November 20, 2017

Burlington, Vermont: Giant Phantom Cats and the World's Tallest Filing Cabinet

There's something weird and magical about small New England cities in November. A sense of stillness pervades the streets. Old gray houses press up against the sidewalks, parking lots sit half-empty, and bare branches brush against the power lines. All the citizens are hidden away inside but out on the street there's a feeling of strange possibilities.

Tony and I recently visited Burlington, Vermont. You might not think of Burlington as quiet. It has a thriving downtown, with dozens of restaurants and bars and a pedestrian-friendly shopping district. Students from the University of Vermont buzz around. Elementary school students visit the aquarium that overlooks Lake Champlain.

But if you venture outside of the lively downtown area things get much quieter. That eerie sense of possibility emerges. Who knows what you might encounter when you walk around the corner? What strange entity or object will you stumble on? For example, you might encounter the world's tallest filing cabinet.

The world's tallest filing cabinet stands at 208 Flynn Street in what looks like an abandoned lot. There's a supermarket across the street but the filing cabinet stands alone, surrounded only by dead weeds and a shopping cart full of old dishes. It emblematizes the magic you can find in small New England cities. It's weird, impressive and puzzling. It may not even really be the world's tallest filing cabinet, but it's definitely big.

The filing cabinet was created by local artist Bren Alvarez in 2002. Alvarez was inspired by the ongoing delays in building the Southern Connector, a road that would connect busy highway I-89 with downtown Burlington. The filing cabinet's official name is "File Under File Under So. Co., Waiting For...". The Southern Connector still hasn't been built.

Alvarez intended this to be commentary on bureaucratic delays, but I think it has a completely different effect. The sculpture is slowly eroding from rust, and vandals have graffitied as high as they can easily reach. Set as it is in an overgrown field, the sculpture is like an artifact from some post-apocalyptic future revealed when the waters of a swollen Lake Champlain finally recede from the city centuries from now. It is totally worth visiting if you are in the area, and if you collect china maybe you can find something valuable in the shopping cart.

The world's tallest filing cabinet is just one of the strange things you might encounter. In 1988, a Burlington woman named Susan Lily encountered something even stranger. Lily was driving home from work late one summer night when she decided to get a bite to eat at a local Wendy's restaurant. As she drove around the back of the restaurant to the drive-through she noticed two cats lurking around the dumpster. But these were not ordinary cats. They were big (real big!) and oddly shaped:

Susan says, "They were the size of a forty- or fifty-pound dog, but they were real slim and their legs were disproportionately long." 
Susan has always lived around animals and can distinguish among different varieties of cats. These were something unknown. She says, "The largest domestic cat is the Norwegian Forest cat. But these were short-haired. They were much taller than Maine Coons. I have no idea what I saw."

Those quotes are from Joseph Citro's book The Vermont Monster Guide (2009), which I bought in Burlington. Citro goes on to note that after Susan picket up her burger at the drive-through window she looked back at the dumpster. The cats had disappeared, and although she visited that same Wendy's many more times she never saw them again.

A metal monolith made of filing cabinets looms in an empty lot. Giant cats prowl around a dumpster behind a fast food restaurant. Even in the city weird and magical things are lurking!

November 15, 2017

Bewitched Dogs Killed in Salem and Other Strange Animal Stories

There are lots of weird little stories buried in the accounts of the Salem trials. For instance, did you know that two dogs were killed because people thought they were bewitched?

In October of 1692, a dog in Salem was killed after it began to act strangely. The afflicted Salem girls claimed it was being ridden and tortured by the invisible spirit of John Bradstreet. John was the brother of Dudley Bradstreet, a Justice of the Peace from Andover who had refused to issue any more warrants to arrest alleged witches. After his refusal the afflicted girls accused Dudley himself of witchcraft. He and his family fled Essex County, as did his brother John, who fled north to Maine after the "bewitched" dog was killed.

A dog was also killed that month in Andover when an Andover girl claimed it was actually a demon in canine form. After the dog was shot Reverend Increase Mather, one of the colony's leading ministers, pointed out the absurdity of trying to kill a demon with a bullet. Clearly, he said, the dog could not have been an evil spirit since spirits cannot be killed. Sadly for the dog his protestations were a bit too late.

Animals of many kinds appear in local stories about witchcraft, usually acting strangely if not downright sinisterly. After ruling out natural causes, the early New Englanders had three explanations for why animals might act strangely.

The most common explanation was that they were bewitched. Witch trial documents and local folklore are full of stories about bewitched animals. Sometimes they sicken and die, but more often they just do weird things. Pigs jump high up in the air. Calves make unnatural noises and contort their bodies in strange positions. Oxen refuse to pull their wagon. Stories like these are found from the 1600s until the early 20th century, so its clear they were deeply embedded in the local culture.

Unfortunately, folklore says the best way to unwitch your animal is to physically harm it, whether by beating it or cutting off part of its body, like an ear or tail. Yikes! This is inhumane, but was grounded in the theory that witches cause mischief by sending their souls out of their bodies. A bewitched animal misbehaved because a witch's soul was temporarily inside it, causing an otherwise mundane farm animal to act strangely. Hurting the animal was supposed to also hurt the witch and cause their soul to leave the animal. I don't believe witches can send their soul into animals, but if you do hold that unusual belief please do not beat your animal. Or cut off its ear. Just sprinkle it with some salt or wave a sage bundle around it instead. You could even try holy water, but if it is a cat, don't bother trying because cats just don't change.

A witch's soul didn't always maintain human form when it was out causing trouble. It could take the shape of an animal as well. For example, in 1662 Rebecca Greensmith of Hartford, Connecticut confessed that when she attended the witches Sabbath one of her fellow witches flew there in the shape of a crow. In 1692 Katherine Branch, a serving girl from Stamford, Connecticut, claimed she was approached by a group of cats who briefly turned into women before resuming feline form. The cats were of course witches who were trying to recruit her to their devilish cause. According to a story from 1893, a Cape Cod witch named Moll Ellis could send out her soul in the shape of a bee, which emerged from her mouth when she slept.

Cats, birds, dogs, bees - their forms were many, but they all were intent on working evil. Unfortunately for the witch, their souls were vulnerable to physical harm when in animal form. A story from Clifton Johnson's What They Say In New England (1896) illustrates this. One night a miller from western Massachusetts left home to grind corn at his mill, despite urging from his wife to keep her warm in bed. While he worked at the mill a frisky black cat appeared, purring and rubbing against him. As he shooed the cat away it fell into the grindstone, which ripped off one of its paws. The cat disappeared with an unearthly howl. When the miller got home he found his wife in bed, moaning and looking pale. When he pulled down the coverlet he saw that one of her hands had been torn off, revealing her to be a witch.

Animals that acted strangely might be controlled by a witch's soul or might even be a witch's soul in animal form, but the third explanation was the most terrifying. The Devil and his demons could assume animal form. That weird pig or twitchy dog might just be a spirit come from Hell to torment and trick the good Puritans of New England.

One of Salem's most famous accused witches, the slave Tituba, claimed that the Devil appeared to her both as a dog and a monstrous hog. The Devil must have liked pigs, because the citizens of Topsfield, Massachusetts claimed the Devil in the shape of a hog haunted a bridge over the Ipswich River until he was banished by a Puritan minister. Rebecca Greensmith saw the Devil in the shape of a deer, while in Salisbury, New Hampshire, ministers praying over a woman who sold her soul to the Devil were menaced by a large black cat that leapt at them from a tree. As Increase Mather noted, the Devil and his demons could not be killed in any form, but they could be expelled or banished.

Happily, we've made a lot of progress in understanding animal behavior. Be sure to love your animals, no matter how weirdly they act.

I found the information about the bewitched dogs in Marilynne Roach's epic The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of A Community Under Siege (2002). It's an amazing if dense book that I recommend to anyone who wants all the details of the Salem witch trials. The other animal stories can found here on my blog. 

November 08, 2017

Omens for A Gloomy November: Horses, Death, and Other Dreams

November is a melancholy month. The gleeful morbidity of Halloween serves as the gateway to November, but this month reveals the actual truth behind the colorful masks and cartoony skeletons: the year is winding down. The trees are becoming bare, the skies are gray, and the days get shorter and colder.

The year is slowly dying, and it makes me want to sleep. A lot. The ancient Greeks claimed that Sleep was the brother of Death, and I can understand the connection, particularly at this time of year. Both involve a loss of consciousness, a dissolving of self into the welcoming darkness, but at least when we sleep we get to dream. Those wise Greeks said that Morpheus, the dream-god, was the son of Sleep.

November in my neighborhood. Gloomy.
I tend to remember my dreams more during this time of year than during others. Upon reflection I can usually figure out what my subconscious is trying to tell me, but some dreams are just puzzling.Why was I carrying a book and cup as I walked down the stairs? What did that turtle mean? Sometimes I could use a guide to interpret my dreams.

New Englanders of past generations had a long list of dream interpretations. One of their key principles to interpreting a dream was the rule of opposites. Things that are bad in real life are good omens when seen in dreams, and vice versa. For example, to dream about a wedding means you will soon be invited to a funeral, but dreaming about a funeral means you'll hear about a wedding. Seeing a dead person in your dream means you'll receive news or a letter from a living one. Dreaming about eating or about picking blackberries is an omen of impending illness. OK, that may not be an exact opposite but you get the idea.

In this dream, recounted to author Clifton Johnson by elderly woman and included in his 1896 book What They Say In New England, an ominous thunderstorm actually was a harbinger of good news:

"It was after midnight, and I was dreaming a dream about a terrible thunder-storm. It grew worse and worse till there was one clap so loud it seemed as if the skies had broken to pieces. Right after it I woke up, and I heard a knock on the outside door of the sitting-room. I knew that instant what my dream meant and who was there. It was Charlie! I went to the door and it was. There he had been gone seven or eight years. He'd been a sailor on the ocean, and we hadn't heard a word from him, and didn't know but he was dead, and that dream came to show me he was alive and near."

But the rule of opposites didn't always apply. Sometimes bad things just mean bad things. Dreaming of lice means illness, and dreaming about snakes foretells making an enemy. Personally I like snakes, but I understand the general symbolism here. I don't think anyone likes lice.

Some of the old New England dream interpretations are cryptic and very specific. Why would dreaming of a white horse be an omen of death? I am not sure, but that was an accepted interpretation. Here is another account from Johnson's book:

"You will have great trouble if you dream of a white horse," said Uncle Timothy. "I've always found that to come true. There was one time in particular I remember. It was winter; and I was at work a good many miles from home in a logging-camp. One night I had a terrible dream about a white horse that got angry with me, and bit me. I knew something would happen in consequence of that dream, and I was afraid I was going to get killed. I wa'n't good for much workin' that day, I felt so gloomy about my dream; but I went out with my axe same as usual. I wa'n't noticing things as I ought to; and when I was cutting a tree, it came down and knocked me senseless. The rest of the fellows carried me to camp. I can't tell you how relieved I was when I come to and found myself alive. I thought myself lucky to get off so easy after such a dream."

Johnson collected that story from Western Massachusetts, but the white horse's ominous reputation may have been widespread. For example, Fanny Bergen notes in Current Superstitions (1896) that people in Maine also said dreaming of a white horse means a family member will die within a year. She found similar beliefs in New York and the Maritime provinces as well.

So what should you do if you dream about a white horse? First of all, don't panic. Other informants told Johnson that a white horse means riches will be coming your way, which is a good thing. So which is it, a good omen or a bad one? I suppose in the end it is really a matter of your perspective. Good things and bad things will happen to all of us. Even the increasing gloom of November is leavened by Thanksgiving, and soon after comes the December holiday season, when we light candles against the encroaching darkness. Nightmares end when we wake up, and hopefully there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

November 01, 2017

Weird New England News: Brains, A Witch House and A Scary Clown

Most of my posts on this blog are about strange and interesting things from New England's past. But strange and interesting things continue to happen here. These three stories really caught my eye over the last week.

First, did you know that Yale University used to have a secret room full of human brains? I didn't until just this week, when The Boston Globe's medical publication STAT ran an article about it. For many years, Yale's medical school dormitory had a secret hidden away in its basement. Behind a locked door was a room filled with hundreds of brains floating in jars. Students weren't allowed access to the room, but the adventurous ones who broke in came out a little shaken. As if the dozens of brains weren't weird enough, there were also photos and drawings of medical patients from bygone days. The whole experience was unnerving.

“It was like a shop of horrors,” said Christopher Wahl, who visited multiple times while at the medical school in the late 1990s. “The overwhelming atmosphere was that you’re in a place that you maybe shouldn’t be in, lit by bare incandescent bulbs with a dirty floor in an old basement that smells of formaldehyde.”

It turns out the brains were collected by Dr. Harvey Cushing (1869 - 1939), a prominent physician and founding figure in the field of neurosurgery. For many years Cushing's brain collection was used to educate Yale students until it became outdated in the 1970s. Yale administrators then locked it away in a basement storage room, from which it spooked generations of medical students. The collection is now officially displayed in Yale's medical library, which is a decidedly less creepy location.

Photos from the Harvey Cushing Collection at Yale University.
A few take-aways from this story. First, New England is filled with colleges and they are all sources of rich folklore and strange stories. Second, brains locked in an unmarked basement room are scary; brains in a library's display are educational. It's all about the setting I suppose. Finally, apparently even medical students find old medical photos creepy.  

Next up in the weird news parade, a historic witch house in Framingham, Massachusetts is being restored. The house in question was once the homestead of Sarah Clayes (Cloyce), a woman who was accused of witchcraft in Salem's 1692 witch trials. Although Clayes's two sisters, Rebecca Nurse and Mary Easty, were both executed, Clayes survived the trials and fled to Framingham after they ended. Many other Salem families followed.

Photo from the Boston Globe.
The house, located on Salem's End Road, dates from the 1770s. This makes it too recent to be the actual house Clayes would have lived in, but it seems that the foundation is from her home. The property has been abandoned for at least fifteen years and a historic preservation trust is now working to restore it. After it is renovated the house will be sold to a private owner (with restrictions to preserve the building). Real estate around Boston is very expensive, but if you have a few million dollars this could be your chance to own a piece of New England history.

The article points out that Sarah Clayes was not really a witch, just another innocent victim caught up in the witch hunt. Despite this, the house is known in Framingham as the Witch House. Perhaps this is because supernatural, legendary witches resonate more with us than accused witches, and also because the "Witch House" sounds better than the "Accused Witch House." The Witch House is located close to a large park that supposedly contains caves where Clayes and other Salem escapees sheltered before building their homes. I have visited the park and maybe found the caves, which are known as the Witch Caves (not the Accused Witch Caves).

Finally, a scary clown popped up in Vermont this weekend. If you recall, last year America experienced a huge scary clown craze in the summer and fall. The first craze of this kind occurred around Boston in 1981, but last year's was much larger and more widespread. Was our nation's collective unconscious trying to tell us something before the November election? Clowns have continued to scare our nation since then with the release of the movie It and the current season of American Horror Story.

Happily, the clown in Marlboro, Vermont was not a supernatural monster or part of a secret conspiracy. Instead, he seems to have been a costumed Halloween partygoer who got intoxicated and wandered into the wrong house, where he passed out. When the police arrived to investigate they found cocaine on his person and arrested him, which is not something to laugh at.

October 25, 2017

New England Pumpkin Lore: Cozy and A Little Creepy

October is definitely pumpkin season. The stores are full of pumpkin-flavored treats, jack-o-lanterns are appearing on my neighbors' porches, and someone recently motored across Boston Harbor in a giant pumpkin. Pumpkins are everywhere this month. There is some interesting New England lore about pumpkins, some of it homey and comforting, some of it kind of spooky. I guess that describes October too.

Pumpkins are of course native to the Americas. Historians say they were first cultivated in Central America and eventually adopted by the various American Indian groups that lived in New England. Samuel de Champlain, an early visitor to New England's shores, saw Algonquin Indians growing beans, maize and pumpkins along the banks of Maine's Saco River in the early 17th century. Pumpkin and squash were often included in dishes like succotash and were also dried for eating over the cold winter months.

When the Puritans colonized New England they adopted many local crops into their diet, including pumpkins. And because many of their English crops didn't grown well here, the early Puritans apparently ate a lot of pumpkin. A lot. It was seen as less desirable than traditional English foods, but Edward Johnson (1598 - 1672), the founder of Woburn, Massachusetts, wrote the following:

.. let no man make a jest at Pumpkins, for with this fruit the Lord was pleased to feed his people to their good content, till Corne and Cattel were increased.

Take that, pumpkin haters!

The colonists atet pumpkin in variety of ways. Boiled and mashed pumpkin was a popular dish. Mashed pumpkin was also added to breads, while dried pumpkin was used to sweeten alcoholic drinks. In addition to mashing, another popular preparation was to hollow out a pumpkin and fill it with cream. The pumpkin would then be baked until the flesh became soft and the center custardy. It sounds delicious, and I did once try to make something like this. It didn't work too well, but I think I was using the wrong type of pumpkin.

Modern New Englanders are more familiar with pumpkin custard as the filling in pumpkin pie, not actually baked in a pumpkin. Surprisingly, the earliest pumpkin pie recipe from New England (written down in the 1760s by a wealthy Boston Tory family) calls for slices of fried pumpkin layered with apples and dried fruit in a pastry shell. It sounds good, but that's not what we would call pumpkin pie today. After the  Revolution the pumpkin custard pie that Americans still know and love become dominant.

So, there's the homey, cozy lore about pumpkins. They're also obviously associated with Halloween, which here in America is part harvest festival and part celebration of death and the macabre. Corn stalks, hay bales, apple cider, and cute little pumpkins are all part of the holiday's harvest aspect. Ghosts, witches, horror movies and scary carved pumpkins are part of Halloween's macabre side. Pumpkins can be cute or scary depending on how they are used.

Halloween was not really celebrated in New England until the late 1800s. It was one of those holidays, like Christmas, that the Puritans and their Yankee descendants avoided. But even though there was no Halloween, New Englanders still carved pumpkins in the fall months and lit them with candles. For example, local poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 - 1892) includes the following line in his 1850 poem "The Pumpkin":

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!

Halloween wouldn't have been celebrated when Whittier was a boy, and in fact that poem celebrates Thanksgiving.

Nathaniel Hawthorne seems to be the first writer to use the term "jack-o-lantern" to describe a carved candle-lit pumpkin. He used it in his 1835 story "The Great Carbuncle." A carbuncle is a type of gemstone, and the titular one shines with a blinding light.

Hide it under thy cloak, say'st thou? Why, it will gleam through the holes, and make thee look like a jack-o'lantern!

Again, that was written well before Halloween would have been celebrated in New England. Hawthorne seemed to like jack-o-lanterns. In his 1852 story "Feathertop," a witch brings to life a scarecrow with a carved pumpkin for its head, but again there is no reference to Halloween in the story, which takes place in May.

I'm not quite sure how the jack-o-lantern became exclusively associated with Halloween, but somehow, as immigration changed New England and holidays like Halloween and Christmas became accepted, it took it's place as the reigning symbol of Halloween.

Before it was used to describe carved a pumpkin, the term jack-o-lantern denoted either a lantern-carrying nightwatchman or a will-o-the-wisp, one of those wandering orbs of light, perhaps of supernatural origin, that appear in forests and swamps to lead travelers astray. Will-o-the-wisps were often thought to be lights carried by malevolent fairies seeking to trick unwary humans. One of the rare pieces of English fairy lore from early New England mentions jack-o-lanterns in this sense of the word:

... Marblehead (Massachusetts) was a sort of compendium of all varieties of legend. For instance, the belief in the Pixies of Devonshire, the Bogles of Scotland, the Northern Jack o' Lantern was prevalent there; _ and my father has told me that he was often cautioned by the fishermen, just at twilight, to run home or the Bogles would be sure to seize him (William Wetmore Story, The Life and Letters of Joseph Story, 1851)

When you're out and about this Halloween, be careful as you walk towards that glowing pumpkin. Maybe it's been carved by friendly neighbors, but maybe it's a trick to lead you into the dark October night.


Source for the jump rope rhyme: B.A. Botkin's Treasury of New England Folklore. The information about early pumpkin recipes and preparation comes from Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald's America's Founding Food