April 25, 2017

Grave Robbers, Resurrection Men, and Med Students

I recently finished Colson Whitehead's excellent new novel The Underground Railroad. I can understand why it won the Pulitzer. It's an interesting mix of history, fantasy, adventure, and social commentary. It also gruesome and upsetting, which you'd expect from a novel about slavery.

Most of the novel takes place in the South, but one very short chapter deals with a 19th-century Boston medical student who moonlights as a grave robber. The city's medical schools need dead bodies for dissection class, and very few people are willing to leave their corpses to science. It's the perfect opportunity for an ambitious young man with bad morals...

After finishing The Underground Railroad I decided to look into grave robbery in old New England. Whitehead's book is fiction, but he incorporates a lot of fact into it. Does he accurately portray the local grave robbing business?

The answer is yes, more or less. In the 18th and 19th century, Boston medical schools were given the corpses of executed criminals by the government to dissect. Unfortunately, the stream of executed criminals was not enough to satisfy the schools' demand for fresh corpses. To increase their supply, medical professors turned to grave robbers euphemistically called "resurrection men." The resurrection were more than happy to dig up freshly buried bodies and sell them to the schools.

Surprisingly, legal penalties for resurrection men were quite light. They often got away with just a slap on the wrist. They had to worry more about being beaten by an angry mob of mourning relatives than being arrested by the police. It seems strange, but grave robbing did not become a felony in Massachusetts until 1815, when the legislature passed a bill called "An Act to Protect the Sepulchers of the Dead."

To avoid angry relatives (and later the police), resurrection men sought out corpses that no one important cared about. The graves of paupers, the insane, and the homeless were all good sources of revenue. African-American cemeteries also made good targets for the resurrection men. Corpses from the lower social levels of society could be taken more easily.

Since the penalties for grave robbing were originally light, sometimes even faculty and students from medical schools tried their hand at it. It saved them from having to pay the resurrection men and seems to have been viewed almost as a fun activity. For example, at Harvard Medical School a secret student society called the Spunkers Club routinely robbed graves in the years before the Revolution. Sam Adams's son was a member, as was William Eustis, who later became U.S. Secretary of War. The Revolutionary War later provided a steady stream of bodies; George Washington himself complained from his headquarters in Cambridge about the theft of a soldier's body. Happily, the Spunkers Club is no longer in operation.

It is now illegal to pay for a human body in the United States, and medical schools rely on donations. You can read more about the process in this National Geographic article. WARNING: It has photos of actual corpses. You can read more about the Spunkers Club at the History Channel. No photos of corpses there.


FYI, I will be speaking about the monsters of Cape Cod on Saturday, May 13 as part of the Provincetown Paracon. Other speakers include Adam Barry and Amy Bruni from the TV shows Ghost Hunters and Kindred Spirits, and there will be a special Traveling Museum of the Occult and Paranormal as well. I hope you can make it!

Me and Paracon organizer Sam Baltrusis talking about the event on What's New Massachusetts.

April 18, 2017

Is It Really A Ghost? Debunking Stories From New England Foklore

Here is a story sent by my friend Simon Young, which he found in the December 28, 1892 issue of The Shields Daily Gazette. This is a British newspaper, but for some reason they ran the following:

A "Ghost" In A Graveyard.

For some time past a "ghost" had taken up its abode in the graveyard at South Newburg, Maine, where it appeared at night, moving round among the graves, bearing a phosphoric light. The other evening a party of seven men and women went out to investigate, and found that the the apparition that was frightening the people was the reflection of a light from a neighbouring house, thrown back from a new and highly-polished marble headstone.

That's the end of the article. You don't see such short newspaper stories today, but the really interesting thing it was written just to debunk a ghost story. I do question whether the ghost is really debunked, though. After all, how could people see a light moving around the graveyard if it was just the light from a house reflecting off a gravestone? Gravestones don't move. Houses don't move. How did the light move?

Anyway, this story is a classic New England debunking story, and debunking stories form their own subset of folk tales. In general, a debunking story starts with a supernatural situation that foolish people believe to be true. It ends with the revelation that the strange phenomena were really caused by something natural. The foolish people just didn't realize what they were observing.

I've found debunking stories in all sorts of places, like folklore collections and town histories. Eva Speare includes several of them in her book New Hampshire Folk Tales, and prefaces them with this statement:

Psychologists often discuss the causes of the innate fear complex which exists in the subconscious mental states of sensible men and women even in this scientific twentieth century.

The following stories are printed because they demonstrate how easily this natural inheritance overcomes the common sense of normal human beings when suddenly confronted by mysterious events. 

According to one story, a house in Franconia was reputedly haunted. Everyone who tried to live in it was scared off by eerie noises that had no discernible cause. Word spread that a ghost inhabited the building and eventually the landlord, Simeon Spooner, could not find anyone to rent it. It sat empty.

A young widow named Priscilla Quimby arrived in Franconia with two small children. Money was tight for Quimby, and she needed someplace cheap to live. Spooner told her she could live in the haunted house rent free - if she dared. Having no other alternative, she accepted his offer and moved in.

At first things were quiet and peaceful in the house, but one night after the children had fallen asleep Quimby started to hear noises. They grew louder and louder, until the house was filled with horrible whining and screeching sounds. The widow grew frightened, but was determined to find the source of the noise, even if it meant confronting a ghost. She was going to fight to stay in her home! Her search for the sounds eventually led her up to the top floor, where in an unlit room she discovered ... a tree branch scraping against a window. The next day she cut the branch off and lived peacefully in the house for many years.

In another story, from 1820, Speare tells of a boy named Nat Huntoon who lived in Epping, New Hampshire. One day two of Huntoon's friends said they had heard the local Baptist church was haunted by ghosts. After school the three boys went to the church to investigate. As they stood on the front steps they heard horrible noises emerging from inside. Uncanny moans, heavy footsteps, and unearthly yells filled the air. The boys fled in panic.

Huntoon did chores for Esquire Daniel Ladd, and when he told Ladd what he had experienced Ladd set off for the church. En route Ladd met one of his friends, General Joseph Towle, who decided to accompany him. When they reached the church they paused outside. From within they heard strange noises, just like Huntoon described. Steeling themselves, they pulled open the church doors, but instead of ghosts or demons they saw that the church was instead filled with cows. The explanation? Apparently someone had left his cows in the middle of the road, and an annoyed neighbor decided to hide them in the church to get back at him.

Debunking stories sound plausible until you start to think about them closely. For example, the first story seems to make sense. There used to be a tree branch that scraped against a window at my office, and the sound was weird and annoying. We all knew it was a tree branch, though, and didn't think it was a ghost. But wouldn't the people in Franconia know what a tree branch sounded like? Couldn't they just see the tree branch when they stood outside the house? Also, you'd think Simeon Spooner would thoroughly investigate his property before letting someone stay there for free.

The second story seems even less plausible to me. The boys just happened to go to the church on the same day that someone happened to hide cows inside? But why did they think the church was haunted to begin with? And isn't hiding cows in a church some kind of criminal offense? The explanation raises more questions than it answers.

There are lots of other debunking stories out there. For example, an infamous fiery ghost ship called the Palatine was often seen off the coast of Rhode Island's Block Island in the 18th and 19th century. Reverend S.T. Livermore, in his book Block Island (1882), suggests that the fiery apparition was actually caused by gas rising up from the water. However, he also admits that no one has ever given a truly satisfactory explanation for the ghost ship. (Livermore is quoted in R. A. Botkin's A Treasury of New England Folklore.) Fiery gas does not rise up from the ocean waters at regular intervals off the coast of Rhode Island, though. The natural explanation doesn't make any sense.

Old debunking stories don't just apply to ghosts. A demon two girls accidentally summoned was explained away as a neighbor pulling a prank. That sounds like a good explanation, but only if you ignore another story about a similar demon where it clearly wasn't a prank. The hairy humanoid known as the Winsted Wildman was explained as an ape that had escaped from a circus - even though none had gone missing and apes can't survive a Connecticut winter. The "escaped wild animal" explanation continues to pop up even today. For example, the Truro panther was said to possibly be a domesticated panther that had escaped from its Provincetown owner. The only problem is that no one in Provincetown owned such an animal.

To be clear, I don't think every ghost or monster is real. It's important to be skeptical about supernatural phenomena. Otherwise we'd still be hanging our neighbors as witches, which no one wants. But arguing that supernatural phenomena
are just the result of people misinterpreting the natural world is too simple. It leaves out all the psychological, historical, and spiritual aspects that make folklore and the paranormal so interesting.

April 11, 2017

Discovering Witches with Sword Magic

There are a lot of great things about writing this blog. I visit strange places. I meet new people with similar interests. I research unusual topics. And sometimes, I find a piece of witchcraft lore that is totally new.

Well, at least it's new to me, but most of it is really old. Here's a good example. I've recently been reading about some early witchcraft trials in Connecticut and found a test for witchcraft that I had never seen before.

Witchcraft tests are an important form of old New England folk magic and show up in many trial accounts. Imagine that you are a Puritan settler and someone in your family is acting strangely. Maybe they suffering from strange convulsions. Maybe they have an illness that won't go away. Maybe they say a strange entity has been appearing in their bedroom at night. You need to know if their problems are caused by something natural or supernatural. Basically, you need a test to see if someone has bewitched them.

Some witchcraft tests are quite well known. Mary Sibley tried used a witch cake to test if the Parris children were bewitched in an incident that might have started the Salem witch trials. Witch bottles are both a way to test for witchcraft and also a way to defend against it. But here's the witchcraft test that was new to me: holding a sword over the bewitched person and seeing if they laugh.

It comes from the case of Katherine Branch, a servant girl living in Stamford, Connecticut in the 1690s. In April of 1692 Branch began to exhibit strange behavior, including uncontrollable convulsions, weeping, and hysterical shouting. A midwife at first thought the cause was natural and tried bleeding Branch, but when the convulsions didn't stop she decided witchcraft was more likely the cause. Branch herself claimed two local women, Elizabeth Clawson of Stamford and Mercy Disborough of Fairfield, were the witches attacking her.

Unlike their co-religionists to the north in Salem, the Puritans in Connecticut were very strict about what evidence they would accept. They wanted to be sure that Branch was actually bewitched and not lying. One of the tests they administered was the sword test.

The sword test was suggested by a neighbor named Thomas Asten. Asten said he had heard that holding a sword over the bewitched person would cause them to laugh uncontrollably, possibly even to the point of death if the sword were held over them long enough. Branch's employers agreed to let Asten administer the test.

Sword image from this site...
 Asten held his sword over Branch, and she began to laugh hysterically. She continued laughing until Asten moved it away. "You see," said Asten, "she is clearly bewitched!" Another neighbor, Sarah Kecham, was not convinced. She brought Asten into another room and quietly suggested that Branch could have easily faked her laughter. After all, she knew the sword was being held over her head and knew why they were doing it. Kecham wanted to try the test again.

Asten and Kecham returned to the room where Branch was. While Branch was looking in the other direction Asten very quietly held his sword over her. She was unaware the sword was there and she didn't laugh at all. Not so much as even a giggle. Perhaps she wasn't really bewitched after all...

Elizabeth Clawson and Mercy Disborough were ultimately found innocent of witchcraft, although it took several lengthy trials to reach that decision. The sword test was probably one of the pieces of evidence that helped them go free. Let's be glad that Sarah Kecham was a skeptic!

This test might not be easy to administer these days because not many people have swords. A sword may not be necessary, though. I think the sword test was considered effective because swords were made of metal, and metal is anathema to witches in folklore. Items like horseshoes and nails were often used to repel witches, and it was believed that binding a witch with iron manacles prevented them from using their powers. So maybe if you don't have a sword a crowbar might work instead? Then again, sometimes the best test (and defense against witchcraft) is just plain old skepticism.


The information for this week's post is from Richard Godbeer's book Escaping Salem.

April 05, 2017

Captain Snaggs and the Devil: Hell Comes to Cape Cod

Many years ago a sea captain named Jeremiah Snaggs lived on Cape Cod. Captain Snaggs was quite wealthy, but he didn't owe his success to hard work or even good luck. He owed it to the Devil.

When he was just a young seaman Snaggs had sold his soul to the Devil in return for money and success. The Devil kept his end of the bargain, and Snaggs became a rich man. For most of his life he didn't worry about keeping his end of the bargain. After all, it was many years away. Who had time to worry about Hell when there was so much money to make and spend?

But time goes by quickly, and eventually Snaggs was an old, sick man. As he lay in his bed, breathing what was probably his last breath, he could hear the Devil's heavy footsteps coming up the stairs to his bedroom. He was filled with fear and regret. He didn't want to go to Hell.

His fear filled him with the energy of a young man. He jumped out of bed, climbed out the window and ran like ... well, he ran like hell! First he ran to Barnstable, but as stopped to catch his breath he could hear the Devil coming up behind him. Oh no! He started running again, even faster, and made his way to Orleans, where he hid in a hollow tree.

As Snaggs hid in the tree he heard the Devil sniffing around nearby. The Evil One knew his quarry was nearby somewhere. While the Devil was poking around in the underbrush Snaggs crept out of the tree and set off again, running faster than he ever had in his whole life. He made it all the way to a cemetery in Wellfleet before he stopped.

He knew the Devil would catch up to him again, so he grabbed a pumpkin from a nearby field and carved a face into it. Then he covered a gravestone with his cloak, balanced the jack-o-lantern on top, and stuck a candle in it. As he climbed over the cemetery wall he glanced over his shoulder and saw the Devil run up to the jack-o-lantern. "I've got you now!' he heard the Devil say. Snaggs didn't wait to hear the rest of it. He just started running.

Snaggs ran for many miles until he reached Provincetown. Then he stopped. He had hit the end of Cape Cod. There was no place left to run.

A few minutes later the Devil came running up after him. "Ha! You can't escape me now!" the Devil said. He glowered evilly at Snaggs. Then he glowered some more.

Snaggs just stood there, waiting for the Devil to grab him. But the Devil didn't. Finally Snagg said, "Well, you caught me. Ain't you going to drag me to Hell?"

The Devil laughed with surprise. "What do you mean? We're already there. We're in Provincetown, aren't we?"


Elizabeth Renard comments on this story in her book The Narrow Land: Folk Chronicles of Old Cape Cod (1934). She notes, "Many variants. Always the flight ends in Provincetown, and the conclusion is the same; but different captains and different towns are used for the starting point." The names may change but the point of this story doesn't: Provincetown and Hell are the same place. 

Why would this be? These days Provincetown is a very expensive (and primarily gay) resort town. Well, I suppose to some religious fundamentalists that sounds like Hell, but this story is older than Provincetown's gay history. 

I found an interesting explanation on the home page of Provincetown's Masonic Lodge. According to their history of the town, the area was first settled in 1680 by a ragtag group of fishermen, smugglers, and escaped indentured servants. Some of these outlaws made their living as "mooncussers." That's a quaint word for shipwreckers. They would place lanterns on the beach which passing ships would misinterpret as indicating a safe channel. When the ships sailed towards the lights they would wreck on the shore, allowing the mooncussers to pillage their cargo. 

Provincetown maintained its bad reputation even when the British stopped this deadly practice. Unlike it's stricter Puritan neighbors, Provincetown encouraged a freer practice of religion and allowed sects like Methodism to flourish. That doesn't sound like much now, but it was a much bigger deal in the past. In the early 20th century Provincetown became a popular spot for artists and playwrights, which I suppose also did nothing to help its reputation with its more conservative neighbors.

Although New England has a reputation for historically being uptight (perhaps deservedly), some towns were known to be a little wild. For example, Marblehead, Massachusetts was originally a lawless place, as was its neighbor Dogtown Common. We can safely add Provincetown to that list, whether or not Captain Snaggs really did make a deal with the Devil. But one man's Hell is another man's Heaven...