April 16, 2018

Controversy Over UFO Memorial in Massachusetts Town

I stumbled upon the following Associated Press item the other day. It's dated April 14, 2018:

SHEFFIELD, Mass. (AP) — A memorial in a remote corner of Massachusetts that marks a 1969 UFO sighting has been ordered moved, but one man who experienced a close encounter is objecting. 
The 5,000-pound (2,300-kilogram) memorial in Sheffield was installed in 2015, but was moved about 30 feet (9 meters) a few weeks later when it was discovered it was on town land. 
Now, Town Administrator Rhonda LaBombard tells The Berkshire Eagle it has to be moved again because it's on a town right-of-way easement. 
That's not sitting well with Thom Reed. He was 9 when he, his mother, grandmother and brother saw what he described as a "self-contained glow" that flooded their car with an amber light. About 40 people in several surrounding towns reported the strange light.
Reed is threatening legal action.

More information on the controversy can be found on Newser:

"This isn't fair to the community," says Reed. "It's not right having nothing there." Reed is also perplexed because he and town officials joined forces to give the memorial its current position. "She chose the spot herself," he says about LaBombard. Now Reed is threatening legal action. "This has come up more than once," he says. "We're not done with the monument." He was 9 when he, his mother, grandmother, and brother saw what he described as a "self-contained glow" that flooded their car with an amber light. About 40 people in several surrounding towns reported the strange light.

Thom Reed's encounter encounter with a UFO is one of the better-documented cases in recent history. I suppose I should say "encounters" plural, and not just singular. Reed had his first encounter in 1966 when he was just six years old. Reed awoke in the middle of the night to see small glowing orbs floating through the bedroom he shared with his younger brother Matthew in an old Sheffield farm house.

Photo of Sheffield UFO monument from Mass Live
Those orbs disappeared after a while, but several days later something even stranger occurred: small humanoid beings appeared in the boys' room. The small humanoids brought Tom and Matthew outside into the woods and led them into a metal craft. Inside the boys were shown images on a screen, including space ships and a willow tree. 

The humanoid visitations continued after this, and eventually they got so bad the family moved to nearby Great Barrington in an effort to end them. A large willow tree stood in front of their new home, indicating that the family wouldn't easily avoid the visitors who regularly invaded their home.

The Sheffield monument commemorates a very specific encounter the Reed family had with a UFO in 1969. Reed, his brother, mother and grandmother all saw a UFO while driving near Sheffield's covered bridge. All four members of the family were taken from the car and examined by aliens in a "warehouse like facility" before being returned to the car. Many other local residents called a local radio station to report strange lights in thy sky that night, lending some additional credence to Reed's tale. (I should note that the monument was paid for by private citizens, including Reed himself.)

A drawing by Thomas Reed of what he was shown on the screen.

Reed now lives in Kentucky and most recently ran a modeling agency in Miami, but he seems keen on proving to his hometown that his UFO experience was true. In 2015 the Great Barrington Historical Society voted to include information about Reed's extraterrestrial encounters in the town museum. Historical Society director Debbie Oppermann told The Boston Globe:

“I know we’re going to get a lot of backlash. We’re going to get hammered,” she said. “But we have given it an awful lot of thought, and, based on the evidence we’ve been given, we believe this is a significant and true event.” 
The historical society believes it is the first time a “mainstream” historical society or museum in the United States has declared a UFO encounter to be historical fact. But the decision was far from unanimous; of the nine members of the historical society’s board, three were “strongly opposed” to the decision, Oppermann said, but “it passed with consensus.”

It's interesting that the society claimed it was "a significant and true event." I don't doubt that these UFO encounters were significant for the Reed family and the people of Sheffield and Great Barrington. But were these events true in a verifiable, historical way? No hard physical evidence was found that an alien craft had visited Western Massachusetts. We just have the testimony of the Reeds and of their neighbors who saw some lights in the sky. 

Thom Reed's encounter with the strange humanoids reminds me of a visionary or religious experience. It also reminds me of classic haunted house stories, where the family relocates to escaped supernatural hauntings - only to have them follow. Or maybe his story is similar to European stories about fairies, where small beings invade the home to cause mischief. Or even, since this is New England, classic witchcraft stories of hags and demons tormenting sleeping victims. 

I think those types of stories are all significant, but are they true enough to merit a large stone monument? Is Thom Reed's story true enough to merit one? I suppose ultimately the people of Sheffield will have to decide.

April 08, 2018

Campus Ghosts at the University of Vermont

One thing I've learned from writing this blog is that you can usually find ghost stories on college campuses. Ivy League schools, state schools, old campuses or new ones - they generally have ghost stories attached to them. Is this because young people are more attuned to the spirit world, or is it just because they more likely to tell each other ghost stories?

This fall I was in Burlington, Vermont and visited the University of Vermont campus with my Vermonter friend Brian. The University of Vermont was founded in 1791 and is often referred to simply as UVM. This nickname comes from the school's Latin name Universitas Viridis Montis, or University of the Green Mountains. I feel like I'm back in school because I'm translating Latin!

UVM's campus sits high up on a hill outside of downtown Burlington and is filled with a mix of beautiful old buildings and newer more modern structures. On the chilly November day I visited it seemed like a great place to encounter a ghost.

One of the most haunted buildings on campus is Converse Hall, a large grey granite dormitory in the center of campus. When I visited Converse Hall was under construction and no students were living there. But perhaps the ghosts were still inside...

According to various online sources, Converse Hall is haunted by the ghost of a student who hanged himself in the attic in the 1920s. The stress of academia was more than he could endure, but even death has given him no escape since his spirit still lingers in the dorm. Some sources say the ghost's name is Henry.

Henry has been accused of causing various spooky phenomena in the dorm, like knocking mirrors off of walls, tearing down posters, slamming doors shut, and rearranging furniture in student's rooms. Despite dying almost 100 years ago it doesn't sound like Henry has matured much in the past century. Those all sound like typical freshman year pranks to me.

I've also read that the ghost haunting Converse Hall may instead be an engineering student who accidentally electrocuted himself in the 1980s. So which is it, Henry from the 1920s or a more recent ghost? There's no answer, and this type of ambiguity is very common in ghost stories. People encounter strange phenomena and then try to explain them by referring to events that happened in the past. Usually there are multiple explanatory stories. Sometimes not knowing is spookier than knowing.

The identity of the ghost haunting the Center for Counseling and Testing on South Williams Street is known, though. It is the spirit of a nineteenth century sea captain who once lived in the house. The building is called the Jacobs House (after the UVM professor whose widow donated it to the school in 1959), so many people assume the ghost is someone named Captain Jacobs. If the building is haunted it is more likely that the ghost is that of one Captain Nabb, a retired seaman who lived there until his death in 1877.

Staff working in the Jacobs House have reported a variety of poltergeist activity, and some claim to have even seen the captain himself. One counselor who worked there reported that one night he saw an elderly man with a large bulbous nose walking down the stairs. As he walked he shimmered "like a jellyfish" before he disappeared. That's kind of freaky. A janitor in building also reported seeing the same elderly man, and that he knocked over a bucket of water and flicked the lights before vanishing. I guess old sea captains can be kind of cranky.

Students and staff aren't the only ones who can partake in the ghostly antics. Even alumni might get a chance to see a restless spirit, since UVM's Alumni Association offices are housed in the beautiful and historic Grasse Mount building. Formally known was the Thaddeus Tuttle house, Grasse Mount dates to 1804 by and was originally named for the wealthy Burlington merchant who built it. Unfortunately Tuttle didn't remain wealthy for long and had to sell off his luxurious home. The house was later re-named to honor a French admiral.

UVM purchased the building in 1895 and used it as a women's dormitory until 1977. The women who lived there apparently loved Grasse Mount and one resident, Pearl Randall Wasson, even composed a song in its honor. Here are some topically appropriate lyrics:

Spirit of Grasse Mount, come to us we pray
Roll back the curtain from the dusty past...

I think the curtain from the dusty past has definitely been rolled back. Strange voices have been heard in empty rooms, and doors have been slammed shut by invisible hands. Is it the ghost of Thaddeus Tuttle, trying to reclaim in death what he lost in life? I haven't read any theories explaining Grasse Mount's supernatural shenanigans. But as I said, sometimes not knowing is spookier than knowing.

March 31, 2018

Uncategorizable Weirdness: Aliens, Mummies, Fairies, and Dark Swamps

When I write this blog I always enjoy categorizing the stories I tell. That one's a Bigfoot encounter, that one's a ghost story, that one's a witch story. Humans like to categorize our experiences, and those of us who write about legends and the paranormal are no different. We want to put things into neat little buckets.

However, reality doesn't always fit into neat little categories. We try to impose order, but strange phenomena are much less orderly than we want. They can be downright slippery. Here are a couple stories that illustrate this.


The year was 1974. It was the night of August 20. Around 9:30 pm a man was driving near Derry, New Hampshire on Route 42. We'll call him Joe R., since his real last name isn't known.

As Joe R. was driving down the wooded road he saw a large object ("as big as a house," he later swore) flying across sky ahead of him. It flew from east to west. It was bright like the sun, white, and somehow blurry. It went down behind the trees between Exit 4 and Exit 5. Several similar smaller objects flew down after it.

Curious about what he had just seen, Joe R. pulled over and walked into the woods. He didn't find the shiny object, but he saw something even stranger: two small "mummy-like" humanoids walking in the woods. They were about 40 yards away from him. When he saw them Joe R. became scared and ran back to his car.

Joe later told his story to two UFO investigators, and their account was later found by Albert Rosales, the great collector of humanoid encounters. I found the story on a UFO site, and it is truly a UFO sighting in the literal sense of the term "unidentified." What was the bright shiny object? When I read the story my first assumption was that it was some kind of extraterrestrial craft, but that isn't really specified. Joe never saw a spaceship for flying saucer, but simply a glowing white light that flew across the sky and disappeared into the woods. There is no indication of where it came from.

And what of the two little mummy creatures? I suppose if the light were spaceship they might be aliens that came out of it, but again it's not clear if that's what happened. Joe R. saw a light go down behind some trees, then he saw two little creatures walking in the woods. The two phenomena seem connected but it's not clear how.

I am particularly hesitant to label this as an alien encounter because of the location. Derry has a long history of strange humanoid creatures. For example, folklore from the 19th and early 20th century claimed the area was the home of a fairy named Tsienneto. Derry was settled by Scotch Irish immigrants and they clearly brought some of their fairy lore with them. Tsienneto was supposed to be a beautiful fairy queen, but in 1956 a man named Alfred Horne saw a small green humanoid while cutting Christmas trees in the woods. The creature had floppy ears like a dog, eyes with a reptilian nictitating membrane, and stumpy toeless legs. Horne tried to capture the creature but fled when it let out an earth-piercing shriek.

The story of Joe R.'s encounter fits into Derry's weird history of weird humanoids. I have no idea what these creatures are (if the stories are true). Are they fairies? Are they aliens? Are they renegade Christmas elves? Are they all different beings that just happened to find their way to Derry? They don't seem to fit into any clear category.


Here's another case of a strange, unidentifiable humanoid sighting, this time from 1990. Two residents of Bridgewater, Massachusetts were driving down Route 138 en route to a dog track in Raynham. As they drove down the road they saw a strange man standing next to the guardrail:

His clothes were old-looking, dirty and dusty, his skin was pale gray and the detail that stood out most was his hair, very dry looking, thin and brittle, sticking off from the sides of his head in a strange manner. 

The two Bridgewater residents went past him to the track, but when they reached their destination they realized it was not open that night. They turned around and drove back the way they came. They  were surprised to see the man was no longer by the guardrail. They had only been gone a few minutes, and Route 138 at that area goes through a very dense swamp. There was no place for the strange man to go, unless he went into the dark, night-time swamp.

I found that story on the same UFO site where I found Joe R.'s story, so someone thought there was something weird about the man near the swamp, but what? He could have just been a homeless person living in the swamp. But once again the location is important.

Route 138 goes right through the infamous Hockocmock Swamp, which is a hotspot for paranormal encounters and is itself smack in the middle of the even more infamous Bridgewater Triangle. Given the location, this story's inclusion on a UFO site makes a little more sense. UFOs are often seen in the Bridgewater Triangle, although there wasn't one in connection with this story. The human mind wants to make connections. There must be something strange about a strange man in strange location. Maybe he was a ghost? A swamp spirit of some kind? A fairy there to lure people away from the road and into the darkness?

I don't think we'll ever know the answers to these questions. We have an urge to give order to our world, but sometimes the world has other, weirder plans.

March 22, 2018

I Was A Teenage Witch: Stories from the Salem Witch Trials

When most people think of a witch, they picture an elderly, disheveled woman wearing rags. This is the archetypal witch in Western culture, but when you read through witch trial accounts you'll see that all kinds of people were accused of being witches. For example, while many people accused in the Salem witch trials were indeed elderly women, many others didn't fit that profile. Women of all ages were accused, as were men. In fact, even teenagers and children were accused of and confessed to being witches.

For example, fourteen-year old Will Barker Jr. told the judges that one night while he was bringing the cows home from grazing the Devil appeared in the form of a dog. Barker ignored the Devil's enticements, but after a sleepless night the Devil appeared to him again in the form of a "black man." This is an ambiguous term that has several meanings in the witch trials. In some cases it means a man in black clothing, sometimes it means a man with dark skin, and in other cases it means a man with coal black skin. It's not entirely clear which Barker intended, but apparently he found the Devil more persuasive as a human than as a canine. Baker agreed to serve the Devil and flew with him on a pole to Five Mile Pond in Andover where he was baptized as a witch. In return for his services Barker was promised a new set of clothes, but he told the judges the Devil never honored his end of the bargain.

From Wikipedia
Stephen Johnson, also age 14, was out planting corn at midsummer when the Devil came to him in the shape of a small talking “speckled bird.” The next day he came again as a black cat. Johnson ignored the Devil those first two times. It was only when he came in the shape of a man that Johnson put his fingerprint on a sheet of paper and promised to serve the Devil. (In return for selling his soul he was supposed to receive some new boots, but he never got them.) Shortly afterwards, while swimming alone in the Shawsheen River, the Devil appeared with two men and two women and baptized him by tossing him in the water.

Can you see the pattern here?

Mercy Wardwell, age 15, said the Devil came to her first in the shape of a dog, but later looking like a man whose romantic attentions she had rejected. Wardwell did not get the luxury of a baptism in a pond or river. Instead, the Devil simply dunked her head into a bucket of water. On the other hand, Betty Johnson, who was 21 but described by her parents as "simplish at best," confessed that the Devil first came to her in the shape of a man, but then later appeared as two cats. She was baptized as a witch in a neighbor's well. The Devil said he'd give her a shilling but never did.

From the Public Domain Review
Richard Carrier, age 18 and son of accused witch Martha Carrier, told the judges that one night while walking home he encountered a well-dressed man with a high-crowned hat. The man claimed he was Jesus Christ, so the teen signed his name in the man's book. Big mistake. The man in the hat was of course really the Devil, who promised he'd give Carrier a horse and some new clothes. As you can guess, neither one ever materialized. The Devil later appeared to him as a little yellow bird.

Mary Lacy Jr., age 15, confessed that the Devil initially appeared to her as a horse, but later looked like a "round gray thing." She refused his offer of baptism and didn't sign his book, but still agreed to serve him. The Devil told her she would want for nothing in the world. He encouraged Lacy to misbehave and run away from home, which she did.

The repetitive elements are pretty apparent in these accounts. The Devil approaches the potential witch several times in different forms. Sometime he is an animal, sometimes he is a man. The Devil makes a deal with the witch, but ultimately never keeps his side of the bargain. The witch signs a document and agrees to serve the Devil. The Devil baptizes the witch.

Of course, not all these stories are exactly the same. Mary Lacy didn't agree to baptism or make a bargain, or specifically mention the Devil appearing as a man. Mercy Wardwell saw the Devil first as a man, and then as two cats; the others said they saw the Devil in a different order, first as an animal and then as a human.

These teenagers were all from Andover, Massachusetts, and were all interrogated in Salem on July 21, 1692. On the one hand, they probably all were imitating each other when they made their confessions. By July it had become widely known that no one who confessed had been executed, so many defendants from Andover were told by their relatives to confess to save their lives. Richard Carrier was at first hesitant to confess, but after the judges tortured him by tying his neck to ankles (!) he told them what they wanted to hear. These stories of the Devil in many shapes were told to avoid torture and death.

On the other hand, the judges and spectators that were present found these stories convincing. They didn't think of them as lies told by scared young adults but as true accounts of how the Devil operates in the world. The Andover teens created these stories using elements from their culture's view of the spiritual world. These stories give us insight into the older mental world that used to be prevalent in New England. It's terrifying to think they were elicited by threat or application of torture but still fascinating to learn how our local ancestors thought people became witches.

There are lots of sources for information about the Salem trials, but one of my favorites is Marilynne Roach's The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of A Community Under Siege. It's very thorough!

March 13, 2018

UFOS Old and New, from Vermont and Massachusetts

I'm taking a break from witches and "Olde Tymey" folklore this week to post about more recent folklore, namely UFOs. Strange stories aren't just a thing from from the past; people also encounter strange phenomena today.

Up first: was a giant UFO hovering over a lake on the Vermont border? The answer is yes, according to UFO Sightings Daily. A blogger named Scott Waring posted the following image to that site after he found it on Google Earth street view:

You can check out the image yourself on Google here. The UFO is allegedly hovering over Lake George, which is on the border of Vermont and New York. I think it is on the New York side in this photo, but maybe it floated over to Vermont as well.

Here how the news was reported by the U.K.'s Daily Express:

UFO-SPOTTERS were sent into a frenzy when an unexplained silver-grey sphere was captured on a Google Earth camera as it hovered in the skies above the USA. The orb was seen floating above trees on the border between Vermont and New York State. 
UFO enthusiasts were quick to declare a finding although many viewers thought the mystery object was actually a drop of water on the camera lens.

It looks more like a motorcycle helmet than a water drop to me. It also reminds me of this smiley face spaceship from the 1980s movie Heavy Metal

Check out this Youtube video if you want to read more suggestions about what the Lake George UFO might be. Some viewers think if might just be the Google Photo sphere icon, which unfortunately seems likely (see below). I'd rather think it was a giant smiley face UFO than a corporate logo. 

The Google photo sphere icon. 
But still, whether or not the Lake George UFO is real, what remains interesting is that people continue to see UFOs. As I've mentioned on this blog before, I saw a UFO in Haverhill, Massachusetts in the 1970s when I was a small child. One summer evening I was outside in my family's back yard with my brother and a boy who lived nearby. As we played in the dusk we saw a bright light descend from the sky and go down behind a hill. We were terrified and all ran into my parents' house. Our neighbor was so scared he refused to go home until his parents came back from the meeting they had gone to. 

This happened a long time ago but the memory and the fear we felt still remain vivid. We were all very young, so who knows what we really saw. Was it a helicopter? A falling star? Fireworks? They are all possibilities, but since it was the 1970s we fervently believed that flying saucers lurked in the night sky. We all knew that strange light was really a craft piloted by alien creatures. 

The UFO we saw probably had a mundane explanation, but apparently we weren't the only children who saw strange things in Haverhill. My brother recently found record of a UFO sighting that also occurred in our hometown, but many years earlier:

Ufologist Loren Gross reported that in Haverhill, Massachusetts, USA, on December 17, 1959, at 08:00 a.m., four children on a school bus saw a flash in the sky, then watched a silver, domed disc land in a field. 
A door on the craft opened and a humanoid occupant exited. (from URECAT - UFO Related Entities Catalog, an online resource of extraterrestrial sightings)

The original source is a self-published booklet by Loren Gross called "The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse: UFOs A History. 1959: October-December." I found a PDF copy online, which contains this detailed account:
...Darcelle Nolan, 8, a second grader at St. Joseph School, told of seeing something even more startling yesterday morning on Broadway in Ayers Village while enroute to school on the school bus. 
Darcelle, along with nine-year-old Diane Pearson of 1320 Broadway, reported that they saw a bright flash in a field nearby, and 'we saw something round, silvery colored land in the field and it had a dome on top. A door opened and something in light colored clothes got out.'
She reports that four children on the bus saw the object. Her mother, Mrs. Richard Nolan of 16 South Crystal St., said this morning, 'At first I didn't believe it, but after she told me the story, I believed her. She's not the type to make up stories.' 
Gross also notes that a child at Haverhill's Tilton School saw something strange in the sky a few days earlier. Perhaps Haverhill was having a pre-Christmas UFO scare? Gross writes that he found these accounts in press reports.

Is there any connection between what the kids saw in 1959 and what we saw in the 1970s? Maybe the only connection is that we were all young. I don't have a nice summary statement to wrap this post up, but I think that's probably appropriate when writing about UFOs. They're just weird and hard to categorize. Whether they are corporate logos or spaceships from another planet I think we'll be hearing about them for as long as we live.

March 04, 2018

Did Moldy Grain Cause The Salem Witch Trials?

I think most people agree on the facts of the Salem witch trials. In 1692, nineteen people were executed for witchcraft, one died while being tortured, and several died in prison. More than 150 people from Massachusetts and Maine were accused. The trials ended as soon as they began, and were the last major witchcraft trials in New England.

There had been other witchcraft trials in 17th century New England, but none as large and deadly as the Salem trials. Historians have argued for years over what caused this terrifying social anomaly. Proposed explanations include mass hysteria, greed, Puritan misogyny, discord among neighbors, and stress caused by Indian attacks. There is probably some truth in all of these, but what if the cause was not social but biological? What if the Salem witch trials were caused by a fungus that grows on moldy grain?

The moldy grain theory first appeared in the April 2, 1976 issue of Science magazine in an article by Linnda R. Caporael titled "Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?" Caporael was a biology grad student at UC Santa Barbara, and she hypothesized that the Salem trials had been caused by ergot, a fungus that grows on grains, particularly rye.

Caporael's article explains that ergot (claviceps purpura) often grows on rye (and sometimes other grains) when the weather is warm and wet. Rye was the most widely planted Old World grain among the Puritans, and the spring and summer of 1691 were hot and humid in Massachusetts. The rye harvested that year would have been consumed in 1692. She theorizes that it was infected with ergot.

Barley infected with ergot, from Wikipedia
People who eat ergot-infected grains can develop a disease called ergotism. It comes in two varieties. Gangrenous ergotism causes an infected person's extremities to die and rot away. Fingers, toes and ears develop gangrene and fall off. Picture leprosy, but caused by grain. Scary! The second variety is called convulsive ergotism, which has very different symptoms, including the following:

  • Tingling sensations in the skin and fingers
  • Vertigo
  • Headaches
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Hallucinations
  • Bodily convulsions

Ergot contains the alkaloid isoergine, aka lysergic acid amine, a molecule similar to that found in LSD, which can cause hallucinations. Perhaps all those Puritans were just having a really bad trip?

Caporael's article goes on to explain how some of the behaviors seen in the Salem witch trials might be caused by convulsive ergotism.
Accusations of choking, pinching, pricking with pins, and biting by the specter of the accused formed the standard testimony of the afflicted in almost all the examinations and trials. The choking suggests the involvement of the involuntary muscular fibers that is typical of ergot poisoning; the biting, pinching, and pricking may allude to the crawling and tingling sensations under the skin experienced by ergotism victims. Complaints of vomiting and "bowels pulled out" are common in the deposition of the accusers. The physical symptoms of the afflicted and many of the other accusers are those induced by convulsive ergot poisoning. (Linnda R. Caporael, "Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?", Science, vol. 192, April 2, 1976) 
The article also suggests that the demons people saw were just hallucinations, such as the thing with a monkey's body and bird's feet that choked John Londer while he slept, as were the spectral witches that people saw inside their homes or roaming the landscape. The Puritans didn't have a scientific understanding of ergotism so they explained away the strange symptoms as evil magic sent by witches.

Caporael's article really struck a chord when it was published. It received quite a bit of publicity, and even made the front page of The New York Times in an article titled "Salem Witch Hunts in 1692 Linked to LSD-Like Agent." LSD was a widely used drug in the 1970s and the link with contemporary drug culture made sense to a society dealing with its own hallucinating kids.

The ergot theory still remains popular, even though most people now don't know where it came from. I often see commenters online mention ergotism when discussing the Salem trials, and it comes up sometimes when I talk with people about New England witchcraft. Just a few weeks ago I was leading a tour in Boston and when I mentioned witchcraft someone asked about ergotism.

People still remember Caporaels' theory, but they don't remember the rebuttal that two psychologists published a few months later. Nicholas Spanos and Jack Gottlieb published an article titled "Ergotism and the Salem Village Witch Trials" in the December 24, 1976 issue of Science. The two authors outline some compelling reasons why ergotism did not cause the Salem trials.

First, only people suffering from Vitamin A deficiency contract convulsive ergotism; people with healthy vitamin A intake get the gangrenous variety. Vitamin A is found in dairy products and fish. Salem Village was a successful farming community with lots of cows and Salem Town was a seaport with lots of fishing activity. It seems unlikely that anyone had a Vitamin A deficiency.

Further, ergotism usually strikes entire families (since everyone is eating the same grain). That did not happen in Salem, where only a few members of families were afflicted by witchcraft. The afflicted girls also did not report diarrhea or vomiting, and more importantly they did not die or develop permanent dementia, which happens in severe cases of ergotism. Their skin also did not turn a livid color, which is another symptom of the disease.

The afflicted girls did not actually suffer convulsions or pain in a way that was consistent with ergotism. They would suffer fits and convulsions when a suspected witch was brought into the courtroom for them to see, but their symptoms would subside when the suspect confessed, when passages were read from the Bible, or when the suspect touched them. Their convulsion were clearly not the symptoms of a disease. As Spanos and Gottlieb write:

The afflicted girls were responsive to social cues from each other as well as from the accused and were therefor able to predict the occurrence of each other's fits. In such cases one of the girls would cry out that she saw the specter of an accused witch about to attack another of the afflicted. The other girl would then immediately fall into a fit.... 
... Taken together, these facts indicate that the afflicted girls were enacting the role demoniacs as that role was commonly understood in their day. (Nicholas Spanos and Jack Gottlieb, "Ergotism and the Salem Village Witch Trials, " Science, December 24, 1976)

Spanos and Gottlieb also point out that the afflicted girls were only a small subset of all the witnesses in the Salem witch trials. Dozens of people testified against the accused witches, and most of them showed no symptoms of ergotism at all.

So it seems extremely unlikely that ergotism caused the Salem witch trials or even played any role at all. It's too bad, because modern science is great at treating physical disease, but not so great at dealing with psycho-social eruptions. We can probably prevent outbreaks of ergotism, but that won't help us prevent future witch hunts. Witch hunts still occur around the world, and we've even seen seen similar phenomena within the last few decades in the United States, like the Satanic panic of the 1980s or the evil clown scare of 2016. If only they were as easy to treat as a troublesome fungus.

February 25, 2018

Tales from Granary Burying Ground: James Otis and the Lightning Bolt

I love the term "burying ground," don't you? There's something very raw and primitive about it, but at the same time it's kind of charming because no one really uses the term anymore. Modern people inter their dead in cemeteries, not in burying grounds or even graveyards. I can understand why. Cemetery is a more gracious sounding word that masks what happens to the deceased, while burying ground is quite blunt. Yup, this is where we bury them.

The Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street is one of Boston's oldest cemeteries. It was originally founded in 1660, and got its current name in 1737 from a granary that stood next to it. In the 1830s some Bostonians tried to rename it to Franklin Cemetery, after Benjamin Franklin's family who are buried inside the graveyard. The name didn't catch on, though, and we still know it by it's older, blunter, primitive name.

Many famous people have their final resting places within the Granary Burying Ground: patriots, Puritans, mariners, politicians and poets. Some of them, like lawyer James Otis, have strange stories surrounding their lives and deaths.

James Otis's grave on a stormy evening.
James Otis (b. 1725, d. 1783) is probably best known for coining the phrase "Taxation without representation is tyranny." It's a phrase many children learn in school while studying the American Revolution. Otis uttered those words during a five-hour (!) speech he made arguing against the "writs of assistance," which were laws that allowed British troops to search any colonist's home without needing a search warrant or even probable cause. Naturally the writs were extremely unpopular in Massachusetts. Otis lost his case agains the writs of assistance but parts of his epic speech were reprinted as a pamphlet and helped rouse ant-British feeling in the colonies.

Surprisingly, Otis had originally been pro-British. He came from a prominent Loyalist family, but he joined the revolutionary cause when his father was denied a promised appointment as Chief Justice of Massachusetts. Perhaps his abrupt transition from Loyalist to Revolutionary helps explain why the British troops despised him so much. In 1769 he got into an argument with several British officers in a coffeehouse. The fight turned physical, and one of the officers struck Otis on the head with a cudgel.

Here comes the strange part of the story. After the attack Otis's mental capacities declined precipitously and he was unable to work further as a lawyer. Some sources say his mental decline began before the fight, while others claim the blow to his head caused it. Whatever the cause, Otis left the Boston area to live at a friend's home in Andover. His sister came to visit often, and whenever she did Otis told her that he wished God would take him from this world with a lightning bolt. I guess he wanted death his to be fast, painless, and just a little dramatic.

James Otis
He got his wish on May 23, 1783. While standing outside the Andover house with some family members, Otis was struck by a bolt of lightning. He died instantly. No one else was injured, and Otis’s body was not burned or damaged in any visible way. Witnesses say the corpse had an expression of calm repose.

Did God hear his wish? Was it just luck? It's hard to say. In Ancient Greece it was considered a holy act to die by lightning, and Otis's contemporaries in Massachusetts seemed to feel the same way. Many years later, in the 19th century, workers who opened his grave discovered the roots of a mighty elm tree growing from his skull. This too was taken as a good omen, as his brain "had been transformed into branch and leaf and blossom, thus breathing itself forth again into the free air and the Universal Flow.”

The elm tree is long gone but you can still visit Otis's grave, which is prominently located in the front of the burying ground near Tremont Street.

February 10, 2018

Haunted Gay Bars of Boston: the Ramrod and the 1270 Club

My last few blog posts have focused on 17th century stories about witches. This week I'm changing things up. Let's talk about haunted gay bars instead.

I should say, "Let's talk about haunted gay bars again." A few years ago I wrote about the rumor that Jacques Cabaret, Boston's famous drag bar, was haunted by a former performer's ghost and may even have been a temporary morgue to house victims of the 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire. My post was circulating around the internet again recently and some people reached out to share two other Boston haunted gay bar stories.

The first story is about the stately old building at 1270 Boylston Street. It was originally built as a horse carriage factory, but in the 1970s and 1980s it was home to a gay club called simply the 1270 Club. The 1270 Club featured some of Boston's best DJs and was a popular spot for dancing. The club's three floors were filled with a diverse mix of gays, lesbians, and even adventurous straight people who came for the music. Here is a quote from a 1981 Boston Globe article hinting at the club's mystique:
The 1270 Club is viewed as a mysterious club were heterosexuals don't dare tread because they've heard it's gay. For most of the week the club does cater to a predominantly gay clientele, but the exception is Wednesday when live rock is booked and the evening often becomes one of the best around town...  (Steve Morse, "Short Cuts," Boston Globe, April 9, 1981)
After the 1270 Club closed the building was the site of several other other gay bars: Maximum Security, Tatoo, and finally Quest. Currently the building is home to the Baseball Tavern, a straight sports bar.

That's the history, now here's the ghost story a friend told me. In the mid-20th century many gay bars were controlled by organized crime, and allegedly this was once the case with The 1270 Club as well. The straight mobster who owned the club didn't care about its gay clientele as long as he made money off them. He was living the good life until one night he brought two female prostitutes home to his suburban house. The three adjourned to a room above the garage for some erotic fun, but unfortunately in his eagerness the mobster forgot to shut off his car. The next morning the mobster and the two women were found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning.

According to the friend who told me this story, the mobster's ghost was sometimes encountered lurking around the 1270 Club by the staff. My friend knew someone who worked there who had encountered the ghost. I got the impression the ghost wasn't seen when the club was busy, but only before or after hours when a handful of staff were alone in the large empty building.

I don't know if the story is true, but it is interesting. The straight mobster undone by his own lust, dead and unable to profit any longer off the community he exploited, seems like a fitting ghost to haunt a gay bar. The 1270 Club was an important place for gays and lesbians in Boston when it was open, and a ghost story like this helps keep its memory alive in the community.

The other story I heard (from several people) is about the building at 1254 Boylston Street. This is just a few doors down from 1270 Boylston, so we have two spooky gay bars on the same block. This building houses the gay nightclubs Ramrod and Machine, but in an earlier incarnation it was just a gay leather bar called The Ramrod. The dancefloor at Machine is located in what was once the unused basement of the Ramrod. According to a couple informants, this basement space was used by one of the local medical schools to store human body parts. Leathermen partied one floor above a grim collection of medical specimens. Jars filled with formaldehyde-soaked body parts lined dusty old shelves in a space that today is filled with dancers, drag queens, and Ryan Landry's campy theatrical productions.

I didn't hear any actual ghost stories associated with Ramrod/Machine, just that the basement was once filled with human body parts. Which is probably creepy enough, right? It's interesting that the basements of Jacques and the Ramrod were both said to be storage areas for dead bodies, although for one it was only temporary. Is this just a folklore trope or were they actually used for this purpose?

That's all the information I have right now. I've been to both of these locations and never noticed anything paranormally weird, but please feel free to share anything you know in the comments. I always enjoy learning more about the place I live, even if the information is kind of gruesome. 

February 01, 2018

The Devil Revealed by His Foot: A Witch Trial and A Folk Story

Here's a story that sounds like a fairy tale. Once upon a time there was a young woman living in London, England. Like most young women of that time (the 17th century) she was eager to marry and move out of her parents' home.

One day while she was walking down the street a young man began talking with her. She didn't know him, but she liked him almost immediately. He was handsome. He was well-dressed. He was a smooth-talker. He flattered her. The young woman found herself falling just a little bit in love with him.

"It's been lovely talking with you," he finally said. "I need to be on my way, but perhaps I can meet you here again tomorrow?"

The young woman agreed. How could she refuse such a handsome young man? But as she walked away she glanced down at his feet. She gasped softly. One foot was normal, but one foot was a cloven hoof. She had been flirting the Devil.

She had no intention of marrying the Devil. The next day she did not go the appointed meeting place, but instead hid nearby. She watched as the Devil arrived, and watched as he grew more and more impatient as he waited. When the Devil realized she was not going to show up he grew enraged. The young woman watched in horror as he angrily ripped down a heavy iron gate and stalked off with it in his hands.

From this site about trimming goat hooves!
That really sounds like a fairy tale, doesn't it? Surprisingly, it isn't. A Connecticut woman, Goodwife Ayres, told this story to two neighbors in the 1660s. It had really happened, she said, and she even claimed she was the young woman in the story. Her neighbors remembered the story and later told it to a Hartford judge when Goody Ayres was accused of witchcraft in 1662.

Like so many accused witches, Goody Ayres was an unpopular person in Hartford. Her husband William was a well-known thief and had been convicted of stealing pigs, cows, horses and even iron bars and his bad reputation rubbed off on her. When a young woman named Elizabeth Kelly grew ill she accused Goody Ayres of bewitching her, and after Kelly died her parents charged Ayres with witchcraft.

I think it's obvious to a modern reader that Goody Ayres's story is just a folktale. The revealed foot is an old motif that shows up in lots of stories. For example, a Biblical legend claims that King Solomon was suspicious of the Queen of Sheba when she arrived in Jerusalem. He had heard that she had one human foot and one goose foot, but her long skirts hid her feet. Thinking of a way to trick her, the wise king led her over a stream while touring the kingdom, and as she lifted her skirts he caught a glimpse of a webbed bird foot.

The Queen of Sheba is not the only queen with a strange foot - a very similar story is told about Emperor Charlemagne's mother, Queen Bertha. The German folk-goddess Perchta is said to have one goose foot, and many European fairies are also believed to have animal feet. For example, the erdluitle, small humanoid fairies found in Switzerland, wear long robes and skirts to hid their goose like feet, which are either hooved or goose feet. The fees of France look like beautiful humans, but each has one flaw, like a bird or animal foot. The Manx sleigh beggy look human but leave crow's foot prints in the dirt when they walk.

I think you get the picture. Goody Ayres's story about the Devil was just the latest iteration of a recurring story, but she gave herself the starring role. Not much is known about Ayres (including her first name), and I wonder why she told this tale about meeting the Devil. Did she think it was entertaining? Did she do it to impress her neighbors? Did it make her human husband look better in her mind? "Hey, he might be a thief but it could be worse. I almost dated Satan!"

Sadly, we'll never know. The Hartford judges found Goody Ayres guilty of witchcraft. I don't think the story about the Devil's foot was the conclusive piece of evidence, but it certainly didn't help her case.

Sources: David Hall's Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England (one of my new favorite books), Nancy Arrowsmith and George Moorse's A Field Guide to The Little People, and R.G. Tomlinson's Witchcraft Trials of Connecticut.

January 25, 2018

Finding Witches and Demons in The Woods

I have been a city person all my life, but I do like walking in the woods when I can.

My favorite seasons to walk in the woods are fall and winter. For one thing there are fewer bugs to deal with, but I also appreciate how the landscape is more apparent in those seasons. The leaves are down, the undergrowth has died, and I can really see the undulations of the earth and how the tree roots writhe around in the soil. I also like how clearly the local boulders, deposited here by glaciers eons ago, present themselves in the treeless months.

Walking around in the woods makes me want to read and write about local folklore. There's something about a giant boulder, a murky pond or an abandoned stone wall that inspires me to read about witches, ghosts and weird humanoid monsters. Maybe that's strange, but somehow those old stories make me feel connected more to the land here. Conversely, reading those stories makes me want to go out in the woods and explore. I think the local landscape inspired the folk stories, and in turn the folk stories color how I see the landscape. The two are reflections of each other, physical and mental landscapes that overlap.

A cave a few miles from my house. Creepy, right? It looked like someone had been living in it.

So when I am in a folklorey state of mind the woods seem like they are filled with strange possibilities. Who knows what I might see? Just around that hill I could encounter a crow that looks at me with knowing eyes, or maybe I'll see a strange footprint in the mud next to a stream. Anything seems possible.

In 1662, Robert Stern of Hartford, Connecticut was walking in the woods outside of that town. He thought at first that he was alone, but he soon realized he wasn't.

Robert Stern testifiethh as follows
I saw this morning Goodwife Seager in the woods with three more women and with them I saw two black creatures like to Indians but taller. I saw likewise a kettle over a fire. I saw the women dance around those black creatures and whiles I looked upon them one of the women, Goodwife Greensmith, said "Look who is a-yonder!" and then then they ran away up the hill. I stood still and the black things came towards me and then I turned to come away... (quoted in David Hall, Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England, 1991, p.158)

There are a lot of ways to think about that passage. Historically, it comes from the Hartford witch trials of 1662 - 1665. Rebecca Greensmith, mentioned in Stern's testimony, was found guilty of witchcraft and executed. Elizabeth Seager, also mentioned, was also found guilty but ultimately had her sentence suspended by Governor John Winthrop Jr.

You can also think about this passage in a sociological way. The black creatures, clearly demons, resembled Indians. The 17th century New England Puritans had a deep fear of the local Indian tribes. They fought with the Indians over land, and also considered them (as non-Christians) to be in league with the Devil. The Puritans' racial fears colored a lot of other witch trial accounts, where the Devil and his minions are portrayed as resembling Indians. You could also argue that Puritan notions about sexuality led them to think that women were more likely to be witches than men.

Another cave in the same woods.

But this story still remains fascinating and a little creepy to me even though I understand the historical and sociological aspects of it. Robert Stern said he stumbled upon witches and demons dancing around in the New England woods. There was a cauldron cooking over a fire. Just think about that for a moment. The woods that surround your house, the woods where you walk your dog and play with your kids, were believed to be the habitation of demons and witches. Who knows what you might find even today if you stray from the path into the trees? It's like we live in the middle of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

I have never come upon a witches Sabbath in the woods, but sometimes it feels like I could. I don't think there are witches and demons hiding out there in the forest, but sometimes it feels like there might be. I guess that's what comes from reading too much folklore and living in New England.

January 17, 2018

Cat, Crow and Cream: Perils of Being A Witch

Lots of younger people are interested in traditional forms of witchcraft these days, as a quick search through Tumblr will demonstrate. I think that's fine. Many people dabble in the occult and it's definitely an interesting topic. However, be aware that witchcraft is not all fun and games.  

For example, here is a little folk story about witches from late 19th century Western Massachusetts:

Daniel Smith was churning. He looked into the churn and then to see what progress he was making, but the butter was no nearer to coming the last time he looked than it was the first. The suspicion grew on Mr. Smith that there was something uncanny about this fact. The more he thought about it the more certain he became that there was a witch in the cream. To expel the evil spirit he dipped up a little of the cream, and threw it into the fire. Immediately after that the butter came. That same day it was reported that Widow Brown had burned herself. Then Mr. Smith knew it was the Widow Brown who had bewitched his cream. (Clifton Johnson, What They Say in New England, 1896)

Now compare that with this story collected in the 1930s in Peterborough, New Hampshire about a witch named Mrs. Stinson:

A cat somewhere in town was observed to act strangely; hot water was thrown upon her and straightaway Mrs. Stinson's back was dreadfully afflicted with St. Anthony's (erysipelas). On another occasion a good man near Sharon shot at a crow many times, but the bird only flew around and laughed at him. He at last took off a silver sleeve button and with it broke the crow's wing; immediately Mrs. Stinson was found to have a broken arm. (Eva Speare, New Hampshire Folk Tales, 1932)

Although we tend to think of folk stories about witches as spooky or creepy, most of them are actually instructional tales about how to defeat witches. They usually end with the the wise farmer or clever housewife defeating the witch through a little defensive magic, as the stories above illustrate. The heroine of these tales is not the witch.

Witches were believed to work their mischief by sending their souls out of their bodies and into food, animals, or farm implements. This was a cool magical power, but left the witches very vulnerable because their bodies experienced any harm inflicted on the food or animal. A silver object (a button or a bullet) could injure or kill even the toughest witch. 

So just a word of caution for young people thinking about practicing traditional forms of witchcraft. Watch out! Someone might throw the cream into the fire.

January 09, 2018

The Devil Monkey of Danville, New Hampshire

The other day I was poking around the Web and found references to something called the Danville Devil Monkey. I love that name, don't you? Devil Monkey. Devil Monkey. It makes me want to scream: DEVIL MONKEY!!!

Almost as good as its name is the fact that the Devil Monkey appeared in Danville, New Hampshire. Danville is a classic small New England town. There are some old farmhouses, a couple of churches, and it runs by town meeting. The town's website is promoting a fund-raising spaghetti dinner for the local Boy Scouts. Danville is like someplace from a Thornton Wilder play. So obviously it's where the Devil Monkey would appear.

The Danville monkey was first seen on August 21 by fire chief David Kimball when the creature leapt into the road in front of his truck. It jumped back into the woods, but Kimball was stunned by what he saw. What was a large monkey doing in southern New Hampshire?

“It jumped out of the trees,” Kimball said. “As soon as he hit the ground, he took a giant leap and went back where he came from. The first thought I had was: That’s nothing that’s native to here.” (Seacoast Online, September 14, 2001, "Residents Can't Stop Monkeying Around") 

Kimball consulted with the town librarian to determine what type of simian he saw. Kimball's best guess was that he saw a Humboldt's wooly monkey. Wooly monkeys are indigenous to the Amazon, not New England, so he was naturally puzzled by what he saw.

Several other Danville residents saw the animal in August and September that year. Scott Velleca saw the animal briefly in his backyard, while his wife Jen heard strange screeching noises coming from the woods. "It was a noise that didn't belong in my woods," she said. (Seacoast Online, September 14, 2001, "Residents Can't Stop Monkeying Around").

A local boy told his mother that peanut butter cookies he left in his treehouse disappeared. She at first thought her son was talking about an imaginary playmate, but after she learned about the monkey sightings she realized his story was probably true. Had the monkey taken the cookies?

A wooly monkey
Locals assumed the monkey was an escaped pet. It is illegal to own a Humboldt's wooly monkey as a pet and the owners (if they existed) never stepped forward. The town mobilized to capture the animal before the weather turned monkey-killingly cold. Denise Laratonda, Danville's animal control officer, partnered with the Humane Society to lure the monkey with female monkey urine. It did not work. Other Danville residents strung up bananas and oranges to lure the monkey into the open. Hunters with tranquilizer darts stood by the ready. A local DJ even dressed up a like a gorilla to entice the monkey.

Nothing worked. The Danville monkey remained elusive, something that was briefly seen, frequently heard, and impossible to catch. The story gained national media attention and Laratonda was scheduled to appear on NBC's Today Show to discuss the renegade simian. The September 11 terrorist attacks occurred before her appearance and the media turned its attention to more pressing matters.

The monkey continued to haunt Danville through September but then disappeared. Did it die? Was it recaptured by its mysterious owners? No one knew.

The creature reappeared eleven years later, when Haverhill, Massachusetts resident Michelle Andino saw a strange animal in her parents' Danville backyard. Andino was out cooking steaks on the grill when she heard the family's dogs barking. She assumed they had seen a deer, and was shocked instead when see saw something climbing a tree:

But what caught her eye was an animal at least two feet long with a 'white bottom' and dark brown over the rest of its body. She doesn't think it had a tail.

'It was really hugging the tree. It was climbing up like a human being,' she said. (Union Leader, September 26, 2012, "In Danville: Hey Hey It's A Monkey?") 

Andino's family had not lived in Danville in 2001, and she was surprised to learn that another monkey had been seen several years earlier. An animal control officer didn't find any signs of the creature.

As far as I know that was the last sighting of Danville's Devil Monkey. Maybe it will show up again in another few years to bewilder the town's citizens.

Did you notice there really isn't anything devilish about the Danville monkey? Maybe it was a little impish to steal a small boy's cookies but that certainly wasn't Satanic. The people who saw it didn't seem particularly frightened. Puzzled, amused, and intrigued but not necessarily scared. No one called it the Devil Monkey at the time, but it seems to have gained that nickname on the Internet in recent years.

There is a cryptid called the Devil Monkey that has been seen in other parts of the country. Devil Monkeys are reputed to be vicious and attack livestock, much like a chupacabra might. This video from Animal Planet gives a spooky overview of the Devil Monkey:

Personally, I don't think the Danville monkey was one of these terrifying monsters, but I could be wrong. Still, there is a tendency in American culture for anomalous things to get classified as scary and evil but sometimes strange things are just strange. Not every unusual animal is a deadly monster.

I also think it's interesting that so many people assumed in 2001 that the monkey had escaped from unknown owners. This is a common trope in stories about cryptids. Giant cats, apelike wild men, and other creatures are explained away as escaped circus animals or exotic pets. It sounds like a reasonable explanation, but the animals' owners almost never show up. If you ran a zoo or circus wouldn't you want to recapture one of your valuable missing animals?

What was the Danville monkey if it wasn't a ravenous Devil Monkey or an escaped pet? Sadly I don't have a better explanation. But I do know that if you're missing some peanut butter cookies you might want to look high up in the trees for an elusive simian with a sweet tooth.