June 28, 2009


The other day I saw three wild turkeys while walking to work. Pretty exciting, but I crossed the street because those things can be mean! I enjoyed seeing the turkeys, but the bird I would really like to see (but haven't) is a whippoorwill.

Whippoorwills get their name because of their call, which sounds like "Whip poor Will." They tend to nest in open fields near woods, so my chances of seeing one in Boston are low.

Some good spooky folklore has developed about these little birds over time. According to Rev. Samuel Peters 1781 book General History of Connecticut, whippoorwills were able to predict storms, but by the 19th century Clifton Johnson also recorded the eerie belief that if a whippoorwill sings near a house, it is a sign of impending death (although some of his informants claimed it is only a sign of trouble.)

The bird's sinister reputation was cemented by the famed horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who drew heavily on New England folklore when writing his stories of cosmic terror. In the early 20th century, Lovecraft discussed whip-poor-wills with his friend Edith Miniter, a resident of Wilbraham, Massachussetts, who told him:

"It is whispered that they linger and flutter around houses where death is approaching, hoping to catch the soul of the departed as it leaves. If the soul eludes them, they disperse in quiet disappointment; but sometimes they set up a chorused clamour which makes the watchers turn pale and mutter - with that air of hushed, awestruck portentousness which only a backwoods Yankee can assume - "They got 'im!" (quoted in Lovecraft's The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, ed. by S.T. Joshi. New York, Penguin Books, 2001)

Lovecraft incorporated this piece of lore into his popular story The Dunwich Horror, which spread the belief in the whippoorwill's soul snatching abilities and has kept it alive into the 21st century.

It's possible that these beliefs about whippoorwills originated with the local Indians. For example, a video available on the Mohegan tribe Web site mentions the belief that makiwasug, or magical little people, would travel through the forest at night in the shape of whipppoorwills. It looks like the whippoorwills reputation became more sinister over time and as it moved across cultures.

June 12, 2009

Snapping Turtles, UFOs and a Witch's Estate

The Muddy River - full of mysteries and big turtles!

This morning while walking along the Muddy River in the Boston Fens I saw a big snapping turtle sitting in the grass. For the Algonquians of southern New England, turtles were considered emissaries from the watery netherworld, and bridged the gap between humans and spirits. (More information can be found in Kathleen Bragdon's Native People of Southern New England, 1500-1650.) I was afraid it might take one of my toes back to the netherworld, so I kept my distance.

I walk along the Muddy River all the time. It weaves through some interesting Boston neighborhoods, and has a lot of folklore attached to it. Cheri Ravi (author of Haunted Massachusetts - Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Bay State), claims that North America's first UFO was seen over the Muddy River in 1638. Puritan settler James Everell and two friends were rowing on the river one night when a large luminous square object appeared in the sky above them. It changed its shape, first into a swine and then an arrow, and flew back and forth between Charlestown and Boston. When it vanished, the men realized they had traveled a mile up the river against the current without even rowing. The original account can be found in John Winthrop's The History of New England, 1630-1639. I don't think Puritans used the word UFO!

Anne Hibbins, a wealthy Boston widow who was executed for witchcraft in 1656, owned a three-hundred acre farm called Stanford on the Muddy River. I don't know exactly where Stanford was located, or what's there now - Wheelock College? Longwoood Medical Area? Expensive condos? The full story of her trial can be found in D.Brenton Simons Witches, Rakes and Rogues.