October 10, 2017

Apple Lore: Death, Love and Magic

The other day I went to the farmers market and was very excited to see a bin full of small greenish brown apples. I am an apple fanatic, and those little beauties were Roxbury Russets. They actually weren't much to look at, but they have a long history in New England. In fact, Roxbury Russets are the oldest type of apple grown in the United States.

Their origin is a little murky, but they are said to have first been discovered growing in Roxbury, Massachusetts way back in the mid-1600s. One source claims they were growing as early as 1649. The word "discovered" is a little puzzling. It implies that some hapless Puritan just stumbled upon an apple tree, but apples are not native to New England. The Roxbury Russet must have been introduced by someone, but who? I've read that William Blackstone, the first Englishman to live on  the Boston peninsula, grew apple trees on what is now Boston Common. Perhaps the Roxbury Russet is a wild American version of an English cultivar he planted, its seeds carried into the hills of Roxbury by a bird or beast.

That's just speculation on my part. According to folklore, the first person to grow Roxbury Russets was a colonist named Joseph Warren. He died falling off a ladder while picking apples. That story almost seems too ironic to be true, but death by apple may have been a common thing in Colonial New England. For example, a man named Peter Parker died in the 1700s when a giant barrel of his home-made cider rolled off a wagon and crushed him. This happened in his orchard on top of Roxbury's Mission Hill (formerly known as Parker Hill), near what is now McLaughlin Park next to the New England Baptist Hospital. I lived on Mission Hill for many years, and every fall a local neighborhood group gathered the apples that still grow in the park to make cider. Some of the trees in the park may be descendants of Peter Parker's original trees. No one ever reported seeing Peter Parker's ghost, though.

Roxbury Russet apples
Given the apple's Biblical connections with sin, death and sex, it's not surprising there is some weird apple folklore in New England. Some of it is downright creepy. Take the strange story of Roger Williams's corpse. Williams was the founder of Rhode Island, and in 1936 his descendants exhumed his body to move it to another location. They were horrified to find that the roots of a nearby apple tree had grown into Williams's coffin and apparently absorbed most of his corpse. There were very few bones left inside and the tree roots had taken the shape of Williams's body. The roots are now part of the collection at the John Brown House museum in Providence.

The legend of Micah Rood is similarly grim. Micah Rood was a surly farmer who lived in Connecticut in the 1600s. One night a traveling peddler came to Rood's house and asked if he could spend the night. Rood grunted that he could. In the morning the peddler's cold dead body was found lying underneath one of Rood's apple trees. The peddler had been murdered and his money and wares stolen. The town naturally suspected Rood but had no evidence to prove he was the killer. The next autumn, though, all the apples that grew from Micah Rood's trees had a single blood-red spot in their white flesh.

One end of the sin continuum is death, but the other end is sex, and apples are a key component in a lot of nineteenth century New England love magic. Most of it is focused on determining who your true love is. For example, here's a simple charm involving apple seeds. If you have several potential lovers in mind, take some apple seeds and name each seed after one of the potential mates. Wet the seeds and then stick them to your forehead. The last seed to fall off is the person you are meant to be with.

Similarly, you can take two apple seeds and name them after two potential lovers. Wet them. Put one seed on each eyelid. Blink rapidly. Whichever seed falls off last represents your true love.

You can also predict a lover's name using an apple peel. Remove an apple's peel so it comes off in one long piece. Throw the peel over your shoulder onto the ground. Turn around and examine the peel. What letter does it form? That letter will be the first letter of your true love's first name.

Those love charms are kind of cute and would make good party games. This last one is a little more spooky. Stand in front of a mirror holding a lamp (or candle) and an apple. As you eat the apple repeat the following words:

Whoever my true love may be
Come and eat this apple with me

Is your true love supposed to arrive in person or just appear in the mirror? I'm not sure. That charm is in Fanny Bergren's 1896 book Current Superstitions, and she notes that it is particularly effective when done on Halloween. If you dare to try it let me know what happens.

1 comment:

KJgaia said...

I came across this blog randomly, and COMPLETELY LOVE IT!

Also have always been mesmerized by the diverse variety of New England apples. Northern Spy, Roxbury Russet.

There is so much rumored strange history around new england. I look forward to devouring your research.