February 28, 2016

Perry Boney, the Man Who Might Have Been A Fairy

Well, although this winter has been quite mild last night was still pretty chilly so I made Indian pudding and roasted buttercup squash for dinner. Pretty soon it will be too warm for roasting and I'll have to move on from wintry foods.

My last few posts have been about grim topics, so in anticipation of the slowly approaching spring here's a cheery yet weird legend from Connecticut. It's about a man named Perry Boney.

I had read about Perry Boney years ago in David Phillips's book Legendary Connecticut (1992), but then filed that information away deep inside my brain and basically forgot all about it. However, a few months ago a friend from the Fairy Investigation Society pointed me towards an online reference to Mr. Boney and suggested it might be something to research for the Society.

As you read this story, ask yourself this question: was Perry Boney human, or something else entirely?

Perry Boney lived during the early 20th century in a rural, mountainous area of Connecticut called the Great Basin. The area was populated mainly by lumbermen and a few farmers, although the ruins of old mills and industrial sites littered the landscape.

Neither a farmer nor a lumberjack, Boney made his living operating a very tiny general store near Green Pond Mountain. His store was really no more than a booth in the middle of the woods, and was so small that other than its proprietor it could only accommodate one adult or two children (and only if they were small). A painting of Custer's final battle (which was an ad for a whiskey company) hung on one wall.


A tiny path with a gate led to the store past petunias, candytuft, and portulaca, the latter growing in old iron stove. According to locals Boney planted the portulaca every year in honor of a female sweetheart who had died. No one knew who she was, though.

No one was really sure where Boney came from either. One day he and his tiny store were just suddenly there, almost magically. Small children were convinced he could talk with the fairies that lived near the mountain brooks, and some thought he was a fairy himself. He certainly looked the part. He was small and thin, with wild unruly hair, and large brown eyes that seemed to look right through whoever he talked to. His habit of playing the flute on moonlit nights added to his fairy mystique, but some skeptics said the music was really just the wind sighing in the trees.

The adults of the Great Basin may not have thought Boney was a fairy, but there was definitely something unusual about him. How, for example, did he actually make any money? Whenever he ran out of something at his store he would walk to a general store in nearby Sherman, where he purchased items at the same price he sold them in his store. If he bought candy for five cents in Sherman, he sold it for five cents at his tiny store. If he bought corn meal for fifty cents, he sold it for the same price. How did he manage to run a store if he never made a profit?

Boney also had a very friendly relationship with animals that was quite unusual. A large, tame raccoon lived in Sherman, and came running out to meet Boney whenever he came into town. Boney would speak to the racoon in strange, whistling language that no one else had ever heard, and the racoon would wait for him on the steps of the Sherman general store. When Boney was done with this shopping the racoon walked him home to his tiny store near Green Pond Mountain.

Locals knew to never buy shotgun shells from Boney's store. He didn't like hunting, and sold shotgun shells that had an almost explosive recoil, emitted huge clouds of black smoke, and echoed so loudly that they scared off any nearby game.

Boney's departure from the Great Basin was almost as mysterious as his arrival. A local man passed the store several days in a row and noticed that the door was swinging open in the wind. On the fourth day he decided to investigate. As he walked towards the store he saw Perry's body lying dead by the portulaca, holding one flower in his hand.

At least that's what he said. Other locals didn't believe it. No one else ever saw Boney's body, and the man who said he did later admitted that he had taken the Custer painting and sold it. Maybe he had said Boney was dead just so he could feel justified in taking the painting. And if Boney was dead, why could people still hear his flute music at night?

Candlewood Lake, from Pinterest.

Whether he was dead or not, he had abandoned his store. By the 1930s it had been torn down and a ski-chalet style house erected on the spot. The people who knew Perry Boney were scattered to the winds in the 1926 when a power company announced it was building a dam across the Rocky River. By 1927 the dam was complete. Water slowly filled the Great Basin, submerging the farms, lumber camps and old mills.

The Great Basin is now Candewood Lake, the deepest lake in Connecticut. Scuba divers sometimes report seeing old buildings, covered bridges, and even Model-T Fords at the bottom of it. No one has yet reported seeing a little man with wild hair playing a flute.


The main sources for the Perry Boney legend are David Phillips's Legendary Connecticut (1992) and They Found A Way (1932) by Iveagh Hunt Sterry and William Garrigus. The 1938 book Connecticut: A Guide to Its Roads, Lore and People from the Works Project Administration has directions to the site of Perry Boney's store, but I don't know if they are still valid today.

The original online reference to Perry Boney that got this all started is here

February 21, 2016

Movie Review: The Witch, A New England-Folktale (2015)

So last night Tony and I saw The Witch, director Robert Eggers highly praised horror film set in early Puritan New England. As we walked home along the Muddy River (where the estate of executed witch Anne Hibbens was located) and rabbits frolicked around us in the moonlight, I thought: how am I going to write about this movie? 

I've been a horror movie fan for most of my life, and I've been writing about New England folklore for many years. I saw The Witch from this dual perspective, so I'm going to first write about it as a film, and then about its folkloric aspects.

I really, really enjoyed The Witch. It's been getting a lot of hype as being incredibly scary, which I think does it a disservice. It's more of an art film with horrific aspects than a straight up horror film. Don't go into it expecting screaming teenagers being chased through the woods by an axe-wielding maniac. Yes someone does wield an axe, and teens do indeed scream, but it's not Friday the 13th. Rather than terrifying, I found it spooky, unsettling, and morally icky, but also emotionally resonant and thought-provoking.

If you want to be surprised about this movie don't read any further. In other words, SPOILERS AHEAD.

The premise is relatively simple. In 1630s New England, a family is banished from a Puritan settlement for being too religiously strident. Exiled but unbowed, Mom, Dad and their five children carve out a small farm a day's journey away from the settlement. Things go well at first, but by the fall their crops are failing, and one day when oldest daughter Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with her baby brother Samuel he suddenly disappears. The parents suspect a wolf took him, but the name of this movie isn't The Wolf.

That all happens within the first ten minutes. Things only get worse for the next eighty. The narrative is a twisty mix of family psycho-dynamics and mythic imagery. The tight-knit pious family is realistically dysfunctional. Did they really think settling on the edge of an unknown continent would be easy? Dad is successful only at splitting logs, the children tell vicious stories about each other, Mom is getting cold feet about the whole pioneer thing, and their oldest daughter is reaching the peak of puberty. At times the movie implies the supernatural shenanigans are just the imaginings of a stressed out family in a bad situation, but then shifts to show powerful, archetypal images that indicate the supernatural forces menacing the family are quite real. A woman in a red cape in a tangled forest. A rabbit that can't be killed. Baby Samuel's real fate...

My favorite scenes in the film involve the young twins Mercy and Jonas, who are simultaneously cute, bratty and creepy, like the Olsen Twins of Full House mixed with Rob Zombie's Lords of Salem. They spend a lot of time frolicking with the family goat Black Phillip. The twins say he talks to them, but maybe they're just playing a game. Or maybe not.

Robert Eggers is from New Hampshire, and says as a child he thought the New England woods were haunted. He's trying to capture an Olde Tyme New-Englande vibe in this movie, and I think he succeeds in capturing what we know or imagine the early Puritan era looked like. The colors are muted, the homes are dark, and the landscapes have a familiar Northeast gloom. The family's home is festooned with bunches of drying diseased corn, making it look like the grimmest Thanksgiving you've ever imagined. The brief scene of the family leaving the Puritan settlement was filmed at Plimoth Plantation here in Massachusetts, so I think that comparison is apt.

Now onto the folklore in the film. The movie's full title is The Witch: A New-England Folktale. Although is is not based on any actual witchcraft cases or particular folk stories, Eggers did a lot of research into 17th century life and folk beliefs. Much of the movie accurately reflects authentic New England folk stories.

There are bewitched children pinched and tortured by unseen attackers. There are ghosts. There is Protestant prayer, both fearful and ecstatic. There are bewitched farm animals, and familiar spirits suckling on human blood. The Devil appears as a man in black with a book awaiting signatures. There is the overwhelming sense of being a sinner in the hands of an angry God and the accompanying fear of damnation.

Ultimately though this is a movie by a modern American aimed at a modern audience. Traditional New England witch stories are usually about societal issues. Accused witches were seldom family members but were usually shunned members of the community. The stories often follow this pattern: a poor person asks a wealthier person for food or money. The wealthier person refuses, and the poor person mutters threats. Shortly thereafter bad things happen to the wealthier person. Cattle don't give milk, children sicken, crops fail. The poor person is suspected of witchcraft.

Eggers' film does not follow this classic pattern, but instead focuses heavily on psycho-sexual issues. To support this focus, many of the film's later images are drawn not from New England witch narratives but instead from continental European myths and narratives, which had more sexual content. Continental witch stories were quite lurid, full of orgies, infanticide and cannibalism. The New England witches, malevolent though they were, were demure Puritans at heart. Their nocturnal gatherings didn't involve naked gyrating hags, but rather fully clad people standing around listening to the Devil lecture them. They were an inverted version of the Puritan Sunday meetings, not a crazed bacchanalia. At their wildest they sometimes had fiddle music and square dancing. Square-dancing witches wouldn't make for a very scary movie.

And though I love the goat in this movie, the Devil seldom appears as a goat in New England witch stories. Most often he appears as a man richly dressed in black, but when he does take animal shape he appears in a variety of forms, including a cat and a hog. Modern people tend to think of Satan as goatish, though, so I understand why this makes sense for the film.

Finally, many traditional New England witch stories are actually about how to defeat a witch. They describe the witch's predations only to relate how they can be stopped. They are instructional tales told to help younger generations manage malevolent forces. They are not grim or pessimistic.

Witches were bad, but their magic could easily be foiled by simple measures. Keeping urine in a jar full of nails. Hammering a horseshoe above the door. Placing bay leaves around the window. Burning the hair of a bewitched child. All of these could effectively stop a witch's attack. The world was full of evil forces, but the early settlers were optimistic that ultimately they could be defeated.

I think the ending of The Witch is morally ambivalent, but is it optimistic? Probably not, but then again, much like square-dancing witches, it's probably not what a modern audience is looking for. 

February 15, 2016

A Monster and A Martyr in Puritan Boston

The English writer John Josselyn visited New England for fifteen months in the 1630s. In September of 1639, while he was staying on one of the Boston harbor islands, the following occurred:

… The next day a grave and sober person described the Monster to me, that was born at Boston of one Mrs. Dyer a great Sectarie (sectarian), the nine and twentieth of June, it was (it should seem) without a head, but having horns like a Beast, and ears, scales on a rough skin like a fish called a Thornback, legs and claw like a Hawke, and in other respects as a Woman-Child (An Account of Two Voyages to New England, 1674). 

Josselyn is often called a credulous writer because his books are full of tall-tales, folklore, and monsters. But in this case, he was writing about one of the most famous monsters of 17th century New England. But was the monster real? Perhaps, although he had its birthday wrong...

The story begins with Mary Dyer, a devout Puritan who came to Boston from England with her husband William (a hat-maker) in 1635. For a while things went well for the Dyers in their new homeland, but they soon found themselves embroiled in a religious controversy.

The controversy initially focused on two groups of Boston ministers who had different theological ideas about God's relationship to men. The more conservative ministers felt that God established certain laws and would grant salvation only to people who followed those laws. This viewpoint is sometimes called the "covenant of works." The more radical ministers believed that God would save anyone who had faith in Christ, a viewpoint called the "covenant of grace." This controversy was called the Antinomian Controversy, from a Greek work meaning "opposed to laws."

Theology is kind of a dry subject, so I think it's hard for modern New Englanders to understand how divisive this controversy was to 17th century Boston. But think about it this way: Boston was a theocratic society founded by fundamentalist religious radicals who had fled England. The Antinomian Controversy pitted one group of fundamentalists against other fundamentalists who were even more radical than they were.

Ann Hutchinson's house stood at this spot on the corner of School and Washington streets in Boston.
The controversy nearly split Boston apart. Aside from the various ministers, one of the leading figures of the "covenant of grace" group was Anne Hutchinson, a wealthy and successful midwife. She was quite influential among the colony's women, and would often share her theological insights with dozens of women (and their husbands) in her large Boston house.

Mary and William Dyer were among those who attended the older, wealthier Hutchinson's talks and Mary soon became one of her most ardent supporters.

The controversy ended abruptly in 1637 when John Winthrop became the colony's new governor. The previous governor, who was more lenient, went back to England. One of the radical ministers was banished from Massachusetts, and several of his supporters lost their political positions. A new, less tolerant tone was set in Boston. Things didn't look good for Hutchinson and her friends.

It was in this political atmosphere that Mary Dyer gave birth on October 11, 1637. Anne Hutchinson and one other midwife were in attendance. Unfortunately the baby was stillborn and deformed. Unusual births among humans and animals were called "prodigies" at that time, and were seen as omens and warnings from God. Hutchinson and Dyer both understood their enemies would use the dead infant's strange appearance as a weapon against them and quickly buried it.

For several months Dyer's baby remained a secret from the authorities. In the spring of 1638 Governor Winthrop exiled Ann Hutchinson from Boston, and at the same time he learned about the Dyer's child. Along with a large group of ministers and magistrates Winthrop exhumed the infant's corpse. He described it in the following language:

...it had a face, but no head, and the ears stood upon the shoulders and were like an ape's; it had no forehead, but over the eyes four horns, hard and sharp; two of them were above one inch long, the other two shorter … all over the breast and back full of sharp pricks and scales, like a thornback … behind, between the shoulders, it had two mouths, and in each of them a piece of red flesh sticking out; it had arms and legs as other children; but, instead of toes, it had on each foot three claws, like a young fowl, with sharp talons.

Winthrop is essentially describing a demon. European manuscripts of the time were full of illustrations of demons, who were usually depicted as a hideous mix of the human and animal. Winthrop's message was clear: God punishes religious dissenters by making them give birth to monsters.

An illustration of a demon.

Before I bring this story to its unpleasant conclusion, let me just say that while I love stories about monsters and scary creatures, Mary Dyer's story isn't really about a monster. It's about politics, religion, and the role of women in society. While Dyer's baby was indeed sadly deformed, historians agree that Winthrop exaggerated the nature of those deformities to make a political point. The authorities in Boston felt threatened by the Antinomians, and they felt threatened by women like Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer, who believed they were as qualified to talk about theology as any man. It's disturbing to look back and see how Governor Winthrop used the Dyer's tragedy as a tool in a political struggle.

Mary and William Dyer followed Ann Hutchinson into exile and eventually helped found Newport, Rhode Island. But Mary Dyer didn't give up the fight. It seems like Winthrop's abuse of her tragedy just fueled her fervor. She became even more religiously radical, converting to Quakerism, whose tenets include the beliefs that anyone can hear God's voice and that men and women are equals in the church. Quakers were the most heretical sect in New England at the time and their presence was forbidden in Boston.

In 1657 Mary Dyer came back to Boston. The authorities imprisoned her as a Quaker and then sent her back to Rhode Island. She didn't give up. Determined that the authorities should repeal the law against Quakers she came back to Boston twice more. The second time she was sentenced to be hanged, but a last-minute reprieve was issued as she stood at the gallows. She was exiled again, with a threat that if she ever returned to Boston she would be executed.

Dyer came back to Boston again in 1660, the following year. She was quickly arrested and sentenced to hang on Boston Neck (now Washington Street in the South End*). On June 1 she was hanged. On the gallows a minister asked if she wanted the church elders to pray for her. Dyer replied "I never knew an elder here."

Dyer died as a martyr, and her death had the effect that she wanted. Many people who witnessed her execution were quite moved, and news of her death spread through the colonies. Dyer's story eventually reached the king of England, who issued an edict banning the execution of Quaker's.

Times have certainly changed. The Puritans are long gone. Massachusetts has a female senator in Washington. There's now a Quaker meeting house on Beacon Hill, and a statue of Mary Dyer sits in front of the Massachusetts State House. And no one calls stillborn babies monsters anymore.

 *A popular restaurant ironically called The Gallows is located there.

February 08, 2016

The Devil Tries to Kill A Minister, or Why There Are So Many Rocks in New England

Here in New England we are blessed to live in a landscape filled with rocks. If you like giant house-sized boulders, or even just medium sized rocks, you'll find plenty to love in this part of the country.

But where did all these rocks come from?

Maybe I should rephrase that question as "Where the hell did all these rocks come from?," since folklore lays the blame on the Devil.

Not all of New England is rocky. Although the Cape Cod town of Bourne has lots of large rocks, the outer tip of the Cape - Wellfleet, Truro, Provincetown - has almost no boulders at all. Once again, the Devil is to blame.


The story goes something like this. Way back in the 1600s, an English missionary named Richard Bourne was active on the southern part of Cape Cod, helping to found towns and doing God's work in the New World. Naturally, Richard Bourne drew the ire of the Devil. The Devil lived on Cape Cod and didn't like goodie-goodies anywhere near him.

One night while Bourne was sleeping the Devil crept down from the outer Cape to the missionary's hut. He leapt upon the sleeping minister, planning to crush him with his demonic super-strength. To the Evil One's surprise, Bourne successfully fought him off, even though the minister was not particularly large or strong.

"You won this time, Richard Bourne, but I'll be back," the Devil said. "Just you wait!" He stomped away to regain his strength and scheme.

Several nights later he came back to Bourne's dwelling, and once again the minister fought him off.  Once again the Devil stomped off, vowing to return.

This went on for several years, but the Devil was never able to harm Bourne because God was on his side.

Finally, the Devil realized he had to change his plan. He gathered up all the rocks he could find on the Outer Cape and put them in his big leather apron. Then he set off for Richard Bourne's house. He was going to dump all the rocks on the minister while he slept and crush him.
The Province Lands in Provincetown: a lot of sand, but no boulders...

As the Devil slowly waked down the Cape, carrying hundreds of boulders in his apron, a chickadee flew at him from out of the woods. The swift little bird flew around the Devil, mocking his plan to crush the minister.

"Richard Bourne defeated you before, he will defeat you again!" the smarmy little bird sang.

The Devil swatted at the bird, but chickadees are fast and it flew out of his reach. Then from a distant tree branch it sang it's mocking song again.

The Devil does not have a very good temper, and he was furious that such a tiny little bird would mock such a magnificent demon as himself. With a  howl of fury he ran towards the chickadee.

As he ran he tripped over a tree branch and fell. All the boulders he was carrying in his apron spilled out and rolled across the landscape. This area is now the rocky town of Bourne.

With a big sigh the Devil walked back to the boulder-free Outer Cape, where he's remained ever since. Even a fallen angel knows when he's been beaten.

This story appears in Elizabeth Renard's book The Narrow Land (1934) in a section called "Tales of the Praying Indians." Praying Indian was a term that referred to Native Americans in New England who were early converts to Christianity, and the Christian content of this story is quite strong (if you didn't notice). 

It probably has its origins in earlier pre-Christian Wampanoag legends, though. Many stories have survived telling how the Wampanoag deity Maushop, who was gigantic in size and strength, created rock formations and ocean channels. Some of them are even very similar to the one told in Renard's book. For example, in one Wampanoag tale Maushop is building  a bridge to Cuttyhunk when a crab bites his toe. Maushop drops his rocks and storms off angrily. Those rocks now form a sunken reef.

Me and some rocks in the Blue Hills.
However, anthropologist William Simmons notes in his book Spirit of the New England Tribes that Wampanoags on Cape Cod weren't the only ones telling tales about the Devil dropping rocks from his apron. The Reverend William Chaffin of Easton, Massachusetts claimed that the boulders in that town also fell out of the Devil's apron, and I've read something similar in Clifton Johnson's book What They Say in New England. So it seems like Yankees of English descent were also giving supernatural explanations for the rocks that litter the landscape.

Here in the Boston area, we have a type of stone called puddingstone (aka Roxbury conglomerate) that looks like an old-fashioned lumpy pudding with dried fruit in it. In his 1830 poem "The Dorchester Giant" Oliver Wendell Holmes humorously claims it was formed when a family of giants flung their pudding all across the landscape.

They flung it over to Roxbury hills,
They flung it over the plain,
And all over Milton and Dorchester too
Great lumps of pudding the giants threw;
They tumbled as thick as rain.

Giant and mammoth have passed away,
For ages have floated by;
The suet is hard as a marrow bone,
And every plum is turned to a stone,
But there the puddings lie.

He wasn't serious, but it's interesting that he also proposed a supernatural explanation.

We know now that New England's rocks were deposited by melting glaciers, but the old myths and legends are as much part of the landscape as the boulders themselves.