April 18, 2021

Rats, Cats, and Death: Horror on Haskell Island

Haskell Island is located off the coast of Harpswell, Maine. It's a small island, and apparently has no full time residents these days, just vacation homes. It looks quite idyllic, but like many quaint New England locales Haskell Island has a strange past. 

According to legend, the island was first colonized by the two Haskell brothers, way back in the 1600s. The Hakells were very industrious and transformed the island into an agricultural paradise. They planted an orchard, plowed the land into fertile fields, and fished in Casco Bay. The brothers prospered in their little Eden. 

Unfortunately, one day they accidentally brought some rats to the island in their boat while transporting supplies. Haskell Island had everything the rats could want: food, water, places to nest, and no predators. The rats multiplied rapidly and soon threatened the brothers' livelihood.

Antique Haskell Island postcard from Amazon. "A pretty place which I visited yesterday..."

To stop the rats, the Haskell brothers brought a couple of cats to their island. The brothers didn't provide any food for the cats and expected them to survive by killing rats. The cats met their expectations. They ate rats, and there were so many rats that the cats thrived and multiplied. Soon there were more cats than rats, and eventually there were no rats left at all, just an island full of hungry cats. 

The cats roved the island, howling with hunger. They climbed the apple trees, roamed the fields, and paced the shore, looking for something to kill and eat. 

The Haskell brothers had to do something about the ravenous felines, but something happened before they could devise a plan: one of them became sick. He fell seriously ill, so his brother took the boat and went to the mainland to get a physician. "Hurry back," the sick brother said weakly as he lay in bed. 

Can you see where this is going? An island full of hungry cats, an incapacitated man lying weak and helpless in bed? When the healthy brother returned to the island, he and the physician were horrified by what they found inside the Haskells' house. The sick brother had been ripped to shreds, and the cats were tearing the last morsels of flesh from his body. At last their hunger was sated. 


It's a simple little story, but really resonates with me. It appears in Horace Beck's 1957 book The Folklore of Maine. The Maine Encyclopedia says Haskell Island was named for a Captain Haskell who purchased, but never lived on, the island, so I don't think the man-eating cat story is true. Still, it has the power of a good horror movie, and reads like an environmentalist fable. The brothers try to master the island, but end up doomed by their own actions and the invasive species they brought to the island. 

It reminds me of "Bart the Mother," a 1998 episode of The Simpsons where Springfield is overrun by ravenous lizards. At first people are happy because the lizards eat all the pigeons, but then realize they'll need to import snakes to eat the lizards, and then gorillas to eat the snakes...

Horace Beck notes that there is a coda to the story. According to some people, the sick brother was not killed by cats, but by pirates. He had seen the pirates burying their treasure on Haskell Island, and they killed him to keep their secret safe. Then they made it look like the cats had done it to deflect attention. I don't find that explanation quite as compelling, though. The story is structured like a version of "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed A Spider," and randomly introducing pirates just doesn't make sense. 

April 11, 2021

Mountain Ash, or the Witch-Wood Tree

Although it's now socially acceptable to be a witch, that wasn't always the case, particularly here in New England. Many people today identify as witches, which usually means they are interested in the occult, folk magic, and possibly paganism. These are all good things, and most modern witches are lovely people who just want to be left alone with their candles and dried herbs. 

In the past, though, no one wanted to be called a witch. The activities we associate with modern witches today - fortune telling, herbal magic, protection magic - were widely practiced across New England, sometimes by specialists called cunning folk, conjurers or seers, but more often just by average people. Curious to know if you were going to marry the boy next door? Grandma would break out the Bible, bind a key inside it, and start asking questions. Troubled by bad dreams? The farmer next door would tell you to place a knife under the bed. Everyone knew a charm or two, but no one called themself a witch.

This is because people believed witches used magic for evil: ruining crops, killing farm animals, making children sick, and causing death. Sometimes witches were motivated by jealousy, sometimes revenge, and sometimes they were working for the Devil himself. No one wanted to be a witch. Calling yourself a witch in the past would be like saying, "Hi! I'm a serial killer" today. 

Image from the Arbor Day Foundation. 

A community might accuse its most unpopular members of being witches, but these accusations were always false and motivated by the need to blame someone for life's misfortunes. Crops failed? Blame the mean old widow down the road and call her a witch. Child sick? Blame the crotchety guy who swears at everyone - he must be a witch. 

These people weren't really witches, but there was plenty of magic for protecting one's home and family from the imaginary threat. A horseshoe placed above the front door was the most popular method, but there were others, including this one I found in Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England (1896):

It is well to have a piece of a branch cut from a mountain ash in the house. It is as good to keep to witches as a horseshoe nailed over the door. 

The practice seems to have been relatively widespread. John McNab Currier was a physician and folklorist who lived in New Hampshire in the 19th century. Currier knew a woman who blamed witches for all the misfortunes in her life and wore a necklace of mountain ash beads to deflect their evil influence:

They were cut about three eighths of an inch in length, the bark being left on, and strung on string running through the pith. She was careful to keep them concealed, but sometimes they would work up above her collar and be conspicuous. This species of tree was once quite popular among New England witch-believers as a charm against witches... (“Contributions to New England Folk-Lore,” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 4, No. 14 (Jul – Sep. 1891)

Folklorist Fanny Bergen also notes that many people carried pieces of mountain ash wood in their pockets and the tree was sometimes called the "witch-wood" tree (“Some Bits of Plant-Lore”, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol 5, No. 16 (Jan – Mar, 1892).

Image from the Arbor Day Foundation

Although many folks still hang lucky horseshoes over their doorways, I haven't encountered anyone who carries around pieces of mountain ash, let alone wears a necklace made of it. Partly it's because we don't practice as much folk magic as our ancestors did, and even when we do the meaning has changed. People who hang horseshoes today usually do so to bring luck, not to keep out witches. We just aren't as afraid of witches as we once were, which is a good thing.

I also think New Englanders, and Americans in general, are less familiar with trees and plants than we were were a century ago. Very few of us work in agriculture or even outdoors, so we don't need to be well-acquainted with what's growing around us. Industrial and scientific progress has made us less superstitious (and less likely to hang our neighbors as witches), but it's also disconnected us from our immediate environment. 

Even if I wanted to make a mountain ash necklace, I probably couldn't identify the tree. They tend to grow in higher elevations, and I've lived most of my life in the coastal regions. The mountain ash (sorbus americana) is a small tree that bears orangey red berries. Sorbus Americana is very similar to the European rowan tree, which has a lot of magical lore attached to it, and I assume that's why magical powers are ascribed to the mountain ash. 

There's a mountain ash tree nearby me in Arnold Arboretum. I've been meaning to visit if for years. Maybe this spring I'll finally do it!

March 28, 2021

Treasure Digging, Terror and the Devil in Northfield, Massachusetts

Last week, I wrote about small cavemen on the Connecticut River. This week, more weird shenanigans on the same river!

In the 19th century, residents of Northfield, Massachusetts believed the notorious pirate Captain Kidd had buried his treasure on an island in the Connecticut River. This island, called Clarke's Island, was not particularly large, and no one could explain why Kidd would choose this location to bury his ill-gotten booty. 

Abner Field lived in Northfield at the time and was determined to unearth the treasure. He consulted with a "noted conjurer" who told him where to dig, and also told him the precautions he had to take. Because, you see, Captain Kidd had murdered one of his crew and buried his body next to the treasure. The dead man's ghost watched over the treasure and would defend it from anyone who dared disturb it. This was the reason no one in Northfield had tried to find the treasure before. 

The conjurer told Abner to take the following precautions:

1. He had to dig at midnight when the full moon was high overhead.

2. Abner couldn't dig alone. He needed two companions, because three is a magic number and three men were needed to find the treasure. 

3. The men needed to form a triangle as they dug. 

4. Abner and his companions couldn't speak until they opened the treasure chest and had the gold in their hands. Breaking this magical rule of silence would lead to disaster. Disaster!

On the next full moon, Abner and two friends rowed out to Clarke's Island and began to dig. It was hot work, but despite working up a good sweat the three men didn't speak. They were determined to get their hands on Captain Kidd's treasure. 

Finally, after digging for what seemed like hours, they heard their shovels hit something solid. They had found the hidden treasure chest. 

John Quidor, The Money Diggers (1832), Brooklyn Museum

In excitement, one of the men blurted out, "You've hit it!" He had broken the rule of silence, and the treasure chest immediately sank deeper down into the ground. A ghostly pirate suddenly appeared and flew at the men, terrifying them with its hideous undead countenance. Abner and his friends ran back to their rowboat. 

This was bad, but things got even worse. They heard a roar from the island, and saw the Devil himself running towards them at tremendous speed, cutting clear though a haystack in his eagerness to attack the interlopers. The Devil splashed into the river but Abner and his friends reached the other shore safely and ran off in fear. They had lost the treasure, but counted themselves lucky to keep their lives and their souls. 

For many years after, Abner would tell anyone who'd listen about how close he'd come to finding the buried treasure. Many people in town believed his story, but others said a local man named Oliver Smith and one of his friends had learned about Abner's midnight expedition and disguised themselves as the ghost and the Devil to prank the treasure diggers. 

Treasure digging was a very common activity in New England (and the the Northeast in general) in the late 18th and early 19th century. It was generally practiced in small, rural towns where people had few economic prospects. A Maine treasure digger told traveler Edward Augustus Kendall the following:

"We go on toiling like fools; digging the ground for the sake of a few potatoes, and neglecting the treasures that have been left behind by the those that have been before us! For myself, I confess it, to my mortification, that I have have been toiling all my life, to make a paltry living, and neglecting all the while, the means that have been long in my hands of making a sudden and boundless fortune." (Quoted in Alan Taylor, "The Early Republic's Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780 - 1830," American Quarterly, Spring 1986, Vol. 38, No.1)

Sadly, very few people ever found anything. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, allegedly found golden tablets inscribed with the Book of Mormon, but certainly no one ever found a vast horde of pirate gold. 

Treasure digging (also called money digging or treasure seeking) was a common activity, and it was also a magical one. Many people learned where to dig through their dreams, and others used dowsing rods or looked into stones to locate the treasure. Treasure diggers would also consult magical specialists (often called seers or conjurers) who told tell them where to dig and what precautions to take. As historian Alan Taylor notes, the seers were often female, Black, or adolescent. In short, they were the marginalized members of early American society and therefore easily associated with a marginalized occult activity. 

Buried treasure was always said to be guarded by a spirit, usually the soul of a murdered pirate, but the guardian could appear in many different forms: a hideous ghost, a giant, soldiers on horseback, black cats. People also believed the buried treasure could move away from anyone trying to unearth it, and they tried to prevent his from happening by drawing magic circles or triangles on the ground around it. In the Northfield story, the three men need to stand in a triangular formation. Magic circles and triangles have deep roots in European ceremonial magic where they are used to contain dangerous spirits. 

Treasure diggers were almost always told to remain silent as they dug. The surest way to lose the treasure was to speak. Part of me wonders if people thought the guardian spirits couldn't hear them if they remained silent, but the rule of silence appears other places in New England folklore. For example, a spell cast with a magic bridle could be broken by speaking, and Vermonters remained silent as they gathered bittersweet root as protection against witches. 

I think treasure digging sounds like fun. I'd want to hang out in the woods with my friends doing something vaguely spooky at midnight! Unfortunately, I think a lot of people were motivated by bone crushing poverty, not a need for entrainment.  

One last thought on this story: it has what I call a "Scooby Doo" ending, where the supernatural occurrence is explained away as being caused by humans. It feels tacked on to me. Almost every treasure digging story ends in the same way: someone speaks, hideous apparitions appear, and everyone runs away. Most of them aren't explained away as a prank because the people who dug for treasure believed that ghosts, demons, and the Devil were quite real. It's easy for you and me to be skeptical, but if we were out on some island silently digging at midnight we might more easily become believers. 

Other than the Alan Taylor article, my main source was A History of the Town of Northfield, Massachusetts (1875) by J.H. Temple and George Sheldon. Also, special thanks to Mark E. for emailing me about treasure diggers and inspiring me to write this post. 

Special bonus fun fact: there is an area in Northfield called Satan's Kingdom. Extra bonus fun fact: there's also a park in Westwood with the same name. Massachusetts is great!

March 19, 2021

Tiny Cavemen, A UFO Abductee, and Fairy Folklore in Massachusetts

Did tiny cavemen live on an island in the Connecticut River in the 1970s? Let's face it, that's a bizarre question to ask. Obviously, the answer is no. And yet that claim was made by Betty Hill in 1998.

Her name may be familiar. Betty and her husband Barney claimed they were abducted by a UFO in New Hampshire on September 19, 1961, and their experiences were made into a book (The Interrupted Journey) and a movie (The UFO Incident). The Hills' story was one of the first UFO abduction narratives in America and helped popularize the concept of alien abduction.

The Hills were active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but are now best remembered for their UFO encounter. Barney Hill died in 1969 at the young age of 46, but Betty lived until 2005, when she died at age 85. She continued to see UFOs throughout her life, and became a beloved figure in the UFO/paranormal community. Many people came to Betty with their own stories of unexplained phenomena.

Image from Pinterest

In 1998, she contributed several of these stories, all focused on Bigfoot and set in New England, to a book titled The Psychic Sasquatch and Their UFO Connection by Jack Kewaunee Lapersitis. (The Psychic Sasquatch is one of those weird and amazing books that everyone should read.) Betty Hill claimed the following happened near Springfield, Massachusetts:

My informant said that at one spot in the middle of the Connecticut River there was a good-sized island that was uninhabited. Then one day it was inhabited by small, prehistoric-appearing people. They don't know how many of them there were, maybe 50. They lived on the island for three years. No one ever succeeded in getting near them. The police had gone out to the island on boats and had gone onto the island. These small, primitive people could outrun anyone. They would take off running and then could not be found... It is not known how they lived or what they did for food. No fires were ever seen on the island, but they lived there year-round for approximately three years. Then, just as suddenly as they appeared, they disappeared.

... Planes and helicopters had flown over the area, hoping to get pictures, but these little people - they're not really tiny people, but maybe four feet tall or so - would take off running at such speeds that no one could even get pictures of them. These prehistoric looking people would be there one instant, then would start running and in the next instant they would just disappear. 

Hill claimed she was given this information by a local police chief, who also told her the little people were naked and covered with "sparse hair."

There is a lot to unpack here. First of all, the only source for this story is Betty Hill and The Psychic Sasquatch. I don't doubt the sincerity of Betty Hill or Jack Lapersitis, but if small cavemen had really been living on an island in Massachusetts for three years I think more people would know about it. Hill claims anthropologists went to the island, and that local residents would stand on the riverbank trying to see the speedy little cavemen. I think someone would have alerted the press if this had happened.

On the other hand, these speedy miniature cave folk reminded me of New England's most famous magical little people, the pukwudgies. When I say "magical little people," I mean fairies. Like these cavemen, the pukwudgies are generally described as being small and hairy. The word pukwudgie originally comes from the Ojibwa, a Native American group in the midwest, and made its way into New England folklore via local 19th century poets like Henry Longfellow, town historians, and Wampanoag storytellers on Cape Cod. Puwudgie is generally said to simply mean "little people," but poet and folklorist John Greenleaf Whittier thought it meant "little vanisher," which certainly is descriptive of the cavemen Betty Hill discusses. 

Vintage brownie illustration found here

People who encounter fairies across Europe and North America often say they wear archaic or old-fashioned clothing. It is rare to meet a fairy wearing yoga pants and a hoodie. This may be because fairies represent the past, whether that's an older way of life, a culture that has vanished, or because they are actually spirits of the dead who remain nearby. The tiny naked cavefolk could easily fit into all these categories. 

Some fairies also appear naked. For example, in Scotland the fairies called brownies generally appear as small, naked, hairy beings. Brownies were said to perform chores for the humans whose homes they inhabited, but would disappear if given a gift of clothing. 

I'm not necessarily saying the tiny cavefolk on the Connecticut river were fairies or brownies, but just that the story about them has themes similar to fairy and pukwudgie stories. If there are fairies in New England, and many people believe there are, I can certainly see why they'd appear as small hairy humanoids. It just feels like the right fit for our stony, woodsy biome and occasionally inclement climate. Flowing gowns and diaphanous wings would not fare well here.  

If anyone has more information on this story please let me know in the comments or by email. I would love to know more about this topic.  

March 06, 2021

Vermont Witchcraft: Wax Images, Thornapple, and the Bible

I've been on a monster kick for the last few weeks here, so I thought I'd add a little variety and write about witchcraft. Here's a witch story from the small town of Newbury, Vermont. 

Many years ago, in the early 19th century, a Newbury farmer believed he was being harassed by a witch. He had seen strange phantom shapes dancing in his fireplace at night, and his cattle suffered from strange ailments. He suspected a woman who lived nearby was the witch causing these mishaps. 

Candles by artists Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz.

Remembering the adage to "fight fire with fire," the farmer decided to use magic against the alleged witch:

With a mixture of tallow and beeswax he moulded what he considered to be an image of the offending woman, which he hung up before the fireplace. As the effigy slowly melted, he stuck it full of thorns from the thornapple, and at the same hour the woman who had cast an evil spell upon his cattle fell down stairs and broke her arm. (Frederic Palmer Wells, History of Newbury Vermont, 1902.)

There were lots of stories in the 19th century about how to defeat witches; this is one of them. The protagonists in these stories usually employ witch bottles, horseshoes, or cruelty to animals to defeat a witch. I haven't seen many that involve poppets (a.k.a. small human images), like this one does. In 17th century New England, it was believed that witches often used poppets to harm their victims, but their victims didn't usually fight back with another poppet. I also haven't read many stories that involve melting a wax image. So this story is kind of unusual. 

The reference to the "thornapple" in New England witch stories is also new to me. There are two plants called thornapple in North America. One of them is more commonly known as jimsonweed (datura stramonium in Latin), a hearty nightshade that grows across most of the continent. Jimsonweed, a.k.a. devil's weed or the devil's cucumber, produces small fruits that have spiky shells. Jimsonweed is a dangerous hallucinogen, and probably got the name "jimsonweed" after several soldiers in Jamestown, Virginia ate the plant and hallucinated for eleven days in the 17th century. The term "Jamestown weed" slowly evolved into the modern word "jimsonweed." And yes, you read that right. The soldiers hallucinated for eleven days. Do not mess with this plant. 

I don't think the Newbury farmer stabbed his wax effigy with jimsonweed. I suspect he used the other thornapple, which is the hawthorn tree (crataegus in Latin). There is a lot of European folklore connected to this tree - it is planted near holy wells, it is associated with fairies, its wood is used to kill vampires, etc. That heritage alone makes it a strong candidate, and its branches are also thorny, which makes it even more likely the farmer used the hawthorn tree. It's easier to stab melting wax with a branch than with a small spiny fruit. 

Hawthorn branches from Etsy.

This particular farmer remained concerned about witches until he died. When he grew old he became quite ill and bedridden. He put the family Bible under his pillow to protect himself from witches. The local doctor, one Dr. Carter, thought this was nonsense and tried to secretly replace the Bible with a pile of old almanacs. The farmer discovered the substitution and became livid and agitated. Fearing he would die from agitation, Dr. Carter replaced the Bible. It remained under the old farmer's pillow until he died several weeks later.