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.

January 21, 2019

Two Encounters with Pukwudgies in Lawrence, Massachusetts

One of the nice things about writing this blog is that sometimes people share strange stories with me. Last week someone I'll call Miss S. wrote and told me about some unusual things that happened to her family thirty years ago. She said I could share them so here they are.

The first incident happened to Miss S.'s brother Bob. He was just a child at the time (maybe seven or eight years old) and was watching TV with some cousins at his grandparent's house in Lawrence, Massachusetts. They were sitting on the couch, which faced the TV but had its back towards a doorway into another room.

As they sat there watching TV Bob felt someone pull on the back of his hair. He thought it was his cousin Sandra and he told her to stop. Sandra denied pulling his hair. A few seconds later he felt it again. Again he yelled at his cousin, who still said she didn't do it. A few more seconds passed and Bob once again felt someone tug on his air.

He turned around angrily, expecting to see one his cousins hiding behind the couch. But his anger turned to surprise when he saw who was there. Instead of a cousin, he saw a little old lady with long white hair. And when I write little, I mean quite small - she was only two or three feet tall. When she saw Bob looking at her she quickly started to run towards the front door of the house. She disappeared into thin air before she reached it.

Bob was understandably surprised by this, but when he blurted out what he had seen his grandmother told him not to worry about it. "Don't worry," she said. "They're friendly.'

The second incident occurred one day when Bob's mother took him and his cousins, including Sandra, out to the movies. After the movie was over they returned to their grandparents' house. The door was locked. No one was supposed to be home so they were surprised to see through the window that a lamp was on in the living room. Sandra peered through the window to see if she could see her grandparents. She jumped back from the window and screamed "I am getting the f***k out of here!"

Bob's mother stepped up to the window and looked inside. She saw a very short old man with long white hair run out of the living room. She gathered the kids together and they quickly left.


Miss S. says that her brother and mother still talk about these two incidents. They say that in retrospect they should have known something odd was happening in the grandparents' home. They would sometimes find the tin of coffee opened and spilled onto the floor, and bottles of Coke stored in the attic opened and half drunk. When asked about these things the grandparents would just shrug and say they had rats, but can rats take the metal caps off glass bottles?

In her email Miss S. wrote that she thought these were encounters with pukwudgies, the magical little people from local Native American lore. The beings her family members saw were short, fast and had very long hair, which certainly matches some of the descriptions from local Algonquin lore. That lore also describes them as being mischievous but shy, which matches these two encounters.

It's important to note that historically Native American lore from New England includes a wide variety of little people known by many names. It was only in the late 20th and early 21st century that pukwudgie, a word of Ojibwa origin, has become widely used to describe them. I use it because it is a convenient term that people are familiar with.

I think it's also important to point out that Miss S.'s grandparents, mother, and brother are of Mi'kmaq heritage. The Mi'kmaq are a Native American group originally from Canada's Maritime provinces and parts of Maine. Mi'kmaq legends tell of small beings called the wiklatmuj or pukulatmuj. They enjoy playing tricks, including tying knots in people's hair. Was this what the old woman was trying to do to  Bob? 

It seems possible that since the grandparents were Mi'kmaq they weren't worried about having the little people in their house. They understood that they were just part of life. A family of European descent unfamiliar with these beings would probably have called an exorcist!

Most local Native American groups tried to foster good relationships with the pukwudgies. Like any neighbor, they could be malicious when treated poorly and helpful when treated right. Miss S. says she has never seen the little people herself, but when she moves to a new house she always does something her mother taught her. She leaves a small spice cake on the back steps the first night she moves in. She says her house is peaceful and her garden very productive.

It may seem strange that pukwudgies would appear in someone's house since they are usually associated with woods and forests. The grandparents' house was in an urban part of Lawrence, so it was definitely not a rural environment. However, I have found at least two other cases where a small, fairy-type being has appeared in someone's home. In one case, a house in Somerville was allegedly haunted by a troll. I've also read about a house in Weymouth that might have been inhabited by a mischievous pukwudgie. Are some accounts of haunted houses actually caused by pukwudgies instead of ghosts? That's probably an unanswerable question.

January 14, 2019

Super Blood Wolf Moon: Science, Folklore, And A French-Canadian Werewolf

This month New England will experience the super blood wolf moon. 

Say it out loud: "Super blood wolf moon."

Howl it to the cold night sky: "Super Blood Wolf Moon!"

It sounds like the name of a metal band from the early 2000s, doesn't it? "Hey bro, I hear that Lustmord is opening for Super Blood Wolf Moon at the TD Garden. I need to get my tickets." It also sounds like dialogue from a horror movie. "If you kids know what's good for you, you won't go to the witch's grave during the super blood wolf moon!" Too bad no one ever listens to old geezers in horror movies...


Well, the super blood wolf moon is a real thing. It starts on January 20 at 9:35 p.m. Eastern Time and ends on January 21 at 2:50 a.m., and it shows you how amazing life is when science and folklore come together. It's as  amazing as heavy metal and horror movies combined but quieter and with a lot less gore. 

The super blood wolf moon is the official name for the full moon in January. I'll break the name down piece by piece:

1. SUPER: A full moon is called a super moon when the Moon is at its closest point to to the Earth. It appears larger than normal in the sky. There are often 3 or 4 super moons in any given calendar year. The most recent one was on December 22.

2. BLOOD: A super moon sounds kind of fun, but a blood moon sounds ominous. Don't worry though. It's not as bad as it sounds! Although the Moon will turn blood red on January 20 - 21, it is not an omen of doom. It is actually just a lunar eclipse caused by the Moon passing through the shadow cast by the Earth. "Blood moon" is a piece of folk terminology; astronomers just use the term "lunar eclipse." 


3. WOLF: The Moon has a different folk name each month. For example, November is the Beaver Moon, December is the Cold Moon, and January is the Wolf Moon. Here is the complete list of names used by The Old Farmers Almanac:

Wolf Moon (January)
Snow Moon (February)
Worm Moon (March)
Pink Moon (April)
Flower Moon (May)
Strawberry Moon  (June)
Buck Moon (July)
Sturgeon Moon (August)
Corn Moon (September)
Hunter Moon (October)
Beaver Moon (November)
Cold Moon (December)

These names are supposedly derived from those originally used by the Algonquin tribes of the Northeastern United States. Different naming systems are used around the world, but this seems to be the most common one in the U.S. and has roots here in New England. Each name refers to what happens in the natural world during that month. Worms become active in March, flowers bloom in May, and in January the hungry wolf howls. Game is scarce at this time of year, and the Algonquins could hear wolves howling outside their encampments in the icy woods. 

So there you have it - Super Blood Wolf Moon! Hopefully it seems less ominous to you now, although I find the idea of hungry wolves more than a little spooky. Which brings me to my special bonus story this week - a tale about a loup-garou, the French-Canadian werewolf. 

There aren't many werewolf stories from New England. It was said the local Algonquin shamans could send out their souls in the shape of animals, but they didn't specialize in wolf forms. The same was true of the witches in local Puritan folklore. They could assume the shape of birds, dogs, cats and even horses to torment their victims but they didn't usually turn into wolves. 

Still from The Howling (1981)
However in the late 19th century many French-Canadians moved to New England to work in the region's textile mills. They brought their folklore with them, including the following story of a loup-garou, or werewolf. It comes from Rowland Robinson's 1894 book Danvis Folks, which while fiction incorporates folklore that he heard in Vermont. Happy Super Wolf Moon!

*****

Many years ago on a dark snowy night a man left his warm house and hitched the horse to his sleigh. His wife was ill, and maybe close to death, so he was going to get the local Catholic priest.

As he rode down the forest road, all he heard was the hiss of the sleigh's runners and the thudding of the horse's hooves. The snow was good for sleighing and soon he was near the church.

Suddenly, the horse slowed down and the sleigh barely moved forward. The man whipped the horse, but to no avail. It was as if the sleigh was suddenly burdened with a two ton load.

Looking back, the man saw a large black wolf standing on its hind legs. It had its front paws on the rear of the sleigh and was preventing it from from moving forward. The wolf's yellow eyes burned bright in the darkness.

Fear gripped the man's heart. No ordinary wolf was strong enough to stop a sleigh. This was something far worse! It was a loup-garou, a man who had sold himself to the Devil in return for the power to transform into a wolf. Sometimes the loup-garous just ate corpses, but sometimes they liked their meat to be fresher. 

The creature jumped fully onto the sleigh, and the sleigh shot forward as the horse pulled harder than ever. The loup-garou walked to the front of the sleigh and put its front paws on the driver's shoulders. The monster was so heavy the man thought he would be crushed.

In a panic he searched his pockets for his knife. If he could cut the loup-garou its devilish magic would be dispelled and it would turn back into a human. But in the dark night, distracted by the monster's hot breath on his face, he couldn't find his blade. Death seemed imminent.

At this point the sleigh reached the church. Hearing the commotion the priest opened the front door. When he saw what was happening, he said a brief prayer. Instantly the monstrous wolf turned back into a man, who fled into the forest with a whimper.

Luckily the priest had a good supply of whiskey to calm the man's nerves. The priest returned to the man's house and prayed over his wife, who recovered soon afterwards. 

January 09, 2019

"Something I Wasn't Supposed To Be Looking At..." A Recent UFO Sighting

I often write about UFOs in January. I'm not sure why. Maybe the cold, dark skies at this time of year remind me the Earth is just one little planet in a vast teeming universe. I see stars when I leave the house in the morning and stars when I come home at night. Who knows what else I might see?

Well, I might see a large diamond-shaped craft hovering in the sky. According to the National UFO Reporting Center (NURC), that's what a woman saw while driving home from work on Route 5 in Easthampton, Massachusetts on January 3, 2019. The sun had set and she was approaching the Easthampton/Northampton line when she noticed something unusual:
I saw three stationary bright white lights hovering over the Connecticut river between Mt. Tom and Skinner Mt. The lights were in a straight row, with the 2 outer lights being slightly larger. Of the three lights, the center one was strobing slowly which I thought was odd since planes usually have the lights on their wings flashing. This was a pure, bright, white light, not a yellow light that incandescent bulbs emit. The center light was level with the other two and was pulsating separately. The center light emitted a more "rainbow" like light, similar to a moonstone, but was mostly white-passing.
The witness pulled over to better see what was happening. Whatever she was seeing was about half a mile away. At first she thought it might be a plane landing at a nearby airfield, but these lights were not the normal lights usually seen on a plane. She then considered that it might be a helicopter, since it seemed to be stationary, but it was much too large. Maybe a drone? Much, much too large for that. 

The witness was able to see the bottom of the craft once it tilted and began to fly away. 
There were 4 identical sized pure white bright lights emitting from the bottom of the craft in a square/diamond shape. In addition, there were 2 more of the smaller center-strobing lights beneath the craft, below where the center one was seen when I first saw the craft facing toward me. I turned off my radio and lowered my window to hear if it was making any sound, but I didn't detect that it was.
Well, that certainly doesn't sound like an airplane to me. The witness provided some drawings of the craft to the NURC. See below. Large, rectangular, silent flying objects don't seem normal to me. 


The witness felt that this might not be a natural phenomenon and that the craft (if that's what it was) was aware that she was observing it. If she could see it, then could the beings inside see her?
I felt like I was looking at something I wasn't supposed to be looking at, as it only changed course after I had pulled off the road and started intently staring at it. I was shocked no one in front or behind me had pulled over to witness it with me. After about 1 minute of direct sight with the craft, it began travelling away from me, following the river north/northeast, I decided I wanted to head home as I was scared about the actuality of what I had just seen. 
It was not my first time seeing a UFO, but it was the first time I had seen one this close up.
I really like this phrase: "I felt like I was looking at something I wasn't supposed to be looking at..." It's ambiguous and very evocative. Was she seeing something secret that no one was supposed to see? She seems to imply the giant craft (which none of the other motorists even notice) flew away when its pilots realized she could see them. It's as if for a brief moment she was able to see behind the curtain - and saw one of the things that hover in our skies normally unseen. It was almost like a religious experience. Perhaps the craft wasn't even a physical object at all, which might explain why no one else seemed to witness it. 

"I felt like I was looking at something I wasn't supposed to be looking at..." That phrase could also be interpreted to mean she was looking at something that wasn't supposed to exist. Large diamond-shaped craft that hover silently in the sky aren't supposed to exist, at least according to what we know. It was something inexplicable and beyond the normal rules of our world. Overall, just a strange and beautiful UFO account.