October 31, 2012

Halloween Suprise Unearthed by Hurricane Sandy

When hurricane Sandy tore through New England it caused quite a bit of damage, knocking out power, flooding coastal communities, and uprooting trees. But when a tree on New Haven's historic town green blew over, it revealed a special surprise.

New Haven resident Katie Carbo was out on the green inspecting the storm damage with some neighbors when she noticed something in the roots of a large uprooted oak tree. At first she thought it was a rock, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a human skeleton. Yikes!

Photo from the New Haven Register.
The police arrived and determined that the skeleton was female and hundreds of years old. New Haven's town green used to be a cemetery before it became a park in 1821, and a police spokesman said the skeleton was probably from a Colonial era burial.

Apparently, all the grave stones were moved to a newer cemetery in 1821, but the bodies were left buried. An estimated 5,000 bodies are still buried under the green. Yikes again! Don't let your dog dig around in that park.

Special thanks to Leigh Marble for emailing me about this story! I found the details in the New Haven Register, the Rock Hill Herald, and the Hartford Courant.

October 29, 2012

Mirror Magic for Halloween

Halloween wasn't really celebrated in New England until the 19th century. The Puritans frowned on most holidays although they and their descendants did celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, which has some similarities with Halloween like costumes and people roaming around begging for things.

Unlike Halloween Guy Fawkes Day doesn't have a supernatural component. No witches, ghosts or monsters, just raucous excess and drunken revelry. But when large numbers of Irish and Scottish immigrants began to arrive in the United States in the 19th century they brought Halloween and its supernatural practices with them. These Halloween practices spread across the country, through both immigrant social networks and magazines and newspapers. Eventually Halloween magic became part of the nation's regional folklore, including New England's.

Most modern Americans associate Halloween with scary things, but a lot of the older folklore deals with love magic and love divination. Here's a nice example I found in Eva Speare's New Hampshire Folk Tales.

On Halloween night, an unmarried man or woman should hold a mirror and walk down the cellar steps backwards. As they walk down the steps, they should repeat:

Whoever my true love is to be
Come and look in this glass with me.

A person's face will appear in the mirror, looking over the unmarried person's shoulder. This will be the person they will marry. However, if a coffin appears in the mirror the unmarried person will die. (Hmm. I guess even the love magic can be a little scary, and walking down the stairs backwards sounds dangerous.)

Watch your step with that mirror...

There once was a young man who was very sick with tuberculosis. Despite being weak from his illness, he walked down backwards into the cellar while looking into a mirror on Halloween night. His family heard a crash, and rushed down to find him collapsed on the dirt floor.

When he revived, the young man said, "Don't worry! I did not see a coffin, but instead saw a pretty young girl in a blue dress. I will live and marry her."

The prediction came true. He recovered and went on to become a school teacher in Maine. While he was there he met a pretty young woman who looked exactly like the girl he had seen in the mirror. Upon talking with her, he discovered that she had once owned a blue dress exactly like he had seen in the mirror that Halloween night. The two fell in love, got married, and lived long happy lives.

Happy Halloween everyone!

October 22, 2012

Richard Carrier: Confessions of a Cider-Drinking Witch

Richard Carrier was only eighteen years old when he and his younger brother Andrew were accused of witchcraft.

He was quite surprised, but should he have been? His mother, Martha Carrier, had recently been accused of witchcraft herself, and the Carrier family had never been popular in Andover, Massachusetts. They were considered poor even by the low standards of 1692 New England, and they were also pugnacious - Richard had been in fistfights with several other men and boys. When smallpox struck their family they had lived as pariahs on the outskirts of town.

When the constables brought Richard and his brother to Salem for questioning, they were obviously terrified. (Records note that Andrew was so frightened he stuttered when he spoke.) Both brothers pled innocent, but the afflicted girls who had accused them convulsed wildly in their presence, indicating guilt. The Carrier boys were brought into an adjacent room, where the questioning continued privately and the constables tied their heads to their ankles. Under this torture, they confessed to being witches.

When he was returned to the courtroom, Richard told how the Devil had first approached him on the Andover road one night in May of 1691. The dark man in the high-crowned hat claimed he was Jesus, and offered Richard new clothes and a horse in return for making his mark in a red book. A tempting offer for a poor Puritan, and Richard signed. His initiation was complete when the Devil baptized him in a waterfall at Newbury, Massachusetts. His brother Andrew later signed the Devil's book in an apple orchard in the presence of Richard and their mother.


As a witch, Richard followed Satan's orders. He sent his spirit to torment Timothy Swan of Andover, who had argued with another witch about the price for thatching her roof. Richard used a simple poppet to torment the wife of Salem Village's minister Samuel Parris. He attended the witch meetings, which his spirit was summoned to by the beating of a drum.

And he drank stolen cider. 

Mary Lacy, who had been accused of witchcraft shortly before the Carrier brothers, had told the court that she, the Carrier family, and other witches had flown to the home of Elizabeth Ballard and drunken all the cider in her cellar.

"Sometimes we leave our bodies at home, but at other times we go in our bodies and the Devil puts a mist before their eyes and will not let them see us." Mary Lacy had drunken the cider while invisible.

Richard confessed to this as well, but said his spirit had done it while outside his body. Mary Lacy supported his confession. "He went in his spirit, and his body lay dead the while out of doors."

After he confessed, the afflicted girls touched his hand without convulsing, a sign of his true contrition. The court spared Richard and Andrew's lives because they had confessed to witchcraft. Their mother never confessed, and was hanged. 


There are lots of things I find interesting about Richard Carrier's story. For example, he was male (most of the accused witches in Salem and New England overall were women) and the torture he and Andrew endured is horrifying.

What struck me the most, though, was the cider. Richard and all the confessed witches created stories about their witchy exploits that were believable to their accusers. People in Puritan New England believed in the reality of witches; it was part of their shared worldview. Everyone knew what witches did. All it took was a little persuasion (or torture) to tell a convincing story about your own actions as a witch.

And apparently, witches sent their spirits or invisible bodies to drink their neighbors' cider. Elizabeth Ballard's cider would have been alcoholic cider, which was one of the main drinks at the time. Water was often polluted, tea was expensive, and grain for beer was too hard to grow. People drank hard cider morning, noon and night.

Spirits entering a house to drink liquor (or eat food) is an old folklore motif. For example, the Swedish historian Olaus Magnus wrote in his History of the Northern Peoples (1555) that at Yuletide werewolves break into cellars to drink beer and mead. The line between werewolves and witches is blurry, since both are shapeshifters. Many people who confessed to being werewolves talked about sending out their spirits in the shape of a wolf, much as witches sent their spirits to do mischief.

We don't believe in these things in the 21st century, of course, but a surprising number of people leave out milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve. But that's just for children, right?

In parts of Medieval and Renaissance Europe it was believed that a night-riding goddess and her followers (sometimes called the Good Ladies) traveled across the countryside. To gain their favor, people would leave out food and beverages for them. In the British Isles, food was left out for faeries and elves. In many countries, food and beverages are still left out for the wandering spirits of the dead who might enter the home.

The origins of this belief in traveling spirits that enter your house to eat and drink is quite murky. Writers like Carlo Ginzburg and Claude Lecouteux trace it back to ancient shamanic practices and ideas about the dead. It sounds good to me. Apparently it is a very resilient belief that has changed shape and expressed itself differently over time.

For Halloween, maybe I'll leave out some cider for who or whatever is wandering around that night, and be thankful that I can write about this topic without being tortured. 


I got the information about Richard Carrier from Marilynne Roach's wonderful The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Chronicle of New England Under Siege.  This is the book if you want to read a straightforward and detailed narrative of what transpired in Salem.

October 15, 2012

Sylvanus Rich and the Witch of Truro

For Halloween season, here's a nice witchy story from Elizabeth Reynard's 1934 collection of Cape Cod folklore, The Narrow Land.


Sylvanus Rich was an elderly yet highly skilled sea captain. He came from a long line of seafaring men (and had fathered several more himself), so he thought nothing of captaining a ship carrying grain from North Carolina to Boston. It would be easy! Yes, the ship's crew was inexperienced, but Sylvanus was not worried. He had made the journey many times. 

On the last leg of their journey, just as the ship was about to round Cape Cod and enter Massachusetts Bay, Captain Sylvanus dropped anchor off the Atlantic shore of Truro. He could tell the weather was bad up ahead at Provincetown's Race Point, and he didn't want to risk his cargo or crew.

As he walked the deck, Captain Sylvanus sighted a small house nestled in the Truro dunes.

"Boys," he said, "I'm tired of dried pork and hardtack for dinner. I'm going to row ashore and see if I can purchase myself some milk from that farm. Lower a boat!"

The crew watched as their captain rowed himself towards Truro. After about an hour he returned with a wooden bucket full of milk.

A view of Longnook Beach in Truro.

When his crew asked about the farm Captain Sylvanus laughed. "There was no farm! Just an old hag in a filthy hut. And she wore shoes with red heels! Ha! But still, she sold me some milk. I guess I've still got my charm."

The weather by this time had cleared, and while the crew prepared to set sail for Boston Sylvanus retired to his cabin to enjoy his milk.

However, as soon as the crew raised anchor a strong gale came in from nowhere. Dark clouds filled the sky, a howling wind raised huge waves, and the ship's sails were blown to tatters as it was pushed out to sea. In a panic, the crew pounded on the door to the captain's cabin, but he didn't answer. Was Captain Sylvanus dead? Had he been poisoned by the milk?

The storm dissipated by morning, and the crew evaluated the damage. It was serious - the sails and rudder had been both seriously damaged, and the ship was adrift far from land.

Around noon Captain Sylvanus emerged from his cabin, hollow-eyed and pale. He said quietly, "The milk was bewitched. After I drank it I fell into a deep sleep. And then ... she came. The Truro hag. The witch! She threw a bridle over my head and climbed onto my back. She rode me up and down Cape Cod like a racehorse. Over the dunes, through the woods, across the swamps and rivers. If I slowed my pace, she dug her red shoes into my sides."

The captain lifted his shirt. The crew gasped! His sides were covered in bruises shaped like heelmarks.

The first mate said, "But captain, we're adrift and the sails..."

The captain wearily raised his hand and silenced the mate. "In due time. But first, I must prepare. Tonight she will visit me again. I must be ready!" He entered his cabin and shut the door, grimacing.

Or, the crew wondered, had he really been smiling? Was he actually looking forward to another visit from the witch of Truro?

The ship drifted aimlessly in the cold Atlantic for days. Each night, Captain Sylvanus locked himself in his cabin and the witch made him her steed. Each day, Captain Sylvanus sat hollow-eyed and exhausted as his crew begged him for guidance. Food and water were low. Starvation seemed imminent.

Just when all seemed lost, a sail was spotted on the horizon. It was a merchant vessel, and was captained by one of Sylvanus Rich's own sons! When he heard about his father's bewitchment he dragged Sylvanus into the cabin and shut the door after them. What transpired within is not recorded, but somehow he broke the witch's spell over his father. Repairs were made to Sylvanus's ship, and it arrived safely in Boston.

When asked by the ship's owners to explain the damage and the delay, Captain Sylvanus Rich blamed them on the "sweet milk of Satan."


Elizabeth Reynard mentions red shoes or heels in a lot of her Cape Cod witch stories, but I haven't seen this in other sources. Perhaps it's a Cape Cod thing, or maybe I just haven't read enough.

Sea captains and sailors are often ridden by land-based witches in folktales. It seems to be a hazard of the profession! There are definitely some pre-Industrial gender role issues at play here. It's nice to see that nothing bad happens to the witch in this story. 

Like the majority of New England witch stories, this one is about a woman, but next week I'm going to post about a male witch. Stay tuned!

October 07, 2012

A Visit to the Upton Chamber

New England is home to hundreds of mysterious stone structures, including cairns, stone circles, and underground stone chambers. Often hidden away on private land or buried deep in woods already filled with boulders and rocks, these structures go unnoticed by most people unless they are really looking for them.

Some of the most famous stone structures can be found at New Hampshire's Mystery Hill (aka America's Stonehenge), or at Connecticut's Gungywamp complex. There is also an amazing underground chamber in Upton, Massachusetts, and the town of Upton recently created a park to showcase it. Tony and I went with our friends Danny and Onix to pay a visit.

Danny, Onix and Tony at the entrance to the park.

What exactly are the New England stone chambers? There are three main theories:

1. Colonial root cellars. Farmers built the chambers underground and out of stone to keep potatoes and other root crops cold through the year. In the 19th century there was a mass exodus of farmers from New England to more fertile (and less rocky) land in New York and the Midwest. Their abandoned farms reverted back to forest, which is why these chambers are now hidden in the woods.

2.  Native American ceremonial structures. Although the Algonquin tribes living in New England at the time of European contact didn't build with stone, it's quite possible that their ancestors in this area did. New England has been inhabited by humans for more than 10,000 years, so it's not unreasonable to think some past Native American society made these structures. Native American groups in other parts of North and South America made cities and ceremonial centers with stone, so the technology could have easily made it to this part of the continent.

3. Ancient European ceremonial structures. According to this theory, ancient Druids, Norsemen, Irish monks, Phoenician sailors, and others made their way to New England before Columbus and built the chambers. Some chambers (but not all) align with the summer and winter solstices, much like ancient Celtic structures, and some (but not all) appear similar to megalithic European sites like Newgrange, although on a much smaller scale.

I think theory number 2 is my favorite, but this New York Times article makes a good case for theory number 1. You can find plenty of information about theory number 3 by poking around the web.

Entrance to the Upton Chamber. I really like how the tree roots frame the entrance.

To me it doesn't matter what theory is correct, because these chambers are amazing. Their creators, whoever they are, put incredible amounts of time and manpower into building them, and they merge beautifully with our stony landscape. The Upton chamber really was quite magical, like something out of a Tolkien novel.

The Upton Heritage Park is located on Elm Street. We parked at the nearby VFW parking lot and walked there. Once you enter the park and walk past the sign, take a right if you want to go the chamber. It's very close to the road. We accidentally took a left after the sign and spent a while wandering around in the woods looking for the chamber. It was a nice day, though, so we enjoyed some fresh air!

Me taking pictures in the woods. Where is that darn chamber?!?
The entrance to the chamber is about 4 1/2 feet high, and opens into a 14 foot long tunnel of similar height. Remember to bring a flashlight!

Tony peers into the entrance.

We had to crouch to walk down the tunnel.

If you have claustrophobia the tunnel may freak you out, but it opens into a beehive shaped domed chamber that is about 10 feet wide and maybe 12 feet high. When we visited the floor was covered in six inches of water, so wear good boots.

Tony and Onix and the chamber. Watch out for spiders!

The chamber's ceiling, which is made from massive stone slabs.

The view from the top of the chamber.
Danny points out a hole in the ground...

... that lets a tiny bit of light through the chamber's ceiling.

The Upton Chamber was definitely worth the trip - I didn't want to leave! But after we finally did, we drove down the road to Red Rock Grill for a really tasty (and inexpensive lunch), and then visited Spaightwood Galleries to see an exhibit of Durer etchings. For a small town Upton definitely has a lot going on.

Me wondering how hard it would be to make a chamber in my backyard. Danny, an architect, said it would be difficult and very expensive.

Goodbye Upton Chamber!

You can read more about the Upton Chamber and the park here, including some information about alignments with other stone structures in Upton. Some interesting sites about other New England stone structures are here and here. Lastly, my friend David Goudsward recently wrote a book in 2006 called Ancient Stone Sites of New England and the Debate Over Early European Exploration.

October 01, 2012

The Dover Demon

I've been blogging about "ye olde tyme foklore" for the past month, so I am shaking things up this week by posting about something a little more current (if you consider 1977 current). However, there's still a surprising "olde tyme" angle so neither you or I will go into complete withdrawal.

And besides, now that it's October, it's time for something even weirder and more uncanny than usual.


On the night of April 21, 1977, seventeen year old Bill Bartlett was driving two of his friends down Farm Road in their hometown of Dover. Dover, located about 15 miles from Boston, is one of the nicest suburbs in Massachusetts, with lots of woods, open fields, and old stone walls.

As he drove past one of those stone walls, so characteristic of charming New England towns, Bill saw something unusual in his headlights. At first his mind didn't quite register what it saw, but when it did he turned the car around and drove back to the wall.

He had seen something that looked like this: 

That drawing is the actual one Bill made that night. He claimed he saw a creature about the size of a baby, with long spindly limbs and fingers that wrapped round the rocks. Its eyes glowed bright orange in the car headlights. On the right hand side of the drawing Bill wrote "I, Bill Bartlett, swear on a stack of Bibles that I saw this creature." Bartlett, now a professional artist living in Needham, still believes he saw something strange that night, but he has never made another drawing or painting of the creature since.

The passengers in Bill's car didn't see the creature, but three other teenagers did. John Baxter, age 15, was walking home from his girlfriend's house around 12:30 am, about two hours after Bill Bartlett's encounter. As John neared the intersection of Miller Hill Road and Farm Road he saw a figure walking towards him. Thinking it was a friend, he called out, but the person didn't respond. John and the figure walked closer towards each other, and when John was about 25 feet away he realized there was something strange about the other person. The proportions didn't seem quite right. Was it even a person at all? Abruptly, the figure ran into the woods.

John ran after it. Was it a monkey? A small child? It stopped, perched on a rock near and staring at John. Its eyes glowed orange as it waited for John to draw closer. He didn't, but instead ran back to Farm Road. When he reached home he made this drawing of what he had seen:

The Dover Demon made one last appearance. The next night, eighteen year old Will Taintor and fifteen year old Abby Brabham were driving down Springdale Ave. in Dover when they saw something by the side of the road near a bridge. At first they thought they were looking at an ape, but something didn't seem right. Abby later said, "It had bright green eyes, and the eyes just glowed like they were just looking exactly at me."

Word soon spread around town, and articles appeared in the South Middlesex Sunday News, the Boston Globe, and the Boston Herald. Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman traveled to Dover to investigate, and christened the creature the Dover Demon. The name stuck. Thanks in part to its catchy name, the Dover Demon has become one of the most popular cryptozoological creatures in the world. It was even immortalized as an action figure.

Dover demon action figure. Image from Loren Coleman's wonderful Cryptomundo.

What was the Dover Demon? It might have been a UFOnaut, but no strange lights or saucers had been seen near Dover at the time. Someone thought it was a baby moose, but April isn't the right season for moose calves, and moose were quite rare in Massachusetts in 1977. Could it be an escaped monkey of some kind? But what type of monkey is hairless and has no mouth, nose or tail? An elaborate hoax devised by bored teenagers? Maybe, but many adults vouched for the witnesses' honesty. Given its enduring popularity, if the Demon was a hoax it obviously tapped something resonant for many people.

Maybe if the Dover Demon showed up again we could figure out what it was, but it never appeared again after that night - or at least not so obviously. One night in 1978 John Bartlett was in a parked car with his girlfriend when they heard something thump the side of their vehicle. They saw a small figure running into the woods, but couldn't see who (or what) it was. Was it the Demon? Possibly, or just a local kid pulling a prank. If it was the Demon, that was the last time it has been seen.

The Demon may have appeared before 1977, though. In a 2006 Boston Globe article, Mark Sennott of Sherborn told a reporter that he and some friends had seen something similar at Channing Pond near Springdale Avenue in 1972. The police investigated at the time but nothing came of it.

Farm Road has a history of unusual activity, as noted in Frank Smith's 1914 book Dover Farms: In Which Is Traced the Development of the Territory from the First Settlement in 1640 to 1900. Smith writes that "in the early times", a large rock on Farm Street was named after a man who had seen "his Satanic Majesty as he was riding on horseback in this secluded spot." The area was also rumored to be the site of buried treasure, and in the folklore of the time treasure was often guarded by a supernatural entity, like a ghost or demonic animal.

Satan. Buried treasure. Teenagers in cars. A weird alien creature crawling on a wall. There's no easy summary to this story. Maybe when those forces from the other side erupt through on a dark night, we see them in the shapes our culture determines for us, like a fallen angel galloping by on a black horse, or a spindly-limbed monster crawling over a stone wall. Are those forces extra-dimensional entities, demonic beings, or archetypal forces hiding in our own minds? I don't know, but I suspect if you go poking around in the woods after dark you might find out.

My main sources for this post were the previously mentioned Boston Globe article, this article by Christ Pittman, and Joseph Citro's Weird New England.