January 31, 2017

"I Will Make You Afraid": Sleep Paralysis and Witchcraft

Are you ever afraid of the dark? I will admit that sometimes I still am. Now and then when I go to bed after watching a horror film I have this brief moment where I wonder if someone is standing in the corner of my bedroom. Luckily no one ever has been, but I am all too aware of how vulnerable I am when I'm asleep.

I dream quite vividly and there have been occasions where I have dreamed that someone is in my bedroom with me. Once, in a very memorable dream, someone in a black hooded shirt stood behind me and whispered in my ear while I was unable to move. It was not just memorable - it was also a little freaky.

I think dreams like that are common, but some people experience something even more extreme called sleep paralysis. Here's how Wikipedia defines it:

Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon in which an individual, either during falling asleep or awakening, briefly experiences an inability to move, speak, or react. It is a transitional state between wakefulness and sleep. It is often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations to which one is unable to react due to paralysis, and physical experiences (such as strong current running through the upper body). These hallucinations often involve a person or supernatural creature suffocating or terrifying the individual, accompanied by a feeling of pressure on one's chest and difficulty breathing. 

It sounds terrifying, doesn't it? During the various New England witch trials, many witnesses testified that witches or demonic spirits entered their rooms at night to sit on their chests, causing them harm and great fear. Were these demonic visitations simply sleep paralysis?

Here is a particularly vivid example given as testimony by one Mary Hale against Katherine Harrison of Wethersfield, Connecticut, who was accused of witchcraft.

That about the latter end of November, being the 29th day, 1668, the said Mary Hale lying in her bed, a good fire giving such light that one might see all over that room where the said Mary then was, the said Mary heard a noise, & presently something fell on her legs with such violence that she feared it would have broken her legs, and then it came upon her stomach and oppressed her so as if it would have pressed the breath out of her body. Then appeared an ugly shaped thing like a dog, having a head such that I clearly and distinctly knew to be the head of Katherine Harrison, who was lately imprisoned upon suspicion of witchcraft... (quoted in John Taylor's 1908 book The Witchcraft Delusion in Connecticut, 1647 - 1697)

Hale also testified that although her parents were sleeping in the same room they were unable to hear her shouts for help.

A week later, the entity appeared again. This time the room was dark, but Hale was able to feel the entity's face and could tell that it was a woman. Her parents again did not hear her cry out, even as the oppressive entity hurt her fingers.

It appeared again on a windy December night. This time it spoke to Hale in a threatening manner, using Katherine Harrison's voice:

Entity: "You said that I would not come again, but are you not afraid of me."

May Hale: "No."

Entity: "I will make you afraid before I have done with you."

(quoted in John Taylor's 1908 book The Witchcraft Delusion in Connecticut, 1647 - 1697)

After saying this Hale felt a crushing weight on her body, which made her scream in pain. Her parents slept on and did not awaken. The entity said, "Though you do call they shall not hear till I am gone." It also promised to never come again if Hale agreed to keep its visitations a secret, which she refused to do.

Image from this informative BuzzFeed article about sleep paralysis.

It's really tempting to say that this is just a simple case of sleep paralysis. The nighttime visitation, the crushing weight, the inability to move or be heard - all these are the hallmarks of sleep paralysis. However, I think the situation is more complex than that. Certainly, it sounds like Mary Hale was familiar with sleep paralysis, either through personal experience or by hearing about it from neighbors. But she was also using the experience of sleep paralysis to accuse someone of witchcraft.

The interpretation of sleep paralysis is conditioned by culture. People in different societies explain it in different ways. Modern American sufferers may see humanoid beings, which are sometimes interpreted as extraterrestrials, in their bedrooms during an attack but they don't see people they know. However, in Cambodian culture sleep paralysis is said to be caused by the ghosts of dead relatives. In Italian folklore, it is sometimes said to be cause by a catlike monster.

Alien visitors, deceased relatives, and cat-monsters weren't how the Puritans explained sleep paralysis. Instead they explained it as witchcraft. Unfortunately, unlike some of those other explanations, witchcraft requires a witch. Extraterrestrials aren't human, deceased ancestors are already dead, and Italian cat-monsters can't be arrested and punished. In early New England, though, witches were real people who could be arrested and punished.

Usually they were unpopular neighbors, which was the case with Katherine Harrison. Harrison had originally been a servant girl in Wethersfield and reportedly did not get along well with others in town. Harrison also dabbled in fortune-telling, which made her neighbors look at her with suspicion. Her neighbor's feelings of enmity only grew when she married a successful local farmer, and enmity later turned into outright hostility when Harrison's husband died and she inherited his estate. An unpopular, lower-class woman had suddenly become one of Wethersfield's wealthiest citizens. How could this happen to someone so reviled? Clearly, something supernatural was involved...

More than 30 people testified against Harrison, who was found guilty in May of 1669 and sentenced to death. Luckily, her case was referred to John Winthrop, Jr., the governor of Connecticut. Although Winthrop practiced alchemy and other forms of magic he was very skeptical about witchcraft. He demanded stricter forms of evidence than the lower courts did and as a result her conviction was overturned. Although Harrison was banished from Wethersfield she escaped with her life.

I think the story of Mary Hale and Katherine Harrison is a cautionary one. Many of us will experience some strange phenomena in our life: sleep paralysis, an uncanny dream, or maybe even an unusual entity. These type of things have been happening throughout human history and will probably happen until humans go extinct. They're just part of our life.

Our interpretation of these strange experiences is important. We can use them to accuse our neighbors of witchcraft, or we can accept them as something strange and wondrous that shows us a hidden side of existence. Personally I'm voting for the second choice, and I hope you do too.

In addition to Taylor's book, I found information for this post at the Wethersfield Historical Society.

January 22, 2017

A Spectral Flying Dwarf In Connecticut

My friend Simon Young at the Fairy Investigation Society sent me the following story via an old newspaper clipping. Unfortunately the year of publication is missing, but it seems to be from a paper called The Globe-Democrat and is probably from the late 19th or early 20th century.

The date is January 11 (of whatever year), and the byline is New Haven, Connecticut. The headline reads:

A Massachusetts Dwarf Who Appears or Disappears In Night or Day - He Is Cut In Two By A Workman's Spade

Who can resist a headline like that? The article goes on to describe how for the last thirty years the people of North Haven have reported seeing a spectral dwarf in the vicinity of Shear's Brickyard.

Many men and women who have been riding and walking along the highway after nightfall have seen the strange figure of a dwarf about three feet high. Sometimes he would be dressed in one color of clothing and then of another. When people told of what they had seen they were received with incredulity by some, and other would put faith in the stories. 

On the night of January 9, five men employed at the brickyard had a vivid encounter with the mysterious dwarf. Owen McNulty, Oscar Jansen, Septa Maganzo, Pasco Servisco, and Lorenzo Partico were walking home from the brickyard at about 7:00 pm when the dwarf appeared in the road in front of them. He was about three feet tall, and wore a black velvet coat trimmed with fur and a "cocked hat" (a tricorn or perhaps bicorn hat). His clothes looked like they were fashionable 100 years ago, and he carried a lantern in his hand.

Owen McNulty was carrying a spade home from the brickyard, and swung it at the dwarf. It passed through the entity's body, and the dwarf disappeared. The men panicked and ran off, crossing themselves for protection.

I just want to interject and ask why do so many people attack supernatural beings when they encounter them? From shooting at Bigfoot to attacking dwarfs with spades, people in these accounts often react violently. And you know what? It never works.

Anyway, back to the story. The next day the five men went back to the spot where they had seen the dwarf. McNulty once again had his trusty spade. The black-clad dwarf appeared again, even though it was daytime, and without his lantern. Not learning his lesson from the previous night's encounter, McNulty swung his spade again at the dwarf. He succeeded in cutting the dwarf into two pieces, but he was probably not prepared for what came next.

Rather than fall over and die, the two halves of the dwarf's body floated forty feet up into the air and rejoined together. Then, with a blinding flash of light, the dwarf disappeared.

The men went back to boarding house where they all lived and described to their landlady what they had just witnessed. In response, she told them that many people had seen the same thing and that it wasn't really that unusual. I guess flying ghost dwarfs were just a common occurrence in the neighborhood!

The article ends by noting that there is a tradition in the neighborhood that "many years ago a sailor of dwarfish stature sailed up the Quinebec river (sic), his boat was capsized, and he drowned." I am assuming that Quinebic is a variant spelling of Quinnipiac, the large river that flows through North Haven. Connecticut readers, let me know if this is correct.

American newspapers in the 19th century often ran stories about ghosts, monsters, and other strange occurrences. They were a good way to increase readership, and people didn't have access to the almost unlimited weird news we now have via the internet and shows like Ancient Aliens or Finding Bigfoot. Newspapers had to do it all.

I suppose this story could be a hoax, but the article does include names and a verifiable location, so perhaps these men really did encounter something. And maybe that something really did have a long tradition of appearing to people in the neighborhood.

The people of North Haven explained the dwarf as a ghost (who was apparently once from Massachusetts), but he also sounds suspiciously like a fairy. Although quite powerful, fairies are often small in stature and often appear in the garb of an earlier era. But the distinction between fairies and ghosts are blurry. Whether by living under ancient burial mounds or including deceased humans in their company, fairies are often associated with the dead. This may also be why fairies often appear in antiquated clothing - they're just wearing what they wore while alive.

Ghost or fairy? It's really impossible to say. I think at some point it just becomes futile to categorize or define paranormal occurrences. All we really have are the strange stories people tell and our inclination to categorize what is inherently disorderly.

I've included the full article below in case you want to read the original:

January 18, 2017

A Ritual Cat Burial In Charlestown, Massachusetts?

Last month as a Christmas gift I received the book A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts (2016) by Joseph Bagley. Bagley is the official archeologist for the City of Boston, and a couple years ago I went one a tour he led of an ancient Native American quarry in the Blue Hills.

I was pretty excited to read his book. The fifty artifacts Bagley examines range from prayer books to feminine hygiene devices, but the one that really caught my attention was a cat skeleton unearthed in Charlestown. Many, many cats have lived and died in Charlestown over the last 400 years, but this cat was possibly killed as part of a magic spell.

Its skeleton was found buried in a small pit underneath the main entrance to the former Three Cranes Tavern in Charlestown's City Square. The tavern operated from 1635 until 1775, but the archaeologists who found the cat skeleton estimated it was buried sometime in the early 1700s. The cat was killed by a blow to the back of its head. The blow punctured the poor cat's skull, and its body was buried in one piece. Also buried near the cat was a large pot.

Bagley speculates that the cat was buried there to magically protect the tavern, either from witchcraft or from vermin. This certainly seems possible, since it's unlikely the tavern owners would just randomly bury a cat under the front stoop. Archeologists have found many instances of cats buried under foundations or inside walls of old buildings in Europe. Occasionally dead mice or rats are also found placed inside the cats' mouths.

There are a few theories that try to explain this practice. An older theory, popular with the Victorians, is that these animals were killed to appease land spirits. That may have been the case in the distant pagan past, but the English colonists certainly didn't believe in land spirits that needed appeasing.

A more recent theory is that the cats were killed to prevent rats and mice from entering the house. This seems counter-intuitive (wouldn't a live cat be more effective?), but I think the idea is that the cat's spirit will somehow continue to hunt mice after death. This might explain why some buried cats are found with mice inserted in their mouths.
The Three Cranes cat skeleton. Photo from The Boston Globe.
A final theory is that burying a cat under the doorstep was believed to deter witches or their familiar spirits from entering the house. That sounds like a plausible explanation, since we know our New England ancestors were very concerned about protecting their homes from witches. Some of the most well-documented methods include nailing a horseshoe over the door and putting bay leaves around the windowsills, but there were many other methods as well. It seems possible that killing and burying a cat might be another one. Archaeologists in England also often find pots buried under old house foundations or doorsteps, and they theorize that they were believed to deter witches from entering, possibly by trapping the witches spirits in them. This would explain why the Charlestown cat was buried near a pot.

There is a whole field of archaeology that deals with magic. Its foundational text is Ralph Merrifield's The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic (1987), which should probably be on my reading list. It should probably be on everyone's list! If you find this topic interesting, you may want to read this interview with Brian Hoggard, a British archaeologist working on this topic today.

My cat is sitting nearby as I write this post, and he tells me that a live cat is definitely better at averting evil than a dead one. I would have to agree. After all, the cat skeleton didn't do much to protect Three Cranes Tavern on June 17, 1775. The Battle of Bunker Hill happened that day, and the British troops burned the tavern and the rest of Charlestown to the ground. The tavern foundations were excavated prior to the Big Dig and can now be visited in City Square.

Although I enjoy writing about these old folk magic practices, I don't recommend ever hurting or killing animals. Not only is it cruel, it is illegal.

January 08, 2017

A Connecticut Ape Man; Or, Is Scooby Doo For Real?

Did you ever watch the Scooby Doo cartoons?

I used to watch them all the time when I was a kid. This was in the early 1970s, and each week Scooby Doo and the gang enacted the same basic story. First, they drove in their groovy van (the Mystery Machine) to some spooky location like an abandoned amusement park or creepy old hotel.

Next, someone told them the location was haunted. This was where the writers were allowed some creativity. The creatures haunting the location included a wide variety of ghosts (pirates, headless phantoms, armored knights, clowns, etc.) and other less categorizable monsters like ape men, a tar monster, and something called the Spooky Space Kook.

Spooky Space Kook!
After learning about the creature, Scooby Doo and his friends then encountered it. Hilarious hijinks ensued as they ran down corridors, hid in garbage cans, played tricks on the monster, etc.

Every episode ended the same way. The monster was unmasked as someone with a financial interest in scaring people. The Black Knight was really nerdy Mr. Wickles, who was stealing paintings from the museum. The Kooky Space Kook was really Henry Bascombe, who wanted to scare people living near an abandoned Air Force base so he could acquire the land for free and sell it back to the government. Whew! That's a complicated motive.

Spooky Space Kook unmasked!!
Scooby Doo once even encountered the ghost of Bigfoot, who was haunting a Vermont ski lodge. He was revealed to be old Mr. Crabtree, who ran an operation selling stolen cars. He dressed like Bigfoot's ghost to scare away anyone who might witness his criminal activity.

The ghost of Bigfoot...
... is really Mr. Crabtree!
After the villain was unmasked they'd always say something like "I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for you meddling kids!" as the police dragged them away. Hooray! Mystery solved and monster vanquished. 

At a certain point every kid who watches Scooby Doo catches on to the formula. The fun then becomes figuring out who the monster really is. But at some even later point it also becomes obvious that the show's formula is ludicrous. Dressing up like ghosts and monsters to scare people away from their property doesn't seem plausible. No one would actually try this in real life, would they?

Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Apparently someone did try it in Connecticut in1926. Here is a brief article from the April 3, 1926 issue of Oakland California's Tribune:

Ape Man Scare Said To Be Land Deal Plot

North Stonington, Conn., April 3. - Taugwank's "ape man" is a plain human being in fur coat and trousers. A game warden has come to that conclusion after a thorough search of the Horace D. Miner farm in Taugwank.

Further, he declared his belief that the man was attempting to frighten Muriel, 19, and Mildred Miner, 16, orphans, into selling the farm. The ape man has variously been reported by the girls and neighbors as a hairy creature of terrifying mien, that slipped along in the manner of an ape, and jumped about with considerable more agility than a human being. (quoted in Chad Arment's excellent book The Historical Bigfoot)

More information can be found in the April 2 edition of Biddeford, Maine's Biddeford Weekly Journal. The game warden was named George Denison, and he searched the 2,000 acres of the Miner farm.
The girls, whose father died a month ago, reported that a fear-inspiring figure, scarce human in appearance, lurked about the house, danced on the summit of a rock 300 feet from the door, and uttered cries like those of an infant. They professed to believe that an attempt was being made to force them to leave the place and sell the farm. They said that an offer had been made to their father to sell the estate during the year preceding his death.

The game warden said the object of his search was to settle once and for all the rumors that a “strange creature” had been seen in the swamp and woods of Taugwank.
... An aged caretaker, Frank Miller, who had been staying at the farm, resigned yesterday. Miller believed in ghosts and was terrified at the situation.

“Every time a wind blew with the wind or the coal shed door squeaked he persisted in saying it was a ghost,” the girl said. “When the strange creature was first seen, we told Miller it was a real ghost. He was so frightened that his teeth chattered and his knees knocked together.” (article quoted in full here)

Even more information can be found in an article in the Syracuse Herald on April 3. According to the Herald, the two Miner daughters were not scared. Instead they were heavily armed.

Loaded firearms await the ape-man masquerader and, according to Denison, that is why he has not been seen in the last few days.
"If that fellow goes out there again they are going to put the lead to him," was how he summed up matters after yesterday's visit to the farm. "I wouldn't try it again if I were he."
Neighbors of the Miner girls are standing with them, and there is many a loaded shotgun standing in readiness to do duty when Taugwank's terror next appears. (article quoted in full on Rense.com. FYI, site is full of conspiracy theories!)

So there you go. I was apparently wrong when I thought Scooby Doo plots were implausible. I wonder if there are other situations where this happened?

However, I am compelled to point out the following: I couldn't find evidence they ever unmasked the ape man as a particular greedy neighbor. I don't think the culprit was ever discovered. No one in 1926 Connecticut said "I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for you meddling kids."

If that's the case, how do we even know that this Connecticut ape-man was even really a fraud? Which is more implausible - someone dressing up as ape monster to scare teenagers off their family farm, or a random monster who appeared in the woods and then vanished? I leave that up to you.

Perhaps Bigfoot's ghost is still out there in the woods, waiting to be unmasked. Maybe it will be mean old Mr. Crabtree, or maybe it will be something even more frightening.

January 03, 2017

Recent UFO Sightings, Plus the UFO I Saw As A Child

While we were all busy celebrating the holidays last month, some people spent December seeing strange lights and objects in the sky. I don't think any of them were flying reindeer. Read on!

On the night of December 10, someone in the Maine town of East Baldwin reported seeing an enormous flying craft the size of a football stadium. It was accompanied by two smaller objects flying next to it. The witness had trouble seeing the largest UFO clearly, and speculates that some type of force field may have been responsible.

That's all pretty strange, but it gets stranger:

As the formation approached, I was hit with a wave of nausea, felt anxiety and fear. One of my K-9's ran off back to the house and the other cowered behind me. Both have been agitated ever since and hesitant to go out at night. I have felt ill and uneasy ever since as well. I later heard that there were an unusual number of ambulance calls in the area for anxiety or heart attacks the following day. I looked online and saw that another Maine couple in Windsor saw the giant craft that night and fell ill themselves. I am a trained observer and out every night with my dogs. I have seen many other "craft" but never so close as to be able to determine that they were not made on Earth (that we know of). I am concerned about the health effects of whatever force field overflew us at such a low altitude to make us feel instantly sick.
Yikes! That's creepy stuff. Happily, a sighting on December 5 in Kingston, New Hampshire was less traumatic. The witness was inside their house watching TV when they heard a helicopter approaching. This was unusual so the witness went outside to see what was happening. The helicopter was not yet overhead, but some type of large dark object was. It did not have any lights on it and the witness was only able to see it because it blocked out the stars overhead. Before it flew off the witness saw a single pale red light appear on the flying object. After it disappeared from view the helicopter finally appeared and flew off after it, as if in pursuit.

On December 14, someone outside taking a cigarette break from work in South Burlington, Vermont took a photo of the moon. They didn't notice anything unusual. When they went back inside and looked at the photo they noticed the following:

Is it an alien craft? A lens flare? An airplane? I don't have a clue. I suppose that's what makes these flying objects unidentified.

There were also UFO sightings during December in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Surprisingly, there weren't any reported in Rhode Island. I'm not sure why that is. Perhaps Rhode Islanders have better things to do than look up at the night sky, or maybe Rhode Island is so small that UFOs fly over it before they have a chance to be seen? OK, I'm kidding on both of those, but I do wonder why no one reported any UFOs there.

I found all these reports by looking through the MUFON database online. MUFON, or the Mutual UFO Network, has been collecting UFO reports for decades and they are a great source if you like to read about UFO sightings, which I do. I grew up in the 1970s when UFOs were everywhere in popular culture and I still have a fondness for them.

When I was very small, my brother, a young neighbor and I once saw a UFO. It was nighttime and we were standing in our backyard when we saw a very bright light descend from the sky and go down behind a hill. We were terrified. We ran into our house and told my parents what we had seen. I don't remember their response, sadly, but I don't think they were particularly concerned.

What I do remember is the amazement and fear that I felt. I had seen something from another world. It was thrilling but scary. Would we see alien creatures next? That thought terrified me. My brother and our neighbor felt the same way; our neighbor's parents were out and he refused to go home until they came back later that night. I seem to recall being afraid that something would look in my bedroom window (even though I slept on the second floor). I suppose I can understand why the witness in East Baldwin felt sick and uneasy, even if a force field was not present.

We were quite young (I was only in elementary school, if not kindergarten) and the media was full of UFO stories at the time. It's no wonder we were freaked out. Did we really just see a falling star? A lone bottle rocket? A very silent helicopter? It could have been any of those things, or maybe it was something else entirely. It truly was unidentified.

People have been seeing strange lights in the night sky since history began. In the past they might have been explained as gods, angels, ghosts, or special omens. Astronomy can now explain most of the things we see in the sky, but every now and then something still manages to slip through the cracks of rationality to remind us of the great mysteries that lurk out in the universe.