July 24, 2012

Horseshoe Magic: Secretly Pleasing to the Devil?

A few years ago I purchased an iron horseshoe in a neighborhood botanica. There is a decent-sized Santeria community in Boston, and the horseshoe is an attribute of Ogun, the orisha (spirit or deity) who governs iron, the military, and physical strength. Don't mess with Ogun!

I don't practice Santeria, though; I just bought the horseshoe because I've always heard they're lucky. I'm not sure where this idea originated, but it's been found in New England for a long time. For example, in the late 19th century farmers in western Massachusetts told folklorist Clifton Johnson the following:

1. Nailing a horseshoe above the door of your house brings luck.

2. Nail it so the opening points upwards. Otherwise, all the luck will run out!

3. In the old days, horseshoes were used to repel witches from the house.

The first two are still commonly held beliefs, but I don't think many people in the 21st century use horseshoes to protect themselves from witches. If I am wrong please let me know.

Those 19th century farmers were quite correct that their ancestors thought a horseshoe would keep witches out of the house. Richard Godbeer provides a great example in his book The Devil's Dominion, which examines witchcraft and magic in early New England.

The story goes something like this. Goody Chandler of Newbury Massachusetts became quite ill in 1666, and thought her sickness was caused by her neighbor Elizabeth Morse, who was unpopular and therefore considered a witch. Goody Chandler was determined to keep Morse out of her house, and nailed a horseshoe over the door. Apparently it worked because Elizabeth Morse refused to enter once the horseshoe was put up.

This probably would be the end of the story if an uptight neighbor named William Moody hadn't gotten involved. William Moody was opposed to any kind of magic, and he thought putting up a horseshoe was just as bad as witchcraft. He knocked down the horseshoe, and once again Elizabeth Morse began to come into Goody Chandler's house under the pretense of being neighborly.

William Moody was not alone in condemning all forms of magic as witchery - it was the official platform of the Puritan church in New England. Cotton Mather himself, the leading minister in Massachusetts, wrote in Wonders of the Invisible World that,

"The Children of New-England have Secretly done many things that have been pleasing to the Devil. They say, That in some Towns, it ha's been an usual Thing for People to Cure Hurts with Spells, or to use Detestable Conjurations, with Sieves, & Keyes, and Pease, and Nails, and Horse-Shooes... 'Tis in the Devils Name that such Things are done."

I suppose William Moody thought he was being helpful, but he comes across as a pious busybody. And his actions certainly didn't help Goody Chandler, who just got sicker and weaker. She finally convinced another neighbor to nail up the horseshoe again (she was now too weak to do it herself) but William Moody took it down and this time carried it away. Elizabeth Morse was able to enter the house, and Goody Chandler died soon after.

It's an interesting story. Who was to blame for Goody Chandler's death? Elizabeth Morse, William Moody, or natural causes? I say natural causes (and I hope you do too), but her contemporaries had other ideas. Elizabeth Morse was brought to trial and eventually convicted of witchcraft, but even the judges must have had some doubts since she only served one year in jail.

A horseshoe could also be used to keep a dead witch in his or her grave. As I've noted in an earlier post, the people of Hampton, New Hampshire staked the heart of suspected witch Goody Cole after she died. To make double sure she stayed in her grave they tied a horseshoe to the stake.

Although the horseshoe is considered lucky and magical across Europe and North America, it's not quite clear why. The writer Robert Means Lawrence devoted an entire book to this topic (The Magic of the Horsehoe, published in 1898). Is it because its shape is reminiscent of the horns of a ferocious animal? Is it because it resembles a crescent moon? Or perhaps it's because it's made of iron, and supernatural creatures (such as fairies) fear iron.

I'm actually a fan of the iron theory, since other metals have the power to repel magical monsters (like silver against vampires and werewolves), and the defining lines between supernatural creatures are blurry. Witches can transform into animals, including wolves, and sometimes they return from the dead to cause trouble, like vampires. In the British Isles, witches often were accused of cavorting with fairies, and peasants nailed horseshoes over their doors to keep fairies out of the house. So I think it all boils down to this - if you have trouble with a supernatural creature, use some metal.

The next question is "Why does metal repel monsters at all?" but my blog is limited, and a question like that would probably lead me on an infinite regression into mankind's distant and murky past!

July 23, 2012

Spooky Southcoast Now Available Online

On July 14th I was the guest on Spooky Southcoast, a radio program out of New Bedford dedicated to the weird and paranormal. I had a great time talking with host Tim Weisberg about ghost stories, UFOs, and other interesting things that happen in New England.

If you weren't able to listen to the show live it is now archived on the Spooky Southcoast website.

I'll have a more substantive post later this week!

July 15, 2012

Rebecca Nurse Homestead and Cemetery

At the time of the infamous witch trials, Salem was much larger than it is today and was divided into two parts: Salem Town and Salem Village.

Salem Town (which today is the modern city of Salem) was a wealthy coastal trading port. Salem Village (which today is the town of Danvers), on the other hand, was an inland village focused on agriculture. According to Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum's book Salem Possessed, the citizens of Salem Village were divided over their relationship with the larger and wealthier Salem Town. Some villagers, including Reverend Parris and the Putnam family, wanted the village to become independent. Others appreciated the business opportunities that came their way from Salem Town and wanted to remain part of it. Boyer and Nissenbaum claim these political tensions gave rise to the witchcraft accusations. I think there were probably a lot of reasons, but I'm sure they added fuel to the fire.

Most of the initial accusers and the people they accused lived in Salem Village, although the accusations eventually spread throughout the colony. Danvers has downplayed the important role it played in the Salem witch trials but there are still a few interesting historic sites you can visit. When I was in Danvers with Lori visiting the hospital cemetery we decided to see some.

The first was this monument erected in 1992 on the 300th anniversary of the trials. It is quite large and dramatic, but is located on a relatively quiet suburban street. Unlike the city of Salem, which generates a lot of tourism from witchcraft, Danvers is really low-key about it.

After the monument we stopped by the Rebecca Nurse homestead, a multi-acre historic site. Rebecca Nurse was a prominent and pious member of the Salem Village community, so it was shocking to her neighbors when she was accused of witchcraft. (Her sisters Mary Eastey and Sarah Cloyce were accused as well.) Many of her neighbors signed a petition supporting her, and the judges initially found her innocent. However, some of the afflicted girls (including Ann Putnam, whose family had a history of property disputes with the Nurses) continued to cry out that Rebecca's phantom was tormenting them. The judges changed their verdict to guilty, and Rebecca was hanged on July 19, 1692. She was 71 years old.

Like all those executed in the trials her body was buried in an unmarked grave on Gallows Hill in Salem Town, but her family took it and re-buried it on her homestead. The family cemetery still exists, and is a short walk from the main house. Rebecca's grave is now marked by a large monument that her descendants erected in 1885.

The bones of George Jacobs, another victim of the Salem trials, are also interred in the Nurse cemetery. George was executed in August of 1692 at the age of 70 after being accused of witchcraft by, among others, his granddaughter Margaret. Margaret herself had been accused earlier, and knew that by confessing and accusing others she could escape execution. Margaret did survive, but wrote she had accused her grandfather only "to save my life and to have my liberty." She visited her grandfather in jail before he died to get his forgiveness.

After he was hanged George's body was taken from Gallows Hill and buried on his family's farm. His bones had to be moved when the property was sold to developers, and were finally laid to rest in the Nurse cemetery in 1992. His monument, although only 20 years old, is a replica of a traditional 17th century grave stone.

July 10, 2012

Danvers State Hospital Cemetery

Yesterday I went up to the North Shore to visit my friend Lori for the day. She said we could either go to the beach, or we could visit the cemetery of an abandoned insane asylum. We decided on the insane asylum.

If you grew up in northeastern Massachusetts you are probably familiar with Danvers State Hospital (which was located in Danvers, Mass.) When I was a kid it was synonymous with "insane asylum." For example my brother might say to me, "Stop acting like a weirdo or you'll get taken to Danvers!"

We used to pass by it on the highway sometimes driving into Boston or to my grandmother's house in Billerica. Danvers State was a big looming Gothic brick monstrosity that sat on top of a hill overlooking the surrounding area. It was really hard to miss.

Danvers State Hospital in its current incarnation as Avalon Danvers.

Danvers was built in the mid-1800s and operated until 1992. From 1992 until 2007 it was abandoned, and served as a beacon to thrill-seekers and ghost hunters. If you wanted to find ghosts, this would be the place. With its peaked towers, labyrinthine corridors, and network of underground tunnels, the abandoned hospital was as creepy as a movie set.

The hospital's history also contributed to the legends about it being haunted. Built initially to house 600 people, at its peak Danvers had 2,300 inmates living in overcrowded conditions, and lobotomies and electro-shock therapy were common treatments. Danvers saw a lot of misery and unhappiness in its time. Where better to find restless souls? Staff who worked there claimed it was haunted even while it was open, and paranormal researchers photographed glowing orbs on the hospital's grounds after it was closed.

In 2001, the horror film Session 9 was filmed inside the abandoned hospital buildings. The movie tells the story of an asbestos remediation crew hired to start renovating (you guessed it) an abandoned insane asylum. Needless to say, many bad things happen. I've seen Session 9 and it's creepy, so don't watch it if you scare easily.

In 2005 the state sold the hospital to real estate developers who wanted to make an apartment complex. Despite protests from local historic preservationists they tore down most of the original buildings and built several new ones. In 2007, a fire of unknown origin destroyed most of the newly constructed buildings. All the video cameras that had been set up to monitor the site shut down before the fire began. Creepy.

Real estate developers are even more persistent than ghosts, so eventually the Danvers site was successfully converted into an apartment complex called Avalon Danvers. I'm not sure if many people want to rent in a haunted insane asylum, so the management company plays down Danvers' history.

They did not remove the asylum's cemetery, however, which is located down the hill from the apartment complex. Lori and I initially were a little nervous about visiting due to Danvers' spooky reputation, but it was actually a peaceful place.

The entrance to the cemetery.

But it was a little odd.

Inmates who died in the asylum and whose corpses were unclaimed are buried here. The hospital staff marked their graves with numbered stones, rather than headstones bearing their names, which was a very institutional (and disrespectful) way of dealing with the dead. The numbered stone markers still exist. Some are small squares imbedded in the ground, while others are stone posts. There were hundreds of markers.

In recent years an advocacy group has tried to identify the deceased buried here, so some graves also have stones with names, and a large memorial lists the names of those who have been identified.

Overall the Danvers State Hospital cemetery felt sad rather than scary, and it's good to see that the site is not neglected. We did visit on a sunny summer day, though, so I'm sure if we had gone on gloomy day in November our experience would have been different.

July 07, 2012

Spooky Southcoast Postponed Until Next Week

I just wanted to post a quick update. My stint as a guest on Spooky Southcoast has been postponed until next Saturday. The Red Sox game is running longer than expected, so the show's time has been drastically reduced. Blame it on the Yankees!

July 01, 2012

Dartmouth's Demon Doctor

Before I get into this week's crazy piece of local lore I want to mention that I'll be the special guest on Spooky Southcoast on Saturday, July 7.

Spooky Southcoast is a radio talk show about the paranormal broadcast on WBSM out of New Bedford every Saturday night at 10:00 p.m. I'm excited to be on the show, so I hope you can tune in. If you don't live near New Bedford you can also hear the stream the show through its website, or upload it afterwards as a podcast.

Now, onto the folklore!


I recently visited Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. What a beautiful campus and town! Lots of historic buildings, a huge town green, and a very nice downtown.

Here's a quick quiz. Which of these do you associate with an Ivy League school like Dartmouth?

a. Top-notch faculty
b. Historic traditions
c. Preppy clothing
d. An undead madman who hides in the mountains and tries to kill people?
e. All of the above

If we're talking about Dartmouth, the answer is "e. All of the above." I don't know if the other Ivy schools have undead madmen affiliated with them, but I suspect they don't.

Baker Library at Dartmouth

Each year, incoming freshmen at Dartmouth go on an outing to Mt. Moosilauke, where they spend the night in a lodge and learn the strange tale of Dr. Benton.

Thomas Benton was born in the early 1800s in a town near Hanover. The son of a prominent family, Tom was sent to the University of Heidelberg, Germany, to attend medical school. Although Tom excelled as a student he felt like an outsider among the Germans, and formed a close friendship only with one elderly professor.

Although he was kindly there was something strange about the professor. The other faculty members shunned him, and the students whispered about "blasphemous experimentation." But he took Tom under his wing, and the two spent many nights discussing medicine, science, and theology. When the old professor died he left Tom some arcane books and a small locked chest, which Tom brought back to New Hampshire after graduation.

Tom quickly became the most respected doctor in New Hampshire, and could heal any patient who came to him. But in 1816 he learned the limits of his medical skills. His beautiful fiancee, the daughter of a wealthy landowner, came down with typhoid fever. Tom was unable to cure her, and she died in his arms.

The shock was more than he could take. Tom abandoned his home and medical practice, and retreated to a ramshackle cabin on Mt. Moosilauke. The only possessions he brought with him were the books and the small locked chest given to him by his mentor in Heidelberg. You see, the old professor had been working on the secret of eternal life. Tom's fiancee may have died, but Tom was determined to defeat death itself! (Insert your best demented laugh here.)

Weird things began to occur around the mountain. Farm animals were found dead, their corpses unmarked except for a single small wound behind their left ears. The body of a young man was stolen from the undertaker, only to be discovered on Mt. Moosilauke - with a small wound behind its ear. 

Although the locals pitied Tom for his broken heart, they didn't support livestock killing and grave-robbing. A groups of officials trekked up the mountain to confront Tom, but when they reached his cabin it was empty. Tom had run off into the woods, driven mad by grief and by his experimentation. He had discovered the secret of eternal life but at the cost of his sanity!

OK, it's time for another quiz. If you were an immortal madman, which of the following would you do?

a. Throw kidnapped children into ravines
b. Push hikers off cliffs
c. Terrorize, drive insane, and then murder loggers
d. Burn down hotels
e. Frighten Dartmouth students
f. All of the above

The answer, at least in Dr. Benton's case, is "f. All of the above."

Since he is immortal, Dr. Benton has had plenty of time to commit evil acts, which I've only been able to briefly summarize. A full recitation of the legend can take several hours and is best heard late at night on the slopes of Mt. Moosilauke from a member of the Dartmouth Outing Club.

I suspect that Dr. Benton sometimes appears to those tired frightened freshmen, but you may be able to catch a glimpse of him even if you don't do to Dartmouth. Just climb Mt. Moosilauke and look for a man with long white hair and a black cape. He shouldn't be hard to miss. But just be sure you see him before he sees you - and don't get to close to the edge of any cliffs.


I got my information about Dr. Benton from Joseph Citro's fantastic book Passing Strange: True Tales of New England Hauntings and Horrors, and from resources on the web, including this helpful article in the Dartmouth student paper.