September 20, 2017

A Weed That Cures Witchcraft and Elf-Sickness

Today is cloudy and dark. A hurricane is churning off the coast. Autumn officially starts in a few days. All this puts me in the mood for some witchcraft. So here goes!

Whenever I walk around the Boston area, I see a lot of plants growing wild. They grow in yards, they grow in parks, they grow in empty lots and along the sidewalks. I suppose you might call them weeds, but that term seems a little derogatory, doesn't it? Many of these plants are actually herbs that historically have been associated with healing. We've just forgotten what they were used for.

Some of them I recognize, like mugwort, dandelion, and mullein, but I'm still learning the names of others. For example, I believe this inconspicuous looking plant growing on Memorial Drive is actually dock weed (or dock). I'm glad to know where it is. It might come in handy in case I am bewitched or afflicted by elves.


According to Pamela Jones's book Just Weeds: History, Myths and Uses (1994), the Medieval Anglo-Saxons valued dock weed as a cure for "elf-sickness." Like many other Europeans, the Anglo-Saxons believed that elves shot people with invisible arrows and made them sick. Many Anglo-Saxon sources also link elves with witches since they were both sources of illness and suffering.

For example, one Anglo-Saxon book of cures contains a recipe for an herbal salve to treat sickness caused by "the elfin race and nocturnal goblin visitors and for the women with whom the devil hath carnal commerce." Another such book has a chapter dedicated to cures against "every evil wisewoman and the elfin race," while another, the Lacnunga, lists witches, elves, and Norse gods as possible causes for illness.

The Puritans who colonized New England did not worry about Norse gods, and they didn't really worry much about elves either. But they worried about witches a lot. A lot. The Salem witch trials of 1692 are the most famous New England trials, but there were many others before them, and even a few afterwards. For the Puritan settlers, witches were a real concern and they were always looking for ways to combat their malevolent magic.

For example, in 1685 a woman living in East Hampton, Connecticut* named Elizabeth Howell became strangely ill. She felt sharp piercing pains as if being stuck with pins, and claimed to see a strange black creature lurking at the foot of her bed. She also supposedly vomited up a pin. Before she died, Howell cried out that she was being bewitched by a neighbor, Elizabeth Garlick.

Goody Garlick was arrested and brought to trial for witchcraft. Several people testified against her, including one Goodwife Simons, who claimed that while suffering from fits two neighbors arrived with dock weed to cure her illness. When she learned that the dock weed had been provided by Goody Garlick she threw it onto the fire. She suspected that Goody Garlick was bewitching her and didn't trust the dock weed. Perhaps it would just make her feel worse! But it's clear that her neighbors thought the dock weed would help cure her. I think it's fascinating that a centuries-old belief dating back to the Anglo-Saxons appeared in 17th century Connecticut.

So there you go. Random weeds growing near the sidewalk actually have a connection to witchcraft, and perhaps even elves. New England is a great place to live!

*****

* East Hampton is now part of New York but for a time in the 1600s it was part of Connecticut. 

I got most of my information about Goody Garlick and the dock weed from this Smithsonian article and this article in the East Hampton Star. I also found another Anglo-Saxon leech book that mentions burning herbs as a cure for elf-sickness, but historians don't seem to think that is why Goodwife Simons threw the dock weed into her fire. 

September 12, 2017

Bradford College: The Necronomicon, Strange Lights, and Ghosts

What is it about colleges and ghost stories? It seems like most colleges have at least one restless spirit wandering their hallowed halls. Maybe it's because young people are more perceptive of the supernatural, or maybe it's just that young people like a good scary story. Either way, if you want to find a ghost college campuses are a good place to look.

I grew up in Haverhill, Massachusetts. When I lived there it was home to two colleges: Northern Essex Community College (NECCO to the locals) and Bradford College. I've never heard any ghost stories about NECCO, and Renee Mallett, author Haunted Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts, writes that "...it's not haunted in the slightest, at least as far as anyone has come forward to say." It's not a residential campus so that might be the reason why.

Bradford College, on the other hand, is the setting for many ghostly encounters and paranormal legends. Perhaps this is because it was home to thousands of young people for nearly two centuries. Bradford was founded as an academy for girls back in 1803, became a junior college in 1932 and then a four-year co-ed college in 1971. Bradford College closed in 2000 for financial reasons, and it's campus is now home to Northpoint Bible College.

Photo by Stephen Muise (my brother!)
My favorite story about Bradford College is that the Necronomicon, a legendary book of malevolent magic, is hidden somewhere in the tunnels beneath the campus. The tunnels are quite real, and a colleague of mine who attended Bradford said they were originally built so the wealthy young ladies of Bradford Academy didn't need to go outside in inclement weather. According to the legend, horror author H.P. Lovecraft was dating one of these young ladies in the 1920s and decided to hide the Necronomicon below the campus to keep it safely hidden away.

There are a couple reasons why this story is almost certainly just a legend. First, the fabled Necronomicon is not real. This mythical book was a fictional creation  Lovecraft used in many of his tales but it did not exist outside the pages of his stories. After his death several authors published their own versions of the Necronomicon, which you can still buy from Amazon or your local bookstore. I can't vouch for their magical efficacy, but they certainly aren't hidden under Bradford College.

The second reason this is just a legend? Lovecraft never dated anyone. There's no record of him having romantic feelings for anyone until he met his wife, and even then she talked him into their short-lived marriage. Lovecraft dating someone is more unbelievable than the Necronomicon.

Photo: Stephen Muise
A weirder and somehow more believable ghost story about Bradford was sent to me by someone who reads my blog. I'll call him Greg for the sake of anonymity. Greg was a freshman at Bradford College in 1980. One night in late September or early October of that year, Greg and some other freshmen were carrying a case of beer into their dorm when a sophomore named Larry stopped them in the hall. He explained that he didn't want to be alone that night. It was the one-year anniversary of something strange that happened.

He told them the following story. One year ago, Larry, his roommate Ray, and a couple other students decided to take LSD on a Friday afternoon after class. They had planned to take it outside on the beautiful campus, but rainy weather confined them to Larry and Ray's room. Things went poorly. As the acid kicked in Ray became extremely paranoid, and began to rant about a flashing red light in the corner of the room. No one else could see it. Ray started to scream accusingly at his friends so they left him alone (and tripping) in his room. Hours later Ray was still screaming about the flashing red light and was taken to the school medical facility. He never came back to his room, and several days later his father came and collected his belongings. No one ever learned what happened to Ray.

That was the end of Larry's story. Greg and the other freshmen kind of laughed at it, but a few weeks later Greg experienced something that made him reconsider the story. Greg had been hanging out in Larry's room and as he left he saw the words "WELCOME BACK RAY" appear on the door. They vanished as soon as he read them. This freaked Greg out but he didn't say anything.

The appearance of those words was the start of some weird occurrences in the dormitory. One night Greg was awakened by someone screaming in the room next to him. He listened through the wall but couldn't make out what was causing the commotion. Several days later he learned that one of the boys in that room had left Bradford College and gone back to live at his parents' house. The boy was upset because he kept seeing a flashing red light.

Greg also started to see a flashing red light, often out of the corner of his eye. Greg wrote, "I thought that either it was just my imagination or this dorm was really haunted and I was going to be its victim in some way." He had trouble concentrating and his grades began to fall. During this time Greg learned that another student had also supposedly seen a red flashing light, this time in the bathroom while he was drunk.

Hearing this did nothing to settle Greg's nerves. He continued to see the red light, his grades continued to fall, and he became deeply depressed. In the spring of 1981 he finally hitchhiked home and never returned to Bradford.

That's the end of Greg's story. I find it really fascinating and don't quite know what to make of it. Greg seems to think that "WELCOME BACK RAY" was a premonition that like Ray he too would eventually drop out of Bradford. If that's the case it came true. And did Ray's initial bad acid trip accidentally open a doorway for something uncanny to come through?

Photo: Stephen Muise
That story about the flashing red light is just one of many told about Bradford College. The most famous ghost story is that the campus is haunted by a spirit called Amy, who was a young woman who had an affair with a priest. When she became pregnant she either killed herself or was murdered by the priest. The college is also said to be haunted by the ghost of a drama professor who was murdered by student who impregnated her. Yikes! That's a lot of sex and violence for such a small college.

Are any of these stories true? I can't really say, but the folks at Ghost Encounters have investigated Bradford College and you can read their results here. Sometimes when you to college you learn things you didn't expect.

September 04, 2017

Milton's Ghost Road

I always imagine that Labor Day weekend will be warm and sunny. You know, it's the end of summer so we should spend one last day at the beach or have a big picnic. That's not always the case, however. The Sunday of this past Labor Day weekend was cold and rainy. It felt more like November than September.

Tony and I went down to Milton, Massachusetts for a little day-trip in the raw weather. Our main goal was to visit the Eustis Estate, a huge 19th century house that was recently opened to the public by Historic New England. It's a really beautiful building with some amazing architectural details, and they've restored the interiors with period fabrics and wall treatments.



Since it was a gloomy day and the house was relatively empty I kept thinking of Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House. I don't mean that in a bad way either. The building has a lot of presence and would make a great setting for a movie. On a sunny day you might film something by Edith Wharton, but on a gloomy day it was definitely the setting for a horror movie.

Can you see the leaves changing? Autumn is coming early this year...
I didn't find any ghost stories associated with the Eustis Estate, but there is a haunted location in Milton just a few miles away. Although it just looks like a pleasant country road, Harland Street in Milton is supposed to be home to several ghosts. In fact, the locals call it Ghost Road. Perhaps I should write it this way: GHOST ROAD. That looks more frightening. And there are definitely some frightening stories attached to it.

The stretch of Harland Street between Hillside Street and Unquity Road has been said to be haunted for decades. According to Robert Ellis Cahill's book New England's Ghostly Haunts (1982), people living there complained so often of strange noises and ghostly apparitions that they finally brought in a group of psychic investigators.

This looks like a Ghost Road to me...
Two of the investigators, Elaine Favioli and Edward Ambermon, saw "jellyfish-like blobs with discernible ears and mouths," while other spirits appeared in human form. One was a woman in a long gown, and the other was an American Indian the investigators named Mingo. A Ponkapoag Indian named Mingo did live in Milton, but I'm not sure if this is really his ghost or if the investigators just used his name. As Cahill notes, an Indian ghost named Mingo also haunted the Barnstable House on Cape Cod. Are they the same ghost or just two unfortunate souls with the same name?

Those jellyfish-like blobs sound pretty creepy, and Ghost Road keeps it's creepy reputation even today. Several people on message boards claim the road is haunted by a family that walks up and down the road at night, and that the family is made up of an Indian ghost named Mingo, a headless Puritan woman, and her child.

Other people say they've encountered a man walking up and down Ghost Road late at night. No one knows who he is, and he refuses to show his face. A black car has also been spotted parked by the side of the road. It flashes its lights at everyone who drives past. Are the two related somehow? All of these ghosts (plus horrifying unearthly shrieks) are only manifest during the night. Happily Tony and I went during the day.

Ghost Road passes through swampy conservation land and Tony wondered why people often report paranormal activity near swamps, like this one or the Hockomock Swamp in the Bridgewater Triangle. It's a good question. I suppose one could argue people are misinterpreting natural phenomena as ghostly activity. Swamps are dark and full of wildlife, so maybe people hear frogs or foxes and think they are hearing human voices. Luminous swamp gas might be interpreted as glowing ghosts.


Still, that wouldn't explain things like a family of ghosts walking in the night or a black car parked by the side of the road. Swamps tend to be undeveloped (and therefore very dark at night) so perhaps they serve as blank slates onto which we can project our fears, be they restless Indians whose land we stole or faceless men who lurk in our neighborhoods.

Finally, I'll just point out that local American Indian tribes viewed swamps as gateways to the underworld. They felt they were good places to contact spirits and their shamans would visit swamps to find spirit allies or seek visions. They were not evil places but places of power. Maybe people today are seeing the spirits that have always been there but just filtered through a modern American worldview.

August 29, 2017

Howling In The Woods: A Terrifying Tarzan In Wellfleet

Imagine yourself alone in the woods on a late autumn evening. The leaves are down and bare tree branches rattle in a chill wind blowing off the nearby ocean. It's quiet. All you can hear is the sound of dry leaves crunching underfoot. Maybe the smell of snow is in the air.

Suddenly, in the deepening gloom, you hear a howl. You can't tell where it's coming from but it sounds close. You pause. Maybe it was just a dog?

Then you hear it again. It sounds closer this time. It's definitely not a dog. Is it a human? Maybe, or maybe it's something you don't want to face alone in the dark woods.

The thing howls again, even closer, and fear overpowers curiosity. You run for home like the Devil himself is behind you. For all you know, maybe he is.


In December of 1939, the Cape Cod town of Wellfleet was plagued by someone (or something) that screamed and howled in the night. It was a season for strange apparitions on the Outer Cape, for the this was the same time that Provincetown's more famous Black Flash was running amok a few miles down Route 6. Unlike the Black Flash, though, no one ever saw the source of the strange howls that were heard in Wellfleet. He, she, or it remained unseen.


The noises were focused in Wellfleet's Paine Hollow neighborhood, and were heard only at night. Some locals jokingly said they were being made by Tarzan, but others took the noises seriously enough to form an armed mob:
‘Tarzan’, in case you don’t know, is the name of our local phantom, a sequel to Provincetown’s ‘Black Flash’, maybe. Anyhow, the people were out the other night, armed with clubs and hammers and shot guns to track down the source of the strange noises that had tormented them for days. They combed Paine Hollow with minute precision, but ‘Tarzan’ remained elusive. (The Provincetown Advocate, "Tarzan Is Making Wellfleet Uneasy", December 14, 1939)
I suppose the noises were most likely made by a hoaxer, but The Advocate also suggests it was a local bull unhappy that his owner had locked him up during deer hunting season. Whatever it was, it's never a laughing matter when armed people go stomping through the woods looking to find a monster. Anxiety was running high that year on the Outer Cape. A sea serpent had been found in January in Provincetown, fishermen were afraid Nazi U-boats were lurking under the waves, and the Black Flash had terrorized Provincetown a few weeks earlier. People were stressed and ready to shoot something.


Happily, no one was shot and I couldn't find any information about the Wellfleet Tarzan beyond that one article. Maybe the hoaxer quit when he learned about the armed mob, maybe the cow stopped complaining, or maybe Tarzan swung back to the jungle. Either way, Tarzan made an impression on the people of Wellfleet:

The residents scoff at the thought of a phantom ‘Tarzan’ swinging through the tree tops South Wellfleet, yodeling like a sick sea-clam to scare little boys. But the good neighbors look beneath their beds before retiring these nights - I betcha! (The Provincetown Advocate, "Tarzan Is Making Wellfleet Uneasy", December 14, 1939) 

August 20, 2017

Something Monstrous Is Out There: The Truro Wild Man of 1879

I am fascinated by old stories about wild men in New England. What is a wild man? Well, I'm sure you're familiar with Sasquatch, who is said to be large, hairy and humanoid. Before the concept of Sasquatch caught on in the 20th century, though, folks in these parts reported seeing wild men. And yes, I just used the phrase "folks in these parts." It makes me feel like I should be smoking a corn cob pipe, but it's a good gender neutral descriptor and I'm letting it stay.

Anyway, back to the wild men. Unlike Sasquatch, who is supposedly a distinct species of animal, wild men are a little more ambiguous. The term was used to describe all sorts of strange beings: apelike monsters, humanoids covered in hair, and even people with mental illness who lived in the woods. A wild man was basically any human (or human-shaped) being who dwelt outside the boundaries of society. Invariably they elicited a terrified reaction from anyone who saw them.

Cornhill Beach in Truro
For example, citizens of Truro, Massachusetts were terrified when a wild man appeared in that Cape Cod town in May of 1879. I spend time in Turo every summer, and even though it's now a beautiful vacation town there are still a lot of big empty spaces. You can walk in the woods for hours and not see anyone, and even the beaches are devoid of other people at certain times of day. I suppose it's not surprising that a wild man would appear there.

The Truro wild man was first seen crawling in and out of the windows of an abandoned house by a group of school children. They of course reacted with terror and ran home to tell their parents they had seen a monster. The children described the wild man as gigantic and shirtless.

At first the adults in town didn't take the story seriously, but the children continued to see the wild man for several days in the vicinity of the abandoned house. Fear spread through the neighborhood and a search party was finally formed to find the wild man. They searched the abandoned house and the area around it but did not find the monster. It seemed that he had escaped.


The identity of the wild man was revealed a few days later. He was not a monster after all, but was actually a "well-disposed" man of Portuguese descent who was interested in buying the abandoned house. Apparently he had been climbing through the window so he could see what the interior looked like before he purchased the property. I don't know why he was shirtless.

That information comes from the May 29, 1879 issue of The Provincetown Advocate. Although in the end there was no actual wild man, I find it fascinating that both children and adults thought there could be a monstrous hairy humanoid wandering through town. Even if a real wild man was not in Truro there were wild men lurking in the shared Truro subconscious.


It's also interesting that the wild man in question was really someone Portuguese. People of Portuguese descent now compose a big part of the population in southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod, but there was a time when mostly people of English ancestry lived in those areas. The kids in Truro were basically freaked out by someone from a different ethnic group. It's good that the story had a happy ending and that the "wild man" was not shot by a search party.