December 28, 2015

A UFO Sighting in Malden: Reality, Daimons and Hoaxes

Did a UFO land outside Boston earlier this month?

According to MUFON (the Mutual UFO Network), a Malden resident reported seeing something strange the evening of December 10 in the skies over either Malden or Revere. (The two towns are adjacent so I understand how it could be hard to tell where it was.)

The witness was out walking around 11:00 pm when he saw something unusual flying above him. The object was described simply as "an odd light" which hovered and then landed on the ground. After it landed the witness saw a red light shining through the trees but was unable to make his way to it.

It was dark and too far away to see it, but I swore I saw a red light on the ground. So I tried to get closer to it, but the only way was through a forest and it could have been miles away. I was unarmed and had no flashlight so I did not proceed, but I am in the morning. Waited to see if it would go back up for a few minutes. It didn’t and I went home.

I have a lot of friends who live in Malden and have been there innumerable times, so I definitely find this story interesting. The town is densely settled but also has a lot of forested land. In particular I'm thinking of the the Middlesex Fells, a 2,500 acre park that is partially located in Malden. It has lots of rocky hills, woods, lakes and even some open fields that might be large enough for a UFO to land in. It's also a great place to hike!

A photo from Woonsocket, Rhode Island taken in 1967. Real or fake? From this great site.

I have two initial and immediate reactions whenever someone claims to have seen a UFO.

First, I ask myself, "Did they really see something mundane and mistakenly think it was some kind of weird flying craft?" Maybe it was a plane, or a meteor, or a satellite. The MUFON website itself notes: "Please remember that most UFO sightings can be explained as something natural or man-made." The witness in this case claims that it was definitely not an airplane or helicopter. They are familiar with those because a relative was in the Air Force. Interestingly, when the witness tried to take a photo with their iPhone it immediately lost all power. Hmmm. I don't think your standard 747 makes phones shut down...

Second, I ask myself, "Is this person playing a hoax?", which might be the case here. I'm not sure what an anonymous hoaxer gains by posting something to an online UFO site, but there are plenty of hoaxes online. The details in this report are a little hazy which does make me a little suspicious. For example, where was the witness when they saw the UFO? How could they see the light on the ground if it was miles away and in the woods?

After I have those two immediate reactions I will sometimes think about this passage in Patrick Harpur's 1994 book Daimonic Reality:

Charges of fakery, lies and hoaxing are leveled at all paranormal phenomena. ... It is nowhere more true than in UFOlogy, where debates run for decades about whether "contactees" really contacted aliens or whether they were lying. I suspect that, reality being what it is, the they themselves don't know half the time. In other words, I prefer to see hoaxing as a daimonic quality inherent in, and continuous with, anomalous events - which are neither "genuine" nor "fake" but, in a deeper sense, both

Oooooh! That's a philosophically shifty paragraph if there ever was one. I tend to think of things as being either real or fake. Were there really weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Do vaccines really cause autism? Is the Earth really round? We should be able to determine what's true or false.

The key word in Harpur's argument is "daimonic," which refers to the daimones, minor spirits in ancient Greek mythology who filled the world. The singular form is daimon, which the English word "demon" is derived from. The daimons weren't necessarily evil, though. Some were good, some were bad, and a lot them were just tricky. They could bring dreams to people who were sleeping, or visions to those who were awake.

Harpur claims that although we think of these daimons as purely mythological (if we think of them at all), they are still here, but rather than flying around in the material world they are now lurking in our psyche waiting to play tricks. He quotes Jung to support his argument:

There are no conclusive arguments against the hypothesis that these archetypal figures are endowed with personality at the outset and are not just secondary personalizations. In so far as the archetypes do not represent mere functional relationships, they manifest themselves as DAIMONES, as personal agencies. In this form they are felt as actual experiences and are not "figments of the imagination", as rationalists would have us believe.

Harpur further claims that these daimons want our attention, but since we ignore them they tend to show up as weird anomalous phenomena like Bigfoot, ghosts, spectral animals, and of course UFOs.

Sometimes they show up on their own, but sometimes the daimons will unconsciously urge people to imitate them or pretend they have seen them. They get humans to do their work for them. So that guy who dresses up like Bigfoot to tromp around the woods may have been inspired to do it by the daimons. That UFO hoaxer who posts a fake sighting online might have been inspired by these tricky spirits as well. A good hoax serves the daimons' purpose: to remind us that not everything is rational and that weird things still lurk out there in the darkness.

You may not buy Harpur's theory, but I find it interesting. It's exciting to think that strange entities are still out there in the world, either hiding in our psyches or in the woods in a Massachusetts town with two subway stations.

PS - It seems like there are a lot of UFO sightings in New England during the winter. Does anyone know if that is true? Is it just because it gets darker so much earlier? Please share your thoughts on this subject if you have any. 

December 20, 2015

Snow Magic

There's an old New England saying that a green Christmas means a full graveyard. This is one of those classic reverse weather predictions, like a sunny Groundhog's Day indicating winter will last a long time. In this case, mild Christmas weather means the winter will be ferocious later on.

Friends in Vermont have posted pictures of snow, but we're definitely going to have a green Christmas down here in southern New England. But who knows? Myaybe we'll get walloped with snow later in the winter. Last year it was so warm and humid on Christmas that I saw a salamander on our front porch, and we all know what the rest of the winter was like for Boston.

So, in case we do get some snow this year, here are some snow charms from 19th century New England.

  • It's a sign of coming snow if your wood sizzles when you put it on the fire. 
  • The day of the month of the first snow storm indicates the number of storms in the year. So, it it snows on the 2nd you'll get two storms, if it storms on the 3rd you'll get three, etc. Let's hope the first storm doesn't happen on the 31st.
  • If the bottom of your teakettle is white when you take it off the stove, it means a snow storm is coming. 
  • Wish on the first snowflake of the season and your wish will come true. (It flurried here in October so it's too late for me!)

Those are from Fanny Bergen's book Current Superstitions (1896), but here are a few more from Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England (1896).

  • Snow that comes in the old moon will stick around for a long time; snow that comes in the new moon will melt away fast. 
  • A snowy winter indicates a good harvest. 

Perhaps we shouldn't be too upset that we're having a green Christmas. According to Johnson, if the sun shines through the branches of an apple tree on Christmas it means there will be a good apple crop. I do like a good apple...

December 13, 2015

Ghosts for Christmas: "What the Reef takes, the Reef will give back..."

There'll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago
It's the most wonderful time of the year...

Andy Williams, It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (1963)

So what is it about Christmas that goes so well with ghosts? Such a question inevitably brings up the issue of why we celebrate Christmas in December at all.

Jerome K. Jerome, Told After Supper (1891)


A few years ago Tony and I went to visit a friend around Christmastime. We looked at her tree, we had appetizers and cocktails, we talked about our lives. As we talked our friend mentioned that she thought her apartment might be haunted by a ghost.

She had heard strange banging noises in the middle of the night. Lights would turn themselves off and on. Items that she placed on her bedside table would vanish, only to show up later in another room. Doors would slam shut when no one was there. She had mentioned these phenomena to her neighbors, who told her that a previous tenant had committed suicide in the apartment. Maybe this former tenant was still lurking around?

When I got home that night I dreamt about a friend who had died recently. I saw him standing in a subway station next to a rack of postcards. He didn't seem sad or scary, simply present. The one odd note was that while alive this friend always wore a brown leather jacket, but in my dream his jacket was black.

Then next morning I told my dream to Tony. Surprisingly, he had dreamt something similar, but about a different friend. It was definitely an interesting coincidence and a little spooky. The Roman poet said that Sleep was the brother of Death. Maybe ghosts are the siblings of dreams?


I am something of an agnostic about ghosts. I can't decide if they are objective or subjective phenomena. Many people I know and respect have experienced ghostly phenomena, but most of the uncanny phenomena I've experienced have happened while I am asleep or in that liminal time between dreaming and waking. Something weird even happened to me this week.

I was lying in bed sleeping when I felt someone sit down next to me. I felt someone tap me on the shoulder and heard a man whisper something unintelligible. I woke up quickly and kicked off the covers. There was no one there. It was 3:30 am. I thought, "It must have just been a dream..."

I started to fall back asleep when I heard my cell phone buzz, signaling that someone had sent me a text. I briefly worried it was my mother texting me to say that someone in the family had died. What if the presence I felt on my bed was a relative saying farewell en route to the afterlife? But then I realized my mother doesn't text and I fell back asleep. When I finally checked the phone in the morning there was no text message at all. No one had passed away.

Christmastime has traditionally been the season for ghost stories. Here in North America we tend to celebrate ghosts and the restless dead around late October, when the dark season has only just begun, but in Europe ghosts more often make their appearance around Christmas. For example, ghost stories were an important part of Christmas festivities in Victorian England. Many Victorian families would gather by the fireplace to tell ghost stories after supper on Christmas Eve, and Charles Dickens drew on this tradition when he included the four ghosts in A Christmas Carol.

It makes perfect sense to me. The Northern Hemisphere is at its darkest now, and most of us are walking around in a somnabulant state even during the day. It just seems reasonable that ghosts would pervade our waking consciousness at this time of year. Christmas celebrates the return of the light but we have to go through the darkness first to get there first.

All of which brings me to this week's main story, which is about a haunted lighthouse.

Penfield Reef Light is located about a mile off the shore of Fairfield, Connecticut. The reef is said to be one of the most treacherous areas in Long Island Sound, and the lighthouse was built in 1874 to guide ships safely past it.

Penfield Reef Light at high tide, from Wikipedia

In December of 1916, the light was staffed by two men: lighthouse keeper Fred Jordan and assistant keeper Rudolph Iten. On December 22 Jordan decided to row ashore to see his family for Christmas. It wasn't that far a distance, and he was an experienced boater. Sure, the waters were rough but he was determined to spend the holiday with his loved ones.

It was a terrible mistake. The waves were rougher than Jordan estimated, the winds wilder. His small boat capsized a short distance from the lighthouse as Iten watched in horror, unable to aid his partner because of the rough seas. Jordan's body was recovered a few days later on the shore.

Two weeks later Iten was on the ground floor in the lighthouse when he saw Jordan walk down the stairs and enter the room where the log was kept. When Iten followed him into the room Jordan was gone, but the log had been opened to the day of Jordan's death.

From that time on Jordan's ghost appeared regularly at the lighthouse. Iten told the local newspaper:

I have seen the semblance of the figure several times... and so have the others [two assistant keepers], and we are all prepared to take an affidavit to that effect. Something comes here, that we are positive. There is an old saying, ‘What the Reef takes, the Reef will give back.’ 

(Quote from Jeremy D'Entremont's Lighthouse Digest site.)

Although Iten was spooked by the appearance of the ghost, Jordan's spirit was not malevolent. For example, two boys whose rowboat capsized reported that a man pulled them ashore onto Penfield Reef Light. They assumed that it was the lighthouse keeper, but as they looked for their rescuer they realized they were completely alone on the island. The man who saved them had vanished.

Similarly, a man in a power boat reported that he was guided to safety by a man in a rowboat. Once the power boat was safe the rescuer and his rowboat vanished. Many other sailors have reported seeing a shadowy figure on the lighthouse during stormy weather. Of course, the lighthouse had been automatic and unmanned since 1971...

It shouldn't be surprising that Fred Jordan's ghost is friendly. He was committed to guiding people through the darkness while alive, and kept that commitment even after death.

Sources for this week's post: Joseph Citro's book Passing Strange, Wikpedia, Jeremy D'Entremont's Lighthouse Digest, and The Deseret News.

December 06, 2015

The Man Who Sold His Genitals to the Devil

Here's another story about someone making a deal with the Devil. It's a little raunchy, and was recorded among the Penobscot Indians of Maine in the 1930s by anthropologist Frank Speck.


Many years ago a poor old man lived alone with his equally poor old wife.

They had a hard life working their meager farm out in the woods. The soil was rocky and the growing season short. They were so poor they didn't even have any horses to pull their plough. The old man had to do it himself.

One day while the old man was out dragging his plough across the field the Devil showed up.

"Hey there old fella," the Devil said. "That looks like awfully hard work. Wouldn't you rather have two strong horses to do that for you?"

The old man said, "Of course I would! But I don't have any money."

The Devil said, "Well, then I have a deal for you. I'll give you a team of horses, and you just have to give me one small thing..."

The old man knew he was talking to Satan. He said, "I'm not giving you my soul!"

The Devil paused thoughtfully, and then he said, "OK, but how about this? I give you a team of horses now, and then in one year I'll come back and cut off your genitals."

The old man considered the offer for a moment. He was quite old, as was his wife, and he didn't use his genitals as much as he used to. He probably wouldn't even miss them...

"It's a deal," he said. He and the Devil shook hands. The Devil vanished, and two strong horses appeared. The man hitched them up to his plough and went back to work.

Many months went by. At first the old man thought he had gotten a good deal, but he started to reconsider as the anniversary of his bargain approached. Maybe it hadn't been such a good idea after all...

The night before the Devil was supposed to claim his payment the old man just lay in bed and cried. His wife asked him what was wrong.

When she found out what he had done she was furious. "You idiot! I'll fix this. You just stay in bed and cry like a baby."

The next morning the old woman put on her husband's pants, coat and hat. Looking just like her husband, she went out into the field to meet the Devil.

The Devil was waiting there with a big knife in his hand. He smiled and said, "Hello old man! I've come to collect my payment."

The old woman smiled right back. She dropped her trousers and said, "I was afraid you would cut too deep, so I cut them off myself. See?"

The Devil stared down at the woman's exposed body. He said, "Well old man, you fooled me, but you paid the price anyway." And with that he disappeared.


Really, what can be said about this story? I'll just add two little comments. 

First, this is another story where someone cheats the Devil. It's a common theme in folk stories, and the joy of these stories is seeing how the hero does (or doesn't) get out of his bargain. Happily the old man's wife knows how to trick the Devil.

Second, French Catholic missionaries converted the Penosbscots in the early 1600s. Still, it's interesting to see how Christianity has been incorporated into the Penobscot worldview. I think this story might be a good example of how the two belief systems interact. It's certainly not something you'd find in the Bible! Another good example is this violent story about a rabbit impersonating a priest. Christianity isn't a uniform monolithic religion across the world. Different cultures do different things with it.

November 29, 2015

Boston's Haunted Gay Bar?

My last few posts have been about topics deep in New England's historic past, so today I'm shaking things up and writing about a more modern concern: does Boston have a haunted gay bar?

It's an interesting question. According to experts in ghostly matters, Boston is a well-haunted city. We're an old city in American terms, and we've had a rich history. Lots of wonderful and exciting things happened here, as did many violent and unpleasant things. Massacres, witch hangings, pirate executions, and weird murders are just a few of the grisly things that have happened here.

Those are exactly the type of conditions that should lead to lots of ghosts (if you believe in them). From my somewhat limited understanding of the topic, ghosts are usually the lingering souls of people who either died in some horribly traumatic way or are the souls of people who have some unfinished business. I do think there's some discussion in the paranormal and occult communities about whether a ghost is a person's actual soul, or perhaps just some kind of spiritual echo left behind after a traumatic or powerful event. In the latter scenario, an individual's soul moves on after death but they leave a psychic impression behind, which repeats certain actions over and over.

But I digress into theoretical matters. Whatever ghosts are, Boston allegedly has haunted houses, haunted dormitories, haunted theaters, and a haunted hotel. It might also have a haunted gay bar: Jacques Cabaret in Bay Village.

Established in 1938 as your standard straight bar, Jacques became a gay bar in 1940. In the 1960s and early 1970s it was primarily a bar for lesbians, but at some point it became cabaret featuring drag shows. It still hosts drag shows today. Tony and I used to go there quite often in the 1990s. The drinks were cheap and the shows were funny. The performers always said "The more you drink the better we look!" and there was a clear correlation between our alcohol consumption and enjoyment of the drag show. These days the shows at Jacques are quite popular with bachelorette parties.

Although my liver was often haunted with regret the morning after, I never encountered a ghost while visiting Jacques. Perhaps I am not on the right psychic wavelength, because it seems several people have reported ghostly encounters.

One of these is reported in my friend Sam Baltrusis's 2012 book Ghosts of Boston. In an interview with Baltrusis, the comedian Jim Lauletta claimed that he encountered something unusual while performing at the club in 2010. When descending the stairs into the basement one night he felt an unusual energy and thought he saw someone out of the corner of his eye. When he looked again the "someone" was gone.

Sylvia Sidney

After Lauletta said the energy felt like it had a "bit of an attitude," Jacques's manager suggested it might be the ghost of Sylvia Sidney, the bar's most famous performer. A drag pioneer known as the "Bitch of Boston," Sidney eschewed the gentle femininity most early drag performers cultivated and instead indulged in crude humor. Sidney died in 1998 at the age of 68, so perhaps her ghost still wants another moment in the spotlight. If you're feeling brave but don't want to summon Sidney's ghost, you can watch one of her performances on YouTube. Be warned: they're full of toilet humor, sex jokes, racial slurs, and nose-picking. Oh, and a really dirty story about Nat King Cole.

I don't believe that Sidney died in a particularly traumatic way, but her ghost may not be the only one haunting Jacques. According to a rumor that has circulated for many years, the bar may also be haunted by victims of the infamous and tragic Cocoanut Grove fire.

The Cocoanut Grove was a popular Boston nightclub located near Jacques on Piedmont Street. On November 28, 1942 the bar was filled with an estimated 1,000 people when a fire broke out. The flames spread quickly as they ignited flammable decorations, and the main exit became blocked as patrons tried to escaped through the club's revolving doors. Other exits had been locked earlier that night by the management to prevent people from sneaking in, while still other doors only opened inwards and were blocked as people fell against them. By the time the fire ended 492 people were dead, making it the second most deadly nightclub fire in the United States. The club's permitted capacity was only 460.

What's the connection to Jacques? Well, according to longstanding rumors in the gay community, Jacques was used as a temporary morgue for the victim's bodies. It is not proven, but is entirely possible. Photos show the bodies being laid out on Piedmont Street so it's not inconceivable that the police would have used a nearby bar as well. According to the rumor some of the victims still haunt the place where their bodies rested.

An interesting fact: an older friend of mine said he heard the rumor from Sylvia Sidney herself. Did she believe it herself or was it just part of her act? We'll probably never know, unless Sidney tells us the truth from other side.


In addition to Ghosts of Boston, I found information for this post in the History Project's Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland (1998). 

November 23, 2015

The Devil and Jonathan Moulton

I was going to write something about Thanksgiving this week, but I found myself inspired to write about something the exact opposite: the Devil. Thanksgiving is about gratitude, sharing and love. The Devil is about greed, hatred, and trickery. 

The Devil is one of the major figures in early New England folklore. It shouldn't really be a surprise, given that this area was colonized by God-fearing Puritans, and the corollary of being God-fearing is being Devil-fearing. He was supposedly always lurking around, waiting to tempt people into evil. The Puritans thought he was the master of the Salem witches, and probably the secret leader of the local Indian tribes as well.

After the witch trials ended the Devil receded a little from the public mindset, but he was still there in the shadows, biding his time. He was surprisingly easy to summon. All one had to do was say the Lord's Prayer backwards and he would appear, ready to make a bargain.

That bargain. There are lots of stories about the Devil's bargains. Probably the most famous is "The Devil and Daniel Webster" by Stephen Vincent Benet, with Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker" a runner up. Both are set in New England, and both involve the central conundrum of Devil folk stories: if you make a deal with the Evil One, can you get out of it?

Benet's and Irving's stories are both fiction, but they answer that question in different ways. Benet's Daniel Webster is able to wrest his client's soul from the Devil's grasp. In Irving's tale, miserly Tom Walker is dragged off to hell despite his best efforts.

In New England oral folklore, the answer is also split. Some humorous tales tell of crafty New Englanders cheating the Devil, or even hint that the Devil is just a hallucination caused by heavy drinking. Others end more grimly, with proud sinners getting their bloody due.

All of which leads us to the topic of this week's post: General Jonathan Moulton (b.1726 - d. 1787). Moulton was a key figure in the early history of New Hampshire. He led troops at the battle of Louisburg in the French and Indian War, helped defeat the British at Saratoga during the American Revolution, and became a friend of George Washington. In between all the heroism he managed to marry two women, father fifteen children, and start a silversmithing company that survives today as Towle Silver.

And, according to legend, he sold his soul to the Devil.

The story goes something like this. Although Moulton was successful and quite wealthy, he always craved more gold. It was all he thought about, and it haunted his dreams day and night. Sensing this, the Devil came one night to Moulton's house, appearing as a man clad in black velvet.

After some haggling, Moulton and the Devil agreed to the following bargain. One the first day of each month, Moulton would hang his boots by the fireplace as if to dry them. The Devil would then materialize on the roof and pour gold coins down the chimney into the boots. After a set number of years, the Devil would come to take Moulton's soul.

Eager to get the most gold that he could, Moulton purchased an enormous pair of thigh-high boots and hung them by the fireplace. For several years things went well. Each month the Devil poured gold coins into Moulton's over-sized boots. Moulton's wealth grew and grew.

But the more gold he got, the more he wanted. One day as the Devil poured coins down the chimney he noticed that the boots were taking more coins than usual. He poured and poured but still the boots didn't seem to be filling up. Jumping down to the ground, the Devil looked in the window to see that Moulton had cut the soles off his boots. The entire room was filled with gold coins.

Furious at being tricked, the Devil snapped his fingers and cast a ball of fire at Moulton's house, which went up like a pile of dry tinder. Moulton and his family escaped but their home was completely destroyed. When the embers finally cooled Moulton dug through the ruins for the gold. Melted gold was still gold, after all. But he didn't find a single speck. The Devil had taken it all back to Hell with him.

I suspect people told this tale was about Moulton because they were jealous of his wealth. He was a successful silversmith, a successful farmer, and well-connected politically. Claiming his wealth was the result of a Devilish bargain was a clever way to cast aspersions on someone's reputation. It worked, because I think Moulton is better known today for this legend than for anything else he did.

It looks like Moulton was really not popular with his neighbors in Hampton, New Hampshire. For example, during a dispute with another farmer Moulton's barn mysteriously burned down four times. That's right, four times, and no one was ever caught. In 1759, Moulton's house also burned down, which is an interesting parallel with the house fire in the story. (All his family and servants escaped, and Moulton built an even larger mansion.)

People may have had good reason to dislike him. A 1909 article by F.B. Sanborn in The Granite Monthly notes that Moulton was something of a loan shark in Hampton and lent money at high rates to his neighbors. This same article claims that even during his life people in Hampton thought he was in league with the Devil, and at the moment of his death "Lydia Blaisdell, a hag whom I remember in her disgraced old age" saw the Evil One fly off with Moulton's body. The people of Hampton supposedly rejoiced when they learned of his death.

The Devil probably didn't carry Moulton off to Hell, but it's not entirely clear what did happen to his body. Wikipedia states it was stolen by someone after his death. Did bitter neighbors get their final revenge? Maybe, or maybe it was buried in an unmarked grave on his property, as the Hampton library claims.

To wrap this up, I'd like to point out that the Devil basically acts like Santa Claus in this story. Moulton hangs his boots by the fireplace, and the Devil fills them with goodies via the chimney. The legend probably dates back to before Santa Claus was introduced to the United States, but I suspect the folk motif of hanging boots to be filled by magical creatures is very old.

November 15, 2015

Old New England Pie Crust: Tough Recipes for Tough People

My mother has always made the same Thanksgiving menu, consisting of turkey, squash, potatoes, turnip, stuffing and cranberry sauce. Appetizers might vary, but the main meal always remains the same. It's the same menu that her mother made as well.

Thanksgiving has its roots in the old New England Puritan feast days, and it's surprising how closely my mother's menu matches what people would have eaten three hundred years ago. I'm descended from relatively recent immigrants, but somehow this was the menu that my Quebecois grandmother learned to cook.

Dessert always consists of the same three pies: squash, mincemeat, and apple. Again, these are the pies that my grandmother always made. Why squash instead of pumpkin? I have no idea. Thank God that the One Pie company still makes canned squash. When they stop we might need to abandon the squash pie for pumpkin.

This year I'll be helping out my mother by baking the squash pie. She always makes her pie crust with flour, oil and water. It makes a very delicate crust, but is hard to roll out. I make my crust with shortening, flour, and butter, which is easier for me to handle.

I can hear you asking, "What does all this have to do with New England folklore?"

Pies as a form of food are very, very old. There are recipes for pie like dishes from ancient Rome and Egypt. In Medieval England, pies usually contained a mix of sweet and savory ingredients. Mix together some fish, some fowl, some game, some vegetables and some fruit and voila! A pie. Although the ingredients have changed over time, the basic concept has remained the same: food baked inside a pastry crust.

The pie crusts of old were generally not the tender, flaky delights that we experience today. Whether as butter, oil or shortening, fat is inexpensive to buy these days. In the past that was not the case, and many people made their pie crusts just out of flour and water. Fat adds tenderness to the pastry, so these fat-free crusts were quite tough.

The pie crusts in Colonial New England were really, really tough. Rye grows better in our climate than wheat, so rye flour was the most commonly used flour. Rye flour is much harder than wheat flour, so imagine making a fat-free rye flour pie crust. It was probably like edible ceramic.

You may think I exaggerate the toughness, but it was noted by several authors. In the 1500s this type of dough was called "strong dough." The English cookbook author Hannah Glasse included the following instructions in 1747's The Art of Cookery: "First make a good standing crust, let the Wall and Bottom be very thick..." If I'm not misinterpreting her, it sounds like the crust can stand up on it's own.

The Swedish minister Israel Acrelius wrote in 1759 that the crust "of a house pie, in country places ... is not broken even if a wagon wheel goes over it." Acrelius was writing about Delaware, and probably exaggerating a little, but you get the picture.

Strong pie crusts also figure into Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Oldtown Folks (1869), which is set in late 1700s Massachusetts. Two abandoned children find shelter for the night at the home of a friendly farmer. In the morning he sends them on their way with kindly words:

Sol added to these words a minced pie, with a rye crust of peculiarly solid texture, adapted to resist any of the incidents of time and travel, which had been set out as part of his last night's supper. 

The crust was so hard that it could be carried without a pan. Now that's a strong crust.

The hard crust does explain one thing that has always puzzled me. Housewives in pre-Industrial New England made dozens and dozens of pies in the weeks leading up Thanksgiving, and a cook prided herself on the number and variety of pies she could produce. Although some of these pies were eaten at Thanksgiving, the majority were stored in the root cellar for the winter. I always wondered if people had dozens and dozens of pie pans in their houses, but apparently they didn't. They probably just turned the pie out of its baking pan and stuck it on the shelf. The crust was so hard it would hold its shape for months.

In his 1877 book Being A Boy, Massachusetts-born writer Charles Dudley Warner talks about how a boy could steal pie from the root cellar by hiding it under his coat:

And yet this boy would have buttoned under his jacket an entire round pumpkin-pie. And the pie was so well made and so dry that it was not injured in the least, and it never hurt the boy's clothes a bit more than if it had been inside of him instead of outside; and this boy would retire to a secluded place and eat it with another boy, being never suspected because he was not in the cellar long enough to eat a pie, and he never appeared to have one about him.

Traditional New England menus are great, but let's praise innovation where we can. I don't think anyone wants to go back to eating rock solid pie crust, no matter how portable it is.


If you want to learn more about traditional New England pies, I recommend James Baker's Thanksgiving: The Biography of An American Holiday and Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald's America's Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking. I got most of my information from those two books, which are great!

November 10, 2015

Folk Magic for the New Moon

What do you think of when you hear the words "new moon?"

If you are young, you might think of the second installment in Stephanie Meyer's teen vampire romance epic, The Twilight Saga. I believe that in New Moon, heroine Bella Swan breaks up with her sexy vampire boyfriend, but finds rebound love with a sexy werewolf.

If you are not so young, the words "new moon" might remind you of the Duran Duran song "New Moon on Monday" from their 1984 album Seven and the Ragged Tiger. I am not so young, so I had Duran Duran stuck in my head all day! Please note, the new moon this week is actually on Wednesday, not Monday.

However, if you lived in the 19th century you would think of neither teen vampires or British pop stars. Instead, you might think about magic. The new moon was the time to tell the future, start new projects, and make things grow.

I use the word magic with some trepidation. Did people in 19th century New England really think of their folklore practices as magic? Educated people of the time just thought of them as superstitions, and wrote books about the quaint folk beliefs of the common people. I think for example of Fanny Bergen's 1896 book Current Superstitions, which is a great collection of folklore.

For the people who believed in them, though, these quaint practices were ways to get things done. They didn't think of them as magic. But these practices aren't justified by contemporary scientific theories, so in a modern scientific view they might be classified as magic.

What exactly did people believe about the new moon? Well, the new moon is when the moon is at its darkest, and it was generally believed to be the time to start a project. The principle behind this is that since the new moon only gets bigger and brighter every night, any project you start will thrive and grow like the moon. You better like whatever you're working on when the new moon appears, though, because you will keep working on it until the next moon.

Ideally, you should time your haircut with the new moon. A haircut or beard-trim done in the new moon will come out better than one done in another moon phase. There is a catch, though. Hair cut during the new moon grows back faster than hair cut at other times. Sometimes this works to your advantage. For example, a girl who wants her hair to grow long should cut a little bit during each new moon so it will grow back nice and full.

If you're concerned about more serious things than hair, you should jingle the change in your pocket when you see the new moon. You will come into money as the moon grows fuller.

Gertrude Decrow includes some new moon lore in her article "Folk-Lore from Maine" in the October 1892 issue of The Journal of American Folklore. Decrow was told that if you see the new moon over your right shoulder, it brings good luck; over your left, bad luck. Seeing it over your right shoulder with something in your hand means you will receive a present.

The same lore about seeing the moon over your shoulder appears in Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England (1896). (He dedicates one brief chapter just to moon lore.) Johnson goes on to add that if you see the new moon full on, rather than over your shoulder, you'll have a fall. He includes a short poem to remember this: "Moon in the face, open disgrace."

The new moon also rules over rain. Some New Englanders believed the moon was like a giant dish in the sky that held water. It will be a wet month if the new moon appears in the sky and the points are pointing horizontally. People often said, "If you can hang a powder horn on the moon's curve, it will be dry. If you can't, it will be wet." You can't hang a powder horn on the moon if it is tilted up too much, which means the dish of the moon will pour out water during the month. See below for clarification!
You can hang something off this moon, so it will be dry. (Photo from this great site.)

You can't hang anything off this moon, so it will be wet. All the water is pouring out! (From this astrology site.)

Be careful when the new moon first appears. How you first view it can be a matter of life or death. It's best to go outside when you know the moon is new, because if you see it for the first time through the window, you will hear of the death of someone before the week is over. If you see it through an upper pane, an older person will die. If you see if through a lower pane, it will be someone young.

Sorry to end this post on a grim note, but there are a lot of death omens in New England folklore. I'm not sure if that has something to do with New England being gloomy and grim, or because much of this lore was collected in the 19th century, when medicine was less effective and life expectancies were shorter. Either way: be careful when you look out the window!

November 01, 2015

A Nantucket Ghost Story: The Specter Whalemen

Well, October 31 has come and gone. But don't be sad! Every day is Halloween on this blog, and I'm in the mood for a ghost story.

This story is from 1841, and first appeared in a publication called The Old American Comic And The People's Almanac, which was published in Boston. Richard Dorson includes it in his book Jonathan Draws the Longbow (1946), which is how I learned about it.

The following illustration was printed with the story when it appeared in The Old American Comic. Wow! It's amazing. I think it would make a great tattoo for someone young and hip.

The story is called "The Specter Whalemen," and it goes something like this. Back in the 19th century, Captain Reuben Joy was a prominent whaling ship captain from Nantucket. He was a successful and respected member of the Nantucket community, but he had one regret in his life: he was unmarried. He had been wooing a widowed woman named Mrs. Barnard, but she had refused his advances.

Captain Joy's life changed forever on his 13th whaling voyage. He was captaining the Betsey Ann, and the ship had rounded Cape Horn in search of whales off the coast of South America. The voyage had been a good one, and the hold of the ship was full of valuable whale oil. The ship was preparing to return to Nantucket when a school of sperm whales was seen nearby.

Longboats were lowered, and the crew approached the whales. The ship's second in command, Mr. Ray, successfully harpooned one of the animals. The whale was strong and put up a fight, dragging Mr. Ray's longboat off into the distance. Captain Joy ordered a search for Mr. Ray's boat after the other returned to the Betsey Ann, but Mr. Ray and the other men in his boat could not be found.

The next day Captain Joy told the crew it was time to go home to Nantucket. The men protested. They wanted to search once again for the missing boat. The captain overruled them, arguing that Mr. Ray and the others had undoubtedly been killed by the whale, and that since the ship was now shorthanded they needed to make haste and return. Despite their misgivings the men agreed.

As the Betsey Ann sailed up the east coast of South America it encountered another whaling ship that had recently departed from Nantucket. This ship carried letters from home, including one for Captain Joy. When Captain Joy opened the letter his face turned pale. Mrs. Barnard had died.

A nearby crew member watched the captain read the letter, and heard him say: "Then I have damned my soul for nothing."

Nantucket was a tightly-knit community, and the crew member knew that Captain Joy had unsuccessfully wooed Mrs. Barnard. He also knew that Mrs. Barnard had spurned the captain's advances in favor of Mr. Ray, who was younger and more handsome. Had Captain Joy called off the search for the missing boat so his rival would die?

The following year Captain Joy once again was in command of a whaling ship off the coast of South America. When the ship approached the same area where Mr. Ray had disappeared a school of whales was again sighted. Boats were lowered.

Captain Joy and the men in his boat successfully harpooned and killed a whale, but the captain's feeling of triumph was shortlived. A decrepit and weathered longboat appeared nearby, and as it drew closer Captain Joy recoiled in horror. It was the Mr. Ray's missing boat, and it was manned by a crew of skeletons.

As they approached the captain could hear their bones rattling, and hear the crew's skeletal leader shriek out commands to his undead crew. Oddly, no one but Captain Joy could see or hear the hideous spectral whalemen.

Captain Joy ordered the boats back to the ship and quickly set sail. As they departed the captain looked back. The ghost boat was following them. With a hellish laugh the skeleton's leader threw his harpoon. It didn't reach the ship, but the captain's heart grew cold.

From that time onward Captain Joy encountered the skeletal crew on every voyage he made. Haunted by guilt and terror, he retired from whaling and confined himself to his house on Nantucket, until he finally died alone and unloved.


Is there any truth to the story? There were indeed several whalemen from Nantucket named Reuben Joy, but I couldn't find any indication one was haunted by hideous skeletons. Whether or not the story is true, it serves as a cautionary tale about love and fate.

October 25, 2015

The Modern Fairies of New England: Have You Seen a Pukwudgie?

When the earliest English settlers came to New England they noticed that something was missing from their new home.

Back in merry old England, humans lived in a landscape inhabited by various supernatural entities. Some of them did make their way to New England. For example, there were plenty of witches to persecute here, and somehow the Devil followed the devout Puritans all the way across the Atlantic to their New Jerusalem wilderness. (He's a tricky one!) After a while the landscape also began to fill up with ghosts as the first generation of settlers passed away.

So what was missing? The fairies. In England fairies lurked in the woods, under the hills, and in the barns and fireplaces. Fairies could even be seen walking in the marketplace by those who had the second sight. But here in New England no one saw any fairies.

Several New England authors remarked on this:

  • The novelist and minister Sylvester Judd (1813 - 1855) wrote, "There are no fairies in our meadows, and no elves to spirit away our children." 
  • In Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850),  Reverend Dimmesdale says of his illegitimate daughter: "But how strangely beautiful she looks, with those wild flowers in her hair. It is as if one of the fairies, whom we left in our dear old England, had decked her out to meet us." (Emphasis is mine.)
  • Poet and folklorist John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 - 1892) 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."

Happily, I can say these writers were incorrect. The fairies were biding their time, waiting to find the right shape to show themselves to the new invasive inhabitants of this region.

Of course, the various Indian groups native to New England had experiences with the small magical beings who lived in the forests, but the Indian myths and traditions about these beings were specific to Native American languages and ways of life. They weren't necessarily a good fit for the European-style agricultural and industrial society.

A few of the English settlers had brought their fairy traditions with them, but they never really took hold. When the Irish came they brought even more vibrant fairy beliefs, and some of them took root. For example, the town of Derry in New Hampshire was settled by Scots-Irish immigrants. Derry's Beaver Lake is supposedly inhabited by a fairy named Tsienneto, who helped folk heroes like Hannah Duston and John Stark. Although she has a name that sounds Native American, there is no record of Tsienneto before the Scots-Irish founded Derry. Written records of Tsienneto seem to only date back to the early 20th century. Tsienneto is still known in Derry, but not much beyond that town.

The fairies that are probably best known in New England are the pukwudgies. I'm using the word fairy in its older sense, referring to any magical humanoid being, because pukwudgies are certainly not beautiful winged ballerinas like Tinkerbell. According to legend, the pukwudgies are ugly gray-skinned humanoids that stand two to three feet high and live in wild places. They are often associated with the Hockamock Swamp and the Freetown State Forest in Massachusetts, but they have been seen in other locations as well. Pukwudgies are said to be quite malevolent. For example, they are known to sometimes push unsuspecting hikers off cliffs, and can make things burst into flames.

A quick search of YouTube will show you some videos about pukwudgies. They've been featured on TV shows like Monsters and Mysteries in America. Local paranormal investigators have also posted some interesting videos about these magical little neighbors of ours.

I recently found a nice pukwudgie account in the comments section on Christopher Knowles's blog The Secret Sun. The anonymous commenter writes that he went for a winter hike in the woods near New Hampshire's Pease Air Force Base with his wife, baby and four-year old son. The four-year old ran off the down the path ahead of his parents. When he came back,

He said something like, 'So daddy, I saw a little man over there. He had a basket of candy around his neck, and he wanted me to reach in and take some. But I said no, and that I had to come back to talk to you.'

Well, so that immediately caught my attention, as you might imagine.

The parents were unable to find the little man, and the boy simply said the man had been standing next to one of the trees and that he had skin the color of metal. The parents were creeped out and quickly left the area.

Pukwudgies are said to be creatures from Wampanoag folklore. That is and isn't true. The term pukwudgie is relatively new to New England. Before the Europeans arrived the local Indians used words like makiawisug to describe fairies, who were considered mischievous but not malevolent like the pukwudgies.

According to anthropologist William Simmons, pukwudgie is actually a word that means "little people" or "fairy" in the Ojibwa language. The Ojibwa live in the Midwest and parts of Canada, not New England.

It seems "pukwudgie" was first used to describe New England fairies by the Mashpee chief Clarence Wixon, also known as Red Shell. Wixon was involved in the Pan-Indian political movement and was familiar with Indian myths and legends from across North America, including those of the Ojibwa. He used the word pukwudgie in a tale he told author Elizbeth Reynard, who included it in her 1934 book The Narrow Land: Folk Chronicles of Old Cape Cod. It spread from Reynard's book into common usage.

Just because the word is relatively new to the region doesn't necessarily mean the pukwudgies are. Perhaps they were just waiting for the right time to show themselves. I also think that culture plays a big role in how individuals perceive the supernatural. While the polytheistic Native Americans of New England were able to see the land's spirits as the mischievous or playful makiawisug, modern European Americans who are the product of a monotheistic worldview have a tendency to see supernatural beings as sinister and dangerous. We don't see the playful makiawisug, we see the grim and dangerous pukwudgies. John Greenleaf Whittier was right when he said our superstitions were "of a sterner and less poetical kind."

I will be contributing a chapter about New England fairies to an upcoming book about fairylore. Please contact me through the comments section or my email address if you have seen a fairy in New England, and particularly if you've encountered a pukwudgie. I'd love to hear your story!

October 18, 2015

Harry Main and the Black Cats from Hell

Here's an old ghost story from Ipswich that is perfect as we gear up for Halloween.

Back in the 1600s, a man named Harry Main lived in Ipswich. Harry was not a good man. He was a pirate, a smuggler, and a blasphemer. But worst of all, late in his life he embarked on a career as a ship wrecker.

On dark stormy nights, Harry would light ship beacons on the Ipswich shore, falsely signalling to passing merchant vessels that safe passage lay straight ahead. After the ships wrecked themselves on the treacherous sand bars Harry would salvage any valuable cargo that washed to shore. He left the corpses of the drowned sailors to the gulls.

Harry thought he had a good thing going, but his neighbors eventually learned where he went on those dark nights. They hanged him for his crimes, but God exacted a different form of justice. Harry Main's soul was sentenced to haunt the shores of Ipswich and Plum Island, making chains out of sand for all eternity. It is said that his howls of frustration can still be heard on stormy nights when the wind blows away the chains he has made.

After Harry's death his neighbors wondered what happened to all his wealth. Everyone knew he had accumulated a lot of gold, but nothing had been found when they searched his house. Like all pirates, Harry had buried it somewhere and taken the secret to his grave.

Several years after Harry's death an Ispwich man dreamt he was digging for treasure on a certain hill outside of town. After having the same dream the following two nights the man realized he was having a prophetic dream. He had been shown where the treasure was buried!

The next night after sunset the man stealthily walked to the hill. In addition to his shovel he carried his Bible. He suspected that Harry had not only buried but also magically protected his treasure, as pirates liked to do. He hoped that his Bible would protect him. The man also had heard it said that it was of the utmost importance to remain silent when digging for buried treasure.

In fact, he had once hear an old man at the tavern tell his cronies, "No matter happens when digging for treasure, you have to remain silent - OR ELSE." The cronies had nodded in agreement.

With this warning in mind the man came at last to the hillside and began to dig. The digging was surprisingly easy, and guided by the light of a full moon the man made good progress. In less than two hours he was standing in a deep pit.

His soon excavated a large stone slab and an iron bar that had been buried next to it. Aha! He had found the treasure. He stuck the bar under the stone slab and started to pry it up when he felt something soft rubbing against his leg.

It was a black cat. The man tried to kick it away, but the cat was undeterred. Soon another black cat appeared in the pit, and then another. As he tried again to raise the slab the cats hissed and clawed at him. Up above, more black cats appeared around the rim of the pit, their eyes gleaming orange in the moonlight as they yowled in anger.

Finding himself surrounded by demonic felines the man panicked. He swung a them with his shovel, he pelted them with stones, but more and more cats kept appearing to claw and bite at him. Finally he shrieked, "Scat! Away with you!"

The cats vanished in an instant, but then the man realized what he had done. He covered his mouth to prevent any more sounds from coming out but it was too late. The earth began to tremble and the pit began to fill with icy water. He scrambled up to the surface and watched in horror as the pit collapsed. Within seconds it was gone. The treasure was once again hidden beneath the earth.

The man realized that the treasure was cursed, and vowing to never return to that spot he walked back into town still carrying the iron bar he had uncovered. Perhaps the treasure is still buried there today, waiting for the person brave enough to silently endure an attack by black cats from Hell.

Is there any truth to this story? Maybe. In his 1905 book Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Thomas Franklin Waters wrote that a fisherman named Harry Maine did live in Ipswich in the 1670s and was probably the origin of these legends. As further evidence, for many years an iron bar latching the door of a house was pointed out to visitors. It was the same iron bar the man had found at the bottom of the pit.

Tony and I visited Ipswich while I was researching my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore. We found the spot where Harry Main's house once stood (see above). It is just on a quiet residential street near the river. The lot is private property so please don't trespass! We didn't go looking for the buried treasure...

October 12, 2015

The Witches of Bristol, Connecticut: Witches Rock, Evil Spirits, and Troubles with Oxen

Readers of this blog might know the following things about me: I love stories about witches, and I love stories about weird rocks. This is New England and happily we have plenty of both.

In Bristol, Connecticut, the two are combined at Witches Rock. This is one of the many glacial rock formations that cover our landscape and which are so often the focus of strange stories. (There is in fact a similarly named Witch Rock in Rochester, Massachusetts.)

Witches Rock Road today seems to be a nice residential street, but in the past it was the scene of some serious supernatural shenanigans. According to town historian Bob Montgomery, locals believed that the rock was the meeting place for a group of witches who tended to cause trouble for anyone who crossed them.

For example, a farmer named Elijah Gaylord got into an argument with one of the witches, whose surname was Minor. The source of their disagreement is lost to history, but Goody Minor turned out to be a major pain in the butt. She hexed Elijah Gaylord so that every time his oxen pulled his wagon past the rock the yoke would slip off their necks. Then the oxen would continue down the road, leaving the wagon behind. This went on for quite a while until Gaylord finally moved away. Interestingly, some versions of this story say the witch's name was Granny Walcott, so perhaps there was more than one witch involved?

That story is kind of charming. Another story associated with the rock is a little more gruesome. Gaylord and Minor lived in the 1700s, but apparently weird witchy things continued to happen well into the early 1800s, when a man named Truman Norton lived on Witches Rock Road with his daughter Merilla. They were just your average 19th century Connecticut citizens, but unfortunately one of Merilla's aunts was a witch who put a curse on the young woman. Because of the curse Merilla was tormented day and night with pain, and invisible hands would stick pins into her body.

Norton cared for his daughter the best he could, but he needed assistance so he hired neighbor Seth Stiles to watch over Merilla at night. On his first night on the job Stiles initially just saw Merilla writhe in pain, but then actually saw metal pins appear in her skin. Stiles knew a little bit about magic, so he pulled the pins from her body, tied them in a handkerchief and threw them into the fire. Once the pins were destroyed by the heat the magical assault stopped. From that time on Merilla was freed from her aunt's witchcraft.

How did Stiles trick break the spell? According to old New England folk magic, when a witch curses their victim they set up a magical connection with them. Their evil magic flows through the connection and harms their victim. However, the connection runs in both directions. By throwing the pins on the fire Stiles was able to send heat and pain back along the connection to the witch. The magic spell ended, and the aunt in fact was found horribly burned the next day.

Was the attack on Merilla actually connected to Witches Rock in any way? It's hard to say, but the rock formation remains there even today. It is now in someone's front yard and is private property. Witches Rock Road was featured on TV show about scary streets a few years ago, but the person who owns the rock hasn't reported any supernatural happenings.

While researching Witches Rock I stumbled upon another Bristol witchcraft story, which appears in the anonymously written Bristol Connecticut (in the Olden Times "New Cambridge'), Which Includes Forestville (1907). Connecticut was once part of the Puritan heartland, so its not surprising that a lot of witch stories are found in Bristol.

Here's the story. In the early 1800s, a young Bristol woman was tormented by unseen witches. Elder Wildman, the head of the Baptist church, invited the girl to come live with him, confident that he could end the witchcraft attack. Things didn't quite go the way Wildman planned. Not only could he not cure the girl, he too became "grievously tormented."

At first not everyone in the Baptist church was convinced something supernatural was happening, but they soon became believers. For example, Deacon Button expressed open disbelief, but when he saw his ox dismembered by invisible hands he quickly changed his mind. It sounds like Bristol was a bad place to be an ox...

The daemonic activity died down as suddenly as it started. According to Bristol Connecticut etc., "The witchcraft excitement was begun and kept up by a young man named King, who was studying for the ministry with Elder Wildman. On his departure, the activity of the evil spirits ceased."

King's role in the whole affair is intriguingly vague and open to interpretation. Was King a witch himself? Or was he innocently dabbling in magic and somehow got more than he bargained for? Perhaps he was just a hoaxer knowingly causing trouble? That last one doesn't quite explain how an ox was ripped apart in front of someone, though. 

October 04, 2015

Secrets of the Skull and Bones Tomb

A few months ago I was in charming New Haven, Connecticut for a conference. I managed to visit not just one, but two fantastic cemeteries while I was there. I also saw a few other interesting sites, but had mostly forgotten about my trip until this past Thursday when I was in CVS.

I was stocking up on Halloween candy, but as I strolled down the magazine aisle something caught my eye. It was a magazine called Secret Societies, a special edition of History Classics put out by Harris Publication. Here is the cover:

Creepy! How could I resist? I bought it. The magazine covers a broad array of secret societies, from the mundane (like the Knights of Columbus and the Shriners) to the violently disturbing (the Manson Family, the Heaven's Gate suicide cult, and the People's Temple).

It also covers Yale's Order of the Skull and Bones. I had taken some photos of this society's headquarters while I was in New Haven, and this magazine seemed like a sign from the cosmos that it was time to share them.

First of all, let me say that Skull and Bones is not a violent cult like the Mansons. I just wanted to get that out of the way. However, it's not just your basic fraternal order like the Knights of Columbus either. It is an incredibly exclusive college social club whose alumni include President George W. Bush, his father (the other President Bush), and Secretary of State John Kerry. Other notable alumni have included President William Taft, conservative writer William F. Buckley, Jr., and actor Paul Giamatti. You can see a longer list of members here. Lots of politicians, professional athletes, business moguls and media stars belonged to Skull and Bones when they were Yale students.

Paul Giamatti - he knows the secrets of Skull and Bones!
With such high-powered alumni, speculation about the Order is naturally rampant. The group has been very good about keeping its rituals and activities secret, however, and only members are allowed into the Tomb, the group's ominous looking headquarters on the Yale campus. But here is what is known publicly about Skull and Bones.

The Tomb on Yale's campus

Skull and Bones was founded in 1852 by Yale seniors William Huntingon Russell and Alphonso Taft (father of President Taft). Every spring, fifteen juniors are offered membership on what is known as Tap Night. The juniors are awakened in the middle of the night by a knock on their door, and when they open it they find a stranger shouting "Skull and Bones! Accept or reject?"

Most juniors do accept the offer. After all, according to rumor new members are immediately given $15, 000 and told they will have a lifetime of financial security. I don't know if those rumors are true, but I would accept just to find out what happens inside the Tomb.

New members are put through an initiation ritual that allegedly involves lying in a coffin and reciting their personal sexual history. That sounds kind of tame, but it does involve the symbolism of death and rebirth, and probably builds a certain level of trust among members. Keeping with the rebirth symbolism, members are given new names. Some names repeat for each crop of new initiates. For example, the tallest junior is renamed Long Devil; the shortest Little Devil.

The devilish nicknames fit the spooky atmosphere surrounding the Order. The interior of the Tomb is supposedly decorated in high Gothic style, with lots of bones and armor adorning the halls. The spookiness is also fed by the rumor that members of the order stole Geronimo's skull from his grave and keep it inside the tomb. Another rumor says they also have the skulls of Martin Van Buren and Pancho Villa. It's important to note that the Apache tribe says Geronimo's bones still comfortably reside in Oklahoma. No word on the remains of Martin Van Buren and Pancho Villa...

The Order's insignia is also a little creepy (see above). The number 322 probably refers to the year that the Greek politician and orator Demosthenes committed suicide.

Naturally Skull and Bones has inspired a lot of conspiracy theories. Just look at that list of members! And why all the secrecy! Something weird and sinister must be going on. In the 2004 presidential election, both final candidates were Bonesmen (George W. Bush and John Kerry), which is downright strange. Maybe Skull and Bones actually runs the country!

But then again maybe not. I think a simpler answer is just plain old social hierarchy. Yale is an elite university, and the elite class sends their children to be educated there. When they graduate they achieve positions of prominence and run the country. The Order of Skull and Bones doesn't have any particular power, but the people who become members come from families that do. George W. Bush would have been president even if he weren't a Bonesman and even if he went to another Ivy League school. He comes from a long line of politicians and used those connections to become President. I don't think any secret Skull and Bones rituals guaranteed him the presidency.

But Paul Giamatti - he's another story...

September 27, 2015

Ominous Lore About the Whippoorwill

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I'm so lonesome I could cry

Hank Williams Sr., "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" (1949)

I've never heard a lonesome whipporwill, or any whippoorwills at all. I've been a city person all my life and whippoorwills don't like the city. These nocturnal bird prefer to live in the woods, where they nest on the ground during the day. They are quite hard to see due to the camouflaging effect of their feathers.

Whippoorwills are active at dawn and dusk, and on nights when the moon is full. They fly around catching insects (yum!) and making their distinctive cry. If you listen closely it might sound like "Whip poor Will," which is how the bird got its English name.

Whippoorwills are mentioned in quite a few songs, but for people who read this blog they might be most familiar from H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Dunwich Horror", which is set in rural central Massachusetts. According to Dunwich folklore, when a person nears death the birds come to steal their soul:

Then, too, the natives are mortally afraid of the numerous whippoorwills which grow vocal on warm nights. It is vowed that the birds are psychopomps lying in wait for the souls of the dying, and that they time their eerie cries in unison with the sufferer's struggling breath. If they can catch the fleeing soul when it leaves the body, they instantly flutter away chittering in daemoniac laughter; but if they fail, they subside gradually into a disappointed silence.
These tales, of course, are obsolete and ridiculous; because they come down from very old times...

Dunwich's resident evil wizard Old Whateley sees the whippoorwills as an omen of his own approaching doom:

Old Whateley noticed the growing number of whippoorwills that would come out of Cold Spring Glen to chirp under his window at night. He seemed to regard the circumstance as one of great significance, and told the loungers at Osborn's that he thought his time had almost come.

When Old Whateley is finally on his deathbed, the local doctor witnesses some folklore in action:

He found Old Whateley in a very grave state, with a cardiac action and stertorous breathing that told of an end not far off... The doctor, though, was chiefly disturbed by the chattering night birds outside; a seemingly limitless legion of whippoorwills that cried their endless message in repetitions timed diabolically to the wheezing gasps of the dying man. It was uncanny and unnatural—too much, thought Dr Houghton, like the whole of the region he had entered so reluctantly in response to the urgent call.

Lovecraft often incorporated authentic folklore into his stories, and it seems that he first learned that whippoorwills are omens of death from his friend Edith Miniter, who lived in Wilbraham, Massachusets. Miniter told Lovecraft that people in her town said the birds appeared when someone was close to death and would try to steal the person's soul as it fled their body. She didn't say exactly what they do it they catch it. Whippoorwills do eat moths and other small things that fly, so maybe a human soul is just another snack to them?

Miniter didn't make up this piece of lore. For example, Clifton Johnson heard it from his informants in western Massachusetts when he was writing his book What They Say in New England (1896), decades before Lovecraft and Miniter ever met.

Gertrude Decrow related similar beliefs in her 1892 article "Folk-Lore from Maine" (The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 5, no. 19). Decrow was told that if a whippoorwill sings under a window or near a door for several nights it is sign someone in the house will die. For example, once a whippoorwill sang repeatedly at the back door of a family's house. The family's son died soon after, and his corpse was carried in through the same back door where the bird sang. According to Decrow seeing a partridge on the doorstep in the morning is also an omen of death, so the whippoorwill is not the only spooky bird around.

Going even further back, the Reverend Samuel Peters wrote in his General History of Connecticut (1781) that the whippoorwill is also called the pope:

It is also called the pope, by reason of its darting with great swiftness, from the clouds almost to the ground and bawling out Pope! which alarms young people and the fanatics very much, especially as they know it to be an ominous bird.

Peters claims people were wrong to fear the bird, since it could also predict storms, which was helpful.

All this whippoorwill folklore might be older than even the first English settlers. According to a video on their website, the Mohegan tribe believed that the makiawisug, the magical little people of the forest, could transform into whippoorwills to travel through the woods. Not particularly ominous, but still you don't want to mess with the makiawisug.

Anthropologist William Simmons notes that the Mohegan word for whippoorwill also meant small boy, and suggests that perhaps both whippoorwills and small boys were associated with the liminal realm between life and death. Why would children be associated with death? The death rate for young children was quite high in traditional Mohegan culture. In one Mohegan burying ground that Simmons excavated 35% of the skeletons were of children under nine years of age. (Cautantowwit's House. An Indian Burial Ground on the Island of Conanicut in Narragansett Bay, 1970)

That's a lot of mystery, gloom and doom for one small bird. To end this post on a lighter note, I will mention that the Penobscot of northern New England attributed a different meaning to the whippoorwill. They heard its cry not as "Whip poor Will" but instead as "li puli", which means to ejaculate semen. I suppose your fear or joy at hearing a whippoorwill depends on what mood you're in.

September 20, 2015

The Ghostly Twins of Albino Road

Was there a place in your hometown where teenagers went to get scared? I grew up in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and the Countess's Grave in the Rocks Village neighborhood was out local scary spot. It was the grave of an actual European countess, and it was surrounded by an iron cage, so there must have been something spooky going on, right?

I suspect there are dozens and dozens of these places all across New England. Some are well-known, but others are a little more obscure. I just learned about one this summer, and it is very close to where I grew up.

Here's how I learned about it. My high school reunion took place this summer. I wasn't able to attend, but I did manage to connect online with my classmate Jack, whom I haven't heard from in decades. While we were chatting he asked if I had heard of Albino Road. I said I hadn't, and he gave me the paranormal scoop. Here's what I learned from Jack and from a few sites online...

In the town of North Andover there is an abandoned road haunted by the ghosts of albino twin boys. It's located at the intersection of Barker and Bradford Street right near the border with Haverhill.

Many years ago in the late 1600s a married couple built their home on this piece of land. Soon afterwards the woman gave birth to healthy twin boys. However, the couple's joy turned to concern when they saw that their newborns were both albinos. The townspeople of Andover (of which North Andover was then a part) were superstitious and fearful of anyone who was unusual. The couple decided to raise their sons in secrecy and never let them leave the house.

Years went by, and by the time 1692 rolled around the boys had grown into healthy teenagers. Unfortunately one day a neighbor came to their house unannounced and looked into the windows. He saw the pale boys and immediately went to the town elders.

As you might know, the Salem witch trials were terrorizing Massachusetts in 1692, and many people from Andover had been accused of witchcraft. Concerned about possible witchery, the town elders took the boys away from their parents and debated what to do. Were these unusual-looking twins somehow related to the demonic forces trying to destroy the colony?

The elders devised a test to resolve the question. They took the boys to a nearby lake, tied rocks to their feet, and threw them in. The elders believed that if they drowned it would prove they were demonic in nature. The boys sank to the bottom of the lake and died. Having their worst fears concerned, the citizens marched from the lake and burned down the boys' home with their parents inside.

It's said the ghosts of the albino boys (and possibly their parents) now haunt the abandoned road where their house once stood. If you go there late at night you might see the ghostly boys, or perhaps just their eyes, shining red in the darkness. They are not friendly ghosts and don't take kindly to trespassers...

Teenagers in North Andover and other nearby towns visit Albino Road at night and try to see the ghosts. I am kind of a scaredy-cat, so Tony and I visited during the day. We didn't see any ghosts, but I certainly can understand why people might find this stretch of road creepy in the dark. I am always more afraid of deer ticks than ghosts, so if you do wander down Albino Road use a lot of insect repellent. And watch out for poison ivy too!

I don't know how long this legend has been told. Jack seems to have heard it when we were in high school back in the 1980s, and it may be even older than that. I also don't know anyone who has sen the ghosts, but there are some interesting things about this legend.

First of all, many people in Andover actually were accused of witchcraft during the Salem trials. In fact, more people from Andover were accused than people from Salem! So there's a little bit of historical truth behind the legend.

The idea that the town elders drowned the albino twins seems to be a garbled version of the water tests that witches in England were subject to. Also known as ducking, this process involved throwing an accused witch into a pond or lake. People believed that water would reject that which was unnatural or evil. If the accused witch floated, it was taken as a sign that the water rejected them and they were guilty. If you sank you were innocent. Of course, you also ran the risk of drowning if you sank, but at least you weren't a witch. The Albino Road legend seems to get this process backwards, and I'm not sure if the water test was ever used during the Salem trials.

I also am not aware that people with albinism were ever considered sinister in the Colonial era. Beliefs about albinos and witchcraft are unfortunately widespread in parts of Africa, and persecution of people with albinism is common in some countries on that continent, but I'm not aware of that happening in Colonial New England.

I also find it interesting that the boys aren't really supernatural monsters when alive, but then they actually become supernatural monsters after death. There is a lesson about tolerance behind this legend but maybe that lesson gets a little garbled. After all, it turns out those poor albino boys really are something to be afraid of, but just in ghostly form.

Lastly, this is a good legend for teenagers, because it is about teens whose parents never let them leave the house and who are misunderstood by everyone around them. It's never easy being a teenager, particularly not when there's a witch hunt going on.

PS - I will be speaking at the Rowley (Massachusetts) Public Library on Saturday, October 3 at 1:00 pm. My topic: North Shore Witchcraft: Legends, Stories and Practical Tips. I hope you can attend!