April 28, 2013

Praying Indians and a Tentacled Lake Monster

When Tony and I recently went out to Acton we also stopped by the neighboring town of Littleton. My parents lived in Littleton before I was born, but I had ever been there before this. It has some very beautiful rural areas, including Sarah Doublet Forest, the site of one of the 17th century praying Indian villages.

In the 1640s Reverend John Eliot of Roxbury, Massachusetts began trying to convert local Indians to Christianity. He had some success, and word spread to England. Donors there sent Eliot a significant amount of money to support his missionary efforts.

 Eliot used the money to found fourteen villages in Massachusetts for his so-called "praying Indians", including Natick, Ponkapoag (now Canton), and Nashoba (now Littleton). Although the villages had native names, Eliot expected their inhabitants to adopt not just Christianity but also an English way of life. Apparently hunting, gardening and a seasonally nomadic life were just too pagan. Instead, the Indians lived in wooden houses, raised livestock, and farmed like their Puritan neighbors. Men and women cut their hair in the English fashion and discarded their traditional dress for wool clothes.

It's estimated that up to 20% of Massachusetts Indians eventually lived in these villages, but since no villages remain you can correctly surmise things didn't turn out well. In 1675 the other 80% of the native population rose up to oust the English from Massachusetts in the conflict called King Philip's war. Although the praying Indian's pledged their support to the colonists they were nonetheless rounded up and confined to Deer Island and Long Island in Boston Harbor. Hundreds starved and froze to death during the winter of 1675 - 1676.

One of those who survived was Sarah Doublet of Nashoba. Sarah and a few others had made their way back to Nashoba, but eventually she became the last survivor of that praying Indian village. When she died in 1736 she willed whatever land had not already been taken by her English neighbors to Ephraim and Elnathan Jones, two local men who had cared for her when she grew infirm. The land eventually came into the hands of two women named Edith Jenkins and Fanny Knapp, who willed the land to Littleton in the 1970s.

The forest encompasses 500 acres, and includes old stone walls, the remains of a farmhouse, and lots of interesting rocks. I don't believe there is anything left of the Indian village. Despite it's tragic history the landscape is beautiful and peaceful.

Over at his blog, the author John Hanson Mitchell describes Sarah Doublet before her conversion:

She fixed pendants of swan's down or shells in her pierced ears, placed a bird wing headdress in her hair, and strung herself with shell necklaces and ropes of wampum, and perhaps --- all this is conjecture --- an amulet at her breast, a winged thunderbird, or the carved image of A'pcinic, the horned water monster who lived in the depths of the pond below her village.

A'pcinic the lake monster would have lived in Lake Nagog, which is adjacent to Sarah Doublet forest. Perhaps he still does. A'pcinic, who had a beak and horns, supposedly dragged his tentacled arms along the shoreline when hungry to find his next meal. Happily, I'm unable to confirm his existence through personal experience.

You can find more information about Sarah Doublet and Nashoba in John Hanson Mitchell's book Trespassing and at his blog. Daniel Boudillion also has lots of interesting facts about Nashoba and Littleton over at his excellent website.

April 21, 2013

Movie Review: The Lords of Salem

I needed some escapism this week, so I went this morning to see an early show of The Lords of Salem. Some people escape reality through comedies or eating ice cream - I like to watch horror movies. This one is based loosely on New England folklore, and was written and directed by Massachusetts native Rob Zombie - someone I went to high school with. How could I stay away?

Here's the basic plot. In 1696, Margaret Morgan and her coven of female witches lurk in the woods outside Salem Village, rolling around naked in the dirt and blaspheming while they try to breed the Anti-Christ. Interestingly, all the witches are marked with a glyph that looks very similar to John Dee's Monas Hieroglyphica.

This glyph is very similar to John Dee's.
Jonathan Hawthorne, a dour Salem Puritan, puts a stop to their Satanic shenanigans by capturing them and burning them at the stake. As Margaret and her co-religionists graphically sizzle she curses Hawthorne, screaming that one of his descendants will bear Satan's child.

Three centuries later, Hawthorne's descendant Heidi Hawthorne is a recovering drug addict and hipster DJ who works at a Salem radio station. After Heidi plays a mysterious record from a band called the Lords, she starts to hallucinate about cackling witches, goats, and inappropriate sexual conduct with clergymen. Her bohemian landlady and her creepy sisters feed Heidi tea and scones, but somehow she (and the audience) are not reassured. Can Heidi be saved by a local historian, who realizes the music on the Lords record is the same tune Margaret and her witches played at their revels? (It sounds like death-metal folk music.) Maybe Heidi's fellow DJ and possible love interest will actually do something and help her out? Will anything good come of the Daughters of Historic Salem attending the Lords free concert in town?

Overall I enjoyed The Lords of Salem. Most of the exterior shots were filmed in Salem, which looks wonderfully gloomy and Gothic on the big screen. Old houses, brick sidewalks, falling autumn leaves, cheerless vistas of the Atlantic Ocean - it's like a big visual love letter to New England in November. Zombie definitely gets good mileage out of the local scenery. It's also beautifully filmed, with great sets and costumes. It was reminiscent of European horror movies like Suspiria, The Church, and The Sect: moody, well-designed, and vaguely nutty.

I didn't go in expecting historic authenticity, so I wasn't upset that The Lords of Salem twists the witch trials to suit its own purposes. It's a horror movie, not a history lesson. For example the real Salem trials happened in 1692, not 1696, and the witches were executed by hanging, not burning. And most importantly, the people executed were innocent citizens, not malicious Devil worshipers. Always remember that.

However there really was a Puritan judge named John (not Jonathan) Hathorne, who was an ancestor of author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although Judge Hathorne wasn't cursed during the Salem trials, the Reverend Nicholas Noyes was. According to legend, Sarah Good told him from the gallows that "God will give you blood to drink." The reverend reportedly died from choking on his own blood. Nathaniel Hawthorne built the plot of The House of Seven Gables around this legend and his own ancestral guilt. Rob Zombie merges it with Rosemary's Baby to make The Lords of Salem.

Witches' Sabbath by Francisco Goya

There are lots of naked ladies in this film, writhing around, licking blood off newborns, and denouncing Christianity. There are also lots of goats. I feel like Zombie was inspired by Goya paintings and records of the European witch trials in his portrayal of the witch sabbath. The descriptions of the Puritan witch meetings, even though often extracted through torture, are very tame compared to those from Europe. Instead of having orgies and eating babies, the New England witches stood around (with their clothes on) and listened to the Devil, a man dressed in black like the Puritan ministers, talk about their plans to ruin crops and kill livestock. Basically they were a corruption of the Puritan Sunday church services - talky and kind of dull.

If you like stylish horror films I'd recommend seeing this one. It's not overly violent, but it was probably the most blasphemous movie I've seen in a long time. The Mosaic Church of Boston was actually holding services in the theater next door and I'm glad they didn't see what I did. That's my one warning - graphic blasphemy!

One last thing - Satan shows up in one scene looking like Bigfoot, which is pretty cool.

April 15, 2013

Evil Phantom Clowns

In late April of 1981, Daniel O'Connell of the Boston Public Schools sent the following memo to principals of elementary and middle schools in the city:

It has been brought to the attention of the police department and the district office that adults dressed as clowns have been bothering children to and from school. Please advise all students that they must stay away from strangers, especially ones dressed as clowns. 

This sounds like a bad joke, but the memo was based on multiple reports of clowns harassing small children in the Boston area. A clown had tried to lure children into his black van near Franklin Park and the Mary Curley school in Jamaica Plain, and two clowns in a black van had offered Brookline children candy if they would join them for a quick ride. The children who witnessed this incident gave police a very clear description of the van, including that it had a broken headlight and no hubcaps. No van matching the description was found, however.

A still from Killer Klowns from Outer Space.

By early May, the sinister clowns had been seen in many Boston neighborhoods and in several neighboring towns. At least one report claimed a clown had been naked from waist down. As we say here in New England, that's wicked creepy.

Curiously the clowns were never seen by adults, only by small children. Unable to locate even one evil clown, the police finally told the public it was just children's fantasy and closed the case.

The clown craze ended in Boston, but did spread in the spring of 1981 to other cities including Providence, both Kansas Cities, Pittsburgh, Omaha, and Denver. In addition to clowns children in these cities also reported sinister men dressed like gorillas, Spiderman, and a bunny. No evil children's party entertainers of any kind were ever found.

What to make of the phantom clowns? Maybe it was just all hysteria and fantasy. When I was in grade school in the 1970s we children were repeatedly warned about getting into cars or vans with strangers. I even remember a special film was shown to students about the dangers of being abducted by roaming perverts. Parents had to sign permission slips for the movie because it was so gruesome. My parents didn't let me see it, but I remember many classmates who did were reduced to tears because it was so horrifying. If you terrify your children enough they'll naturally start seeing things.

The evil clown scare was also a precursor to the daycare sex-abuse hysteria that swept the nation a few years later. In Massachusetts, the staff at Malden's Fells Acre Daycare Center were accused of sexually abusing the children in their care. The children testified in court that an evil clown and a robot were involved in the abuse. Despite these fantastical elements, the three family members who ran Fells Acre were convicted and sent to prison, but eventually were released with reduced sentences. The testimony from the children was just considered too unreliable.

As the public later learned during the Catholic clergy sex scandal, sexual abuse of minors really had been happening in Massachusetts for decades. No clowns, robots or rabbits were involved, just trusted members of the community. The community had been so busy projecting its fears outward that it neglected to look hard at itself.

April 08, 2013

The Alchemist of Connecticut, or the Christian Hermes

I'm reading a fascinating book about a Puritan alchemist who founded several Connecticut towns, started industries, and stopped witch trials. The book is Prospero's America. John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606 - 1676, by Walter W. Woodward, a history professor at UConn. The Puritan in question, as you can tell by the title, was John Winthrop Jr.

Although I read a lot about magic and folklore, my knowledge of alchemy is not particularly deep. I knew that Puritans at Harvard and Yale dabbled in it, but I didn't realize how closely intertwined the alchemical and Puritan worldviews could be.

John Winthrop Jr.
I tend to think of alchemy as a murky pseudo-science with a lot of cryptic symbolism and magical jargon. After reading Woodward I realize I was only partly right!

Alchemy has its roots in the writings of Renaissance authors like Marsilio Ficino and Cornelius Agrippa. Drawing upon the works of the ancient mythical mage Hermes Trismegistus ("thrice great Hermes"), Ficino and Agrippa thought that mankind could use astral magic and the power of the stars to manipulate nature for mankind's benefit. A later writer with the fantastic name of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim (aka Paracelsus) refined their Hermeticism into what we now know as alchemy. Observation and experimentation, said Paracelsus, were important to "discovering the divine keys of the workings of nature." Alchemy was similar in some ways to modern science but also incorporated mysticism, Cabalist magic, astrology and Christian prayer.

Hermes Trismegistus, a syncretization of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Anubis.

According to alchemical thought everything in nature was slowly working its way towards perfection. Humans, plants, animals and minerals were all gradually improving over time. Only when a total state of perfection was reached would the world be ready for the second coming of Christ.

The alchemist's job was to help the world reach perfection. For example, gold was considered the most perfect metal, so alchemists spent a lot of time conducting experiments to find the philosopher's stone, which could transmute any metal into gold. They also worked at discovering the alkahest, a substance that would cure all human illness. Hermes Trismegistus, and Adam before him, had possessed perfect knowledge so the alchemists also placed a high premium on increasing human learning.

Many practical benefits emerged from alchemy, particularly in lucrative fields like metallurgy, mining, agriculture, navigation and medicine. Alchemical thought also blended well with Christian (including Puritan) theology so it was attractive to John Winthrop Jr., the son of the first governor of Massachusetts. Born in England in 1606, John Winthrop Jr. traveled through Europe and Turkey meeting with alchemists and acquiring alchemical texts before emigrating to New England in 1631. As his personal symbol Winthrop used the monas hierogyphica, a sigil representing cosmic unity developed by John Dee, Queen Elizabeth's famous astrologer. (Dee is often thought to be the inspiration for Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest and the titular character in Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus.)

John Dee's Monas Hieroglyphica, which John Winthrop Jr. adopted as his personal symbol.

Winthrop brought alchemy's practical benefits and emphasis on progress to his new home. In Salem, Winthrop developed a saltmaking venture. In Quincy, he created a successful ironworks. With backing of wealthy English alchemists he founded the town of Saybrook, Connecticut and later established New London, which he hoped would be a Utopian alchemical haven.

Utopia never arrived, but Winthrop still served for many years as Connecticut's governor. As governor he discouraged witchcraft trials. Although he believed in magic, as an alchemical practitioner he knew how difficult it actually was to get any magical results. If he couldn't get results how could the average witch? Winthrop also encouraged a certain level of religious tolerance, based on the belief that a perfect understanding of Christianity had yet to emerge.

Finally, Winthrop practiced medicine. He tended to patients in his home, and also distributed cures through a network of mid-wives and healers. Although they included items like seahorse penises, millipedes, and mouse feces (and were ineffective by modern standards) his cures were eagerly sought by people across New England. The Boston minister Cotton Mather dubbed Winthrop the "Christian Hermes" for his charity and healing skills.

John Winthrop Jr. died in 1676. A poem written for his funeral extolled his virtues as an alchemist:

"...His fruits of toil Hermetically done
Stream to the poor as light doth from the Sun.
The lavish Garb of silks, Rich Plush and Rings,
Physicians Livery, at his feet he flings."

If you like New England history I would recommend Woodward's book. If you want a more concise but still really informative discussion of Winthrop and other early American alchemists, I'd recommend this article in Newtopia Magazine. It has some fantastic illustrations!