November 27, 2009

The Mather Tomb: Occupant #2, Cotton Mather

Thanksgiving is over, so now back to some witchcraft and the occupants of the Mather tomb on Copp's Hill. Its second famous occupant is Cotton Mather, Increase's son.

Cotton was born in 1663. Although he had a stutter, that didn't stop him from entering Harvard University when he was 12 years old. By 25 he was the minister of Boston's North Church. (Note: don't confuse this with the famous Old North Church in the North End, which is an Episcopal church built in 1723). Like his father, Cotton was a prolific writer, producing more than 450 pamphlets and books on religious topics.

Also like his father, Cotton is now most famous for his role in the Salem witchcraft trials.
  • His 1689 book, Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions, is thought to have laid the groundwork for the Salem trials in 1692.
  • Although he was somewhat skeptical about spectral evidence, he still urged the judges to identify and punish all witches. He claimed a curse placed on New England forty years earlier by an executed witch had led to a conspiracy of witches that threatened the fabric of society.
  • Cotton ensured that George Burroughs, a fellow minister, was executed for witchcraft. While on the gallows Burroughs successfully recited the Lord's Prayer; the ability of someone to say this prayer was usually taken as proof they were not a witch. Confused about whether to hang him, the crowd turned for advice to Cotton Mather, who had arrived on his horse. According to those present, Mather said "That the Devil has often been transformed into an angel of light." The crowd kicked away the ladder and Burroughs died.
After the trials ended, Cotton published On Witchcraft: Being the Wonders of the Invisible World, which described the Salem trials and argued for the reality of witchcraft. His timing couldn't have been worse. Public opinion had turned by this point, and the people of Massachusetts now felt the trials were a tragedy and abuse of power. Cotton Mather didn't change his opinion, though, and continued to insist the people convicted in Salem were actual witches.

His reputation suffered greatly, particularly after Boston merchant Robert Calef published Another Brand Pluckt Out of the Burning or More Wonders of the Invisible World, which parodied Mather's book and portrayed both Cotton and Increase as dirty old men who liked watching young girls writhe around pretending to be possessed.

Cotton's reputation suffered permanent damage, and he was refused the presidency of Harvard University. He helped start Yale University instead, and finally died in 1728.

(As for my earlier post on Increase Mather, most of my information comes from Rosemary Ellen Guiley's The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. )

November 22, 2009

Obscure Pies of Olde New England

Thanksgiving is coming up this week, and my favorite part of the meal is the pies. Every year my mother makes three pies: apple (which is pretty common), squash (maybe not so common), and mincemeat (which is kind of rare these days). I asked her once why these three, and she said they're what her mother always cooked. My grandmother came to Massachusetts from Quebec when she was a small child, so I'm not sure where she learned this repertoire of pies.


When I tell people my family eats squash pie, they generally reply "What?!?" Really, squash pie isn't that different from pumpkin pie, it's just more golden in color and lighter in flavor. I'm not sure if this pie is eaten outside of New England, but the main source for canned squash is Maine's own One Pie company. (As this Web site notes, some cans of One Pie squash may have the incorrect instructions on them, so be careful.) Squash pies have been featured in New England cookbooks going back to the 1700s. In the past recipes for both pumpkin and squash pie often involved raisins, and some had raw gourd slices as an ingredient. Sounds like there was a risk of inappropriately crunchy pies back then.


Pumpkin and squash are both native to New England, but mincemeat is something the English brought with them when they colonized. For those not familiar with it, mincemeat (or mince) is a mixture of dried fruit, spices, sugar, and perhaps liquor. Sometimes it also contains beef suet, but vegetarian versions are available. Small mincemeat pies are traditionally served around Christmas time in England, but here in New England large pies are the norm. Some people find the taste cloying and overwhelming, but I love it! Recipes for mincemeat can be found in New England cookbooks dating back to the early 1800s. It can be dated back to the Middle Ages in England.


There's one obscure pie I'm eager to try but never have - the boiled cider pie. Basically, you combine eggs, sugar and hot water with boiled cider and bake in a pie crust. The obvious question came to my mind when I first read this recipe: "What the heck is boiled cider?" Well, it's what it sounds like. If you were to boil a gallon of cider, it would reduce in time to a thick jelly like substance. As my copy of The Old Farmer's Almanac Colonial Cookbook explains, one gallon of cider will yield about one cup of boiled cider. I'm not sure what it tastes like, but you can buy boiled cider through Vermont's King Arthur Flour company if you don't want to make your own. You can read about some people who've boiled their own cider for pies here and here.

Whatever type of pie you have this Thursday, enjoy it and be thankful!

November 15, 2009

The Mather Tomb: Occupant #1, Increase Mather

I restrained myself from writing about witches throughout October, and focused on monsters instead. Now it's November, and I'm free again to about witches and all things witchy.

So, here's a photo the Mather tomb on Copp's Hill in Boston. When I hear the name Mather, I think of witches. The Mathers buried here would spin in their graves to hear that, but it's true.

Increase Mather was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1639. The son of a prominent Puritan minister, he graduated from Harvard in 1656 and eventually became the pastor of Boston's North Church. He was also the president of Harvard from 1685 to 1701.

Where's the witchcraft connection? Well, as the most important minister in New England, he became very concerned when reports of witchcraft reached him. Clearly, he said, it was caused by a lack of religion in Massachusetts. (How much more religious could the colony have been? It was already a Puritan theocracy.)

To combat the rising tide of evil, he wrote An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences, which described cases of witchcraft and supernatural happenings. It was a huge hit. Even though the colony was a theocracy, people still wanted to read juicy stories about unseen demons pelting New Hampshire farmers with stones and possessed serving maids with giant tongues in Groton blaspheming God.

When the Salem witch trials began, Increase did not get directly involved. Instead, he published another tract, this time titled Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men; Witchcrafts, Infallible Proofs of Guilt in such as are Accused with the Crime, which urged people to be cautious in accepting spectral evidence during the trials.

Spectral evidence was basically psychic hearsay accepted as proof of witchcraft. For example, during a trial an allegedly bewitched girl might say, "Ahh! Goodwife Corey is biting me on the arm!" The judges would accept this as evidence even though: 1. no one else saw Goodwife Corey bite the girl, and 2. Goodwife Corey and all the other witches were restrained in plain sight of the court. Since she was a witch, it was assumed she could send her spirit to cause mischief even while restrained.

Showing some wisdom, Increase Mather thought spectral evidence was not sufficient to convict someone. He didn't show as much wisdom as one might hope though, because here's what he did consider sufficient evidence: testimony from neighbors, and "the fact that some of the afflicted girls were relieved of their fits when a concoction of rye paste, water and the hair and nail clippings of the accused witches was mixed together and set afire."

Needless to say, once the hysteria died down and it was revealed that the bewitched girls had been faking, people in Massachusetts wanted Increase to recant and admit he was wrong. He never did, either out of pride or because he was friendly with the trial judges. His reputation suffered but not as badly as that of his son Cotton, who I'll write about soon.

(I got most of my information from Rosemary Ellen Guiley's The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. )

November 05, 2009

A Story for Bear Hibernation Day

A black bear - photo from this site.

According to The Old Farmer's Almanac, today (November 8) is the day when black bears return to their dens for the winter. Hmmm. I wouldn't go walking in the woods covered in cheese just yet, though. I'm sure bears really decide when to hibernate based on things like temperature and food supply, not the calendar.

I wouldn't really be surprised if bears did have calendars, though, since they're the most human-like animals in New England. They can walk on two feet like us and they're omnivorous like us. That's one reason bears appear in so many fairy tales and folk stories.

The Wabanaki tribes of Northern New England have plenty of stories about bears. Many of them are variations on this story, "The Bear Abductor", which I found in Frank Speck's 1935 article "Penobscot Tales and Religious Beliefs." (FYI, the Penboscot are one of the five tribes that make up the Wabanaki; the others are the Abenaki, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac).

The story goes something like this: once upon a time, a little boy and his parents were out looking for berries in the woods. They searched for quite a while, but didn't have much luck. Finally, when they found a rich berry patch, they put the boy down so they could pick the berries. After all, what harm could befall him in the woods? But when they were done, they were horrified to see their son had disappeared. They had only turned their back for a few moments, and now he was gone.

They searched for days but couldn't find him. Eventually they gave up and assumed he was dead. But he wasn't dead. Instead, a bear had taken him while his parents weren't looking. It carried the little boy off to his den, and raised him like his own child, teaching him how to hunt, how to forage for food, and how to run on all fours. For seven years the boy lived happily as a bear.

One day the bear father told him they were being tracked by hunters, and that they would catch and kill the bear. Before this happened, he returned the boy to his human parents. Before letting him go, he made the boy promise to never kill a mother bear. The boy solemnly swore this and ran into his old house on all fours. The hunters caught up with the bear and killed him.

The boy's human parents were overjoyed to see him, having thought he was long dead. They were a little puzzled that he walked on four legs and couldn't speak like a person, but in time he re-learned to be human. However, from his time as a bear he still remembered two things: how to hunt, and the promise he made.

Eventually the boy became a man and got married. Because of his hunting skills, he provided well for his wife, who feasted on every type of game the forest provided. But there was one thing she craved she never got to eat: bear meat.

"Why won't you kill a bear for me? They're so tasty, particularly mother bears! If you love me, you'll kill a bear", she said. She pleaded and taunted, until he promised to kill a bear for her.

He searched through forest for quite a while, but didn't have much luck. Finally, he sighted a bear. A mother bear. He thought briefly of the promise he made to his bear father, but let the thought go. He had made the promise as a child, and was now a man. He pulled back the string of his bow. He released the arrow, which found its mark in the bear's heart. She died quickly. And when she died, the boy disappeared, never to be seen again.

November 01, 2009

Happy Cabbage Night?

The streets near my house are full of smashed pumpkins, and discarded candy wrappers are blowing around with the leaves. Another Halloween come and gone. It's my favorite holiday, so I'm always a little glum when it's over. Why can't Halloween be longer?

Well, in the early twentieth century it was longer, often lasting several nights. Here's an account by Charles W. "Charlie" Turner that appeared in The Haverhill Gazette's October 27, 2005 issue. Charlie's looking back nostalgically to his childhood in the Acre, a dense urban neighborhood in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

"It all began on October 28, which was known as Cabbage Night. ... Many families raised cabbages in their gardens and young men went there to steal them. Afterwards, they raced through the streets throwing the plants at houses along the way. Ma warned me to stay away from the windows just in case..."

"The second night, Oct.30, was called Beggars-Night. This was the night when children put on their costumes and went from door to door in search of treats. ..."

"On Oct.31, Halloween came and most everybody stayed home. This was the night for mischief ... a return to those places that ignored a child's request for a treat. Most of the time it was cut clotheslines and soaped windows in our neighborhood. However, on the other side of Main Street, things could be worse. There were broken windows, messes on porches, and even an occasional tipped car."

Charlie doesn't indicate the years he's remembering, but my guess is the 1930s and early 1940s. My mother is a Haverhill native, and she has similar memories from her childhood in the '40s.

Halloween used to be a much more raucous holiday marked by occasional rioting and widespread vandalism. Although celebrations still sometimes get out of hand these days, its much more sedate. For this, we can thank civil authorities who tamed Halloween in the mid-1900s through a program of parades, school parties, and child-friendly trick-or-treating. Rather than ban the holiday, they channeled its energy into less destructive outlets. I guess I'll take one crime-free night of Halloween over three nights of urban chaos.

(The best source for a history of North American Halloween that I've read is Nicholas Rogers' Halloween. From Pagan Ritual to Party Night.)