May 01, 2016

How Did Tituba Become Black?

Tituba is one of the key figures in the Salem witch trials. A slave owned by Reverend Parris of Salem Village, she was one of the first people accused of being a witch. She was also one of the first people to accuse others of witchcraft while she was on the stand.

I think it's well-known these days that ethnically Tituba was an Arawak Indian. Reverend Parris and his family had lived as plantation owners for many years in the Caribbean, the Arawak homeland. It seems likely the Parrises purchased Tituba and her husband John as slaves while living in Barbados.

Although historians know that Tituba was an Indian, pop culture tends to portray her as being of African descent. (For example, on the TV show Salem Tituba is played by a black actress and speaks with a Caribbean accent.) For many years I also thought she was black, based on what I had learned when I was a kid.

Ashley Madekwe as Tituba on Salem.

So how did Tituba become black in the popular American imagination? Historian Ben Ray's 2015 book Satan and Salem gives some clues.

Ray claims that it started with famous New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In 1868 Longfellow published a work called the New England Tragedies, which included the play Giles Corey of the Salem Farms. Tituba is one of the main characters.

As the play opens, Tituba is in the woods outside Salem. As she gathers herbs to work evil magic she says:
I know them (herbs), and the places where they hide
In field and meadow; and I know their secrets,
And gather them because they give me power
Over all men and women. Armed with these,
I, Tituba, an Indian and a slave,
Am stronger than the captain with his sword,
Am richer than the merchant with his money,
Am wiser than the scholar with his books,
Mightier than Ministers and Magistrates...

So it's pretty clear that Tituba is an Indian in this play, correct? Well, things get a little murkier in a later scene where Tituba asks Mary Walcott to look into a mirror as part of a magic spell:

Look into this glass.
What see you?

Nothing but a golden vapor.
Yes, something more. An island, with the sea
Breaking all round it, like a blooming hedge.
What land is this?

It is San Salvador,
Where Tituba was born. What see you now?

A man all black and fierce.

That is my father.
He was an Obi man, and taught me magic,
Taught me the use of herbs and images...

An illustration of Tituba (dressed like an Indian) and Mary Walcott from Longfellow's play.

In Longellow's play Tituba's father is not only black, he taught her Obi (or Obeah), which is a system of African-derived magical and religious practices similar to Voudoun/Voodoo. There's no evidence that any of this is true. As far as historians know, Tituba's father was not of African descent and she didn't know Obeah or Voodoo. The only magical act she undertook - making a witch cake out of rye and urine - was done at the behest of Mary Sibley, an Englishwoman who lived near the Parrises. A witch cake is a form of English magic, not Voodoo.

Lonfellow was a popular writer, and Ray claims his play planted the idea that Tituba was at least partly black in the American imagination.

Although Ray doesn't discuss her, historian Marion Starkey probably helped perpetuate the image of Tituba as half-black and half-Arawak. Starkey describes her as "the ageless Tituba, said to be half Carib and half negro" in her popular 1949 book The Devil in Massachusetts. The text on the back cover of my copy describes it as "an authentic historical narrative," but Starkey's description of Tituba just isn't correct. Maybe she got it from Longfellow's play?

Starkey also incorrectly claimed Tituba taught the Salem girls Voodoo:

But there were presently occasions when, in the absence of the elder Parrises, Tituba yielded to the temptation to show the children tricks and spells, fragments of something like the voodoo remembered from the Barbados.

Starkey's books is still popular today.

Tituba teaching the children magic - something that never happened.

Ray claims that another playwright, the 20th century's Arthur Miller, completed Tituba's transformation from Arawk to black. Like Giles Corey, Miller's 1953 play The Crucible features Tituba as a main character. The stage directions describe her this way:

The door opens, and his Negro slave enters. Tituba is in her forties. Parris brought her with him from Barbados, where he spent some years as a merchant before entering the ministry. 

Tituba is not even half-Indian in Miller's play, but is entirely of African descent. That's a big difference between the two plays, but similar to Longfellow Miller also perpetuates the myth that Tituba knew some type of Caribbean magic. In The Crucible, she holds magic rituals in the woods with some of the Salem girls:

I saw Tituba waving her arms over the fire when I came on you. Why was she doing that? And I heard a screeching and gibberish coming from her mouth...

The Crucible is one of the classics of American theater. It's still performed frequently even today and is assigned to high school students all across the country as required reading.

Longellow and Miller weren't historians - they wrote plays and poetry based on history. Writers certainly are allowed artistic license with historic characters, but the challenge is that The Crucible is the main way many Americans learn about Salem.

It's a little strange that so many people think the Salem witch trials were started by a black Voodoo priestess, when that really wasn't the case at all. Our understanding of American slavery might be one of the reasons this myth keeps lingering. When Americans think of slaves in North America, they tend to picture people of African descent. It's obviously true that most slaves were black, but a very tiny percentage of them (like Tituba) weren't.

I also suspect, but have no way of proving, that maybe a little lingering racism and sexism help this myth persist. We now know that the Salem witch craze wasn't caused by a black woman, but for some reason a lot of us still think it was.

April 25, 2016

Pukwudgies in Freetown: Some Fairy Sightings in Massachusetts

Are there little magical people (fairies, if you will) hiding in the woods of New England? Most people would tell you no, but those who have actually seen them would disagree. And the fairies in these parts aren't the cute little ballerinas in tutus that you might expect. Like the landscape, they're rough and more than a little craggy.

It's only recently that legends about New England fairies have become popular, and there's a historical reason for that. 

When the Puritans came to these shores in the 17th century they brought a lot of their folklore with them. They brought their stories about witches and ghosts, and also their stories about the Devil.

This was portable folklore and wasn't specifically tied to the Puritans' old homeland of England. The Puritans thought that witches could be found among their own neighbors and friends here in the New World, and ghosts could be found wherever someone died under duress. And of course, the Devil could be found anywhere in the world.

The Puritans left behind other folklore, though, which was firmly tied to the English landscape. Stories of dragons and ogres didn't cross the Atlantic, nor did stories about fairies. Fairies were believed to reside in specific landscape features like hills or ancient burial mounds, or were attached to ancestral castles. The Puritans left those sites behind when they left England, and left the fairies with them.

Several New England writers commented on lack of fairies in New England. Sylvester Judd, a Unitarian minister of the 19th century, noted that, "There are no fairies in our meadows, and no elves to spirit away our children."

Massachusetts poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in a similar vein: "Fairy faith is, we may safely say, now dead everywhere ... It never had much hold upon the Yankee mind, our superstitions being mostly of a sterner and less poetical kind."


Nathaniel Hawthorne expressed similar thoughts. Although his novel The Scarlet Letter is full of witchcraft and divine omens, heroine Hester Prynne says the following of her child Pearl: "But how strangely beautiful she looks, with those wild flowers in her hair! It as if one of the fairies, whom we left in our dear old England, had decked her out to meet us."

Now I don't want to contradict Whittier or Hawthorne, but there were fairies here in New England. A few English settlers brought their beliefs with them, but the Native Americans who had long called this area home had rich traditions about small magical people who lived here.

For example, the Mohegans tell of the makiawisug, small beings who live under Mohegan Hill in Montville, Connecticut, while the Passamaquoddy of Maine tell stories of the benevolent nagumwasuck and the deadly meckumwasuck. The Penobscot have legends about small helpful beings called wanagumeswak, as well as more dangerous creatures like alambegwinosis, the underwater dwarf man.

Stories about these fairy-like creatures were written down in the 19th century, but didn't find a wide audience. Perhaps it's because their Algonquin language names were difficult for English speaking whites to pronounce, or perhaps it's because readers wanted stories about pretty whimsical fairies with diaphanous wings, not small hairy humanoids lurking in rivers and trees. Whatever the reason, these indigenous fairies were not particularly well-known outside of Native American communities.

That changed in 1934, when Elizabeth Reynard published The Narrow Land: Folk Chronicles of Old Cape Cod. Her book included many Wampanoag legends which were told to her by Wampanoag chieftain Clarence Wixon. Wixon was involved with the Pan-Indian movement, and actually used an Ojibwa term to describe the region's fairies to Reynard: pukwudgee. Sometimes also spelled pukwudgie, for some reason the term caught on with general readers and was even popularized in a 1980s children's book, The Good Giants and the Bad Pukwudgies.

Okay. That was a long introduction, but here's the main point of the post. Recently Tony and I went to the Freetown State Forest in Massachusetts. People have seen pukwudgies there. They are not pretty or whimsical, but are small, hairy and seemingly malevolent.


Christopher Balzano's wonderful book Dark Woods: Cults, Crime and the Paranormal in the Freetown State Forest contains two pukwudgie accounts. They are both kind of creepy.

In the first, a woman named Joan claims she was walking her dog in the forest on a spring day in the 1990s. Her dog ran off the path and dragged her into the woods. When the dog finally stopped she found herself staring at a strange little being standing on a rock:

She describe him as looking like a troll: two feet high with pale gray skin and hair on his arms and the top of his head... His torso made up the majority of his body and he had very short legs. His eyes were deep green, and he had large lips and a long, almost canine nose.

Needless to say, Joan was shocked to see the creature. She stared at it. It stared at her. Finally the dog ran back to the path, pulling her away from the pukwudgie.

That's a weird encounter, but here's the really unsettling part. Several times after seeing the creature in the woods, Joan woke up in the middle of the night to see it staring in her bedroom window. AAAH! The nighttime visitations finally stopped when Joan moved to another county.


The second account in Dark Woods is told by a man named Tom. Tom first saw a pukwudgie when he was a teenager. He had snuck out of his parents house one night to walk in the woods to clear his mind. As he walked down a path he saw a glowing light:

I noticed a dim light, like in the form of a ball, in front of me. It was white and swelled, like it was breathing... It rose to about my shoulders and then flew into the woods. 

Tom followed the light down the path until it disappeared. As he turned to head back home he noticed he was not alone. A short man covered entirely in fur stood nearby. He was about two feet tall, and had a nose like a wolf. The man ran off into the trees with an unearthly moan.

Tom was (un)lucky enough to see a pukwudgie a second time. One night he drove to one of the Freetown State Forest's parking lots and sat in his car. He turned off the engine and the headlights and turned the radio down low, enjoying the solitude.

He soon realized he wasn't alone. Standing in the darkness staring at Tom was the same little man he had seen in the woods. The pukwudgie was about 20 feet away, and he could see its eyes glowing red in the night. Abruptly the engine of Tom's car came on of its own accord, and the radio suddenly blared loudly. In a panic Tom drove home.

Tony and I did not see any pukwudgies while we were in the Freetown State Forest, although there definitely times when the woods did feel quite creepy. What would we do if we did see one? I would probably run like heck for the car. But I think I'd also be thrilled to see one of New England's own fairies.

April 18, 2016

Ghosts of the Assonet Ledge

Yesterday Tony and I took a trip down to Freetown, Massachusetts to check out the Freetown State Forest. It was a beautiful day, so why not visit someplace reportedly full of weird paranormal activity?

I first read about the forest in Christopher Balzano's Dark Woods: Cults, Crime and and the Paranormal in the Freetown State Forest (2008). Balzano, a Massachusetts-based paranormal investigator, spent quite a bit of time talking with with Freetown residents about any strange experiences they may have had in the forest. As a result the book is mostly a collection of first-person accounts, which gives it an immediacy you don't find in books that are collections of older legends.

It also makes the book pretty creepy. The stories in it are the kind teenagers tell around a fire in the woods or that adults tell their close friends late at night after a few drinks. Ghosts? Little monsters? Serial killers? Undead witches? They're all in Dark Woods. To his credit, Balzano also acknowledges when there isn't any proof to back up a story, but that doesn't make these tales any less creepy.

Tony and I decided to focus our trip on the Assonet Ledge, a significant landmark in the Freetown Forest. (The word assonet is a Wampanoag word meaning "place of stones.") There are a variety of legends connected with the ledge, including stories of ghosts, weird lights, and malevolent little creatures.

Balzano proposes a few theories for why so many weird stories are associated with the Freetown State Forest. The area was possibly the site of Native American massacres at the hands of the Puritans, and it also sits inside the Bridgewater Triangle, an area notorious for paranormal phenomena.

After visiting the forest I can understand why it has a weird reputation. It was indeed creepy. I'm usually skeptical about the reality of paranormal phenomena, but as I've noted before it's easy for me to be a skeptic in the comfort of my well-lit house. Put me in the middle the woods and I'm more likely to at least admit the possibility of the supernatural. Put me in the middle of creepy woods and I'm almost a true believer!

Does this feel welcoming to you? Me neither!
Why was the Freetown State Forest so creepy? I suppose part of it was just the initial nervousness of being in a strange place, but part of it was the forest itself. Immediately after parking the path we were on led us through a grove of pine trees that had died from some type of infestation. Off in the distance we could hear gun shots from a firing range. I don't find either dead trees or random gunfire relaxing. I find them unnerving.

The walk to the ledge just got more unsettling as we went along. There were creaking trees - lots and lots of them. Eventually the creaking trees gave way to trees that moaned and banged against each other in the wind. Good Lord, get this city boy out of the woods! There was litter as well, and some graffiti. Were we going to meet woodland demons or surly teenagers? And which would be worse?

We didn't meet either. (We did meet some teens, but they weren't particularly surly.) However, once we got to the ledge we both stopped feeling unsettle. The ledge was really big - about 50 or 60 feet high - and despite some graffiti it was beautiful. It wasn't creepy, it was impressive.

He's hard to see, but there's a tiny person on top of this ledge. It's big!
I can understand why legends have formed around the Assonet Ledge. Here are just a few of them.

During the 17th century war between the Puritans and the Wampanoag and Narragansett Indians, several Indian warriors leapt to their deaths from the ledge rather than die at the hands of the English. Some visitors claim to have seen ghosts of Native Americans walking in the trees near the cliff. But as Balzano points out, the ledge and its pond didn't exist in the 17th century. Both are the result of 19th century granite quarrying. However, much of the land in the Freetown State Forest is actually a Wampanoag reservation, so there is an authentic Native American connection. Perhaps the ghosts died in some other way?

If that story doesn't strike your fancy, try this one. Many years ago, a young man and woman were deeply in love. They would meet secretly at the ledge at night because their families disapproved of their love. One night the woman arrived at the ledge and waited for her beau. She waited, and waited that night but he never came. In despair she threw herself off the ledge to her death in the cold water.

Tony and some perfectly well-behaved teens on top of the ledge.
Her spirit has haunted the ledge ever since. Many people have seen a woman's ghost walking along its top, and some have even seen her step off the edge. When she hits the water she disappears without even a splash.

It's hard to say if this story is true. It has all the hallmarks of a classic legend (doomed lovers, a ghost, etc.) but there has been at least one actual suicide at the ledge. In 2004 a man visiting the Assonet ledge leapt to his death in front of his friends and girlfriend. His family said he had no previous history of depression or ever expressed suicidal thoughts. In addition to this one authenticated suicide there are several that have been rumored, and some visitors to the ledge claim they've felt compelled to jump (but happily haven't).

Other weird phenomena beyond human ghosts have been encountered at the site. For example, glowing lights have been seen in the pond. Souls of people who died at the ledge, perhaps, or something else? The Freetown State Forest is said to be the stomping ground for Pukwudgies, small elfish creatures of Native American lore. I'll do a separate post about the Freetown Pukwudgies later, but they are said to delight in pushing people off cliffs...

Saying goodbye to the Assonet Ledge.
Tony and I didn't see any ghosts or Pukwudgies, and we definitely felt less creeped out as we walked back to the car.  I still don't think I'd want to spend the night in the Freetown State Forest, though. It's easier for me to be a skeptic here at home!

April 11, 2016

Fish Monsters From Newburyport: Are the Deep Ones Real?

Last week I wrote about the Frogman of Silver Lake. It's interesting to think there might be a humanoid frog creature lurking in Plymouth County, but could there also be humanoid fish people hiding in the waters off the North Shore of Massachusetts?

Most people would say no, but a few people say yes.

The legend of these particular fish people started in the fall of 1931, when the Rhode Island horror writer H.P. Lovecraft visited Newburyport, Massachusetts. These days Newburyport is an expensive and upscale coastal community, but in 1931 the city was run-down and full of crumbling old houses. The downtown was full of boarded-up businesses.

Things were so bad that some locals jokingly called Newburyport the "City of the Dead." It sounds like a grim place, but Lovecraft of course loved it and used his visit as inspiration for one of his most famous stories, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."

"The Shadow Over Innsmouth" tells how a young man from the Midwest comes to Massachusetts to research his family's genealogy. His search leads him to Innsmouth, a depressed and decaying coastal town. Most of the town's businesses are shut down, and many houses are boarded up (but still seem to be occupied). Some people in Innsmouth also share the same strange physical deformities: receding foreheads, bulging eyes, and creased necks. To make things even creepier, Innsmouth's churches have been closed and replaced by a Masonic-style cult called the Esoteric Order of Dagon.

A priest of the (fictional) Esoteric Order of Dagon from Propnomicon.
The young man encounters an elderly drunkard who tells him about Innsmouth's unusual history.  Innsmouth was once a prosperous fishing and mill town, but overfishing and bad economic times led to hardship for Innsmouth's citizens. As the town's leaders debated what to do, a sea captain named Obed Marsh proposed an unusual solution.

While Captain Marsh was sailing in the South Seas he learned about a group of aquatic humanoids called the Deep Ones. In return for the occasional human sacrifice, the Deep Ones provided local South Seas islanders with gold and bountiful catches of fish. Well, they actually wanted more than just sacrifices. The Deep Ones also liked to mate with attractive islanders. The hybrid offspring of these unusual couplings were born looking human, but as they aged they slowly turned into Deep Ones themselves.

Perhaps, Captain Marsh suggested, the people of Innsmouth could strike a similar bargain with the Deep Ones, who quite conveniently had a large underwater city just off the coast of Innsmouth? The citizens of Innsmouth were at first repulsed by the idea, but many of them changed their minds after seeing the gold Captain Marsh brought back from the South Seas - and after learning that their hybrid offspring would be immortal, like the Deep Ones themselves. Those citizens who didn't support Captain Marsh became the first human sacrifices...

That would have been a great town meeting to attend, wouldn't it? "My plan to revitalize the downtown business district stands on two pillars: human sacrifice and sex with scary fish people." I won't rehash the rest of the story, but it involves an encounter with a horde of hideous monsters, a daring escape, and a surprise twist ending.

A human/Deep One hybrid from Propnomicon.

"The Shadow of Innsmouth" is of course fiction. Lovecraft wrote horror stories, not history. But a few readers have always wondered if there was some kernel of truth behind what he wrote. When Lovecraft was alive his friend William Lumley told Lovecraft that he thought his stories were accounts of actual occult events. Lovecraft laughed it off. A woman also wrote to Lovecraft and said she was the descendant of a Salem witch. If Lovecraft would share his magical secrets she would share hers. Lovecraft thought he was nuts.

Despite Lovecraft's lifelong denial that his stories were anything but fiction, many practicing occultists have believed otherwise. This trend only accelerated after his death in 1937, and multiple books have been written that allegedly contain the secrets of "true" Lovecraftian magic. Several claim to be authentic versions of the Necronomicon, the terrible tome of blasphemous knowledge he created for his stories.

The British occultist Kenneth Grant (b.1924 - d. 2011) believed quite strongly that Lovecraft had tapped into a source of authentic magical power through his fiction. Grant claimed that Lovecraft accessed true occult knowledge - and supernatural entities - while dreaming and unknowingly incorporated them into his fiction.

Based on this supposition, Grant conducted many Lovecraftian rituals during his life, and several of them involved the Deep Ones. During one, a priestess in Grant's occult lodge descended into a tank of water where the Deep Ones materialized and attacked her. Another of his priestesses died when the plane she was on crashed over the ocean. Grant speculated that the Deep Ones were responsible.

It all may sound crazy to you (or perhaps not!), but Grant is not alone in trying to summon the Deep Ones through magic rituals. Here in the U.S., Episcopal-priest-turned-occultist Michael Bertiaux claims to have successfully summoned the aquatic humanoids in an isolated Midwestern lake (possibly Devil's Lake in Wisconsin). Sadly, Bertiaux hasn't offered up a detailed descriptions of how he did it, but perhaps that's a blessing. Do we really want our lakes infested with amorous fish monsters?

If you have encountered the Deep Ones please let me know. I don't think anyone has yet reported seeing them near Newburyport, but I suppose if people keep summoning them it's only a matter of time before they pop up on some Plum Island beach. The borders between fact, fiction and the occult are always blurry, particularly here in New England.


My sources for this week's post include The Necromicon Files (2003) by Daniel Harms and John Wisdom Gonce III, and my own book, Legends and Lore of the North Shore (2014). Thanks also to the reader who used the word "Lovecraftian" in their comment last week, which inspired me to write this post.

By the way, I filmed a segment for the Travel Channel's show Mysteries at the Museum last summer about the Melonheads, and it should be airing this Thursday, April 14 at 9:00 pm. I hope you are able to tune in!

April 03, 2016

The Frogman of Silver Lake: A Truly Mysterious Monster

I purchased a bunch of new paranormal and folklore books just the other week, including Monsters of Massachusetts: Mysterious Creatures of the Bay State by Loren Coleman, one of the superstars of the cryptozoology scene.

I guess I should have had that one on my shelf earlier because while Coleman discusses lots of the famous local monsters, like the Dover Demon and the Gloucester sea serpent, he also mentions one that's pretty obscure: the Frogman of Silver Lake. He's not just obscure, he's downright mysterious.

I'm a sucker for any monster that has "man" as part of its name, whether it's the Mothman, the Goatman, or the Lizardman. I think it's because I read too many comic books when I was a kid and now my mind is drawn to any creature whose name reminds me of a superhero.

Sadly, most of these "(insert name of animal here)man" monsters tend to live outside of New England, with the Vermont Pigman being the prominent exception. And it is true that a goatman has been seen in Maine, but only once. So I was pretty excited to read about a Frogman right here in Massachusetts.

Coleman doesn't include very much information about the Frogman. Here is what he writes:

For instance, the 'lakemonster' accounts from Silver Lake in Plymouth County tell of a 'Giant Frog' or little 'Frogman' being sighted.

But unfortunately he doesn't give any more information. He then goes on to discuss how two police officers encountered a four foot tall froggy humanoid on the outskirts of Loveland, Ohio in 1972. One of them even shot at the creature but missed. One of the police officers later said he probably just saw an iguana, not a monster, but a local farmer also reported seeing a weird little humanoid around the same time.

Coleman suggests that the officer probably changed his story because people made fun of him, and then writes:

Can anyone blame the folks who saw the Frogman of Silver Lake, Massachusetts, for wishing it never happened to them and thus never fully was detailed in the record?

So in other words, there might not be much written about our local Frogman because the witnesses were afraid how others might react. I suppose that's a legitimate concern. The Ohio farmer who saw the Frogman reported that the creature was riding a bicycle, a claim that I'm sure was met with some derision. He was probably teased down at the grange hall until his dying day. (If I knew the farmer I would have asked what type of bicycle the Frogman was riding but would not have teased.)

The Loveland frogman as seen in 1972.

That's all the information about the Frogman in Monsters of Massachusetts. However, Coleman did provide a little more in an October 25, 2013 Boston Globe article titled "Monsters of New England." Here he notes that:

In the 1940s and 1950s, there were reports of a “lake monster” — said to be a “Giant Frog” or little “Frogman” — in Plymouth County’s Silver Lake that were talked about around general stores and mentioned in passing in old newspaper articles.

So at least here we get the years when the Frogman was seen, and information about how the stories were reported. I did some searching online, but unfortunately The Boston Globe archives didn't have any further articles about the Frogman, and neither did Google books or

That's why the Frogman of Silver Lake is so mysterious: because there's so little information about him. Who saw the Frogman? Were the witnesses scared? Did they shoot at him? I have a lot of questions but no answers, at least for now. I've written to Loren Coleman to see if he has any more information, and if he writes back I will be sure to give an update. (Note: Loren Coleman did write back to me - thank you Loren! - but said he didn't have any more information about the Frogman.)

I don't know much about the Frogman, but here's what I know about Silver Lake (thanks to Wikipedia). It is a freshwater lake, covers over 600 acres, and provides drinking water to the city of Brockton. It sits within or touches the following towns: Pembroke, Kingston, Plympton, and Halifax.

You can hike around the lake, and fish in it, but swimming is not allowed. That's probably a good idea, just in case there really is a Frogman lurking somewhere its depths.

Speaking of monsters, this past summer I filmed a segment about the Melonheads for the Travel Channel's show Mysteries at the Museum. That episode is going to air on Thursday, April 14 at 9:00 pm. Did the segment I filmed make the final cut, or was I edited out because I am scarier than a frog monster on a bicycle? We'll all just have to wait and see!