June 29, 2014

The Little People Who Live Under the Hill

In September of 2012, a developer trying to build housing in Montville, Connecticut received some surprising news during a town hearing. They would need to alter their project because it threatened small stone structures that had been made by magical, dwarf-like creatures that lived underground.

Readers may be familiar with situations like this from Iceland, where construction projects are not allowed to harm the dwelling places of elves. But they are rare here in New England, where most people don't believe in fairies, elves, and dwarves. (Bigfoot, ghosts, and UFOs are another story...)

However, magical little people are an ancient tradition among the Algonquian tribes that are native to this area, and the developer was planning to build 120 units of housing on Mohegan Hill, which is the historic and spiritual home of the sovereign Mohegan Tribe. Although the hill is not technically within the boundaries of the tribe's reservation, it is still very important to them. A letter from the tribe's historic preservation officer explained the significance of the stone structures:

The sacred stone piles on Mohegan Hill are a critical feature of the traditional landscape of Mohegan Hill; they were created by the “Little People” who live deep within the ground of Mohegan Hill. These “Little People” or Makiawisug are the ancient culture heroes of this region. These stone piles also possess powers that protect the Mohegan people from outsiders. Not only do the “Little People” still live within the ground on the Hill and continue to guard the stones, these stone piles are perceived as being made of the bones of Mother Earth and they contain messages that guide generation after generation of Mohegan People. Contemporary Mohegan tribal members make offerings to the “Little People” in hopes that they will continue to protect our Tribe.

The Makiawisug are similar in some ways to the fairies or dwarves that are familiar to people from European folklore. According the Mohegan medicine woman Gladys Tantaquidgeon (b. 1899, d. 2005), the Makiawisug are ancient beings who have lived under Mohegan Hill since before the Mohegans arrived. They are dense, bulky and born from the stones of the earth. But they are also delicate, wearing lady slipper flowers as moccasins. The Makiawisug are often mistaken for small children on the rare occasions they are seen by humans, but are quite wise. Many medicine people among the Mohegan learned their skills from the Makiawisug.

Photo of Gladys Tantaquidgeon from Wikipedia.
Tantaquidgeon learned four important tips about the Makiawisug from her elders:

1. If you come upon one of the Makiawisug, do not look directly at him. If you look directly at the Little People they will point their finger at you, which allows them to become invisible. Once invisible they will secretly enter your home and steal your possessions. 

2. To get help from the Makiawisug, leave them offerings. They prefer baskets of cornbread and berries, but sometimes they will also accept meat.

3. Never speak about the Makiawisug during the summer. This is the season when they are most active and wandering through the woods. They will be offended by overhearing your comments and you don't want to offend them. (See #1 above.) I realize I am publishing this post in the summer and it may incite discussion. Maybe you can think of it instead as a warning to avoid discussing the Little People, particularly if you are out in the woods. 

4. The Makiawisug are led by Granny Squannit, a very powerful and ancient being. Stay on her good side! Granny Squannit is most likely the modern name for Squauanit, a goddess who was one of the thirty-seven deities revered across southern New England by the Algonquians. 

These four rules come from the book Medicine Trail: the Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon by Melissa Jayne Fawcett. I think it's quite interesting that some of them are similar to rules about interacting with fairies from Europe. For example, in Europe fairies are said to be most active around the summer solstice, and Europeans who believe in fairies often don't speak directly about them for fear of offending them. In many parts of Europe it was also traditional to leave out offerings for the fairy folk, who often were said to live inside certain hills with their queen.

I suppose if you are historically minded you might say the Mohegan picked up some European traditions from English settlers and added them to their original Makiawisug beliefs. If you're feeling a little more metaphysical, perhaps you'd say that although European fairies and Mohegan Makiawisug are different beings, magical beings across the world still share a lot of similar traits.

But whatever you say about the Makiawisug, try not to say it during the summer, and certainly not if you're walking through the woods!

PS - The information about the housing developer and the stone structures is online here.

June 22, 2014

Three Haunted Buildings in Providence

Last week I was down in Providence for a conference. I had some free time one afternoon so I stopped by the Brown University Bookstore and left with a pile of new folklore books. One of them was Haunted Providence: Strange Tales from the Smallest State by Rory Raven.

As walked back to my hotel I had the sudden realization that my route could be taking me past various haunted locations. I pulled Haunted Providence out of my bag, and with just a quick scan found three haunted buildings that were on the way back to my hotel.

First up was the Nightingale-Brown House, which is located on Benefit Street. The house was built in 1792 by Captain John Nightingale, a Providence merchant who made his money trading sugar, rum and slaves in the notorious Triangle Trade. The house was sold to the Brown family in 1814, and is now part of Brown University.

Raven tells the following story about the Nightingale-Brown House. One night a new custodial worker was assigned to work in the large, rambling building. He and an older, more experienced co-worker were the only two people in the house, and the new custodian felt a little creeped out as he cleaned the old, empty rooms.

Towards the end of the shift he had to clean a room that had a large portrait on one wall. The eerie sensation he had experienced all night intensified as he vacuumed and dusted under the grim and watchful eyes of the painting. He completed his work as quickly as he could and turned off the light as he left the room.

As soon as he shut off the light a sepulchral voice said, "DON'T TURN THAT LIGHT OUT."

The  new custodian ran out and found his co-worker. After he told him what happened, the older man said, "Yeah, strange things happen in that room. Don't worry about it, but whatever you do, don't turn out that light!"

Near the Nightingale-Brown House is the Providence Athenaeum, a private library that has been in operation since the early 1700s. Today it is housed in an imposing stone building built in 1836. The ghost of Edgar Allan Poe has been sighted several times in the Athenaeum. Shortly before his death Poe spent time in Providence wooing the poet Sarah Helen Whitman, who lived just down the street from the Athenaeum and was a member. Either Poe liked Providence so much his ghost refuses to leave, or he was so traumatized by his broken engagement with Whitman that his ghost is trapped there forever. Knowing Poe's life, it's probably the latter.

The last haunted building on my list was the beloved Biltmore  Hotel. I've been to a lot of events there, but never knew it was haunted. According to Raven, the Biltmore is haunted by the ghost of a financier who lost his fortune when the Depression started on Tuesday, October 29, 1929.

The financier was staying in a room on the fourteenth floor when he received word that all his wealth had disappeared in the crash. Overwhelmed by the news, he threw himself out the window to his death. Interestingly, his ghost supposedly haunts not only the room he was staying, but also every room he passed by as he fell. Guests staying in these rooms sometimes report seeing someone falling past their windows, but never see a body on the street when they look down to the sidewalk.

June 15, 2014

H.P. Lovecraft's "The Unnamable": Fiction, Fact and Humanoid Monsters

Trigger warning: if you don't want to read about monsters and some unusual romantic encounters, skip this post and come back next week! Now, here's the post:

I grew up reading the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, but they were sometimes a little more intense than I could handle. I can remember the first time I checked out a Lovecraft book from the library when I was very young, and being just too terrified to finish reading "The Dunwich Horror." The vivid description of Wilbur Whateley's bizarre body dissolving on the library floor and the scenes of a giant invisible whatsit eating residents of central Massachusetts were just too much for me to take.

I did ultimately finish the story, and haven't stopped reading Lovecraft since. Sometimes I still get a little creeped out by his work, but now I also appreciate the stories' humor, metaphysical overtones and, most relevant to this blog, references to New England history and culture. Sometimes it's hard to know where Lovecraft's invention stops and real New England history begin.

Let's take his 1923 story "The Unnamable" as an example. It's a relatively simple tale. Two men are sitting in an old graveyard in the Massaschusetts town of Arkham. One them, the story's narrator, is a horror writer named Randolph Carter. The other is Joel Manton, a high school principal who has "New England's self-satisfied deafness to the delicate overtones of life." 

The two are discussing the author's habit of using words like "unnamable" and "unmentionable" to describe horrible monsters. Manton feels it's a bit of a cheat that Carter (like Lovecraft himself) ends so many of his stories with a narrator driven insane by seeing some indescribable monster. Why can't Carter just describe what these monsters look like?

Carter responds by claiming that one of his most recent stories, "The Attic Window," was based on a real situation. "The Attic Window" tells how a cow in Puritan New England gave birth to a hideous humanoid child after a local man had carnal knowledge of the cow. The man is executed, but the half-bovine monster is raised in secret by its human grandfather in the attic. The monster grows to adulthood and creeps through town at night, peering in people's windows and murdering the occasional lone traveler. When its grandfather dies the monster remains locked in the attic...

Carter claims he based his story on a passage from Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, and also on an old diary he found in an abandoned house. The house was the same one where the monster supposedly had been hidden, and when he found the diary he also found a humanoid skull - that had four inch horns growing from it.

By this time the sun has set, and Manton asks "Where was this house?" Carter says, "Oh, it's right next to this cemetery." They hear the creaking of an old attic window, sense the approach of something through the darkness, and wake up the next morning covered in blood and hoof prints.

Unable to describe the creature (or ghost creature?) that attacked them, the story ends with Manton stuttering, "Carter, it was the unnamable!" The end.

Lovecraft has some meta-fictional fun with "The Unnamable" by blurring the lines between reality and fiction. The town of Arkham is a thinly veiled version of Salem, and Randolph Carter is Lovecraft's fictional alter ego who appears in several of his stories. The cemetery where Carter and Manton sit was based on Salem's Charter Street Burying Ground, and Manton is a fictionalized version of one of Lovecraft's friends. The story itself is a defense by Lovecraft against critics who didn't appreciate his particular style of cosmic horror.

But surprisingly, the central conceit of the story is not fictional at all. Fictional incidents of inter-species love do appear in a lot of Lovecraft's stories, like "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (humans and hideous fish monsters), "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family" (humans and albino apes), and "The Dunwich Horror" (humans and amorphous extra-dimensional space gods).

However, for "The Unnamable," Lovecraft used a case of man and beast romance which really is in Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana. In book six of this epic work, Cotton Mather describes the following:

...There was a beast, which brought forth a creature, which might pretend to something of a human shape. Now, the people minded that the monster had a blemish in one eye, much like what a profligate fellow in town was know to have. This fellow was hereupon examined; and upon his examination confess'd his infandous Bestialities; for which he was deservedly executed...

Magnalia Christi is full of gruesome examples of sinfulness and divine punishment - this example of bestiality if just one of many unpleasant stories that Cotton Mather includes. Of course, modern genetics teach us that a man and a cow cannot conceive a child together, but folklore and mythology want us to think otherwise.

One of many paintings Picasso did of bulls and minotaurs.
 The most famous such child would be the Minotaur of Greek mythology, a bull/human hybrid that sounds strangely similar to the monster in "The Unnamable." The Minotaur is born to Queen Pasiphae of Crete after she and her husband refuse to sacrifice a beautiful bull to the god Poseidon. In revenge, Poseidon makes Pasiphae fall in love with the bull. Much like Lovecraft's indescribable bovinoid beast, the Minotaur is hidden away, but in a labyrinth rather than an attic.

A little closer to home, the Pigman of Northfield Vermont is sometimes said to be the offspring of a pig and an inappropriately amorous human farmer. Like the Minotaur and Lovecraft's monster, the Pigman is dangerous if not murderous.

Symbolically, I think these monsters represent taboos that have been violated and secrets that refuse to remain hidden. You can hide your secret monster babies away, but sooner or later they get hungry and need to be fed. Many of Lovecraft's stories are concerned with the boundary between the human and the inhuman, and the horrible things that happen when that boundary is crossed.

Was a monster really born in Puritan New England "which might pretend to something of a human shape?" I am very, very skeptical about the truth of Mather's story. However, it's also interesting that Mather never indicates what happened to the monster. The father was executed, but what happened to his child?

In the safety of my house on a sunny June day I can say Mather's story is false, but if you stumble upon a horned human skull while exploring an old attic, I'd suggest leaving as fast as you can.

June 08, 2014

Aunt Rachel's Curse: A Witch Story From Plymouth

This is the story I meant to tell last week, before I got distracted by the consumptive vampire legend. The story comes from Plymouth on Massachusetts's Cape Cod.

As most American school kids know, Plymouth and Cape Cod were colonized by the Pilgrims. Although they were similar in many ways to the Puritans who settled Connecticut and the rest of Massachusetts, the Pilgrims were also quite different. One important difference is that the Pilgrims never executed anyone for witchcraft, and there weren't many witch trials on Cape Cod. But Cape Cod still has a rich tradition of witch stories - this was one seems to be have been first written in the 1840s, but may be much older.


Aunt Rachel lived on the outskirts of Plymouth in a small rundown house. Many years ago her husband and only son had died in a shipwreck in the town's harbor. Since that time Rachel lived off her neighbor's charity and whatever money she could make telling fortunes.

Most of Rachel's clients were sailors who wanted to know if their voyages would be successful. Would they get rich? Would they get home safely? Rachel would answer their questions by reading their palms. Her talent for deciphering the lines and mounds of a client's hand was exceptional, and her predictions were quite accurate. Some townspeople whispered they were too accurate, and that that old Aunt Rachel was a witch.

One day a group of sailors came to her home to get their fortunes told. They were departing on a merchant ship for a long voyage the next day and wanted to know if they would return safely. Rachel peered at their hands and told them what she saw, but when she held the hand of the last sailor she gasped. She dropped his hand and stood up from her chair. Pointing one bony finger at him she said:

"You have set false beacons and wrecked ships for plunder. It was your fathers and mothers who decoyed a brig to these sands and left me childless and a widow. He who rides the pale horse be your guide, and you be of the number who follow him!"

The sailor laughed coldly at the old woman and walked out. That night Aunt Rachel's house was set on fire, and her neighbors saw her flee into the dark night, howling with rage and sorrow.

The air still smelled like smoke the next morning when the people of Plymouth gathered to watch the merchant ship set sail. As the ship raised anchor and sailed across the harbor a gaunt figure clad only in scorched rags appeared in the crowd. It was Aunt Rachel.

As the ship sailed safely past the various sand bars and shoals in the harbor, Rachel muttered strange words under her breath. Just as the ship was about to leave the harbor her muttering became a loud chant, and a wild look filled her eyes. The ship foundered and stood still in the water. It seemed to have hit a rock, even though no rock had ever been there before. The townspeople watched helplessly as the crew took to the life boats, and within minutes the ship sank to the bottom of the harbor. All the men on board escaped safely except for one - the sailor that Aunt Rachel had cursed the night before.

In the commotion of the shipwreck no one at first noticed that Rachel had collapsed onto the ground. She was dead, but her mouth was set in a grim smile that stayed on her face until she was buried. The rock that mysteriously appeared in the harbor is now called Rachel's Curse in her honor.

This story appears in Charles Skinner's Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, but it seems to have first been recorded in the same 1842 edition of The United States Gazette where I found last week's story. Like many other Cape Cod witch stories, it's focused on a conflict between witches and seafaring men. Land and sea, male and female, magic and mercantilism - there's a lot going on in these old stories!

June 01, 2014

A Case of Consumptive Vampirism in Plymouth

Today I was researching an old story about a witch's curse, but came upon something so gruesome I thought I'd share it this week. The witch's curse will show up next week.

What I came upon was a newspaper account of consumptive vampirism in early 19th century Plymouth County, Massachusetts. Consumption, or what we now call tuberculosis, was an untreatable scourge at that time. The article states,

It is well known to those who are acquainted with that section of our country, that nearly one half of its inhabitants die of a consumption, occasioned by the chilly humidity of their atmosphere, and the long prevalence of easterly winds. The inhabitants of the village (or town, as it is there called) to which I allude, were particularly exposed to this scourge; and I have seen, at one time, one of every fifty of its inhabitants gliding down to the grave, with all the certainty which characterizes this insiduous foe of the human family.

The article, which appeared in an 1824 edition of a Philadelphia publication called The United States Gazette, goes on to describe a large family in an unnamed village which suffered particularly hard from consumption. There were fourteen children in the family, but by 1809 all members except the mother, youngest daughter, and one burly son had died from the disease. The daugher, who was sixteen, died later that year and her brother soon contracted consumption as well.

Many New Englanders of the time believed that the corpse of someone who died of consumption would feed on a living family member, giving that person the disease while the corpse remained fresh and vibrant in the grave. Several villagers came to the mother and expressed their fear to her - that her dead daughter was feeding on her remaining son.

I should have added, that it was believed, that if the body thus supernaturally nourished in the grave, should be raised and turned over in the coffin, its depredations upon the survivor would necessarily cease. The consent of the mother being obtained, it was agreed that four persons, attended by the surviving and complaining brother, should, at sunrise the next day, dig up the remains of the last buried sister. 

The author of the article seems to have accompanied the son and the four villagers to the dead daughter's grave, because he relates what he saw when they opened the coffin:

Yes, I saw the visage of one, who had been long the tenant of a silent grave, lit up with the brilliancy of youthful health. The cheek was full to dimpling, and a rich profusion of hair shaded her cold forehead, while some of the richest curls floated upon her unconscious breast. The large blue eye had scarcely lost its brilliancy, and the livid fullness of her lips seemed almost to say "loose me and let go."

Although they apparently turned the sister's corpse face down, this ritual action had no effect on the brother's illness. The shock of seeing his sister was more than he could bear and he died two weeks later. The mother survived for only another year before she too died from the disease. The author notes that the family's fourteen graves were often shown to visitors.

We now know that tuberculosis is caused by bacteria, but I think it's interesting that the author of the article thinks it is caused by damp New England weather. He calls the villagers superstitious even though his explanation of the disease is equally wrong.

Turning the corpse face down or is an ancient tradition found around the world. Murderers and other criminals were often buried this way, and I think the symbolism is obvious. By pointing the face downwards, the community is directing the dangerous dead person to go down into the land of the dead and leave the world of the living alone. Unfortunately for this Plymouth County family it didn't work.

Rhode Island folklorist Michael Bell has an entire book about New England vampirism called Food for the Dead. In some parts of New England, people believed that turning a corpse over was not sufficient to stop it from feeding on a relative. Instead, the living person suffering from consumption needed to incinerate and eat their vampiric dead relative's heart, lungs, or liver. Yikes! It seems hard to believe that something like that happened here, but Bell documents dozens of cases. Sometimes the good old days weren't that good.