January 18, 2017

A Ritual Cat Burial In Charlestown, Massachusetts?

Last month as a Christmas gift I received the book A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts (2016) by Joseph Bagley. Bagley is the official archeologist for the City of Boston, and a couple years ago I went one a tour he led of an ancient Native American quarry in the Blue Hills.

I was pretty excited to read his book. The fifty artifacts Bagley examines range from prayer books to feminine hygiene devices, but the one that really caught my attention was a cat skeleton unearthed in Charlestown. Many, many cats have lived and died in Charlestown over the last 400 years, but this cat was possibly killed as part of a magic spell.

Its skeleton was found buried in a small pit underneath the main entrance to the former Three Cranes Tavern in Charlestown's City Square. The tavern operated from 1635 until 1775, but the archaeologists who found the cat skeleton estimated it was buried sometime in the early 1700s. The cat was killed by a blow to the back of its head. The blow punctured the poor cat's skull, and its body was buried in one piece. Also buried near the cat was a large pot.

Bagley speculates that the cat was buried there to magically protect the tavern, either from witchcraft or from vermin. This certainly seems possible, since it's unlikely the tavern owners would just randomly bury a cat under the front stoop. Archeologists have found many instances of cats buried under foundations or inside walls of old buildings in Europe. Occasionally dead mice or rats are also found placed inside the cats' mouths.

There are a few theories that try to explain this practice. An older theory, popular with the Victorians, is that these animals were killed to appease land spirits. That may have been the case in the distant pagan past, but the English colonists certainly didn't believe in land spirits that needed appeasing.

A more recent theory is that the cats were killed to prevent rats and mice from entering the house. This seems counter-intuitive (wouldn't a live cat be more effective?), but I think the idea is that the cat's spirit will somehow continue to hunt mice after death. This might explain why some buried cats are found with mice inserted in their mouths.
The Three Cranes cat skeleton. Photo from The Boston Globe.
A final theory is that burying a cat under the doorstep was believed to deter witches or their familiar spirits from entering the house. That sounds like a plausible explanation, since we know our New England ancestors were very concerned about protecting their homes from witches. Some of the most well-documented methods include nailing a horseshoe over the door and putting bay leaves around the windowsills, but there were many other methods as well. It seems possible that killing and burying a cat might be another one. Archaeologists in England also often find pots buried under old house foundations or doorsteps, and they theorize that they were believed to deter witches from entering, possibly by trapping the witches spirits in them. This would explain why the Charlestown cat was buried near a pot.

There is a whole field of archaeology that deals with magic. Its foundational text is Ralph Merrifield's The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic (1987), which should probably be on my reading list. It should probably be on everyone's list! If you find this topic interesting, you may want to read this interview with Brian Hoggard, a British archaeologist working on this topic today.

My cat is sitting nearby as I write this post, and he tells me that a live cat is definitely better at averting evil than a dead one. I would have to agree. After all, the cat skeleton didn't do much to protect Three Cranes Tavern on June 17, 1775. The Battle of Bunker Hill happened that day, and the British troops burned the tavern and the rest of Charlestown to the ground. The tavern foundations were excavated prior to the Big Dig and can now be visited in City Square.

Although I enjoy writing about these old folk magic practices, I don't recommend ever hurting or killing animals. Not only is it cruel, it is illegal.

January 08, 2017

A Connecticut Ape Man; Or, Is Scooby Doo For Real?

Did you ever watch the Scooby Doo cartoons?

I used to watch them all the time when I was a kid. This was in the early 1970s, and each week Scooby Doo and the gang enacted the same basic story. First, they drove in their groovy van (the Mystery Machine) to some spooky location like an abandoned amusement park or creepy old hotel.

Next, someone told them the location was haunted. This was where the writers were allowed some creativity. The creatures haunting the location included a wide variety of ghosts (pirates, headless phantoms, armored knights, clowns, etc.) and other less categorizable monsters like ape men, a tar monster, and something called the Spooky Space Kook.

Spooky Space Kook!
After learning about the creature, Scooby Doo and his friends then encountered it. Hilarious hijinks ensued as they ran down corridors, hid in garbage cans, played tricks on the monster, etc.

Every episode ended the same way. The monster was unmasked as someone with a financial interest in scaring people. The Black Knight was really nerdy Mr. Wickles, who was stealing paintings from the museum. The Kooky Space Kook was really Henry Bascombe, who wanted to scare people living near an abandoned Air Force base so he could acquire the land for free and sell it back to the government. Whew! That's a complicated motive.

Spooky Space Kook unmasked!!
Scooby Doo once even encountered the ghost of Bigfoot, who was haunting a Vermont ski lodge. He was revealed to be old Mr. Crabtree, who ran an operation selling stolen cars. He dressed like Bigfoot's ghost to scare away anyone who might witness his criminal activity.

The ghost of Bigfoot...
... is really Mr. Crabtree!
After the villain was unmasked they'd always say something like "I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for you meddling kids!" as the police dragged them away. Hooray! Mystery solved and monster vanquished. 




At a certain point every kid who watches Scooby Doo catches on to the formula. The fun then becomes figuring out who the monster really is. But at some even later point it also becomes obvious that the show's formula is ludicrous. Dressing up like ghosts and monsters to scare people away from their property doesn't seem plausible. No one would actually try this in real life, would they?

Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Apparently someone did try it in Connecticut in1926. Here is a brief article from the April 3, 1926 issue of Oakland California's Tribune:

Ape Man Scare Said To Be Land Deal Plot

North Stonington, Conn., April 3. - Taugwank's "ape man" is a plain human being in fur coat and trousers. A game warden has come to that conclusion after a thorough search of the Horace D. Miner farm in Taugwank.

Further, he declared his belief that the man was attempting to frighten Muriel, 19, and Mildred Miner, 16, orphans, into selling the farm. The ape man has variously been reported by the girls and neighbors as a hairy creature of terrifying mien, that slipped along in the manner of an ape, and jumped about with considerable more agility than a human being. (quoted in Chad Arment's excellent book The Historical Bigfoot)

More information can be found in the April 2 edition of Biddeford, Maine's Biddeford Weekly Journal. The game warden was named George Denison, and he searched the 2,000 acres of the Miner farm.
The girls, whose father died a month ago, reported that a fear-inspiring figure, scarce human in appearance, lurked about the house, danced on the summit of a rock 300 feet from the door, and uttered cries like those of an infant. They professed to believe that an attempt was being made to force them to leave the place and sell the farm. They said that an offer had been made to their father to sell the estate during the year preceding his death.

The game warden said the object of his search was to settle once and for all the rumors that a “strange creature” had been seen in the swamp and woods of Taugwank.
... An aged caretaker, Frank Miller, who had been staying at the farm, resigned yesterday. Miller believed in ghosts and was terrified at the situation.

“Every time a wind blew with the wind or the coal shed door squeaked he persisted in saying it was a ghost,” the girl said. “When the strange creature was first seen, we told Miller it was a real ghost. He was so frightened that his teeth chattered and his knees knocked together.” (article quoted in full here)

Even more information can be found in an article in the Syracuse Herald on April 3. According to the Herald, the two Miner daughters were not scared. Instead they were heavily armed.

Loaded firearms await the ape-man masquerader and, according to Denison, that is why he has not been seen in the last few days.
 
"If that fellow goes out there again they are going to put the lead to him," was how he summed up matters after yesterday's visit to the farm. "I wouldn't try it again if I were he."
 
Neighbors of the Miner girls are standing with them, and there is many a loaded shotgun standing in readiness to do duty when Taugwank's terror next appears. (article quoted in full on Rense.com. FYI, site is full of conspiracy theories!)

So there you go. I was apparently wrong when I thought Scooby Doo plots were implausible. I wonder if there are other situations where this happened?

However, I am compelled to point out the following: I couldn't find evidence they ever unmasked the ape man as a particular greedy neighbor. I don't think the culprit was ever discovered. No one in 1926 Connecticut said "I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for you meddling kids."

If that's the case, how do we even know that this Connecticut ape-man was even really a fraud? Which is more implausible - someone dressing up as ape monster to scare teenagers off their family farm, or a random monster who appeared in the woods and then vanished? I leave that up to you.

Perhaps Bigfoot's ghost is still out there in the woods, waiting to be unmasked. Maybe it will be mean old Mr. Crabtree, or maybe it will be something even more frightening.

January 03, 2017

Recent UFO Sightings, Plus the UFO I Saw As A Child

While we were all busy celebrating the holidays last month, some people spent December seeing strange lights and objects in the sky. I don't think any of them were flying reindeer. Read on!

On the night of December 10, someone in the Maine town of East Baldwin reported seeing an enormous flying craft the size of a football stadium. It was accompanied by two smaller objects flying next to it. The witness had trouble seeing the largest UFO clearly, and speculates that some type of force field may have been responsible.

That's all pretty strange, but it gets stranger:

As the formation approached, I was hit with a wave of nausea, felt anxiety and fear. One of my K-9's ran off back to the house and the other cowered behind me. Both have been agitated ever since and hesitant to go out at night. I have felt ill and uneasy ever since as well. I later heard that there were an unusual number of ambulance calls in the area for anxiety or heart attacks the following day. I looked online and saw that another Maine couple in Windsor saw the giant craft that night and fell ill themselves. I am a trained observer and out every night with my dogs. I have seen many other "craft" but never so close as to be able to determine that they were not made on Earth (that we know of). I am concerned about the health effects of whatever force field overflew us at such a low altitude to make us feel instantly sick.
Yikes! That's creepy stuff. Happily, a sighting on December 5 in Kingston, New Hampshire was less traumatic. The witness was inside their house watching TV when they heard a helicopter approaching. This was unusual so the witness went outside to see what was happening. The helicopter was not yet overhead, but some type of large dark object was. It did not have any lights on it and the witness was only able to see it because it blocked out the stars overhead. Before it flew off the witness saw a single pale red light appear on the flying object. After it disappeared from view the helicopter finally appeared and flew off after it, as if in pursuit.

On December 14, someone outside taking a cigarette break from work in South Burlington, Vermont took a photo of the moon. They didn't notice anything unusual. When they went back inside and looked at the photo they noticed the following:


Is it an alien craft? A lens flare? An airplane? I don't have a clue. I suppose that's what makes these flying objects unidentified.

There were also UFO sightings during December in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Surprisingly, there weren't any reported in Rhode Island. I'm not sure why that is. Perhaps Rhode Islanders have better things to do than look up at the night sky, or maybe Rhode Island is so small that UFOs fly over it before they have a chance to be seen? OK, I'm kidding on both of those, but I do wonder why no one reported any UFOs there.

I found all these reports by looking through the MUFON database online. MUFON, or the Mutual UFO Network, has been collecting UFO reports for decades and they are a great source if you like to read about UFO sightings, which I do. I grew up in the 1970s when UFOs were everywhere in popular culture and I still have a fondness for them.

When I was very small, my brother, a young neighbor and I once saw a UFO. It was nighttime and we were standing in our backyard when we saw a very bright light descend from the sky and go down behind a hill. We were terrified. We ran into our house and told my parents what we had seen. I don't remember their response, sadly, but I don't think they were particularly concerned.

What I do remember is the amazement and fear that I felt. I had seen something from another world. It was thrilling but scary. Would we see alien creatures next? That thought terrified me. My brother and our neighbor felt the same way; our neighbor's parents were out and he refused to go home until they came back later that night. I seem to recall being afraid that something would look in my bedroom window (even though I slept on the second floor). I suppose I can understand why the witness in East Baldwin felt sick and uneasy, even if a force field was not present.

We were quite young (I was only in elementary school, if not kindergarten) and the media was full of UFO stories at the time. It's no wonder we were freaked out. Did we really just see a falling star? A lone bottle rocket? A very silent helicopter? It could have been any of those things, or maybe it was something else entirely. It truly was unidentified.

People have been seeing strange lights in the night sky since history began. In the past they might have been explained as gods, angels, ghosts, or special omens. Astronomy can now explain most of the things we see in the sky, but every now and then something still manages to slip through the cracks of rationality to remind us of the great mysteries that lurk out in the universe.

December 28, 2016

Was 2016 The Year of The Witch?

This year is grinding to a close, so I thought I'd see what stories on this blog from 2016 were the most widely read.

I was kind of surprised by the result. Overwhelmingly, stories about witches and witchcraft were the most popular this year. Monsters, haunted locations and weird seasonal folklore all took a back seat - 2016 was the year of the witch here on New England Folklore.


Drumroll, please! Here are the top five stories I posted this year:

1. By far the most popular story was this one from January about the Dogtown Witches. These 18th century widows made their living as fortune-tellers, herbalists, and by threatening to bewitch travelers passing through their North Shore village. The story of the Dogtown witches is charming, empowering and a little scary. In short, it's everything I like in a Yankee witch story. As an added bonus, Dogtown Common (the village where they lived) is now an abandoned ghost town in the middle of an enormous forest in Gloucester.


2. Readers also really liked this post about "How to Make a Witch Bottle," a type of classic New England defensive folk magic. Maybe people reacted to the crafty aspect. All you need is a jar, some nails, and your own urine. How much easier could it be? On the other hand, maybe a lot of my readers are plagued with supernatural problems and feel the need to defend their homes with magic. I hope that's not the case, but 2016 has been a very strange year...



3. In February of 2016 Robert Eggers's art-horror film "The Witch" was released to wide critical acclaim. I loved the movie, but I've heard mixed things from friends. Some horror movie fans were bored and confused by the slow pace and 17th century dialect, and art film aficianados didn't see it because they were afraid of the violence and bloodshed. I think the main audience for this film was intelligent people who love the creepy side of folklore, which happily describes all of this blog's readers. My review of "The Witch" was the third most popular post of 2016, and focused on how the film did and didn't reflect authentic New England witch lore. Spoiler alert: New England witch lore has fewer naked people and goats.



4. Do you see what I mean about 2016 being the year of the witch? So much witchcraft, but I'm not complaining. One exception to the witchcraft trend was this post about Connecticut's haunted fairy village. I spent much of 2016 researching New England fairy lore, so I was happy that readers responded well to this one. The legend features sinister fairies, an axe murderer, and a cursed ghost town, so there is a lot to respond to.

Image from From Roadtrippers.com.

5. Rounding out the top five is another witch-oriented post. I asked "How Did Tituba Become Black?", and that question apparently resonated with readers. Tituba was one the key figures in the Salem witch trials. A slave in Reverend Samuel Parris's household, Tituba was one the first people accused of witchcraft. She set the pattern for all the trials with her vivid confessions and incriminated several others as witches. Popular culture has depicted Tituba as black for many years, but she was actually an Aarawak Indian from the Caribbean. Read the post to find out how this transformation happened. (Hint: Arthur Miller and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow both made it happen.)

Ashley Madekwe as Tituba on TV's Salem.
I've had a lot fun writing this blog in 2016, so thank you for reading and letting me share my obsession with the weird side of New England. I hope you'll keep reading in 2017. Happy New Year!

December 20, 2016

Do The Witches Ride At Christmas?

I wanted to read something wintry to put me in the holiday spirit, so I picked up a collection of Icelandic folklore: J.M. Bedell's Hildur, Queen of the Elves, and Other Icelandic Legends (2016). I thought, "Iceland is cold and snowy, so I'm sure these legends will put me in a Christmas mood."

Although it doesn't always work out that way, this time I was right. Not only are these legends set someplace icy and dark, many of them are explicitly about Christmas. However, unlike the stories we tell about Santa, Rudolph, and Mrs. Claus, these Icelandic stories are quite spooky. Apparently really terrible things happen in Iceland during Christmas. Malicious supernatural beings are very active there in late December.

For example, in "The Magicians of the Westmann Islands," a group of magicians who have fled to an offshore island to escape the plague threaten to kill one of their fellow sorcerers by Christmas Eve if he doesn't return to them. The lone sorcerer has fallen in love with the last woman in Iceland (everyone else has died from the plague) and refuses to return to the magicians. They send an assortment of demons to kill him on, but happily his beloved defeats them with help from her dead grandfather. I don't know about you, but that's not the type of story I usually hear at Christmas here in the United States.

One recurring themes in the Icelandic legends is that you absolutely don't want to be home alone on Christmas Eve. You should go to church with your family because bad things happen to those who stay home alone on Christmas Eve. What type of bad things, you ask? Well, perhaps elves will break into the house and kill you, which happens in the title story "Hildur, Queen of the Elves." These are not the nice pretty elves that one finds in a Tolkien novel, that's for sure.

If the elves don't get you, the witches might. In "The Witch Ride", a minister marries a beautiful  young woman. Her only flaw is that every Christmas Eve she disappears and refuses to say where she goes. This goes on for several years, until one Christmas Eve a new farmhand is working alone on the minister's farm when he encounters the minister's wife. She throws a magical bridle over him and rides him like horse to the witches' Sabbath, where she presents the Devil with a bottle of human blood. Merry Christmas?

It's interesting to compare these stories to local New England folklore. The magical witch bridle is something that also appears in New England folklore, but Christmas Eve has no particular connection with witchcraft or evil here. New England's witches are active year round, and their malicious actions are motivated by personal grudges and feuds, not by the calendar.

In New England lore, Christmas might even be a time antithetical to witches. Benjamin Franklin's brother James printed the following in a 1792 edition of his almanac:

This month (December) is a great Enemy to evil Spirits, and a great Dissolver of Witchcraft, without the help of Pimpernal, or Quicksilver and Yellow Wax... Some Astrologers indeed confine this Power over evil Spirits to Christmas Eve only; but I know the whole Month has as much Power as any Eve in it: Not but that there may be some wandering Spirits here and there, but I am certain they can do no Mischief, nor can they be seen without a Telescope.

Shakespeare wrote something similar in Hamlet. Here is Marcellus, one of the guardsmen of Elsinore, talking about ghosts and witches at Christmas:

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

How common was the belief that Christmas was antithetical to witches and ghosts? This article in Early Modern Literary Studies looks at the passage in Hamlet, and finds some evidence that it was a widely held belief, but also finds other evidence for the opposite - that people thought witches were actually very active at Christmas. I haven't found any other New England references to Christmas being antithetical to witches anywhere except the Franklin almanac (quoted in Stephen Nissenbaum's book The Battle for Christmas).

I do know that ghost stories were quite popular in England at Christmas-time up until the modern era, but here in New England the ghosts are not tied to a seasonal calendar. Summer, winter, fall or spring: they are active all year round, much like the witches.

The Puritans dispensed with the old seasonal calendar when they came to New England. They acknowledged few of the old holidays, and to them Christmas was just another work day. Perhaps when they trashed the holiday calendar they freed the ghosts and witches to work their mischief on any date, not just December 25th. But I do like the sentiment that at least one night a year might be hallowed and gracious, a night free from evil and danger.