July 20, 2014

Spiders, Toads, and Common Plantain: Folklore Right Under Your Feet

Writing this blog encourages me to see the world in a different way. New England is full of interesting places and stories. Almost every town has its ghost or witches, its haunted cemetery, or its anomalous rock formation. There's something unusual lurking everywhere.

Sometimes it's hiding right under our feet. Last week I went for a walk in the Arnold Arboretum. I was hoping to find a mountain ash tree, but the Arboretum has over 15,000 (!) plantings and I never located one. However, I did find this plant.

It's the common plantain, also known as greater plantain, snakeweed, Englishman's foot, and a host of other things. If you speak Latin, you'll call it plantago major. The ancient Roman's called it planta, which means "the sole of man's foot," because it supposedly followed the Roman legions wherever they marched. You probably have some in your yard or growing out of the cracks in your sidewalk.

Here's a story about the plantain from a the 1798 edition of The Farmer's Almanack:

A toad was seen fighting with a spider in Rhode-Island; and when the former was bit, it hopped to a plantain leaf, bit off a piece, and then engaged with the spider again. After this had been repeated sundry times, a spectator pulled up the plantain, and put it out of the way. The toad, on being bit again, jumped to where the plantain had stood; and as it was not to be found, she hopped round several times, turned over on her back, swelled up, and died immediately. This is an evident demonstration that the juice of the plantain is an antidote against the bites of those venomous insects.

Now, I'm not saying this battle between a Rhode Island toad and spider never happened, but the famous Dutch writer Erasmus included a very similar story in his Colloquies, which were written in the 1500s:

I have heard it told by those that have seen it, that there is the like Enmity between a Toad and a Spider; but that the Toad cures himself, when he is wounded, by biting of a Plantane Leaf.

Perhaps toads across the world all know the efficacy of plantain against spider venom, or perhaps this is a very old folk story that made its way from Europe to New England. Either way, its inclusion in The Farmer's Almanack indicates the high regard English settlers had for common plantain.

In addition to spider bites, over the centuries plantain has been used to treat dysentery, earaches, kidney disorders, and open wounds. Although originally native to southern Europe, plantain has spread across the world. Just as the Roman legionnaires carried it out from Italy, the English settlers carried it to North America.

Because of this the Native Americans gave it the names Englishman's foot and white man's foot, an invasive species brought by an invading nation. However, stories also say that the plant's ability to cure rattlesnake bites was first discovered by a South Carolina Indian. This discovery added another name, snakeweed, to plantain's long list of pseudonyms and spurred that state's legislature to reward the Indian (from Matthew Robinson's Family Herbal, 1863).

I don't know anything about the dangers or benefits of using plantain to treat illnesses or injuries, so I'm not going to recommend it for anything, particularly not rattlesnake bites. If you're bitten by a rattlesnake call 911! But I will recommend looking down when you walk around, because you never know what interesting piece of folklore you're stepping over.

July 14, 2014

Legends and Lore of the North Shore now available, plus a Fiddle-Playing Witch's Curse!

Before I get to this week's official post, I want to announce that my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore is now available. You can buy it from Amazon in both print or Kindle format, or you can buy it from Powell's if you want to support a more independent retailer.

The book was a lot of fun to write. The one review currently up on Amazon calls it a romp, and I suppose that's how it felt to write it. In 35,000 words I cover everything you ever wanted to know about Massachusetts's North Shore: Native American shamanism, amorous merpeople, spirit-haunted pirate treasure, Bigfoot sightings, and the creation of a mechanical Messiah. And of course witches, witches, and more witches.

I will be traveling around the area doing some readings, so please stay tuned. If you enjoy the book, please post a review on Amazon! Now, onto this week's post...


For some reason, the fiddle is often associated with the Devil. The Charlie Daniels Band sang about the Devil fiddling, Stephen Vincent Benet wrote a poem about it, and it shows up in different folk stories. I'm not quite sure why, but this essay over at ExoterX.com suggests a few reasons, including the following:

  • Angels are said to play harps, so it makes sense that fallen angels would also play music.
  • The horned and hoofed image of the Devil is derived from images of the ancient god Pan and his satyrs, who are often shown playing musical instruments.
  • People like to dance to the fiddle. Christian reformers (like our own Puritans) were opposed to dancing. Therefore, the fiddle must belong to Satan. Like rock music, the fiddle enflames animal passions. 

In one story from Plymouth County, a young boy kidnapped by witches sees them dancing in an abandoned house. The fiddle player is a mysterious dark man, and when the boy sees him he flees in terror. Clearly, it is the Evil One himself. Sometimes, though, the Devil's servants are the one playing the fiddle, as this story from Hopkinton, Rhode Island shows.

Many years ago an elderly African American man named James McDaniel lived in Hopkinton. James had a "cocked hat, glaring eyes and daring manner," so he naturally acquired a reputation for being a witch. He also played the fiddle.

One day Amos Longworthy, Jr. brought home a beautiful bride to Hopkinton. James McDaniel came to the Longworthy house and asked to play his fiddle at the wedding but the family patriarch, Amos Longworthy Sr., refused. Theirs was a pious family, and he would have no dancing at his son's wedding.

James McDaniel was not happy. He glared at Amos Sr. and said, "You will be obliged to have fiddling in your house, whether you want it or not." Then he stormed off.

The Longworthy wedding went as planned, but shortly afterward Amos Sr.'s daughter Amy began to suffer fits. She contorted, she twitched, she made odd guttural noises. A physician was brought in but none of his medicines helped the young woman. After trying various treatments he suggested that perhaps some music might calm her agitated state.

Despite his religious misgivings Amos Sr. hired a fiddler. As soon as he played just a few bars Amy's fits stopped. The Longworthy family rejoiced, but there was one side effect: Amy began to dance. She danced for hours on end, spinning wildly and ecstatically through the Longworthy house and out into the yard. Amos Sr. was deeply opposed to dancing, but it was better than seeing his daughter convulsed with fits. He hired the fiddler to come the next day, and then the next. He finally contracted him as a permanent servant.

Word spread across Hopkinton about Amy's dancing, and soon the neighbors began to visit the Longworthy house every day just to watch the formerly demure young woman dance wildly. They also whispered disapprovingly that Amos Sr. had not cured his daughter, but just traded one type of witchcraft for another.

Tired of the gossip, Amos Sr. fired the fiddler. Instead, he brought in a traveling preacher from Connecticut named Mr. Mason. When Mr. Mason laid his hands on Amy her fits stopped, and she no longer had the need to dance. But even though her fits disappeared Amy never quite seemed like her former self again, and the spirits that had been possessing her moved into other parts of the house. Dishes moved on their own, foul material appeared in the fresh milk, and the horses' reins would be tangled in the morning...

And that's where the story ends. It appears in S.S. Griswold's 1877 book A Historical Sketch of the Town of Hopkinton, From 1757 to 1876, Comprising a Period of One Hundred and Nineteen Years. I find it a little unsettling that James McDaniel's curse is not ever fully lifted, but only lessened. And really what's worse, dancing every night or finding nasty stuff in your milk?

July 06, 2014

Movie Review: The Bridgewater Triangle

If you read this blog you're probably familiar with the Bridgewater Triangle, a large area in southeastern Massachusetts that's famous for a wide variety of strange phenomena. There's now a documentary about the Triangle, and I think its worth seeing.

I have three criteria for for judging non-fiction movies and TV shows about paranormal phenomena:

1. Did I learn something new?

2. Is it skillfully made?

3. Did it creep me out?

I'm usually satisfied if just one criterion is met. For example, I might enjoy watching a poorly made and laughably unscary show just because it teaches me about some new monster. "Oh, hey, I never knew there was a humanoid lizard monster in East Podunk. Cool!"

But happily, The Bridgewater Triangle meets all three. First, I did learn quite a few new things. I already knew that the Triangle's 200 square miles have been home to Bigfoot, giant black dogs, UFOs, monster snakes, and strange birds. But after watching I did learn that...

  • The first UFOs in the area was seen by two undertakers on Halloween night in 1908!
  • The red-headed hitchhiker of Route 44 has a rival, the mad trucker of Copicut Road, a phantom pickup truck that forces people off the road in the Freetown State Forest.
  • In addition to Bigfoot, small orange ape-like creatures have been seen in the area.
  • In 1993, a rare African cat called a serval was found dead on the Easton/Raynham border. Where did it come from?

The Bridgewater Triangle is also well-made and easily could air on any TV station. The film conveys its information through dramatic re-enactments, still photos, drawings, and a lot of interviews. The talking heads include paranormal investigators and cryptozoologists like Loren Coleman, Jeff Belanger, Tim Weisberg, Christopher Balzano, and Joseph DeAndrade, as well as former police officers, TV newscasters, and plenty of area residents. There's also lots of footage from notorious locations like the Hockomock Swamp, Anawan Rock, and the Freetown State Forest, giving the viewer a good feel for the area. Even suburban streets acquire a creepy vibe as the camera glides slowly past well-trimmed yards surrounded by deep, dark, woods...

I did find portions of The Bridgewater Triangle quite spooky. An account of some children seeing Bigfoot in 1970 creeped me out, as did Joseph DeAndrade's story about hearing a voice telling him to turn around while exploring a swamp. I won't tell you what he saw, but it was large and hairy!

For me, the creepiest part of the movie was the interview with Bill Russo, which is either a great report of a paranormal encounter or a fantastic campfire story.

In 1990 Russo lived in Raynham and worked the late shift. One night after midnight he took his dog for a walk near some high-tension power lines. As he walked through the deserted area he heard a high-pitched voice wailing the following words:

"Ee wah chu. Ee wah chu. Keer. Keer."

A strange creature stepped into the light cast by a streetlight. It was about three feet high, covered in brown hair, potbellied, and seemed to be old. It continued to cry out "Ee wah chu. Ee wah chu. Keer. Keer" and beckoned to Russo with one hand. It wanted him to join it.

"Ee wah chu..." Image from The Bridgewater Triangle documentary.
Russo didn't. He and his dog were both frightened and walked away as fast as they could. When Russo looked back the being was gone. Only after he got safely home did he realize it had been trying to say, "We want you. We want you. Come here. Come here." Creepy!

Even though it conjures a spooky atmosphere the movie includes multiple perspectives, and some of them are skeptical. Was the mysterious Dighton Rock carved by ancient Phoenicians or the medieval Portuguese? Well, maybe it was just carved by the local Indians. After all, one expert points out, it has the same carvings as documented Indian petroglyphs in Maine.

This inclusive viewpoint extends to explanations about the Bridgewater Triangle itself. Perhaps all the strange phenomena are the psychic residue of atrocities committee against Wampanoag Indians in the 1600s, or perhaps there's just something inherent in the land itself. Or maybe when we walk out into the dark woods or the gloomy swamp, something inside us that our modern society represses wakes up. The Bridgewater Triangle gives us an opportunity to fully experience something that is always with us but normally unseen.

If you like the paranormal and local folklore, or just like some scary stories, I would recommend watching The Bridgewater Triangle. It would also make a good Christmas or Halloween gift for that special person in your life. You can watch it online through Vimeo or buy the DVD. It's definitely worth 90 minutes of your time!

Special thank to Aaron Cadieux, one of the film's directors, for giving me free access to the movie online.

June 29, 2014

The Little People Who Live Under the Hill

In September of 2012, a developer trying to build housing in Montville, Connecticut received some surprising news during a town hearing. They would need to alter their project because it threatened small stone structures that had been made by magical, dwarf-like creatures that lived underground.

Readers may be familiar with situations like this from Iceland, where construction projects are not allowed to harm the dwelling places of elves. But they are rare here in New England, where most people don't believe in fairies, elves, and dwarves. (Bigfoot, ghosts, and UFOs are another story...)

However, magical little people are an ancient tradition among the Algonquian tribes that are native to this area, and the developer was planning to build 120 units of housing on Mohegan Hill, which is the historic and spiritual home of the sovereign Mohegan Tribe. Although the hill is not technically within the boundaries of the tribe's reservation, it is still very important to them. A letter from the tribe's historic preservation officer explained the significance of the stone structures:

The sacred stone piles on Mohegan Hill are a critical feature of the traditional landscape of Mohegan Hill; they were created by the “Little People” who live deep within the ground of Mohegan Hill. These “Little People” or Makiawisug are the ancient culture heroes of this region. These stone piles also possess powers that protect the Mohegan people from outsiders. Not only do the “Little People” still live within the ground on the Hill and continue to guard the stones, these stone piles are perceived as being made of the bones of Mother Earth and they contain messages that guide generation after generation of Mohegan People. Contemporary Mohegan tribal members make offerings to the “Little People” in hopes that they will continue to protect our Tribe.

The Makiawisug are similar in some ways to the fairies or dwarves that are familiar to people from European folklore. According the Mohegan medicine woman Gladys Tantaquidgeon (b. 1899, d. 2005), the Makiawisug are ancient beings who have lived under Mohegan Hill since before the Mohegans arrived. They are dense, bulky and born from the stones of the earth. But they are also delicate, wearing lady slipper flowers as moccasins. The Makiawisug are often mistaken for small children on the rare occasions they are seen by humans, but are quite wise. Many medicine people among the Mohegan learned their skills from the Makiawisug.

Photo of Gladys Tantaquidgeon from Wikipedia.
Tantaquidgeon learned four important tips about the Makiawisug from her elders:

1. If you come upon one of the Makiawisug, do not look directly at him. If you look directly at the Little People they will point their finger at you, which allows them to become invisible. Once invisible they will secretly enter your home and steal your possessions. 

2. To get help from the Makiawisug, leave them offerings. They prefer baskets of cornbread and berries, but sometimes they will also accept meat.

3. Never speak about the Makiawisug during the summer. This is the season when they are most active and wandering through the woods. They will be offended by overhearing your comments and you don't want to offend them. (See #1 above.) I realize I am publishing this post in the summer and it may incite discussion. Maybe you can think of it instead as a warning to avoid discussing the Little People, particularly if you are out in the woods. 

4. The Makiawisug are led by Granny Squannit, a very powerful and ancient being. Stay on her good side! Granny Squannit is most likely the modern name for Squauanit, a goddess who was one of the thirty-seven deities revered across southern New England by the Algonquians. 

These four rules come from the book Medicine Trail: the Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon by Melissa Jayne Fawcett. I think it's quite interesting that some of them are similar to rules about interacting with fairies from Europe. For example, in Europe fairies are said to be most active around the summer solstice, and Europeans who believe in fairies often don't speak directly about them for fear of offending them. In many parts of Europe it was also traditional to leave out offerings for the fairy folk, who often were said to live inside certain hills with their queen.

I suppose if you are historically minded you might say the Mohegan picked up some European traditions from English settlers and added them to their original Makiawisug beliefs. If you're feeling a little more metaphysical, perhaps you'd say that although European fairies and Mohegan Makiawisug are different beings, magical beings across the world still share a lot of similar traits.

But whatever you say about the Makiawisug, try not to say it during the summer, and certainly not if you're walking through the woods!

PS - The information about the housing developer and the stone structures is online here.

June 22, 2014

Three Haunted Buildings in Providence

Last week I was down in Providence for a conference. I had some free time one afternoon so I stopped by the Brown University Bookstore and left with a pile of new folklore books. One of them was Haunted Providence: Strange Tales from the Smallest State by Rory Raven.

As walked back to my hotel I had the sudden realization that my route could be taking me past various haunted locations. I pulled Haunted Providence out of my bag, and with just a quick scan found three haunted buildings that were on the way back to my hotel.

First up was the Nightingale-Brown House, which is located on Benefit Street. The house was built in 1792 by Captain John Nightingale, a Providence merchant who made his money trading sugar, rum and slaves in the notorious Triangle Trade. The house was sold to the Brown family in 1814, and is now part of Brown University.

Raven tells the following story about the Nightingale-Brown House. One night a new custodial worker was assigned to work in the large, rambling building. He and an older, more experienced co-worker were the only two people in the house, and the new custodian felt a little creeped out as he cleaned the old, empty rooms.

Towards the end of the shift he had to clean a room that had a large portrait on one wall. The eerie sensation he had experienced all night intensified as he vacuumed and dusted under the grim and watchful eyes of the painting. He completed his work as quickly as he could and turned off the light as he left the room.

As soon as he shut off the light a sepulchral voice said, "DON'T TURN THAT LIGHT OUT."

The  new custodian ran out and found his co-worker. After he told him what happened, the older man said, "Yeah, strange things happen in that room. Don't worry about it, but whatever you do, don't turn out that light!"

Near the Nightingale-Brown House is the Providence Athenaeum, a private library that has been in operation since the early 1700s. Today it is housed in an imposing stone building built in 1836. The ghost of Edgar Allan Poe has been sighted several times in the Athenaeum. Shortly before his death Poe spent time in Providence wooing the poet Sarah Helen Whitman, who lived just down the street from the Athenaeum and was a member. Either Poe liked Providence so much his ghost refuses to leave, or he was so traumatized by his broken engagement with Whitman that his ghost is trapped there forever. Knowing Poe's life, it's probably the latter.

The last haunted building on my list was the beloved Biltmore  Hotel. I've been to a lot of events there, but never knew it was haunted. According to Raven, the Biltmore is haunted by the ghost of a financier who lost his fortune when the Depression started on Tuesday, October 29, 1929.

The financier was staying in a room on the fourteenth floor when he received word that all his wealth had disappeared in the crash. Overwhelmed by the news, he threw himself out the window to his death. Interestingly, his ghost supposedly haunts not only the room he was staying, but also every room he passed by as he fell. Guests staying in these rooms sometimes report seeing someone falling past their windows, but never see a body on the street when they look down to the sidewalk.