March 31, 2013

The Nashoba Brook Chamber

The weather was good this weekend so Tony and I took a field trip. My co-worker Bob had recommended that we visit a stone chamber located out in Acton, where he lives.

The chamber is located in the Nashoba Brook Conservation Area, which has 123 acres of woodlands, wetlands, and ruins. The Nashoba Brook area really made me think about how New England has changed through the centuries.

In the 1800s Nashoba Brook was used to power light industry, like this pencil factory:

 Today, the ruins of the pencil factory stand in a new growth forest:

Stone walls run through the woods and along the brook, indicating the area was once used for farmland, and the foundations of an old farmhouse can be seen near the park's entrance on Wheeler Lane. But farmers haven't worked this stony soil for many, many years.

The chamber was about fifteen minutes away from the Wheeler Lane entrance, and is accessed through a seventeen-foot long tunnel. The ceiling is quite low, and we needed to crouch as we walked inside. The chamber itself is off to the right of the tunnel.

However, the chamber itself is tall enough to stand in, and has a ceiling made of massive stone slabs. Unlike the Upton Chamber, this one had a nice dry, sandy floor, but it was still home to some large spiders. 

Why am I crouching?

It's tall enough to stand.

The Nashoba Brook chamber had fallen into major disrepair by the end of the 20th century, but was reconstructed by local volunteers. Those are some really big rocks to move! I really admire people putting their money and manpower towards preserving our region's unique features.

Huge stone slabs form the ceiling.

The builders and original use of the chamber have been lost in history, and there are various theories about this and the other mysterious New England stone structures out there. They could be Colonial root cellars, built by industrious farmers. The foundation of a blacksmith shop stands next to the chamber, and historic records refer to an ice house. Perhaps the man-made cave was made to keep ice from the brook cold in the winter?

Another theory is that the chamber, and others like it, were made by Native Americans. New England has been inhabited for 11,000 years, which is longer than many parts of Europe. It's entirely plausible that an earlier culture created the chambers for an unknown reason. An 8,000-year old stone tool was found near the chamber, but due to soil disruption it is impossible to definitively connect it with the structure.

The final theory is that the New England stone chambers were constructed by some Old World explorers whose visit to this continent has been forgotten. Phoenician sailors, Irish monks, and Viking warriors have all be posited as builders of these sites. I find this theory the most speculative, but it does have quite a few supporters.

In 200 years we'll all be gone and forgotten. The future New Englanders living near Nashoba Brook will curiously look at the foundations of our houses, our mysterious plastic artifacts buried in the soil, and this mysterious chamber. And then they'll develop some theories of their own.

March 24, 2013

The Magic Easter Garter

Good Friday is coming up, which means Tony and I will run around the house and strike all our furniture with a piece of wood. Preferably, we should do this at noon. This is something that Tony's grandmother used to do, so we carry on the tradition the best we can. I'm not quite sure why we're supposed to do this on Good Friday. I think his grandmother mentioned scaring out the evil spirits, which sounds good to me. 

I'm writing about this not because it has any particular connection to New England folklore (his grandmother was Italian-American and from New Jersey), but as an example of the interesting folk practices that have become attached to the Easter season. Everyone is familiar with the Easter bunny and egg hunts, the most widespread American folklore associated with this holiday, but there are definitely some other curious traditions out there in the world.

In Sweden, little girls dress like witches at Easter-time and travel door-to-door, begging for candy. It sounds a lot like Halloween to me, but the Swedes claim that witches actually gather together before Easter to cause trouble. Are people buying them off by giving them candy? In neighboring Norway it is traditional to read mystery novels at Easter. Publishers release new mysteries the week before Easter, and most TV stations show mysteries.

Easter witches, from this site.

In Latin America and some Mediterranean countries people build bonfires and burn effigies of Judas Iscariot, while in Slovakia and the Czech Republic men traditionally spank or whip women on Easter Monday, a practice that supposedly maintains the women's beauty. The next day women retaliate by pouring buckets on cold water on men. I don't know if that makes the men look better, or just makes the women feel better.

All those examples are just a preface to this little piece of Easter love magic I found in Fanny Bergen's Current Supersitions (1896). Ms. Bergen collected this piece of foklore from an informant in Salem, New Hampshire:

Knit a garter and color it yellow. Don it on Easter Day. Wear it for a year. The wearer will be engaged before the year is out. 

The 19th century was ripe with love spells like this one, and they were associated with all kinds of holidays: Easter, Halloween, May Day, Midsummer's Day. After the Industrial Revolution people used magic less for life-and-death matters and more in those other domains where they felt powerless, like romance. Can't get the farmer down the street to give you a second look? Make a magic Easter garter and not only will he give you a look, he'll even propose.

I don't know where the tradition came from, but an informant from Maryland also told Ms. Bergen something similar. I assume it died out when people stopped wearing garters. If anyone knows anything else about the magic Easter garter please get in touch!

March 16, 2013

The Blacksmith and the Witch

This week, another witchcraft story from the north. John McNab Currier was a 19th century physician and amateur scientist who lived much of his life in New Hampshire. He also collected folklore, including this little story from an unnamed town in the Granite State.


The man who served as blacksmith in the town between the years 1845 and 1855 believed strongly in witchcraft. One day a local man came into the smithy and requested that a small job be done. (Dr. Currier doesn't specify what the job was, but I'm guessing it was probably something like a repair to a farm implement.) The man was in a hurry and urged the blacksmith to complete it quickly so he could leave.

Now, the blacksmith had long suspected this man of being a witch, but never had been able to prove it. With the man inside his smithy he had his chance.

It was well-known at the time that witches could not pass through a doorway that had a horseshoe hung above it. While the man sat waiting for him to begin the job, the blacksmith climbed on a ladder and nailed a horseshoe above the door. Then he returned to his forge and quickly completed the job.

A blacksmith shop in Shelby County, Indiana.

The blacksmith handed the repaired item to the man, but although he had said he was in a hurry he didn't depart. When asked why he wasn't leaving, the man nervously said he had just remembered that a friend of his might stop by the smithy today and he wanted to talk with him.

The blacksmith went back to work, and the man sat in a chair, supposedly waiting for a friend to arrive. The man set there for many hours. The friend never arrived.

By the end of the afternoon the blacksmith felt he had his proof. He took down the horseshoe, and the man instantly left the smithy. Clearly, the blacksmith thought, this man was a witch.


Last year I wrote about how horseshoes were used to keep witches out of houses. For people in the 17th century witchcraft was a matter of life and death and the horseshoe belief was taken quite seriously. When I read this story from Dr. Currier I was surprised to find someone using a horseshoe to keep a witch inside a building. Either people didn't take witchcraft so seriously by the 19th century or the blacksmith was particularly brave. I guess no one was going to mess with a guy who spent all day pounding metal with a hammer!

Smiths have a long folkloric association with magic, both good and evil, going back to at least the ancient Mediterranean world. For example, in Greek mythology semi-divine smiths named the Daktyls rose from the handprint of the goddess Rhea and were invoked as protection against evil magic. Trolls and dwarves labor underground creating magical items in Norse mythology, and in some Christian tales blacksmiths learn their skills from the Devil. There's an interesting overview here.

Dr. Currier writes the name of the town this way: "B____n, N.H." There are only six towns in New Hampshire with names that start with "b" and end in "n": Barrington, Belmont, Bennington, Benton, Berlin, and Boscawen. I'm not sure why he didn't want to reveal the location, because he does for the other stories he collected and published in the July 1891 issue of The Journal of American Folk-lore, which is where I found this one.

March 10, 2013

The Witch's Footprints

We tend to think of our selves as being contained by our our bodies. Our self is limited by  the boundaries of our skin. To appropriate the title of a feminist classic, our bodies are our selves.

Folklore and legend tell us otherwise, that our essence is also contained in the effluvia and products of our body. Why else can someone control us by incorporating our hair into a poppet, or can we stop evil from harming us by boiling our urine?

Folklore also tells us that our essence is contained in our image, which is why poppets are shaped like people, and why we need to exercise caution around mirrors and reflections. Think about people afraid that a camera will steal their soul, or poor Peter Pan who lost his shadow. It all comes from the same idea. Our images are our selves.

Folklore tells us that our essence is even contained in the minor traces that we leave behind. This is particularly true for witches, who derive much of their supernatural power from their souls' ability to leave their bodies. Their souls are loosely attached to their bodies, and their essence spreads further into the world than the average person's. As this story from Eva Speare's New Hampshire Folk Tales illustrates, even a footprint left in the road can affect a witch.

Two small children in Epping, New Hampshire often saw an old woman wearing a red kerchief passing by their house. They thought she might be a witch, and asked their grandmother how they could find out if she was.

Their grandmother said: "I have heard that if you place some article made of steel in her footprints, she will turn around and look at you, and sometimes chase you."

The children devised their plan. One day after the old woman had walked by their house, they waited until she had gone a good distance down the dirt road and then ran outside. Finding one of her footprints, they stuck a steel knife into it.

Although the woman was hundreds of feet away, she turned abruptly and glowered at the children. They ran inside the house, terrified. It was true. The old woman was a witch.

March 03, 2013

UFOs in Derry, and Bigfoot in the Orchard

My tastes in New England folklore are pretty broad. Sometimes my attention is captured by a 17th witchcraft story, sometimes by something more contemporary and paranormal. I say that because I was planning to write about an old witchcraft story from the New Hampshire mountains today, but at a party last night someone told me something too good to ignore. The witch story will wait until next week.

My friend David lives on Beaver Lake in Derry, New Hampshire. While talking with him at a birthday party for a mutual friend he asked me if I knew about the UFOs that had been seen in his neighborhood. When I said no, he pulled out his cellphone and showed me this video:

I don't know if the video is real or not, and I certainly don't like the creepy "UFOs are Satanic" preface. However I do think it is interesting and, like all UFO videos, a little freaky. What are these lights? Why are they hovering over a small lake in a residential neighborhood? I'm sure we'll never have authoritative answers to those questions, but David said he and his neighbors have also seen the lights in the sky.

As I wrote a few years ago, Beaver Lake is connected with some of the rare fairy folklore found in New England. A fairy named Tsienneto supposedly lived in the lake, and helped local heroes Hannah Duston and John Spark (who coined the phrase "Live free or die").

Some authors who write about the paranormal, like Patrick Harpur or Jacques Vallee, claim fairies and UFOs are two sides of the same coin. They're both both visitors from another world, but while our ancestors often placed this other world underground or in a mystical realm, we place it in outer space. Maybe Tsienneto has just upgraded her mode of transportation.

By the way, this isn't the first time UFOs have been seen in Derry. In October 1973 multiple witnesses saw a UFO splash into the waters of Rainbow Lake. According to an article in the Derry News, police divers searched the lake but did not find anything.

Here's another interesting video I found while poking around on YouTube. The video was uploaded recently, but apparently it is really from 2010. A Hubbardston, Vermont man noticed that apples had been disappearing from his orchard. When he set up a camera to capture the thief he got a photo of Bigfoot!

I love apples myself, so I can sympathize with Bigfoot here.

Next week I'm going to write about something "Olde Tyme", but as this week's videos show lots of strange things continue to happen in New England.