November 06, 2018

Was Ann Burt A Witch? A Story for A Dark November Night

Halloween is America's designated 'spooky' holiday, but for me it is really just the kickoff to an entire spooky season. As the days grow shorter and the foliage falls the landscape is transformed. Summer is gone and there's no turning back now. We're sliding into the increasing darkness of winter, and atavistic fears and impulses emerge even in the daytime, which is growing ever more scant. 

I guess that's a fancy way to say that my mind drifts to old stories of witches, ghosts and monsters at this time of year. Luckily, there are a lot of those stories to be found in New England, and some of them are even supposedly true. Here's an account of witchcraft from Lynn, Massachusetts from the long-ago year of 1670, when one Ann Burt was put on trial for being a witch.

Ann Burt arrived in Lynn from England in 1635 with her husband. She made her living as a healer, which was often a risky profession for women at the time. If a patient died, people might think you were a witch who used magic to kill them. If your patients did well, people might think you were using magic to heal them, in which case you were also a witch. So perhaps it is not surprising that after Burt's husband died around 1669 people accused her of witchcraft.


Various neighbors and clients testified against her. A young woman named Sara Townsend claimed that Burt said she could heal her, but only if she believed in "her god." Burt also said she was unable to save her own husband's life because he wouldn't believe. The nebulous term "her god" implies that Burt was not worshipping the Christian god but some other being, i.e. the Devil. After confessing this Townsend experienced fits which a physician (who was male and most likely one of Burt's professional rivals) said had no physical cause. Thomas Farrar, another Lynn resident, claimed that Burt tormented his two daughters and son in spectral form.

Several other people testified that Burt had the power to magically transport herself across space. A man named John Knight claimed that after leaving his house on an errand for his wife he saw Burt emerging from a swamp. She almost immediately vanished from sight. When he returned to his house he found Burt inside. She claimed she had never been in the swamp.

Another Knight, Jacob, age 25, told an even more bizarre story about Burt. Jacob Knight testified that while staying at the home of a Mr. Cobbet, where Burt was also living, he developed a headache. He mentioned it to Burt and then returned to his bedroom, which was separated by several doors from the room where he spoke with her. But when he looked up from tying his shoes he saw Burt was suddenly in his chamber, holding a bottle of medicine.  Upon her urging he drank its contents which made his symptoms worse.

After this Jacob Knight decided to leave Mr. Cobbet's house to stay with his brother in Salem, but he said that Burt perused him.
... and going to Salem, I saw a cat, which being out of sight again, I presently saw a dog it being likewise out of sight, I saw one before me, like unto Widow Burt, going before me down a hill as I was going up it, and so I lost sight of her.
That night, looking out the window of his brother's Salem house, Knight saw Burt riding a gray horse outside. She disappeared, but came to him again in his bedchamber later. He threw a piece of wood at her and she vanished.

Those stories are kind of creepy, particularly Jacob Knight's story of Burt stalking him in different forms. A witch riding a horse outside your house is like something from a nightmare. I don't know what month this allegedly happened, but to me the image is very evocative of this time of year. 

But it's also not true. It gives insight into Puritan ideas about witchcraft, but Burt wasn't really a witch. She was just an elderly widow who got on the bad side of her neighbors. As I mentioned before, witchcraft accusations were a professional hazard for women healers in the 17th century, and at least three other female healers were accused of witchcraft in that time. One of them, Margaret Jones of Charlestown, was even executed.

Ann Burt was not executed, as far as historians can tell, and might even have been found innocent of the charge of witchcraft. Unfortunately the records surrounding her trial are incomplete, but it seems likely someone would have noted if she had been executed. So, perhaps a happy ending for Goody Burt?

I always have two reactions when I read these old witch stories. On one hand, I'm fascinated by their descriptions of uncanny occurrences and magic. They conjure up images of bleak landscapes, old houses with smoky hearths, sinister beasts, and neighbors with dark secrets. On the other hand, I realize that the witches in these stories were nothing of the sort. They were people who were unpopular with their fellow Puritans, often non-conformist women who earned the ire of the community. Innocent people were punished and sometimes died because of these stories. 

It's important to keep both of these in mind as we slide into the dark time of the year. It's nice to enjoy the old spooky stories, but important to realize what happens when you believe them too literally. We need to keep our wits and stay rational until the days start to grow longer again. 


*****

I got my information about Ann Burt's trial from David Hall's Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England. It's a great book that I always shows me new things.

October 28, 2018

Halloween Treats: A Big Cat, Monsters in Leominster, and More Ghost Chronicles

It's hard to believe Halloween is only three days away. Here are a few treats to get you through the next few days that I've found in the media. 

ANOTHER BIG FELINE IN BROOKLINE

A few weeks ago I posted about an alleged mountain lion sighting in an urban section of Brookline, Massachusetts. I didn't really know what to make of it, but now I wonder if there really is some large cat roaming around town. On October 5, someone called the Brookline Police to report a bobcat on Shaw Road. Here is the item from the October 11 issue of The Brookline Tab:

Bobcat on Shaw Road: At 10:51 a.m., a caller reported seeing a bobcat cross the road and said the animal was "much, much larger than a domestic animal." The caller thought the area should be checked. 

Shaw Road is several miles from the location of the first sighting, and is also in an area with more open space (cemeteries, parks, and woods). While the first sighting happened at night, this second sighting happened in broad daylight. Bobcats can live in suburban areas so maybe one is indeed living in Brookline?


MONSTERS AND ALIENS IN LEOMINSTER

The Boston Herald ran an article about paranormal activity in Leominster, Massachusetts. The October 21 article titled "Talk of UFOs, ghosts turns Massachusetts City into 'Leomonster'" focuses mainly on Leominster resident Ronny LeBlanc who in 2016 wrote a book about his hometown called Monsterland. LeBlanc collected hundreds of stories for his book, so it sounds like something I should add to my holiday wish list. Here is an interesting quote from the Herald piece:

LeBlanc took the Herald to all the hot spots around Leominster, like St. Leo’s cemetery on Lancaster Street where in the 1960s, a couple witnessed a flying saucer emerge from fog, prompting them to call the police. The man who saw the saucer claimed his hand and body was frozen upon pointing to the saucer, only to be released when it flew away. 
Leominster State Forest, another spot mentioned in LeBlanc’s book, has yielded several reports of Bigfoot prints and Sasquatch sightings. 
LeBlanc said he isn’t completely sure why these encounters continue to happen in Leominster, but “it might be something that we don’t want to know.”

Another Leominster resident, Susan Spuhler, had this to say: “There are certain energetic lines that run around the earth. And Leominster, from what I’ve studied over time, has a certain energetic quality to it,” she said. 

Photo from Boston Herald. 
I applaud anyone who investigates the strange stories and folklore of their hometowns. Books like Monsterland are valuable records of what people in 21st century New England believe about the places they live. They are also good to read on dark autumn nights!

MORE GHOST CHRONICLES

Speaking of spooky books, Weiser Books kindly sent me a copy of Maureen Wood and Ron Kolek's book More Ghost Chronicles to review. Wood and Kolek are paranormal investigators who host a popular radio show called Ghost Chronicles, and their book highlights fifteen recent investigations. 

Twelve of them take place across New England. Wood and Kolek visit old lighthouses, haunted restaurants, charming inns (built next to creepy old cemeteries), and even a few places I've visited like Dudley Road and the Freetown State Forest. 


My trip to Dudley Road was relatively uneventful, but theirs is a little more lively. For example, here is an excerpt where Kolek and Wood try to communicate with the spirits of Dudley Road using a pendulum on a dark night. They are trying to figure out how many ghosts haunt the road.

The pendulum responded quickly, while Maureen continued her questioning. "Are there more than one, more than three? Are there more than five?" 
Once again, the answer was a yes.  
I asked, "Do they know the rumors about the haunting of Dudley Road?" 
Maureen nodded. "Yes. Yes, they do." 
I continued. "Do they play games with the people who come to look for them?" 
The pendulum swung back and forth. She laughed out loud. "Sometimes." (More Ghost Chronicles, p. 30)

Watch out for self-aware ghosts, I guess. Although my trip to Dudley Road was peaceful, I did find the Freetown State Forest to be kind of unnerving when I visited although I can't pinpoint why. Was it the sounds of gunfire from a nearby firing range? The group of drugged-out teenagers we encountered on a secluded path? The sound of dead trees creaking in the wind? All of these?

Or perhaps it was really the puckwudgies, small malevolent fairies who are said to live in the forest. Wood and Kolek have an even more unnerving visit than I did, with Wood becoming briefly and frighteningly possessed by the spirit of a puckwudgie. This is why I only go to these places during the day!

So, if you like good old-fashioned ghost investigations with creaking doors, rosaries that shatter, and misty figures advancing through the dark woods I think you will like More Ghost Chronicles. And at this time of year, who doesn't like those things?

Happy Halloween everyone!

October 21, 2018

Halloween Love Magic and Summoning Demons

People in 19th century New England often celebrated Halloween by performing love magic. Halloween did have the spooky supernatural aspect we love today but it was also a time for romance and discovering your future spouse. This was particularly true for girls or young women, who would perform a variety of rituals aimed on Halloween night designed to identify who they would marry.

These rituals were often called "projects," which sounds much less threatening than ritual, rite, or even magic spell. Still, they are clearly folk magic and folklore books from the 19th century contain many accounts of Halloween projects. They were performed with simple ingredients that almost anyone could acquire, like a cabbage, cornmeal, or a small dish of dirt.

One popular project requires nothing more than a ball of string. To find out the identity of your true love, do the following at midnight on Halloween. Take a ball of string and walk to a well, an old barn or an abandoned house. If none of those are available even a cellar or basement will do. You just need an empty structure of some kind. 

Turn your back and throw the ball of string over your shoulder into the barn, well or cellar. Then, with your back still turned, began to wind the string back into a ball. As you wind it, recite the following rhyme:

I wind, I wind, my true love to find,
The color of his hair, the clothes he’ll wear,
The day he is married to me.

Your true love should appear and wind the string with you. 

Someone in Maine contributed that to Fanny Bergren's 1896 book Current Superstitions. I can see why it would be appealing to a young person. You get to go someplace spooky at midnight (on Halloween no less), there's a special rhyme, and love is involved. It all sounds like harmless fun, right?


I think so, but apparently not everyone shares my opinion. A cautionary tale about this type of "project" appears in Frederic Denison's 1878 book Westerly (Rhode Island) and Its Witnesses. According to Denison, during the Revolutionary War two young women named Hannah Maxson and Comfort Cottrell were staying at the Westerly home of one Esquire Clark. One day while Mrs. Clark was bed-ridden from illness and the Esquire was away on business the two young ladies had to entertain themselves.

They decided to do some magic. Taking two balls of yarn, Hannah and Comfort went to a well and "tried to bring their beaus, by throwing each her ball of yarn into the well, and winding them off while they severally repeated a verse from the Scriptures, backwards." Completing their project, they proceeded to the front of the house to await the arrival of their true loves.

As the sun began to set they saw a tall figure walking down the road towards them. At first they were excited. Was it a rich handsome man? But as the figure drew nearer their excitement became terror. The tall figure was a monster! "It was some eight or ten feet high, and marched with a stately step, but with eyes, as they said, 'as big as saucers,' and breathing flame from his distended jaws." Hannah and Comfort fled into the house and hid behind the bed where Mrs. Clark lay ill and incapacitated. 

At this time Esquire Clark arrived home, entering through the back door. He could see through the glass panes over the front door "the steady unmistakable gaze of the demon" looking into the house.  Being a pious man, Esquire Clark immediately began to pray. At the sound of the holy words the monster departed into the darkness. Alas, its departure was too late for Mrs. Clark, whose weakened constitution could not endure the supernatural excitement and who died soon afterwards. The two young women gave up their experiments in magic and became devout Christians.

Frederic Denison found this story in a November 1860 issue of The Narragansett Weekly. It's author was one Deacon William H. Potter, a former resident of Westerly. Being a religious man, I guess his aim was to show the dangers of toying with the supernatural. I'm sure you noticed that the women in this story don't recite a cute little rhyme while winding the yarn. Instead, they recite Christian psalms backwards, a practice associated with summoning the Devil. The moral: folk magic will really summon the Devil, so don't do it!

Deacon Potter adds a strange epilogue to the story. Not being content to illustrate the dangers of magic, he goes on to claim the magic was not even real. According to Potter, the demon was actually a young neighbor, Daniel Rogers, who had seen Hannah and Comfort working on their project and decided to play a prank on them. Once it began to get dark he put a large pumpkin on his head and walked towards their house. He initially planned to reveal his identity but decided not to after seeing the terror he caused and learning of Mrs. Clark's death. Only seventy years later did he tell the truth about what had happened.


Gladys Tantaquidgeon, an anthropologist and Mohegan medicine woman, recorded a similar story from the Wampanoag of Martha's Vineyard in 1928. In this version of the story, a minister on Martha's Vineyard had four daughters. One night while he was away preaching they decided to try a "project." The details are not given, but it involved removing their undergarments and hanging them by the fireplace. Once they complete their spell a storm erupts and they hear something clawing at the door. The four sisters hide in terror. When their father comes home he sees a large monster, "part human and part animal" trying to enter the house, which departs upon his arrival. He warns his daughters to never play with magic again. 

Tantaquidgeon also recorded a version of the string project in 1928, but with a slightly different rhyme: "Here I wind, here I wind, here I hope my true love find." Her informant told her that your beloved would emerge from the well or cellar holding the other end of the string. 

The Puritan clergy who led New England's 17th century colonization were opposed to magic in all its forms, and you can still see that mentality lingering centuries later in these stories. I think you can also see concerns about women's independence and sexuality as well. These stories say, "See what happens when women try to control their own love lives? The Devil gets involved." Sadly I think that's another mentality that still lingers today. 

*****
Note: I found the Tantaquidgeon material in William Simmons's Spirit of the New England Tribes.

October 16, 2018

Peabody's Witch Rock: Occult Symbols Connected to The Salem Witches?

Do you have an extra $600,000 sitting around? Are you interested in New England history or witchcraft? If so you might want to purchase the house at 348 Lowell Street in Peabody, Massachusetts, which recently went on the market. The house was the home of John Proctor, one of the people executed during the Salem witch trials.

Proctor, who was immortalized in Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, was a farmer in Salem Village. One of his servants, a young woman named Mary Warren, was one of the afflicted girls who accused dozens of innocent people of witchcraft. Perhaps if Proctor had played along he would have escaped the gallows, but he didn't. Instead he told Warren that she was faking her symptoms and if she didn't stop he'd beat her. He also threatened to beat John Indian, a slave and the husband of Tituba, when he accused Proctor's wife of being a witch. Needless to say, Proctor's doubtful and threatening attitude didn't sit well with the afflicted girls and they soon accused him of being a witch too.

Proctor was executed on August 19, 1692. His wife escaped the gallows because she was pregnant at the time and did not give birth until after the trials had ended.

The real estate listing for the Proctor house claims it dates to 1638, but the Peabody Historical Society says it is unclear how old most of the current structure is. It's likely that multiple additions and renovations have been made over the property's 300+ years of occupation. It does have six bedrooms, which is nice, and has a dining room "which can accommodate your largest holiday gathering." There's also an inground pool.

Image from Historical Archaeology, Vol. 15, No. 1.
This weekend as I was taking the train to Salem for Halloween festivities two friends reminded me of something I had forgotten: there is a large mysterious boulder near the Proctor House called Witch Rock. I wrote about it a few years ago in my book Legends and Lore of The North Shore (2014). The boulder is covered with occult symbols that may (or may not) be connected with the Salem witch trials.

The boulder was first discovered in 1978 by a group of archaeologists surveying Peabody. They were intrigued by the stone's faintly visible sigils which were done in black paint. (The photo above has been retouched to highlight them.) To quote one of the archaeologists who found the boulder:
The central symbol, which is over a meter in diameter, is a pentacle or five-pointed star with point downward surrounded by concentric circles. The appearance of the star has been heightened by infilling. Between the circles at the points of the star are poorly preserved cabalistic designs. The lesser symbols are a caduceus and a composite figure made from the sign for Aries (reversed) and the Cross of Lorraine or the Archiepiscopal Cross. (Richard Michael Gramly, "Witchcraft Pictographs from Near Salem, Massachusetts." Historical Archaeology, Vol. 15, no. 1(1981), pp. 113 - 116.)
When I first heard about Witch Rock I thought "Oh, that has got to be a fake." The archaeologists considered this a possibility too, but they tested the paint and discovered that it was not modern paint. It was made from hematite and either milk or egg whites. In other words, not something that you can buy at Home Depot and was probably not applied to the rock by teenagers who liked Black Sabbath. It was probably quite old and had survived the harsh winters and summers only because the rock faces south and had a very rough surface which held the paint.

But just how old are those sigils really? Archaeologist Richard Michael Gramly conjectured in 1981 that the boulder was the work of 17th century Salem Villagers who were afraid of witches. Although the reverse pentagram is often a symbol of the Devil, Gramly notes that it has also been used to avert the evil eye.
The entire composition would appear to be a warning against witches. Freshly painted and exposed to view the granite block with its pictographs would have drawn the attention of every passerby. If it were painted in the late seventeenth century, the composition would have sheltered nearby residents from all sorts of evil. The pictographs are not likely to be the work of witches but rather of people mortally afraid of their powers. (Richard Michael Gramly, "Witchcraft Pictographs from Near Salem, Massachusetts." Historical Archaeology, Vol. 15, no. 1(1981), pp. 113 - 116.)
There is one problem with this theory: there's no evidence that the people of 17th century Salem Village used these symbols for defensive magic or even used them at all. There's lots of documentation about the types of defensive magic Puritans did use, including witch bottles, horseshoes hung over entrances, daisy wheel carvings, and iron implements hidden in walls. Inverse pentagrams and the caduceus aren't mentioned in those documents. The Puritan clergy hated all magic, even the benign kind, so it seems likely a giant sigil-covered boulder at the epicenter of the Salem witch trials would have drawn their attention and ire. But it didn't, so perhaps the symbols didn't exist in 1692.

Gramly does briefly also consider the possibility that people may have painted Witch Rock in 1892 as parts of the bicentennial observances of the Salem trials. Lectures were held in the area at that time and witch trial souvenirs were sold so perhaps someone created the sigils as part of the commemorative events. He thinks the paint used is older than the 1890s though. 

Jeff Belanger points out in his book Weird Massachusetts that the symbols resemble some in Francis Barrett's 1801 book The Magus. Perhaps occultists painted the symbols on the boulder in the 19th century. But then again, Barrett used lots of older grimoires to compose The Magus - he was not the first person to use these symbols. They existed before the book's publication.

I don't think the mystery of Witch Rock will be resolved given the current information we have. It's just one of those weird and interesting things about New England. I have never been to Witch Rock, but my friends who have been say it is on private property and is surrounded by poison ivy. Salvatore Trento includes a map in his 1997 book Field Guide to the Mysterious Places of Eastern North America, but I do not know if it is accurate. Trento also notes that Witch Rock is in Danvers. It's an easy mistake to make and is one that I unfortunately included in my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore

There are several other boulders in New England named Witch Rock, including one in Rochester, Massachusetts and another (well, technically Witches Rock) in Bristol, Connecticut. Perhaps destinations for autumn road trips?

October 08, 2018

A Gargoyle Sighting in Massachusetts?

Most paranormal reports fit into a few categories. There are your Bigfoot sightings, your ghostly encounters, and your UFO sightings. Those are the big three. Then there are also regional categories, such as the pukwudgies that people see in New England, and categories that appear only for a short time, like the creepy clown craze that swept the country a few years ago. 

It's not one of the biggest categories, but there has been an increase in winged humanoid reports recently. I think the most famous winged humanoid in the United States is the Mothman of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. I first learned of the Mothman back in the 1980s when I read John Keel's famous book The Mothman Prophecies. It's a freaky and unsettling tome that really goes down the rabbit hole of paranoia, but the Mothman himself didn't really get much mainstream acknowledgement until the Richard Gere film of The Mothman Prophecies came out in 2002. Like the book, it's weird and creepy.

Mothman painting by famous pulp artist Frank Frazetta. 
The Mothman's popularity has grown since then, and this cryptid, who in the book and film is an eerie omen of doom, has now become a cute internet meme, particularly on Tumblr. For example see below:
Adorable Mothman from this Tumblr blog. 
I don't think the Mothman has been seen in New England (please tell me if I am wrong), but another weird winged humanoid recently was. Someone in Abington, Massachusetts saw a gargoyle in February, 2018. The report appears on Phantoms and Monsters, and the site's owner said it was originally posted on Reddit in August. Here it is:
... About 6 months ago I saw this insane thing. It was about 3 AM, I had been up late as I normally am. I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. It was dark as Hell except for the stars and moon. As I was smoking I heard this noise of something flying. I look up and see this winged creature land on my neighbor's roof and just sit there like a Gargoyle would. I thought I was seeing sh*t or seeing something wrong but then the creature jumped up and flew away and I could see its whole body. It was the size of a small human but massive wings. It reminded me of a Gargoyle. I don't know what the f**k I saw but it was crazy. Has anyone ever had an experience seeing something like this? Humanoid creature with wings?
Lon Stickler, the owner of Phantoms and Monsters, contacted the Redditor who had posted the story and asked for more details. Their response follows:
... I couldn't see the creature's face because it was dark and it was on the roof facing away from me. It looked black with a wing span upon flight maybe 4 - 5ft. The creature itself while crouched on the roof looked the size of a smaller human maybe 4ft. I watched it trying to figure out what I was looking at, for maybe 1 minute, then it jumped and flew off. Even when it flew away it still looked on the shorter end. As it flew, its legs hung but still in an almost crouching position. It wasn't a massive creature but it was definitely humanoid in appearance. 
Some of you may know that Abington is located within the Bridgewater Triangle, an area in Massachusetts famous for paranormal activity. I don't think anyone has reported a gargoyle there before, but people have seen other large winged creatures in the Triangle. In 1971, a police officer driving to his home in Easton late one night saw something more than six feet tall and with a wingspan of eight to twelve feet. As he drove towards it the creature flew straight up into the air and off over the trees. The officer reported it but investigators found no sign of the creature. (This account is included in Loren Coleman's 2001 book Mysterious America.)

A scene from the 1972 movie Gargoyles
For those skeptics out there, it's important to note the Hockomock Swamp sits in the center of the Bridgewater Triangle, and many large birds live in swamps, including the great blue heron, which has a wingspan of 5 - 6 feet. However, great blue herons aren't usually active at night. There are numerous species of owl in Massachusetts, though, and the great horned owl has a wingspan of up to 5 feet. Owls are active at night.

On the other hand, owls aren't really "humanoid in appearance" and people have been seeing strange flying creatures for years. I don't think they can all be misidentified owls. I don't know what people are seeing. I guess I'll just wait and see if gargoyles start increasing in Massachusetts. And then I'll start locking my windows at night!

*****

Special thanks to my friends Steve and Cornelia for bringing this story to my attention.