March 30, 2014

Fairies at a New Hampshire Inn

Lots of witches and ghosts lurk in New England folklore, but not many fairies. Why is that?

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, "Fairy faith is, we may safely say, now dead everywhere ... It never had much hold upon the Yankee mind, our superstitions being mostly of a sterner and less poetical kind." He also claims that any fairy beliefs found in New England were brought here in the 1700s by Irish Presbyterians.

That quote is from Prose Works of John Greenleaf Whittier, which was published around 1866. He then goes on to provide a story to prove the Irish brought the fairies with them.

Poet John Greenleaf Whittier, 1807 - 1892.

In the early 1800s, a surly, unhappy man decided to open an inn in New Hampshire. Business suffered because of his dour personality and "poverty came upon the house and its tenants like an armed man." The man's wife, who was of Irish descent, remained hopeful despite the dire financial situation. A better day would come, she told her husband and daughters.

The inn's business did improve, but for an odd reason: a troupe of fairies took up residence in the building. Although they were invisible to mortal eyes, their quiet, squeaky voices could be heard by everyone who visited the tavern. It was noted by several visitors that they spoke in a distinct Yankee/Irish dialect.

Word spread throughout the area about the fairies, and curious crowds gathered to hear them speak - and to spend money on food and drink. Life was good for the innkeeper, his wife, and three daughters.

Gradually, though, people began to question the reality of the fairies. Why had they taken up residence in New Hampshire? How come no one could see them? Whittier claims these doubts arose because fairies just weren't part of New England culture:

Had the place been traversed by a ghost of disturbed by a witch they could have acquiesced in it very quietly; but this outlandish belief in fairies was altogether an overtask for Yankee credulity. As might have been expected, the little strangers, unable to breath in an atmosphere of doubt and suspicion, soon took their leave, shaking off the dust of their elfin feet as a testimony against an unbelieving generation.

Some skeptics said the fairies weren't even real. The skeptics claimed some men from Massachusetts had come to hear the fairies and pried away a board in the ceiling - to reveal the innkeeper's three daughters upstairs speaking like the fairies. The skeptics also claimed that once the hoax was revealed the fairy visitation stopped. The innkeeper's wife dismissed this rumor, claiming instead that the fairies had simply gone back to Ireland.

I have a few rambling thoughts on this story. It does seem Whittier was correct that New Englanders were happy to believe in supernatural beings, but only if they were scary and malevolent. The witchlore and ghost stories from this area are full of gruesome creatures and grim situations. You don't encounter too many playful magical creatures in the folklore of this area, but there are a few exceptions.

Whittier doesn't name the town where the inn stood, but only gives the first letter of its name: S. There aren't many New Hampshire town names beginning with S, and since Whittier lived most of his life in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts I suspect the inn was in southern New Hampshire. Maybe it was in Salem, or possibly Sandown?

Southern New Hampshire does seem to have a stronger fairy tradition than other parts of New England. You can see my post about Tisenetto, the Derry fairy, here. Some people also claim this little green man seen in the 1950s was another version of the Derry fairy. You can find some more speculation on the topic of fairies in New Hampshire here.

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