August 24, 2014

The Witch of Mashpee, and a Book Release Party

I'm having a party to celebrate the release of my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore. Here are the details:

When: Tuesday, September 9, from 6 - 8:00 pm

Where: Club Cafe, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston

What: Appetizers, cash bar, and me signing books!

Who: You're invited! I hope you can attend!

Now that the obligatory marketing is over, on to the witchcraft.


Last week the murderous Hannah Screecham was the star of this blog. This week her sister Sarah gets a turn in the spotlight.

While Hannah partnered with pirates to bury their treasure and kill anyone who might reveal its whereabouts, Sarah headed to Mashpee and built herself a cottage on the shores of a small pond. The pond is now called Witch Pond, so you can guess what type of work Sarah pursued.

The pond was in the middle of a very dense forest, so dense that even when the moon was full no light could shine through its trees. Most people avoided the place, fearful of the witch's magic, but when times where lean members of the Mashpee tribe would venture into Sarah's domain in search of game.

Sarah was very protective of the forest and the animals that lived in it. If she saw a hunter she cursed them will ill luck, preventing them from killing any game. She could appear and disappear at will in the woods, traveling unseen, though after she disappeared hunters often saw a beautiful young doe or huge black mare running through the trees. Both animals were impervious to arrows and bullets.

One day Sarah saw a particularly handsome Mashpee man hunting near her home. Even in her witch's heart there was room for love, and she fell in love hard. She pursued the man, begging him to be her lover, but he was terrified and refused her. Sarah was persistent, however, and eventually the man relented. They could meet, but he had one condition - she must come to his home outside the forest.

Blinded by love, Sarah agreed. She visited the man, and as the sun set she turned herself into the huge black mare. Playfully she scampered around the man's house, and playfully she let herself be tied to a tree. Once she was securely tied the Mashpee man's smile dropped away, and he pulled out a hammer and four horseshoes. The black mare didn't make a sound as he nailed in the first three, which were made of iron, but the horse neighed in terror and pain when he nailed in the final one, which was silver. When the man was done he ran to get his neighbors so they could see how he had hobbled the witch.

The black horse had vanished by the time they came back, so they went to Sarah's cottage. They found her inside, screaming in pain with a silver horseshoe nailed to her hand.

Once she recovered Sarah returned to her witchy ways, cursing hunters and transforming herself into animals. She gave up on love. The hunters once again avoided her forest, until many years later a particularly grim winter hit the Cape. No game could be found anywhere, and the Mashpee people were starving. In desperation one hunter finally set out for Witch Pond. He was armed with a rifle, and because he remembered the story about the horseshoe he carried with him one silver bullet.

The forest was strangely silent, even for a winter day, and the hunter didn't see any animals as he trekked through the deep snow. As he neared the pond a beautiful young doe leapt out of the woods. It stared at him fearlessly, as if if was taunting him. He fired his silver bullet, and struck the doe in the hear. It disappeared. The hunter made his way to Sarah's cottage, where he found an old woman dead with a silver bullet in her heart.


I find this story sad. Poor Sarah! Lots of witch stories involve death by silver bullet, but the silver horseshoe incident is quite cruel. She was just lonely and looking for some male companionship. Even witches need some love. That part of the story reminded me of the recent movie Maleficent. It's unsettling how misogynist some of these stories are.

Sarah's story is included in William Simmons's Spirit of the New England Tribes, and if you approach it from the Mashpee perspective Sarah's not quite so sympathetic. Historically the Mashpee people had most of their land taken by English settlers, saw their numbers reduced by European diseases, and saw their way of life vanish. I see a woman looking for love and protecting animals in this story, but from a Mashpee perspective Sarah, a white woman preventing the tribe from pursuing their traditional hunt, is probably symbolic of white domination. We know the Mashpee weren't able to displace the whites, but at least in this story they can symbolically kill their oppressor.

The story also conveys metaphysical information about witches, and if you're a historian you can try to figure out whether Sarah really existed. There really is a Witch Pond in Mashpee - was there really a witch? So much to consider in one short (and sad) story.

August 17, 2014

Hannah Screecham and the Pirates' Treasure: She Was Evil But Loved Her Job

We still have a couple weeks until Labor Day, so I'm still in a Cape Cod state of mind. Here's a weird story about one of the more colorful characters in the Cape's history, Hannah Screecham.

Hannah lived on Grand Island off the coast of Barnstable back in the 1600s. Grand Island (aka Oyster Harbors) is now a very posh neighborhood, but three centuries ago it was desolate and windswept. Hannah Screecham lived there nearly alone - except for occasional visitors who came at night from the ocean.

You see, Hannah was in league with every pirate captain who traveled the New England coast. Smuggling, privateering and piracy were all huge parts of the local economy, and Hannah played a vital yet unsavory role in it. She helped the pirate captains bury their treasure. That might sound like honest hard work, but you've heard the saying "Dead men tell no tales?" That was Hannah's job. She was quite good at it, and was hired by many notorious pirates, including Captain Kidd.

It worked like this. Late at night, a pirate captain would row ashore to Grand Island with a chest of gold and only one other member of his crew. The crew member was always a very recent recruit. Hannah would meet the two men on shore, and lead them to a secluded spot on the island where they could bury their treasure. She would stand watch as the captain and his man dug a pit and lowered in the chest.

Then, once the treasure was put into the deep pit, she would push the unsuspecting crew member down into it as well. The sandy soil would collapse onto the injured (but still living) pirate and bury him alive. When the deed was done Hannah would issue forth a terrifying, shrill cry, which signaled to the waiting pirate ship that its captain was ready to come back aboard.

The pirate captains would pay Hannah with a small pouch of silver, or a pillaged ring, or even a token of their love. But secretly they feared her. She seemed to like her work a little too much. She relished pushing unsuspecting men to their deaths, and her shrill cry had a note of deep pleasure in it.

Eventually Hannah was done in by greed. She lived comfortably off the small payments the captains gave her, but wanted more. She knew where every treasure was buried, so why not take some gold for herself? One moonlit night she took her shovel and unearthed a particularly rich trove of gold. But as she opened the chest she saw pale figures gather above her around the mouth of the pit. They were the ghosts of the men she had killed! As she opened her mouth to plead for mercy a ghostly figure appeared inside the pit with her and wrapped its cold fingers around her neck. As Hannah gasped for breath the pit collapsed around her, burying her forever.

Hannah was just too evil to rest in peace, though. Her own ghost is still supposed to haunt Grand Island, and her trademark shriek can sometimes be heard echoing over the dunes. The treasures she helped hide still remain undiscovered.

That version of Hannah Screecham's story can be found in Elizabeth Reynard's 1934 book The Narrow Land. Another story about Hannah, which appears in a few other sources like Cheri Revai's Haunted Massachusetts, claims that she was not evil, but just an outcast old woman feared by her neighbors. When an outbreak of smallpox struck Barnstable they accused her of causing it through witchcraft and hanged her without a trial.

A group of pirates came ashore by night and cut down her body, burying it in an undisclosed location. When confronted by the townspeople the lead pirate, who was Captain Kidd himself, said that Hannah had been his mother. He had buried her body with his treasure so her spirit could guard it. The people of Barnstable searched many years for Kidd's gold but never were able to find it. Hannah's ghost haunts the dunes near Barnstable, shrieking like a gull.

Hannah was not the only notorious person named Screecham. She had a sister named Sarah, who was a witch. More about her next week!

August 10, 2014

Sam Bellamy, Maria Hallett, and the Wreck of the Pirate Ship Whydah

Tony and I were down on the Cape recently and finally visited the Pirate Museum in Provincetown. I've wanted to go for quite a few years and was glad to finally find the time.

The museum's exhibits are focused on the pirate ship Whydah (pronounced "widdah"), which sank off the coast of Wellfleet in 1717. The wreck was located by divers in 1982, and the artifacts they found, including gold coins, a cannon, and the ship's bell, are featured in the museum.

Here are some interesting facts I learned:

  • Pirates used a primitive form of hand grenade when attacking ships.
  • Venereal disease was common among pirates, but the cure - an injection of mercury directly into the bladder - was probably worse than the sickness.
  • Pirates who had a limb amputated received an extra stipend of gold.

The Whydah was originally commissioned as a slave ship, and is named after the African coastal city of Ouidah. It was captured by notorious pirate Black Sam Bellamy while it was sailing in the Caribbean. Bellamy took the ship as his own, loaded it with approximately four tons of stolen gold, and headed north to Cape Cod. He never reached the Cape, but died with almost all his crew less than a mile off Wellfleet's Atlantic coast in an April storm. He was 28 and is believed to have been the wealthiest pirate in history.

There are quite a few legends associated with Sam Bellamy and the Whydah. The most enduring is about his love for a local Cape Cod girl named Maria Hallett. On Cape Cod he met and fell in love with Maria Hallett, who was young (only 15!) and beautiful. Her parents didn't approve of Sam - he was just a poor sailor - but one thing led to another and Maria became pregnant with Sam's child. Declaring his undying love for Maria, Sam set off for the Caribbean to make his fortune. He vowed to return a rich man.

Some stories say Sam intended to find sunken treasure in the Caribbean, but found his way into piracy instead. Maria, who was left at home on the Cape, was shunned by her family and neighbors. Premarital pregnancy was not uncommon in colonial New England, but it usually led to a speedy marriage. Maria didn't have that option. She bore her child alone and unmarried in a isolated hut in the woods.

There are many variations of the legend, but they fall into two broad types. In the first, Maria grows bitter. Really, really bitter. She's been shunned by her community and abandoned by the man who said he loved her. Alone and angry, she turns to the one person who always was available to the New England outcast - the Devil. In return for her soul, and possibly the life of her child, the Dark Man makes her a witch. When Maria learns that the Whydah is approaching Wellfleet she climbs onto one of the high dunes and raises a storm. The man who ruined her life is drowned, the Whydah sinks, and Maria dances in the wild wind and rain. The area where she cast her spell is now called the Lucifer Land, Satan's Harvest, or the Devil's Pasture in local folklore.

That's the grim, gloomy version. The slightly less grim version claims that Maria remained faithful to Sam, watching and waiting patiently for his return. On the night of the storm she watched from the dunes, hoping the Whydah would make it safely to shore. When it didn't, she lost her mind from grief and ran down to the beach. The next day she was found on the shore, screaming and wailing as she wandered through the wreckage and drowned corpses. Her ghost is still said to walk near Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, and her cries can be heard on dark stormy nights.

Tony scanning the Atlantic coast for pirates, ghosts, witches, etc.
 There's a lot of historical documentation on Sam Bellamy's life, but there's no documentation about Maria Hallett. Did she even exist? It's impossible to know, but Hallett is an old Cape Cod name so it's entirely likely. Records from the early 1700s can be a little spotty.

Legends and strange phenomena surrounded the Whydah even into the modern age. Barry Clifford, the explorer who found the Whydah in 1982, claims that the expedition was plagued by bad luck and strange mechanical malfunctions while it was searching for the wreck. The divers and crew once even heard a voice over their radio repeat the following words: "We want your boat... We want your boat..." The weird shenanigans stopped only after Clifford and his crew poured rum into the ocean and toasted the dead pirate crew. Shortly after making this offering to the dead they discovered the sunken ship and its treasure.

In 1998, the staff at a Wellfleet restaurant also reproted a strange encounter. One of their customers emerged from the restroom in a panic. He said he had seen a young woman in an old-fashioned dress, but that she had disappeared. The staff checked the restroom and found it unoccupied. The customer hastily signed his name of the credit card slip and ran out of the restaurant. His last name was Bellamy.

The story of Sam Bellamy and Maria Hallett can be found in many places, including Elizabeth Reynard's The Narrow Land and Mark Jasper's Haunted Cape Cod and the Islands. The stories about the modern ghosts are from the Houston Museum's website.

August 02, 2014

Bigfoot .. and His Dog?

It was late at night in 1980. (Or maybe it was 1981 - memory is a tricky thing!) Two people working the late shift at a small manufacturing firm on Route 151 in Mashpee, Massachusetts noticed something odd across the street at a garden center.

It was around 2:00 am, and the garden center was closed for the night, but the two workers saw someone lurking around the center's entrance. As they watched they realized the person was quite tall, and covered with long dark hair. The person wasn't just a person - it was Bigfoot.

As if Bigfoot wasn't strange enough, the two workers saw that the hairy humanoid also had a large, black dog with him. That's right - Bigfoot had a dog.

Most modern Bigfoot accounts state that dogs are scared of Bigfoot. Dogs bark whenever one of the creatures is nearby, and some people even claim Bigfoot kills dogs. That doesn't seem to be the case here in New England. This part of the country is more liberal, and even our mysterious monsters are kind to animals.

This doesn't mean that dogs necessarily like Bigfoot. In 1979, a man named Peter Samuelson and his girlfriend Holly were hiking on Bald Mountain in New Hampshire with their dog Kat. When they were near Connor Pond they came upon a stone hut whose roof was thatched with tree branches. Curious, they stuck their heads inside the doorway. It was dark inside, but as their eyes adjusted they realized they weren't alone. A large, hairy humanoid creature was also standing inside with its back to the door.

Kat growled at the creature. It turned around and growled back. Peter, Holly and Kat hightailed it away from the hut and out of the woods. Much later Holly was at the Wolfeboro Library and found an interesting story. One winter in the 1890s a man living on the shores of Connor Pond saw that a dog had fallen through the pond's ice. The dog was too far from shore for him to reach, and he watched helplessly as it struggled to escape. Suddenly, a huge, hairy manlike creature ran out from the woods. It grabbed the dog with its long apelike arms, pulled it to shore, and then disappeared back into the snowy trees.

Peter Samuelson eventually went back to Bald Mountain looking for the hut and its occupant, but when he reached the hut's location he was surprised to find it was no longer there. There were no traces of it at all. The hut had been made of many heavy boulders, and Peter was puzzled as to how it had vanished so completely.

These are puzzling stories overall, but really interesting. A lot of people think that Bigfoot is some type of apelike animal, but to me these two stories hint at something else.

Let's look at the story from Mashpee. Would an apelike animal really be walking down a highway with a dog? It seems doubtful to me. That the dog was black seems significant. Black dogs have long been associated with the paranormal and the supernatural, and I'd suggest that is the case here. It's probably also significant that the sighting happened near Edwards Air Force Base (now called Camp Edwards). Paranormal phenomena of all kinds are often reported near military installations in the US. Rather than an apelike animal, I'd say those two men saw something supernatural.

The creature seen on Bald Mountain also doesn't sound like an ape, or even a physical animal, to me. The vanishing hut seems more like something from a ghost story or fairy encounter than the behavior of an animal. An animal might abandon a lair, but would it carry off each stone until there was no trace it had even existed? This also sounds more like a supernatural encounter as well.

Of course, saying Bigfoot is supernatural or paranormal doesn't really answer any questions. Where does he come from? What does he want? Is he a ghost, an alien, a visitor from another dimension? Is he a visitor manifesting from the collective unconscious?

I don't know the answer, but it's good to know Bigfoot likes dogs.

I got this information from T.M. Gray's New England Graveside Tales, Loren Coleman's Cryptomundo site, and the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization.