April 26, 2015

Rochester's Witch Rock

There are a lot of rocks in New England.

There are a lot of stories about witches in New England.

Therefore, there should be stories about witches and rocks in New England! And there are...

I was recently looking through the United States Geographic Survey for places with the the word "witch" in their name. There are quite a few, and they will probably be featured in an upcoming blog post. I was particularly struck by three rocks named Witch Rock or Witches Rock in southern New England. They each have an interesting story, but today I'm writing about one I was not familiar with.

It's located in Rochester, a town in southeastern Massachusetts near New Bedford. The rock, which sits on private property near an intersection, is quite large and imposing with a height of about 12 feet. The silhouette of a witch on a broomstick is painted on it, along with the words "Witch Rock." There's no mistaking that this is Witch Rock.

The boulder has called Witch Rock for many years. An 1899 edition of The Bay State Monthly called it a "vine-covered, romantic-looking bowlder," and it was apparently a destination for picnickers and tourists who wanted to visit the bucolic countryside.

It's not quite clear how this particular rock got its supernatural reputation. As I said earlier, there are a lot of rocks in New England, and many of them are stranger looking than this one. Why did this boulder get a spooky reputation?

A vintage postcard of Witch Rock from this amazing site about boulders!

One compelling theory is that the rock was initially a Native American holy place. In the spring 2004 issue of the New England Archaeological Society Bulletin, Martin Dudek and Craig Chartier mention a tradition that native shamans (pow-wows in the local Algonquian dialect) would sit and watch mists rise from the crevices in the stone. Perhaps this was some type of divination? English settlers usually labeled native religious practices as witchcraft, so it makes sense that an Algonquian holy rock would be renamed Witch Rock. Rather than a place for divine inspiration it became a place of terror.

The modern legends associated with Witch Rock are less sociological and more supernatural. One is that the soul of a witch hanged during the witch trials is trapped inside the rock, along with various evil spirits. All of them like to howl and sometimes try to escape through the cracks in the rock. Another legend claims the early settlers noticed the Indians avoided the rock, and concluded that it must be bewitched. A third combines all these and says the Indians avoided the rock because there was a dead witch's soul trapped in it.

Whatever the origin of its reputation, Witch Rock probably does have some connection to Native American lore. According to a May 2012 article in Southeastern Massachusetts newspaper The Wanderer, the property the boulder sits on was owned for many years by a family of Abenaki and Pequawket descent. The matriarch of the family, Shirley Vaughn Thompson Norton, told her children that the spirit of a hanged witch lived inside the boulder and would emerge every full moon. On Halloween night the boulder was naturally used as the backdrop for apple-bobbing and other festivities.

Mrs. Norton can probably be credited with maintaining the legend of Witch Rock. For example, in the 1960s she designed commemorative Witch Rock plates and sold them to the local chamber of commerce, and in the 1990s she began painting the witch's silhouette on the boulder. Sadly her family no longer owns the property but the legend seems to be firmly established now! It would be interesting to know how long her family owned the house and how long they had been telling the legend.

Rochester seems to be the place to live if you like spooky rocks. According to Mattapoisset and Old Rochester (1907) by Mary Hall Leonard, the town also has a Devil's Rock which bears the imprint of Satan's footprint. Some towns get all the fun boulders!

April 20, 2015

The Ghost of Ram Tail Mill

This Sunday Tony and I made an excursion down to Foster, Rhode Island to visit the Ram Tail Mill ruins. What better way to spend a sunny spring day than visiting a notorious haunted ghost town?

Ram Tail Mill was founded in the 1813 by William Potter, Peleg Walker, and several other partners. The mill was powered by the nearby Ponangansett River, and mechanically spun and wove woolen cloth. Wool comes from sheep which is why it was called the Ram Tail Mill.

William Potter's two sons managed the operations in tandem with Peleg Walker. Walker was supposedly a cranky, disagreeable man, but managed to find his niche as the mill's night watchman. He would patrol the mill buildings with a lantern in his hand, and then ring the bell after sunrise when it was time for the workers to start their day. Things went well for several year and a small village formed around the mill. 

There was always tension between Peleg Walker and the Potters, but at some point it erupted into a major argument. Neither legends or historical records indicate what it was about, but it was bad. It ended with Walker shouting, "You'll have to take the key to this mill from a dead man's pocket!"

 His warning came true. On the morning of May 19, 1822 the bell did not ring. When the puzzled workers arrived from their houses they found Peleg Walker hanging dead from the bell rope. The key to the mill was tucked into his pocket. Walker was 35 years old.

The locals assumed Walker was a suicide and buried his body nearby. Operations resumed at the mill, and with the cranky night watchman gone the atmosphere at Ram Tail was much calmer. But one night the workers and the Potter family were awakened by the mill's bell ringing wildly. They ran to to investigate but found the mill was empty. The bell was ringing on its own.

The mysterious ringing happened on several other nights (usually at the stroke of midnight) until the Potters took down the bell rope. Maybe the rope was just blowing in the wind? This didn't help - the bell still would ring late at night. They finally removed the bell itself.

This brought peace for a short while, but other strange things started to happen. The water wheel moved backwards, against the flow of the river, and the mill's machinery would run by itself late at night. Even worse, someone could be seen walking around the mill at night carrying a lantern. It looked suspiciously like Peleg Walker...

Fearing that the mill was cursed, the workers began left to find other jobs. Without anyone willing to work there the Potters were forced to shut it down. The little village was abandoned and became a ghost town. No one lived there anymore, but Peleg Walker could still be seen wandering through the empty buildings late at night.

The mill burned down in 1873 but kept its reputation as a haunted location. In fact, the 1885 Rhode Island census lists the Ramtail Mill as haunted, making it the only officially haunted place in the state.

We did not see Peleg Walker's ghost, but we did have one weird thing happen to us. As I was taking a photo of the trail that leads directly to the ruins, my phone's camera went a little haywire. The screen just turned blinding white. This happened to me one other time that day. The same thing happened to Tony, but he didn't notice until we got home that some of his photos were all white. Supernatural phenomenon or just a camera malfunction on a bright sunny day?

One of my all white photos!
I definitely felt a little creeped out as we explored the ruins, but it could have just been my fear of deer ticks combined with a very quiet forest. We only saw two other people, and when we asked them if they knew where the mill was they told us they didn't even know there was such a thing. It was really quiet there.

The conservation land is very beautiful and has some amazing stone walls that run along the main trail and into the woods. The walls are covered in lichen, as was the ground at a nearby historic cemetery where we found the graves of some members of the Walker family. (Peleg Walker is buried in another cemetery about a mile away.)

DIRECTIONS: I've read some accounts online of people having trouble finding the ruins, but we got there relatively easily. Take Route 6 west from Providence until you reach Foster. Go south on Rams Tail Road. You'll know you're going the correct way because you'll pass a cemetery on the left. Rams Tail road becomes a dirt road for a while, but when it ends take a left on Central Pike. A short way down the road you'll see the trail entrance with a fire gate on your left. There is space for one or two cars to park.

Follow the path until you reach a four way crossroad. Go left and follow the path as it curves along the water. When the path splits like a T, take the right and follow the path up along the hill. The ruins are at the top of the hill.

My sources for this post: Joseph Citro and Diane Foulds's Curious New England, Rory Raven's Haunted Providence, Michael Bell's Food for the Dead, and Rhode Island's Haunted Ramtail Factory by Thomas D'Agostino and Arlene Nicholson.

April 12, 2015

The Bennington Triangle: Strange Disappearances

I think most people have heard of the Bermuda Triangle. Many people in New England also know about the Bridgewater Triangle, an area in Southeastern Massachusetts famous for paranormal activity.

Maybe paranormal triangles come in threes, because folklore guru Joseph Citro claims there's also one in his home state of Vermont. Centered on Glastenbury Mountain in Bennington County, the Bennington Triangle shares some traits with its Massachusetts cousin. Bigfoot like creatures have been seen there frequently, strange lights are seen in the area, and it has some murky connections to old Native American lore.

However, the Bennington Triangle is most famous for a series of strange disappearances that happened there in the 1940s and 1950s. Hairy humanoids and weird orbs are creepy, but I'm downright terrified by people vanishing.

It's not unusual for hikers, usually from out of town, to get lost in the New England woods, but most often they are rescued by the Park Service. The Bennington disappearances were mostly local folks, though, which makes them much stranger, and they all disappeared without a trace. Well, almost.

The first person to disappear was local hunting guide named Middie Rivers. Seventy-one year old Rivers was a Vermont native and knew Glastenbury Mountain well. On November 12, 1945 he was leading a group of hunters home from a trip up the mountain. Rivers went ahead of the four men, who assumed they would catch up with him. They never did, and didn't find him even when they emerged from the trail. They reported him missing, and despite search parties combing the woods neither Middie Rivers or his body were ever found.

The next person vanished on December 1, 1946. A Bennington College student named Paula Welden set out for a hike alone. She never returned, and once again search parties tracked through the woods trying to find the college sophomore, and once again they found nothing.

Three years later, on December 1, 1949, a Bennington man named Jim Tedford was taking the bus home from seeing family in St. Albans. Although many people saw him get on the bus, he did not get off. Somehow, somewhere along the route he apparently vanished from the vehicle. His bags were still on the bus when it arrived in Bennington.

On October 12, 1950, an eight-year old boy named Paul Jepson disappeared from his family's truck while his mother fed the pigs. Again, neither the boy or his body were ever found. He was followed by Freida Langer, who slipped in a stream while hiking with her cousin on October 28, 1950. She told him to wait while she ran back to their campsite to change clothes. He waited, and waited, and waited... In a familiar ritual, hundreds of people searched the woods in vain for the missing girl.

The final person to disappear was a teenage girl named Frances Christman. In the fall of 1950, shortly after Freida Langer vanished, Christman told her family she was going to visit a friend who lived less than a mile away. She never arrived at her friend's house, and was never seen again.

I said almost all the victims vanished without a trace. There was one exception. Freida Langer's body was found in open ground near a reservoir in May of 1951. That spot had been searched many times the previous autumn, so it seems likely her body had been placed there some time later. Langer's body was too decomposed for a coroner to determine the cause of her death.

Who or what was behind all these disappearances? I've seen a few paranormal theories floating around on the web: UFO abduction, Bigfoot kidnapping, portals into another dimension. Naturally, there's no proof of any of those things, but they're all fun to think about.

More fun than the alternative, which is that these people were murdered and their bodies carefully disposed of. Could these people have been killed by a local serial killer? Many people think serial killers always murder one specific type of person, and this has been reinforced by various Hollywood movies. The six people who disappeared (one of whom was clearly killed) were of various ages and sexes, so therefore according to this line of thought a serial killer couldn't be responsible.

Unfortunately, it's not true that every serial killer goes for just one type of person. That makes a great plot point, but some serial killers just go for whoever is convenient. This FBI report also notes that most serial killers don't travel much and generally commit their crimes in a limited geographic area. It's interesting that all the disappearances happened not only in a small area, but also during the autumn months.

OK, I'm going to stop writing about serial killers because it creeps me out, but here's one thing against the serial killer theory: how did Jim Tedford vanish from a moving bus? I don't think anyone could make that happen.

In the end we're just left with a lot of questions, some spooky disappearances, and one gruesome murder. Be careful when you're out walking in the woods.

April 05, 2015

New England Folk Medicine: Job's Tears

A few weeks ago I was in the Caribbean on a group tour. We visited a lot of beautiful lush islands, including Dominica.

While we were in Dominica we took a bus high up into the hills (really high!) to see the Trafalgar Falls. After parking we trekked off down a trail through the rainforest to see these two two falls, one of which is hot from volcanic activity, while the other is quite cold. We took photos, admired the foliage, saw a land crab hiding in its hole, and then headed back to the parking lot.

Adjacent to the parking lot was a souvenir market where a bunch of local women were selling their wares. I looked at soaps, hot sauce, small raffia animals, etc. Nothing really stood out. Then I noticed one woman selling what looked like necklaces made of spices and white beads.

"Smell it," she said. "It will keep your closet fresh. It has cocoa beans, nutmeg, bay leaves, turmeric and ginger."

I inhaled. It smelled like autumn in a chocolate factory. 

"What are these white beads?" I asked.

"Those are Job's tears," she said. "They grow down near the river banks here."

Job's tears?

"I'll take it!" I said. Actually, I took three, because they were three for five dollars, which seemed like a bargain.

If you think you've stumbled onto the wrong blog, rest assured there is a connection to New England folklore. Job's tears were used in 19th century New England folk medicine.

Job's tears are technically the seed of the coix lachryma plant, which is native to Asia but now grows in warm climates worldwide. When the seeds are harvested they become hard and white. Mostly used for decorative purposes, various systems of folk medicine also prescribe them as cures for different ailments.

In late 19th century New England, for example, it was believed that teething children should wear Job's tears to soothe their teething pains. The folklorist Fanny Bergren documented this in Boston, Portland, Maine and in Boston, Cambridge, and Peabody, Massachusetts.

A pharmacist in Peabody sold them in his store specifically for this purpose, but local mothers also believed they could prevent or cure sore throats and diphtheria. Bergren notes that one mother brought in a string of the beads she had purchased and showed them triumphantly to the pharmacist. The beads, which were white when she bought them, were now dark and stained.

She explained to the pharmacist that the dark stains had been caused when the beads drew the diphtheria out of her sick child's body and into the necklace. The pharmacist, however, suspected it was just dirt from the child's neck.

I'm not sure why people thought Job's tears would cure sore throats and diphtheria. I suppose I can understand the connection to teething babies, since the small white beads resemble baby teeth, but the sore throat connection is unclear to me. If you have any information on this please let me know!

The plant and its beads are of course named after Job, the Biblical character who suffers miserably after God and Satan decided to test his faith. They heaped a lot of suffering upon him, and although he wept a lot Job did not lose faith in God. Job's tears are also called Saint Mary's tears, Christ's tears, and David's tears. With all those Biblical connotations its no surprise they are often used to make rosaries, which seems like a better idea than using them to heal diphtheria. We now live in a world with effective vaccines, so maybe if I lived in the 19th century I would think otherwise.

I found much of the information for this post in Fanny Bergren's article, "Some Bits of Plant-Lore" in the Jan. - Mar. 1982 issue of The Journal of American Folklore.