June 21, 2016

Ann Hopkins and The Curse of Fire

As I've mentioned before, one of the nice things about living in New England is that you can find weird folklore almost everywhere. Well, at least I think it's one of the nice things...

I've lived in the Boston area for many years and have walked through Cambridge's Cambridgeport neighborhood hundreds of times. It's only recently that I learned about a weird story involving a witch, a curse, and an old church in that area. And the story might even be true. It first appeared in the Boston Globe in March of 1881, and newspapers don't print false stories, do they?

The church in question is the Cambridgeport Baptist Church. In 1881 a Globe reporter went to investigate some strange happenings at the church. The church had recently burned down, and parishioners and neighbors reported some unusual things:

Strange sounds are heard at night by persons who pass the ruined building - low moans and cries of intense agony, that rise to weird shrieks and die away in long-drawn signs. These unearthly sounds increase in frequency as the the work of clearing away the ruin progresses, and old residents remember that the same sounds were heard after the burning of the old church some sixteen years ago...

That's right. This was the second time the church had burned within a twenty year period. When the church was rebuilt the first time in 1865 people also heard unusual sounds, but they stopped when the cornerstone of the church was laid. Strange.

Equally strange, when that cornerstone was laid in 1865 the documents that were being ceremonially buried under it were burned by a sudden mysterious fire. Stranger still, in 1881 the same thing occurred:

As the stone was being lowered into place a spark of fire was struck out in some unaccountable way and communicated to the documents placed under the stone, but the block was quickly lowered to put the flame out. When the stone was raised the the other day there was nothing under it but a little heap of ashes...

Conveniently, the Globe reporter meets an elderly Cambridgeport man who tells him a story that was told to him by his grandfather. According to the story, many years ago a woman named Ann Hopkins lived in an isolated cabin on the banks of the Charles River. Hopkins was once a beautiful young woman who was courted by two rivals. She loved only one of the men and promised herself to him when he returned from the French and Indian War. As a token of her affection she gave him a ribbon.

The other man, scorned by Ann Hopkins, became bitter and jealous. He too went off to fight against the French, and served alongside Hopkins's true love. During a battle he shot the man Hopkins loved but made it appear he had been killed by the French. When he came back to Cambridge he told Hopkins the sad news. At first she believed his story, but when she saw he was wearing the ribbon she had bestowed upon her true love she realized what had happened. The shock drove her insane.

For many years after this Hopkins lived alone in her cabin, ignored by the Puritans of Cambridge. But that changed when a plague struck the town. As people grew ill, they noticed that Hopkins was unaffected. They also noticed that a cow that had strayed onto her property began to give bloody milk, and a child she had glared at sickened and died. Some people even said they had seen Hopkins flying over head on a broom.

Hopkins was brought to trial and found guilty of witchcraft. The Cambridge elders sentenced her to be burned at the stake. As the flames consumed her body, Hopkins saw among the spectators the man who had killed her lover.

The red light flashes back from her scorched eyeballs upon the throng, her cracked and bleeding lips part, and shaking the arm from which the flesh is dropping in shreds, she shrieks a terrible curse upon her murderers. They shrink back in chill terror, back into the gloom beyond the glare of the ghastly flames, and Ann Hopkins shrieks: "The curse of fire shall be upon this spot forever!"

The site of Ann Hopkins execution was of course the future location of the Cambridgeport Baptist Church. Her curse was the reason the church repeatedly burned down. The old man hints ominously that her spirit still lurks in the area...

Isn't that a good story? The ending is satisfyingly cathartic and also really gruesome. Unfortunately it's probably not true. For one thing, the Puritans didn't burn witches but instead hanged them, so there is no way Hopkins died burning at the stake. Well, maybe Ann Hopkins's curse is fixed on the place she was hanged rather than burned?

Perhaps, but there is no historical record of anyone named Ann Hopkins being accused of witchcraft in Cambridge. The story, with its doomed lovers and woman driven mad by loss, sounds like a 19th century romantic legend than an account of a 17th century witch trial. Real 17th century witch stories usually don't have much romance in them, but New England legends from the 19th century often do.

In his book Ghosts of Cambridge, my friend Sam Baltrusis wonders if the Ann Hopkins legend is a garbled version of the true story of Winifred and Mary Holman, two 17th century Cambridge women accused of witchery but ultimately acquitted. That definitely could be possible, but there is definitely no evidence of someone named Ann Hopkins being executed for witchcraft in Cambridge.

Although the 1881 Globe article doesn't point out the implausibility of a witch being burned at the stake in Cambridge, it does end on a debunking note. The reporter writes:

Here the old man's tale ended, and I looked up and said: "Do you think the ghost of Ann Hopkins stretched these telegraph wires overhead that are making all this weird moaning?" and the old man arose and gazed upon me reproachfully.

Although I like to look at the facts behind a supernatural story, I'm also not a huge fan of debunkers.  I still think there's room for a little mystery and wonder in the world, even in Cambridgeport. Were the parishioners and neighbors really so naive that they would mistake the sound of telegraph wires for ghostly shrieks? That seems unlikely. And what caused the two mysterious fires that burned down the church? Why were there spontaneous flames during two cornerstone ceremonies? Things aren't explained as neatly as the article suggests.

Even if there is a scientific explanation for everything that occurred, I think this story nicely illustrates New England's ambiguous relationship with witches. On one had, people here know that the people accused of witchcraft weren't really witches. They were just innocent victims of religious mania and gossip. Even in this story it's clear that Ann Hopkins isn't really a witch.

On the other hand, although Hopkins isn't a witch she still successfully places a curse on the spot where she died. In this respect she follows in the footsteps of other accused witches who, although innocent of witchcraft, still manage to work some kind of magic as they die. For example, accused Salem witch Sarah Good cursed Reverend Noyes as she died, saying God would give him blood to drink. Near Plymouth a woman named Aunt Rachel cast a curse with her dying breath, while in Bucksport, Maine an accused witch (or maybe her son) cast a curse on the judge who sentenced her to hang.

Those are just a few of the New England stories where accused witches curse the people who execute them. These tales claim that even though witches aren't real, magic and the supernatural are. It can be found anywhere, even a few blocks from downtown Cambridge.

June 13, 2016

The Mechanical Messiah of Lynn, Massachusetts

When John Murray Spear became a Universalist minister, I am sure he never dreamed he'd help create a mechanical messiah destined to save the world.

Spear was born in 1804 in Boston, and in the early years of his ministry he worked towards the abolition of slavery and in support of the Underground Railroad. The Universalist Church was extremely liberal for its time - and remains so today as part of the Unitarian Universalist Church.

In the early 1850s Spear became influenced by another religious movement that was sweeping across America: Spiritualism. Started in upstate New York in 1848 by sisters Kate and Margaret Fox, Spiritualism claims that the spirits of the dead communicate with the living to give advice and inspiration. Certain people, called mediums, are more attuned to the spirit world and can communicate easily with the departed. For those of us not so gifted, the spirits are more likely to manifest as rapping sounds, movements on a Ouija board, and suddenly extinguished candles.

John Murray Spear was gifted and could communicate easily with the spirit world. The dead supposedly granted him healing powers, and also gave him knowledge that he otherwise could not know. For example, thanks to the spirits Spear once delivered a brilliant and factually correct lecture on geology, a subject he had never studied.

In 1853 a group of elite spirits called the Association of Beneficents contacted Spear. The Association, which was made up of important dead people like Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and Socrates, told Spear that had plans to reform the world. They wanted to shake up government, the educational system and marriage. But before they could do that, they needed Spear to do one thing.

He had to create a mechanical messiah.

While the previous messiah had been a man of flesh and blood, the new technological age demanded a messiah made of metal and powered by magnetism. Makes sense, right?

The Association of Beneficents told Spear this awesome being would be born in Lynn, Massachusetts. A group of Spiritualists had already been communicating with angels ion Lynn's High Rock, a rocky promontory that rises up in the middle of the city. Those angels had been a sign of the mechanical messiah's coming.

High Rock as it appears today. The tower has great views!

Spear traveled to High Rock, and with the help of the Lynn Spiritualists constructed the messiah out of metal rods, gears and magnets. They spent more than $2,000 on materials, which was a significant amount of money for that time. Spirits guided Spear's hand as he constructed the mechanical being, which was known variously as the New Motive Power, the New Motor, and the Mechanical Infant.

Unfortunately, once it was constructed the New Motive Power didn't move. It just lay there inertly on a  table in the cottage at High Rock. A body had been created, but was not inhabited by a spirit. Spear and his colleagues were filled with despair.

Meanwhile a Spiritualist woman in Boston was experiencing birth pangs. The woman was puzzled, because she had not shown any signs of pregnancy. Her puzzlement vanished when the spirits came to her and explained that she was giving birth to a purely spiritual being - the soul of the mechanical messiah. As her contractions increased she was rushed to High Rock, where she successfully birthed the soul of the New Motive Power into it's mechanical body.

Both John Murray Spear and the unnamed woman reported that they could feel pulsations traveling through the messiah's mechanical body, but it still didn't move. The Association of Beneficents instructed the woman to nurse the little robot, which she did. (Don't ask how, since I don't know.) The pulsations increased. Spear declared the creature was definitely alive!

It still didn't move, however.

The spirits finally told Spear that he would need to take the infant messiah to Harmonia, a Spiritualist community in Kiantone, New York. Harmonia was even more spiritually charged than Lynn, and the New Motive Power would thrive there.

The Spiritualists of Harmonia happily welcomed Spear and the New Motive Power, but the other citizens of Kiantone were less than thrilled to hear that a mechanical messiah had arrived in town. Okay, that's an understatement. They were outraged. They stormed Harmonia and smashed the New Motive Power into tiny pieces. Spear's dream ended under the feet and fists of an angry mob.

I have a lot of mixed reactions to this story. Spiritualism was a really powerful cultural force in the 19th century, and inspired people to do some unusual things, like dig tunnels to find treasure or try to create a mechanical messiah. From my privileged position in the early 21st century, it's easy to look back and wonder how Spear could be so dumb. Did he really think a robot was going to save our society?

Obviously he did, but he also believed that slavery should be abolished. The New Motive Power didn't work out, but Spear didn't give up hope that American society could improve. He continued to fight for abolition and saw slavery ended within his lifetime. Spear also founded several Utopian communities before he died in 1887. His body is buried in Philadelphia, but I am sure his spirit is still actively working for social justice in the after life.


The main source for this week's incredible but true story is my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore, which also contains many other weird stories from Lynn. 

June 07, 2016

Connecticut's Haunted Fairy Village

Here's a nice creepy story. Not every fairy tale has a happy ending...


Once upon a time, in the early 1900s, a woman and her husband built themselves a stone house in Middlebury, Connecticut. They liked peace and quiet, so they built it out in the woods.

Things went well in their new house for a while, but after a few months the wife became strangely agitated whenever she left home.

One day when they were walking back from town she grabbed her husband's arm. "Can you hear them?" she asked her husband.

"Hear what?" he said.

"Them. The little people in the woods," she said. "I think they're talking to me. I've heard them for weeks now..."

"My love, perhaps you need to rest. I only hear leaves blowing in the wind."

His wife rested, but it did nothing to cure her of the idea that fairies in the woods were talking to her. "They want something from me," she said, "but I don't know what it is. I'm scared they'll come into our house..."

Her husband didn't believe in fairies, but he loved his wife, so at her request he put bars on their windows to keep out the fairies.

One night after they had gone to bed the woman turned to her husband and said, "I know what they want from me. They don't want to hurt us, they just want houses like we have. They want a home like we have. They want us to build them a village!"

From Roadtrippers.com.

In the moonlight the man could see the manic gleam in his wife's eyes, but he loved her, so the next day he set to work building small houses in the woods. Under his wife's direction he built dozens of tiny structures out of stone, brick and shingles.

When the last house was finished his wife clapped with delight. "Now the only thing left to make is the throne," she said.

"A throne? For who?"

"For me. Because I'm going to be the Queen of the Fairies!"

The husband rolled his eyes, but he had already put bars on the windows and built a tiny village, so what was one more concession to his wife's madness? After all, he did love her.

Using a pick-axe he carved a gully into one of the rocky hills, and mortared the stones into a throne. It took him all day, and when it was done he called his wife out to see his handiwork.

From this site about haunted Connecticut.

Exhausted, he sat down on the throne. "What do you think, my love?"

A look of rage came over his wife's face. "What do I think?!"she screamed.

Her husband cowered. "My dear, what's wrong..."

"What do I think?!" She grabbed the pick-axe. "I think you need to get off my throne! I'm the Queen of the Fairies, not you!"

And with that she swung the pick-axe and split her husband's head in two.

The fairy voices suddenly went silent. For months they had been whispering, chattering, singing to her, and now they were gone. Aghast at what she had done and howling with grief, she ran to their house and hanged herself.


Isn't that a great, gruesome story? There is also another version where the husband finally can't take it anymore and kills his wife, but either way it doesn't end well for this poor couple.

The story is told to explain one of the weirder places in Connecticut: the Little People's Village in Middlebury.

The Little People's Village consists of remains of multiple stone structures located out in the woods. There's a house-sized building with bars on the windows, there are the remains of many miniature buildings, and there is also something that looks suspiciously like a throne.

According to local folklore, the throne is cursed and anyone who dares sit on it will die within seven years. Either the fairies, the woman's ghost, or her husband's ghost don't want people to sit there. Needless to say, local teenagers of course go to the Village to sit on the throne.

Other legends say that anyone who lingers too long in the Village will begin to hear the fairy voices and go insane.

Historians say the Village was not built at the bidding of a fairy-maddened woman, but was instead simply part of a local amusement park that has long since gone out of business. Visitors would ride a miniature railroad through the village and admire the charming little fairy houses. It's interesting how something charming and twee can quickly become a source of horror.

I also think it's interesting how supernatural stories arise to explain things that seem anomalous or strange. For example, when I was teenager in Haverhill, Massachusetts one of the local cemeteries contained a headstone surrounded by an iron cage. My friends and I had been told the cage was there to keep the grave's undead resident in, but in reality the cage was to keep people away from the stone. The grave was for a countess who was the subject of one of John Greenleaf Whittier's poems, and in the 19th century fans of the poem would chip off pieces of the stone. The cage was built to keep souvenir seekers away, not to keep a vampiric spirit in. 

That's a bit of a digression, but the same principal is at play with the Little People's Village. The origin of something becomes forgotten and legends arise to explain it. Certain patterns repeat in these legends. For example, the throne in Middlebury is not the only lethal site in Connecticut. People who visit Midnight Mary's grave in New Haven are also rumored to die after seven years. Further north in Montpelier, Vermont, anyone foolish enough to sit on the statue of Black Agnes will die in seven days.

A cursed site, death, and the number seven. You can see how the pattern repeats. I think people find great satisfaction in these stories, grim as they are. We all suspect there are secret powers at work in the world, even in our own hometowns. These stories are reflections of the secret order we hope and fear operates behind the mundane world.

Tony and I had hoped to visit the Little People's Village this spring but we didn't make it. If you go don't vandalize anything (many of the houses have been severely damaged) and watch out for ticks, which may be deadlier than evil fairies. If you can't go, you might want to watch this video of the village.

My sources for this post were Damned Connecticut, Roadtrippers.com, and this page about haunted sites in Connecticut. All excellent sources if you want more information.

One last thought: if you do visit, don't sit on the throne. You never know when a legend might be true.

May 29, 2016

Rye and Rum Pancakes? Breakfast Fit for A Pirate!

I'm taking a break this week from the usual witches, monsters and weirdness to ask a few questions:

1. Has your physician told you that you need to get more rum in your diet?

2. Have you ever wondered what a pirate might eat for breakfast?

3. Did you ever want to put vinegar on your pancakes?

If you answered yes to any of those questions I have a recipe you need to try.

I found it The Old Farmer's Almanac Colonial Cookbook, which was published by Yankee Magazine in 1976. This was given to me many years ago by my friend Dave, and it used to belong to his mother. The Colonial Cookbook contains lots of unusual recipes, like partridge in vine leaves, green corn pudding, and snow griddle cakes. It also has a recipe innocuously titled "rye pancakes."

In addition to rye flour, which you don't often see in pancake recipes, the recipe includes molasses and rum. It's very Olde New England (and also very piratey). I've never eaten pancakes with rum in the batter, so I thought I'd give the recipe a try.

Here's the recipe:

3 cups rye flour
1 cup flour
1 cup molasses
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 eggs
2 cups milk
1/2 cup New England rum

Combine ingredients, beat, fry!

A few things to note about this batter and these pancakes. First of all, the batter is very, very thick. The recipe warns that "These are very rich." That's an understatement. The batter is thick like a bread batter. I had to plop it into the pan, not pour it.

I also have to note that sadly most of the rum cooks away, leaving just a slight flavor but no real intoxication. The predominant flavor is molasses. Happily I love molasses!

Finally, these come out really brown. I realized while making these pancakes that a lot of New England cuisine is brown. Brown bread, Indian pudding, apple pie, roast turkey, New England pot roast, switchel, etc. It is the cuisine of a region where winter is long and summer is very, very short.

The Colonial Cookbook says the following about this recipe: "Here's a recipe that dates back to the early 1700s, when great fields of rye swayed in the wind all along the Taunton River in Massachusetts. The molasses or sugar required for these pancakes was brought up the river in smalls sloops or brigs... A cherished family tradition handed down from generation to generation." The Yankee Magazine web site says the recipe was submitted to them by a Miss Helen H. Lane.

I have no way of knowing if this recipe really dates to the 1700s, but the ingredients do make it seem possible. For example, the early New England settlers found that rye grew better than wheat in this cold climate, and it featured prominently in their baked goods, like brown bread. They always preferred wheat, though, and once New England became more prosperous they imported wheat from other states.

Rum and molasses also have deep roots in New England history. Yankee merchants would trade rum for slaves in Africa, and then trade the slaves for sugar and molasses in the Caribbean. They'd bring the molasses and sugar back to New England to make rum, which they'd then trade in Africa for slaves. They'd repeat this over and over, turning a profit with each transaction.

This exploitative economic system (known as the Triangle Trade) made the merchants quite wealthy, and also infused New England cuisine with Caribbean flavors. Molasses, rum, and spices like cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg are all essential to New England cooking, but all actually come from the Caribbean islands. It's strange to think that the so-called pumpkin pie spices, which are so homey and comforting, have their origin in such a dark period of history.

One last thing about these pancakes. Rather than topping them with butter and syrup, the Colonial Cookbook recommends topping them with vinegar and sugar. It says, "Fill a cereal bowl with sugar. Add enough vinegar to make the resulting mixture spreadable as butter. As you eat the pancakes, dab them with the mixture."

I thought this might be gross, but it was actually kind of delicious. The sour vinegar cut through the sweetness. The combination of vinegar and sugar is also an old New England one. It doesn't show up much these days, unless you are lucky enough to find someplace serving switchel.

May 21, 2016

Aunt Jinny, the Witch of Hillsborough, New Hampshire

When some people think about New England witchcraft, they think "Oh yeah, that terrible stuff that happened in Salem in 1692."

Other people, and this probably includes you gentle reader, know that witchcraft beliefs in New England started before the Salem trials and continued well after them. Interesting witch stories can be found all across New England and well into the 20th century. I even read one recently from the 21st century!

One good source for witch stories is Eva Speare's book New Hampshire Folk Tales (1932). Speare's book has a wide variety of folk stories but includes twelve specifically about witches from different towns in the the Granite State.

I like this one about a woman named Jenny Gilchrist who lived in Hillsborough, New Hampshire on Barden Hill Road. Gilchrist was known in town as Aunt Jinny, but she doesn't seem very lovable:

Aunt Jinny, as she was commonly called, has been described as a little, sallow, weazened (sic), old woman with a fiery temper and vitriolic tongue, whose unhappy experiences in early life had so embittered her nature that she distrusted and shunned her neighbors...

Several stories tell how she terrorized the local miller and scared small children into doing chores for her, but the witchiest stories relate to how she died.

Aunt Jinny was never wealthy, but as she became older she grew ever more destitute. The town officials eventually decided that she should be removed from her home and taken to the poorhouse where she could be taken care of.

The Franklin Pierce homestead in Hillsborough.
When the town constable came to Jinny's house he was prepared for an argument, but she obediently and silently climbed onto his horse behind him. Then they set off for the poorhouse, which was many miles away.

They rode all night but when the sun rose the constable nearly fell off his horse in surprise. Instead of arriving at the poorhouse he realized they were riding back into Aunt Jinny's yard! Jinny had bewitched the horse so she wouldn't have to leave her home.

Jinny ended up dying at home soon after in the following way. One day one of her neighbors noticed one of his sheep was acting strangely. Fearing it was sick and would infect the other sheep he killed it with a club. At that very instant Jinny collapsed in her house. She had of course been bewitching the sheep, and the damage inflicted on the animal was also inflicted on her.

A kind woman who lived nearby came to watch over Jinny as she lay stricken. Wise old people in town warned that woman that if she wanted Jinny to live she should never avert her gaze from her. Witches didn't like to die when people were watching, they said. As long as she kept watch Jinny would refuse to die.

For many hours the woman kept close watch over Jinny, determine that she should live. But eventually she looked away, just for one second. That was all it took. When she looked back Jinny was dead.

There are a couple things I find very interesting about these stories. Aunt Jinny is an archetypal post-Puritan New England witch: a cantankerous and hated old woman who wants to live independently. But it's interesting that the community does try to care for her, even though she doesn't want their help.

I am also intrigued by the idea that a witch won't die while someone watches, which I haven't encountered before. It make sense though in the context of other New England witch lore. While they are alive witches are alleged to work much of their mischief by sending their souls out of their bodies. They do this secretly while no one is watching, often during the night when their families and spouses are sleeping.

When a witch dies, they send their soul out one last final time. They would want to die they way they lived, privately and secretly, unseen by the prying eyes of their neighbors.

One last note: stories about Aunt Jinny also appear in George Waldo Browne's 1921 book The History of Hillsborough, New Hampshire, so she must have been an important part of town folklore.