June 30, 2013

Touching Whoremongers - Homosexuality in 17th Century New England

It was a good week for gay rights in the United States this week, with the Supreme Court striking down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act and upholding a lower court finding that invalidated California's Proposition 8. Let's hear it for progress!

And we have made a lot of progress in the four centuries since New England was first founded. Unsurprisingly, the early settlers in New England were staunchly opposed to any homosexual behavior. Equally unsurprising, there was plenty of it for them to oppose.

Most of the colonies had laws mandating death for anyone found guilty of homosexual acts (sodomy in the language of the day). For example, Plymouth Colony listed eight crimes punishable by death, including "sodomy, rape and buggery." Massachusetts Bay Colony had the following law:

If any man lyeth with man kinde as he lyeth with a woman, both of them have committed abhomination, they both shall surely be put to death. 

Connecticut and New Hampshire had similar laws. Rhode Island had a category of capital crimes called "touching Whoremongers." Sodomy was among these laws. I don't like these laws, but the word "whoremonger" does roll off the tongue.

Despite the threat of the death penalty, there was still quite a bit of sodomy happening in the Puritan's theocratic colonies. Check out another post about "Olde Gay Puritans" here for a few details.

John Winthrop doesn't look it, but he was full of passion!
Although people were executed under these sodomy laws, same-sex affection among heterosexuals was also paradoxically expressed much more strongly in the 17th century than it is now. In fact, it was probably quite difficult to determine who was actually a devoted sodomite and who was just friendly. Here, for example, is a quote from a letter future Massachusetts governor John Winthrop wrote to a friend before departing for New England:

I loved you truly before I could think you took any notice of me ...The apprehension of your love and worth together hath overcome my heart, and removed the veil of modesty, that I needs must tell you, my soul is knit to you, as the soul of Jonathan to David: were I now with you, I should bedew that sweet bosom with the tears of affection...

Governor Winthrop was heterosexual (he also presided over the execution in 1646 of one William Plaine for sodomy) but could still write words like that to another heterosexual man. Such were the customs of the time. Love between people of the same gender was acceptable, as long as a certain carnal line wasn't crossed.

There are lots of great things about the past, but this type of repression wasn't one of them. So again, let's hear it for progress and for being able to cross those lines.

I got my information from Improper Bostonians, which is published by The History Project.

June 24, 2013

Daniel Malcolm's Grave

When I visited the Skinny House last week I also stopped by Copp's Hill Burying Ground. It's right across the street, so why not? I love visiting a historic cemetery.

Copp's Hill was first used as a cemetery starting in 1659, and ending in the 1850s. It's estimated that more than 10,000 people were buried here. It's not a very large cemetery, so I guess they were either buried on top of each other or many bones were exhumed and moved elsewhere.

Some very notable people are buried at Copp's Hill, including several members of the Mather family (famous for their role in the witchcraft trials) and Prince Hall, a famous African-American Freemason.

Lots of less notable people are there as well, including Captain Daniel Malcolm. Although not well-known today, he does have an interesting gravestone.

Note the strange round marks on the marker (including one in the skull's eye). Are they just flaws in the stone? Are they caused by natural erosion? The latter seems unlikely, because other stones at Copp's Hill show signs of wear and tear, but look nothing like this.

Well, according to legend those round marks are actually bullet holes.

Daniel Malcolm was a local patriot, and took great joy in smuggling wine and tea into Boston without paying taxes to the British. He once allegedly brought sixty casks of wine into Boston undetected - and untaxed. As the inscription on his grave reads,

A true son of Liberty
A friend of the Publick
An enemy to oppression
And one of the foremost
in opposing the Revenue Acts 
on America

The British had great hatred for Captain Malcolm, but unfortunately he evaded punishment while he was alive. Before he died, he asked to be buried in a stone grave ten feet deep so the British soldiers would not be able to harm his body.

Frustrated that he had escaped them even in death, they used Daniel Malcolm's gravestone for target practice, which is what those round marks are from.

I don't know if this story is 100% true. I suppose we'd need a ballistics specialist using an 18th century British firearm to figure out if those marks are even what a musket ball would make. But it's a good story nonetheless.

June 16, 2013

Boston's Skinny House

Boston's North End is one of the oldest parts of the city. Although most of the buildings are now multi-story brick buildings, up until the early 20th century the neighborhood was made up primarily of wooden Colonial-era buildings.

Here's a description of traveling through the old North End at night from H. P. Lovecraft's story "Pickman's Model":

When we did turn, it was to climb through the deserted length of the oldest and dirtiest alley I ever saw in my life, with crumbling-looking gables, broken small-paned windows, and archaic chimneys that stood out half-disintegrated against the moonlit sky. I don't believe there were three houses in sight that hadn't been standing in Cotton Mather's time - certainly I glimpsed at least two with an overhang, and once I thought I saw a peaked roof-line of the almost forgotten pre-gambrel type, though antiquarians tell us there are none left in Boston. 

Lovecraft was an antiquarian himself, and wrote that paragraph after a visit to to the North End in 1925 or 1926. Unfortunately for him (and for anyone who loves architecture and history), the area was considered a slum. Most of the wooden houses were demolished shortly after his visit to build the more modern brick buildings that are seen there today.

The North End before urban renewal in the 1920s. You can see more photos here.

Some of the original old buildings still remain, including the Paul Revere house and the Old North Church. A few other old houses are hidden here and there, including Boston's skinniest house.

The Skinny House is located across from the entrance to Copp's Hill Burying Ground. The four story, 18th-century home is Boston's narrowest dwelling, being only 10 feet wide at the end facing the street, and narrowing to a mere three feet at the other end. I'm getting a little claustrophobic just thinking about it! On the fourth floor, the ceilings are only six feet four inches high. You need to be both skinny and short to live in this building.

According to legend, the house was built by a man named Joseph Eustus. Joseph was left the tiny strip of land when his father died, while his brother was left a much larger adjacent plot. The brother built a spacious house on his plot, which had a prized view of the harbor, and assumed that Joseph would just abandon his miniscule inheritance. After all, it wasn't it too small to build a house on?

Not if you were angry about being short-changed in your father's will. Spitefully, Joseph built a very tall narrow house immediately next to his brother's new home. It was tall enough to block his view of the harbor. His brother's large house has long since disappeared, but Joseph Eustus's skinny house remains to this day.

The Skinny House is a private residence, so be respectful if you walk by. I found my information about the legend in Joseph Citro and Diane Fould's Curious New England. The Unconventional Traveler's Guide to Eccentric Destinations.

June 10, 2013

Healing With Seventh Sons in Modern Vermont

Earl Fuller of Rochester, Vermont had asthma for much of his life. He tried various medical treatments but nothing ever really worked.

Then one day one of his co-workers suggested he go see Henry Pare. He said that Pare was the seventh son of a seventh son, and had been given the gift of healing after praying to St. Theresa.

Folklorist Jane C. Beck interviewed Earl Fuller in 1980 about his experience with Henry Pare:

He took my shoe off - didn't take my stocking, I had a silk stocking on with my best shoes. He felt the bottom of my foot, pulled my toes, wiggled them. Finally he rubbed up and down on the center of the foot, then he put his hand up on my knee and says, "all right." I asked him how much I owed him and he says a dollar. "Well," I says, "I'll give you five." And he says "no, I won't take but a dollar. That would ruin my strength." So he took just one dollar. I was breathing just as easy as could be and you know, I went home.

Earl's asthma vanished for seven years, but after a minor surgery it came back. He returned to Pare, who without asking any questions said he couldn't help. "You had an operation and they've cut the nerve off that I work on. They've disconnected the the nerve I work on."

Henry Pare died in 1967 at the age of 76, but according to Jane Beck another seventh son carries on a similar tradition. Roger Beliveau of Troy, Vermont also heals people, and has built a large statue to thank the Virgin Mary for his gift. Unlike Pare he charges more than a dollar, and suggests people pay what they can.

The cultural continuity between the 20th century seventh sons and 18th century healer Isaac Calcott is striking. All three are seventh sons of seventh sons, and heal in ways that are outside the boundaries of accepted medical practice. Of course, there are differences. Calcott healed using his saliva, while Pare manipulated his patients' feet. Pare and Beliveau were both practicing Catholics and claimed their powers came from  God or the saints. Calcott didn't derive his powers from God -  it was just enough to be a seventh son.

Personally, I'm the second son of a first son, so I'm not going into the healing business. People are having smaller families these days. I wonder if seventh sons are going to be harder to find?

The information about Henry Pare and Roger Beliveau is from Jane Beck's "Traditional Folk Medicine in Vermont," which appears in Medicine and Healing. Volume 15 of the Proceedings of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife.

June 02, 2013

UFOs, Angels, and Demons: The Abduction of Betty Andreasson Luca

Last night Tony and I watched a horror movie called Dark Skies, which I thought was pretty creepy. A young suburban family coping with the Great Recession finds their home has been invaded by some unpleasant aliens.

The aliens in this movie are quite demonic, which is how a lot of real life abductees view the beings who take them. Sleep paralysis, missing time, and of course painful probes - these visitors from outer space seem like bad news.

Surprisingly, not everyone holds that opinion. Some people, like Betty Andreasson Luca of South Ashburnham, Massachusetts, had quite the opposite experience.

In the mid-1970s, Betty answered an ad placed by UFO researcher Allen Hynek, who was looking for people who thought they had been abducted. When placed under hypnosis, she revealed an amazing story.
Betty Andreasson Luca under hypnosis.
On the evening of January 25, 1967, Betty was at home with her seven children and her parents. As she cooked and washed dishes, Betty had an uneasy feeling. At first she attributed it to the fog that a January thaw had brought on, but when a pulsing reddish light filled her yard and house she realized something stranger than warm weather was happening. Soon her father saw five small beings floating through the air towards the house, and Betty gathered her children in the living room for protection.

The five beings floated through the locked kitchen door and approached Betty. They were between four and five feet tall, had large heads and small facial features, and wore overalls. Although she was nervous, the Biblical passage "Entertain strangers for it may be angels unaware" entered her mind.

The beings put Betty's family into a state of suspended animation, but took Betty into a small craft that joined up with a larger mother ship. Betty was frightened of the aliens because they were so strange, but also sensed great love emanating from them. While she was on board the mother ship she was subjected to various examinations, which were painful but led her to have a visionary experience of a being she thought was God.

Quazgaa's spacecraft, from this site.

Before returning her home an alien named Quazgaa told Betty that the aliens loved mankind and were here to watch over them. They also gave her a forty-page book full of diagrams, formulas and poetry that she was allowed to keep but was not supposed to show anyone. When she got back to her house her family was released from suspended animation. No one had any memory of what had happened (except Betty) and everything returned to normal.

Well, almost normal. Betty's youngest daughter had recurring nightmares about the alien experience, so Betty showed her the book as proof the aliens were benevolent. Having broken her promise to keep it secret, the book disappeared. Betty eventually lost most memories of the incident until they were recovered through hypnosis.

What are we supposed to make of this story? The UFO researcher Allen Hynek was at first hesitant to meet with Betty because her story was outside the materialist viewpoint that UFOs are purely physical phenomena. UFOs are supposed to be machines from another planet piloted by biological beings, but Betty's story is basically a religious one. She was taken up into the heavens by angelic beings, met God, and was even given a holy book that disappeared, much like the golden plates from which Joseph Smith transcribed the Book of Mormon. Betty then spread the word of the heavenly beings.

If this were a different era people would probably think Betty was a prophet. Then again, maybe they'd think she was a witch. Dealing with creatures from the Otherworld can be a tricky business. Sometimes they're angels, sometimes they're demons, and sometimes they're something else entirely. I suppose Betty had the best approach: keep an open mind, hold love in your heart, and keep faith that it will all work out.

I found a lot of my information about Betty Andreasson Luca on the web, and found this interview particularly informative. I also used T.M. Gray's book More New England Graveside Tales.