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.


Wade Tarzia said...

A good topic to look into is "foundation sacrifice." The general pattern underlies some old folklore, such as King Vortigern's Tower in Arthurian literature (young Merlin was almost used to dedicate it!), and ethnographic analogies have been been discussed in anthropological literature going at least as far back as the early 1900s (though I am not claiming its ultimate usefulness given the progress of anthropological theories since then). Europe, particularly in the S and E, seems to have generated a particular motif -- the "walled-up wife" pattern -- though drifting a bit from the well-interred cat. Your blog continues to be interesting, carry on!

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the comment Wade! I will need to look into this topic some more. I haven't seen many examples of it from New England - have you?

Wade Tarzia said...

No, your essay was the first I had heard of it in new England. I just got a book of old timey style folklore that has a chapter: George Laurence Gomme, Folk-Lore relics of Early Village Life, London: Elliot Stock. 1883. He does some rudimentary ethnographic analogy with customs around the world, then covers some instances in early medieval British writing (Nennius, etc.), and then shows some other instances, such as two skeletons found buried under an old church in Brownsover, Warwickshire, when the church was restored in 1876, and some others. He tends to include wild comparisons with "evidence" in folktales, but he is worth looking at as a start. (Besides, some of this old material is just fun to look at, and I suspect I was probably a pedantic antiquarian some other life :-) ).

There is a more general esay here: TaloĊŸ, Ion. 1987. “Foundation Rites.” Pgs. 395-401 in The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 5, ed. Mircea Eliade. New York: MacMillan. Alan Dundes collected an anthology of studies of the "walled-up wife" motif in his book, The Walled-Up Wife: A Casebook. I summarized this tale type in a very short entry in Locke, Liz, Theresa A. Vaughan, and Pauline Greenhill, eds. Encyclopedia of Women's Folklore and Folklife. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008 (I was limited to about two pages so couldn't say much, but I am happy to e-mail you the text).