April 20, 2015

The Ghost of Ram Tail Mill

This Sunday Tony and I made an excursion down to Foster, Rhode Island to visit the Ram Tail Mill ruins. What better way to spend a sunny spring day than visiting a notorious haunted ghost town?

Ram Tail Mill was founded in the 1813 by William Potter, Peleg Walker, and several other partners. The mill was powered by the nearby Ponangansett River, and mechanically spun and wove woolen cloth. Wool comes from sheep which is why it was called the Ram Tail Mill.

William Potter's two sons managed the operations in tandem with Peleg Walker. Walker was supposedly a cranky, disagreeable man, but managed to find his niche as the mill's night watchman. He would patrol the mill buildings with a lantern in his hand, and then ring the bell after sunrise when it was time for the workers to start their day. Things went well for several year and a small village formed around the mill. 

There was always tension between Peleg Walker and the Potters, but at some point it erupted into a major argument. Neither legends or historical records indicate what it was about, but it was bad. It ended with Walker shouting, "You'll have to take the key to this mill from a dead man's pocket!"

 His warning came true. On the morning of May 19, 1822 the bell did not ring. When the puzzled workers arrived from their houses they found Peleg Walker hanging dead from the bell rope. The key to the mill was tucked into his pocket. Walker was 35 years old.

The locals assumed Walker was a suicide and buried his body nearby. Operations resumed at the mill, and with the cranky night watchman gone the atmosphere at Ram Tail was much calmer. But one night the workers and the Potter family were awakened by the mill's bell ringing wildly. They ran to to investigate but found the mill was empty. The bell was ringing on its own.

The mysterious ringing happened on several other nights (usually at the stroke of midnight) until the Potters took down the bell rope. Maybe the rope was just blowing in the wind? This didn't help - the bell still would ring late at night. They finally removed the bell itself.

This brought peace for a short while, but other strange things started to happen. The water wheel moved backwards, against the flow of the river, and the mill's machinery would run by itself late at night. Even worse, someone could be seen walking around the mill at night carrying a lantern. It looked suspiciously like Peleg Walker...

Fearing that the mill was cursed, the workers began left to find other jobs. Without anyone willing to work there the Potters were forced to shut it down. The little village was abandoned and became a ghost town. No one lived there anymore, but Peleg Walker could still be seen wandering through the empty buildings late at night.

The mill burned down in 1873 but kept its reputation as a haunted location. In fact, the 1885 Rhode Island census lists the Ramtail Mill as haunted, making it the only officially haunted place in the state.

We did not see Peleg Walker's ghost, but we did have one weird thing happen to us. As I was taking a photo of the trail that leads directly to the ruins, my phone's camera went a little haywire. The screen just turned blinding white. This happened to me one other time that day. The same thing happened to Tony, but he didn't notice until we got home that some of his photos were all white. Supernatural phenomenon or just a camera malfunction on a bright sunny day?

One of my all white photos!
I definitely felt a little creeped out as we explored the ruins, but it could have just been my fear of deer ticks combined with a very quiet forest. We only saw two other people, and when we asked them if they knew where the mill was they told us they didn't even know there was such a thing. It was really quiet there.

The conservation land is very beautiful and has some amazing stone walls that run along the main trail and into the woods. The walls are covered in lichen, as was the ground at a nearby historic cemetery where we found the graves of some members of the Walker family. (Peleg Walker is buried in another cemetery about a mile away.)

DIRECTIONS: I've read some accounts online of people having trouble finding the ruins, but we got there relatively easily. Take Route 6 west from Providence until you reach Foster. Go south on Rams Tail Road. You'll know you're going the correct way because you'll pass a cemetery on the left. Rams Tail road becomes a dirt road for a while, but when it ends take a left on Central Pike. A short way down the road you'll see the trail entrance with a fire gate on your left. There is space for one or two cars to park.

Follow the path until you reach a four way crossroad. Go left and follow the path as it curves along the water. When the path splits like a T, take the right and follow the path up along the hill. The ruins are at the top of the hill.

My sources for this post: Joseph Citro and Diane Foulds's Curious New England, Rory Raven's Haunted Providence, Michael Bell's Food for the Dead, and Rhode Island's Haunted Ramtail Factory by Thomas D'Agostino and Arlene Nicholson.

April 12, 2015

The Bennington Triangle: Strange Disappearances

I think most people have heard of the Bermuda Triangle. Many people in New England also know about the Bridgewater Triangle, an area in Southeastern Massachusetts famous for paranormal activity.

Maybe paranormal triangles come in threes, because folklore guru Joseph Citro claims there's also one in his home state of Vermont. Centered on Glastenbury Mountain in Bennington County, the Bennington Triangle shares some traits with its Massachusetts cousin. Bigfoot like creatures have been seen there frequently, strange lights are seen in the area, and it has some murky connections to old Native American lore.

However, the Bennington Triangle is most famous for a series of strange disappearances that happened there in the 1940s and 1950s. Hairy humanoids and weird orbs are creepy, but I'm downright terrified by people vanishing.

It's not unusual for hikers, usually from out of town, to get lost in the New England woods, but most often they are rescued by the Park Service. The Bennington disappearances were mostly local folks, though, which makes them much stranger, and they all disappeared without a trace. Well, almost.

The first person to disappear was local hunting guide named Middie Rivers. Seventy-one year old Rivers was a Vermont native and knew Glastenbury Mountain well. On November 12, 1945 he was leading a group of hunters home from a trip up the mountain. Rivers went ahead of the four men, who assumed they would catch up with him. They never did, and didn't find him even when they emerged from the trail. They reported him missing, and despite search parties combing the woods neither Middie Rivers or his body were ever found.

The next person vanished on December 1, 1946. A Bennington College student named Paula Welden set out for a hike alone. She never returned, and once again search parties tracked through the woods trying to find the college sophomore, and once again they found nothing.

Three years later, on December 1, 1949, a Bennington man named Jim Tedford was taking the bus home from seeing family in St. Albans. Although many people saw him get on the bus, he did not get off. Somehow, somewhere along the route he apparently vanished from the vehicle. His bags were still on the bus when it arrived in Bennington.

On October 12, 1950, an eight-year old boy named Paul Jepson disappeared from his family's truck while his mother fed the pigs. Again, neither the boy or his body were ever found. He was followed by Freida Langer, who slipped in a stream while hiking with her cousin on October 28, 1950. She told him to wait while she ran back to their campsite to change clothes. He waited, and waited, and waited... In a familiar ritual, hundreds of people searched the woods in vain for the missing girl.

The final person to disappear was a teenage girl named Frances Christman. In the fall of 1950, shortly after Freida Langer vanished, Christman told her family she was going to visit a friend who lived less than a mile away. She never arrived at her friend's house, and was never seen again.

I said almost all the victims vanished without a trace. There was one exception. Freida Langer's body was found in open ground near a reservoir in May of 1951. That spot had been searched many times the previous autumn, so it seems likely her body had been placed there some time later. Langer's body was too decomposed for a coroner to determine the cause of her death.

Who or what was behind all these disappearances? I've seen a few paranormal theories floating around on the web: UFO abduction, Bigfoot kidnapping, portals into another dimension. Naturally, there's no proof of any of those things, but they're all fun to think about.

More fun than the alternative, which is that these people were murdered and their bodies carefully disposed of. Could these people have been killed by a local serial killer? Many people think serial killers always murder one specific type of person, and this has been reinforced by various Hollywood movies. The six people who disappeared (one of whom was clearly killed) were of various ages and sexes, so therefore according to this line of thought a serial killer couldn't be responsible.

Unfortunately, it's not true that every serial killer goes for just one type of person. That makes a great plot point, but some serial killers just go for whoever is convenient. This FBI report also notes that most serial killers don't travel much and generally commit their crimes in a limited geographic area. It's interesting that all the disappearances happened not only in a small area, but also during the autumn months.

OK, I'm going to stop writing about serial killers because it creeps me out, but here's one thing against the serial killer theory: how did Jim Tedford vanish from a moving bus? I don't think anyone could make that happen.

In the end we're just left with a lot of questions, some spooky disappearances, and one gruesome murder. Be careful when you're out walking in the woods.

April 05, 2015

New England Folk Medicine: Job's Tears

A few weeks ago I was in the Caribbean on a group tour. We visited a lot of beautiful lush islands, including Dominica.

While we were in Dominica we took a bus high up into the hills (really high!) to see the Trafalgar Falls. After parking we trekked off down a trail through the rainforest to see these two two falls, one of which is hot from volcanic activity, while the other is quite cold. We took photos, admired the foliage, saw a land crab hiding in its hole, and then headed back to the parking lot.

Adjacent to the parking lot was a souvenir market where a bunch of local women were selling their wares. I looked at soaps, hot sauce, small raffia animals, etc. Nothing really stood out. Then I noticed one woman selling what looked like necklaces made of spices and white beads.

"Smell it," she said. "It will keep your closet fresh. It has cocoa beans, nutmeg, bay leaves, turmeric and ginger."

I inhaled. It smelled like autumn in a chocolate factory. 

"What are these white beads?" I asked.

"Those are Job's tears," she said. "They grow down near the river banks here."

Job's tears?

"I'll take it!" I said. Actually, I took three, because they were three for five dollars, which seemed like a bargain.

If you think you've stumbled onto the wrong blog, rest assured there is a connection to New England folklore. Job's tears were used in 19th century New England folk medicine.

Job's tears are technically the seed of the coix lachryma plant, which is native to Asia but now grows in warm climates worldwide. When the seeds are harvested they become hard and white. Mostly used for decorative purposes, various systems of folk medicine also prescribe them as cures for different ailments.

In late 19th century New England, for example, it was believed that teething children should wear Job's tears to soothe their teething pains. The folklorist Fanny Bergren documented this in Boston, Portland, Maine and in Boston, Cambridge, and Peabody, Massachusetts.

A pharmacist in Peabody sold them in his store specifically for this purpose, but local mothers also believed they could prevent or cure sore throats and diphtheria. Bergren notes that one mother brought in a string of the beads she had purchased and showed them triumphantly to the pharmacist. The beads, which were white when she bought them, were now dark and stained.

She explained to the pharmacist that the dark stains had been caused when the beads drew the diphtheria out of her sick child's body and into the necklace. The pharmacist, however, suspected it was just dirt from the child's neck.

I'm not sure why people thought Job's tears would cure sore throats and diphtheria. I suppose I can understand the connection to teething babies, since the small white beads resemble baby teeth, but the sore throat connection is unclear to me. If you have any information on this please let me know!

The plant and its beads are of course named after Job, the Biblical character who suffers miserably after God and Satan decided to test his faith. They heaped a lot of suffering upon him, and although he wept a lot Job did not lose faith in God. Job's tears are also called Saint Mary's tears, Christ's tears, and David's tears. With all those Biblical connotations its no surprise they are often used to make rosaries, which seems like a better idea than using them to heal diphtheria. We now live in a world with effective vaccines, so maybe if I lived in the 19th century I would think otherwise.

I found much of the information for this post in Fanny Bergren's article, "Some Bits of Plant-Lore" in the Jan. - Mar. 1982 issue of The Journal of American Folklore.

March 29, 2015

The Witch's Grave of York Maine: Is The Story True?

A while ago someone who reads this blog asked me to post about an alleged witch's grave in York, Maine. What a great idea! I love old graveyards, and I love New England witches. So here's a post that brings those two great tastes together like a Reese's peanut butter cup of the uncanny.

When I was a kid my family went to York, Maine a few times for vacations. I remember going to the beach, and visiting the zoo there. When I was a kid I think it was called York Wild Animal Farm, but these days it's York's Wild Kingdom.

As far as I know, we did not visit the Old Burying Ground, which is located in charming and historic York Village. It's too bad, because as with most charming cemeteries around here it has a weird legend is attached to it. I probably would have enjoyed hearing it.

The legend is about the grave of Mary Nasson, who who passed away in 1774. Her gravestone is a little different than the others. It has a portrait of Mary on it, and is covered with a big stone slab.

Photo from The Journal Inquirer.
A plaque on the cemetery wall indicates that the stone slab was put there by her family to prevent animals from digging around in Mary's grave. Local folklore gives another explanation: it was put there to keep Mary, who was a witch, from rising from the dead.

I think the stone succeeded in keeping the animals away, but it hasn't kept Mary's ghost from coming up to the surface. According to Joseph Citro's Weird New England, her ghost has reportedly been seen pushing local children on swings and giving them wildflowers. Hmmm. For a witch's ghost she doesn't seem particularly menacing. Online I've found quite a few sites claiming that Mary Nasson only acquired her witchy reputation because she was an effective herbalist. Her neighbors didn't understand how her cures worked and therefore thought they were magic. Oh, and maybe she could perform exorcisms...

Image from Atlas Obscura
Those stories indicate that Mary was basically a good person, and if she was a witch she only practiced white magic. Other, creepier stories say Mary was executed for witchcraft and that her gravestone emanates a strange heat. The crows that flock around the cemetery are said to be her familiars. Spooky!

So, was Mary Nasson a good witch, or a bad witch, or just someone who has an unusual gravestone? Are any of these legends true?

I don't know if they are true, but they definitely are old. I thought they might just be recent urban folklore but found they date back to at least the 19th century. I found this passage in ‪1894's Ancient City of Gorgeana and Modern Town of York (Maine) from Its Earliest Settlement‬: ‪Also Its Beaches and Summer Resorts‬ by George Alexander Emery:

Near the southwest corner of the old burying-ground is a grave, with head and foot stones, between which and lying on the grave is a large flat rock, as large as the grave itself. The inscription reads thus: - "Mary Nasson, wife of Samuel Nasson, died August 28, 1774, aged 29 years." No one, at least in this town, seems to know anything about her origin, death or even of the singular looking grave. No other occupant of a grave bearing this cognomen can be found in this cemetery, and the name is unknown in the town. A great many surmises and conjectures have been advanced in regard to this matter, in order to arrive at the facts, if there be any, and to clear up the dark affair, but nothing definite has ever come out of the effort. The writer of this, when a youth, living in York, was given to understand that this stone was placed there to keep down a witch that was buried beneath it.

In short, no one knows the real, historically-documented truth about Mary Nasson. Although George Alexander Emery doesn't believe Mary Nasson was a witch, he adds fuel to the fire by providing yet another legend. According to this one, a disembodied evil spirit used to haunt some rooms in an old house near the cemetery. It was banished from the house, but now roams the cemetery's perimeter, waiting for Mary to arise from her grave and join it.

I don't like to debunk legends; I like to savor them, so I'll just close with a couple thoughts. First, anomalous gravestones often attract legends. Rightly or wrongly, people tend to think that strange graves must contain strange occupants. 

Second, the idea is very old that special effort is required to restrain a restless spirit. For example, in old European vampire lore a stake to the heart literally nails a vampire into its grave. Closer to home, Eunice Cole, an accused witch of Hampton, New Hampshire, was supposedly staked through the heart after death and had a horseshoe placed on top of her. It's not unreasonable (in folk belief) to think that a big rock might keep a ghost from coming out of the grave.

One last note: I am now writing a bi-monthly column for Spare Change News called Bizarre Boston. If you live or work in Boston be sure to buy an issue and help the city's homeless community. You can see one of my columns (about a Boston smallpox epidemic) here.

March 22, 2015

Doppelgangers and Ghostly Doubles in New England Folklore

Many years ago, Sam Cavendish was walking through a swamp outside Cavendish, Vermont. As he trudged through the mucky terrain he noticed another man walking slowly towards him.

As the man drew closer Sam realized that they looked very similar. In fact, the man was an exact double of Sam.

When his double came within walking distance of Sam he spoke, telling Sam that he would die in one year's time. After delivering this dire warning the double vanished.

A year passed. Sam had been invited to a barn-raising, and although it was the day of his alleged doom he went anyway. Barn-raisings were important social events for rural communities, and Sam didn't want to miss the chance to visit with his neighbors. Besides, he didn't really believe his double's warning anyway.

Sam had told everyone in Cavendish about his double's warning shortly after it had been delivered, so all his neighbors knew this was the day that Sam might die. When he arrived at the work site they refused to let him participate. "Too dangerous," they said, "but you can sit and watch."

Sam sat and watched, but when his neighbors went into the house to eat he decided to climbed up on the scaffolding to adjust the work someone else had done. As he stepped back to admire his adjustment he fell off the platform onto the hard ground below. He died instantly. The double's warning had come true.

This story first appeared in 1901 magazine called Scribbler, and the author starts it by writing "But never since the world began has it been told that a man met his own ghost." That's some nice hyperbole, but it's simply not true. In fact a similar story was told in Massachusetts just a few years earlier.

Clifton Johnson includes the following in his book What They Say in New England (1896). A wealthy man come home one winter day to find his wife in tears. When he asked why she said that she had looked out the window and seen herself walking in the snow. She knew this meant she would die soon. Within a year she passed away. As Clifton Johnson ends the story he notes that Abraham Lincoln saw his double shortly before he was assassinated. The idea that seeing your double means death was apparently well known.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, How They Met Themselves, 1864

The concept can actually be traced back to old European folk beliefs and can be found in stories from the Middle Ages and in Viking sagas. The Germans have a specific word for this phenomenon, doppelganger, which literally means "double goer." I've also seen the word double goer used in English accounts of doubles.

One of the core beliefs in old European folklore is that everyone has a soul that looks identical to your physical body. This belief explains a lot of other odd things: that witches can send out their souls to torment people, that vampires have no reflection (because they have no soul), that breaking a mirror is bad luck (because you're damaging your double), and that babies shouldn't look at mirror before baptism (because their souls are not fully attached and will be stuck in the mirror).

Occasionally a person's soul appears to deliver a warning, usually of impending doom. It's the soul's way of saying, "Hey, it's been nice, but we aren't going to be together very much longer." That's what's happening in the stories about Sam Connor and the others.

If you encounter your double you could try running the other way, but it probably wouldn't help. The doppelganger isn't really the problem, it's just telling you what's going to happen. Maybe you should just say thank you and put your affairs in order?

The best book on this topic is Claude Lecouteux's Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages (2003). It focuses mostly on European material but is fascinating nonetheless.