March 28, 2010

Good News! Puritans Less Likely to Have Sex with Devil

Here's some good news. According to historian Richard Godbeer, only five accused New England witches reported having sex with the Devil! Well, I guess it's bad news if you're the Devil...

Even five may seem like a lot, but not when you compare the New England numbers with reports of Devil-sex from European witchcraft trials. As Godbeer points out in his article "Witchcraft and Sex in Early Modern Culture", the Europe witches' sabbath allegedly consisted of eating, drinking and orgiastic sex. Satan presided, and took part in all of the action.

By contrast, in New England the supposed witch gatherings were relatively sedate. Satan appeared dressed like a Puritan minister, waved around a book, and talked about his demonic plans. The witches just stood around and listened. Basically, it was a demonic parody of the Puritan's congregational style of worship.

Why the big difference? According to Godbeer, in Europe the authorities were concerned about regulating sex. They forced confessions from accused witches that addressed their concerns. In contrast, the accused in New England used their confessions to mock the church that was torturing them.

So, who were the five witches who took a walk on the wild side?

  • Mary Johnson of Wethersfield confessed to "Uncleanness with Men and Devils" in 1648.
  • Rebecca Greensmith of Hartford, "owned that the devill had frequent use of her body" in 1663.
  • A neighbor accused New Haven's Elizabeth Goodman of having Hobbamocke as her husband. Hobbamocke (aka Hobbomock) was a local Native American god the Puritans equated with the Devil. To the Indians, he was the deity who presided over shamanism, death, darkness and the night.
  • In the Salem trials, it was said of Sarah Parker that the "devil had come to her and kissed her."
  • Sarah Bishop claimed the "Devill Did Come bodyly unto her and that she was familiar with the Devill..."
I think it's important to point out the New England Puritans had plenty of sex with each other. Trial records from the 17th century are filled with cases of adultery, incest, sodomy and even bestiality. But they just weren't into having sex with Satan.

You can find Richard Godbeer's complete article in the Dublin Seminar's Wonders of the Invisible World, 1600-1900.

March 20, 2010

Snake Mania for Spring

A garter snake on top of our hedge this past September. The garter snake is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' official reptile, and serves an important function in the eco-system.

On the night of March 17 I had a very vivid dream. I was walking up the path to our house, and noticed three big garter snakes emerging from the dirt in our yard. This dream made me very happy.

The next day I realized I had dreamed about the snakes on St. Patrick's Day. According to legend, Patrick drove all the serpents out of Ireland. I guess he sent them some to New England, because in addition to the dream snakes I saw my first physical garter snake today in the park. He was very cute! It's been unseasonably warm, so I think he woke up early this year.

I've posted about snake lore a few times in the past, but there's just so much of it. Our cultural ancestor in New England were fascinated by snakes, and obviously feared them and also respected their natural (and supernatural?) power. Here are a few serpentine tidbits to start your spring right:

  • New England used to be home to many, many rattlesnakes. I was going to say "infested with rattlesnakes", but that sounds too harsh. In the Boston area, Charlestown was notorious for having a lot of rattlers. For example, in 1630 Governor Winthrop decided to move the colony's capitol from Charlestown to the Shawmut peninsula (now Boston) because it was free from "the three great annoyances of wolves, rattlesnakes and mosquitoes." (We lived in Charlestown in the 1990s in a house with old window screens - the mosquitoes were still there.) John Josselyn reported seeing a rattle snake as thick as a man's leg eat a live chicken outside a tavern in 1674, but this may be an exaggeration.
  • By the 1820s, the rattlesnakes had moved to Malden, where a man named John Elisha claimed he could tame them through magical means.
  • Some African slaves believed rattlesnake buttons, or pieces of the rattle, could ward off tuberculosis. A slave in Suffield, Connecticut named Titus Kent wore four rattlesnake buttons over his lungs for this purpose. "These he considered a sovereign remedy for consumption, and of course valued them highly, as more of his best friends had died of that dreaded disease." Titus lived a long life, and didn't die of consumption.
  • There is a reputed connection between snakes and the weather. Nineteenth century Yankee farmers said if you hang up a dead snake, it will rain. If you bury it, the weather will be fair. The Penobscot of northern New England thought that the thunder spirits, who were seen as either giant birds or superhuman warriors, waged a perpetual battle against turtles and snakes, their ancient enemies.
  • The Penobscot also advised against telling legends in the summer. The reason? If a snake overheard and was offended by the story, it would bite the story-teller.

On that note, I'll stop telling stories about snakes. Snakes deserve our love and respect, so please don't kill them!

My sources for all this snake mania were Thomas Palmer's fantastic Landscape with Reptile, the Dublin Seminar's Wonders of the Invisible World, 1600- 1900, Johnson's What They Say in New England, and Frank Speck's article "Penobscot Tales and Religious Beliefs."

March 14, 2010

The Rod Men of Vermont

A man using a dowsing rod, from Wikipedia.

Back in the 1ate 1700s, a man named Nathaniel Wood applied to be the minister of the new Congregational church in Middletown, Vermont. He didn't get the job, but was instead made an unofficial elder of the church. Nathaniel was not satisfied, became contentious, and was excommunicated from the church in 1789.

Nathaniel made lemonade from the lemons the Congregationalists had given him: he started his own church. Although at first it was only composed of family members, it soon grew quite large. Nathaniel (who became known as Priest Wood) preached that the church members were the new Israelites. A day of reckoning was coming, and God would destroy all the Gentiles (i.e. everyone who was not in Wood's church). I'm sure the Congregationalists were on the top of his list.

Around this same time a man named Winchell arrived in Middletown. Winchell was a fugitive from a neighboring county, where he was wanted on counterfeiting charges. He also was adept at using a dowsing rod made of witch hazel, which he said could detect buried treasure. Many Americans in the 18th and 19th century century believed the landscape was full of buried gold and silver, and digging for treasure was a popular activity. See my post about Dungeon Rock for an example of how treasure digging could become an obsession.

Priest Wood believed Winchell's story about the dowsing rod, and incorporated dowsing into his church rituals. Jabez Perry, a Middletown citizen who died in 1862, said it succinctly and humorously: "They (the Woods) swallowed Winchell, rod and all."

The men of the church became known as the Rod Men, and using the twitching witch hazel branches to do the following:

  • Determine how long someone might live
  • Locate plants to cure disease
  • Find treasure. The new Israelites once dug 70 feet into the ground following a dowsing rod's twitches, but every time they got near the treasure chest it moved. Their explanation? It was guarded by a magic spell.
  • Tell young women their clothes had the Devil in them, and should be removed
  • Receive messages from God

Using his dowsing rod, Priest Wood was told by God to build a temple in Middletown, and to prepare for two apocalyptic events. First, a destroyer would come to kill half the Gentiles. Next, a giant earthquake would strike Middletown on January 14, 1801, and kill the other half.

Panic struck Middletown when people learned of Wood's prophecy. They weren't worried about God sending a destroying angel or earthquake - they were scared Wood and his followers would take matters into their own hands and kill everyone outside their church. The townspeople called up their militia, and January 14 passed uneventfully. No destoyer, no earthquake, and no violence.

Wood's failed prophecy spelled the end of his church in Middletown. His temple remained half built, and he and his family moved to Ellisburg, New York. Their church may have failed, but it had a lasting influence on American history. Many historians feel Joseph Smith, a native Vermonter and the founder of Mormonism, was influenced by Wood, Winchell and other members of the Rod Men.

A lot of Mormon history sites have information about the Rod Men, but I had the pleasure of reading the original source: Barnes Frisbie's The history of Middletown, Vermont, in three discourses: delivered before the citizens of that town, February 7 and 21, and March 30, 1867. I recently joined the Boston Athenaeum, which has a huge collection of New England town histories.

March 07, 2010

Awaken Chipmunks!

I was perusing the Old Farmer's Almanac recently, and read some interesting facts about the month of March. For example, the first game of basketball was played in Springfield, Massachusetts on March 11, 1892, and Massasoit signed a peace treaty with the Pilgrims on March 22, 1621.

The most exciting fact to me, though, was that chipmunks are supposed to emerge from their winter hibernation on March 19! Mark the date on your calendar. When I walk through the woods and parks, I always enjoy watching the chipmunks running around the fallen logs. I've learned that if I stand very still, the chipmunks won't hide, but will instead sit and watch me. A couple years ago a chipmunk and I hung out for ten minutes, just sitting and watching each other.

According to Frank Speck's 1935 Journal of American Folklore article "Penobscot Tales and Religious Beliefs," the Penobscot of Maine and New Hampshire believed that chipmunks ended their hibernation at the same time as the bear. When you see chipmunks, they said, spring has arrived. I'm assuming this was a cause for celebration, unless you were a bear, because the Penobscot also said the chipmunk's emergence indicated the start of bear hunting season. There's some similarity here with our current belief that the groundhog predicts the start of spring.

It seems like the word chipmunk is derived from an Ojibway word for the same animal, atchitamo, meaning "head first mouth." The Ojibway, a tribe found in the upper mid-West and southern Canada, probably coined this phrase because the chipmunk descends tree trunks head first. The Native Americans in New England would have spoken an Algonquian language similar to the Ojibway, but I haven't been able to find a local Algonquian term for chipmunk. If you know it, please get in touch!