November 30, 2017

John Godfrey: Witch and Troublemaker

When I was a kid in Haverhill, Massachusetts I wasn't that interested in local history. I knew about the city's heroine Hannah Duston, but that was about all I knew. Other stories from my hometown's past remained unknown to me. Perhaps if I had known about John Godfrey, a trouble-making witch who lived in the mid-1600s, I would have been more excited about Haverhill history.

Was Godfrey really a witch? Probably not, but he was definitely a trouble-maker. Most of what we know about him comes from court records in Essex County, where he was involved in dozens of legal cases. Sometimes he was the defendant, sometimes he was the accused. Most of these court cases involved disputes over small amounts of money or property; in others Godfrey sued neighbors for slander. At other times Godrey appeared in court to face charges of drunkenness, theft and cursing.

As historian John Demos writes, "Taken as a whole, the records depict a man continually at odds with his peers..." And as we know, people at odds with their peers in 17th century New England were often accused of witchcraft.

It appears that John Godfrey emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony sometime around 1635 and found employment as a herdsman in the town of Newbury with wealthy settler John Spencer. Godfrey was most likely a teenager at this time. Young Godfrey was kind of odd, and even then some folks thought he might be a witch. For example, in 1640 he talked with a Newbury man named William Osgood about finding a new employer. Osgood at the time was building a barn for Godfrey's current employer, John Spencer.

John Godfrey, being then Mr. Spencer's herdsman, he on an evening came to the frame where diverse men were at work; and said that he had gotten a new master against the time he had done keeping cows. 
The said William Osgood asked him who it was; he answered he knew not. He again asked him what his name was; he answered he knew not. He then said to him, "How wilt thou go to him when thy time is out?" He said, "The man will come and fetch me." Then William Osgood asked him "Hast thou made an absolute bargain?" He answered that a covenant was made and he had set his hand to it... 
William Osgood then answered "I am persuaded thou has made a covenant with the Devil. He (Godfrey) then skipped about and said, "I profess, I profess." (from David Hall's Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England (1991). I added modern punctuation for clarity.)

Osgood may have lied about this conversation, but its also possible Godfrey was actively cultivating an image as a witch. As a young man with no family and a lowly job, he may having a reputation as a witch was a way to gain some influence and intimidate people. That's just speculation on my part, but it seems some people in 17th century New England did knowingly cultivate witchy personas. Further supporting my hunch, Godfrey later explained to one Charles Brown of Rowley how the Devil took care of his witches:

...Godfrey spoke that if witches were not kindly entertained the Devil will appear unto them and ask them if they were grieved or vexed with anybody and ask them what he should do for them and if they would not give them beer or victuals they might let all the beer run out of the cellar and if they looked steadfastly upon upon any creature it would die... (Hall, Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England (1991).)

It's easy to picture Godfrey explaining this to Brown, and then asking him for food and drink in a vaguely threatening tone. Hand it over, friend, because I might just be a witch!

Godfrey left Newbury and became an itinerant herdsman, finding employment with a variety of landowners and farmers across Essex County in Massachusetts. Godfrey lived and worked in many towns, including Ipswich, Andover, Haverhill and Salem. He never married and had no children.

This made Godfrey an anomaly among the local Puritans, who generally were rooted in one location and had networks of close kin to support them. Historian John Demos speculates that Godfrey may have been homosexual, noting his unmarried status and his use of the term "c*ck-eating boy" to insult someone who got a herding Godfrey wanted for himself. This is just speculation, but it's not impossible. Legal documents clearly describe homosexual men living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony around this time.

By 1658 Godfrey's argumentative personality, unusual lifestyle and talk about witchcraft caught up with him. He was accused of witchcraft. Other witchcraft accusations followed in 1659, 1666 and 1669. Amazingly, Godfrey was never found guilty, but documents from his trials give a fascinating glimpse into 17th century witchcraft beliefs in New England.

For example, witnesses talk about familiar spirits, the small demons that did a witch's bidding. It was believed that witches had small teats hidden on their bodies from which their familiar spirits sucked blood for sustenance, and Charles Brown testified that he once saw Godfrey yawn in church and saw a strange teat under his tongue. Further, Job Tyler later testified that one night John Godfrey came to visit the Tyler family's house. When he entered the house a large black bird flew in the door with him. Godfrey tried to catch the bird, which finally escaped through a hole in the wall. When Job Tyler asked Godfrey why the bird came in the house, Godfrey answered: "It came to suck your wife." Maybe Godfrey was perhaps joking, but maybe he was implying that Goodwife Tyler was herself a witch. Either way he demonstrated his knowledge about familiar spirits. (Godfrey's comment reminds me of that really gruesome scene from The Witch with the crow!)

John Remington Jr., a fifteen-year old boy from Haverhill, also testified about a large black bird. Remington was riding a horse back to his family's home when the dog accompanying him began to whine and whimper. Remington also suddenly something strange that reminded him of apple cider. At this point a large crow appeared. Remington's horse abruptly fell on its side, injuring Remington's leg. When he recovered he mounted the horse again and rode towards home, but the crow followed, swooping down and biting the dog. Godfrey had argued with Remington's father earlier about working for him as a herdsman, but had not been hired. Godfrey was later heard to say that had Remington Jr. been a full-grown man something much worse would have happened to him. Remington's testimony implies that the crow was somehow controlled by Godfrey, but it's not clear if it was supposed to his familiar spirit, Godfrey transformed into a crow, or an animal he was controlling.

Strange animals appear in several other witnesses' testimony. Isabelle Holdred and her husband argued with Godfrey over money, and after the argument Holdred was assaulted by a progression of  animals that appeared to her over the course of several nights. Holdred was first attacked by a bumblebee, followed by a bear that growled and asked her if she was afraid. The next night a snake appeared, which frightened Holdred so much she couldn't talk for thirty minutes. A spectral horse also appeared in her bedchamber, as did a large black cat that lay on her as she slept and stroked her face. Holdred was the only one who saw those animals, but her son was with her when a neighbor's ox attacked her after looking at her with "great eyes."

Witnesses also claimed that Godfrey could send his spirit double (or specter, to use the Puritan terminology) to cause trouble. John Singletary, who had argued with Godfrey over money, claimed that he was visited by Godfrey's specter while in jail. The specter said that if Singletary paid Godfrey what he was owed he would free him. Singletary refused Godfrey's offer and tried to strike him with a stone, but "there was nothing to strike and how he went away I know not." Elizabeth Button claimed that Godfrey appeared in her bedchamber several times one night, even though the door was firmly bolted, implying that it was his spirit that had visited her.

A man named John Griffing even testified that Godfrey could travel over great distances quickly or appear in two places at once. For example, he once saw Godfrey on the road to Newbury at the same time Godfrey was confined to jail in Boston. Griffing also said he and Godfrey once set out together for the Rust family's house in Andover. It was a cold day and snow covered the ground. Griffing was on horseback and easily outpaced Godfrey, but when he go the Rust home he found Godfrey already inside, warming himself by the fire. Clearly he could only have gotten there by witchcraft.

Despite all this testimony against him, Godfrey was never found guilty of witchcraft. Perhaps the judges knew he was just a troublemaker who fought with all his neighbors. They certainly saw him in court often enough to be familiar with him! John Godfrey died in 1675, probably in Boston or Charlestown. Not much is known about his death, but fittingly there was a trial to decide who would receive his modest estate. Even in death Godfrey couldn't stay out of court.

In addition to David Hall's book, I found John Demos's "John Godfrey and His Neighbors" in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Apr., 1976) to be really valuable

November 20, 2017

Burlington, Vermont: Giant Phantom Cats and the World's Tallest Filing Cabinet

There's something weird and magical about small New England cities in November. A sense of stillness pervades the streets. Old gray houses press up against the sidewalks, parking lots sit half-empty, and bare branches brush against the power lines. All the citizens are hidden away inside but out on the street there's a feeling of strange possibilities.

Tony and I recently visited Burlington, Vermont. You might not think of Burlington as quiet. It has a thriving downtown, with dozens of restaurants and bars and a pedestrian-friendly shopping district. Students from the University of Vermont buzz around. Elementary school students visit the aquarium that overlooks Lake Champlain.

But if you venture outside of the lively downtown area things get much quieter. That eerie sense of possibility emerges. Who knows what you might encounter when you walk around the corner? What strange entity or object will you stumble on? For example, you might encounter the world's tallest filing cabinet.

The world's tallest filing cabinet stands at 208 Flynn Street in what looks like an abandoned lot. There's a supermarket across the street but the filing cabinet stands alone, surrounded only by dead weeds and a shopping cart full of old dishes. It emblematizes the magic you can find in small New England cities. It's weird, impressive and puzzling. It may not even really be the world's tallest filing cabinet, but it's definitely big.

The filing cabinet was created by local artist Bren Alvarez in 2002. Alvarez was inspired by the ongoing delays in building the Southern Connector, a road that would connect busy highway I-89 with downtown Burlington. The filing cabinet's official name is "File Under File Under So. Co., Waiting For...". The Southern Connector still hasn't been built.

Alvarez intended this to be commentary on bureaucratic delays, but I think it has a completely different effect. The sculpture is slowly eroding from rust, and vandals have graffitied as high as they can easily reach. Set as it is in an overgrown field, the sculpture is like an artifact from some post-apocalyptic future revealed when the waters of a swollen Lake Champlain finally recede from the city centuries from now. It is totally worth visiting if you are in the area, and if you collect china maybe you can find something valuable in the shopping cart.

The world's tallest filing cabinet is just one of the strange things you might encounter. In 1988, a Burlington woman named Susan Lily encountered something even stranger. Lily was driving home from work late one summer night when she decided to get a bite to eat at a local Wendy's restaurant. As she drove around the back of the restaurant to the drive-through she noticed two cats lurking around the dumpster. But these were not ordinary cats. They were big (real big!) and oddly shaped:

Susan says, "They were the size of a forty- or fifty-pound dog, but they were real slim and their legs were disproportionately long." 
Susan has always lived around animals and can distinguish among different varieties of cats. These were something unknown. She says, "The largest domestic cat is the Norwegian Forest cat. But these were short-haired. They were much taller than Maine Coons. I have no idea what I saw."

Those quotes are from Joseph Citro's book The Vermont Monster Guide (2009), which I bought in Burlington. Citro goes on to note that after Susan picket up her burger at the drive-through window she looked back at the dumpster. The cats had disappeared, and although she visited that same Wendy's many more times she never saw them again.

A metal monolith made of filing cabinets looms in an empty lot. Giant cats prowl around a dumpster behind a fast food restaurant. Even in the city weird and magical things are lurking!

November 15, 2017

Bewitched Dogs Killed in Salem and Other Strange Animal Stories

There are lots of weird little stories buried in the accounts of the Salem trials. For instance, did you know that two dogs were killed because people thought they were bewitched?

In October of 1692, a dog in Salem was killed after it began to act strangely. The afflicted Salem girls claimed it was being ridden and tortured by the invisible spirit of John Bradstreet. John was the brother of Dudley Bradstreet, a Justice of the Peace from Andover who had refused to issue any more warrants to arrest alleged witches. After his refusal the afflicted girls accused Dudley himself of witchcraft. He and his family fled Essex County, as did his brother John, who fled north to Maine after the "bewitched" dog was killed.

A dog was also killed that month in Andover when an Andover girl claimed it was actually a demon in canine form. After the dog was shot Reverend Increase Mather, one of the colony's leading ministers, pointed out the absurdity of trying to kill a demon with a bullet. Clearly, he said, the dog could not have been an evil spirit since spirits cannot be killed. Sadly for the dog his protestations were a bit too late.

Animals of many kinds appear in local stories about witchcraft, usually acting strangely if not downright sinisterly. After ruling out natural causes, the early New Englanders had three explanations for why animals might act strangely.

The most common explanation was that they were bewitched. Witch trial documents and local folklore are full of stories about bewitched animals. Sometimes they sicken and die, but more often they just do weird things. Pigs jump high up in the air. Calves make unnatural noises and contort their bodies in strange positions. Oxen refuse to pull their wagon. Stories like these are found from the 1600s until the early 20th century, so its clear they were deeply embedded in the local culture.

Unfortunately, folklore says the best way to unwitch your animal is to physically harm it, whether by beating it or cutting off part of its body, like an ear or tail. Yikes! This is inhumane, but was grounded in the theory that witches cause mischief by sending their souls out of their bodies. A bewitched animal misbehaved because a witch's soul was temporarily inside it, causing an otherwise mundane farm animal to act strangely. Hurting the animal was supposed to also hurt the witch and cause their soul to leave the animal. I don't believe witches can send their soul into animals, but if you do hold that unusual belief please do not beat your animal. Or cut off its ear. Just sprinkle it with some salt or wave a sage bundle around it instead. You could even try holy water, but if it is a cat, don't bother trying because cats just don't change.

A witch's soul didn't always maintain human form when it was out causing trouble. It could take the shape of an animal as well. For example, in 1662 Rebecca Greensmith of Hartford, Connecticut confessed that when she attended the witches Sabbath one of her fellow witches flew there in the shape of a crow. In 1692 Katherine Branch, a serving girl from Stamford, Connecticut, claimed she was approached by a group of cats who briefly turned into women before resuming feline form. The cats were of course witches who were trying to recruit her to their devilish cause. According to a story from 1893, a Cape Cod witch named Moll Ellis could send out her soul in the shape of a bee, which emerged from her mouth when she slept.

Cats, birds, dogs, bees - their forms were many, but they all were intent on working evil. Unfortunately for the witch, their souls were vulnerable to physical harm when in animal form. A story from Clifton Johnson's What They Say In New England (1896) illustrates this. One night a miller from western Massachusetts left home to grind corn at his mill, despite urging from his wife to keep her warm in bed. While he worked at the mill a frisky black cat appeared, purring and rubbing against him. As he shooed the cat away it fell into the grindstone, which ripped off one of its paws. The cat disappeared with an unearthly howl. When the miller got home he found his wife in bed, moaning and looking pale. When he pulled down the coverlet he saw that one of her hands had been torn off, revealing her to be a witch.

Animals that acted strangely might be controlled by a witch's soul or might even be a witch's soul in animal form, but the third explanation was the most terrifying. The Devil and his demons could assume animal form. That weird pig or twitchy dog might just be a spirit come from Hell to torment and trick the good Puritans of New England.

One of Salem's most famous accused witches, the slave Tituba, claimed that the Devil appeared to her both as a dog and a monstrous hog. The Devil must have liked pigs, because the citizens of Topsfield, Massachusetts claimed the Devil in the shape of a hog haunted a bridge over the Ipswich River until he was banished by a Puritan minister. Rebecca Greensmith saw the Devil in the shape of a deer, while in Salisbury, New Hampshire, ministers praying over a woman who sold her soul to the Devil were menaced by a large black cat that leapt at them from a tree. As Increase Mather noted, the Devil and his demons could not be killed in any form, but they could be expelled or banished.

Happily, we've made a lot of progress in understanding animal behavior. Be sure to love your animals, no matter how weirdly they act.

I found the information about the bewitched dogs in Marilynne Roach's epic The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of A Community Under Siege (2002). It's an amazing if dense book that I recommend to anyone who wants all the details of the Salem witch trials. The other animal stories can found here on my blog. 

November 08, 2017

Omens for A Gloomy November: Horses, Death, and Other Dreams

November is a melancholy month. The gleeful morbidity of Halloween serves as the gateway to November, but this month reveals the actual truth behind the colorful masks and cartoony skeletons: the year is winding down. The trees are becoming bare, the skies are gray, and the days get shorter and colder.

The year is slowly dying, and it makes me want to sleep. A lot. The ancient Greeks claimed that Sleep was the brother of Death, and I can understand the connection, particularly at this time of year. Both involve a loss of consciousness, a dissolving of self into the welcoming darkness, but at least when we sleep we get to dream. Those wise Greeks said that Morpheus, the dream-god, was the son of Sleep.

November in my neighborhood. Gloomy.
I tend to remember my dreams more during this time of year than during others. Upon reflection I can usually figure out what my subconscious is trying to tell me, but some dreams are just puzzling.Why was I carrying a book and cup as I walked down the stairs? What did that turtle mean? Sometimes I could use a guide to interpret my dreams.

New Englanders of past generations had a long list of dream interpretations. One of their key principles to interpreting a dream was the rule of opposites. Things that are bad in real life are good omens when seen in dreams, and vice versa. For example, to dream about a wedding means you will soon be invited to a funeral, but dreaming about a funeral means you'll hear about a wedding. Seeing a dead person in your dream means you'll receive news or a letter from a living one. Dreaming about eating or about picking blackberries is an omen of impending illness. OK, that may not be an exact opposite but you get the idea.

In this dream, recounted to author Clifton Johnson by elderly woman and included in his 1896 book What They Say In New England, an ominous thunderstorm actually was a harbinger of good news:

"It was after midnight, and I was dreaming a dream about a terrible thunder-storm. It grew worse and worse till there was one clap so loud it seemed as if the skies had broken to pieces. Right after it I woke up, and I heard a knock on the outside door of the sitting-room. I knew that instant what my dream meant and who was there. It was Charlie! I went to the door and it was. There he had been gone seven or eight years. He'd been a sailor on the ocean, and we hadn't heard a word from him, and didn't know but he was dead, and that dream came to show me he was alive and near."

But the rule of opposites didn't always apply. Sometimes bad things just mean bad things. Dreaming of lice means illness, and dreaming about snakes foretells making an enemy. Personally I like snakes, but I understand the general symbolism here. I don't think anyone likes lice.

Some of the old New England dream interpretations are cryptic and very specific. Why would dreaming of a white horse be an omen of death? I am not sure, but that was an accepted interpretation. Here is another account from Johnson's book:

"You will have great trouble if you dream of a white horse," said Uncle Timothy. "I've always found that to come true. There was one time in particular I remember. It was winter; and I was at work a good many miles from home in a logging-camp. One night I had a terrible dream about a white horse that got angry with me, and bit me. I knew something would happen in consequence of that dream, and I was afraid I was going to get killed. I wa'n't good for much workin' that day, I felt so gloomy about my dream; but I went out with my axe same as usual. I wa'n't noticing things as I ought to; and when I was cutting a tree, it came down and knocked me senseless. The rest of the fellows carried me to camp. I can't tell you how relieved I was when I come to and found myself alive. I thought myself lucky to get off so easy after such a dream."

Johnson collected that story from Western Massachusetts, but the white horse's ominous reputation may have been widespread. For example, Fanny Bergen notes in Current Superstitions (1896) that people in Maine also said dreaming of a white horse means a family member will die within a year. She found similar beliefs in New York and the Maritime provinces as well.

So what should you do if you dream about a white horse? First of all, don't panic. Other informants told Johnson that a white horse means riches will be coming your way, which is a good thing. So which is it, a good omen or a bad one? I suppose in the end it is really a matter of your perspective. Good things and bad things will happen to all of us. Even the increasing gloom of November is leavened by Thanksgiving, and soon after comes the December holiday season, when we light candles against the encroaching darkness. Nightmares end when we wake up, and hopefully there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

November 01, 2017

Weird New England News: Brains, A Witch House and A Scary Clown

Most of my posts on this blog are about strange and interesting things from New England's past. But strange and interesting things continue to happen here. These three stories really caught my eye over the last week.

First, did you know that Yale University used to have a secret room full of human brains? I didn't until just this week, when The Boston Globe's medical publication STAT ran an article about it. For many years, Yale's medical school dormitory had a secret hidden away in its basement. Behind a locked door was a room filled with hundreds of brains floating in jars. Students weren't allowed access to the room, but the adventurous ones who broke in came out a little shaken. As if the dozens of brains weren't weird enough, there were also photos and drawings of medical patients from bygone days. The whole experience was unnerving.

“It was like a shop of horrors,” said Christopher Wahl, who visited multiple times while at the medical school in the late 1990s. “The overwhelming atmosphere was that you’re in a place that you maybe shouldn’t be in, lit by bare incandescent bulbs with a dirty floor in an old basement that smells of formaldehyde.”

It turns out the brains were collected by Dr. Harvey Cushing (1869 - 1939), a prominent physician and founding figure in the field of neurosurgery. For many years Cushing's brain collection was used to educate Yale students until it became outdated in the 1970s. Yale administrators then locked it away in a basement storage room, from which it spooked generations of medical students. The collection is now officially displayed in Yale's medical library, which is a decidedly less creepy location.

Photos from the Harvey Cushing Collection at Yale University.
A few take-aways from this story. First, New England is filled with colleges and they are all sources of rich folklore and strange stories. Second, brains locked in an unmarked basement room are scary; brains in a library's display are educational. It's all about the setting I suppose. Finally, apparently even medical students find old medical photos creepy.  

Next up in the weird news parade, a historic witch house in Framingham, Massachusetts is being restored. The house in question was once the homestead of Sarah Clayes (Cloyce), a woman who was accused of witchcraft in Salem's 1692 witch trials. Although Clayes's two sisters, Rebecca Nurse and Mary Easty, were both executed, Clayes survived the trials and fled to Framingham after they ended. Many other Salem families followed.

Photo from the Boston Globe.
The house, located on Salem's End Road, dates from the 1770s. This makes it too recent to be the actual house Clayes would have lived in, but it seems that the foundation is from her home. The property has been abandoned for at least fifteen years and a historic preservation trust is now working to restore it. After it is renovated the house will be sold to a private owner (with restrictions to preserve the building). Real estate around Boston is very expensive, but if you have a few million dollars this could be your chance to own a piece of New England history.

The article points out that Sarah Clayes was not really a witch, just another innocent victim caught up in the witch hunt. Despite this, the house is known in Framingham as the Witch House. Perhaps this is because supernatural, legendary witches resonate more with us than accused witches, and also because the "Witch House" sounds better than the "Accused Witch House." The Witch House is located close to a large park that supposedly contains caves where Clayes and other Salem escapees sheltered before building their homes. I have visited the park and maybe found the caves, which are known as the Witch Caves (not the Accused Witch Caves).

Finally, a scary clown popped up in Vermont this weekend. If you recall, last year America experienced a huge scary clown craze in the summer and fall. The first craze of this kind occurred around Boston in 1981, but last year's was much larger and more widespread. Was our nation's collective unconscious trying to tell us something before the November election? Clowns have continued to scare our nation since then with the release of the movie It and the current season of American Horror Story.

Happily, the clown in Marlboro, Vermont was not a supernatural monster or part of a secret conspiracy. Instead, he seems to have been a costumed Halloween partygoer who got intoxicated and wandered into the wrong house, where he passed out. When the police arrived to investigate they found cocaine on his person and arrested him, which is not something to laugh at.