July 19, 2018

Encountering Fairies at Mount Monadnock

One of the many nice things about this blog is that people tell me stories about the strange things they've encountered. I've heard quite a few ghost stories, but it is very rare that people tell me stories about fairies.

Very rare, but it does happen. The other day some friends came over for brunch, and I showed my friend James a copy of Magical Folk, a book about fairy folklore to which I had contributed a chapter.  In response, James told me the following story.


A few years ago James, his spouse Kevin, and one of their friends went camping near New Hampshire's Mount Monadnock. The campground at Monadnock State Park has around thirty standard campsites close to parking lots, plus five remote campsites that can only be reached by hiking. James and his companions chose to stay at one of the standard campsites.

After they set up their tents they decided to go for a hike along one of the trails that led to the more remote sites. The trail led them up away from the other campers and deeper into the park. After hiking for a while they still hadn't seen any of the the remote campsites, but instead found a beautiful clearing in the woods.

James described it as looking like a "fairy dell." There was a waterfall, and a small wooden bridge going over a stream, and lots of lush flowers. It was an idyllic space, but as they absorbed its beauty James became uneasy. Although they were ostensibly alone in the clearing he felt like there was someone there with them. James sensed that they were being watched. His companions began to fell uneasy too and they soon left, making their way back to their campsite.

A beautiful photo of Mt. Monadnock from Wikipedia. 

When James fell asleep that night he had a strangely vivid dream. He dreamed about his mother. She had cooked something really delicious and kept urging James to eat. In the waking world James had a very good relationship with his mother, but something didn't seem quite right in the dream. Although it looked like his mother, James had the uncomfortable feeling that the figure in his dream was not really his mother but was instead someone pretending to be her. She kept offering him food, but he kept refusing it. Finally he woke up.

Over breakfast he told Kevin and their friend about his strange dream. To his surprise, they both said they had very similar dreams that night. They had both dreamed that trusted, loving people from their lives had offered them food, but they both had felt that somehow things were not quite right. Neither of them had accepted the food.


When James finished his story he said to me, "You know, in a lot of traditional stories the fairies try to get humans to eat fairy food. If a human eats it they're trapped in the fairy world forever. I feel like we encountered something in that clearing, and it wanted us to stay there. I'm glad none of us ate the food in our dreams."

I'll try to put James's story into a regional context. When the Puritans first came to New England they said that there weren't any fairies here. The Puritans had mostly come from East Anglia, a part of England that had a lot of witch lore but not much in the way of fairy lore. Unsurprisingly, New England has a lot of folklore about witches. And had a lot of witch trials.

However, the Indian tribes that lived in New England did have a lot of folklore about small magical beings that lived in the woods, mountains and rivers. This folklore became part of the mainstream culture in the 19th century when it was shared with anthropologists and folklorists. European immigrants from places like Ireland and Scotland also moved into New England around the same time, bringing their fairy folklore with them. People began to see fairies in New England. And in the 20th and 21st century, local fairies called pukwudgies gained prominence in the national media.

New England is no longer a place without fairies. Different cultures describe fairies in different ways, but they seem to agree on a few things: fairies live in the woods, fairies are tricky, and fairies try to entice people to join them. Did my friend actually have a fairy encounter in Monadnock Park? I can't say for sure, but his story is definitely part of a long tradition of people encountering strange things in the New England woods.

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.