September 01, 2020

Chicken Blood and Steel Rods: Magic and Treasure in 18th Century Vermont

In the 18th and early 19th centuries many New Englanders believed the area was riddled with buried treasure. I've written about this a few times before, but basically people thought pirates, or sometimes Spanish explorers, had buried gold and silver all over New England. It was in fact a very common pastime for people to dig for treasure. All you needed was spare time and a shovel - and some magic.

Before you could dig for treasure you had to find it. Sometimes local legends provided the location where the treasure was buried. For example, that's the case with Dungeon Rock in Lynn, Massachusetts, which according to legend collapsed onto a pirate and his treasure during an earthquake and was subsequently the site of a famous attempt to unearth the buried booty. The treasure was never found.

However, if local legends were no help you'd need some magic to locate the treasure. Many people turned to dowsing rods for assistance. Traditionally dowsing rods were made from forked witch hazel branches, but in some cases they were made of various metals, sometimes expensively. They were most often used to find water but in theory could also find buried gold. Well, at least in theory.


If the dowsing rod wasn't working out you could always try following your dreams, and I mean that literally. There are many accounts of New Englanders dreaming about the location of buried treasure. For example, Silas Hamilton (1736 - 1816) of Whitingham, Vermont, kept a notebook where he recorded dozens of tips and stories he'd heard about buried treasure across New England. Many of them involved dreams:

... Mrs. Woodbury and her daughters have dreamed sundry times in a remarkable manner of money or  hid (sic) treasure in Brookfield on her husband's farm in Brookfield in the Bay State. 
Ebenezer Felton of New Salem dreamed of money hid.  
Mr. Lamb informs that Bezalel Pierce informs that his brother of South Hadley dreamed of a large quantity of money hid near Mount Tom on the West Side of the Connecticut River.  
Also Capt. Doneson dreamed of hid money on Fisher's Island on Mount Prospect near a rock not the bigness of a haycock. Said Prospect is on on the west end of the island. 

You get the idea. But still, learning where the treasure was hidden (or "hid" as Hamilton would say) was really just the start of the process. You still had to dig it up, which sounds easier than it was. Yes, New England soil is stony, but that's not why it was hard to get the treasure. It was hard because the treasure was almost always protected by supernatural guardians and magic spells.

Various legends tell of the eerie guardians that watch over the hidden gold. Giant ghosts on horseback, armies of black cats, devilish hounds, and undead pirates - these were just a sample of the demonic beings a treasure-digger might encounter. Certain magical precautions had to be taken to ward them off. Treasure-digging should only take place at midnight, for example, and strict silence must be observed by all participants. Some stories also claim the digging had to be doe within a protective circle drawn on the ground.

Breaking any of these rules would allow the demonic guardians to attack, but even worse it would make the treasure move. That's right - even after you found the treasure, it could still move to a new location. Many treasure-diggers claimed they had the hidden gold within reach, just a single shovelful of dirt away, only to see it disappear or sink deeper into the earth when someone spoke or made too much noise. Imagine their frustration. It's like being one number away from winning PowerBall. The whole process of finding the treasure had to begin all over again.

Silas Hamilton believed that he had a solution to this problem. It involved animal blood:

Take nine steel rods about ten or twelve inches in length, sharp or piked to pierce into the earth, and let them be besmeared with blood from a fresh hen mixed with hogging. The make two circles around  the hid (sic) treasure. One of the said circles a little larger in circumference than the hid treasure lays in the earth, the other circle some larger still, and as the hid treasure is wont to move to North or South or East or West place your rods as described on the other side of this leaf (page).

Silas Hamilton's illustration from Green Leaves from Whitingham

In essence, the rods created a cage around the treasure which prevented it from moving away. The circular formation is reminiscent of the magical circles that have been cast by ceremonial magicians for centuries.

Just a few words about Silas Hamilton. He was a wealthy landowner, and helped found Whitingham in the 1770s. He was an important and reputable person, yet he was writing about smearing steel rods with chicken blood to prevent buried treasure from moving around in the ground. I think it shows how prevalent and normal magic was in New England at  the time.

I don't think Silas Hamilton ever found any pirate gold, and I don't think many people ever did. That didn't stop them from trying, though. Treasure digging sounds like a fun activity to me. You got to run around late at night in the woods with your friends, hoping to get rich while simultaneously scared of encountering a ghost or some demonic animal. It sounds like a lot of the paranormal shows that are on TV right now, or even some weird legend trips I've been on myself. Perhaps finding the treasure wasn't really the point. No one ever got rich, but I'm sure people kept doing it because they wanted to hang out with their friends and have some spooky fun.

One closing thought. Whitingham, Vermont is a small town on the Massachusetts border, and one of its most famous residents was Brigham Young, the second leader of the Mormon Church. The Mormon Church was founded by Joseph Smith, who was also born in Vermont and later said he was led by an angel to unearth a book written on golden plates buried in a hill.

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I got the information about Silas Hamilton from Clark Jillson's 1894 book Green Leaves from Whitingham, Vermont: A History of the Town.

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