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.

February 05, 2017

An Old Haunted House in Cambridge

I am one of those people who actually likes winter. Once the grim darkness of early January is gone winter here in New England is actually pretty nice. There is a certain clarity to this time of year. The leaves are down and I can really see the landscape in all its contours. Rocks and boulders that are hidden most of the time are visible now, and its easier to see those hardy birds who haven't flown south.

It's also a good time to do stuff around the house. For some reason, when February comes I always like to make traditional New England recipes. Yesterday I made cranberry bread, and today I'm cooking pumpkin soup. There's just something homey about winter. The nesting impulse from autumn continues into these months, but without the pressure and commercialism of the holidays.

Of course, the spooky vibe from Halloween continues as well. It's still dark and dead outside, and it still seems like a good time for ghost stories. (Really, is any time not good for ghost stories?) Here's one from a friend who for many years lived in the Cooper Frost Austin House, which is the oldest house in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Cooper Frost Austin House

The Cooper Frost Austin House was built in 1681 by Samuel Cooper. Cooper and his family were prominent members of Cambridge society, with several of them serving as deacons in the Puritan church or in municipal leadership positions. The house remained in the same family for 250 years (!) until 1913, when it was given to the organization now called Historic New England. The house is open several times a year for tours, and is worth visiting if you enjoy early Colonial architecture.

My friend was one of several resident caretakers who have lived in the house since 1913. When he was moving in, he met with the previous caretaker to see if there were any tips he needed to know. She gave him an overview of the property and the grounds, and explained the multiple rules for living in a historic house. And then she said:

"Oh, and by the way, I think there's a ghost in the house."

"A ghost?" my friend said.

"Yes, a ghost. I've sensed a presence in the house, particularly in the east bedroom upstairs. It feels like a woman, and sometimes it feels like she's watching me when I sleep. But don't worry! I don't think she's malevolent."

And with that she left, and my friend was left alone in the house. Naturally, he had already selected the east bedroom as his new bedroom.

Months went by, and my friend didn't experience anything strange. He slept through the nights without feeling any unusual presences. However, something weird happened one day when he was at the Boston Public Library. He had gone to the library to research the history of the house, and he mentioned to a young man working at the reference desk that he was now living in the Cooper Frost Austin House.

"The Cooper Frost Austin House?" the young librarian said. "Ugh. I've been inside that house and I'll never go back there again."

"Why? What happened?" my friend said.

"I spent the night there one time. Never again! A friend of mine was living there and asked me to house sit while he was out of town. At first everything was fine. It's a great old house and I was happy to have it all to myself, if even just for a weekend."

"That night I went to bed, and fell fast asleep. I was sleeping deeply when I started to have this uneasy feeling. It felt like someone was ... watching me. When I opened my eyes I saw a woman standing at the foot of the bed, staring at me. She had on old-fashioned clothes, and she didn't look happy to see me. I screamed and she vanished into thin air. I sat downstairs wide awake for the rest of the night, and I've never gone back inside that house."

Of course, the librarian said he had been sleeping in the east bedroom when he had seen the ghost.

My friend ended up living there for many years, and said he never saw the ghost, but occasionally people who visited him said they sensed something in the house. Personally I've spent a lot of time in the Cooper Frost Austin House and never saw a ghost.

I did ask my friend who he thought the ghost might be. His only thought was that she might be Susan Austin, who was born in the house and lived there in the 19th century. Susan Austin was apparently very attached to the house.

Why is Susan Austin haunting the house? That is, if there is even a ghost and if she is actually it. There's no good answer to that question. Instead, all we have are some good spooky stories from an old New England house. But sometimes spooky stories are enough, particularly on a cold winter day.

January 31, 2017

"I Will Make You Afraid": Sleep Paralysis and Witchcraft

Are you ever afraid of the dark? I will admit that sometimes I still am. Now and then when I go to bed after watching a horror film I have this brief moment where I wonder if someone is standing in the corner of my bedroom. Luckily no one ever has been, but I am all too aware of how vulnerable I am when I'm asleep.

I dream quite vividly and there have been occasions where I have dreamed that someone is in my bedroom with me. Once, in a very memorable dream, someone in a black hooded shirt stood behind me and whispered in my ear while I was unable to move. It was not just memorable - it was also a little freaky.

I think dreams like that are common, but some people experience something even more extreme called sleep paralysis. Here's how Wikipedia defines it:

Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon in which an individual, either during falling asleep or awakening, briefly experiences an inability to move, speak, or react. It is a transitional state between wakefulness and sleep. It is often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations to which one is unable to react due to paralysis, and physical experiences (such as strong current running through the upper body). These hallucinations often involve a person or supernatural creature suffocating or terrifying the individual, accompanied by a feeling of pressure on one's chest and difficulty breathing. 

It sounds terrifying, doesn't it? During the various New England witch trials, many witnesses testified that witches or demonic spirits entered their rooms at night to sit on their chests, causing them harm and great fear. Were these demonic visitations simply sleep paralysis?

Here is a particularly vivid example given as testimony by one Mary Hale against Katherine Harrison of Wethersfield, Connecticut, who was accused of witchcraft.

That about the latter end of November, being the 29th day, 1668, the said Mary Hale lying in her bed, a good fire giving such light that one might see all over that room where the said Mary then was, the said Mary heard a noise, & presently something fell on her legs with such violence that she feared it would have broken her legs, and then it came upon her stomach and oppressed her so as if it would have pressed the breath out of her body. Then appeared an ugly shaped thing like a dog, having a head such that I clearly and distinctly knew to be the head of Katherine Harrison, who was lately imprisoned upon suspicion of witchcraft... (quoted in John Taylor's 1908 book The Witchcraft Delusion in Connecticut, 1647 - 1697)

Hale also testified that although her parents were sleeping in the same room they were unable to hear her shouts for help.

A week later, the entity appeared again. This time the room was dark, but Hale was able to feel the entity's face and could tell that it was a woman. Her parents again did not hear her cry out, even as the oppressive entity hurt her fingers.

It appeared again on a windy December night. This time it spoke to Hale in a threatening manner, using Katherine Harrison's voice:

Entity: "You said that I would not come again, but are you not afraid of me."

May Hale: "No."

Entity: "I will make you afraid before I have done with you."

(quoted in John Taylor's 1908 book The Witchcraft Delusion in Connecticut, 1647 - 1697)

After saying this Hale felt a crushing weight on her body, which made her scream in pain. Her parents slept on and did not awaken. The entity said, "Though you do call they shall not hear till I am gone." It also promised to never come again if Hale agreed to keep its visitations a secret, which she refused to do.

Image from this informative BuzzFeed article about sleep paralysis.

It's really tempting to say that this is just a simple case of sleep paralysis. The nighttime visitation, the crushing weight, the inability to move or be heard - all these are the hallmarks of sleep paralysis. However, I think the situation is more complex than that. Certainly, it sounds like Mary Hale was familiar with sleep paralysis, either through personal experience or by hearing about it from neighbors. But she was also using the experience of sleep paralysis to accuse someone of witchcraft.

The interpretation of sleep paralysis is conditioned by culture. People in different societies explain it in different ways. Modern American sufferers may see humanoid beings, which are sometimes interpreted as extraterrestrials, in their bedrooms during an attack but they don't see people they know. However, in Cambodian culture sleep paralysis is said to be caused by the ghosts of dead relatives. In Italian folklore, it is sometimes said to be cause by a catlike monster.

Alien visitors, deceased relatives, and cat-monsters weren't how the Puritans explained sleep paralysis. Instead they explained it as witchcraft. Unfortunately, unlike some of those other explanations, witchcraft requires a witch. Extraterrestrials aren't human, deceased ancestors are already dead, and Italian cat-monsters can't be arrested and punished. In early New England, though, witches were real people who could be arrested and punished.

Usually they were unpopular neighbors, which was the case with Katherine Harrison. Harrison had originally been a servant girl in Wethersfield and reportedly did not get along well with others in town. Harrison also dabbled in fortune-telling, which made her neighbors look at her with suspicion. Her neighbor's feelings of enmity only grew when she married a successful local farmer, and enmity later turned into outright hostility when Harrison's husband died and she inherited his estate. An unpopular, lower-class woman had suddenly become one of Wethersfield's wealthiest citizens. How could this happen to someone so reviled? Clearly, something supernatural was involved...

More than 30 people testified against Harrison, who was found guilty in May of 1669 and sentenced to death. Luckily, her case was referred to John Winthrop, Jr., the governor of Connecticut. Although Winthrop practiced alchemy and other forms of magic he was very skeptical about witchcraft. He demanded stricter forms of evidence than the lower courts did and as a result her conviction was overturned. Although Harrison was banished from Wethersfield she escaped with her life.

I think the story of Mary Hale and Katherine Harrison is a cautionary one. Many of us will experience some strange phenomena in our life: sleep paralysis, an uncanny dream, or maybe even an unusual entity. These type of things have been happening throughout human history and will probably happen until humans go extinct. They're just part of our life.

Our interpretation of these strange experiences is important. We can use them to accuse our neighbors of witchcraft, or we can accept them as something strange and wondrous that shows us a hidden side of existence. Personally I'm voting for the second choice, and I hope you do too.

In addition to Taylor's book, I found information for this post at the Wethersfield Historical Society.

January 22, 2017

A Spectral Flying Dwarf In Connecticut

My friend Simon Young at the Fairy Investigation Society sent me the following story via an old newspaper clipping. Unfortunately the year of publication is missing, but it seems to be from a paper called The Globe-Democrat and is probably from the late 19th or early 20th century.

The date is January 11 (of whatever year), and the byline is New Haven, Connecticut. The headline reads:

A Massachusetts Dwarf Who Appears or Disappears In Night or Day - He Is Cut In Two By A Workman's Spade

Who can resist a headline like that? The article goes on to describe how for the last thirty years the people of North Haven have reported seeing a spectral dwarf in the vicinity of Shear's Brickyard.

Many men and women who have been riding and walking along the highway after nightfall have seen the strange figure of a dwarf about three feet high. Sometimes he would be dressed in one color of clothing and then of another. When people told of what they had seen they were received with incredulity by some, and other would put faith in the stories. 

On the night of January 9, five men employed at the brickyard had a vivid encounter with the mysterious dwarf. Owen McNulty, Oscar Jansen, Septa Maganzo, Pasco Servisco, and Lorenzo Partico were walking home from the brickyard at about 7:00 pm when the dwarf appeared in the road in front of them. He was about three feet tall, and wore a black velvet coat trimmed with fur and a "cocked hat" (a tricorn or perhaps bicorn hat). His clothes looked like they were fashionable 100 years ago, and he carried a lantern in his hand.

Owen McNulty was carrying a spade home from the brickyard, and swung it at the dwarf. It passed through the entity's body, and the dwarf disappeared. The men panicked and ran off, crossing themselves for protection.

I just want to interject and ask why do so many people attack supernatural beings when they encounter them? From shooting at Bigfoot to attacking dwarfs with spades, people in these accounts often react violently. And you know what? It never works.

Anyway, back to the story. The next day the five men went back to the spot where they had seen the dwarf. McNulty once again had his trusty spade. The black-clad dwarf appeared again, even though it was daytime, and without his lantern. Not learning his lesson from the previous night's encounter, McNulty swung his spade again at the dwarf. He succeeded in cutting the dwarf into two pieces, but he was probably not prepared for what came next.

Rather than fall over and die, the two halves of the dwarf's body floated forty feet up into the air and rejoined together. Then, with a blinding flash of light, the dwarf disappeared.

The men went back to boarding house where they all lived and described to their landlady what they had just witnessed. In response, she told them that many people had seen the same thing and that it wasn't really that unusual. I guess flying ghost dwarfs were just a common occurrence in the neighborhood!

The article ends by noting that there is a tradition in the neighborhood that "many years ago a sailor of dwarfish stature sailed up the Quinebec river (sic), his boat was capsized, and he drowned." I am assuming that Quinebic is a variant spelling of Quinnipiac, the large river that flows through North Haven. Connecticut readers, let me know if this is correct.

American newspapers in the 19th century often ran stories about ghosts, monsters, and other strange occurrences. They were a good way to increase readership, and people didn't have access to the almost unlimited weird news we now have via the internet and shows like Ancient Aliens or Finding Bigfoot. Newspapers had to do it all.

I suppose this story could be a hoax, but the article does include names and a verifiable location, so perhaps these men really did encounter something. And maybe that something really did have a long tradition of appearing to people in the neighborhood.

The people of North Haven explained the dwarf as a ghost (who was apparently once from Massachusetts), but he also sounds suspiciously like a fairy. Although quite powerful, fairies are often small in stature and often appear in the garb of an earlier era. But the distinction between fairies and ghosts are blurry. Whether by living under ancient burial mounds or including deceased humans in their company, fairies are often associated with the dead. This may also be why fairies often appear in antiquated clothing - they're just wearing what they wore while alive.

Ghost or fairy? It's really impossible to say. I think at some point it just becomes futile to categorize or define paranormal occurrences. All we really have are the strange stories people tell and our inclination to categorize what is inherently disorderly.

I've included the full article below in case you want to read the original:

January 18, 2017

A Ritual Cat Burial In Charlestown, Massachusetts?

Last month as a Christmas gift I received the book A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts (2016) by Joseph Bagley. Bagley is the official archeologist for the City of Boston, and a couple years ago I went one a tour he led of an ancient Native American quarry in the Blue Hills.

I was pretty excited to read his book. The fifty artifacts Bagley examines range from prayer books to feminine hygiene devices, but the one that really caught my attention was a cat skeleton unearthed in Charlestown. Many, many cats have lived and died in Charlestown over the last 400 years, but this cat was possibly killed as part of a magic spell.

Its skeleton was found buried in a small pit underneath the main entrance to the former Three Cranes Tavern in Charlestown's City Square. The tavern operated from 1635 until 1775, but the archaeologists who found the cat skeleton estimated it was buried sometime in the early 1700s. The cat was killed by a blow to the back of its head. The blow punctured the poor cat's skull, and its body was buried in one piece. Also buried near the cat was a large pot.

Bagley speculates that the cat was buried there to magically protect the tavern, either from witchcraft or from vermin. This certainly seems possible, since it's unlikely the tavern owners would just randomly bury a cat under the front stoop. Archeologists have found many instances of cats buried under foundations or inside walls of old buildings in Europe. Occasionally dead mice or rats are also found placed inside the cats' mouths.

There are a few theories that try to explain this practice. An older theory, popular with the Victorians, is that these animals were killed to appease land spirits. That may have been the case in the distant pagan past, but the English colonists certainly didn't believe in land spirits that needed appeasing.

A more recent theory is that the cats were killed to prevent rats and mice from entering the house. This seems counter-intuitive (wouldn't a live cat be more effective?), but I think the idea is that the cat's spirit will somehow continue to hunt mice after death. This might explain why some buried cats are found with mice inserted in their mouths.
The Three Cranes cat skeleton. Photo from The Boston Globe.
A final theory is that burying a cat under the doorstep was believed to deter witches or their familiar spirits from entering the house. That sounds like a plausible explanation, since we know our New England ancestors were very concerned about protecting their homes from witches. Some of the most well-documented methods include nailing a horseshoe over the door and putting bay leaves around the windowsills, but there were many other methods as well. It seems possible that killing and burying a cat might be another one. Archaeologists in England also often find pots buried under old house foundations or doorsteps, and they theorize that they were believed to deter witches from entering, possibly by trapping the witches spirits in them. This would explain why the Charlestown cat was buried near a pot.

There is a whole field of archaeology that deals with magic. Its foundational text is Ralph Merrifield's The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic (1987), which should probably be on my reading list. It should probably be on everyone's list! If you find this topic interesting, you may want to read this interview with Brian Hoggard, a British archaeologist working on this topic today.

My cat is sitting nearby as I write this post, and he tells me that a live cat is definitely better at averting evil than a dead one. I would have to agree. After all, the cat skeleton didn't do much to protect Three Cranes Tavern on June 17, 1775. The Battle of Bunker Hill happened that day, and the British troops burned the tavern and the rest of Charlestown to the ground. The tavern foundations were excavated prior to the Big Dig and can now be visited in City Square.

Although I enjoy writing about these old folk magic practices, I don't recommend ever hurting or killing animals. Not only is it cruel, it is illegal.

January 08, 2017

A Connecticut Ape Man; Or, Is Scooby Doo For Real?

Did you ever watch the Scooby Doo cartoons?

I used to watch them all the time when I was a kid. This was in the early 1970s, and each week Scooby Doo and the gang enacted the same basic story. First, they drove in their groovy van (the Mystery Machine) to some spooky location like an abandoned amusement park or creepy old hotel.

Next, someone told them the location was haunted. This was where the writers were allowed some creativity. The creatures haunting the location included a wide variety of ghosts (pirates, headless phantoms, armored knights, clowns, etc.) and other less categorizable monsters like ape men, a tar monster, and something called the Spooky Space Kook.

Spooky Space Kook!
After learning about the creature, Scooby Doo and his friends then encountered it. Hilarious hijinks ensued as they ran down corridors, hid in garbage cans, played tricks on the monster, etc.

Every episode ended the same way. The monster was unmasked as someone with a financial interest in scaring people. The Black Knight was really nerdy Mr. Wickles, who was stealing paintings from the museum. The Kooky Space Kook was really Henry Bascombe, who wanted to scare people living near an abandoned Air Force base so he could acquire the land for free and sell it back to the government. Whew! That's a complicated motive.

Spooky Space Kook unmasked!!
Scooby Doo once even encountered the ghost of Bigfoot, who was haunting a Vermont ski lodge. He was revealed to be old Mr. Crabtree, who ran an operation selling stolen cars. He dressed like Bigfoot's ghost to scare away anyone who might witness his criminal activity.

The ghost of Bigfoot...
... is really Mr. Crabtree!
After the villain was unmasked they'd always say something like "I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for you meddling kids!" as the police dragged them away. Hooray! Mystery solved and monster vanquished. 

At a certain point every kid who watches Scooby Doo catches on to the formula. The fun then becomes figuring out who the monster really is. But at some even later point it also becomes obvious that the show's formula is ludicrous. Dressing up like ghosts and monsters to scare people away from their property doesn't seem plausible. No one would actually try this in real life, would they?

Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Apparently someone did try it in Connecticut in1926. Here is a brief article from the April 3, 1926 issue of Oakland California's Tribune:

Ape Man Scare Said To Be Land Deal Plot

North Stonington, Conn., April 3. - Taugwank's "ape man" is a plain human being in fur coat and trousers. A game warden has come to that conclusion after a thorough search of the Horace D. Miner farm in Taugwank.

Further, he declared his belief that the man was attempting to frighten Muriel, 19, and Mildred Miner, 16, orphans, into selling the farm. The ape man has variously been reported by the girls and neighbors as a hairy creature of terrifying mien, that slipped along in the manner of an ape, and jumped about with considerable more agility than a human being. (quoted in Chad Arment's excellent book The Historical Bigfoot)

More information can be found in the April 2 edition of Biddeford, Maine's Biddeford Weekly Journal. The game warden was named George Denison, and he searched the 2,000 acres of the Miner farm.
The girls, whose father died a month ago, reported that a fear-inspiring figure, scarce human in appearance, lurked about the house, danced on the summit of a rock 300 feet from the door, and uttered cries like those of an infant. They professed to believe that an attempt was being made to force them to leave the place and sell the farm. They said that an offer had been made to their father to sell the estate during the year preceding his death.

The game warden said the object of his search was to settle once and for all the rumors that a “strange creature” had been seen in the swamp and woods of Taugwank.
... An aged caretaker, Frank Miller, who had been staying at the farm, resigned yesterday. Miller believed in ghosts and was terrified at the situation.

“Every time a wind blew with the wind or the coal shed door squeaked he persisted in saying it was a ghost,” the girl said. “When the strange creature was first seen, we told Miller it was a real ghost. He was so frightened that his teeth chattered and his knees knocked together.” (article quoted in full here)

Even more information can be found in an article in the Syracuse Herald on April 3. According to the Herald, the two Miner daughters were not scared. Instead they were heavily armed.

Loaded firearms await the ape-man masquerader and, according to Denison, that is why he has not been seen in the last few days.
"If that fellow goes out there again they are going to put the lead to him," was how he summed up matters after yesterday's visit to the farm. "I wouldn't try it again if I were he."
Neighbors of the Miner girls are standing with them, and there is many a loaded shotgun standing in readiness to do duty when Taugwank's terror next appears. (article quoted in full on Rense.com. FYI, site is full of conspiracy theories!)

So there you go. I was apparently wrong when I thought Scooby Doo plots were implausible. I wonder if there are other situations where this happened?

However, I am compelled to point out the following: I couldn't find evidence they ever unmasked the ape man as a particular greedy neighbor. I don't think the culprit was ever discovered. No one in 1926 Connecticut said "I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for you meddling kids."

If that's the case, how do we even know that this Connecticut ape-man was even really a fraud? Which is more implausible - someone dressing up as ape monster to scare teenagers off their family farm, or a random monster who appeared in the woods and then vanished? I leave that up to you.

Perhaps Bigfoot's ghost is still out there in the woods, waiting to be unmasked. Maybe it will be mean old Mr. Crabtree, or maybe it will be something even more frightening.