December 30, 2014

Weeping Turtles and Flying Souls: John Josselyn's World of Wonders

Sometimes when I read some weird old text or strange witchcraft narrative, I think, "Did the world operate by different rules in the past? This doesn't sound like the one I live in."

I first read about the concept of the past having different rules in John Crowley's book The Solitudes, the first in his fantasy fiction quartet Aegypt. The Solitudes tells how an unemployed historian named Pierce Moffet becomes stranded the small town of Blackbury Jambs. Moffet is hired by a wealthy resident to write a biography of a local writer of historical fiction. But as Pierce researches the writer's life, he begins to question whether the laws of physics and reality have been stable across time. Perhaps, he thinks, there was a time when magic really did work and the world was stranger than it is now.

The book that most recently brought this idea to my mind is non-fiction: John Josselyn's An Account of Two Voyages to New England (1674). Not much is known about Josselyn, an Englishman who traveled to New England in 1638 and 1663. His life story is unknown, but in addition to An Account, he also wrote New-England's Rarities Discovered (1672). Both books contain extensive lists of New England flora and fauna, and historians speculate that Josselyn may have been trained as a surgeon. But although he was interested in science, sometimes the New England he describes just doesn't sound like the one we live in.

For example, he describes a deer-like animal called a maccarib, which has two horns "growing backwards along their backs to their rumps" with "another horn in the middle of their forehead, about half a yard long, very straight but wreathed like a unicorn's horn..." I don't think there are any three-horned deer in North America, or ever were. He also tells how the local Indians would pick up a live rattlesnake with one hand, strip off the flesh with their teeth, and eat the snake whole. It sounds unbelievable, but then again he also claims the Indians spoke in rhymed verse and that his English neighbors in Maine encountered angry mermen, ghosts, and a ship crewed by female witches.

Josselyn makes our region sound like Narnia or Wonderland, and the ocean was just as strange as the land. Here's something Josselyn experienced on his trip across the Atlantic from England:

July the Sixth: Calm now for two or three days, our men went out to swim, some hoisted the shallop (a small boat) out and took diverse Turtles, there being an infinite number of them all over the Sea as far as we could ken, and a man may ken at sea in a clear air 20 miles. They floated upon the top of the water being asleep, and driving gently upon them with the Shallop, of a sudden they took hold of their hinder legs and lifted them into the boat... When they were brought aboard they sobbed and wept exceedingly, continuing to do so till the next day that we killed them, by chopping off their heads.

I do believe that animals feel emotions and fear, but I don't think that turtles can shed tears and sob. Maybe sometimes their eyes might get runny, but that's not what Josselyn is describing. He's describing a boat full of sad turtles crying because they know their going to be eaten. I'm reminded of the talking animals that fill fairy tales and children's books.

I don't find myself believing all Josselyn's tales, but they are still compelling. Did the world really operate by different rules in the 1600s? Maybe, but maybe he's just describing how the world should be, or how the world feels. After all, I'm sure turtles don't want to be eaten, and would probably cry if they could. I doubt there were any maccaribs wandering around, but it probably felt like there could be to an Englishman standing on the coast of a vast new continent.

Other stories are expressions of ancient metaphysical theories about the human soul, like the following:
Near upon twenty years since there lived an old planter at Black-point (now Scarborough, Maine), who on a sunshine day about one of the clock lying upon a green bank not far from his house, charged his son, a lad of 12 years of age, to awaken him when he had slept two hours. The old man falls asleep and lying upon his back gaped with his mouth wide enough for a hawk to shit into it. After a little while the lad sitting by spied a humble-bee (i.e. bumblebee) creeping out of his father's mouth, which taking wing flew quite out of sight. The hour as the lad guessed being come to awaken his father, he jogg'd him and called aloud "Father, Father, it is two o'clock!" but all would not rouse him. At last he sees the humble-bee returning, who lighted upon the sleeper's lip and walked down, as the lad conceived into his belly, and presently he awaked. 

After describing this Josselyn goes on to talk about how bad the mosquitoes are in Maine, as if the bee story were just an everyday occurrence like mosquitoes. But the bee story is really interesting, and not just because the sleeping farmer's mouth is open wide enough for a "hawk to shit into it."

As  Horace Beck points out in his book The Folklore of Maine (1957), the bee story is actually quite old and was well known in the Middle Ages. It was believed that the human soul could leave the body while a person was asleep, usually in the shape of an animal. In most stories mice or snakes emerge from the sleeper's mouth, but a German story tells how a bee flew from a king's mouth while he was asleep. The king's guard followed the bee as it flew to the king's secret treasure trove. The guard killed the bee, the king died, and the guard became a rich man. Happily, nothing so dramatic happened to the Maine farmer.

Beck claims this tale had disappeared from Europe by the seventeenth century, so it's interesting it shows up in Josselyn's book. Old beliefs about the human soul are behind a lot of New England witchcraft stories, and the bee soul appears again in a story from the late 1800s about a Cape Cod witch. For John Josselyn, New England was a land of wonders where an old farmer's soul could fly free during a sunny afternoon's nap. For the Puritans and their descendants, these wonders were exiled to the dark realm of witchcraft. The rules that ruled their world were different.

We still live in a world dominated by a Puritan worldview about the supernatural, not John Josselyn's. Our supernatural world is dark, not sunny. New England is ghost-haunted, witch-haunted, Devil-haunted, monster-haunted, etc. Name something spooky and we have it! We can't change history, and our region's eerie history is part of its charm. Most people, myself included, have affection for New England's residents of the dark.

But wouldn't it be nice to bring some of those spirits out into the sun now and then? Wouldn't it be nice to lie out in a sunny field and let your soul buzz around like a bee? Maybe just briefly the world could be a place of wonders instead of terrors.

And on that note: Happy New Year! Here's hoping 2015 is full of wonders for you, and only as much spookiness as you want. And if you do fall asleep in a field, don't open your mouth too wide.

December 22, 2014

America's First Christmas Tree?

The Christmas tree is an old, possibly even ancient, Germanic tradition. But how did it get to America?

Historians know that the wife of England's King George III brought the tradition to England. She was German nobility, and decorated the British royal home with fir trees at Christmas-time. Queen Victoria, who was George's granddaughter, popularized the tradition in England after she married Germany's Prince Albert. By the mid-nineteenth century Christmas trees were well-known throughout Britain.

It would make sense if the Christmas tree arrived in the United States from Victorian England, but that may not be the case. The tradition may have been brought here by a radical German reformer - who was also a gymnast.

Karl Follen was born in 1796 to well-off German family. Follen studied theology, but was also a political radical who supported the agenda of the French Revolution. After fleeing Germany (he was accused of assassinating a conservative politician) Follen went to France, where he met the Marquis de Lafayette. The Marquis, who pops up in so many surprising places, helped Follen move to America.

Charles Follen, 1796 - 1840.
Follen changed his first name from Karl to Charles, and in 1825 got a position teaching German at Harvard University. Oddly, Follen also introduced the sport of gymnastics to New England and supervised the first college gymnasium in the United States. The gymnasium was at Harvard.

Before we get to the Christmas tree, just a brief note about the whole gymnastics thing. The sport of gymnastics was created in Germany by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778 - 1852), who created it as a way of improving morale among German men after their defeat by Napoleon. At first Jahn was supported in his efforts by the German nobility, but they soon learned he was a radical political reformer who wanted a unified German state. Jahn fled Germany, but not before teaching gymnastics to a generation of German men, including Follen.

OK, now on to the Christmas tree. While teaching at Harvard, Follen met local Transcendentalist writers like Longfellow and married Eliza Cabot, a member of Boston's wealthy Cabot family. But despite his success Follen remained a political reformer at heart, and became involved in the movement to abolish slavery.

In 1835, an English journalist and fellow abolitionist named Harriet Martineau visited the Follen's Cambridge home on Christmas Eve. She had come to discuss politics with Charles Follen, but while there she witnessed the Follens set up a Christmas tree for their son Charley:

The tree was the top of a young fir, planted in a tub which was ornamented with moss. Smart dolls and other whimsies glittered on the evergreen and there was not a twig which had not something sparkling upon it... I mounted the steps behind the tree to see the effect of opening the doors. It was delightful. The children poured in, but in a moment every voice was hushed. Their faces were upturned to the blaze, all eyes wide open, all lips parted, all steps arrested. Nobody spoke, only Charley leaped for joy....

I have little doubt that the Christmas tree will become one of the most flourishing exotics of New England. 

Martineau was right, but sadly Follen never lived to see the Christmas tree tradition spread widely. He was denied tenure at Harvard because of his radical views and moved to Lexington, Massachusetts where he became a Unitarian preacher. He also traveled to lecture about the abolitionist movement. On January 13, 1840 the ship carrying Follen back to Massachusetts from a New York lecture caught fire and sank. Follen was among the many passengers who drowned.

Follen Community Church in Lexington

I don't want to end a Christmas post on a sad note, so I'll note that Follen's church in Lexington still stands today. To carry on his work, each year the church sells Christmas trees and donates the profits to social outreach programs.

Was Charles Follen's tree really the first Christmas tree in America? It's hard to say. I suppose there may have been earlier trees that were undocumented, but Follen's story is an inspiring one, and sometimes that's what we need at Christmas.

I got the information for this post form Amy Whorf McGuiggan's Christmas in New England and Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas.

December 14, 2014

How to Predict Snow

The first official day of winter is coming up fast. With winter comes snow. Some people hate it, some people love it (like me), but we all want to know when the white stuff is going to fall from the sky.

Modern New Englanders have satellite technology and the Weather Channel to help us, but our regional forebears weren't so lucky. They had to rely on almanacs and their own senses to predict when snow was coming.

They also had a storehouse of folk knowledge to draw upon. For example, it was believed that you could predict snow by looking at the bottom of your tea kettle when you took it off the stove. Snow was on the way if the bottom was white. Similarly, you could be sure a snowstorm was coming if the wood in your fireplace hissed a certain way. Sadly, there's no record of what that certain way is.

The logic behind those two methods is a little murky to me, but these next three seem more practical:

1. When it starts to snow, look at the size of the snowflakes. Large flakes mean the storm will be over soon. Small, fine flakes mean the snow will continue for quite a while.

2. If the snow on your roof melts off, the next storm to come will be rain. If the snow on the roof blows off, the next storm will be more snow.

3. In the same vein, if the ice on the trees melts off, the next storm will be rain. If it is blown off by the wind, more snow is on the way. 

Unlike the kettle and firewood methods, these three seem like they're based on some empirical fact, which is the air temperature. If the air is warmer, the flakes will be bigger and the snow will melt off trees and roofs. It's still no guarantee the next storm will be rain, though, because a new cold front could always move in.

Of course, you can always throw practicality out the window and indulge your irrational side. It was believed that if you make a wish on the first snowflake your wish will come true. And if you're the betting type, writing down the date of the first snow storm will guarantee that you'll win a bet sometime that winter.

I culled this information from Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England (1896) and Fanny Bergen's Current Superstitions (1896). It looks like 1896 was a good year for folklore books!

December 07, 2014

The True Story of Mary Sibley and Tituba

I've just started to watch the TV show Salem. It premiered last spring, but I don't get the channel it was on so I'm watching it now through Netflix. I'm only a couple episodes into it, but I'm already compelled to comment.

The show is a historical horror fantasy set in Salem during the 1692 witch hunts. Although we all rationally know weren't any real witches in Salem, just political turmoil and personal grudges, the show turns that on its head. Salem's premise is that although the people executed for witchcraft were innocent, they were framed by the town's real witches, who operated unseen and undetected.

This idea was also the premise of a 2008 comic book, Salem: Queen of Thorns. In that comic the real witch was a huge supernatural tree-monster (the Queen of Thorns), but in the TV show Salem people who really lived are being portrayed as Satanic witches. I have to say, it's a little weird. Weirder even than a giant tree-monster witch.

Salem: Queen of Thorns.

The leader of the witches is Mary Sibley, the wife of George Sibley, the wealthiest and most influential man in Salem. Mary was once in love with heroic soldier John Alden, but when he didn't return from war she became bitter, gave her unborn baby and her own soul to the Devil, and entered into a loveless marriage with George Sibley. Oh, and she controls George with a toad-shaped familiar that she placed in his stomach. That all happens in the first fifteen minutes of the first episode.

Mary is supported, but perhaps also controlled, by her sinister yet sexy Afro-Caribbean slave Tituba. There's lots of erotic lesbian energy between the two characters, and Tituba often rubs herbs and oils on Mary's naked body and reminders her of her vows to Satan. Again, this all happens in the first first episode.

Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) and Tituba (Ashley Madekwe) in Salem.
I suppose I should just relax and enjoy the show like the Puritan era True Blood knockoff that it is, but somehow I'd enjoy it more if all the characters were fictional.

The real Mary Sibley played a small but significant role in the actual Salem witch hunt. Mary and her husband Samuel (who was not particularly wealthy or influential) were neighbors of Reverend Samuel Parris. During the winter of 1691 - 1692, Reverend Parris's daughter Betty and her cousin Abigail Williams had been acting strangely. They had made been making odd noises, moving in unusual ways, and complaining of mysterious pains. The local physician thought it might be witchcraft. Reverend Parris and his wife tried to treat the girls' ailments through prayer.

On February 25, 1692, Reverend and Mrs. Parris left Salem to hear a minister speak in another town. Mary Sibley came over to the Parris house and told the reverend's slaves, Tituba Indian and her husband John Indian, to make a cake from the girls' urine and rye flour. Following Mary's instructions, the slaves baked the cake and then fed it to a dog. Mary, Tituba and John then watched the dog to see if it acted strangely.

This type of cake was known as a witch cake, and was method for diagnosing witchcraft. If the girls really had witchcraft in their body, it should also be in their urine. If the dog acted strangely after eating their urine it would be proof the girls were indeed bewitched.

History does not record how the dog reacted, but we do know how Reverend Parris acted. He was furious. All magic was considered evil magic, and he believed Mary Sibley's benign attempt to help the girls had opened the door to greater evil. He may have been right, since after witnessing Mary's magic the two girls began to actually see human forms tormenting them. Previously they had just suffered vague physical maladies. It seems likely that her actions strongly suggested to Betty and Abigail that they were bewitched, and they began to act accordingly from that point on.

Reverend Parris gave Mary Sibley a stern private lecture, and she publicly and tearfully confessed her errors to the Salem Village congregation on March 25, 1692.

Mary fades from history at this point and didn't play any further role in the Salem witch trials.  However, some writers have suggested that her witch cake was the incident that really kicked off the witch craze. They speculate that Betty and Abigail might have stopped their odd behavior if Mary hadn't asked Tituba and John to bake the witch cake.

That's something we can never know, but we do know that things didn't go too well for Tituba and her husband. Tituba was one of the first people accused of witchcraft by the afflicted girls, and John was accused soon after. Neither was executed, and they survived the trials the same way most others did - by accusing even more people of witchcraft.

When I was a child I learned that Tituba was the person who started the witch craze by telling Betty and Abigail stories of voodoo and black magic. But as I've since learned, this idea was started by historians in the 19th century who wondered why nice rational white people would do something as crazy as hunt witches. Clearly, they thought, the idea of witchcraft must have been introduced into Salem by Tituba, who they imagined to be an irrational black woman. It couldn't have been someone a nice white lady like Mary Sibley.

More recently,  historians have learned that Tituba has been misrepresented. The only act of magic she ever performed was to bake the witch cake, and she executed this piece of traditional English magic at the bidding of Mary Sibley. There was no voodoo involved at all. It also seems likely that she was not black, but was an Arawak Indian from the Caribbean. It had been assumed that her last name was Indian, but the word "Indian" may actually just have been a descriptor. Not Tituba India, bur rather Tituba, Indian.

We've also learned that no race or ethnic group - white, black, Arawak, etc. - is more rational or irrational than any other. Well, I hope we've learned that. But I think that's important to keep in mind if you watch Salem. Rationally, we all know there weren't any witches in Salem. We know Mary Sibley wasn't a witch, that Tituba was framed, and that she probably wasn't black.

But somehow, irrationally we're still entertained by a show where the Salem witches are real, Tituba is a manipulative evil black Jamaican woman, and Mary Sibley suckles her familiar with blood from her thigh. So as you watch Salem, and maybe even enjoy its trashy supernatural melodrama, remember what you're seeing is not true.

And when you shut off the TV just remember: there were no real witches in Salem. 

November 30, 2014

Conjuring by Sieve and Scissors

On September 8, 1692, Rebecca Johnson testified before the magistrates at Salem court. Like so many others, this Andover widow had been accused of witchcraft.

Rebecca Johnson pleaded innocent to the crime of witchcraft, but she did confess that in the winter of 1691 her daughter-in-law had used magic. She had conjured using a sieve and scissors.

One of her daughter-in-law's relatives, a man named Moses Hagget, had been kidnapped during an Indian raid. She wanted to know if he was alive or dead. With the help of two family members, the daughter-in-law balanced a sieve upon a pair of scissors and repeated the following spell:

By Saint Peter and Saint Paul
If Hagget be dead
Let this sieve turn around.

The sieve rotated, confirming her suspicion that Moses Hagget was dead.

Telling the future with a sieve and scissors was a common practice in Puritan New England, but like all magic it was frowned upon by the clergy. Cotton Mather wrote:

The children of New England have secretly done many things that are pleasing to the Devil. They say, that in some towns, it has been an usual thing for people to cure hurts with spells, or to use detestable conjurations, with sieves, and keys, and peas, and nails, and horseshoes, and I know not what other implements to learn the things for which they have a forbidden and impious curiosity.

This form of divination didn't originate in New England. Fortune-telling with a sieve and scissors has been practiced in the Western world for thousands of years, and is recorded by ancient Greek writers. The official name for the practice is coscinomancy, from the Greek word for sieve, koskinon. Feel free to use the term coscinomancy at a cocktail party to sound smart!

Although it has been around for millennia, there's currently some uncertainty about exactly how it should be done. (If anyone actually practices this please let me know how you do it!) Most instructions claim at least two people are needed to perform coscinomancy properly. For example, here is an old illustration floating around the Web that shows two people very gently holding the scissors.

That's a cool picture, but I'm not really sure how the sieve would rotate. Other writers say the sieve should be tied with string to the scissors or shears. The famous occultists Cornelius Agrippa (1486 - 1535) vouches for the string method, and also claims the following words (incomprehensible to humans) must be chanted: Dies, mies, jeschet, benedoefet, dowima, enitemaus. Agrippa thought this incantation compelled a demon to move the sieve.

You'll notice that in Andover the spell invoked Catholic saints instead of demons. The Puritan clergy was opposed to the idea of saints, but apparently they still lingered in folk religion and magic. Saints were often invoked in English and European magic, and Peter and Paul have been associated with coscinomancy for many years.

For example, in 1554 a London cleric named William Hassylwoode was brought to court on the charge that he used "witchcraft, or sorcery, with a sieve and pair of shears." Hassylwoode confessed that he had learned from his mother to invoke Saints Peter and Paul while trying to find lost items. This is just one of multiple cases from 16th century London where people were accused of using coscinomancy to discover thieves or find missing items.

To find a thief, the following spell was recited:

By St. Peter and St. Paul,
If (name of suspected thief) hath stolen (legitimate owner's name)'s (missing item)
Turn about riddle and shears and all.

Although this form of fortune-telling has a pre-Christian origin, it was believed in Renaissance England that Peter and Paul had invented the practice. Peter and Paul were also associated with using the Bible and a key for telling the future. As historian George Kittredge writes, "Almost the same formula has been utilized for the Bible and Key, where indeed, the saints' names seem more appropriate than in coscinomancy."

My sources for this week's post were George Lyman Kittredge's Witchcraft in Old and New England (1929) and Marilynne Roach's The Salem Witch Trials. A Day-By-Day Chronicle of A Community Under Siege (2002).

November 23, 2014

Squash Pie and Burning Barrels for Thanksgiving

This week I'm making a squash pie for Thanksgiving. That's right, squash pie, not pumpkin.

Every year my mother makes three pies at Thanksgiving: apple, squash, and mincemeat. (I volunteered to help make the squash pie this year.) Her mother made the same three pies as well.

Squash pie is kind of old-fashioned. It's made just like pumpkin pie, but using canned squash. I think only Maine's One-Pie company still produces canned squash, and it can be hard to find in some areas. I suppose that if One Pie ever goes out of business my family's tradition of squash pie will end.

I often think of holiday traditions as ancient and timeless, but that's not true. Traditions come and go and the holidays change through time. For example, Thanksgiving (the archetypal New England holiday) used to be celebrated with dances:

... some gather in a neighbor's dwelling, and find rich jokes over the crackling of hickory nuts and eating of the good dame's preserves; some patronize the ball in my landlord's spacious chamber, and seek "no sleep till morn" in the excitement of the dance... (John Carver, Sketches of New England, 1842)

Sleigh rides were also quite popular in the 19th century, but of course Thanksgiving often occurred in December then, rather than November.

A giant bonfire made of barrels was once part of the Thanksgiving festivities in Norwich, Connecticut. Originally the bonfire was a simple (if large) pyramid of empty barrels stacked high. Large crowds would gather on Thanksgiving night to watch the fire, and over time the bonfire became more elaborate. Two pyramids of barrels, one on each side of the Thames River, replaced the original single pyramid, and tar-filled barrels were strong on a rope between them across the water. The whole structure was lit on fire, and people crowded onto the nearby hillsides to watch the fiery spectacle. (This information is from David E. Phillips's Legendary Connecticut, 1992).

When I first learned about the Norwich barrel bonfires I thought they were just a nineteenth century thing, but according to this article the last one took place in the 1980s. Unlike the earlier giant bonfires, these more recent ones were sponsored by different neighborhoods. But eventually the barrel-burning tradition faded away in Norwich. Some writers say it was because the barrel fires were too dangerous - at least one person died because of them - but others say it's just because wooden barrels are harder to find now.

I'm sure barrel-burnings were a crucial part of Thanksgiving to some people in Norwich, just like squash pie is a crucial part of the holiday for my family. But someday that squash pie might be replaced by pumpkin, and I guess I'll just have to accept that change when it comes.

November 17, 2014

Have You Seen a Fairy? Tell the Fairy Investigation Society!

Do you believe in fairies?

In some ways that's an odd question to ask in the 21st century. Even though many Americans believe in strange phenomena like UFOs, Bigfoot and ghosts, I think for most people fairies are a little anachronistic, like a relic from children's books written in Victorian England.

But not everyone feels that way. Last week a reader sent me a photo she had taken in October near a creek in Lincoln, New Hampshire. She was visiting from a southern state and staying at the Mountain Club, and the creek ran through the resort's property. In the photo there is a small blue and white object among the tree branches. It looks like it has wings...

The reader asked me if I thought it was a fairy.

She hadn't seen the fairy (if that's what it was) when she first took the photo, but it was pointed out to her when she was showing the photo to a friend who was familiar with the area. "Don't you see the fairy in the lower right hand corner?" her friend asked.

The friend went on to explain that she had seen a fairy in the area herself, and that the creek was the type of place fairies liked.

The reader also showed the photo to her husband, who was a little skeptical. He said, "Maybe it's just a plastic bag caught in a tree.."

For myself, I'm undecided. Last week when I first zoomed into the photo the blue object sort of looked like something stuck in the tree. But just now, when I zoomed in further, the blue object looked like it might be holding onto the tree, and it also looked like it had a face...

Perhaps it was just a case of pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon where humans see faces and living beings in inanimate objects. Or perhaps there really was a visitor from the faerie realm hovering near a creek in the White Mountains.

Certainly, the American Indians who lived here for thousands of years believed there were small magical beings who lived in the forests, under the hills, and in the lakes and streams. The early English settlers also believed in fairies, although they didn't see many of them here. But even contemporary New Englanders have sometimes seen strange little beings, like the Dover Demon or the weird little green man found in a New Hampshire forest in the 1950s. 

Which brings me back to my original question: do you believe in fairies? The Fairy Investigation Society wants to know.

The Fairy Investigation Society (FIS) was founded in 1927 by a British man named Quentin Crauford. Attracting mostly Theosophists who believed that fairies were elemental beings, the Society continued sporadically through the 20th century until finally disappearing in the 1990s.

In 2013 the Society was re-booted by Simon Young, an English historian living in Italy. While membership in the original Society was limited to people who believed in fairies, the current society is open to "all those who have an interest in fairylore, be they believers or ultra skeptics." I'm proud to be a member myself!

One of the first goals of the Fairy Investigation Society is to conduct a census of fairy sightings and beliefs. Do you believe in fairies? Have you or a friend seen one? Please tell the FIS. Complete the online survey and help the FIS understand more about fairies and fairy beliefs in the modern world.

The FIS is hoping to get thousands of submissions to the survey. I'm hoping some of those submissions will be from right here in New England!

November 09, 2014

The History of Cranberry Sauce

In the year 1638, the Englishman John Josselyn sailed from his home country to visit a strange and wild land called New England. He stayed for just over a year, and enjoyed it so much he returned again in the 1660s for another visit.

Josselyn wrote several books describing what he saw in New England, including strange animals, Native American customs, and unusual plants. Among those plants was the following:

Cran Berry or Bear Berry, because bears use much to feed upon them, is a small trailing plant that grows in salt marshes that are overgrown with moss. The tender branches (which are reddish) run out in great length, lying flat on the ground, where at distances, they take root, over-spreading sometimes half a score acres, sometimes in small patches of about a rod or the like...

The berries, hanging by a small root stalk, no bigger than a hair; at first they are of a pale yellow color, afterwards red and as big as a cherry; some perfectly round, others oval, all of them hollow, of a sour astringent taste. They are are ripe in August and September...

The Indians and English use them much, boiling them with sugar for sauce to eat with their meat. And it is a delicate sauce, especially for roasted mutton. Some make tarts with them as with goose berries. (John Josselyn, New-England's Rarities Discovered, 1671)

And that, as far as I can tell, is the first written mention of cranberry sauce*. Somewhere between 1638 and the 1660s people were already using cranberries, a native North American fruit, to make what is now a classic Thanksgiving dish.

 Before the English came the local Indians used cranberries in a dish called pemmican, which was made of dried meat, berries, and animal fat. When the English arrived they used cranberries in traditional British dishes. Cranberry sauce was the New England version of a traditional English barberry conserve, barberry being a sour fruit that grew in Europe. Here's a recipe from 1597:

To make a conserve of barberrries

Take your barberries and pick the clear, and set them over a soft fire, and put to them rosewater as much as you think good. Then, when you think it be sod enough, strain that, and then seethe it again, and to every pound of barberries, one pound of sugar, and meat your conserve. (Thomas Dawson, Second Part of the Good Housewives Jewel, 1597, quoted in James Baker's Thanksgiving. The Biography of an American Holiday, 2009)

At first that seemed like a pretty high sugar to berry ratio to me, but looking at some modern cranberry sauce recipes online I found it's really not. Most modern recipes call for one cup of sugar per twelve ounce bag of berries. A pound of sugar is just under two cups, and a pound is sixteen ounces. So really this old barberry conserve is a little sweeter than modern cranberry sauce, but not much. Of course, most people don't put meat in their cranberry sauce these days.

It took almost 200 years for the first cranberry sauce recipe to appear, although other recipes with cranberries appear in a lot of the earlier American cookbooks. America's first published cookbook, American Cookery (1796) by Amelia Simmons, includes a recipe for a cranberry tart, but no cranberry sauce. In The American Frugal Housewife (1833), author Lydia Marie Child includes cranberry pie and cranberry pudding recipes, but again no recipes for cranberry sauce. (Child also discusses using cranberries to remove warts, which I don't recommend fort Thanksgiving dinner.)

Cranberry sauce recipes don't begin to appear in cookbooks in the middle 1800s. I suspect there is a simple reason the earlier cookbooks don't contain cranberry sauce recipes - it's just so simple to make. Boil berries with sugar and water. That's it! I suppose it would have been like including a recipe for making a peanut butter and sandwich.

*If you know a verifiably earlier reference to cranberry sauce, or an earlier recipe, please let me know. I've seen some references on Wikipedia to a "Pilgrim cookbook" from 1663, but I can't find that actual cookbook anywhere. Wikipedia also misquotes Josselyn's book, claiming he called it "sauce for Pilgrims," which is not the case, so I'm feeling a little skeptical about Wikipedia and cranberry history.

November 02, 2014

The Devil Builds A Barn

Although Halloween has sadly passed, the nights and weather are only going to get darker and gloomier from here on. It's still the season for spooky stories! Here's one from 19th century Massachusetts about the Devil himself.


A poor farmer living out in the country wanted a barn. He had a house and a couple small sheds, but no barn. Unfortunately he was just too poor to build one.

His desire for a barn must have been very strong, because the Devil caught wind of it. One night when the farmer was alone the Devil came to his house.

"I'll build you a barn", the Evil One said. "All you have to do is give me your soul when you die. Doesn't that sound like a bargain?"

The farmer may have been poor, but he was smart. He had heard tales of bargains made with the Devil. The tales usually didn't end well.

After thinking for a while, the farmer said, "I'll give you my soul... if you can build the barn before the first rooster crows in the morning. Deal?"

"Deal," the Devil said. They shook hands to seal it. The Devil's hand was hot like a frying pan.

The Devil immediately set to work. The farmer could hear him hammering and sawing away in the darkness. It sounded like the barn was going to be a good one.

It was just before sunrise, and the Devil was very nearly done. While the Evil One hammered away to finish the barn on time, the farmer snuck out his back door to the shed where he kept his chickens. He crowed like a rooster. This woke up his actual rooster, which crowed in response.

The Devil hadn't quite completed the barn, so he didn't get the farmer's soul. After he angrily vanished in a cloud of brimstone the farmer finished the last remaining details of the barn. He felt pretty good for outsmarting the Devil.

His satisfaction didn't last long. It turned out the roof leaked, the doors didn't close properly, and the whole structure fell apart within a year. But then what else would you expect from a barn built by the Devil?


I like this story. It's short, sweet, and to the point. It was told to Clifton Johnson in the late 19th century, and he included it in his book What They Say in New England (1896).  The motif of cheating an evil supernatural being who's building something for you is much older than the 19th century, though.

When I read this story I'm reminded of the old Norse myth telling how the gods hired a giant to build the walls around Asgard. They made a bargain with the giant. If he could build the wall in only one winter, with the help only of his horse, the gods would give him the goddess Freya, the sun and the moon. They made this bargain because they assumed even a giant couldn't finish a huge wall in just three months. After all, his only assistant was a horse.

Unfortunately for the gods, it turned out that the giant's horse was magical and was able to lay stones and spread mortar with its hooves. Things looked bad, but the trickster god Loki came up with a plan. Just before the wall was done, and just before winter ended, Loki turned himself into a beautiful mare. The beautiful mare lured the giant's horse off into the woods, and the giant was unable to finish the wall on time. Not only did he not get the sun, moon and the goddess Freya, but Thor smashed his head in with a hammer. Ouch! 

The gods got a 98% completed wall, and many months later Loki returned from the woods carrying the magical eight-legged colt that he had given birth to.

That might have been a little bit of a tangent, but I think you can see how the two stories are related.  New England folklore is just a little more bare bones than Norse mythology!

October 26, 2014

The Pigman: Fact, Fiction, Freakishness

It was great to see people at the Tewksbury Library this past week and at the Boston Book Fair, where I was promoting my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore. At the book fair I also met Sam Baltrusis, author of Ghosts of Salem and Ghosts of Boston, and Dee Martin, author of Boston in the Golden Age of Spiritualism. If you get a chance please check out their books! They're full of the weird stories and interesting legends that I really love.

Speaking of weird legends, Halloween is this Friday, and when Halloween rolls around I think of my favorite New England monster, the Pigman. An overall creepy fellow, the Pigman haunts a woodsy area outside Northfield, Vermont called the Devil's Washbowl. Just who is the Pigman? Some stories say he's the half-human offspring of a local farmer and a friendly pig. Others say he's a local teenager who ran into the woods and became feral.

The most detailed story claims he's Sam Harris, a teenager who set out to cause some mischief on October 30, 1951. October 30 is called Picket Night up in Northfield, and it's the designated night for teenagers to make pre-Halloween trouble by throwing eggs, toilet papering houses, and probably at one time stealing pickets from fences. Sam set out on that chilly October night many years ago an innocent teen, but went missing. Three years later he briefly returned home for just one night. Now a squealing madman, he strewed pig innards on his parents' porch, only to disappear again. His mother was driven mad by even this brief glimpse of her now monstrous son, and committed suicide by throwing herself into a pen of hungry hogs. Locals whispered that Sam had sold his soul to Satan, and that he now lurks in the woods wearing the head of a pig to cover his own deranged visage.

I first read about the Pigman in Joseph Citro's Weird New England, but I've found other legends and rumors floating around on the web. Here's one that appeared last year. Dim the lights for maximum creepy effect. 

 Back in the 1980s a group of high school seniors decided to go camping overnight in the Devil's Washbowl. There were some caves in the area, and recently hunters had found pig bones (freshly gnawed) in some of them. Were they the remains of the Pigman's dinner? The seniors thought they were and hoped to get a glimpse of the town's resident monster. 

I think they were also hoping for some romantic action, since as the sun set they split up into couples, each taking a sleeping bag and flashlight and each settling into a different cave for the night...

I'll just interject here and say that anyone who has ever seen a horror movie knows this was a bad decision. Frisky teenagers. Dark woods. Separating the group. A hideous monster. I guess these were the rare teenagers who had never seen a scary movie. 

Back to the story. The teens were settling in for a night of snuggling when they heard screams coming from one cave. Grabbing their flashlights they all ran to see what had happened. Inside the cave they found one of the girls, screaming hysterically. Her boyfriend was nowhere to be seen.

When she calmed down enough to speak, the girl said that as soon as she and her boyfriend had settled down to sleep a large man wearing a pig's head came into their cave. They shouted at him to leave, but without even hesitating he grabbed a rock and clubbed the boyfriend on the head. The Pigman threw the unconscious boy over his shoulder and stalked off into the night.

The teens frantically drove back to town and told the police what happened. Search parties looked through the woods for days, and although heavy footprints were found leading away from the Devil's Washbowl the searchers lost the trail in the leaf-strewn forest. No sign could be found of the boy or his abductor.

Desperate for leads, the police put up posters with the boy's photo around around Northfield. Only one person came forward. A man said a few nights ago he had been in his kitchen when he heard something rummaging around outside in the trash. Thinking it was a racoon, he turned on the porch light and went to chase the animal away. But it wasn't a racoon digging through his trash, it was the missing boy. The man recognized him from the poster.

But the poster wasn't quite accurate, the man said. He had definitely seen the same boy, but his eyes were strangely hollow looking, and his body was covered in long white hair. 

Is this story true? It appears on a sight called Phantoms and Monsters, which is focused on UFOs, the paranormal, etc. It's written anonymously as a first-person account ("My sister and a couple of her friends went out to the Devil's Washbowl...") which would lead one to believe someone, somewhere said this all really happened.

However, a little poking around on the web showed that this version of the Pigman story was first posted on Reddit last year by  a user named William Dalphin. Dalphin writes horror fiction, so maybe this story isn't true. Or at least not entirely. It's in a section of Reddit for both true and fictional scary stories, so there's a little confusion. And the other Pigman stories are supposedly true, so I can understand why people think this one is.

The Pigman legend is relatively new, apparently first appearing in the 1970s. It's changing and growing over time, incorporating tropes and themes from popular horror movies and fiction. Will this story be passed on as true? For me, the Pigman stories are like good campfire tales told by someone who's seen a lot of horror movies. I'll be interested to see what new ones appear over time.

And the Pigman could be real, even if the stories about him change. Perhaps there really is some anomalous monster lurking around Northfield and people are just trying to describe him using the stories and themes that are familiar to them. Perhaps it's the only way the locals can wrap their heads around the hideous, porcine enigma. He's a monstrous blank slate for them to write their fears on.

I suppose the only way to settle the question of the Pigman's existence is for someone to spend the night in the Devil's Washbowl. I'll leave that to someone braver than myself.

My other Pigman posts are here and here, if you really want to stay awake all night. 

October 19, 2014

Fall Phenomena: Mountain Lions, Vampires, Evil Clowns, and More!

As we get closer to Halloween, it seems like more and more strange things have been happening locally.

For example, a 26-year old man from Beverly, Massachusetts was arrested for trying to dig up a grave in Salem's Old Burial Ground on Charter Street. The man apparently is mentally ill, which is sad and not really the strange thing. The strange thing is that a group of tourists gathered around and watched him unearth the tomb in broad daylight. Apparently they thought it was just a normal part of the Salem Halloween festivities!

In other odd news, buried deep inside the October 12 issue of the Boston Globe was a short note that a woman in Burlington, Massachusetts called the police to say she had seen a mountain lion walking near some power lines. As is often the case with these sightings, the police investigated but found nothing conclusive.

It seems like weird creatures are often seen near power lines. Is this because of electromagnetic something or other, or simply because the undergrowth is cut low allowing clearer sight lines? One of my favorite power line sightings was this strange creature seen by Bill Russo in 1990 in Raynham, Massachusetts. And by favorite, I mean creepiest!

"Ee wah chu..." Image from The Bridgewater Triangle documentary.

I first learned about Bill from the recently released Bridgewater Triangle documentary. Bill has just published a book evocatively titled Creature from the Bridgewater Triangle. It is available on Kindle. I haven't read it, but it definitely has a great title!

Speaking of great titles, I'll be doing some readings and signings for my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore next week.

  • Tuesday, October 21 at 7:00 pm: Tewksbury Library, Tewskbury, Massachusetts (reading and a talk)
  • Saturday, October 25 at 3:00 pm: Boston Book Festival, Copley Square, Boston (book signing). I'll be at the History Press booth.

If you're not in the mood for reading, you might want to check out this new documentary about the New England vampire phenomenon. The documentary is from Connecticut's Historical Haunts LLC, and features Rhode Island folklorist Michael Bell.

Rhode Island folklorist Michael Bell.

The vampires of old New England weren't the bloodsuckers we see in movies today, but instead were the hungry corpses of people who died from tuberculosis. It was believed that they fed from their graves on the health of their surviving family members. I haven't seen this film but it looks like good, spooky viewing!

Speaking of spooky viewing, the TV show American Horror Story: Freak Show features a particularly terrifying clown called Twisty.

 Late this summer, before the show started, a creepy clown was seen lurking around at night in southern California. The trend now appears to be spreading nationwide. These evil clowns are all late to the party. Everyone knows the original evil clown scare started here in Boston. Once again, New England is a trendsetter! I just wish this were a better trend.

Finally, if you want to escape the evil clowns, vampires, and mountain lions, you might want to purchase the sylvan yet abandoned village of Johnsonville in East Haddam, Connecticut. The village is spread over 62 acres and was a former resort. Of course, you may encounter some strange phenomena since East Haddam is well-known for its mysterious subterranean Moodus noises and for witchcraft activity. Johnsonville also apparently comes with a resident ghost, but he doesn't sound too malevolent. The village is being sold at auction with a starting bid of $800K, which seems reasonable to me given current Boston housing expenses.

October 13, 2014

Emmeline Bachelder, Fate, and the Fayette Factor

October is our national month of monsters, ghosts and witches. It's the time when America allows itself to be scared by horror movies and haunted houses, and even your nicest neighbor covers their house with giant spiders and puts skeletons on their front lawn.

Every month is a scary month on this blog - witches and monsters are de rigeur. So for this pre-Halloween post I am going to write about something really scary. It's so scary I'm not even sure what to call it.

Let's start with the story of Emmeline Bachelder. Emmeline was born in 1816 to a farm family living in the small town of Fayette, Maine. Life can still be difficult in rural Maine today, but in the early 19th century people endured a level of poverty we can't quite fathom. At the age of 13 Emmeline's parents sent her to Massachusetts to work in one of the mill towns. She was supposed to send home her pay to help support her parents.

It was Emmeline's first time in a large city. She found work in a mill, but was soon seduced by one of the foremen and became pregnant at the age of 14. One of her aunts lived nearby and helped Emmeline deliver the baby, which was sold to a well-off local couple. According to legend, the aunt never even showed Emmeline the baby or told her who it was sold to. Emmeline returned to Fayette. She never told anyone what happened.

When she was 28 she married a Maine man named George Chambers and had a son with him. But after 20 years he left her and she found herself single once again.

I imagine at this point Emmeline was resolved to being single for the rest of her life. She was middle-aged and Fayette was a small place. There just weren't that many eligible men in town. The years passed by and she remained alone. So I also imagine she was quite happy when Leonard Gurney moved to Fayette from southern New England. He was at least ten years younger than Emmeline and handsome. He was also instantly attracted to her, a feeling which was mutual.

You might see where this is going.

Emmeline and Leonard were married. Emmeline was 62; Leonard was 48. They lived happily together until her aunt, now quite elderly, came to visit. When she saw Leonard she was horrified. He was the baby that Emmeline had sold. Emmeline had unknowingly married her own son. She had broken one of society's biggest taboos.

When the truth was revealed Leonard immediately left Emmeline. Gossip spread through Fayette and Emmeline's reputation was ruined. She became a pariah - even her legitimate son abandoned here - and she died alone and penniless at the age of 81. It's believed that her body is buried outside the walls of the Moose Hill Cemetery in Sagamore Falls, Maine.

Is this story true? It seems too archetypal, just too "Oedipus in Maine" to be real. But apparently it is true. After doing extensive research the PBS show The American Experience produced a documentary about Emmeline in 1989 called "Sins of Our Mothers." Her life has also been the source of a novel (Emmeline by Judith Rossner) and an opera of the same name by Tobias Picker.

I think the sheer awfulness of Emmeline's situation makes people doubt the truth of her story. Was it just bad luck on her part? Maybe it was just her fate, the result of some random occurrences. But maybe she fell victim to something called the Fayette Factor.

Can one man's name cause a lot of problems? A portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette.
The Fayette Factor was first proposed (discovered? invented?) by paranormal investigator Jim Brandon in the 1970s. According to Brandon, and later writers like Loren Coleman, places in the United States that have the word "Fayette" in their name are more likely to experience strange phenomena.

For example:

  • People in Fayatteville, Arkansas have reported water monsters, UFOs, and assorted humanoid creatures.
  • In North Carolina, the town of Fayatteville has a haunted mansion, the Slocumb House, which is connected to the Cape Fear River Channel by a tunnel. The river has been the location of multiple Bigfoot sightings. 
  • Fayette County near Pittsburgh experienced a wave of Bigfoot sightings in the 1970s. Some of the creatures were seen in conjunction with UFOs. 
  • La Fayette County, Ohio was haunted by a mysterious, giant black cat, as was Lafayette, Wisconsin. 
  • Places with the word 'fayette' in their name appear in connection with many famous crimes, including the Son of Sam murders and JFK's assassination. 

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Emmeline's home town of Fayette, Maine was the sight of witchcraft in the 18th century (according to the journals of minister Paul Coffin) and was also home to the "Moving Arm Ghost" which haunted a nearby spring. The ghost would offer a copper pot of water to travelers, but when irritated would throw water at them. Loren Coleman also claims there is a cave called the Devil's Den located nearby.

Why would the name Fayette be linked to paranormal phenomena? Most American locations with Fayette in their name were named after the Marquis de Lafayette, the French military strategist who helped the colonists during the Revolutionary War. Perhaps the strange phenomena occur because the Marquis was involved with the Freemasons and other vaguely occultish groups. Or maybe it's not the Marquis himself but just his name, Lafayette, which may mean "little enchantment" or "small fairy." The related English word 'fey' can mean unlucky or doomed. Incorporating the word into your town's name might just be an invitation for those tricky fey forces to come pay a visit...

Logically, I don't think this makes any sense. There are many places in New England, like the Bridgewater Triangle or even Gloucester, with more paranormal phenomena than Fayette, Maine. How do you even decide what counts as strange phenomena? Some things are obviously unusual (Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts), but unfortunately murders are an everyday occurrence. Jim Brandon also includes strange weather events when discussing the Fayette Factor, but let's face it, strange weather occurs all across America and is only increasing.

Emotionally, though, the Fayette factor resonates with me. As an explanatory theory it is creepy and a little paranoid, but despite it's logical flaws at least it's an explanation of why things, particularly weird and scary things, happen. It's a paranormal form of theodicy, telling us why bad things happen to good people. It's reassuring to think we aren't just in the wrong place at the wrong time when something terrible occurs to us.

Maybe it would have comforted Emmeline Bachelder Gurney to know about the Fayette Factor. She would have had some reason for the strange turn her life took. Otherwise, Emmeline just encountered really bad luck. There was no reason for what happened to her, it was just a roll of the cosmic dice. Which is probably the scariest explanation there is.


Most of my information about Emmeline Bachelder is from this article in the New York Times. You can read more about the Fayette Factor in Loren Coleman's book Mysterious America, or Jim Brandon's book The Rebirth of Pan. Hidden Faces of the American Earth Spirit. The book's title indicates the wonderful depths of craziness inside its covers.

October 05, 2014

Halloween Magic from New Hampshire: A Grim Party Game

Before I turn to this week's lore, I want to thank everyone who came out to one of my readings or signings this week. It was great talking with people and fantastic to meet some readers of this blog in person!

Now, onto the lore. On Friday when I was traveling up to Haverhill for one of the readings it really hit me that fall is here. The leaves are turning color quickly and gloriously, particularly near rivers, ponds and swamps. The temperatures are falling and we've had some wonderfully gloomy days. Fall is here, and soon it will be Halloween, which is perhaps my favorite holiday.

As I've mentioned before, Halloween has only been celebrated in New England since the 19th century. Early New Englanders put on masks and caused trouble during other holidays like Guy Fawke's Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas - those traditions migrated easily to Halloween.

Halloween isn't only about costumes and trick-or-treating, though. It's also a celebration of the supernatural. Our early New England ancestors took the supernatural very seriously, and it was only during the 19th century that witchcraft and fortune-telling became something to be celebrated. Nature had been tamed (at least apparently) through industrialization, and science could explain occurrences once blamed on witches or their Master. It was finally safe to bring fortune-telling and divination into the front parlor as party games.

Here's a fortune-telling Halloween party game from early 20th century New Hampshire. It's from The Book of Hallowe'en (1919) by Ruth Edna Kelley, a writer who lived in Marblehead, Massachusetts.The game was played primarily girls, but I don't think there's any reason other people can't play. But be warned: this game is morbid.

The game goes something like this. Take three bowls and place them in a row on a table. Put a ring in bowl number one.

Put some water in bowl number two.

Finally, in bowl number three, put some dirt.

A party guest is blindfolded and led into the room. The guest reaches out and touches one of the bowls. Each bowl indicates a different future for the guest.

Touching the bowl with the ring means they'll marry soon.

Touching the one filled with water means they'll never marry.

Touching the dish with the dirt means they'll die shortly.  

That's right, this is a party game that tells your guests if they'll die soon. "Okay everyone, now that we've found out who's going to die let's get back to the party! Does anyone want some cake?" I don't think so. This game definitely seems like a mood-killer to me.

There have been divination methods like this going back to the 17th century. In the 1690s girls floated an egg white in a glass of water. The shapes it made indicated the career of their future husbands (a ship meant a sailor, a plow meant a farmer), but a coffin indicated death. I expect something like this from the 17th century, when life was grimmer. I don't expect it in a party book from 1919!

Needless to say, I won't be including this game in my Halloween plans, but let me know what happens if you do. I suspect your guests won't be rushing back for your next party.

September 30, 2014

I Hope To See You This Week: Legends and Lore of the North Shore Book Tour!

My Massachusetts "world tour" happens this week, with three readings and book signings. The first one is tonight in Harvard Square! Please stop by and say hello.

 Here are the dates and times:

1. Harvard Coop, Cambridge, Tuesday, September 30th at 7:00 pm

2. Buttonwoods Museum, Haverhill, Friday, October 3rd at 6:00 pm. This one's a group reading with several other paranormal/horror writers, so you'll get more bang for you buck.

3. Barnes and Noble, Peabody, Saturday, October 4th from 1:00 - 3:00 pm

I hope to see you this week! It would be great to meet you in person.

September 28, 2014

Seeing Fairies, Here and Elsewhere: Books About Fairies

Do you believe in fairies? It's a loaded question, of course. If you were asked during a performance of Peter Pan, you'd respond affirmatively and clap your hands. Otherwise, Tinkerbell will die, and you don't want that on your conscience.

Asked that question in another context, you'd probably hesitate before saying yes, even if you did believe in fairies. After all, you probably don't want people to think you're eccentric! But there are quite a few people who unashamedly believe in fairies and many who claim to have seen them.

One of those people was  Marjorie Johnson (1911 - 2011), an English Spiritualist and Theosophist who was also a member of the Fairy Investigation Society (FIS), a British organization whose mission was apparent from its title. In the 1950s she compiled sightings from members of the FIS and also solicited them from the general public through ads in magazines. The resulting book, Seeing Fairies, is nearly 400 pages long. Although a German edition was published in 2000, it was published for the first time this year in English by Anomalist Books.

Seeing Fairies is probably the largest collection of modern fairy sightings ever compiled. Marjorie Johnson divided her books into chapters with titles like "Nature Spirits in Gardens and the Countryside" or "Fairies in Houses, Fairy Glamour." Each chapter contains multiple accounts of fairy sightings, including the name of the person who encountered the fairies and where they saw them. She doesn't include much overt theory or analysis of the material, but Johnson's interests in Spiritualism and Theosophy determine the overall tone of Seeing Fairies. As the book's editor Simon Young notes, Spiritualism was "more than just table rapping and knocks and 'ether.' It was an attempt, honest in the case of most members of the movement, to open vistas onto a wider world beyond the physical realm. It was only natural that fairies were eventually appropriated by spiritualists as part of this wider spirit land..."

Gustave Moreau, Fairy and Griffon

Because many of the book's accounts came from Marjorie's fellow Spiritualists, the majority of the fairy sightings are of gentle nature spirits. These fairies tend to be small, beautiful and associated with gardens, woods, trees, and flowers. Simon Young calls these the "new traditional fairies." Picture Tinkerbell or even Angelina Jolie as Maleficent and her fellow fairies in the recent Disney film. These beings care for the natural world and sometimes help humans who are in distress.

This is relatively new role for fairies. Up until the 19th century fairies were often viewed as frightening and dangerous, more likely to steal a child or cause illness than to tend a flower bed. Seeing Fairies does contain a few accounts in this vein. For example, a man tells what he saw in a deserted moorland brickyard when he was a boy:

... For some reason I looked over my shoulder, and about a minute's walk away I saw in broad daylight a man about a foot high, dressed in red, running along the path after me, waving his arms in what I took to be a threatening manner. But the impression that has remained with me most clearly over the 23 years or so between now and then is that he looked demented, and his face was shiny and so suffused with color that it was redder than his clothing. Being a timid child, I started running...

A woman in Australia saw the following:

It was coming down backwards from a branchless tree-trunk, and in shape it resembled a large-sized ape. Its body had a dark leaf covering; its neck was short and I saw no hair but a dark green head with a cap-like covering. Its feet were flat with nails like claws; its had had small hooks. ... I was not brave enough to go after it with a torch.

I wouldn't either!

If you are at all interested in fairies I would recommend this book. It's a testament to the enduring power of fairies, whether new traditional or old traditional, and how they still occasionally erupt into our modern rational world.

Simon Young, the book's editor, is a professor of history in Florence, Italy and we have collaborated on some research about pixies which will be published next year. Professor Young also hopes to restart the Fairy Investigation Society and to collect modern fairy sightings through a survey. Stay tuned!

Seeing Fairies includes a few sightings from America, but sadly none are from New England. As I've noted before, fairies aren't seen much in our part of the country. Another Theosophist, Dora Van Gelder Kunz, did see nature spirits and fairies near her home in New Hampshire, but as a trained psychic perhaps she had an advantage over the average New Englander. Her sightings in New Hampshire and elsewhere are recounted in her 1977 book The Real World of Fairies.

Overall, it's slim pickings for New England in modern fairy literature. Another book, Janet Bord's 1997 Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People, gives an excellent overview of the fairy phenomenon and also discusses several theories about what fairies may be. Are they pagan gods? Are they related to UFOs? A few New England encounters are included in Bord's book, including the famous Dover Demon as well as some fairy sightings from Massachusetts that appeared in the 1970s. If I can get more information on the latter I'll blog about them.

If you have ever seen a fairy in New England let me know, or you can wait until the fairy survey appears in the future. Maybe when the survey is published we'll know for sure how many fairies are in New England!

September 23, 2014

Come Say Hello: Readings and Book Signings This Fall!

I'll be doing a bunch of readings in the next few weeks to promote my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore. I like to think of it as my world tour, even though I'm not leaving Massachusetts.

  • Harvard Coop, Cambridge, September 30th at 7:00 pm
  • Buttonwoods Museum, Haverhill, October 3rd at 6:00 pm. This one's a group reading with several other paranormal/horror writers, so you'll get more bang for you buck.
  • Barnes and Noble, Peabody, October 4th from 1:00 - 3:00 pm
  • Tewksbury Library, Tewksbury, October 21st at 7:00 pm
  • Boston Book Festival, Copley Square in Boston, October 25th from 3 - 4:00 pm
Stop by one of the readings and say hello. If you have a good creepy story I'd love to hear it!

September 22, 2014

Another (Extra Creepy) Bigfoot Story from the Cape

I found the following story on the web a while ago. I was going to save it for the winter (you'll see why), but it's just too creepy for me to withhold any longer. Enjoy!?


Back in the winter of 1977 or 1978, an eleven year old boy was watching TV at his home in Sandwich. It was a Saturday afternoon in December, the sky was low and grey, and there was snow on the ground. His parents were gone for the day and he was home alone.

Their house was the last house on the street. After their house - nothing but woods.

The family's TV was located in the den, which had two windows looking out into the backyard. I imagine that other than the TV things were very quiet. A dead-end road on Cape Cod in the winter is not a lively place. Maybe the boy could hear some crows cawing in the woods, but probably not much more.

The boy's attention was captured by the TV for quite a while, but eventually something in one of the windows caught his eye. He looked up to see a hairy face peering in at him. It didn't look quite human, and the hairy face belonged to an equally hairy creature that was about five feet tall.

The boy screamed in surprise, and the creature grunted at him before it ran away from the window. He heard the creature run through the breezeway that connected the house to the garage, and then saw it run off into the woods.

The boy stood in the middle of the den in shock, trying to determine what to do. He eventually realized that his terrifying encounter might just have been a hoax played on him by a friend. But when he called his friends he found they were all at home, and denied playing any tricks on him.

A couple of his friend agreed to come over, and only when they arrived did he unlock the door. Nervously, the boy and his friends walked around the house, searching the snow for clues in the cold grey light.

Underneath the den windows they saw footprints in the snow. All the boys stared in shock at what they saw.

The footprints had been made by something with large, hoofed feet. The hoof prints led into the woods, but the boys didn't follow.


I love this story! It's one of only two reports on the Bigfoot Field Research Organization website from Cape Cod. The other one is the story about Bigfoot and his dog.

This story at first seems like your standard Bigfoot sighting (if such a thing exists). Bigfoot loves to look in windows, according to reports from across the country. Lots of people claim they've seen Bigfoot watching them in the bathroom or bedroom, which is kind of creepy. Is he a voyeur? Maybe, or maybe he's not just looking in our windows, but peering into our world from wherever creatures like Bigfoot exist.

But this story isn't your standard Bigfoot sighting at all. It's more like a campfire story or a ghost story. "If you think Bigfoot is scary, wait until you hear how this one ends..." The hoof prints in the snow will remind most people of our region's number one monster, the Devil. The Evil One has left his mark all over New England, even a dead-end street in Sandwich. Those hooves transport this story from the cryptozoological realm into the supernatural. This story fools you into thinking you're  getting one thing, but you really end up with something else.

The hairy, hoofy monster doesn't necessarily have to be the Devil, or even a demon. Maybe it was just another of the satyr-like creatures that sometimes pop up in New England. Whatever it was, I love this story. There's no closure, just a mysterious encounter on a gloomy Cape Cod day.

I found the story in the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization website, which is of course a great resource.

September 14, 2014

The Witches' Sabbath in New England: Part 2

Witch hunting in New England practically disappeared after the brutality and excesses of the Salem witch trials. Those trials served as a wake-up call to the fledgling society of old New England and as time passed more and more people realized they had just been a case of mob mentality running wild. Personal grudges and petty disputes had been erroneously inflated into a cosmic battle of good versus evil.

But that doesn't mean people stopped believing in witches. Folklore from New England is full of stories about witches after the 17th century. And like the witches the Puritans feared, these later witches also gathered to celebrate their Sabbath.

The Reverend Parris's meadow was no longer the main focal point for their magical activities. Instead, witches were said to gather in many different locales across New England for their nocturnal meetings.

For example, Charles Skinner writes in Myths and Legends of Our Own Land (1896) that

Barrow Hill, near Amesbury (Massachusetts) was said to be the meeting place for Indian powwows and witches, and at late hours of the night the light of fires gleamed from its top, while shadowy forms glanced athwart it. Old men say the lights are still there in winter, though modern doubters declare they were the aurora borealis. 

Not far off, in the town of Medway, witches gathered by an enormous, strangely shaped pine tree. They came to celebrate with the Devil, and arrived as weasels, raccoons, and other small forest animals. The tree grew near a swampy depression called Dinglehole, which still exists in the town of Millis. (Millis separated from Medway in the late 1800s.)

In Plymouth, the witches celebrated their Sabbath in a grassy area called the Witches Hollow:

"After you pass Carver Green on the old road from the bay to Plymouth", said one of these women, "you will see a green hollow in a field. It is Witches' Hollow, and is green in winter and summer, and on moonlit nights witches have been seen dancing in it to the music of a fiddle played by an old black man. I never saw them, but I know some people who saw witches dancing there..." (William Root Bliss, The Old Colony Town and Other Sketches, 1893)
Those three are just a few examples from Massachusetts. There are many examples from the other New England states. In Connecticut, the witches held their Sabbath in an area called the Devil's Hopyard, while in 19th century New Hampshire it was believed they congregated at night in abandoned houses. They traveled there in spectral form, and sometimes forcibly dragged the spirits of their sleeping neighbors along with them. It was an invitation they couldn't resist!

The idea that innocent people can be dragged to a witches' Sabbath is an old one. During the Salem trials, a man named John Ring testified he had been
strangely carried about, by daemons, from one witch-meeting to another, for near two years together.. Unknown shapes... which would force him away with them, unto unknown places, where he saw meetings, feastings, dancings... (Joseph Merrill, History of Amesbury, 1880)

Witches often flew spectrally to their Sabbaths, or traveled there in the shape of animals. Sometimes, however, they would ride spectral horses, which were usually the captive spirits of sleeping neighbors. There are quite a few legends where witches throw an enchanted bridle over the head of a sleeping man and ride him all night, quite often to the Sabbath. The man who was witch-ridden would awake exhausted, and sometimes complain of a pain in his mouth where the bit had been.

Another story from Plymouth tells of witches using magic bridles to transform bales of straw into black horses, which they ride to an abandoned house for a Sabbath celebration. When they arrive they dance around a mysterious black fiddler.

One of the stranger Sabbath stories comes from the village of Moodus, in Haddam, Connecticut. Moodus is famous for strange, subterranean noises that have been heard for centuries. Several explanations have been proposed for these noises, which are described as sounding like thunder or cannon shots. The local Indians told the earliest settlers that a god who was unhappy with the English colonists caused the noises. Other explanations have claimed the sounds are caused by pearls growing in the nearby rivers' shellfish (???), or by micro-earthquakes.

The explanation most relevant to our current topic is the following:

It was finally understood that Haddam witches, who practised black magic, met the Moodus witches, who used white magic, in a cave beneath Mount Tom, and fought them in the light of a great carbuncle that was fastened to the roof... If the witch-fights were continued too long the king of Machimoddi, who sat on a throne of solid sapphire in the cave whence the noises came, raised his wand: then the light of the carbuncle went out, peals of thunder rolled through the rocky chambers, and the witches rushed into the air. (Skinner, Myths and Legends of Our Own Land)

Machimoddi seems to be a name for the Indian manitou who ruled over Moodus, and his appearance in this story shows how Algonquian and English supernatural themes sometimes merged. Another version of this story appearing in a 1901 edition of Connecticut Magazine says the witch battles were refereed by the Devil. 

A witch battle seems different from the traditional witches' Sabbath, but European stories of battles between supernatural beings may originally have contributed to the idea of the Sabbath. Carlo Ginzburg, the Italian historian I mentioned last week, claims many European cultures shared a common myth: that good supernatural beings, often people whose spirits could leave their bodies at night, would fight evil supernatural beings, usually witches, for the fertility of the land and bounty of the harvest. Quite often, the battle was between the spiritual warriors of two adjacent villages, as in the story about Moodus.

Historical records show that many people in Europe thought they did leave their bodies at night to participate in these battles, and they shared this information openly with neighbors. As you can imagine, they were not popular with the Catholic Church, and these night battlers were often accused of witchcraft. Over time and under the influence of the Church, the myth changed. Rather than good and evil spirits fighting for fertility, these nocturnal gatherings were now said to filled only with evil spirits (witches) who worked for the Devil. Voila! The idea of the witches' Sabbath was born.

I don't know where the story about the battling witches of Moodus originated, but it's amazing to see such an old European mythic idea in Connecticut. It's definitely something that could use more investigation, but for now I'll just accept it as one more mystery of the witches' Sabbath. I hope you enjoyed this little overview of the Sabbath, and be careful when you walk around at night...