September 17, 2011

Looking for love, but finding Satan!



Love magic has a long history in New England. For example, the girls who started the Salem witch trials made a Venus glass, which was supposed to predict their future husbands. As we all know, once they started dabbling in magic they got more than they asked for.

Love magic continued for centuries here, and I found this story in Westerly (Rhode Island) and Its Witnesses by Frederic Denison, published in 1878. Once again young women are involved, and once again things get out of hand.

In the 1700s, two young ladies named Hannah Maxson and Comfort Cottrell were staying at the Westerly home of one Esquire Clark. One afternoon, while Mr. Clark was out on business and his wife was ill in bed, Hannah and Comfort became bored and decided to try some love magic. What could possibly go wrong?


They took a ball of yarn to the well, and repeatedly tossed it down and pulled it up, all the while reciting Biblical psalms backwards. According to popular belief at the time, these magical actions should make their future husbands appear.

As the sun went down, Hannah and Comfort went to the front of the house to wait for their beaus to manifest. Their thoughts turned to rich, handsome men.

Soon, they saw a figure walking towards them. Was it a future husband?

As the figure got closer, they noticed he was taller than the average man. In fact, he was between 8 and 10 feet tall. His height wasn't the only thing strange. His face was hideous - his eyes were the size of saucers, and flames spouted from his mouth.

Clearly, this was not what they expected.

The young ladies ran into the house, shrieking, and threw themselves onto the bed where Mrs. Clark lay ill. The monster, meanwhile, made his way to the front door.

At this point, Mr. Clark returned home. Seeing a large, and possibly demonic, monster in front of his house, the pious man began to pray. The prayers worked! The monster shuffled away, and was seen no more in Westerly.

Hannah and Comfort never used the Bible for magical purposes again, and lived very religious lives from that time on. Unfortunately Mrs. Clark died shortly after that night. The shock of having a monster from Hell on her stoop was too much for her weakened constitution.

It was only decades later that the people of Westerly learned it was not Satan who appeared that evening, but a fellow mortal. A man named Daniel Rogers, who had once been a neighbor of the Clarks, confessed he had really been the monster, and his demonic visage was merely a large jack-o-lantern. He wanted to play a prank on the girls, but had kept quiet for years afterwards out of guilt for causing Mrs. Clark's death.

That's the end of the story. It reminds me of an episode of Scooby Doo. The monster's real - no, wait, it isn't! The part about Daniel Rogers being the monster feels a little tacked on to me. Isn't this story really about the perils of unmarried young women with too much free time? A cautionary tale from a more patriarchal era?

I think so, and a very similar story recorded in 1928 among the Wompanoag of Gay Head proves my point.

Once upon a time, a Wompanoag minister had four daughters. One evening while he was out preaching, his daughters tried a little love magic that involved hanging their underwear in front of the fireplace. Soon a howling wind picked up, and they heard someone (or something?) pounding on the doors and windows of their house. The girls cowered inside, terrified. When the minister came home, he saw a large creature, half human and half animal, clawing at the front door. The monster disappeared into the night, and the minister reprimanded his daughters for raising spirits. (From William Simmons's Spirit of the New England Tribes (1986)).

I definitely like this version better. There's no Scooby Doo ending, just magic, a monster, and some teenage girls causing trouble. It could be the basis for someone's thesis in Women's Studies.

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