December 23, 2012

The Christmas Anticks: St. George and the Mummers Visit Boston

Up until the mid-1800s Christmas was a hotly debated holiday in New England. The middle and upper classes, along with the government and church authorities, were virulently anti-Christmas; the lower classes, fishermen, and sailors tended to be pro-Christmas. Even though Christmas was not an official holiday and the government discouraged it, these folks still found ways to celebrate it.

For example, during the 1700s groups of laborers and lower class men would don disguises and travel door-to-door in Boston at Christmas time performing skits and asking for money. Bostonians called these performers the Anticks. Of course, the wealthy people whose houses they visited didn't want to see the skits or give out any holiday cheer, but they felt powerless to do anything for fear of reprisal. Better to hand out some beer and coins than to find all your windows broken in the morning!

Samuel Breck, a wealthy Bostonian who lived in a large house on the corner of Winter and Tremont streets, recalled visits from the Anticks when he was a child.

The only way to get rid of them was to give them money, and listen patiently to a foolish dialogue between two or more of them. One them would cry out, "Ladies and gentlemen sitting by the fire, put your hands in your pockets and give us our desire." When this was done and they had received some money, a kind of acting took place. One fellow was knocked down, and lay sprawling on the carpet, while another bellowed out,

See, there he lies
But ere he dies
A doctor must be had.

He calls for a doctor, who soon appears, and enacts the part so well that the wounded man revives.

Although Breck doesn't mention this, the Boston Anticks were actually performing a mummer's play, a centuries old form of British seasonal folk-theater. They were most likely performing of the many skits about St. George where he is slain and then resurrected magically.

British mummers, from this site.

Samuel Breck had a very "Bah! Humbug!" attitude towards the Anticks, and many other upright citizens felt the same way. But although they ostensibly shared Breck's opinion, the police claimed it was hard to arrest the Anticks because they wore disguises, and police officials suggested private citizens arrest any Anticks who harassed them. It sounds to me like the police really had little interest in shutting the Anticks down and were just passing the buck. Who knows? Maybe they had friends or family members who were part of the Anticks, or just enjoyed seeing the wealthy people squirm.

This information comes from Stephen Nissenbaum's excellent book The Battle for Christmas. If you are interested in the history of Christmas in America this book is it!

Have a great Christmas, and if any Anticks come to your house make sure to give them a little cash.

December 15, 2012

Dr. Bourne and the Witch's Ghost

As many people know, for centuries Christmas was not well-regarded in New England. It was actually illegal to celebrate Christmas until 1681, and Christmas was not made a legal holiday until 1855.

The Christmas the Puritans wanted banned was quite different from what we celebrate today. Before the 19th century Christmas wasn't focused on presents from Santa and decorated evergreen trees, but was instead an occasion for heavy drinking and unruly behavior, timeless and rowdy traditions that had been imported from the Old World to America.

Even in the centuries when Christmas was banned or frowned upon in New England it was still celebrated, particularly by working class men, sailors, and fishermen. Coastal towns were often hotbeds of illegal Christmas celebrations.

So it's no surprise that back in 1810 one Dr. Richard Bourne was out celebrating on Christmas Day in Hyannis the traditional way - by getting extremely drunk. Even though he was a physician and the local postmaster, as a Cape Cod resident Dr. Bourne would have been exposed to Christmas celebrations by the many mariners and fishermen who called the peninsula home.

After spending Christmas Day drinking at a tavern, Dr. Bourne began to make his way home to Barnstable after sunset. It was a journey of four miles and the road led through a dense forest that had once been home to Liza Tower Hill, a well-known witch. But Dr. Bourne didn't worry as his horse made her way slowly through the snowy, moonlit woods. She had made the journey many times before and the good doctor was fortified against the cold with rum, beer, and holiday good cheer. Besides, Liza Tower Hill had been dead for twenty years.

Dr. Bourne didn't worry (or even notice) when his horse strayed from the path and trotted towards Half Way Pond, where the witch had been known to dance in the moonlight. He didn't even care when his horse stopped by the pond and a beautiful woman approached, asking him to dance. 

If he had been sober he would have wondered what a young lady was doing out alone in the icy woods wearing only a light dress. He would have wondered why he, a respectable member of Cape Cod society, found her so irresistible as they danced around the pond. And he most certainly would have wondered about the man in black clothing who watched them from under the bare trees.

As the night went on Dr. Bourne and the young lady left off dancing and enjoyed more intimate activities. But when the sky began to grow light Dr. Bourne started to become sober. He noticed the lady had vanished, but the man in black clothing was standing nearby. He held out a large black book to the good doctor, indicating he should sign. 

The alcohol fog lifted. In a panic Dr. Bourne pulled on his clothes and leapt upon his horse, but he left his boots behind. He was found in a panicky state that morning by a group of men who were traveling through the woods. They didn't believe his story but were amazed that he had survived the night outdoors in freezing temperatures.

After his encounter with Liza Tower Hill's ghost Richard Bourne's life took a turn for the worst. His neighbors mocked him as a lying drunk who claimed he had slept with a ghost, and he lost his job as postmaster. Even worse, the government claimed he had not turned over all the postage fees he had collected and levied a fine against him of nearly $1,000, an enormous amount of money in the 1800s.

After he died penniless the government realized its error (he had only owed $30) and gave his daughter Abigail the $1,000 they had erroneously collected. It was too late for Dr. Bourne, but I'm sure his daughter appreciated both the money and the fact that her father's reputation was now at least partially rehabilitated.


Witches, ghosts, infidelity in the woods, Satan, heavy drinking and Christmas - there's a lot to like in this story! It's from Elizabeth Reynard's The Narrow Land, and she got her information from Amos Otis's Genealogical Notes of Barnstable Families. I do wish things ended more happily for Dr. Bourne though.

I think the presence of witches and ghosts in a Christmas story might be surprising to some modern Americans, but in much of pre-modern Europe Christmas was actually a time when ghosts were said to be wandering the land. Dickens didn't just include four ghosts in A Christmas Carol randomly. He was drawing upon ancient traditions. Even today in America Christmas is tinged with the supernatural, what with Santa, flying reindeer, and those elves working away at the North Pole. And there's only a very fine line between elves and ghosts. As Jacob Grimm wrote, "The dead were known to the Norsemen as elves."

December 09, 2012

Liza Tower Hill, the Witch of Half Way Pond

Elizabeth Lewis was born in Barnstable, Massachusetts sometime early in the 18th century.

Although she and her parents lived near Crooked Pond, an area of Cape Cod which at the time was quite remote, as a child she walked without fear in the dense forest, unafraid of wild animals or getting lost after dark. There were rumors she even hunted with the local Indians.

To her English neighbors it all seemed a little uncanny. Why wasn't she afraid like other girls her age?

As she grew older Elizabeth, or Liza as she was known, also became quite wise in the ways of curing animals and diagnosing problems with crops. Wiser than one so young and pretty should be, her neighbors whispered. Who (or what) had given so much knowledge to Liza? Perhaps she was a witch and in league with the Devil.

Liza's uncanny reputation didn't stop William Blatchford from proposing to her, and when she was sixteen she and William built a house even further in the forest near Half Way Pond. Isolated from the community, they raised a family deep in the woods, coming into the town of Barnstable only to attend Sunday services. By this time Liza had a full-blown reputation as a witch and other women would avoid her touch when she drew near. Her husband's family had originally come from the Tower Hill section of London, so when the townspeople whispered about her they called her Liza Tower Hill, half in derision and half in fear.

Many stories were told about her witchy ways. The forest near Half Way Pond was supposedly luminous, and on moonlit nights travelers said they saw Liza dancing on the surface of the pond as animals and other less easily identifiable creatures watched with delight.

Some travelers found their way to Liza's pond unwillingly. The historian George Lyman Kittredge was told by an elderly neighbor how one Mrs. Loring of Barnstable was riding homeward through the woods one day when her horse unaccountably headed towards Half Way Pond. No matter how hard Mrs. Loring tried, the horse refused to obey her and instead circled the pond for hours. Clearly, Mrs. Loring said, her steed had been bewitched.

Liza allegedly used her witchcraft to protect her family as well. One of her daughters took a servant job at the home of the wealthy Allyn family, who mistreated the girl. Shortly thereafter their house became haunted. A large cat appeared mysteriously in the Allyn house, howling at all hours of the night. Even when the cat was turned out it could still be heard in halls and on the stairs, roaming invisibly. Chairs were smashed by unseen hands, and tables were knocked over. Many members of the Allyn family claimed the haunting was Liza Tower Hill's vengeance.

Of course, Liza was also accused of riding men in the night like horses, a traditional witch activity. For example, a Mr. Wood of West Barnstable said Liza saddled him and rode him to Plum Pudding Pond in Plymouth for midnight witch meetings. Since she was an attractive woman, this may just have been wishful thinking on Mr. Wood's part.

Liza may have met her end because she rode another man like a horse. Benjamin Goodspeed of East Sandwich claimed that Liza rode him nightly, and to escape her witchery he boarded a ship sailing from Barnstable. As the ship departed he thought he was free, but as he looked landward he saw a large black cat swimming after the ship. Needless to say the sight made him uneasy. That night Liza came to him in his dreams and rode him even more furiously than before.

Exhausted, the next morning Goodspeed once again saw the cat swimming after the ship. Realizing it was Liza's spirit in feline form, he loaded a gun with pages from the Bible and shot the cat in the head. The supernatural feline howled and sank below the waves. Back in her cottage by Half Way Pond Liza died suddenly at her spinning wheel, her eyes wide open and staring into the void.

It's a dramatic story but it may not be true. Records show that Liza Tower Hill died in July of 1790 from old age, not mysteriously at her spinning wheel. Although she had lost her beauty she had retained her independent spirit to the end.

Personally, I think Liza Tower Hill is a really nice embodiment of the mythic witch. She's the type of witch everyone would like to be! She was wise and attuned with nature, but definitely not someone you'd want to mess with. She was independent and feisty, but not particularly malevolent. If she had lived in the previous century and outside Cape Cod she undoubtedly would have been brought to trial for witchcraft. Happily she was born after the witch trial fury had burned out, and Cape Cod never had many witch trials to begin with. Perhaps even then people on the Cape were a little more tolerant of eccentrics.

Although Liza died in 1790, it's hard to keep a good witch down. Witches are able to send their spirits out of their bodies while alive, so for many witches death is just a minor inconvenience. Well, at least in folklore. Next week I'll tell you what happened to Liza after death. Conveniently it's also a Christmas story!

Most of the information for this week's post is from Elizabeth Reynard's The Narrow Land, while the story about Mrs. Loring's horse is from George Lyman Kittredge's Witchcraft in Old and New England.

December 03, 2012

Glooskap Encounters Winter, and Why Foxes Are Shy

Although astronomically winter always starts on the solstice, according to meteorologists winter starts here on December 1. In other words, December 21 may be the time when our hemisphere is tilted farthest away from the sun but the wintry weather actually kicks in three weeks earlier. We've already had a little bit of snow in Boston this year, so despite our current warm spell I concur with the weathermen on this one.

In honor of the wintry weather here is a Penobscot folktale about Glooskap, who I've written about a few times in the past. He's the culture hero and trickster god of the Indian tribes of Northern New England and the Maritime Provinces. A being of gigantic size, strength and magical power, Glooskap is the protector of mankind but also sometimes gets involved in comical adventures. Sometimes things don't turn out quite the way Glooskap plans.

A Glooskap (or Glooscap) statue from Parrsboro, Nova Scotia.

The story, which I found in Frank Speck's 1935 collection "Penobscot Tales and Religious Beliefs" in The Journal of American Folklore, goes something like this.


A long, long time ago Glooskap was living with his grandmother, the Woodchuck. Winter had come and brought with it heavy snow and very cold weather. All around Glooskap the Penobscot were starving and freezing to death.

Glooskap said, "Grandmother this is terrible! I must put a stop to this thing called winter. Where does it come from?"

Grandmother Woodchuck said, "Winter comes from the far, far north. It is so cold that no one can live there. If you went there you would die!"

"I must try," Glooskap said. "Make me six pairs of snowshoes - two made from caribou hide, two from deer hide, and two from moose skin."

Grandmother Woodchuck did as he asked, and Glooskap set out to put an end to winter. He walked north through the snow and ice for many days. He walked for so long that he wore out first the moose snowshoes, then the deerskin ones, and finally even the caribou snowshoes. He walked on for many days even after the final snowshoes had fallen apart, until he finally came upon a house made of ice.

Glooskap entered the house, and the door closed shut tightly behind him. Inside the house was an old man.

Glooskap addressed him using the polite term for an elder. "Grandfather, could you open the door? It is very cold in here."

The old man mimicked Glooskap, saying back to him "Grandfather, could you open the door? It is very cold in here."

Glooskap could feel himself freezing solid. Through chattering teeth he said, "Grandfather, I am nearly frozen to death."

The old man laughed and again repeated Glooskap's words to him. "Grandfather, I am nearly frozen to death."

And then Glooskap froze solid and died. The old man dragged Glooskap's giant body outside of the house and threw it in the snow, but in the spring Glooskap thawed out and came back alive. The ice house had melted away and he started the long walk back home.


That's a pretty stark ending. The moral seems to be winter is coming, and there's not much you can do about it. Now of course there is another tale where Glooskap steals summer from some magicians and finally teaches the wintry old man a lesson, but isn't it really more appropriate for the spring? Right now we just need to make peace with winter. I don't want to end this post on a really depressing note though, so here's a raunchy story about what happened to Grandmother Woodchuck while Glooskap was away. It also incidentally explains why foxes are shy.


While Glooskap was away up in the north Grandmother Woodchuck sat up in her wigwam every night, waiting for him to come home.

Some mischievous foxes who lived nearby learned of this and decided to play a trick on her. One night they came to her door, and one fox imitated Glooskap, saying, "Grandmother, I am home." When Grandmother Woodchuck opened the door the foxes urinated in her face and then ran off into the dark, laughing.

The foxes thought this was so funny that they did it again the next night. And the next. This went on for several months, until Grandmother Woodchuck was nearly blind from being sprayed with fox urine. You would think she would learn a lesson after the first few times, but she was so concerned about Glooskap that she still opened the door every night.

That spring Glooskap finally made his way back home after thawing out. He stood outside her wigwam and said, "Grandmother, I am home."

Grandmother Woodchuck said, "You damn foxes fooled me all winter, but I won't be fooled again. I've had enough. Go away! I'm not opening the door."

Glooskap said, "No grandmother, it is me!" He stuck his hand in the door, and when Grandmother Woodchuck felt his hand she knew Glooskap was really home.

Glooskap healed his grandmother's eyes, and she explained what had happened. Glooskap was furious. He took his bow and arrows and went hunting, and killed every fox he could find. Then he trapped one fox alive and brought it to his grandmother.

Grandmother Woodchuck tied the fox to a pole whipped it with switches until it apologized. When she set the fox free it ran off into the woods and was never seen again. And because of this, foxes are now shy and avoid people's houses.


I don't recommend shooting foxes (they're too darn cute!), but I don't recommend pranking elderly grandmas either. Happy meteorological winter!