July 19, 2018

Encountering Fairies at Mount Monadnock

One of the many nice things about this blog is that people tell me stories about the strange things they've encountered. I've heard quite a few ghost stories, but it is very rare that people tell me stories about fairies.

Very rare, but it does happen. The other day some friends came over for brunch, and I showed my friend James a copy of Magical Folk, a book about fairy folklore to which I had contributed a chapter.  In response, James told me the following story.

*****

A few years ago James, his spouse Kevin, and one of their friends went camping near New Hampshire's Mount Monadnock. The campground at Monadnock State Park has around thirty standard campsites close to parking lots, plus five remote campsites that can only be reached by hiking. James and his companions chose to stay at one of the standard campsites.

After they set up their tents they decided to go for a hike along one of the trails that led to the more remote sites. The trail led them up away from the other campers and deeper into the park. After hiking for a while they still hadn't seen any of the the remote campsites, but instead found a beautiful clearing in the woods.

James described it as looking like a "fairy dell." There was a waterfall, and a small wooden bridge going over a stream, and lots of lush flowers. It was an idyllic space, but as they absorbed its beauty James became uneasy. Although they were ostensibly alone in the clearing he felt like there was someone there with them. James sensed that they were being watched. His companions began to fell uneasy too and they soon left, making their way back to their campsite.

A beautiful photo of Mt. Monadnock from Wikipedia. 

When James fell asleep that night he had a strangely vivid dream. He dreamed about his mother. She had cooked something really delicious and kept urging James to eat. In the waking world James had a very good relationship with his mother, but something didn't seem quite right in the dream. Although it looked like his mother, James had the uncomfortable feeling that the figure in his dream was not really his mother but was instead someone pretending to be her. She kept offering him food, but he kept refusing it. Finally he woke up.

Over breakfast he told Kevin and their friend about his strange dream. To his surprise, they both said they had very similar dreams that night. They had both dreamed that trusted, loving people from their lives had offered them food, but they both had felt that somehow things were not quite right. Neither of them had accepted the food.

*****

When James finished his story he said to me, "You know, in a lot of traditional stories the fairies try to get humans to eat fairy food. If a human eats it they're trapped in the fairy world forever. I feel like we encountered something in that clearing, and it wanted us to stay there. I'm glad none of us ate the food in our dreams."

I'll try to put James's story into a regional context. When the Puritans first came to New England they said that there weren't any fairies here. The Puritans had mostly come from East Anglia, a part of England that had a lot of witch lore but not much in the way of fairy lore. Unsurprisingly, New England has a lot of folklore about witches. And had a lot of witch trials.

However, the Indian tribes that lived in New England did have a lot of folklore about small magical beings that lived in the woods, mountains and rivers. This folklore became part of the mainstream culture in the 19th century when it was shared with anthropologists and folklorists. European immigrants from places like Ireland and Scotland also moved into New England around the same time, bringing their fairy folklore with them. People began to see fairies in New England. And in the 20th and 21st century, local fairies called pukwudgies gained prominence in the national media.

New England is no longer a place without fairies. Different cultures describe fairies in different ways, but they seem to agree on a few things: fairies live in the woods, fairies are tricky, and fairies try to entice people to join them. Did my friend actually have a fairy encounter in Monadnock Park? I can't say for sure, but his story is definitely part of a long tradition of people encountering strange things in the New England woods.

July 11, 2018

H.P Lovecraft and The Witch from Boston

Rhode Island native and horror writer extraordinaire H.P. Lovecraft liked to incorporate New England history and folklore into his stories. He was particularly fond of local witch-lore, which shows up in many of his best known stories.

For example, Richard Upman Pickman, the crazed artist in "Pickman's Model" (1927), is descended from "old Salem stock" and had an ancestor executed for witchcraft. In "Dreams in The Witch House" (1933), a hapless college student finds trouble when he rents a room once inhabited by a witch, while the title character in "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" (1927) discovers through genealogical research that one of his ancestors fled Salem in 1692 due to suspicions about his "queer chemical or alchemical experiments."

H.P. Lovecraft, 1890 - 1937
Those are all fiction, but Lovecraft may have encountered a real-live New England witch in 1929 - or at least someone who claimed to be one. After Lovecraft's story "The Dunwich Horror" was published in Weird Tales he received a fan letter from a woman who lived in Boston. Lovecraft wrote about her to his friend Clark Ashton Smith on March 22, 1929:


By the way - that tale has just earned me an interesting letter from a curious old lady in Boston, a direct lineal descendant of the Salem witch Mary Easty, who was hanged on Gallows Hill Aug. 19, 1692. She hints at strange gifts and traditions handed down in her family, & asks me if I have access to any antient (ancient) secret witch-lore of New England... I shall answer the letter, & see if I can get the good old soul to relate some of the whispered witch-traditions! A story of Salem horror based on actual "inside dope" from a witch-blooded crone would surely be a striking novelty!

On April 14, 1929 he wrote Ashton Smith with a little more information about the woman:


It appears that her forebears were well acquainted with the Marblehead witches Edward Dimond and his daughter Moll Pitcher... & that she herself, through the Easty or Este line, is a scion of the D'Estes of Ferrara, Italy, & a descendant of no less a malign character than Lucrezia Borgia! Some ancestry!

Lovecraft and the Boston woman kept up a correspondence over several years. He wrote about it in an October 24, 1930 letter to his friend Elizabeth Toldridge:


... As for my spectrally affiliated New England correspondents - I have not again heard from the grotesque Maine person, but hear frequently from the old lady descended from Salem witches. She sent several modernly gruesome legends lately, but in general I find it more natural to invent cosmic horrors of my own than to utilize actual folklore incidents. I use actual local colour in treating of geography and customs; but when it comes to actual incidents and types of unreal phenomena, I have so far preferred to invent rather than adopt.

The woman died in 1933, as he indicated in a letter to his friend Robert Barlow:


An old lady in Boston whole I knew - & who died just a year ago - was a direct descendant of Mary Easty, one of the Salem witches hung in 1692 - & therefore a collateral descendant of the more famous Rebecca Nurse (Mrs. Easty's sister), whose ancient house (built 1636) in Danvers, Mass. [near Salem - formerly called Salem-Village] is still in existence...

Unfortunately, to my knowledge Lovecraft never mentioned the woman's name, at least not in any published letters. It would be fascinating to know who she was! Did she really have the ancestry she claimed? It seems unlikely she was descended from the D'Estes of Italy (and therefore Lucrezia Borgia), since the Easty/Esty family of Salem can be traced back to at least 1450 in England; Borgia was not born until 1480. Lovecraft's correspondent could have been descended from Mary Easty though.

Also, did she really have any arcane knowledge, either passed down through her family or even just learned from books? And did she say she actually claim she was a witch? Lovecraft's letters suggest that she was a witch but doesn't make it explicit. The Wiccan/pagan revival didn't really start until the late 1940s, but there were still a few people here and there who identified as witches (including at least one famous New England writer). It's possible this woman was one of them.

If anyone has more information about her please post it in the comments section. I would love to know more about the "curious old lady in Boston."


Lovecraft's grave in Providence, Rhode Island
Lovecraft was a materialist and skeptical of religion and the occult, but while he was alive some people thought his stories were about real occult phenomena. The elderly Boston woman seems to have been one of them, as was his acquaintance William Lumley. Lumley was an avowed occultist whom Lovecraft collaborated with on the 1938 story "The Diary of Alonzo Typer." In a letter to the author Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft noted that Lumley believed Lovecraft and some of his friends were "genuine agents of unseen Powers in distributing hints too dark and profound for human conception or comprehension." Lovecraft thought Lumley was a little crazy...

After his death, an increasing number of people thought that Lovecraft's stories contained real supernatural truths. His work inspired a host of occultists, including Kenneth Grant, Anton LaVey, and a slew of Chaos Magickians. So maybe there was something behind his stories after all? Somewhere, the ghost of an elderly lady from Boston is laughing.


*****

I want to thank two friends for helping me with this post. My friend Steve loaned me issue #31 of Lovecraft Studies, and my friend David Goudsward sent me the text of Lovecraft's letters. David is the author of H.P. Lovecraft in The Merrimack Valley and many other books on interesting topics. 

One additional note: Mary Este was not actually a witch, but an innocent person caught who was unjustly executed. Witches are one of the iconic images in New England folklore, but it's important to differentiate between folklore and reality. 

July 05, 2018

Magical Mullein: Witches, Love and Captain Marvel

Well, summer is in full swing. One nice thing about living someplace with long winters is that I really appreciate all the vegetation when it finally appears in the summer. Everything here is bare for so long in the winter months. Every bit of green looks great when it shows up, even the weeds.

I think "weed" is basically just a derogatory term. Really, a weed is just a plant growing somewhere people don't want it. It's not an actual scientific category. Many of the plants people call weeds have interesting histories and folklore attached to them. Some might even have magical powers. Intrigued? Read on.

One of the most dramatic weeds plants that appears in the summer is mullein. You've probably seen it because it's hard to miss. Mullein has a single stalk that grows up to six feet in height and is crowned by tiny yellow flowers. Its leaves are grey and lightly fuzzy. Mullein is very dramatic. It looks like it comes from another planet.

It doesn't, but it's not native to New England either. Mullein is indigenous to the Mediterranean and over time spread across Europe, Asia, and North Africa. When the Europeans colonized the New World mullein hitched a ride across the Atlantic with them. Its official name is verbascum thapsus, a Latin term whose origin is uncertain but is most likely derived from the words barba (beard) and Thapsos (a name of several Mediterranean cities). It's English name, mullein, probably comes from the Latin word mollis, which means "soft." And just an FYI, it's pronounced "mullen," not "mullane."


There are several varieties of mullein worldwide, but the plant that grows in New England is called "great mullein."' The plant also has several colorful folk names. Some are inspired by its long central stalk: Aaron's Rod, Jupiter's Staff, Peter's Staff and Shepherd's Club. Others come from its soft fuzzy leaves: Our Lady's Flannel, Blanket Herb and Beggar's Flannel. The dried plant was used as a torch, and its leaves as wicks for lamps and candles. Witches were said to be particularly fond of using the plant for these purposes, so mullein is sometimes called Hag's Taper. Very witchy!

Mullein can also be used to repel evil spirits and harmful magic. According to Mrs. Grieves's A Modern Herbal (1931):
Both in Europe and Asia the power of driving away evil spirits was ascribed to mullein. In India it has the reputation among the natives that the St. John's Wort once had here, being considered a sure safe-guard against evil spirits and magic, and from the ancient classics we learn that it was this plant which Ulysses took to protect himself agains the wiles of Circe.
Mrs. Grieves is referring to an incident in Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) and his men land on an island ruled by Circe, a witch-like goddess. She turns Odysseus's men into pigs, but Odysseus is given a plant called moly by the god Hermes which protects him from her magic.

On an interesting side note, perhaps you are familiar with the exclamation "Holy Moley!" This phrase was popularized in the 20th century by the comic book hero Captain Marvel, who would say it when he was faced with surprising situations.




The creators of Captain Marvel were well-versed in classical mythology; the Captain got most of his powers from the Greek gods when he shouted out the magic word "Shazam." The phrase "Holy Moley" (sometimes spelled "Holy Moly") seems to be older than Captain Marvel comics, though, and it's exact origin is unclear. Some theorists claim it is derived from "Holy Moses," others that it honored Teddy Roosevelt's adviser Raymond Moley, and still others claim it comes from the holy red thread of Hinduism, the mauli. Those are all good theories but I like the Greek mythology explanation the best, even if it is not really true.


And it turns out the great mullein plant probably was not really the one referenced in The Odyssey. Mrs. Grieves's theory has spread widely, but the great mullein doesn't really look like the plant described by Homer, of which he said "The root was black, while the flower was as white as milk..." That doesn't describe the great mullein.

Independent of its connection to Homer people have still ascribed magical powers to the plant. For example, in her 1896 book Current Superstitions, Fanny Bergen recorded the following belief from Newton, Massachusetts regarding mullein:

Twist a mullein-stalk nearly off after naming it. If it lives, he or she loves you; if not, not.

This is an example of the many simple love spells that are found in 19th century New England folklore. Most are aimed at determining if someone loves you. For example, if you think three people might be in love with you, you would take three apple seeds and name them after the three people. Then you would wet them with spit and stick them to your forehead. The last seed that falls off tells you who loves you.


This mullein spell works on a similar principle: the behavior of the plant indicates the intentions of the beloved. You think John Doe might be secretly in love with you. You find a mullein plant and name it "John Doe," and then twist the stalk. If the plant survives it means that John Doe really does love you.



Personally I don't think you should do this. Mullein has such a short growing season and is such an interesting plant. Don't hurt it! If you do want to work some magic with mullein, maybe you can wait until the fall and harvest the dried central stalk. Then you can use it as a torch to light your way to the Witch's Sabbath, which is probably more fun than going on a date with John Doe anyway.

*****

In addition to Wikipedia, my other additional sources were Pamela Jones's Just Weeds: History, Myths and Uses (1994) and Paul Beyerl's A Compendium of Herbal Magick (1998).

June 27, 2018

Colonel Buck and The WItch's Curse

I've read a lot of New England folklore in my time, and here's one thing I've learned: if a gravestone looks weird it will probably have a strange story attached to it. Is there a cage around the grave? The occupant must be a vampire. Is there a giant slab covering the entire grave? It must be there to keep the occupant down.

One of the area's most famous strange graves can be found in Bucksport, Maine. It is the grave of Colonel Jonathan Buck, who founded Bucksport in 1763. Buck was born in Woburn, Massachusetts in 1719 but grew up in Haverhill, Massachusetts (which coincidentally is my hometown). Buck attempted but failed to start a shipbuilding business in Haverhill and eventually headed north to Maine where he founded a settlement. Buck fought against the British in the Revolutionary War, and as he grew older the settlement was named after him. He died in 1795. In 1852 his descendants honored him with a larger, more impressive funerary monument.


Colonel Buck's monument, with boot stain. Edited from Wikimedia.
So here's the weird thing about Buck's large, impressive gravestone: it is marred by a strange stain in the shape of a boot. By the 1880s a rumor began to circulate that Buck had been cursed back when he was alive, and a story to that point appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper. The story was reprinted a few months later in The Haverhill Gazette on March 22, 1889:

Buck was a severe and Puritannical judge who once ordered the execution of a woman accused of witchcraft. The woman went to her death cursing Buck, who stood unmoved. At the moment of her death she allegedly shouted this prophecy: 
"Jonathan Buck, listen to these words, the last my tongue will utter. Is is the spirit of the one and only true living God which bids me speak them to you. You will die soon. Over your grave they will erect a stone, that all may know where your bones are crumbling into dust. But listen, upon that stone the imprint of my foot will appear, and for all time, long after you and your accursed race has vanished from this earth, will the people from far and near know that you murdered a woman." (Haverhill Gazette article quoted in Leslye Bannatyne's Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History.)

This is the most popular version of the tale, but several variations have appeared since then. In some, the witch says she will dance on Jonathan Buck's grave when he is dead (Lisa Rogak, Stones and Bones of New England, 2004). In others, the woman is not even a witch at all. For example, Joseph Citro cites one version in Cursed In New England (2004) that claims Buck impregnated a young Indian woman. To hide his infidelity he burned the young woman (and her unborn child) alive. As her corpse burned one her legs rolled out from the fire in accusation. The woman's mother, a shaman, cursed Buck for killing her daughter. 

An even more lurid version can be found in Oscar Morrill Heath's Composts of Tradition: A Book of Short Stories Dealing with Traditional Sex and Domestic Situations (1913). In this version, Colonel Buck has secretly had an illegitimate son with a young woman who is the town pariah. When he once again impregnates her against her will he accuses her of witchcraft. The citizens of Bucksport tie her to her house and light it on fire, but as the flaming body falls apart her son grabs one of her burning legs and strikes Buck with it. Yikes! Later, Colonel Buck paints an image of her leg on his own tomb using his blood before he dies.

Heath's version is pure fiction, but all of the other versions are probably fictional as well. There is no record of Jonathan Buck ever convicting a woman of witchcraft, either in Maine or Haverhill. New England's last witchcraft executions occurred in the 1692 Salem trials, many years before Buck was even born. There's also no evidence that he executed an illicit lover either.

But like the stain itself, the story of the vengeful witch endures to this day. It helps to explain the mysterious stain, which is perhaps caused by a vein of iron in the stone reacting with the atmosphere. It also attests to the power that the archetypal image of the witch holds over the local imagination. New Englanders know there were witches in this region, and we know they were executed by Puritans. Can you really fault someone for wanting to ascribe a strange phenomenon to a witch? New England is a weird and wonderful place, and stories like these try to explain why. 

June 18, 2018

Brookline's Old Burying Ground: Slaves, Smallpox, and Witch Trials

The other day I visited the Old Burying Ground in Brookline, Massachusetts. Brookline is a very well-maintained, genteel town right next to Boston, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Old Burying Ground is a little scruffy. When I was inside its gates I felt like I was transported to the past even though I was really only a few blocks from an MBTA stop. Goodbye home-brewing store and arthouse movie theater, hello crumbling gravestones and ancient oak trees!




Brookline was originally settled in the early 1600s as a hamlet of Boston called Muddy River (after the body of water that runs through it). By 1705 it became a separate town and took its current name (after two brooks that separated it from Boston). So in other words, Brookline is old, and although it is now a tasteful liberal suburb it does have some strange and unsavory things lurking in its past. The good old days weren't always that good...



For example, a sign inside the Old Burying Ground notes that eleven slaves are buried somewhere in the cemetery. Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1782. I didn't see any indicators denoting where the slaves were buried. It's possible their graves are mixed in with the other graves, or perhaps were not even marked. That same sign that mentions the slaves also notes that many burials had been disturbed over the years as the cemetery became more and more crowded, so perhaps the actual locations of the slave burials have long since been lost. 


Edward Devotion's grave
I did find the grave of Edward Devotion, whose name has recently been connected with slavery in the local media. Devotion was an important person in the founding of Brookline and donated money and land upon his death for a town school. When the school was finally built (more than a century after his death) it was named the Edward Devotion School. The public school stands near Coolidge Corner and was attended by John F. Kennedy when he was a child.

This sound like an inspiring story of philanthropy, but people recently learned that Edward Devotion was a slave owner. An inventory of Devotion's estate upon his death included "one Negrow." So perhaps he isn't the best person to name a school after? On May 28, the Brookline town meeting voted to remove Devotion's name from the school. The school will be called the Coolidge Corner School until a new name is voted on. 



Anna Mather's grave
Near Devotion's gravestone I found the grave of Anna Mather, who died in 1734 at the age of 74. The name Mather may sound familiar if you've read anything about the Salem witch trials. Anna Mather was the second wife of Increase Mather, one of Boston's most prominent Boston Puritan ministers (and also a  president of Harvard University). When the Salem witch trials broke out the governor of Massachusetts turned to Increase for his opinion. He urged the magistrates to proceed with caution, but did not denounce the use of "spectral evidence" until much later in the trials. Spectral evidence were the dreams, visions and possible hallucinations that the magistrates used as evidence to convict defendants of witchcraft, even though no one could verify any of them. I think you can see why this might be problematic.

Increase Mather eventually did denounce spectral evidence, writing "It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned." He never denounced the trials themselves though, possibly because many of his friends and peers served as magistrates during them. After the trials ended his reputation was permanently damaged. He married Anna Mather in 1715, many years after the trials concluded.



Increase Mather's son Cotton Mather was also a prominent minister who was involved with the Salem witch trials. His 1689 account of several possessed Boston children, Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions, is believed to have set a precedent for the Salem trials that began three years later. Cotton was a strong supporter of the trials, and even wrote to Chief Justice William Stoughton to congratulate him on executing eleven people for witchcraft. Cotton is also infamous for urging the magistrates to execute Reverend George Burroughs for witchcraft even after Burroughs successfully said the Lord's Prayer, which it was believed a witch could not recite. Cotton's reputation suffered even more than his father's after the trials ended. 

However, he did a few good things, and one of them was to promote inoculation. Smallpox was greatly feared in early Boston and two epidemics swept through the city's crowded and unsanitary streets in 1690 and 1702. In 1721 another epidemic broke out. Inoculation was known in parts of the Old World, and Mather had learned about it from his slave Onesimus. Mather urged Boston physician Zabdiel Boylston to try inoculating Bostonians against smallpox. Boylston agreed, and of the 287 people he inoculated only six died. More than 800 people who were not inoculated died in that epidemic. 


The grave of Joshua Woodward
The grave of Mary Russell
Unfortunately inoculation did not become a widespread practice until many years later, and I found graves of two smallpox victims in Brookline's Old Burying Ground. One is for Joshua Woodward, who died from smallpox in 1776 at the age of 46. That is quite young, but not as young as poor Mary Russell, "the virtuous and amiable daughter of Capt. John and Mrs. Miriam Russell" who died from the disease in 1792 at the age of 14 "to the inexpressible grief of her friends."



I like reading about the past, and really love visiting old graveyards. But I am quite happy to live in the present. Our country does face some significant problems these days, but happily we don't have slavery, witch trials, or smallpox epidemics. Let's keep those things buried in the past.

June 12, 2018

The Lumberjack and the Devil-Fish: A Story from Maine

Here's a weird story I just found in Haunted Maine by Charles Stansfield Jr. There are a lot of ghost and folklore books out there, but Stansfield's has some crazy legends I haven't read before. Like this one...

*****

Back in the 19th century, a lumberjack named Jack Johnston lived in Millinocket, Maine. Johnston came from a local family but was unpopular. This was partly because he was curmudgeonly and didn't like to follow rules but it was mainly because he hated going to church and made fun of anyone who did. Johnston didn't believe in God and didn't care who knew. (You can probably guess this story isn't going to end well.)

Johnston liked to go fishing on Sundays while everyone else was in church. Unfortunately he was not a patient person, and one Sunday as he stood on the lake's shore he became frustrated because the fish weren't biting. He cursed the lake, he cursed the fish, he cursed his fishing rod. Being an irreligious person he cursed God, and finally for good measure he even cursed Satan.

Found on Pinterest. 

As soon as he invoked the Devil's name he felt a tug on his line. "Finally," he thought, "I've got a bite." Whatever was on the other end was big and it nearly pulled Jack into the lake, but with a lot of work he reeled in the fish. When he saw it he gasped in horror.

The fish was hideous. It was longer than a man's arm and had huge bulging red eyes. Sharp fangs filled its mouth, and its sinuous black body exuded a noxiously smelly slime. It was a monster.

Jack briefly thought of bringing the creature home to cook, but it was too revolting even for a surly lumberjack to eat. Instead Jack tossed the Devil-fish into a farmer's well as he walked by. "Good riddance!" said Jack without a backward glance.

Jack thought that was the end of the story, but it was not. Shortly after Jack disposed of the fish people in Millinocket began to notice that livestock was going missing at night. At first it was small animals like chickens or piglets, but soon calves and goats began to disappear. People thought it might be a feral dog or even a wolf that had crept down from Canada but those theories were soon put to rest. Several people said they had seen a hideous snake-like fish crawl out a well every night to seek out prey. Fearing for their livelihoods, local farmers tried to propitiate the Devil-fish by throwing food down the well. It didn't work. The creature just grew larger and hungrier, and it continued its nighttime hunting. At some point there wouldn't be any livestock left in town and the creature would began eating humans...

Photo of a wolf eel from Pinterest.
Jack had told some of his lumberjack cronies about the hideous fish the day he caught it, and word spread through town that he was responsible for the monster's reign of terror. An angry mob came to Jack's house one night. He had caused the problem by fishing on the Sabbath day! He had to get rid of the Devil-fish!

Fearing for his safety Jack agreed to kill the fish. But how was he supposed to kill a supernatural demon fish? He couldn't go to the local minister for advice, so instead he went to an old woman who had a reputation for being a witch.

The woman didn't even bat an eye as Jack told his story. When he was finished she dug around in a big trunk and pulled out a strange-looking sword. "That fish is no ordinary fish," she said. "It was sent by the Prince of Darkness himself when you cursed him on the Sabbath day. But this is no ordinary sword! It can dispatch even the most ferocious of demons, but..."

"Sounds good lady," Jack said, reaching for the sword.

"But, "she continued, "there's a catch. After you kill the demon you must kill the next thing you see. If you don't the Devil will drag you down to Hell."

Jack took the sword and headed to the well. On his way he bought a chicken from a local farmer. When reached the well he tied the chicken to a nearby tree. His plan was to kill the chicken after he slew the Devil-fish, thereby keeping his soul from the Devil's clutches.

The Devil-fish emerged from the well shortly after sunset. It was ten times larger than it had been when Jack caught it. When it saw Jack it emitted a hideous roar and rushed towards him. Jack raised the sword and with a single blow chopped off the monster's head. The creature emitted ichorous bile as its body twitched on the ground. It was dead. 

Before he could turn to kill the chicken Jack hear a familiar voice. "Jack, my son! You killed the monster!" Jack turned reflexively and saw his father, coming to congratulate him for saving the town.

Jack groaned. Unless he killed his father his soul would be dragged to Hell. Jack was not a nice person, but he was not a murderer. With a sigh he put down the sword, fell to his knees, and then collapsed on the ground lifeless. The Devil had taken his soul.

*****

There are a some interesting things about this story (other than a monstrous Devil-fish). Some aspects of it are clearly based on classic New England folklore. The Sabbath-breaker who gets into supernatural trouble is one of them, as is the anti-social lumberjack. I've read quite a few stories about cursed lumberjacks, lumberjacks who make deals with the Devil, etc. It's a common theme. 

Some other aspects make it seem more like a classic fairy tale. The witch and the magic sword are two of them, but the one that really struck me was Jack needing to kill the first thing he sees. He thinks it will be an animal, but it turns out to be human. 

A similar motif appears in several classic Grimm's fairy tales. In "The Nixie of the Mill Pond," a man promises a water spirit whatever has just been born on his farm. He thinks it will be a calf, but finds out his wife has just given birth to a son. Oops. In "The Girl with No Hands" a farmer promises the Devil whatever is standing behind his barn, thinking of his apple tree but finds his daughter is there instead. Oops. 

The motif isn't just limited to the Brothers Grimm. In the Estonian fairy tale "The Grateful Prince" a king lost in the woods promises the old man who guides him home the first thing that comes out of his palace gate. The king thinks it will be his faithful dog that greets him every day, but wouldn't you know it - his wife has just given birth and his infant son is carried out of the gate first. Again, oops. 

I suspect "The Millinocket Devil-fish" is a literary folktale that someone created based on classic New England themes with a little bit of Grimm's fairytales thrown in. Still, it's a good story and I'm glad Stansfield included it in his book. Who doesn't like stories about monstrous snake fish that live in wells?

May 27, 2018

The Ghostly Nuns of Dudley Road

Haunted roads. Doesn't that phrase sound magical? There's just something really evocative about combining those two words. There's real synergy there; the whole is greater than its parts.

Haunted roads are appealing because they remind me of my adolescence, driving around aimlessly with friends waiting for something to happen. The lure of a haunted road has stuck with me into adulthood, and I've been to a few different haunted roads recently: Route 44, Albino Road, and Ghost Road. But just recently I went to what is supposed to be the most haunted road in Massachusetts: Dudley Road in Billerica.


There are several legends associated with Dudley Road, many of them focused on nuns. The most lurid story claims that back in the 19th century a group of nuns from a local convent decided to worship Satan. They would sneak out of the convent at night and gather in an abandoned house for their sinister rituals. Eventually the locals figured out what was happening and hanged the nuns in a nearby field.
St. Thecla's Retreat Center, run by the Sisters of St. Paul, is on Dudley Road
Apparently the spirits of Devil-worshipping nuns don't rest easily, because according to local legends they have been seen wandering around the road at night, and in particular haunt the field where they were hanged. Since their deaths the house where they celebrated the Black Mass has slowly been sinking into the ground. Is it descending to Hell? Strange smells and sounds emanate from the building at night.

Creepy stuff! There are also other legends about ghost nuns. One claims that a nun was hit by a car late one night while walking home to the convent. She was killed instantly when the impact knocked her into a tree, but her ghost still haunts Dudley Road. Some say she can be seen lurking under the tree her body was thrown against, while others say that she wanders the road at night asking for directions back to the convent. She is, quite literally, a lost soul.

Is this house sinking into the earth?
Another legend claims that a nun from the convent became pregnant after having an affair with a priest. She hanged herself in shame and her ghost can still be seen haunting the tree where she died. These stories share similar elements - ghosts, nuns, trees, hangings - but are all slightly different. Everyone seems to agree that something bad happened but the legends differ over what it was.

Not all the ghosts are nuns. A man dressed like a farm-worker is also said to haunt the road at night. He stands by the side of the road just under the trees, his face perpetually hidden in shadow. Don't stop if you see him. Just keep driving.

When Tony and I drove down Dudley Road I was surprised how nice it was. There are a lot of large well-maintained homes and quite a few horse farms, but I guess even upscale neighborhoods have ghosts. Parts of the road seemed new but other parts were older. The older parts were narrow and quite twisty with Colonial era homes and bordered by lichen-encrusted stone walls. I can easily see how creepy legends could get attached to this street. We only visited during the day - I imagine it is much spookier at night.

The stories about Dudley Road seem to be at least several decades old. Commenters on this post claim they heard the stories at least thirty years ago, and others say they were told the story by their parents. A few commenters even say the stories are true and that they have seen some of the ghosts.


I am not a debunker; people may very well see strange things on this road. However, I don't think the story about the hanged nuns is corroborated by any historical records. The last people executed for witchcraft in Massachusetts were hanged in Salem in 1692, so it's very, very unlikely that anyone was  killed in the early nineteenth century for Devil worship. And the house that is supposedly sinking into the ground looks a lot like a storage building to me. It also has big "No trespassing" signs posted on it so please stay away.

So if the nun legend isn't true why do people see ghost nuns? I don't know for sure, but I do think New England has it's own psychic landscape which is influenced by history, the people living on it, and the land itself. New England has it's own folkloric personality. Some people might find old houses, stone walls and dense woods charming, but other might experience them as creepy, particularly at night. A commenter on that post claimed that his teenage son went to Dudley Road with some friends on a lark, but things didn't go quite as planned. He returned home terrified and in tears. Was it all in the boy's head, or did he encounter something that only manifests to people who have the right mindset?

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments. I would love to hear from some people who have seen strange things on Dudley Road.

May 21, 2018

Odds Are Good You'll See A UFO in New England

A group called Casino.org has analyzed decades of UFO sightings and come up with some fascinating data about those strange objects we see in the sky. Casino.org usually analyzes data about the gambling industry, but I'm glad they've broadened their scope.

According to their study, these are the ten states where you are most likely to see a UFO:

1. Wyoming
2. VERMONT
3. Montana
4. North Dakota
5. Alaska
6. Hawaii
7. New Mexico
8. RHODE ISLAND
9. NEW HAMPSHIRE
10. MAINE

It's interesting that four of the top ten states are in New England, and I wonder why that is. My first thought was "Oh, they are all rural states," but is that true? Rhode Island has some very dense urban areas, and other states that are more rural than these four didn't make the list. Where's South Dakota, for example?

I was a little disappointed that Connecticut and Massachusetts didn't make the top-ten list, but they also didn't make the list of states were you are least likely to report a UFO. So there is something about New England that makes it a good region for UFO sightings, but I am not sure what.  I would be happy to hear your thoughts.

You can see the interactive map here
Since Casino.org usually looks at gambling, they express your likelihood of seeing a UFO in terms of odds. Vermont has a population of 623,657 and more than 2,493 UFOs have been sighted there in the last 78 years, so the odds of a Vermonter seeing a strange object in the sky is 250/1. In that same period Rhode Island has reported 3,088 sightings (odds: 324/1), while 3,627 UFOs have been seen in New Hampshire (odds: 369/1). Mainers have seen 3,605 weird flying objects, giving you a 370/1 chance of seeing one in the Pine Tree State.

Quantifying things like this really provides a good idea of how widespread the phenomena is. Casino.org claims there have been 259,691 reported UFO sightings in the United States since the last century. That seems like a lot to me, and the authors of the study say the US is one of the countries where people are most likely to see a UFO.

Personally, I would love to see a UFO as an adult. I think it would be cool! Some of my fellow citizens apparently have more negative feelings about UFOs. In fact, some 40,000 Americans have taken out insurance against alien abduction. According to trade publication Business Insurance, you can purchase a policy from a company in Florida:
The Palm Beach Post contacted Mike St. Lawrence, who has been operating The Alien Abduction & Casualty Insurance Co. out of his home in Altamonte Springs, selling $20 policies since 1987. “People buy them for somebody else,” Mr. St. Lawrence told a reporter. “They usually just make themselves the beneficiary.”
I wonder if anyone has ever tried to collect on their policy?

This all sounds like light-hearted fun, but The New York Times did recently publish an article about how the US government has been studying UFOs for years. Someone in the Pentagon takes it all very seriously. Maura Sullivan, a Democrat running for congress in New Hampshire, recently gave The Conway Daily Sun her thoughts on the topic:
Asked if she would address news reports about military footage of UFOs, including a New York Times story from a retired Navy pilot who now lives in New Hampshire, Sullivan said she would look into it as part of her job on Armed Services Committee. 
"I would be asking questions about digging deeper into the UFO issue," said Sullivan, who said she also would ask the Pentagon about its personnel and training budget because she is concerned about military accidents like the recent helicopter crash that killed a soldier from New Hampshire.
Will candidates in the other top-ten UFO states also address this issue? I guess we'll have to watch the election coverage to find out.

May 13, 2018

The Devil and Elizabeth Knapp: Demonic Possession in Groton

"She is a monument of divine severity; and the Lord grant that all that see or hear, may fear and tremble. Amen." (Reverend Samuel Willard, from a 1672 letter titled A Brief Accout of a Strange and Unusual Providence of God Befallen to Elizabeth Knapp of Groton.)

 In October of 1671, a teenage girl named Elizabeth Knapp began to show symptoms of a strange disorder. At first they were minor. Knapp would emit sudden shrieks with no apparent cause, and shrug when anyone asked her about them. At other times she would laugh uncontrollably as if at a private joke, sometimes to the point of falling to the ground in hysterics. She didn't tell anyone what she laughed at.

Her behavior got even stranger as the month continued. On October 30 Knapp was siting by the fireplace when she began to scream that she was being tormented:

In the evening, a little before she went to bed, sitting by the fire, she cried out, oh my legs! and clapped her hands on them, immediately, oh, my breast! and removed her hand thither: and forthwith, oh I am strangled, and put her hands on her throat; those that observed her could see what to make of it; whether she was earnest or dissembled...

Knapp was a maidservant in the home of Groton's minister Samuel Willard, and he scrupulously documented her situation in a long letter sent to Reverend Cotton Mather in Boston. Willard wrote that on the night of October 31 Knapp went into the cellar to fetch something. She screamed and ran back up, claiming she had seen two people down in the cellar. Other members of the household searched but saw nothing and wondered if Knapp had merely played a prank on them.


On November 2nd, Knapp delivered a shocking confession to Reverend Willard and other assembled neighbors: she was being tormented by Satan. Knapp claimed that over the last three years the Devil had frequently visited her, urging her to sign a covenant with him. The Devil promised to give her money, silk clothes, and release from the hard work she had to perform. In return for these things, the Devil simply asked her to sign her name (in blood) in a book. Oh, and also to murder her parents, her neighbors, and Reverend Willard's children. The Devil had even suggested she toss the Willards' youngest child into the oven and kill the reverend with a hook while he slept. Knapp denied signing the Devil's book, but did confess that she had often delayed leaving the Willard household until after sunset so the Devil could walk with her in the dark. She was drawn to the Devil even though she knew it was wrong.

Willard and other local ministers received her confession with concern but also some skepticism. Was her story true?

Her symptoms increased in the early days of November. A physician was called in, "who judged a main part of her distemper to be natural, arising from the foulness of her stomach and corruptness of her blood, occasioning fumes in her brain, and strange fantasies." You have to love that seventeenth century medicine! Knapp was briefly relieved from her duties at Reverend Willard's home and sent to rest at her parents' house.

Her fits lessened and she returned to the Willards, but as the month went on and the days grew darker her symptoms became worse. At times her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth, at other times she barked like a dog or bleated like a calf. She ran around the house yelling and skipping and no one was able to restrain her. Reverend Willard wrote that the physician changed his diagnosis and "consented that the distemper was diabolical, refused further to administer, and advised to extraordinary fasting." Multiple ministers were called in to pray for her. Knapp still claimed she had not signed the Devil's book, but did say she had been sorely tempted to but was foiled because she couldn't find a knife to cut her finger.

On December 2, Knapp became highly agitated and said she saw a dog with a woman's head outside the house. It was a witch and was trying to get in. The Willards did not see the creature, but did see a strange canine paw-print in their fireplace. Knapp claimed that if the witch were apprehended her fits would stop. She identified the witch as a local woman, but after investigating the authorities dismissed her claim.


On December 8, Knapp finally confessed to what the Reverend Willard had secretly suspected: she had signed her name in the Devil's book. She said that one day shortly after coming to work for the Willards she had looked out the window and seen the Devil in the shape of an old man walking across  a meadow towards her. He carried a large book in his hands. She heard his terms and then...
...with a knife cut her finger, he caught the blood in his hand, and then told her she must write her name in his book, she answered that she could not write, but he told her that he would direct her hand, and then took a little sharpened stick and dipped in the blood and put it into her hand, and guided it, and she wrote her name with his help.
She agreed to serve the Devil for seven years, but balked at working witchcraft for him. This was why the Devil tormented her so violently with fits.

On December 17th the Devil took complete control of her body. He began to speak through her, insulting her family and the ministers who gathered around her. He insulted God and threatened violence agains the people who were praying over Knapp. Willard believed that it was truly the Devil speaking through her, claiming that Knapp's mouth and lips were immobilized even though words came out.



During January Knapp was silent for long periods of time, although she now claimed that her confession of signing the Devil's book was false and that she had never been tempted to murder the Willard family. She said that although the Devil controlled her body she prayed that he would not take her soul.

And then...

Willard's letter ends there, at mid-January, 1672. He closes his letter with some arguments why, despite the claims of skeptics, he thinks Knapp's possession was authentic. His key arguments are that he thought the strength she displayed during her fits was beyond what was natural, and that her mouth did not move when the Devil spoke. She also used words and phrases while possessed that she had never used before.

Still, Willard writes that he found her multiple contradictory stories about signing the Devil's book puzzling, and admits that other explanations for her behavior may be possible.

Although this information is not included in his letter, it seems that Knapp was eventually cured of her demonic possession (whatever it may have been). Historian David Hall notes that Knapp married in 1674 and had at least six children. Let's hope she wasn't tempted to throw any of them in the oven.

It's interesting that Knapp's symptoms appeared in the dark months of the year. In England, the months of October through mid-January would have been celebrated with harvest festivals, dances and the lavish feasting and misrule of Christmas. Those holidays were suppressed in Puritan New England but it seems like the Devil still wanted to have a little fun.

It's also fascinating to compare this case with the Salem witch trials. Groton's leaders dismissed Elizabeth Knapp's claim that another member of the community had bewitched her. The town might have had a full-blown witch hunt, like Salem, if they hadn't.

Samuel Willard's letter is a fascinating document. I found a copy of it in David Hall's fantastic book Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England. The letter is about fifteen pages long and really goes into detail about the case and what Willard and others thought of it. It's a window into the lives and minds of people who lived here over three centuries ago.

May 02, 2018

Gibbet Hill: Ghosts, A Ruined Castle and A Forgotten Execution?

The other day Tony and I took a road trip out to Groton, Massachusetts. Groton is an old town that was founded in 1655. It's really a beautiful place, with lots of old Colonial homes, charming white churches, and large farms. Looming just outside the town center is a big hill called Gibbet Hill.

A view up Gibbet Hill
As we all know from watching horror movies, every small town has to have at least one spooky location, and in Groton that location is Gibbet Hill. The word "gibbet" can mean a few things but none of them are pleasant. It can mean a gallows (for executions) or it can mean a metal cage used to publicly display dead bodies after execution. The "g" in gibbet is soft, so it is pronounced "jibbet."

The excursion was not without its dangers.
Gibbet Hill was quite pretty to visit on a sunny spring day, but with a name like that you know there must be some strange phenomena attached to it. According to local legends, ghosts have been seen lurking on the hill. Most of them wear Colonial attire, and some of them are missing limbs. Someone reported just seeing a dismembered foot wearing a green sock. That's it, just a foot. Stories like this are why I only visit haunted places during the day.


On top of Gibbet Hill are the ruins of a stone castle, which just adds to the spooky vibe. According to one local legend the castle dates from the 19th century. A wealthy man built it for his new wife, but unfortunately she died before it could be completed. He abandoned the project in sorrow and it was never finished.



I like that story, but it's not true. Historical records indicate the castle was constructed in 1906 by William Bancroft, a retired general and a politician, as his retirement home. Unfortunately Bancroft ran out of money and couldn't complete it. He sold the castle to a local physician and in time it became a tuberculosis sanitarium. Patients hoped that Groton's fresh air would help cure their ills.


In the 1920s the castle became a private hunting club until it finally burned down in the 1930s in a Fourth of July fireworks mishap. The property was owned for many years after that by the owners of the nearby Gibbet Hill Grill but became town conservation land in 2002. There is a spot on Route 40 where you can park and then hike up a short trail to the castle.


Kate Webber, co-owner of the Gibbet Hill Grill claimed in a 2006 Lowell Sun article that there no ghosts at the castle:
A lot of people are determined that the whole hill is haunted. Before the castle was public property, someone had snuck in and said when they looked through a window, (they) saw a severed foot with a green sock on it. People have reported seeing old colonial couples walking up and down the hills, a man in an old soldier's uniform who walks the property, and a Native American who was rumored to be chased down and killed. I'm convinced there aren't any ghosts roaming. But people look at the stone tower and think there has to be some wonderful and terrible Gothic stories that go with it.
So do ghosts haunt Gibbet Hill? I didn't see any, but I may not be the most psychically sensitive person around. We also visited during the day, and during the day I am always skeptical about all paranormal phenomena. If I had visited at night it would be a completely different matter. I would be convinced each creaking branch was a ghost and I'd be terrified of seeing that severed foot. The castle wasn't too spooky when we went, although there were some really large crows croaking in the trees.


The story behind the hill's name is a little murky. Samuel Green's 1894 book An Historical Sketch of Groton Massachusetts, 1655 - 1890 tells us the following about Gibbet Hill:
It is mentioned in the land-grant of Sergeant Jame Parker, which was entered in the town records of Richard Sawtell, the first town clerk who filled the office from June 1662 to January 1664-65. The tradition is that the hill was so called from the fact that once an Indian was gibbeted on its top. If this ever occurred, it must have happened before Sawtell's term of office.
Various sources on the web, including the Lowell Sun interview with Kate Webber, argue that since there is no proof of an execution the hill was probably named after a hill back in England. I guess that is possible, but we also know that the English settlers were not kind to local Indians, and that Groton was attacked and burned by local tribes during King Philip's War in 1676 and again in 1694 during King William's War. I wouldn't be surprised if there was an unrecorded Indian execution somewhere in the town's past.


While the ghosts at Gibbet Hill are open to debate, there is at least one well-documented weird story in Groton's history. In the 1600s a young serving girl who worked for the town's minister was possessed by Satan. It's an interesting story and I'll write about it next week.

April 26, 2018

The Maypole of Merrymount: Religion, Sex and Money

When I was in elementary school, way back in the 1970s, we had to make May Day baskets as an art project. I don't remember what grade it was, but I do remember thinking "May Day? That's not really something we celebrate here." I knew it was a holiday in other countries, but was it something celebrated in Haverhill, Massachusetts? Still, I made my basket from construction paper and dutifully left it on a neighbor's doorstep like the teacher suggested.

Apparently I was on the dying end of a tradition, because May Day baskets were quite popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Maybe I would have been more enthusiastic about May Day if I had been allowed to dance around a Maypole, but that was not part of my school's curriculum.

*****

The first and most famous Maypole erected in Massachusetts was the one put up by Thomas Morton at his colony of Merrymount in 1624. Morton was a well-educated English lawyer who had come to Massachusetts as part of a colonial expedition. Their colony, in what is now the city of Quincy, was initially called Mount Wollaston after Captain Wollaston, the commander of the expedition's ship. When Morton learned the captain was selling indentured servants to another colony in Virginia he encouraged the other servants to rebel. Wollaston fled, and Morton became the new leader of the calling. Preferring to call himself the colony's "host," he renamed it Merrymount.

Since Thomas Morton was an educated, literary type of guy, the name Merrymount had a variety of meanings to it. First, it indicated that the colony was to be a place of happiness now that Captain Wollaston was gone. Second, it was a play on the Latin word for the sea, mare, since the colony was on the coast. Ma-re-mount, get it? Finally, there was a sexual connotation to the colony's name, indicating it was someplace where the mounting (aka sex) was merry.

Puritans disapprovingly watching Maypole festivities at Merrymount.
As May 1st approached the colonists Merrymount erected an 80' Maypole topped with a pair of deer antlers. They fired rifles and pistols in celebration, and Morton composed a poem that was nailed to the pole. Morton's poem mentions various Roman sea deities like Neptune, Amphitrite and Triton, and ends with these lines:

With proclamation that the first of May
At Ma-re-Mount shall be kept holiday

Morton and the other colonists invited the local Indians to join them at their celebration, particularly the Indian women. Beer flowed, people got drunk, and a good time was had by all. The Merrymount men sang a song that was composed in honor of the celebration. Here are some of the lyrics:

Drink and be merry, merry, merry boys;
Let all your delight be in Hymen's joys
IĆ“ to Hymen, now the day is come,
About the merry Maypole take a roam. 
Make green garlands, bring bottles out
And fill sweet Nectar freely about.
Uncover thy head and fear no harm,
For here's good liquor to keepe it warm. 
Give to the Nymph that's free from scorn
No Irish stuff nor Scotch overworn.
Lasses in beaver coats come away,
Ye shall be welcome to us night and day

The "Hymen" mentioned in this poem is the Greco-Roman god of marriage, but again I am sure there is a double entrendre intended. 

Hymen, god of marriage
I suppose if Merrymount had survived as a colony the history of New England would have been quite different, but it didn't survive. Shortly after the May Day celebration the Pilgrims from Plymouth Colony marched on Merrymount. They chopped down the May Pole, arrested Thomas Morton, and exiled him from New England. Morton made his way back to Merrymount in 1630, but most of the inhabitants had scattered by then. This time, the Puritans of Boston arrested Morton and burned Merrymount to the ground. Morton was sent back to England.

Back in England, Morton and his wealthy patron Fernando Gorges successfully sued to revoke the Plymouth Colony charter, but Morton's victory was short-lived because the English Civil War started. Morton fled from the chaos back to New England, where he died penniless in York, Maine in 1647. I believe he is buried somewhere in York, but I couldn't find a location for his grave. Perhaps it has been lost?

The New England Puritans and Thomas Morton came into conflict for three big reasons:

RELIGION

The Puritans followed a very strict version of Christianity that had rigid rules about how people should behave. They also didn't celebrate holidays like May Day or even Christmas, which they associated with the Catholic and Anglican Churches. Holidays were one of the things they were trying to purge from the English church.

Thomas Morton, on the other hand, was an Anglican who clearly enjoyed a good holiday. He was also well-educated and appreciated the ancient paganism of Greece and Rome. I don't think he was a practicing pagan, but he did enjoy the literature and mythology of the Classical World, as evidenced by his poem's references to Roman gods. This was quite common for educated people of his time. For example, Shakespeare's late romances Cymbeline, Pericles and The Tempest all include pagan gods.

The Puritans specifically cast Morton as a sinful pagan, calling Merrymount Mount Dagon (after the ancient Canaanite sea god) and saying the maypole was a modern version of the Golden Calf. Morton took up this mantle proudly. He titled his book about New England The New English Canaan, and urged readers to help protect the new Canaan from the invading Puritans.

SEX

As mentioned above, the Puritans expected people to follow very strict codes of behavior. Sex was intended for married couples. Morton and the settlers at Merrymount had a more relaxed view on these matters.

I think it is useful to note that many of the Puritan settlers were already married and brought their families to New England with them, while most of the Merrymounters were unmarried men with no problem enjoying the company of the local Indian women or possibly even marrying them. Intermarriage between European colonists and indigenous people was common in parts of the New World where the colonists were single men, but the Puritans took a dim view of this practice.

Some historians have also suggested that homosexuality may have been tolerated at Merrymount. For example, the authors of the Boston History Project's book Improper Bostonians point out that Morton mentions Jupiter, the king of the gods, and Ganymede, his male mortal lover, when writing about Merrymount. Of course, Ganymede was also Jupiter's cupbearer so he may have been mentioned because of his connection with getting drunk. Still, male homosexuality was somewhat tolerated among educated Englishmen like Morton. For example, the character of Antonio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is clearly in love with Sebastian, something the other characters do not question.

Morton himself never married, for whatever reason, so he would have personally benefited from "hosting" a sexually liberal colony.

MONEY

The Merrymounters were trading with the local Indians for beaver pelts, which brought them into direct conflict with the Puritans, who wanted to corner the trade in pelts. Morton and his men were also giving the Indians guns in return for the pelts, which the Puritans definitely didn't want. This just gave the Pilgrims one more good reason to shut down Morton's colony.

*****

What would I have learned about Maypoles in elementary school if Thomas Morton had succeeded? Probably more than I did (which was nothing). Maybe in some alternate universe he did succeed, and happy New England school children descended from both English and Algonquin Indian ancestors frolic around Maypoles and learn their history. That's not the universe we live in, but Merrymount is still fondly remembered as a brief glimpse of what might have been. 

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.