July 13, 2019

The Demon Dog and Ghostly Boy of Hell's Half Acre

For over one-hundred years people in Bristol, Vermont have said that South Mountain is haunted by ghosts. One ghost is a large dog; the other is a little boy. Although the ghosts are still said to haunt the  mountain (you can hear them on a quiet night if you listen) the explanation for how they got there has changed over time. 

The story of the ghosts begins way back in 1800. That was the year a Spanish man named DeGrau appeared in Bristol. DeGrau told anyone who would listen that as boy he had come to South Mountain with his father and a party of Spanish prospectors. They had found a rich vein of silver on the mountain and smelted in down into silver bars. And when DeGrau said rich vein he meant rich! They had more silver than they could carry out with them, so they buried the majority of it on the mountain. DeGrau's father and the others planned to come back at a future date to recover their treasure but they never did. 

An alternate version of the story claims that DeGrau was actually a Spanish pirate, and that he and his crew had been carrying their loot from the coast towards Canada when they were attacked by an Indian war-party. Most of the the pirates were killed in the battle but not before they buried their treasure. Only DeGrau had escaped alive.

And now poor DeGrau, whether vicious pirate or son of a prospector, decades later could not find the exact spot where the silver bars had been buried. The landscape had been altered by the earthquake of 1755. He dug around futilely on the mountainside for a while and then wandered off. He never returned but the rumor of the lost treasure remained. People in Bristol would sometimes try to find the treasure but like DeGrau never succeeded. They did find old mining implements which led them to think there was truth to the legend, as did the discovery of a Spanish doubloon.


Things changed in the middle of the 19th century when large group of Canadian prospectors arrived. Led by a man named Uncle Sim Corserer, this group was better organized and more determined than the dilettantes who had preceded them. For more than a decade they ran a serious mining operation on South Mountain. They dug multiple pits and tunnels into solid rock, determined to find the silver.

Corserer and his crew were guided by a spiritualist medium who told them where to dig. However, the medium also warned them that the treasure was guarded by two evil spirits. One of them was a savage dog, which the Spaniards had sacrificed near the treasure. Its ghost now wandered the mountain howling and threatening anyone who got close to finding the silver. The other ghost was a small boy, who also had been sacrificed to create a guardian spirit. He wandered the woods and slopes with a red-hot iron bar and bore the wound that ended his life: a bloody gash across his throat. 

Although some locals were skeptical the Canadian prospectors swore they had heard and seen these angry spirits. The area where they dug earned the nickname Hell's Half Acre and people began to avoid it, partially from fear of the ghosts but also because it was dangerous: the Canadians had excavated multiple half-hidden shafts and pits into which a person could easily plummet. Eventually Sim Corserer and his crew departed empty-handed. Maybe the ghosts had prevented them from finding the treasure? 

People say the ghosts still haunt Hell's Half Acre but the story about them has changed. According to the new story, many years ago a boy decided to explore the prospector's abandoned excavations on South Mountain. He brought his faithful dog with him. He never returned home and although his family searched for him they were unable to find any sign of their child or his canine companion.

Years later a hiker stumbled upon a dog's skeleton in the dense woods. It was lying next to a deep pit. At the bottom of the pit was the skeleton of a small boy. The hiker deduced that the boy had stumbled into one of the area's hidden pits and died. His faithful dog was unwilling to leave its master and stayed at the top of the pit until it too passed away.

It is said that if you listen on a quiet night you can hear the boy's cries and the howling of the spectral dog. Are they the tragic ghosts of recent legend or the more sinister demonic guardians the prospectors warned of? Either way, you explore Hell's Half Acre at great risk. The terrain is treacherous and riddled with pits and tunnels hidden in the undergrowth. You don't want to become the third ghost haunting the mountain.

*****

I got a lot of my information for this post from Joseph Citro's book Weird New England and also from online sources like this one. Treasure hunting was a popular pastime in 19th century New England and the area is full of legends similar to this one. See for example this legend from Ipswich, Massachusetts. Sim Corserer was not the only person who wasted years digging for treasure under the direction of a psychic. Hiram Marble did something similar in Lynn, Massachusetts and his tunnel still remains. 


July 05, 2019

Were There Really Witches in Salem?

Were there really any witches involved in the Salem witchcraft trials?

I think most people would answer "No!" Rational folks know the 19 people executed in 1692 were innocent victims of a warped judicial system in a theocratic Puritan society. But I also think that for other people the question lingers unanswered. Maybe, just maybe, there was something behind those trials other than just land-grabs and simmering small-town grudges? Maybe (just maybe) something uncanny occurred in Salem Village 350 years ago...

Witch is a word with several different meanings. It can mean people who get magical powers from the Devil and use them to harm people. It can mean practitioners of a nature-focused religion like Wicca. And sometimes it can even just mean people who use folk magic. Were any of these present in 1692 Essex County?

DIABOLIC WITCHES

The Puritans of Salem believed the Massachusetts Bay Colony was under assault by a conspiracy of witches. These witches looked like ordinary members of colonial society but secretly had sold themselves to the Devil. In return the Evil One gave them magical powers they used to torment their neighbors with illness, convulsions, nightmares, and even death. Testimony from the Salem trials contains terrifying accounts of demons, Satanic gatherings in the woods, and murderous magic. Surprisingly, dozens of women and men from all levels of society confessed to being witches in league with the Devil.


The Lords of Salem
A scientific worldview claims all of this is false. Witchcraft simply doesn't exist and neither does the Devil. There's no evidence that any kind of magic exists but diabolic witches still remain a persistent theme in pop culture. The 1960 film Horror Hotel featured a coven of Devil-worshipping witches in a small New England town, as did the 2014 TV show Salem, which showed diabolic witches in 1692 Salem. Rob Zombie's 2012 film The Lords of Salem did the same. Netflix's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is also about a secret society of Satanic witches in New England, and was just renewed for two more seasons. Clearly viewers like watching devilish witches cause trouble.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
This idea is not just confined to pop culture. Some Christian denominations still believe in the literal truth of the Devil and his witchy minions. But hopefully even the most fundamentalist modern Christian knows you can't prove there were any Devil-worshipping witches in Salem. Why? Because the Puritans, who were the original fundamentalists, ultimately came to that very same conclusion. 

Governor William Phipps ended the Salem trials when he realized they were getting out of control - and after his own wife was accused of being a witch. Once the trials were over Massachusetts Puritans did a lot of soul-searching. They realized the huge number of confessions had been elicited under torture and because the only way to avoid the gallows was to confess and accuse others of being witches. Ann Putnam, one of the leading witnesses, confessed in 1706 that her testimony was false and had sent innocent people to their death. Reverend Samuel Sewall, who served as a judge during the trials, also confessed to wrongly convicting innocent people.

These confessions didn't mean the Puritans stopped believing in witches. Hardly. Many of them still did, and also in the machinations of Satan. They simply realized it was impossible to prove someone was a witch. The Reverend John Hale examined this problem in his 1697 book A Modest Enquiry into The Nature of Witchcraft. He concluded that evidence supporting claims of witchcraft was probably trickery caused by the Devil himself. Satan was behind the Salem witchcraft trials after all, but he used fake evidence to divide the community and kill innocent people. The Devil caused all the trouble, not witches.

PAGAN WITCHES

I think if the Puritans realized there weren't any diabolic witches 350 years ago we can accept the same thing today. But perhaps, though, there were pagan witches? You know, the kind who practice ancient fertility religions and dance around Maypoles? There are plenty of them in modern Salem so perhaps they were around in 1692 as well?

The idea of witchcraft as a pagan religion was popularized by the anthropologist and Egyptologist Margaret Murray in her 1921 book The Witch Cult in Western Europe. According to Murray, an ancient pagan fertility cult survived in Western Europe until the 17th century when it was finally eliminated by the dominant Christian culture. Cult members worshipped an ancient horned god similar to Pan that their Christian persecutors thought was the the Devil. The cult's rituals, intended to bring fertility to the land, were misinterpreted as demonic ceremonies and black magic by its enemies. In short, Murray believed there really had been witches but they had actually been misunderstood and oppressed pagans.

Margaret Murray
Murray's book received a lot of criticism from her fellow academics when it was published. One complaint was that she assumed testimony from the European witch trials was an accurate reflection of reality instead of realizing it was elicited through torture and shaped to provide judges what they wanted to hear. For example, Murray claimed testimony about the Devil appearing to witches was really about a cult member wearing a horned mask. Testimony about cursing a farmer's field was really a misinterpretation of a fertility ceremony.

You get the idea. Murray had a conclusion she wanted to reach and shaped the evidence to support it. Still, despite all the criticism Murray's hypothesis was influential for much of the 20th century. Academics didn't give her much credence but her work was influential on pop culture. For example, horror writer H.P. Lovecraft mentions her work in several stories, and he personally felt there may have been some pagan elements at work in Salem:
“For my part – I doubt if a compact coven existed, but certainly think that people had come to Salem who had a direct personal knowledge of the cult, and who were perhaps initiated members of it. I think that some of the rites and formulae of the cult must have been talked about secretly among certain elements, and perhaps furtively practiced by the few degenerates involved… Most of the people hanged were probably innocent, yet I do think there was a concrete, sordid background not present in any other New England witch case.” (H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters, 1929 – 1931, 1971, p. 181, edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei)
The idea of pagan witches hasn't influenced pop culture the way the idea of diabolic witches has, possibly because it is newer. However, you can find it in (spoiler alert) Thomas Tryon's 1973 novel Harvest Home, which features a pagan cult in a small rural Connecticut town and also Robin Hardy's 1973 film The Wicker Man, although it is set in England, not New England. I guess '73 was a banner for pagan witches in pop culture!


Some Wiccans have claimed there were actual pagan practitioners in 17th century Salem. The late Gwen Thompson, an important New England Wiccan leader in the 1970s, used to say "The real Witches in Salem were never caught or arrested because they were busy sleeping with the judges." She may have been joking, but she did trace her ancestry back to the 17th century Salem and hinted that her family practiced Wicca even before they immigrated to Massachusetts from England in the 1600s.

In 2005, Robert Mathiesen (a professor of Slavic and Medieval studies at Brown University) and Andrew Theitic (a Wiccan high priest initiated by Gwen Thompson) co-authored The Rede of The Wiccae: Adriana Porter, Gwen Thompson and The Birth of A Witchcraft Tradition. Thompson said she inherited her witchcraft from her grandmother Adriana Porter, and in their book Mathiesen and Theitic analyze a piece of ritual poetry attributed to Porter to see if it originated in the 17th century or even earlier.

Scene from The Wicker Man (1973)
Their textual analysis showed that parts of the poem had been written in the 20th century but parts of it incorporated older folklore. However, Mathiesen and Theitic didn't find anything to support Thompson's claim that her version of Wicca was practiced in the 17th century. They did find that Thompson had ancestors in Salem during the trials and that members of her family had later studied esoteric topics like Spiritualism. It seems likely that Thompson had inherited some occult lore from her grandmother but it was probably not older than the 19th century.

Finally what would a discussion of pagan witchcraft be without a mention of Tituba, the Parris family's female slave? She was an important figure in the Salem trials, being one of the first accused and one of the first to confess. Some older histories (like Marion Starkey's The Devil in Massachusetts) state that Tituba practiced Voudoun, a non-Christian religion with African roots, and that she terrified Betty Parris and her cousin into hysteria by demonstrating traditional African magic to them. 

There is no evidence for this. Trial records only show that Tituba made a witch-cake (a type of English folk magic) at the urging of Mary Sibley, an English Puritan neighbor of the Parrises. There's no record of her practicing any type of Voudoun. Folklorist Samuel Drake and the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are probably responsible for the idea that Tituba practiced Voudoun and it continues to spread today through Arthur Miller's play The Crucible and Ryan Murphy's TV show American Horror Story. Some historians think that Tituba was an Arawak Indian, not African, which makes it unlikely she would be familiar with an African religion. 

FOLK MAGIC

While there probably weren't any diabolic or even pagan witches in Salem there was still a lot of magic being practiced. For example here are more details about witch-cake Tituba made. It was made from flour and urine from an allegedly bewitched girl at the behest of the Parris's neighbor Mary Sibley. The cake would have been fed to a dog to see if the witchcraft symptoms (convulsions, fits, uncontrolled vocalizations, etc.) were transferred to the animal. If they were it meant the girl was bewitched. 


Mary Sibley did not think this was witchcraft, although I think a lot of modern people might. She was just trying to be a helpful neighbor. Historians know that people from all levels of New England society practiced magic or consulted people who did. Ship captains met with astrologers to determine the best date to embark on a voyage. Young women examined egg whites to learn the career of their future husband. Homeowners nailed horseshoes above doors to keep out witches.

Various types of magic are mentioned in the Salem trial documents and in the sermons of New England's Puritan ministers, who exhorted their congregants to abandon magic and turn to God. The ministers thought that all types of magic came from the Devil, but the average person in colonial New England had a different view. Magic wasn't good or evil, it was just a tool to get things done. They weren't witches - they were just normal 17th century colonial English people.

Some forms of magic were probably passed on through oral tradition, like the witch-cake or using a horseshoe to protect your home. Others were learned from books. Accused witch Dorcas Hoar practiced palm-reading, which she said she read about in a book. Perhaps that's also how she learned to examine the veins in someone's eyes to foretell their longevity. Some of these magical techniques are still practiced today and you can get your palm read in Salem only a few block from where alleged witches were interrogated. 

So were there really any witches in Salem? Probably not, but there were a lot of people practicing magic and it's amazing that we know so much about what they did. Sometimes history can be just as weird as any legend or myth. 

June 26, 2019

Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire Among the Top States for UFO Sightings

I feel like UFOs are having a resurgence these days. They've been showing up in all kinds of media, most recently in The New York Times in late May, which reported that U.S. Navy pilots witnessed strange flying objects over the East Coast from the summer of 2014 until March 2015.

You know something is serious when it is in The New York Times, and it's really serious when they include video footage. If you haven't seen the video (which was taken by the pilots) I suggest taking a peek. It's pretty impressive and maybe a little spooky.

In addition to those two objects (one that spins like a top and one that seems to be smaller and speeding above the ocean) The Times earlier published a video in 2017 of a 40 foot long oval object that hovered above the ocean. Again, it was seen by Navy airmen, and the video was released by the Defense Department's Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. That sounds pretty serious, but everyone involved from the military to the media has been careful to note that there is probably a terrestrial explanation for these sightings. The pilots who saw the objects expressed amazement about their experience, not fear, which is reassuring. It doesn't sound like we're going to be invaded by extraterrestrials anytime soon.



I suppose there could be some natural explanation for these UFOs, or they might be secret experimental aircraft from the United States or another country. However, as I've pointed out before, people have seen weird things in the sky for hundreds of years. It's unlikely any country was developing advanced flying craft in the 17th century. For now I think these Unidentified Flying Objects will continue to remain unidentified.

If you want to see one head north. The best places to see UFOs in New England are Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire. In fact, according to USA Today, those are some of the best places to see UFOs in the entire country. Of the fifty states, Vermont is ranked first in UFO sightings, with 80.8 sightings per 100,000 people between 2001 and 2015. Maine came in third nationally, and New Hampshire fifth. The other New England states did not crack the top ten. Step it up, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts!

It's important to note that other states had more overall sightings. California had the most overall sightings with 15,836 followed by Florida with 7,787. Those are both very populous states, though, so the three northern New England states still each had a higher ranking per person. USA Today does note that sightings wane during the winter in the north (because people stay inside during the cold nights) but for some reason Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire still are all in the top ten.


One possible factor the article mentions: those states all have reasonably good internet service. Most UFO sightings are reported online these days, and if you're not online you can't tell people about the weird thing you saw hovering above the woods. That's a possibility. Maybe, though, the answer is just this: New England has always been a weird place and it continues to be one. A high likelihood of seeing a UFO is just one of the nice things about living here.

June 16, 2019

The Venus Glass, or Fortune-Telling with An Egg

The Puritan ministers who dominated early New England really hated magic. Their hatred of witchcraft is well known, but they didn't even like simple folk magic or fortune-telling. 

They warned their parishioners against using magic in sermons and  pamphlets, and from these documents we know what type of magic was being practiced at the time. Because the ministers weren't just complaining about an imaginary problem. They were complaining about forms of magic that people were actually using. 

Various forms of fortune-telling were common because, like all humans, the early New Englanders were interested in learning about their futures. Palm-reading and astrology were as popular in the 17th century as they are now, but some other types of divination popular then are barely practiced at all today. For example, here is what Reverend Deodat Lawson complained about in 1692: "the Sieve and the Scissors, the Bible and the Key, and the White of an Egg in a Glass."


Cotton Mather had preached against those same types of magic three years earlier:
This is the Witchcraft of them, that with a Sieve, or a Key will go to discover how their lost Goods are disposed of. This is the Witchcraft of them, that with Glasses and Basins will go to discover how they shall be Related before they die. They are a sort of Witches who thus employ themselves. 
A sieve and scissors. A Bible and a key. An egg in a glass. Your average 21st century psychic is more likely to use Tarot cards, but those other three types of magic were very popular in the 17th century. They were discussed by many ministers and also come up in the witchcraft trial records. I've written about the Bible and key and sieve and scissors before, so today I'm focusing on using an egg and a glass. 

Technically, fortune-telling with an egg is called ovomancy but the New England Puritans called the practice "the Venus glass." Venus is the planet that astrologically rules matters of love, and the English colonists used an egg in a glass to predict who they would marry. Therefore the practice was called the Venus glass. It was used primarily by young women. 

It worked something like this. You would separate the egg's white from its yolk and then slip the white into a glass of water. Being a colloid, the white would form shapes as it floated in the water. These shapes would be examined to determine the career of one's future husband. For example, if the egg white looked like a ship, your husband would be a sailor. If it looked like a plow, your husband would be a farmer, etc.

You get the picture. It seems pretty harmless to me, but not to the ministers of the 17th century. Reverend John Hale of Beverly, Massachusetts described two times when using the Venus glass went horribly, horribly wrong. 

In the first case a young woman "did try with an Egg and a Glass to find her future Husband's calling; till there came up a Coffin, that is a Spectre in the likeness of a Coffin. And she was afterward followed with a Diabolical molestation to her death; and so died a single person. A just warning to others, to take heed of handling the Devil's weapons, lest they get a wound thereby."

Take note. Not only did this poor woman die after using a Venus glass, she died single, which was one of the worst things that could happen to a woman in patriarchal Puritan society. 

In the other case, Reverend Hale spoke with one of the afflicted girls of the Salem witch trials. This girl confessed that before she had become afflicted by witches she had used a Venus glass to learn about her future husband. After she confessed this to Reverend Hale she was "speedily released from those bonds of Satan." At least this time there was a happy ending. 

So consider yourself warned. If you get tempted to use the Venus glass, maybe you should just make an omelet instead. 

******

My sources for this week's post: Richard Godbeer's The Devil's Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England and John Hale's A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft

June 04, 2019

Shadrack Ireland and The Immortality Cult

When the Puritans colonized New England in the 1600s they were a young rebellious religious movement. Back in England they were trying to overthrow the established Church of England, and here in North America they were trying to create a theocracy. They were a bunch of radicals. 

Flash forward one hundred years to the 1700s. The Puritans had become the established religion of New England. Their church was conservative and not interested in changing. Sunday sermons were heavy on the theology and light on the emotion. They were, sad to say, boring. The Puritans had become the thing they had once rebelled against. 

In the 1730s and 1740s a new religious movement swept across the colonies. Historians now call it the First Great Awakening, since it was the first of many emotionally charged religious revivals that occurred in America. During the First Great Awakening traveling evangelical ministers crossed the region preaching fire-and-brimstone sermons to large crowds. One famous evangelical of the time, George Whitefield, delivered more than 18,000 sermons. People passed out from overwhelming emotion when he spoke. Whitefield stirred up strong religious feelings wherever he went. 

Shadrack Ireland, a pipemaker in Charlestown, Massachusetts, was one of those people who heard Whitefield speak. It had a strong effect on him, and afterwards Ireland declared that something had changed in his mind and body. He realized that he was now perfect and immortal. He was never going to die. 

Shadrack Ireland's "Square House" in Harvard, Massachusetts. 
Ireland started to preach to anyone who would listen. According to Ireland, people needed to practice celibacy. No sex please! Only those who had achieved perfection could take spouses and have intercourse. And since they were perfect, they could even take second "spiritual" spouses if they were married. Rules about adultery no longer applied to those who were perfect (like Ireland). 

Shadrack Ireland left his wife and six children and moved to Grafton, Massachusetts where he gathered a small group of followers. The authorities in Grafton didn't appreciate his heretical teachings and pressured him to leave. He went to nearby Harvard, where his followers built a large house known as the Square House where they lived communally. It still stands today. Ireland also took a spiritual wife, one Abigail Lougee. He declared himself the Second Messiah, and although he lived a relatively quiet life people came to visit him from other towns for spiritual guidance.

Just a quick aside: Ireland was not unique in his beliefs at this time. He was just one representative of a larger movement. For example, in Easton members of a church also declared themselves immortal and all took new spouses. In Hopkinton, a man named Nat Smith even declared himself God. Smith wore a hat with a sign reading "I am God" and routinely disrupted the town's Sunday meetings by blowing a ram's horn. He eventually became a follower of Shadrack Ireland. 

Ireland lived in the Square House for several decades. Did he really think he was going to live forever? Maybe, but it was not to be. One night in September 1778 his followers noticed that he had somehow changed. Ireland told them that his work was done and God was going to take him. He also instructed them not to bury him, though, since the world would end shortly and he would be resurrected. After telling them this he went up to his bedroom and died. 

His followers took his body and put it in the cellar. Some accounts say it was placed in a plain wooden coffin, others that it was placed on a stone slab. All accounts agree that his body remained in the Square House's cellar for a long time. So long that it started to smell. Still unwilling to bury their leader, Ireland's followers covered his body with lime hoping that it would cover the terrible stench. It didn't. Finally someone took his body and buried it in unmarked grave nearby.

Although Shadrack Ireland's body departed his spirit may have lingered. After his death some of his followers remained in the Square House until eventually Mother Ann Lee, the spiritual leader of the Shakers, came to Harvard. Most of Ireland's followers became Shakers and Mother Ann took up residence in the Square House. Although she liked the building she felt that Ireland's spirit remained as an evil influence in it. It was so bothersome to her that she banished it to Hell.

Did his spirit really linger, or was this just Mother Ann Lee's way of finally claiming the Square House (and the people in it) as hers? Either way, it was the end of Shadrack Ireland. 

*****
Special thanks to Rhonda for pointing me towards an article that mentioned Shadrack Ireland, and thanks to Dave Goudsward for sending me a copy of it!

May 27, 2019

UFOs and Ghosts in Lincoln, Massachusetts

Why do strange things happen more in some places than in others? Some cities and towns have lots of stories about monsters, ghosts and weird phenomena. Others have almost none.

I suppose some it has do with history. A city like with a history like Salem is just going to have a lot of legends associated with it. But I suppose it could also have to do with size. Boston has been the largest and most populous city in New England for centuries and that means more people to tell more strange stories.

One theory proposes that a town's name determines how often its citizens experience paranormal phenomena. This theory is called the Fayette Factor, and it claims that places named after the Marquis de Lafayette attract weirdness like magnets attract iron. According to this theory "Lafayette" means the "little fairy," and as we all know fairies are tricksters. Naming your town after one is just asking for trouble.

An old stone wall in Lincoln.
On the other hand, some places don't have many legends at all. Or at least they don't seem to upon first glance. For example, this weekend Tony and I went out to Lincoln to walk the trails and visit the historic Gropius House. Whenever we go on a trip I research our destination's legends and weird history. I don't want to miss out on any haunted cemeteries or creepy forests!

At first as I researched Lincoln I was disappointed because I couldn't find any strange stories. Lincoln is very rural, so I was hoping to discover some Sasquatch sightings. No such luck. It's a relatively old town, so maybe a witch legend? Nope, sorry.

Happily, I found several recent UFO sightings. This makes sense, because rural towns have less light pollution and it's easier to see what's floating around in the nighttime sky. Here are three sighting from the National UFO Reporting Center website:

July 11, 1998:
Sole witness to object. At Hanscom Field/Hanscom Air Force Base watching aircraft. I am a self-aught expert on all types of aircraft (general, commercial and military). Heard jet engines overhead thinking it might be a military aircraft arriving at Hanscom. 737 at 6-7,000 feet on approach to Logan Airport in Boston. Looking up to identify aircraft I saw a sphere shaped object above the 737. The 737 traveled under it. The object was metallic as sunlight glimmered off it. Remained stationary for approximately 2 minutes then slowly moved from northwest to southeast and disappeared from my range of vision. 
November 29, 2004:
I was having a party and everyone was outside on the veranda. The sky was alive with stars. Then someone shouts WHAT'S THAT. And we all look and its slower than a plane so we know it's not that. Three lights in a triangle, flying low to the ground. 
October 11, 2017:
Three lights spinning in circles. Kind of looked like the lights of a movie theatre, but there was no beams the illumination was coming from above the clouds and they didn't move around at an exact timing like a machine. Took out my phone to take a video and they stopped. Over the sky toward Boston MA. Fuzzy oval white lights.

One of these accounts mentions Hanscom Airforce Base, part of which is located in Lincoln. Military bases often are loci for weird phenomena, particularly of the aerial kind, so it's not surprising that UFOs might be sighted near Hanscom. However, many ghost stories are also told about the base. The base's Vandenberg Gate (which I think is in Lincoln) is said to be haunted by the ghost of a suicide. Many guards have reported that something unseen bangs on the guard station's walls and windows at night. The lights also shut off on their own. Creepy!

An electrified fence and wide open skies. 
I did also find one other Lincoln ghost story which claims a house was once haunted by the ghosts of two teenage girls who killed themselves. The house was eventually torn down and a new house built on the property. The ghosts were not happy about losing their old home and have haunted the new building ever since, crying and making the lights flicker.

So I guess Lincoln does have some strange stories and legends after all. We didn't get to see any haunted sites on this particular trip but it makes me happy just knowing those stories are out there. 

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!

HISTORY AND A BLUE LADY

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.

A SHOCKING DEATH AND... DEMONS?

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.

OUR VISIT TO VALE END

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.