December 13, 2017

Why The Devil Loves Christmas

In 1662, Rebecca Greensmith of Hartford, Connecticut was arrested and charged with witchcraft. She confessed to meeting the Devil, but she denied having signed a contract with him. Well, at least she hadn't signed one at the time of her arrest. Rebecca and the Devil were waiting for a special day to sign it: Christmas.

The Reverend John Whiting of Hartford wrote the following in a letter:

But that the devil told her, that at Christmas they would have a merry meeting, and then the covenant should be drawn and subscribed. ... Mr. Stone (being then in court) with much weight and earnestness laid forth the exceeding heinousness and hazard of that dreadful sin, and therewith solemnly took notice (upon the occasion given) of the devil's loving Christmas. (quoted in David Hall's Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England.)

That sounds a little strange to modern readers. Why would the Devil love Christmas? Isn't it a holiday about hope, love and charity?

Merry Christmas?

Four-hundred years ago, Christmas was a very different holiday than it is today. It wasn't focused on family, gift-giving, and children. Instead, it was characterized by heavy drinking and public rituals that inverted the social order. Europe and its colonies were agricultural societies then, and food and alcohol were most plentiful during the late autumn and early winter. Crops had been harvested, herd animals slaughtered, and beer brewed. There was no more farm-work to be done.

In short, it was a great time to have a huge party. Wealthy people would feast themselves and their friends at home. People from the lower social classes, usually groups of young men, roamed around at night in disguise. The young men (called mummers) would usually target the homes of the wealthy, where they would perform a skit or song in return for food or beer. This is the origin of the wandering Christmas carolers so often portrayed in Christmas stories or movies. If they were denied entry or not given gifts for their performance, the mummers would retaliate with violence or by vandalizing property.

 

Some hints of this older-style Christmas can still be heard in the lyrics of Christmas carols. For example, "The  Gloucestershire Wassail" describes men threatening a butler to give them good strong beer and demanding entry to a wealthy person's home:

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all. 
Be here any maids? I suppose here be some;
Sure they will not let young men stand on the cold stone!
Sing hey O, maids! come trole back the pin,
And the fairest maid in the house let us all in.

The lyrics of "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" describe something similar:

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer
We won't go until we get some;
We won't go until we get some;
We won't go until we get some, so bring some out here

Christmas was raucous, drunken, socially disruptive, and occasionally violent. The Puritans valued order, sobriety, and hard work. They didn't want anything to do with Christmas.

During their brief tenure ruling old England the Puritans tried to suppress Christmas celebrations. The Puritans who colonized New England did the same. It was even illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. Anyone found doing so could be fined five shillings.

Puritan ministers in New England wrote sermons against Christmas. The Reverend Increase Mather wrote the following, equating Christmas with pagan deities and Satan:
The Feast of Christ's nativity is attended with such profaneness, as that it deserve the name of Saturn's Mass, or of Bacchus his Mass, or if you will, the Devil's Mass, rather than have the holiday name of Christ put upon it. (A Testimony Against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practiced by Some in New-England, 1687).
Mather mentions Saturn for a very specific reason. The Bible doesn't provide a date for Christ's birth, and the early Christian church fathers decided to place it on December 25 to coincide with pagan Roman winter holidays like Saturnalia, which venerated the harvest god Saturn. This compromise between Christianity and paganism was another argument the Puritans used for hating Christmas.

So there you have it. That's why the Puritans thought the Devil loved Christmas. Their efforts to suppress Christmas were modestly successful. Christmas wasn't widely celebrated in New England until the mid-nineteenth century. Christmas is now the biggest holiday in the United States. The Puritans would have blamed Satan, but I think it's just because people like to have fun.

*****

My favorite source for information about Puritans and Christmas is Stephen Nissenbaums's fantastic book The Battle for Christmas. It's great for anyone who wants to really understand the weird history of Christmas in America.

December 08, 2017

The Monster of Lake Champlain

I recently was up in Burlington, Vermont, which is located on the shores of Lake Champlain. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Lake Champlain is big! Really big! It's over 100 miles long and 14 miles wide. Strange things might lurk in a lake that big.

Well, according to local legends, something strange does indeed lurk in the lake. It's a monster named Champ, and it supposedly has been seen more than one-hundred times.

A lot of books and websites claim the creature was first seen by French explorer Samuel de Champlain way back in 1609, who described as "a 20- foot serpent, with a horse-shaped head and body as thick as a keg." This claim was even repeated by Discover magazine in 1998. Unfortunately, it just isn't true. De Champlain never wrote about a giant serpent in his journal. The story that he had seen Champ first appeared in a 1970 issue of Vermont Life and spread from there.

Lake Champlain in November. It looks like a good home for a monster...
The real first sighting of Champ was reported on Saturday, July 24, 1819. A letter to The Plattsburgh Republican claimed that one Captain Crum had seen a monster while he was on the lake:

Captain Crum took a particular survey of this singular animal, which he described to be 187 feet long, its flat head with three teeth, two in the center and one in the upper jaw, in shape similar to the sea-horse - color black with a star in the forehead and a belt of red around the neck - its body about the size of a hogshead with hunches on the back as large as a common potash barrel - the eyes large and the color of a pealed (sic) onion... (quoted in Robert Bartholomew's The Untold Story of Champ: A Social History of America's Loch Ness Monster)

This account appeared shortly after a wave of sea serpent sightings near Cape Anne in Massachusetts. The letter was titled "Cape Ann Sea Serpent on Lake Champlain," and was signed "Horse Mackerel," so perhaps it was meant to be taken as a joke.

Later sightings were not quite so humorous. In 1826 two men fishing reported that a thirty foot serpent slithered out of a cave. They said it was covered in black and red spots and smelled terrible. In the summer of 1873 a group of men working on the lake's shore claimed they saw a large serpentine monster. According to the July 9, 1873 issue of The Whitehall Times,

From his his nostrils he would occasionally spurt streams of water above his head to an altitude of about 20 feet. The appearance of his head was round and flat, with a hood spreading out from the lower part of it... His eyes were small and piercing, his mouth broad and provided with two rows of teeth, which he displayed to his beholders. (quoted in Robert Bartholomew's The Untold Story of Champ: A Social History of America's Loch Ness Monster.)

Other people also reported seeing the monster that summer, and it was blamed for a rash of missing farm animals.

Help the homeless by feeding Champ spare change in Burlington.
Champ has made many other appearances over the years. For example, in 1915 it disrupted a canoe race:

"The Lake Champlain sea serpent has again appeared to the astounded inhabitants of this place. He was seen at the encampment of the American Canoe Association when, coming to the surface in the neighborhood of a flotilla of cruising canoes, he scattered the occupants in panic." (The Burlington News, April 1915)

I also like this testimony from someone who saw Champ in 1981:

"I said, 'Holy Jesus, look at that thing.' I've seen porpoises and whales when I was in the Navy, but this wasn't like that. It was 40 or 50 feet long, the whole thing." Walter Wojewodzic of Port Henry, N.Y, quoted in The Burlington Free Press, Feb. 10, 1981.

Is there any conclusive evidence that Champ exists? No, not really. If there was you'd read about Champ in biology class and not on this folklore blog. On June 30, 1981 the New York Times published the following photo of Champ taken by Vermont resident Sandra Mansi. Many people take this as the best evidence yet for Champ's existence:


It's a great photo, but no one has ever been able to affirm its veracity. Mansi unfortunately threw away the negative, which prevented experts from looking at the image for more details. She also said she couldn't remember exactly where she took the photo. Several people have taken videos of Champ as well, but they are equally inconclusive.

Is Champ a giant prehistoric plesiosaur that has somehow survived for millennia in Lake Champlain? That seems unlikely. Is Champ just a hoax? I think that's unlikely too. Some Champ sightings may be pranks, but I think a lot of people sincerely see strange things on the lake.

Good benches for monster viewing.
Bodies of water are mysterious and full of latent power. Folklore and legends tell us that water hides secrets, like lost Atlantis, sunken treasure, and mysterious monsters. Maybe the initial Captain Crum story, which was probably a hoax, acted like a magic spell, summoning something people always suspected lurked in the water but had never been named. Champ could be a manifestation of Lake Champlain, given form through local folklore and showing itself to a select few. I didn't see Champ while I was in Burlington, but maybe one day you'll be lucky and see him yourself.

*****

Additional sources: John Bartholomew's excellent articles in The Skeptical Inquirer (here and here), Wikipedia, and this newspaper article: "Just maybe, scientists say, a monster's in Champlain," The Boston Globe, June 28, 1981, p. 1.

November 30, 2017

John Godfrey: Witch and Troublemaker

When I was a kid in Haverhill, Massachusetts I wasn't that interested in local history. I knew about the city's heroine Hannah Duston, but that was about all I knew. Other stories from my hometown's past remained unknown to me. Perhaps if I had known about John Godfrey, a trouble-making witch who lived in the mid-1600s, I would have been more excited about Haverhill history.

Was Godfrey really a witch? Probably not, but he was definitely a trouble-maker. Most of what we know about him comes from court records in Essex County, where he was involved in dozens of legal cases. Sometimes he was the defendant, sometimes he was the accused. Most of these court cases involved disputes over small amounts of money or property; in others Godfrey sued neighbors for slander. At other times Godrey appeared in court to face charges of drunkenness, theft and cursing.

As historian John Demos writes, "Taken as a whole, the records depict a man continually at odds with his peers..." And as we know, people at odds with their peers in 17th century New England were often accused of witchcraft.

It appears that John Godfrey emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony sometime around 1635 and found employment as a herdsman in the town of Newbury with wealthy settler John Spencer. Godfrey was most likely a teenager at this time. Young Godfrey was kind of odd, and even then some folks thought he might be a witch. For example, in 1640 he talked with a Newbury man named William Osgood about finding a new employer. Osgood at the time was building a barn for Godfrey's current employer, John Spencer.

John Godfrey, being then Mr. Spencer's herdsman, he on an evening came to the frame where diverse men were at work; and said that he had gotten a new master against the time he had done keeping cows. 
The said William Osgood asked him who it was; he answered he knew not. He again asked him what his name was; he answered he knew not. He then said to him, "How wilt thou go to him when thy time is out?" He said, "The man will come and fetch me." Then William Osgood asked him "Hast thou made an absolute bargain?" He answered that a covenant was made and he had set his hand to it... 
William Osgood then answered "I am persuaded thou has made a covenant with the Devil. He (Godfrey) then skipped about and said, "I profess, I profess." (from David Hall's Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England (1991). I added modern punctuation for clarity.)

Osgood may have lied about this conversation, but its also possible Godfrey was actively cultivating an image as a witch. As a young man with no family and a lowly job, he may having a reputation as a witch was a way to gain some influence and intimidate people. That's just speculation on my part, but it seems some people in 17th century New England did knowingly cultivate witchy personas. Further supporting my hunch, Godfrey later explained to one Charles Brown of Rowley how the Devil took care of his witches:

...Godfrey spoke that if witches were not kindly entertained the Devil will appear unto them and ask them if they were grieved or vexed with anybody and ask them what he should do for them and if they would not give them beer or victuals they might let all the beer run out of the cellar and if they looked steadfastly upon upon any creature it would die... (Hall, Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England (1991).)

It's easy to picture Godfrey explaining this to Brown, and then asking him for food and drink in a vaguely threatening tone. Hand it over, friend, because I might just be a witch!


Godfrey left Newbury and became an itinerant herdsman, finding employment with a variety of landowners and farmers across Essex County in Massachusetts. Godfrey lived and worked in many towns, including Ipswich, Andover, Haverhill and Salem. He never married and had no children.

This made Godfrey an anomaly among the local Puritans, who generally were rooted in one location and had networks of close kin to support them. Historian John Demos speculates that Godfrey may have been homosexual, noting his unmarried status and his use of the term "c*ck-eating boy" to insult someone who got a herding Godfrey wanted for himself. This is just speculation, but it's not impossible. Legal documents clearly describe homosexual men living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony around this time.

By 1658 Godfrey's argumentative personality, unusual lifestyle and talk about witchcraft caught up with him. He was accused of witchcraft. Other witchcraft accusations followed in 1659, 1666 and 1669. Amazingly, Godfrey was never found guilty, but documents from his trials give a fascinating glimpse into 17th century witchcraft beliefs in New England.

For example, witnesses talk about familiar spirits, the small demons that did a witch's bidding. It was believed that witches had small teats hidden on their bodies from which their familiar spirits sucked blood for sustenance, and Charles Brown testified that he once saw Godfrey yawn in church and saw a strange teat under his tongue. Further, Job Tyler later testified that one night John Godfrey came to visit the Tyler family's house. When he entered the house a large black bird flew in the door with him. Godfrey tried to catch the bird, which finally escaped through a hole in the wall. When Job Tyler asked Godfrey why the bird came in the house, Godfrey answered: "It came to suck your wife." Maybe Godfrey was perhaps joking, but maybe he was implying that Goodwife Tyler was herself a witch. Either way he demonstrated his knowledge about familiar spirits. (Godfrey's comment reminds me of that really gruesome scene from The Witch with the crow!)


John Remington Jr., a fifteen-year old boy from Haverhill, also testified about a large black bird. Remington was riding a horse back to his family's home when the dog accompanying him began to whine and whimper. Remington also suddenly something strange that reminded him of apple cider. At this point a large crow appeared. Remington's horse abruptly fell on its side, injuring Remington's leg. When he recovered he mounted the horse again and rode towards home, but the crow followed, swooping down and biting the dog. Godfrey had argued with Remington's father earlier about working for him as a herdsman, but had not been hired. Godfrey was later heard to say that had Remington Jr. been a full-grown man something much worse would have happened to him. Remington's testimony implies that the crow was somehow controlled by Godfrey, but it's not clear if it was supposed to his familiar spirit, Godfrey transformed into a crow, or an animal he was controlling.

Strange animals appear in several other witnesses' testimony. Isabelle Holdred and her husband argued with Godfrey over money, and after the argument Holdred was assaulted by a progression of  animals that appeared to her over the course of several nights. Holdred was first attacked by a bumblebee, followed by a bear that growled and asked her if she was afraid. The next night a snake appeared, which frightened Holdred so much she couldn't talk for thirty minutes. A spectral horse also appeared in her bedchamber, as did a large black cat that lay on her as she slept and stroked her face. Holdred was the only one who saw those animals, but her son was with her when a neighbor's ox attacked her after looking at her with "great eyes."

Witnesses also claimed that Godfrey could send his spirit double (or specter, to use the Puritan terminology) to cause trouble. John Singletary, who had argued with Godfrey over money, claimed that he was visited by Godfrey's specter while in jail. The specter said that if Singletary paid Godfrey what he was owed he would free him. Singletary refused Godfrey's offer and tried to strike him with a stone, but "there was nothing to strike and how he went away I know not." Elizabeth Button claimed that Godfrey appeared in her bedchamber several times one night, even though the door was firmly bolted, implying that it was his spirit that had visited her.

A man named John Griffing even testified that Godfrey could travel over great distances quickly or appear in two places at once. For example, he once saw Godfrey on the road to Newbury at the same time Godfrey was confined to jail in Boston. Griffing also said he and Godfrey once set out together for the Rust family's house in Andover. It was a cold day and snow covered the ground. Griffing was on horseback and easily outpaced Godfrey, but when he go the Rust home he found Godfrey already inside, warming himself by the fire. Clearly he could only have gotten there by witchcraft.

Despite all this testimony against him, Godfrey was never found guilty of witchcraft. Perhaps the judges knew he was just a troublemaker who fought with all his neighbors. They certainly saw him in court often enough to be familiar with him! John Godfrey died in 1675, probably in Boston or Charlestown. Not much is known about his death, but fittingly there was a trial to decide who would receive his modest estate. Even in death Godfrey couldn't stay out of court.

******
In addition to David Hall's book, I found John Demos's "John Godfrey and His Neighbors" in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Apr., 1976) to be really valuable

November 20, 2017

Burlington, Vermont: Giant Phantom Cats and the World's Tallest Filing Cabinet

There's something weird and magical about small New England cities in November. A sense of stillness pervades the streets. Old gray houses press up against the sidewalks, parking lots sit half-empty, and bare branches brush against the power lines. All the citizens are hidden away inside but out on the street there's a feeling of strange possibilities.

Tony and I recently visited Burlington, Vermont. You might not think of Burlington as quiet. It has a thriving downtown, with dozens of restaurants and bars and a pedestrian-friendly shopping district. Students from the University of Vermont buzz around. Elementary school students visit the aquarium that overlooks Lake Champlain.

But if you venture outside of the lively downtown area things get much quieter. That eerie sense of possibility emerges. Who knows what you might encounter when you walk around the corner? What strange entity or object will you stumble on? For example, you might encounter the world's tallest filing cabinet.



The world's tallest filing cabinet stands at 208 Flynn Street in what looks like an abandoned lot. There's a supermarket across the street but the filing cabinet stands alone, surrounded only by dead weeds and a shopping cart full of old dishes. It emblematizes the magic you can find in small New England cities. It's weird, impressive and puzzling. It may not even really be the world's tallest filing cabinet, but it's definitely big.

The filing cabinet was created by local artist Bren Alvarez in 2002. Alvarez was inspired by the ongoing delays in building the Southern Connector, a road that would connect busy highway I-89 with downtown Burlington. The filing cabinet's official name is "File Under File Under So. Co., Waiting For...". The Southern Connector still hasn't been built.






Alvarez intended this to be commentary on bureaucratic delays, but I think it has a completely different effect. The sculpture is slowly eroding from rust, and vandals have graffitied as high as they can easily reach. Set as it is in an overgrown field, the sculpture is like an artifact from some post-apocalyptic future revealed when the waters of a swollen Lake Champlain finally recede from the city centuries from now. It is totally worth visiting if you are in the area, and if you collect china maybe you can find something valuable in the shopping cart.

The world's tallest filing cabinet is just one of the strange things you might encounter. In 1988, a Burlington woman named Susan Lily encountered something even stranger. Lily was driving home from work late one summer night when she decided to get a bite to eat at a local Wendy's restaurant. As she drove around the back of the restaurant to the drive-through she noticed two cats lurking around the dumpster. But these were not ordinary cats. They were big (real big!) and oddly shaped:

Susan says, "They were the size of a forty- or fifty-pound dog, but they were real slim and their legs were disproportionately long." 
Susan has always lived around animals and can distinguish among different varieties of cats. These were something unknown. She says, "The largest domestic cat is the Norwegian Forest cat. But these were short-haired. They were much taller than Maine Coons. I have no idea what I saw."

Those quotes are from Joseph Citro's book The Vermont Monster Guide (2009), which I bought in Burlington. Citro goes on to note that after Susan picket up her burger at the drive-through window she looked back at the dumpster. The cats had disappeared, and although she visited that same Wendy's many more times she never saw them again.



A metal monolith made of filing cabinets looms in an empty lot. Giant cats prowl around a dumpster behind a fast food restaurant. Even in the city weird and magical things are lurking!

November 15, 2017

Bewitched Dogs Killed in Salem and Other Strange Animal Stories

There are lots of weird little stories buried in the accounts of the Salem trials. For instance, did you know that two dogs were killed because people thought they were bewitched?

In October of 1692, a dog in Salem was killed after it began to act strangely. The afflicted Salem girls claimed it was being ridden and tortured by the invisible spirit of John Bradstreet. John was the brother of Dudley Bradstreet, a Justice of the Peace from Andover who had refused to issue any more warrants to arrest alleged witches. After his refusal the afflicted girls accused Dudley himself of witchcraft. He and his family fled Essex County, as did his brother John, who fled north to Maine after the "bewitched" dog was killed.

A dog was also killed that month in Andover when an Andover girl claimed it was actually a demon in canine form. After the dog was shot Reverend Increase Mather, one of the colony's leading ministers, pointed out the absurdity of trying to kill a demon with a bullet. Clearly, he said, the dog could not have been an evil spirit since spirits cannot be killed. Sadly for the dog his protestations were a bit too late.


Animals of many kinds appear in local stories about witchcraft, usually acting strangely if not downright sinisterly. After ruling out natural causes, the early New Englanders had three explanations for why animals might act strangely.

The most common explanation was that they were bewitched. Witch trial documents and local folklore are full of stories about bewitched animals. Sometimes they sicken and die, but more often they just do weird things. Pigs jump high up in the air. Calves make unnatural noises and contort their bodies in strange positions. Oxen refuse to pull their wagon. Stories like these are found from the 1600s until the early 20th century, so its clear they were deeply embedded in the local culture.

Unfortunately, folklore says the best way to unwitch your animal is to physically harm it, whether by beating it or cutting off part of its body, like an ear or tail. Yikes! This is inhumane, but was grounded in the theory that witches cause mischief by sending their souls out of their bodies. A bewitched animal misbehaved because a witch's soul was temporarily inside it, causing an otherwise mundane farm animal to act strangely. Hurting the animal was supposed to also hurt the witch and cause their soul to leave the animal. I don't believe witches can send their soul into animals, but if you do hold that unusual belief please do not beat your animal. Or cut off its ear. Just sprinkle it with some salt or wave a sage bundle around it instead. You could even try holy water, but if it is a cat, don't bother trying because cats just don't change.

A witch's soul didn't always maintain human form when it was out causing trouble. It could take the shape of an animal as well. For example, in 1662 Rebecca Greensmith of Hartford, Connecticut confessed that when she attended the witches Sabbath one of her fellow witches flew there in the shape of a crow. In 1692 Katherine Branch, a serving girl from Stamford, Connecticut, claimed she was approached by a group of cats who briefly turned into women before resuming feline form. The cats were of course witches who were trying to recruit her to their devilish cause. According to a story from 1893, a Cape Cod witch named Moll Ellis could send out her soul in the shape of a bee, which emerged from her mouth when she slept.

Cats, birds, dogs, bees - their forms were many, but they all were intent on working evil. Unfortunately for the witch, their souls were vulnerable to physical harm when in animal form. A story from Clifton Johnson's What They Say In New England (1896) illustrates this. One night a miller from western Massachusetts left home to grind corn at his mill, despite urging from his wife to keep her warm in bed. While he worked at the mill a frisky black cat appeared, purring and rubbing against him. As he shooed the cat away it fell into the grindstone, which ripped off one of its paws. The cat disappeared with an unearthly howl. When the miller got home he found his wife in bed, moaning and looking pale. When he pulled down the coverlet he saw that one of her hands had been torn off, revealing her to be a witch.


Animals that acted strangely might be controlled by a witch's soul or might even be a witch's soul in animal form, but the third explanation was the most terrifying. The Devil and his demons could assume animal form. That weird pig or twitchy dog might just be a spirit come from Hell to torment and trick the good Puritans of New England.

One of Salem's most famous accused witches, the slave Tituba, claimed that the Devil appeared to her both as a dog and a monstrous hog. The Devil must have liked pigs, because the citizens of Topsfield, Massachusetts claimed the Devil in the shape of a hog haunted a bridge over the Ipswich River until he was banished by a Puritan minister. Rebecca Greensmith saw the Devil in the shape of a deer, while in Salisbury, New Hampshire, ministers praying over a woman who sold her soul to the Devil were menaced by a large black cat that leapt at them from a tree. As Increase Mather noted, the Devil and his demons could not be killed in any form, but they could be expelled or banished.

Happily, we've made a lot of progress in understanding animal behavior. Be sure to love your animals, no matter how weirdly they act.

*****
I found the information about the bewitched dogs in Marilynne Roach's epic The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of A Community Under Siege (2002). It's an amazing if dense book that I recommend to anyone who wants all the details of the Salem witch trials. The other animal stories can found here on my blog. 

November 08, 2017

Omens for A Gloomy November: Horses, Death, and Other Dreams

November is a melancholy month. The gleeful morbidity of Halloween serves as the gateway to November, but this month reveals the actual truth behind the colorful masks and cartoony skeletons: the year is winding down. The trees are becoming bare, the skies are gray, and the days get shorter and colder.

The year is slowly dying, and it makes me want to sleep. A lot. The ancient Greeks claimed that Sleep was the brother of Death, and I can understand the connection, particularly at this time of year. Both involve a loss of consciousness, a dissolving of self into the welcoming darkness, but at least when we sleep we get to dream. Those wise Greeks said that Morpheus, the dream-god, was the son of Sleep.

November in my neighborhood. Gloomy.
I tend to remember my dreams more during this time of year than during others. Upon reflection I can usually figure out what my subconscious is trying to tell me, but some dreams are just puzzling.Why was I carrying a book and cup as I walked down the stairs? What did that turtle mean? Sometimes I could use a guide to interpret my dreams.

New Englanders of past generations had a long list of dream interpretations. One of their key principles to interpreting a dream was the rule of opposites. Things that are bad in real life are good omens when seen in dreams, and vice versa. For example, to dream about a wedding means you will soon be invited to a funeral, but dreaming about a funeral means you'll hear about a wedding. Seeing a dead person in your dream means you'll receive news or a letter from a living one. Dreaming about eating or about picking blackberries is an omen of impending illness. OK, that may not be an exact opposite but you get the idea.

In this dream, recounted to author Clifton Johnson by elderly woman and included in his 1896 book What They Say In New England, an ominous thunderstorm actually was a harbinger of good news:

"It was after midnight, and I was dreaming a dream about a terrible thunder-storm. It grew worse and worse till there was one clap so loud it seemed as if the skies had broken to pieces. Right after it I woke up, and I heard a knock on the outside door of the sitting-room. I knew that instant what my dream meant and who was there. It was Charlie! I went to the door and it was. There he had been gone seven or eight years. He'd been a sailor on the ocean, and we hadn't heard a word from him, and didn't know but he was dead, and that dream came to show me he was alive and near."

But the rule of opposites didn't always apply. Sometimes bad things just mean bad things. Dreaming of lice means illness, and dreaming about snakes foretells making an enemy. Personally I like snakes, but I understand the general symbolism here. I don't think anyone likes lice.


Some of the old New England dream interpretations are cryptic and very specific. Why would dreaming of a white horse be an omen of death? I am not sure, but that was an accepted interpretation. Here is another account from Johnson's book:

"You will have great trouble if you dream of a white horse," said Uncle Timothy. "I've always found that to come true. There was one time in particular I remember. It was winter; and I was at work a good many miles from home in a logging-camp. One night I had a terrible dream about a white horse that got angry with me, and bit me. I knew something would happen in consequence of that dream, and I was afraid I was going to get killed. I wa'n't good for much workin' that day, I felt so gloomy about my dream; but I went out with my axe same as usual. I wa'n't noticing things as I ought to; and when I was cutting a tree, it came down and knocked me senseless. The rest of the fellows carried me to camp. I can't tell you how relieved I was when I come to and found myself alive. I thought myself lucky to get off so easy after such a dream."

Johnson collected that story from Western Massachusetts, but the white horse's ominous reputation may have been widespread. For example, Fanny Bergen notes in Current Superstitions (1896) that people in Maine also said dreaming of a white horse means a family member will die within a year. She found similar beliefs in New York and the Maritime provinces as well.


So what should you do if you dream about a white horse? First of all, don't panic. Other informants told Johnson that a white horse means riches will be coming your way, which is a good thing. So which is it, a good omen or a bad one? I suppose in the end it is really a matter of your perspective. Good things and bad things will happen to all of us. Even the increasing gloom of November is leavened by Thanksgiving, and soon after comes the December holiday season, when we light candles against the encroaching darkness. Nightmares end when we wake up, and hopefully there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

November 01, 2017

Weird New England News: Brains, A Witch House and A Scary Clown

Most of my posts on this blog are about strange and interesting things from New England's past. But strange and interesting things continue to happen here. These three stories really caught my eye over the last week.

First, did you know that Yale University used to have a secret room full of human brains? I didn't until just this week, when The Boston Globe's medical publication STAT ran an article about it. For many years, Yale's medical school dormitory had a secret hidden away in its basement. Behind a locked door was a room filled with hundreds of brains floating in jars. Students weren't allowed access to the room, but the adventurous ones who broke in came out a little shaken. As if the dozens of brains weren't weird enough, there were also photos and drawings of medical patients from bygone days. The whole experience was unnerving.

“It was like a shop of horrors,” said Christopher Wahl, who visited multiple times while at the medical school in the late 1990s. “The overwhelming atmosphere was that you’re in a place that you maybe shouldn’t be in, lit by bare incandescent bulbs with a dirty floor in an old basement that smells of formaldehyde.”

It turns out the brains were collected by Dr. Harvey Cushing (1869 - 1939), a prominent physician and founding figure in the field of neurosurgery. For many years Cushing's brain collection was used to educate Yale students until it became outdated in the 1970s. Yale administrators then locked it away in a basement storage room, from which it spooked generations of medical students. The collection is now officially displayed in Yale's medical library, which is a decidedly less creepy location.

Photos from the Harvey Cushing Collection at Yale University.
A few take-aways from this story. First, New England is filled with colleges and they are all sources of rich folklore and strange stories. Second, brains locked in an unmarked basement room are scary; brains in a library's display are educational. It's all about the setting I suppose. Finally, apparently even medical students find old medical photos creepy.  

Next up in the weird news parade, a historic witch house in Framingham, Massachusetts is being restored. The house in question was once the homestead of Sarah Clayes (Cloyce), a woman who was accused of witchcraft in Salem's 1692 witch trials. Although Clayes's two sisters, Rebecca Nurse and Mary Easty, were both executed, Clayes survived the trials and fled to Framingham after they ended. Many other Salem families followed.

Photo from the Boston Globe.
The house, located on Salem's End Road, dates from the 1770s. This makes it too recent to be the actual house Clayes would have lived in, but it seems that the foundation is from her home. The property has been abandoned for at least fifteen years and a historic preservation trust is now working to restore it. After it is renovated the house will be sold to a private owner (with restrictions to preserve the building). Real estate around Boston is very expensive, but if you have a few million dollars this could be your chance to own a piece of New England history.

The article points out that Sarah Clayes was not really a witch, just another innocent victim caught up in the witch hunt. Despite this, the house is known in Framingham as the Witch House. Perhaps this is because supernatural, legendary witches resonate more with us than accused witches, and also because the "Witch House" sounds better than the "Accused Witch House." The Witch House is located close to a large park that supposedly contains caves where Clayes and other Salem escapees sheltered before building their homes. I have visited the park and maybe found the caves, which are known as the Witch Caves (not the Accused Witch Caves).

Finally, a scary clown popped up in Vermont this weekend. If you recall, last year America experienced a huge scary clown craze in the summer and fall. The first craze of this kind occurred around Boston in 1981, but last year's was much larger and more widespread. Was our nation's collective unconscious trying to tell us something before the November election? Clowns have continued to scare our nation since then with the release of the movie It and the current season of American Horror Story.

Happily, the clown in Marlboro, Vermont was not a supernatural monster or part of a secret conspiracy. Instead, he seems to have been a costumed Halloween partygoer who got intoxicated and wandered into the wrong house, where he passed out. When the police arrived to investigate they found cocaine on his person and arrested him, which is not something to laugh at.

October 25, 2017

New England Pumpkin Lore: Cozy and A Little Creepy


October is definitely pumpkin season. The stores are full of pumpkin-flavored treats, jack-o-lanterns are appearing on my neighbors' porches, and someone recently motored across Boston Harbor in a giant pumpkin. Pumpkins are everywhere this month. There is some interesting New England lore about pumpkins, some of it homey and comforting, some of it kind of spooky. I guess that describes October too.

Pumpkins are of course native to the Americas. Historians say they were first cultivated in Central America and eventually adopted by the various American Indian groups that lived in New England. Samuel de Champlain, an early visitor to New England's shores, saw Algonquin Indians growing beans, maize and pumpkins along the banks of Maine's Saco River in the early 17th century. Pumpkin and squash were often included in dishes like succotash and were also dried for eating over the cold winter months.


When the Puritans colonized New England they adopted many local crops into their diet, including pumpkins. And because many of their English crops didn't grown well here, the early Puritans apparently ate a lot of pumpkin. A lot. It was seen as less desirable than traditional English foods, but Edward Johnson (1598 - 1672), the founder of Woburn, Massachusetts, wrote the following:

.. let no man make a jest at Pumpkins, for with this fruit the Lord was pleased to feed his people to their good content, till Corne and Cattel were increased.

Take that, pumpkin haters!

The colonists atet pumpkin in variety of ways. Boiled and mashed pumpkin was a popular dish. Mashed pumpkin was also added to breads, while dried pumpkin was used to sweeten alcoholic drinks. In addition to mashing, another popular preparation was to hollow out a pumpkin and fill it with cream. The pumpkin would then be baked until the flesh became soft and the center custardy. It sounds delicious, and I did once try to make something like this. It didn't work too well, but I think I was using the wrong type of pumpkin.

Modern New Englanders are more familiar with pumpkin custard as the filling in pumpkin pie, not actually baked in a pumpkin. Surprisingly, the earliest pumpkin pie recipe from New England (written down in the 1760s by a wealthy Boston Tory family) calls for slices of fried pumpkin layered with apples and dried fruit in a pastry shell. It sounds good, but that's not what we would call pumpkin pie today. After the  Revolution the pumpkin custard pie that Americans still know and love become dominant.


So, there's the homey, cozy lore about pumpkins. They're also obviously associated with Halloween, which here in America is part harvest festival and part celebration of death and the macabre. Corn stalks, hay bales, apple cider, and cute little pumpkins are all part of the holiday's harvest aspect. Ghosts, witches, horror movies and scary carved pumpkins are part of Halloween's macabre side. Pumpkins can be cute or scary depending on how they are used.

Halloween was not really celebrated in New England until the late 1800s. It was one of those holidays, like Christmas, that the Puritans and their Yankee descendants avoided. But even though there was no Halloween, New Englanders still carved pumpkins in the fall months and lit them with candles. For example, local poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 - 1892) includes the following line in his 1850 poem "The Pumpkin":

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!

Halloween wouldn't have been celebrated when Whittier was a boy, and in fact that poem celebrates Thanksgiving.

Nathaniel Hawthorne seems to be the first writer to use the term "jack-o-lantern" to describe a carved candle-lit pumpkin. He used it in his 1835 story "The Great Carbuncle." A carbuncle is a type of gemstone, and the titular one shines with a blinding light.

Hide it under thy cloak, say'st thou? Why, it will gleam through the holes, and make thee look like a jack-o'lantern!

Again, that was written well before Halloween would have been celebrated in New England. Hawthorne seemed to like jack-o-lanterns. In his 1852 story "Feathertop," a witch brings to life a scarecrow with a carved pumpkin for its head, but again there is no reference to Halloween in the story, which takes place in May.

I'm not quite sure how the jack-o-lantern became exclusively associated with Halloween, but somehow, as immigration changed New England and holidays like Halloween and Christmas became accepted, it took it's place as the reigning symbol of Halloween.

Before it was used to describe carved a pumpkin, the term jack-o-lantern denoted either a lantern-carrying nightwatchman or a will-o-the-wisp, one of those wandering orbs of light, perhaps of supernatural origin, that appear in forests and swamps to lead travelers astray. Will-o-the-wisps were often thought to be lights carried by malevolent fairies seeking to trick unwary humans. One of the rare pieces of English fairy lore from early New England mentions jack-o-lanterns in this sense of the word:

... Marblehead (Massachusetts) was a sort of compendium of all varieties of legend. For instance, the belief in the Pixies of Devonshire, the Bogles of Scotland, the Northern Jack o' Lantern was prevalent there; _ and my father has told me that he was often cautioned by the fishermen, just at twilight, to run home or the Bogles would be sure to seize him (William Wetmore Story, The Life and Letters of Joseph Story, 1851)

When you're out and about this Halloween, be careful as you walk towards that glowing pumpkin. Maybe it's been carved by friendly neighbors, but maybe it's a trick to lead you into the dark October night.

*****

Source for the jump rope rhyme: B.A. Botkin's Treasury of New England Folklore. The information about early pumpkin recipes and preparation comes from Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald's America's Founding Food



October 17, 2017

Devilishly Strong Witches

Can someone be too strong? That sounds like a weird question to a modern person. We live in a culture that values athletics and physical fitness, drawing on the ancient traditions of the Classical World. However, things were different here in the 17th century, when being too strong could get you accused of witchcraft.

Take Nathaniel Greensmith, for example. He and his wife Rebecca were early settlers of Hartford, Connecticut. In 1662 Rebecca was accused of bewitching a neighbor named Ann Cole. Under interrogation Rebecca confessed to being a witch. She claimed the Devil had first appeared to her in the woods in the shape of a fawn that skipped around her. The fawn appeared several times before it finally spoke, inviting her to join a coven of witches that met in the forest. The witches attended the meeting in a variety of forms, including one who flew there in the the shape of a crow. Rebecca later had sexual congress with the Devil "with much seeming (but indeed horrible) delight to her."


Rebecca implicated her husband in her confession and claimed he was a witch as well. She said she had often suspected him of being a witch, particularly since he was abnormally strong for someone his size. Nathaniel was small in stature but could easily and untiringly lift heavy objects. For example, she once saw him bring home a cart full of huge logs that he had loaded himself. She thought he was small and "weak to my apprehension, and the logs were such that I thought men such as he could not do it." When asked how he could load and unload such heavy logs, Nathaniel told her "he had help that (she) knew not of." Rebecca assumed he meant the Devil, as did the Hartford magistrates. Both he and Rebecca were executed for witchcraft in 1662.

The issue is not that Nathaniel Greensmith was strong, but that he was small and strong. No one would have questioned what he did if he was some burly Puritan dude. But he wasn't, and since he defied expectations his strength was viewed with suspicion.

Perhaps the most famous strong witch is Reverend George Burroughs, who was executed during the Salem witch trials. Like Greensmith, Burroughs was quite small but was able to lift very heavy objects. For example, he was once seen to carry a full barrel of molasses just by inserting two fingers into the barrel's hole, which was something that no one else could do. A witness also testified that he saw "Mr. George Burroughs lift and hold out a gun of six foot barrel or thereabouts, putting the forefinger of his right hand into the muzzle of said gun and so held it out at arms end only with that finger..."


It seems that Burroughs liked to show off, which didn't sit well with his neighbors. Puritan men were expected to exhibit moderation and Burroughs wasn't meeting that expectation. This, along with a series of deceased wives and bad relationships with former parishioners in Salem, factored into his trial for witchcraft. Burroughs could lift a gun with one finger but sadly couldn't escape the hangman's noose. He was executed on August 19, 1692.

Is there some lesson to be learned from these stories? Maybe that anyone who defies the norm of their culture is likely to be viewed with suspicion, or that if your neighbors thought you were a witch any aberrant behavior, no matter how innocuous, could be interpreted maliciously. Those aren't happy lessons to learn, but keep them in mind the next time you want to carry around that barrel with just two fingers.

*****

I got this information from David Hall's Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England
Richard Godbeer's article "Your Wife Will Be Your Biggest Accuser" in the summer 2017 issue of Early American Studies, and various online sources.





October 10, 2017

Apple Lore: Death, Love and Magic

The other day I went to the farmers market and was very excited to see a bin full of small greenish brown apples. I am an apple fanatic, and those little beauties were Roxbury Russets. They actually weren't much to look at, but they have a long history in New England. In fact, Roxbury Russets are the oldest type of apple grown in the United States.

Their origin is a little murky, but they are said to have first been discovered growing in Roxbury, Massachusetts way back in the mid-1600s. One source claims they were growing as early as 1649. The word "discovered" is a little puzzling. It implies that some hapless Puritan just stumbled upon an apple tree, but apples are not native to New England. The Roxbury Russet must have been introduced by someone, but who? I've read that William Blackstone, the first Englishman to live on  the Boston peninsula, grew apple trees on what is now Boston Common. Perhaps the Roxbury Russet is a wild American version of an English cultivar he planted, its seeds carried into the hills of Roxbury by a bird or beast.

That's just speculation on my part. According to folklore, the first person to grow Roxbury Russets was a colonist named Joseph Warren. He died falling off a ladder while picking apples. That story almost seems too ironic to be true, but death by apple may have been a common thing in Colonial New England. For example, a man named Peter Parker died in the 1700s when a giant barrel of his home-made cider rolled off a wagon and crushed him. This happened in his orchard on top of Roxbury's Mission Hill (formerly known as Parker Hill), near what is now McLaughlin Park next to the New England Baptist Hospital. I lived on Mission Hill for many years, and every fall a local neighborhood group gathered the apples that still grow in the park to make cider. Some of the trees in the park may be descendants of Peter Parker's original trees. No one ever reported seeing Peter Parker's ghost, though.

Roxbury Russet apples
Given the apple's Biblical connections with sin, death and sex, it's not surprising there is some weird apple folklore in New England. Some of it is downright creepy. Take the strange story of Roger Williams's corpse. Williams was the founder of Rhode Island, and in 1936 his descendants exhumed his body to move it to another location. They were horrified to find that the roots of a nearby apple tree had grown into Williams's coffin and apparently absorbed most of his corpse. There were very few bones left inside and the tree roots had taken the shape of Williams's body. The roots are now part of the collection at the John Brown House museum in Providence.

The legend of Micah Rood is similarly grim. Micah Rood was a surly farmer who lived in Connecticut in the 1600s. One night a traveling peddler came to Rood's house and asked if he could spend the night. Rood grunted that he could. In the morning the peddler's cold dead body was found lying underneath one of Rood's apple trees. The peddler had been murdered and his money and wares stolen. The town naturally suspected Rood but had no evidence to prove he was the killer. The next autumn, though, all the apples that grew from Micah Rood's trees had a single blood-red spot in their white flesh.

One end of the sin continuum is death, but the other end is sex, and apples are a key component in a lot of nineteenth century New England love magic. Most of it is focused on determining who your true love is. For example, here's a simple charm involving apple seeds. If you have several potential lovers in mind, take some apple seeds and name each seed after one of the potential mates. Wet the seeds and then stick them to your forehead. The last seed to fall off is the person you are meant to be with.

Similarly, you can take two apple seeds and name them after two potential lovers. Wet them. Put one seed on each eyelid. Blink rapidly. Whichever seed falls off last represents your true love.

You can also predict a lover's name using an apple peel. Remove an apple's peel so it comes off in one long piece. Throw the peel over your shoulder onto the ground. Turn around and examine the peel. What letter does it form? That letter will be the first letter of your true love's first name.

Those love charms are kind of cute and would make good party games. This last one is a little more spooky. Stand in front of a mirror holding a lamp (or candle) and an apple. As you eat the apple repeat the following words:

Whoever my true love may be
Come and eat this apple with me

Is your true love supposed to arrive in person or just appear in the mirror? I'm not sure. That charm is in Fanny Bergren's 1896 book Current Superstitions, and she notes that it is particularly effective when done on Halloween. If you dare to try it let me know what happens.

October 03, 2017

The Ghost Dog of Boston College

The other night I dreamed that I was being chased by a large invisible dog. It had been sent to kill me by some unnamed enemies. It never caught me, which I take as a good omen. I think I had this dream because before I went to sleep I was thinking about the one time I was actually bitten by a dog.

We tend to think of dogs as man's best friends, but there is a long history of ominous dogs in art, literature and folklore. Quite often they are associated with death. For example, European legends tell of the Wild Hunt, a band of demonic hunters and ghostly hounds that roam the land during the dark months of the year. Anyone who sees the hunt will die, so it's a phenomenon best left unexperienced. Other sinister black dogs can also be found in English folklore, including the infamous Black Shuck of East Anglia. Going further back in history, the Greeks claimed the underworld was guarded by a three-headed dog named Cerberus, while the Egyptian god of embalming had the head of a black canine.

These tales may sound like quaint stories from the distant past, but ghastly dogs still continue to rear their toothy heads. For example, the psychologist Carl Jung had the following dream:

"I was in a forest - dense, gloomy fantastic, gigantic boulders lay about among huge jungle like trees. It was a heroic , primeval landscape. Suddenly I heard a piercing whistle that seemed to resound through the whole universe. My knees shook. Then there were crashings in the under brush, and a gigantic wolfhound with a fearful, gaping maw burst forth. At the sight of it, the blood froze in my veins. It tore past me, and I suddenly knew: the Wild Huntsman had commanded it to carry away a human soul. I awoke in sudden terror."

When he awoke Jung learned that his mother had died in the night. The Wild Hunt struck again.

Demonic hounds also appear in art, both high- and low-brow. In his novel The Western Lands William S. Burroughs writes about "door dogs" which are "not guarders but crossers of thresholds. They bring Death with them." If post-modern novels are not your cup of tea, you can also find demonic dogs in horror movies like 1978's Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell.

Devil Dog (1978)
Here in New England, our most famous creepy canine is probably the black dog of Connecticut's West Peak. He's an adorable little black terrier, but you can only see his cute fuzzy face twice. If you see him three times you'll perish. This part of the country was first colonized by East Anglian Puritans, and it's tempting to see a connection between this black dog and the better-known English Black Shuck.

This has all been preamble, because what I really wanted to write about this week was Boston College's O'Connell House. O'Connell House was built in the 1890s as a private residence and was eventually left to Boston's Archbishop William O'Connell. O'Connell in turn gave it to Boston College. The 32,000 square foot mansion currently serves as the school's student union building.




As befits an old building on a college campus, there are a lot of ghosts stories attached to O'Connell. One of the ghosts that appears at O'Connell is said to be a small dog. In the October 31, 2002 issue of The Boston College Chronicle, one of the building's five resident student managers claimed she sometimes saw it in her room:

"Every now and then I'll be lying in bed and see this little dog sitting under my desk looking at me...  It's there and then it disappears. It's kind of eerie and definitely a mystery."

None of the resident managers owned a dog, of course. It was clearly a spectral being.


In 2001, famed psychic investigator Lorraine Warren visited O'Connell House. (Lorraine and her husband Ed's work as ghost-hunters inspired The Conjuring films.) She validated the students' experiences.

According to Zach Barber, O'Connell House manager and A&S '04, Warren sensed three spirits in the house.  
"She said that there were two ghosts in the attic that either hanged themselves or jumped, and there was also a dog spirit that she said was following her around the house," said Barber." She also said, "You must hear furniture moving around up there (in the attic) all the time." Barber confirmed that some O'Connell House staff members have, in fact, reported hearing such noises on the ceilings of the rooms below the attic in the past." (The Heights, Volume LXXXII, Number 22, 23 October 2001)

Boston College students have various theories about what the ghosts are: one is a child who drowned in a fountain, one is a madwoman who had been confined in the house, another is someone killed by a jealous lover. I haven't read any theories about the dog, though.


Why is this dog so well-behaved compared to some of its folkloric counterparts? Perhaps the students raise enough hell on their own and don't need any help from the dog, or perhaps the school's culture of Catholicism and rational inquiry help keep the little beast in check. Or maybe he's just a lonely little ghost-dog looking for affection. Hopefully we'll get some answers when the next group of psychics investigate O'Connell House someday in the future.

September 25, 2017

Lumberjacks and the Devil: Two Stories from Maine


1. THE DEVIL'S MAGIC AXE

Many years ago a lumberjack named Robert Cartier lived and worked in Millinocket, Maine. I suppose "worked" is an exaggeration. Cartier was a lazy drunkard and a trouble-maker. He preferred drinking in the bars or starting fights over cutting down trees.

One day the Devil appeared to Cartier. The Devil said, "Robert, I'd like to make a deal with you. It's a shame you need to spend so much time working as a lumberjack. You're doing an excellent job spreading evil by drinking and picking fights. I'd rather you spent your time doing that. What do you think?"

Cartier agreed.

"Well," said the Devil, "Here's the deal. I'll give you a magic axe. It can cut down trees all by itself. You won't need to lift a finger. You just need to whistle to make it happen. In return, I get your should when you die."

Cartier wasn't very smart, so a few years of easy living in exchange for eternal damnation sounded like a bargain to him. He agreed to the Devil's deal.


The next day Cartier went into the woods with the Devil's axe. He sat in the shade eating, drinking whisky, and whistling while the axe cut down tree after tree. When he was done in he went into town to drink more and pick fights. He had plenty of energy for mischief because he had done so little all day.

For many years Cartier spread misery at night while the Devil's axe chopped down trees all day. But one night in a bar Cartier had a moment of drunken clarity: he had spent his life doing evil and was doomed to Hell. Cartier staggered out of the bar into the night, eager to find atonement.

The next morning some lumberjacks found Cartier's body in the woods. His head been chopped clean off with one blow of an axe. The murder weapon was never found, but some people say the Devil's magic axe is still out there, ready for some unwary soul to start whistling in the woods.

2. JACK AND THE DEVIL

People in Dyer Brook, Maine say there is a special place in the woods where you can meet the Devil. If you go there seven nights in a row the Devil will appear and speak to you. 

A logger named Jack learned about this place and went there for the required number of nights. On the seventh night the Devil came and talked with Jack. He warned him not to ride the logs in the river next day or he would die. Jack was foolhardy and laughed at the Devil's warning. 

The next day Jack went went to work. A huge number of logs were being driven down the river. Jack jumped from log to log, nudging them with his pole to keep them moving downstream. He was about to leap onto another log when suddenly a flaming pickaxe appeared in front of him. He remembered the Devil's warning and jumped back to shore. Several men died that day in a logjam, but Jack didn't.

After this the other lumberjacks began to notice strange things about Jack. For example, when he was out chopping wood the sound of two axes could be heard, even though he was at the only person visible. Jack also was often heard talking to someone that no one else could see. Maybe it was just an imaginary friend, but people knew that Jack had gone to the Devil's meeting place. They stared to call him Jack-the-Ripper because his strange behavior scared them.

Once Jack drove his axe into a tree so hard the handle split in two. But when Jack pulled it out the handle was strangely once again whole. The lumberjacks who witnessed this avoided him like the plague.

One day the boss walked with Jack to a clearing in the woods. It was full of brush and logs. "Clean this mess up," the boss said and walked off. The boss was spooked by Jack and thought it would take him several days to clean the clearing. Jack came back to camp in just a few hours. All the brush and logs had been neatly stacked in a pile. It would have taken dozens of men to do what Jack did alone in just a short time. The other men at camp whispered that he had supernatural help.

After that all the lumberjacks refused to work with Jack-the-Ripper. He left Dyer Brook and was never seen again.

*****

I really like these two stories. They're short, sweet and spooky. The first one comes from Charles A. Stansfield's Haunted Maine (2007), which is packed with great legends. The other one comes from The WPA Guide to Maine: The Pine Tree State, which was produced in the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project as a way to employ out-of-work authors. Why doesn't the US government pay people to collect folklore today? That's how I want my tax dollars spent.

September 20, 2017

A Weed That Cures Witchcraft and Elf-Sickness

Today is cloudy and dark. A hurricane is churning off the coast. Autumn officially starts in a few days. All this puts me in the mood for some witchcraft. So here goes!

Whenever I walk around the Boston area, I see a lot of plants growing wild. They grow in yards, they grow in parks, they grow in empty lots and along the sidewalks. I suppose you might call them weeds, but that term seems a little derogatory, doesn't it? Many of these plants are actually herbs that historically have been associated with healing. We've just forgotten what they were used for.

Some of them I recognize, like mugwort, dandelion, and mullein, but I'm still learning the names of others. For example, I believe this inconspicuous looking plant growing on Memorial Drive is actually dock weed (or dock). I'm glad to know where it is. It might come in handy in case I am bewitched or afflicted by elves.


According to Pamela Jones's book Just Weeds: History, Myths and Uses (1994), the Medieval Anglo-Saxons valued dock weed as a cure for "elf-sickness." Like many other Europeans, the Anglo-Saxons believed that elves shot people with invisible arrows and made them sick. Many Anglo-Saxon sources also link elves with witches since they were both sources of illness and suffering.

For example, one Anglo-Saxon book of cures contains a recipe for an herbal salve to treat sickness caused by "the elfin race and nocturnal goblin visitors and for the women with whom the devil hath carnal commerce." Another such book has a chapter dedicated to cures against "every evil wisewoman and the elfin race," while another, the Lacnunga, lists witches, elves, and Norse gods as possible causes for illness.

The Puritans who colonized New England did not worry about Norse gods, and they didn't really worry much about elves either. But they worried about witches a lot. A lot. The Salem witch trials of 1692 are the most famous New England trials, but there were many others before them, and even a few afterwards. For the Puritan settlers, witches were a real concern and they were always looking for ways to combat their malevolent magic.

For example, in 1685 a woman living in East Hampton, Connecticut* named Elizabeth Howell became strangely ill. She felt sharp piercing pains as if being stuck with pins, and claimed to see a strange black creature lurking at the foot of her bed. She also supposedly vomited up a pin. Before she died, Howell cried out that she was being bewitched by a neighbor, Elizabeth Garlick.

Goody Garlick was arrested and brought to trial for witchcraft. Several people testified against her, including one Goodwife Simons, who claimed that while suffering from fits two neighbors arrived with dock weed to cure her illness. When she learned that the dock weed had been provided by Goody Garlick she threw it onto the fire. She suspected that Goody Garlick was bewitching her and didn't trust the dock weed. Perhaps it would just make her feel worse! But it's clear that her neighbors thought the dock weed would help cure her. I think it's fascinating that a centuries-old belief dating back to the Anglo-Saxons appeared in 17th century Connecticut.

So there you go. Random weeds growing near the sidewalk actually have a connection to witchcraft, and perhaps even elves. New England is a great place to live!

*****

* East Hampton is now part of New York but for a time in the 1600s it was part of Connecticut. 

I got most of my information about Goody Garlick and the dock weed from this Smithsonian article and this article in the East Hampton Star. I also found another Anglo-Saxon leech book that mentions burning herbs as a cure for elf-sickness, but historians don't seem to think that is why Goodwife Simons threw the dock weed into her fire. 

September 12, 2017

Bradford College: The Necronomicon, Strange Lights, and Ghosts

What is it about colleges and ghost stories? It seems like most colleges have at least one restless spirit wandering their hallowed halls. Maybe it's because young people are more perceptive of the supernatural, or maybe it's just that young people like a good scary story. Either way, if you want to find a ghost college campuses are a good place to look.

I grew up in Haverhill, Massachusetts. When I lived there it was home to two colleges: Northern Essex Community College (NECCO to the locals) and Bradford College. I've never heard any ghost stories about NECCO, and Renee Mallett, author Haunted Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts, writes that "...it's not haunted in the slightest, at least as far as anyone has come forward to say." It's not a residential campus so that might be the reason why.

Bradford College, on the other hand, is the setting for many ghostly encounters and paranormal legends. Perhaps this is because it was home to thousands of young people for nearly two centuries. Bradford was founded as an academy for girls back in 1803, became a junior college in 1932 and then a four-year co-ed college in 1971. Bradford College closed in 2000 for financial reasons, and it's campus is now home to Northpoint Bible College.

Photo by Stephen Muise (my brother!)
My favorite story about Bradford College is that the Necronomicon, a legendary book of malevolent magic, is hidden somewhere in the tunnels beneath the campus. The tunnels are quite real, and a colleague of mine who attended Bradford said they were originally built so the wealthy young ladies of Bradford Academy didn't need to go outside in inclement weather. According to the legend, horror author H.P. Lovecraft was dating one of these young ladies in the 1920s and decided to hide the Necronomicon below the campus to keep it safely hidden away.

There are a couple reasons why this story is almost certainly just a legend. First, the fabled Necronomicon is not real. This mythical book was a fictional creation  Lovecraft used in many of his tales but it did not exist outside the pages of his stories. After his death several authors published their own versions of the Necronomicon, which you can still buy from Amazon or your local bookstore. I can't vouch for their magical efficacy, but they certainly aren't hidden under Bradford College.

The second reason this is just a legend? Lovecraft never dated anyone. There's no record of him having romantic feelings for anyone until he met his wife, and even then she talked him into their short-lived marriage. Lovecraft dating someone is more unbelievable than the Necronomicon.

Photo: Stephen Muise
A weirder and somehow more believable ghost story about Bradford was sent to me by someone who reads my blog. I'll call him Greg for the sake of anonymity. Greg was a freshman at Bradford College in 1980. One night in late September or early October of that year, Greg and some other freshmen were carrying a case of beer into their dorm when a sophomore named Larry stopped them in the hall. He explained that he didn't want to be alone that night. It was the one-year anniversary of something strange that happened.

He told them the following story. One year ago, Larry, his roommate Ray, and a couple other students decided to take LSD on a Friday afternoon after class. They had planned to take it outside on the beautiful campus, but rainy weather confined them to Larry and Ray's room. Things went poorly. As the acid kicked in Ray became extremely paranoid, and began to rant about a flashing red light in the corner of the room. No one else could see it. Ray started to scream accusingly at his friends so they left him alone (and tripping) in his room. Hours later Ray was still screaming about the flashing red light and was taken to the school medical facility. He never came back to his room, and several days later his father came and collected his belongings. No one ever learned what happened to Ray.

That was the end of Larry's story. Greg and the other freshmen kind of laughed at it, but a few weeks later Greg experienced something that made him reconsider the story. Greg had been hanging out in Larry's room and as he left he saw the words "WELCOME BACK RAY" appear on the door. They vanished as soon as he read them. This freaked Greg out but he didn't say anything.

The appearance of those words was the start of some weird occurrences in the dormitory. One night Greg was awakened by someone screaming in the room next to him. He listened through the wall but couldn't make out what was causing the commotion. Several days later he learned that one of the boys in that room had left Bradford College and gone back to live at his parents' house. The boy was upset because he kept seeing a flashing red light.

Greg also started to see a flashing red light, often out of the corner of his eye. Greg wrote, "I thought that either it was just my imagination or this dorm was really haunted and I was going to be its victim in some way." He had trouble concentrating and his grades began to fall. During this time Greg learned that another student had also supposedly seen a red flashing light, this time in the bathroom while he was drunk.

Hearing this did nothing to settle Greg's nerves. He continued to see the red light, his grades continued to fall, and he became deeply depressed. In the spring of 1981 he finally hitchhiked home and never returned to Bradford.

That's the end of Greg's story. I find it really fascinating and don't quite know what to make of it. Greg seems to think that "WELCOME BACK RAY" was a premonition that like Ray he too would eventually drop out of Bradford. If that's the case it came true. And did Ray's initial bad acid trip accidentally open a doorway for something uncanny to come through?

Photo: Stephen Muise
That story about the flashing red light is just one of many told about Bradford College. The most famous ghost story is that the campus is haunted by a spirit called Amy, who was a young woman who had an affair with a priest. When she became pregnant she either killed herself or was murdered by the priest. The college is also said to be haunted by the ghost of a drama professor who was murdered by student who impregnated her. Yikes! That's a lot of sex and violence for such a small college.

Are any of these stories true? I can't really say, but the folks at Ghost Encounters have investigated Bradford College and you can read their results here. Sometimes when you to college you learn things you didn't expect.

September 04, 2017

Milton's Ghost Road

I always imagine that Labor Day weekend will be warm and sunny. You know, it's the end of summer so we should spend one last day at the beach or have a big picnic. That's not always the case, however. The Sunday of this past Labor Day weekend was cold and rainy. It felt more like November than September.

Tony and I went down to Milton, Massachusetts for a little day-trip in the raw weather. Our main goal was to visit the Eustis Estate, a huge 19th century house that was recently opened to the public by Historic New England. It's a really beautiful building with some amazing architectural details, and they've restored the interiors with period fabrics and wall treatments.



Since it was a gloomy day and the house was relatively empty I kept thinking of Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House. I don't mean that in a bad way either. The building has a lot of presence and would make a great setting for a movie. On a sunny day you might film something by Edith Wharton, but on a gloomy day it was definitely the setting for a horror movie.

Can you see the leaves changing? Autumn is coming early this year...
I didn't find any ghost stories associated with the Eustis Estate, but there is a haunted location in Milton just a few miles away. Although it just looks like a pleasant country road, Harland Street in Milton is supposed to be home to several ghosts. In fact, the locals call it Ghost Road. Perhaps I should write it this way: GHOST ROAD. That looks more frightening. And there are definitely some frightening stories attached to it.

The stretch of Harland Street between Hillside Street and Unquity Road has been said to be haunted for decades. According to Robert Ellis Cahill's book New England's Ghostly Haunts (1982), people living there complained so often of strange noises and ghostly apparitions that they finally brought in a group of psychic investigators.

This looks like a Ghost Road to me...
Two of the investigators, Elaine Favioli and Edward Ambermon, saw "jellyfish-like blobs with discernible ears and mouths," while other spirits appeared in human form. One was a woman in a long gown, and the other was an American Indian the investigators named Mingo. A Ponkapoag Indian named Mingo did live in Milton, but I'm not sure if this is really his ghost or if the investigators just used his name. As Cahill notes, an Indian ghost named Mingo also haunted the Barnstable House on Cape Cod. Are they the same ghost or just two unfortunate souls with the same name?

Those jellyfish-like blobs sound pretty creepy, and Ghost Road keeps it's creepy reputation even today. Several people on message boards claim the road is haunted by a family that walks up and down the road at night, and that the family is made up of an Indian ghost named Mingo, a headless Puritan woman, and her child.

Other people say they've encountered a man walking up and down Ghost Road late at night. No one knows who he is, and he refuses to show his face. A black car has also been spotted parked by the side of the road. It flashes its lights at everyone who drives past. Are the two related somehow? All of these ghosts (plus horrifying unearthly shrieks) are only manifest during the night. Happily Tony and I went during the day.

Ghost Road passes through swampy conservation land and Tony wondered why people often report paranormal activity near swamps, like this one or the Hockomock Swamp in the Bridgewater Triangle. It's a good question. I suppose one could argue people are misinterpreting natural phenomena as ghostly activity. Swamps are dark and full of wildlife, so maybe people hear frogs or foxes and think they are hearing human voices. Luminous swamp gas might be interpreted as glowing ghosts.


Still, that wouldn't explain things like a family of ghosts walking in the night or a black car parked by the side of the road. Swamps tend to be undeveloped (and therefore very dark at night) so perhaps they serve as blank slates onto which we can project our fears, be they restless Indians whose land we stole or faceless men who lurk in our neighborhoods.

Finally, I'll just point out that local American Indian tribes viewed swamps as gateways to the underworld. They felt they were good places to contact spirits and their shamans would visit swamps to find spirit allies or seek visions. They were not evil places but places of power. Maybe people today are seeing the spirits that have always been there but just filtered through a modern American worldview.