February 20, 2015

Matinicus Rock Light: A Ghost Behind Closed Doors

I'll be busy this weekend so I'm publishing my blog post a little early. Enjoy!


Here's a nice little ghost story from Horace Beck's 1957 book The Folklore of Maine. While researching the book Beck visited various locales around Maine, including the lighthouse on Matinicus Rock, which is located about five miles from Matinicus Island in Penobscot Bay.

Matinicus Rock isn't very big (only about 30 acres), but there has been a lighthouse on it since 1827. For many years there were two towers with lights, one each on the north and south ends of the building. When Beck visited only the south light was in use. The north tower had been decommissioned and the door was locked tight.

Beck asked the Coast Guard crew who manned the lighthouse why the north tower was locked. Their answer: to keep the ghost inside.

They told Beck that many years ago a lighthouse keeper had hanged himself in that tower, and since that time his spirit could be heard roaming through the tower on dark, windy nights. The ghost also broke dishes, slammed doors, and made equipment malfunction. The crew on the island learned the only way to control the ghost was to keep the north tower door locked. For some reason, the ghost wouldn't pass through the locked door.

A few years prior to Beck's visit a Coast Guard officer had come to Matinicus Rock for an inspection. When he heard the ghost story he demanded that the crew abandon their superstitious nonsense and unlock the door. They did as they were ordered, and that night all the lights on the island failed. The crew once again locked the door to the north tower and the lighthouse hadn't seen any trouble since.

Beck couldn't find any record of a suicide at that lighthouse, but the Coast Guard crew was quite adamant about there being a ghost. The ghost story continued until at least the 1970s, when men stationed on the island claimed a strange light could be seen coming from the abandoned north tower on dark nights. They believed the light was the ghost of a lighthouse keeper who had killed himself. The crew nicknamed the ghost Moe.

Matinicus Rock light was automated in 1983 and has been unmanned since then, at least by the living. I suppose the ghost is still out there.


I like the idea that you can contain a ghost by locking the door. It seems appropriately symbolic, and reminds me of those Japanese horror films like The Grudge where ghosts were sealed behind doors with masking tape. But was (is?) Moe even really a ghost? There is no record of any suicides on the island so maybe the ghost is really some other spirit that likes lonely lighthouses. Skeptics might say the Coast Guard crew just made the story up, but personally I will withhold judgement until I spend a dark night alone out on Matinicus Rock.

I found the two lighthouse images on this great sight devoted to New England lighthouses. Good stuff!

February 15, 2015

Taking a Trip Down Witchtrot Road

I've written before about the abundance of places in New England named after the Devil. There are quite a few named after witches as well, like Witchtrot Road in South Berwick, Maine.

A commenter asked me if I knew anything about Witchtrot Road, and I'm happy to say I do. The story behind the street's odd name begins with Reverend George Burroughs, the one-time pastor of Salem Village, Massachusetts.

Burroughs was born in England, raised in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and educated as a minister at Harvard. In 1670 he served as a pastor in Falmouth, Maine until the town was destroyed in an Indian attack. Representatives from Salem Village recruited him to be their minister in 1680 while he was sheltering as a refugee in Salisbury, Massachusetts. He accepted their offer and moved with his wife and three children to Salem Village.

Unfortunately the situation was not ideal. Burroughs was supposed to be provided with a salary, an allotment of firewood (a very valuable commodity at that time), and a house. Although the house was built for him, payment of his salary was delayed and when his wife died he had to borrow money from neighbor John Putnam to bury her. Burroughs was also asked to resolve long-standing disputes among various village residents.

Either the disputes were irresolvable or Burroughs (a short, muscular man with a bad temper) was just not the right person for the job. Instead of making things better he made things worse. In 1683 Burroughs left Salem and returned to the wild frontiers of Maine, preferring to take his chances with marauding Indians than minister to the fractious Salemites.

Nine years passed, and in 1692 the witch craze erupted in Salem. In their visions the afflicted girls saw that the witches were led by a man dressed like a minister. They soon identified him as George Burroughs. The ghost of his wife also appeared to the girls and accused Burroughs of murdering her and other victims as well. 

On May 2, 1692, Marshal Jonathan Partridge of New Hampshire was ordered to arrest Burroughs and transporting him to Salem for trial. At first Partridge and his men were hesitant. Burroughs was accused of being the most powerful witch in New England. No mere dabbler in the black arts, the afflicted girls had labeled him a "conjurer." Burroughs was also known to be unnaturally strong for someone his size. It was said he could lift a full barrel of cider with one hand and also fire a heavy musket singlehandedly. Could mere mortal constables arrest such a powerful minion of Satan?

Ultimately the constables conquered their fears and set off for Burroughs's  home in Wells. When they arrived the minister and his family were having dinner. Burroughs submitted to arrest without resisting, and the constables felt relieved as they manacled him. It was believed at the time that binding a witch prevented them from using their magical powers.

Burroughs suggested they take a shortcut he knew that would get them to Massachusetts more quickly. But as the group rode through the woods the constables began to feel concerned. Dark clouds were filling the sky and they could sense electricity in the air. A storm was coming - but who had sent it, God or his enemy? As the skies grew darker and the wind picked up the answer seemed obvious. It had been sent by Satan himself to prevent the constables from delivering Burroughs to the authorities. Rain poured from the sky, trees toppled onto the road, and lightning sizzled downwards. Filled with fear the constables rode onwards with their captive. The storm eventually passed and the constables sighed with relief. They had outlasted Satan's assault and could successfully bring Burroughs to Salem.

The road the constables traveled on is now called Witchtrot Road. Historian Marilynne K. Roach says there is no record of the constables' stormy journey in historic records, but the story does appear in Sarah Orne Jewett's The Old Town of Berwick (1894). Apparently the road's name and its story were an accepted part of local history well before Jewett was born in 1849. There's also a Witchtrot Road in Sanbornville, New Hampshire, which is right on the Maine border. Perhaps the two are connected?

As for George Burroughs, he was executed on August 19, 1692, another victim of the Salem witch hunts.

February 08, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Snow Moon

Well, the weather forecast says Boston may get another 12 to 24 inches of snow in the next couple days. I do like snow but I suppose you can have too much of a good thing.

I shouldn't be surprised that we're getting heavy snow. The moon in February is traditionally called the Snow Moon and there's a reason: February is the snowiest month in New England. In December we're all dreaming of a white Christmas but really we should all be anticipating a white Groundhog Day, Valentine's Day and Presidents Day. Note that I said anticipating, not dreading.

I don't know when the tradition of naming the different month's moons started. It's generally attributed to Native Americans but I think there have been additions and changes over time. There are multiple moon naming systems out there, but I like the one used by the The Old Farmer's Almanac:

January - Wolf Moon
February - Snow Moon
March - Worm Moon
April - Pink Moon
May - Flower Moon
June - Strawberry Moon
July - Buck Moon, also called Thunder Moon
August - Sturgeon Moon
September - Harvest Moon
October - Hunter's Moon
November - Beaver Moon
December - Cold Moon

Each name describes what is happening in the world during that particular lunar cycle. Flowers are blooming, the sturgeon are running in the rives, hunters are stalking game, etc. Or it's snowing like heck. Usually you see the name applied to the full moon (i.e. Full Snow Moon) but each moon rules over a full 28 day cycle. So according to this system we should expect snow at least through February 18.

Some moons sound charming, like the Pink, Flower and Strawberry Moons. Some sound ominous, like the Hunter's, Cold and Wolf moons. The Snow Moon is sometimes ominously called the Hunger Moon, which relates directly to the seasonal subsistence pattern of the Algonquians who first lived in New England. With heavy snow on the ground it was often difficult for hunters to find game in the forest, even when traveling by snowshoe, and the food from the fall harvest might start to run low as February wore on.

Folklore from the Northern New England tribes reflect this fear of starvation. Stories from Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire tell of sorcerers who are transformed into perpetually hungry giants with an appetite for human flesh. The giants are known by several names, including chenoo, kiwakwa, or giwakwa, and are similar to the more widely known Abenaki wendigo. The cannibal giants are so hungry that they chew off their own lips, quite happily devour their own family, and have hearts made of ice. The stories about the chenoo, etc. reflect fears of starvation and cabin fever.

Other folk stories tell of hunters lost in the winter woods who are eaten by animated corpses in an abandoned hut, or of a monstrous giant hare who rules a wintry Netherworld where the dead go when they die. Clearly the Algonquians weren't walking in a winter wonderland. The Snow Moon was a scary time.

When the English settled arrive here they were at first overwhelmed by the intensity of the winters, which were much harsher than those in England. Cold, snow and starvation killed large numbers of the first settlers, and even once the colonies were well-established people would often die when they were trapped away from home during a blizzard.

But as time went on the cold and snow became less daunting, and oddly snow became something that many people looked forward to. The reason? Sleigh rides. During the winter people were able to travel quickly and smoothly between farmsteads and into towns. Winter sleigh rides were actually preferable to summer wagon trips, because snow provided a smoother traveling surface than the pitted and often muddy dirt roads that crossed New England.

I'm sure you've seen those Currier and Ives prints of people riding and even racing sleighs in charming winter landscapes. There is some truth in those images. People did race sleighs for sport, something they couldn't do with wagons in the summer. Snow could be fun.

Ironically, transportation is the reason some modern New Englanders hate snow. We have cars rather than sleighs and driving through snow can be treacherous. This year even the subway system in Boston is breaking down because there's been so much snow, ice and cold. Maybe the MBTA should buy some sleighs.

The moon in March is the Worm Moon. I look forward to the activities of the worms in the thawing soil but fervently hope we don't get as many worms as we've had snow.

February 01, 2015

New England Folk Horrror a Big Hit at Sundance Film Festival

The Sundance film festival just wrapped up, and one of the surprise hits this year is a horror film based on New England folklore.

The movie is called The Witch, and it sounds like something readers of this blog would really enjoy. Here's the basic premise. The year is 1630, and a farmer named William and his wife have been exiled from their New England settlement for being religious extremists. They've carved out a small farm on the edge of a forest where they and their five children try to eke out a meager existence.

Anya-Taylor Joy in The Witch

Life isn't easy on the farm, and their crops are failing as winter slowly approaches. Things aren't looking good, and tensions within the family increase when their infant son Samuel disappears while under the care of oldest daughter Thomasin. Was it merely negligence or was it something more?

The Witch is being billed as a horror film, so I think it's not just negligence. Accusations fly within the family and things get weird. Why is eldest son Caleb, who likes to hunt alone in the dark woods, suddenly speaking in tongues? Should the parents be concerned that the young twins Mercy and Jonas are spending a lot of time with the family's goat, a large beast named Black Phillip? Who, if anyone, is actually the witch of the title?

Welcome to sunny New England! A still from The Witch.

We'll have to wait a while to get answers. A release date hasn't been set yet, but it looks like The Witch will be shown in theaters and through DirecTV at some point. But some reviews have said the movie's ending is ambiguous, so maybe we won't get any clear answers at all. The Witch has been described as a cross between The Crucible, The Shining and The Exorcist which should give some indication of what type of movie it is.

The director is Robert Eggers, a New Yorker who was born in New Hampshire. He has said the movie was inspired by old New England folk stories, and that he strove for authenticity in the costumes, sets and even the language. Here's a quote from an interview:

"The kind of research I did here was wild and obsessive, almost disgusting,” he says. “I have always been into folktales and fairy tales and New England’s past, so with this film I wanted to create an archetypal New England horror story. Something that would feel like an inherited nightmare of a Puritan family."

It all sounds great to me! I'm excited to see something set so early in our country's history. It might be the art house answer to The Lords of Salem.

Making horror films about New England witchcraft is challenging. After all, there weren't any real witches executed during the witch trials, just innocent victims of gossip and politics. The real witches were lurking where they always have been, barely glimpsed in our dreams and deep in the dark woods of our unconscious. Horror films often ignore these historical and psychological nuances and just go for the gore. I'll be curious to see what path The Witch takes.