October 25, 2017

New England Pumpkin Lore: Cozy and A Little Creepy

October is definitely pumpkin season. The stores are full of pumpkin-flavored treats, jack-o-lanterns are appearing on my neighbors' porches, and someone recently motored across Boston Harbor in a giant pumpkin. Pumpkins are everywhere this month. There is some interesting New England lore about pumpkins, some of it homey and comforting, some of it kind of spooky. I guess that describes October too.

Pumpkins are of course native to the Americas. Historians say they were first cultivated in Central America and eventually adopted by the various American Indian groups that lived in New England. Samuel de Champlain, an early visitor to New England's shores, saw Algonquin Indians growing beans, maize and pumpkins along the banks of Maine's Saco River in the early 17th century. Pumpkin and squash were often included in dishes like succotash and were also dried for eating over the cold winter months.

When the Puritans colonized New England they adopted many local crops into their diet, including pumpkins. And because many of their English crops didn't grown well here, the early Puritans apparently ate a lot of pumpkin. A lot. It was seen as less desirable than traditional English foods, but Edward Johnson (1598 - 1672), the founder of Woburn, Massachusetts, wrote the following:

.. let no man make a jest at Pumpkins, for with this fruit the Lord was pleased to feed his people to their good content, till Corne and Cattel were increased.

Take that, pumpkin haters!

The colonists atet pumpkin in variety of ways. Boiled and mashed pumpkin was a popular dish. Mashed pumpkin was also added to breads, while dried pumpkin was used to sweeten alcoholic drinks. In addition to mashing, another popular preparation was to hollow out a pumpkin and fill it with cream. The pumpkin would then be baked until the flesh became soft and the center custardy. It sounds delicious, and I did once try to make something like this. It didn't work too well, but I think I was using the wrong type of pumpkin.

Modern New Englanders are more familiar with pumpkin custard as the filling in pumpkin pie, not actually baked in a pumpkin. Surprisingly, the earliest pumpkin pie recipe from New England (written down in the 1760s by a wealthy Boston Tory family) calls for slices of fried pumpkin layered with apples and dried fruit in a pastry shell. It sounds good, but that's not what we would call pumpkin pie today. After the  Revolution the pumpkin custard pie that Americans still know and love become dominant.

So, there's the homey, cozy lore about pumpkins. They're also obviously associated with Halloween, which here in America is part harvest festival and part celebration of death and the macabre. Corn stalks, hay bales, apple cider, and cute little pumpkins are all part of the holiday's harvest aspect. Ghosts, witches, horror movies and scary carved pumpkins are part of Halloween's macabre side. Pumpkins can be cute or scary depending on how they are used.

Halloween was not really celebrated in New England until the late 1800s. It was one of those holidays, like Christmas, that the Puritans and their Yankee descendants avoided. But even though there was no Halloween, New Englanders still carved pumpkins in the fall months and lit them with candles. For example, local poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 - 1892) includes the following line in his 1850 poem "The Pumpkin":

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!

Halloween wouldn't have been celebrated when Whittier was a boy, and in fact that poem celebrates Thanksgiving.

Nathaniel Hawthorne seems to be the first writer to use the term "jack-o-lantern" to describe a carved candle-lit pumpkin. He used it in his 1835 story "The Great Carbuncle." A carbuncle is a type of gemstone, and the titular one shines with a blinding light.

Hide it under thy cloak, say'st thou? Why, it will gleam through the holes, and make thee look like a jack-o'lantern!

Again, that was written well before Halloween would have been celebrated in New England. Hawthorne seemed to like jack-o-lanterns. In his 1852 story "Feathertop," a witch brings to life a scarecrow with a carved pumpkin for its head, but again there is no reference to Halloween in the story, which takes place in May.

I'm not quite sure how the jack-o-lantern became exclusively associated with Halloween, but somehow, as immigration changed New England and holidays like Halloween and Christmas became accepted, it took it's place as the reigning symbol of Halloween.

Before it was used to describe carved a pumpkin, the term jack-o-lantern denoted either a lantern-carrying nightwatchman or a will-o-the-wisp, one of those wandering orbs of light, perhaps of supernatural origin, that appear in forests and swamps to lead travelers astray. Will-o-the-wisps were often thought to be lights carried by malevolent fairies seeking to trick unwary humans. One of the rare pieces of English fairy lore from early New England mentions jack-o-lanterns in this sense of the word:

... Marblehead (Massachusetts) was a sort of compendium of all varieties of legend. For instance, the belief in the Pixies of Devonshire, the Bogles of Scotland, the Northern Jack o' Lantern was prevalent there; _ and my father has told me that he was often cautioned by the fishermen, just at twilight, to run home or the Bogles would be sure to seize him (William Wetmore Story, The Life and Letters of Joseph Story, 1851)

When you're out and about this Halloween, be careful as you walk towards that glowing pumpkin. Maybe it's been carved by friendly neighbors, but maybe it's a trick to lead you into the dark October night.


Source for the jump rope rhyme: B.A. Botkin's Treasury of New England Folklore. The information about early pumpkin recipes and preparation comes from Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald's America's Founding Food

October 17, 2017

Devilishly Strong Witches

Can someone be too strong? That sounds like a weird question to a modern person. We live in a culture that values athletics and physical fitness, drawing on the ancient traditions of the Classical World. However, things were different here in the 17th century, when being too strong could get you accused of witchcraft.

Take Nathaniel Greensmith, for example. He and his wife Rebecca were early settlers of Hartford, Connecticut. In 1662 Rebecca was accused of bewitching a neighbor named Ann Cole. Under interrogation Rebecca confessed to being a witch. She claimed the Devil had first appeared to her in the woods in the shape of a fawn that skipped around her. The fawn appeared several times before it finally spoke, inviting her to join a coven of witches that met in the forest. The witches attended the meeting in a variety of forms, including one who flew there in the the shape of a crow. Rebecca later had sexual congress with the Devil "with much seeming (but indeed horrible) delight to her."

Rebecca implicated her husband in her confession and claimed he was a witch as well. She said she had often suspected him of being a witch, particularly since he was abnormally strong for someone his size. Nathaniel was small in stature but could easily and untiringly lift heavy objects. For example, she once saw him bring home a cart full of huge logs that he had loaded himself. She thought he was small and "weak to my apprehension, and the logs were such that I thought men such as he could not do it." When asked how he could load and unload such heavy logs, Nathaniel told her "he had help that (she) knew not of." Rebecca assumed he meant the Devil, as did the Hartford magistrates. Both he and Rebecca were executed for witchcraft in 1662.

The issue is not that Nathaniel Greensmith was strong, but that he was small and strong. No one would have questioned what he did if he was some burly Puritan dude. But he wasn't, and since he defied expectations his strength was viewed with suspicion.

Perhaps the most famous strong witch is Reverend George Burroughs, who was executed during the Salem witch trials. Like Greensmith, Burroughs was quite small but was able to lift very heavy objects. For example, he was once seen to carry a full barrel of molasses just by inserting two fingers into the barrel's hole, which was something that no one else could do. A witness also testified that he saw "Mr. George Burroughs lift and hold out a gun of six foot barrel or thereabouts, putting the forefinger of his right hand into the muzzle of said gun and so held it out at arms end only with that finger..."

It seems that Burroughs liked to show off, which didn't sit well with his neighbors. Puritan men were expected to exhibit moderation and Burroughs wasn't meeting that expectation. This, along with a series of deceased wives and bad relationships with former parishioners in Salem, factored into his trial for witchcraft. Burroughs could lift a gun with one finger but sadly couldn't escape the hangman's noose. He was executed on August 19, 1692.

Is there some lesson to be learned from these stories? Maybe that anyone who defies the norm of their culture is likely to be viewed with suspicion, or that if your neighbors thought you were a witch any aberrant behavior, no matter how innocuous, could be interpreted maliciously. Those aren't happy lessons to learn, but keep them in mind the next time you want to carry around that barrel with just two fingers.


I got this information from David Hall's Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England
Richard Godbeer's article "Your Wife Will Be Your Biggest Accuser" in the summer 2017 issue of Early American Studies, and various online sources.

October 10, 2017

Apple Lore: Death, Love and Magic

The other day I went to the farmers market and was very excited to see a bin full of small greenish brown apples. I am an apple fanatic, and those little beauties were Roxbury Russets. They actually weren't much to look at, but they have a long history in New England. In fact, Roxbury Russets are the oldest type of apple grown in the United States.

Their origin is a little murky, but they are said to have first been discovered growing in Roxbury, Massachusetts way back in the mid-1600s. One source claims they were growing as early as 1649. The word "discovered" is a little puzzling. It implies that some hapless Puritan just stumbled upon an apple tree, but apples are not native to New England. The Roxbury Russet must have been introduced by someone, but who? I've read that William Blackstone, the first Englishman to live on  the Boston peninsula, grew apple trees on what is now Boston Common. Perhaps the Roxbury Russet is a wild American version of an English cultivar he planted, its seeds carried into the hills of Roxbury by a bird or beast.

That's just speculation on my part. According to folklore, the first person to grow Roxbury Russets was a colonist named Joseph Warren. He died falling off a ladder while picking apples. That story almost seems too ironic to be true, but death by apple may have been a common thing in Colonial New England. For example, a man named Peter Parker died in the 1700s when a giant barrel of his home-made cider rolled off a wagon and crushed him. This happened in his orchard on top of Roxbury's Mission Hill (formerly known as Parker Hill), near what is now McLaughlin Park next to the New England Baptist Hospital. I lived on Mission Hill for many years, and every fall a local neighborhood group gathered the apples that still grow in the park to make cider. Some of the trees in the park may be descendants of Peter Parker's original trees. No one ever reported seeing Peter Parker's ghost, though.

Roxbury Russet apples
Given the apple's Biblical connections with sin, death and sex, it's not surprising there is some weird apple folklore in New England. Some of it is downright creepy. Take the strange story of Roger Williams's corpse. Williams was the founder of Rhode Island, and in 1936 his descendants exhumed his body to move it to another location. They were horrified to find that the roots of a nearby apple tree had grown into Williams's coffin and apparently absorbed most of his corpse. There were very few bones left inside and the tree roots had taken the shape of Williams's body. The roots are now part of the collection at the John Brown House museum in Providence.

The legend of Micah Rood is similarly grim. Micah Rood was a surly farmer who lived in Connecticut in the 1600s. One night a traveling peddler came to Rood's house and asked if he could spend the night. Rood grunted that he could. In the morning the peddler's cold dead body was found lying underneath one of Rood's apple trees. The peddler had been murdered and his money and wares stolen. The town naturally suspected Rood but had no evidence to prove he was the killer. The next autumn, though, all the apples that grew from Micah Rood's trees had a single blood-red spot in their white flesh.

One end of the sin continuum is death, but the other end is sex, and apples are a key component in a lot of nineteenth century New England love magic. Most of it is focused on determining who your true love is. For example, here's a simple charm involving apple seeds. If you have several potential lovers in mind, take some apple seeds and name each seed after one of the potential mates. Wet the seeds and then stick them to your forehead. The last seed to fall off is the person you are meant to be with.

Similarly, you can take two apple seeds and name them after two potential lovers. Wet them. Put one seed on each eyelid. Blink rapidly. Whichever seed falls off last represents your true love.

You can also predict a lover's name using an apple peel. Remove an apple's peel so it comes off in one long piece. Throw the peel over your shoulder onto the ground. Turn around and examine the peel. What letter does it form? That letter will be the first letter of your true love's first name.

Those love charms are kind of cute and would make good party games. This last one is a little more spooky. Stand in front of a mirror holding a lamp (or candle) and an apple. As you eat the apple repeat the following words:

Whoever my true love may be
Come and eat this apple with me

Is your true love supposed to arrive in person or just appear in the mirror? I'm not sure. That charm is in Fanny Bergren's 1896 book Current Superstitions, and she notes that it is particularly effective when done on Halloween. If you dare to try it let me know what happens.

October 03, 2017

The Ghost Dog of Boston College

The other night I dreamed that I was being chased by a large invisible dog. It had been sent to kill me by some unnamed enemies. It never caught me, which I take as a good omen. I think I had this dream because before I went to sleep I was thinking about the one time I was actually bitten by a dog.

We tend to think of dogs as man's best friends, but there is a long history of ominous dogs in art, literature and folklore. Quite often they are associated with death. For example, European legends tell of the Wild Hunt, a band of demonic hunters and ghostly hounds that roam the land during the dark months of the year. Anyone who sees the hunt will die, so it's a phenomenon best left unexperienced. Other sinister black dogs can also be found in English folklore, including the infamous Black Shuck of East Anglia. Going further back in history, the Greeks claimed the underworld was guarded by a three-headed dog named Cerberus, while the Egyptian god of embalming had the head of a black canine.

These tales may sound like quaint stories from the distant past, but ghastly dogs still continue to rear their toothy heads. For example, the psychologist Carl Jung had the following dream:

"I was in a forest - dense, gloomy fantastic, gigantic boulders lay about among huge jungle like trees. It was a heroic , primeval landscape. Suddenly I heard a piercing whistle that seemed to resound through the whole universe. My knees shook. Then there were crashings in the under brush, and a gigantic wolfhound with a fearful, gaping maw burst forth. At the sight of it, the blood froze in my veins. It tore past me, and I suddenly knew: the Wild Huntsman had commanded it to carry away a human soul. I awoke in sudden terror."

When he awoke Jung learned that his mother had died in the night. The Wild Hunt struck again.

Demonic hounds also appear in art, both high- and low-brow. In his novel The Western Lands William S. Burroughs writes about "door dogs" which are "not guarders but crossers of thresholds. They bring Death with them." If post-modern novels are not your cup of tea, you can also find demonic dogs in horror movies like 1978's Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell.

Devil Dog (1978)
Here in New England, our most famous creepy canine is probably the black dog of Connecticut's West Peak. He's an adorable little black terrier, but you can only see his cute fuzzy face twice. If you see him three times you'll perish. This part of the country was first colonized by East Anglian Puritans, and it's tempting to see a connection between this black dog and the better-known English Black Shuck.

This has all been preamble, because what I really wanted to write about this week was Boston College's O'Connell House. O'Connell House was built in the 1890s as a private residence and was eventually left to Boston's Archbishop William O'Connell. O'Connell in turn gave it to Boston College. The 32,000 square foot mansion currently serves as the school's student union building.

As befits an old building on a college campus, there are a lot of ghosts stories attached to O'Connell. One of the ghosts that appears at O'Connell is said to be a small dog. In the October 31, 2002 issue of The Boston College Chronicle, one of the building's five resident student managers claimed she sometimes saw it in her room:

"Every now and then I'll be lying in bed and see this little dog sitting under my desk looking at me...  It's there and then it disappears. It's kind of eerie and definitely a mystery."

None of the resident managers owned a dog, of course. It was clearly a spectral being.

In 2001, famed psychic investigator Lorraine Warren visited O'Connell House. (Lorraine and her husband Ed's work as ghost-hunters inspired The Conjuring films.) She validated the students' experiences.

According to Zach Barber, O'Connell House manager and A&S '04, Warren sensed three spirits in the house.  
"She said that there were two ghosts in the attic that either hanged themselves or jumped, and there was also a dog spirit that she said was following her around the house," said Barber." She also said, "You must hear furniture moving around up there (in the attic) all the time." Barber confirmed that some O'Connell House staff members have, in fact, reported hearing such noises on the ceilings of the rooms below the attic in the past." (The Heights, Volume LXXXII, Number 22, 23 October 2001)

Boston College students have various theories about what the ghosts are: one is a child who drowned in a fountain, one is a madwoman who had been confined in the house, another is someone killed by a jealous lover. I haven't read any theories about the dog, though.

Why is this dog so well-behaved compared to some of its folkloric counterparts? Perhaps the students raise enough hell on their own and don't need any help from the dog, or perhaps the school's culture of Catholicism and rational inquiry help keep the little beast in check. Or maybe he's just a lonely little ghost-dog looking for affection. Hopefully we'll get some answers when the next group of psychics investigate O'Connell House someday in the future.