November 28, 2016

The Devil In The Shape of A Hog: Three Encounters With Satanic Pigs

What do you picture when you think of the Devil? Maybe you picture a man with fiery red skin, horns, and a tail. Or perhaps you picture someone with bat wings and a goat's head. Maybe you just see a black goat, as in the recent movie The Witch.

The New England Puritans saw the Devil quite a bit, but they didn't necessarily picture him the same way we do now. Many people who encountered him described as a man in black clothing wearing a tall hat, which were signs of wealth. The Puritans were deathly afraid of the local Indian tribes, so to others the Devil appeared as man with tawny skin like an Indian's.

And to others, he appeared as giant hog.

On March 1, 1692, Reverend Samuel Parris's slave Tituba confessed to the Salem magistrates that the Devil had asked her to serve him as a witch.

Judge Hathorne: What? Have you seen a man come to you and say serve me? What service?

Tituba: Hurt the children and last night there was an appearance that said "Kill the children" and if I would not go on hurting the children they would do worse to me.

Judge Hathorne: What is this appearance you see?

Tituba: Sometimes it is like a hog and some times like a great dog. (Note: this appearance she sayeth she did see four times.)

Judge Hathorne: What did it say to you?

Tituba: The black dog said "Serve me," but I said I am afraid. He said if I did not he would do worse to me.

(Testimony recorded by Ezekiel Cheever on March 1, 1692.) 

The Devil and his demons appeared to the people of Salem in a bewildering variety of forms: dogs, cats, humans, human-headed birds, and long-nosed hairy little humanoids with wings. Satan's manifestation as a hog was just one among many shapes he took.

But it was shape he took in other times and places as well. For example, the Devil also appeared as monstrous hog in Milford, Connecticut. Four men sat down near a large boulder to play cards, an activity forbidden by the Puritan leadership. Their game was interrupted by the appearance of a huge hog, which frightened the men so much that they abandoned their cards and fled.

Once four young men upon ye rock
Sate down at chuffle board one daye
When ye Deuill appearde in shape of a Hogg
Ande frighten'd ym so they scampered awaye
Ande left Olde Nick to finish ye play.

That little poem appears in Edward Rodolphus Lambert's 1837 book History of The Colony of New Haven, Before and After The Union with Connecticut. Lambert calls it an "ancient stanza" and I am not sure of its origin. The rock under discussion was named Hog Rock after this incident with the Devil. At some point after the Revolutionary War the rock became known as Liberty Rock, which is its official name today.

Liberty Rock, formerly known as Hog Rock.

Milford is blessed to have another boulder also known as Hog Rock, which is located on an offshore island. According to legend, the pirate Captain Kidd may have buried some of his treasure underneath it. Milford's a lucky town to have two such legendary boulders!

According to George Lunt's 1873 book Old New England Traits, the Devil also appeared as a hog in the Massachusetts town of Topsfield, where he menaced travelers trying to cross a bridge over the Ipswich river:

He appeared in the shape of a monstrous hog, taking his station, at night, in the very centre of the bridge; and those who had occasion to cross it, on horseback or on foot, were either fain to turn back, as he encountered them, bristling and snarling, or rushed by, if their occasion demanded it, in a state of extraordinary trepidation. 

This went on for quite a while until Topsfield's minster, one Revered Capen, decided to take care of the Devilish problem. One night he went to the bridge and saw the monstrous hog. The Satanic swine grunted and snorted at the minister, but he was undaunted by its bestial display. He calmly faced the beast and said:

You that were once an angel of light, ain't you ashamed to appear in the shape of a dirty swine?

Ouch! Take that, Satan. The reverend's insult was more than the devil-hog could take, and it leapt into the Ipswich River, never to be seen again.

Parson Capen House, Topsfield, Massachusetts.

George Lunt says this happened about 100 years before the book was written, during the lifetime of his father. The minister in the story may be Joseph Capen (1658 - 1725), who led Topsfield's church for more than 30 years. Capen's house is now a museum that is open to the public. Please leave your pet pigs in the car if you come to visit.

Although I jest a little bit, I do find these stories fascinating and creepy. The thought of monstrous devil pigs is more unsettling to me than the thought of demonic goats. Goats have a certain dignity and majesty (it's the horns I guess), and although pigs are very intelligent animals there is something about their omnivorous appetite that is unnerving. Plants, animal flesh, garbage - they'll eat it all. I can see why the Puritans thought Satan might take the form of a hog.

November 21, 2016

Trick Or Treat For Turkey? Masked Beggars At Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is full of traditions. Eating turkey, baking pies, watching football, putting on a costume and begging for food from neighbors...

What's that? You don't dress up and beg for food? Well, I suppose it's not a tradition anymore, but in the past it was common for children to dress up on Thanksgiving and go door to door, asking their neighbors for food.

Records of it can be found in the early 19th century, when the destitute would ask for food from their wealthier neighbors. Here is an account from Salem in the 1820s or 1830s:

For two days before Thanksgiving Day our back door was besieged by pensioners, who all came with the same whining request, "Please give me something for Thanksgiving." My mother always had ready a store of rice, flour, Indian meal and apples, which were dispensed to the crowd, while the more favored family retainers were given in addition tea, sugar, raisins, and oftentimes a pair of chickens or a turkey. Each one brought a stout cotton pillow case into which the measure of rice would be poured, and then a strong twine tied tightly round the outside to separate it from the flour, which came next, and so on to the extreme capacity of the pillow case (Caroline King Howard, When I Lived In Salem, 1822 - 1866, p.110).
The people doing the begging in this case were not children, but actual adults who either needed the food or worked for the King family and collected the food almost as a bonus. While her mother seems to have taken her role seriously, Caroline King Howard's use of the word "whining" doesn't sound very charitable. Some local children even thought it was funny to dress like they were poor and go begging too:

It used to be a great joke for the young people of those days to dress up in shabby old clothes, and on the night before Thanksgiving to go around as beggars, imposing upon their friends, and I remember the glee with which my friend Lucy used to describe her working upon her mother's sympathy to such a degree, by her eloquent and lifelike personation of a poor widow with two small children to support, that her pillow case was overbrimmed with good things... (Howard, When I Lived In Salem, 1822 - 1866, p.111)
A similar account is found in George Lunt's 1873 book Old New England Traits:

It was the practice of some of this class to knock at the doors of those thought to be better off, on the evening before, begging "something for Thanksgiving"; and, by way of a joke, the children of comfortable neighbors and friends would often array themselves in cast-off bizarre habiliments, and come in bands of three or four to the houses of those
whom they knew, preferring the same request... It was a queer fancy, thus to simulate poverty... (pp. 106 - 107)
So what's going on here? The answer partly lies in the agricultural cycle of Northern Europe and England, where the first New England colonists came from. In pre-modern Northern Europe, late fall and early winter was the time when there was the most food available. The crops would have been harvested, the beer brewed, and the animals slaughtered before winter. It was often the only time of year when fresh meat was available. However, this season's rich bounty was not evenly distributed. The wealthy usually had more than they could use, while their poor neighbors often didn't have enough.

Photo: Library of Congress

The tradition of seasonal begging, sometimes called mumming or masking, arose as a way to address this disparity. The poor, often wearing masks or outrageous costumes, would travel from house to house, asking for food and alcohol. Sometimes they would sing a song or perform a short play in return. This is where the tradition of Christmas caroling comes from. Although many carols are now religiously themed, some of the older carols are explicitly about begging for food. For example, these lyrics from "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" are pretty blunt:

Now bring us some figgy pudding

Now bring us some figgy pudding

Now bring us some figgy pudding

And a cup of good cheer

We won't go until we get some

We won't go until we get some

We won't go until we get some

So bring it right here

I'm listening to a version of this song right now, and it's being sung by a choir of charming children. It should really be sung by a group of drunken hungry peasants in a vaguely threatening manner.

But perhaps the children's choir is not totally inappropriate. According to Stephen Nissenbaum's excellent book The Battle for Christmas, children and teens often joined their poor neighbors in their masked begging. They might not have needed the food as much, but like the poor they were very low in the social hierarchy. So maybe a choir of drunk, threatening children would be the most authentic?

Photo: Library of Congress

The Puritans who colonized New England did not condone the celebration of Christmas, claiming there was nothing in the Bible to support the raucous parties and mumming found in England and Europe. In the New World, they wanted a society free from the drunken disorder associated with Christmas and banned its observance. Instead they instituted religious holidays like Thanksgiving, where people were supposed to reflect on the good things God had given them.

Give people an inch and they'll take a mile, the old aphorism says, and that's what happened with Thanksgiving. By the early 19th century, Thanksgiving celebrations lasted for several days and involved feasting, dances, games and heavy drinking. Thanksgiving was never as raucous as the old European Christmas celebrations, but it was the closest thing New England had.

Thanksgiving is now always held on the fourth Thursday of November, but that's a recent innovation. In the past it was sometimes celebrated as late as December. Thanksgiving was in many ways the Puritan replacement for Christmas, and the masked begging associated with a traditional English Christmas became attached to Thanksgiving instead.

Interestingly, in some places this tradition continued well into the 20th century, particularly among children. I don't think New England was one of them, and the photos used in this post are mostly from New York City, where children dressed up and begged until the 1950s. Interestingly, they often dressed like poor beggars, a practice so common that children were often organized into "Ragamuffin Parades." Pretending to be poor as a joke is not something that's approved of today, so it all seems kind of weird and maybe a little cruel to me. The tradition seemed to finally die when Halloween trick-or-treating became widespread.

I think this is a fascinating topic and I have lot of questions. How widespread was this practice in New England? The two examples I found are both from Massachusetts, and in his book Thanksgiving: The Biography of An American Holiday, historian James Baker claims it was only found on the North Shore. But if that's the case, how did the same practice end up in New York City?

I think there's a lot more that could be written about we ended up with the traditions that we have today. If by chance a stranger in a creepy mask knocks on your door this Thanksgiving, make sure you give them something nice to eat!

November 14, 2016

Was Shirley Jackson A Witch?

This October I decided to read some classic horror stories. I thought I would celebrate Halloween in a literary way.

Unfortunately I didn't make too much progress. I only managed to read Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw" and Shirley Jackson's short novel The Haunting of Hill House. The James story is fun (if you don't mind really long sentences), but Jackson's novel made a bigger impact on me. It was quite creepy and actually gave me some nightmares. I haven't read anything like that in a long time!

At some point I want to reread it so I can figure out how Jackson did what she did. I think it's partly because the book is about someone with severe psychological problems who also experiences actual supernatural events. That's a potent combo. I think most horror authors throw their weight behind either the psychological aspect or the supernatural aspect of their story. Jackson goes for both.

But there's also something about Jackson's writing style, which is simple but somehow also unsettling. She really knew how to use words to create an uncanny effect. It seems almost magical somehow.

Which leads me to the heart of this week's post: was Shirley Jackson a witch?

A new biography of Jackson came out this fall. Ruth Franklin's book Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life has been getting good reviews and it's on my reading list. Maybe it will answer that question more fully, but here's what I have been able to gather about Jackson's life (and witchery) so far.

Jackson was born in 1916 in San Francisco to wealthy parents (her grandfather designed Gothic mansions) but was not interested in conforming to their socialite expectations for her. She wanted to be a writer. While in college at Syracuse University she met and fell in love with the future literary critic Stanley Hyman. They married, and Hyman got a teaching job at Vermont's Bennington College, which then was an all-girls' school. Hyman taught classes, wrote criticism, and had multiple affairs with colleagues and students, which he flaunted to Jackson.

Jackson stayed at home, raised their children, and did all the housework. She was the traditional American housewife. But she also wrote short stories, novels, and non-fiction books that were very successful. Many of her works, like "The Lottery," The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in The Castle, are considered classics. She was soon the primary income earner in their home, although it seems that Hyman never really acknowledged it. Jackson died on August 8, 1965 while taking a post-lunch nap.

Jackson's fascination with the macabre and the uncanny started at a relatively young age. When she was sixteen she became interested in witchcraft and read everything she could find on the topic. It was an interest that continued through her life. The large house she and Hyman shared in Vermont had an enormous library (larger than Bennington College's) and included hundreds of books on the subject of witchcraft. Her fascination with the dark arts manifested itself in her own writings, which are full of references to magic and the supernatural. She even wrote a children's book about the Salem witch trials, and also a short story simply titled "The Witch."

The public relations people at Farrar and Strauss used Jackson's knowledge about witchcraft to promote her first collection of short stories when it was published in 1949. Claiming that she wrote "with a broomstick instead of a pen," they went so far as to leak a story that she had cursed her husband's publisher Alfred A. Knopf. The story goes something like this. Knopf and Hyman had been arguing about a book of Hyman's criticism, and Jackson supposedly said that she would curse Knopf if he ever came to Vermont. (She said her powers didn't extend to New York City.) Jackson made a wax doll of Knopf and stuck a pin in its leg. That winter Knopf went skiing in Vermont. Wouldn't you know it, he broke his leg...

The press ate it up, but Jackson was embarrassed. At least that's what she told her parents in a letter, claiming that if she really had a broomstick she would fly back to California and hide in their cellar. She couldn't have been that embarrassed, though, since she later used her witchy reputation to promote future books. For example, Jackson sent the following biographical blurb to her publisher:

I live in a dank old place with a ghost that stomps around in the attic room we’ve never gone into (I think it’s walled up) and the first thing I did when we moved in was to make charms in black crayon on all the door sills and window ledges to keep out demons, and was successful in the main. There are mushrooms growing in the cellar, and a number of marble mantels which have an unexplained habit of falling down onto the heads of the neighbors’ children.

At the full of the moon I can be seen out in the backyard digging for mandrakes, of which we have a little patch, along with rhubarb and blackberries. I do not usually care for these herbal or bat wing recipes, because you can never be sure how they will turn out. I rely almost entirely on image and number magic. (Quote found on this site.)

Although the story about Knopf might not be true, and that blurb might be exaggeration, Jackson actually did practice magic. It's apparent even from the blurb that she really did know quite a bit about witchcraft, and not just in an academic sense. Visitors to her house would see amulets and charms lying around on shelves and tables, and those who were lucky were treated to a Tarot card reading by Jackson. Her readings were said to be uncannily accurate.

Because she was saddled with all the domestic chores, Jackson sometimes also used magic to help around the house. For example, if she was unable to find a particular utensil in a cluttered kitchen drawer, she would slam the drawer loudly. Then, she would name the utensil she wanted. When she opened the drawer the utensil she wanted would be on top and easily found. Magic or just physics?

Was Shirley Jackson really, really a witch? It's a question that doesn't have an easy answer. It's hard to say exactly what makes someone a witch. Is it practicing magic? Being in league with hidden forces? Playing malicious tricks on enemies (and unsuspecting readers)? Jackson did all three, but maybe in her case it was just part and parcel of being a gifted writer. But then again, maybe not...


There is a lot of information about Shirley Jackson on the web, but I found this site, this site, and this site very interesting and useful. 

November 09, 2016

Captain Dodge and the Mermaid

Many years ago, when I was just a small boy, my parents took me and my brother to visit Harvard's museums. I remember seeing the vast collection of taxidermied animals, the glass flowers, and the dinosaur skeletons, which were pretty cool to me back then. (They're still pretty cool now!)

The exhibit I remember best, though, was something called the Fiji Mermaid. This was a small, mummified corpse of a hideous mermaid. Of course, the placard next to the glass case explained that it was not really a mermaid, but was actually a 19th century hoax someone created by sewing a monkey's torso onto a fish's tail. Hoax or not, it was seared into my memory, and the name Fiji Mermaid has stuck in my head ever since. It's one of those things you can't unsee once you see it.

Harvard's Fiji Mermaid. Now you can't unsee this thing either...

I think the Fiji Mermaid is probably the most famous mermaid to visit Boston's shores - it was once owned by P.T. Barnum - but it is not the only one. In the 1820s, decades before the Fiji Mermaid appeared, the whole city was talking about another mermaid who came to visit.

The story starts in 1822 with a man named Captain Dodge, who sailed into Boston Harbor bearing an incredible tale. Dodge said he had met a mermaid, captured her, and left her behind on an island. Dodge seemed quite fond of the mermaid and said he was hoping to go back and teach her human language and culture. He was like a nautical Henry Higgins, I guess.

The Bostonians he met were quite skeptical. It was only the 1820s but even then people in Boston prided themselves on their education and ability to sniff out a fraud. Dodge only had a drawing of his mermaid as proof, and people were unwilling to believe Dodge's story until they saw the see the real thing. Vowing to prove himself no liar, Dodge sailed off, promising to return with the mermaid.

Months passed. Captain Dodge's ship reappeared in Boston Harbor, carrying cargo from around the world but not the one thing everyone was most eager to see: the mermaid. Where was she, the crowds at India Wharf asked? Captain Dodge explained that sadly he found only her corpse when he returned to the island where he had left her. Apparently dragging a mermaid out of the ocean and leaving her stranded on an island was really bad idea. She couldn't survive outside of a marine environment.

Shouldn't someone should have charged Dodge with murder, or at least manslaughter? No one did. Instead people just ghoulishly demanded to see the corpse. I'm suppose most Bostonians were just skeptical of the whole story and didn't really think there was a mermaid to kill anyway. However, some local naturalists approached Dodge and politely asked him to bring the dead sea maiden to Boston for anatomical study. This, they argued, would help prove he was telling the truth. Dodge equivocated and sailed off without promising anything to anyone.

In 1824 Dodge once again sailed into Boston Harbor -  this time with the body of the mermaid on board his ship. Her corpse was enclosed within a glass case. Dodge made arrangements with the New-England Museum to exhibit the mermaid in their building on Court Street. Admission cost twenty-five cents. The mermaid was not allowed to be examined outside of her glass case. Those local naturalists were out of luck.

The New-England Museum (now gone), from Wikipedia

So what exactly did Dodge have inside the case? Was it an actual mermaid? Here is a description from an 1824 issue of The New York Mirror And Ladies Literary Gazette:

The question asked, is, Is it really and truly, bona fide, a Mermaid? We answer, go and see. Examine for yourself. If the skin of a large cod-fish stuffed, with the skeleton of a child’s body put on in the place of the cod’s head, the jaws and teeth of a cat inserted into that which represents the head of the child, and the whole, except for the scaly part enveloped in a bladder, or some other skinny substance, and smoked well with burning camphor, can make a Mermaid, then as sure as a fish is a fish… there is a Mermaid now to be seen in the room adjoining the New-England Museum…

So no, it was not an actual mermaid. Much like the Fiji Mermaid, it was created from the parts of various other animals. Let's hope it wasn't actually made from the body of a child.

Dodge had been sailing in the Pacific before he came to Boston with his mermaid, which helps explain where he got it. According to Wikipedia, fishermen in Japan and other Pacific nations often created these "mermaids" out of animal parts for religious reasons. They're kind of like the Pacific island version of jackalopes, I suppose. Dodge had purchased it during his voyage and then brought it back to New England to show. Did he think it was really a mermaid, or did he know if was fake? That's hard to say, but I suspect he knew it was a hoax. Otherwise, he would have let the naturalists examine it.

Dodge's mermaid corpse was one of the first to appear in the United States, but others soon followed, including the more famous Fiji Mermaid, which was promoted by none other than the great circus impresario P.T. Barnum. There is some debate over whether Harvard's mermaid is actually the same one that Barnum owned, but if not it's still a good example of these mummified mermaids. I think Loren Coleman's Cryptozoology Museum in Portland Maine has one as well. There are quite a few of these taxidermy oddities out in the world,and the term "Fiji Mermaid" is often used to describe any of them. 

As far as I know, no one has ever found an authentic mermaid (or merman) corpse. Skeptics might say that's because they don't exist, but perhaps mermaids are really manifestations of the ocean's spirit, beautiful but dangerous, and cannnot ever be captured. As for Dodge's mermaid, she long ago disappeared and hasn't been seen since.

My sources for this week were Edward Rowe Snow's 1957 book Legends of the New England Coast, and also this great fairy tale blog which led me to the quote from The New York Mirror.