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?


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.


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. 


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!