December 30, 2009

Blue moon on New Year's Eve


I was going to break the news that we'll have a blue moon on New Year's Eve, but Associated Press beat me to the punch. It's good when folklore is covered in the press, but not when the press steals my topic! In case you didn't know, a blue moon is the term for the second full moon in a month. December's first full moon was on December 2, and the second is tomorrow night.

What the AP won't tell you is that the first moon was the Full Cold Moon. The meaning is pretty obvious there! December is cold.

The second moon will be the Full Long Nights Moon. Again, I can see where that name came from. Although the winter solstice was on the 21st, our nights are still very, very long. The shortest days in December had nine hours and four minutes of sunlight. (The 19th, 21st and 23rd were all the same length.) On New Year's Eve, we'll have a whopping nine hours and eight minutes of sunlight. Spend those four extra minutes well! In comparison, our longest day was June 23 with fifteen hours and eighteen minutes of sunlight.

Happy New Year!

December 24, 2009

Have a Merry Christmas - and check your hay!



Currier and Ives image from Hay in Art. There's a site for everything!


Here's a tidbit of Christmas folklore from Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England.

There's an old British saying that's also found in New England: "Half the wood and half the hay you should have on Candlemas Day." Candlemas is celebrated on February 1, which is halfway between Halloween and May Day. You're only half way through the fallow part of the year on February 1, so you better have enough supplies to get you through the rest of the winter. (Groundhog Day is celebrated at the same time as Candlemas, and expresses this same theme).

Clifton Johnson also found this variation of the saying among Massachusetts farmers in the 19th century:

Half the pork and half the hay
On Christmas Day

I think a 19th century farmer would want more than half his supplies left on Christmas, but what do I know? It's still a long way to go until spring.

Johnson goes on to say: "It is related that there was a time when the men would occupy a part of their leisure on Christmas Day in making a tour of the neighbors to see how their hay was holding out." It sounds like a very relaxed way to spend the holiday.

I hope you have a good Christmas and have enough supplies to get through the winter!

December 14, 2009

A Drunken Christmas Part II, with Tragedy and a Recipe



Strangely, I found another piece of lore about Christmas that involves drunken sailors. It's tragic, but oddly also includes a recipe.

On Christmas night 1778, a powerful snowstorm struck Massachusetts. Plymouth was particularly hard hit, and the ships at anchor there had to make a hard decision: stay in Plymouth Harbor and possibly get wrecked ashore, or try to ride out the storm in the open sea where the weather might be even worse. James Magee, the captain of a ship called the General Arnold, decided to stay in Plymouth Harbor.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong decision. The ship was driven onto a sand flat and broken in two by the violent storm.

Captain Magee and his 105 men were trapped on the flat for more than four days, buffeted by winds and drenched by freezing waves. He urged his men to fill their boots with brandy to prevent their feet from freezing. The crew had another idea - they used the brandy to fill their bellies instead.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong decision. Eighty-three of the crew members froze to death. Many others were severely crippled.

Captain Magee wasn't among them. He went on to become a prosperous merchant, eventually buying the Shirley-Eustis House , the former Massachusetts governor's house in Roxbury. He never forgot that deadly Christmas night in Plymouth Harbor, though, and would host a Christmas party every year for invite the surviving crew members and the widows and children of those who had perished.

According Amy Whorf McGuiggan's Christmas in New England (where I found this story), the Shirley-Eustis House museum used to recreate Captain Magee's party each December, serving authentic food and beverages from the 18th century. So, for a little holiday cheer after a melancholy story, here is the recipe McGuiggan provides for Captain Magee's Eighteenth-Century Fish House Punch*. Consume this in moderation!

Mix together the juice of 12 lemons (1 1/2 cups) and several spoonfuls powdered sugar.
Add 1 1/2 quarts brandy
1 pint peach brandy
1 pint rum
1 quart carbonated water
1 quart brewed tea
Add more tea, lemon juice, or water to taste.
Stir well and add slices of oranges.
Serves 18.

*Apparently, Fish House Punch was first invented in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s.

P.S. - The Boston Globe today printed a piece by Stephen Nissenbaum, the author of The Battle for Christmas, which I've mentioned before. In it, he describes what Christmas was like in old New England. The comments posted online about his article are surprising - I guess people don't like hearing their ancestors were drunken, raucous and sometimes irreligious.

December 12, 2009

Ahoy! A Drunken Christmas!



A traditional New England Christmas?

Although the Puritan hierarchy frowned upon Christmas, the lower classes still celebrated their holiday in the traditional Old English way - by getting really drunk.

Here are a few verses from 17th and 18th century almanacs that describe what happened in the month of December:

Strong-Beer Stout Syder and a good fire
Are things this season doth require.
Now some with feasts do crown the day,
Whilst others loose their coyn in play...

The Miser and the Sot
together they have got,
to drink a Pot.

By strong Liquor and Play
They turn night into day.

Some ask a Dram when first come in,
Others with Flip* or Bounce* begin;
Tho' some do only call for Beer,
And that i' th' morn is but mean chear.

(*Note - flip is an alcoholic drink with a raw egg mixed in it. Ecch! I don't know what bounce is - maybe a punch of some kind? This verse describes the robust drinking habits of sailors in December.)

All of these quotes are from Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas, which is a fantastic book. The past was much stranger than I was ever taught in school!

December 05, 2009

The Pilgrim's First Christmas Was a Dud (the Second Wasn't Too Great Either)



I can't believe it's December already! Christmas looms on the horizon.

When most people think of Christmas in New England, I'm sure images of sleigh rides, snowy town commons and greenery bedecked houses come to mind.

Maybe that's how things were in the 19th century, but the first Christmas celebrated here was a real downer. The second was pretty bad as well.

The Puritans and Pilgrims, as I wrote last year, did not approve of Christmas. To them, it had no basis in the Bible and was disruptive. December 25 was to be treated like any other other work day. To make sure everyone felt the same way they did, they made Christmas illegal in Massachusetts from 1659 - 1681.

So, the first Christmas in New England went completely uncelebrated. It wasn't until 1621 that some citizens of Plymouth (new arrivals who were not Puritans) tried to enjoy Christmas. Things didn't go well. A chronicle from that time, with many archaic spellings, notes:

"One the day called Chrismasday, the Governor caled them out to worke ... but the most of this new-company excused them selves and said it wente against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor tould them that if they made it mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led-away the rest and left them; but when they came home at noone from their worke, he found them in the streete at play, openly; some pitching the bar; & some at stoole-ball, and shuch like sports. So he went to them, and tooke away their implements ... Since which time nothing has been attempted that way, at least openly."

(The quote is from Christmas in New England by Amy Whorf McGuiggan.)

November 27, 2009

The Mather Tomb: Occupant #2, Cotton Mather




Thanksgiving is over, so now back to some witchcraft and the occupants of the Mather tomb on Copp's Hill. Its second famous occupant is Cotton Mather, Increase's son.

Cotton was born in 1663. Although he had a stutter, that didn't stop him from entering Harvard University when he was 12 years old. By 25 he was the minister of Boston's North Church. (Note: don't confuse this with the famous Old North Church in the North End, which is an Episcopal church built in 1723). Like his father, Cotton was a prolific writer, producing more than 450 pamphlets and books on religious topics.

Also like his father, Cotton is now most famous for his role in the Salem witchcraft trials.
  • His 1689 book, Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions, is thought to have laid the groundwork for the Salem trials in 1692.
  • Although he was somewhat skeptical about spectral evidence, he still urged the judges to identify and punish all witches. He claimed a curse placed on New England forty years earlier by an executed witch had led to a conspiracy of witches that threatened the fabric of society.
  • Cotton ensured that George Burroughs, a fellow minister, was executed for witchcraft. While on the gallows Burroughs successfully recited the Lord's Prayer; the ability of someone to say this prayer was usually taken as proof they were not a witch. Confused about whether to hang him, the crowd turned for advice to Cotton Mather, who had arrived on his horse. According to those present, Mather said "That the Devil has often been transformed into an angel of light." The crowd kicked away the ladder and Burroughs died.
After the trials ended, Cotton published On Witchcraft: Being the Wonders of the Invisible World, which described the Salem trials and argued for the reality of witchcraft. His timing couldn't have been worse. Public opinion had turned by this point, and the people of Massachusetts now felt the trials were a tragedy and abuse of power. Cotton Mather didn't change his opinion, though, and continued to insist the people convicted in Salem were actual witches.

His reputation suffered greatly, particularly after Boston merchant Robert Calef published Another Brand Pluckt Out of the Burning or More Wonders of the Invisible World, which parodied Mather's book and portrayed both Cotton and Increase as dirty old men who liked watching young girls writhe around pretending to be possessed.

Cotton's reputation suffered permanent damage, and he was refused the presidency of Harvard University. He helped start Yale University instead, and finally died in 1728.

(As for my earlier post on Increase Mather, most of my information comes from Rosemary Ellen Guiley's The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. )

November 22, 2009

Obscure Pies of Olde New England

Thanksgiving is coming up this week, and my favorite part of the meal is the pies. Every year my mother makes three pies: apple (which is pretty common), squash (maybe not so common), and mincemeat (which is kind of rare these days). I asked her once why these three, and she said they're what her mother always cooked. My grandmother came to Massachusetts from Quebec when she was a small child, so I'm not sure where she learned this repertoire of pies.

SQUASH PIE

When I tell people my family eats squash pie, they generally reply "What?!?" Really, squash pie isn't that different from pumpkin pie, it's just more golden in color and lighter in flavor. I'm not sure if this pie is eaten outside of New England, but the main source for canned squash is Maine's own One Pie company. (As this Web site notes, some cans of One Pie squash may have the incorrect instructions on them, so be careful.) Squash pies have been featured in New England cookbooks going back to the 1700s. In the past recipes for both pumpkin and squash pie often involved raisins, and some had raw gourd slices as an ingredient. Sounds like there was a risk of inappropriately crunchy pies back then.

MINCEMEAT PIE

Pumpkin and squash are both native to New England, but mincemeat is something the English brought with them when they colonized. For those not familiar with it, mincemeat (or mince) is a mixture of dried fruit, spices, sugar, and perhaps liquor. Sometimes it also contains beef suet, but vegetarian versions are available. Small mincemeat pies are traditionally served around Christmas time in England, but here in New England large pies are the norm. Some people find the taste cloying and overwhelming, but I love it! Recipes for mincemeat can be found in New England cookbooks dating back to the early 1800s. It can be dated back to the Middle Ages in England.

BOILED CIDER PIE

There's one obscure pie I'm eager to try but never have - the boiled cider pie. Basically, you combine eggs, sugar and hot water with boiled cider and bake in a pie crust. The obvious question came to my mind when I first read this recipe: "What the heck is boiled cider?" Well, it's what it sounds like. If you were to boil a gallon of cider, it would reduce in time to a thick jelly like substance. As my copy of The Old Farmer's Almanac Colonial Cookbook explains, one gallon of cider will yield about one cup of boiled cider. I'm not sure what it tastes like, but you can buy boiled cider through Vermont's King Arthur Flour company if you don't want to make your own. You can read about some people who've boiled their own cider for pies here and here.

Whatever type of pie you have this Thursday, enjoy it and be thankful!

November 15, 2009

The Mather Tomb: Occupant #1, Increase Mather



I restrained myself from writing about witches throughout October, and focused on monsters instead. Now it's November, and I'm free again to about witches and all things witchy.

So, here's a photo the Mather tomb on Copp's Hill in Boston. When I hear the name Mather, I think of witches. The Mathers buried here would spin in their graves to hear that, but it's true.



Increase Mather was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1639. The son of a prominent Puritan minister, he graduated from Harvard in 1656 and eventually became the pastor of Boston's North Church. He was also the president of Harvard from 1685 to 1701.

Where's the witchcraft connection? Well, as the most important minister in New England, he became very concerned when reports of witchcraft reached him. Clearly, he said, it was caused by a lack of religion in Massachusetts. (How much more religious could the colony have been? It was already a Puritan theocracy.)

To combat the rising tide of evil, he wrote An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences, which described cases of witchcraft and supernatural happenings. It was a huge hit. Even though the colony was a theocracy, people still wanted to read juicy stories about unseen demons pelting New Hampshire farmers with stones and possessed serving maids with giant tongues in Groton blaspheming God.

When the Salem witch trials began, Increase did not get directly involved. Instead, he published another tract, this time titled Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men; Witchcrafts, Infallible Proofs of Guilt in such as are Accused with the Crime, which urged people to be cautious in accepting spectral evidence during the trials.

Spectral evidence was basically psychic hearsay accepted as proof of witchcraft. For example, during a trial an allegedly bewitched girl might say, "Ahh! Goodwife Corey is biting me on the arm!" The judges would accept this as evidence even though: 1. no one else saw Goodwife Corey bite the girl, and 2. Goodwife Corey and all the other witches were restrained in plain sight of the court. Since she was a witch, it was assumed she could send her spirit to cause mischief even while restrained.

Showing some wisdom, Increase Mather thought spectral evidence was not sufficient to convict someone. He didn't show as much wisdom as one might hope though, because here's what he did consider sufficient evidence: testimony from neighbors, and "the fact that some of the afflicted girls were relieved of their fits when a concoction of rye paste, water and the hair and nail clippings of the accused witches was mixed together and set afire."

Needless to say, once the hysteria died down and it was revealed that the bewitched girls had been faking, people in Massachusetts wanted Increase to recant and admit he was wrong. He never did, either out of pride or because he was friendly with the trial judges. His reputation suffered but not as badly as that of his son Cotton, who I'll write about soon.

(I got most of my information from Rosemary Ellen Guiley's The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. )

November 05, 2009

A Story for Bear Hibernation Day


A black bear - photo from this site.

According to The Old Farmer's Almanac, today (November 8) is the day when black bears return to their dens for the winter. Hmmm. I wouldn't go walking in the woods covered in cheese just yet, though. I'm sure bears really decide when to hibernate based on things like temperature and food supply, not the calendar.

I wouldn't really be surprised if bears did have calendars, though, since they're the most human-like animals in New England. They can walk on two feet like us and they're omnivorous like us. That's one reason bears appear in so many fairy tales and folk stories.

The Wabanaki tribes of Northern New England have plenty of stories about bears. Many of them are variations on this story, "The Bear Abductor", which I found in Frank Speck's 1935 article "Penobscot Tales and Religious Beliefs." (FYI, the Penboscot are one of the five tribes that make up the Wabanaki; the others are the Abenaki, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac).

The story goes something like this: once upon a time, a little boy and his parents were out looking for berries in the woods. They searched for quite a while, but didn't have much luck. Finally, when they found a rich berry patch, they put the boy down so they could pick the berries. After all, what harm could befall him in the woods? But when they were done, they were horrified to see their son had disappeared. They had only turned their back for a few moments, and now he was gone.

They searched for days but couldn't find him. Eventually they gave up and assumed he was dead. But he wasn't dead. Instead, a bear had taken him while his parents weren't looking. It carried the little boy off to his den, and raised him like his own child, teaching him how to hunt, how to forage for food, and how to run on all fours. For seven years the boy lived happily as a bear.

One day the bear father told him they were being tracked by hunters, and that they would catch and kill the bear. Before this happened, he returned the boy to his human parents. Before letting him go, he made the boy promise to never kill a mother bear. The boy solemnly swore this and ran into his old house on all fours. The hunters caught up with the bear and killed him.

The boy's human parents were overjoyed to see him, having thought he was long dead. They were a little puzzled that he walked on four legs and couldn't speak like a person, but in time he re-learned to be human. However, from his time as a bear he still remembered two things: how to hunt, and the promise he made.

Eventually the boy became a man and got married. Because of his hunting skills, he provided well for his wife, who feasted on every type of game the forest provided. But there was one thing she craved she never got to eat: bear meat.

"Why won't you kill a bear for me? They're so tasty, particularly mother bears! If you love me, you'll kill a bear", she said. She pleaded and taunted, until he promised to kill a bear for her.

He searched through forest for quite a while, but didn't have much luck. Finally, he sighted a bear. A mother bear. He thought briefly of the promise he made to his bear father, but let the thought go. He had made the promise as a child, and was now a man. He pulled back the string of his bow. He released the arrow, which found its mark in the bear's heart. She died quickly. And when she died, the boy disappeared, never to be seen again.

November 01, 2009

Happy Cabbage Night?


The streets near my house are full of smashed pumpkins, and discarded candy wrappers are blowing around with the leaves. Another Halloween come and gone. It's my favorite holiday, so I'm always a little glum when it's over. Why can't Halloween be longer?

Well, in the early twentieth century it was longer, often lasting several nights. Here's an account by Charles W. "Charlie" Turner that appeared in The Haverhill Gazette's October 27, 2005 issue. Charlie's looking back nostalgically to his childhood in the Acre, a dense urban neighborhood in Haverhill, Massachusetts.


"It all began on October 28, which was known as Cabbage Night. ... Many families raised cabbages in their gardens and young men went there to steal them. Afterwards, they raced through the streets throwing the plants at houses along the way. Ma warned me to stay away from the windows just in case..."

"The second night, Oct.30, was called Beggars-Night. This was the night when children put on their costumes and went from door to door in search of treats. ..."

"On Oct.31, Halloween came and most everybody stayed home. This was the night for mischief ... a return to those places that ignored a child's request for a treat. Most of the time it was cut clotheslines and soaped windows in our neighborhood. However, on the other side of Main Street, things could be worse. There were broken windows, messes on porches, and even an occasional tipped car."


Charlie doesn't indicate the years he's remembering, but my guess is the 1930s and early 1940s. My mother is a Haverhill native, and she has similar memories from her childhood in the '40s.

Halloween used to be a much more raucous holiday marked by occasional rioting and widespread vandalism. Although celebrations still sometimes get out of hand these days, its much more sedate. For this, we can thank civil authorities who tamed Halloween in the mid-1900s through a program of parades, school parties, and child-friendly trick-or-treating. Rather than ban the holiday, they channeled its energy into less destructive outlets. I guess I'll take one crime-free night of Halloween over three nights of urban chaos.

(The best source for a history of North American Halloween that I've read is Nicholas Rogers' Halloween. From Pagan Ritual to Party Night.)

October 25, 2009

October Monster Mania: the Black Dog of West Peak



A small, non-descript black dog is said to live on West Peak, a mountain near Meriden, Connecticut. He's cute and friendly, but a little unusual. His bark is soundless, and he doesn't leave any footprints, even in the snow. But still, how dangerous can a little black dog be?

Quite dangerous if you see him three times. There's a local saying about the black dog: "If a man shall meet the Black Dog once, it shall be for joy; and if twice, it shall be for sorrow; and the third time, he shall die." (Note to self: Don't visit Meriden more than twice!)

Legends about the black dog were described by the New York geologist H.W. Pynchon in an 1898 article in Connecticut Quarterly. Unfortunately, Pynchon himself became part of the dog's legend.



In his article, Pynchon writes he first met the black dog while riding his buggy towards West Peak on a beautiful spring day. The little canine trotted beside his carriage, climbed with him up and over the mountain, and even waited outside while he had lunch in a tavern. Pynchon enjoyed the dog's company, but it ran off as evening came on.

A few years later, Pynchon returned to West Peak with a fellow geologist. As they climbed, Pynchon told his friend about the black dog he had seen years ago. "Funny," said the friend, "I've seen that dog twice before while climbing this mountain in the past." (Cue ominous music here.)

As they continued their climb, the two men noticed a small shape waiting for them on a high ledge. It was the black dog, happily wagging his tail. Suddenly, Pynchon's friend lost his grip and fell hundreds of feet to his death. He had seen the dog three times, and died. Pynchon had now seen dog twice, and his day ended in sorrow.

That's all Pynchon wrote in Connecticut Quarterly. You'd think he would avoid West Peak, but he didn't. Several years later, he once again climbed the mountain, this time alone. He never came down alive. Instead, his body was discovered at the bottom of the same cliff where his friend died. Had he seen the black dog for the third fatal time? Only the mountain and the dog know for sure.

A little black dog might seem like an unusual monster, but monstrous black dogs are very common in British folklore, where they too are often portents of death. The most famous black dog in the U.K. is the Black Shuck, who has haunted East Anglia for centuries, and has even caused church towers to collapse. The rock band The Darkness recorded an obscenity laced ode to the Black Shuck. Sadly, there's no real video available, just music.



The black dog of West Peak is less outrageous than its British cousins. After all, he does live in Connecticut, a state known for its good taste.

(This story is well known, but I got my information from David Philips' Legendary Connecticut. Traditional Tales from the Nutmeg State.)

October 18, 2009

October Monster Mania: the Bennington Monster

In the early 19th century, a stagecoach full of passengers was traveling by Glastenbury Mountain near Bennington, Vermont. The night was rainy, and the horses were skittish - perhaps more skittish than they normally would be in bad weather. Eventually, the driver brought the carriage to a halt and dismounted because the road had been washed out.

And that's when he noticed the enormous footprints in the muddy road. Were they human? Were they animal? He couldn't tell. The other passengers left the coach to look at the prints, but no one could ascertain what type of creature made such unusual tracks.

And that's when some thing, unseen in the dark, attacked the coach and knocked it over with several blows. The passengers saw a pair of eyes staring at them from the dark, and then heard something roar and rush off into the darkness.

They had an encounter with the Bennington Monster.

The Bennington Monster has been seen many times since then. For example, in September 2003, Ray Dufresne of Winooski Vermont was driving by Glastenbury Mountain when he saw a large "black thing" by the road. It was well over six feet tall, and was "hairy from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet."

On September 16 that same year, a writer named Doug Dorst was driving near Bennington College when he saw something he at first thought was a man in a snowsuit. As he got closer, he realized the enormous, stocky creature he saw wasn't quite human. Several other sightings occurred around the same time in 2003.

I remember reading about this in 2003. At the time, local law enforcement officials thought it was Michael Greene, a known prankster who lived in the area. But Mr. Greene denied it, saying he wouldn't be dumb enough to run around the woods in a furry costume in hunting season.

So what is the Bennington Monster? A Yankee relative of Bigfoot? The folks over at the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization certainly have collected reports from Vermont, so maybe it is.

Or maybe, like the other creatures I've posted about this month, it's just another reason to keep your doors and windows locked when you're driving through the dark woods.

(I got most of this information from Joseph Citro's book Weird New England.)

October 10, 2009

October Monster Mania: the Dogtown Werewolf

The other night, I had a dream about the New England modernist painter Marsden Hartley. In the morning, I started to research Dogtown online. Surprise! Marsden Hartley painted there in the 1930s. What a strange coincidence.


"Dogtown" by Marsden Hartley.

Dogtown is surrounded by strange coincidences. Some of them, added together, may lead one to believe New England's only werewolf lurks on this stony (yet swampy) plateau.

But before the werewolf, the basics. Dogtown is located between Gloucester and Rockport on Cape Ann, Massachusetts. In the late 17th and early 18th century it was a village of about one hundred families, who had settled on the plateau as a refuge from pirates and the British navy. After the war of 1812 the coastal areas became safer, and most villagers moved to Rockport and Gloucester.

Only a handful of widows, independent-minded women and vagabonds remained, and they soon acquired a reputation as witches. The feral dogs they kept for protection gave the village its name. In 1830 Dogtown's last inhabitant, freed slave Cornelius Finson, was moved to the Gloucester poorhouse. Dogtown became a ghost town.

Dogtown is now a rugged 3,000 acre park where visitors can see the village's abandoned cellar holes, and large boulders that philanthropist Roger Babson employed local masons to carve during the Great Depression.


Does this boulder inspire, or just make you feel depressed?

Where does the werewolf fit in? Look at these coincidences:

  • According to the late folklorist Richard Cahill, the local Agawam Indians claimed their ancestors had heads like dogs, and that eating a certain plant would give anyone the same canine features. (Note: I haven't seen this folklore in any other sources, so I can't verify the Agawam Indians really believed this.)
  • In the early 1600's, the first European settlers on Cape Ann were regularly attacked by wolves.
  • One of Dogtown's last inhabitants, a woman named Daffy Archer, wore a wolf's tooth around her neck. FYI, she also made medicinal brews out of snail mucous.
  • In the 1890s, a Gloucester sailor named James Merry successfully wrestled to the ground a bull pastured in Dogtown. On the night September 10, 1892, he returned alone for a rematch, and was found dead the next day with his throat torn out. Friend's didn't think the wound looked like it was made by a bull. He died on the full moon.


James Merry commemorative boulder in Dogtown, borrowed from here.

  • On March 17, 1984, a Boston resident saw a large animal roaming the cliff's above Crane's Beach. Because of its size he thought it might be a mountain lion, but local wildlife officials insist no mountain lions live on Cape Ann. March 17 was a full moon.
  • On March 21, a dead deer was found on Crane's Beach. It had been mutilated, but not eaten. That same night near the road to Dogtown two teens saw a "gray monstrous dog-like animal, running into the woods. It had big teeth and was foaming at the mouth."

Those are the coincidences. Do they add up to a verifiable werewolf? Maybe, maybe not. But I suggest being extra cautious if you see any big gray dogs near Gloucester or Rockport.

My main resource for all this is Richard Cahill's Things That Go Bump in the Night. I don't think its available online, but you can find it at many New England gift shops.

October 02, 2009

October Monster Mania: Alien Abductors

This month I'm counting down to Halloween with some New England monsters. No witches or ghosts this month - they're so common around here they don't really count as monsters!

Let's start with a little story about an inter-racial couple living in New Hampshire in the early sixties. They both worked for civil rights, were members of the NAACP, and the husband sat on the local Civil Rights Commission. They were pretty forward thinking for 1961. New England has long been the home of innovators.


Betty and Barney Hill

But Betty and Barney Hill didn't become famous for their politics. They became famous because they were the first people in the world to be abducted by a UFO.

On September 19, 1961 the hills were driving home to Portsmouth from Canada when they saw a strange light in the sky. Betty first thought it might be a satellite, but it followed them for many miles. At one point it appeared to briefly land on Cannon Mountain, only to take off and follow them again. Finally, the light (now clearly a flying saucer) descended in front of the Hill's car, causing Barney to brake abruptly. Barney left the car to get a closer look at the saucer, which had moved away from the road and was hovering over an adjacent field. He saw some human (or humanoid?) figures looking through its windows at him. He panicked, returned to the car, and drove back to Portsmouth ASAP.

Sounds like the end of the story, no? It should be, but Betty was troubled by strange dreams throughout that fall, Barney developed warts in an unusual pattern on his genitals, and neither of them could account for two hours of missing time. They both seemed to have amnesia about part of their trip! Concerned, they talked with local UFO researchers and underwent several hours of hypnosis.

Their sessions with the hypnotists revealed what happened in those two hours. The Hills had been taken aboard the saucer by a group of small men with large bulbous foreheads. Betty's nervous system was scanned, samples of her skin and hair were taken, and the men tested her to see if she were pregnant. Barney received a similar exam, but his also included an anal probe (ouch!) and a sperm sample taken through a strange cup placed over his genitals. (The warts he developed mirrored the outline of the cup.)


The Hills gained notoriety when their story appeared in the press and as a popular book, The Interrupted Journey. It was later filmed as a TV movie, The UFO Incident.

Both of the Hills are now deceased, but their experience left an important legacy to American culture. Thousands of people have claimed since that they too were abducted by aliens, spawning a small industry of books and movies. Alien abduction was even studied by a Harvard psychiatrist.


Estelle Parsons and James Earl Jones (the voice of
Darth Vader) in The UFO Incident.


What really happened to the Hills? Was it all just lies? Were the memories really just constructed by the hypnotists? Was it a spontaneous release of the naturally occurring hallucinogen DMT? Perhaps the aliens weren't really from space at all, but are related to elves or fairies, who also show an unhealthy interest in human reproduction in old folktales.

Or, maybe, the Hills really were abducted by aliens.

Whatever the case, it's pretty dark in the White Mountains at night, particularly in the fall and winter. If you find yourself driving up there keep your doors locked!

September 27, 2009

The Charlesgate: Terror in a Luxury Setting




The Charlesgate is a beautiful old building near Boston's Back Bay Fens, and used to have a reputation as one of the most haunted spots in Boston.



The Charlesgate was built in 1891 as a luxurious residential hotel, but was sold to Boston University in 1947, and later to Emerson College. Both schools used it as a dorm. Students who lived there in the 1980s and '90s told many tales of ghosts and strange phenomena. Here is a selection:

A male freshman sleeping in room 623 awoke one night to find a strange man floating in the air above his bed. It sounds like a bad dream, the but the story was verified by the floor's resident adviser, who saw the floating man when he came to investigate the freshman's scream.

Students using Ouija boards in the building encountered malevolent entities with names like DLD and Mama, who talked about windows into the spirit world and could shatter glass.



A female student sleeping on a bottom bunk felt someone climb onto the top bunk late at night. Her room mate was away, however. When she looked on the top bunk in the morning, the sheets were wrinkled as if someone had slept in it.

Girls talking in a room were terrified when the door slammed shut and the lights went out. In the darkness, they had strange entities moving around the room. When the lights came back on, the walls and ceiling had been gouged and scarred.



Emerson College sold the dorm to a developer in the 1990s, and it's once again high-end luxury residences. It doesn't seem to be haunted anymore. Either the ghosts either departed with the students, or the new residents are too discreet to talk about any supernatural happenings.

I got this information from Holly Mascott Nadler's Ghosts of Boston Town. An interesting fact about the author: she once wrote for the TV show Laverne and Shirley!

September 20, 2009

Apple Love, and Some Media Updates



Adam and Eve go apple-picking!

My last post was about the ominous side of apples. Today, I thought I'd share some happier lore. Sure, apples have a bad reputation in Western culture because of that incident in the Garden of Eden, but that story isn't just about sin, it's also about love. If Adam and Eve (or Steve) hadn't eaten the forbidden fruit, there'd be no love in the world!

Discovering the identity of your true love through magic was widespread in New England in the 1800's. I think some of it spread through the magazines of the time, but some may also have been brought over with the Puritans. Apples figured prominently.

To figure out if someone loves you, split open an apple and count the seeds. The number of seeds inside determines where the relationship is heading. There is a chant that goes like this:

One I love,
Two I love,
Three, I love, I say
Four, I love with all my heart,
And five I cast away;
Six he loves,
Seven she loves,
Eight they both love;
Nine he comes,
Ten he tarries,
Eleven, he courts,
Twelve he marries;
Thirteen wishes,
Fourteen kisses,
All the rest little witches.

There's another way to use apple seeds to predict love. Let's say you're romantically interested in multiple men. Take some apple seeds, and assign the name of a potential lover to each. Wet the seeds and stick them on your forehead. The one that falls off last is the person you're meant to be with.

Those are quoted in Botkin's Treasury of New England Folklore, but are originally found in William Wells Newells' Games and Songs of American Children and Alice Morse Earle's Old Time Gardens.
******************************

New England folklore has been appearing in the media lately. Today's Boston Globe has an article about George's Island, including the ghost who is supposed to haunt Fort Warren, something I wrote about a while ago.

The October 2009 issue of Martha Stewart Living has a brief article about New England gravestone art. There are some nice photos of historic Massachusetts cemeteries in Haverhill, Salem and Ipswich. Martha Stewart can even make death look tasteful. I don't think the article is online, but you can see many grave stones from across New England at A Very Grave Matter.


September 10, 2009

Death by Apples



Roxbury Russet apples from Flickr.

An article in the Boston Globe noted that the apple crop has been particularly good this year. The cool rainy weather that ruined things like tomatoes and eggplant has been perfect for apples. So, get out to your local orchard or farmers' market and get a bag of local apples!

There's a lot of folklore about apples in New England, much of it spooky. I guess apples pair with strange deaths as well as they pair with pie crust. I've mentioned bloody Micah Rood apples and the apple tree that ate Roger Williams' body earlier, but the very introduction of apples into New England was a cause for misery and death.

The first named variety of apple cultivated in New England and the the United States was the Roxbury Russet. Named for the Colonial town of Roxbury (now a Boston neighborhood), and the apple's greenish brown color, the Roxbury Russet was in cultivation by the mid-1600's. Some sources say it was being grown as early as 1649. I guess apples were a high priority for the English, since they only settled the Boston area in the late 1620s.

According to a book called Apples of New York State, an English settler in Roxbury named Joseph Warren was the first person to grow the Roxbury russet. He died in 1755 when he fell off a ladder while picking apples and broke his neck. (I got that little tidbit here).

The idea that Joseph Warren was killed by the very thing he was famous for makes this story seem mythic to me. Not mythic in a "what a lie" way, but in a "Wow! That's seems to make strange sense" way. I'm not saying it isn't true, but the story wouldn't be as resonant if he died in bed from pneumonia.

When I read the Roxbury Russet story I was reminded of a similar "death by apple" story. Strangely, it's also from Roxbury.

I live on Mission Hill in Boston, which is part of Roxbury. Mission Hill used to be called Parker Hill, after the wealthy Parker family which lived here in the 1700's. Back then, the hill was quite agricultural and covered in orchards. Peter Parker, the scion of the family and owner of the hill, also met his end through apples. He was crushed by a barrel of his own cider when if fell off a cart. (This tidbit is from Samuel Francis Drake's book The Town of Roxbury: Its Memorable Persons and Places, Its History and Antiquities, with Numerous Illustrations of Its Old Landmarks and Noted Personages.)

Although Mission Hill is now quite urban, it still has a lot apple trees. They grow in people's yards, and the park at the top of the hill actually has an orchard in it. One of my neighbors has an apple tree, and he told me it is indeed a Roxbury Russet. The agricultural past peeks through into our modern urban neighborhood.

I feel I should wrap up this post on a dramatic note, like "And I've seen the bloody ghosts of Peter Parker and Joseph Warren wandering in the orchard!" I haven't though, so the stories will have to stand on their own.

September 06, 2009

The Haunted Hoosac Tunnel

Yesterday Tony and I drove out to visit Mass MoCA, the contemporary art museum in North Adams. We saw some good art, and had a tasty lunch at Brew Ha Ha, a coffee shop/diner across the street.


A sunny day in North Adams. Does supernatural terror lurk nearby?

North Adams is also home to the Hoosac Tunnel, a 4.75 mile railroad tunnel under the Hoosac Mountains that connects North Adams with the neighboring town of Florida.

It took many years to build the tunnel. Construction began in 1851, and was completed on Thanksgiving Day, 1873. It also took many lives - 195 people were killed during its construction.

Two particularly grisly incidents stand out:

  • In 1865, a demolitions expert named Ringo Kelley accidentally set off an explosion early, killing two co-workers, Ned Brinkman and Billy Nash. Kelley left town quickly. Exactly one year later, his body was found at the same spot where Brinkman and Nash had died. He had been strangled, and though the police determined he died between midnight and 3:00 a.m., they found no footprints or other clues. Creepy.

  • Two years latter, an accident involving a thousand foot shaft claimed the lives of thirteen men. The shaft had been excavated to lower workers into the center of the tunnel, but an explosion at the top sent a rain of three-hundred sharpened drill bits and other debris onto the men at the bottom. The shaft then flooded with water. When rescuers recovered their bodies the following year they saw that while most had been killed by drill bits and drowning, others survived by building a raft, only to slowly asphyxiate or starve. Gruesome.

In addition, 30 people have died or disappeared in the tunnel since it was completed. In 1875, a railroad employee fled shrieking from the tunnel and disappeared. In 1973, a man entered the North Adams end of the tunnel on foot, but never emerged and has not been seen since.


A beautiful view from the mountain above the Hoosac Tunnel.

It's because of stories like these that the Hoosac Tunnel is considered the most haunted locale in New England. There are stories of headless ghosts (a New England favorite), ghosts in mining gear, glowing blue phantoms, and small black whispering shapes. The first ghost was reported in 1872, and the most recent in 2007.

The 1872 report: "At first I believed it was a workman with a lantern. Yet, as the light drew closer, it took on a strange blue color and... the form of a human being without a head....The headless form came so close that I could have reached out and touched it, but I was too terrified to move"(from Joseph Citro's Weird New England.)

The 2007 report: "Very distinct in character by now were two glowing objects in human form moving towards us. We stared motionless as the figures came closer, then the spell was broken by the sound of footsteps in the gravel. My partners had seen more than enough and were rapidly moving towards the safety of daylight"(from Thomas D'Agostino's Haunted Massachusetts).


The Hoosac Tunnel entrance. It's dangerous and illegal to enter!

On our way back from North Adams Tony and I stopped by the Florida entrance to the tunnel. To avoid becoming two more victims of the tunnel (whether by ghost or train), we didn't go in. We didn't see any spirits, but a cold dank wind emanating from the tunnel could be felt hundreds of feet away. I confess, it was a little freaky.



Departing the Hoosac Tunnel. Just standing outside was creepy enough.

A good site for information about the Hoosac Tunnel is Marc Howe's Website, which describes its history, construction and ghosts in great detail.

August 30, 2009

Full Corn Moon - with Music



Next week's full moon is the Full Corn Moon, according to the Old Farmer's Almanac. I tend to think of fresh local corn as a summer thing, but the corn season is at it's height now. Some years if we're lucky we can buy local corn until Halloween.

Corn, or maize, is of course native to the Americas, and was probably first grown in New England around 1,000 A.D. It became more integral to the Algonquian's diet in the following centuries, particularly in southern New England where the weather was milder. (This info is from Kathleen Bragdon's Native People of Southern New England 1500-1650). Maize was believed to have been a gift from the gods.

I have a neighbor who is American Indian, and one summer she was growing corn with red, black and yellow kernels in the neighborhood garden. This is often called Indian corn and is used for wreaths and centerpieces in the fall, but as she pointed out "All corn is Indian corn. The correct term is decorative corn." Point taken!

The English settlers coined the term Indian corn. In Britain, the word "corn" refers to any grain. Wheat, oats, barley, whatever - it's all corn to the British. When they arrived in the New World they called maize Indian corn to differentiate it from all the other things they called corn. Gradually the term for maize just became corn, with Americans calling wheat, barley, oats, etc. grain or cereal.

The Algonquians in New England had some interesting recipes for corn. In addition to roasting, boiling and mashing it, they would:

  • According to Roger Williams, "bake bread of Indian corn which they call pagataw; with this and austres (oysters) a kind of snail, they make a dish which is widely used."

  • According to Timothy Alden, "pound mature corn fine, sift it, make it into a dough with water or bear oil, cover the dough with leaves or pat it into little inch-thick cakes, and bake it in the ashes."

Bear oil is hard to find these days at the supermarket, but you can still find oysters. The favorite corn dish for the English was Indian pudding, which I discussed earlier this year. (Recipes are from Indian New England Before the Mayflower by Howard Russell.)

Finally, in an effort to take advantage of the Web's multi-media capacities, here is a link to Vanessa Williams singing "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas, Disney's animated take on colonialism and cultural conflict. It has the lyric: "Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon?" The movie may be a little hokey, but at least they didn't tack on a happy ending, and the song is good.

August 22, 2009

The Ghost of Fort Warren




Tony went on a company outing to George's Island in Boston Harbor this week, and took these great photos of Fort Warren.

Fort Warren was built before the Civil War to defend Boston from naval attacks, and was also used to house Confederate prisoners. It's now a historic landmark.



It's an amazing place, with great views of the city and harbor, and lots of dark tunnels to explore. You definitely need a flash light to see all of it.

A woman in a black dress is supposed to haunt Fort Warren. She's the restless spirit of Mrs. Andrew Lanier, the wife of a Confederate soldier held prisoner there. Mrs. Lanier, disguised as a man, had sneaked into Fort Warren to free her husband. They were discovered by the guards as they fled, and Mrs. Warren accidentally killed her husband when her pistol misfired.



She was sentenced to hang on February 2, 1862. Her last request was that she be executed wearing a dress, rather than in the men's clothing she wore as a disguise. The guards dressed her in an old black gown, which her ghost is still said to wear.



Allegedly, a soldier stationed at Fort Warren during WWII became so deranged after encountering Mrs. Lanier's ghost that he spent 20 years in an institution. Spooky!



This story is well-known, but I found the details in Thomas D'Agostino's Haunted Massachusetts.

An Impractical Cure for a Cough

I've had a nasty cough this week. It's either an allergy attack, or it's a mild cold being aggravated by the hot dirty air that's been blanketing Boston.

I'm a firm believer in modern medicine, but out of curiousity I looked through some of my folklore books for an old-fashioned cure. Here's the best (meaning most convoluted and impractical) one I found, from Eva Speare's 1932 book New Hampshire Folk Tales. It's technically for whooping cough, but sometimes that feels like what I have! It's also another case of horse magic, which I wrote about before.

If a child had whooping cough, it was believed that if you saw a man riding a piebald horse and you should ask him for a remedy, if his instructions were followed the child would be cured.
So, a woman whose children have whooping cough sees a man riding by on a piebald horse and asks him for a cure. He's confused, since he doesn't know anything about medicine (or about this piebald horse superstition). He says:

Er, hang it, I don't know. Take a harrow tooth and steep it in skim milk.


Huh. I was a little puzzled when I first read this because: 1. I didn't know what a harrow tooth was, and 2. I was surprised they had skim milk in the 19th century. I found out that a harrow is a farm implement that is used to pull up weeds (a little bit like a plough), and a tooth is one of the blades.

So, the man on the piebald horse is basically instructing the woman to take a piece of a farm implement that's been dragged through the dirt behind a horse, stick it in milk, and (I suppose) make her kids drink the milk. This seems like it would make the children sicker, but according to the story it works. The kids are cured of their cough.

I'm going to stick to cures I can purchase at Walgreens, but I suppose they didn't have decongestants 150 years ago.

August 16, 2009

How Maushop Created the Most Expensive Real Estate in New England

My last post was about Indian deities; my previous posts were about Provincetown, a summer resort. Can I write about Indian gods and resort towns in one post? Yes, if I write about Nantucket.

Oh, Nantucket, playground of the wealthy elites! I can understand why, since it is so beautiful there. No one is sure what the name (an Algonquian word) means exactly, but it may mean something like "far away island" or "in the midst of waters." Nantucket is nicknamed the Grey Lady because of its occasional foggy weather.

In the past it also had a less attractive nickname: the Devil's Ash-Heap. I can't imagine people saying "Where am I spending my summer? Why, on the Devil's Ash-Heap, of course!"

According to a legends told for hundreds of years by the Wampanoag of Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket was created by Maushop ("Big Man" in Proto-Algonquian), the giant culture hero of southern New England. William Baylies, a physician from Dighton, first recorded this story in 1786:

On a time, an offering was made to him of all the tobacco on Martha's Vineyard, which having smoked, he knocked the snuff out of his pipe, which formed Nantucket. (found in William Simmons Spirit of the New England Tribes)

Later versions of the story elaborated on this, adding details such as Maushop creating Nantucket as a refuge for two lovers whose marriage was opposed by their parents.

Maushop was basically a benevolent force, but Nantucket was called the Devil's Ash-Heap because Christian writers assumed that all indigenous gods were evil. For this same reason, an off-shore rock formation Maushop created is named the Devil's Bridge, and a bowl shaped depression on Gay Head where Maushop used to live is called the Devil's Den.

Most legends recorded in the 18th and 19th century say that Maushop abandoned New England when the European settlers came. However, legends from the 20th century note that he might still be lurking around. Dolores Tantaquidgeon recorded the following in the 1920's:

Maushop takes the form of various creatures and may be sensed about Gay Head at times as a gust of cold wind that rushes past one...

Nosapocket, a member of the Mashpee tribe, told William Simmons in 1981 that she encountered a large, hairy giant in the woods. It eventually came to her house and looked into her window.

And its chest I would say had to be about five feet wide. Its lungs were bigger than my body, and it just breathed... I was not very frightened, but excited that such beings still lived amongst the Mashpee Wampanoag.

Many pages of Maushop stories can be found in Simmons's excellent book Spirit of the New England Tribes.

August 09, 2009

37 Indian Deities from Rhode Island - or maybe just 13



An illustration of Roger Williams and his neighbors. I don't think the Narragansett wore shirts with buffalo on them - there weren't any buffalo in Rhode Island!

About ten years ago I realized I knew quite a bit about European mythology and folklore, but not very much about the lore of New England, where I've lived all my life. It seemed like a big gap in my knowledge, so I started reading. And reading. And I'm still reading!

I was particularly curious about the religion of the Algonquians before the Europeans came. Unfortunately, they didn't leave written records, so we have to get our information from the English setters, who weren't sympathetic to native beliefs and sought to stamp them out. This is particularly true in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, which were more heavily colonized by the English than the northern New England states.

One exception was Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, who was both sympathetic and curious about his neighbors, the Narragansett. His 1643 book A Key Into the Language of the Americas recorded not only their vocabulary, but some of their religious beliefs. Granted, Williams was still a devout Christian and seems a little squeamish about the native religion, but he was light years ahead of his peers in terms of being open-minded.

Williams wrote that the Narragansett worshipped 37 gods. Unfortunately, he only provides the names of 12, who are:

Wompanand - the Eastern God
Chekesuwand - the Western God
Wunnanameanit - the Northern God
Wowwand - the Southerne God
Wtuomanit - the House God
Squauanit - the Woman's God
Muckquachuckquand - the Children's God
Keesuckquand - the Sun God
Nanepaushat - the Moon God
Paumpagussit - the Sea
Yotaanit - the Fire God
Kautantowwit - the Southwest God, to whose House all soules goe, and from who came their corne, beanes as they say.

He also mentions Wetucks, "a man that wrought great miracles among them, and walking upon the waters, etc. with some kind of broken resemblance to the sonne of God." Wetucks may have been another name for Maushop, the culture-hero/giant of southern New England who is similar to the northern hero Glooskap. The modern Wampanoag still tell stories about Maushop, and his wife Granny Squant, who is probably Squauanit, the woman's god (or goddess) by another name.

It's great that there are still stories being told about Maushop and Squant, and I'm happy that Roger Williams recorded at least 13 names of the deities. But it would have been better if he had recorded all 37 names. Best of all would be if these gods were still being worshipped here in New England. It makes me realize how much has been lost, probably never to be recovered.

I don't want to end my post on a gloomy note, so I'll say thanks to everyone who has commented in the last few weeks. I really appreciate all the feedback and information!

August 01, 2009

The Black Flash of Provincetown


Here's another post about Provincetown.

Back in October 1938, Provincetown was haunted by a phantom that locals dubbed the Black Flash. Unlike your average ethereal wispy ghost, the Black Flash was nearly eight feet tall, unnaturally strong, and wore all black clothing, including a flapping bat-like cape. To top it off, he had glowing eyes and possibly breathed fire.

Some salient points about the Black Flash's behavior:

1. He could easily leap over 10 foot fences when being chased.

2. He liked to laugh malevolently. Once, after a villager shot him with a shotgun, he laughed AND leaped over a high fence.

3. He liked to jump out of dark alleys and scare people with his giant black cape. Sounds harmless, no?

4. He physically attacked when confronted. Two adult men both claim to have been overpowered by the Black Flash. So, maybe he wasn't harmless.

5. He terrorized P-town for seven years, until December of 1945.

The Black Flash was ultimately defeated by a group of small children. Al, Joey, Eleanor and Louie Janard were playing outside their family's house on Standish Street one foggy December day when they saw the Flash lurking on a hill nearby. Terrified, they ran inside. The Black Flash followed them, rattling the doors. Finally, Louie filled a bucket with hot water and dumped it on the phantom from an upstairs window. With a gasp, the Black Flash ran off. He was never seen again.

This story is recounted in a lot of New England folklore books, but the best account I've read is in Joseph Citro's Passing Strange. Citro in turn got his information from Robert Cahill, the now deceased Salem folklorist.

My general reaction to this story is "What the heck?" You read about a lot of ghosts and witches in New England, but not too many costumed marauders. Maybe the Black Flash was just a prankster, but he kept it up for seven years! (And apparently was immune to gunshot wounds...)

The Black Flash also seems very much like a product of his era. Costumed superheroes and villains first started to appear in the media during the Depression, and were most popular during WWII. His name and appearance remind me of Batman and the Flash, but the Black Flash's actions were a little more villainous.

July 25, 2009

A Haunted Restaurant in Provincetown?



As I mentioned in an earlier post, I recently took the ferry down to Provincetown for the day.

Provincetown always seems infused with the supernatural to me. It's this hyperactive little beach resort surrounded by the vast coyote-haunted emptiness of the National Seashore, and the even vaster emptiness of the Atlantic Ocean, that is quite literally at the end of the world (or at least Cape Cod).

P-town has a lot folklore surrounding it. Of course it was the first place that the Pilgrims landed before they moved on to Plymouth, but it also supposedly has a haunted restaurant: the Martin House.



According to Thomas D'Agostino's Haunted Massachusetts, the Martin House is inhabited by multiple ghosts. One seems to be the spirit of Captain Tracy, who lived in the building in the 1700's. A misty outline of a sea captain has been seen in the upstairs dining room, accompanied by strange cold spots. The ghost of Mrs. Tracy has also been seen.

The other ghosts may be the spirits of runaway slaves who sought shelter in the Martin House when it was part of the Underground Railroad. A small family of African American ghosts has been seen in a secret passage between two chimneys, and the ghost of a young slave girl has been reported to play pranks on people who sleep in the small upstairs room.



Paranormal investigators don't think the ghosts are malicious, but simply curious. Unfortunately, the Martin House seems to be haunted by something worse than ghosts these days - a bad economy. It hasn't been open for business in a couple years, and is up for sale. If you have the money, you might be able to get a good deal on a famous building filled with spirits.

July 18, 2009

Nix's Mate: Pirates, a Curse, and Dutch Water Spirits



No pirate corpses were visible the day I sailed past Nix's Mate.

Last week a friend and I took the ferry from Boston to Provincetown. One of the sights we saw as we cruised through Boston Harbor was Nix's Mate, a very small island topped by stone pyramid. It may be only be 200 square feet, but it has more folklore per foot than any other island in the harbor.

WHERE DID ALL THE LAND GO? Nix's Mate was originally a 12 acre island where sheep grazed. Now, it's just a tiny rocky shoal that's entirely hidden during high tide. What happened? According to Skinner's Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, in the 1630s a certain Captain Nix was murdered in a ship anchored off the island. His first mate was convicted of the crime, and sentenced to death by hanging on the island. As he was led to the gallows, he shouted "God, show that I am innocent. Let this island sink and prove to these people that I have never stained my hands with human blood." After the sailor was executed, the island slowly began to sink into the sea, proving his innocence. (A more boring explanation is that the land was quarried for gravel.)

WHAT'S IN A NAME? There are a few explanations of where Nix's Mate got it's catchy name, which it's had since 1636. The first is that was named after Captain Nix's who was hanged there. However, there are no records of Captain Nix or a sailor being executed on the island in the 1630s. This leads to the second explanation - that Nix's Mate is really a garbled version of nixie scmalt, which is Old Dutch for "wail of the water spirits." Allegedly, a Dutch passenger on a boat muttered this as he heard the waves pounding against the island's cliffs. (You can read more about the water spirits known as nixen here.)

PIRATES! Although there is no record of Nix's mate being executeded on the island, three actual pirates are known to have been hanged there, with their bodies left in the gibbet as a warning to other would-be pirates. The most famous of the three was William Fly, who was executed in July of 1726. Fly refused to repent during his trial, and wanted to die as bravely as he lived. According to Robert Cahill's New England's Cruel and Unusual Punishments, Fly walked to the gallows carrying a flower, and smiled at the executioner as the noose was put around his neck. Other sources claim that Fly even helped tie the noose around his own neck. The corpses of Fly and the other pirates were buried on Nix's Mate, and are now probably at the bottom of Boston Harbor.

July 13, 2009

White Horse Magic!

Feeling lucky?

My last post I noted Ethan Allen wanted to reincarnate as a white stallion (and may have done so). It's no accident he selected a white horse for his next body, because they loom large in the folklore of New England.

Here are some examples of lore about white horses:
  • A person should count the horses that walk by them, but only those that are white. After three white horses have gone by, the wisher should shake hands with the first person they see, and make a wish. The wish will come true.
  • To bring yourself riches, spit over your pinky when you see a white horse.
  • It is said that dreaming about a white horse is a sign of trouble. This is an example of the well-known oneiric principle that dreaming of something positive (for example a marriage, a birth, or a lucky white horse) often foretells its opposite (spinsterhood, death, or misfortune). However...
  • Some 19th century Yankees claimed instead that dreaming about a white horse foretold riches for the dreamer.
Clearly, these all made a lot more sense when New England was rural, agricultural, and horses were the transportation of choice. I think it would take me a lifetime to see three white horses go by in my neighborhood today.

(All horsey magic courtesy of Clifton Johnson.)

July 05, 2009

Special Patriotic Independence Day Post: Ethan Allen's Life After Death

In honor of July 4th, here's some interesting information about Ethan Allen, Revolutionary War hero and leader of the famed Green Mountain Boys, the Vermont militia that captured Fort Ticonderoga from the British without using force.

Ethan Allen was a bit of a loose cannon and a freethinker. He was also a Deist, and wrote a book called Reason, the Only Oracle of Man, that outlined his unorthodox religious views. It was an attack on Christianity, the Bible and the clergy. Unsurprisingly, it got bad reviews.

In 1785, which was late in his life, Ethan Allen discussed metaphysics with J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, a Frenchman who became an American citizen and wrote a series of popular books titled Letters from An American Farmer. Ethan Allen remarked that if the transmigration of souls was indeed true, he hoped to return to earth as a magnificent white stallion so he could roam the hills of Vermont.

Allen died in 1789. Although the public viewed him as a national hero, clergymen took a dimmer view, one going so far to call him "one of the wickedest men that ever walked this guilty globe."

According to B.A. Botkin's Treasury of New England Folklore, shortly after Allen's death a large white stallion, unclaimed by any farmer, was seen roaming freely across the green hills of Vermont. Ethan Allen's remains have never been located by modern historians.

June 28, 2009

Whippoorwills



The other day I saw three wild turkeys while walking to work. Pretty exciting, but I crossed the street because those things can be mean! I enjoyed seeing the turkeys, but the bird I would really like to see (but haven't) is a whippoorwill.

Whippoorwills get their name because of their call, which sounds like "Whip poor Will." They tend to nest in open fields near woods, so my chances of seeing one in Boston are low.

Some good spooky folklore has developed about these little birds over time. According to Rev. Samuel Peters 1781 book General History of Connecticut, whippoorwills were able to predict storms, but by the 19th century Clifton Johnson also recorded the eerie belief that if a whippoorwill sings near a house, it is a sign of impending death (although some of his informants claimed it is only a sign of trouble.)

The bird's sinister reputation was cemented by the famed horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who drew heavily on New England folklore when writing his stories of cosmic terror. In the early 20th century, Lovecraft discussed whip-poor-wills with his friend Edith Miniter, a resident of Wilbraham, Massachussetts, who told him:

"It is whispered that they linger and flutter around houses where death is approaching, hoping to catch the soul of the departed as it leaves. If the soul eludes them, they disperse in quiet disappointment; but sometimes they set up a chorused clamour which makes the watchers turn pale and mutter - with that air of hushed, awestruck portentousness which only a backwoods Yankee can assume - "They got 'im!" (quoted in Lovecraft's The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, ed. by S.T. Joshi. New York, Penguin Books, 2001)

Lovecraft incorporated this piece of lore into his popular story The Dunwich Horror, which spread the belief in the whippoorwill's soul snatching abilities and has kept it alive into the 21st century.

It's possible that these beliefs about whippoorwills originated with the local Indians. For example, a video available on the Mohegan tribe Web site mentions the belief that makiwasug, or magical little people, would travel through the forest at night in the shape of whipppoorwills. It looks like the whippoorwills reputation became more sinister over time and as it moved across cultures.

June 12, 2009

Snapping Turtles, UFOs and a Witch's Estate


The Muddy River - full of mysteries and big turtles!

This morning while walking along the Muddy River in the Boston Fens I saw a big snapping turtle sitting in the grass. For the Algonquians of southern New England, turtles were considered emissaries from the watery netherworld, and bridged the gap between humans and spirits. (More information can be found in Kathleen Bragdon's Native People of Southern New England, 1500-1650.) I was afraid it might take one of my toes back to the netherworld, so I kept my distance.

I walk along the Muddy River all the time. It weaves through some interesting Boston neighborhoods, and has a lot of folklore attached to it. Cheri Ravi (author of Haunted Massachusetts - Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Bay State), claims that North America's first UFO was seen over the Muddy River in 1638. Puritan settler James Everell and two friends were rowing on the river one night when a large luminous square object appeared in the sky above them. It changed its shape, first into a swine and then an arrow, and flew back and forth between Charlestown and Boston. When it vanished, the men realized they had traveled a mile up the river against the current without even rowing. The original account can be found in John Winthrop's The History of New England, 1630-1639. I don't think Puritans used the word UFO!

Anne Hibbins, a wealthy Boston widow who was executed for witchcraft in 1656, owned a three-hundred acre farm called Stanford on the Muddy River. I don't know exactly where Stanford was located, or what's there now - Wheelock College? Longwoood Medical Area? Expensive condos? The full story of her trial can be found in D.Brenton Simons Witches, Rakes and Rogues.