March 29, 2015

The Witch's Grave of York Maine: Is The Story True?

A while ago someone who reads this blog asked me to post about an alleged witch's grave in York, Maine. What a great idea! I love old graveyards, and I love New England witches. So here's a post that brings those two great tastes together like a Reese's peanut butter cup of the uncanny.

When I was a kid my family went to York, Maine a few times for vacations. I remember going to the beach, and visiting the zoo there. When I was a kid I think it was called York Wild Animal Farm, but these days it's York's Wild Kingdom.

As far as I know, we did not visit the Old Burying Ground, which is located in charming and historic York Village. It's too bad, because as with most charming cemeteries around here it has a weird legend is attached to it. I probably would have enjoyed hearing it.

The legend is about the grave of Mary Nasson, who who passed away in 1774. Her gravestone is a little different than the others. It has a portrait of Mary on it, and is covered with a big stone slab.

Photo from The Journal Inquirer.
A plaque on the cemetery wall indicates that the stone slab was put there by her family to prevent animals from digging around in Mary's grave. Local folklore gives another explanation: it was put there to keep Mary, who was a witch, from rising from the dead.

I think the stone succeeded in keeping the animals away, but it hasn't kept Mary's ghost from coming up to the surface. According to Joseph Citro's Weird New England, her ghost has reportedly been seen pushing local children on swings and giving them wildflowers. Hmmm. For a witch's ghost she doesn't seem particularly menacing. Online I've found quite a few sites claiming that Mary Nasson only acquired her witchy reputation because she was an effective herbalist. Her neighbors didn't understand how her cures worked and therefore thought they were magic. Oh, and maybe she could perform exorcisms...

Image from Atlas Obscura
Those stories indicate that Mary was basically a good person, and if she was a witch she only practiced white magic. Other, creepier stories say Mary was executed for witchcraft and that her gravestone emanates a strange heat. The crows that flock around the cemetery are said to be her familiars. Spooky!

So, was Mary Nasson a good witch, or a bad witch, or just someone who has an unusual gravestone? Are any of these legends true?

I don't know if they are true, but they definitely are old. I thought they might just be recent urban folklore but found they date back to at least the 19th century. I found this passage in ‪1894's Ancient City of Gorgeana and Modern Town of York (Maine) from Its Earliest Settlement‬: ‪Also Its Beaches and Summer Resorts‬ by George Alexander Emery:

Near the southwest corner of the old burying-ground is a grave, with head and foot stones, between which and lying on the grave is a large flat rock, as large as the grave itself. The inscription reads thus: - "Mary Nasson, wife of Samuel Nasson, died August 28, 1774, aged 29 years." No one, at least in this town, seems to know anything about her origin, death or even of the singular looking grave. No other occupant of a grave bearing this cognomen can be found in this cemetery, and the name is unknown in the town. A great many surmises and conjectures have been advanced in regard to this matter, in order to arrive at the facts, if there be any, and to clear up the dark affair, but nothing definite has ever come out of the effort. The writer of this, when a youth, living in York, was given to understand that this stone was placed there to keep down a witch that was buried beneath it.

In short, no one knows the real, historically-documented truth about Mary Nasson. Although George Alexander Emery doesn't believe Mary Nasson was a witch, he adds fuel to the fire by providing yet another legend. According to this one, a disembodied evil spirit used to haunt some rooms in an old house near the cemetery. It was banished from the house, but now roams the cemetery's perimeter, waiting for Mary to arise from her grave and join it.

I don't like to debunk legends; I like to savor them, so I'll just close with a couple thoughts. First, anomalous gravestones often attract legends. Rightly or wrongly, people tend to think that strange graves must contain strange occupants. 

Second, the idea is very old that special effort is required to restrain a restless spirit. For example, in old European vampire lore a stake to the heart literally nails a vampire into its grave. Closer to home, Eunice Cole, an accused witch of Hampton, New Hampshire, was supposedly staked through the heart after death and had a horseshoe placed on top of her. It's not unreasonable (in folk belief) to think that a big rock might keep a ghost from coming out of the grave.

One last note: I am now writing a bi-monthly column for Spare Change News called Bizarre Boston. If you live or work in Boston be sure to buy an issue and help the city's homeless community. You can see one of my columns (about a Boston smallpox epidemic) here.

March 22, 2015

Doppelgangers and Ghostly Doubles in New England Folklore

Many years ago, Sam Cavendish was walking through a swamp outside Cavendish, Vermont. As he trudged through the mucky terrain he noticed another man walking slowly towards him.

As the man drew closer Sam realized that they looked very similar. In fact, the man was an exact double of Sam.

When his double came within walking distance of Sam he spoke, telling Sam that he would die in one year's time. After delivering this dire warning the double vanished.

A year passed. Sam had been invited to a barn-raising, and although it was the day of his alleged doom he went anyway. Barn-raisings were important social events for rural communities, and Sam didn't want to miss the chance to visit with his neighbors. Besides, he didn't really believe his double's warning anyway.

Sam had told everyone in Cavendish about his double's warning shortly after it had been delivered, so all his neighbors knew this was the day that Sam might die. When he arrived at the work site they refused to let him participate. "Too dangerous," they said, "but you can sit and watch."

Sam sat and watched, but when his neighbors went into the house to eat he decided to climbed up on the scaffolding to adjust the work someone else had done. As he stepped back to admire his adjustment he fell off the platform onto the hard ground below. He died instantly. The double's warning had come true.

This story first appeared in 1901 magazine called Scribbler, and the author starts it by writing "But never since the world began has it been told that a man met his own ghost." That's some nice hyperbole, but it's simply not true. In fact a similar story was told in Massachusetts just a few years earlier.

Clifton Johnson includes the following in his book What They Say in New England (1896). A wealthy man come home one winter day to find his wife in tears. When he asked why she said that she had looked out the window and seen herself walking in the snow. She knew this meant she would die soon. Within a year she passed away. As Clifton Johnson ends the story he notes that Abraham Lincoln saw his double shortly before he was assassinated. The idea that seeing your double means death was apparently well known.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, How They Met Themselves, 1864

The concept can actually be traced back to old European folk beliefs and can be found in stories from the Middle Ages and in Viking sagas. The Germans have a specific word for this phenomenon, doppelganger, which literally means "double goer." I've also seen the word double goer used in English accounts of doubles.

One of the core beliefs in old European folklore is that everyone has a soul that looks identical to your physical body. This belief explains a lot of other odd things: that witches can send out their souls to torment people, that vampires have no reflection (because they have no soul), that breaking a mirror is bad luck (because you're damaging your double), and that babies shouldn't look at mirror before baptism (because their souls are not fully attached and will be stuck in the mirror).

Occasionally a person's soul appears to deliver a warning, usually of impending doom. It's the soul's way of saying, "Hey, it's been nice, but we aren't going to be together very much longer." That's what's happening in the stories about Sam Connor and the others.

If you encounter your double you could try running the other way, but it probably wouldn't help. The doppelganger isn't really the problem, it's just telling you what's going to happen. Maybe you should just say thank you and put your affairs in order?

The best book on this topic is Claude Lecouteux's Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages (2003). It focuses mostly on European material but is fascinating nonetheless.

March 15, 2015

Simeon Smith: Wizard, Necromancer, and Patriot

Simeon Smith was one of the early settlers in the New Hampshire town of Wentworth (located near Waterville Valley). Town records indicate that he arrived in 1772 or 1773 and built a farm on the border of the nearby town of Warren.

Simeon held town office in Warren (thinking that's where his property really was), and named his first-born son Warren as well. Simeon was employed as a tailor but also fought with the Continental army. One of his sons grew up to be Wentworth's first town historian.

All in all, Simeon Smith sounds like a good, upstanding citizen. He sounds like the kind of patriotic, hard-working individual New England was built by.

Suprisingly, he might also have been a witch. I guess he was also the kind of mean, malefic individual who built this region.

The following is a quote from George Plummer's History of Wentworth (1930):

The old people, or many of them, did believe in witches; there is no doubt about that... The archwizard and head necromancer of our town was no doubt Simeon Smith. He, it was commonly believed, had supernatural powers and thereby made his neighbors uncomfortable at times. 

What exactly made his neighbors so uncomfortable?

Wonderful were the feats he could perform. Sometimes, from sheer malice, he would saddle and bridle one of his neighbors and ride and gallop him all over the country round. The butter would not come and he was in the churn. The children behaved strangely and he bewitched them. Smaller than a gnat, he could go through the keyhole; larger than a giant, he was seen at twilight stalking through the forest...

Most of those are the typical actions of witches found in New England folklore: riding neighbors in their sleep, disrupting household tasks, and afflicting the children. Turning into a giant is a new one to me though!

It's hard to reconcile the patriotic New Hampshire pioneer with the malevolent necromancer who tormented his neighbors. He obviously cared about his town, but it's clear his neighbors disliked him enough to called him a witch.

Several stories tells how Simeon's witchcraft and patriotism were united in acts of evil magic. For example, in the early years of the Revolutionary War he once rushed out of a Sunday meeting because he had seen through second sight a battle happening far away. This was not entirely unusual. He would often go into a trance like state while mounted on his horse, but neighbors assumed he was "gazing upon fiendish revels", aka the witches sabbath.

Here's another story. A Tory family named Merrill lived in Wentworth and Simeon decided to torment them because they supported the British cause. He bewitched their son Caleb, making him go deaf and causing him to "run up the sides of the house or barn like a squirrel."

To protect their son the Merrills fought back with their own magic. They put some of Caleb's urine into a bottle and set it by the fire. As the boy's urine boiled, Simeon Smith, miles away in his own home, bled from his eyes. But the urine ran out through a crack in the cork, and Simeon recovered.

The Merrills tried again. This time they put Caleb's blood in the bottle, and stuck a small blade through the cork until it reached the blood. This was some serious magic! The next day Caleb recovered his hearing and told his family that Simeon Smith was dead. When they investigated they found the "archwizard and necromancer" of Wentworth had indeed passed away.

However, his magic lived on after his death. Simeon was buried underneath an apple tree (per his will), but children never stole any fruit from the tree. The apples that grew on it were "crabbed and bitter beyond belief."

The information about Simeon Smith is from Richard Dorson's Jonathan Draws the Long Bow (1946), George Plummer's History of Wentworth (1930), and this genealogy site.

March 07, 2015

UFO Abductions, the Great Barrington Museum, and Our Shared Mental Categories

Here's a story that's interesting in so many ways. Forgive me if you've already read about it, but I couldn't resist writing about it.

Back in 1966, Thomas Reed was a young boy living with his family on a farm in Sheffield, out in western Massachusetts. He shared a bedroom in the big Victorian farmhouse with his younger brother Matthew.

One night, Thomas and his brother saw some small, glowing orbs floating through their bedroom. They hovered just below the ceiling and Thomas felt like they were watching him. He closed his eyes several times, hoping they were just a dream and that they would disappear, but they didn't. They floated through the room repeatedly that night before they vanished.

Those orbs seemed strange at the time, but they would seem commonplace compared to what followed. Several nights later, glowing human-like shapes appeared in the boys' room. After seeing the ghostly shapes the boys found themselves outside in the woods, and the shapes (which now seemed to be small humanoids wearing masks) took Thomas and Matthew into a large metal craft that rested in a clearing.

The interior of the craft glowed with white light that had no apparent source. The humanoids brought Thomas into a room and showed him images on a screen: what seemed to be galaxies and, oddly, a willow tree. The two boys were brought back to their bedroom, and the next day after school Thomas found the clearing where the craft had landed.

A drawing by Thomas Reed of the willow tree and UFOs, from the Roswell UFO Museum.

This was Thomas's first UFO abduction. Others followed over the next three years, and included his mother and grandmother. Unlike the first abduction, the later ones were sinister and more menacing. The situation got so bad that the Reed family moved to a house in nearby Great Barrington.

A large willow tree stood in the front yard, and one of his first nights in the new house Thomas saw glowing orbs in his bedroom. Were the UFOS done with Thomas and his family?

You can find more details about Thomas Reed and his UFO abduction online. It is a well-known case, but has come to recent prominence because the Great Barrington Museum has announced it will add a display about the abduction to its exhibits.

The decision was made only after a difficult discussion by the Museum's board, but the question remains: should a mainstream museum have an exhibit about a UFO abduction? Reaction has been mixed. A researcher named Ted Acworth is quoted by the Globe, and I think many people might share his views:

“I’m convinced that there are things happening that are unexplainable, but is that proof of a UFO?” said Acworth, who lives in Boston and now works on technology startups. “A lot of highly credible people believe in their bones that they saw something. It’s not just fringe wackos. But the nearest habitable planet is many, many light years away, and I don’t think they’d come here just to scare people and fly home again. They’d make themselves known.”

The comments section on the Boston Globe article are divided into people who think aliens are visiting us from other planets, and people who explain why this might not be plausible.

Personally, I think there are some situations where truth can and should be determined. Did Aaron Hernandez kill Odin Lloyd? Either he did or didn't, and we need to figure it out. Is that skin cancer or is that just a freckle? It's one or the other, and you better find out.

But some situations feel a little more nebulous, and you just need to accept them on faith. For example, did Moses really see a talking burning bush? Some people say yes, some say no. But was there really a fiery shrub out in the wilderness, or was it a dream, or a vision? It's hard to say, and what evidence would be acceptable? Credo quia absurdum.

The Thomas Reed abduction case feels the same way to me. Reed says it happened, as do family members. He's passed a lie detector test. Corroborating sightings of UFOs were made by people not affiliated with the family in any way. But no physical trace of the craft has been found and, despite what you might see on lurid cable shows, no hard proof of alien visitors or craft has ever surfaced. And the law of physics, and common sense, indicate that alien beings won't fly across the light years just to harass a family in western Mass.

Thomas Reed's abductions sound like visionary experiences to me. It's interesting how parts of his story resemble classic ghost stories. Ghost hunters count glowing orbs as signs of supernatural activity, and the glowing figures in the bedroom sound very similar to ghosts. The fact that the family relocated in an attempt to stop the activity reminds me of The Amityville Horror and other haunted house narratives, and seems to imply they felt the visitors were associated with the house, rather than extraterrestrials who could fly wherever they wanted.

But of course, being who I am, I'm also reminded of witchcraft accounts where the witch appears as someone sleeps to torment them (and sometimes unwillingly take them on nighttime journeys), and also of fairies who take humans into the hollow hills, and... You get the picture. Supernatural beings all do similar things, even if their specific identities change over time. Aliens, witches, fairies, ghosts, daimons, demi-gods all parade through our nighttime world and work their charms on us.

You might disagree with me about the nature of Thomas Reed's abductions, and that's OK. However, we might agree that whether it was real, a visionary experience, or even a lie, Thomas's story is recognizable. We all understand that this is what a UFO abduction is like. It's a mental category we share.

After the Salem witch trials, at least one of the afflicted girls admitted that she lied about the whole thing. She confessed and asked her church for forgiveness (which they granted). Many of the other accusers probably lied as well. They wanted to settle family grudges, they wanted attention and power, etc. But the trials wouldn't have happened if everyone else in their society didn't already believe in witchcraft as a category. They all understood what a witchcraft attack was like. It was a mental category they shared. Even after the witchcraft trials ended and were revealed to be a sham, the Puritans didn't stop believing in witchcraft. They just realized it was impossible to prove.

I don't think Thomas Reed is lying, and he's certainly not accusing any neighbors of tormenting him through UFO abduction. But like witchcraft, UFO abductions are a mental category we all share and recognize. They're probably worth a museum exhibit, even if they're impossible to prove.

March 01, 2015

The Pigman On TV: "Half Human, Half Hog, 100% Hideous"

Here's a little history about one of my favorite monsters, the Pigman of Northfield, Vermont. 

Way back in 1999, University Press of New England printed Green Mountains, Dark Tales by Vermont folklorist Joseph Citro. Towards the back of the book was a story told to Citro by Jeff Hatch, a resident of Northfield. The story was about a horrible humanoid monster that lurked in the woods outside town: the Pigman.

As his name implies, the Pigman has a humanoid body and the head of a pig. He is most often seen in a wooded area called the Devil's Washbowl, where he likes to menace teenagers at night. Jeff Hatch thought he was a missing a farm boy gone feral, or perhaps the "consummation of blasphemous backwoods bestiality." Joseph Citro estimated that hundreds of people in Northfield were familiar with the Pigman story.

That number was destined to grow. In 2005 Citro's book Weird New England was published by Sterling Publishing Company. Hard cover and filled with color illustrations, Weird New England was more widely distributed than Green Mountains, Dark Tales and could be found in bookstores across New England. The Pigman legend spread.

Soon, the Pigman appeared on the Web, often accompanied by the illustration from Weird New England or Citro's later book, The Vermont Monster Guide (2009). I've posted about the Pigman three times:

1. In 2011, the basic, original Pigman story. In 1971, teenagers drinking beer in the woods see something horrible - is it a missing farm boy gone feral? But if it is, why does he have a pig's head?

2. In 2013, I posted an updated Pigman story that was circulating on the web. According to this story, the Pigman was really a missing teenager named Sam Harris. Sam had gone out to cause trouble on Picket Night, which was the local name for the night before Halloween. He was never seen again, but something returned to his parents' house three years later, leaving madness and insanity in its wake...

3. In 2014, I found another Pigman account that was circulating on the Web. According to this story, in the 1980s a group of teenagers were camping overnight in the Devils' Washbowl when one was clubbed over the head and dragged into the night by a man wearing a pig's head. I had found the story on a website that presented it as true, but it turns out that particular story was actually written by horror writer William Dalphin. Fact and fiction are intertwined in the Pigman legend...

This February, the Pigman got his widest exposure yet when the TV show Monsters and Mysteries in America ran a segment on Northfield's favorite monster. With taglines like "Half human, half hog, 100% hideous" and "Where the man ends and the pig begins is anybody's guess", the show featured some of the familiar Pigman stories, but also included some that were new to me. For example, a young man making out with his girlfriend in the Devil's Washbowl is attacked by something that leaves claw marks on his stomach, and a group of teenagers encounter something pale and swine-like that tosses branches at them as they walk in the woods.

The Pigman stories have always seemed like they were shaped by basic horror movie tropes: misbehaving teenagers, dark woods, and sexual transgression. The Pigman himself is often described as naked, pink, hairy, and sometimes muscular. He's a terrifying walking libido. One older Northfield resident even says teenage boys would tell the story to get their girlfriends to cuddle a little closer. Anyway, Monsters and Mysteries presents these stories in an appropriately lurid fashion, or as lurid as a basic cable show can get away with.

I'm sure this isn't the last of the Pigman saga. Now that he has appeared on TV I'm sure that more stories about his porcine terror will pop up. Whether the stories are true or false, it's interesting to watch as a legend takes shape.