July 11, 2018

H.P Lovecraft and The Witch from Boston

Rhode Island native and horror writer extraordinaire H.P. Lovecraft liked to incorporate New England history and folklore into his stories. He was particularly fond of local witch-lore, which shows up in many of his best known stories.

For example, Richard Upman Pickman, the crazed artist in "Pickman's Model" (1927), is descended from "old Salem stock" and had an ancestor executed for witchcraft. In "Dreams in The Witch House" (1933), a hapless college student finds trouble when he rents a room once inhabited by a witch, while the title character in "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" (1927) discovers through genealogical research that one of his ancestors fled Salem in 1692 due to suspicions about his "queer chemical or alchemical experiments."

H.P. Lovecraft, 1890 - 1937
Those are all fiction, but Lovecraft may have encountered a real-live New England witch in 1929 - or at least someone who claimed to be one. After Lovecraft's story "The Dunwich Horror" was published in Weird Tales he received a fan letter from a woman who lived in Boston. Lovecraft wrote about her to his friend Clark Ashton Smith on March 22, 1929:

By the way - that tale has just earned me an interesting letter from a curious old lady in Boston, a direct lineal descendant of the Salem witch Mary Easty, who was hanged on Gallows Hill Aug. 19, 1692. She hints at strange gifts and traditions handed down in her family, & asks me if I have access to any antient (ancient) secret witch-lore of New England... I shall answer the letter, & see if I can get the good old soul to relate some of the whispered witch-traditions! A story of Salem horror based on actual "inside dope" from a witch-blooded crone would surely be a striking novelty!

On April 14, 1929 he wrote Ashton Smith with a little more information about the woman:

It appears that her forebears were well acquainted with the Marblehead witches Edward Dimond and his daughter Moll Pitcher... & that she herself, through the Easty or Este line, is a scion of the D'Estes of Ferrara, Italy, & a descendant of no less a malign character than Lucrezia Borgia! Some ancestry!

Lovecraft and the Boston woman kept up a correspondence over several years. He wrote about it in an October 24, 1930 letter to his friend Elizabeth Toldridge:

... As for my spectrally affiliated New England correspondents - I have not again heard from the grotesque Maine person, but hear frequently from the old lady descended from Salem witches. She sent several modernly gruesome legends lately, but in general I find it more natural to invent cosmic horrors of my own than to utilize actual folklore incidents. I use actual local colour in treating of geography and customs; but when it comes to actual incidents and types of unreal phenomena, I have so far preferred to invent rather than adopt.

The woman died in 1933, as he indicated in a letter to his friend Robert Barlow:

An old lady in Boston whole I knew - & who died just a year ago - was a direct descendant of Mary Easty, one of the Salem witches hung in 1692 - & therefore a collateral descendant of the more famous Rebecca Nurse (Mrs. Easty's sister), whose ancient house (built 1636) in Danvers, Mass. [near Salem - formerly called Salem-Village] is still in existence...

Unfortunately, to my knowledge Lovecraft never mentioned the woman's name, at least not in any published letters. It would be fascinating to know who she was! Did she really have the ancestry she claimed? It seems unlikely she was descended from the D'Estes of Italy (and therefore Lucrezia Borgia), since the Easty/Esty family of Salem can be traced back to at least 1450 in England; Borgia was not born until 1480. Lovecraft's correspondent could have been descended from Mary Easty though.

Also, did she really have any arcane knowledge, either passed down through her family or even just learned from books? And did she say she actually claim she was a witch? Lovecraft's letters suggest that she was a witch but doesn't make it explicit. The Wiccan/pagan revival didn't really start until the late 1940s, but there were still a few people here and there who identified as witches (including at least one famous New England writer). It's possible this woman was one of them.

If anyone has more information about her please post it in the comments section. I would love to know more about the "curious old lady in Boston."

Lovecraft's grave in Providence, Rhode Island
Lovecraft was a materialist and skeptical of religion and the occult, but while he was alive some people thought his stories were about real occult phenomena. The elderly Boston woman seems to have been one of them, as was his acquaintance William Lumley. Lumley was an avowed occultist whom Lovecraft collaborated with on the 1938 story "The Diary of Alonzo Typer." In a letter to the author Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft noted that Lumley believed Lovecraft and some of his friends were "genuine agents of unseen Powers in distributing hints too dark and profound for human conception or comprehension." Lovecraft thought Lumley was a little crazy...

After his death, an increasing number of people thought that Lovecraft's stories contained real supernatural truths. His work inspired a host of occultists, including Kenneth Grant, Anton LaVey, and a slew of Chaos Magickians. So maybe there was something behind his stories after all? Somewhere, the ghost of an elderly lady from Boston is laughing.


I want to thank two friends for helping me with this post. My friend Steve loaned me issue #31 of Lovecraft Studies, and my friend David Goudsward sent me the text of Lovecraft's letters. David is the author of H.P. Lovecraft in The Merrimack Valley and many other books on interesting topics. 

One additional note: Mary Este was not actually a witch, but an innocent person caught who was unjustly executed. Witches are one of the iconic images in New England folklore, but it's important to differentiate between folklore and reality. 

July 05, 2018

Magical Mullein: Witches, Love and Captain Marvel

Well, summer is in full swing. One nice thing about living someplace with long winters is that I really appreciate all the vegetation when it finally appears in the summer. Everything here is bare for so long in the winter months. Every bit of green looks great when it shows up, even the weeds.

I think "weed" is basically just a derogatory term. Really, a weed is just a plant growing somewhere people don't want it. It's not an actual scientific category. Many of the plants people call weeds have interesting histories and folklore attached to them. Some might even have magical powers. Intrigued? Read on.

One of the most dramatic weeds plants that appears in the summer is mullein. You've probably seen it because it's hard to miss. Mullein has a single stalk that grows up to six feet in height and is crowned by tiny yellow flowers. Its leaves are grey and lightly fuzzy. Mullein is very dramatic. It looks like it comes from another planet.

It doesn't, but it's not native to New England either. Mullein is indigenous to the Mediterranean and over time spread across Europe, Asia, and North Africa. When the Europeans colonized the New World mullein hitched a ride across the Atlantic with them. Its official name is verbascum thapsus, a Latin term whose origin is uncertain but is most likely derived from the words barba (beard) and Thapsos (a name of several Mediterranean cities). It's English name, mullein, probably comes from the Latin word mollis, which means "soft." And just an FYI, it's pronounced "mullen," not "mullane."

There are several varieties of mullein worldwide, but the plant that grows in New England is called "great mullein."' The plant also has several colorful folk names. Some are inspired by its long central stalk: Aaron's Rod, Jupiter's Staff, Peter's Staff and Shepherd's Club. Others come from its soft fuzzy leaves: Our Lady's Flannel, Blanket Herb and Beggar's Flannel. The dried plant was used as a torch, and its leaves as wicks for lamps and candles. Witches were said to be particularly fond of using the plant for these purposes, so mullein is sometimes called Hag's Taper. Very witchy!

Mullein can also be used to repel evil spirits and harmful magic. According to Mrs. Grieves's A Modern Herbal (1931):
Both in Europe and Asia the power of driving away evil spirits was ascribed to mullein. In India it has the reputation among the natives that the St. John's Wort once had here, being considered a sure safe-guard against evil spirits and magic, and from the ancient classics we learn that it was this plant which Ulysses took to protect himself agains the wiles of Circe.
Mrs. Grieves is referring to an incident in Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) and his men land on an island ruled by Circe, a witch-like goddess. She turns Odysseus's men into pigs, but Odysseus is given a plant called moly by the god Hermes which protects him from her magic.

On an interesting side note, perhaps you are familiar with the exclamation "Holy Moley!" This phrase was popularized in the 20th century by the comic book hero Captain Marvel, who would say it when he was faced with surprising situations.

The creators of Captain Marvel were well-versed in classical mythology; the Captain got most of his powers from the Greek gods when he shouted out the magic word "Shazam." The phrase "Holy Moley" (sometimes spelled "Holy Moly") seems to be older than Captain Marvel comics, though, and it's exact origin is unclear. Some theorists claim it is derived from "Holy Moses," others that it honored Teddy Roosevelt's adviser Raymond Moley, and still others claim it comes from the holy red thread of Hinduism, the mauli. Those are all good theories but I like the Greek mythology explanation the best, even if it is not really true.

And it turns out the great mullein plant probably was not really the one referenced in The Odyssey. Mrs. Grieves's theory has spread widely, but the great mullein doesn't really look like the plant described by Homer, of which he said "The root was black, while the flower was as white as milk..." That doesn't describe the great mullein.

Independent of its connection to Homer people have still ascribed magical powers to the plant. For example, in her 1896 book Current Superstitions, Fanny Bergen recorded the following belief from Newton, Massachusetts regarding mullein:

Twist a mullein-stalk nearly off after naming it. If it lives, he or she loves you; if not, not.

This is an example of the many simple love spells that are found in 19th century New England folklore. Most are aimed at determining if someone loves you. For example, if you think three people might be in love with you, you would take three apple seeds and name them after the three people. Then you would wet them with spit and stick them to your forehead. The last seed that falls off tells you who loves you.

This mullein spell works on a similar principle: the behavior of the plant indicates the intentions of the beloved. You think John Doe might be secretly in love with you. You find a mullein plant and name it "John Doe," and then twist the stalk. If the plant survives it means that John Doe really does love you.

Personally I don't think you should do this. Mullein has such a short growing season and is such an interesting plant. Don't hurt it! If you do want to work some magic with mullein, maybe you can wait until the fall and harvest the dried central stalk. Then you can use it as a torch to light your way to the Witch's Sabbath, which is probably more fun than going on a date with John Doe anyway.


In addition to Wikipedia, my other additional sources were Pamela Jones's Just Weeds: History, Myths and Uses (1994) and Paul Beyerl's A Compendium of Herbal Magick (1998).

June 27, 2018

Colonel Buck and The WItch's Curse

I've read a lot of New England folklore in my time, and here's one thing I've learned: if a gravestone looks weird it will probably have a strange story attached to it. Is there a cage around the grave? The occupant must be a vampire. Is there a giant slab covering the entire grave? It must be there to keep the occupant down.

One of the area's most famous strange graves can be found in Bucksport, Maine. It is the grave of Colonel Jonathan Buck, who founded Bucksport in 1763. Buck was born in Woburn, Massachusetts in 1719 but grew up in Haverhill, Massachusetts (which coincidentally is my hometown). Buck attempted but failed to start a shipbuilding business in Haverhill and eventually headed north to Maine where he founded a settlement. Buck fought against the British in the Revolutionary War, and as he grew older the settlement was named after him. He died in 1795. In 1852 his descendants honored him with a larger, more impressive funerary monument.

Colonel Buck's monument, with boot stain. Edited from Wikimedia.
So here's the weird thing about Buck's large, impressive gravestone: it is marred by a strange stain in the shape of a boot. By the 1880s a rumor began to circulate that Buck had been cursed back when he was alive, and a story to that point appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper. The story was reprinted a few months later in The Haverhill Gazette on March 22, 1889:

Buck was a severe and Puritannical judge who once ordered the execution of a woman accused of witchcraft. The woman went to her death cursing Buck, who stood unmoved. At the moment of her death she allegedly shouted this prophecy: 
"Jonathan Buck, listen to these words, the last my tongue will utter. Is is the spirit of the one and only true living God which bids me speak them to you. You will die soon. Over your grave they will erect a stone, that all may know where your bones are crumbling into dust. But listen, upon that stone the imprint of my foot will appear, and for all time, long after you and your accursed race has vanished from this earth, will the people from far and near know that you murdered a woman." (Haverhill Gazette article quoted in Leslye Bannatyne's Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History.)

This is the most popular version of the tale, but several variations have appeared since then. In some, the witch says she will dance on Jonathan Buck's grave when he is dead (Lisa Rogak, Stones and Bones of New England, 2004). In others, the woman is not even a witch at all. For example, Joseph Citro cites one version in Cursed In New England (2004) that claims Buck impregnated a young Indian woman. To hide his infidelity he burned the young woman (and her unborn child) alive. As her corpse burned one her legs rolled out from the fire in accusation. The woman's mother, a shaman, cursed Buck for killing her daughter. 

An even more lurid version can be found in Oscar Morrill Heath's Composts of Tradition: A Book of Short Stories Dealing with Traditional Sex and Domestic Situations (1913). In this version, Colonel Buck has secretly had an illegitimate son with a young woman who is the town pariah. When he once again impregnates her against her will he accuses her of witchcraft. The citizens of Bucksport tie her to her house and light it on fire, but as the flaming body falls apart her son grabs one of her burning legs and strikes Buck with it. Yikes! Later, Colonel Buck paints an image of her leg on his own tomb using his blood before he dies.

Heath's version is pure fiction, but all of the other versions are probably fictional as well. There is no record of Jonathan Buck ever convicting a woman of witchcraft, either in Maine or Haverhill. New England's last witchcraft executions occurred in the 1692 Salem trials, many years before Buck was even born. There's also no evidence that he executed an illicit lover either.

But like the stain itself, the story of the vengeful witch endures to this day. It helps to explain the mysterious stain, which is perhaps caused by a vein of iron in the stone reacting with the atmosphere. It also attests to the power that the archetypal image of the witch holds over the local imagination. New Englanders know there were witches in this region, and we know they were executed by Puritans. Can you really fault someone for wanting to ascribe a strange phenomenon to a witch? New England is a weird and wonderful place, and stories like these try to explain why. 

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 them. 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 Brookline'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?