June 28, 2015

The Ghost of Midnight Mary

I was recently in New Haven, Connecticut for a work conference. I was excited not only to attend the conference, but also for the chance to visit the infamous grave of Midnight Mary. It's located in the Evergreen Cemetery, a large Victorian-era burying ground. Even if Mary's grave weren't in it this would be a cemetery worth visiting.

The grounds are filled with mournful angels and many statues of weeping women. Most are in good shape, but a few of them are worn down from the weather. The second one is kind of creepy looking.

Evergreen also features a lot of obelisks, which are pretty dramatic-looking, particularly when they are all grouped together like this.

I think Evergreen is still an active cemetery, and there are some interesting modern monuments as well. I like this giant cube!

And here's someone who went for an old-school New England style headstone. The winged skull was long out of style when this person died, and the monument seems to be relatively new. Still, I admire someone who appreciates a classic look.

Midnight Mary's grave is at the back of the cemetery near Winthrop Ave, and is noted on the Evergreen Cemetery map as "resident ghost." It's good to know that the management acknowledges Mary's local importance. Her monument was erected in 1872, but looks newer because it was refinished in the early 1970s. The management of Evergreen Cemetery thought it was looking a little tarnished and asked a local monument maker to give it some touch ups.

There are many creepy legends about Midnight Mary (aka Mary Hart), and they are all inspired by her strange epitaph:


At high noon
Just from, and about to renew
Her daily work, in her full strength of body and mind
Mary E. Hart
Having fallen prostrate:
Remained unconscious, until she died at midnight,
October 15, 1872
Born December 16, 1824

The ominous quote at the top "The people shall be troubled etc." comes from the Book of Job. The rest of it is equally ominous but a little mysterious. What does it all mean?

The exact facts of her death are not clear, so speculation abounds. According to one legend, after Mary's death on October 15 her family had her buried in Evergreen Cemetery. That night one her aunts had a nightmare that Mary was still alive in her grave. Unable to shake her bad feeling, she had Mary's coffin unearthed. When it was opened the aunt was horrified to see that Mary had scraped at the coffin lid. Mary's face was contorted with pain, and it was clear that she had died from asphyxiation. You see, Mary had not actually died on October 15, but had merely fallen into a deep cataleptic state that made her seem dead. When her aunt finally reburied Mary she erected the ominous monument as a warning to others.

Many legends claim that Mary was a witch, and that she either rises at midnight to punish anyone who is near her grave, or that anyone who strikes her gravestone will die at midnight. For example, it is said that three teenagers came to her grave one night and struck her stone. Seven years later, one of them was found dead with his throat ripped out. The murderer was never caught. Seven years after that, the second teenager died the same unexplainable death. Finally, twenty-one years after striking Mary's grave, the final teen (now middle-aged) was found dead the same way.

Another story claims that one night three sailors came to Mary's grave to see if she would rise at midnight. Just before midnight they heard something rustling nearby. Was it a bird? A rat? Mary's vengeful ghost? Not wanting to find out, the sailors ran towards the cemetery fence and tried to climb over, but they all slipped and became impaled on the iron spikes. They were found dead the next morning.

As you can see, most of the Midnight Mary stories have the same ending: people end up dead. According to David Phillips's book Legendary Connecticut, the most popular legend claims that two men went to Mary's grave to see if she would rise at midnight. Man #1 lost his nerve and left the cemetery, but Man #2 stayed to see if Mary would emerge from her grave. When he didn't show up the next morning Man #1 went back into the cemetery to find him. And find him he did - dead, with his face frozen in a terrified expression and his pants caught on a thorny bush. Apparently Man #2 had tried to leave the cemetery but died of fright when he got stuck on the bush. He thought Mary had grabbed him in the dark and his heart gave out. The lesson is clear: even if Mary's ghost is not real, her legend is scary enough to kill people.

The famous anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski is also buried in Evergreen Cemetery, and since I studied anthropology in college I visited his grave as well. Malinowski would have approached Mary's legend with a cool, analytical eye, wondering what social function her legend serves.

Would he have been spooked by the gathering thunderclouds? Would he have felt a little unnerved at being the only person in a large, ostensibly haunted cemetery? What would he make of the flocks of cawing crows that were in the trees?

I don't know what Malinowski would have felt, but by the end of my visit to Evergreen Cemetery I was definitely feeling a little creeped out. I'm happy I went, but I wouldn't want to be stuck there after dark.

Note: I originally posted about Midnight Mary back in 2010, but thought it was worth revisiting the topic since I actually had a chance to visit her grave!

June 21, 2015

Witchcraft in Littleton: "It Was Necessary to Accuse Someone..."

The Salem witchcraft trials weren't the first witch craze in New England, and they weren't the last either. Even after the mania of 1692 New Englanders believed in witchcraft, but happily they were less likely to execute their neighbors for it, as the following story shows.

Note: this story comes from Thomas Hutchinson's 1767 book The History of the Province of Massachusetts-Bay: From the Charter of King William and Queen Mary in 1691, Until the Year 1750.  That's a really long title, isn't it? Hutchinson doesn't name any names in the following account, but he does editorialize and give his opinion.

Back in 1720, a farmer living in Littleton, Massachusetts had three daughters. The oldest girl, who was 11 years old, had an interest in the supernatural and witchcraft. She would often tell stories about ghosts and witches, and became popular for her storytelling.

I guess it is just a short step from telling stories about witches to experiencing witchcraft. Hutchinson writes:

Pleased with the applause, she went from stories she had heard to some of her own framing, and so on to dreams and visions, and attained the art of swooning and of being to appearance for some time breathless. Upon her revival, she would tell of strange things she had met with in this and other worlds. 

It still sounds kind of harmless, right? Many people experience vivid dreams and visions, even to this day, with no harm. Some psychologists, like those who follow Carl Jung, even actively encourage engagement with the inner spiritual world.

Sadly, this was 1720 and not 2015, and no Jungian therapists were available. Soon the girl was convulsing whenever she heard the words "God," "Christ," and "Holy Ghost," and strange noises began to be heard around the house. Stones thrown by unseen hands rained down her family's chimney. It was a classic witchcraft attack, and the girl blamed one of her neighbors, a woman Hutchinson only identifies as Mrs. D__y.

This allegedly witchy neighbor was blamed for all sorts of trouble. Nieghbors found the girl thrashing around in a pond; she said Mrs. D__y had tried to invisibly drown her. The girl was discovered on top of the house; Mrs. D__y had put her there by magic. Bruises and pinch marks appeared on her stomach; Mrs. D__y's specter had attacked.

Having one bewitched daughter must have been bad enough, but eventually the other two daughters in the family also began to exhibit the same strange behaviors. Three bewitched children is beyond the capability of any parent, so they sought professional help. Physicians were called in, but no medical explanation could be found. The citizens of Littleton began to murmur that maybe Mrs. D__y really was a witch...

Just when the town was ready for an old-fashioned witch hunt Mrs. D__y had spoiled the fun by getting sick and dying. No torch-wielding mobs, no trial, no hanging. Nothing. The witch hunt stopped before it even began. The girls recovered and went on with their lives.

Several years passed, and in 1728 the oldest daughter moved to Medford. She was attending Sunday meeting one week when the minister preached the following:

"He that speaketh lies shall not escape."

She felt like the words were directed specifically at her, and after the sermon she approached the minister. She confessed that she had only been pretending to be bewitched. Once her sisters saw how much attention she was getting they joined in too.

The two sisters, seeing her pitied, had become actors also with her, without being moved to it by her, but when she saw them follow her, they all joined in the secret and acted in concert. They had no particular spite against D__y, but it was necessary to accuse somebody...

And that's where the story ends. The whole thing had simply been made up by children and played their parents as fools. The family and their daughters all fade away into obscurity. 

I like to think that even if Littleton did hold a witch trial Mrs. D__y would have been acquitted. After the Salem trials people in Massachusetts had become skeptical about witchcraft, or at least skeptical that it could be proven in court.

I do find the sentence "...but it was necessary to accuse somebody..." kind of chilling. Those little girls knew that it's hard to have witchcraft without a witch to pin it on. Personally, I put witchcraft in the same category with Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts, etc. There might be something behind all these weird phenomena, but we'll never be able to put our finger on exactly what that thing is. The collective unconscious? The Anima Mundi? Who knows? Whatever it is, it certainly isn't the old lady who lives down the street, and once you start ascribing supernatural powers to your neighbors things are bound to get bad.

One more thought. It's interesting that the children were making it all up, but their parents and neighbors were the ones who believed them. We tend to think of children as superstitious and easy to fool, but clearly that wasn't the case in 1720 Littleton. Let's hope things have changed!


The Hutchinson text is quoted in The Penguin Book of Witches (2014) edited by Katherine Rowe.

June 14, 2015

Telling the Bees: An Old Funerary Ritual

I always associate this time of years with bees. Maybe it's because they appear in such large numbers at this time of year, or maybe it's because honey tastes like liquid sunshine. When I was a child I was afraid of being stung, but now that I'm older I'm happy to see the bees going about their work.

The other day I was standing near some window boxes that had lots of lavender growing in them. Swarms of bees were flying around and crawling through the lavender. The ground was covered in pollen they had knocked down. The bees were as busy as bees!

The Native Americans did not keep bees, but the English settlers brought honeybees with them when they came to New England. They were an important part of farm life and in some ways were treated almost as partners in the agricultural endeavor. Unlike other farm animals, the bees worked independently and asked for almost nothing in return.

I think that it's because of this that people in New England used to practice an interesting ritual called "telling the bees." When someone on a farm died, their surviving relatives would be sure to inform the bees that this person had passed away. Otherwise, it was thought that the bees would stop working or possibly even abandon their hive.

Image from Fast Company magazine.

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote about this practice in his 1858 poem "Telling the Bees." After a month away, a man comes to visit the farm where his beloved Mary lives. As he approaches he notices the following:

Just the same as a month before, 
The house and the trees,

The barn's brown gable, the vine by the door,
Nothing changed but the hives of bees.

Before them, under the garden wall,
Forward and back,

Went drearily singing the chore-girl small,
Draping each hive with a shred of black.

Trembling, I listened: the summer sun
Had the chill of snow;

For I knew she was telling the bees of one

Gone on the journey we all must go!

The narrator at first thinks that Mary's elderly grandfather has died, but...

But her dog whined low; on the doorway sill
With his cane to his chin,

The old man sat; and the chore-girl still
Sung to the bees stealing out and in.

And the song she was singing ever since
In my ear sounds on:

"Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!
Mistress Mary is dead and gone!"

(I'm going to pause a moment because I have something in my eye. I shouldn't write about sad topics when I'm tired!)

The tradition of telling the bees came to New England from old England, where it was a common practice. I don't think anyone still does it now, but the ritual was remembered here until the early 20th century. For example, some of the people interviewed for Eva Speare's New Hampshire Folk Tales (1932) claimed their grandparents would tell the bees about deaths in the family.

It was generally believed that if a member of the family died where bees were kept that some other member of the family must go out to the hives and explain the matter to the bees or they were likely to leave the hives and not return. Something black must also be hung upon the hives...

A man who owned several swarms of bees died; the bees ceased working. One of the family went out and told them their master was dead, and read a chapter of the Bible.

The bees went to work.

If at all seems rather gloomy, you'll be happy to know there was a parallel but less common practice of telling the bees when someone got married. In the 1893 April/June issue of The Journal of American Folklore, Pamela MacArthur Cole of East Bridgewater, Massachusetts notes the following:

The little workers were to be informed of the event, and receive a bit of wedding-cake. As members of the family they were entitled to such attentions, and were supposed to resent the neglect of them. 
I started writing about funerals and ended writing about weddings. It sounds like a good way to start the week!

June 09, 2015

Wishes from the Water Dwarf: A Creature from Penobscot Legend

It seems like Bigfoot is the monster most frequently sighted out in the woods these days. He's been seen in every New England state, even Rhode Island. However, in the past a much greater variety of strange creatures could be seen lurking around New England, and many of them are documented in the region's Native American lore.

One of the more interesting creatures was the water dwarf of Penobscot legend. I write in the past tense, implying that the water dwarfs are gone, but that may not be the case. Maybe they are just lying low and keeping out of sight. That might be OK, because seeing a water dwarf often brought trouble.

The Penobscot name for the dwarfs was alambegwinosis, which literally translates to "underwater dwarf man." (That would be an awesome name for a superhero!) Sometimes singly and sometimes in villages, these creatures dwell in deep pools in rivers, or at the bottom of lakes. An alambegwinosis is quite distinctive looking. If you encounter a three-foot tall naked man with long straight hair down to his waist near an isolated deep body of fresh water you've probably stumbled on a water dwarf.

If you do see one you should probably get away as fast as you can. The water dwarfs don't look menacing, but they generally bring bad luck. The anthropologist Frank Speck tells the story of a Penobscot man who was hunting by the shore of frozen lake. When darkness fell the hunter made camp and fell asleep, but was awakened by the sound of someone walking nearby. He stuck his head out of his tent and by the firelight saw an alambegwinosis run away from the camp and jump into a hole in the frozen lake. Several days later the hunter was crossing another frozen lake on his way home when he fell into a hole in the ice and died. The water dwarf had foretold his death.

TRIGGER WARNING (as the kids say these days): Folklore can sometimes be bawdy and crude. If dirty jokes or sexual situations offend you stop reading now and come back next week!

If you help a water dwarf he will grant you three wishes, but they might not work out the way you hope. Speck tells another story of a father, mother and son who were camping by a lake. Shortly after they set up camp a huge storm struck. Thunder shook the sky, and heavy winds churned the lake's waters into foamy waves. When the storm passed the family emerged from their tent and found a small naked man with long hair lying unconscious on the shore. It was an alambegwinosis who had been injured in the storm.

The family took him back to their camp and nursed him back to health. He recovered fully and as he walked back into the lake he granted the family three wishes in gratitude.

A few days later the family broke camp and made their way to a local trading post. They had trapped many animals and hoped to trade their furs for household goods.

When they arrived at the trading post a well-made manufactured broom caught the mother's eye. "Wow!" she said without thinking, "I wish I had that broom." Instantly the broom appeared in her hand. One wish had been used.

Her husband was enraged. "Arrrgh! You wasted one wish on that stupid broom! I wish it was stuck up your arse!" Uttered in anger, his wish unfortunately came true. Two wishes had been used.

Their young son kept a cool head, and wished that the broom was back where it belonged. Instantly it was once again hanging on the wall. The water dwarf's wishes had all been used. 

A few random thoughts on these stories, which are from Frank Speck's 1935 article "Penobscot Tales and Religious Beliefs" in Volume 48 of The Journal of American Folklore.

1. The three wishes gone bad is an old folk motif found in places as diverse as India, Estonia, France and England. A very raunchy version appears in the unexpurgated version of 1001 Arabian Nights. The classic horror story "The Monkey's Paw" is a literary example of the same motif, but the folk versions are usually humorous and serve as warnings against greed and stupidity. Was the motif brought to Maine by English settlers or did it arise independently? There's a good question for someone looking for a thesis topic.

2. It's interesting that the Penobscot family wastes their wishes in a trading post over goods manufactured by whites. Maybe it's a precautionary tale?

3. Finally, circling back to how I started this story: does anyone see water dwarfs these days? I haven't read about any alambegwinosis sightings recently. When it comes to the paranormal I believe you often find only what you're looking for. If you go out looking for Bigfoot, you'll only see Bigfoot. Then again, Bigfoot seems safer than the water dwarfs. He might be scary-looking but at least he doesn't grant wishes...