November 01, 2017

Weird New England News: Brains, A Witch House and A Scary Clown

Most of my posts on this blog are about strange and interesting things from New England's past. But strange and interesting things continue to happen here. These three stories really caught my eye over the last week.

First, did you know that Yale University used to have a secret room full of human brains? I didn't until just this week, when The Boston Globe's medical publication STAT ran an article about it. For many years, Yale's medical school dormitory had a secret hidden away in its basement. Behind a locked door was a room filled with hundreds of brains floating in jars. Students weren't allowed access to the room, but the adventurous ones who broke in came out a little shaken. As if the dozens of brains weren't weird enough, there were also photos and drawings of medical patients from bygone days. The whole experience was unnerving.

“It was like a shop of horrors,” said Christopher Wahl, who visited multiple times while at the medical school in the late 1990s. “The overwhelming atmosphere was that you’re in a place that you maybe shouldn’t be in, lit by bare incandescent bulbs with a dirty floor in an old basement that smells of formaldehyde.”

It turns out the brains were collected by Dr. Harvey Cushing (1869 - 1939), a prominent physician and founding figure in the field of neurosurgery. For many years Cushing's brain collection was used to educate Yale students until it became outdated in the 1970s. Yale administrators then locked it away in a basement storage room, from which it spooked generations of medical students. The collection is now officially displayed in Yale's medical library, which is a decidedly less creepy location.

Photos from the Harvey Cushing Collection at Yale University.
A few take-aways from this story. First, New England is filled with colleges and they are all sources of rich folklore and strange stories. Second, brains locked in an unmarked basement room are scary; brains in a library's display are educational. It's all about the setting I suppose. Finally, apparently even medical students find old medical photos creepy.  

Next up in the weird news parade, a historic witch house in Framingham, Massachusetts is being restored. The house in question was once the homestead of Sarah Clayes (Cloyce), a woman who was accused of witchcraft in Salem's 1692 witch trials. Although Clayes's two sisters, Rebecca Nurse and Mary Easty, were both executed, Clayes survived the trials and fled to Framingham after they ended. Many other Salem families followed.

Photo from the Boston Globe.
The house, located on Salem's End Road, dates from the 1770s. This makes it too recent to be the actual house Clayes would have lived in, but it seems that the foundation is from her home. The property has been abandoned for at least fifteen years and a historic preservation trust is now working to restore it. After it is renovated the house will be sold to a private owner (with restrictions to preserve the building). Real estate around Boston is very expensive, but if you have a few million dollars this could be your chance to own a piece of New England history.

The article points out that Sarah Clayes was not really a witch, just another innocent victim caught up in the witch hunt. Despite this, the house is known in Framingham as the Witch House. Perhaps this is because supernatural, legendary witches resonate more with us than accused witches, and also because the "Witch House" sounds better than the "Accused Witch House." The Witch House is located close to a large park that supposedly contains caves where Clayes and other Salem escapees sheltered before building their homes. I have visited the park and maybe found the caves, which are known as the Witch Caves (not the Accused Witch Caves).

Finally, a scary clown popped up in Vermont this weekend. If you recall, last year America experienced a huge scary clown craze in the summer and fall. The first craze of this kind occurred around Boston in 1981, but last year's was much larger and more widespread. Was our nation's collective unconscious trying to tell us something before the November election? Clowns have continued to scare our nation since then with the release of the movie It and the current season of American Horror Story.

Happily, the clown in Marlboro, Vermont was not a supernatural monster or part of a secret conspiracy. Instead, he seems to have been a costumed Halloween partygoer who got intoxicated and wandered into the wrong house, where he passed out. When the police arrived to investigate they found cocaine on his person and arrested him, which is not something to laugh at.

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