October 16, 2018

Peabody's Witch Rock: Occult Symbols Connected to The Salem Witches?

Do you have an extra $600,000 sitting around? Are you interested in New England history or witchcraft? If so you might want to purchase the house at 348 Lowell Street in Peabody, Massachusetts, which recently went on the market. The house was the home of John Proctor, one of the people executed during the Salem witch trials.

Proctor, who was immortalized in Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, was a farmer in Salem Village. One of his servants, a young woman named Mary Warren, was one of the afflicted girls who accused dozens of innocent people of witchcraft. Perhaps if Proctor had played along he would have escaped the gallows, but he didn't. Instead he told Warren that she was faking her symptoms and if she didn't stop he'd beat her. He also threatened to beat John Indian, a slave and the husband of Tituba, when he accused Proctor's wife of being a witch. Needless to say, Proctor's doubtful and threatening attitude didn't sit well with the afflicted girls and they soon accused him of being a witch too.

Proctor was executed on August 19, 1692. His wife escaped the gallows because she was pregnant at the time and did not give birth until after the trials had ended.

The real estate listing for the Proctor house claims it dates to 1638, but the Peabody Historical Society says it is unclear how old most of the current structure is. It's likely that multiple additions and renovations have been made over the property's 300+ years of occupation. It does have six bedrooms, which is nice, and has a dining room "which can accommodate your largest holiday gathering." There's also an inground pool.

Image from Historical Archaeology, Vol. 15, No. 1.
This weekend as I was taking the train to Salem for Halloween festivities two friends reminded me of something I had forgotten: there is a large mysterious boulder near the Proctor House called Witch Rock. I wrote about it a few years ago in my book Legends and Lore of The North Shore (2014). The boulder is covered with occult symbols that may (or may not) be connected with the Salem witch trials.

The boulder was first discovered in 1978 by a group of archaeologists surveying Peabody. They were intrigued by the stone's faintly visible sigils which were done in black paint. (The photo above has been retouched to highlight them.) To quote one of the archaeologists who found the boulder:
The central symbol, which is over a meter in diameter, is a pentacle or five-pointed star with point downward surrounded by concentric circles. The appearance of the star has been heightened by infilling. Between the circles at the points of the star are poorly preserved cabalistic designs. The lesser symbols are a caduceus and a composite figure made from the sign for Aries (reversed) and the Cross of Lorraine or the Archiepiscopal Cross. (Richard Michael Gramly, "Witchcraft Pictographs from Near Salem, Massachusetts." Historical Archaeology, Vol. 15, no. 1(1981), pp. 113 - 116.)
When I first heard about Witch Rock I thought "Oh, that has got to be a fake." The archaeologists considered this a possibility too, but they tested the paint and discovered that it was not modern paint. It was made from hematite and either milk or egg whites. In other words, not something that you can buy at Home Depot and was probably not applied to the rock by teenagers who liked Black Sabbath. It was probably quite old and had survived the harsh winters and summers only because the rock faces south and had a very rough surface which held the paint.

But just how old are those sigils really? Archaeologist Richard Michael Gramly conjectured in 1981 that the boulder was the work of 17th century Salem Villagers who were afraid of witches. Although the reverse pentagram is often a symbol of the Devil, Gramly notes that it has also been used to avert the evil eye.
The entire composition would appear to be a warning against witches. Freshly painted and exposed to view the granite block with its pictographs would have drawn the attention of every passerby. If it were painted in the late seventeenth century, the composition would have sheltered nearby residents from all sorts of evil. The pictographs are not likely to be the work of witches but rather of people mortally afraid of their powers. (Richard Michael Gramly, "Witchcraft Pictographs from Near Salem, Massachusetts." Historical Archaeology, Vol. 15, no. 1(1981), pp. 113 - 116.)
There is one problem with this theory: there's no evidence that the people of 17th century Salem Village used these symbols for defensive magic or even used them at all. There's lots of documentation about the types of defensive magic Puritans did use, including witch bottles, horseshoes hung over entrances, daisy wheel carvings, and iron implements hidden in walls. Inverse pentagrams and the caduceus aren't mentioned in those documents. The Puritan clergy hated all magic, even the benign kind, so it seems likely a giant sigil-covered boulder at the epicenter of the Salem witch trials would have drawn their attention and ire. But it didn't, so perhaps the symbols didn't exist in 1692.

Gramly does briefly also consider the possibility that people may have painted Witch Rock in 1892 as parts of the bicentennial observances of the Salem trials. Lectures were held in the area at that time and witch trial souvenirs were sold so perhaps someone created the sigils as part of the commemorative events. He thinks the paint used is older than the 1890s though. 

Jeff Belanger points out in his book Weird Massachusetts that the symbols resemble some in Francis Barrett's 1801 book The Magus. Perhaps occultists painted the symbols on the boulder in the 19th century. But then again, Barrett used lots of older grimoires to compose The Magus - he was not the first person to use these symbols. They existed before the book's publication.

I don't think the mystery of Witch Rock will be resolved given the current information we have. It's just one of those weird and interesting things about New England. I have never been to Witch Rock, but my friends who have been say it is on private property and is surrounded by poison ivy. Salvatore Trento includes a map in his 1997 book Field Guide to the Mysterious Places of Eastern North America, but I do not know if it is accurate. Trento also notes that Witch Rock is in Danvers. It's an easy mistake to make and is one that I unfortunately included in my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore

There are several other boulders in New England named Witch Rock, including one in Rochester, Massachusetts and another (well, technically Witches Rock) in Bristol, Connecticut. Perhaps destinations for autumn road trips?

October 08, 2018

A Gargoyle Sighting in Massachusetts?

Most paranormal reports fit into a few categories. There are your Bigfoot sightings, your ghostly encounters, and your UFO sightings. Those are the big three. Then there are also regional categories, such as the pukwudgies that people see in New England, and categories that appear only for a short time, like the creepy clown craze that swept the country a few years ago. 

It's not one of the biggest categories, but there has been an increase in winged humanoid reports recently. I think the most famous winged humanoid in the United States is the Mothman of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. I first learned of the Mothman back in the 1980s when I read John Keel's famous book The Mothman Prophecies. It's a freaky and unsettling tome that really goes down the rabbit hole of paranoia, but the Mothman himself didn't really get much mainstream acknowledgement until the Richard Gere film of The Mothman Prophecies came out in 2002. Like the book, it's weird and creepy.

Mothman painting by famous pulp artist Frank Frazetta. 
The Mothman's popularity has grown since then, and this cryptid, who in the book and film is an eerie omen of doom, has now become a cute internet meme, particularly on Tumblr. For example see below:
Adorable Mothman from this Tumblr blog. 
I don't think the Mothman has been seen in New England (please tell me if I am wrong), but another weird winged humanoid recently was. Someone in Abington, Massachusetts saw a gargoyle in February, 2018. The report appears on Phantoms and Monsters, and the site's owner said it was originally posted on Reddit in August. Here it is:
... About 6 months ago I saw this insane thing. It was about 3 AM, I had been up late as I normally am. I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. It was dark as Hell except for the stars and moon. As I was smoking I heard this noise of something flying. I look up and see this winged creature land on my neighbor's roof and just sit there like a Gargoyle would. I thought I was seeing sh*t or seeing something wrong but then the creature jumped up and flew away and I could see its whole body. It was the size of a small human but massive wings. It reminded me of a Gargoyle. I don't know what the f**k I saw but it was crazy. Has anyone ever had an experience seeing something like this? Humanoid creature with wings?
Lon Stickler, the owner of Phantoms and Monsters, contacted the Redditor who had posted the story and asked for more details. Their response follows:
... I couldn't see the creature's face because it was dark and it was on the roof facing away from me. It looked black with a wing span upon flight maybe 4 - 5ft. The creature itself while crouched on the roof looked the size of a smaller human maybe 4ft. I watched it trying to figure out what I was looking at, for maybe 1 minute, then it jumped and flew off. Even when it flew away it still looked on the shorter end. As it flew, its legs hung but still in an almost crouching position. It wasn't a massive creature but it was definitely humanoid in appearance. 
Some of you may know that Abington is located within the Bridgewater Triangle, an area in Massachusetts famous for paranormal activity. I don't think anyone has reported a gargoyle there before, but people have seen other large winged creatures in the Triangle. In 1971, a police officer driving to his home in Easton late one night saw something more than six feet tall and with a wingspan of eight to twelve feet. As he drove towards it the creature flew straight up into the air and off over the trees. The officer reported it but investigators found no sign of the creature. (This account is included in Loren Coleman's 2001 book Mysterious America.)

A scene from the 1972 movie Gargoyles
For those skeptics out there, it's important to note the Hockomock Swamp sits in the center of the Bridgewater Triangle, and many large birds live in swamps, including the great blue heron, which has a wingspan of 5 - 6 feet. However, great blue herons aren't usually active at night. There are numerous species of owl in Massachusetts, though, and the great horned owl has a wingspan of up to 5 feet. Owls are active at night.

On the other hand, owls aren't really "humanoid in appearance" and people have been seeing strange flying creatures for years. I don't think they can all be misidentified owls. I don't know what people are seeing. I guess I'll just wait and see if gargoyles start increasing in Massachusetts. And then I'll start locking my windows at night!


Special thanks to my friends Steve and Cornelia for bringing this story to my attention.

October 02, 2018

Cat Folklore, Part II: Black Cats at Halloween

Despite New England's rich history of witchcraft and ghosts, Halloween has only been celebrated here since the mid-19th century. The first English settlers were Puritan and abstained from celebrating holidays like Christmas and Halloween. The Algonquians who lived here before them of course did not observe Halloween, which is of European origin.

Things changed in the 19th century when large numbers of Irish and Scottish immigrants began arriving in New England. They brought their observance of Halloween with them. Although there were tensions between these newer Gaelic arrivals and the Puritan's Yankee descendants, the Yankees did slowly adopt Halloween as a holiday. By the early 20th century it was widely celebrated among both children and adults in New England and other parts of North America. 
An early 20th century black cat doorstop.

 Now, onto the cats. The black cat was a popular Halloween symbol and appears in many descriptions of the holiday from that time. For example, the November 1, 1912 edition of The Vermont Phoenix describes the following party held by the Brattleboro Baptist Bible school:
... about 200 persons were present. Halloween games were played. The junior department held a party in the chapel, which was decorated with jack o'lanterns and black cats, the children making the decorations. Halloween stunts were performed. 
According to November 4, 1909 issue of The Republican, black cats were also popular in Belfast, Maine:
The Halloween Whist party under the direction of the Universalist Social Aid in Memorial Hall last Friday evening was a social and financial success.... The main hall was decorated with pine trees, Halloween crepe paper, black cats and jack-o-lanterns...
The Belfast socialites were quite busy that Halloween; there were multiple parties to attend:
Last Monday night the young ladies of the Biliken club entertained the young gentlemen at a Halloween supper at Pensobscot cottage on the Allyn shore, with Miss Katherine E. Brier as hostess, assisted by Mrs. Luville J. Pottle.... The table decorations and place cards were in the form of sunflowers. The fortune cards were decorated with cupids, witches, black cats, etc. 
And the October 29, 1910 issue of The Norwich Bulletin gave the following advice to Connecticut Halloween party hostesses:
The candle shades to give the effect of ghosts and witches should be of red and black coloring. Quaint little ones with the heads of black cats on them may be purchased at any store, but clever fingers can easily make them at home.
But why stop at candle shades? Why not have real live black cats in your party?
A pumpkin as centerpiece might hold a bowl of yellow chrysanthemums and if the hostess owns or can borrow a couple of live black cats it would give a most realistic effect to have these in the dining room rubbing against the guests. 
Let's just hope your guests aren't allergic to cats. Newspapers at this time were also filled with ads for Halloween decorations, many of them black cat themed. For example, here is one in the October 29, 1912 issue of The Bridgeport Daily Farmer from Radford's department store in Connecticut:

Using black cats as party decor probably doesn't seem strange to readers of this blog. Witches, ghosts and black cats are all just part of Halloween's festive ambience, right? But for our New England ancestors, Halloween represented a big shift in how they viewed the supernatural. Things that are now just considered spooky fun were once a very serious matter.

Cats, often black in color, appear in the 17th century witch trial accounts, and witch trials were very, very serious matters. For example, in 1692 a Boston serving girl named Mercy Short was tormented by demons after she taunted Sarah Good, who had been jailed for witchcraft. Short's demonic possession drew the attention of Boston's leading ministers, including Cotton Mather, and even of the colony's governor. During one of her fits, Mercy revealed that the Devil's "Book of Death" had been hidden in the attic of a neighbor's house. If someone could retrieve it her torments would stop. The governor commanded a servant to search the attic:
When the Servant was Examining the place directed, a great Black Cat, never before known to bee in the House, jumping over him, threw him into such a Fright and Sweat, that altho' hee were one otherwise of Courage enough, he desisted at that Time from looking any further (from Cotton Mather's A Brand Pluck'd out of the Burning).
Clearly, that black cat was not a laughing matter. Around the same time, Stephen Johnson of Andover, Massachusetts, age 14, confessed to the judges in Salem that the Devil had invited him at midsummer to become a witch. The Devil appeared first as a bird, then a black cat, and finally as a man before Stephen sold his soul to him. Mercy Wardwell, another Andover teenager, confessed that the Devil appeared to her as two cats.

The Devil was not the only one who took feline form. Witches often appeared as cats as well. The Cape Cod witch Liza Tower Hill took the form of a cat to terrorize a family who mistreated her daughter. John Godfrey, a witch from Haverhill, Massachusetts, took the form of a black cat and threatened Isabelle Holdred in her sleep after they argued over money.

Stories like these persisted in New England long after the witch trials ended. Sallie Somers, the alleged witch of Southwest Harbor, Maine, would spy on her neighbors in the shape of black cat. She died in 1832 when someone shot her in feline form with a silver bullet. In 1892, Clifton Johnson recorded a story in Western Massachusetts about a black cat whose paw got caught under a millstone. When the miller got home he found his wife with a damaged hand and knew she was a witch.

In the 1930s, people in New Hampshire also told a story about a witch in the shape of a black cat to Eva Speare for her book New Hampshire Folk Tales. And even in the 2000s, Christopher Balzano was told a story about a witch's ghost appearing as a black cat that walked on its hind legs for his book Dark Woods: Cults, Crime, and the Paranormal in the Freetown State Forest.

I don't cite all those stories to scare you, but just to show there is a very persistent tradition linking black cats with witchcraft and the Devil in New England. Given that tradition, it is amazing New Englanders were willing to abandon their superstitions and embrace the witches and black cats of Halloween. Clearly, cultural events like the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution played a big role in changing their minds, but it's still inspiring to read about New Englanders celebrating witches and black cats rather than hanging and shooting them. Things that once were frightening have become fun. Sometimes there is such a thing as progress. 

September 26, 2018

Cat Folklore, Part I: Do Cats Suffocate Babies?

My family had dogs and cats as pets when I was young. I loved them all, but for some reason I always thought of myself as a 'dog person' for many years. Maybe it was because dogs are friendly in such an uncomplicated way, or maybe it was because cats have such sharp claws.

One of our cats was a large Siamese who bit several of my friends and everyone in the family except me. I suppose I should have seen his mercy as a sign that I was actually a 'cat person', but I didn't. I only came to that realization when I finally had a cat as an adult. Unlike a dog, he was clean, quiet, and didn't take up much space. He was like the ideal room mate!

He was also very affectionate. Whenever I would lie on my back, whether napping on a bed or reading on the couch, the cat would crawl on top of my chest. Slowly he would work his way up my torso, purring every inch, until his face was touching my chin and his paws were on my neck. I would scoot him back down, but he would always make his way back up.

I have read that a cat touches your face if they like you. I've also read the theory that cats have scent glands in their paws and by touching your face they mark you as their human. I am not sure if these are theories are true, but they beat the old theory: that cats try to steal your breath, particularly if you are a baby.

This is quite an old piece of folklore, dating back to at least the 16th century England. I suspect it is even older than that. It is also an enduring myth. It was recorded here in New England by several 19th century writers. Although Fanny Bergren doesn't include it in her encyclopedic Current Superstitions, Sarah Bridge Farmer does include it in her short 1894 piece "Folklore of Marblehead, Mass.", stating simply that "Cats sat on the breasts of children and sucked their breath."

Clifton Johnson has more to say about this belief in What They Say in New England (1896):
Many believe that cats will cause the death of babies by sucking their breath. The only reason they suggest for the attraction is that the cats are attracted by the baby's breath because it is sweet. They will tell that cats have been caught in the act, and give much detailed evidence. The story ends with the killing of the cat, and a great commotion to restore the gasping baby's breath. 
I cringe at the thought of the innumerable cats killed due to misunderstanding of their motives. Although his informants, primarily farmers from western Massachusetts, believed cats suffocated babies Johnson explains it is not true:
Physicians do not credit the breath-sucking part of the stories, and I will suggest one or two explanations of the phenomena. Firstly, there might have lingered about the baby's mouth fragments of a recent lunch that the cat was removing when found with it's mouth near the baby's; and secondly, the baby's gasping may have been caused by fear of the cat, or by the alarming commotion on its account among its relatives.
While this myth is obviously not true I still hear people mention it even today. Most of them say it jokingly, but I think the humor hides an uneasiness that many people have around cats. Or who knows, maybe people are acknowledging their own weird and powerful fascination with our feline friends. 

September 19, 2018

Did H.P. Lovecraft Witness An Alien Autopsy?

Did H.P. Lovecraft witness an alien autopsy? I cannot tell you how happy I am to type that sentence. It's an absolutely insane question even to pose, but it brings together two things I love: horror master H.P. Lovecraft and UFOs. And some people think the answer is "Yes!"

As many people know, Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890 - 1937) was one of the world's most influential horror writers. Lovecraft spent most of his life in Providence, Rhode Island and loved New England deeply. He incorporated New England locations and folklore into stories like "The Dunwich Horror" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."

Image from the H.P. Lovecraft archives.
Dreamers, dream-worlds and nightmares also appear often in his work, and many of his stories were even inspired by actual dreams he had. Lovecraft could recall his dreams in great detail and they provided the basis for stories like "Call of Cthulhu," "The Statement of Randolph Carter" and others.

In early 1920 Lovecraft had a dream that he later referred to as the "Eben Spencer plot" because he hoped to use it as the basis for a story. He never did, but the dream is interesting on it's own. In the dream Lovecraft was an army lieutenant and surgeon named Eben Spencer. The year was 1864, and Spencer/Lovecraft was on furlough in his hometown in upstate New York after being injured in the Civil War. While out for a walk he meets a friend:
Soon a very young man of my acquaintance came up to me with an air of anxiety and began to speak in guarded accents. He wished me to go with him to his brother - my professional colleague Dr. Chester - whose actions were greatly alarming him. 
... The doctor for the past two years had been conducting secret experiments in a laboratory in the attic of his home, and beyond that locked door he would admit no one but himself. Sickening odours were often detected near the door... and odd sounds were at times not absent.
Eben Spencer is taken to Dr. Chester's laboratory, where the sinister Dr. Chester shows him something grotesque:
Soon he emerged, bearing on a large glass slab what appeared to be a human arm, neatly severed just below the elbow. It was damp, gelatinous and bluish-white, and the fingers were without nails. 
'Well, Spencer,' said Dr. Chester sneeringly, 'I suppose you've had a good deal of amputation practice in the army. What do you think, professionally, of this job?' 
I had seen clearly that this was not a human arm, and said sarcastically, 'You are a better sculptor than doctor, Chester. This is not the arm of any living thing.' 
And Chester replied in a tone that made my blood congeal, 'Not yet, Spencer. Not yet!' (Selected Letters of H.P. Lovecraft, Volume 1, Arkham House, Sauk City, Wisconsin, 1965, pages 100-102).
From behind a curtain Dr. Chester then brings out another, even larger arm. Ominously, Dr. Chester tells Spencer to "Watch the curtain!" but here the dream begins to fade. Lovecraft awoke in his bed, noting "I have never seen Dr. Chester, or his young brother, or that village since. I do not know what village it was. I never heard the name of Eben Spencer before or since. Some dream!"

Civil War surgical instructions from the Mutter Museum.

I agree! That is some dream, but perhaps not an unprecedented one for a writer of horror stories. And since this post has the words "alien autopsy" in its title, what if anything does it have to do with aliens? It seems more like a rehash of Frankenstein than anything else.

In 1997 Joseph Trainor, editor of the now defunct UFO Roundup magazine, decided to investigate what inspired Lovecraft's dream. Trainor thought the severed arms sounded like they could have been from extraterrestrials, and he also knew there had been sightings of strange flying craft in upstate New York in the 1860s. Was there some hidden truth in Lovecraft's dream?

Trainor conducted research in New York and consulted with New York state historian Carol Maltby. He found the following:
  • A young army surgeon and lieutenant named Elbridge Gerry Spencer lived in the New York village of Brockett's Bridge in the 1860s. He went by the nickname Gary. He was briefly furloughed with a minor injury around 1862.
  • Nearby lived an herbalist, Dr. David Chester Smallwood. Smallwood had a younger brother, just like in Lovecraft's dream. Dr. Smallwood also owned a three-story house with an attic. 
  • Spencer left Brockett's Bridge in the late 1860s. His departure was sudden; his sister's obituary notes that he "disappeared from the area..." Searching through census records, Trainor found an E. Gary Spencer in  Iowa working as a farmer. By 1880, Spencer was working as a "commercial traveler," or traveling salesman. 
  • Trainor could not ascertain what happened to Dr. Smallwood. 
Trainor speculated that while gathering herbs in the woods Dr. Smallwood found a damaged UFO that had crashed - and some of its injured occupants. Perhaps he showed the remains of the aliens to Lt. Spencer, who fled town soon after seeing the strange limbs. At one point Trainor thought that Lovecraft's dream was some kind of past life memory, but he developed another theory later. He speculated that while working as a traveling salesman Spencer met Lovecraft's father, who was also a salesman. He told the strange tale to Lovecraft's father, who in turn told it to his young son. Lovecraft perhaps did not remember the story consciously but it appeared in his dreams.

I can hear you asking, "Is any of this true?" I honestly can't say. It sounds like Trainor found some interesting information that is similar to Lovecraft's dream, although the names don't quite match entirely. I suppose your acceptance of this story hinges on your feelings about UFOs in general. I just find it fascinating whether or not the story is true.

What I find particularly interesting, though, is that this is another myth that's developed around H.P. Lovecraft's life. Although there are probably others this is the third one that I've encountered. The other myths are:
1. Lovecraft's stories contain real occult knowledge. In this myth, Lovecraft either consciously or unconsciously (through his dreams) incorporated actual magic and occult secrets into his stories. The Necrononmicon is real, entities like Cthulhu exist, and Lovecraft traveled to other dimensions in his sleep. This myth started to form while Lovecraft was still alive but was popularized by the British occultist Kenneth Grant. Thanks to Grant's influence, you can now buy many books about Lovecraftian ritual and magick online and in New Age bookstores. 
2. The Necronomicon is hidden under the campus of Bradford College (now Northpoint Bible College) in Haverhill, Massachusetts. According to this legend, Lovecraft dated a co-ed at Bradford College and hid a copy of The Necronomicon, a book of blasphemous knowledge, in one of the tunnels underneath the school. 
I think the alien autopsy story fits in nicely with those other two, don't you?

I don't like to debunk stories on my blog. Instead I like to think about what they mean and what they say about New England. Myths are stories that people find meaningful and that are important, regardless of their literal truth. Why do people create these myths around H.P. Lovecraft and his fiction? Clearly people still find his stories to be powerful and convincing. And something so convincing can't just be fiction, can it?

September 09, 2018

Malicious Pixies on the North Shore: A Story from Marblehead

What comes to mind when you hear the word 'pixie?' I tend to think of cute things that are boyishly feminine like pixie haircuts or manic pixie dream girls like Zoey Deschanel. I remember from my distant teenage Dungeons and Dragons days that pixies were little flying fairies similar to Tinkerbell. Our culture tends to portray pixies as twee and sparkly. 

I like twee and sparkly, but those may not be the correct words to describe pixies. Like most fairies, older legends often describe them as ambiguous beings whose relationship with humans can be problematic. They like to have fun at the expense of humans. Here, for example, is some fairy folklore from 19th century Marblehead, Massachusetts:

The pixies, on the contrary, were malicious. They, too, were tiny, but of a brown color; they delighted to bewilder people; a person who was "pixilated," as they called it, would wander about for hours. The only remedy for such afflicted persons was to turn their garments. The belief in this was very strong. I knew a woman fairly well educated, as the education of women went sixty years ago, who told me in perfect good faith that she herself had been "pixilated" and had wandered an hour or more unable to find her home, until at last, recognizing that she was in the power of the little brown people, she turned her cloak, when the glamor vanished; in a moment she saw where she was, and was soon in her own house. (Sarah Bridge Farmer, "Folk-Lore of Marblehead, Mass.", The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 7, No. 26 (July - Sep., 1894), pp. 252 - 253.)

This account probably comes from the 1830s, but in the 19th century fairy folklore was quite rare in New England among those of European descent. Most of the region had been originally colonized by Puritans from England's East Anglia region, which while rich in witch-lore was poor in stories about fairies. The coastal town of Marblehead, on the other hand, was founded by fishermen from many parts of England, including some with rich fairy folklore. In England, stories about pixies are most common in in Devon and Cornwall. 

Turning your garments (i.e. wearing them inside out) is a well-knonw defense against fairy enchantment in English folklore, and is summarized in the rhyme "Turn your cloak/For fairy folk." It was apparently well-known in Marblehead, if this note from Caroline King Howard is any indication:

Judge Story used to tell with great delight, that when he was a boy living in Marblehead, his mother always warned him, when he went to the pasture, to drive home the cows, to turn his jacket inside out for fear of the pixies. (Caroline King Howard, When We Lived in Salem, 1822 - 1866)

It's my understanding, and I could be wrong, that fairies become confused when you wear your clothes inside out. In their confusion they break the spell and set you free. Causing some confusion of any kind will often break a fairy spell. For example, a famous folktale tells how a woman's child has been replaced by a fairy changeling. When the woman brews egg shells in a pot (which is unusual) the changeling becomes amazed and disappears. Her child reappears in its place. Yay! A happy 

The Native Americans in this region told (and still tell) stories about small magical beings similar to European fairies. Like their European counterparts, these small beings love to mislead travelers and sometimes even kidnap them. Belief in these beings was widespread across the New England tribes and almost certainly predates European colonization. While it is possible that current Native American stories about them show European influences, it is also possible that Europeans and Native Americans encountered similar beings but on different continents. Perhaps there is some truth behind those old folk tales. If you get lost in the woods get ready to turn your coat inside out...

September 03, 2018

Death's Head, Cherubs and Urns: Gravestone Art in Bradford Burial Ground

This past Saturday was cool and pleasant, and you could sense that fall is on the way. So why not get into the autumnal mood and visit a historic old cemetery? We decided to visit Bradford Burial Ground in Bradford, Massachusetts.

In 1665 settler John Heseltine gave land to the town of Bradford to be used for a church and a cemetery. The church is long gone, but the cemetery still remains and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The oldest gravestone is from 1689, but it is believed that there are older burials in the cemetery along with multiple unmarked graves. The Burial Ground is sometimes called the Ancient Burial Ground, which is kind of a nice name.

Walking through the cemetery we noticed the three major motifs you see on old gravestones in Massachusetts: death's heads, cherubs, and willows and urns. Death's heads are the earliest motif of the three, appearing first in the 1600s. Cherubs appeared by the mid-1700s, while the willow-and-urn motif became popular later in that century. Some historians have argued that the evolution of New England funerary motifs arose from changes in New Englanders' religious views, with the death's head representing the grim Puritan world-view, the cherub a more humanistic approach to religion, and the willow-and-urn a more intellectual one. Others have claimed this is not true and that the motifs just changed with the fashions of the time. Specific motifs lasted longer in some towns than others due to the influence of local stone carvers, and there is quite often chronological overlap between the motifs in the same cemetery. 


The Bradford Burial Ground has a nice assortment of stones engraved with death's heads. There's something morbid but also charming about these stones. Maybe because this motif is frequently used to illustrate books and on Halloween decor I've just gotten used to it. It also is one of those quintessentially New England things, like clam chowder made with cream or old white wooden churches. 

This stone is beautiful and very well-preserved. 

The flowers carved on the side borders contrast with the winged skull. 

This death's head is more abstract than the others and its wings are replaced with flowers.  The stone also has what looks like a typo: "Hear lyes buried...", but spelling was less circumscribed in the early 18th century. 
What looks like another abstract death's head, but without the typo. Is this  even supposed to be a skull or is it a face?


In my mind cherubs are those cute little angels that appear on Valentine's Day cards and in Renaissance paintings. The cherubs in Bradford Burial Ground are definitely not cute. They're actually quite grim. Latin inscriptions (memento mori) appear on the cherub stones, but not on the earlier death's head stones. 

Similar to the cherubs are these carvings, which are sometimes called "portraits." They aren't supposed to actually look like the person buried under them, but are symbolic representations of a human. Like the cherubs they are somewhat grim and have the Latin "memento mori" under them. 


These stones are less morbid and grim than the earlier stones. They are more melancholy. The willow and urn were symbols of mourning from the ancient Mediterranean and appeared in New England as part of the Classical revival in art and architecture. 

A more ornate carving adorns this stone. 

Although they are more gracious, some of the willow-and-urn stones are inscribed with dire warnings to the living. For example, one stone has this carved on it;

Think blooming youth when this you see
Tho young yet you may die like me
Like you a rosy youth was I
Yet in my youth was called to die

Another stone tells us this:

Think, friends, when you these lines have read
How soon we're numbered with the dead
Our years are few and quickly fly
O friends remember you must die

Consider yourself warned. Carpe diem! 


Not every gravestone fits into one of those three categories (and maybe those portraits are really a fourth category). For example, some are just decorated with a floral motif: 

Others feature just a name but with no decoration at all, not even a death date. Were these the graves of paupers or people whose families couldn't afford more elaborate gravestones?

And this headstone features a finger pointing heavenward, letting us know where the grave's occupant has gone. This is a motif I've seen in a few other cemeteries in this area, but it's not as common as some of the others. 

I hope you had a great summer and are excited for the coming of autumn!

August 28, 2018

A Mountain Lion in Brookline Massachusetts?

If you ever want to read strange things you should look through your town's police blotter. Many unusual occurrences happen every day and most people don't even notice - except for the police. For example, here are a few interesting things reported in the August 16, 2018 edition of The Brookline Tab, the local newspaper for Brookline, Massachusetts.
"Tuesday, Aug. 7 - Suspicious person on Harvard Street: At 7:28 p.m. a caller reported that a man wearing mask, aviator glasses, a skull head necklace and an American flag pin was harassing the caller's girlfriend.  
Wednesday, Aug. 8 - Assault and Battery on Beacon Street: At 5:31 a.m. a caller reported that at midnight  his roommate threw a jar of mayonnaise at the back of his head."
Those aren't the worst of it. Next to the list of police incidents is an article titled "Police: Man wearing nightgown and garter gropes woman." It describes how a "stocky man in his 20s wearing a black dress or nightgown with a lace garter belt" grabbed and groped a woman at the intersection of Washington Street and Salisbury Road early on the morning of August 6. Yikes!

Perhaps the summer heat is driving people to commit weird crimes. But I'm not sure what to make of this report:
"Wednesday, Aug. 8... Strange looking animal on Addington Road: At 10:01 p.m. a caller reported a strange looking animal walking back and forth in the area. The caller thought it might be a mountain lion as it was too big for a fox or coyote."
Brookline has a lot of wildlife (rabbits, geese, turkeys, coyotes) but as far as I know there aren't any large carnivorous cats roaming around. And to make things stranger, Addington Road is in the densely settled Aspinwall Hill area. It's only a few blocks away from the Green Line. It is definitely not a rural area. Could there really be a mountain lion in Brookline?

There are a few possible answers:

1. The caller was mistaken.
If you're a natural skeptic you'll find this the most appealing explanation. Ordinary things often look very different in the dark, and the caller probably really saw some other animal (a dog or coyote). Maybe they just saw a raccoon or skunk which looked bigger in the dark, or misperceived the shadows thrown by leaves and streetlights. 

Addington Road in Brookline
Humans have an innate tendency to see living beings in inanimate phenomena. For example, have you ever seen a stick in the grass and thought it was a snake? This psychological trait is called pareidolia and it seems to be an evolutionary survival from a time when humans always had to be on the lookout for predators. It's safer to think something is a mountain lion rather than assume it is just a shadow. You wouldn't want to blunder into a large hungry cougar!

2. It really was a mountain lion. 
Mountain lions were once common in New England but were exterminated by the European settlers. There are still mountain lions in the western parts of the country and in Florida, but none around here. Despite this New Englanders report seeing mountain lions to the present day. For example, in 2014 citizens of Winchester, Massachusetts reported seeing a large feline creature in town, as did people in Rhode Island, while in the 1980s a mountain lion reportedly terrorized parts of Cape Cod. There's even a bulletin board for New England mountain lion sightings.

However, local wildlife authorities claim there are no mountain lions in New England. Well, to clarify, they say there is "no evidence of a reproducing mountain lion population." To quote this official Commonwealth of Massachusetts site:
Mountain Lions became scarce in the East after a bounty system wiped out most predatory animals. Today, Mountain Lions are found in the mountainous regions of the West. There is also a small population in southern Florida. 
Despite this fact, Massachusetts residents continue to report Mountain Lion sightings. It is difficult to know if someone saw a Mountain Lion without any tangible evidence. 
Nowadays, many reports include photographic evidence, thanks to camera phones and trail cameras. There have been only two cases where evidence supports the presence of a Mountain Lion in Massachusetts. All other reports of Mountain Lions in Massachusetts have turned out to be other animals.
In April 199, a hunter found unusual animal scat near the Quabbin Reservoir; lab tests confirmed it came from a mountain lion. In March 2011, a forester photographed animal tracks in the snow near the Quabbin, which were again confirmed to be from a mountain lion. Those are the only two cases of authenticated mountain lion evidence in modern Massachusetts.

Totally excited for monster-hunting - just as long as I never find one!
However, in June 2011, a male mountain lion was struck by an SUV and killed in Milford, Connecticut. DNA testing showed that the animal had traveled all the way from South Dakota to Connecticut, a distance of 1,800 miles. Most mountain lions don't roam that far. Still, I suppose there is a very, very slim chance that a mountain lion made its way from a western state to New England and came into Brookline. 

3. Manitous, witches, phantom animals.
Maybe it was really a mountain lion. Or maybe the caller was totally wrong and mistook something ordinary for a large predator. It was either real or it was not. The answer is either yes or no, right?

I think there is a third possibility, though, somewhere in that weird realm where myth, folklore and psychology collide. People in New England have been seeing unusual (dare I say unnatural?) animals for centuries. For example, the Algonquins believed the forests were haunted by a black fox. The fox was often glimpsed by could never be captured or killed, even by the most skilled hunter. It was a manitou, or spirit-being. 

The Puritans saw equally strange creatures. Puritans didn't believe in manitous, so they associated these strange animals with witches and the Devil. Witches and their familiar spirits were said to assume the shapes of cats, pigs, birds and strange bestial hybrids. For example, on February 27, 1692 Elizabeth Hubbard was walking home from her uncle's house in Salem Village when she realized a large animal was stalking her. She thought it might be a wolf, although wolves were rare even in the 1690s. There was something unnatural about the creature and although it didn't harm her she thought it might be a witch in animal form.

On April 19 of that year, Abigail Hobbs mentioned unusual animals in her testimony before the Court of Oyer and Terminer:
"I will speak the truth," she said. "I have seen sights and been scared. I have been very wicked. I shall be better, if God will help me." 
"What sights did you see?" asked Hathorne.  
"I have seen dogs and many creatures." 
"What dogs do you mean? Ordinary dogs?" 
"I mean the Devil." 
(quoted in Marilynne Roach, The Salem Witch Trials. A Day-By-Day Chronicle of A Community Under Siege, 2002)
Even in our modern, post-Puritan world people continue to see animals. Cryptozoologists and paranormal researchers often call them phantoms since they leave little evidence behind. For example, in 1976 a large black dog terrorized the town of Abington near Massachusetts's infamous Hockomock Swamp. A police officer shot at the beast after it killed two ponies but it ignored the bullets and walked off into the swamp. 

I didn't see a mountain lion, but there were a lot of wild turkeys down this path. I turned back!
Perhaps more relevant to the Brookline sighting, phantom animals of the feline variety have also terrorized towns near the Hockomock Swamp:
In 1972, in Rehoboth, Mass., a "lion hunt" was organized by local police. Residents of the area had been terrorized by what they said was a large cat or mountain lion. Cattle and sheep n the area had been mysteriously killed and carcasses were discovered raked with claw marks. Police took casts of the animal's tracks and used dog and helicopter in an attempt to track it down. Nothing was caught. But similar incidents involving phantom cats have occurred in other places throughout the Bridgewater Triangle and across the nation. None of these mysterious felines has yet been captured. (Loren Coleman, Mysterious America, 2007)
Spirits, witches, phantom cats - I don't know what these strange animals are, but New Englanders have seen them for a long, long time. I think they'll continue to see them in the future. Perhaps the caller who reported seeing the mountain lion on Addington Street was just part of this long tradition. Weird things happen in New England all the time, even close to the MBTA.

Animal graffito in Brookline

August 20, 2018

Something Grisly From Cape Cod: The Forgotten Bonnet

I was on Cape Cod recently and had dinner with friends who live in Wellfleet. I really recommend visiting Wellfleet if you can. It has beautiful old buildings from the 18th and 19th century, a bustling little harbor, and lots of green space. Wellfleet has everything you could want in a small New England coastal town, even a pretty white wooden church. But as readers of this blog know, quaint old towns often are the scene of gruesome stories, and sometimes bad things even happen in pretty churches. 

I've mentioned a few spooky Wellfleet stories on this blog before, like those about the witch Maria Hallett (who is still remembered in Wellfleet to this day) or accounts of the mysterious Tarzan of the 1930s (who seems to have been forgotten). But while we were in Wellfleet my friend David told me a story I had never heard before. And it's not just spooky, it's downright gruesome. Hearing a new story always makes me happy, and David swears this one is true. He works at the Wellfleet Historical Society and has written a book about town history so I believe him.

The story is about the Gross family, a large and prominent clan in Wellfleet's past. Many of the Gross men were famous sailors, and one of them even married a Hawaiian princess in 1789. But the family members best remembered today are the ten Gross sisters who posed for this photo in 1850 or 1851:

Photo of the Gross sisters from Wellfleet Historical Society
The sisters were  famous on Cape Cod because there were ten of them and they all lived long healthy lives, which was quite rare at the time. Tbe oldest sister, Lurania, was born in 1767. The youngest, Maria, was born in 1794. Photography was relatively new when this photo was taken, and the sisters had to travel all the way to Boston to pose for it. Clearly they were an important family if they could afford to have their picture taken and travel to do it. 

In addition to being numerous the Grosses were also devout. They belonged to Wellfleet's Methodist church where all the sisters were members of the choir. The Methodist church still exists in town, although the current building is of a more recent date. 

Wellfleet Methodist Church
The sisters faithfully attended choir practices, which were held in the church in the evening. This is where the gruesome story begins. One evening one of the Gross sisters walked all the way home after choir practice when she suddenly realized she had forgotten her bonnet at the church. (I wasn't told which sister it was, so let's just call her Ms. Gross.) Ms. Gross remembered that she had left her bonnet in one of the pews. How embarrassing! No proper woman would dream of being seen without a bonnet. She turned and began the long trek back to church.

She lived quite a distance from the church, and in the time it took her to walk back the sun had set. Everyone else had already left the church, and its windows were dark. Unfortunately Ms. Gross had not brought a lantern, but she bravely opened the door to the church and stepped inside anyway. She spent a lot time inside the building and thought she was familiar with every inch of it. What could possibly go wrong?

The church was pitch black. Ms. Gross walked cautiously down the aisle, guiding herself by holding onto the backs of the pews. She remembered which pew she had left her bonnet in and when she reached it she began to feel along the seat. But much to her surprise she didn't find her bonnet. Instead she found the face of a man who was lying in the pew. His face was cold, and it was wet.

Ms. Gross screamed in surprise and horror. She backed out of the pew in a panic, but then tripped and fell into another pew across the aisle. As she fell she steadied herself with her hands - which came to rest on another man. She felt his wet, soggy clothes and his cold, inert body. She smelled the ocean.

Sobbing, Ms. Gross stumbled down the aisle, feeling her way along in the darkness. She tried to keep her hands on the backs of the pews, but occasionally she slipped, and each time she did she felt another corpse, touching here a cold face, there a wet foot or a clammy hand.

When she finally escaped the church she ran to the nearest house and pounded hysterically on the door. The family inside took her in and listened to her tale. When Ms. Gross had calmed down they explained to her what why the church was full of corpses. 

After choir practice had ended, a wagon had come up to the church from the harbor. It had been filled with dead bodies. Apparently a ship had sunk of the coast of Wellfleet and the crew's bodies had washed ashore in the harbor. The Methodist minister agreed to store them overnight in the church while the townspeople decided where to bury them. The minister certainly didn't think anyone would come stumbling in to find them. After all, everyone had left after choir practice. 

That's the end of the story, but I wonder how Ms. Gross felt. Was she relieved to know there was a logical explanation for all the corpses which suddenly appeared in the church? Or was she saddened and horrified to realize she really had been touching the dead bodies of men who drowned at sea? I also wonder how she felt about her bonnet. Did she vow to never forget her bonnet again, or did she instead vow to never wear one again? Significantly, in the photo of the ten sisters the youngest one, Maria, is not wearing a bonnet... 

This story reminds me of that old Halloween game for kids, the one where you are blindfolded and touch various things that are supposed to be body parts. You touch cold grapes and someone tells you they are eyeballs, you touch spaghetti and someone tells you it is intestines, etc. In Ms. Gross's case, though, she actually did touch dead bodies. If there's any lesson to be learned it might this: gruesome things can happen anytime of the year, and they even happen in small towns with pretty white churches.

August 12, 2018

On The Road: Troll Legends in Iceland

Last week I went beyond my usual New England focus to write about elf-lore in Iceland, which I had recently visited. Please indulge me one more time, as I discuss Icelandic trolls. Next week I'm back to my usual Yankee stomping grounds. 

As we drove around Iceland our tour guides mentioned trolls several times. Although they never really described what a troll looked like, they did tell us that they are quite large and like to eat human flesh. How large? Well, a hundred feet tall in some cases. For example, this rock formation on the Snaefellsnes peninsula was said to be formed when two trolls were fishing in their boat late at night. 

Icelandic trolls come in two varieties: day trolls (who are active when the sun is up), and night trolls, who are active only after sunset. The winter nights are very, very long in Iceland so I am sure the night trolls appreciate all that darkness. According to legend, two night trolls set out in their ship to go fishing off the Snaefellsnes peninsula. They were so engrossed in their work that they didn't realize how long they had been out to sea. As the sun started to rise they raced back to shore, hoping to reach the shelter of their cave before the sun's rays hit them. Unfortunately they were not fast enough. When the sun rose the two trolls (and their boat) were turned into stone. 

This rock formation does look like two people in a boat so I can understand how the legend arose. But what is also interesting is that these rocks are really, really big. That means that trolls are really, really big. Scarily big. 

Elsewhere in Iceland I also heard the legend about the fishing trolls used to explain a different coastal rock formation near Vik. Perhaps being caught by the sun was a common problem for trolls who went out fishing. I have also read that the Snaefellsnes rock formation was not fishermen, but were actually two troll lovers who stayed out too late canoodling and were petrified at sunrise. 

Three trolls from The Hobbit (1977)
J.R.R Tolkien was fascinated by Icelandic folklore and he used quite a bit of it in his novels. When I heard these troll stories I was of course reminded of the three trolls that Bilbo and the dwarves encounter in The Hobbit. Although not as large as the trolls of Iceland, they are indeed turned to stone when they are caught outside at sunrise. 

Gryla (2009) by Icelandic painter Thrandur Thoraarinnson
Many troll stories are closely tied to rock formations in the Icelandic landscape. But not all the trolls have been turned to stone. Some are still active, including a particularly dangerous troll named Gryla. Gryla has a fondness for the flesh of human children, particularly those who disobey their parents. Perhaps disobedient flesh tastes sweeter than obedient flesh? Gryla is particularly active around Christmas, when she roams Iceland with a sack to put all the naughty children in. Gryla does not seem to be as large as some trolls and can easily sneak into the average home to grab a child. 

Yule Lad figurines I saw in a gift shop.
Gryla has thirteen sons, who are known as the Yule Lads. They are active during the thirteen days leading up to Christmas, when they take turns visiting homes by night to cause trouble. Each Yule Lad takes one night, and their names indicate the mischief that can be anticipated on particular nights. Door-Slammer slams doors to wake people up, Sausage-Swiper steals sausages, Window-Peeper looks in windows, and Meat-Hook steals meat using a hook (and also has the most terrifying name). The Yule Lads have been somewhat rehabilitated these days, and are said to bring gifts to good children. They leave rotten potatoes for those who are bad. In essence, Gryla and her sons fill the same role that Santa Claus fills here in the United States: rewarding good children and punishing those who are naughty (although Santa doesn't eat anyone).

The path into Dimmuborgir.
The Yule Lads' cave.
Although the Yule Lads are not petrified in stone, they are still associated with a specific rock formation in Iceland. The Yule Lads make their home at Dimmuborgir, an ancient collapsed lava tube in northern Iceland near Lake Myvatn. The name Dimmuborgir means "dark castles," which I think does an accurate job describing these weird black lava formations. It is a labyrinthine place and would be easy to get lost in were it not for the helpful trails that have been laid down. It is a very popular tourist attraction, but apparently the Yule Lads don't mind the company. One particular cave is even identified as the Yule Lads' home, but when I visited they were not in. Perhaps this was for the best. I wouldn't want to be punished with a rotten potato!

Next week I'm back to writing about New England, but it was interesting to visit another country and compare folklore. Although elves and trolls don't figure prominently in New England folklore, I could see similarities. Geologically New England is much older than Iceland, but we still have lots of legends explaining our strange random rock formations. Our legends usually feature the Devil, or witches, but that's to be expected given this region's history. It's good to go away, but it's also good to come back to weird creepy stuff I know and love.