July 17, 2021

The Whitehorse Tavern: Ghosts and A Pirate!

The historic Whitehorse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island is on a lot of lists. It's on the National Register of Historic Places. It's on a list of the world's oldest restaurants, coming in at number 10. The Boston Globe recently placed it on a list of of the best places to eat in Newport. You get the idea. It's a historic and prestigious restaurant.

Those are some good lists to be on, but here's you should really care about: the 10 most haunted bars in America. There are a lot of haunted bars in this country, and the Whitehorse Tavern came in at number five. 

The Whitehorse was originally built in 1653 as a home for Francis Brinley, one of the early Newport colonists. Brinley sold the building in 1673 to William Mayes, Sr., who opened a tavern in it. His son, also named William Mayes, took over operation of the tavern in 1702. I don't think he paid too much attention to the business, though, since he also worked as a privateer for the English. 

A privateer was basically a licensed pirate. Mayes had permission from the English government to attack and steal from French ships, since they were one of England's political rivals at the time. Later, Mayes just became a full-on criminal pirate and raided ships sailing in the Indian Ocean, no matter who they belonged to.

After a decade of sailing the high seas, Mayes returned to Newport and resumed his duties at the tavern. His sister, Mary Mayes Nichols, took over after his death, and the business remained in the Nichols family for nearly two centuries. It acquired the name Whitehorse Tavern in 1736. The building was briefly a boarding house in the early 1900s before once again becoming a tavern. 

Hotels, restaurants, and bars often have ghost stories attached to them. It makes sense (if you believe in ghosts). Lots of people move through buildings like that, and they leave their spiritual mark on the place. The Whitehorse has been in use for almost four-hundred years, and many people have stayed there in its incarnations as a tavern and a rooming house. A lot of lives have been lived there, and some have probably ended there too. 

One ghost haunting the Whitehorse is said to be the spirit of an elderly overnight guest who died many years ago. He now wanders through the tavern in Colonial-era clothing, and is often seen by staff and guests near the fireplace in the dining room. He's also been seen in one of the bathrooms. HauntedHouses.com, which has a nice writeup about the Whitehorse, notes that this ghost sometimes pesters female guests, which is creepy, and not in a supernatural way. 

Other ghosts haunting the premises include a young girl who cries, and a presence that watches over the tavern and its staff. The latter is said to be mostly benevolent, and might possibly be the spirit of a former owner. This is something often reported at other long-running restaurants - business owners like to keep working after their deaths. For example, see my 2019 post about Local 186 in Provincetown.

The Whitehorse is only open for dinner this summer, so Tony and I weren't able to go inside during our recent Newport day trip. Maybe next time we'll get to try the food - and try to see a ghost in the bathroom. 

*****

This is totally unrelated to the Whitehorse Tavern, but I wanted to share some exciting news. I have a new book coming out in September. Here's the cover:

The cover makes me chuckle every time!

As you can probably guess, Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts is about... well, witches and warlocks from the Bay State. For many years I looked for one book with all the local witch stories. I never found one, so I wrote it myself. It contains dozens of legends, historical accounts, and paranormal encounters, dating from the 1600s to the 21st century. So much witchcraft!

Although the book doesn't come out until September, you can pre-order it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Bookshop, and Books A Million. Why delay? You know you'll want a copy as soon as the nights start to get longer...

July 05, 2021

The Newport Tower: Vikings, Knights Templar, and Benedict Arnold

This weekend Tony and I took a quick day trip to Newport, Rhode Island. It was cool and rainy, which is perfect weather for exploring historic seaports with a history of strange happenings. 

One sight I really wanted to see was the Newport Tower, located in Touro Park. The Newport Tower is an old stone structure that has stood for centuries on a hill overlooking the harbor. It is protected by an iron fence these days so sadly you can't get too close to it. There are several theories about about who built the tower, and why they did so.

For example, it is sometimes called the Viking Tower. In the early 19th century, a Danish archeologist theorized the tower was erected by Norse explorers who came south to Rhode Island from Vinland (the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and New Brunswick) centuries before Columbus visited the New World. I am not quite sure why the Vikings would have built such a tower, but the theory was quite popular. 

In the 19th century, many Anglo Americans embraced the theory that Vikings had journeyed far down the Atlantic coast. As I mentioned a few years ago, some even believed there had been a vast Viking metropolis along the banks of the Charles River in Massachusetts, where Boston and Cambridge now stand. This simply isn't true. The only known Viking settlement in North America was in Newfoundland, which only supported around 150 people, and only lasted for a few years. There's no evidence for Viking settlements in New England. 

Nineteenth century Anglo-Americans were open to the Viking theory for political and cultural reasons. Many of them were disturbed by the large number of Catholic immigrants entering the US from southern Europe at the time. They also didn't like that Christopher Columbus, an Italian Catholic working for Spain, had been the first person to open up North America to European colonization. They wanted to believe a Northern European, like themselves, had done this first. While it is true that Vikings reached North America long before Columbus, they made very little impact and didn't stay very long. 

Back to the Newport Tower. The Viking theory was just the first of several theories claiming the tower had been built by some forgotten European explorers who came before Columbus. Perhaps the tower was built by Irish monks in the 6th century. Or maybe it was the Portuguese. Some people have even suggested it was the Knights Templar, fleeing to North America from persecution in the 14th century. The New England Antiquities Research Association has an extensive monograph outlining the various theories here

Unfortunately, there's no good evidence to support any of them. There isn't any evidence that Irish monks or the Knights Templar came to Rhode Island before Columbus, and most historians and archaeologists believe the Newport Tower was actually built by Benedict Arnold, the first royal governor of Rhode Island, sometime in the 17th century. (Note: Benedict Arnold's great-grandson, also named Benedict Arnold, was the notorious Revolutionary War traitor.) 

Arnold refers to a "stone-built mill" in his will, and the Newport Tower is located near the site of Arnold's home. Documents from the early 18th century refer to "the old stone mill," and carbon-dating suggests the tower's mortar dates to the late 17th century. The tower is similar to other stone mills in England, and archaeological excavations at the tower didn't unearth any artifacts older than the colonial era. 


I think the evidence indicates pretty clearly that this tower was built by Benedict Arnold (or someone hired by him). Surely someone in 17th century Newport would have mentioned discovering a giant stone tower of unknown origin when they settled the area, but they didn't. Instead, they mention a mill built by Governor Arnold. Not everyone may share my opinion, but I think a 350 year old stone windmill is still pretty cool, even if it wasn't built by Vikings. 

June 25, 2021

Bigfoot At the Cemetery Gates

I love Bigfoot stories, and the weirder they are the more I like them. Here is a particularly spooky one from Rehoboth, Massachusetts. I first heard it on the Unsolved Mysteries podcast episode "The Creatures of Hockomock Swamp," but it appeared in the local news before that. 

*****

In the spring of 2019, thirty-seven year-old Tracy Manzella was visiting her parents at their Rehoboth home. Tracy and her siblings had grown up in the house, which is situated on a very woodsy road. As a child, Tracy had always felt like something in the woods was watching her whenever she was outside, but she never saw anything strange. 

Rehoboth sits within the fabled Bridgewater Triangle, and although Tracy was aware of the legends and paranormal sightings associated with the Triangle she had never seen anything strange herself. Members of her family had seen strange lights in the sky or near their house, but not Tracy. Not until that cold, drizzly, spring day in 2019

Tracy had gone for a run on the country roads near her parents' house. As she made her way back, she passed by an old cemetery that sits nestled in the woods about fifty feet from the road. She had gone by it countless times before, but this time as she ran by she saw something very strange. An enormous creature stood in front of the cemetery gates.

Image from the film Abominable (2006)

The creature was humanoid, and covered in stringy red hair. It was massively built, with broad shoulders and a broad chest. It was also really, really tall. Tracy estimated it must have stood fifteen feet high. It reminded her of an ogre or a troll.

What stood out most about this fantastic creature, though, was its face. Although it was not close to the road, Tracy could see fangs, and its gray-skinned face was demonic-looking. She sensed that the creature was evil. 

Tracy was terrified. She was afraid the creature would notice her and chase after her. Luckily it didn't. Tracy ran back to her parents' house, where she drew a picture for her mother of what she had seen. 

She has not seen anything strange since then. In October, 2020, Tracy Manzella told a Taunton Gazette reporter the following:

"It's the last experience in the Bridgewater Triangle that I would have personally wanted to have. Not because of how scary it was, or unsettling, but simply because of all of the legends of the Bridgewater Triangle that I have read about over the years or learned about. To me, the Bigfoot sightings always seemed like the most ridiculous and far-fetched of all of the things that people have seen," she said. "...I just feel like this particular experience is so outlandish that it's hard to believe if someone tells you that this is what they've seen." ("Exploring the Bridgewater Triangle: Our reporter and photographer head out when the lights go down and the legends come out," The Enterprise, October 27, 2020).

In some ways, her encounter seems like a typical Bigfoot sighting: a large hairy humanoid was briefly seen in the woods. On the other hand, the creature was really big, even for Bigfoot. Fifteen feet tall is enormous! The fangs, demonic face, and overall evil vibe are also atypical for Bigfoot sightings. 

Local paranormal investigator Christopher Pittman was quoted in the podcast, saying that almost everyone who reports seeing a Bigfoot in the Bridgewater Triangle describes something slightly different. Witnesses describe creatures of different heights, with different colored fur, and a variety of faces. None of them are the same. So perhaps there isn't a typical Bigfoot encounter, even in relatively small area like the Bridgewater Triangle. 

I don't think that Bigfoot is a physical animal, although many people would disagree with me. I think people who encounter Bigfoot are probably having a mystical experience of some kind, and that Bigfoot is a land spirit or genius loci, as the Romans would call it. The Romans and Greeks believed the wilderness was haunted by satyrs, centaurs, and nymphs. In America, we believe it's haunted by a large hairy humanoid. 

The fact that Tracy saw the giant creature near a cemetery also seems significant somehow, as does its menacing appearance. Cemeteries are of course believed to host to a variety of supernatural beings, including ghosts, vampires, and occasionally demons, but the way this creature blocked the cemetery gate immediately made me think it was some type of guardian.


In several European cultures, people believe that a cemetery is guarded by the spirit of the first being buried there. In many cases the guardian will be a human spirit, but sometimes it might be the spirit of an animal that was killed and buried explicitly for this purpose. For example, in England cemeteries are often guarded by spectral black dogs (called church grims) which are believed to be the ghosts of dogs killed and buried there. Cemetery guardians need not be so specific, either. A local friend of mine will pour out water or leave a coin for the guardian when he visits a cemetery, but I think he just considers the guardian the spirit of the place, not the soul of the first creature buried there. 

So did Tracy Manzella see the cemetery's guardian spirit? I really don't know, and it's not something that can be proven, but the creature's size, position and terrifying visage certainly would prevent anyone from entering that graveyard. It's just speculation on my part, and I certainly don't think the first being buried in the cemetery was a fifteen-foot demonic creature. She may have experienced something else entirely, but I enjoy tying these modern paranormal encounters with older streams of myth and folklore.   

June 13, 2021

A Vermont Black Cat Death Curse

 Many years ago, a farmer was walking home through the countryside late at night. He felt a little spooked because the road was dark and lonely.

After walking for a while he saw a strange procession walking towards him in the gloom. Nine black cats were carrying a tiny black coffin draped in velvet. It was a funeral procession. 

As the cats walked past him, one turned to the farmer and said, "Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum is dead." The farmer was too shocked to reply and the cats processed off into the darkness.

The farmer was relieved to get home. The fireplace cast a cheery glow, and his wife greeted him with a bowl of warm soup. Their cat lay sleeping by the fire, as it did most nights. Everything seemed normal. 

As he ate his soup, he told his wife what he had seen. "And then," he said, "one of the cats turned and spoke to me. It said, 'Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum is dead.' What do you think that means? Who is Tom Tildrum or Tim Toldrum?"

Upon hearing this, the farmer's cat opened its eyes and stood on its hind legs. It seemed to grow in size and importance. The cat said, "Tim Toldrum's dead? Then I'm the King of the Cats!" It howled triumphantly and flew up the chimney, never to be seen again. 

*****

You may have heard that story before. It's an old folk tale called, appropriately enough, the King of the Cats. There are many versions of it, mainly from England, Scotland, and Ireland, but there are some from continental Europe as well. The gist of the stories is usually the same, although the cat names vary: Dildrum and Doldrum, or Madam Momfort and Mally Dixon, or Dan Ratcliffe and Peggy Poison. At the end, though, the humans always discover their humble domestic pet was secretly a special supernatural being. 


A strange New England version of King of the Cats was printed in The Journal of American Folklore in 1908. Author Clara Kern Bayliss noted the following:

WITCHCRAFT - At Shaftsbury, Vermont, eighty years ago, the belief in witches was quite general, and even the children knew the rhyme which brought disaster into the family circle; for it often happened that a witch would come down the chimney in the form of a black cat, and say, - 

"I, Tattaru,  

Tell you

To tell Tatterrier

That sits by the fire

That Tatterags is dead."

And soon after that some of those sitting around the fireplace would sicken and die. (Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 21, No. 82 (Oct - Dec., 1908), p. 363)

The similarities with the King of the Cats story are obvious. The black cat which speaks, the cryptic names and announcement of a death, and even the fireplace - all of these are shared with other versions of the story. But rather than ending in a surprise revelation, the Vermont version ends in death. 

It's kind of strange to see a playful story transformed in this way, but it's totally understandable given New England's history and culture. England, Scotland, and Ireland have lots of lore about fairies and other magical beings. A story whose ending reveals that a common house cat is magical nobility fits in well with fairy lore, and some version of the King of Cats are explicitly about fairies.

When the Puritans colonized New England they did not bring their mother country's fairy lore with them. However, they did bring lore about witches. Lots and lots of it! 

It was believed that witches could transform themselves into animals, and sometimes even speak in animal form. So in the Puritan worldview, a talking cat would not be feline nobility or a fairy, but would instead be a malevolent witch. And what do witches do? Cause misery and death. The core for the story remains, but the ending is quite different and reflects old New England's grim culture. 

One thing I really like about Bayliss's account is this:

...for it often happened that a witch would come down the chimney in the form of a black cat...

I have so many questions about that word "often." Was this a weekly occurrence? Monthly? Life in 19th century Vermont sounds really dangerous. It makes me glad I don't have a fireplace. 

June 06, 2021

The Devil Made Me Do It: Is The New Conjuring Film True?

I'm a big horror movie fan, and enjoyed the first two Conjuring films, The Conjuring (2103) and The Conjuring 2 (2016). Both films are based on supposedly true cases examined by Ed and Lorraine Warren, Connecticut paranormal investigators. Played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, in these films the Warrens are portrayed as clean-cut, devout Catholics who are deeply in love with each other. I think their relationship is one of the reasons the Conjuring movies stand out in the crowded horror field. Ed and Lorraine are so wholesome it's almost comical at times. 

The real-life Warrens are now deceased, and a 2017 article in The Hollywood Reporter suggests they may not have been as wholesome as their film counterparts. According to the Reporter, Ed Warren initiated a relationship with a 15-year old girl when he was in his 30s and married to Lorraine. The girl eventually moved in with the Warrens and lived with them for forty years. At one point, the girl became pregnant with Ed's child and Lorraine arranged for her to have an abortion, something clearly at odds with the Warrens' public image as strict Catholics. 

A scene from The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.

So what does it mean when a movie like The Conjuring says it's "Based on a true story?" Very little, I think. It's marketing, and not a legally defensible claim. Take it with a big grain of salt. You certainly won't see Ed Warren having sex with teenage girls in the Conjuring movies, or his wife arranging for an abortion. And I think that's OK, as long as you realize the movies are basically fiction.

The newest Conjuring movie has just been released: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. It's a great title, and once again it's supposedly based on a true case investigated by the Warrens. 

Here are the facts of the case. On February 16, 1981, nineteen-year old Arne Cheyenne Johnson of Brookfield, Connecticut, stabbed his landlord, Alan Bono, several times in the chest with a knife. Johnson's fiancee, Debbie Glatzel, watched as it happened and later testified that Johnson growled like an animal as he did it. 

Johnson was arrested and charged with murder. When asked why he killed Bono, Johnson said, "The Devil made me do it." He claimed he was possessed by a demon. 

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

It had started the previous summer. On July 3, 1980, Debbie Glatzel's brother, 11-year old David, woke up in a panic. He said he had seen a demon in his sleep, "a man with big black eyes, a thin face with animal features and jagged teeth, pointed ears, horns and hoofs." David continued to see the demon throughout the summer, and a house-blessing by the a local priest did nothing to stop his visions. David sometimes even saw the demon in the daytime, when it appeared as an old man wearing a flannel shirt and jeans. According to People magazine:

In desperation, the Glatzels called on a couple from nearby Monroe, Conn. who are self-styled “demonologists.” Ed and Lorraine Warren, both 54, were professional artists until 1968, when they decided to pursue what was until then an avocation, the occult. Though they accept no fees for conducting demonic investigations, they lecture indefatigably (at up to $1,000 per), and once hosted a weekly local TV show, Ghost Hunting With Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Lorraine, who also claims the gift of clairvoyancy, describes her first encounter with David Glatzel: “While Ed interviewed the boy, I saw a black, misty form next to him, which told me we were dealing with something of a negative nature. Soon the child was complaining that invisible hands were choking him—and there were red marks on him. He said that he had the feeling of being hit.” ("In a Connecticut Murder Trial, Will (Demonic) Possession Prove Nine-Tenths of the Law?", People, October 26, 1981)

The Warrens believed there were 43 demons inside David, and coordinated several exorcisms. They had little effect. At one point, in desperation, Arne Cheyenne Johnson taunted the demons to enter his body instead. Again, it had little effect. David was eventually sent to a private school for "disturbed children."

Johnson seemed changed, though. After his taunt during the exorcism, he too claimed to see the demon that David had seen, and Debbie later testified he fell into trances in the months leading up to Bono's murder. 

On February 16, Johnson and Debbie Glatzel were taken to lunch by Alan Bono, who was Debbie's boss at a kennel and was also their landlord. Johnson's sister Wanda and Glatzel's nine-year old cousin Mary joined them. Bono supposedly drank heavily during lunch, and later that day became agitated and grabbed Mary. Johnson argued with Bono, and stabbed him several times in the chest and stomach. Johnson then walked into the woods, where he was found by the police. It was the first murder in Brookfield's 193-year history. Johnson was convicted of first-degree manslaughter and served five years of a 10 - 20 year prison sentence. 

After the trial ended, an author named Gerald Brittle published a book about the case, The Devil in Connecticut, which was written with help from Lorraine Warren. When the book was republished in 2006, Brittle was sued by David Glatzel and his brother Carl for misrepresenting them in the book. Carl also claimed his brother's possession had been a hoax created by the Warrens to take advantage of David's mental illness. Arne Cheyenne Johnson and Debbie Glatzel, who were by this point married, stood by the Warrens and author Brittle, claiming they accurately presented the situation. 

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

So there you go. Were David Glatzel and Arne Cheyenne Johnson really possessed by demons, or were the Warrens taking advantage of a mentally ill boy? I can't say, but it's interesting that David, the subject of the Warrens' exorcisms, now claims he was not possessed. 

The judge in Johnson's trial didn't accept his claim of demonic possession. As we all learned from the 1692 Salem witch trials, it's impossible to prove the Devil's existence in court.

'Demon' defense rejected in Conn. murder trial.

Danbury, Conn. - A Superior Court judge yesterday refused to allow a much-publicized "demon defense" to be used in the murder trial of a Connecticut man. 

The defense strategy was to try to prove that Arne Cheyenne Johnson was possessed by demons when he allegedly stabbed a neighbor to death eight months ago. 

The jury process had just begun when Judge Robert Callahan said the defense that attorney Martin Minnella planned was "irrelevant and I am not going allow it, period." (Boston Globe, October 29, 1981)

I haven't seen The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It yet, but have seen the trailer. It shows Arne Cheyenne Johnson walking down the road covered in blood, Lorraine Warren being dragged off a cliff by a monstrous arm, a little boy getting pulled into a waterbed, and Lorraine Warren saying, "It's a witch's totem. We think your family was cursed, and that connection is still open." 

It looks like a great horror movie, but is it a true story? Probably not. Horror movies require literal monsters, but the real situation in Brookfield seems complicated and nuanced.