May 21, 2016

Aunt Jinny, the Witch of Hillsborough, New Hampshire

When some people think about New England witchcraft, they think "Oh yeah, that terrible stuff that happened in Salem in 1692."

Other people, and this probably includes you gentle reader, know that witchcraft beliefs in New England started before the Salem trials and continued well after them. Interesting witch stories can be found all across New England and well into the 20th century. I even read one recently from the 21st century!

One good source for witch stories is Eva Speare's book New Hampshire Folk Tales (1932). Speare's book has a wide variety of folk stories but includes twelve specifically about witches from different towns in the the Granite State.

I like this one about a woman named Jenny Gilchrist who lived in Hillsborough, New Hampshire on Barden Hill Road. Gilchrist was known in town as Aunt Jinny, but she doesn't seem very lovable:

Aunt Jinny, as she was commonly called, has been described as a little, sallow, weazened (sic), old woman with a fiery temper and vitriolic tongue, whose unhappy experiences in early life had so embittered her nature that she distrusted and shunned her neighbors...

Several stories tell how she terrorized the local miller and scared small children into doing chores for her, but the witchiest stories relate to how she died.

Aunt Jinny was never wealthy, but as she became older she grew ever more destitute. The town officials eventually decided that she should be removed from her home and taken to the poorhouse where she could be taken care of.

The Franklin Pierce homestead in Hillsborough.
When the town constable came to Jinny's house he was prepared for an argument, but she obediently and silently climbed onto his horse behind him. Then they set off for the poorhouse, which was many miles away.

They rode all night but when the sun rose the constable nearly fell off his horse in surprise. Instead of arriving at the poorhouse he realized they were riding back into Aunt Jinny's yard! Jinny had bewitched the horse so she wouldn't have to leave her home.

Jinny ended up dying at home soon after in the following way. One day one of her neighbors noticed one of his sheep was acting strangely. Fearing it was sick and would infect the other sheep he killed it with a club. At that very instant Jinny collapsed in her house. She had of course been bewitching the sheep, and the damage inflicted on the animal was also inflicted on her.

A kind woman who lived nearby came to watch over Jinny as she lay stricken. Wise old people in town warned that woman that if she wanted Jinny to live she should never avert her gaze from her. Witches didn't like to die when people were watching, they said. As long as she kept watch Jinny would refuse to die.

For many hours the woman kept close watch over Jinny, determine that she should live. But eventually she looked away, just for one second. That was all it took. When she looked back Jinny was dead.

There are a couple things I find very interesting about these stories. Aunt Jinny is an archetypal post-Puritan New England witch: a cantankerous and hated old woman who wants to live independently. But it's interesting that the community does try to care for her, even though she doesn't want their help.

I am also intrigued by the idea that a witch won't die while someone watches, which I haven't encountered before. It make sense though in the context of other New England witch lore. While they are alive witches are alleged to work much of their mischief by sending their souls out of their bodies. They do this secretly while no one is watching, often during the night when their families and spouses are sleeping.

When a witch dies, they send their soul out one last final time. They would want to die they way they lived, privately and secretly, unseen by the prying eyes of their neighbors.

One last note: stories about Aunt Jinny also appear in George Waldo Browne's 1921 book The History of Hillsborough, New Hampshire, so she must have been an important part of town folklore. 

May 15, 2016

Tom Cook and the Devil: Be Careful What You Say

Many years ago out in Western Massachusetts there lived a man named Tom Cook.

Tom was not popular in town. He was a "rough sort of customer and it was commonly believed that he was in league with the Devil."

This belief was indeed true. Many years ago Tom had sold his soul to the Devil for material success and had been reaping the benefits ever since.

Well, one cold morning Tom was getting dressed next to his fireplace when he heard someone knocking at the door. When he opened it he was horrified to see the Devil standing there.

"Tom," the Devil said, "You've had a good run but now it's time to pay the price. I'm here to take you down to Hell."

The Devil grabbed Tom's arm as he said this. His grip was firm like iron and burned like hot coals.

Tom gulped. Things didn't look too good, but as the Devil began to drag him out the door he had an idea.

Tom said, "Sorry, can you hold on a moment? I need to put on my suspenders."

The Devil chuckled. What did it matter? Tom's soul was his. "Sure," the Devil said. "I'll wait until you put your suspenders on."

Tom ran to where his suspenders were and threw them into the fire.

"Ooops, sorry, Mr. Devil," he said. "My suspenders are gone. You'll have to wait until I get some new ones!"

The Devil gnashed his teeth, realizing that he had been tricked. With an angry shout he disappeared in a cloud of sulfurous smoke. 

Tom escaped the Devil's grasp, but he was never able to wear suspenders again as long as he lived.


This little story comes from Clifton Johnson's excellent book What They Say in New England (1896). 

Literature is full of stories about people who sell their souls to Satan. Probably the most famous one is Faust, whose story has been told by Christopher Marlowe, Johann von Goethe and even Thomas Mann. Literary stories about deals with the Devil usually end with a human being dragged to hell, and are heavy on the morality.

Folklore is also full of stories about people selling their soul to the Devil, but the folk tales tend to focus less on morality and more on how the bargain is either fulfilled or thwarted. Someone usually gets tricked.

For example, in this story a Connecticut man named Rufus Goodrich sells his soul to the Devil. Rufus wants to be famous. The Devil says, "Sure, you'll be so famous thousands will attend your funeral." Shortly after signing away his soul Rufus falls from a hayloft and dies. When his neighbors finally find his body they notice that it's covered with thousands of flies.

It's a gross story, but illustrates one of the key principles in these folk tales. The language used in the bargain is taken very literally. A person's true intention doesn't matter as much as what they sat. The Devil never actually told Rufus that thousands of people would attend his funeral, did he?

Usually the person who gets tricked is the Devil, as in the story about Tom Cook and his suspenders. The Devil probably meant to say "I can wait a minute or two before I drag you to Hell," but instead he said he'd wait for Tom to put on his suspenders. Again, the literal words are more important than anyone's intention.

You can see some other examples of literalism in this story about the Devil building a barn, or even this Native American story about a dwarf who grants wishes. Be careful what you agree to, and be careful what you say.

May 08, 2016

How To Make A Witch Bottle (And How They Work)

Last fall I gave a talk in Rowley, Massachusetts about New England witchcraft. As part of my program I showed the audience how to make a traditional New England witch bottle. Most people hadn't seen this before, which made me wonder: what are the public schools teaching kids these days?

I'm just kidding about the public school thing. I don't really think the schools need to teach children how to make witch bottles. But if you are interested in knowing how to make one read on. Maybe if you are a home schooler you can work it into your curriculum!

Witch bottles are an old European form of defensive magic, and were brought to New England by the English colonists when they crossed the Atlantic in the 1600s. The Puritan leadership frowned on any form of magic, considering it all diabolic, but many people in New England still practiced various forms of divination and defensive magic. They believed there were witches among them using malevolent magic, and it was best to fight fire with fire.

Witch bottles work on a very basic magic principle. The English colonists believed that a magical connection was made between a witch and their victim when the witch cursed them. The witch's malevolent magic would flow through this connection, causing illness, pain, and various other torments to their victim.

However, the magical connection was a two way channel. The witch sent pain and suffering through it, but the clever person could send pain along it right back to the witch. This could be done without even knowing who the witch was.

The witch bottle was designed to send pain or even death to an attacking witch. Surprisingly, for something so powerful, it could be made using common items found in any home.

There are only three ingredients: a bottle, pins or nails, and urine of the bewitched person. That last one is kind of gross, but I'll explain why it was considered necessary.

It's more of a jar, really, but it's what I had available...

A few notes about the bottle. In some European countries special bottles were sold specially for making make witch bottles. They were usually imprinted with an ugly face, and were often called Greybeards or Bellarmines. Bellarmine was a particularly notorious Catholic Inquisitor, so you can understand why you'd want his image on a bottle that was supposed to defeat witches. I haven't seen any records of Bellarmines here in New England. The early colonists did not have a lot of material luxuries and would have just used whatever bottles were available.

The nails and pins were used to send pain back along the magical connection to the attacking witch. I've seen some modern recipes for witch bottles that include special herbs and things like that. I suppose you could include herbs if you want to, but again I haven't seen any records of that being done in New England. The colonists just used sharp, metal items like needles, pins and nails. If you're feeling creative you could add some broken glass or thorns. Really anything that will cause pain will suffice.

Note: this isn't really urine in this photo, but Red Bull.

The final and grossest ingredient is urine from the bewitched person. A couple years ago I bought a cute little souvenir witch bottle from a Salem gift shop. It contains herbs, salt, a nail, and a little scroll with a spell. It is sealed with wax. It's really nice, but it wouldn't pass muster in the 1600s because it doesn't have any urine in it.

The urine is absolutely necessary for a witch bottle to function. Again, according to the theory behind witch bottles, a witch establishes a magical connection with their victim. This connection links to the victim's physical body. The connection is also linked to any product of the victims body, like their hair, fingernail clippings, or urine.

Many witch narratives from New England tell how a farmer notices that one of his farm animals is acting strangely. Suspecting witchcraft, the farmer will cause pain to his animal by doing things like cutting off an ear or beating it with a stick. The pain he causes to the animal travels along the magical connection back to the witch. Usually these stories end with a mean neighbor being seen the next day with bruises right where the farmer beat his animal or with a missing ear. It was gruesome proof that they were the witch.

Happily, even the early colonists realized they shouldn't beat the hell out of a bewitched child or cut off a bewitched spouse's ear. But because the magic connection is linked to products of the body, not just the body itself, they didn't need to. Instead they just needed to put urine from the suffering bewitched person into the bottle along with the nails. The urine served as a substitute for the bewitched person's body, and mixing it with the nails had the same effect as actually driving nails into that person's body. Pain from the nails would shoot back along the magical connection to the witch, causing harm to them and forcing them to stop bewitching the victim.

In Europe people would usually bury a witch bottle for safe keeping once it was assembled, and many have been unearthed by archaeologists. Not many have been found here in New England, though, even though historians know they were used. One reason might be that the early colonists often added a final special twist to their bottles. Rather than bury them, they would set them in the fireplace until the urine heated up and exploded, which was believed to send extra pain and suffering back at the witch.

DISCLAIMER: Obviously, don't try this at home. Even if you decide to try making a witch bottle, heating it up will just fill your house with boiling urine, broken glass, and hot nails. It might even be worse than being cursed by a witch.

May 01, 2016

How Did Tituba Become Black?

Tituba is one of the key figures in the Salem witch trials. A slave owned by Reverend Parris of Salem Village, she was one of the first people accused of being a witch. She was also one of the first people to accuse others of witchcraft while she was on the stand.

I think it's well-known these days that ethnically Tituba was an Arawak Indian. Reverend Parris and his family had lived as plantation owners for many years in the Caribbean, the Arawak homeland. It seems likely the Parrises purchased Tituba and her husband John as slaves while living in Barbados.

Although historians know that Tituba was an Indian, pop culture tends to portray her as being of African descent. (For example, on the TV show Salem Tituba is played by a black actress and speaks with a Caribbean accent.) For many years I also thought she was black, based on what I had learned when I was a kid.

Ashley Madekwe as Tituba on Salem.

So how did Tituba become black in the popular American imagination? Historian Ben Ray's 2015 book Satan and Salem gives some clues.

Ray claims that it started with famous New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In 1868 Longfellow published a work called the New England Tragedies, which included the play Giles Corey of the Salem Farms. Tituba is one of the main characters.

As the play opens, Tituba is in the woods outside Salem. As she gathers herbs to work evil magic she says:
I know them (herbs), and the places where they hide
In field and meadow; and I know their secrets,
And gather them because they give me power
Over all men and women. Armed with these,
I, Tituba, an Indian and a slave,
Am stronger than the captain with his sword,
Am richer than the merchant with his money,
Am wiser than the scholar with his books,
Mightier than Ministers and Magistrates...

So it's pretty clear that Tituba is an Indian in this play, correct? Well, things get a little murkier in a later scene where Tituba asks Mary Walcott to look into a mirror as part of a magic spell:

Look into this glass.
What see you?

Nothing but a golden vapor.
Yes, something more. An island, with the sea
Breaking all round it, like a blooming hedge.
What land is this?

It is San Salvador,
Where Tituba was born. What see you now?

A man all black and fierce.

That is my father.
He was an Obi man, and taught me magic,
Taught me the use of herbs and images...

An illustration of Tituba (dressed like an Indian) and Mary Walcott from Longfellow's play.

In Longellow's play Tituba's father is not only black, he taught her Obi (or Obeah), which is a system of African-derived magical and religious practices similar to Voudoun/Voodoo. There's no evidence that any of this is true. As far as historians know, Tituba's father was not of African descent and she didn't know Obeah or Voodoo. The only magical act she undertook - making a witch cake out of rye and urine - was done at the behest of Mary Sibley, an Englishwoman who lived near the Parrises. A witch cake is a form of English magic, not Voodoo.

Lonfellow was a popular writer, and Ray claims his play planted the idea that Tituba was at least partly black in the American imagination.

Although Ray doesn't discuss her, historian Marion Starkey probably helped perpetuate the image of Tituba as half-black and half-Arawak. Starkey describes her as "the ageless Tituba, said to be half Carib and half negro" in her popular 1949 book The Devil in Massachusetts. The text on the back cover of my copy describes it as "an authentic historical narrative," but Starkey's description of Tituba just isn't correct. Maybe she got it from Longfellow's play?

Starkey also incorrectly claimed Tituba taught the Salem girls Voodoo:

But there were presently occasions when, in the absence of the elder Parrises, Tituba yielded to the temptation to show the children tricks and spells, fragments of something like the voodoo remembered from the Barbados.

Starkey's books is still popular today.

Tituba teaching the children magic - something that never happened.

Ray claims that another playwright, the 20th century's Arthur Miller, completed Tituba's transformation from Arawk to black. Like Giles Corey, Miller's 1953 play The Crucible features Tituba as a main character. The stage directions describe her this way:

The door opens, and his Negro slave enters. Tituba is in her forties. Parris brought her with him from Barbados, where he spent some years as a merchant before entering the ministry. 

Tituba is not even half-Indian in Miller's play, but is entirely of African descent. That's a big difference between the two plays, but similar to Longfellow Miller also perpetuates the myth that Tituba knew some type of Caribbean magic. In The Crucible, she holds magic rituals in the woods with some of the Salem girls:

I saw Tituba waving her arms over the fire when I came on you. Why was she doing that? And I heard a screeching and gibberish coming from her mouth...

The Crucible is one of the classics of American theater. It's still performed frequently even today and is assigned to high school students all across the country as required reading.

Longellow and Miller weren't historians - they wrote plays and poetry based on history. Writers certainly are allowed artistic license with historic characters, but the challenge is that The Crucible is the main way many Americans learn about Salem.

It's a little strange that so many people think the Salem witch trials were started by a black Voodoo priestess, when that really wasn't the case at all. Our understanding of American slavery might be one of the reasons this myth keeps lingering. When Americans think of slaves in North America, they tend to picture people of African descent. It's obviously true that most slaves were black, but a very tiny percentage of them (like Tituba) weren't.

I also suspect, but have no way of proving, that maybe a little lingering racism and sexism help this myth persist. We now know that the Salem witch craze wasn't caused by a black woman, but for some reason a lot of us still think it was.

April 25, 2016

Pukwudgies in Freetown: Some Fairy Sightings in Massachusetts

Are there little magical people (fairies, if you will) hiding in the woods of New England? Most people would tell you no, but those who have actually seen them would disagree. And the fairies in these parts aren't the cute little ballerinas in tutus that you might expect. Like the landscape, they're rough and more than a little craggy.

It's only recently that legends about New England fairies have become popular, and there's a historical reason for that. 

When the Puritans came to these shores in the 17th century they brought a lot of their folklore with them. They brought their stories about witches and ghosts, and also their stories about the Devil.

This was portable folklore and wasn't specifically tied to the Puritans' old homeland of England. The Puritans thought that witches could be found among their own neighbors and friends here in the New World, and ghosts could be found wherever someone died under duress. And of course, the Devil could be found anywhere in the world.

The Puritans left behind other folklore, though, which was firmly tied to the English landscape. Stories of dragons and ogres didn't cross the Atlantic, nor did stories about fairies. Fairies were believed to reside in specific landscape features like hills or ancient burial mounds, or were attached to ancestral castles. The Puritans left those sites behind when they left England, and left the fairies with them.

Several New England writers commented on lack of fairies in New England. Sylvester Judd, a Unitarian minister of the 19th century, noted that, "There are no fairies in our meadows, and no elves to spirit away our children."

Massachusetts poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in a similar vein: "Fairy faith is, we may safely say, now dead everywhere ... It never had much hold upon the Yankee mind, our superstitions being mostly of a sterner and less poetical kind."


Nathaniel Hawthorne expressed similar thoughts. Although his novel The Scarlet Letter is full of witchcraft and divine omens, heroine Hester Prynne says the following of her child Pearl: "But how strangely beautiful she looks, with those wild flowers in her hair! It as if one of the fairies, whom we left in our dear old England, had decked her out to meet us."

Now I don't want to contradict Whittier or Hawthorne, but there were fairies here in New England. A few English settlers brought their beliefs with them, but the Native Americans who had long called this area home had rich traditions about small magical people who lived here.

For example, the Mohegans tell of the makiawisug, small beings who live under Mohegan Hill in Montville, Connecticut, while the Passamaquoddy of Maine tell stories of the benevolent nagumwasuck and the deadly meckumwasuck. The Penobscot have legends about small helpful beings called wanagumeswak, as well as more dangerous creatures like alambegwinosis, the underwater dwarf man.

Stories about these fairy-like creatures were written down in the 19th century, but didn't find a wide audience. Perhaps it's because their Algonquin language names were difficult for English speaking whites to pronounce, or perhaps it's because readers wanted stories about pretty whimsical fairies with diaphanous wings, not small hairy humanoids lurking in rivers and trees. Whatever the reason, these indigenous fairies were not particularly well-known outside of Native American communities.

That changed in 1934, when Elizabeth Reynard published The Narrow Land: Folk Chronicles of Old Cape Cod. Her book included many Wampanoag legends which were told to her by Wampanoag chieftain Clarence Wixon. Wixon was involved with the Pan-Indian movement, and actually used an Ojibwa term to describe the region's fairies to Reynard: pukwudgee. Sometimes also spelled pukwudgie, for some reason the term caught on with general readers and was even popularized in a 1980s children's book, The Good Giants and the Bad Pukwudgies.

Okay. That was a long introduction, but here's the main point of the post. Recently Tony and I went to the Freetown State Forest in Massachusetts. People have seen pukwudgies there. They are not pretty or whimsical, but are small, hairy and seemingly malevolent.


Christopher Balzano's wonderful book Dark Woods: Cults, Crime and the Paranormal in the Freetown State Forest contains two pukwudgie accounts. They are both kind of creepy.

In the first, a woman named Joan claims she was walking her dog in the forest on a spring day in the 1990s. Her dog ran off the path and dragged her into the woods. When the dog finally stopped she found herself staring at a strange little being standing on a rock:

She describe him as looking like a troll: two feet high with pale gray skin and hair on his arms and the top of his head... His torso made up the majority of his body and he had very short legs. His eyes were deep green, and he had large lips and a long, almost canine nose.

Needless to say, Joan was shocked to see the creature. She stared at it. It stared at her. Finally the dog ran back to the path, pulling her away from the pukwudgie.

That's a weird encounter, but here's the really unsettling part. Several times after seeing the creature in the woods, Joan woke up in the middle of the night to see it staring in her bedroom window. AAAH! The nighttime visitations finally stopped when Joan moved to another county.


The second account in Dark Woods is told by a man named Tom. Tom first saw a pukwudgie when he was a teenager. He had snuck out of his parents house one night to walk in the woods to clear his mind. As he walked down a path he saw a glowing light:

I noticed a dim light, like in the form of a ball, in front of me. It was white and swelled, like it was breathing... It rose to about my shoulders and then flew into the woods. 

Tom followed the light down the path until it disappeared. As he turned to head back home he noticed he was not alone. A short man covered entirely in fur stood nearby. He was about two feet tall, and had a nose like a wolf. The man ran off into the trees with an unearthly moan.

Tom was (un)lucky enough to see a pukwudgie a second time. One night he drove to one of the Freetown State Forest's parking lots and sat in his car. He turned off the engine and the headlights and turned the radio down low, enjoying the solitude.

He soon realized he wasn't alone. Standing in the darkness staring at Tom was the same little man he had seen in the woods. The pukwudgie was about 20 feet away, and he could see its eyes glowing red in the night. Abruptly the engine of Tom's car came on of its own accord, and the radio suddenly blared loudly. In a panic Tom drove home.

Tony and I did not see any pukwudgies while we were in the Freetown State Forest, although there definitely times when the woods did feel quite creepy. What would we do if we did see one? I would probably run like heck for the car. But I think I'd also be thrilled to see one of New England's own fairies.