and potatoes are ingredients in a dish called colcannon. At Halloween, colcannon would be served with a ring, coins, or other items hidden it. Each item foretold a specific future for the person who found it. The ring indicated a happy marriage, the coins wealth, etc.

Cabbage also had a magical role to play in New England once Halloween began to be celebrated here in the nineteenth century. Clifton Johnson found the following divinatory practice in western Massachusetts in the late 1800s:

On Halloween hang up a cabbage-stump over the door. The first person of the opposite sex that comes in is the one you will marry (What They Say In New England, 1896).

Fanny Bergen also found this more elaborate version in Massachusetts:

On Halloween a girl is to go through a graveyard, steal a cabbage and place it above the house-door. The one on whom the cabbage falls as the door is opened is to be the girl’s husband (Current Superstitions, 1896).

I like Bergen's version better. Not only does the girl need to walk through a graveyard (spooky!) and steal (breaking the law!), but her poor beau will get hit on the head by a cabbage (pranking!). It's a little more transgressive and therefore seems more Halloweeny to me. However, I don't condone trespassing, theft, or dropping cabbages on anyone.

Have a safe and happy Halloween, with or without your cabbage!

October 20, 2013

American Horror Story: Did Tituba Practice Voodoo?

We've been watching season three of American Horror Story, and last week's episode ended with a confrontation between Fiona Goode the supreme witch (played by Jessica Lange), and Marie Laveau the immortal voodoo queen (played by Angela Bassett). As they argue in a New Orleans hair salon, Marie claims that the witches stole their power from Tituba, who practiced voodoo in Puritan Salem. (To be clear, Voudou or Voudoun is an African-based polytheistic religious system; in popular culture, voodoo is a magical system that is derived from Voudou.)

Angela Bassett as Marie Laveau

American Horror Story is of course fiction and created to entertain (which I think it does), but it usually works in some historical information as well. So who was Tituba, and did she really practice voodoo or Voudou?

Tituba was a slave owned in the 1690s by Salem Village's minister Samuel Parris. After his daughter Betty, her cousin Abigail Williams and other local girls began to have fits, they accused Tituba of bewitching them. Some writers, like Marion Starkey, have claimed the girls made these accusations because Tituba taught them voodoo-style magic. In particular, Starkey's The Devil in Massachusetts claims that the guilt and conflict the adolescent girls felt about practicing Tituba's magic was the spark that ignited the Salem witch trials.

This probably never happened, but it sure looks dramatic!
However, there's not much evidence that Tituba practiced any magic at all, let alone voodoo or Voudou. According to Marilynne Roach's The Salem Witch Trials, there's just one documented incident of Tituba performing magic.

On February 25, 1692, before she was accused of being a witch, Tituba made a cake made from the afflicted girls' urine and fed it to a dog. This was a form of diagnostic magic. If the dog became sick after eating the cake, it would prove the girls had witchcraft-tainted urine and were indeed bewitched. Baking a witch cake is not a practice associated with Voudou or voodoo, but is part of English folk magic. Tituba was in fact instructed to make the cake by Mary Sibley, an English neighbor of the Parrises.

When Tituba did confess to being a witch, her confessions matched those of her English Puritan neighbors. She had flown through the air on a pole to the witch meetings, had been pressured by the Devil to serve him, and had been offered animal familiars. These are all part of English witchcraft belief, not Voudou. Another Salem slave named Candy was accused of witchcraft, and her confessions also matched her Puritan neighbors. I think it's safe to assume the slaves were just telling the judges what they wanted to hear. It was the safest strategy to prolong your life during the Salem trials.

It's also not entirely clear if Tituba was of African, or even part-African, descent. The trial records refer to her as Tituba Indian, and her husband as John Indian. It appears they had come originally from the Caribbean, and some historians have claimed they were actually Arawak Indians rather than Africans. On American Horror Story Marie Laveau does mention that Tituba was an Arawak, but any connection between Arawak religion (now extinct) and voodoo or Voudou is mostly speculative.

American Horror Story also has a minotaur in it, so I'm not expecting historical accuracy. The show entertains while discussing broader social themes, and this season seems to be partly about racial conflict. If that turns out to be the case Tituba certainly fits right in.

October 12, 2013

The Spirit Photos of William Mumler

Have you ever seen a horror movie where someone holds a seance in a haunted house? Have you ever played with a Ouija board? If you answered yes to at least one of those, then you have some idea of what Spiritualism is. 

Started in upstate New York in 1848 by sisters Kate and Margaret Fox, Spiritualism claims that the spirits of the departed communicate with the living to give advice and inspiration. Certain people, called mediums, are more attuned to the spirit world and can communicate easily with the departed. For those of us not so gifted, the spirits are more likely to manifest as rapping sounds, movements on a Ouija board, and suddenly extinguished candles.

In the 1860s, Spiritualism swept across the United States like a ghostly wildfire. Hundreds of thousands had been killed in the Civil War, and Americans longed to hear that death was not the end. Spiritualism filled an aching need in the country's heart.

One problem with Spiritualism, though, was that it was so ephemeral. Rapping noises and messages delivered through an entranced medium were nice, but wouldn't it be better to have concrete proof that your deceased loved one was still with you?

William Mumler, a Boston jeweler, was able to provide that proof. He could give you a photo.

There was of course a price. Customers would pay $10 for a dozen photos, a high price for the time, and with no guarantee the spirits would appear. Sometimes they didn't, but when they did the results were pretty spectacular. Look at this photo:

Photo from the American Photography Museum.

Mumler's customers were generally satisfied with the results, even if the spirits in the photos didn't exactly look like their relatives. The veil between the worlds was hazy, and the spirits themselves were perfected and changed in the Summerland where they dwelt on the other side. No wonder they looked a little vague when captured on film.

Skeptical Bostonians argued that Mumler's photos were faked. Was it merely coincidence, they said, that the spirits photographed were usually the same ones that customers had told Mrs. Mumler about while in the studio's waiting room? Local pundit Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a pointed essay about how easy it was double-expose film, but faithful Spiritualists ignored the criticism and continued to patronize Mumler.

Photo from the American Photography Museum.
That is, until they began to notice that the spirits in the photos looked suspiciously like people still living in Boston. Feeling the heat, Mumler fled Boston for New York and set up a new studio. Things seemed to be going well in the new state until he was arrested and put on trial for fraud. 

Amazingly, he was found not guilty. A string of professional photographers testified they had watched him in the studio and saw no trickery. Many of satisfied customers also took the stand, claiming the spirits in their photos were indeed their dearly departed. If his customers were happy, the defense lawyers said, how could there be fraud?

Mumler returned to Boston after being released, and despite a tarnished reputation set up a small studio at his mother's house in the South End. A small trickle of clients continued to patronize him, including one woman dressed in black who refused to lift her veil until the camera was ready. She had been tricked before and didn't want to be tricked again. She wanted Mumler to prove he was the real thing.

Mumler produced the following photo for her:

Photo from Wikipedia.

The woman was Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's widow. I think you can guess who the spirit is. This is probably the last photo taken of Mrs. Lincoln before her death in 1882.

Mumler himself died in 1884. Shortly before passing away, he burned all his negatives.

You can find a lot more about William Mumler on the web. In particular I found this essay to be very informative.

October 06, 2013

Abigail Hobbs, Poor Little Witch Girl

As I read about the Salem witch trials, sometimes I feel like I'm really getting to know a particular person. Abigail Hobbs, accused of witchcraft at age 14, is one of them.

Maybe I'm just projecting my modern attitudes onto a completely different historical era, but when I read about Abigail Hobbs I get the impression of a bratty teenage Goth girl. For example, here is the transcript of one of her interrogations. The judge has asked her when she first encountered the Devil:

Abigail: About 3 or 4 years ago.

Judge: What did he say to you?

Abigail: He said he would give me fine things, if I did what he would have me.

Judge: What would he have you do?

Abigail: Why, he would have me be a witch. 

Her use of the word "why" gives the impression that she was relaxed, and almost mocking. "Of course he wanted me to be a witch," she implies. "Why else would I be on trial?"

Before coming to Salem, Abigail Hobbs had lived with her father and stepmother in a settlement at Casco Bay in Maine. In the 1690s Maine was a dangerous frontier area, rife with wild animals and marauding Wabenaki Indians, but Abigail roamed freely outside the palisades surrounding the settlement. She even spent nights alone in the woods.

When asked by neighbors why she was unafraid outside in the dangerous forest, she replied that she had "sold herself body and soul to the Old Boy." I like to think she said this sarcastically, to scare her pious and nosey neighbors. Chadwick Hansen, in his crazy book Witchcraft at Salem, thinks Abigail Hobbs really was a witch based on statements like this. I prefer to think of her as a proto-Goth girl out to shock.

As Indian attacks made Casco Bay increasingly dangerous the Hobbs family moved south to Topsfield, Massachusetts, which is next to Salem. Abigail continued to be a wild child. She mockingly baptized her mother while at a neighbor's house, openly defied her parents in public, and told people who criticized her that she could see the Devil sitting behind them.

Needless to say, these antics soon led to Abigail being accused of witchcraft. Like most of the other accused, she soon realized that the best way to delay execution was to tell the judges what they wanted to hear. She confessed to witchcraft. She claimed she tortured and killed neighbors by sticking pins in poppets, and ate red bread and red wine at the witches' sabbat. She also accused several others of witchcraft, including John Proctor of Salem and George Burroughs, the former Salem minister who had moved to Maine.

In the fall of 1692 Abigail was sentenced to be executed, but by early 1693 the trials had collapsed and the order was never carried out. Governor Phipps signed a reprieve and Abigail was spared the hangman's noose. Unfortunately many of the people she had accused were not so lucky.

I like to think that Abigail Hobbs was a just free-spirited teenager growing up in a dangerous time. Maybe her blasphemous, screw-you attitude started out as a reaction to the unstable environment of Casco Bay, but by the time she arrived in Massachusetts people took her all too seriously.

You can read the transcripts of Abigail's trials here.

September 29, 2013

America's Oldest Apple Pie Recipe, Plus Some Strange Apple Stories

I'm taking a brief break from writing about the Devil and witchcraft because we are in the heart of apple season. It's been a great year for the New England orchards, and the trees are literally groaning under the weight of all those apples. Shhh! If you listen closely you can probably hear them.

Although I live in Boston my neighborhood used to be an agricultural area, and the streets near me are still lined with apple trees. There are so many apples this year they are literally rolling down the sidewalks. The Roxbury russet, the first variety of apple grown in North America, was domesticated not far from where I live now. My neighbor has a Roxbury russet tree growing in the backyard.

Apple pie is the quintessential American dessert, and I can't even begin to guess how many recipes for it exist. My mother always makes hers with a crust made from vegetable oil. The crust is really difficult to roll out, but after baking it's flaky and thin, almost like a puff pastry or phyllo dough. Delicious!

I was curious about the oldest American recipe for apple pie, so I looked at Amelia Simmons's 1796 book American Cookery. The first cookbook published in America (in Hartford, Connecticut, to be exact), American Cookery's recipes have their roots deep in New England's history. But even two centuries ago there were multiple recipes for apple pie - Simmons includes two.

The first recipe is just called "Apple Pie." Note that the "paste No. 3" Simmons references is a pastry crust recipe in her book made from flour, butter, and eggs.

Stew and strain the apples, to every three pints, grate the peal of a fresh lemon, add cinnamon, mace, rose-water and sugar to your taste--and bake in paste No. 3.

This recipe is a big change from most contemporary apple pie recipes because it involves cooking the apples first. Stewing the apples first probably sped up the baking time, which would have been helpful to cooks at that time who were baking in their fireplaces. The lemon, cinnamon and sugar are still used, but I think most people now would substitute nutmeg for mace. Mace comes from the same nut as nutmeg, but is kind of hard to find these days in supermarkets. I don't think very many people still use rose-water in their apple pie. It's just not a flavor we associate now with fall cooking.

Simmons's second recipe is perhaps a little more similar to modern recipes, but there's still a twist or two. Here's her recipe for "A Buttered Apple Pie":

Pare, quarter and core tart apples, lay in paste No. 3, cover with the same; bake half an hour, when drawn, gently raise the top crust, add sugar, butter, cinnamon, mace, wine or rose-water.

So this recipe involves putting the cut and peeled apples into a pastry crust and baking it for a while, which we still do, but strangely without any of the spices or sugar. They're are added in after the top crust is cooked enough to lift it off. Again, it seems like the recipe is designed for ovens that took a long time to cook, and it also involves rose water or wine. 

OK, those are America's two oldest apple pie recipes! I think they're kind of quirky and interesting, but if you're not a baker and want to read some really strange things about apples I'd suggest these past posts:

Enjoy apple season while you can. It's all too brief.

September 22, 2013

Places Named After the Devil in Southern New England

Last week I wrote about all the places in northern New England. I was surprised at how many there are, but when I compiled this week's devilish lists of southern New England locales I was totally flabbergasted. Here's the list; my comments are below.


Devil's Backbone, Bethlehem
Devil's Backbone, Bristol
Devil's Backbone, Cheshire
Devil's Backbone, Bristol
Devil's Belt, Long Island Sound
Devil's Den, Franklin
Devil's Den, Haddam
Devil's Den, Monroe
Devil's Den, Plainfield 
Devil's Den, Sterling
Devil's Den, Weston
Devil's Dripping Pan, Branch Brook
Devil's Footprint, Montville
Devil's Footprint, Branford
Devil's Gap, Brookfield
Devil's Glen Park, Weston
Devil's Gorge, Weston
Devil's Hopyard, East Haddam
Devil's Island, Danielson
Devil's Jump, Derby
Devil's Kitchen, Burligton
Devil's Kitchen, Thomaston
Devil's Meditation, Middlebury and Watertown
Devil's Mouth, Redding
Devil's Plunge, Morris
Devil's Pulpit, Hamden
Devil's Rock, Old Saybrook
Devil's Rock, Portland
Devil's Wharf, Deep River


Devil's Back, Hull
Devil's Basin, Newbury
Devil's Bridge, Gay Head
Devil's Brook, Sharon
Devil's Brook, Stoughton
Devils Cavern, Amherst (see also Devil's Garden)
Devil's Coffin, Sutton
Devil's Corncrib, Sutton
Devil's Den, Andover (now often called Den Rock)
Devil's Den, Aquinnah
Devil's Den, Arlington (now Menotomy Rocks Park)
Devil's Den, Ashland
Devil's Den, Goshen
Devil's Den, Newbury
Devil's Den, Hemlock Gorge, Newton
Devil's Den, Oxford
Devil's Den, Rockport
Devil's Den, Weston
Devil's Dishfull Pond, Peabody
Devil's Foot Island, Woods Hole
Devil's Football, Hadley 
Devil's Footprint, Ipswich
Devil's Footprint, Norton
Devil's Garden, Amherst (see also Devil's Cavern)
Devil's Garden, Lynnfield
Devil's Hollow, Marshfield
Devil's Hopyard, Shelburne Falls
Devil's Kitchen, Lynnfield
Devil's Landslide, Wellesley
Devil's Lane, Warren
Devil's Oven, Sherborn
Devil's Oven, Westwood
Devil's Peak, Warren
Devil Pond, Westport (now called Devol Pond because it is more family friendly)
Devil's Pond, Rehoboth (sometimes called Sabin Pond)
Devil's Pool, Pelham
Devil's Pulpit, Great Barrington
Devil's Pulpit, Housatonic
Devil's Pulpit, Leominster
Devil's Pulpit, Nahant
Devil's Pulpit, Newbury (historic, may no longer exist)
Devil's Rock, Rochester
Devil's Rock, Sharon
Devil's Rock, Swansea

An old marker for Devil's Foot Rock in North Kingstown, RI.
 Rhode Island

Devil's Foot Cemetery, North Kingstown (an archeological site)
Devil's Foot Rock, North Kingstown
Devil's Foot Road, North Kingstown

Massachusetts is clearly the most devilish state, with 43 places named after the Prince of Darkness. Many people in New England do think Massachusetts is evil, and maybe this verifies that. Connecticut has 29 devilish locations, which is still pretty sinister, but Rhode Island only has three, and they're all related to the same rock. Rhode Island needs to step up its evil game!

All kidding aside, there's probably a historical reason for the preponderance of devil names in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Those two states were the Puritan heartland in New England, and the Puritans constantly saw the Devil's actions in the world around them. Rhode Island, however, was more liberal in its approach to religion and the people there didn't see the world in such stark good-and-evil terms. That's just my guess, mind you.

As in the northern states, the Devil has plenty of dens named after him. Tony and I have visited the one in Ashland, which unfortunately was damaged during construction of a new high school playing field. The den in Plainfield, Connecticut is famous for its large size, naturally occurring staircase, and freezing cold temperatures.

In the 1800s, boys in Newbury, Massachusetts had to be initiated by their friends before they entered the Devil's Den in that town. Climbing to the top of the nearby Devil's Pulpit boulder, they would repeat certain irreverent phrases that protected from the evil that dwelt within the cave. Even after initiation they could only enter in groups; a secret name was written on the floor of the cave that would kill anyone who entered alone. The cave was also known for interesting mineral deposits of serpentine and soft, gummy chrysotile, a naturally occurring form of asbestos. The boys would often chew the chrysotile, so I hope the irreverent phrases protected them from cancer.

All three states have footprints left by the Devil. In Ipswich, Massachusetts the footprint was left when George Whitefield, a cross-eyed Methodist evangelical preacher, threw Satan off the church steeple. In Norton, Massachusetts it was made when he absconded with the body of a man who sold his soul, while in North Kingstown, Rhode Island the Devil left his track as he carried off a Native American woman who killed her lover.

That's not the only connection these devilish places have to the local Indians. The Puritans incorrectly categorized all Indian deities as demons or devils, and this is reflected in the place names. For example, the Devil's Den at Aquinnah on Martha's Vineyard is where the giant Wampanoag hero Maushop (or Moshup) sleeps, and the Devil's Bridge is actually a rock formation the mighty giant created. The Devil's Hop Yard in Haddam, Connecticut was probably originally a gathering place for local Indian shamen, but the Puritans named it after the Devil.

The Devil's Hopyard was also the location of a malt house. Hops are used to make beer, so it's name may be appropriate. A local legend claims a man named Dibble owned the malt house, and the area was really called Dibble's Hop Yard. With time, the name devolved to Devil's Hop Yard. This story, which sounds so appealing to our rational minds, is not true. The area really was named after the Devil.

Other than searching the Web, I found lots of good information in David Phipps Legendary Connecticut and Jeff Belanger's Weird Massachusetts. The fascinating information about the Devil's Den in Newbury can be found here.

September 15, 2013

Places Named After the Devil In Northern New England

A while ago I was looking through Loren Coleman's Mysterious America, and noticed that Appendix V lists places named after the Devil. He mentions a couple in New England, but I knew there were more out there. I thought, Wouldn't a list of devil-named places make a good blog post?

I was wrong.

I simply underestimated how many geographic features are named after the Evil One in this part of the country. There are a lot, so it's going to be two blog posts. This week I'm just listing those devilish places in northern New England, with my commentary at the bottom. Next week I'll write about southern New England.

And please note, this list only includes sites or locations with the word "Devil" in them. I left out all the places named after Hell, Purgatory, or Satan. I had to rein in this evil list somehow! Otherwise people would think our region is just a hissing cauldron of demonic activity.


Devil's Back Trail, Harpswell
Devil's Back, Louds Island
Devil's Bog, Skowhegan
Devil's Bog Brook, Skowhegan
Devil's Chair Trail, Waterville
Devil's Den, Andover
Devils Den, Sanford
Devil's Elbow, Bristol
Devil's Elbow, Penobscot County
Devil's Footprint Rock, Manchester
Devil's Half Acre, a former neighborhood in Bangor
Devil's Half Acre, Bar Harbor
Devil's Head, Calais
Devil's Head, Hartland
Devil's Head, John's Island
Devil's Head, St. Albans
Devil's Horseshoe, Bear
Devil's Horseshoe, Grafton
Devil's Island, Jonesport
Devil's Island, Stonington
Devil's Limb, Bristol
Devil's Snowshoe Track, Milo
Devil's Wall, a mountain peak near Mattawamkeag Lake

The Devil's Bean Pot, Mont Vernon, New Hampshire. From Wikipedia.

New Hampshire:

Devil's Bean Pot, Mont Vernon
Devil's Den, Alton
Devil's Den, Mont Vernon
Devil's Den, New Durham
Devil's Footprint, Mont Vernon
Devil's Hopyard, Groveton
Devil's Slide, Stark


Devil's Den, Bradford
Devil's Dishpan, Stevensville
Devil's Gulch, Eden
Devil's Gorge, Clarendon

Devil's Hill, Peacham
Devil's Perch Outlook, Eden
Devil's Potholes, Bolton
Devil's Rock, Lake Willoughby, Westmore
Devil's Washbowl, Northfield

Path to the Devil's Den, New Durham, New Hampshire. From Wikipedia.

First of all, Maine is the clear winner for devilish names. The Maine tourism bureau markets the state as Vacation Land, but clearly something else is hiding just under the state's placid, pine-forested surface. I always thought Steven King was writing fiction, but maybe not.

My favorite name in Maine is the Devil's Snowshoe Track, an imprint on a rock in the town of Milo. According to a local legend, the Devil and his dog were hanging around in Milo one winter. I suppose they were there to cause trouble and steal souls. Luckily, a extreme cold spell set in. Being used to warmer temperatures, the Devil hightailed it out of town to find someplace warmer, imprinting a rock with his snowshoe on the way out. Before leaving town he also blasted out a cave called Satan's Cave, thinking it would keep him warm, but it didn't work.

Did he strap the snowshoes to cloven hooves, or to human-like feet? This is probably one of the most troubling theological questions of our time. Horseshoe shaped marks, suggesting Satan indeed has hooves, are found in Bear and Grafton, Maine, but a cursed rock in Manchester, Maine that bears his footprint quite clearly shows five toes. The human-shaped footprint he left in Mont Vernon is seven feet long!

What do the names tell us about the Devil's activities? Other than lurking about in multiple dens, the Evil One seems interested in the domestic arts, since a washbowl, a dishpan, and a bean pot are all named after him. But even cooking takes an evil turn when the Devil's at the stove. According to Charles J. Smith's History of the Town of Mont Vernon (1907), the Devil disguised himself and invited the local church elders to a bean supper in the woods. Beans take a long time to cook, particularly when you're heating them in a stoney depression, so he summoned a little hellfire to cook them faster. Unfortunately for the Devil, but luckily for the elders, the heat melted the rock around his feet. As he pulled out his foot he swore like the fallen angel he truly is, and the elders fled back home. Both the bean pot and footprint can still be seen today.

I'm not sure how much washing the Devil did (or does) in the Devil's Washbowl in Northfield, Vermont, but it is associated with the mysterious Pigman who lurks around that town, who has probably not bathed in years.  

There is a theory floating around that places named after the Devil were gathering spots for Native Americans. The local Indians were the Puritans' enemies, so their Puritans named the Indian gathering places after God's enemy. In reality, the Indians were no more evil than the Puritans themselves.

Some legends say that the Devil's Den, a cave in Alton, New Hampshire was indeed used as a lookout by the local Indians, but others say it was used by bootleggers and smugglers to hide their contraband. A similar story is told about the Devil's Den in Bradford, Vermont. Oh, that delicious but devilish liquor.

Next week, I'll unearth the devilish places in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut!

September 08, 2013

Hannah Cranna, or the Witch's Funeral: A Story From Connecticut

It feels like fall is coming. It's windy and cool today, and the apple trees in my neighborhood are dropping their fruit onto the sidewalks and the paths. This weather puts me in the mood for a witch story.


After her husband of many years died, Hannah Hovey acquired the reputation for being a witch. Maybe it was because her husband, Captain Joseph Hovey, died under mysterious circumstances, being found at the bottom of a cliff with his neck broken. Maybe it was because after his death Hannah lived alone with no companion except a rooster named Old Boreas, who had the uncanny habit of crowing only at midnight. Or maybe it was just because Hannah was an irascible, demanding, cranky old woman who easily matched the stereotypical image of a witch.

Hannah used her reputation to her advantage, asking for favors and demanding food from her neighbors in Monroe, Connecticut. "If you know what's good for you, you'll give me that pie," she would threaten a farm wife who had just completed her baking. "No," she would say to a neighbor boy, "you can't fish in the stream that runs through my yard. I don't care if it is common property!"

The people of Monroe gave her the nickname "Hannah Cranna", which they thought suited her witchy personality. The educated people in town laughed at the thought of a witch living among them. After all, this was the 19th century, not the 1600s! But others whispered that the stories were true. That farm wife who refused to give Hannah a pie? She never successfully baked anything again. And the boy who fished in Hannah's stream never caught a trout again for the rest of his life.

It was also said that Hannah Cranna would help out people in need - if offered the right price. A desperate farmer once came to her house on Cragley Hill and begged for her aid. There had been a drought for weeks, and his crops were dying. Hannah agreed to bring rain, but only if he pledged his soul to her. Without hesitation the desperate farmer threw himself onto her floor and gave his soul into her aged hands. It rained that very night, and the farmer's harvest was rich and bountiful.

In early January of 1860, Old Boreas crowed his last midnight crow. Hannah wept at the loss of her beloved companion, and told her neighbors that his passing meant she would soon die too.

"When I die," she said, "this is how I must be buried. My coffin must be carried by hand to the graveyard, and I must be buried after sunset. Otherwise, evil and trouble will come to this town!"

Hannah died a few days later, and a heavy snowstorm covered Connecticut. The townspeople thought it would be easiest to transport Hannah to the graveyard by sled, so they hitched two big horses to a sled and strapped her coffin to it. As the funeral procession set off the straps ripped, and Hannah's coffin slid all the way back to her house.

Hannah Cranna's grave. Thanks Wikipedia!

Perhaps this was just a coincidence. Still ignoring her dying wish, the townspeople strapped her coffin to the sled again, this time with huge iron chains. Several men climbed on top to ensure the coffin didn't budge. The procession once again set off, but the coffin shook so violently that the men were thrown to the ground, and the chains started to burst.

Admitting defeat, and realizing Hannah was just as demanding dead as alive, the men lifted the coffin onto their shoulders and trudged through the snow to the cemetery. Because of all the delays Hannah's second dying wish was followed, and she was buried just after sunset.

As the mourners returned from the cemetery they noticed a fiery glow lighting up Cragley Hill. It was Hannah's house, which had mysteriously burst into flames. The fire burned for several days. When it finally died down the cellar hole had the reputation of being haunted. Strange moans and noises were heard there, and perhaps can still be heard there today.


Hannah Hovey was a real person, who lived from 1793 to 1860. I'm not sure how much of this legend is true, but it's a great story. It's nice to read a witch story where the witch gets everything she wants!

I think it is implied that Old Boreas is her familiar, or perhaps an aspect of her own soul externalized in an animal form. The death of this animal naturally foretells her own death, an ancient motif in myth and folklore.

Burying a witch is often problematic in folktales. Usually the witch's coffin is unnaturally heavy (perhaps because of all their accumulated sin), or must be sealed with chains to prevent the Devil from stealing the body. Hannah's story comes from a later period when witches were not viewed quite so sinisterly, but her funeral still poses problems for her neighbors.

I got this story from David E. Philips book Legendary Connecticut, but you can also read about Hannah Cranna at the Monroe Historical Society page. Damned Connecticut has a nice piece about Hannah as well, including info about a possible ghost seen lurking around her grave in Gregory's Four Corners Burial Ground.

September 02, 2013

Fort Indpendence: Edgar Allan Poe, a Skeleton, and a Sea Serpent

"The Cask of Amontillado" is one of Edgar Allan Poe's most famous stories. For those of you who need a reminder, the plot involves a man named Montresor who takes revenge upon his friend Fortunato, who has insulted him in an unspecified manner. One night during Carnival when Fortunato is drunk Montresor lures him into his basement by promising him a rare cask of Amontillado wine.

But instead of giving him wine, he chains Fortunato into a niche and then seals it with stones and mortar. Fortunato cries out, "For the love of God, Montresor!" Montresor replies, "Yes, for the love of God" as he puts in the last stone. The crime is never discovered.

Edgar Allan Poe, 1809 - 1849. 

Although Poe's 1846 story is a work of fiction, there is a local legend that it is based on fact. Confused? Read on.

In 1827 Edgar Allan Poe was serving in the military at Fort Independence on Castle Island in South Boston. Poe was a native-born Bostonian, but had acquired quite a bit of gambling debt by the time he was 18. To avoid his debtors and raise some cash he enlisted in the Army under the name of Edgar A. Perry, telling the recruiters he was 22 years old. This part of the story is true. Poe was always living on the edge.

Fort Independence on Castle Island, Boston.

While he was serving at Fort Independence, Poe noticed a gravestone in the fort's cemetery dedicated to Lt. Robert Massie, who died on Christmas Day in 1817. The other soldiers told Poe that Massie had been killed in a duel with another officer, Lt. Gutavus Drane. Drane had never been popular with the enlisted men at the fort, and what little popularity he had vanished after he killed Massie. One night when he was drunk the soldiers lured him into the basement of the fort and walled him up alive. Years later, Poe used this incident as inspiration for "The Cask of Amontillado."

A sealed door on the fort's exterior wall.
That part of the story is mostly legend, and some of the details are quite murky. Again, Poe really did serve at Fort Independence, but Gustavus Drane was not walled up alive. He was promoted, married, died of an illness, and was buried outside of Philadelphia. Alternately, some versions of the story say the entombed officer was really named Greene or Drake, and Massie's name is sometimes spelled Massey for more confusion.

There is no gravestone for Robert Massie at Fort Independence, but historian and folklorist Edward Rowe Snow claims it was moved to Fort Devens in Ayer. And perhaps the story really is true after all. Rowe also claims that when renovations were being done on the fort in 1905 workers found a skeleton entombed within a wall - and it was wearing a uniform from the early 1800s.

Tony looked but could not see a skeleton.
So there you go - fact, fiction and legend are all intertwined at Fort Independence, and it's hard to determine what's true and what isn't. It's a great story though, and sometimes that's what's most important.

Another great story from Castle Island is that a sea serpent was sighted there in 1818. Two soldiers and an officer all reported seeing the large monster swimming in the harbor. There were a lot of sea serpent seen off the coast of Massachusetts in the 19th century, so it does seem likely one was seen near Fort Independence. I'll let others determine if the sea serpent was real or not.

A good viewing spot for sea monsters.
Even if you aren't intrigued by stories of revenge, skeletons, and aquatic monsters Castle Island is still worth a visit. There have been fortifications on the island since 1634, so it's rich in history. For example, it was from Castle Island that the British attempted to bombard the American revolutionaries on Dorchester Heights. Fort Independence is the seventh fort to stand on the island,  and was built in 1801. Sadly you can't go inside it, but the views are great, there's a beach, and the island is connected to the mainland so you can walk, drive, or take the bus there.

I got most of my information from Stephanie Schorow's East of Boston: Notes from the Harbor Islands. You can find Edward Rowe Snow's version of the legend here; I believe it first appeared in Yankee Magazine in the early 1960s.