June 18, 2018

Brookline's Old Burying Ground: Slaves, Smallpox, and Witch Trials

The other day I visited the Old Burying Ground in Brookline, Massachusetts. Brookline is a very well-maintained, genteel town right next to Boston, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Old Burying Ground is a little scruffy. When I was inside its gates I felt like I was transported to the past even though I was really only a few blocks from an MBTA stop. Goodbye home-brewing store and arthouse movie theater, hello crumbling gravestones and ancient oak trees!

Brookline was originally settled in the early 1600s as a hamlet of Boston called Muddy River (after the body of water that runs through it). By 1705 it became a separate town and took its current name (after two brooks that separated it from Boston). So in other words, Brookline is old, and although it is now a tasteful liberal suburb it does have some strange and unsavory things lurking in its past. The good old days weren't always that good...

For example, a sign inside the Old Burying Ground notes that eleven slaves are buried somewhere in the cemetery. Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1782. I didn't see any indicators denoting where the slaves were buried. It's possible their graves are mixed in with the other graves, or perhaps were not even marked. That same sign that mentions the slaves also notes that many burials had been disturbed over the years as the cemetery became more and more crowded, so perhaps the actual locations of the slave burials have long since been lost. 

Edward Devotion's grave
I did find the grave of Edward Devotion, whose name has recently been connected with slavery in the local media. Devotion was an important person in the founding of Brookline and donated money and land upon his death for a town school. When the school was finally built (more than a century after his death) it was named the Edward Devotion School. The public school stands near Coolidge Corner and was attended by John F. Kennedy when he was a child.

This sound like an inspiring story of philanthropy, but people recently learned that Edward Devotion was a slave owner. An inventory of Devotion's estate upon his death included "one Negrow." So perhaps he isn't the best person to name a school after? On May 28, the Brookline town meeting voted to remove Devotion's name from the school. The school will be called the Coolidge Corner School until a new name is voted on. 

Anna Mather's grave
Near Devotion's gravestone I found the grave of Anna Mather, who died in 1734 at the age of 74. The name Mather may sound familiar if you've read anything about the Salem witch trials. Anna Mather was the second wife of Increase Mather, one of Boston's most prominent Boston Puritan ministers (and also a  president of Harvard University). When the Salem witch trials broke out the governor of Massachusetts turned to Increase for his opinion. He urged the magistrates to proceed with caution, but did not denounce the use of "spectral evidence" until much later in the trials. Spectral evidence were the dreams, visions and possible hallucinations that the magistrates used as evidence to convict defendants of witchcraft, even though no one could verify any of them. I think you can see why this might be problematic.

Increase Mather eventually did denounce spectral evidence, writing "It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned." He never denounced the trials themselves though, possibly because many of his friends and peers served as magistrates during then. After the trials ended his reputation was permanently damaged. He married Anna Mather in 1715, many years after the trials concluded.

Increase Mather's son Cotton Mather was also a prominent minister who was involved with the Salem witch trials. His 1689 account of several possessed Boston children, Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions, is believed to have set a precedent for the Salem trials that began three years later. Cotton was a strong supporter of the trials, and even wrote to Chief Justice William Stoughton to congratulate him on executing eleven people for witchcraft. Cotton is also infamous for urging the magistrates to execute Reverend George Burroughs for witchcraft even after Burroughs successfully said the Lord's Prayer, which it was believed a witch could not recite. Cotton's reputation suffered even more than his father's after the trials ended. 

However, he did a few good things, and one of them was to promote inoculation. Smallpox was greatly feared in early Boston and two epidemics swept through the city's crowded and unsanitary streets in 1690 and 1702. In 1721 another epidemic broke out. Inoculation was known in parts of the Old World, and Mather had learned about it from his slave Onesimus. Mather urged Boston physician Zabdiel Boylston to try inoculating Bostonians against smallpox. Boylston agreed, and of the 287 people he inoculated only six died. More than 800 people who were not inoculated died in that epidemic. 

The grave of Joshua Woodward
The grave of Mary Russell
Unfortunately inoculation did not become a widespread practice until many years later, and I found graves of two smallpox victims in Brookine's Old Burying Ground. One is for Joshua Woodward, who died from smallpox in 1776 at the age of 46. That is quite young, but not as young as poor Mary Russell, "the virtuous and amiable daughter of Capt. John and Mrs. Miriam Russell" who died from the disease in 1792 at the age of 14 "to the inexpressible grief of her friends."

I like reading about the past, and really love visiting old graveyards. But I am quite happy to live in the present. Our country does face some significant problems these days, but happily we don't have slavery, witch trials, or smallpox epidemics. Let's keep those things buried in the past.

June 12, 2018

The Lumberjack and the Devil-Fish: A Story from Maine

Here's a weird story I just found in Haunted Maine by Charles Stansfield Jr. There are a lot of ghost and folklore books out there, but Stansfield's has some crazy legends I haven't read before. Like this one...


Back in the 19th century, a lumberjack named Jack Johnston lived in Millinocket, Maine. Johnston came from a local family but was unpopular. This was partly because he was curmudgeonly and didn't like to follow rules but it was mainly because he hated going to church and made fun of anyone who did. Johnston didn't believe in God and didn't care who knew. (You can probably guess this story isn't going to end well.)

Johnston liked to go fishing on Sundays while everyone else was in church. Unfortunately he was not a patient person, and one Sunday as he stood on the lake's shore he became frustrated because the fish weren't biting. He cursed the lake, he cursed the fish, he cursed his fishing rod. Being an irreligious person he cursed God, and finally for good measure he even cursed Satan.

Found on Pinterest. 

As soon as he invoked the Devil's name he felt a tug on his line. "Finally," he thought, "I've got a bite." Whatever was on the other end was big and it nearly pulled Jack into the lake, but with a lot of work he reeled in the fish. When he saw it he gasped in horror.

The fish was hideous. It was longer than a man's arm and had huge bulging red eyes. Sharp fangs filled its mouth, and its sinuous black body exuded a noxiously smelly slime. It was a monster.

Jack briefly thought of bringing the creature home to cook, but it was too revolting even for a surly lumberjack to eat. Instead Jack tossed the Devil-fish into a farmer's well as he walked by. "Good riddance!" said Jack without a backward glance.

Jack thought that was the end of the story, but it was not. Shortly after Jack disposed of the fish people in Millinocket began to notice that livestock was going missing at night. At first it was small animals like chickens or piglets, but soon calves and goats began to disappear. People thought it might be a feral dog or even a wolf that had crept down from Canada but those theories were soon put to rest. Several people said they had seen a hideous snake-like fish crawl out a well every night to seek out prey. Fearing for their livelihoods, local farmers tried to propitiate the Devil-fish by throwing food down the well. It didn't work. The creature just grew larger and hungrier, and it continued its nighttime hunting. At some point there wouldn't be any livestock left in town and the creature would began eating humans...

Photo of a wolf eel from Pinterest.
Jack had told some of his lumberjack cronies about the hideous fish the day he caught it, and word spread through town that he was responsible for the monster's reign of terror. An angry mob came to Jack's house one night. He had caused the problem by fishing on the Sabbath day! He had to get rid of the Devil-fish!

Fearing for his safety Jack agreed to kill the fish. But how was he supposed to kill a supernatural demon fish? He couldn't go to the local minister for advice, so instead he went to an old woman who had a reputation for being a witch.

The woman didn't even bat an eye as Jack told his story. When he was finished she dug around in a big trunk and pulled out a strange-looking sword. "That fish is no ordinary fish," she said. "It was sent by the Prince of Darkness himself when you cursed him on the Sabbath day. But this is no ordinary sword! It can dispatch even the most ferocious of demons, but..."

"Sounds good lady," Jack said, reaching for the sword.

"But, "she continued, "there's a catch. After you kill the demon you must kill the next thing you see. If you don't the Devil will drag you down to Hell."

Jack took the sword and headed to the well. On his way he bought a chicken from a local farmer. When reached the well he tied the chicken to a nearby tree. His plan was to kill the chicken after he slew the Devil-fish, thereby keeping his soul from the Devil's clutches.

The Devil-fish emerged from the well shortly after sunset. It was ten times larger than it had been when Jack caught it. When it saw Jack it emitted a hideous roar and rushed towards him. Jack raised the sword and with a single blow chopped off the monster's head. The creature emitted ichorous bile as its body twitched on the ground. It was dead. 

Before he could turn to kill the chicken Jack hear a familiar voice. "Jack, my son! You killed the monster!" Jack turned reflexively and saw his father, coming to congratulate him for saving the town.

Jack groaned. Unless he killed his father his soul would be dragged to Hell. Jack was not a nice person, but he was not a murderer. With a sigh he put down the sword, fell to his knees, and then collapsed on the ground lifeless. The Devil had taken his soul.


There are a some interesting things about this story (other than a monstrous Devil-fish). Some aspects of it are clearly based on classic New England folklore. The Sabbath-breaker who gets into supernatural trouble is one of them, as is the anti-social lumberjack. I've read quite a few stories about cursed lumberjacks, lumberjacks who make deals with the Devil, etc. It's a common theme. 

Some other aspects make it seem more like a classic fairy tale. The witch and the magic sword are two of them, but the one that really struck me was Jack needing to kill the first thing he sees. He thinks it will be an animal, but it turns out to be human. 

A similar motif appears in several classic Grimm's fairy tales. In "The Nixie of the Mill Pond," a man promises a water spirit whatever has just been born on his farm. He thinks it will be a calf, but finds out his wife has just given birth to a son. Oops. In "The Girl with No Hands" a farmer promises the Devil whatever is standing behind his barn, thinking of his apple tree but finds his daughter is there instead. Oops. 

The motif isn't just limited to the Brothers Grimm. In the Estonian fairy tale "The Grateful Prince" a king lost in the woods promises the old man who guides him home the first thing that comes out of his palace gate. The king thinks it will be his faithful dog that greets him every day, but wouldn't you know it - his wife has just given birth and his infant son is carried out of the gate first. Again, oops. 

I suspect "The Millinocket Devil-fish" is a literary folktale that someone created based on classic New England themes with a little bit of Grimm's fairytales thrown in. Still, it's a good story and I'm glad Stansfield included it in his book. Who doesn't like stories about monstrous snake fish that live in wells?

May 27, 2018

The Ghostly Nuns of Dudley Road

Haunted roads. Doesn't that phrase sound magical? There's just something really evocative about combining those two words. There's real synergy there; the whole is greater than its parts.

Haunted roads are appealing because they remind me of my adolescence, driving around aimlessly with friends waiting for something to happen. The lure of a haunted road has stuck with me into adulthood, and I've been to a few different haunted roads recently: Route 44, Albino Road, and Ghost Road. But just recently I went to what is supposed to be the most haunted road in Massachusetts: Dudley Road in Billerica.

There are several legends associated with Dudley Road, many of them focused on nuns. The most lurid story claims that back in the 19th century a group of nuns from a local convent decided to worship Satan. They would sneak out of the convent at night and gather in an abandoned house for their sinister rituals. Eventually the locals figured out what was happening and hanged the nuns in a nearby field.
St. Thecla's Retreat Center, run by the Sisters of St. Paul, is on Dudley Road
Apparently the spirits of Devil-worshipping nuns don't rest easily, because according to local legends they have been seen wandering around the road at night, and in particular haunt the field where they were hanged. Since their deaths the house where they celebrated the Black Mass has slowly been sinking into the ground. Is it descending to Hell? Strange smells and sounds emanate from the building at night.

Creepy stuff! There are also other legends about ghost nuns. One claims that a nun was hit by a car late one night while walking home to the convent. She was killed instantly when the impact knocked her into a tree, but her ghost still haunts Dudley Road. Some say she can be seen lurking under the tree her body was thrown against, while others say that she wanders the road at night asking for directions back to the convent. She is, quite literally, a lost soul.

Is this house sinking into the earth?
Another legend claims that a nun from the convent became pregnant after having an affair with a priest. She hanged herself in shame and her ghost can still be seen haunting the tree where she died. These stories share similar elements - ghosts, nuns, trees, hangings - but are all slightly different. Everyone seems to agree that something bad happened but the legends differ over what it was.

Not all the ghosts are nuns. A man dressed like a farm-worker is also said to haunt the road at night. He stands by the side of the road just under the trees, his face perpetually hidden in shadow. Don't stop if you see him. Just keep driving.

When Tony and I drove down Dudley Road I was surprised how nice it was. There are a lot of large well-maintained homes and quite a few horse farms, but I guess even upscale neighborhoods have ghosts. Parts of the road seemed new but other parts were older. The older parts were narrow and quite twisty with Colonial era homes and bordered by lichen-encrusted stone walls. I can easily see how creepy legends could get attached to this street. We only visited during the day - I imagine it is much spookier at night.

The stories about Dudley Road seem to be at least several decades old. Commenters on this post claim they heard the stories at least thirty years ago, and others say they were told the story by their parents. A few commenters even say the stories are true and that they have seen some of the ghosts.

I am not a debunker; people may very well see strange things on this road. However, I don't think the story about the hanged nuns is corroborated by any historical records. The last people executed for witchcraft in Massachusetts were hanged in Salem in 1692, so it's very, very unlikely that anyone was  killed in the early nineteenth century for Devil worship. And the house that is supposedly sinking into the ground looks a lot like a storage building to me. It also has big "No trespassing" signs posted on it so please stay away.

So if the nun legend isn't true why do people see ghost nuns? I don't know for sure, but I do think New England has it's own psychic landscape which is influenced by history, the people living on it, and the land itself. New England has it's own folkloric personality. Some people might find old houses, stone walls and dense woods charming, but other might experience them as creepy, particularly at night. A commenter on that post claimed that his teenage son went to Dudley Road with some friends on a lark, but things didn't go quite as planned. He returned home terrified and in tears. Was it all in the boy's head, or did he encounter something that only manifests to people who have the right mindset?

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments. I would love to hear from some people who have seen strange things on Dudley Road.

May 21, 2018

Odds Are Good You'll See A UFO in New England

A group called Casino.org has analyzed decades of UFO sightings and come up with some fascinating data about those strange objects we see in the sky. Casino.org usually analyzes data about the gambling industry, but I'm glad they've broadened their scope.

According to their study, these are the ten states where you are most likely to see a UFO:

1. Wyoming
3. Montana
4. North Dakota
5. Alaska
6. Hawaii
7. New Mexico

It's interesting that four of the top ten states are in New England, and I wonder why that is. My first thought was "Oh, they are all rural states," but is that true? Rhode Island has some very dense urban areas, and other states that are more rural than these four didn't make the list. Where's South Dakota, for example?

I was a little disappointed that Connecticut and Massachusetts didn't make the top-ten list, but they also didn't make the list of states were you are least likely to report a UFO. So there is something about New England that makes it a good region for UFO sightings, but I am not sure what.  I would be happy to hear your thoughts.

You can see the interactive map here
Since Casino.org usually looks at gambling, they express your likelihood of seeing a UFO in terms of odds. Vermont has a population of 623,657 and more than 2,493 UFOs have been sighted there in the last 78 years, so the odds of a Vermonter seeing a strange object in the sky is 250/1. In that same period Rhode Island has reported 3,088 sightings (odds: 324/1), while 3,627 UFOs have been seen in New Hampshire (odds: 369/1). Mainers have seen 3,605 weird flying objects, giving you a 370/1 chance of seeing one in the Pine Tree State.

Quantifying things like this really provides a good idea of how widespread the phenomena is. Casino.org claims there have been 259,691 reported UFO sightings in the United States since the last century. That seems like a lot to me, and the authors of the study say the US is one of the countries where people are most likely to see a UFO.

Personally, I would love to see a UFO as an adult. I think it would be cool! Some of my fellow citizens apparently have more negative feelings about UFOs. In fact, some 40,000 Americans have taken out insurance against alien abduction. According to trade publication Business Insurance, you can purchase a policy from a company in Florida:
The Palm Beach Post contacted Mike St. Lawrence, who has been operating The Alien Abduction & Casualty Insurance Co. out of his home in Altamonte Springs, selling $20 policies since 1987. “People buy them for somebody else,” Mr. St. Lawrence told a reporter. “They usually just make themselves the beneficiary.”
I wonder if anyone has ever tried to collect on their policy?

This all sounds like light-hearted fun, but The New York Times did recently publish an article about how the US government has been studying UFOs for years. Someone in the Pentagon takes it all very seriously. Maura Sullivan, a Democrat running for congress in New Hampshire, recently gave The Conway Daily Sun her thoughts on the topic:
Asked if she would address news reports about military footage of UFOs, including a New York Times story from a retired Navy pilot who now lives in New Hampshire, Sullivan said she would look into it as part of her job on Armed Services Committee. 
"I would be asking questions about digging deeper into the UFO issue," said Sullivan, who said she also would ask the Pentagon about its personnel and training budget because she is concerned about military accidents like the recent helicopter crash that killed a soldier from New Hampshire.
Will candidates in the other top-ten UFO states also address this issue? I guess we'll have to watch the election coverage to find out.

May 13, 2018

The Devil and Elizabeth Knapp: Demonic Possession in Groton

"She is a monument of divine severity; and the Lord grant that all that see or hear, may fear and tremble. Amen." (Reverend Samuel Willard, from a 1672 letter titled A Brief Accout of a Strange and Unusual Providence of God Befallen to Elizabeth Knapp of Groton.)

 In October of 1671, a teenage girl named Elizabeth Knapp began to show symptoms of a strange disorder. At first they were minor. Knapp would emit sudden shrieks with no apparent cause, and shrug when anyone asked her about them. At other times she would laugh uncontrollably as if at a private joke, sometimes to the point of falling to the ground in hysterics. She didn't tell anyone what she laughed at.

Her behavior got even stranger as the month continued. On October 30 Knapp was siting by the fireplace when she began to scream that she was being tormented:

In the evening, a little before she went to bed, sitting by the fire, she cried out, oh my legs! and clapped her hands on them, immediately, oh, my breast! and removed her hand thither: and forthwith, oh I am strangled, and put her hands on her throat; those that observed her could see what to make of it; whether she was earnest or dissembled...

Knapp was a maidservant in the home of Groton's minister Samuel Willard, and he scrupulously documented her situation in a long letter sent to Reverend Cotton Mather in Boston. Willard wrote that on the night of October 31 Knapp went into the cellar to fetch something. She screamed and ran back up, claiming she had seen two people down in the cellar. Other members of the household searched but saw nothing and wondered if Knapp had merely played a prank on them.

On November 2nd, Knapp delivered a shocking confession to Reverend Willard and other assembled neighbors: she was being tormented by Satan. Knapp claimed that over the last three years the Devil had frequently visited her, urging her to sign a covenant with him. The Devil promised to give her money, silk clothes, and release from the hard work she had to perform. In return for these things, the Devil simply asked her to sign her name (in blood) in a book. Oh, and also to murder her parents, her neighbors, and Reverend Willard's children. The Devil had even suggested she toss the Willards' youngest child into the oven and kill the reverend with a hook while he slept. Knapp denied signing the Devil's book, but did confess that she had often delayed leaving the Willard household until after sunset so the Devil could walk with her in the dark. She was drawn to the Devil even though she knew it was wrong.

Willard and other local ministers received her confession with concern but also some skepticism. Was her story true?

Her symptoms increased in the early days of November. A physician was called in, "who judged a main part of her distemper to be natural, arising from the foulness of her stomach and corruptness of her blood, occasioning fumes in her brain, and strange fantasies." You have to love that seventeenth century medicine! Knapp was briefly relieved from her duties at Reverend Willard's home and sent to rest at her parents' house.

Her fits lessened and she returned to the Willards, but as the month went on and the days grew darker her symptoms became worse. At times her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth, at other times she barked like a dog or bleated like a calf. She ran around the house yelling and skipping and no one was able to restrain her. Reverend Willard wrote that the physician changed his diagnosis and "consented that the distemper was diabolical, refused further to administer, and advised to extraordinary fasting." Multiple ministers were called in to pray for her. Knapp still claimed she had not signed the Devil's book, but did say she had been sorely tempted to but was foiled because she couldn't find a knife to cut her finger.

On December 2, Knapp became highly agitated and said she saw a dog with a woman's head outside the house. It was a witch and was trying to get in. The Willards did not see the creature, but did see a strange canine paw-print in their fireplace. Knapp claimed that if the witch were apprehended her fits would stop. She identified the witch as a local woman, but after investigating the authorities dismissed her claim.

On December 8, Knapp finally confessed to what the Reverend Willard had secretly suspected: she had signed her name in the Devil's book. She said that one day shortly after coming to work for the Willards she had looked out the window and seen the Devil in the shape of an old man walking across  a meadow towards her. He carried a large book in his hands. She heard his terms and then...
...with a knife cut her finger, he caught the blood in his hand, and then told her she must write her name in his book, she answered that she could not write, but he told her that he would direct her hand, and then took a little sharpened stick and dipped in the blood and put it into her hand, and guided it, and she wrote her name with his help.
She agreed to serve the Devil for seven years, but balked at working witchcraft for him. This was why the Devil tormented her so violently with fits.

On December 17th the Devil took complete control of her body. He began to speak through her, insulting her family and the ministers who gathered around her. He insulted God and threatened violence agains the people who were praying over Knapp. Willard believed that it was truly the Devil speaking through her, claiming that Knapp's mouth and lips were immobilized even though words came out.

During January Knapp was silent for long periods of time, although she now claimed that her confession of signing the Devil's book was false and that she had never been tempted to murder the Willard family. She said that although the Devil controlled her body she prayed that he would not take her soul.

And then...

Willard's letter ends there, at mid-January, 1672. He closes his letter with some arguments why, despite the claims of skeptics, he thinks Knapp's possession was authentic. His key arguments are that he thought the strength she displayed during her fits was beyond what was natural, and that her mouth did not move when the Devil spoke. She also used words and phrases while possessed that she had never used before.

Still, Willard writes that he found her multiple contradictory stories about signing the Devil's book puzzling, and admits that other explanations for her behavior may be possible.

Although this information is not included in his letter, it seems that Knapp was eventually cured of her demonic possession (whatever it may have been). Historian David Hall notes that Knapp married in 1674 and had at least six children. Let's hope she wasn't tempted to throw any of them in the oven.

It's interesting that Knapp's symptoms appeared in the dark months of the year. In England, the months of October through mid-January would have been celebrated with harvest festivals, dances and the lavish feasting and misrule of Christmas. Those holidays were suppressed in Puritan New England but it seems like the Devil still wanted to have a little fun.

It's also fascinating to compare this case with the Salem witch trials. Groton's leaders dismissed Elizabeth Knapp's claim that another member of the community had bewitched her. The town might have had a full-blown witch hunt, like Salem, if they hadn't.

Samuel Willard's letter is a fascinating document. I found a copy of it in David Hall's fantastic book Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England. The letter is about fifteen pages long and really goes into detail about the case and what Willard and others thought of it. It's a window into the lives and minds of people who lived here over three centuries ago.