July 29, 2010

A Ghost of Central Burying Ground

A while ago I made a trip to Boston's Central Burying Ground. It's not as well known as the Copp's Hill, King's Chapel, or Old Granary burial grounds because it doesn't contain any illustrious Puritans or founding fathers. The burials are mostly from the 19th century. The most famous person interred there is Gilbert Stuart, a portraitist best known for his painting of George Washington.

Even though the Central Burying Ground is relatively recent, it seems more decrepit than the other cemeteries. For example, in this photo you can clearly see the rat holes dug into this crypt. I don't really think there's anything left for them to eat in there, however.

I also saw this mass grave for corpses that were disturbed when the Boylston Street subway station was built. Hmm. Bodies here don't seem to enjoy a very restful slumber.

However, the vague sense of creepy neglect was lightened by the fact that there were almost no other visitors. For a living person, Central Burying Ground is a lot more peaceful than the other, more touristy graveyards downtown.

The grave art isn't quite as ominous either. There aren't a lot of skulls and bones carved on the stones. Instead, there are things like this sun, which is almost cheery.

With its dichotomy of creepy and peaceful, Central Burying Ground seems like the perfect place to see a ghost. And indeed, in the 1970s a dentist named Matt Rutger did just that.

Dr. Rutger was walking through the cemetery one afternoon when he saw a young girl in a large, dirty white dress. Something didn't seem quite right about her. Was it the way she stared at him relentlessly? Perhaps. But more likely it was the way she kept appearing wherever he looked, as if she were teleporting around the graveyard.

Realizing this was no ordinary girl, Dr. Rutger ran towards the gate. She appeared in front of him, and then faded away into the air. When he finally reached the sidewalk outside the gate, he felt relief at leaving the cemetery and strange girl behind him.

Dr. Rutger may have been done with her, but she wasn't quite done with him. As he reached to put his car keys in the door, he felt a small, cold hand take them and throw them to the ground. And that was the end of his encounter.

I got the information about the ghost of Central Burying Ground from Cheri Revai's Haunted Massachusetts. I didn't see any ghosts, but it's definitely an interesting place to visit.

July 25, 2010

Full Buck Moon

"It's my moon, so show me a little love!"

Well, according to the Old Farmer's Almanac tonight is the Full Buck Moon. Male deer's antlers start to emerge this time of summer, hence the name.

The last living deer I saw was July 2009, in the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain. It was just walking around and eating shrubbery, completely unconcerned with all the people nearby. Unfortunately, more recently I saw a dead one by the side of Route 93 in New Hampshire. I love seeing deer, but a lot people consider them pests because they eat bushes and gardens.

However, the original inhabitants of this area had a very different opinion about deer. They were very important to the Algonquians of New England, who gave us the name of this month's moon. Venison was one of their main sources of meat, and large numbers of deer were hunted and killed every year in the autumn. The Algonquians roasted venison, boiled it in a stew with dried corn kernels, and would even dry it to make jerky. Drying meat became much easier once the English settlers introduced salt, which became a valuable commodity among the local Indians.

The New England Indians viewed animals as equals deserving respect, and to needlessly kill an animal was considered a grave misdeed. When a hunter did kill an animal, the entire body had to be consumed to show respect. Otherwise, the spirit of an animal whose body was wasted might haunt the person who killed it.

So, in addition to eating a deer, the Algonquians used its body for other purposes. Coastal dwellers made harpoons from antlers, farmers used shoulder blades as hoes to break up hard soil, and archers made arrowheads out of sharp bone shards. The hides were used for clothing, moccasins, and even to make balls for a game similar to lacrosse. The unused bones of any animals were returned to the animal's home environment as a final display of respect.

I'm a vegetarian myself, but if you need to kill an animal the Algonquian way seems like the right way to go. If you see any deer this lunar cycle, try to treat them with respect.

PS - I got all this deer information from Howard Russell's Indian New England Before the Mayflower.

July 18, 2010

More on the Haunted Mill, with a Cross-Dressing Canadian

Surprisingly, I just found another story about Somerville's haunted mill. But before I get to the legend, here's a very short relevant North American history lesson.

Way back in the early 1600s, the part of Canada now called Nova Scotia was colonized by the French, who named it Acadia. (The name is probably derived from Arcadia, with an "r", which was an idyllic wilderness region in ancient Greece.) These colonists, or Acadians, were the dominant social group in eastern Canada until the early 1700's, when Britain wrested control of the area from France.

Say goodbye to Acadia and hello to Somerville! Image from here.

At first the British tolerated the Acadians, but gradually becames suspicious of these French-speaking Catholics and in 1755 they deported thousands of Acadians. The exiles ended up all over the New World, including Louisiana (where they became the Cajuns) and Massachusetts.

What does this have to do with Somerville? Well, according to Edward Samuel and Henry Kimball's Somerville Past and Present (1897), in the mid-1700s a young Acadian woman was given to a Somerville farmer as a servant. He was a cruel master, so she decided to escape.

Hoping to avoid detection, she disguised herself as a man and ran from the farm. On her way out of town she sought refuge with a friendly mill owner, who said she could stay overnight in the mill's upstairs room.

Unfortunately for her, her cruel master discovered her escape and tracked her to the mill. He tricked the miller into unlocking the mill, and crept quietly through the darkness towards the ladder leading upstairs. But unfortunately (for him), he slipped in the darkness and fell off the ladder. He grabbed a rope to break his fall, the mill went into motion, and he was crushed by the millstone. His ghost now haunts the building.

There are some interesting parallels between this story and the version from last week. In both, a young woman is hiding upstairs, and is chased by an evil man who gets crushed and returns as a ghost. This version from Somerville Past and Present doesn't include any romance, but instead has cross-dressing and roots the story in a specific historic moment. It also doesn't mention the ghost swearing and appearing as a ball of blue sparks.

The two versions were written down within a year of each other, so I'm a little puzzled by the discrepancies. I guess the people of Somerville all agreed that the mill was haunted, they just didn't know why. The ghost is a given, but the reason is a mystery.

I found the reference about Somerville Past and Present in Richard Dorson's 1946 book Jonathan Draws the Longbow. And, in the interest of full disclosure, one of my ancestors was an Acadian deported to my Massachusetts in the 1700s!

July 11, 2010

Somerville's Haunted Mill

Tony and I went to a party in Somerville, MA last Friday. Why not stop by a haunted mill on the way?

The mill, which is better known as the powder house in Powder House Square near Tufts, was built in the early 1700's by one John Mallet. Mallet gave the mill to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1747, which used it to store gun powder. In 1774, British governor Thomas Gage confiscated the powder stored there so it wouldn't be used by the American rebels. Even later, the American army used the building to store their gun powder while they were laying siege to Boston.

It's a historic site, but where does the ghost fit in?

According to Charles Skinner in Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, before the Revolution the old mill was the spot where a poor young farmer used to secretly meet his beloved, who was the daughter of a wealthy man. He didn't want his daughter seeing a someone with no money, and became very suspicious of the amount of time she spent at the stone mill.

One moonless night, the wealthy man followed his daughter to the mill. Seeing that her secret was about to be discovered, the girl climbed the stairs up into the loft to hide until either her father left or her lover arrived. As she walked quietly through the pitch black room, she grabbed a rope to steady herself.

Big mistake! The rope set the mill's machinery in motion, and from the first floor she heard a grinding sound and a horrifying scream. Rushing down, she saw that her father's arm had been caught in a millstone and pulverized.

Her lover arrived, and they carried her father home where he received the best in 18th century medical care. Unfortunately his injuries were fatal, but before he died he gave his blessing to his daughter and the poor farmer. They got married several months later.


Even though he gave his blessing while alive, his spirit didn't rest peacefully after death. According to the locals, his spirit haunted the mill on windy nights, cursing and swearing, and appearing as a ball of blue sparks. His ghost was, quite literally, cussing up a blue streak.

Tony and I didn't see any ghosts, but maybe we need to go back on a windy night.

July 05, 2010

Cannibals off the Coast of Maine

In December of 1710, the British merchant ship Nottingham Galley ran aground on Boon Island, a tiny pile of rocks off the coast from York, Maine. Although their ship was destroyed, all thirteen crew members and their captain, John Dean, made it safely onto the island.

Since the island is only 8 or 9 miles from the mainland, they initially thought someone would come and rescue them. They were mistaken. Whether because of bad weather or just bad luck, no ships came by for 21 days. Three weeks is a long time to spend on an island that's only 700 feet long, particularly when you don't have any food and it's the start of a Maine winter.

Weighing their odds, two crew members attempted to reach shore in a tiny raft they made, but died in the rough icy water. A third crew member, the ship's carpenter, died of starvation and cold.

Eyeing the dead carpenter, one desperately hungry sailor broached the unspeakable topic: should they eat him?

In the words of Captain Dean,

After abundance of mature thought and consultation about the lawfulness or sinfulness on the one hand, and the absolute necessity on the other, judgment, conscience, etc. were obliged to the more prevailing arguments of our craving appetites.

The crew couldn't bring themselves to butcher the carpenter, so Captain Dean did the hideous task for them once the sun had set.

They were rescued shortly afterward. Would they have survived long enough if they hadn't eaten their companion? There's no way to know. What decision would you make if you were in their situation?

I found this story in Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea - The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Philbrick's National Book Award winner is about a notorious case of nautical cannibalism involving a whaleship from Nantucket. It's worth reading if you're not too squeamish.

Boon Island now has a lighthouse on it, and like so many lighthouses it has an interesting history, including a possible ghost. That's not a surprise!