November 24, 2013

Strange Gravestones of Whitefield, New Hampshire

Tony and I were recently up in the White Mountains, and I paid visit to Pine Street Cemetery in Whitefield, New Hampshire.

Pine Street is just outside downtown Whitefield and has some nice old gravestones dating back to the 18th century. It's very peaceful. On the day I went I was the only person there.

Some of the 19th century stones have a finger pointing up, indicating the deceased is bound for heaven. Take for example this stone which memorializes the fantastically-named Varnom Blood:

The text above the finger reads "Gone Home." It's a nice sentiment.

The same upward-pointing finger appears on the memorials for Varnom's wife Lydia and for George Parker, who died when he was only thirteen.

But apparently the people of Whitefield did not think all their neighbors were going home to Jesus. Here is the gravestone for poor Henry Lane, deceased at age twenty-two. 

Clearly whoever made this stone didn't think Henry was going to heaven. I'm surprised that Henry's family would pay for such a judgmental gravestone but maybe Henry really was that bad. The stone indicates he was bad enough to make Jesus cry, which is pretty bad. 

According to Joseph Citro's Weird New England there is another stone like this in Whitefield. That one is for Ira Bowles (dead at age 63) and is located in the Methodist Cemetery nearby. Apparently stones with the downward-pointing fingers are quite rare, and only two have been found outside of  Whitefield.

No one knows what Henry Lane and Ira Bowles did to deserve such damning gravestones. Were they murderers? Thieves? Drunkards? 

Or maybe none of the above. Charles Jordan suggests in his book Tales Told In the Shadows of the White Mountains that the downward fingers may have actually reflected Seventh Day Adventist beliefs that were popular at the time. Rather than believing that the dead went immediately to heaven, the Adventists felt they waited in the grave until Judgment Day. The finger points just to the soil, not to Hell. It's not as dramatic as the other explanation, but it does make me feel better about Henry and Ira's families.

November 17, 2013

America's Oldest Pumpkin Pie Recipe?

You often hear the saying "As American as apple pie," but as Thanksgiving draws near pumpkin pie looms ever larger in the national consciousness.

Pumpkins originated here in North America, but even before our continent was permanently colonized by Europeans they brought pumpkins back to the Old World and started baking pies. These European pumpkin pies were quite different from the ones we consume today. Recipes from seventeenth century England involve slicing and frying the pumpkin in a batter of eggs and sugar, and then layering the slices with apples and currants in a pastry shell. Your guests would be very confused if you served that to them this Thanksgiving.

Pumpkin pie went out of style in England, and at first it seemed it would do the same in New England. In 1650, Edward Johnson wrote happily in his book Wonder Working Providence of Sions Savior in New England that colonists were making more pies from traditional European fruits like apples and quinces instead of "their former Pumpkin Pies." For Edward Johnson pumpkin pie was a low-class, tacky dessert and it was good that it was slowly disappearing.

Luckily for us it didn't. Pumpkins grow well in New England and were a dependable food source for the English. A ballad called "New England's Annoyances" praises the humble gourd:

If flesh meat be wanting to fill up our dish, 
We have carrets and pumpkins and turnips and fish...
...Instead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies,
Our pumkins and parsnips are common supplies;
We have pumkin at morning and pumkin at noon,
If it was not for pumkin we should be undoon.

The earliest known American pumpkin pie recipe is one that was written down by Anne Gibbons Gardiner of Boston in the 1700s. It was very similar to the old English recipes, and involved layering sliced pumpkin with apples. The Gardiners sympathized with the British during the Revolution and fled to England, taking their pie recipe with them. They later returned to New England and lived in Maine, but Mrs. Gardiner's recipes weren't published until the 1930s.

The first published pumpkin pie recipes appears in Amelia Simmons's book American Cookery, which was printed in Connecticut in 1796. Her two recipes are very similar to modern ones. The old-fashioned layered pumpkin slices have been replaced by the pumpkin custard we're familiar with today:

No. 1. One quart (pompkin) stewed and strained, 3 pints cream, 9 beaten eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg, ginger, laid into paste No. 7 or 3, and with a dough spur, cross and chequer, and baked in dishes three quarters of an hour.

No. 2. One quart of milk, 1 pint pompkin, 4 eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour.

The big difference between her recipes and contemporary ones is that she tops the pie with a lattice crust. Most modern modern cooks omit a top crust. Still, I think you could follow her recipe and safely serve it to your guests this Thanksgiving for a historically authentic yet delicious dessert.

I found this information in James Baker's Thanksgving. The Biography of an American Holiday and Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald's America's Founding Food. The Story of New England Cooking

November 10, 2013

A Mohegan Witch Story from 1904

Here's a nice witch story from the Mohegans of Connecticut that anthropologist Frank Speck published in 1904. The English settlers weren't the only ones who believed in witches, and the local Indian groups maintained their own witch folklore well after the area was thoroughly colonized by the British.The story goes something like this.


Many years ago an old Mohegan woman set out to walk all the way to New London to sell some brooms she had made. Making brooms was a common way for Indian women to make money at the time, and there was a bigger market for them in the city that out in the country.

However before the woman reached New London the sun began to set, and soon it was very dark. She grew concerned and wondered where she was going to spend the night.

Luckily she came upon a house with light shining from the windows and smoke coming from the chimney. It looked very inviting, so she knocked on the door.

A white woman answered the door, and invited the elderly Mohegan lady to come in. The Mohegan woman said, "Thank you! I am walking all the way to New London and need a place to stay. Could I please stay here tonight?"

The white woman smiled and said, "Of course. You will be my guest tonight. But you must tell no one that you saw me here."

The Mohegan woman thought this was an odd request, but agreed to it anyway. The white woman then brought out some bread and cheese and offered it to the elderly woman.

The Mohegan woman accepted the food, but said, "Thank you, but I'm not hungry right now. I will eat this tomorrow before I finish my journey." She then lay down near the fire and went to sleep.

When she awoke in the morning, she was amazed to find herself lying outside in the woods. Nearby her was a giant boulder which was the same size as the house she had seen the night before. When she reached in her pocket for the bread and cheese she was horrified to find they had been turned into a hard piece of cow dung and old white bone.


I like this story quite a bit. Apparently the "house turning into a rock" theme appears in stories from other Algonquin tribes, and the white woman whose hospitality is a lie certainly makes sense as a comment on the Mohegan's political situation. I can also see connections to European fairy lore, where the gifts given by the fairies often turn out to be worthless in the daylight and the fairies swear those who see them to secrecy. I don't know if those similarities are the result of recent historical enculturation or come from a much older historical or psychological strata.

Frank Speck himself is an interesting character. He was born in Brooklyn, but was as a sickly child and was sent to live with a family friend in the healthier, more rural environment of Connecticut. The family friend was a Mohegan woman named Fidelia Fielding, and under her tutelage young Frank developed an enthusiasm for Indian culture, eventually becoming one of the preeminent anthropologists who studied the Indian cultures of the Northeast. 

If you like this story, I'd suggest reading William Simmons's Spirit of the New England Tribes, which is full of them. A truly great book!

November 03, 2013

The Pigman Returns!

A couple years ago I posted about the Pigman of Northfield, Vermont. It was one of my more popular posts, but I didn't think I had much more to say about this porcine creature of the night.

However, while poking around on the web recently I found some more Pigman stories. I usually try to cite books or other traditional sources for this blog, but even thought the Pigman stories are just on message boards they are too good to resist. I like to think of these as good campfire stories, but the campfire is my computer. (If you're not up to speed on the Pigman, you can read my original post here.)

The newer version of the Pigman story claims that way back in 1951 the Pigman was just a normal seventeen year old boy named Sam Harris. On October 30, the night before Halloween, Sam set out with some eggs and toilet paper to cause trouble and vandalize his neighbors' houses. It was a tradition for the local teens. You see, in Sam's hometown of Northfield October 30 was called Picket Night, and it was the designated night for mischief.

Unfortunately, Sam never returned. His concerned parents called the police and hundreds of volunteers searched the woods around Northfield, but they found nothing. Sam Harris was never seen again.

But something else was seen that gloomy autumn, something disturbing: a hideous humanoid with the head of a pig. The creature was seen lurking in the woods at night, particularly in an area called the Devil's Washbowl, where he terrorized teenagers in parked cars. The rumor began to spread that this monster was really Sam Harris, and that he had given himself to Satan. People said he ate the raw entrails of pigs, and wore the head of one over his own.

Sam's family and friends were outraged at the rumors, and a local historian wrote an article debunking them in the local newspaper. She disappeared shortly after it was published. Her body was found several years later in the Devil's Washbowl with the words "Picket Night" carved in her skull.

One morning in 1954, Sam's mother told a neighbor that Sam had come to her house the previous night. He had dragged a pile of pig entrails across the porch floor as a gift for her, and squealed with feral glee at the bloody organs before disappearing into the darkness. His eyes were like an animal's. Thirteen days later, Mrs. Harris committed suicide by throwing herself into a neighbor's pig pen, where the hungry swine devoured her.

Ever since, the Pigman has roamed through the dark woods around Northfield. The creature has been blamed for many animal deaths and several human disappearances, but has never been caught.


There's the new Pigman story. It's entirely possible this tale is just being spread by one person on message boards across the web, but there are some things about it that I find interesting.

As I've mentioned before, the nights around Halloween often have different names in different areas. I find it interesting that October 30 is called Picket Night in this story, which seems like it could refer to a real tradition in Northfield. If you know anything about Picket Night, please leave a comment - I'd love to know more!

It's also significant that the Pigman lurks around the Devil's Washbowl. Areas named after the Devil tend to accumulate legends about supernatural happenings.

Finally, there seems to be some implicit message about men and women in this story. Sam Harris begins the story as mischievous teen, and then devolves from boy prankster all the way to a hideous man-beast that lives outside of society and eats raw flesh. The female historian who tries to defend his reputation and symbolically reclaim him as human meets a horrible fate, while poor Mrs. Harris is destroyed by the realization that her son really is an animal who has resisted all her years of mothering. I don't think it's true, but the message seems to be that men are wild, and women are doomed in their attempts to civilize them. It sounds like a great topic for someone's Master's dissertation!