October 31, 2008

Black Cat Lore for Halloween

House cats are not native to the Americas. The Europeans who colonized New England brought their cats with them, and also brought their feline folklore. Cats, particularly black cats, are associated with witchcraft. They are one of the favorite forms that a witch's soul takes when outside her or his body.

During the 17th century New England witch trials, victims of witchcraft would often see their tormentors in the form of cats. Here's and example from Richard Godbeer's Escaping Salem. Katherine Branch, a servant in Stamford, Connecticut, claimed in 1692 that she was bewitched. A cat appeared and spoke to her, asking Katherine to come away to a place where there were "fine folks and fine things." Soon, more and more cats appeared, until she saw a table with ten cats seated around it, eating meat. The cats briefly turned into women, before turning back into cats again. Unfortunately, the court records don't indicate what color the cats were, but doubtless several of them were black.

Beliefs about cats and witches persisted well into the 19th century, as Clifton Johnson records in What They Say in New England. In Western Massachusetts, a man named Jones had a saw mill that kept him very busy, and an attractive wife whom he neglected. One dark night Jones decided he had to work at the mill. His wife used all her wiles to convince him to stay at home with her, but without effect - Jones trudged off to the mill. After he had been at work for a while, a friendly black cat appeared inside the mill. It frisked around the mill, and rubbed up against Jones as he worked. The cat got too close to the saw, though, and lost a claw. With a howl, it ran off. When Mr. Jones got home later that night, he noticed that his wife was looking pale and was hiding one hand from his sight. When he finally got a glimpse of her hand, he saw that she had lost one finger.

In the early 1800's, the Wilbur family was afflicted with poltergeist activity, and it was believed that a witch was causing it. Clothing would be cut and slashed while hanging in the closets, and small items would go missing. Granny Bates, a member of the family, was suspected of being the witch to blame. A large black cat, with facial features similar to Granny, was once found inside a closed bin, and during a prayer meeting this same cat walked through an unopened glass window. The cause of the trouble was never found.

In the 19th century it was also thought that a black cat will bring its owner good luck, in spite of its connections with witchcraft (or perhaps because of its occult power).

Black cats continue to have supernatural connotations in the 21st century. The bad luck that results from a black cat crossing one's path is well-known, but the black cat has other, more surprising connections with the supernatural as well. Large black cats, similar to panthers, are often seen near the Hockomock Swamp in southeastern Massachusetts, an area also inhabited by large hairy humanoids, giant birds, and unusual balls of light. Author Joseph Citro feels that the Hockomock Swamp may be a gateway area, similar to the Bermuda Triangle, and the large cats could be guests from an unknown world.

Spooky! Happy Halloween!

October 27, 2008

Ye Olde Pumpkin Recipe

A pumpkin recipe from John Josselyn's New Englands Rarities Discovered. It sounds like it would make a good Halloween recipe, except for the side effects:

"But the Housewives manner is to slice them when ripe, and cut them into dice, and to fill a pot with them of two or three gallons, and stew them upon a gentle fire a whole day, and as they sink, they fill again with fresh pompions (pumpkins), not putting any liquor to them, and when it is stew'd enough, it will look like bak'd Apples; this they Dish, putting Butter to it, and a little Vinegar (with some spice, as Ginger, &c.) which makes it tart like an Apple, and to serve it up to be eaten like Fish or Flesh; It provokes Urin extreamly and is very windy."

The Boston 1775 blog has some insight into the word pompion, which eventually was replaced by the modern word pumpkin.

October 13, 2008


As the leaves around here change to red, orange and yellow in the fall, one plant sticks out by producing dark purple berries. It's pokeweed!

I really like pokeweed because it's sort of ugly, very distinctive, and one of the handful of wild plants I can easily identify.

According to Just Weeds by Pamela Jones, pokeweed berries were used by American Indians on the East Coast to dye woven baskets. Later, the English settlers in this area used them to make ink. According to Wikipedia, the Declaration of Independence was written with fermented pokeberry juice. Other people share my appreciation for this plant. Down on the Cape, I've seen yards with enormous pokeweed bushes grown for decoration.

A few years ago, I went on an urban nature walk led by a wild foods specialist. He told us that young pokeweed shoots (which appear in the spring) can be eaten like asparagus. However, if you harvest them too late they are toxic, and the mature plant and its berries are poisonous if ingested. I would advise you against even trying to eat this plant - asparagus is available in the supermarket all year round, and it's not poisonous!

October 11, 2008

Salem - Three Flavors of Witch, One Low Train Fare

Last weekend Tony and I met our friend Lori in Salem for a day of witchy wackiness. We try to go every October, when the city really crackles (or cackles?) with touristy Halloween energy.

Although Salem has artistic and historic attractions like the Peabody Essex Museum and the House of Seven Gables, if it weren't for the tragic 17th century witch trials Salem would just be another cute seaside Massachusetts town. Witches are essential to the city's identity as a tourist attraction. When you visit Salem, you get witches in three flavors: historic, folkloric, and Wiccan. All this in one location!

The historic witchcraft trials of the 1690's are what put Salem on the map. The Puritans who settled in Massachusetts brought their witchcraft beliefs with them from England, and the Salem trials (which lead to the deaths of 19 people) are the most famous witchcraft trials in the New World. Although most of the accused witches lived in Salem Village (now the modern town of Danvers), the trials were held in Salem proper. My favorite historic witch tourist attraction is the Witch Museum. I first went there as a child, and was terrified by the light-up dioramas depicting superstitious villagers and their victims. The museum also has a great gift shop selling reprints of historical trial documents.

When we visited Salem this past weekend we didn't go for the history. We went mostly for the folkloric, Halloweeny stuff. The Halloween image of the witch with pointy hat and broomstick shares almost nothing with the historic Salem witches except the name, but you can't build a thriving tourist destination solely around a grim historic incident. Salem, which is probably the Halloween capital of the United States, has enough haunted houses, costume shops and pointy hats to please the spooky child in everyone. Tony still laughs about the time I was terrified in a Salem haunted house (Capt. Scurvy's Cavern of Terror, I believe) by someone in a Creature from the Black Lagoon mask. This year, to preserve our cardiac health, we went instead to Count Orlok's Nightmare Gallery, which is a wax museum of horror films. Highpoints for me included the Carrie mannequin, and winning the Name That Zombie quiz.

We also stopped by some of the Wiccan and Pagan shops in town. We bought some obscure essential oils at Artemisia Botanicals, checked out the giant goat statue in Nu Aeon, and ended the day at Hex, where I bought some shedded wolf hair, which the store buys from from Wolf Hollow sanctuary in Ipswich. Don't let Sarah Palin go near there! Hex is well designed inside, gives you a great shopping bag with your purchase, and is staffed by friendly Goths, including some extra bosomy ones. I think Hex has upped the ante for the other shops in town.

We ended the day with drinks at Rockafellas. Lori and Tony ordered the flight of organic wines, which came in wrought iron stands so elaborate other tourists took photos of them! I ordered a drink called the Salem Witch - booze, mango, and pineapple. I'm not sure what this has to with witchcraft of any kind, but it went down easy.

October 06, 2008

Flesh Eating Apples, Blood-Sucking Pumpkins

As we move into October (Halloween season!), I'm starting to feel spooky.

I eat a lot of apples, but did you know that apple trees eat humans? Shockingly true. The most famous case of a man-eating apple tree comes from Rhode Island.

In 1936, the descendants of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, decided to move his remains to a monument befitting his fame. As they dug into his grave, they make a strange discovery: the roots of a nearby apple tree had worked into his coffin and assumed the shape of his skeleton. Very few bones remained, so the assumption is that the roots absorbed all of the organic matter (i.e., his skeleton). The man-eating root is on view at the John Brown House in Providence.

Apparently other fall produce likes to feast on flesh. The Boston Globe ran an article about a farmer in Sharon, Massachusetts who is on track to grow the world's biggest pumpkin. It already weighs 1,878 pounds and is still growing. What does this pumpkin eat to get so big? The farmer feeds it "ground bone, blood, fish, molasses, and cow and chicken manure." Yikes! The molasses is a nice Yankee touch, but the ground bone and blood are kind of creepy. It's probably better not to ask what type of blood...