October 25, 2015

The Modern Fairies of New England: Have You Seen a Pukwudgie?

When the earliest English settlers came to New England they noticed that something was missing from their new home.

Back in merry old England, humans lived in a landscape inhabited by various supernatural entities. Some of them did make their way to New England. For example, there were plenty of witches to persecute here, and somehow the Devil followed the devout Puritans all the way across the Atlantic to their New Jerusalem wilderness. (He's a tricky one!) After a while the landscape also began to fill up with ghosts as the first generation of settlers passed away.

So what was missing? The fairies. In England fairies lurked in the woods, under the hills, and in the barns and fireplaces. Fairies could even be seen walking in the marketplace by those who had the second sight. But here in New England no one saw any fairies.

Several New England authors remarked on this:

  • The novelist and minister Sylvester Judd (1813 - 1855) wrote, "There are no fairies in our meadows, and no elves to spirit away our children." 
  • In Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850),  Reverend Dimmesdale says of his illegitimate daughter: "But how strangely beautiful she looks, with those wild flowers in her hair. It is as if one of the fairies, whom we left in our dear old England, had decked her out to meet us." (Emphasis is mine.)
  • Poet and folklorist John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 - 1892) wrote, "Fairy faith is, we may safely say, now dead everywhere ... It never had much hold upon the Yankee mind, our superstitions being mostly of a sterner and less poetical kind."

Happily, I can say these writers were incorrect. The fairies were biding their time, waiting to find the right shape to show themselves to the new invasive inhabitants of this region.

Of course, the various Indian groups native to New England had experiences with the small magical beings who lived in the forests, but the Indian myths and traditions about these beings were specific to Native American languages and ways of life. They weren't necessarily a good fit for the European-style agricultural and industrial society.

A few of the English settlers had brought their fairy traditions with them, but they never really took hold. When the Irish came they brought even more vibrant fairy beliefs, and some of them took root. For example, the town of Derry in New Hampshire was settled by Scots-Irish immigrants. Derry's Beaver Lake is supposedly inhabited by a fairy named Tsienneto, who helped folk heroes like Hannah Duston and John Stark. Although she has a name that sounds Native American, there is no record of Tsienneto before the Scots-Irish founded Derry. Written records of Tsienneto seem to only date back to the early 20th century. Tsienneto is still known in Derry, but not much beyond that town.

The fairies that are probably best known in New England are the pukwudgies. I'm using the word fairy in its older sense, referring to any magical humanoid being, because pukwudgies are certainly not beautiful winged ballerinas like Tinkerbell. According to legend, the pukwudgies are ugly gray-skinned humanoids that stand two to three feet high and live in wild places. They are often associated with the Hockamock Swamp and the Freetown State Forest in Massachusetts, but they have been seen in other locations as well. Pukwudgies are said to be quite malevolent. For example, they are known to sometimes push unsuspecting hikers off cliffs, and can make things burst into flames.

A quick search of YouTube will show you some videos about pukwudgies. They've been featured on TV shows like Monsters and Mysteries in America. Local paranormal investigators have also posted some interesting videos about these magical little neighbors of ours.

I recently found a nice pukwudgie account in the comments section on Christopher Knowles's blog The Secret Sun. The anonymous commenter writes that he went for a winter hike in the woods near New Hampshire's Pease Air Force Base with his wife, baby and four-year old son. The four-year old ran off the down the path ahead of his parents. When he came back,

He said something like, 'So daddy, I saw a little man over there. He had a basket of candy around his neck, and he wanted me to reach in and take some. But I said no, and that I had to come back to talk to you.'

Well, so that immediately caught my attention, as you might imagine.

The parents were unable to find the little man, and the boy simply said the man had been standing next to one of the trees and that he had skin the color of metal. The parents were creeped out and quickly left the area.

Pukwudgies are said to be creatures from Wampanoag folklore. That is and isn't true. The term pukwudgie is relatively new to New England. Before the Europeans arrived the local Indians used words like makiawisug to describe fairies, who were considered mischievous but not malevolent like the pukwudgies.

According to anthropologist William Simmons, pukwudgie is actually a word that means "little people" or "fairy" in the Ojibwa language. The Ojibwa live in the Midwest and parts of Canada, not New England.

It seems "pukwudgie" was first used to describe New England fairies by the Mashpee chief Clarence Wixon, also known as Red Shell. Wixon was involved in the Pan-Indian political movement and was familiar with Indian myths and legends from across North America, including those of the Ojibwa. He used the word pukwudgie in a tale he told author Elizbeth Reynard, who included it in her 1934 book The Narrow Land: Folk Chronicles of Old Cape Cod. It spread from Reynard's book into common usage.

Just because the word is relatively new to the region doesn't necessarily mean the pukwudgies are. Perhaps they were just waiting for the right time to show themselves. I also think that culture plays a big role in how individuals perceive the supernatural. While the polytheistic Native Americans of New England were able to see the land's spirits as the mischievous or playful makiawisug, modern European Americans who are the product of a monotheistic worldview have a tendency to see supernatural beings as sinister and dangerous. We don't see the playful makiawisug, we see the grim and dangerous pukwudgies. John Greenleaf Whittier was right when he said our superstitions were "of a sterner and less poetical kind."

I will be contributing a chapter about New England fairies to an upcoming book about fairylore. Please contact me through the comments section or my email address if you have seen a fairy in New England, and particularly if you've encountered a pukwudgie. I'd love to hear your story!

October 18, 2015

Harry Main and the Black Cats from Hell

Here's an old ghost story from Ipswich that is perfect as we gear up for Halloween.

Back in the 1600s, a man named Harry Main lived in Ipswich. Harry was not a good man. He was a pirate, a smuggler, and a blasphemer. But worst of all, late in his life he embarked on a career as a ship wrecker.

On dark stormy nights, Harry would light ship beacons on the Ipswich shore, falsely signalling to passing merchant vessels that safe passage lay straight ahead. After the ships wrecked themselves on the treacherous sand bars Harry would salvage any valuable cargo that washed to shore. He left the corpses of the drowned sailors to the gulls.

Harry thought he had a good thing going, but his neighbors eventually learned where he went on those dark nights. They hanged him for his crimes, but God exacted a different form of justice. Harry Main's soul was sentenced to haunt the shores of Ipswich and Plum Island, making chains out of sand for all eternity. It is said that his howls of frustration can still be heard on stormy nights when the wind blows away the chains he has made.

After Harry's death his neighbors wondered what happened to all his wealth. Everyone knew he had accumulated a lot of gold, but nothing had been found when they searched his house. Like all pirates, Harry had buried it somewhere and taken the secret to his grave.

Several years after Harry's death an Ispwich man dreamt he was digging for treasure on a certain hill outside of town. After having the same dream the following two nights the man realized he was having a prophetic dream. He had been shown where the treasure was buried!

The next night after sunset the man stealthily walked to the hill. In addition to his shovel he carried his Bible. He suspected that Harry had not only buried but also magically protected his treasure, as pirates liked to do. He hoped that his Bible would protect him. The man also had heard it said that it was of the utmost importance to remain silent when digging for buried treasure.

In fact, he had once hear an old man at the tavern tell his cronies, "No matter happens when digging for treasure, you have to remain silent - OR ELSE." The cronies had nodded in agreement.

With this warning in mind the man came at last to the hillside and began to dig. The digging was surprisingly easy, and guided by the light of a full moon the man made good progress. In less than two hours he was standing in a deep pit.

His soon excavated a large stone slab and an iron bar that had been buried next to it. Aha! He had found the treasure. He stuck the bar under the stone slab and started to pry it up when he felt something soft rubbing against his leg.

It was a black cat. The man tried to kick it away, but the cat was undeterred. Soon another black cat appeared in the pit, and then another. As he tried again to raise the slab the cats hissed and clawed at him. Up above, more black cats appeared around the rim of the pit, their eyes gleaming orange in the moonlight as they yowled in anger.

Finding himself surrounded by demonic felines the man panicked. He swung a them with his shovel, he pelted them with stones, but more and more cats kept appearing to claw and bite at him. Finally he shrieked, "Scat! Away with you!"

The cats vanished in an instant, but then the man realized what he had done. He covered his mouth to prevent any more sounds from coming out but it was too late. The earth began to tremble and the pit began to fill with icy water. He scrambled up to the surface and watched in horror as the pit collapsed. Within seconds it was gone. The treasure was once again hidden beneath the earth.

The man realized that the treasure was cursed, and vowing to never return to that spot he walked back into town still carrying the iron bar he had uncovered. Perhaps the treasure is still buried there today, waiting for the person brave enough to silently endure an attack by black cats from Hell.

Is there any truth to this story? Maybe. In his 1905 book Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Thomas Franklin Waters wrote that a fisherman named Harry Maine did live in Ipswich in the 1670s and was probably the origin of these legends. As further evidence, for many years an iron bar latching the door of a house was pointed out to visitors. It was the same iron bar the man had found at the bottom of the pit.

Tony and I visited Ipswich while I was researching my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore. We found the spot where Harry Main's house once stood (see above). It is just on a quiet residential street near the river. The lot is private property so please don't trespass! We didn't go looking for the buried treasure...

October 12, 2015

The Witches of Bristol, Connecticut: Witches Rock, Evil Spirits, and Troubles with Oxen

Readers of this blog might know the following things about me: I love stories about witches, and I love stories about weird rocks. This is New England and happily we have plenty of both.

In Bristol, Connecticut, the two are combined at Witches Rock. This is one of the many glacial rock formations that cover our landscape and which are so often the focus of strange stories. (There is in fact a similarly named Witch Rock in Rochester, Massachusetts.)

Witches Rock Road today seems to be a nice residential street, but in the past it was the scene of some serious supernatural shenanigans. According to town historian Bob Montgomery, locals believed that the rock was the meeting place for a group of witches who tended to cause trouble for anyone who crossed them.

For example, a farmer named Elijah Gaylord got into an argument with one of the witches, whose surname was Minor. The source of their disagreement is lost to history, but Goody Minor turned out to be a major pain in the butt. She hexed Elijah Gaylord so that every time his oxen pulled his wagon past the rock the yoke would slip off their necks. Then the oxen would continue down the road, leaving the wagon behind. This went on for quite a while until Gaylord finally moved away. Interestingly, some versions of this story say the witch's name was Granny Walcott, so perhaps there was more than one witch involved?

That story is kind of charming. Another story associated with the rock is a little more gruesome. Gaylord and Minor lived in the 1700s, but apparently weird witchy things continued to happen well into the early 1800s, when a man named Truman Norton lived on Witches Rock Road with his daughter Merilla. They were just your average 19th century Connecticut citizens, but unfortunately one of Merilla's aunts was a witch who put a curse on the young woman. Because of the curse Merilla was tormented day and night with pain, and invisible hands would stick pins into her body.

Norton cared for his daughter the best he could, but he needed assistance so he hired neighbor Seth Stiles to watch over Merilla at night. On his first night on the job Stiles initially just saw Merilla writhe in pain, but then actually saw metal pins appear in her skin. Stiles knew a little bit about magic, so he pulled the pins from her body, tied them in a handkerchief and threw them into the fire. Once the pins were destroyed by the heat the magical assault stopped. From that time on Merilla was freed from her aunt's witchcraft.

How did Stiles trick break the spell? According to old New England folk magic, when a witch curses their victim they set up a magical connection with them. Their evil magic flows through the connection and harms their victim. However, the connection runs in both directions. By throwing the pins on the fire Stiles was able to send heat and pain back along the connection to the witch. The magic spell ended, and the aunt in fact was found horribly burned the next day.

Was the attack on Merilla actually connected to Witches Rock in any way? It's hard to say, but the rock formation remains there even today. It is now in someone's front yard and is private property. Witches Rock Road was featured on TV show about scary streets a few years ago, but the person who owns the rock hasn't reported any supernatural happenings.

While researching Witches Rock I stumbled upon another Bristol witchcraft story, which appears in the anonymously written Bristol Connecticut (in the Olden Times "New Cambridge'), Which Includes Forestville (1907). Connecticut was once part of the Puritan heartland, so its not surprising that a lot of witch stories are found in Bristol.

Here's the story. In the early 1800s, a young Bristol woman was tormented by unseen witches. Elder Wildman, the head of the Baptist church, invited the girl to come live with him, confident that he could end the witchcraft attack. Things didn't quite go the way Wildman planned. Not only could he not cure the girl, he too became "grievously tormented."

At first not everyone in the Baptist church was convinced something supernatural was happening, but they soon became believers. For example, Deacon Button expressed open disbelief, but when he saw his ox dismembered by invisible hands he quickly changed his mind. It sounds like Bristol was a bad place to be an ox...

The daemonic activity died down as suddenly as it started. According to Bristol Connecticut etc., "The witchcraft excitement was begun and kept up by a young man named King, who was studying for the ministry with Elder Wildman. On his departure, the activity of the evil spirits ceased."

King's role in the whole affair is intriguingly vague and open to interpretation. Was King a witch himself? Or was he innocently dabbling in magic and somehow got more than he bargained for? Perhaps he was just a hoaxer knowingly causing trouble? That last one doesn't quite explain how an ox was ripped apart in front of someone, though. 

October 04, 2015

Secrets of the Skull and Bones Tomb

A few months ago I was in charming New Haven, Connecticut for a conference. I managed to visit not just one, but two fantastic cemeteries while I was there. I also saw a few other interesting sites, but had mostly forgotten about my trip until this past Thursday when I was in CVS.

I was stocking up on Halloween candy, but as I strolled down the magazine aisle something caught my eye. It was a magazine called Secret Societies, a special edition of History Classics put out by Harris Publication. Here is the cover:

Creepy! How could I resist? I bought it. The magazine covers a broad array of secret societies, from the mundane (like the Knights of Columbus and the Shriners) to the violently disturbing (the Manson Family, the Heaven's Gate suicide cult, and the People's Temple).

It also covers Yale's Order of the Skull and Bones. I had taken some photos of this society's headquarters while I was in New Haven, and this magazine seemed like a sign from the cosmos that it was time to share them.

First of all, let me say that Skull and Bones is not a violent cult like the Mansons. I just wanted to get that out of the way. However, it's not just your basic fraternal order like the Knights of Columbus either. It is an incredibly exclusive college social club whose alumni include President George W. Bush, his father (the other President Bush), and Secretary of State John Kerry. Other notable alumni have included President William Taft, conservative writer William F. Buckley, Jr., and actor Paul Giamatti. You can see a longer list of members here. Lots of politicians, professional athletes, business moguls and media stars belonged to Skull and Bones when they were Yale students.

Paul Giamatti - he knows the secrets of Skull and Bones!
With such high-powered alumni, speculation about the Order is naturally rampant. The group has been very good about keeping its rituals and activities secret, however, and only members are allowed into the Tomb, the group's ominous looking headquarters on the Yale campus. But here is what is known publicly about Skull and Bones.

The Tomb on Yale's campus

Skull and Bones was founded in 1852 by Yale seniors William Huntingon Russell and Alphonso Taft (father of President Taft). Every spring, fifteen juniors are offered membership on what is known as Tap Night. The juniors are awakened in the middle of the night by a knock on their door, and when they open it they find a stranger shouting "Skull and Bones! Accept or reject?"

Most juniors do accept the offer. After all, according to rumor new members are immediately given $15, 000 and told they will have a lifetime of financial security. I don't know if those rumors are true, but I would accept just to find out what happens inside the Tomb.

New members are put through an initiation ritual that allegedly involves lying in a coffin and reciting their personal sexual history. That sounds kind of tame, but it does involve the symbolism of death and rebirth, and probably builds a certain level of trust among members. Keeping with the rebirth symbolism, members are given new names. Some names repeat for each crop of new initiates. For example, the tallest junior is renamed Long Devil; the shortest Little Devil.

The devilish nicknames fit the spooky atmosphere surrounding the Order. The interior of the Tomb is supposedly decorated in high Gothic style, with lots of bones and armor adorning the halls. The spookiness is also fed by the rumor that members of the order stole Geronimo's skull from his grave and keep it inside the tomb. Another rumor says they also have the skulls of Martin Van Buren and Pancho Villa. It's important to note that the Apache tribe says Geronimo's bones still comfortably reside in Oklahoma. No word on the remains of Martin Van Buren and Pancho Villa...

The Order's insignia is also a little creepy (see above). The number 322 probably refers to the year that the Greek politician and orator Demosthenes committed suicide.

Naturally Skull and Bones has inspired a lot of conspiracy theories. Just look at that list of members! And why all the secrecy! Something weird and sinister must be going on. In the 2004 presidential election, both final candidates were Bonesmen (George W. Bush and John Kerry), which is downright strange. Maybe Skull and Bones actually runs the country!

But then again maybe not. I think a simpler answer is just plain old social hierarchy. Yale is an elite university, and the elite class sends their children to be educated there. When they graduate they achieve positions of prominence and run the country. The Order of Skull and Bones doesn't have any particular power, but the people who become members come from families that do. George W. Bush would have been president even if he weren't a Bonesman and even if he went to another Ivy League school. He comes from a long line of politicians and used those connections to become President. I don't think any secret Skull and Bones rituals guaranteed him the presidency.

But Paul Giamatti - he's another story...