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!

September 13, 2015

America's Stonehenge: "The Most Weird and Fantastic Tales..."

Last weekend Tony and I met our friends David and Wayne at America's Stonehenge in Salem, New Hampshire. What? You didn't know that England's famous megalithic site has a southern New Hampshire cousin? Then read on.

I first visited America's Stonehenge way back in the 1970s when I was a child. At that time it was called Mystery Hill, but the name was changed in 1982 to distinguish it from all the other mysterious hillside attractions across the country. I still remember how impressed I was, particularly by the speaking tube and the sacrificial stone altar (more on that later).

America's Stonehenge is a 105 acre site that is covered with stone structures. There are walls, standing stones, wells, and chambers. Let's face it, there are a lot stone walls in New England, but there aren't that many chambers. And the chambers at America's Stonehenge are really amazing.

According to this site, there are 14 unique chambers. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Some are quite small, like this one David is sitting in:

Others are much more spacious and can fit an adult standing up. One particularly impressive chamber has been named the Oracle Chamber. It's t-shaped, has two entrances, and includes what might be a petroglyph of the Merrimack River in Haverhill (my hometown). One of the strangest features of the Oracle Chamber is a small bed-like chamber inside it. Next to the bed is a small stone tube that leads up to the surface.

This tube has been named the Speaking Tube. It emerges from the Oracle Chamber underneath the Sacrificial Table. The theory is that someone could be hidden inside the Oracle Chamber and speak to religious celebrants gathered around the Sacrificial Table.

At this point the discerning reader will say: "What the heck are you writing about? Sacrifices? Hidden oracle chambers? In southern New Hampshire?"

I will try to explain. America's Stonehenge first appeared in the written records in Edgar Gilbert's 1907 The History of Salem, New Hampshire. It wasn't called by that name, but Gilbert wrote:

JONATHAN PATTEE'S CAVE: He had a house in these woods 70 yrs. ago; took the town paupers before the farm was bought. This is a wild but beautiful spot among rough boulders and soft pines, about which the most weird and fantastic tales might be woven. There are several caves still intact, which the owner used for storage purposes. 

Jonathan Pattee was a cobbler who lived with his family on the site in the 1800s. Please note that Gilbert makes no mention of sacrificial tables or anything of that sort, but the caves (chambers) were still considered noteworthy in 1907. Many Colonial farmers did create stone root-cellars, and one theory is that the Pattees created all the chambers for this and other purposes.

That is the theory professional archaeologists hold, so stop now if you don't want to hear the other, more imaginative theories. But I know you do...

Another theory was developed by William Goodwin after he purchased the hill in the 1930s. Goodwin noticed similarities between the chambers on his property and the ancient structures found in Europe. He first thought they had been built by ancient Norwegians, but later claimed America's Stonehenge had been constructed by ancient Irish monks who made their to New Hampshire centuries before Columbus. Goodwin moved many of the stones to what he believed were their original locations. Goodwin was not an archaeologist (he sold insurance), and many professional archaeologists feel that rather than restoring old structures he actually created most of what can be seen today.

 In the 1970s, Harvard professor Barry Fell became convinced that ancient Phoenicians were responsible for America's Stonehenge. The Phoenicians were famous seafarers and established cities all across the ancient Mediterranean, but could they have really sailed all the way to New Hampshire? Professor Fell and others who subscribe to his theory claim that markings on stones are ancient Punic writing, but others say are simply marks made by 19th century workers who quarried stone. It is important to note that while Fell was indeed a professor at Harvard, his field of study was invertebrate zoology, not history or archaeology.

A more current theory is proposed by author Mary Gage, who argues that America's Stonehenge was actually built by ancient Native Americans. Most historians claim the Indians in this area did not build with stone, but Gage argues that since Indians built stone structures further west it is not impossible that they built them here as well. Carbon dating indicates Native Americans occupied the site about 4,000 years ago, but it is difficult to connect the carbon dated ancient firepits with the stone structures. The firepits could have made by Native Americans many years before America's Stonehenge was built.

The most outlandish theory I have heard about America's Stonehenge (or really any strange stone structure) appears in Jim Brandon's book The Rebirth of Pan. Hidden Faces of the American Earth Spirit. Brandon claims that our planet is a conscious being and is trying to communicate with us. The Earth spontaneously creates things like America's Stonehenge, the Upton Chamber, and Dighton Rock as a way to tell us something. That's right, no human hands were involved in the building of America's Stonehenge. Unfortunately the Earth doesn't speak the same language we do (Brandon says it speaks the language of dreams and the subconscious), so we are unable to understand what is being said.

So many interesting theories, but I think the best way to learn about America's Stonehenge is to experience it. Because whether it was made by a 19th century cobbler or the restless spirit of planet Earth, it is a very cool place to visit. There is just something very impressive about underground chambers made from enormous slabs of stone. I could have spent all day just exploring those tunnels and visiting the standing stones. The cool air, the damp stones, the smell and sound of pine trees blowing in the wind...

 According to my friend David Goudsward, author of H.P. Lovecraft in the Merrimack Valley, it's possible that Lovecraft was inspired to write "The Dunwich Horror" after visiting America's Stonehenge. The stones there certainly could inspire one to ritual action, and the site hosts many Wiccan gatherings during the year.

Wiccans don't practice animal sacrifice, and it's a good thing too. The Sacrificial Table at America's Stonehenge was probably used to make lye in the 19th century, not bleed goats in the name of the Phoenician god Baal. But still, it's nice to dream sometimes.

Special thanks to Tony, David and Wayne for most of these photos!

September 06, 2015

New England Folklore in the Media: Witches, Slang, and the Bridgewater Triangle

There has been some interesting stuff about New England folklore in the media this week.

First off, The New Yorker has a lengthy article about the Salem witch trials. Author Stacy Schiff writes very evocatively, as this paragraph demonstrates:

In isolated settlements, in smoky, fire-lit homes, New Englanders lived very much in the dark, where one listens more acutely, feels most passionately, and imagines most vividly, where the sacred and the occult thrive. The seventeenth-century sky was crow black, pitch-black, Bible black, so black that it could be difficult at night to keep to the path, so black that a line of trees might freely migrate to another location, or that you might find yourself pursued by a rabid black hog, leaving you to crawl home on all fours, bloody and disoriented...

Schiff gives a good overview of the trials, with particular emphasis on the Mather family and on George Burroughs, the ex-Salem minister who was supposedly the ringleader of all the witches.

Illustration from The New Yorker

I'm not sure why the magazine decided to run "Inside the Salem Witch Trials" right now, but I'm glad they did. Most magazines make us wait until Halloween for articles like this.

On a lighter note, Slate published a map showing the top slang words in each state. In New England, the words are:

  • Connecticut - glawackus (a legendary monster)
  • Massachusetts - wicked (very)
  • New Hampshire - poky (eerie or scary)
  • Maine - ayuh (in the affirmative)
  • Rhode Island - cabinet (a milkshake)
  • Vermont - cremee (soft serve ice cream)

I am more familiar with some of these than others. Since I am from Massachusetts the word "wicked" is obviously part of my vocabulary, and I was aware of "ayuh,""cabinet," and "cremee." Maybe these words are used often by residents of their respective states, so I can understand why they might be the top slang words in those states.

I'm not so sure about "glawackus." I know what a glawackus is (a legendary creature that terrorized Glastonbury in the mid-20th century), but is it really the top slang word in Connecticut? And I'm confused by "poky" as the top slang word from New Hampshire. I just don't think I've ever heard it used to mean scary, only to mean slow.

The authors explain how they made the map:

First, we called up some linguists who helped us make an initial list of unique words that are in one way or another associated with a particular state. That got us off to a coruscant start (linguists!). Next we researched online message board discussions about zany terms that have gained popularity in different states. We also surveyed friends and colleagues on the words they most associate with their home states and polled Slate readers on Facebook. Ultimately, we built up groupings of anywhere from five to 10 viable options for each state and then, well, argued a lot. The competition was fierce, the results certain to be controversial.

There are currently 476 comments on the article, so I think they have struck a wicked big nerve.

Last but not least, you can watch a documentary tonight (September 5) about one of New England's strangest areas, the Bridgewater Triangle. It airs on Destination America at 10:00 pm and is called America's Bermuda Triangle. It is an edited version of local filmmaker Aaron Cadieux's film The Bridgewater Triangle, which I reviewed last year. The original is informative and spooky, so don't miss this chance to learn about a giant paranormal hot-spot right in our backyard.