December 28, 2016

Was 2016 The Year of The Witch?

This year is grinding to a close, so I thought I'd see what stories on this blog from 2016 were the most widely read.

I was kind of surprised by the result. Overwhelmingly, stories about witches and witchcraft were the most popular this year. Monsters, haunted locations and weird seasonal folklore all took a back seat - 2016 was the year of the witch here on New England Folklore.

Drumroll, please! Here are the top five stories I posted this year:

1. By far the most popular story was this one from January about the Dogtown Witches. These 18th century widows made their living as fortune-tellers, herbalists, and by threatening to bewitch travelers passing through their North Shore village. The story of the Dogtown witches is charming, empowering and a little scary. In short, it's everything I like in a Yankee witch story. As an added bonus, Dogtown Common (the village where they lived) is now an abandoned ghost town in the middle of an enormous forest in Gloucester.

2. Readers also really liked this post about "How to Make a Witch Bottle," a type of classic New England defensive folk magic. Maybe people reacted to the crafty aspect. All you need is a jar, some nails, and your own urine. How much easier could it be? On the other hand, maybe a lot of my readers are plagued with supernatural problems and feel the need to defend their homes with magic. I hope that's not the case, but 2016 has been a very strange year...

3. In February of 2016 Robert Eggers's art-horror film "The Witch" was released to wide critical acclaim. I loved the movie, but I've heard mixed things from friends. Some horror movie fans were bored and confused by the slow pace and 17th century dialect, and art film aficianados didn't see it because they were afraid of the violence and bloodshed. I think the main audience for this film was intelligent people who love the creepy side of folklore, which happily describes all of this blog's readers. My review of "The Witch" was the third most popular post of 2016, and focused on how the film did and didn't reflect authentic New England witch lore. Spoiler alert: New England witch lore has fewer naked people and goats.

4. Do you see what I mean about 2016 being the year of the witch? So much witchcraft, but I'm not complaining. One exception to the witchcraft trend was this post about Connecticut's haunted fairy village. I spent much of 2016 researching New England fairy lore, so I was happy that readers responded well to this one. The legend features sinister fairies, an axe murderer, and a cursed ghost town, so there is a lot to respond to.

Image from From

5. Rounding out the top five is another witch-oriented post. I asked "How Did Tituba Become Black?", and that question apparently resonated with readers. Tituba was one the key figures in the Salem witch trials. A slave in Reverend Samuel Parris's household, Tituba was one the first people accused of witchcraft. She set the pattern for all the trials with her vivid confessions and incriminated several others as witches. Popular culture has depicted Tituba as black for many years, but she was actually an Aarawak Indian from the Caribbean. Read the post to find out how this transformation happened. (Hint: Arthur Miller and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow both made it happen.)

Ashley Madekwe as Tituba on TV's Salem.
I've had a lot fun writing this blog in 2016, so thank you for reading and letting me share my obsession with the weird side of New England. I hope you'll keep reading in 2017. Happy New Year!

December 20, 2016

Do The Witches Ride At Christmas?

I wanted to read something wintry to put me in the holiday spirit, so I picked up a collection of Icelandic folklore: J.M. Bedell's Hildur, Queen of the Elves, and Other Icelandic Legends (2016). I thought, "Iceland is cold and snowy, so I'm sure these legends will put me in a Christmas mood."

Although it doesn't always work out that way, this time I was right. Not only are these legends set someplace icy and dark, many of them are explicitly about Christmas. However, unlike the stories we tell about Santa, Rudolph, and Mrs. Claus, these Icelandic stories are quite spooky. Apparently really terrible things happen in Iceland during Christmas. Malicious supernatural beings are very active there in late December.

For example, in "The Magicians of the Westmann Islands," a group of magicians who have fled to an offshore island to escape the plague threaten to kill one of their fellow sorcerers by Christmas Eve if he doesn't return to them. The lone sorcerer has fallen in love with the last woman in Iceland (everyone else has died from the plague) and refuses to return to the magicians. They send an assortment of demons to kill him on, but happily his beloved defeats them with help from her dead grandfather. I don't know about you, but that's not the type of story I usually hear at Christmas here in the United States.

One recurring themes in the Icelandic legends is that you absolutely don't want to be home alone on Christmas Eve. You should go to church with your family because bad things happen to those who stay home alone on Christmas Eve. What type of bad things, you ask? Well, perhaps elves will break into the house and kill you, which happens in the title story "Hildur, Queen of the Elves." These are not the nice pretty elves that one finds in a Tolkien novel, that's for sure.

If the elves don't get you, the witches might. In "The Witch Ride", a minister marries a beautiful  young woman. Her only flaw is that every Christmas Eve she disappears and refuses to say where she goes. This goes on for several years, until one Christmas Eve a new farmhand is working alone on the minister's farm when he encounters the minister's wife. She throws a magical bridle over him and rides him like horse to the witches' Sabbath, where she presents the Devil with a bottle of human blood. Merry Christmas?

It's interesting to compare these stories to local New England folklore. The magical witch bridle is something that also appears in New England folklore, but Christmas Eve has no particular connection with witchcraft or evil here. New England's witches are active year round, and their malicious actions are motivated by personal grudges and feuds, not by the calendar.

In New England lore, Christmas might even be a time antithetical to witches. Benjamin Franklin's brother James printed the following in a 1792 edition of his almanac:

This month (December) is a great Enemy to evil Spirits, and a great Dissolver of Witchcraft, without the help of Pimpernal, or Quicksilver and Yellow Wax... Some Astrologers indeed confine this Power over evil Spirits to Christmas Eve only; but I know the whole Month has as much Power as any Eve in it: Not but that there may be some wandering Spirits here and there, but I am certain they can do no Mischief, nor can they be seen without a Telescope.

Shakespeare wrote something similar in Hamlet. Here is Marcellus, one of the guardsmen of Elsinore, talking about ghosts and witches at Christmas:

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

How common was the belief that Christmas was antithetical to witches and ghosts? This article in Early Modern Literary Studies looks at the passage in Hamlet, and finds some evidence that it was a widely held belief, but also finds other evidence for the opposite - that people thought witches were actually very active at Christmas. I haven't found any other New England references to Christmas being antithetical to witches anywhere except the Franklin almanac (quoted in Stephen Nissenbaum's book The Battle for Christmas).

I do know that ghost stories were quite popular in England at Christmas-time up until the modern era, but here in New England the ghosts are not tied to a seasonal calendar. Summer, winter, fall or spring: they are active all year round, much like the witches.

The Puritans dispensed with the old seasonal calendar when they came to New England. They acknowledged few of the old holidays, and to them Christmas was just another work day. Perhaps when they trashed the holiday calendar they freed the ghosts and witches to work their mischief on any date, not just December 25th. But I do like the sentiment that at least one night a year might be hallowed and gracious, a night free from evil and danger.

December 11, 2016

A Sexy Puritan Christmas: Lewd Behavior at Yule in Old New England

The war over Christmas has been going on for centuries. Is the holiday too commercial? Is it too religious? People have been arguing those points for hundreds of years, but you don't hear a lot of people complaining these days that Christmas is too sexual.

Surprisingly, that was a complaint lodged against Christmas in the past. Before Christmas became focused on children, gift-giving, and cozy crafts, it was a raucous public holiday where the lower classes drank heavily and roamed through the streets. They traveled from house to house demanding food and drink from their wealthier neighbors, who themselves were drinking heavily and also feasting on the best foods from the recent late autumn harvests.

All that partying sometimes led to lascivious behavior, as illustrated by the following information from Stephen Nissenbaums' book The Battle for Christmas.

When the Puritans founded New England they banned the holiday outright. Puritan theologians did not believe there was any Biblical justification for celebrating Jesus's birth in December, and they also knew that Christmas was placed on December 25th by early Christians to co-opt the pagan Roman holiday of Saturnalia. They didn't view Christmas as a Christian holiday, but rather as a pagan survival that encouraged disorderly behavior.

Unfortunately for the Puritans, some people in New England continued to celebrate Christmas. These celebrants were originally people on the fringes of Puritan society: servants, the poor, and sailors and fishermen. To help quash the lingering Christmas festivities the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony even passed a law in 1659 levying a five shilling fine against anyone found celebrating the holiday.

This law wasn't successful. People have always loved an excuse for a party, even in 17th century New England, and authors and diarists of the time often disapprovingly noted that their trashy neighbors were enjoying the holiday in the old-fashioned, drunken way. Much to the dismay of the Puritans, Christmas even briefly became legal during the short three-year governorship of the royally-appointed Sir Edmund Andros.

Yule-tide partying continued even after Andros was sent back to England in 1689. In fact, the problem seemed to be worsening. Cotton Mather, Boston's leading minister, wrote the following in his journal in December of 1711:

I hear of a number of young people of both sexes, belonging, many of them, to my flock, who have had on the Christmas-night, this last week, a Frolick, a reveling feast, and Ball...

Uh-oh. Not only were the marginal people celebrating Christmas, but now the children of good upstanding Puritans were too. Note how he is specifically concerned about "young people of both sexes."

Reverend Mather took action and preached against Christmas parties in 1712 and 1713. He preached the following:

The Feast of Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in Licentious Liberty... by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by Rude Reveling...

Mather also told his congregation that "Abominable Things" were done in the name of Christmas. What were these unnameable abominations? Pre-marital sex.

Mather wasn't just being alarmist. Historians have analyzed New England birth records from the early 18th century, and they've found that the largest number of children were born in September and October, roughly nine months after Christmas. Even more interesting, many of these children were born only seven months after their parents were married. In other words, they were conceived illegitimately during Christmas, and their parents only married once they realized a child was coming.

The lewd behavior associated with Christmas was finally tamed not by preaching, but by commercialism. In the 19th century the holiday became associated with gift-giving and Santa Claus, and those associations remain with us today. The battle against lascivious Christmas behavior was won, but not with Cotton Mather's weapons of choice.


I highly recommend Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas if you like strange Christmas lore and history. It's a fascinating book!

December 06, 2016

The Winsted Wild Man: A History of Connecticut's Hairy Humanoid

Before there was Bigfoot, there was the Wild Man. Like Bigfoot, he was large, hairy and often naked, and he lurked in the woods and lonely meadows, emerging only to terrorize and amaze those who witnessed his emergence into the civilized world.

One particularly famous Wild Man has haunted part of Connecticut for nearly a century. His name? The Winsted Wild Man.

Here is a timeline of his appearances:

August 28, 1891 - People riding a coach through Winsted, Connecticut see a large animal run across the highway and leap over a fence. It stands on two legs. The passengers think it may be a gorilla. The New York Times speculates it is a gorilla that escaped from a circus several years ago and was sited in nearby South Norfolk the previous winter. However, the Times also notes that some Winsted residents think it might be a wild man known to live in the area.

September 8, 1891 - A Mrs. Culver of Colebrook, a town near Winsted, frantically reports that the wild man/gorilla spent the night sleeping on her porch. Six police and many civilians search the area but nothing is found.

August 21, 1895 - Winsted Selectman Riley Smith is out picking berries with his dog in Colebrook when he sees the wild man emerge from a clump of bushes. The wild man, who yelled loudly as he ran past Smith, is described as "a large man, stark naked, and covered with hair all over his body." Both Smith and his dog were terrified and fled the area.

Winsted in 1877, from Wikipedia.

August 23, 1895 - Passengers on the coach through Winsted once again see the wild man on the isolated road between Winsted and Colebrook. The North Adams Transcript reports that the wild man may be one of several who were seen in the area several years earlier, and that farmers in the area believe the wild man is stealing their small livestock. The Transcript also notes that a large hunting party is being planned for Sunday, August 25.

August 25, 1895 - Two hundreds armed men search the area around Winsted and Colebrook for the wild man. They find a cave on the Beardsley Farm that contains fresh bones and one old shoe. Footprints of bare feet are found outside the cave, which was located about three miles from where Riley Smith encountered the wild man. The wild man himself is not seen. Some people suggest the wild man is really a local man known to be suffering from alcohol withdrawal, but the man doesn't meet the description of the person seen by Smith.

Also on the 25th, picnickers find a small isolated cabin and report it to the authorities, but it is revealed to be the home of Mort Pond, a known hermit.

A Medieval European image of a wild man.
 August 30, 1895 - According to The North Adams Transcript, two women vacationing from New York City report encountering the wild man while passing through Winsted. They claim it was clearly a gorilla, and had "large white teeth, black hair, a muscular form and is about 6 1/2 feet tall." The Transcript also reports that this is probably the same gorilla who menaced Norfolk the previous winter. The Norfolk gorilla was sealed inside a cave by local citizens who covered the entrance with chains, but it broke the chains and escaped. It was also impervious to being shot with bird shot.

September 3, 1895 - Mrs. Culver once again reports seeing the wild man, as does a Mr. E.L. Perkins. Mrs. Culver claims the wild man was clad in rags, had long black hair and a beard, and was about 45 years old. Once again hunters scour the area, and once again they come up empty-handed.


I got most of this material from Chad Arment's absolutely amazing book The Historical Bigfoot, which compiles hundreds of old newspaper articles about wild men, "gorillas", and other hairy humanoids. It's really interesting to read these old accounts from Connecticut. Some witnesses clearly think they're seeing a man, others think they're seeing a gorilla, and others are seeing something in between. What did these people really see, if anything?

Let's face it, the gorilla explanation is pretty ridiculous. I don't think a gorilla would survive a Connecticut winter, and the story about the gorilla breaking chains to escape from a cave sounds like pure fantasy to me. Arment's book contains dozens of newspaper articles from across the country claiming an escaped gorilla is menacing a particular small town. There just weren't that many gorillas in the United States in the 19th century, never mind escaped ones. Even if a gorilla did escape, it probably wouldn't be able to survive.

Some modern writers have speculated that the Winsted Wild Man was just a hoax created by Louis T. Stone, a Winsted newspaperman known for his tall tales. He did work for the local paper in 1895, but the first accounts appeared in 1891. Perhaps he just helped to shape the story, rather than creating the Wild Man from whole cloth?

Also, Louis Stone died in 1935, so how do we explain the Winsted Wild Man once again rearing his shaggy head in the 1970s?


July 24, 1972 - Wayne Hall, aged 19, and David Chapman, aged 18, are hanging out at Chapman's house near Crystal Lake when they hear a strange noise from outside. It is late at night, but in the murky light they see a large hairy humanoid who is about eight feet tall. The creature emerges from the woods and walks into a neighbor's barn. The two teens watch the creature roam around for about 45 minutes until it disappears back into the woods.

September 27, 1974 - Four teenagers parking in the woods near Rugg Brook Reservoir are terrified when they see a six-foot tall, 300-pound hairy creature walking near the reservoir. Winsted police officer George Corso is stopped by two of the teens while patrolling downtown, and he returns to the reservoir with one of the boys in his patrol car, who insists they keep the doors locked and the windows shut. Corso later described the boy as obviously agitated and believed he had seen something that scared him. At the reservoir the boy claims to see the creature again, but Corso is unable to see what the boy does. The next day the police investigate the area and find no sign of anything unusual.


That information is from David Philips's book Legendary Connecticut. Will the Winsted Wild Man appear again? Probably, but maybe not for another fifty or sixty years. Just like the satyrs and centaurs of the ancient world, I'm sure he's out there just beyond the fringes of town, hiding in the woods outside our consciousness, waiting to surprise us again.