July 30, 2016

Drought, Snakes, and Rain Magic

I don't know about you, but I actually like a rainy day now and then. My favorite type of weather is a windy and cloudy day. So this long spate of clear, dry (and hot) weather has been nice enough but I am ready for a change.

Much of Massachusetts is in a drought situation, so I think everyone is ready for a change. We had a little rain recently but it hasn't helped. The grass in all the parks near my house yellow and crunchy, and a lot of the flowers that usually bloom this time of year just haven't appeared. I feel like I'm living in California instead of New England. Is this what climate change looks like?

Happily we are supposed to get some more rain this weekend but probably not enough to alleviate our drought. Perhaps a little rain magic is due?

When I was a child in the unenlightened 1970s I always associated rain magic with American Indians, since cartoons often showed them performing dances to bring rain. Some Native American groups do indeed perform rain dances, as do other groups around the world as well. I haven't seen any indication that rain dances were ever performed in this part of the country, though.

Rain magic can be found in New England folklore, but most of it involves predicting when and how long it will rain. There isn't a lot of magic to actually bring rain. I think that might be because this area is usually pretty wet. But perhaps rain magic might be in order if we continue to get more droughts like this one!

Clifton Johnson's book What They Say in New England (1896) contains two techniques to bring rain. Johnson collected his folklore among the farmers in western Massachusetts. I don't think those crusty old farmers used words like 'magic' or 'spell' to describe their practices. They were just things you did. However, they sound like magic spells to me.

They are both violent and I don't recommend them since they involve killing animals, which is not a good thing to do! DO NOT KILL ANIMALS TO BRING RAIN. Anyway, here are the rain spells folkloric weather techniques.

A garter snake in my front yard.

The first is just to kill a beetle. That's it. Just kill a beetle and it will make it rain.

The second is to kill a snake, and then hang up its body. This should produce rain. On the other hand, if you want the weather to be dry you should bury the snake's body.

I'm not sure what the connection is between these animals and rain. Certainly, serpents are associated with water in myths around the world. In China dragons often live in water, and in ancient Babylonian mythology the god Marduk creates the world by killing Tiamat, a primordial water-serpent goddess. In some Algonquian myths the thunderbird fights a watery horned serpent. But would any of these myths really make their way to Yankee farmers in Massachusetts? If you have any insight please share it.

So to wrap up: don't kill animals to make it rain, but maybe try some other magic if you know some. The drought will end at some point I'm sure. What's the old New England saying? "If you don't like the weather just wait a minute."

July 24, 2016

Weird Marblehead, Part Two: Lee Mansion and Screaming Woman Beach

While Lori and I were in Marblehead we took a tour of the Lee Mansion. While this historic house is not officially haunted it definitely has a few weird things going on. And I mean that in a good way.

Jeremiah Lee (1721 - 1775) was a wealthy Marblehead merchant and ship owner. He built the mansion that bears his name in 1768, but unfortunately Lee and his family only lived there for a few short years before he died in an unusual way.

In addition to being a merchant Lee was a smuggler, and had for several years been smuggling weapons into the American colonies to be used in the uprising against the British. One night Lee and two other Marblehead men were secretly meeting with John Hancock and Paul Revere at a tavern outside of Boston when they got word that a group of British soldiers were approaching. The men ran out of the tavern.

It was a fatal decision. In order to avoid detection Lee spent the night hiding in a nearby field. It was a chilly night and the exposure to the cold air made him ill. He never returned to Marblehead. Instead, he died three days later in Newton from a fever.

We asked the tour guide if Jeremiah Lee's ghost haunted the mansion. The answer was an unequivocal "No." Maybe he didn't live in it long enough to get attached, or maybe his spirit is wandering around somewhere in Newton. But either way he's not haunting the mansion. 

Lee's family went bankrupt and in 1804 the mansion was sold to a local bank. They occupied it until 1909 when the Marblehead Historical Society bought it. Because the mansion has had so few owners the interior has barely changed since the 1700s. It even has the original wallpaper, which was hand painted in England more than 200 years ago. Our tour guide said there was only one other building in the US with equally old wallpaper, which is pretty impressive.

The mansion's walls are also covered with old paintings of merchants, ministers and other historic Marblehead notables. There are also quite a few paintings of children. When asked about the child portraits our tour guide told us they were mostly paintings commissioned by local families to memorialize children that died. Wealthy families would quickly bring in artists to paint portraits of their children's corpses before burial.

I suppose that's why so many of the children look really unhealthy. One painting, of a little girl holding a book, was incredibly spooky and reminded me of something from a horror movie. Lori thought I should take a photo for the blog but I declined. It seemed like asking for trouble. Let sleeping spirits lie.

The other weird thing we saw was this carved wooden figure. It kind of looks like it has fangs, doesn't it? It might just be facial hair, though.

We thought it was a doll, but our guide told us it was actually an implement used to tighten the ropes that supported a bed's mattress. Did you know the phrase "sleep tight" refers to a bed's ropes? I learn something new all the time!

While no strange legends are attached to the Lee Mansion, the same cannot be said of Lovis Cove, which is just a short walk away. Lovis Cove is said to be haunted by a famous ghost known either as the Screeching Lady, Screaming Woman, Shrieking Lady, or some variant therof. Whatever she's called you get the picture. The ghost is loud and very unhappy.

The cove itself is informally known as Screaming Woman Cove or Screeching Lady Beach. When I think of beaches I think of soft white sand, but that's not the case at Lovis Cove. The beach is covered with rocks and there are even more rocks - big sharp ones covered with algae - out in the water. It's not the type of beach you really want to spend a lot of time at.

The ghost doesn't want to spend time there either but apparently has no choice. Samuel Roads includes the story of the Screeching Woman in his 1880 book History and Traditions of Marblehead. According to Roads, way back in the late 1600s an English ship crossing the Atlantic was captured by Spanish pirates. All the passengers and crew of the ship were slaughtered except for one beautiful English woman, whom the pirates kept alive until they reached New England.

When the pirates came ashore at Lovis Cove with the woman they brutally murdered her on the beach. Roads writes:

The few fishermen who inhabited the place were absent, and the women and children who remained could do nothing to prevent the crime. The screams of the victim were loud and dreadful, and her cries of "Lord save me! Mercy! Oh! Lord Jesus, save me!" were distinctly heard. The body was buried where the crime was perpetrated, and for over one hundred and fifty years on the anniversary of that dreadful tragedy the screams of the poor woman were repeated in a voice so shrill and supernatural as to send an indescribable thrill of horror through all who heard them. 

That's pretty gruesome, but Pam Matthias Peterson adds one more gruesome detail in her 2007 book Marblehead Myths, Legends and Lore. The pirates chopped off the woman's fingers while she was still alive to steal her rings. Ugh.

Peterson claims that Marblehead residents avoid the beach at night and that her screams can still sometimes be heard even today. The comments on this site include a few from people who say they have indeed heard her screams in the night. Creepy. Does a ghost like this ever find rest, I wonder?

It took Lori and I a while to find Lovis Cove, but here's a tip if you want to visit: it's located right next to the Barnacle Restaurant, which is at 141 Front Street. The cove doesn't sound like someplace you want to visit at night, though.

July 17, 2016

Weird Marblehead, Part One: Ghosts, Tunnels, and H.P. Lovecraft

This weekend my friend Lori and I took a little tour of Marblehead, Massachusetts.

I don't use the word charming too much, but Marblehead is probably one of the most charming towns I have ever been to. Charming old 18th century homes everywhere, charming narrow streets, and of course a charming location on an isolated peninsula.

This might come as a surprise, but Marblehead was much beloved by the famous horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was obsessed with the 18th century, and raved to all his friends about the town's historic architecture.

Lovecraft showed his love in a strange way - by setting several of his stories in a thinly fictionalized version of Marblehead that he called Kingsport. Probably the most famous of these is "The Festival," which tells how a young man comes to Kingsport to celebrate the winter solstice with distant relatives he has never met before.

Here's how Lovecraft describes the town:

... Kingsport with its ancient vanes and steeples, ridgepoles and chimneypots, wharves and small bridges, willow-trees and graveyards; endless labyrinths of steep, narrow, crooked streets, and dizzy church-crowned central peak that time durst not touch; ceaseless mazes of colonial houses piled and scattered at all angles and levels like a child's disordered blocks...

It all sounds very quaint on the surface but - surprise! - by the story's end the narrator is descending deep into the earth with a horde of semi-human cultists to celebrate ancient unspeakable rites:

... I saw some side passages or burrows leading from unknown recesses of blackness to this shaft of nighted mystery. Soon they became excessively numerous, like impious catacombs of nameless menace; and their pungent odor of decay grew quite unbearable... I shivered that a town should be so aged and maggoty with subterranean evil. 

And that's how H. P. Lovecraft shows his love for a favorite town!

But all kidding aside, I think this story demonstrates the dual fascination people feel about this part of the country. On the one hand it's old, quaint and charming, but on the other hand some creepy things definitely happened here in the past and many people feel like they have left their imprint on the landscape. It's no accident that so many horror stories are set in New England, or that America's three greatest horror writers (Poe, Lovecraft and King) all were born here.

Marblehead these days is a very posh and charming town, but when it was founded it was a rough-and-tumble fishing town full of unchurched sailors. Some old European folklore survived in Marblehead longer than in other parts of New England, and several famous witches (Mammy Redd, Edward Dimond and Moll Pitcher) were also born in the town. And those tunnels Lovecraft wrote about may not just be fiction...

On our Marblehead trip Lori and I decided to first visit Fort Sewall, which was built on a bluff overlooking the ocean in the 1600s. The fort was expanded and renovated in the 1700s, and played a key role in the War of 1812 when its cannons saved the U.S.S. Constitution from being attacked by British warships. The fort is now a public park and on the National Register of Historic Places.

Something we didn't see on the trip were the caves located in the cliff underneath the fort. According to Pam Matthias Peterson's Marblehead: Myths, Legends and Lore there are caves in the cliff which were used in the past as a hiding place for smugglers. These caves would flood at high tide, and the town sealed them up to prevent people from being trapped inside and drowning. That sounds like a good idea to me.

Peterson also writes that according to local legend a vast network of tunnels runs beneath Marblehead, and even connects the caves to the main town. These tunnels were supposedly used by the smugglers to carry on their business undetected by the British. Peterson claims the tunnels are mostly just a legend, but at least one house in town (the King Hooper mansion) does have a sealed-off doorway in its cellar. Perhaps there is a kernel of truth behind the subterranean tunnels in Lovecraft's story after all?

A group of ghost hunters have investigated Fort Sewall several times. Over the course of six years, Nick Smith of Queens, New York has investigated Fort Sewall using high-tech ghost-hunting technology like an electromagnetic field detector and a microphone that can pick up sounds inaudible to the human ear.

Smith said he has twice captured a voice at the site yelling, “Help!” And another time, when Smith was alone at the fort, he said he recorded a voice asking a question, “as though a person were standing behind him.”

“There’s definitely something going on here,” Smith said as he setup equipment for the night’s investigation. “We just haven’t collected enough data to prove what that something is.”
From this November 2013 WCVB article.  

Smith wasn't sure what's causing the haunting. The fort has a long history, but no particular tragedy is connected to it.

It does have a dungeon, though, so there was undoubtedly a lot of misery associated with it. The dungeon and the other rooms are sealed off with iron bars, but we were able to see inside. They look like a good place for ghosts to hang out.

If you want to watch Nick Smith and some colleagues investigate the fort you can find a video on YouTube. The beginning does feature the voice saying "Help me", which is pretty spooky.

Next week I'll post more about Marblehead, including its most famous ghost. Stay tuned!

July 12, 2016

A Witch Trial and A Slave's Testimony from 1679

A while ago I posted about how Tituba, the famous Arawak Indian slave from the Salem witch trials, came to be portrayed as black in fiction and drama.

That post got a lot of hits, but I think it's important to point out that while Tituba was not of African descent many other people involved with New England witchcraft were. Witchcraft was an equal opportunity belief system, and people of all races were accused of witchcraft. For example, a black slave named Candy was accused during the Salem trials, but happily was not found guilty, even after her accusers produced evidence in the form of a poppet she had allegedly made.

In Rhode Island, a black woman named Tuggie Bannock had a reputation as a powerful witch in the 1800s, well after the witchcraft trials had ended. And as historian William Pierson writes in his book Black Yankees (1988), many people of African descent across New England worked as diviners, fortune-tellers, and herbalists.

One of the earliest accounts from New England of a black person involved with witchcraft comes from 1679. In December of that year, a black slave named Wonn testified in the Salem court against a woman named Bridget Oliver. Oliver was an outspoken woman who had been married multiple times, and when her current husband Thomas Oliver beat her she would hit him back. Naturally, her neighbors in Salem suspected this independent woman of witchcraft.

Wonn testified to the court that one day the horses hauling his sled mysteriously and unaccountably ran into a swamp up to the their bellies. This doesn't seem like very significant evidence, but several witnesses said they had never seen horses behave so strangely before. And what unseen force had frightened them into the swamp anyway?

A week later Wonn saw Bridget Oliver's specter perched upon a beam in the barn, holding an egg in one hand. He swung at her with a rake but she disappeared. Finally, as Wonn ate dinner that evening two strange black cats appeared in the house. Upon seeing the cats Wonn tried to speak, but felt himself pinched by invisible hands.

Although Wonn (which is perhaps an older spelling of Juan) was of African descent his testimony contains many elements of classic New England witchcraft. The misbehaving livestock is a common trope, and bewitched draft animals often allegedly brought their wagons or carts into swamps or rivers. The black cats and invisible pinching are also classic witchery.

I'm not so sure about the egg, though, which I haven't seen in too many stories. Was Bridget Oliver stealing the egg? Was she brandishing it as a threat and planning to use it in a spell? It's not clear, but it's a very powerful image.

Bridget Oliver was initially found guilty based on Wonn's testimony, but the court later let her go free. She wasn't so lucky thirteen years later in 1692. Then married to her third husband and called Bridget Bishop, she was again found guilty of witchcraft again and hanged on June 10.

The history books don't tell us what happened afterwards to Wonn. Did he really think he was bewitched by Bridget Oliver? Did he have a personal grudge against her, or was he put up to it by his owner, John Ingersoll? Was Wonn still in Salem in 1692 for the witch trials? It's all a mystery.


Special thanks go out to my friend Ed for suggesting this as a topic after he read New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America (2016) by Wendy Warren. I also got information from William Pierson's Black Yankees (1988) and Marilynne Roach's The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of A Community Under Siege (2002).

July 05, 2016

Harry Potter Comes to Massachusetts: Folklore and Fiction in J.K. Rowling's New Story

In order to promote this fall's upcoming Harry Potter film, last week author J.K. Rowling released a new story set in the Harry Potter universe. The story is set in Massachusetts and incorporates some aspects of local New England folklore.

The story, "Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry," describes how the first school of magic is founded in North America by a plucky orphan girl fleeing from her malevolent aunt. The orphan disguises herself as a boy, hitches a ride across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, and founds the titular school on Mount Graylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts. Along the way she finds true love, rescues two other orphans, and encounters assorted magical creatures. Does she defeat her evil aunt? You'll need to read the story to find out.

As Harry Potter fans know, the British wizarding school in the Rowling's books is called Hogwarts, and the students at Hogwarts are assigned to live in one of four houses (dormitories) based on their personalities and talents. Ilvermorny, the American school, is arranged the same way. The four houses are named after creatures from American folklore.

Here are the four Ilvermorny houses, with their totemic creatures. Read on to find out how (and if) they relate to authentic New England folklore

Students who are healers are drawn to this house, which is named after a type of magical little person from local Native American lore. The Native Americans of New England acknowledge a wide variety of magical little people. The term Pukwudgie was first used to describe them in 1934 by author Elizabeth Reynard in her book The Narrow Land. A Cape Cod Wampanoag chieftain named Clarence Wixon had used the term when he told stories about the Little People to Reynard, and the name has stuck.

People still claim to see Pukwudgies to this day, and they have been discussed in a variety of books and TV shows. J.K. Rowling portrays them as deadly, grumpy, but oddly lovable. I think most writers and paranormal investigators would agree on the first two traits but not the third. It seems highly unlikely they would become employees of a human school as they do by the end of Rowling's story.

Horned Serpent:
Scholars are attracted to this house. Horned serpents do appear in Native American folklore, and have been depicted in petroglyphs from this area. Here is a description by anthropologist Kathleen Blagdon:

Among the manitou (spirits) known ... was the giant horned or antlered, under(water) world serpent, a being familiar to other Algonquian-speaking people as well. Images of this fearsome underwater dweller sometimes decorated amulets, bowls, and other objects. Its powers were suggested by a curious story told to Josselyn of a sea-serpent or snake that lay 'quoiled up like a cable upon a rock at Cape-Ann; a boat passing by with English aboard, and two Indians, they would have shot the serpent, but the Indians dissuaded them, saying if he were not kill'd outright, the would all be in danger of their lives.' (Native People of Southern New England, 1500 - 1650. Blagdon is quoting English writer John Josselyn.)

Does this seem like the type of creature that would help orphans lost in the woods? Maybe, but maybe not.

In Rowling's story adventurous students are drawn to this house. The thunderbird is indeed also a creature from local Native American folklore. I'm going to quote Blagdon once again:

The analog of the underwater serpent or panther in the upper or sky world was the thunderbird, a sacred and beautiful bird in many Algonquian cosmologies. Often the enemy of the underwater panther or serpent... This powerful being is commonly depicted graphically, often as a figure with a profiled and prominent beak, or as a human figure with wings. Amulets in the same form were worn...  (Native People of Southern New England, 1500 - 1650)

Image from this site.
Paranormal investigators claim that large cryptic avians, possibly thunderbirds, can still be seen in Massachusetts's Hockomock Swamp. Again, is this the type of being that aids wandering orphans? I'm not sure, but it seems the most likely to be helpful.

The final house at Ilvermonry is called Wampus, and is named after a legendary panther-like cat. Unfortunately, the wampus is not really part of New England folklore. Stories about the wampus are usually found in the southern parts of the United States. In some stories the wampus is similar to a werewolf and can be repelled by the Bible, while in others it is an anomalous six-legged panther-like creature. It has four legs for running and two for fighting. I was surprised to learn that may high school football teams in the South are named the Wampus Cats!

The Conway, Arkansas Wampus Cat. Go team!
In Rowling's story students who are warriors are likely to live in Wampus. I suppose that makes sense.

And Even More Creatures...

Rowling incorporates some other creatures into her story beyond the four associated with the school's houses. For example, she mentions hodags, snallygasters, and jackalopes. Sadly, none of these are from New England folklore either.

The hodag is found in Wisconsin folklore and originated as a hoax from 1893. The hodag is also the mascot of the high school in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.

Staged photo of a hodag.

The snallygaster is encountered in Maryland folklore, and its name may derive from the German words "Schneller Geist," which mean "fast ghost." The snallygaster is described as reptilian and winged. As far as a I can tell no high school claims the snallygaster as its mascot. I guess "Go Snallygasters!" doesn't make a good cheer.

Finally, the jackalope. Again, not from New England. It appears that the jackalope was first created by a talented Wyoming taxidermist in the 1930s, and jackalopes can still be purchased from outdoor retailer Cabela's.

One more creature appears in Rowling's story: the hidebehind, which she describes as a "nocturnal, forest-dwelling spectre that preys on humanoid creatures. As the name suggests, it can contort itself to hide behind almost any object, concealing itself perfectly from hunters and victims alike." The hidebehind is one of the villains in the story.

A drawing of a hidebehind from Wikipedia.

Happily for those of us who live here, the hidebehind is not from New England. Although many of the Little People from local Native American lore are shy and so thin they can hide behind trees, the hidebehind is found in the folklore from other parts of the United States. According to legend it likes to prey on lonely hunters and lumberjacks, so I'm glad this is one thing I don't need to worry about when I go walking in the woods.