April 25, 2010

Hannah Duston, the Heroine of Haverhill - Part 1

The Hannah Duston statue in GAR Park, Haverhill, Massachusetts.

The steely gaze. The hatchet. The high-necked dress. No, it's not Lizzie Borden - it's Hannah Duston, the heroine of Haverhill, Massachusetts. Her story is just as bloody as Lizzy's, so don't read any further if you're squeamish.

Hannah and her husband Thomas were early settlers in Haverhill, where they lived with their children, but her fame began on March 16, 1697. Hannah was recuperating at home after delivering the newest baby Duston. Thomas was out in the fields with the children, while Mrs. Neff, a neighbor, watched over Hannah.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Hannah's post-partum repose was interrupted by raiding Abenaki Indians. Thomas and the children fled to a defended garrison. Hannah, Mrs. Neff and the baby were captured by the warriors, who canoed up the Merrimac River into New Hampshire after setting fire to Haverhill. During the journey, one of the warriors killed the newborn by smashing it against an apple tree. (Gruesome. And, again, why are apple trees so often associated with death?)

After a few days, Hannah and Mrs. Neff were given to an Abenaki family consisting of two men, three women, and seven children. The family already had one European captive, a boy from Worcester named Samuel Lennardson.

Indians often captured settlers to replace family members who had died, or to use as slaves. Hannah wasn't interested in either option. One night while the Indian family was asleep, she took a hatchet and killed ten of them - one woman and one child escaped.

Hannah also scalped the Indians, perhaps helped by Mrs.Neff and Samuel. When they returned to Haverhill, Hannah was proclaimed a heroine. The colonial government paid her 25 pounds as a reward for the scalps. She was praised by Cotton Mather, and written about by Henry David Thoreau. Her family built a new brick home, the Duston Garrison house, which can still be seen on Hilldale Avenue in Haverhill.

Hannah Duston was the first women in the US to have a statue erected in her honor. She has two, in fact: the one in Haverhill (1861), and one in Boscawen, New Hampshire (1874). Joseph Citro notes in Curious New England that the statue in Boscawen exhibits both decolletage and bloody scalps.

I don't know if Hannah would get a statue these days. I was taught Hannah's story as a child, and saw some Duston artifacts in the Haverhill Historical Society. She was definitely the heroine of the story. But people are more aware now that New England's past was complicated, which is a euphemism for "the Europeans came and took the Indian's land and massacred them." I can admire Hannah for being a tough woman who escaped her captors, but I certainly don't see the Indians as villains in this story. Also, as a kid, I wasn't told that Hannah slaughtered six children while they slept. The emphasis was always on her baby and that apple tree.

When I tell this story to people the first time now, they often ask "How could she kill all those Indians while they slept? Didn't someone scream?" It's a good question, and one that never crossed my mind in my youth. Just recently I found a strange supernatural story that explains it, but I'll save it for next week.

You can visit HannahDuston.com for more information about her life and adventures.

April 18, 2010

Concord's Haunted Inn

In late March Tony and I took a trip to Concord, Massachusetts. It's the quaintest town I've ever been in! Tony took plenty of photos.

There's plenty there to see, like Nathaniel Hawthorne's grave in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Hawthorne included lots of folklore in books like The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables. While in Sleepy Hollow, we also saw three of my favorite animals: a groundhog, crows, and a garter snake.

We stopped by Walden Pond, and saw the site of Thoreau's famous cabin in the woods. The pile of stones has been placed there, one rock at a time, in tribute by visitors.

Parts of the Minuteman National Park are also in Concord. It was late March when we were there, and the Concord River had flooded over its banks in a big way.

Concord is historic, well-maintained and very pretty. But, as a long-time fan of Stephen King, I know every little New England town has some spooky secret. For Concord, it's the ghost that haunts the Concord Inn.

The Concord Inn's original structure was built in 1716 by John Minot, and was expanded by subsequent owners. It opened as a hotel in 1899.

Room 24, which is in the oldest part of the inn, is reportedly haunted. A man in 18th century clothing has been seen repeatedly in that room. He never harms anyone or speaks, but simply walks towards the fireplace and disappears. According to Thomas D'Agostino in Haunted Massachusetts, in 2005 a group of ghost hunters investigating the Inn saw the man, and had a book thrown at them.

A well-known story about the Inn goes something like this. Many years ago, a pair of newlyweds were honeymooning in Room 24. The bridge awoke in the middle of the night, feeling uneasy. At the foot of her bed she saw, glowing faintly, a man in antiquated clothing! He disappeared into the fireplace. The terrified bride shook her husband awake, and explained what she had seen. "We need to leave at once!", she said.

"But darling", her husband replied, "the ghost comes with the price of the room."

The owners of the Concord Inn don't hide the fact they have a ghost. After all, it's probably good for business. They have more information about the ghost on their Web site.

Happy Patriots Day!

April 10, 2010

The Witch Bridle: Ride 'Em Cowgirl!

Gentlemen, have you recently woken up from a long night's sleep to find yourself more exhausted than when you went to bed? Did you have vaguely sexual but unpleasant dreams? Have you recently angered a neighbor woman with an unsavory reputation?

If you answered yes to those three questions, it's likely you were the victim of a witch bridle.

Witch bridles have a long history in New England folklore. During the Salem witch trials of 1692, afflicted servant girl Mary Warren claimed Martha Emerson of Haverhill used a witch bridle. According to Mary, Martha's spectre told her she had "rid a man with an inchanted bridle." Under pressure, Martha confessed that she had indeed magically ridden her neighbor Matthew Herriman. Matthew verified this, claiming he had awoken one summer morning feeling unwell and as if he had been holding a bridle in his mouth all night.

Herbert Sylvester tells another, more detailed story in Maine Pioneer Settlements: Old York. Skipper Perkins, a fishing boat captain, refuses to give his impoverished Kittery neighbor Betty Booker any halibut for free. Snidely, he says to her "Show me your sixpence, ma'am!" Bad decision - Betty's poor, but she's a witch. She curses his boat, and he's unable to bring in any good catch.

But that's not the limit of her revenge. On a dark stormy night, Betty and some of her witchy colleagues invade Skipper Perkins' home, screaming "Bring me a bit o' hal'but, skipper!" They strip Perkins naked, strap a bridle on him, and all ride him up and down the Maine coast until sunrise. As they depart, Betty says "Don't say sixpence, skipper, to a poor old woman again." It took Perkins three weeks to recover.

Years later, an old house was being torn down in Kittery. Inside one of the walls, the demolition crew found a bridle made from a horse tail, tow rope, and yellow birch bark. They burned it.

The October 10, 1896 issue of the Boston Evening Transcript contains an article titled "Witchcraft Today: The Belief in Supernatural Feats in a New England Town." According to the reporter, an unnamed coastal town near Boston was dominated by three witches, who each had their own bridle. They were made of the same materials as Betty Booker's, were about nine feet long, and could be thrown like lassos. A local fisherman named Captain Isaac somehow insulted Hetty Moye, one of the three sorceresses. Hetty invades his bedroom one night seeking revenge, armed with her bridle, but Isaac avoids becoming her steed by ducking under the covers as she tries to throw it over his head. He forced her from his home and was apparently never bothered again.

Here's one more case of a witch bridle. According to a the February 6, 1919 issue of the Boston Herald, a Cape Cod man was cursed by a local elderly witch after he stole some of her doughnuts. She devised a magic bridle, and rode him in his dreams like a horse until he was exhausted. Historian George Lyman Kittredge claims he heard a similar story himself from a Truro native in 1888.

I'm not sure of the witch bridle's origin, but the belief seems related to beliefs in succubi and night hags. There's a lot of sexual innuendo going on as well, and some fear of women!

Sources: Botkin's Treasury of New England Folklore, the Dublin Seminar's Wonders of the Invisible World, and Kittredge's Witchcraft in Old and New England. And of course, the Web!

April 03, 2010

Rabbits, wine and murderous mayhem

The cutest rabbit photo ever. But keep him away from the sacramental wine!

Wikipedia tells me the Easter Bunny probably originated in Germany, and was introduced to the US by German settlers who came to Pennsylvania. This doesn't really explain why people thought an egg-carrying rabbit should be associated with Christ's resurrection in the first place, but I suppose his true origin lies in a murky undocumented zone of pagan practices and folklore survivals.

I don't think the English who settled around here paid much attention to rabbits or hares, but the local Algonquians sure did. Roger Williams noticed his 17th century Narragansett neighbors treated rabbits very well, and wrote: "They have a reverend esteem of this creature, and conceive there is some deitie in it." The Ojibwa, who lived west beyond New England counted Nanabozho, the Great Rabbit, as one of their chief gods.

The Algonquians who lived in northern New England had mixed feelings about hares. Last year I wrote about the Great White Hare, who presides over the souls of the dead on a frozen mountain. He's like the Easter Bunny's evil twin! But even the typical, non-supernatural white hare was associated with blizzards. The Penobscot said hares sat in their holes and counted snowflakes, excreting a pellet each time a flake fell. That's a lot of poop!

But there are multiple species of rabbits and hares in Maine, and the rabbit (as opposed to the northern hare) was a humorous trickster character in many Penobscot stories. He's a little bit Bugs Bunny, a little bit Charles Manson. One tale that's strangely relevant for Easter begins when Rabbit pointlessly kills the children of the Fisher while he's away. When the Fisher finds out what Rabbit has done, he pursues him through the forest and swamps, intent on revenge.

The chase goes on for days. Finally, exhausted from running, Rabbit finds himself on the steps of a small church with the Fisher closing in. He knows he can't win a fair fight against the Fisher, so he uses trickery. He transforms himself into a Catholic priest. (Note: this story was collected in the 1930s, long after the Penobscot had converted to Catholicism.)

"Come on into the church, my son", he says to the Fisher, "and tell me your problems." The Fisher comes in, and tells the priest how his children were savagely murdered, and how he wants to rip Rabbit into pieces and eat him alive. "Oh, that's terrible", Rabbit the priest says. "Have some of this red wine - it will make you feel better. Have some of this bread, too."

The Fisher drinks the wine and eats the bread, and then eats some more. Rabbit the priest gives him even more, and more, until the Fisher falls asleep drunk. Rabbit takes this chance to turn back into animal form, and runs off. When the Fisher wakes up he realizes he's been tricked, and starts pursuing Rabbit again. And according to the story, they're chasing each other still.

There you go. Rabbits, wine and the eucharist all in one New England folk tale. Happy Easter!

(The story about Rabbit and Fisher is from Frank Speck's 1935 article on Penobscot religious beliefs.)