June 24, 2010

Independence Day, 19th Century Style...

The Legion of Doom are ready to party, 19th century style!

We're coming up on July 4th, which has been celebrated as America's birthday for more than two hundred years. But like any party that goes on for a long time, sometimes things get a little out of hand.

We have a description from George Goodrich Cogswell (1881 - 1955) of just how out of control the holiday can get. Cogswell was a lawyer, businessman and arts patron who lived in Haverhill, Massachusetts. When he was a boy in the late 1890s, Haverhill celebrated Independence Day in a big way. A big crazy way.

The festivities began when a bunch of boys "contrived a dangerously huge bonfire in Currier Square", which is on a hill outside the center of town. As night fell in earnest, citizens would converge around the bonfire, blowing horns, dragging cowbells, and shooting off revolvers, "not all of which were loaded with blank cartridges." Even later, in true Olde Newe Englande fashion, the celebration would devolve into a drunken riot.

Finally, the police would arrive to disperse the revelers, but "the really bad boys wore straps with pointed nails over their shoulders to make any cop who tired to grab them really sorry."


If you asked me to describe a 19th century 4th of July celebration before reading William Goodrich Cogswell: A Selection of His Writings, I would have imagined lots of straw hats and apple pie. But now, I keep picturing scenes from Mad Max or The Road Warrior.

At least Cogswell's description makes me feel better about the drunk teens who shoot off fireworks in the park next to my house - they're not wearing spiked shoulder pads.

June 19, 2010

Nathaniel Hawthorne Sees A Ghost

Nathaniel Hawthorne (b.1804, d.1864)

Most people are introduced to Nathaniel Hawthorne in high school, when they're forced to read The Scarlet Letter in English class. Students would probably like him a lot more if they knew he had actually seen a ghost. Like last week's post, this story is also focused on the Boston Athenaeum.

When Hawthorne was a bachelor (probably in the 1830s), he used to spend a significant amount of his free time reading at the Athenaeum. Among the many men he frequently saw there, he took particular note of one Reverend Doctor Harris, the Unitarian minister of Dorchester's First Parish Church. As Hawthorne describes him,

"He was a small, withered, infirm, but brisk old gentleman, with snow-white hair, a somewhat stooping figure, but yet a remarkable alacrity of movement."

Doctor Harris would spend his time in the Athenaeum's reading room with the Boston Post, the local Democrat newspaper. He and Hawthorne never spoke, and were never formally introduced.

One day, a friend of Hawthorne's remarked that Dr. Harris had passed away. But when Hawthorne went to the Athenaeum that day, he saw Dr. Harris still sitting in his customary seat, reading the newspaper (which probably contained his obituary notice)! He tried to ignore the ghost, but,

"Once or twice, no doubt, I may have lifted my eyes from the page to look again at the venerable Doctor, who ought then to have been lying in his coffin dressed out for the grave, but who felt such interest in the Boston Post as to come back from the other world to read it the morning after his death."

Hawthorne was the only person in the room who seemed to see Dr. Harris. And he continued to see him every day, reading the newspaper, for the space of several weeks.

Are there any ghosts in the Boston Athenaeum today?

Towards the end of this period, he noticed the ghost began to watch him expectantly. Perhaps, he thought, the ghost had a message for him from beyond the grave, or would charge him with a task he would need to accomplish before it could rest.

Interestingly, Hawthorne didn't accept this implicit invitation to speak to the ghost. After all, he thought,

"I had never been introduced to Doctor Harris, dead or alive, and I am not aware that social regulations are to be abrogated by the accidental fact of one of the parties having crossed the imperceptible line which separates the other party from the spiritual world."

Finally, one day in the reading room, Dr. Harris's ghost looked at him with

"a sad, wistful, disappointed gaze, which the ghost fixed upon me from beneath his spectacles; a melancholy look of helplessness, which, if my heart had not been as hard as a paving-stone, I could hardly have withstood."

And that was the last time he ever saw Dr. Harris.

Mix one part Yankee reserve, one part fear of death, and voila! You get this story, which is very New England. After all, how many times do we pass by living people that we see every day without speaking to them? Would we treat a dead person any differently?

You can find Hawthorne's tale many places, but I found it on the Dorchester Athenaeum site.

June 13, 2010

The Creepiest Book in Boston

The Highwayman, by George Walton

Way back in the early 1800s, a highwayman named George Walton terrorized New England. A native of Jamaica, Walton robbed banks, stole horses, broke into houses and held people up by gunpoint along the region's isolated roads.

Walton would just be another forgotten criminal if it he hadn't tried to rob George Fenno of Springfield, Massachusetts in 1833. Fenno resisted, so Walton shot him and then rode off. Unfortunately for the highwayman, Fenno's wounds weren't fatal, and he was later able to identify him.

While in prison, Walton penned an autobiography, called The Highwayman. To honor the man who put him in prison, he requested that after he died Mr. Fenno be given a copy of the book.

With one creepy catch. Walton specified that the book had to be bound in his own skin.

Walton died in prison in 1837. Surprisingly, the authorities honored his wishes regarding the book. After performing an autopsy, they removed his skin and cured it like leather. A piece of the skin was then sent to a bookbinder, who was asked to cover a copy of The Highwayman in it.
(Although the he wasn't told what leathery material he was working with, he had disturbing nightmares while it was in his possession.)

Even more surprisingly, George Fenno accepted the book. Generations later, one of his descendants gave it to the Boston Athenaeum, where it still resides today.

I joined the Athenaeum last year. It has a great collection of books, the building has great architecture, and it's filled with art. The Highwayman is kept in the Athenaeum's rare book collection, and wisely is not shown to visitors. I don't think I'd want to see it even if it were available.

I got most of my information from Joseph Citro and Dianne Fould's Curious New England. The Boston Athenaeum has a page about the book here, which is where I got the image from.

June 06, 2010

Occult Secrets for Flag Day

Flag Day is coming up on June 14. It's not really an official holiday anywhere except Pennsylvania, but Quincy apparently has the longest running Flag Day parade in the country. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

The origins of the American flag are murky at best, and there are several stories about it. The Betsy Ross one is the most famous, but here's a good one I found in The Occult Conspiracy by Michael Howard. It's kind of weird, and set in Massachusetts.

In December of 1775, a group of American revolutionaries (including Benjamin Franklin and George Washington) gathered at a house in Cambridge. They had been charged with designing an appropriate flag for the new nation. As they debated over various designs, an elderly man entered the room. He was a guest of the family that owned the house, and carried with him a large trunk of occult books and arcane manuscripts. A vegetarian and friend of Benjamin Franklin, he was introduced solely as the Professor.

As if this weren't unusual enough, he was "extremely knowledgeable about the historical events of the previous centuries as if he had witnessed them. " (I put the italics in there, so you can cue the spooky music.)

The Professor had several suggestions about how the flag should be designed, which the revolutionaries accepted. Before leaving for the night the Professor predicted America would become a great nation and "a future leader of civilization."

That's it! That's the end of the story as Michael Howard tells it.

Naturally, when I read this I was intrigued, and poked around on the Web.

It seems like Michael Howard found this story in Manly Hall's Secret Destiny of America. Hall, an American Freemason and Rosicrucian, claimed the Professor was really the Count St. Germain, a semi-mythical immortal Rosicrucian who has for centuries influenced the course of history. Yikes!

Perhaps Dan Brown can incorporate this into his next novel. Anyway, be sure to celebrate Flag Day in whatever occultish way you please!