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.