February 27, 2010

Wild Man of Williamstown, VT

Williamstown, Vermont looks so peaceful - just watch out for the wild man!

Here's a brief article from the October 18, 1879 New York Times about another New England wild man. This time he's not from Haverhill, but from further north in Williamstown, Vermont.


Two Young Vermont Hunters Terribly Scared

Pownal, VT., Oct. 17 - Much excitement prevailed among the sportsmen of this vicinity over the story that a wild man was seen on Friday last by two young men while hunting in the mountains south of Williamstown. The young men describe the creature as being about 5 feet high, resembling a man in form and movement, but covered all over with bright red hair, and having a long straggling beard, and with very wild eyes.

That's it. The writer doesn't give any possible explanations. Did the hunters see Bigfoot? Disturb a red-headed homeless man sleeping in the woods? It's up to the reader to decide.

Joseph Citro, who quotes this article in his book Passing Strange, notes that a woman named Arlene Tarantino encountered a similar hairy wild man in the woods of Winhall, not far from Williamstown. He was thin, muscular, and ran like a chimpanzee on all fours.

Immobilized, Arlene watched him for about forty minutes, and later said she felt she had been mesmerized or entranced by his presence. He eventually disappeared, and Alrene ran out of the woods. She never saw him again, but still suspects he may out there in the forest somewhere. Arlene also said she felt he was human, but it seems more than coincidental that witnesses 100 years apart would see someone (something?) so similar.

February 21, 2010

The Gorbey - Pluck at Your Own Risk

A gorbey, or gray jay.

Although it was warm (in the 40s!) this weekend, I hear more snow is due this week. We're not done with winter yet. Or is that the other way around? Anyway, here's some wintry weirdness!

The gorbey, or gray jay, is a small lively bird that haunts the secluded pine forests of northern New England. Gorbeys often become tame in lumber camps, and will eat food from the loggers' plates. The name gorbey is derived from the French word corveaux (crow), and it was the French Canadian lumbermen of New England who first whispered it was bad luck to injure or drive away a gorby. Because although it looks like an ordinary bird, a gorbey may actually be the soul of a lumberman in ornithomorphic, or bird-like, form.

The risk of harming this innocent seeming bird is shown in a story about a logging camp foreman named Esau. Esau was a large, brutally strong man, who ruled over the other loggers by fear. He had copious amounts of hair on his head, chin and body, and told the other loggers his hair was a sign of his great strength. Needless to say, everyone in the camp hated his guts.

One snowy winter night, a small gorbey flew into the bunkhouse. The loggers refused to harm the bird, thinking it might be the soul of a friend who had died. Esau laughed, and called them superstitious. Catching the gray bird in one giant hairy hand, he said "This bird has the eyes of Frenchy Aucoin, who died a few weeks ago. I didn't like him when he was alive, and I like him even less now that he is dead." With a brutish laugh, Esau plucked the feathers from the bird's body, and tossed it out the window into the storm. The other men looked on with fear, but didn't intervene.

When Esau awoke the next morning, he was horrified to see that his head, chin and body were completely hairless. His great strength was gone as well. The other loggers were also freaked out, and knew his transformation was caused by his cruelty to the gorbey. Worried his supernatural misfortune might be contagious, they forced him out into the snow. Esau was never able to work at another lumber camp, and eventually got a job catching stray horses. No man ever shared a table or roof with him again, and Esau was always followed by storms for the remainder of his cursed life.

I found this story in Botkin's A Treasury of New England Folklore, but he got it from Gerald Averill's Ridge Runner. The Story of a Maine Woodsman. It's a good one! I like its odd combination of Biblical themes, New England lore and supernatural theory. Esau is Jacob's hairy brother in Genesis (even his name means "hairy" in Hebrew), and the story of Samson and his ill-fated haircut is also an influence. It's definitely set in New England and deals with local wildlife and occupations.

But it's all tied together by the old belief that human souls can appear outside the body in animal form. Known in occult lore as the fetch or fylgia, this animal soul can appear outside the body of a living person, not just a dead one. Unfortunately for Esau, he didn't have this piece of arcane knowledge. If he did, he would have realized the gorbey wasn't the soul of Frenchy Aucoin, but was actually his own.

For some similar stories, see my post about Graycoat the rattlesnake or witches and black cats.

February 14, 2010

Making a witch bottle

Feeling run down, sick, or tired? Things not going your way at work or home? We enlightened modern folks would suspect a virus or just a run of bad luck, but earlier generations had another cause: witchcraft, usually emanating from a jealous neighbor.

To stop the witchcraft, they could try the legal system (at least in the 17th century) or confront the suspected witch. Sometimes, though, it was more effective to fight fire with fire. A bewitched person would fight evil magic with defensive magic of their own.

One form of magical defense was to make a witch bottle. As with so much folk magic, all you need are common household items.

Step 1: Locate an empty glass bottle.

Step 2: Fill the bottle with lots of sharp objects, like pins,
nails and broken glass.

Step 3: Fill the bottle with the bewitched person's urine.

Step 4: Seal and bury the bottle.

The bewitched person's ailments should clear up after this.

Here's the theory behind a witch bottle. A malevolent witch hurts someone by creating a connection between themself and their victim. The witch's spirit (or part of it) then travels along this connection to do harm to their victim's body. However, a witch bottle deflects the witch's spirit away from the actual body to a product of the body (the urine), and into the pins, nails and broken glass. Ouch! The witch's spirit is injured by this and retreats, breaking the connection.

Some witch bottle recipes recommend heating the bottle over a fire until it explodes. This is a bad idea - don't try it at home! An explosion of glass, nails and boiling hot urine is just as dangerous as a witch's curse.

Increase Mather wrote against the use of witch bottles, but his son Cotton thought there were times when their use was justified.

February 07, 2010

Love Magic Gone Bad

The Ann Putnam house in Danvers (formerly Salem Village)

A special post in honor of Valentine's Day!

When I read through books of New England folklore, I'm struck by all the folk magic aimed at revealing who your true love will be. Throwing apple peels over your shoulder, sticking apple seeds to your forehead, reading tea leaves, pouring melted wax into water - there's probably a technique using every common household item.

I can understand the need for all this magic. The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski argued that people use magic in situations where they feel helpless; isn't being in love (or not being in love) one of them?

Love divination is often claimed to be the spark that kindled the Salem witch trials. In the long dark winter of 1691-92, a group of teenage girls in Salem would gather to fight off boredom by practicing fortune-telling. As John Hale wrote in his 1702 book A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft, one day the girls were floating egg whites in a glass of water. The goal was to learn what trades their future husbands would practice. For example, if the whites formed the shape of a ship, he'd be a sailor. If they formed a plow, he'd be a farmer. (This technique was called a Venus glass.)

Unfortunately, when one of the girls put the whites in the glass she saw "a spectre in the likeness of a Coffin." Would her husband die an early death? Or did it mean she would die soon, in effect becoming Death's bride? Needless to say, she became upset. Soon thereafter the group of girls became afflicted with strange behaviors indicating they were bewitched. (Interestingly, Hale claims he met another woman later who had tried the same spell, and who "came under sore fits and vexations of Satan." Hale later freed her with his prayers.)

Most people have assumed the girls John Hale describes were the ones who started the Salem witch trials, but historian Mary Beth Norton points out in her book In the Devil's Snare that Hale never makes this claim. Wouldn't he, if it were the incident that started everything?

I'll leave that to professional historians. And just to be safe, I'll scramble my eggs, not divine with them!