May 21, 2017

Sex, Whales and Witchcraft: The Legend of Ichabod Paddock

I've lived in New England my whole life, but I have only been to Nantucket once. It was a memorable trip. The island is full of beautiful historic old homes and lots of upscale amenities. It's a great spot for a posh summer vacation.

This was not always the case. Once it was a desolate isolated island. Herman Melville describes it in Moby Dick (1851):

Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it — a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don’t grow naturally; that they import Canada thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day’s walk a prairie...  
This does not sound like the summer playground of millionaires. It was not, but it was the whaling capital of the world. Melville himself sailed on the Charles and Henry, a Nantucket whaling ship, in 1842, which was one of the inspirations for Moby Dick.

Although the Wampanoag who originally lived on Nantucket may have occasionally killed whales, whaling as an industry only began there in 1690 when Ichabod Paddock arrived from Cape Cod. Paddock was a Quaker, an accomplished whaler, and a semi-legendary figure.

Image from here.

There are several legends about Paddock. For example, one claims that while he was in the Pacific he threw his favorite harpoon into a whale. The harpoon reached its mark, but the whale escaped. Thirteen years later, he was once again in the Pacific. His ship sighted a whale, which the crew successfully captured and killed. While they were cutting it up they found a harpoon embedded deep in its flesh. It had the initials "I.P." on it. It was the same whale Paddock had harpooned thirteen years ago.

One of the weirder legends tells how Paddock's ship was pursuing a whale named Crookjaw. No matter how hard Paddock's crew threw their harpoons they just bounced off Crookjaw. Even Ichabod himself could not harpoon the whale. Frustrated and unwilling to admit defeat, Ichabod put a knife between his teeth and dove into the ocean. As his terrified crew watched he swam right towards Crookjaw.

Crookjaw opened his mouth and swallowed Paddock whole.

Much to his surprise, Paddock did not die inside the darkness of a whale's stomach. Instead, he found himself inside a comfortable ship's cabin. Lanterns hung from the ceiling, and a large feather bed sat against one wall. A table filled the center of the room, and two people were playing cards at it. One was a beautiful blonde woman who had a shining green fish tail instead of legs. The other was a dark-clad man who smelled of fire and brimstone.

When the card players saw Paddock the dark man threw down his cards in anger and disappeared. The blonde woman (mermaid? witch?) smiled at Paddock.

"What were you wagering on?" he asked her.

"Why you, of course." She smiled again.

Meanwhile, the crew of Paddock's ship waited for some sign of their captain. After swallowing him Crookjaw just sat immobile, floating silently as the waves splashed against him. The crew didn't know what else to do. Their harpoons and knives were useless against the whale.

After several hours, Crookjaw opened his mouth and Paddock swam out on a torrent of water. He climbed back aboard his ship. "Boys," he said with a big grin, "We need to come back here tomorrow. I've got more work to do!"

Paddock and his crew came back the next day, and once again Paddock swam into the whale's mouth. His crew waited for hours while Crookjaw floated passively in the water until their captain emerged from the whale. Then they came back the next day. And the day after that.

This went on for quite a while. Rumors began to circulate around Nantucket that Paddock had been seduced by a devilish woman who lived in a whale, and they eventually reached the ears of his wife. Mrs. Paddock was young, beautiful, and unwilling to cede her husband to a witchy mermaid. She developed a plan.

One day as Paddock was about to set sail his wife ran down the wharf to his ship. "Husband!" she cried, "Husband! I have brought you a gift."

In her hands she held a glistening new harpoon. It's sharp tip shone brightly in the sun. Paddock thanked her and set sail for his assignation with her gift in his hand. Mrs. Paddock smiled a cold smile as the ship left the wharf.

When the ship found Crookjaw in his usual spot Paddock prepared to dive into the sea, but one of his crew stopped him. "Captain," he said, "Don't you think you should try that new harpoon your wife gave you? It's mighty fine. Maybe it can pierce the monster's skin."

Grudgingly, Paddock took up the harpoon. He knew it couldn't harm the enchanted whale, and he was eager to see his marine mistress. Still, he needed to keep up some level of appearance. He drew back his arm and threw the shining harpoon at Crookjaw.

The harpoon easily pierced the whale's hide, and with a hideous groan Crookjaw rolled over on his back. He was dead. Mrs. Paddock had asked a local blacksmith to forge a harpoon with a silver tip, and silver is one metal that always defeats witchcraft.

The crew didn't find a ship's cabin inside the whale when they cut open its stomach, just bile and half-digested fish. Paddock searched desperately through the offal for some sign of his lover, but all he found was long yellow seaweed and a few seashells.

This story appears in quite a few places and with several variations. In some versions the seductress is clearly a witch, and in others a mermaid. I found this version in Nathaniel Philbrick's Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602 - 1890. Philbrick notes that Paddock was eventually kicked out of the Quakers after he "sailed about in a vessel where dancing was performed and he a partaker therein." The story about Crookjaw may be a legend but it seems to say something true about Paddock's personality.

Witches and sailors have a fraught (and often sexual) relationship in New England folklore. For example, Captain Sylvanus Rich was seduced by a witch who gave him the "sweet milk of Satan," while Skipper Ireson was ridden like a stallion at night by a witch as punishment. The Paddock legend is more elaborate but clearly fits in this genre.
Hercules, Hesione, and the Sea Monster, from the Museum of Fine Arts
Heroes have been swallowed by giant sea monsters throughout history. For example, Hercules was swallowed by a sea monster that came to eat the Trojan princess Hesione. He emerged alive several days later after killing the monster from the inside, but not before losing all his hair due to the acid in the monster's stomach. Two lessons to learn: Hercules is invulnerable but his hair isn't, and sea monster acid is nature's depilatory.

Jonah and the Whale, Pieter Lastman, 1620
The most famous person to emerge from a whale's stomach is of course the Biblical prophet Jonah. Jonah was told by God to preach in Nineveh, but didn't want to because he was afraid of the hostile reception he'd get there. He booked passage on a ship going in the opposite direction, but the crew threw him overboard after God besieged the ship with a storm. A whale swallowed Jonah, swam to Nineveh, and vomited him up on the shore. Jonah got the message and started preaching. 

In the movie Pinocchio, Gepetto is swallowed by a whale, and Pinocchio eventually goes inside to save him. This act of sacrifice turns the puppet Pinocchio into a real boy. 

Hercules, Jonah and Pinocchio find heroism, destiny and redemption inside their respective whales. Ichabod Paddock finds witchcraft, secret sex and the Devil. But after all, this is New England.

May 17, 2017

Skunk Cabbage Folklore

Last weekend I was walking through a park near my house and saw that this plant was growing near some streams:

It is of course skunk cabbage. Technically it's eastern skunk cabbage, or symplocarpus foetidus if you like Latin. There's also a western skunk cabbage that grows in the Pacific Northwest. Skunk cabbage gets its name from the pungent odor it releases when its leaves are damaged or when it flowers very early in the spring. I don't know if pungent is strong enough a word - its odor is reminiscent of skunk spray or rotting meat. One of the chemicals that produces its odor is cadaverine, which is also the chemical that makes rotting corpses smell.

When I saw the skunk cabbage I thought, "There must be some interesting folklore about this plant." And there is. Skunk cabbage was used by several local Indian tribes for medicinal purposes.

Before I list those purposes, I just want to say this: DO NOT TRY ANY OF THESE CURES. I am not a  doctor and am not recommending using skunk cabbage to heal anything. I am simply listing this folklore because I find it interesting.

The Micmac claimed that skunk cabbage could be used to stop headaches, while the Mohegan believed that rolling and chewing a raw leaf would prevent convulsions or epileptic fits. The Abenaki used it to reduce swelling, while the Malecite, who live in extreme northern Maine and Canada's Maritime provinces, also used it for unspecified medicinal purposes.

Again, I wouldn't try any of those remedies because parts of the skunk cabbage plant can be poisonous.

Those uses for skunk cabbage came from local tribes. Several Indian tribes outside of New England also used the plant medicinally and for magic. For example, the Iroquois would apply skunk cabbage leaves to a dog bite. This was done not just to heal the wound, but also to make the biting dog's teeth fall out. I was bitten by a dog once and understand the impulse behind this practice.

The Iroquois also used skunk cabbage to increase fertility by passing it over a woman's genitals, and also to fight really bad body odor. For the latter, they would dry the leaves into a powder and rub it into their armpits like deodorant.

Much like the Iroquois, the Menominee of Wisconsin also use skunk cabbage to treat wounds. However, they used it also for tattoos:

Tattooing was not employed by the Menomini so much for the design as for the treatment of diseases, being a talisman against their return. The medicines were tattooed in over the seat of the pain. Not all of the herbs used were identified, for the writer did not see them growing. Among them were powdered birchbark, charcoal pigment, skunk root, deer's ear root (Menyanthes trifoliata L.), red top root (Lobelia cardinalis L.?), black root (unknown), and yellow root, probably Oxalis acetosella L. The medicines were moistened and tattooed into the flesh with the teeth of the gar pike, dipped in the medicines. The various colors stay and form a guard against the disease. (Huron Smith, "Ethnobotany of the Meonmini Indians," Bulletin of the Public Museum of Milwaukee, December 10, 1923)

I think it's wonderful that the world is full of such interesting folklore. We are surrounded by amazing things if you just know where to look.


Most of the information for this post came from the Native American Ethnobotany Database.

May 09, 2017

Paging Dr. Freudstein: Burials Inside Old Houses?

Have you ever seen a horror movie called The House by the Cemetery (aka Zombie Hell House)? It's from 1981, and although it was directed by infamous Italian goremeister Lucio Fulci much of it was actually filmed in Concord and Scituate, Massachusetts.

One British reviewer called it "hackwork of almost awesome incoherence." The story, such as it is, involves researcher Norman Boyle and his wife Lucy moving with their son Bob from New York City to a spooky New England mansion. Norman's boss had previously lived in the house - that is, until he killed his girlfriend and then committed suicide under strange circumstances. For some reason Norman thinks it will be the perfect location to write a book about old houses.

The Boyles move into the house, aided by a local realtor who neglects to tell them that the old house has been the site of many, many multiple murders in the past. But why let some inconvenient history get in the way of a good commission? The house of course is also located next to an old spooky cemetery.
This is actually the Ellis Estate in Scituate, Massachusetts.
Italian horror movies from the 1980s are famous for their almost nonexistent plots, and House by the Cemetery certainly fits that mold. Norman researches the old house. Lucy realizes the door to the cellar is nailed shut. A mysterious babysitter that no one asked for arrives and starts to care for Bob. Everyone hears weird noises. The realtor is killed by something lurking in the cellar. The babysitter cleans up the mess. Bob meets a little girl in the cemetery that no one else can see. The cellar-monster kills more people. And so it goes for 87 minutes of gore and non-sequitur filled dialogue.

I confess: I love House by the Cemetery. It's a terrible movie, but somehow the incoherence and bad dubbing makes it all seem dreamlike to me. It's also nicely filmed. Even though I love it, I don't think Lucio Fulci really understood much about New England when he made it. For example, the house is located somewhere called "New Whitby, Boston." Didn't Fulci didn't know that Boston is a city, not a state?

A sinister babysitter!

There is also a scene that made me roll my eyes. While Lucy is cleaning the house she rolls back an old rug. What's that underneath it? Why, it's a gravestone embedded in the floor. The house's original owner, one Dr. Jacob Freudstein (!), is buried under the living room. Lucy freaks out, but when her husband comes home he calms her down. "Most of the old houses in the area have tombs in them," he says. "That's because in the winter it freezes here."

That's when I rolled my eyes. I have been in innumerable old New England houses, I grew up in an old house, and none of them had tombs in them. Lucio Fulci just made that up, I thought.

But maybe I was wrong. Because at least one old New England might have a tomb in it. Maybe Lucio Fulci was right?

The house in question is the Gideon Straw House in Newfield, Maine. Built in the 1700s, the kitchen of this large farmhouse supposedly contains the grave of Gideon Straw's daughter, Hannah Chadbourne. According to Robert Ellis Cahill's book New England's Ghostly Haunts (1983), her final resting place is marked by a gravestone on the floor that reads:

SACRED to the memory of Mrs. Hannah
Wife of Ira Chadbourne
Who died March 2, 1826 - age 30
Blest are the dead, who die in Christ
Whose triumph is so great. 
Who calmly wait a nobler life
A nobler life shall meet

According to Cahill, the Straw House was used as a hunting lodge for many years, and it was traditional for the hunters to stand around Hannah's grave and salute her with their beers. Cahill also says some of them made rude jokes at Hannah's expense.

Perhaps it's no surprise that the house has a reputation for being haunted. One owner reported strange whistling noises coming from all the fireplaces, while still another claimed to have seen Hannah's ghost looking in the window. That owner also said he awoke one night to find Hannah caressing his cheek. Yikes!

At one point the building was sold to two schoolteachers, who at first enjoyed living in a haunted house. They changed their minds after one particularly noisy night when something unseen slammed the doors and charged up and down the stairs until sunrise. The two teachers left shortly thereafter.

So after reading Cahill's book I thought maybe Lucio Fulci was really on to something. But then I tried to find more information about the Gideon Straw house and Hannah's ghost. It turns out that the story just isn't true. Several past owners have said they never experienced any ghosts, and that Hannah is definitely not buried in the kitchen. The gravestone people talk about was probably just a spare marker kept on the property after the family replaced it with a nicer one. If it ever was on the property it's not there now. All this information is from a site specializing in the paranormal. When even a paranormal site tells you there's no ghost, there's probably no ghost.

It's a little disappointing that the Straw house is (probably) not haunted because it does make for a good story. It would have been nice if Lucio Fulci had included some authentic old New England lore in House by the Cemetery. On the other hand, I suppose he did include an authentic legend, even if it was not true.

Fulci made one other film set in New England: City of the Dead, aka Gates of Hell. This film is set in H. P. Lovecraft's mythical town of Dunwich, but in Fulci's movie it looks suspiciously like a small dusty town in Italy. The plot involves the ghost of a priest that committed suicide who makes people vomit up their innards when he stares at them. Maybe I should see if that's a piece of authentic folklore too?


Just a reminder, I will be speaking about the monsters of Cape Cod on Saturday, May 13 as part of the Provincetown Paracon. Other speakers include Adam Barry and Amy Bruni from the TV shows Ghost Hunters and Kindred Spirits, and there will be a special Traveling Museum of the Occult and Paranormal as well. I hope you can make it!

Me and Paracon organizer Sam Baltrusis talking about the event on What's New Massachusetts.

May 01, 2017

A Spooky Lamp, A UFO, and An Ancient Oak

Unusual stories about New England have been in the news lately. First off, Salem's mayor posted the following picture on Twitter on Wednesday, April 26:

Mayor Kim Driscoll then asked: "Anybody else see a face in this light?...Totally eerie, eh." Well, I do see a face in this light, and apparently many other people did too. Driscoll's Tweet became national news after it was picked up by the Associated Press. Newspapers across the country published the photo, including The New York Times and The Boston Globe. The U.K.'s Daily Mail even published an article about it.

This is a classic case of pareidolia, a tendency to see sentient beings in inanimate objects. The most famous New England example of pareidolia was New Hampshire's late, great Old Man of the Mountain, but Mayor Driscoll's photo is a great example as well. This probably wouldn't have been news if another town's mayor had taken the photo, but as we all know Salem has a reputation for the spooky and supernatural. I hope the mayor's photo encourages some tourists to visit and take in what the city has to offer.

Of course, not all spooky things are as charming as a face in a street lamp. Like, for example, giant triangular UFOs that appear while you're driving around at night. The U.K.'s Sunday Express reported on April 11 that a man in Orrington, Maine told the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) that he saw just such a craft on Friday, January 13.

Image from Express U.K. (but not of the Maine UFO)

According to the unnamed witness, he and several friends saw the craft around 11:19 p.m. as they drove down Brewer Lake Road. They first saw red lights hovering above a dam on the lake, but the lights soon moved towards the witness's car and hovered above it. According to The Sunday Express:

He initially thought it could be a plane from Bangor International Airport.

He added: "But there was something unusual about the lights."

“This triangular silhouette went from being far off the road and fairly high in the air (500 – 700 feet) to swooping in very close probably 400 feet off the road and 200 feet high."

“The way the object moved down closer was very odd and I was euphoric, but terrified at the same time…"

The man went on to describe a bizarre encounter that they tried to film.

He said: "We were all looking at the black equilateral triangle that had glowing bright red lights on each end."

"The object also had a centre light that glowed white and the object was dark against the clear night sky and it had to have been 40 to 60 feet across."

“But we looked at the video after and we couldn’t see anything but darkness…”

The witness and his friends also saw a second, larger triangular craft nearby. Although the sighting happened in January, it was only recently reported to MUFON, who are investigating. A MUFON spokesperson said the following: "Please remember that most UFO sightings can be explained as something natural or man-made." True, but hard to remember when you're on a dark country road and see a giant triangle above your car!

Finally, an ancient and historic oak tree has passed away. Citizens of my hometown Haverhill, Massachusetts are mourning the loss of the centuries old Worshipping Oak. The oak had stood since the 1600s, and according to tradition was the tree under which the first Puritan settlers held their worship services.

The Worshipping Oak in happier days (from Wikimedia Commons)

I must have traveled past the tree thousands of times in my life, but never realized how old and important it was. Interesting history is everywhere in New England! Get out there and see it before it vanishes.

April 25, 2017

Grave Robbers, Resurrection Men, and Med Students

I recently finished Colson Whitehead's excellent new novel The Underground Railroad. I can understand why it won the Pulitzer. It's an interesting mix of history, fantasy, adventure, and social commentary. It also gruesome and upsetting, which you'd expect from a novel about slavery.

Most of the novel takes place in the South, but one very short chapter deals with a 19th-century Boston medical student who moonlights as a grave robber. The city's medical schools need dead bodies for dissection class, and very few people are willing to leave their corpses to science. It's the perfect opportunity for an ambitious young man with bad morals...

After finishing The Underground Railroad I decided to look into grave robbery in old New England. Whitehead's book is fiction, but he incorporates a lot of fact into it. Does he accurately portray the local grave robbing business?

The answer is yes, more or less. In the 18th and 19th century, Boston medical schools were given the corpses of executed criminals by the government to dissect. Unfortunately, the stream of executed criminals was not enough to satisfy the schools' demand for fresh corpses. To increase their supply, medical professors turned to grave robbers euphemistically called "resurrection men." The resurrection were more than happy to dig up freshly buried bodies and sell them to the schools.

Surprisingly, legal penalties for resurrection men were quite light. They often got away with just a slap on the wrist. They had to worry more about being beaten by an angry mob of mourning relatives than being arrested by the police. It seems strange, but grave robbing did not become a felony in Massachusetts until 1815, when the legislature passed a bill called "An Act to Protect the Sepulchers of the Dead."

To avoid angry relatives (and later the police), resurrection men sought out corpses that no one important cared about. The graves of paupers, the insane, and the homeless were all good sources of revenue. African-American cemeteries also made good targets for the resurrection men. Corpses from the lower social levels of society could be taken more easily.

Since the penalties for grave robbing were originally light, sometimes even faculty and students from medical schools tried their hand at it. It saved them from having to pay the resurrection men and seems to have been viewed almost as a fun activity. For example, at Harvard Medical School a secret student society called the Spunkers Club routinely robbed graves in the years before the Revolution. Sam Adams's son was a member, as was William Eustis, who later became U.S. Secretary of War. The Revolutionary War later provided a steady stream of bodies; George Washington himself complained from his headquarters in Cambridge about the theft of a soldier's body. Happily, the Spunkers Club is no longer in operation.

It is now illegal to pay for a human body in the United States, and medical schools rely on donations. You can read more about the process in this National Geographic article. WARNING: It has photos of actual corpses. You can read more about the Spunkers Club at the History Channel. No photos of corpses there.


FYI, I will be speaking about the monsters of Cape Cod on Saturday, May 13 as part of the Provincetown Paracon. Other speakers include Adam Barry and Amy Bruni from the TV shows Ghost Hunters and Kindred Spirits, and there will be a special Traveling Museum of the Occult and Paranormal as well. I hope you can make it!

Me and Paracon organizer Sam Baltrusis talking about the event on What's New Massachusetts.

April 18, 2017

Is It Really A Ghost? Debunking Stories From New England Foklore

Here is a story sent by my friend Simon Young, which he found in the December 28, 1892 issue of The Shields Daily Gazette. This is a British newspaper, but for some reason they ran the following:

A "Ghost" In A Graveyard.

For some time past a "ghost" had taken up its abode in the graveyard at South Newburg, Maine, where it appeared at night, moving round among the graves, bearing a phosphoric light. The other evening a party of seven men and women went out to investigate, and found that the the apparition that was frightening the people was the reflection of a light from a neighbouring house, thrown back from a new and highly-polished marble headstone.

That's the end of the article. You don't see such short newspaper stories today, but the really interesting thing it was written just to debunk a ghost story. I do question whether the ghost is really debunked, though. After all, how could people see a light moving around the graveyard if it was just the light from a house reflecting off a gravestone? Gravestones don't move. Houses don't move. How did the light move?

Anyway, this story is a classic New England debunking story, and debunking stories form their own subset of folk tales. In general, a debunking story starts with a supernatural situation that foolish people believe to be true. It ends with the revelation that the strange phenomena were really caused by something natural. The foolish people just didn't realize what they were observing.

I've found debunking stories in all sorts of places, like folklore collections and town histories. Eva Speare includes several of them in her book New Hampshire Folk Tales, and prefaces them with this statement:

Psychologists often discuss the causes of the innate fear complex which exists in the subconscious mental states of sensible men and women even in this scientific twentieth century.

The following stories are printed because they demonstrate how easily this natural inheritance overcomes the common sense of normal human beings when suddenly confronted by mysterious events. 

According to one story, a house in Franconia was reputedly haunted. Everyone who tried to live in it was scared off by eerie noises that had no discernible cause. Word spread that a ghost inhabited the building and eventually the landlord, Simeon Spooner, could not find anyone to rent it. It sat empty.

A young widow named Priscilla Quimby arrived in Franconia with two small children. Money was tight for Quimby, and she needed someplace cheap to live. Spooner told her she could live in the haunted house rent free - if she dared. Having no other alternative, she accepted his offer and moved in.

At first things were quiet and peaceful in the house, but one night after the children had fallen asleep Quimby started to hear noises. They grew louder and louder, until the house was filled with horrible whining and screeching sounds. The widow grew frightened, but was determined to find the source of the noise, even if it meant confronting a ghost. She was going to fight to stay in her home! Her search for the sounds eventually led her up to the top floor, where in an unlit room she discovered ... a tree branch scraping against a window. The next day she cut the branch off and lived peacefully in the house for many years.

In another story, from 1820, Speare tells of a boy named Nat Huntoon who lived in Epping, New Hampshire. One day two of Huntoon's friends said they had heard the local Baptist church was haunted by ghosts. After school the three boys went to the church to investigate. As they stood on the front steps they heard horrible noises emerging from inside. Uncanny moans, heavy footsteps, and unearthly yells filled the air. The boys fled in panic.

Huntoon did chores for Esquire Daniel Ladd, and when he told Ladd what he had experienced Ladd set off for the church. En route Ladd met one of his friends, General Joseph Towle, who decided to accompany him. When they reached the church they paused outside. From within they heard strange noises, just like Huntoon described. Steeling themselves, they pulled open the church doors, but instead of ghosts or demons they saw that the church was instead filled with cows. The explanation? Apparently someone had left his cows in the middle of the road, and an annoyed neighbor decided to hide them in the church to get back at him.

Debunking stories sound plausible until you start to think about them closely. For example, the first story seems to make sense. There used to be a tree branch that scraped against a window at my office, and the sound was weird and annoying. We all knew it was a tree branch, though, and didn't think it was a ghost. But wouldn't the people in Franconia know what a tree branch sounded like? Couldn't they just see the tree branch when they stood outside the house? Also, you'd think Simeon Spooner would thoroughly investigate his property before letting someone stay there for free.

The second story seems even less plausible to me. The boys just happened to go to the church on the same day that someone happened to hide cows inside? But why did they think the church was haunted to begin with? And isn't hiding cows in a church some kind of criminal offense? The explanation raises more questions than it answers.

There are lots of other debunking stories out there. For example, an infamous fiery ghost ship called the Palatine was often seen off the coast of Rhode Island's Block Island in the 18th and 19th century. Reverend S.T. Livermore, in his book Block Island (1882), suggests that the fiery apparition was actually caused by gas rising up from the water. However, he also admits that no one has ever given a truly satisfactory explanation for the ghost ship. (Livermore is quoted in R. A. Botkin's A Treasury of New England Folklore.) Fiery gas does not rise up from the ocean waters at regular intervals off the coast of Rhode Island, though. The natural explanation doesn't make any sense.

Old debunking stories don't just apply to ghosts. A demon two girls accidentally summoned was explained away as a neighbor pulling a prank. That sounds like a good explanation, but only if you ignore another story about a similar demon where it clearly wasn't a prank. The hairy humanoid known as the Winsted Wildman was explained as an ape that had escaped from a circus - even though none had gone missing and apes can't survive a Connecticut winter. The "escaped wild animal" explanation continues to pop up even today. For example, the Truro panther was said to possibly be a domesticated panther that had escaped from its Provincetown owner. The only problem is that no one in Provincetown owned such an animal.

To be clear, I don't think every ghost or monster is real. It's important to be skeptical about supernatural phenomena. Otherwise we'd still be hanging our neighbors as witches, which no one wants. But arguing that supernatural phenomena
are just the result of people misinterpreting the natural world is too simple. It leaves out all the psychological, historical, and spiritual aspects that make folklore and the paranormal so interesting.

April 11, 2017

Discovering Witches with Sword Magic

There are a lot of great things about writing this blog. I visit strange places. I meet new people with similar interests. I research unusual topics. And sometimes, I find a piece of witchcraft lore that is totally new.

Well, at least it's new to me, but most of it is really old. Here's a good example. I've recently been reading about some early witchcraft trials in Connecticut and found a test for witchcraft that I had never seen before.

Witchcraft tests are an important form of old New England folk magic and show up in many trial accounts. Imagine that you are a Puritan settler and someone in your family is acting strangely. Maybe they suffering from strange convulsions. Maybe they have an illness that won't go away. Maybe they say a strange entity has been appearing in their bedroom at night. You need to know if their problems are caused by something natural or supernatural. Basically, you need a test to see if someone has bewitched them.

Some witchcraft tests are quite well known. Mary Sibley tried used a witch cake to test if the Parris children were bewitched in an incident that might have started the Salem witch trials. Witch bottles are both a way to test for witchcraft and also a way to defend against it. But here's the witchcraft test that was new to me: holding a sword over the bewitched person and seeing if they laugh.

It comes from the case of Katherine Branch, a servant girl living in Stamford, Connecticut in the 1690s. In April of 1692 Branch began to exhibit strange behavior, including uncontrollable convulsions, weeping, and hysterical shouting. A midwife at first thought the cause was natural and tried bleeding Branch, but when the convulsions didn't stop she decided witchcraft was more likely the cause. Branch herself claimed two local women, Elizabeth Clawson of Stamford and Mercy Disborough of Fairfield, were the witches attacking her.

Unlike their co-religionists to the north in Salem, the Puritans in Connecticut were very strict about what evidence they would accept. They wanted to be sure that Branch was actually bewitched and not lying. One of the tests they administered was the sword test.

The sword test was suggested by a neighbor named Thomas Asten. Asten said he had heard that holding a sword over the bewitched person would cause them to laugh uncontrollably, possibly even to the point of death if the sword were held over them long enough. Branch's employers agreed to let Asten administer the test.

Sword image from this site...
 Asten held his sword over Branch, and she began to laugh hysterically. She continued laughing until Asten moved it away. "You see," said Asten, "she is clearly bewitched!" Another neighbor, Sarah Kecham, was not convinced. She brought Asten into another room and quietly suggested that Branch could have easily faked her laughter. After all, she knew the sword was being held over her head and knew why they were doing it. Kecham wanted to try the test again.

Asten and Kecham returned to the room where Branch was. While Branch was looking in the other direction Asten very quietly held his sword over her. She was unaware the sword was there and she didn't laugh at all. Not so much as even a giggle. Perhaps she wasn't really bewitched after all...

Elizabeth Clawson and Mercy Disborough were ultimately found innocent of witchcraft, although it took several lengthy trials to reach that decision. The sword test was probably one of the pieces of evidence that helped them go free. Let's be glad that Sarah Kecham was a skeptic!

This test might not be easy to administer these days because not many people have swords. A sword may not be necessary, though. I think the sword test was considered effective because swords were made of metal, and metal is anathema to witches in folklore. Items like horseshoes and nails were often used to repel witches, and it was believed that binding a witch with iron manacles prevented them from using their powers. So maybe if you don't have a sword a crowbar might work instead? Then again, sometimes the best test (and defense against witchcraft) is just plain old skepticism.


The information for this week's post is from Richard Godbeer's book Escaping Salem.

April 05, 2017

Captain Snaggs and the Devil: Hell Comes to Cape Cod

Many years ago a sea captain named Jeremiah Snaggs lived on Cape Cod. Captain Snaggs was quite wealthy, but he didn't owe his success to hard work or even good luck. He owed it to the Devil.

When he was just a young seaman Snaggs had sold his soul to the Devil in return for money and success. The Devil kept his end of the bargain, and Snaggs became a rich man. For most of his life he didn't worry about keeping his end of the bargain. After all, it was many years away. Who had time to worry about Hell when there was so much money to make and spend?

But time goes by quickly, and eventually Snaggs was an old, sick man. As he lay in his bed, breathing what was probably his last breath, he could hear the Devil's heavy footsteps coming up the stairs to his bedroom. He was filled with fear and regret. He didn't want to go to Hell.

His fear filled him with the energy of a young man. He jumped out of bed, climbed out the window and ran like ... well, he ran like hell! First he ran to Barnstable, but as stopped to catch his breath he could hear the Devil coming up behind him. Oh no! He started running again, even faster, and made his way to Orleans, where he hid in a hollow tree.

As Snaggs hid in the tree he heard the Devil sniffing around nearby. The Evil One knew his quarry was nearby somewhere. While the Devil was poking around in the underbrush Snaggs crept out of the tree and set off again, running faster than he ever had in his whole life. He made it all the way to a cemetery in Wellfleet before he stopped.

He knew the Devil would catch up to him again, so he grabbed a pumpkin from a nearby field and carved a face into it. Then he covered a gravestone with his cloak, balanced the jack-o-lantern on top, and stuck a candle in it. As he climbed over the cemetery wall he glanced over his shoulder and saw the Devil run up to the jack-o-lantern. "I've got you now!' he heard the Devil say. Snaggs didn't wait to hear the rest of it. He just started running.

Snaggs ran for many miles until he reached Provincetown. Then he stopped. He had hit the end of Cape Cod. There was no place left to run.

A few minutes later the Devil came running up after him. "Ha! You can't escape me now!" the Devil said. He glowered evilly at Snaggs. Then he glowered some more.

Snaggs just stood there, waiting for the Devil to grab him. But the Devil didn't. Finally Snagg said, "Well, you caught me. Ain't you going to drag me to Hell?"

The Devil laughed with surprise. "What do you mean? We're already there. We're in Provincetown, aren't we?"


Elizabeth Renard comments on this story in her book The Narrow Land: Folk Chronicles of Old Cape Cod (1934). She notes, "Many variants. Always the flight ends in Provincetown, and the conclusion is the same; but different captains and different towns are used for the starting point." The names may change but the point of this story doesn't: Provincetown and Hell are the same place. 

Why would this be? These days Provincetown is a very expensive (and primarily gay) resort town. Well, I suppose to some religious fundamentalists that sounds like Hell, but this story is older than Provincetown's gay history. 

I found an interesting explanation on the home page of Provincetown's Masonic Lodge. According to their history of the town, the area was first settled in 1680 by a ragtag group of fishermen, smugglers, and escaped indentured servants. Some of these outlaws made their living as "mooncussers." That's a quaint word for shipwreckers. They would place lanterns on the beach which passing ships would misinterpret as indicating a safe channel. When the ships sailed towards the lights they would wreck on the shore, allowing the mooncussers to pillage their cargo. 

Provincetown maintained its bad reputation even when the British stopped this deadly practice. Unlike it's stricter Puritan neighbors, Provincetown encouraged a freer practice of religion and allowed sects like Methodism to flourish. That doesn't sound like much now, but it was a much bigger deal in the past. In the early 20th century Provincetown became a popular spot for artists and playwrights, which I suppose also did nothing to help its reputation with its more conservative neighbors.

Although New England has a reputation for historically being uptight (perhaps deservedly), some towns were known to be a little wild. For example, Marblehead, Massachusetts was originally a lawless place, as was its neighbor Dogtown Common. We can safely add Provincetown to that list, whether or not Captain Snaggs really did make a deal with the Devil. But one man's Hell is another man's Heaven...

March 27, 2017

Three Provincetown Sea Serpents

I have been to Provincetown on Cape Cod many, many times. It's definitely the liveliest town on the Cape in the summer, and there's always something interesting to see when you walk down Commercial Street.

Outside the hubbub of the town, though, there are miles and miles of dunes and beaches. It gets pretty quiet out there, particularly in the off-season. It can feel like you're at the end of the Earth, where anything is possible. It's the type of place where monsters might appear...

In 1886, George Washington Ready of Provincetown saw a sea serpent off the shore of Provincetown. According to The Provincetown Advocate, the sighting started with a disturbance in the water:

It looked like a whirlpool and from his point of view appeared to be about 20 feet in diameter, from the center of which jets of spray looking like steam were ejected to the height of 50 feet. Intently watching this strange phenomenon he saw a huge head appear above the surface of the water and point for the shore. The head was as large as a 200 gallon cask, concave on the under side. Mr. Ready saw the creature coming towards the shore and secreted himself in a clump of beach plum bushes where he got a good view of the monster. 

And what a monster it was!

It was about 300 feet long and the thickest part, which was about the middle way, he judged as it passed, to be about 12 feet in diameter.... The most curious feature was the head. The open mouth disclosed four rows of teeth which glistened  like polished ivory and were at least two feet long, while on the extreme end of the head or nose extended a tusk or horn at least 8' long. The creature had six eyes as large as good-sized dinner plates and were three feet from the head. It could see behind, before and sideways all at once. Three of the eyes were fiery red and the others were green. 

Although it was ostensibly a sea monster, there was something vaguely infernal about the creature:

A strong sulphurous odor accompanied the creature and intense heat was emitted, so much that the bushes and grass over which he moved had the appearance of being scorched with fire. 

The creature made its way to a freshwater pond and burrowed down into the earth. The water in pond drained downwards after the creature, drying out the pond and leaving a hole "some 20 feet in diameter, perfectly circular, down which sounding leads have been lowered 250 fathoms and no bottom found."

Provincetown Harbor

That description is from the August 18, 1949 Provincetown Advocate, which is quoting from an 1886 Yarmouth newspaper. I don't think there are any bottomless pits in Provincetown these days, so either the hole collapsed in on itself or the story is one of those hoaxes 19th century newspapers loved to publish. I do find the "sulphurous odor" intriguing, though, because people who encounter Sasquatch often say he smells the same. Satan is also supposed to smell like sulfur, of course.

The November 16, 1950 Advocate has another interesting account of something serpentine, but this time seen in the air by a ship's crew on September 30, 1850 at 9:00 pm:

I observed in a N.E. direction, at an elevation of about 40 degrees, a halo resembling a serpent of fiery red color. It extended about 10 degrees in a S.E. and N.W. direction, the head somewhat elevated, with an immense curl or fold near the center. It moved off in a S.E. direction, but becoming less and less distinct until half past 9, when it entirely disappeared. I am unable to conjecture what may be the cause of this appearance, but guess it must be the veritable Sea Serpent, tired of swimming and desirous of a more conspicuous situation...

That account sounds less like a sea serpent and more like a UFO to me, but people didn't really have the concept of UFOs in 1850. It sounds like the crew definitely saw something strange in the sky, but again I am not sure if readers are supposed to take the suggestion it was a flying sea serpent seriously.

Provincetown dune shack

A more serious sea serpent appeared in Provincetown in January of 1939. Well, at least its skeleton did. Coast Guard crew at Wood's End found an 18 foot long skeleton on the beach.

It bears no resemblance to whale, black fish, shark, sea cow, or any other sea skeleton arrangement. The central section of the long spine is about eight inches in diameter and it tapers off at both ends.  It contains 71 vertebrae and on each side are the remains of two growths that may have been flippers. The skull is flat and narrow with jaws but no teeth. A hole about three inches in diameter extends through the skull (Provincetown Advocate, January 19, 1939)

The skeleton was shipped off to Harvard's Museum of Natural History for identification. Curator William S. Schroeder said that the skeleton came from a basking shark, not a sea serpent. Basking sharks are quite rare in New England waters, which is why no one in Provincetown could identify it.

If you're down in Provincetown this summer, keep your eyes peeled. Who knows? Maybe you'll see a fourth sea serpent, and maybe this time someone will prove it's real.

March 21, 2017

Fairies, Lost Children, and Cannibalism in 1830s Maine

Last year I did a lot of research into New England fairy folklore for an upcoming project. I found a some strange and wonderful things, including an article called "The Water-Fairies" by Harley Stamp in the July - September 1915 issue of The Journal of American Folklore.

The article is an allegedly true account of an encounter four Penobscot hunters had with some supernatural creatures in Maine in 1835. I say "allegedly true" only because the narrative doesn't match the current normative culture's standards for reality, but standards (and perhaps reality itself) may have been different two hundred years ago.

The story starts off with the Penosbscot hunters traveling into the wilderness to find game. They canoe up the Kenduskeag (an offshoot of the Penobscot River) and make camp near what is now the town of Kenduskeag. As they eat their evening meal they are besieged by strange noises:

Suddenly, while we were eating, we heard a noise or rumbling, like water rushing down from the mountains which surrounded us. We all stopped eating to listen. The noises continued, and then at intervals of about two minutes we heard what seemed to be millers driving their dogs into the logs and throwing their bars across them, then the filing of saws. We heard the sails of vessels flapping, the blowing of horns and drums... then from the south we came a rolling noise like thunder, and also one like a whistle heard through a tunnel; besides these, many strange sounds (forty-two every two minutes); and it seemed as if each one was louder and more distinct than the others. 

One of the hunters thinks the noises are coming from witches on the mountains, while another thinks they are being produced by devils. They consult the oldest and wisest member of their party, a man named Neptune. He thinks the sounds are coming from a nearby lake, which he has been told is inhabited - but he doesn't say by what. (Suspense!)

The next morning the hunters hike up into the nearby mountains, where they find a large wigwam made of whale bones. No one is inside, but a big pot is boiling on the cooking fire. When they open it they find the arm, foot, and head of a child. Yikes! They also notice large forks and spoons (each about six feet long) resting against the wigwam's walls. They run back to their camp in terror, and that night they again hear the same sounds.

If I can interject here, I will just say that this is a very creepy set-up. Hunters alone in the wilderness, strange nocturnal noises, and a pot full of child body parts. At this point I would turn around and head home, but the hunters don't do this. They need to catch some game to feed their families, so the next morning they canoe further up the river.

The banks of the river are wide and sandy, and they see what at first look like multiple otter tracks in the sand. But on closer inspection they discover the tracks are actually tiny human footprints. Weird, but things get even weirder as they go further up the river. They come upon a miniature village made entirely of clay. It contains houses, stables, horses, and even people, but all child-sized, inanimate and sculpted of river clay. As they look through the village, Neptune tells them that it was made by water-fairies, or warnungmeksooark in Penobscot. He had heard they lived nearby and had always hoped to see them because they can foretell the future. They are known to create sculptures from clay.

The Kenduskeag, from Wikipedia.

They return to their canoe and plan to continue up the river, but when they turn a bend they come across a huge crowd of water fairies running in many directions along the bank. The hunters don't really get a good idea of what they look like though, because the fairies see the hunters and dive into the water.

Again, I would probably turn around and head home at this point, but one of the hunters, Sauk Ketch, decides to capture a warnungmeksooark. His friends bury him in the sand and then hide in the bushes. When the water-fairies finally emerge from the river and he rises up from the sand and grabs two of them. The rest disappear into the river.

The hunters are shocked when they see what a water fairy looks like:

... he had the most beautiful fine long hair; but his face was narrow, with so long a chin that it rested on his breast. His nose was so big and broad that you could see it on each side of his head when his back was toward you. His eyes were very narrow up and down; and his mouth was the shape of a sharp A, the point running up under his nose. He wore no clothing...

The hunters are even more shocked when the water fairies eventually lead them to see the king of their tribe, who is sleeping nearby.

... we saw before us, on the rock, a huge man. His gray hair was long and in ringlets. His neck was as large as a barrel. His feet were large, and he had on a strange sort of dress. On his feet were black shining moccasins with silver clasps. He had close-fitting leggings. His coat was olive-green outside, and bright blue and red inside... As his mouth was open, I saw he had two large teeth only, on his upper jaw, one of which was broken off. 

The water fairies explain that their race is divided into twelve tribes, each ruled over by a king. The kings are able to travel through the air, and can live in water or on land. The kings catch children who fall into lakes or rivers and bring them to someplace safe.

That sounds nice, but what finally happens to the children that they save? Well, once a year the twelve kings gather together, kill the children, and eat them. Apparently the pot the hunters found contained the remains (or the beginnings) of their feast.

At this point I would definitely leave. And you know what? The hunters leave and head back home. That's the end of the story.

There are a lot of interesting things about this article. Water-dwelling fairies are found in the folklore of many northern New England Algonquin tribes, and they are generally benevolent. Even in this story the warnungmeksooark themselves seem pretty nice, but their kings are another matter entirely. Algonquin folklore also often describes malevolent beings who lure children to their doom, and the water-fairy kings seem to be a variant of this.

The sleeping king, particularly with his shiny buckled shoes, curly hair, and his brightly colored coat, seems to resemble someone of European descent. Maybe it could be a little bit of political commentary?

I really like the narrative arc of this story. The hunters slowly learn more as they travel further into the wilderness, and the strange noises and gruesome wigwam set a creepy mood. Neptune has always wanted to meet the water-fairies because they can tell the future. They do tell him they can do this, but he never gets to ask them any questions. My expectations for the story were foiled!

People do still see fairies in New England, but not quite like the warnungmeksooark. However, the frantic running of the water fairies does remind me of the these tiny high-speed cavemen seen on the Connecticut River. Perhaps they are the same entities? If so, let's just hope their kings aren't anywhere nearby.

March 14, 2017

Becoming A Witch, New England Style

The following letter appeared in my mailbox the other day:

Dear New England Folklore,

Thank you for writing such an awesome blog. I really love reading your posts about witches and witchcraft. I have some annoying neighbors and would like to ruin their butter, sicken their livestock and cause their crops to fail. How can I become a witch? It sounds like fun.

Your faithful reader,

Darlene in Dunwich

Gee Darlene! Thanks for the wonderful letter. Personally I don't think you should use malevolent magic to revenge yourself on your neighbors, but you do ask a good question. How does one become a witch? There are several different opinions on the matter.

For many modern spiritual witches (Wiccans and others who follow witchcraft as a religious path*), becoming a witch involves being initiated by someone who already is one. These initiations usually involve sacred oaths, nudity, some good-natured torture, and the imparting of secret knowledge. This initiatory model was started by Gerald Gardner (1884 - 1964), the father of modern witchcraft and the first person to declare himself a Wiccan. Gardner claimed that he himself was initiated by a pre-existing coven, but the rituals he created include many elements from other sources, including Freemasonry and the works of Aleister Crowley.

This type of initiation would be quite foreign to a traditional New England witch. All those candles and chants and incense - why, it's downright Popish! The stories about Puritan witchcraft initiations describe something simpler and much more bare-bones. The Puritans sought to strip away all extraneous elements from Christianity, and this impulse is also reflected in their stories about witchcraft, which they viewed as Christianity's evil twin.

A modern witchcraft initiation. Nothing this exciting happens in traditional New England folklore!

Most stories simply involve someone signing their name in the Devil's big black book. Often it is implied that they are signing in blood. A lot of these stories come from confessions collected during the witch trials. Puritan magistrates thought the Devil was behind all witchcraft, and they would get people to confess the Evil One's involvement any way they could. I mentioned that there may be some good-natured torture in a Wiccan initiation. The torture used by the Puritans was not in any way good-natured.

For example, during the Salem trials teenaged witch suspect Richard Carrier and his brother Andrew were bent over backwards and tied head to ankle. They had initially plead innocent but - no surprise - after this painful torture they confessed to signing the Devil's book in an apple orchard in their own blood. They also said the Devil had baptized them in a waterfall in Newbury. Several other Salem suspects also claimed the Devil baptized them.

The Satanic baptism is obviously an inversion of the Christian baptism, while the Devil's black book is the dark twin of the book that Puritans signed when becoming members of their local Puritan congregation. The classic New England witchcraft initiation is basically a distorted reflection of Puritan religion. Interestingly, some suspects confessed that the Devil only wanted their service for a set number of years. This is also a reflection of New England Puritan society, where many people were indentured servants who sold themselves to masters for a set period of time.

I realize this may sound a little tame to you, Darlene. Like eating at a Dunkin' Donuts, New England witchcraft is effective but doesn't have a lot of sex appeal. Well, if you want something a little more sexy, I'd suggest reading Vance Randolph's Ozark Magic and Folklore (1947), which contains folklore he gathered in the 1930s and 1940s. There are some interesting parallels between Ozark and New England folklore, but the stories about witchcraft initiations are much different.

Well, that's how you can become a witch. But don't rush into it, because you may already be one! Some modern witches think that witches are born, not made. A few go so far as to claim that some people carry "witch-blood" inside them and are descended from the Nephelim, the fallen angels from the Book of Genesis. I suspect the idea of witch-blood was popularized in the modern era by Jack Williamson's 1948 pulp novel Darker Than You Think, but it does have deep roots in European folklore. For example, Merlin is often said to be the half-human offspring of a human woman and a demon.

Some European cultures claim that children born in strange ways or at strange times are destined to become magical beings, regardless of their parentage. For example, in Renaissance Italy children born feet-first were said to mature into either witches or witch-fighters, while in Greece babies born on Christmas day grew up to be kallikantzaroi, hideous evil monsters. So perhaps you are already a witch! (More details on this idea can be found in Carlo Ginzburg's Ecstasies: Deciphering The Witches' Sabbath (1993)).

I haven't found any comparable lore from New England, but many stories from this region don't really indicate how people become witches. They tend to focus instead on how to detect and defeat them. The Puritan leaders were convinced that all witches got their power from Satan, but this opinion wasn't shared by everyone. The average person didn't really care where witches came from. For many people they were not part of a demonic conspiracy but were instead, like March blizzards or stony soil, just part of New England they had to deal with.
*Mandatory disclaimer - Unlike the witches from folklore, modern spiritual witches are mostly nice people and don't go around cursing livestock or ruining your butter. Don't confuse modern witches with the witches from folklore!

March 08, 2017

Ducking Witches in Old Connecticut

Imagine yourself as a Puritan colonist, living in New England during the 1600s.

Things aren't going all that great. Your cow keeps acting strangely, sitting down when you want her to move and running away when you want her to stay put. That Indian pudding you made for dinner the other day came out blood red rather than the traditional muddy brown color. You had to throw it away. Your spouse made cheese but it got infected with maggots, and one of your children has a weird illness that won't go away. And to top it all off, your maid servant can't sleep at night and swears something comes invisibly into the house to pinch her.

Clearly, a witch is causing all your problems. Luckily, like all New England Puritans, you live in a small tightly-knit community bound together by mutual obligation and gossip, and there are a few cranky folks that everyone hates who are obviously witches.

You tell the town magistrates that they need to do something about these witches. They happily arrest the cranky suspects (whom no one likes anyway), but during the trial the magistrates want proof that they are witches.

Proof? What the...?!?!

You testify about the cow, the Indian pudding, the maggoty cheese, and your sick child. "Well sure," the magistrates say, "but maybe there are natural explanations for all those. Got anything else?'

The maid servant testifies about the thing that attacks her in the night when she sleeps. Some other neighbors jump in to testify that they've seen strange beasts lurking in the dark woods, or had something sit on their chests in the middle of the night. Spooky!

"Yes, it sounds like witchcraft," the magistrates say, "but how do we know if was really Goody Smith and Goody Jones doing all this? Of course no one likes them, but that doesn't mean they're witches."

The magistrates confer and decide to examine the women for witches teats, which are strange bodily growths witches use to suckle their demonic familiars. They do find some strange growths, but aren't sure if they are really any stranger than the pimples and warts non-witches have on their bodies.

The magistrates debate if they should try other tests. Maybe they should see if the suspects can say the Lord's Prayer? Maybe they should see what happens if they touch the afflicted maid servant?

One thing the magistrates would not do, however, was throw them in a pond to see if they could float. That never happened in New England.
Well, almost never. It did happen at least once, in the year 1692. While a giant witch hunt raged through Massachusetts that year, a smaller one was occurring in Connecticut. It centered around two women, Elizabeth Clawson and Mercy Disborough, who were accused of bewitching a servant girl named Katherine Branch.

Unlike their Puritan brethren to the north, the Connecticut magistrates took a more cautious approach to witch-hunting. Deputy Governor William Jones even wrote a document explaining what type of evidence would be considered sufficient, and which would be insufficient, during the trial. He considered the following methods for proving someone is a witch:

Less sufficient are those used in former ages such as by red-hot iron and scalding water, the party to put his hand in one or take up the other. If not hurt the party cleared, if hurt convicted for a witch. But this way utterly condemned in some countries. Another proof justified by some of the learned is by casting casting the party bound into water. If she sinks counted innocent, if she sink not then guilty (quoted in Richard Godbeer's Escaping Salem (2005))

The magistrates agreed that the first two tests weren't good - and for obvious reasons. Everyone burns their hands touching hot metal or boiling water, regardless of their guilt or innocence. But they didn't rule out the water test. Also known as "ducking," the test operates on the principal that since water is used in Christian baptism it will reject anyone that is allied with Satan. If the accused person floated, that meant the water rejected her because she was a witch. If she sank, she was innocent. Of course, being innocent also meant possibly drowning, but it was better than being guilty of witchcraft, right?

Both accused witches agreed to be ducked, and on September 15 both were thrown into a pond.

...two eyewitnesses of the sorry exhibition of cruelty and delusion made oath that they saw Mercy and Elizabeth bound hand and foot and put into the water, and that they swam upon the water like a cork, and when one labored to press them into the water they buoyed up like cork (from John Taylor's 1908 book The Witchcraft Delusion in Connecticut, 1647 - 1697)

So based on the results of the water test, Clawson and Disborough should have been found guilty of witchcraft. But they weren't. Jones had noted that "some of the learned" thought ducking was sufficient evidence, but some others didn't. Increase Mather, the president of Harvard and one of New England's leading Puritan ministers, was one of those who didn't.

Mather attacked the reasoning behind the water test in An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684). Not all water is sacred, he argued, only the water actually used in a baptism. Besides, the Bible didn't state that God approved of ducking witches, so it seemed likely the water test had actually been created by Satan to cause confusion. The water test was itself actually a form of witchcraft.

The magistrates threw out the water test as evidence, and after lengthy trials both Clawson and Disborough were found innocent. They were freed partly because the magistrates didn't see any good evidence, but also because many people thought Katherine Branch, the afflicted servant, was simply making everything up. Still, it's interesting to see how Puritans grappled with the difficult task of proving witchcraft.

Most of the information for this week's post come from Richard Godbeer's brief but informative book Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692

March 01, 2017

New Englanders See A Lot Of UFOs!

The headline for this weeks blog post says it all.

The National UFO Reporting Center (UFORC) recently released some global statistics regarding UFO sightings. Guess what? People in New England see more UFOs per capita than most other people in the United States. I have always suspected that our part of the country was spookier than others. Perhaps this is some tangible proof.

Here is a map of the United States showing per capita UFO sightings. As you can see, New England is redder than much of the country. Red = more UFO sightings/person.

Map from VizThis.
The northern New England states (Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont) are all way above average. It seems like Vermont is definitely the place to go if you are eager to see a UFO. Rhode Island and Connecticut are also above average. Oddly, although Massachusetts leads the nation in many measures, it is only average for UFO sightings. Massholes, we need to step it up! Turn off Netflix and go outside more please.

The map raises a lot of questions. For example, at first I thought "Oh, the rural states tend to see more UFOs than the heavily urbanized states. They have less light pollution so people can see the night sky more clearly." But on second thought, I realized that some relatively rural states don't see many UFOs at all, particularly in the South. So much for that theory. And Rhode Island and Connecticut have a lot of cities and big suburbs anyway.

I also thought that maybe UFO sightings were correlated to political affiliations. Did states that voted for Clinton tend to see more UFOs? It looks like they did, but people in the big Western also states see a lot of UFOs and they voted for Trump. So maybe that correlation doesn't really work.

I have read that some UFOlogists think the number of sightings is declining. That may be the case elsewhere in the world, but the number here in the United States has actually increased in the last few decades. Here is another graphic showing that UFORC data:

Chart from VizThis
Are people actually seeing more UFOs, or are they just reporting them more. The big spike in sightings happened after the Internet was created, and along with it multiple ways to report sightings. Prior to the Internet it was not easy to find a UFO research organization, never mind report a sighting. People might just be reporting more of them since it is now easier to do.

One other fun fact from the UFORC report: the type of UFOs people see has changed over time. These days more people report strange lights in the sky than any other form of UFO. Actual flying saucers are now in a distant second place, followed by spherical, triangular, and cigar-shaped objects.

If you want more information, check out VisThis, which is where I found the graphics for this week's post. It is a great site! They have many more charts explaining the UFORC report.

February 21, 2017

The Truro Panther

This past weekend I was talking at a party to someone who lives in Provincetown. At some point in the conversation I mentioned that I write about local folklore. Eventually our conversation turned to the Truro Panther.

"I think I saw it once," he said. "It was late at night, and I was driving down Route Six past Pilgrim Lake into town."

That stretch of the road is really dark, I remarked. He agreed.

"I saw an animal run across the road in front of my car. I just caught a glimpse of it, almost like a shadow. Whatever it was, it had a long curving tail."

I asked him if maybe it had just been a coyote.

"No, definitely not. It had a long tail, just like a cat."

Had my friend seen the elusive Truro Panther? Maybe he had.


The Truro Panther is also known as the Pamet Panther and the Beast of Truro. If you've never been to the town of Truro on Cape Cod, you might not understand why people think a panther might be living there.

Located on the outer Cape, Truro is very busy on summer days. Route Six is filled with cars passing through to Provincetown, and Truro's beaches are bustling with families of tourists. But the summer hustle and bustle is deceptive. There isn't really much of a town center in Truro, and most of the houses are surrounded by a dense scrubby forest of wind-stunted pines and oaks. Much of the town's land is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore and can't be developed. There are deer and coyotes in the woods, and seals and sharks swim offshore. 

Last year in August we saw a school of bluefish feeding on a school of minnows in the shallows off Longnook Beach. Then a group of seals arrived and began to feed on the bluefish. There were big pools of blood in the water. Needless to say, I didn't go swimming. Truro can feel like the edge of the world, particularly to a city person like me.

In the mid-19th century people in Truro reported seeing a strange creature lurking around their farms and in the woods. They couldn't quite identify it. Was it a wolf? Was it some type of big cat? Apparently some locals thought it might have been a lioness that escaped from a ship en route from Africa. Whatever the creature was, people called it the the Truro Hyena because of the eerie sounds it made at night. Livestock went missing. Paw-prints were seen in the sand. Women and children refused to leave their homes after dark. 

Eventually a hunting party was formed. Boys and men armed with guns searched through the woods and along the beaches, and although they found paw-prints they never captured the animal. The whole incident was parodied by Thomas Stone, a physician who lived in nearby Wellfleet, in a poem called The Hyena Hunt:

Some vow it is a lioness, bore
By ships from Afric's sunny shore,
That paces now our Cape sands o'er;
Moaning for whelps, most piteously.

Some still, a hyena, whose fearful howl,
Had shook the woods of Tonegal,
In company with the fierce jackal,
Fighting the Fellah, hideously.

Some unbelievers, with taunting sneer,
Swore 'twas a goat, a dog, a deer,
Whose footsteps, magnified by fear,
Had seized the fearful hearted.

But there those fearful footsteps stand,
Imbedded on Atlantic's strand,
And the moaning cry runs through the land,
As if from loved ones parted.

It was easy for Stone to characterize those 19th century Truro citizens as yokels. After all, even back then people knew there were no giant cats living on Cape Cod.

Well, no one told the giant cat, because in 1981 it reappeared. The first signs appeared in September, when about a dozen house cats were found dead across town. Police believed the cats were probably the victims of feral dogs.

Later that fall, William and Marcia Medeiros of Truro were walking on a path through the woods near Head of the Meadow Beach when they saw a large cat-like animal. It was broad daylight, and they watched the animal for about five minutes before it disappeared into the woods. They said the animal had a long curving tail and probably weighed about 80 pounds.

On December 16, Truro police officer David Costa returned home from duck hunting when he noticed that one of his pigs had been attacked.

"He was just barely alive. The claw marks were long and almost looked like someone did it with a razor blade. The marks were horizontal," he said, not up and down the pig's body, an indication that the attacking animal had jumped on the hog's back. (The Boston Globe, January 4 1982, "Is A Mountain Lion Loose on Cape Dunes?", p.13)

Costa's pig was so grievously wounded it had to be slaughtered. On December 20, two other pigs in South Truro were also attacked, but their wounds were much less serious.

Animal tracks were found near the South Truro pig pen, and state wildllife officials thought a single dog had carried out the attack. However, the soil was too sandy to tell for sure what had made the tracks. Dogs tend to hunt in packs, so would just one dog attack two pigs?

A woman living in North Truro was awakened in the middle of the night by an animal shrieking loudly outside her home. When she and her husband investigated the next day they found animal tracks around their yard. Again, the soil was too sandy to determine with certainty what made them. Later, a tourist visiting from New York called town selectman Edward Oswalt to report seeing a large cat-like animal in North Truro.

Various theories were proposed. The official one was that the attacks had been carried out by wild dogs, but many people thought the creature was a mountain lion. This could be possible (there is enough open space and game in Truro), but it's unclear how a mountain lion would make it all the way to the Outer Cape. The animal would need to either swim across the Cape Cod canal or walk over all bridge, and then make its way down to Truro. It doesn't seem plausible. And besides, Massachusetts wildlife officials believe that mountain lions are extinct in the state.

Other locals thought that perhaps a camper had set loose a pet mountain lion, and a rumor spread that  someone had been seen in Provincetown walking a panther on a leash. Maybe that panther had escaped?

In the end there was no clear resolution. The sightings and livestock killings stopped, and the creature became part of Truro folklore. Is something still lurking out there in the scrubby forests of the Outer Cape? My fried saw something strange crossing the road, so maybe there is.

February 12, 2017

Pot Sasquatch, The Boston Yeti, and The Return of The Wildman

Before I delve into this week's topic, I wanted to let you know I will be speaking at Boskone, New England's longest running science fiction and fantasy convention. Boskone 54 takes place February 17 - 19 at the Westin Boston Waterfront at 245 Summer Street. On Saturday afternoon I'll be moderating a panel titled "New England: The Legend, The Lore, The Mystery," and on Sunday at noon I'll be participating in a panel on how fiction writers use mythology in their work. If you are attending Boskone be sure to say hello! I am sure it will be a great convention.

Now, onto this week's topic. The groundhog saw his shadow, predicting six more weeks of winter, and that certainly seems to be the case in New England. We just had a blizzard last week, and now another storm AND a blizzard are on track for today and tomorrow. Nature's fury has been unleashed, and along with ice and snow our region has been visited by some mysterious creatures.

On February 9, Channel 22 meteorologist Janille Paglie was reporting from Springfield about that day's blizzard when she and her crew noticed something odd behind her. Someone dressed in a Sasquatch costume covered in pot leaves was cavorting around in the snow. At first the "creature" played some hide and seek, and then frolicked openly in the street. Channel 22 dubbed it Pot Sasquatch, and it became an internet sensation.

Pot Sasquatch reminded me of the Boston Yeti, who roamed the deserted streets of Boston during the Snowmageddon blizzards of 2015. Like Pot Sasquatch, Boston Yeti was clearly a human in a cryptid costume who appeared during inclement winter weather. The yeti was eventually revealed to be Someville resident John Campopiano, who said in an interview with The Improper Bostonian that he was always fascinated with UFOs and Bigfoot as a child. The yeti outfit was an old Halloween costume he owned which he felt compelled to don during the 2015 snowstorms. There was very little snow here in 2016, but the Boston yeti did emerge from hibernation for the February 9 blizzard.

OK, so what's going on here? Why did Massachusetts see not one but two cryptid impersonators playing in the same blizzard? Some photos might help explain the situation a little bit.

Boston Yeti (Somerville, Massachusetts)
Pot Sasquatch (Springfield, Massachusetts)
Krampus (Ischgl, Austria)
European winter mummer, photo by Charles Freger
European winter mummer, photo by Charles Freger
Many regions of Europe have traditions of people in monstrous costumes parading at winter. Krampus is probably the one best known in the United States, but there are other similar traditions across Europe. The costumed celebrants in these processions often represent the cold dark forces of winter, although sometimes they instead represent the powers of spring that ultimately banish winter for another year. These mythical creatures are frightening, magical, and sometimes playful, and they are an important part of local seasonal celebrations.

We don't have those traditions in the United States. Some folklore-minded Americans are trying to create Krampus processions here in the States, but I am not sure if it will ever catch one. Most Americans associate spooky costumes with Halloween, not the winter. But when I see Pot Sasquatch and Boston Yeti, I can't help but wonder if our own indigenous version of these traditions might be forming spontaneously. Krampus needs a lot of explanation, but most Americans know what Sasquatch and the Yeti are.

Even if Sasquatch processions don't become a tradition, I think Pot Sasquatch and Boston Yeti show that some people yearn to dress up like monsters in the winter, and that other people repond to them. It just feels right somehow. Maybe the winter makes us wish we could sprout fur and run wild.

Humans have been dressing up as monsters for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks paraded around in satyr costumes, Medieval Europeans dressed like leaf-covered wildmen, and Austrians still disguise themselves as Krampus. Now someone in Springfield has dressed like Pot Sasquatch. He may just seem like a weirdo looking for attention, but he's really the latest incarnation of an ancient time-honored tradition.