May 17, 2019

"Come Away, Come Away": The Necromancer of Boston Harbor

Following up from last week's post, here's another interesting story from the John Winthrop's journal. Winthrop was one of the early Massachusetts Puritan settlers and served for many year's as the Massachusetts Bay Colony's governor. His journal contains lots of details about the politics of the colony but also includes a few weirder little tales.

One of them is this story of a necromancer who died when a ship exploded in Boston Harbor. A necromancer technically means someone who practices magic involving the dead, like raising the dead or communicating with their spirits. It also can be used more generally to mean a warlock or wizard. 

John Winthrop (1587 - 1649)

Winthrop's account doesn't begin with the necromancer, but starts instead with mysterious lights that were seen in the sky over the harbor. From January 18, 1644:

About midnight, three men, coming in a boat to Boston, saw two lights arise out of the water near the north point of the town cove, in form like a man, and went at a small distance to the town, and so the the south point, and there vanished away. They saw them about a quarter of an hour, being between the town and the governor's garden. The like was seen by many, a week after, arising about Castle Island and in one fifth of an hour came to John Gallop's point.

It's kind of a creepy paragraph. What do these lights, "in form like a man," mean? Are they perhaps an entity of some kind? They were seen again a week later:
The 18th of this month two lights were seen near Boston, (as is before mentioned,) and a week after the like was seen again. A light like the moon arose about the N.E. point in Boston, and met the former at Nottles Island, and there they closed in one, and then parted, and closed and parted diverse times, and so went over the hill in the island and vanished. Sometimes they shot out flames and sometimes sparkles. This was about eight of the clock in the evening, and was seen by many.
Now here's where things get really weird. Witnesses heard a strange voice calling out.
About the same time a voice was heard upon the water between Boston and Dorchester, calling out in a most dreadful manner, "Boy, boy, come away, come away": and it suddenly shifted from one place to another a great distance, about twenty times. It was heard by diverse godly persons. About 14 days after, the same voice in the same dreadful manner was heard by others on the other side of town towards Nottles Island.
Winthrop believes that these strange phenomena are tied to a pinnace (a type of small sailing ship) that exploded when a pistol onboard was fired into the ship's gunpowder supply. One of the crew was rumored to be a necromancer and possibly a murderer:
These prodigies having some reference to the place where Captain Chaddock's pinnace was blown up a little before, gave occasion of speech of that man who was the cause of it, who professed himself to have skill in necromancy, and to have done some strange things in his way from Virginia hither, and was suspected to have murdered his master there; but the magistrates here had not notice of him till after he was blown up. This is to be observed that his fellows were all found, and other who were blown up in the former ship were also found, and others also who have miscarried by drowning, etc. have usually been found, but this man was never found.
Winthrop doesn't explicitly explain the strange lights and voice, but I think we can piece together what he's hinting at. As a Puritan Winthrop would believe that a necromancer was in league with the Devil, the one in this story doubly so since he was (perhaps) a murderer. The voice speaking in a "dreadful manner" probably was that of the Devil himself coming to drag the dead necromancer to Hell. It sounds like it took a while for the Evil One to find him, but apparently he did in the end because his body was never recovered from the harbor.

Was there really a necromancer on board the ship when it sank? Maybe, but maybe not. The pinnace in question was owned by Captain John Chaddock, an adventurer who had a bad reputation in Boston. He and his men had sailed as mercenaries to fight in Nova Scotia's Acadian civil war but saw neither combat nor loot. Disappointed, they came to Boston. Three of of Chaddock's men died entering Boston Harbor when they fell from the ship's mast. Once Chaddock and his crew came ashore they drank, brawled and insulted the Puritans. Chaddock was fined 20 shillings for his conduct. The pinnace that exploded was carrying some of Chaddock's men to Trinidad. Overall, Chaddock was bad news.

Winthrop writes disapprovingly of Chaddock's behavior, so perhaps he was willing to believe the rumors that one of his ships carried a murderous necromancer. On the other hand, it's not impossible that one of the sailors may have practiced some type of magic. Books about magic and astrology were very popular in the 17th century, and many people, sailors included, practiced folk magic of one kind or another.

For example, in 1679 a sailor named Caleb Powell was accused of bewitching a teenage boy in Newbury. Several people testified that Powell had bragged about his knowledge of spirits and astrology, and others testified he had been trained in the black arts by a warlock named Norwood. The court ultimately found Powell innocent of the charge of witchcraft but did fine him for knowing too much about magic. 

So who knows, maybe the man who blew up in Boston Harbor really was a necromancer of some kind. Only he and the Devil know for sure.

May 07, 2019

America's First UFO Was A Flying Hog

Boston is a modern city. It's home to world-class universities, tech companies and a highly-educated workforce. New office towers and condo buildings keep appearing on what used to be empty lots. The streets are filled with Ubers and Lyfts. The future is now!

Although Boston seems shiny and sleek these days, every now and then I get a reminder that it's an old city with a weird history. Maybe it's when I turn the corner and see a centuries-old graveyard, or maybe it's when I stumble on a really old house hidden away down an alley. Sometimes it's just smelling the salt air that blows in from the harbor on a misty day.

The other day I was reminded of Boston's strange past when I encountered this artwork along the Muddy River near the Longwood MBTA stop. It's a giant hog floating in the air, and commemorates what is believed to be North America's first recorded sighting of a UFO.

The sculpture is by A+J Art+Design, and is part of an annual exhibit of outdoor art along the Riverway. Jeremy Angier and Ann Hirsch (who make up A+J Art+Design) were inspired by this account from the journal of Governor John Winthrop. The date was March 1, 1639:
In this year one James Everell, a sober, discreet man, and two others, saw a great light in the night at Muddy River. When it stood still, it flamed up, and was about three yards square; when it ran, it was contracted into the figure of a swine: it ran as swift as an arrow towards Charlton [Charlestown], and so up and down about two or three hours. They were come down in their lighter about a mile, and, when it was over, they found themselves carried quite back against the tide to the place they came from. Divers other credible persons saw the same light, after, about the same place."
We tend to think of UFOs as some type of vehicle, but I suppose technically they are any unidentified flying object. A flaming light that turns into a giant pig fits that loose definition. Certainly it fits into a 17th century Puritan worldview better than a metal flying saucer would, and I think our experience of strange phenomena are influenced by our culture and upbringing. Someone in the 21st century would see a spaceship from another world; a Puritan sees a flying pig, which might be an omen or visitor from the demonic realm.

One aspect of James Everell's experience matches some modern UFO encounters - the experience of missing time. Many people who see UFOs realize afterwards that a significant piece of time is missing from their memory. For example, they will see a strange light in the sky for five minutes at 8:00 pm. After they stop watching they realize three hours have passed and it's now 11:000 pm. But they only watched the UFO for five minutes! What happened during the two hours and fifty-five minutes they've forgotten? Some UFO researchers believe personal encounters with the UFO's passengers happen during this missing time and they try to recover memories of these abductions through hypnosis.

It's a controversial theory, even among the UFO community, and there's nothing to indicate that James Everell and his companions were abducted. However, something strange did happen to them because after watching the light for several hours they found themselves back where they had started on the river. They were carried there against the tide without knowing how it happened. How did they get there without remembering it? It sounds similar to a missing time experience to me.

Perhaps the gap between old Boston and new Boston isn't really that great after all. The strange phenomena that once appeared as flaming swine now appear as spacecraft, but they still do the same thing: cause amazement, wonder, and a little bit of confusion. If you want to experience a little of this feeling you can take the D Line (a modern convenience) to the Longwood T stop and walk along the Muddy River (which has been there for thousands of years). The exhibit will be up until June 2.

May 02, 2019

Goody Glover: Execution of An Irish Witch in Boston

Maybe I'm stating the obvious, but Boston is a very Irish town. Our basketball team is the Celtics, and you can buy Red Sox hats emblazoned with shamrocks. You can also buy shamrock t-shirts at Target all year long. There are Irish pubs everywhere, Saint Patrick's Day is a huge holiday, and we've had a string of Irish-American mayors for many, many decades. Irish-Americans make up 22% of the population of the metropolitan Boston area. I'm part of that 22%.

It wasn't always this way. Boston really only became an Irish (and Catholic) stronghold in the 19th century when waves of Irish immigrants came to the United States. Before then Boston was an English and Protestant town where life could be difficult for people of Irish descent. For example, take the case of Goody Glover, an elderly Irish woman executed for witchcraft on November 16, 1688. Goody is shortened form of Goodwife, a title that married women had in early New England. It is similar to the way we use Mrs. today. According to tradition her first name was Ann, but I'm not 100% sure that is accurate. 

Goody Glover's problems started in the summer of 1688. She and her daughter made their living as laundresses, and that summer her daughter was accused of stealing linens by Martha Goodwin, a 13 year-old girl whose family utilized the Glovers' services. Goody Glover did not take kindly to this accusation and "gave the girl harsh language."

From this site. 
Shortly after being yelled at by Goody Glover young Martha began to have unexplained fits. The fits spread like a contagion to three of her younger siblings as well. The Reverend Cotton Mather wrote:
Sometimes they would be deaf, and sometimes blind, and often, all this at once. One while their tongues would be drawn down their throats; another while they would be pulled out upon their chins, to a prodigious length. They would have their mouths opened unto such a wideness, that their jaws went out of joint; and anon they would clap together again with a force like that of a strong spring lock.... They would make the most piteous outcries, that they were cut with knives, and struck with blows that they could not bear. 
A physician, one Dr. Thomas Oakes, examined the children and declared that "nothing but a hellish witchcraft could be the original of these maladies."

Some of the Goodwins' neighbors suggested using folk magic to fight the witchcraft but the Goodwin parents declined. They were pious Puritans and instead asked four local ministers to come to their home and pray for the children. The youngest was immediately cured, but the older three continued to be bewitched. Clearly something stronger than prayer was needed.

The Boston magistrates arrested Goody Glover and put her on trial for witchcraft. Our main source of information about the trial comes from Cotton Mather's 1689 book Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions. Mather was not an impartial observer (he calls Goody Glover an "ignorant and scandalous old woman" and "a hag") so everything he writes should be taken with a big grain of salt.

His account is confusing and somewhat contradictory. For example, he claims that Goody Glover refused to answer in English, only in Gaelic, although she and her family spoke English at home. Still she somehow confessed to being a witch, and when confronted with poppets made of goat hair and rags found in her home admitted to using them to bewitch her victims. When she caressed these poppets in the courtroom the Goodwin children writhed in torment. 

Despite her confession the court was not entirely convinced of her guilt and asked several physicians to ascertain that she was mentally competent. They learned that she was Roman Catholic and that she could say the Lord's Prayer in Latin. Well, at least most of it. There were always a few lines that eluded her which only confirmed suspicions that she was a witch. The physicians told the court that she was mentally sound.

Goody Glover was executed on November 16, 1688. As she was led to the gallows she declared that the Goodwin children would not be freed of their torment even after her death. There were other witches secretly tormenting them, she said. Those were apparently among her last words, either in English or Gaelic.

Goody Glover was right: the three Goodwin children continued to be tormented. They were unable to definitively name the other witches, and Mather and the other ministers thought they were now simply possessed by demons, not attacked by witches. The children barked like dogs, their heads were nailed to the floor by invisible spikes, and they flew like geese, waving their arms with only their toes touching the ground. Sometimes the children tried to harm themselves, but oddly the demons only made them do this when there was someone present to stop them from actually throwing themselves into a lit fire or down a flight of stairs. Equally odd, the demons increased their level of torture if the parents ever lost their tempers and scolded the children.

By the winter of 1689 the Goodwin children were no longer tormented. Maybe the demons gave up, maybe all the prayers worked, or maybe the children just got bored with faking it. But their antics had a much wider impact beyond their family and Goody Glover's execution. Mather's account of their experience, Memorable Providences, was quite popular and probably helped inspire the Salem witchcraft trials three years later. Those trials ultimately led to the execution of 19 innocent people. 

Three hundred years later things were very different. Boston was now dominated by Irish-Americans, and in 1988 the Boston City Council declared November 16 "Goody Glover Day." An Irish pub called Goody Glover's opened in the North End around 2008. The owners mounted a plaque with the following inscription outside it:
Not far from here on 16 November 1688 Goodwife Ann Glover an elderly Irish widow, was hanged as a witch because she had refused to renounce her Catholic faith... This memorial is erected to commemorate "Goody" Glover as the first Catholic martyr in Massachusetts. 
The pub eventually closed down and the plaque was relocated to Our Ladies of Victories Church on Isabella Street in Boston's Bay Village neighborhood. I believe that church is now closed and I am not sure what will become of the plaque. 

Was Glover a martyr for the Catholic faith? Maybe, but maybe her religion (and Irish ethnicity) just marked her as a woman who defied the repressive social norms of the time. Three other Boston women were executed for witchcraft before her. Those three weren't Catholic or Irish but were argumentative (Ann Hibbins), sexually promiscuous (Alice Lake), or working in a profession contested by men (the healer Margaret Jones). Hopefully someday there will be a plaque in Boston remembering all of them. 

April 24, 2019

Ghosts, Strange Graves and General Weirdness at Gilson Road Cemetery

I always like to read about a haunted location before we visit it. It helps me know what I should look for when I get there.

One of the first things I read about Gilson Road Cemetery really intrigued me. According to an urban legend, a ghost will appear if you leave the cemetery and shout "Betty Gilson, I have your baby!" The ghost appears as a woman in Colonial-era clothing, and is sometimes seen in the middle of Gilson Road. At other other times she hides behind the trees that line the road.

Who is Betty Gilson? Why is she so concerned about her baby? Unfortunately I didn't learn the answers to these questions when we visited Gilson Road Cemetery recently. Actually, I came away with even more questions.

Gilson Road Cemetery is located on a quiet rural street in Nashua, New Hampshire. The cemetery itself is quite small and doesn't have a lot of gravestones standing, but it's pretty obvious there used to be more than there are today. For example, a quick scan showed that there were several stone bases that used to support gravestones that are no longer there. I'm sure there are many more graves that are completely unmarked.

I couldn't find any historical records of this cemetery online. The oldest grave, that of Hannah Robbins, seems to date from the 1790s. Most of the graves are from the 1800s. Many of them are for members of the Gilson family, although the Fiskes, Searles and other families are buried here as well.

Lisa Rogak's 2004 edition of Stones and Bones of New England claims it had a reputation as New Hampshire's most haunted cemetery, and ghost hunter Fiona Broome has been investigating since 2008. Many, many people have seen ghosts there. Orbs, strange lights, apparitions and small ghostly children have all been sighted by visitors to Gilson Road. My Facebook friend Sandra has gone to many haunted locations and said that she saw strange faces in photos she took at Gilson Road Cemetery.

Did we see ghosts? No. Was Gilson Road Cemetery weird? Yes. Unlike Vale End, which I blogged about last week, Gilson Road does not feel well-maintained. It feels vaguely neglected. Neglect doesn't necessarily equal weird in my book, but Gilson Road Cemetery is also the site of a lot of human activity. That's what made it seem so strange.

Visitors to cemeteries will sometimes leave coins on the graves of famous or important people. I think that's common. But visitors to Gilson Road have left coins on many, many graves and no one famous is buried there. I think people are leaving coins to honor (or perhaps propitiate?) the restless spirits that are said to reside there.

The neglect and the coins make Gilson Road Cemetery feel weird, and so do all the child graves. And there are a lot of them. For example, there are three identical tiny gravestones for unnamed babies from the Gilson family. Coins have been left on all of them. Perhaps these graves marked "Baby Gilson" have given rise to the legend about Betty Gilson and her baby?

Here is another child's grave, this time with a stuffed Big Bird left at it. All the graves are all quite old, so it's very, very unlikely Big Bird was left by someone who knew the child while he was alive.

The most memorable grave is probably that of little Walter Gilson, who died in 1811 when he was just over three years old. Walter's gravestone has a round hole drilled all the way through it. I haven't found a definitive explanation for this and have never seen another grave like it anywhere else.

People have left a lot of items at Walter's grave, including Barbie dolls, a solar powered crucifix, toy cars, and a rubber space alien. I think the stuffed Scooby Doo is particularly appropriate. A ghost-hunting dog is probably the best toy for a haunted cemetery.

Finally, adding to the weirdness, we saw this object on the ground. Was it a charm of some kind? It definitely had a Blair Witch vibe to it, but I suppose it could just have been a broken dreamcatcher. Or maybe not. We just left it right where it was. I'm not messing around with somebody else's graveyard magic, thank you very much.

There are a few theories about why the cemetery is supposed to be so haunted. According to one it was the site of a bloody battle between two local Native American tribes. Another claims the cemetery was the site of not one, but two deadly house fires. I don't think there's any evidence to back up either theory so they may just be legends. Still, true or not, they reflect the eerie atmosphere of the cemetery.

I guess you can see why I came away from Gilson Road Cemetery with a lot of questions. It's one of the more interesting graveyards I've been to recently and I recommend visiting if you get the chance. Maybe you'll find more answers than I did! My usual caveats apply: don't go at night and don't damage anything. This is someone's final resting place so be respectful. 

April 17, 2019

Vale End Cemetery: A Blue Lady, Terrifying Encounters, and Pukwudgies

Recently we took a trip to New Hampshire. We met up with our old friend Pasha, and then we did what anyone does on a beautiful early spring day: we went to look at haunted cemeteries.

Our first stop was Vale End Cemetery in Wilton, New Hampshire. Wilton is a beautiful town but Vale End has acquired an ominous reputation, particularly in the last few years. Demons, malevolent ghosts and pukwudgies have all been reported at this historic cemetery. To be honest I was a little scared as we drove up to New Hampshire!


The oldest grave in the cemetery, that of Phebe Cram, dates from 1752. The cemetery is first mentioned in town records in 1772, when the town voted to "fence the burying ground." In 1780 the town voted to upgrade the fence to a stone wall and to build a road to the cemetery. Someone donated more land to the burying ground in 1869, and in 1871 it was named Vale End Cemetery. 

I found that information in 1888's History of the Town of Wilton, Hillsborough County, New Hampshire by A.A. Livermore and Sewell Putnam. The authors don't mention anything about ghosts, demons or troll-like creatures at all. Not many town histories do but I was hoping to find some mention of Vale End's most famous ghost, the Blue Lady.

According to legends the Blue Lady has haunted Vale End cemetery for generations, but some of Wilton's older residents (and members of Wilton's historical society) say the story only dates to the 1970s. The Blue Lady is said to be the ghost of Mary Ritter Spaulding, who died at age 35 and was buried in the cemetery in 1808. Mary was the first wife of Captain Isaac Spaulding and shares a grave with his second wife, also named Mary Spaulding.

Mary Ritter Spaulding's grave
By all accounts Mary Ritter Spaulding was a kind and loving wife and good mother to her seven children. Some people even say that Mary worked as a healer in Wilton and cured illness with herbal remedies.  Her benign nature while alive is reflected in her activities as a ghost. The Blue Lady manifests primarily as a column of blue light above her grave and more infrequently as a woman in old-fashioned attire wandering through the cemetery. Does she have unfinished business? Is she watching over the loved ones buried around her? Most people who see the Blue Lady say the encounter is spooky and odd but not terrifying.

I do find the Blue Lady interesting. The column of light is so impersonal but also feels almost religious somehow. Her title, the Blue Lady, reminds me of the many times people have seen the Virgin Mary as an apparition in blue. I'm not saying that the Virgin Mary is appearing in this cemetery, but maybe people's experiences of paranormal phenomena are colored by pre-existing cultural patterns. Maybe the first person who reported seeing the Blue Lady at Vale End made an an unconscious connection between two kind, loving mothers named Mary.


Up until the early 2000s legends about Vale End focused on the Blue Lady. That changed and the cemetery has since acquired a more sinister reputation. The change seems to date back to November 1999, when paranormal investigator Fiona Broome and some associates were investigating hauntings at Nashua's Gilson Road Cemetery. Broome's photographer Nancy had brought her teenage daughter along, but the daughter became frightened during the investigation. Nancy and her daughter left and decided to visit a friendlier cemetery: Vale End in Wilton. After all, the Blue Lady was quite benign compared to the restless spirits at Gilson Road.

Nancy and her daughter drove to Vale End that same night. Unfortunately their experience there was terrifying. As they walked towards the Blue Lady's grave they saw something dark rise up from a nearby grave. They ran back to the car in terror and drove off so quickly one mirror was knocked off as they swiped a tree.


Later that night the daughter called Fiona Broome. She was scared, and wondered if anything ever follows people home from graveyards. Fiona assured her nothing does.

Five days later Nancy the photographer was found dead in her car in a Wilton parking lot. A coroner claimed it was a sudden heart attack. Nancy wasn't known to have any heart disease, though, and Fiona Broome and other paranormal investigators wondered if something sinister really had followed her home from Vale End.

In the spring of 2000 Fiona and some colleagues decided to investigate Vale End at night. As they made their way towards the Blue Lady's grave Fiona saw a three-foot tall hairy red humanoid. She said the creature reminded her of a muppet like Elmo or Grover. As she walked towards it she slammed into what felt like an invisible force field - and an unmistakably evil presence. Dozens more of the small humanoids began to appear and she and her colleagues fled the cemetery, but not before taking photos. Only when she was ten miles away did the feeling of evil fade.

When Fiona developed the photos they were completely black and showed nothing, except for one with a vaguely humanoid red blob. Was it one of the small humanoids? Perhaps, but when one of Fiona's friends turned the image around she thought it looked like a classic image of Satan.


You can read Fiona Broome's full account on her website. She discourages anyone from visiting Vale End, particularly at night, but her story of demons and small humanoids has of course had the opposite effect. A lot of people have a hunger for the supernatural, and what better place to feed that hunger than a cemetery possibly haunted by demons?

Some people have recently speculated that those small humanoids she saw were actually pukwudgies, one of the names for New England's local magical little people. If you read the comments on this page, you'll see that someone even claimed to have successfully photographed one at Vale End.

Many cultures make connections between fairies and the dead, so I suppose it's not surprising that someone would see pukwudgies at a cemetery. I have written about them before, and hearing that people have seen them at Vale End was one reason I wanted to visit. So I don't know whether I am disappointed or relieved that we didn't see any when we were there. Probably relieved!

As I wrote earlier, I was a little scared on the way to Vale End, but nothing unusual or bad happened to us. The weather was beautiful and we all found the cemetery to be quite peaceful. There are a lot of interesting stones to see, like that of Samuel Greele, who was "suddenly killed by the fall of a tree on the 25th of September, 1798", or the marker for Edward Herrick which has this rhyming epitaph:

Afflictions sore longtime I bore
Physicians were in vain
Till God did please, and death did seize
To ease me of my pain

We of course also visited the grave of Mary Ritter Spaulding. Her gravestone is easy to find since it has been dramatically broken. We did not see a column of blue light but we noticed that people leave coins on her grave, probably as a way to honor the cemetery's resident ghost.

Vale End Cemetery is open during daylight hours only, not at night, which decreases your chances of encountering a malevolent entity. The Wilton Police patrol the cemetery and will remove you from the cemetery if they find you there after dark. You may not see a pukwudgie but you will see a patrol car! If you visit obey the rules and please don't disturb any of the stones. And you might want to leave a coin for the Blue Lady.

April 07, 2019

Ann Hibbins, The Wealthy Witch of Boston

I think most people are familiar with the Salem witch trials. They may not know every fact and date, but people know the Puritans executed a group of people for witchcraft in Salem. I suspect people are less familiar with the other witch trials that happened earlier than 1692, though.

Surprisingly, more than one hundred people were accused of witchcraft in New England before the Salem witch trials ever happened. Many of these accusations were made informally, but many made it all the way to the court system. That's quite a few accusations considering New England was only settled in the early 1600s. Shockingly, fifteen people were executed for witchcraft in New England between 1648 and 1692.

One of those executed was Ann Hibbins of Boston. If you've read Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter you may remember Ann Hibbins. Hawthorne portrays her as an aged but wealthy woman who has sold her soul to the Devil. She futilely encourages heroine Hester Prynne to join her in the woods for the witches Sabbath, and even suggests that minister Arthur Dimmesdale might like an introduction to Satan:

“So, reverend Sir, you have made a visit into the forest,” observed the witch-lady, nodding her high head-dress at him. “The next time, I pray you to allow me only a fair warning, and I shall be proud to bear you company. Without taking overmuch upon myself, my good word will go far towards gaining any strange gentleman a fair reception from yonder potentate you wot of!”

Hawthorne is having a little authorial fun here with a historical figure. In his novel Ann Hibbins is an actual witch practicing dark magic, but he uses her mainly as a contrast to the fictional Hester Prynne, who although adulterous is not evil. When The Scarlet Letter was made into a Demi Moore movie in 1996 the screenwriter took even more liberties with the character: she was portrayed as a goddess-worshipping Wiccan.

Joan Plowright as Mistress Hibbins in The Scarlet Letter
The real Ann Hibbins was neither an evil witch or a Wiccan, but was a wealthy Puritan woman who emigrated to Boston in the 1630s with her husband William. They were well-connected politically since William was related through a previous marriage to the colony's governor Richard Bellingham. A year after settling in Boston William's connections got him appointed a deputy to the General Court, the legislative body of Massachusetts. He achieved the higher title of Assistant in 1654. Both Ann and William also became members of Boston's prestigious First Church.

Not everything was perfect in the New World. They had some financial problems in Boston, including losing a significant amount of gold in a trade deal that went bad. Still, the Hibbinses were wealthier than most Bostonians, and William was even allotted three hundred acres of land in the Boston village called Muddy River (now the town of Brookline). Known as Stanford Farm, it was one of the largest allotments in the village. William also acquired several other pieces of land in Muddy River.

Map from Brookline Historical Society. 
They didn't really need to worry about money, but ultimately it was money that led to Ann being accused of witchcraft. Ann had hired a carpenter named John Crabtree to work on their house in Boston but was unhappy with the completed work. She refused to pay him the amount he wanted and complained to neighbors and friends about him. Her husband tried to mollify her by asking another carpenter, John Davis, to provide an unbiased estimate of a fair price. However, Ann was also unhappy with the estimate Davis provided and proceeded to slander him along with Crabtree.

Ann's behavior was considered inappropriate for someone of her status, and particularly for a member of the prestigious First Church. The church's leaders felt she should have behaved more moderately. They also thought she was being disobedient to her husband. After several hearings with Ann (who remained unrepentant) the First Church excommunicated her. This was a very strong rebuke, particularly since Boston was practically a Puritan theocracy at the time. 

William remained a member of First Church, though, and his influence was able to protect Ann from any further repercussions. But when he died in 1654 Ann suddenly found herself in a vulnerable position, and in 1655 she was brought to trial for witchcraft. Interestingly, historians have not found any of the testimony given against her. We don't really know the specifics of the accusations against her, but they probably didn't really matter for the trial's outcome. She was an unpopular older woman with a bad reputation. The jury found her guilty and condemned her to death. 

The verdict was refused by the colony's magistrates, and the case was sent to the General Court itself, the ruling body that William had served on. Surprisingly the General Court also found her guilty and sentenced her to die by hanging. It has been speculated that they returned the guilty verdict to defuse public outrage. She was executed on June 19, 1656.

Although she was unpopular and cantankerous, it seems that many people at the time felt her execution was unjust. For example, the Reverend William Hubbard wrote in the 1670s that:
Vox populi went sore against her, and was the chiefest part of the evidence against her, as some thought.... Many times persons of hard favor and turbulent passions are apt to be condemned by the common people for witches, upon very slight grounds. 
Stories about witches are scary. Accounts of demons, black magic and Sabbaths in the woods are good spooky stories to tell at night. But I think historical accounts of witch-hunts are even scarier, particularly in the clear light of day.

March 26, 2019

Weird New England News: Goat Elected Mayor, Haunted Supermarket, Vermont Pigman and UFOs.

There are lots of strange things happening around New England lately. To begin with, a town in Vermont recently elected a goat as mayor. The good citizens of Fair Haven (population 2,500) have chosen Lincoln, a three-year old female Nubian goat, as their new leader. I suppose there's some joke in there about politics going to the dogs (or the goats) but I'm unable to find it right now.

Her honor the mayor. Photo: Boston Globe.

Happily, Lincoln is only the honorary mayor and will not be making any major civic decisions. That's probably a good idea, since during her first day of office she defecated on the floor of Town Hall. Fair Haven is actually run by a board of selectman and a town manager, and it was the town manager's idea to elect an honorary mayor as a way to raise money for a new playground. Lincoln beat out several other candidates, including a hamster named Crystal, to win the job.

It all seems like good-natured fun, but The Boston Globe points out that sometimes these things can take a dark turn. For example, in the 1980s a goat named Clay Henry was elected mayor of Lajitas, Texas. Clay Henry became a tourist attraction for his ability to guzzle beer but was violently killed by his own son, Clay Henry Jr., during a fight over a female goat. Clay Henry Jr. took over as mayor and local beer-drinking beast. His son, Clay Henry III in turn became the town's third goat mayor but was castrated by a neighbor who became furious when he saw the goat drinking beer on Sunday, a day when liquor sales were illegal. The mayor survived the attack. Hopefully things stay more peaceful up in Fair Haven.

Meanwhile, shoppers have reported a ghost at a Market Basket in Wilmington, Massachusetts. Market Basket, a locally-owned supermarket chain beloved for its fresh produce and low prices, was founded by Greek immigrants Athanasios and Efrosini Demoulas in 1917. In recent years the chain has been at the center of multiple lawsuits by members of the Demoulas family fighting for ownership, and in 2014 thousands of employees protested to support the rights of Arthur T. Demoulas, who is now the current owner. The ghost is perhaps just the latest chapter in the ongoing saga.

Photo: CBS Boston.

People who have seen the ghost report that she appears as a young woman in Victorian garb.Why is a modern supermarket being haunted by a Victorian ghost? No one seems to know but at least one person said she had earlier seen the ghost in her home, which is located nearby. Perhaps the ghost just wants to see what's on sale? A spokesperson for Market Basket made the following comment:
“As far as we know all of our stores are ghost-free,” Justine Griffin said in a statement to the Globe. “But if there’s anything to it, she’s probably attracted to our Victorian-era prices.”
Apparitions may be haunting Market Basket, but UFOs are haunting the skies of Connecticut. The Connecticut Post notes that eleven UFOs have been reported in the state so far this year. A wide variety of phenomena were seen, ranging from classic saucer-shaped objects to those that were large and triangular. Several witnesses in different towns reported seeing strange green flashes in the sky on different days. Last year 100 UFOs were reported in Connecticut so perhaps sightings are slightly down this year? 

Image: Connecticut Post.

No one in Connecticut has reported any strange extraterrestrial humanoids yet. Perhaps this is a blessing, since personally I find ET sightings to be kind of spooky. If you do want to learn about a spooky humanoid, I can direct you to the New England Legends podcast. This week they are talking about the Pigman of Northfield, Vermont. They also give a shout out to this blog!

Image: YouTube.

The Pigman is one of my favorite New England cryptids. This swine-headed monster was first seen lurking outside a high school dance in the 1970s and gained notoriety in the 1990s through the books of Vermont writer Joseph Citro. Is he a missing teenager who went feral? The unholy offspring of a lonely farmer and a farm animal? A high school trickster who sold his soul to Satan on Halloween? Accounts of his origin vary, but people in Northfield agree that he still lurks in the woods outside of town. One of these days I hope to visit Northfield and visit the Pigman's stomping grounds. Here's hoping I don't find him. 

Special bonus: here's an image of the Pigman looking buff that I found on Pinterest. I guess the feral life is good for your physique? The covered bridge in the background adds the right New England touch. 
Image: Pinterest.

March 14, 2019

From Monster to Mer-Bro: Four Centuries of New England Mermen

The more things change the more they stay the same. Yes, it's a cliche, but there's a grain of truth in it. Sometimes things seem like they are new but they are actually not. 

Take Gorton's Seafood, for example. Gorton's was founded in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1849. The company is still going strong and their longtime mascot, a fisherman wearing yellow rain gear, is widely recognized. But in recent months the company has tried appealing to a younger demographic by airing humorous ads featuring brawny mermen (a.k.a mer-bros) and a laid-back Neptune, god of the sea. Has Gorton's lost touch with its historic New England roots with this new advertising campaign? Not really. Although salty fishermen are an important part of our culture, mermen and their kin have also been reported in this area for hundreds of years.

An old-school merman. 
Mer-bros eating Gorton's fish sticks.
One of the earliest written accounts appears in Englishman John Josselyn's 1674 book An Account of Two Voyages to New England. Josselyn visited New England in 1638 and 1663, and on one of those trips he hear the following story from a colonist in coastal Maine:
One Mr. Mittin related of a triton or merman which he saw in Casco Bay. This gentleman was a great fowler, and used to go out with a small boat or canoe, and fetching a compass about a small island (there being many small islands in the bay), for the advantage of a shot, was encountered with a triton, who laying his hands upon the side of the canoe, had one of them chopt off with a hatchet by Mr. Mittin, which was in all respects like the hand of a man. The triton presently sunk, dyeing the water with his purple blood, and was no more seen.
A triton is a type of merman from classical mythology. They are named after the god Triton, son of Poseidon, and like the sea itself are fickle and sometimes dangerous. Perhaps Mr. Mittin was well-read in Greek myth and unwilling to see if this particular triton was friendly or not. Interestingly, in one of the Gorton's commercials a mer-bro sheds purple tears. Coincidence?

The Puritans who colonized New England did not look fondly upon ancient Greek gods or aquatic humanoids, apparently thinking both were demonic in nature. This outlook can be seen in their response to the song that Thomas Morton wrote for the raucous May Day celebration in 1628 at Merrymount Colony in Quincy, Massachusetts. It invoked Neptune and Triton, along with more overtly erotic gods like Priapus, Ganymede (Jupiter's young boyfriend), and Hymen, the god of marriage. After learning of Merrymount's pagan-themed celebration the Pilgrims at Plymouth dispatched armed troops to arrest Morton and burn down his colony. Morton was trading furs and arms with the local Indians, which threatened the Plymouth colony's economy, but his pagan and libertine tendencies were a threat to morality.

You can burn down a rival settlement, but the mer-folk are not so easily eradicated. In 1714 a minister named Valentyn sailing past Nantucket's Great Point glimpsed a merman in the water. At first Valentyn and the ship's crew thought he was human:
We all agreed he must be some shipwrecked person. After some time I begged the captain to steer the ship more directly toward it. … We had got within a ship’s length of him, when the people on the forecastle made such a noise that he plunged down, head foremost, and got presently out of sight. 
The man who was on watch at the masthead declared that he had… a monstrous long tail.
That story is quoted in Edward Rowe Snow's book Legends of the New England Coast. Snow also claims that years later, in the early 1900s, a lighthouse keeper at Great Point saw something humanoid emerge from the ocean and crawl into the nearby woods. Other local residents also said they saw signs that something not quite human had been among the trees. Gorton's mer-bros are goofy and fun; the Great Point merman sounds a little bit spooky to me.

Speaking of spooky, Rhode Island horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's 1931story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" centers on a race of monstrous aquatic humanoids called the Deep Ones who live off the coast of Massachusetts. The citizens of the decaying port city Innsmouth have made a deal with the Deep Ones. The Deep Ones give them plentiful fish harvests and golden treasure from their aquatic realm. In return, the people of Innsmouth give the Deep Ones human sacrifices and have conjugal relations with the scaly monsters. Yikes! In Lovecraft's 1926 story "The Strange High House in the Mist," various sea-gods, including Neptune and a band of tritons, pay a visit to the titular house. At least in this story they aren't demanding sex or human sacrifice. 

Lovecraft wrote fiction; he never thought the Deep Ones were real. But even during his lifetime some of his acquaintances thought he was writing about real occult practices and entities. That movement only grew after his death and some occultists have even claimed the Deep Ones are actual beings. For example, the British occultist Kenneth Grant claimed that he successfully summoned the Deep Ones to appear during a ritual. (Note: they weren't particularly pleasant!) Similarly, the American ceremonial magician Michael Bertiaux claims he has contacted the Deep Ones at an isolated lake somewhere in Wisconsin. Lovecraft based the fictional Innsmouth on Depression-era Newburyport, so perhaps the Deep Ones really are lurking in the waters just off our coast.

Unlike the Deep Ones, Gorton's mer-bros are cheery and goofy. Is this just an advertising gimmick or are there other happy mermen in New England's past? Yes, there are. Elizabeth Reynard's 1934 book The Narrow Land contains several stories given to her by Mashpee Wampanoag Indians. One of these stories tells of Matilda Simons, a widowed Wampanoag woman struggling to feed her three children. When the Christian god doesn't answer her prayers she turns to the old Indian gods. In response, the sea god Paumpagusnit sends several aquatic giants from the ocean to help her. They speak in "the guttural voice of the sea" and save Matilda's family from starvation by bringing gifts of fish. 

So perhaps the mer-bros are not as newfangled as they at first appear. While they are part of the current trend to use folkloric creatures in advertising (like those beef jerky ads starring Sasquatch), these fishmen are also have deep roots here in New England. 

Speaking of deep New England roots, recently I was a guest on Jeff Belanger's fantastic New England Legends podcast. Jeff is a font of weird knowledge and we had a great time chatting about witches, monsters, and why there are so many strange legends from New England. I hope you'll listen if you can!

March 04, 2019

For Sale: The Home of A Salem Witch Trial Victim

Would you like to own a home connected to Salem witch trials? Now is your chance. The historic Solart-Woodward House in Wenham, Massachusetts just went on the market. The house has four bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms. and is priced at $599,000. That seems like a good price in this current market.

Although there have been additions since, the original part of the house was built in 1670. That's an old house. A friend of mine used to live in a house built in the 1680s, and you could feel the history seeping out of the walls. I imagine the Solart-Woodward house would feel the same.

The Solart-Woodward House
As you might expect, the house has a tragic history attached to it. It was built by John Solart, a French immigrant and the father of Sarah Good, one of the first people accused in the Salem witch trials. Solart operated the house as an inn but drowned himself a few years later. His wife (Sarah's mother) inherited Solart's wealth after the suicide and quickly remarried. Sarah and her sisters sued but failed to get any of the inheritance.

Sarah married Daniel Poole, an indentured servant who incurred heavy debts. She inherited these when he died in 1682. Sarah's second husband, William Good, paid off her debts but had to sell most of his property to do so. He and Sarah became homeless, wandering through Essex County begging for food and shelter with their young daughter Dorothy (often erroneously referred to as Dorcas in older scholarly works).

Many witch accounts from colonial New England follow a familiar pattern. A poor person (usually a woman) asks a wealthier person for food or money. When the wealthier person refuses them the poor person mumbles threats. The wealthy person then hits a string of bad luck (sick children, dying farm animals, household mishaps) and accuses the poor person of being a witch. Puritans were expected to take care of each other and offer hospitality, but resented it when they felt they were being taken advantage of. Witch accusations often arose from that resentment.

That resentment could sometimes turn deadly. It did for Sarah Good. When the afflicted girls of Salem began to name witches Sarah was among the first. As a poor female beggar she was an obvious target. She denied being a witch until the end, but the judges still found her guilty. They thought the contortions of the afflicted girls were credible evidence. They were convinced when four-year old Dorothy Good admitted to being a witch and accused her mother. They took William Good literally when he said he felt like his wife was a witch when she treated him poorly. Absurd as it now seems, it all added up to a death sentence for Sarah.

Sarah Good was executed on July 29, 1692. A well-known story claims that she uttered a dying curse. After she was sentenced to hang the Reverend Nicholas Noyes asked her once again to admit her guilt. She refused, reportedly saying, "I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink!" Sarah was executed, but twenty-five years later Reverend Noyes died from internal hemorrhaging. Blood gushed out of his mouth as he expired. Witnesses thought back to Sarah Good's dying curse.

Sarah Good's problems and death were caused by poverty. Ironically, after the witch trials ended William Good sued for damages and won. He received thirty pounds, which was several times more than the average laborer earned in a year.

February 25, 2019

The Witch's Doughnuts: A Cape Cod Witch Story

It's a well-known fact that people in New England really like doughnuts, and our region is blessed with an abundance of doughnut stores. Maybe it's even an overabundance. Locals often joke about how many there, particularly Dunkin Donuts. There are in fact two Dunkin Donuts within a quarter mile of my house. Two! There's another one a half-mile away.

This is not something recent. Doughnuts have been popular here for centuries. As Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald discuss in their 2015 book America's Founding Food, early New Englanders ate doughnuts at almost any meal. They were particularly popular served with cheese and bread and butter during the break on Sunday church services. There's nothing like some fried sugary dough to get you through the next hour-long Calvinist sermon.

Of course, good church-going folks weren't the only people who loved doughnuts. They were popular with more disreputable people like sailors (many ships had doughnut making equipment in their galleys) and even witches. 

That's right. Even witches liked doughnuts. And as the following Cape Cod legend demonstrates, witches became very unhappy when someone stole their doughnuts. 

Way back in 1780, a sailor was walking through the dunes of Truro to reach a ship whose crew he was joining. It was a long hard walk through the sand and his stomach was beginning to rumble with hunger. As he passed by a small rundown house he smelled the rich aroma of freshly-made doughnuts wafting from within.

Unable to resist the smell he knocked on the door. No one answered. The door was unlocked so he opened it and stepped inside. 

No one was home. Well, no one except a small black goat that sat by the fireplace. The sailor thought this was odd but he ignored the animal. His attention was captured by a tray of hot doughnuts cooling on the table. He couldn't resist. He grabbed the tray and ran out the door. 

As he hurried away through the dunes he ate one doughnut and then another. They were the best doughnuts he had ever eaten.

By the time he reached the ship he had eaten all of them. Sure, he felt a little guilty for stealing someone's doughnuts, but they were only doughnuts, right? As the ship sailed away from the Cape he thought he would never be caught. He thought he had gotten away with the perfect doughnut crime. 

He hadn't. That night as the sailor slept an old woman appeared to him. Angrily and without speaking a word she threw a horse's bridle over his head. The witch rode him up and down the Cape as he slept, digging her heels into his sides violently whenever he slowed his gait. In the morning his torso was covered in bruises shaped like a woman's shoe. 

She appeared to him again the next night, and the next. He tried to hide the witch's nightly visitations from the other crew members. He knew that sailors were superstitious and wouldn't want someone cursed by a witch onboard. They'd call him a "Jonah" and try to throw him into the sea. 

Unfortunately the witch's curse radiated out from him and everything he touched went wrong. After he was asked to pump the ship's drinking water it became brackish. When he was told to work in the ship's galley all the flour became moldy. He was exhausted, his body ached, and he was jinxed. 

The crew began to mutter about him, and the ship's captain pulled him aside. "Tell me the truth," the captain said. "Are you bewitched?" The sailor told the captain everything: how he had stolen the doughnuts, how he was being ridden every night, and how he was now cursed.  

When the sailor was done with his story the captain grabbed a musket and then pulled a silver button off his coat. He loaded the button into the musket and handed it to the sailor. 

"Use this tonight when she comes for you," the captain said. 

At midnight the crew was awakened by the sound of a single musket-shot. The next morning the sailor came up on the deck looking fresh and rested. The curse was lifted and the ship completed a successful voyage.

So there's the story. It sounds like a folktale to me, but some people claim it was true. The sailor eventually returned to Truro, and over a century later his grandson told the story to a reporter from The Boston Herald, where it appeared in the February 6, 1919 issue. The Harvard historian George Lyman Kittredge (author of 1929's Witchcraft in Old and New England) said he heard the same story from an old Truro native in the late 19th century. It is also included in Elizabeth Renard's book 1934 book The Narrow Land

The doughnut angle is unusual, but like so many folktales about witches it is mainly intended to educate the hearer about how to fight back against witchcraft. The point is not that the sailor stole doughnuts, but that he was bewitched and defeated the witch. It's an education in defensive magic (use a silver bullet!), not a morality tale. 

Still, I find the conclusion of this story troubling. Let's face it, the sailor committed a crime. I understand why the witch was so unhappy. I don't want anyone stealing my food, do you? Perhaps she should have gone to the local constable and pressed charges, but that might have raised some uncomfortable questions. ("Did you see the sailor steal your doughnuts ma'am?" "No, but my black goat familiar did...") Instead she took matters into her own hands. Perhaps the whole situation could have been defused if the sailor simply apologized or paid restitution. 

Also, like a lot of New England witch stories there is an uncomfortable gender-dynamic at play. The nighttime witch-riding feels like it has a sexual subtext, and is something that is always used by female witches against male victims. But is the sailor really a victim in this story, or a perpetrator who needs to be punished?

Special thanks to Tony for the doughnut photo shoot!

February 18, 2019

More From Copp's Hill: A Smuggling Patriot and A Masonic Grand Master

I wanted to follow up on my recent post about Copp's Hill Burying Ground in Boston. Although the really famous patriots are buried in the Granary Burial Ground, there are also some interesting Revolutionary War era people buried at Copp's Hill. 

One of them is Captain Daniel Malcolm (1725 - 1769). Malcolm's grave is marked with a large and impressive stone engraved with a traditional death's head, but as you can see from the photos there are unusual round indentations in the stone. They could be natural wear and tear, but according to tradition these holes were made by musket balls. In other words, someone shot at Malcolm's gravestone. 

Daniel Malcolm was a patriot and took great joy in smuggling wine and tea into Boston without paying taxes to the British. He once allegedly brought sixty casks of wine into Boston without the British finding out - or collecting taxes on the black market cargo. As the inscription on his grave reads,

A true son of Liberty
A friend of the Publick
An enemy to oppression
And one of the foremost
In opposing the Revenue Acts on America 

The British had great hatred for Captain Malcolm. They knew he was a smuggler but were never able to catch him in the act. He always managed to outsmart them. He knew the British hated him, so he left instructions in his will that he should be be buried in a stone grave ten feet deep. He didn't want the British soldiers to mutilate his body. 

Frustrated that he had escaped them even in death, the British soldiers took out their anger on Malcom's gravestone, firing their rifles at it repeatedly. This is supposedly what caused those round marks - soldiers using Malcolm's gravestone for target practice. Is this story true? I don't know. It sounds plausible to me, but I'm not an 18th century ballistics expert.

Near Daniel Macolm's grave is this impressive monument, which marks the resting spot of Prince Hall (1735? - 1807), one of 18th century Boston's most prominent African-American citizens. Boston had a sizable black population in the 1700s, and of the 10, 000 people buried at Copp’s Hill around 1,000 were of African descent. 

The details of Hall's early life are vague, but it appears that he began his life as a slave and became a free man by the 1770. He was literate and owned his own business (a leather shop). And he wanted to become a Freemason. 

In the 18th century the Freemasons were a really important organization for men, particularly businessmen like Hall. Masonic Lodges were places where they could network, make business connections, and learn important news. Many of the local patriots, like Paul Revere and John Hancock, were Masons. Hall knew he was missing out on a significant opportunity so he applied to join the Boston lodge. They turned him down because he was black. 

Undeterred, Hall went to Boston's other Masonic lodge - the one run by the British and their sympathizers. They accepted him as a member and he eventually became a Masonic Grand Master. Some other local black men followed his lead, and together they eventually founded the Masonic African Lodge, which became the founding lodge of all black freemasonry existing today.

Why were the British willing to initiate black members into the Masons when the Americans weren't? It's possible they were less racist than the locals, but the British also knew they couldn't afford to turn away any possible supporters in a hostile town. Once the Revolutionary Way erupted the British actively urged blacks in America to join the British army, promising them they would get their freedom and equality when the war ended. 

Prince Hall didn't sign up. Instead, he urged blacks to fight against the British, arguing that if black people were involved in the founding of the new nation they would get their freedom. It is believed that Prince Hall served in the Continental Army fighting the British during the Revolution, but it is hard to know for sure. There were six me named Prince Hall enlisted from Massachusetts. Historians tend to think one of them was the Prince Hall of Copp's Hill.

After the war in 1783 ended Hall continued to be involved in community organizing, Masonry, and the abolition movement. He died in 1807, and the African Lodges were renamed Prince Hall Lodges in his honor. In 1784, Massachusetts became the first state to abolish slavery. 

February 03, 2019

Copp's Hill Burying Ground: Grave Art, Witch Hunters, and Spectral Evidence

I have been a little under the weather this week, but last weekend I did stroll to Boston's North End to visit Copp's Hill Burying Ground. It's the second oldest cemetery in the city and has a lot of really interesting history attached to it.

A folk story claims that the cemetery gets its name from the word "corpse" and was originally called "corpse hill." I suppose if you say "corpse" with a heavy Boston accent it does kind of sound like "copps." Try it and you'll see what I mean. Sadly, this story doesn't seem to be true. The burial ground  was actually named after the Copp family who lived nearby in the 1600s.

The first interments happened in 1659; the final ones sometime in the 1850s. An estimated 10,000 people were buried there over those two centuries, although there are only 1,200 gravestones. In the 19th century urban planners wanted to give Copp's Hill a more parklike feeling so they laid out pedestrian paths and arranged the gravestones in neat, orderly rows. They didn't bother to move the bodies though. These facts mean two things. One, there are a lot of unmarked burials at Copp's Hill. Two, many of the burials are probably mis-marked. When you walk there you're probably stepping on someone but you'll never know who.

Copp's Hill Burying Ground is on a high elevation overlooking the harbor, and I think because of this there is some serious decay among the older gravestones. Still, there are some nice examples of New England funerary art here. The oldest gravestones are decorated with the classic winged death's head motif. The Puritans weren't big on sugar-coating bad news.

In the mid-1700s, a different motif began to appear on New England gravestone's: cherub's heads. These are slightly more cheerful than the death's heads and perhaps reflect a gentler strain of religious thought that began to appear in the area at that time.

The third motif appeared in the late 1700s. Some historians speculate that the willow and urn motif represents a more abstract and philosophical approach to death, while others argue that this and all the other motifs are simply just fashions unrelated to religion or philosophy.

Whenever I visit Copp's Hill I always stop by the Mather family tomb. This is the resting place of three of Boston's most famous Puritan ministers: Increase Mather and his sons Cotton and Samuel. For such an important family their tomb is surprisingly low-key.

The Mathers are mostly remembered now for the roles Increase and Cotton played in the Salem witch trials, but during their lives they did a lot of good things for Boston and New England. Increase Mather (1639 - 1723) served as president of Harvard College for 20 years, wrote numerous books and articles about New England history and politics, and successfully got a new charter for Massachusetts Bay Colony from King William III after the initial one was revoked. All this while serving as a minister until his death.

His son Cotton (1663 - 1728) was also a very influential person in early New England. Cotton was very interested in science and conducted experiments with plant hybridization. He also supported the first smallpox vaccination campaign in Boston. Cotton Mather published more than 400 books and pamphlets on a variety of topics during his life.

Unfortunately, Cotton was also a fervent believer in the literal reality of witchcraft. He thought that witches lived in Massachusetts and were subverting God's plan for a Puritan society in New England. In 1689 he published Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions which described the trial and execution for witchcraft of Goody Glover, an Irish washerwoman from Boston. The book also describes the strange behavior of several children supposedly afflicted by Goody Glover. Memorable Providences is now believed to have laid the groundwork for the larger Salem witch trials that came three years later.

Although he lived in Boston Cotton Mather was active in the Salem trials. He attended several executions, including that of fellow Puritan minister William Burroughs. When Burroughs successfully recited the Lord's Prayer, something it was believed a witch could not do, Mather supposedly intervened and said that even the Devil sometimes could take the form of an angel. The execution went forward and Burroughs was hanged. Mather also wrote about the trials while they were occurring and they helped to glorify God.

During the Salem trials the court turned to the ministerial community for guidance in how to deal with spectral evidence. It was believed at the time that witches had the ability to send their souls (or specters) out of their bodies to afflict their enemies. Often only the person being afflicted would see the witch's specter. The judges wanted to know if this really happened and if they should accept accounts of it as evidence.

To answer the judges Increase Mather published a book called Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Impersonating Men. In it he clearly stated that the judges should ignore spectral evidence for many reasons, most importantly because demons could take the form of innocent people and afflict someone. He was about to publish it when he was asked by his son Cotton to add a chapter defending the trials and the judges.

You see, Cotton had been asked by the colony's governor to write a defense of the Salem trials. It was called Wonders of the Invisible World and although in it he too dismissed spectral evidence he also claimed the other evidence was strong enough for the trials to continue. Because he didn't want Increases's book to contradict his own he asked his father to add a chapter supporting the trials to Cases of Conscience. Increase agreed, even though it muddied the main argument of Cases. When the judges read it they thought Cases of Conscience supported what they were doing and continued to accept spectral evidence. The Salem witch trials only stopped when Governor William Phips declared that spectral evidence could no longer be accepted.

That's all pretty bad, but to make things worse Increase and Cotton Mather never apologized or said they were wrong about the trials. They continued to maintain they were right, even after the Salem trials ended and many of the judges publicly acknowledged they had done something horrible. Even after some of the key witnesses admitted they had lied. Even after public opinion turned against them the two ministers refused to admit any wrongdoing. Over time they slowly lost their political influence and today are often seen as villains of the Salem witch trials. Certainly there is a lesson to be learned here about pride and accepting blame.

Well, that's a lot to chew on. Next week I'll write about some less grim stories from Copp's Hill Burying Ground.