September 14, 2014

The Witches' Sabbath in New England: Part 2

Witch hunting in New England practically disappeared after the brutality and excesses of the Salem witch trials. Those trials served as a wake-up call to the fledgling society of old New England and as time passed more and more people realized they had just been a case of mob mentality running wild. Personal grudges and petty disputes had been erroneously inflated into a cosmic battle of good versus evil.

But that doesn't mean people stopped believing in witches. Folklore from New England is full of stories about witches after the 17th century. And like the witches the Puritans feared, these later witches also gathered to celebrate their Sabbath.

The Reverend Parris's meadow was no longer the main focal point for their magical activities. Instead, witches were said to gather in many different locales across New England for their nocturnal meetings.

For example, Charles Skinner writes in Myths and Legends of Our Own Land (1896) that

Barrow Hill, near Amesbury (Massachusetts) was said to be the meeting place for Indian powwows and witches, and at late hours of the night the light of fires gleamed from its top, while shadowy forms glanced athwart it. Old men say the lights are still there in winter, though modern doubters declare they were the aurora borealis. 

Not far off, in the town of Medway, witches gathered by an enormous, strangely shaped pine tree. They came to celebrate with the Devil, and arrived as weasels, raccoons, and other small forest animals. The tree grew near a swampy depression called Dinglehole, which still exists in the town of Millis. (Millis separated from Medway in the late 1800s.)

In Plymouth, the witches celebrated their Sabbath in a grassy area called the Witches Hollow:

"After you pass Carver Green on the old road from the bay to Plymouth", said one of these women, "you will see a green hollow in a field. It is Witches' Hollow, and is green in winter and summer, and on moonlit nights witches have been seen dancing in it to the music of a fiddle played by an old black man. I never saw them, but I know some people who saw witches dancing there..." (William Root Bliss, The Old Colony Town and Other Sketches, 1893)
Those three are just a few examples from Massachusetts. There are many examples from the other New England states. In Connecticut, the witches held their Sabbath in an area called the Devil's Hopyard, while in 19th century New Hampshire it was believed they congregated at night in abandoned houses. They traveled there in spectral form, and sometimes forcibly dragged the spirits of their sleeping neighbors along with them. It was an invitation they couldn't resist!

The idea that innocent people can be dragged to a witches' Sabbath is an old one. During the Salem trials, a man named John Ring testified he had been
strangely carried about, by daemons, from one witch-meeting to another, for near two years together.. Unknown shapes... which would force him away with them, unto unknown places, where he saw meetings, feastings, dancings... (Joseph Merrill, History of Amesbury, 1880)

Witches often flew spectrally to their Sabbaths, or traveled there in the shape of animals. Sometimes, however, they would ride spectral horses, which were usually the captive spirits of sleeping neighbors. There are quite a few legends where witches throw an enchanted bridle over the head of a sleeping man and ride him all night, quite often to the Sabbath. The man who was witch-ridden would awake exhausted, and sometimes complain of a pain in his mouth where the bit had been.

Another story from Plymouth tells of witches using magic bridles to transform bales of straw into black horses, which they ride to an abandoned house for a Sabbath celebration. When they arrive they dance around a mysterious black fiddler.

One of the stranger Sabbath stories comes from the village of Moodus, in Haddam, Connecticut. Moodus is famous for strange, subterranean noises that have been heard for centuries. Several explanations have been proposed for these noises, which are described as sounding like thunder or cannon shots. The local Indians told the earliest settlers that a god who was unhappy with the English colonists caused the noises. Other explanations have claimed the sounds are caused by pearls growing in the nearby rivers' shellfish (???), or by micro-earthquakes.

The explanation most relevant to our current topic is the following:

It was finally understood that Haddam witches, who practised black magic, met the Moodus witches, who used white magic, in a cave beneath Mount Tom, and fought them in the light of a great carbuncle that was fastened to the roof... If the witch-fights were continued too long the king of Machimoddi, who sat on a throne of solid sapphire in the cave whence the noises came, raised his wand: then the light of the carbuncle went out, peals of thunder rolled through the rocky chambers, and the witches rushed into the air. (Skinner, Myths and Legends of Our Own Land)

Machimoddi seems to be a name for the Indian manitou who ruled over Moodus, and his appearance in this story shows how Algonquian and English supernatural themes sometimes merged. Another version of this story appearing in a 1901 edition of Connecticut Magazine says the witch battles were refereed by the Devil. 

A witch battle seems different from the traditional witches' Sabbath, but European stories of battles between supernatural beings may originally have contributed to the idea of the Sabbath. Carlo Ginzburg, the Italian historian I mentioned last week, claims many European cultures shared a common myth: that good supernatural beings, often people whose spirits could leave their bodies at night, would fight evil supernatural beings, usually witches, for the fertility of the land and bounty of the harvest. Quite often, the battle was between the spiritual warriors of two adjacent villages, as in the story about Moodus.

Historical records show that many people in Europe thought they did leave their bodies at night to participate in these battles, and they shared this information openly with neighbors. As you can imagine, they were not popular with the Catholic Church, and these night battlers were often accused of witchcraft. Over time and under the influence of the Church, the myth changed. Rather than good and evil spirits fighting for fertility, these nocturnal gatherings were now said to filled only with evil spirits (witches) who worked for the Devil. Voila! The idea of the witches' Sabbath was born.

I don't know where the story about the battling witches of Moodus originated, but it's amazing to see such an old European mythic idea in Connecticut. It's definitely something that could use more investigation, but for now I'll just accept it as one more mystery of the witches' Sabbath. I hope you enjoyed this little overview of the Sabbath, and be careful when you walk around at night...

September 07, 2014

The Witches' Sabbath in New England: Part 1

Imagine yourself walking through the New England forest on a moonlit night. You're lost in your thoughts, concentrating on the path so you can get home safely, when suddenly you hear the sound of voices off among the trees. 

You stop, and looking off into the woods you see a fire flickering. You see silhouettes of women and men gathered around it. A tall dark figure climbs onto a boulder. Holding a book in one hand he begins to speak in a deep, sepulchral voice. Is it the local minister holding a special outdoor service?

Curious, you leave the path and draw closer. As you get closer to the fire you realize the man on the boulder isn’t the pastor, and maybe isn’t even fully human. You’ve stumbled upon the witches’ Sabbath.

Ooops. Make sure you don't sign your name into that big book they're offering you...

That witches gather together to work evil magic communally is an idea appearing sporadically throughout history, but texts like the Compendium Maleficarium made it very popular in Europe beginning sometime in the Renaissance. Medieval Europe had previously been riven by conspiracy theories claiming lepers, Muslims or Jews were conspiring to overthrow Christianity, but with the witches’ Sabbath Europeans could now fear that their own neighbors were conspiring with the Devil to destroy society. Truly, the Renaissance was an age of progress!

Detail from a painting by Goya.

The historian Carlo Ginzburg gives a brief summary of what the Sabbath entails:

Male and female witches met at night, generally in solitary places, in fields or on mountains. Sometimes, having anointed their bodies, they flew, arriving astride poles or brooms sticks; sometimes they arrived on the backs of animals, or transformed into animals themselves. Those who came for the first time had to renounce the Christian faith, desecrate the sacrament and offer homage to the Devil, who was present in human or (most often) animal or semi-animal form. There would follow banquets, dancing, sexual orgies. Before returning home the female and male witches received evil ointments made from children’s fat and other ingredients.

Ginzburg is an Italian historian, and he writes mostly about continental Europe. The Sabbath was not as prevalent an idea in the British Islands, and since Englishmen originally colonized this area it was not at first prevalent here either. The earliest, pre-Salem witch trials don’t mention any Sabbath-like meetings, just solitary witches working alone.

The Salem trials changed that. So many people were accused of witchcraft it seemed obvious they must be working together. As the trials went on the image of the witches’ Sabbath began to appear in both the accusations and confessions. It was similar to what appeared in European trials, but with some significant differences.

It was not called a Sabbath, but instead was called a witch meeting. The Puritans called their Sunday religious service “Sunday meeting”, so it makes sense the witches would use a similar term for their gathering. Unlike the European version, the Salem witch meeting didn’t involve sexual orgies or ointments made from babies’ fat. Instead, the witches gathered to listen to the Devil or his earthly delegate (supposedly the Reverend George Burroughs) urge them to work harder and overthrow God’s kingdom in New England. The witches and their master wanted to found a social order where people could “live bravely, in equality, with no future resurrection or judgment, no punishment or even shame for sin.” Just as the witches’ meeting was a reversal of Sunday meetings, their social order was going to be a reversal of the Puritan one.

To drive home this point, the witches held their meetings not in a remote forest or hilltop, but in a meadow next to the home of Salem’s minister Samuel Parris. They also celebrated an unholy sacrament by eating “red bread” and red wine. Many witches allegedly signed their pacts with the Devil using a red liquid, and it is implied that human blood was an ingredient in the bread, wine and ink.

It’s important to note that the witches supposedly attended this meeting with their spectral bodies, not their physical ones. Even those witches who flew there astride poles did so in spirit form. No one could see the witch meetings except those who attended and those who were afflicted by their magic. It happened invisibly right in the middle of Salem Village. At least, that's what was said during the trials.

A photo from Rob Zombie's film The Lords of Salem.

The Salem witch trials lasted only a year before they fell apart under the weight of ever broader accusations. But the idea of a witch’s Sabbath in New England became imprinted into the folk consciousness and literature of our region.

Probably the most famous literary depiction of the witches’ Sabbath appears in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 story “Young Goodman Brown.” Maybe you haven't read this one since high school, so here's a refresher.

The title character leaves his wife (the aptly named Faith) alone in their Salem home one night to journey with a mysterious stranger deep into the forest. The stranger (who is clearly the Devil) is leading Goodman Brown to a witch meeting so he can sell his soul. Brown is hesitant to sign himself over to Satan, but as he walks he sees many prominent neighbors heading in the same direction, including the woman who taught him the Christian catechism and the church deacon.

Goodman Brown finally arrives at a clearing in the forest dominated by a large boulder shaped like a pulpit. Gathered in the clearing are hundreds of people including the prominent pious leaders of Salem, notorious sinners, and even the local Indians. Goodman Brown is amazed to see them all mingling together.

The Devil says,

“There are all who ye have reverenced from youth. Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet here they are the all in my worshipping assembly. This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds; how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows’ weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers’ wealth...”

The Devil prepares to baptize (with blood) Goodman Brown and a young veiled woman, but when the woman is revealed to be his wife Faith, Goodman Brown shouts for her to look to Heaven and resist Satan. The Sabbath vanishes in an instant, and Brown staggers into Salem as the sun rises. His neighbors and wife greet him warmly, never mentioning the Sabbath, but Brown recoils at their touch.

Had Goodman Brown really just spent the night asleep in the woods? Was it all really just a dream? Perhaps, but for the rest of his life Goodman Brown is aware of the miasma of evil surrounding humanity. When he dies his family “carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom.”

I'm sorry to end on a grim note, but when you read Hawthorne you have to expect that. But don't be too sad. Next week I'll delve into the more folkloric aspects of the witches' Sabbath, which are a little more fun. 

My sources for this week's post: Carlo Ginzburg Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath; Marilynne K. Roach The Salem Witch Trials. A Day-By-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege; and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown."

September 01, 2014

The Lingering Wolf: Israel Putnam's Acts of Heroism

Israel Putnam (1718 - 1790) is one of the great folk heroes of Connecticut. He had the type of crazy exploits that could only be had in our country's infancy.

For example, Putnam escaped British soldiers during the Revolution by leaping over a cliff with his horse. He challenged someone to a duel where they both sat on lit kegs of gun powder. He was even briefly the commander-in-chief of American forces during the Revolution. He is also rumored to have been the person who said, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes" at the Battle of Bunker Hill. I don't anyone alive will ever be quite so heroic.

Before he became a war hero Putnam was a hard-working farmer in Pomfret, Connecticut. He had moved to the town in 1739 at the tender age of 21. But even as farmer Putnam demonstrated heroism.

Israel Putnam

Pomfret was a prosperous farming community, but it had one major problem. A she-wolf lived on the outskirts of town, and she and her pups frequently ravaged the town's livestock. The townspeople had been able to trap and kill all her children, but the she-wolf herself always escaped their snares. But not without damage - she had once lost two of her toes in a trap.

One winter day Israel Putnam went to check his livestock, and was horrified when he entered the barn to see that seventy of his sheep and goats had been slaughtered. Outside the barn he saw wolf prints in the snow leading into the woods. One of the paw prints only had three toes.

Putnam rounded up some neighbors, and along with one of his slaves and some hounds set off to track down the she-wolf. The animal's tracks led them through the woods and across the hills for miles, until they led at last into a cave only a few miles from the Putnam farm. Putnam laughed! He had the murderous wolf trapped.

He first sent one of his hounds into the cave. Putnam and his neighbors heard terrible growling and barking from inside the cave. The hound came running out, wounded and bloody and with its tail between its legs. Putnam thought, "Hmmm! Time for plan two."

Putnam turned to his slave and instructed him to enter the cave and kill the wolf. Having seen what happened to the wolf, the slave refused. Putnam thought for a moment and said, "Alright, then I'll do it myself."

Putnam asked his neighbors to tie a rope around his ankle and then crawled into the cave, which was long, low and narrow. As he reached the end of the cave he could see the wolf's eyes shining in the torchlight. It growled menacingly. Putnam realized he had left his rifle outside, so he pulled on the roped. His neighbors pulled him out as fast as they could, dragging him across the sharp stones and ripping his clothes.

Bloodied but still determined, he grabbed his rifle and crawled back into the cave. His neighbors heard a single gunshot, and felt a tug on the rope. They pulled Putnam out (more slowly this time), and when he emerged from the cave he had the wolf with him. It was dead.

An 1835 drawing of the wolf's den (Connecticut Historical Society)

The wolf was hung on a spike inside the local tavern, and all the local farmers came to celebrate. Israel Putnam was declared a hero, and this youthful act of heroism set the tone for the rest of his illustrious life. Would he ever have been a war hero if he hadn't first killed that wolf?

The wolf is certainly still closely associated with Israel Putnam. Wolf heads adorn his monument in Brooklyn, Connecticut, and when the Abington Social Library in Abington, Connecticut wanted to honor Putnam's memory they asked a sculptor to carve a wolf statue from wood.

Things didn't go too well for the library. The sculptor made them a statue, but it burned in a fire of unknown cause before he could deliver it. He carved a second one, but this too burned in a mysterious fire. I would have given up, but the sculptor must have really needed a paycheck, because he finally carved and delivered a third statue to the Abington Social Library.

The third statue didn't go up in flames, but something odd happened when it was delivered to the library. Everyone in the building heard the eerie howling of a wolf, which seemed to be coming from outside the building. The next day they saw wolf tracks surrounding the library in the snow. One of the paw prints only had three toes.

The wolf's den is located in Mashamoquet Brook State Park, only a short distance from the library, and a plaque next to the den recounts Putnam's slaying of the wolf. It was the last wolf ever seen in Connecticut, but it sounds like its ghost is still lurking around. Israel Putnam's ghost is also supposedly still lurking around the area, and is seen most frequently in the building where his funeral was held.

Maybe Putnam is waiting for another heroic opportunity, but it was a lot easier to be a hero in the 1700s. New England was much more agricultural then, and of course Israel Putnam had to kill the wolf. If he didn't, more people would lose livestock and possibly starve during the winter. But to a modern sensibility killing an animal doesn't seem quite so heroic. It's not like he killed it with his bare hands - he shot it when it was cornered. And he decided to go into the cave only after his slave refused. A wolf-shooting slave owner would go to prison in the 21st century.

I'm happy the wolf's ghost might still be around. It can keep Putnam's ghost company, and maybe the two of them can resolve some of the conflicting issues of guilt and heroism that this story creates.

I got the information for this week's post from David Philips's Legendary Connecticut: Traditional Tales from the Nutmeg State, and Donna Kent's Ghost Stories and Legends of Eastern Connecticut

August 24, 2014

The Witch of Mashpee, and a Book Release Party

I'm having a party to celebrate the release of my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore. Here are the details:

When: Tuesday, September 9, from 6 - 8:00 pm

Where: Club Cafe, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston

What: Appetizers, cash bar, and me signing books!

Who: You're invited! I hope you can attend!

Now that the obligatory marketing is over, on to the witchcraft.


Last week the murderous Hannah Screecham was the star of this blog. This week her sister Sarah gets a turn in the spotlight.

While Hannah partnered with pirates to bury their treasure and kill anyone who might reveal its whereabouts, Sarah headed to Mashpee and built herself a cottage on the shores of a small pond. The pond is now called Witch Pond, so you can guess what type of work Sarah pursued.

The pond was in the middle of a very dense forest, so dense that even when the moon was full no light could shine through its trees. Most people avoided the place, fearful of the witch's magic, but when times where lean members of the Mashpee tribe would venture into Sarah's domain in search of game.

Sarah was very protective of the forest and the animals that lived in it. If she saw a hunter she cursed them will ill luck, preventing them from killing any game. She could appear and disappear at will in the woods, traveling unseen, though after she disappeared hunters often saw a beautiful young doe or huge black mare running through the trees. Both animals were impervious to arrows and bullets.

One day Sarah saw a particularly handsome Mashpee man hunting near her home. Even in her witch's heart there was room for love, and she fell in love hard. She pursued the man, begging him to be her lover, but he was terrified and refused her. Sarah was persistent, however, and eventually the man relented. They could meet, but he had one condition - she must come to his home outside the forest.

Blinded by love, Sarah agreed. She visited the man, and as the sun set she turned herself into the huge black mare. Playfully she scampered around the man's house, and playfully she let herself be tied to a tree. Once she was securely tied the Mashpee man's smile dropped away, and he pulled out a hammer and four horseshoes. The black mare didn't make a sound as he nailed in the first three, which were made of iron, but the horse neighed in terror and pain when he nailed in the final one, which was silver. When the man was done he ran to get his neighbors so they could see how he had hobbled the witch.

The black horse had vanished by the time they came back, so they went to Sarah's cottage. They found her inside, screaming in pain with a silver horseshoe nailed to her hand.

Once she recovered Sarah returned to her witchy ways, cursing hunters and transforming herself into animals. She gave up on love. The hunters once again avoided her forest, until many years later a particularly grim winter hit the Cape. No game could be found anywhere, and the Mashpee people were starving. In desperation one hunter finally set out for Witch Pond. He was armed with a rifle, and because he remembered the story about the horseshoe he carried with him one silver bullet.

The forest was strangely silent, even for a winter day, and the hunter didn't see any animals as he trekked through the deep snow. As he neared the pond a beautiful young doe leapt out of the woods. It stared at him fearlessly, as if if was taunting him. He fired his silver bullet, and struck the doe in the hear. It disappeared. The hunter made his way to Sarah's cottage, where he found an old woman dead with a silver bullet in her heart.


I find this story sad. Poor Sarah! Lots of witch stories involve death by silver bullet, but the silver horseshoe incident is quite cruel. She was just lonely and looking for some male companionship. Even witches need some love. That part of the story reminded me of the recent movie Maleficent. It's unsettling how misogynist some of these stories are.

Sarah's story is included in William Simmons's Spirit of the New England Tribes, and if you approach it from the Mashpee perspective Sarah's not quite so sympathetic. Historically the Mashpee people had most of their land taken by English settlers, saw their numbers reduced by European diseases, and saw their way of life vanish. I see a woman looking for love and protecting animals in this story, but from a Mashpee perspective Sarah, a white woman preventing the tribe from pursuing their traditional hunt, is probably symbolic of white domination. We know the Mashpee weren't able to displace the whites, but at least in this story they can symbolically kill their oppressor.

The story also conveys metaphysical information about witches, and if you're a historian you can try to figure out whether Sarah really existed. There really is a Witch Pond in Mashpee - was there really a witch? So much to consider in one short (and sad) story.

August 17, 2014

Hannah Screecham and the Pirates' Treasure: She Was Evil But Loved Her Job

We still have a couple weeks until Labor Day, so I'm still in a Cape Cod state of mind. Here's a weird story about one of the more colorful characters in the Cape's history, Hannah Screecham.

Hannah lived on Grand Island off the coast of Barnstable back in the 1600s. Grand Island (aka Oyster Harbors) is now a very posh neighborhood, but three centuries ago it was desolate and windswept. Hannah Screecham lived there nearly alone - except for occasional visitors who came at night from the ocean.

You see, Hannah was in league with every pirate captain who traveled the New England coast. Smuggling, privateering and piracy were all huge parts of the local economy, and Hannah played a vital yet unsavory role in it. She helped the pirate captains bury their treasure. That might sound like honest hard work, but you've heard the saying "Dead men tell no tales?" That was Hannah's job. She was quite good at it, and was hired by many notorious pirates, including Captain Kidd.

It worked like this. Late at night, a pirate captain would row ashore to Grand Island with a chest of gold and only one other member of his crew. The crew member was always a very recent recruit. Hannah would meet the two men on shore, and lead them to a secluded spot on the island where they could bury their treasure. She would stand watch as the captain and his man dug a pit and lowered in the chest.

Then, once the treasure was put into the deep pit, she would push the unsuspecting crew member down into it as well. The sandy soil would collapse onto the injured (but still living) pirate and bury him alive. When the deed was done Hannah would issue forth a terrifying, shrill cry, which signaled to the waiting pirate ship that its captain was ready to come back aboard.

The pirate captains would pay Hannah with a small pouch of silver, or a pillaged ring, or even a token of their love. But secretly they feared her. She seemed to like her work a little too much. She relished pushing unsuspecting men to their deaths, and her shrill cry had a note of deep pleasure in it.

Eventually Hannah was done in by greed. She lived comfortably off the small payments the captains gave her, but wanted more. She knew where every treasure was buried, so why not take some gold for herself? One moonlit night she took her shovel and unearthed a particularly rich trove of gold. But as she opened the chest she saw pale figures gather above her around the mouth of the pit. They were the ghosts of the men she had killed! As she opened her mouth to plead for mercy a ghostly figure appeared inside the pit with her and wrapped its cold fingers around her neck. As Hannah gasped for breath the pit collapsed around her, burying her forever.

Hannah was just too evil to rest in peace, though. Her own ghost is still supposed to haunt Grand Island, and her trademark shriek can sometimes be heard echoing over the dunes. The treasures she helped hide still remain undiscovered.

That version of Hannah Screecham's story can be found in Elizabeth Reynard's 1934 book The Narrow Land. Another story about Hannah, which appears in a few other sources like Cheri Revai's Haunted Massachusetts, claims that she was not evil, but just an outcast old woman feared by her neighbors. When an outbreak of smallpox struck Barnstable they accused her of causing it through witchcraft and hanged her without a trial.

A group of pirates came ashore by night and cut down her body, burying it in an undisclosed location. When confronted by the townspeople the lead pirate, who was Captain Kidd himself, said that Hannah had been his mother. He had buried her body with his treasure so her spirit could guard it. The people of Barnstable searched many years for Kidd's gold but never were able to find it. Hannah's ghost haunts the dunes near Barnstable, shrieking like a gull.

Hannah was not the only notorious person named Screecham. She had a sister named Sarah, who was a witch. More about her next week!