December 23, 2012

The Christmas Anticks: St. George and the Mummers Visit Boston

Up until the mid-1800s Christmas was a hotly debated holiday in New England. The middle and upper classes, along with the government and church authorities, were virulently anti-Christmas; the lower classes, fishermen, and sailors tended to be pro-Christmas. Even though Christmas was not an official holiday and the government discouraged it, these folks still found ways to celebrate it.

For example, during the 1700s groups of laborers and lower class men would don disguises and travel door-to-door in Boston at Christmas time performing skits and asking for money. Bostonians called these performers the Anticks. Of course, the wealthy people whose houses they visited didn't want to see the skits or give out any holiday cheer, but they felt powerless to do anything for fear of reprisal. Better to hand out some beer and coins than to find all your windows broken in the morning!

Samuel Breck, a wealthy Bostonian who lived in a large house on the corner of Winter and Tremont streets, recalled visits from the Anticks when he was a child.

The only way to get rid of them was to give them money, and listen patiently to a foolish dialogue between two or more of them. One them would cry out, "Ladies and gentlemen sitting by the fire, put your hands in your pockets and give us our desire." When this was done and they had received some money, a kind of acting took place. One fellow was knocked down, and lay sprawling on the carpet, while another bellowed out,

See, there he lies
But ere he dies
A doctor must be had.

He calls for a doctor, who soon appears, and enacts the part so well that the wounded man revives.

Although Breck doesn't mention this, the Boston Anticks were actually performing a mummer's play, a centuries old form of British seasonal folk-theater. They were most likely performing of the many skits about St. George where he is slain and then resurrected magically.

British mummers, from this site.

Samuel Breck had a very "Bah! Humbug!" attitude towards the Anticks, and many other upright citizens felt the same way. But although they ostensibly shared Breck's opinion, the police claimed it was hard to arrest the Anticks because they wore disguises, and police officials suggested private citizens arrest any Anticks who harassed them. It sounds to me like the police really had little interest in shutting the Anticks down and were just passing the buck. Who knows? Maybe they had friends or family members who were part of the Anticks, or just enjoyed seeing the wealthy people squirm.

This information comes from Stephen Nissenbaum's excellent book The Battle for Christmas. If you are interested in the history of Christmas in America this book is it!

Have a great Christmas, and if any Anticks come to your house make sure to give them a little cash.

December 15, 2012

Dr. Bourne and the Witch's Ghost

As many people know, for centuries Christmas was not well-regarded in New England. It was actually illegal to celebrate Christmas until 1681, and Christmas was not made a legal holiday until 1855.

The Christmas the Puritans wanted banned was quite different from what we celebrate today. Before the 19th century Christmas wasn't focused on presents from Santa and decorated evergreen trees, but was instead an occasion for heavy drinking and unruly behavior, timeless and rowdy traditions that had been imported from the Old World to America.

Even in the centuries when Christmas was banned or frowned upon in New England it was still celebrated, particularly by working class men, sailors, and fishermen. Coastal towns were often hotbeds of illegal Christmas celebrations.

So it's no surprise that back in 1810 one Dr. Richard Bourne was out celebrating on Christmas Day in Hyannis the traditional way - by getting extremely drunk. Even though he was a physician and the local postmaster, as a Cape Cod resident Dr. Bourne would have been exposed to Christmas celebrations by the many mariners and fishermen who called the peninsula home.

After spending Christmas Day drinking at a tavern, Dr. Bourne began to make his way home to Barnstable after sunset. It was a journey of four miles and the road led through a dense forest that had once been home to Liza Tower Hill, a well-known witch. But Dr. Bourne didn't worry as his horse made her way slowly through the snowy, moonlit woods. She had made the journey many times before and the good doctor was fortified against the cold with rum, beer, and holiday good cheer. Besides, Liza Tower Hill had been dead for twenty years.

Dr. Bourne didn't worry (or even notice) when his horse strayed from the path and trotted towards Half Way Pond, where the witch had been known to dance in the moonlight. He didn't even care when his horse stopped by the pond and a beautiful woman approached, asking him to dance. 

If he had been sober he would have wondered what a young lady was doing out alone in the icy woods wearing only a light dress. He would have wondered why he, a respectable member of Cape Cod society, found her so irresistible as they danced around the pond. And he most certainly would have wondered about the man in black clothing who watched them from under the bare trees.

As the night went on Dr. Bourne and the young lady left off dancing and enjoyed more intimate activities. But when the sky began to grow light Dr. Bourne started to become sober. He noticed the lady had vanished, but the man in black clothing was standing nearby. He held out a large black book to the good doctor, indicating he should sign. 

The alcohol fog lifted. In a panic Dr. Bourne pulled on his clothes and leapt upon his horse, but he left his boots behind. He was found in a panicky state that morning by a group of men who were traveling through the woods. They didn't believe his story but were amazed that he had survived the night outdoors in freezing temperatures.

After his encounter with Liza Tower Hill's ghost Richard Bourne's life took a turn for the worst. His neighbors mocked him as a lying drunk who claimed he had slept with a ghost, and he lost his job as postmaster. Even worse, the government claimed he had not turned over all the postage fees he had collected and levied a fine against him of nearly $1,000, an enormous amount of money in the 1800s.

After he died penniless the government realized its error (he had only owed $30) and gave his daughter Abigail the $1,000 they had erroneously collected. It was too late for Dr. Bourne, but I'm sure his daughter appreciated both the money and the fact that her father's reputation was now at least partially rehabilitated.


Witches, ghosts, infidelity in the woods, Satan, heavy drinking and Christmas - there's a lot to like in this story! It's from Elizabeth Reynard's The Narrow Land, and she got her information from Amos Otis's Genealogical Notes of Barnstable Families. I do wish things ended more happily for Dr. Bourne though.

I think the presence of witches and ghosts in a Christmas story might be surprising to some modern Americans, but in much of pre-modern Europe Christmas was actually a time when ghosts were said to be wandering the land. Dickens didn't just include four ghosts in A Christmas Carol randomly. He was drawing upon ancient traditions. Even today in America Christmas is tinged with the supernatural, what with Santa, flying reindeer, and those elves working away at the North Pole. And there's only a very fine line between elves and ghosts. As Jacob Grimm wrote, "The dead were known to the Norsemen as elves."

December 09, 2012

Liza Tower Hill, the Witch of Half Way Pond

Elizabeth Lewis was born in Barnstable, Massachusetts sometime early in the 18th century.

Although she and her parents lived near Crooked Pond, an area of Cape Cod which at the time was quite remote, as a child she walked without fear in the dense forest, unafraid of wild animals or getting lost after dark. There were rumors she even hunted with the local Indians.

To her English neighbors it all seemed a little uncanny. Why wasn't she afraid like other girls her age?

As she grew older Elizabeth, or Liza as she was known, also became quite wise in the ways of curing animals and diagnosing problems with crops. Wiser than one so young and pretty should be, her neighbors whispered. Who (or what) had given so much knowledge to Liza? Perhaps she was a witch and in league with the Devil.

Liza's uncanny reputation didn't stop William Blatchford from proposing to her, and when she was sixteen she and William built a house even further in the forest near Half Way Pond. Isolated from the community, they raised a family deep in the woods, coming into the town of Barnstable only to attend Sunday services. By this time Liza had a full-blown reputation as a witch and other women would avoid her touch when she drew near. Her husband's family had originally come from the Tower Hill section of London, so when the townspeople whispered about her they called her Liza Tower Hill, half in derision and half in fear.

Many stories were told about her witchy ways. The forest near Half Way Pond was supposedly luminous, and on moonlit nights travelers said they saw Liza dancing on the surface of the pond as animals and other less easily identifiable creatures watched with delight.

Some travelers found their way to Liza's pond unwillingly. The historian George Lyman Kittredge was told by an elderly neighbor how one Mrs. Loring of Barnstable was riding homeward through the woods one day when her horse unaccountably headed towards Half Way Pond. No matter how hard Mrs. Loring tried, the horse refused to obey her and instead circled the pond for hours. Clearly, Mrs. Loring said, her steed had been bewitched.

Liza allegedly used her witchcraft to protect her family as well. One of her daughters took a servant job at the home of the wealthy Allyn family, who mistreated the girl. Shortly thereafter their house became haunted. A large cat appeared mysteriously in the Allyn house, howling at all hours of the night. Even when the cat was turned out it could still be heard in halls and on the stairs, roaming invisibly. Chairs were smashed by unseen hands, and tables were knocked over. Many members of the Allyn family claimed the haunting was Liza Tower Hill's vengeance.

Of course, Liza was also accused of riding men in the night like horses, a traditional witch activity. For example, a Mr. Wood of West Barnstable said Liza saddled him and rode him to Plum Pudding Pond in Plymouth for midnight witch meetings. Since she was an attractive woman, this may just have been wishful thinking on Mr. Wood's part.

Liza may have met her end because she rode another man like a horse. Benjamin Goodspeed of East Sandwich claimed that Liza rode him nightly, and to escape her witchery he boarded a ship sailing from Barnstable. As the ship departed he thought he was free, but as he looked landward he saw a large black cat swimming after the ship. Needless to say the sight made him uneasy. That night Liza came to him in his dreams and rode him even more furiously than before.

Exhausted, the next morning Goodspeed once again saw the cat swimming after the ship. Realizing it was Liza's spirit in feline form, he loaded a gun with pages from the Bible and shot the cat in the head. The supernatural feline howled and sank below the waves. Back in her cottage by Half Way Pond Liza died suddenly at her spinning wheel, her eyes wide open and staring into the void.

It's a dramatic story but it may not be true. Records show that Liza Tower Hill died in July of 1790 from old age, not mysteriously at her spinning wheel. Although she had lost her beauty she had retained her independent spirit to the end.

Personally, I think Liza Tower Hill is a really nice embodiment of the mythic witch. She's the type of witch everyone would like to be! She was wise and attuned with nature, but definitely not someone you'd want to mess with. She was independent and feisty, but not particularly malevolent. If she had lived in the previous century and outside Cape Cod she undoubtedly would have been brought to trial for witchcraft. Happily she was born after the witch trial fury had burned out, and Cape Cod never had many witch trials to begin with. Perhaps even then people on the Cape were a little more tolerant of eccentrics.

Although Liza died in 1790, it's hard to keep a good witch down. Witches are able to send their spirits out of their bodies while alive, so for many witches death is just a minor inconvenience. Well, at least in folklore. Next week I'll tell you what happened to Liza after death. Conveniently it's also a Christmas story!

Most of the information for this week's post is from Elizabeth Reynard's The Narrow Land, while the story about Mrs. Loring's horse is from George Lyman Kittredge's Witchcraft in Old and New England.

December 03, 2012

Glooskap Encounters Winter, and Why Foxes Are Shy

Although astronomically winter always starts on the solstice, according to meteorologists winter starts here on December 1. In other words, December 21 may be the time when our hemisphere is tilted farthest away from the sun but the wintry weather actually kicks in three weeks earlier. We've already had a little bit of snow in Boston this year, so despite our current warm spell I concur with the weathermen on this one.

In honor of the wintry weather here is a Penobscot folktale about Glooskap, who I've written about a few times in the past. He's the culture hero and trickster god of the Indian tribes of Northern New England and the Maritime Provinces. A being of gigantic size, strength and magical power, Glooskap is the protector of mankind but also sometimes gets involved in comical adventures. Sometimes things don't turn out quite the way Glooskap plans.

A Glooskap (or Glooscap) statue from Parrsboro, Nova Scotia.

The story, which I found in Frank Speck's 1935 collection "Penobscot Tales and Religious Beliefs" in The Journal of American Folklore, goes something like this.


A long, long time ago Glooskap was living with his grandmother, the Woodchuck. Winter had come and brought with it heavy snow and very cold weather. All around Glooskap the Penobscot were starving and freezing to death.

Glooskap said, "Grandmother this is terrible! I must put a stop to this thing called winter. Where does it come from?"

Grandmother Woodchuck said, "Winter comes from the far, far north. It is so cold that no one can live there. If you went there you would die!"

"I must try," Glooskap said. "Make me six pairs of snowshoes - two made from caribou hide, two from deer hide, and two from moose skin."

Grandmother Woodchuck did as he asked, and Glooskap set out to put an end to winter. He walked north through the snow and ice for many days. He walked for so long that he wore out first the moose snowshoes, then the deerskin ones, and finally even the caribou snowshoes. He walked on for many days even after the final snowshoes had fallen apart, until he finally came upon a house made of ice.

Glooskap entered the house, and the door closed shut tightly behind him. Inside the house was an old man.

Glooskap addressed him using the polite term for an elder. "Grandfather, could you open the door? It is very cold in here."

The old man mimicked Glooskap, saying back to him "Grandfather, could you open the door? It is very cold in here."

Glooskap could feel himself freezing solid. Through chattering teeth he said, "Grandfather, I am nearly frozen to death."

The old man laughed and again repeated Glooskap's words to him. "Grandfather, I am nearly frozen to death."

And then Glooskap froze solid and died. The old man dragged Glooskap's giant body outside of the house and threw it in the snow, but in the spring Glooskap thawed out and came back alive. The ice house had melted away and he started the long walk back home.


That's a pretty stark ending. The moral seems to be winter is coming, and there's not much you can do about it. Now of course there is another tale where Glooskap steals summer from some magicians and finally teaches the wintry old man a lesson, but isn't it really more appropriate for the spring? Right now we just need to make peace with winter. I don't want to end this post on a really depressing note though, so here's a raunchy story about what happened to Grandmother Woodchuck while Glooskap was away. It also incidentally explains why foxes are shy.


While Glooskap was away up in the north Grandmother Woodchuck sat up in her wigwam every night, waiting for him to come home.

Some mischievous foxes who lived nearby learned of this and decided to play a trick on her. One night they came to her door, and one fox imitated Glooskap, saying, "Grandmother, I am home." When Grandmother Woodchuck opened the door the foxes urinated in her face and then ran off into the dark, laughing.

The foxes thought this was so funny that they did it again the next night. And the next. This went on for several months, until Grandmother Woodchuck was nearly blind from being sprayed with fox urine. You would think she would learn a lesson after the first few times, but she was so concerned about Glooskap that she still opened the door every night.

That spring Glooskap finally made his way back home after thawing out. He stood outside her wigwam and said, "Grandmother, I am home."

Grandmother Woodchuck said, "You damn foxes fooled me all winter, but I won't be fooled again. I've had enough. Go away! I'm not opening the door."

Glooskap said, "No grandmother, it is me!" He stuck his hand in the door, and when Grandmother Woodchuck felt his hand she knew Glooskap was really home.

Glooskap healed his grandmother's eyes, and she explained what had happened. Glooskap was furious. He took his bow and arrows and went hunting, and killed every fox he could find. Then he trapped one fox alive and brought it to his grandmother.

Grandmother Woodchuck tied the fox to a pole whipped it with switches until it apologized. When she set the fox free it ran off into the woods and was never seen again. And because of this, foxes are now shy and avoid people's houses.


I don't recommend shooting foxes (they're too darn cute!), but I don't recommend pranking elderly grandmas either. Happy meteorological winter!

November 25, 2012

American Horror Story and New England Folklore

This fall, Tony and I have been watching American Horror Story: Asylum on the FX channel. The show is lurid, violent and cheesy, but it shows me things I've never seen on TV before, and it's definitely not boring.

While watching the first episode I was surprised (and excited) to see that the show draws upon New England folklore. 

The series is set in and around Briarcliff Manor, a large insane asylum in Massachusetts. (The audience is reminded throughout the series of the Massachusetts setting by the Boston accents the actors attempt with varying success.) In the current day, a young newlywed couple played by Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine and Jenna Dewan-Tatum are exploring Briarcliff, which has been abandoned for many years and is rumored to haunted. A system of tunnels run underneath the hospital out into the woods. Needless to say, bad things happen.

Briarcliff Manor
While I was watching I was immediately reminded of Danvers State Hospital, the notorious asylum in Massachusetts which was abandoned for many years. The similarities are too big just to be coincidence. The Massachusetts setting, the haunted abandoned insane asylum, the tunnels underneath - it all makes me wonder if the show's creators have some connection with Massachusetts, or maybe just really loved Session 9. Briarcliff even looks similar to Danvers.

Danver State Hospital before it was renovated

The main storyline in American Horror Story: Asylum is set not in 2012, however, but in 1964 when Briarcliff is a bustling asylum run by the Catholic church. In the first episode we're introduced to various residents, including Kit Walker, a white Massachusetts man suspected of murdering his African-American wife and other local women. Therapists claim that guilt over hiding their interracial marriage drove him to become a murderer.

Kit Walker (Evan Peters) and Alma Walker (Britne Olford)

But Kit tells the therapists what sounds like an unbelievable story. He and his wife were abducted by extra-terrestrial aliens who probed and experimented on them. His wife is not dead, but is still off somewhere with the aliens.

Betty and Barney Hill

I almost fell off the couch when I saw these scenes. This situation (an interracial couple abducted by aliens in the 1960s) is clearly a reference to Betty and Barney Hill, an interracial couple from New Hampshire who claimed they were abducted by aliens in 1961. The Hill's story is well known, and inspired the book The Interrupted Journey and the movie The UFO Incident. Some people have theorized that the stress of being an interracial couple in the early 60s led to their concocting the UFO abduction story.

Just to be very clear, neither of the Hills were murdered and they were never confined to an insane asylum. The theory about the stress of their interracial marriage also seems a little lacking, since thousands of people of many races have also claimed they were abducted. But the American Horror Story writers are clever to use the Hills as an inspiration for their show, which deals thematically with the conflicts between religion and science, and with the various civil rights movements (feminism, racial equality, gay rights) that were bubbling up in the early 1960s.

Just a final warning if you haven't watched American Horror story yet. If you are squeamish about violence, weird sexual situations, and poorly done Boston accents don't watch this show. But you should definitely watch if you want to see something crazy that is loosely inspired by some famous folklore from this area.

November 18, 2012

Boiled Cider Pie

Thanksgiving is one of New England's great gifts to American culture. Originating in Puritan feast days, the holiday gradually spread across the country bringing turkey, stuffing and pies with it.

Modern Americans eat a wide variety of pies on Thanksgiving, many of them unrelated to the holiday's origins in New England. Let's face it, the Puritans weren't eating coconut cream or key lime pie, so a few years ago I wrote about the obscure pies of old New England, like squash pie, mincemeat pie, and boiled cider pie.

At the time I had never eaten or made a boiled cider pie, but this year in honor of Thanksgiving I decided to give it a try. I was really happy with the results.

Boiled cider is not something you see in many 21st century pantries. Its use has been recorded as early as the 1670s in western Massachusetts, and it was a common sweetener in the Colonial era. It makes sense. Molasses and sugar were expensive imports, but apple cider was locally produced and inexpensive. You can still buy boiled cider at country stores in northern New England and online from the King Arthur store, but I decided to make my own using instructions from an old Yankee Magazine cookbook.

It was easy, but took a long time. I poured a gallon of cider into a large pot, and then boiled it at high heat until it was reduced to a single cup of gelatinous goop. Even though I boiled it over high heat it still took around two and a half hours! I didn't need to stir it much until the end when it was really getting thick.
Boiling, boiling, boiling...
... Still boiling more than two hours later!

What I had after two hours and thirty minutes of boiling.
After it cooks down to a cup, let it cool. I put it in the refrigerator but I don't know if this was the smartest move. The boiled cider became almost completely solid which made it harder to use in the recipe. I would recommend letting it cool on the counter or maybe not boiling it down as much. The cider that is sold commercially is more syrupy and less goopy than what I made.

There are a few boiled cider pies floating around on the web, but I liked this one from Wood's Cider Mill in Vermont, which has been owned by the same family for seven generations. They make and sell boiled cider so I figured they must know what they're talking about. Also, their recipe is simple and really focuses on the boiled cider as the main ingredient. I baked the pie for an hour, which is 10 minutes longer than the recipe instructs, but that could just be my stove.

Sugar, eggs, milk, a little flour, and boiled cider. Mix it well because that boiled cider is thick!

It's looking a little  like pumpkin pie, but don't be fooled.

Boiled cider pie - sweet, tart, goopy and historic!
The pie came out great. Its consistency is similar to a custard or pumpkin pie, and although it's really sweet the sweetness is cut by the cider's tartness. If you like cider, sugar and pie crust (and who doesn't?) you will like this pie. It's like autumn, New England, and three centuries of history all in one dessert.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

November 12, 2012

Bittersweet: Protection from Evil Magic

I don't know about where you live, but there is still some nice autumn color here in Boston. The leaves on the oaks in my neighborhood are tuning dark red, and the Norway maples are bright yellow.

I found this colorful viney shrub on a neighborhood perambulation. The plant is called bittersweet, and its branches are often used for autumn wreaths and centerpieces. Maybe you'll see some bittersweet adorning the place you eat your Thanksgiving dinner this year.

There are a few types of bittersweet, including an invasive species from Asia (which is what I found) and a species native to North America. According to the folklorist Clara Kern Bayliss, people in Vermont believed that the root of the bittersweet plant provided protection against evil witches and malevolent magic. However, certain conditions applied to collecting the root. You couldn't just go out and start digging.

Bayliss notes that a doctor in Shaftsbury would go with his wife and daughter on a certain day of the year to collect bittersweet root to ward off witches. The doctor and his family would not talk, or look from side to side, from the moment they left their house until they returned.

Unfortunately Bayliss doesn't indicate on what day of the year they would collect the root. Was it the same day every year, or did it change depending on the weather or other criteria? I'd love to know.

It's not surprising they gathered the plant in silence. Silence is an important ingredient in some folk magic, and speaking often breaks a spell. For example, you can control a witch with their own witch bridle if you throw it over their head, but they will be freed as soon as you speak a word. Somehow silence was important to maintain the efficacy of the bittersweet.

There is a third plant sometimes called bittersweet, the bittersweet nightshade. This is a weedy invasive import from Europe with poisonous berries and toxic leaves. Leave this one alone!

Special note to my Wiccan and witchy readers: New Englanders wanted protection from witches who practiced maleficium, or harmful magic. Other than the very religious, most people didn't shun magic or fortune-telling. I don't want anyone to get offended by all this negative talk about witches!

I got my information from Clara Kern Bayliss's 1908 article, "Witchcraft", which appeared in The Journal of American Folklore.

November 04, 2012

Bigfoot: He's Wicked Strong!

I was a big comic book fan when I was a kid, and one activity most young comic geeks engage in is determining which superhero is stronger. Can the Incredible Hulk beat up the Mighty Thor? Who can lift the heavier weight, Superman or Captain Marvel? A quick search of the Internet will show you that adult comic book fans still play this same game.

The Hulk, who gets his strength from gamma radiation, usually tops the list of the strongest superheros. A lot of other superheroes and villains in Marvel Comics get their power from gamma radiation, like She-Hulk, the Abomination, and Doc Samson.

One under-appreciated gamma powered hero, though, is Sasquatch. Sasquatch was originally a Canadian physicist named Walter Langowski. While playing around with gamma radiation (as physicists so often do in the comics), Walter gained the ability to transform into a giant, orange-furred musclebound monster who looks just like the cryptid Bigfoot. Assuming the name Sasquatch, Walter uses his super strength to fight crime with a band of other Canadian heroes called Alpha Flight.

Unfortunately, not even gamma radiation could make Sasquatch an A-list superhero like the Hulk, and I don't think he's appearing in any comic books currently. Much like the real-life Sasquatch, the comic-book version is now quite elusive.

But that's not the only trait they share. Like Walter Langowski, the real-life Sasquatch or Bigfoot is also fantastically strong, as this example from Joseph Citro's Weird New England shows.

Bigfoot has been seen quite a few times in a Longmeadow, Massachusetts area called the Meadows. The Meadows abuts the Connecticut River, and many locals have seen large hairy humanoids swimming in its waters. Others have seen hairy faces peering into their windows at night, and found footprints leading from their houses down to the river the following day. Some residents speculate that the creatures inhabit a series of tunnels that run under the riverbanks.

The Meadows. Photo from this site.

A man named Joe operated a car crushing business in the Meadows for many years. One summer night he and some friends were sitting outside the office trailer enjoying some beer when they heard something moving through the bushes by the river bank. Abruptly, a large man burst into the car crushing yard. But was it a man? Although his bearded face looked human, he was eight-feet tall, naked, and covered with hair. It was a Bigfoot.

The Bigfoot wandered around yard for a while before picking up a crushed car chassis. Joe and his friends gasped! The crushed car weighed more than 2,000 pounds. The Bigfoot eventually put it back down and walked back to the river, where he swam away into the night. The next day Joe shut down his business and found a new location in town.

The Bigfoot seen in the Meadows was not a gamma-radiated anomaly - many people who see Bigfoots claim they are very strong. For example, in his book Passing Strange Joseph Citro mentions a 1951 Bigfoot encounter in Sudbury, Vermont where a Bigfoot moved a 450 pound oil drum.

To sum up, don't mess with Bigfoot because he's wicked strong - and he's not confined to the comic books.

October 31, 2012

Halloween Suprise Unearthed by Hurricane Sandy

When hurricane Sandy tore through New England it caused quite a bit of damage, knocking out power, flooding coastal communities, and uprooting trees. But when a tree on New Haven's historic town green blew over, it revealed a special surprise.

New Haven resident Katie Carbo was out on the green inspecting the storm damage with some neighbors when she noticed something in the roots of a large uprooted oak tree. At first she thought it was a rock, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a human skeleton. Yikes!

Photo from the New Haven Register.
The police arrived and determined that the skeleton was female and hundreds of years old. New Haven's town green used to be a cemetery before it became a park in 1821, and a police spokesman said the skeleton was probably from a Colonial era burial.

Apparently, all the grave stones were moved to a newer cemetery in 1821, but the bodies were left buried. An estimated 5,000 bodies are still buried under the green. Yikes again! Don't let your dog dig around in that park.

Special thanks to Leigh Marble for emailing me about this story! I found the details in the New Haven Register, the Rock Hill Herald, and the Hartford Courant.

October 29, 2012

Mirror Magic for Halloween

Halloween wasn't really celebrated in New England until the 19th century. The Puritans frowned on most holidays although they and their descendants did celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, which has some similarities with Halloween like costumes and people roaming around begging for things.

Unlike Halloween Guy Fawkes Day doesn't have a supernatural component. No witches, ghosts or monsters, just raucous excess and drunken revelry. But when large numbers of Irish and Scottish immigrants began to arrive in the United States in the 19th century they brought Halloween and its supernatural practices with them. These Halloween practices spread across the country, through both immigrant social networks and magazines and newspapers. Eventually Halloween magic became part of the nation's regional folklore, including New England's.

Most modern Americans associate Halloween with scary things, but a lot of the older folklore deals with love magic and love divination. Here's a nice example I found in Eva Speare's New Hampshire Folk Tales.

On Halloween night, an unmarried man or woman should hold a mirror and walk down the cellar steps backwards. As they walk down the steps, they should repeat:

Whoever my true love is to be
Come and look in this glass with me.

A person's face will appear in the mirror, looking over the unmarried person's shoulder. This will be the person they will marry. However, if a coffin appears in the mirror the unmarried person will die. (Hmm. I guess even the love magic can be a little scary, and walking down the stairs backwards sounds dangerous.)

Watch your step with that mirror...

There once was a young man who was very sick with tuberculosis. Despite being weak from his illness, he walked down backwards into the cellar while looking into a mirror on Halloween night. His family heard a crash, and rushed down to find him collapsed on the dirt floor.

When he revived, the young man said, "Don't worry! I did not see a coffin, but instead saw a pretty young girl in a blue dress. I will live and marry her."

The prediction came true. He recovered and went on to become a school teacher in Maine. While he was there he met a pretty young woman who looked exactly like the girl he had seen in the mirror. Upon talking with her, he discovered that she had once owned a blue dress exactly like he had seen in the mirror that Halloween night. The two fell in love, got married, and lived long happy lives.

Happy Halloween everyone!

October 22, 2012

Richard Carrier: Confessions of a Cider-Drinking Witch

Richard Carrier was only eighteen years old when he and his younger brother Andrew were accused of witchcraft.

He was quite surprised, but should he have been? His mother, Martha Carrier, had recently been accused of witchcraft herself, and the Carrier family had never been popular in Andover, Massachusetts. They were considered poor even by the low standards of 1692 New England, and they were also pugnacious - Richard had been in fistfights with several other men and boys. When smallpox struck their family they had lived as pariahs on the outskirts of town.

When the constables brought Richard and his brother to Salem for questioning, they were obviously terrified. (Records note that Andrew was so frightened he stuttered when he spoke.) Both brothers pled innocent, but the afflicted girls who had accused them convulsed wildly in their presence, indicating guilt. The Carrier boys were brought into an adjacent room, where the questioning continued privately and the constables tied their heads to their ankles. Under this torture, they confessed to being witches.

When he was returned to the courtroom, Richard told how the Devil had first approached him on the Andover road one night in May of 1691. The dark man in the high-crowned hat claimed he was Jesus, and offered Richard new clothes and a horse in return for making his mark in a red book. A tempting offer for a poor Puritan, and Richard signed. His initiation was complete when the Devil baptized him in a waterfall at Newbury, Massachusetts. His brother Andrew later signed the Devil's book in an apple orchard in the presence of Richard and their mother.


As a witch, Richard followed Satan's orders. He sent his spirit to torment Timothy Swan of Andover, who had argued with another witch about the price for thatching her roof. Richard used a simple poppet to torment the wife of Salem Village's minister Samuel Parris. He attended the witch meetings, which his spirit was summoned to by the beating of a drum.

And he drank stolen cider. 

Mary Lacy, who had been accused of witchcraft shortly before the Carrier brothers, had told the court that she, the Carrier family, and other witches had flown to the home of Elizabeth Ballard and drunken all the cider in her cellar.

"Sometimes we leave our bodies at home, but at other times we go in our bodies and the Devil puts a mist before their eyes and will not let them see us." Mary Lacy had drunken the cider while invisible.

Richard confessed to this as well, but said his spirit had done it while outside his body. Mary Lacy supported his confession. "He went in his spirit, and his body lay dead the while out of doors."

After he confessed, the afflicted girls touched his hand without convulsing, a sign of his true contrition. The court spared Richard and Andrew's lives because they had confessed to witchcraft. Their mother never confessed, and was hanged. 


There are lots of things I find interesting about Richard Carrier's story. For example, he was male (most of the accused witches in Salem and New England overall were women) and the torture he and Andrew endured is horrifying.

What struck me the most, though, was the cider. Richard and all the confessed witches created stories about their witchy exploits that were believable to their accusers. People in Puritan New England believed in the reality of witches; it was part of their shared worldview. Everyone knew what witches did. All it took was a little persuasion (or torture) to tell a convincing story about your own actions as a witch.

And apparently, witches sent their spirits or invisible bodies to drink their neighbors' cider. Elizabeth Ballard's cider would have been alcoholic cider, which was one of the main drinks at the time. Water was often polluted, tea was expensive, and grain for beer was too hard to grow. People drank hard cider morning, noon and night.

Spirits entering a house to drink liquor (or eat food) is an old folklore motif. For example, the Swedish historian Olaus Magnus wrote in his History of the Northern Peoples (1555) that at Yuletide werewolves break into cellars to drink beer and mead. The line between werewolves and witches is blurry, since both are shapeshifters. Many people who confessed to being werewolves talked about sending out their spirits in the shape of a wolf, much as witches sent their spirits to do mischief.

We don't believe in these things in the 21st century, of course, but a surprising number of people leave out milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve. But that's just for children, right?

In parts of Medieval and Renaissance Europe it was believed that a night-riding goddess and her followers (sometimes called the Good Ladies) traveled across the countryside. To gain their favor, people would leave out food and beverages for them. In the British Isles, food was left out for faeries and elves. In many countries, food and beverages are still left out for the wandering spirits of the dead who might enter the home.

The origins of this belief in traveling spirits that enter your house to eat and drink is quite murky. Writers like Carlo Ginzburg and Claude Lecouteux trace it back to ancient shamanic practices and ideas about the dead. It sounds good to me. Apparently it is a very resilient belief that has changed shape and expressed itself differently over time.

For Halloween, maybe I'll leave out some cider for who or whatever is wandering around that night, and be thankful that I can write about this topic without being tortured. 


I got the information about Richard Carrier from Marilynne Roach's wonderful The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Chronicle of New England Under Siege.  This is the book if you want to read a straightforward and detailed narrative of what transpired in Salem.

October 15, 2012

Sylvanus Rich and the Witch of Truro

For Halloween season, here's a nice witchy story from Elizabeth Reynard's 1934 collection of Cape Cod folklore, The Narrow Land.


Sylvanus Rich was an elderly yet highly skilled sea captain. He came from a long line of seafaring men (and had fathered several more himself), so he thought nothing of captaining a ship carrying grain from North Carolina to Boston. It would be easy! Yes, the ship's crew was inexperienced, but Sylvanus was not worried. He had made the journey many times. 

On the last leg of their journey, just as the ship was about to round Cape Cod and enter Massachusetts Bay, Captain Sylvanus dropped anchor off the Atlantic shore of Truro. He could tell the weather was bad up ahead at Provincetown's Race Point, and he didn't want to risk his cargo or crew.

As he walked the deck, Captain Sylvanus sighted a small house nestled in the Truro dunes.

"Boys," he said, "I'm tired of dried pork and hardtack for dinner. I'm going to row ashore and see if I can purchase myself some milk from that farm. Lower a boat!"

The crew watched as their captain rowed himself towards Truro. After about an hour he returned with a wooden bucket full of milk.

A view of Longnook Beach in Truro.

When his crew asked about the farm Captain Sylvanus laughed. "There was no farm! Just an old hag in a filthy hut. And she wore shoes with red heels! Ha! But still, she sold me some milk. I guess I've still got my charm."

The weather by this time had cleared, and while the crew prepared to set sail for Boston Sylvanus retired to his cabin to enjoy his milk.

However, as soon as the crew raised anchor a strong gale came in from nowhere. Dark clouds filled the sky, a howling wind raised huge waves, and the ship's sails were blown to tatters as it was pushed out to sea. In a panic, the crew pounded on the door to the captain's cabin, but he didn't answer. Was Captain Sylvanus dead? Had he been poisoned by the milk?

The storm dissipated by morning, and the crew evaluated the damage. It was serious - the sails and rudder had been both seriously damaged, and the ship was adrift far from land.

Around noon Captain Sylvanus emerged from his cabin, hollow-eyed and pale. He said quietly, "The milk was bewitched. After I drank it I fell into a deep sleep. And then ... she came. The Truro hag. The witch! She threw a bridle over my head and climbed onto my back. She rode me up and down Cape Cod like a racehorse. Over the dunes, through the woods, across the swamps and rivers. If I slowed my pace, she dug her red shoes into my sides."

The captain lifted his shirt. The crew gasped! His sides were covered in bruises shaped like heelmarks.

The first mate said, "But captain, we're adrift and the sails..."

The captain wearily raised his hand and silenced the mate. "In due time. But first, I must prepare. Tonight she will visit me again. I must be ready!" He entered his cabin and shut the door, grimacing.

Or, the crew wondered, had he really been smiling? Was he actually looking forward to another visit from the witch of Truro?

The ship drifted aimlessly in the cold Atlantic for days. Each night, Captain Sylvanus locked himself in his cabin and the witch made him her steed. Each day, Captain Sylvanus sat hollow-eyed and exhausted as his crew begged him for guidance. Food and water were low. Starvation seemed imminent.

Just when all seemed lost, a sail was spotted on the horizon. It was a merchant vessel, and was captained by one of Sylvanus Rich's own sons! When he heard about his father's bewitchment he dragged Sylvanus into the cabin and shut the door after them. What transpired within is not recorded, but somehow he broke the witch's spell over his father. Repairs were made to Sylvanus's ship, and it arrived safely in Boston.

When asked by the ship's owners to explain the damage and the delay, Captain Sylvanus Rich blamed them on the "sweet milk of Satan."


Elizabeth Reynard mentions red shoes or heels in a lot of her Cape Cod witch stories, but I haven't seen this in other sources. Perhaps it's a Cape Cod thing, or maybe I just haven't read enough.

Sea captains and sailors are often ridden by land-based witches in folktales. It seems to be a hazard of the profession! There are definitely some pre-Industrial gender role issues at play here. It's nice to see that nothing bad happens to the witch in this story. 

Like the majority of New England witch stories, this one is about a woman, but next week I'm going to post about a male witch. Stay tuned!

October 07, 2012

A Visit to the Upton Chamber

New England is home to hundreds of mysterious stone structures, including cairns, stone circles, and underground stone chambers. Often hidden away on private land or buried deep in woods already filled with boulders and rocks, these structures go unnoticed by most people unless they are really looking for them.

Some of the most famous stone structures can be found at New Hampshire's Mystery Hill (aka America's Stonehenge), or at Connecticut's Gungywamp complex. There is also an amazing underground chamber in Upton, Massachusetts, and the town of Upton recently created a park to showcase it. Tony and I went with our friends Danny and Onix to pay a visit.

Danny, Onix and Tony at the entrance to the park.

What exactly are the New England stone chambers? There are three main theories:

1. Colonial root cellars. Farmers built the chambers underground and out of stone to keep potatoes and other root crops cold through the year. In the 19th century there was a mass exodus of farmers from New England to more fertile (and less rocky) land in New York and the Midwest. Their abandoned farms reverted back to forest, which is why these chambers are now hidden in the woods.

2.  Native American ceremonial structures. Although the Algonquin tribes living in New England at the time of European contact didn't build with stone, it's quite possible that their ancestors in this area did. New England has been inhabited by humans for more than 10,000 years, so it's not unreasonable to think some past Native American society made these structures. Native American groups in other parts of North and South America made cities and ceremonial centers with stone, so the technology could have easily made it to this part of the continent.

3. Ancient European ceremonial structures. According to this theory, ancient Druids, Norsemen, Irish monks, Phoenician sailors, and others made their way to New England before Columbus and built the chambers. Some chambers (but not all) align with the summer and winter solstices, much like ancient Celtic structures, and some (but not all) appear similar to megalithic European sites like Newgrange, although on a much smaller scale.

I think theory number 2 is my favorite, but this New York Times article makes a good case for theory number 1. You can find plenty of information about theory number 3 by poking around the web.

Entrance to the Upton Chamber. I really like how the tree roots frame the entrance.

To me it doesn't matter what theory is correct, because these chambers are amazing. Their creators, whoever they are, put incredible amounts of time and manpower into building them, and they merge beautifully with our stony landscape. The Upton chamber really was quite magical, like something out of a Tolkien novel.

The Upton Heritage Park is located on Elm Street. We parked at the nearby VFW parking lot and walked there. Once you enter the park and walk past the sign, take a right if you want to go the chamber. It's very close to the road. We accidentally took a left after the sign and spent a while wandering around in the woods looking for the chamber. It was a nice day, though, so we enjoyed some fresh air!

Me taking pictures in the woods. Where is that darn chamber?!?
The entrance to the chamber is about 4 1/2 feet high, and opens into a 14 foot long tunnel of similar height. Remember to bring a flashlight!

Tony peers into the entrance.

We had to crouch to walk down the tunnel.

If you have claustrophobia the tunnel may freak you out, but it opens into a beehive shaped domed chamber that is about 10 feet wide and maybe 12 feet high. When we visited the floor was covered in six inches of water, so wear good boots.

Tony and Onix and the chamber. Watch out for spiders!

The chamber's ceiling, which is made from massive stone slabs.

The view from the top of the chamber.
Danny points out a hole in the ground...

... that lets a tiny bit of light through the chamber's ceiling.

The Upton Chamber was definitely worth the trip - I didn't want to leave! But after we finally did, we drove down the road to Red Rock Grill for a really tasty (and inexpensive lunch), and then visited Spaightwood Galleries to see an exhibit of Durer etchings. For a small town Upton definitely has a lot going on.

Me wondering how hard it would be to make a chamber in my backyard. Danny, an architect, said it would be difficult and very expensive.

Goodbye Upton Chamber!

You can read more about the Upton Chamber and the park here, including some information about alignments with other stone structures in Upton. Some interesting sites about other New England stone structures are here and here. Lastly, my friend David Goudsward recently wrote a book in 2006 called Ancient Stone Sites of New England and the Debate Over Early European Exploration.

October 01, 2012

The Dover Demon

I've been blogging about "ye olde tyme foklore" for the past month, so I am shaking things up this week by posting about something a little more current (if you consider 1977 current). However, there's still a surprising "olde tyme" angle so neither you or I will go into complete withdrawal.

And besides, now that it's October, it's time for something even weirder and more uncanny than usual.


On the night of April 21, 1977, seventeen year old Bill Bartlett was driving two of his friends down Farm Road in their hometown of Dover. Dover, located about 15 miles from Boston, is one of the nicest suburbs in Massachusetts, with lots of woods, open fields, and old stone walls.

As he drove past one of those stone walls, so characteristic of charming New England towns, Bill saw something unusual in his headlights. At first his mind didn't quite register what it saw, but when it did he turned the car around and drove back to the wall.

He had seen something that looked like this: 

That drawing is the actual one Bill made that night. He claimed he saw a creature about the size of a baby, with long spindly limbs and fingers that wrapped round the rocks. Its eyes glowed bright orange in the car headlights. On the right hand side of the drawing Bill wrote "I, Bill Bartlett, swear on a stack of Bibles that I saw this creature." Bartlett, now a professional artist living in Needham, still believes he saw something strange that night, but he has never made another drawing or painting of the creature since.

The passengers in Bill's car didn't see the creature, but three other teenagers did. John Baxter, age 15, was walking home from his girlfriend's house around 12:30 am, about two hours after Bill Bartlett's encounter. As John neared the intersection of Miller Hill Road and Farm Road he saw a figure walking towards him. Thinking it was a friend, he called out, but the person didn't respond. John and the figure walked closer towards each other, and when John was about 25 feet away he realized there was something strange about the other person. The proportions didn't seem quite right. Was it even a person at all? Abruptly, the figure ran into the woods.

John ran after it. Was it a monkey? A small child? It stopped, perched on a rock near and staring at John. Its eyes glowed orange as it waited for John to draw closer. He didn't, but instead ran back to Farm Road. When he reached home he made this drawing of what he had seen:

The Dover Demon made one last appearance. The next night, eighteen year old Will Taintor and fifteen year old Abby Brabham were driving down Springdale Ave. in Dover when they saw something by the side of the road near a bridge. At first they thought they were looking at an ape, but something didn't seem right. Abby later said, "It had bright green eyes, and the eyes just glowed like they were just looking exactly at me."

Word soon spread around town, and articles appeared in the South Middlesex Sunday News, the Boston Globe, and the Boston Herald. Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman traveled to Dover to investigate, and christened the creature the Dover Demon. The name stuck. Thanks in part to its catchy name, the Dover Demon has become one of the most popular cryptozoological creatures in the world. It was even immortalized as an action figure.

Dover demon action figure. Image from Loren Coleman's wonderful Cryptomundo.

What was the Dover Demon? It might have been a UFOnaut, but no strange lights or saucers had been seen near Dover at the time. Someone thought it was a baby moose, but April isn't the right season for moose calves, and moose were quite rare in Massachusetts in 1977. Could it be an escaped monkey of some kind? But what type of monkey is hairless and has no mouth, nose or tail? An elaborate hoax devised by bored teenagers? Maybe, but many adults vouched for the witnesses' honesty. Given its enduring popularity, if the Demon was a hoax it obviously tapped something resonant for many people.

Maybe if the Dover Demon showed up again we could figure out what it was, but it never appeared again after that night - or at least not so obviously. One night in 1978 John Bartlett was in a parked car with his girlfriend when they heard something thump the side of their vehicle. They saw a small figure running into the woods, but couldn't see who (or what) it was. Was it the Demon? Possibly, or just a local kid pulling a prank. If it was the Demon, that was the last time it has been seen.

The Demon may have appeared before 1977, though. In a 2006 Boston Globe article, Mark Sennott of Sherborn told a reporter that he and some friends had seen something similar at Channing Pond near Springdale Avenue in 1972. The police investigated at the time but nothing came of it.

Farm Road has a history of unusual activity, as noted in Frank Smith's 1914 book Dover Farms: In Which Is Traced the Development of the Territory from the First Settlement in 1640 to 1900. Smith writes that "in the early times", a large rock on Farm Street was named after a man who had seen "his Satanic Majesty as he was riding on horseback in this secluded spot." The area was also rumored to be the site of buried treasure, and in the folklore of the time treasure was often guarded by a supernatural entity, like a ghost or demonic animal.

Satan. Buried treasure. Teenagers in cars. A weird alien creature crawling on a wall. There's no easy summary to this story. Maybe when those forces from the other side erupt through on a dark night, we see them in the shapes our culture determines for us, like a fallen angel galloping by on a black horse, or a spindly-limbed monster crawling over a stone wall. Are those forces extra-dimensional entities, demonic beings, or archetypal forces hiding in our own minds? I don't know, but I suspect if you go poking around in the woods after dark you might find out.

My main sources for this post were the previously mentioned Boston Globe article, this article by Christ Pittman, and Joseph Citro's Weird New England.

September 23, 2012

Kidnapped by Witches in Plymouth

I have been very much on a witch groove these days. I could say it is because of the increasing darkness this time of year, but I think I'm always kind of in a witchy groove. You can't like New England folklore without liking witches!

Here's a nice little witch story from an 1893 book called The Old Colony Town and Other Sketches, by William Root Bliss. The Old Colony in the title refers to Plymouth, Massachusetts. Plymouth, settled by Europeans in 1620,  was considered the old colony when compared to Boston, which was only settled in 1630, and therefore was newer.

These 19th century local history books often have a chapter on witchcraft stories, and The Old Colony Town is no different, having a chapter of stories which Bliss heard from two elderly Plymouth ladies. I particularly like the following one.


In the Plymouth forest near Buzzard's Bay lived two old witches. They never came out during the day, but at night they would emerge from their house and wander around in the gloom, casting spells on anyone unfortunate enough to encounter them. One night they met a boy walking through the woods, and charmed him into following them home. He quickly fell into a deep slumber in the main room of their house.

Around midnight the boy awoke to see the two witches pulling a quahog shell from the oven. The women rubbed the shell behind their ears and said, "Whisk!" In an instant they vanished up the chimney. Curious to see where they had gone, the boy also picked up the shell and rubbed it behind his ears. After saying the magic word, he found himself transported up the chimney into a meadow where the two witches were mounted on black horses. Noticing their new guest, one of the witches produced a bridle and put it on a bundle of straw, which was transformed into a pony. The witches galloped off across the meadow, and the boy followed them on the pony into the night.

After a while they came to a brook, which the witches' horses easily leaped over. When the boy's pony leaped the brook, the boy exclaimed: "A pretty good jump for a lousy calf!" As soon as the words came out of his mouth, the pony reverted back to a bundle of straw, and he was forced to run after the witches on foot.

Winded and tired, he came to an old abandoned house with the black horses tied outside. From inside he could hear the sound of fiddle music. Peering in one broken window he saw the two witches and other elderly ladies dancing around a black man playing the fiddle. Terrified at what he saw, the boy ran away into the woods. Eventually he came to a to a farm house. The farmer and his wife took the boy in, and returned him to his family the next morning.


There are a lot of interesting aspects to this little tale. It definitely has a dream-like feeling, with the witches who only emerge at night, and the sleeping boy who sees them fly up the chimney. (Much like Santa Claus does in a Visit from Saint Nicholas!) When the morning comes he "awakens" and is once again back at home with his parents. The journey on the horses across the meadow and over the brook is reminiscent of various mythic journeys to the Otherworld, which is often separated from the normal, mundane world by a river.

Many New England witch stories deal with issues of women's power, and I think it's salient that the witches kidnap a boy, rather than a girl, particularly since a magic bridle is involved. In most stories about witch bridles, the witches use them to subjugate men who have mistreated them. The sexual and gender issues are quite obvious in those stories, but in this one they are a little more oblique since the boy is obviously young.

It's also significant that the boy breaks the spell over the straw bundle by speaking. Silence is magically powerful in a lot of New England folk stories. For example, Eva Speare's book New Hampshire Folk Tales mentions a spell to immobilize witches that is broken only when someone speaks, and also claims that if you manage to put a witch bridle over a witch, she will obey you until you speak. A single word will set the witch free.

The black man playing the fiddle is obviously the Devil, but black is probably not being used in it's current meaning of having African ancestry. In colonial New England black clothing was quite expensive due to the dyes that were used, and only the very wealthy and important (like ministers) could afford it. Many stories describe the Devil as being dressed in black clothing which signifies his power and material wealth.

Finally, I'll just say that the quahog shell is very, very New England.