August 30, 2015

Is There A Ghost In This Photo?

More specifically, is there the ghost of a witch in this photo?

A few months ago I wrote about Mary Nasson of York, Maine. According to legend, Mary was an herbalist accused of witchcraft and her ghost is said to haunt York's Old Burying Ground. The legend about Mary Nasson's ghost has been around since at least the middle of the 19th century.

Recently, a man named Steve (who reads this blog) was visiting York's Wild Kingdom zoo with his family. His daughter posed for a photo in one of those cutouts where you stick your face through a hole. She was alone, but after they took the photo Steve's wife noticed two faces were visible: their daughter's, and the ghostly white face of a woman.

Please note, I have blurred out Steve's daughter's face for privacy reasons. 

Steve told me that when he saw the face he thought of Mary Nasson's ghost. She supposedly haunts York and possibly was an herbalist, so he thought perhaps her ghost would be attracted to flowers and butterflies.

First off, I have to say thank you to Steve for sending me this photo. It is great! I think it's the creepiest (and therefore best) ghost photo I have seen in a long, long time.

And I also have to thank Steve for sending me another photo that put's everything into context:

As you can see, and as Steve mentioned in his email to me, the face is caused by the white tarp behind the photo cutout. This is a really good example of pareidolia.

Pareidolia is the tendency of the human mind to see patterns in inanimate objects. In particular, it is the tendency to see sentient, living beings in inanimate objects. For example, think of New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain, where people thought a rock formation looked like a human face, or of people who see the face of Jesus in burnt toast. Those are cases of pareidolia.

Many years ago when I was in grad school I read an entire book about pareidolia and anthropomorphism called Faces In The Clouds. The author, Stewart Elliott Guthrie, claims that people are hardwired to see living creatures in the world around them. This is an evolutionary advantage. Is that a stick in your yard, or a snake? It's better to think it is a snake and be wrong than to instantly assume it is a stick. Is that a bear in the dark woods, or just a boulder? A bear might attack you, so it is safer to think it is a bear. You get the idea. Pareidolia helped our ancestors to survive in a dangerous world.

In this case, the pareidolia leads us to ask "Is that a person in the photo, or just some white tarp?" Our brains are wired to see the white tarp as a person.

The word pareidolia comes from the Greek para (meaning "instead of" or "false") and eidolon (meaning "image"). The word eidolon has some interesting supernatural and religious connotations. It was sometimes used to mean ghost or phantom in ancient Greek, and our English word idol is derived from the word eidolon. Depending on your perspective, an idol is either the image of a god, or the false image of a god. It all depends on what you believe about gods.

We all interpret the world around us. Our minds need to filter out most of the sensory stimulus around us or we would be unable to function. So I think when you encounter a case of pareidolia it is useful to ask "Why am I experiencing this here and now?"

If you are a hardcore scientific rationalist, a la Mr. Spock from Star Trek, you might answer, "Oh, that ancient part of my brain I inherited from my hominid ancestors is acting up again. Silly me, there's no face in that tarp."

I am not a hardcore rationalist all the time, and I don't think anyone really is. There are times where I am all about the science, and there are times where I am completely irrational. If I had been reading about Mary Nasson, the ghost witch of York, Maine, and then took a photo in York and saw what appears to be a ghostly face, I might answer, "Hey, maybe that is the ghost I've heard about!"

Of course, it is clearly the tarp. But couldn't a ghost or other spiritual entity manipulate a tarp to show their face? It is the same principal behind the Virgin Mary manifesting in a grilled cheese sandwich, or the monkey god Hanuman manifesting in the bole of a tree in Singapore. We live in a material world, and spiritual entities manipulate matter to send messages to perceptive people. 

Well, at least that's the theory. If you don't believe in gods or ghosts it's all just caused by faulty perception. This is not a debate that I can resolve in a single blog post or probably ever...

If you go to York's Wild Kingdom looking for the ghost you might be disappointed. Steve sent one final picture and the face is not visible. Had it only been the wind or the angle of the camera that caused the face to appear? Or maybe Mary Nasson had accomplished her ghostly chore and gone on her way.

August 23, 2015

Melonheads Part II: Why So Many Big Heads?

This is the second of two posts about the Melonheads. Read part one here!

One of the many interesting things about Melonheads is that in New England the legend is only found in Connecticut. But it is also found in the Midwest, particularly in Michigan and Ohio. Much like their New England cousins, these Melonheads also lurk in the woods and delight in terrifying teenagers.

In Ohio, the legend is found in the rural areas outside of Cleveland, and the creatures' origin is ascribed to a mysterious man named Dr. Crowe. Dr. Crowe allegedly experimented on children that he either kidnapped or acquired from a local insane asylum. He imprisoned them in his secluded house, where he injected them with chemicals and possibly radioactive materials. These painful experiments caused them to mutate. Eventually the children rebelled and killed their tormentor. They escaped into the surrounding woods where they have remained to this day.

There are several versions of the Dr. Crowe legend. In some he has a kindly wife who treats the children well, and the mutant children only rebel against him when they see him abuse her. In another, he actually experiments on children with hydrocephalus. Hydropcephalus is a real medical disorder that causes fluid to build up in the skull, giving its sufferers enlarged heads. Let's be clear, though: hydrocephalus does NOT make anyone into an insane monster.

In Michigan, the Melonheads are said to have either escaped or been released from an insane asylum near the Felt Mansion in Ottawa County. They didn't wander far from their old home, and now lurk in the woods surrounding the mansion.

Melonhead illustration from Joseph Citro's Weird New England.

I don't know why the Melonhead legend is only found in these three parts of the country. Did it spread from New England to the Midwest, or did it happen in the opposite direction? It's a good topic for a folklore master's thesis, I suppose. I do know that the legends in all three areas have one thing in common: they use the language of science to explain where the Melonheads came from. Inbreeding, evolution, mutation, psychology, radiation - these are all terms from the physical and social sciences. They give the Melonheads an aura of plausibility.

Ghosts, witches, vampires, fairies, werewolves - these creatures are all supernatural in origin. We live in a scientific age, so we deserve scientific monsters. The Melonheads are one of them.

Extraterrestrial aliens are another monster of the scientific age, and it's interesting how similar they are in appearance to the Melonheads. Although the Melonheads are feral and bestial, both they and the gray aliens often share a similar physical morphology. They are short, thin, and have really big heads.

Gray aliens.
A monster was seen in Dover, Massachusetts who also had the same physical appearance. This was the infamous Dover Demon, who terrorized several teenagers in 1977. Like the Melonheads and the gray aliens, the Demon had a disproportionately large head and a very small body. Its eyes also glowed orange when lights shone on them. In Connecticut, some people have said the Melonheads' eyes glow orange as well.

The Dover Demon!

The Dover Demon was never quite categorized as either supernatural or scientific, but in earlier eras, little supernatural monsters with large heads were also said to lurk in the woods. The fairies, gnomes and dwarves of European legend often were described this way. In Connecticut, the Mohegan Tribe has the legend of the makiawisug, small magical people who live in the forests. They are often called pukwudgies these days by paranormal investigators, and illustrations show them with small bodies and large oversized heads.

Illustration by Lupi, used without permission.

Fairies, gnomes and pukwudgies are not monsters of science, but they share similar traits with the Melonheads. They dwell outside the fringes of our civilized world, terrorizing those who trespass on their territory. One key difference is that there are ways to placate the supernatural creatures who live in the woods, such as leaving them offerings of food and milk. There is no way to interact socially with the Melonheads. They simply emerge from their hiding places and terrify trespassers. Some accounts from Connecticut say the Melonheads abduct lost hikers and transform them into new Melonheads; fairies and aliens also enjoy abducting humans. 

So what does all this mean? There are some practical, "commonsense" explanations for the Melonheads. Michigan's Felt Mansion was a seminary for boys in the 1940s, and one man who studied there claims that the local townies called the seminarians "melon heads" because they were so educated. (Egghead is a more common derogatory term for the educated, but you get the point.) In the book Weird U.S., writer Ryan Orvis claims to have met an Ohio man who used to scare teenagers out parking in cars at night when he was a kid. A friend who helped him had hydrocephalus, and supposedly this led to the legend of the Melonheads. Similarly, perhaps random encounters with hydrocephalic individuals cruelly gave rise to the legend.

I suppose any of these origins are plausible, but they don't explain the particular form the legend took or why it persists. It's a long road from someone being called a "melon head" to stories about cannibalistic mutants that live in the woods. Maybe there is something primitive deep inside us that fears the darkness outside our little circle of light and knows that monsters are out there waiting for us. It might not be rational, but I think the feeling is persistent and powerful.

That still doesn't explain why so many of these monsters have a particular shape though, does it? All these creatures are childlike and sometimes almost embryonic in appearance. That doesn't really seem like a shape that people would inherently find frightening.

If you like supernatural or paranormal explanations, maybe you're inclined to believe there is some force (or some entity) out there that takes this shape repeatedly over the centuries, materializing as small big-headed monsters to scare the pants off us before disappearing into the darkness. Right now sitting here at my computer, I don't find that explanation too compelling, but if you bring me out into the woods at night I might just change my mind.

August 16, 2015

Melonheads Part I: A Trip Down Dracula Drive

If you ever travel the back roads of Connecticut's Fairfield County late at night, you might see an old blue Ford Granada barreling down the road. In 2015 Granadas are officially antique cars, but that's not what makes this car so unique. It's remarkable for the the people - or creatures? - that ride in it.

Back in the 1980s, a group of girls from Notre Dame High School in Fairfield decided to go out joyriding after a Friday night football game. Their names: Megan, Sue, Kim, Deb, Jen and Karen. Just a group of all-American girls looking for harmless fun, they got into Deb's blue Granada and set off into the dark night.

After driving around for a while they decided to go someplace spooky: Velvet Street in neighboring Trumbull. The locals had given Velvet Street the nickname Dracula Drive because of the strange things that supposedly happened there. Megan told her friends that strangest of all, little monstrous humanoids with huge heads were said to live in the woods surrounding Dracula Drive. Why not try to find them?

The girls drove down Dracula Drive and parked the car. They left the headlights and climbed out into the cool autumn air. The woods were very still and very, very dark. Other than the headlights there was no illumination - no streelights, no houses nestled among the trees. The girls were alone in the night-time woods.

Laughing with nervous energy they started to walk down the road, hoping yet fearful of seeing the monsters who supposedly lived in the woods. After walking a couple hundred feet they heard the car door open and slam behind them. The engine started and the car barreled down the road towards them. Someone had stolen Deb's car!

The girls jumped into the woods to avoid the car as it charged towards them. The Granda's thieves were illuminated by the interior light. They were the size of children with disproportionately large heads and were clad in dirty rags. Their eyes glowed with orange light, and they cackled wildly as they drove past the girls. The tail lights disappeared into the distance.

Megan, Deb and their friends had found what they were looking for. They had found the Melonheads.

I first read about the Melonheads in Joseph Citro's Weird New England, which is where the story about the stolen car comes from. After doing some research, I learned two things. First, Melonhead legends are very localized in New England. Stories about Bigfoot, ghosts, witches and UFOs can be found everywhere in this region, but you'll need to go to the Nutmeg State to encounter Melonheads. (Melonhead legends are also found in Ohio and Michigan, but more on that later.)

Second, the legend is not that old, at least in New England terms. Some of our legends go back to the first English settlers or even to the Algonquin Indians. Melonhead stories can only be traced back to the 1960s, and don't appear in older collections of New England legends like Botkin's Treasury of New England Folklore or Dorson's Jonathan Draws the Longbow.

Melonheads are small, spindly little humanoids with heads the size of melons. But what exactly do they do? Mostly they terrorize teenagers, as so many American monsters do. The Melonheads lurk in the rural areas of Connecticut where they live a feral lifestyle, sustaining themselves by eating small animals, stray cats, and human flesh (when given the opportunity). A hiker gone missing in the woods? A runaway teen who never comes home? Blame the Melonheads. Some people say they eat anyone they catch, while others say they do something even worse: turn them into Melonheads. While that seems far-fetched, some people also claim the Melonheads communicate by telepathy, so if they are psychic they may have powers unknown to the average human.

Several towns in Connecticut have roads that pass through Melonhead territory. Velvet Street (aka Dracula Drive) in Trumbull and Monroe is the most famous, but other towns have their own special streets. Shelton's Saw Mill City Road, Milford's Zion Hill Road, and Marginal Road in New Haven are just a few of the streets where Melonheads lurk.

Where did they come from? One origin story ties the Melonheads to New England's Puritan past. Way, way back in the 1600s a family from the Trumbull area was accused of witchcraft by their town's elders. The family was banished into the surrounding wilderness, where it was assumed they would starve to death. They didn't. They survived by hunting and gathering, and when their young children reached maturity the brothers and sisters interbred. The family remained isolated in the woods, mutating from generations of inbreeding and a diet of wild animal flesh, but increasing their numbers to become the Melonhead tribe people encounter today.

An alternative story claims the Melonheads are really escapees from a mental asylum. According to this version of the legend, an asylum operated in the area from the 1860s to the 1960s, but mysteriously burned to the ground one day. Every staff member and most of the inmates perished, but a few were never accounted for. Locals claim they escaped into the woods, where they interbred and became the feral Melonheads.

I am not a debunker. I don't think it is an interesting or fruitful activity, and I don't want to discount what people experience. However, even if people are encountering something strange in the Connecticut woods, I don't think these two stories are historically true. There's no record of a disastrous insane asylum fire in the area, and there aren't any records of people being banished for witchcraft. People found guilty of witchcraft were flogged, jailed, or even executed, but they weren't usually banished.

The forests in southern New England are not old growth forests. They haven't been here for 350+ years. Most of the original forests in Connecticut were cut down to carve out farms, and only started to take over again in the 19th century when people abandoned the farms for the mill towns or moved out west to more fertile lands in New York and Ohio. In other words, I don't think there have been enough woods for a family of inbred monsters to hide in for three consecutive centuries.

But, having said that, I still think something interesting is happening with the Melonhead legends, and I'll write about that next week. Stay tuned!

*** UPDATE: Part two now online! ***

August 09, 2015

Is The Scarlet Letter A True Story?

I was on vacation last week, and what book is better for beach reading than Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter? Secret sins, illegitimate children, adultery, repressive Puritans, and possible supernatural shenanigans - it has everything you want in a summer book.

I hadn't read The Scarlet Letter in many years, and one thing I had forgotten is that the first chapter is a really long autobiographical essay about the time Hawthorne spent working at the Salem Customs House. Unless you are into the office dynamics of 19th century bureaucracy (and don't be ashamed if you are), this chapter is pretty dry.

Demi Moore in The Scarlet Letter.

However, it ends with Hawthorne describing how he found an embroidered letter "A" wrapped in an old document in the Customs House. Hawthorne learns the letter was placed there by a previous employee, Surveyor Pue, who had died suddenly before the Revolution. The document contains the story of Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter, and Hawthorne claims his novel is merely an expanded version of it.

In short, he claims The Scarlet Letter is a true story: should be borne carefully in mind, that the main facts of that story are authorized and authenticated by the document of Mr. Surveyor Pue. The original papers, together with the scarlet letter itself, - a most curious relic, - are still in my possession, and shall be freely exhibited to whomsoever, induced by the great interest of the narrative, may desire a sight of them.

Unfortunately, this isn't true. Hawthorne never found a scarlet letter at the Customs House, so I am not sure what he told people who asked to see it. He simply used this literary device to make his story seem more authentic, just as he incorporated real people (such as Governor Bellingham and the accused witch Anne Hibbens) into the narrative.


There is a nugget of truth behind The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne and her illegitimate daughter Pearl never existed but Hawthorne, who read extensively about Puritan history, may have based his novel on the story of Mary Bailey Beadle.

Mary Bailey emigrated to Kittery, Maine in the 1600s. She married a local fisherman named Robert Beadle and had two children with him. Robert died five years after their marriage, and Mary took a position as a live-in housekeeper with Stephen Batchelder, a retired minister in his 80s. (Mary was only in her 20s at the time.) Batchelder was a somewhat controversial figure. He had left England for religious freedom, but found the Puritans in New England even more repressive than the British king. He made many enemies among the local Puritans with his liberal approach to theology, and they were determined to make his life miserable.

Although there was no romantic relationship between Mary and the minister, gossip spread that they were living in sin, and the local authorities fined them 10 pounds for living together unmarried. To quell the rumors Batchelder said that he and Mary had been secretly married. This doesn't really seem like a good plan, and unsurprisingly it didn't quite work out. They were instead ordered to pay a fine of 5 pounds (for not recording their marriage) but Mary was to pay a much greater price.

While working for Batchelder, she began a secret affair with George Rogers, a neighbor nearer her age. The affair became public in 1651 when Mary became pregnant with his child. The court at York, Maine delivered the following verdict:

We do present George Rogers and Mary Batcheller, the wife of Mr. Stephen Batcheller, minister, for adultery. It is ordered that Mrs. Batcheller, for her adultery, shall receive forty stripes save one, at the first town meeting held at Kittery, 6 weeks after her delivery, and be branded with the letter A.

Rogers was also flogged. Their affair ended, and Mary and Batchelder tried repeatedly to divorce, but for many years the local court vindictively would not allow it. Their divorce was only granted when Mary traveled to Boston to plead her case. Batchelder by this time had returned to England, and died seventeen days after the divorce announcement.

Despite the scandal and being branded, in 1657 she married a man named Thomas Turner. The rest of her life was relatively peaceful, and she died in 1685 at the age of sixty-three.

So there's the story that may have inspired Hawthorne to write The Scarlet Letter. The Puritans in his novel seem cruel, but the punishment that was inflicted on Mary Bailey Beadle was actually much crueler than the one inflicted on Hestery Prynne. Hester merely had to wear an embroidered letter A, while Mary had one branded into her flesh. Sometimes truth is even grimmer than fiction.

I found a lot of my information about Mary Bailey Beadle on this site and this site

August 01, 2015

Old Nabbie: Witchcraft In Wells, Maine

Old Nabbie.

That's a name that rolls off the tongue. Say it out loud: "Old Nabbie." It's a great name for a gold prospector in a Hollywood movie, or maybe it's the name of a farmer's beloved cow.

In reality, Old Nabbie was the name of an alleged witch in Wells, Maine. I just recently found her story and I can't get her name out of my head. Hence, this blog post.

Old Nabbie's story appears in an 1892 book called Witchcraft Illustrated by Henrietta Kimball. The full title is Witchcraft Illustrated. Witchcraft to Be Understood. Facts, Theories and Incidents, with a Glance at Old and New Salem. With Its Historical Resources. That's a really long title, and doesn't roll off the tongue the way Old Nabbie does.

Witchcraft Illustrated is kind of a strange book. In has stories about voodoo, poetry about witches, and theories about how witchcraft works. It has witch stories from Continental Europe and England, and a lot of information about Rosicrucians. Henrietta Kimball seems to have pulled the book together from many disparate sources.

However, the book does have a short chapter about Old Nabbie, a witch that Kimball's grandmother knew in Wells, Maine. Kimball writes:

Nabbie, in the days when a sour visage, a red petticoat, and a black petticoat were sufficient to ruin the character of a Christian, added to these ungodly qualities the offence of living alone in a small black house, untidily kept, and the habit of steeping herbs. 

According to Kimball's grandmother, Nabbie's spirit could assume the shape of a black hog. This animal was often seen entering Nabbie's house, and her neighbors assumed it was the witch's spirit returning from causing mischief.

The following illustrates the type of mischief they believe Nabbie caused. One day a woman in Wells was having trouble churning her butter. No matter how long or vigorously she churned the butter wouldn't come together. Clearly, she thought, this must be witchcraft.

Surely this was the work of the devil; and with savage yet solemn determination to be even with her tormentors, she seized the churn with stout arms and emptied its contents into the fire. 

The woman then made her way to Old Nabbie's home. When she entered the witch's hovel, she found what she expected. Nabbie was covered in home-made bandages, and the witch explained that she had fallen into the fire. The woman took this as proof that Nabbie had been the one bewitching her butter.

Kimball goes on to write that Nabbie recovered from her burns, and when she died years later was given a Christian burial. Maybe her reputation for being a witch had faded by that time?

This is a classic witch story and illustrates three things:

1. Witches were blamed for all kinds of domestic problems. The loom doesn't work? Blame a witch. Your cow won't give milk? Blame a witch. Your baby is sick? Blame a witch. Witches were a way to explain why bad things happened to good people.

2. The story also illustrates the coincidences that were used to determine who was a witch. Cooking was not an easy task in the Colonial era. Women cooked over open hearths. They wore long skirts and had to handle heavy iron pots. I read somewhere that pots routinely weighed 30 pounds or more, and sometimes women's clothes caught on fire. If a neighbor had suffered some burns after you threw your bewitched butter into the fire, she was obviously the witch who had been hexing it.

3. Finally, it illustrates how grateful I am to the people who read this blog. Someone named Nicole emailed me asking if I could help her find a certain witch book she remembered from childhood. I couldn't, but she told me about Witchcraft Illustrated. Thanks again Nicole! If anyone ever has interesting stories to share or has questions, please email me. My address is given in the "About Me" section of this blog.