October 30, 2011

Witchcraft in Rocks Village and Beyond

When I was in grade school in Haverhill, I spoke with some kids who lived in the Rocks Village neighborhood. They said that on Halloween night, they were going to wait at a crossroads to see if a dead countess buried in a nearby graveyard would walk down the street. I'm not sure what they'd do if they did see her, but the story really impressed me. At the time, I didn't wonder too much about why a countess would be buried in Massachusetts.

When I was in high school, I drove with my friends Christine and Cesar to the countess's grave one night after we saw Nightmare on Elm Street at the movie theater. We were spooked to see that her grave was surrounded by an iron cage! Then Cesar scraped his hand across the roof of the car a la Freddy Krueger, we all screamed, and drove home.

It was only later I learned why there was a cage around Countess Mary Ingalls's grave. She was the first countess in the US, a Rocks Village native who married refugee Count Francois Vipardi in the 1700s. Their romance became the subject of a popular poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, and the cage was to protect the gravestone from souvenir seekers. The stone is now kept in a building to protect it from vandalism.

I don't know where the spooky story about the countess originated. Perhaps it's just that when Americans of a certain generation see the word "count", they think of vampires.

The countess may not be a ghost or vampire, but there is some interesting folklore about witches in Rocks Village. Charles Skinner in Myths and Legends of Our Own Land relates the following stories:

Some people having a party one night in Rocks Village were pestered by a large beetle. The beetle flew in their faces relentlessly, buzzing its wings angrily. Finally, one of the partygoers swatted the insect and crushed it with his foot. At that very moment, Goody Mose, a local woman with a sinister reputation, fell down the stair in her house. Clearly, the beetle had been sent by her to disrupt the party.

Goodman Nichols, another Rocks Village inhabitant, cast a spell on a neighbor's son, "compelling him to run up one end of the house, along the ridge, and down the other end, troubling the family extremely by his strange proceedings..." Skinner doesn't share what caused Nichols to cast the spell, or how the bewitchment was resolved.

Rocks Village lies along the shore of the Merrimack River, and some neighboring towns also had their share of alleged witches. In Amesbury, Barrow Hill was supposedly where both Indian shamans and witches gathered. (The two were identical to the Puritans.) Fires burned on top of the hill late at night, and figures could be seen dancing around it. Even in the 19th century some locals said strange lights could be seen on the hill at night. Amesbury was also the home of Goody Whitcher, whose loom kept moving and making noise long after she was dead.

In West Newbury, Goody Sloper had a reputation as a witch, but redeemed herself when she rescued two people from drowning in the river. And in Newburyport, Goodwife Elizabeth Morse was accused of witchcraft in 1679 by neighbors who had grudges against her. One neighbor even claimed that she made his calves dance on their hand legs and roar. She was sentenced to death but ultimately pardoned by the governor.

I feel lucky to live someplace where there is so much folklore waiting to be discovered. Have a great Halloween!

October 23, 2011

Getting Familiar with the Witch's Familiar

"Sarah Good, what evil spirit have you familiarity with?"
"Have you made no contact with the Devil?"
"Why do you hurt these children?"
"I do not hurt them. I scorn it."
"Who do you employ, then, to do it?"
"I employ nobody."
"What creature do you employ, then?"
In a modern court case, when the accused is asked about accomplices everyone assumes the accomplice is human. In the Salem witch trials, the accused were interrogated about their familiar spirits. The Puritans believed familiar spirits, or familiars for short, were demonic entities given to witches by the Devil to work their mischief. They often took the form of animals, but occasionally were also humanoid or monstrous in appearance.

A 17th English century illustration of witches and their familiars.

The origin of this belief probably lies deep in mankind's past. In many societies, shamans make pacts with animal spirits to help them in their work for the community. Even in 17th century England, many cunning folk (magical practitioners who worked beneficial magic) claimed they derived their skills from familiar spirits, often a fairy of some kind.

Unfortunately, the Puritans in both old and New England didn't believe there could be beneficial familiar spirits. Familiars belonged to the realm of the Devil, and having a familiar was proof of selling yourself to that realm.

In Salem, people were accused of being served by a variety of spirits:

  • Four-year old Dorcas Good accused her mother Sarah of "having three birds, one black, one yellow and that these birds hurt the children and afflicted persons." I don't think the third bird was ever described.
  • The slave Tituba also testified that Sarah Good was served by a yellow bird, as well as a cat.
  • Tituba claimed that accused witch Sarah Osburn also had a familiar spirit, with "wings and two legs and a head like a woman." The familiar could change its shape and become fully human.
  • Sarah Osburn was also served by a "thing all over hairy, all the face hairy, and a long nose, and I don't know how to tell how the face looks." It walked on two legs, and was about three feet high. Tituba had seen it standing in front of the fire in the Reverend Parris' house at night.
  • John Louder claimed that Bridget Bishop sent her familiar to torment him at night. The spirit, which had the body of a monkey, the feet of a rooster, and a human face, crept into his bedroom while he slept and asked Louder to become a witch. He refused, and banished it with a prayer.

Perhaps you've heard the old saying, "It's colder than a witch's tit?" It seems likely that this phrase is derived from the belief that witches suckled their familiars from small, unnatural bodily protrusions called witch's teats. Familiars fed on a witch's blood, of course, not milk. These protrusions were allegedly cold and without any feeling. During trials, accused witches were stripped and searched for witch teats. Moles, pimples, and flea bites were misidentified and used as evidence of witchcraft.

I got most of this information, and the surreal descriptions of the familiars, from Chadwick Hansen's Witchcraft at Salem.

Next week: Crazy witchcraft stories from the Merrimac Valley!

October 18, 2011

How to Make a Poppet

I think most people are familiar with the concept of a voodoo doll. It's a small human figure meant to represent an individual for magical purposes.

The term "voodoo doll" is really a misnomer. Using dolls to cast spells has a long history, and isn't even particularly associated with Voudou, which is really an Afro-Caribbean polytheistic religion.

In colonial New England these dolls were known as poppets, which is an old spelling of puppet. They were often cited in witchcraft trials as evidence of malicious magic. For example, Goody Glover, and elderly Irish woman accused of bewitching several Boston children, had in her home

"several small images, or poppets, or babies, made of rags and stuffed with goat's hair and other ingredients. When these were produced the vile woman acknowledged that her way to torment the objects of her malice was by wetting of her finger with her spittle and stroking of these little images."

See? No pins are necessary to torment your victims, just a little spit. And Goody Glover later showed that your doll doesn't even need to be well made - a common stone will do.

Before her execution Goody Glover was visited in prison by Cotton Mather, who prayed for her soul. But, as soon as he was out of her sight, he said she "took a stone, a long and slender stone, and with her finger and spittle fell to tormenting it; though whom or what she meant, I had the mercy to never understand."

Goody Glover's trial happened in 1688, and set the stage for the Salem trials of 1692. Poppets once again played an important role.

An early American poppet on display at the Salem Witch House.

Two men testified against Bridget Bishop that while doing work in her cellar, they tore down a wall to find "several poppets made up of rags and hogs' bristles with headless pin in them with the points turned outward..." This evidence helped make her the first person executed in the Salem witch trials.

Poppets were also used as evidence against Candy, a slave in the Salem Village house of Nathaniel Putnam. She kept in her room "a handkerchief wherein several knots were tied, rags of cloth, a piece of cheese, and a piece of grass." These must have been a very simple dolls indeed, but the afflicted girls claimed they could see the specters of Candy and the Black Man (i.e. the Devil) pinching the dolls, which caused them great pain. Candy was later forced to eat the grass, which she claimed burned her skin. Candy confessed to being a witch, and ultimately escaped execution.

Given all the bad energy surrounding poppets in this part of the country, I'm reluctant to provide specific instructions. However, I found this video (with peppy music) that shows you how. Watch it if you dare!

The quotes in this post were from Chadwick Hansen's Witchcraft at Salem.

Next week - Witches' familiars!

October 09, 2011

The Salem Witch House and Jonathan Corwin

October is Halloween month. The days are getting darker, the air is getting cooler. It puts me in the mood for spooky stories, and tales about witches.

Tony and I went with our friends Lori and Dave up to Salem for our annual pilgrimage. This year rather than visit a cheesy (but scary) haunted house we went someplace with an authentic connection to the Salem witch trials - the Salem Witch House, the former residence of witch trial judge Jonathan Corwin.

Located just off the main drag, the Corwin house is an impressive example of 17th century architecture. Jonathan Corwin bought the house in 1675, but I believe it was built in the 1650s. Now that's an old house!

Jonathan Corwin was born in 1640, and became quite wealthy as a merchant. He served Salem (and Salem Village) as a magistrate, and dealt mostly with petty crimes like public drunkenness and burglary. However, given the penal code of the day, even though the crimes were petty I am sure he delivered some harsh punishments. For example, convicted burglars were branded with a "B" on their hands or forehead, depending on their number of convictions.

Corwin was appointed to serve on the witch trials only after Haverhill's Nathaniel Saltonstall resigned. Saltonstall had quit in protest over the admission of spectral evidence in the trials.

People at the time believed that witches could send their souls (or specters) to attack their victims. The afflicted girls in Salem Village claimed they could see the specters of the witches who were attacking them. Although no one else was able to see them, this spectral evidence was still allowed in the court.

It appears that Jonathan Corwin had no qualms about accepting spectral evidence, but not much is known about his role in the trials. Records from the time are incomplete. Corwin did sign multiple arrest warrants and transcribed the records of several trials.

Corwin's role in the trials did not have a negative effect on his reputation. Although it was eventually acknowledged that the trials killed twenty innocent people, Corwin went on to serve on the state legislature. He died in 1718 at the age of 78.

The Salem Witch House is definitely worth a visit. The architecture is great, and the building is filled with furniture and artifacts from the 17th century. They let you take photos (no flash allowed), which I think is unusual for a house museum. There are also some interesting displays around the house about witchcraft beliefs of the time.

I got my information about Jonathan Corwin from Wikipedia.

Next week: how to make a poppet!

October 02, 2011

Fruitlands, Shakers, and King Philip's War Club

If you're looking for an intense dose of New England culture, I'd suggest a trip to the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts. Tony and I went out there a couple weeks ago, and it's really a great place to visit. The museum's multiple buildings are situated on a hill overlooking a valley. I'm sure you'd get a great view of the fall foliage if you visit in October.

Fruitlands was founded by Clara Endicott Sears, a wealthy Boston spinster, in 1914. It takes its name from a short-lived Utopian community founded in the same location by Bronson Alcott in 1843. The Fruitlands house is still on the museum grounds.

Amos Bronson Alcott (1799 - 1888) was an educator, writer, and member of the New England Transcendentalist movement. An abolitionist, feminist, and vegetarian, I think Alcott would have been a hippie had he lived in the 1960s.

In 1843 he founded the Fruitlands Utopian community with Charles Lane, another Transcendentalist. Their goal: to return to Eden. They and their families committed themselves to a vegetarian diet, and would only eat fruit and "aspirational vegetables", which grew upward towards the sky. (Sorry carrots and potatoes, you're out of luck!) They avoided leather and did not use oxen or horses to till the earth. Charles Lane also suggested that they dissolve all marriages and live as one big communal family.

The Fruitlands community only lasted seven months. The land was not good for growing crops, Alcott was not interested in the hard work of farming, and his wife Abby May Alcott threatened to leave if the Utopian experiment continued. Their daughter, Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, eventually wrote about the experience in a book called Sowing Transcendental Wild Oats.

Charles Lane and his sons moved from Fruitlands to a nearby Shaker community. During their heyday, this celibate Christian sect had dozens of communities across the Northeast, including one in Harvard. An office building from a Shaker community is part of the Fruitlands museum. It's filled with quite a few interesting artifacts. Before mass industrialization, the Shakers were well known for the consumer and home products goods they produced.

Fruitlands also includes a small museum devoted to American Indians, which has a nice selection of artifacts from local Algonquian Indians. Among them is a large war-club, which may (or may not) be the same war-club used by the Wampanoag sachem Metacomet, aka King Philip, in King Philip's war in the 17th century. King Philip's war was a major event in New England history. Nearly half of all New England towns were destroyed, and 600 colonists and 3,000 Indians were killed. If the war-club really belonged to King Philip, it's a very significant object.

A traditional Algonquian wigwam is located outside the American Indian museum so visitors can experience how local Indians lived before the Puritans arrived.

All in all, a great place to visit!