November 29, 2015

Boston's Haunted Gay Bar?

My last few posts have been about topics deep in New England's historic past, so today I'm shaking things up and writing about a more modern concern: does Boston have a haunted gay bar?

It's an interesting question. According to experts in ghostly matters, Boston is a well-haunted city. We're an old city in American terms, and we've had a rich history. Lots of wonderful and exciting things happened here, as did many violent and unpleasant things. Massacres, witch hangings, pirate executions, and weird murders are just a few of the grisly things that have happened here.

Those are exactly the type of conditions that should lead to lots of ghosts (if you believe in them). From my somewhat limited understanding of the topic, ghosts are usually the lingering souls of people who either died in some horribly traumatic way or are the souls of people who have some unfinished business. I do think there's some discussion in the paranormal and occult communities about whether a ghost is a person's actual soul, or perhaps just some kind of spiritual echo left behind after a traumatic or powerful event. In the latter scenario, an individual's soul moves on after death but they leave a psychic impression behind, which repeats certain actions over and over.

But I digress into theoretical matters. Whatever ghosts are, Boston allegedly has haunted houses, haunted dormitories, haunted theaters, and a haunted hotel. It might also have a haunted gay bar: Jacques Cabaret in Bay Village.

Established in 1938 as your standard straight bar, Jacques became a gay bar in 1940. In the 1960s and early 1970s it was primarily a bar for lesbians, but at some point it became cabaret featuring drag shows. It still hosts drag shows today. Tony and I used to go there quite often in the 1990s. The drinks were cheap and the shows were funny. The performers always said "The more you drink the better we look!" and there was a clear correlation between our alcohol consumption and enjoyment of the drag show. These days the shows at Jacques are quite popular with bachelorette parties.

Although my liver was often haunted with regret the morning after, I never encountered a ghost while visiting Jacques. Perhaps I am not on the right psychic wavelength, because it seems several people have reported ghostly encounters.

One of these is reported in my friend Sam Baltrusis's 2012 book Ghosts of Boston. In an interview with Baltrusis, the comedian Jim Lauletta claimed that he encountered something unusual while performing at the club in 2010. When descending the stairs into the basement one night he felt an unusual energy and thought he saw someone out of the corner of his eye. When he looked again the "someone" was gone.

Sylvia Sidney

After Lauletta said the energy felt like it had a "bit of an attitude," Jacques's manager suggested it might be the ghost of Sylvia Sidney, the bar's most famous performer. A drag pioneer known as the "Bitch of Boston," Sidney eschewed the gentle femininity most early drag performers cultivated and instead indulged in crude humor. Sidney died in 1998 at the age of 68, so perhaps her ghost still wants another moment in the spotlight. If you're feeling brave but don't want to summon Sidney's ghost, you can watch one of her performances on YouTube. Be warned: they're full of toilet humor, sex jokes, racial slurs, and nose-picking. Oh, and a really dirty story about Nat King Cole.

I don't believe that Sidney died in a particularly traumatic way, but her ghost may not be the only one haunting Jacques. According to a rumor that has circulated for many years, the bar may also be haunted by victims of the infamous and tragic Cocoanut Grove fire.

The Cocoanut Grove was a popular Boston nightclub located near Jacques on Piedmont Street. On November 28, 1942 the bar was filled with an estimated 1,000 people when a fire broke out. The flames spread quickly as they ignited flammable decorations, and the main exit became blocked as patrons tried to escaped through the club's revolving doors. Other exits had been locked earlier that night by the management to prevent people from sneaking in, while still other doors only opened inwards and were blocked as people fell against them. By the time the fire ended 492 people were dead, making it the second most deadly nightclub fire in the United States. The club's permitted capacity was only 460.

What's the connection to Jacques? Well, according to longstanding rumors in the gay community, Jacques was used as a temporary morgue for the victim's bodies. It is not proven, but is entirely possible. Photos show the bodies being laid out on Piedmont Street so it's not inconceivable that the police would have used a nearby bar as well. According to the rumor some of the victims still haunt the place where their bodies rested.

An interesting fact: an older friend of mine said he heard the rumor from Sylvia Sidney herself. Did she believe it herself or was it just part of her act? We'll probably never know, unless Sidney tells us the truth from other side.


In addition to Ghosts of Boston, I found information for this post in the History Project's Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland (1998). 

November 23, 2015

The Devil and Jonathan Moulton

I was going to write something about Thanksgiving this week, but I found myself inspired to write about something the exact opposite: the Devil. Thanksgiving is about gratitude, sharing and love. The Devil is about greed, hatred, and trickery. 

The Devil is one of the major figures in early New England folklore. It shouldn't really be a surprise, given that this area was colonized by God-fearing Puritans, and the corollary of being God-fearing is being Devil-fearing. He was supposedly always lurking around, waiting to tempt people into evil. The Puritans thought he was the master of the Salem witches, and probably the secret leader of the local Indian tribes as well.

After the witch trials ended the Devil receded a little from the public mindset, but he was still there in the shadows, biding his time. He was surprisingly easy to summon. All one had to do was say the Lord's Prayer backwards and he would appear, ready to make a bargain.

That bargain. There are lots of stories about the Devil's bargains. Probably the most famous is "The Devil and Daniel Webster" by Stephen Vincent Benet, with Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker" a runner up. Both are set in New England, and both involve the central conundrum of Devil folk stories: if you make a deal with the Evil One, can you get out of it?

Benet's and Irving's stories are both fiction, but they answer that question in different ways. Benet's Daniel Webster is able to wrest his client's soul from the Devil's grasp. In Irving's tale, miserly Tom Walker is dragged off to hell despite his best efforts.

In New England oral folklore, the answer is also split. Some humorous tales tell of crafty New Englanders cheating the Devil, or even hint that the Devil is just a hallucination caused by heavy drinking. Others end more grimly, with proud sinners getting their bloody due.

All of which leads us to the topic of this week's post: General Jonathan Moulton (b.1726 - d. 1787). Moulton was a key figure in the early history of New Hampshire. He led troops at the battle of Louisburg in the French and Indian War, helped defeat the British at Saratoga during the American Revolution, and became a friend of George Washington. In between all the heroism he managed to marry two women, father fifteen children, and start a silversmithing company that survives today as Towle Silver.

And, according to legend, he sold his soul to the Devil.

The story goes something like this. Although Moulton was successful and quite wealthy, he always craved more gold. It was all he thought about, and it haunted his dreams day and night. Sensing this, the Devil came one night to Moulton's house, appearing as a man clad in black velvet.

After some haggling, Moulton and the Devil agreed to the following bargain. One the first day of each month, Moulton would hang his boots by the fireplace as if to dry them. The Devil would then materialize on the roof and pour gold coins down the chimney into the boots. After a set number of years, the Devil would come to take Moulton's soul.

Eager to get the most gold that he could, Moulton purchased an enormous pair of thigh-high boots and hung them by the fireplace. For several years things went well. Each month the Devil poured gold coins into Moulton's over-sized boots. Moulton's wealth grew and grew.

But the more gold he got, the more he wanted. One day as the Devil poured coins down the chimney he noticed that the boots were taking more coins than usual. He poured and poured but still the boots didn't seem to be filling up. Jumping down to the ground, the Devil looked in the window to see that Moulton had cut the soles off his boots. The entire room was filled with gold coins.

Furious at being tricked, the Devil snapped his fingers and cast a ball of fire at Moulton's house, which went up like a pile of dry tinder. Moulton and his family escaped but their home was completely destroyed. When the embers finally cooled Moulton dug through the ruins for the gold. Melted gold was still gold, after all. But he didn't find a single speck. The Devil had taken it all back to Hell with him.

I suspect people told this tale was about Moulton because they were jealous of his wealth. He was a successful silversmith, a successful farmer, and well-connected politically. Claiming his wealth was the result of a Devilish bargain was a clever way to cast aspersions on someone's reputation. It worked, because I think Moulton is better known today for this legend than for anything else he did.

It looks like Moulton was really not popular with his neighbors in Hampton, New Hampshire. For example, during a dispute with another farmer Moulton's barn mysteriously burned down four times. That's right, four times, and no one was ever caught. In 1759, Moulton's house also burned down, which is an interesting parallel with the house fire in the story. (All his family and servants escaped, and Moulton built an even larger mansion.)

People may have had good reason to dislike him. A 1909 article by F.B. Sanborn in The Granite Monthly notes that Moulton was something of a loan shark in Hampton and lent money at high rates to his neighbors. This same article claims that even during his life people in Hampton thought he was in league with the Devil, and at the moment of his death "Lydia Blaisdell, a hag whom I remember in her disgraced old age" saw the Evil One fly off with Moulton's body. The people of Hampton supposedly rejoiced when they learned of his death.

The Devil probably didn't carry Moulton off to Hell, but it's not entirely clear what did happen to his body. Wikipedia states it was stolen by someone after his death. Did bitter neighbors get their final revenge? Maybe, or maybe it was buried in an unmarked grave on his property, as the Hampton library claims.

To wrap this up, I'd like to point out that the Devil basically acts like Santa Claus in this story. Moulton hangs his boots by the fireplace, and the Devil fills them with goodies via the chimney. The legend probably dates back to before Santa Claus was introduced to the United States, but I suspect the folk motif of hanging boots to be filled by magical creatures is very old.

November 15, 2015

Old New England Pie Crust: Tough Recipes for Tough People

My mother has always made the same Thanksgiving menu, consisting of turkey, squash, potatoes, turnip, stuffing and cranberry sauce. Appetizers might vary, but the main meal always remains the same. It's the same menu that her mother made as well.

Thanksgiving has its roots in the old New England Puritan feast days, and it's surprising how closely my mother's menu matches what people would have eaten three hundred years ago. I'm descended from relatively recent immigrants, but somehow this was the menu that my Quebecois grandmother learned to cook.

Dessert always consists of the same three pies: squash, mincemeat, and apple. Again, these are the pies that my grandmother always made. Why squash instead of pumpkin? I have no idea. Thank God that the One Pie company still makes canned squash. When they stop we might need to abandon the squash pie for pumpkin.

This year I'll be helping out my mother by baking the squash pie. She always makes her pie crust with flour, oil and water. It makes a very delicate crust, but is hard to roll out. I make my crust with shortening, flour, and butter, which is easier for me to handle.

I can hear you asking, "What does all this have to do with New England folklore?"

Pies as a form of food are very, very old. There are recipes for pie like dishes from ancient Rome and Egypt. In Medieval England, pies usually contained a mix of sweet and savory ingredients. Mix together some fish, some fowl, some game, some vegetables and some fruit and voila! A pie. Although the ingredients have changed over time, the basic concept has remained the same: food baked inside a pastry crust.

The pie crusts of old were generally not the tender, flaky delights that we experience today. Whether as butter, oil or shortening, fat is inexpensive to buy these days. In the past that was not the case, and many people made their pie crusts just out of flour and water. Fat adds tenderness to the pastry, so these fat-free crusts were quite tough.

The pie crusts in Colonial New England were really, really tough. Rye grows better in our climate than wheat, so rye flour was the most commonly used flour. Rye flour is much harder than wheat flour, so imagine making a fat-free rye flour pie crust. It was probably like edible ceramic.

You may think I exaggerate the toughness, but it was noted by several authors. In the 1500s this type of dough was called "strong dough." The English cookbook author Hannah Glasse included the following instructions in 1747's The Art of Cookery: "First make a good standing crust, let the Wall and Bottom be very thick..." If I'm not misinterpreting her, it sounds like the crust can stand up on it's own.

The Swedish minister Israel Acrelius wrote in 1759 that the crust "of a house pie, in country places ... is not broken even if a wagon wheel goes over it." Acrelius was writing about Delaware, and probably exaggerating a little, but you get the picture.

Strong pie crusts also figure into Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Oldtown Folks (1869), which is set in late 1700s Massachusetts. Two abandoned children find shelter for the night at the home of a friendly farmer. In the morning he sends them on their way with kindly words:

Sol added to these words a minced pie, with a rye crust of peculiarly solid texture, adapted to resist any of the incidents of time and travel, which had been set out as part of his last night's supper. 

The crust was so hard that it could be carried without a pan. Now that's a strong crust.

The hard crust does explain one thing that has always puzzled me. Housewives in pre-Industrial New England made dozens and dozens of pies in the weeks leading up Thanksgiving, and a cook prided herself on the number and variety of pies she could produce. Although some of these pies were eaten at Thanksgiving, the majority were stored in the root cellar for the winter. I always wondered if people had dozens and dozens of pie pans in their houses, but apparently they didn't. They probably just turned the pie out of its baking pan and stuck it on the shelf. The crust was so hard it would hold its shape for months.

In his 1877 book Being A Boy, Massachusetts-born writer Charles Dudley Warner talks about how a boy could steal pie from the root cellar by hiding it under his coat:

And yet this boy would have buttoned under his jacket an entire round pumpkin-pie. And the pie was so well made and so dry that it was not injured in the least, and it never hurt the boy's clothes a bit more than if it had been inside of him instead of outside; and this boy would retire to a secluded place and eat it with another boy, being never suspected because he was not in the cellar long enough to eat a pie, and he never appeared to have one about him.

Traditional New England menus are great, but let's praise innovation where we can. I don't think anyone wants to go back to eating rock solid pie crust, no matter how portable it is.


If you want to learn more about traditional New England pies, I recommend James Baker's Thanksgiving: The Biography of An American Holiday and Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald's America's Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking. I got most of my information from those two books, which are great!

November 10, 2015

Folk Magic for the New Moon

What do you think of when you hear the words "new moon?"

If you are young, you might think of the second installment in Stephanie Meyer's teen vampire romance epic, The Twilight Saga. I believe that in New Moon, heroine Bella Swan breaks up with her sexy vampire boyfriend, but finds rebound love with a sexy werewolf.

If you are not so young, the words "new moon" might remind you of the Duran Duran song "New Moon on Monday" from their 1984 album Seven and the Ragged Tiger. I am not so young, so I had Duran Duran stuck in my head all day! Please note, the new moon this week is actually on Wednesday, not Monday.

However, if you lived in the 19th century you would think of neither teen vampires or British pop stars. Instead, you might think about magic. The new moon was the time to tell the future, start new projects, and make things grow.

I use the word magic with some trepidation. Did people in 19th century New England really think of their folklore practices as magic? Educated people of the time just thought of them as superstitions, and wrote books about the quaint folk beliefs of the common people. I think for example of Fanny Bergen's 1896 book Current Superstitions, which is a great collection of folklore.

For the people who believed in them, though, these quaint practices were ways to get things done. They didn't think of them as magic. But these practices aren't justified by contemporary scientific theories, so in a modern scientific view they might be classified as magic.

What exactly did people believe about the new moon? Well, the new moon is when the moon is at its darkest, and it was generally believed to be the time to start a project. The principle behind this is that since the new moon only gets bigger and brighter every night, any project you start will thrive and grow like the moon. You better like whatever you're working on when the new moon appears, though, because you will keep working on it until the next moon.

Ideally, you should time your haircut with the new moon. A haircut or beard-trim done in the new moon will come out better than one done in another moon phase. There is a catch, though. Hair cut during the new moon grows back faster than hair cut at other times. Sometimes this works to your advantage. For example, a girl who wants her hair to grow long should cut a little bit during each new moon so it will grow back nice and full.

If you're concerned about more serious things than hair, you should jingle the change in your pocket when you see the new moon. You will come into money as the moon grows fuller.

Gertrude Decrow includes some new moon lore in her article "Folk-Lore from Maine" in the October 1892 issue of The Journal of American Folklore. Decrow was told that if you see the new moon over your right shoulder, it brings good luck; over your left, bad luck. Seeing it over your right shoulder with something in your hand means you will receive a present.

The same lore about seeing the moon over your shoulder appears in Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England (1896). (He dedicates one brief chapter just to moon lore.) Johnson goes on to add that if you see the new moon full on, rather than over your shoulder, you'll have a fall. He includes a short poem to remember this: "Moon in the face, open disgrace."

The new moon also rules over rain. Some New Englanders believed the moon was like a giant dish in the sky that held water. It will be a wet month if the new moon appears in the sky and the points are pointing horizontally. People often said, "If you can hang a powder horn on the moon's curve, it will be dry. If you can't, it will be wet." You can't hang a powder horn on the moon if it is tilted up too much, which means the dish of the moon will pour out water during the month. See below for clarification!
You can hang something off this moon, so it will be dry. (Photo from this great site.)

You can't hang anything off this moon, so it will be wet. All the water is pouring out! (From this astrology site.)

Be careful when the new moon first appears. How you first view it can be a matter of life or death. It's best to go outside when you know the moon is new, because if you see it for the first time through the window, you will hear of the death of someone before the week is over. If you see it through an upper pane, an older person will die. If you see if through a lower pane, it will be someone young.

Sorry to end this post on a grim note, but there are a lot of death omens in New England folklore. I'm not sure if that has something to do with New England being gloomy and grim, or because much of this lore was collected in the 19th century, when medicine was less effective and life expectancies were shorter. Either way: be careful when you look out the window!

November 01, 2015

A Nantucket Ghost Story: The Specter Whalemen

Well, October 31 has come and gone. But don't be sad! Every day is Halloween on this blog, and I'm in the mood for a ghost story.

This story is from 1841, and first appeared in a publication called The Old American Comic And The People's Almanac, which was published in Boston. Richard Dorson includes it in his book Jonathan Draws the Longbow (1946), which is how I learned about it.

The following illustration was printed with the story when it appeared in The Old American Comic. Wow! It's amazing. I think it would make a great tattoo for someone young and hip.

The story is called "The Specter Whalemen," and it goes something like this. Back in the 19th century, Captain Reuben Joy was a prominent whaling ship captain from Nantucket. He was a successful and respected member of the Nantucket community, but he had one regret in his life: he was unmarried. He had been wooing a widowed woman named Mrs. Barnard, but she had refused his advances.

Captain Joy's life changed forever on his 13th whaling voyage. He was captaining the Betsey Ann, and the ship had rounded Cape Horn in search of whales off the coast of South America. The voyage had been a good one, and the hold of the ship was full of valuable whale oil. The ship was preparing to return to Nantucket when a school of sperm whales was seen nearby.

Longboats were lowered, and the crew approached the whales. The ship's second in command, Mr. Ray, successfully harpooned one of the animals. The whale was strong and put up a fight, dragging Mr. Ray's longboat off into the distance. Captain Joy ordered a search for Mr. Ray's boat after the other returned to the Betsey Ann, but Mr. Ray and the other men in his boat could not be found.

The next day Captain Joy told the crew it was time to go home to Nantucket. The men protested. They wanted to search once again for the missing boat. The captain overruled them, arguing that Mr. Ray and the others had undoubtedly been killed by the whale, and that since the ship was now shorthanded they needed to make haste and return. Despite their misgivings the men agreed.

As the Betsey Ann sailed up the east coast of South America it encountered another whaling ship that had recently departed from Nantucket. This ship carried letters from home, including one for Captain Joy. When Captain Joy opened the letter his face turned pale. Mrs. Barnard had died.

A nearby crew member watched the captain read the letter, and heard him say: "Then I have damned my soul for nothing."

Nantucket was a tightly-knit community, and the crew member knew that Captain Joy had unsuccessfully wooed Mrs. Barnard. He also knew that Mrs. Barnard had spurned the captain's advances in favor of Mr. Ray, who was younger and more handsome. Had Captain Joy called off the search for the missing boat so his rival would die?

The following year Captain Joy once again was in command of a whaling ship off the coast of South America. When the ship approached the same area where Mr. Ray had disappeared a school of whales was again sighted. Boats were lowered.

Captain Joy and the men in his boat successfully harpooned and killed a whale, but the captain's feeling of triumph was shortlived. A decrepit and weathered longboat appeared nearby, and as it drew closer Captain Joy recoiled in horror. It was the Mr. Ray's missing boat, and it was manned by a crew of skeletons.

As they approached the captain could hear their bones rattling, and hear the crew's skeletal leader shriek out commands to his undead crew. Oddly, no one but Captain Joy could see or hear the hideous spectral whalemen.

Captain Joy ordered the boats back to the ship and quickly set sail. As they departed the captain looked back. The ghost boat was following them. With a hellish laugh the skeleton's leader threw his harpoon. It didn't reach the ship, but the captain's heart grew cold.

From that time onward Captain Joy encountered the skeletal crew on every voyage he made. Haunted by guilt and terror, he retired from whaling and confined himself to his house on Nantucket, until he finally died alone and unloved.


Is there any truth to the story? There were indeed several whalemen from Nantucket named Reuben Joy, but I couldn't find any indication one was haunted by hideous skeletons. Whether or not the story is true, it serves as a cautionary tale about love and fate.