December 31, 2018

The Witch Who Loved Satan in The Shape of A Bear

Most people are familiar with the Salem witch trials, but there were many other witchcraft accusations in early New England history. Some of these stories are quite interesting, like the following. 

In the year 1660 William Holmes of Scituate*, Massachusetts learned that a rumor was being spread about his wife. The rumor claimed Goodwife Holmes was a witch, and it was being spread by one of the Holmes's neighbors, Dinah Sylvester. 

Goodman Holmes was outraged and took Sylvester to court for slander. It took about a year for the case to come to trial, but finally in May of 1661 Sylvester testified as follows:

Magistrate: "What evidence have you of the fact that William Holmes's wife is a witch?"

Sylvester: "She appeared to me as such."

Magistrate: "In what shape did she appear?"

Sylvester: "In the shape of a bear."

Magistrate: "How far off was the bear?"

Sylvester: "About a stone's throw from the highway."

Magistrate: "What manner of tail had the bear?"

Sylvester: "I cannot tell as his head was towards me."

Sylvester went on to tell the court that Goodwife Holmes was not the only one near the highway in the shape of a bear. The Devil was there as well, and he too was in ursine form. And the Evil One was feeling frisky; he and Goodwife Holmes were making love as only two bears can. 

Apparently Sylvester gave explicit details of the lovemaking she saw by the side of the road, but they were blacked out of the final records. The court didn't seem to find her story convincing, and not just because it was so outrageous. Laws at the time specified at least two people needed to bear witness against a witch, and no one else came forward to support Sylvester's testimony.

The court did find Sylvester guilty of slander, though, and sentenced her to either pay Goodman Holmes five pounds (a huge amount of money at the time) or be publicly whipped. They also offered a third option: she could publicly acknowledge that she lied about Goodwife Holmes being a witch. She took the the third option. 

Aside from the Satanic bear sex, there are some interesting aspects to this story. One is the location. Scituate was at the time part of Plymouth Colony, which included not only the modern city of Plymouth but also Cape Cod and most of Southeastern Massachusetts. Plymouth Colony was founded by the Pilgrims, and they seem to have been a little mellower than the other Puritans who founded Massachusetts Bay Colony and Connecticut. Although there is a lot of witch folklore from Plymouth Colony, there were only two trials involving witches. Sylvester admitted she lied in the trial involving the bear, and in the other case the woman accused of witchcraft was acquitted. Compare that to the many witch trials in Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut, which led to the execution of more than 30 people. 

Dinah Sylvester is another interesting part of this story. She appears in several court cases from that time. In 1666 she and her brother were accused of attacking a town constable who was arresting their mother. She was later accused of fornication (having sex while unmarried), and in 1669 is mentioned in a case against Elkanah Johnson, whom Sylvester claimed was the father of her baby. 

* Older sources say Scituate, modern sources say Marshfield. I think this is because parts of Marshfield used to belong to Scituate, but I am not sure.

Sources: Elizabeth Renard The Narrow Land (1934), Frederick Freeman The History of Cape Cod: The Annals of Barnstable County, Including the District of Mashpee, Volume 1 (1858),  and James and Patricia Scott Deetz The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony (2001).

December 22, 2018

Christmas Reading for The Folklore Fan

Amid all the holiday festivities sometimes it is nice to just sit quietly and read a good book. Here is some suggested reading to get you in the Yuletide holiday spirit, particularly if you like folklore and strange Christmas stories.

The Dark Is Rising
Susan Cooper

Illustration by Alan Cober for the 1974 edition. 
This novel is aimed at young readers and I loved it when it came out way back in the 1970s. Many other people have loved it since. The Dark Is Rising tells the story of an eleven-year old boy who becomes involved in a battle between the ancient forces of light and darkness during the Christmas season. I’ve re-read the book as an adult, and the first chapters still wonderfully evoke the excitement of the holiday season and the uncanny dread of the oncoming darkness. The Dark Is Rising is set in England and full of British folklore, but author Susan Cooper has lived in Massachusetts for many years and was partially inspired to write the book by the marshy landscapes of the South Shore.

The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday
Stephen Nissenbaum

Ever wonder why Americans celebrate Christmas the way we do? Nissenbaum’s book traces the development of our modern child-focused and gift-focused holiday from the raucous holidays of the past. Several chapters in The Battle for Christmas focus specifically on early New England – why the Puritans hated Christmas, who people celebrated Christmas despite it being banned, and how capitalism shaped the holiday. Christmas used to be a multi-week drunken orgy when the lower classes extorted food and liquor from the wealthy. Nissenbaum explains how it became a holiday where we sit around Christmas trees and exchange presents.

A Visit from St. Nicholas
Clement Clarke Moore

Do you exchange presents at Christmas time? Do you incorporate Santa Claus into you celebrations? Do you spend the holiday with your family? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you can thank Clement Clarke Moore. Moore was a prominent New York City clergyman who was annoyed at the drunken Christmas celebrations that kept disrupting his family’s peaceful home. Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas’ in 1823 to encourage a gentler, sober and more familial holiday. And it worked! Moore’s poem permanently shaped the way Americans and much of the world celebrate Christmas.

The Festival
H.P. Lovecraft


A man returns to his family’s ancestral Massachusetts home for their traditional Yuletide festivities. Since this is an H.P. Lovecraft story, tradition doesn’t mean candy canes and stockings hung by the fire. Moldering grave yards, strange subterranean realms, and sinister cultists all play a role in the festivities, as does that famous book of forbidden knowledge The Necronomicon. If you think your family has a weird holiday you need to read “The Festival.” Although the story is set in Kingsport, a seaside town “maggoty” with subterraneous evil, Lovecraft based the setting on Marblehead, a town whose Colonial-era architecture he loved. 

Christmas in New England
Amy Whorf McGuiggan

Although McGuiggan’s book touches on Christmas’s troubled history in Puritan New England, it’s real focus is on how people have celebrated the holiday here for the last two centuries. Christmas in New England touches on all the region’s Yuletide greats: the many carols composed here, how lighthouse keepers marked the holiday, and the guy from Maine who invented earmuffs. A book to read when you want to feel good about the world.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Late 14th Century

There’s zero connection to New England in this 14th century poem, but it’s still fantastic reading for the holiday season. Sir Gawain beheads a gigantic Green Knight who has interrupted King Arthur's New Year’s party. The Green Knight picks up his severed head and exits the hall, telling Sir Gawain to come visit him in one year so he can in turn chop off Gawain’s head. Yikes. Being an honorable knight, Gawain departs Camelot the following year to find the unkillable Green Knight’s distant abode, but gets delayed at the castle of Sir Bertilak and his lovely young wife, where a multi-day Christmas celebration is happening. The Bertilaks play strange and erotic mind-games with Gawain, and a twist ending changes our perception of the entire poem.

Hildur, Queen of the Elves and Other Stories: Icelandic Folk Tales
J.M. Bedell

Again, no connection to New England, but lots of dark folk stories from Iceland. Many of them are set at Christmas time. The elves in these tales are not cute and whimsical, but instead are strange, dangerous, and often murderous. As are the trolls, witches, and lustful ghosts with shattered skulls who appear. Merry Christmas? This book is holiday reading for those of you who wish every holiday was like Halloween.

December 13, 2018

A Christmas Elf (or Alien?) Sighting in the New Hampshire Woods

Well, it's the Christmas season, which is one of the few times in the year when we are allowed to believe in all sorts of strange things. Flying reindeer? Check. Large man with a sack who sneaks into your house at night but doesn't steal things? Check.

Christmas elves? Check. Lots of people (mostly children) believe that Santa Claus is helped in his yearly labors by a gaggle of elves who live at the North Pole. This is mostly taken on faith, since I don't think there have been many Christmas elf sightings reported around the world. However, one may have been seen in the wintry woods of Derry, New Hampshire on December 15, 1956.

That was the day that Alfred Horne was out alone in the forest, chopping down Christmas trees for the impending Yuletide holiday. As you all know, weird things can happen when you're out in the woods by yourself in any season, but late fall and early winter are prime times for weirdness. The days are short, the sun is low in the sky, and those entities that like the darkness are more likely to make an appearance.

After a while Horne he realized that he was not alone. There was someone (or perhaps something?) standing nearby watching him as he worked. The entity was about two feet high. It had a large head with big floppy ears. In place of a nose it just had two nostril slits, and its eyes were covered with nictitating membranes like a snake's. To make things even stranger, the entity was bright green, stark naked, and had stumpy arms and toeless feet.

Photo from Tumblr (and ultimately Henrik Vind).
Horne watched the entity for twenty minutes. In turn, the entity watched Horne. Finally, Horne decided to capture it. He realized that no one would believe him unless he had the little green humanoid as proof. But as he tried to grab the entity it emitted loud, blood-curdling shrieks. Horne fled from the woods in panic, leaving the little green man behind.

What exactly was this entity? Because it was seen ten days before Christmas, and Horne was out chopping down Christmas trees, I like to think it was a renegade Christmas elf. Perhaps it had wandered down from the North Pole and got lost in the New Hampshire woods, as so many hikers still do.

Alfred Horne seemed to think the creature was an extraterrestrial of some kind. After fleeing the woods that December day Horne didn't tell anyone about the creature until six years later, when he wrote several letters to the astronomer and UFO investigator Walter Webb. The story has appeared in several publications and books since then, including Joseph Citro's Passing Strange, which is where I first read it. 

I still think the little green man could have been an elf, though. For one thing, the line between extraterrestrials and fairy-folk is blurry (at least in my opinion). They both tend to be small, they both often have disproportionately large heads, and they both like to abduct people. But more importantly, Derry, New Hampshire has a tradition of fairy folklore. The town was settled by Scotch-Irish immigrants and they seem to have brought their fairy lore to America with them. Written legends about a "Derry Fairy" date back to the early 20th century. Descriptions of the fairy are vague - in some stories she is a beautiful lake-dwelling fairy queen named Tsienneto, but in other stories a wizened, wrinkled wood nymph appears. So perhaps Horne's little green man was actually a little green woman?

I don't think the strange little entity has been seen again since that day in 1956, but maybe if you stay awake on Christmas Eve this year you might find out Santa's little helpers have eyes like snakes and green skin. Make sure to leave out extra milk and cookies just in case. 

December 05, 2018

Satyrs in New England? Three Encounters with Goatmen

Are there satyrs in New England? It doesn't seem like the type of place these mythical goatmen would like. They're usually associated with warm Mediterranean regions like Greece or Rome. It's cold six months of the year here. Satyrs were notorious for their drunken antics, but our Puritan-inspired culture is notoriously opposed to frolicking. And there aren't any reeds to make pan-pipes out of. Despite all that, there may indeed by some satyrs lurking around here.

1. A Goat Monster in Vermont

The other day while looking for werewolf stories I opened up Joseph Citro's Vermont Monster Guide. This a great book, particularly for kids, and I remembered seeing a couple werewolf stories in it. But what caught my attention was an illustration of a very scary satyr-like monster opposite the title page.

The text reads as follows:

"In the early 1960s, residents of the Mt. View development in Jericho reported a half-man, half-goat monster... It peeked in windows and lurked around themes, scared everyone - and vanished! Some say it fled to nearby Mt. Mansfield, where it still lives among the rocks and trees."

Sadly there's no other information about this creature in the book. It might just be an urban legend, but did remind of a similar story I found on the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization website a few years ago, which goes something like this...

2. Who's That Looking in The Window?

Back in the late 1970s, an eleven year old boy was home alone in Sandwich, Massachusetts watching TV. It was a grey December day, there was snow on the ground, and his parents were out doing some errands.

The TV was located in the family's den and was situated against the wall between two windows. The windows looked out into the backyard and the woods which abutted the property. For quite a while the boy's attention was captured by a television program, but at one point his eyes drifted upwards to one of the windows. He screamed at what he saw.

A humanoid creature with a very hairy face was staring in the window at him. The boy estimated it was about five feet tall. When the creature heard the boy scream it grunted in surprise and ran off into the woods. The boy was terrified, but when he calmed down he called his friends.

He thought at first maybe one of his friends had played a prank on him, but they all denied it. Two of them agreed to come over - the boy was shaken up and didn't want to be alone. Once his friends arrived the three of them looked around the backyard. The creature had long since vanished into the woods, but they did find its footprints in the snow. They were clearly made by something with cloven hooves.

I like that story quite a bit. It's creepy, and also has a twist ending. When I first read it I just expected the boy and his friends to find standard Bigfoot-style footprints. The cloven hoof prints are surprising and weird since no indication is given that the creature had goat-like characteristics. Given New England's long history with the Devil, I initially thought the person telling the story was implying the creature was demonic. But maybe it wasn't. Perhaps it was a satyr. It certainly didn't do anything particularly devilish. Whatever it was, its voyeuristic behavior was similar to the goatman who had appeared hundreds of miles away in Jericho, Vermont. Perhaps satyrs just like to look in people's windows?

3. A Satyr in The Maine Woods

I've also found a third New England satyr story. It appears in T.M. Gray's book New England Graveside Tales. In the 1950s, a local man was driving his pickup truck through the woods outside Cherryfield, Maine. He had filled up his gas tank earlier that day, so he was confused when the engine died and the vehicle came to a stop on a deserted road.

The man got out of the truck and looked in the gas tank. Although there was no sign of a leak he was surprised to see it was totally empty. As he puzzled over this he saw someone approaching him from the woods. At first he was excited, thinking it was someone who could help with the truck, but he quickly realized it was no ordinary Mainer walking towards him.

The person was male, and like a lot of local Maine men wore a red flannel shirt. But he was naked from the waist down. His legs were not human, but were covered in thick hair and were shaped like a goat's. Two horns grew from his forehead. He had the pointed ears of an animal.

The goatman walked into the middle of the road, smiled at the man standing near his stalled truck, and then crossed over the road into the the woods on the other side. In a panic the man got into his truck and locked the door. Desperately he tried to start the engine. It started, and he drove back into town. When he got there, he checked his gas tank again. It was full.

I think that's another great story. The stalled truck is clearly an indication of the goatman's magical nature. He's no genetic mutant, but something paranormal or spiritual. Stalled vehicles are common themes in UFO encounters as well, placing this encounter with a satyr is perhaps just one piece of a larger paranormal puzzle. Stories like this hint at a continuum of strange experiences connecting the distant Classical past of Greece and Rome with our modern world. 

I like the flannel shirt, which clearly identifies this goatman as a Mainer (it's too cold to be shirtless in those woods) but also ties him in with other flannel-wearing paranormal entities. For example, the ghostly red-headed hitchhiker of Route 44 in Massachusetts wears a similar shirt, and some people have recently discussed a creepy paranormal entity called simply the Flannel Man. There's even an account floating around of a Sasquatch seen wearing a flannel shirt. 

There's some similarity between these three stories. In all of them, the satyr or goatman is seen by a surprised witness and then disappears. In the Cherryfield story, the witness has journeyed outside of the town into the woods, which is of course the natural domain of nature spirits like satyrs and of the god Pan, the greatest goatman there is. In the other two stories, the witnesses are inside houses, enclosed spaces which should be safe from wild woodland entities. But are they? The goatmen look into their windows as if to remind the inhabitants that there is more to the world than human culture. 

What do these satyrs want? Perhaps they just want to be acknowledged, to show themselves to mankind. They've been around for thousands of years, and will probably be around for thousands more. 

November 29, 2018

Wild Men Invaded Connecticut in 1888

Things always feel a little weird when the days grow short. The circle of civilization contracts and the wilderness encroaches with the growing darkness. Who knows what might be lurking out there in the gloom? Wild animals, criminals, ghosts... or maybe even wild men. We don't hear too much about wild men these days, but they were a popular topic in the 19th century press.

For example, the January 4, 1888 issue of The Boston Daily Globe, ran this shocking headline:

Lonely Regions Infested by Wild Men Who Terrorize All.

Connecticut Now Overrun with These Weird Creatures, Who Scare Children, Fight Men and Scream All Night. 

Cow Hill Forests and the Man with the Bearskin

Mr. Dunham's Midnight Fight by the Light of A Lantern

That's a really long headline, but I would say an effective one, since it certainly drew me in. Tell me more, Boston Daily Globe!

The article describes a variety of "wild men" who were causing trouble in Connecticut. For example, in Willimantic, a "well-dressed, wild-man who was about 40 years old" ran down the street screaming "Chloroform!" After several citizens tackled him he said his name was John Mullin, that he had deserted from the Italian Navy, and that government officials were pursuing him with the intent of chloroforming him. He ultimately escaped his captors, screaming "Chloroform!" as he ran off.

Someone dressed as Bigfoot during a 2015 snowstorm in Boston. Photo from the New York Times. 
Much creepier was the wild man who terrorized women in Spofford, Connecticut. This particular wild man, who was was "very tall, garbed in funereal black," would silently sneak up on women, grope them, and then disappear into the darkness. This wild man stopped his molestations after one of his victims, a Mrs. William Brown, emitted an ear-piercing shriek and collapsed onto the ground in terror.

One of the wild men was not a man at all, but was actually a young girl who leapt out of the bushes at some hunters in a swamp near Madison. She laughed hysterically at them and the hunters fled in fear.

The fourth wild man the Globe mentions seems like the wildest, and by wildest I mean least connected to civilization.
At Cow hill, near Mystic, there is a wild man of the woods. He wears a big black bearskin, and he looks hideous. His other clothes are not worth much. He says not a word, but he glares with a wild, determined stare. He advances on a man who approaches his lair in the forest of Cow hill, glares straight in the man's eyes once and then runs...
A man named George Dunham encountered this wild man while chopping wood and struck him on the head three times with his axe handle. The wild man ran off into the woods.

Meanwhile, outside of Norwich, a brawny man with a red face would appear in the woods at night. Carrying a lantern, he would shout "Murder!" and then dig a hole in the ground with a shovel. When confronted by a group of locals he disappeared into the dark forest.

A similar wild man haunted Monet's Valley on Rhode Island's Block Island that winter. He too would dig a hole late at night accompanied by a lantern, and when people went to investigate he would vanish with his light, leaving only a hole behind. Block Islanders were of mixed opinion about their wild man, with some thinking he was just a treasure hunter and others that he was a ghost from either the shipwrecked Palatine or Captain Kidd's pirate crew.

Wow! There's a lot to digest in that article, starting with the concept of the wild man. Although wild men appear frequently in 19th century American newspapers, the wild man is a cultural archetype who has been with us since the beginning of Western civilization. In the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic a hairy wild man named Enkidu dwells outside the city walls and frees prey from hunters' traps. Ancient Greeks and Romans thought the woods were filled with half-human satyrs and fauns, while art from Medieval Europe depicts hairy, club-carrying men lurking in the forests. When you leave the boundaries of civilization you enter the wild man's domain.

It's interesting to see how broadly this Globe article applies the term wild man. The bearskin clad man and the young girl seem the most archetypal, the first wearing an animal skin and the second scaring hunters from their prey. They also both seem to live outside of any town in the woods and swamps. But some of the wild men discussed just behave outside cultural norms and don't actually live in the wilderness. The "chloroform!" man (who sounds mentally ill) and the sexual predator who wore black fit in that category. We would use other terms to describe them today, but in 1888 they fit in the catch-all category of wild man. 

I'm not sure what to make of the two nocturnal hole-diggers, and it sounds like people in 1888 weren't either. Heck, one of them might have been a pirate's ghost, but I suppose they were also living outside cultural norms. The Norwich digger was described as "brawny," and this is a description often applied to other wild men of the time. An 1879 wild man spotted in Truro, Massachusetts was powerfully built and shirtless, while Connecticut's Winsted wild man was large, muscular and capable of breaking iron chains. I guess all the fresh air is good for your health.

An image from the 1974 TV show Korg: 70,000 BC.
Our own modern version of the wild man is Bigfoot. He's large, he's hairy, he lives in the woods, and like the 1888 Connecticut wild men is very elusive. Some wild men described in 19th century newspapers are described as ape-like and actually sound similar to Bigfoot. For example, the Winsted wild man was described by some witnesses as looking like a gorilla, and many cryptozoologists consider this an early Bigfoot sighting.

Is the wild man human, or is he a monster? Were early reports really Bigfoot sightings, or were they some kind of hoax? It's hard to say, and personally I don't think the wild man can be pinned down so easily. It just goes against his wild nature. He'll continue to elude capture and haunt the spaces outside the boundaries of civilization. Just be careful when you go out walking in the woods at night!

November 19, 2018

Folklore and History in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

In October Netflix released The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the newest version of the teen witch from the Archie comics. A far cry from the playful character introduced in the 1960s or the goofy witch of the 1990s sitcom, the current Sabrina struggles with dark impulses and whether she should sign away her soul to Satan. 

The show has received significant media attention, whether for its accurate portrayal of certain occult practices or because Salem's Satanic Temple is suing Netflix for copying the Temple's Baphomet statue. I'm enjoying the show for a few different reasons: good acting, amazing set design, and because I'm just a sucker for shows about witchcraft. I've also been pleasantly surprised to see how the writers and producers have incorporated pieces of New England's history and witch lore, in both subtle and unsubtle ways.

The show isn't explicitly set in New England. Chilling Adventures takes place in Greendale, a vaguely all-American small town located near Riverdale, the setting for the other current show (Riverdale) based on Archie comics. It's a foggy, creepy small town where it always feels like Halloween. It's not clear where exactly Greendale is, and the setting is unmoored in time as well as space. Characters drive vintage American cars, use phones with cords, and watch black and white movies at the cinema downtown. On the other hand, some of them use laptops, the high school students talk about gender and intersectionality, and Greendale is racially integrated in a way that small towns never were in the 1950s.

Given the vagueness of the setting, I was pleasantly surprised to see what looks like an early Colonial New England home in Greendale. It's the Spellman Mortuary, where Sabrina lives in it with her aunts Hilda and Zelda and cousin Ambrose. Here's a photo:

Spellman Mortuary from Chilling Adventure of Sabrina.
Their dramatically gabled home looks an awful lot like a 17th century New England house, just with a porch added and some extra tall chimneys. For example, here is Salem's House of Seven Gables:

The House of Seven Gables (photo from Wikipedia)
As another example, compare Spellman Mortuary to Salem's Witch House, the 17th century home of witch trial judge Joseph Corwin:

The Witch House (photo from TripAdvisor)
It's pretty clear the set designers were inspired by New England's old First Period homes. Large wooden houses, lots of gables, dark paint and big chimneys: the Spellman Mortuary looks like some well-known 17th century Salem houses.

In addition to the designers, the shows writers were also inspired by New England history, particularly that of Salem. Several characters have names that are drawn from Salem history.

Miss Wardwell: Sabrina's possessed teacher shares a last name with Samuel Wardwell, the Andover carpenter and fortune-teller who was executed for witchcraft during the 1692 Salem trials. 

Michelle Gomez as Miss Wardwell
Principal Hawthorne: The principal of Greendale's high school shares a name with iconic New England author and Salem native Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne was raised in the House of Seven Gables, and his great-great grandfather was John Hathorne, a judge in the Salem trials. Hawthorne probably added the "w" to his name to distance himself from his infamous ancestor. 

The Weird Sisters: The Weird Sisters are three mean-girl witches named Prudence, Dorcas and Agatha. Two of these names hark back to the Puritan era. The Puritans often named their children after desirable moral traits, like Charity, Obedience, and Prudence. Dorcas on the other hand is a Greek name, but was also popular with the Puritans. Several women named Dorcas were involved with the Salem witch trials, including Dorcas Hoar (found guilty but saved by a reprieve) and Dorcas Good, a four-year old child who confessed to being a witch. Agatha isn't a particularly Puritan name, but two out of three isn't bad. 

Susie Putnam: Sabrina's friend navigates high school as a non-binary person, and she also shares a last name with the Putnams, a Salem village family who accused many neighbors of witchcraft. Ann Putnam Jr. was one of the "afflicted girls" who sent many people to the gallows, but after the trials she confessed that she had lied and begged her neighbors for forgiveness.

Salem: This one is so obvious I almost forgot to include it, but Sabrina's black cat familiar is named after the epicenter of New England witchcraft.

Daniel Webster: A Greendale lawyer with a mysterious past, Webster is obviously inspired by the historical Daniel Webster (1782 - 1852), a lawyer from New England who served as a U.S. senator and as secretary of state for three presidents. Webster was the subject of Stephen Vincent Benet's popular 1936 short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster," where he argues with Satan in court for a New Hampshire farmer's soul.

The Greendale Thirteen

In addition to the names, the show's writers have given Greendale a fictional town history with a definite New England vibe. A key incident in Greendale's past was the execution of the Greendale Thirteen, a coven of witches who were hanged by the townspeople. Although there were a few witch trials in other American colonies, the only large scale executions happened in New England. This means that Greendale probably isn't in the Midwest or the South.

Finally, I'll mention Sabrina's "dark baptism." In this rite, Sabrina is supposed to sign her name in blood into the Book of the Beast, thereby giving her soul over to Satan. The ceremony takes place in the woods at night. In many 17th century New England witchcraft accounts, the alleged witch confessed to signing the Devil's book in blood. In other cases, they confessed that the Devil had baptized them, using a pond, river, or even a bucket of water.

Sabrina's Dark Baptism
There's no actual water used on the show, but the ritual is still called a baptism. If anything, this sequence reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown," where a Puritan journeys into the nighttime forest to sign his name in the Devil's book. Goodman Brown has his doubts about his decision, and the story comes to a dramatic conclusion as he wrestles with his conscience in front of the Devil's gathered congregants. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but the writers of Sabrina probably read this story before they wrote their episode.

Although Hawthorne's story is set in the Puritan era it's not really about Puritans history or witch lore. He uses those subjects to craft an allegory about the evil we all harbor in our hearts and what that realization can mean to someone. And despite drawing from New England history and folklore, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina isn't about those things either. It's about patriarchy, misogyny,and gender roles. It's also about young people rebelling against their elders, a perpetually fresh theme in pop culture. The writers and producers are just using New England history as a material to create their fictional world and add some spooky atmosphere. So, while I'll keep my eyes peeled for more shoutouts to New England, I'll mostly just continue to enjoy the show for the teen drama and supernatural shenanigans. 

November 06, 2018

Was Ann Burt A Witch? A Story for A Dark November Night

Halloween is America's designated 'spooky' holiday, but for me it is really just the kickoff to an entire spooky season. As the days grow shorter and the foliage falls the landscape is transformed. Summer is gone and there's no turning back now. We're sliding into the increasing darkness of winter, and atavistic fears and impulses emerge even in the daytime, which is growing ever more scant. 

I guess that's a fancy way to say that my mind drifts to old stories of witches, ghosts and monsters at this time of year. Luckily, there are a lot of those stories to be found in New England, and some of them are even supposedly true. Here's an account of witchcraft from Lynn, Massachusetts from the long-ago year of 1670, when one Ann Burt was put on trial for being a witch.

Ann Burt arrived in Lynn from England in 1635 with her husband. She made her living as a healer, which was often a risky profession for women at the time. If a patient died, people might think you were a witch who used magic to kill them. If your patients did well, people might think you were using magic to heal them, in which case you were also a witch. So perhaps it is not surprising that after Burt's husband died around 1669 people accused her of witchcraft.

Various neighbors and clients testified against her. A young woman named Sara Townsend claimed that Burt said she could heal her, but only if she believed in "her god." Burt also said she was unable to save her own husband's life because he wouldn't believe. The nebulous term "her god" implies that Burt was not worshipping the Christian god but some other being, i.e. the Devil. After confessing this Townsend experienced fits which a physician (who was male and most likely one of Burt's professional rivals) said had no physical cause. Thomas Farrar, another Lynn resident, claimed that Burt tormented his two daughters and son in spectral form.

Several other people testified that Burt had the power to magically transport herself across space. A man named John Knight claimed that after leaving his house on an errand for his wife he saw Burt emerging from a swamp. She almost immediately vanished from sight. When he returned to his house he found Burt inside. She claimed she had never been in the swamp.

Another Knight, Jacob, age 25, told an even more bizarre story about Burt. Jacob Knight testified that while staying at the home of a Mr. Cobbet, where Burt was also living, he developed a headache. He mentioned it to Burt and then returned to his bedroom, which was separated by several doors from the room where he spoke with her. But when he looked up from tying his shoes he saw Burt was suddenly in his chamber, holding a bottle of medicine.  Upon her urging he drank its contents which made his symptoms worse.

After this Jacob Knight decided to leave Mr. Cobbet's house to stay with his brother in Salem, but he said that Burt perused him.
... and going to Salem, I saw a cat, which being out of sight again, I presently saw a dog it being likewise out of sight, I saw one before me, like unto Widow Burt, going before me down a hill as I was going up it, and so I lost sight of her.
That night, looking out the window of his brother's Salem house, Knight saw Burt riding a gray horse outside. She disappeared, but came to him again in his bedchamber later. He threw a piece of wood at her and she vanished.

Those stories are kind of creepy, particularly Jacob Knight's story of Burt stalking him in different forms. A witch riding a horse outside your house is like something from a nightmare. I don't know what month this allegedly happened, but to me the image is very evocative of this time of year. 

But it's also not true. It gives insight into Puritan ideas about witchcraft, but Burt wasn't really a witch. She was just an elderly widow who got on the bad side of her neighbors. As I mentioned before, witchcraft accusations were a professional hazard for women healers in the 17th century, and at least three other female healers were accused of witchcraft in that time. One of them, Margaret Jones of Charlestown, was even executed.

Ann Burt was not executed, as far as historians can tell, and might even have been found innocent of the charge of witchcraft. Unfortunately the records surrounding her trial are incomplete, but it seems likely someone would have noted if she had been executed. So, perhaps a happy ending for Goody Burt?

I always have two reactions when I read these old witch stories. On one hand, I'm fascinated by their descriptions of uncanny occurrences and magic. They conjure up images of bleak landscapes, old houses with smoky hearths, sinister beasts, and neighbors with dark secrets. On the other hand, I realize that the witches in these stories were nothing of the sort. They were people who were unpopular with their fellow Puritans, often non-conformist women who earned the ire of the community. Innocent people were punished and sometimes died because of these stories. 

It's important to keep both of these in mind as we slide into the dark time of the year. It's nice to enjoy the old spooky stories, but important to realize what happens when you believe them too literally. We need to keep our wits and stay rational until the days start to grow longer again. 


I got my information about Ann Burt's trial from David Hall's Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England. It's a great book that I always shows me new things.

October 28, 2018

Halloween Treats: A Big Cat, Monsters in Leominster, and More Ghost Chronicles

It's hard to believe Halloween is only three days away. Here are a few treats to get you through the next few days that I've found in the media. 


A few weeks ago I posted about an alleged mountain lion sighting in an urban section of Brookline, Massachusetts. I didn't really know what to make of it, but now I wonder if there really is some large cat roaming around town. On October 5, someone called the Brookline Police to report a bobcat on Shaw Road. Here is the item from the October 11 issue of The Brookline Tab:

Bobcat on Shaw Road: At 10:51 a.m., a caller reported seeing a bobcat cross the road and said the animal was "much, much larger than a domestic animal." The caller thought the area should be checked. 

Shaw Road is several miles from the location of the first sighting, and is also in an area with more open space (cemeteries, parks, and woods). While the first sighting happened at night, this second sighting happened in broad daylight. Bobcats can live in suburban areas so maybe one is indeed living in Brookline?


The Boston Herald ran an article about paranormal activity in Leominster, Massachusetts. The October 21 article titled "Talk of UFOs, ghosts turns Massachusetts City into 'Leomonster'" focuses mainly on Leominster resident Ronny LeBlanc who in 2016 wrote a book about his hometown called Monsterland. LeBlanc collected hundreds of stories for his book, so it sounds like something I should add to my holiday wish list. Here is an interesting quote from the Herald piece:

LeBlanc took the Herald to all the hot spots around Leominster, like St. Leo’s cemetery on Lancaster Street where in the 1960s, a couple witnessed a flying saucer emerge from fog, prompting them to call the police. The man who saw the saucer claimed his hand and body was frozen upon pointing to the saucer, only to be released when it flew away. 
Leominster State Forest, another spot mentioned in LeBlanc’s book, has yielded several reports of Bigfoot prints and Sasquatch sightings. 
LeBlanc said he isn’t completely sure why these encounters continue to happen in Leominster, but “it might be something that we don’t want to know.”

Another Leominster resident, Susan Spuhler, had this to say: “There are certain energetic lines that run around the earth. And Leominster, from what I’ve studied over time, has a certain energetic quality to it,” she said. 

Photo from Boston Herald. 
I applaud anyone who investigates the strange stories and folklore of their hometowns. Books like Monsterland are valuable records of what people in 21st century New England believe about the places they live. They are also good to read on dark autumn nights!


Speaking of spooky books, Weiser Books kindly sent me a copy of Maureen Wood and Ron Kolek's book More Ghost Chronicles to review. Wood and Kolek are paranormal investigators who host a popular radio show called Ghost Chronicles, and their book highlights fifteen recent investigations. 

Twelve of them take place across New England. Wood and Kolek visit old lighthouses, haunted restaurants, charming inns (built next to creepy old cemeteries), and even a few places I've visited like Dudley Road and the Freetown State Forest. 

My trip to Dudley Road was relatively uneventful, but theirs is a little more lively. For example, here is an excerpt where Kolek and Wood try to communicate with the spirits of Dudley Road using a pendulum on a dark night. They are trying to figure out how many ghosts haunt the road.

The pendulum responded quickly, while Maureen continued her questioning. "Are there more than one, more than three? Are there more than five?" 
Once again, the answer was a yes.  
I asked, "Do they know the rumors about the haunting of Dudley Road?" 
Maureen nodded. "Yes. Yes, they do." 
I continued. "Do they play games with the people who come to look for them?" 
The pendulum swung back and forth. She laughed out loud. "Sometimes." (More Ghost Chronicles, p. 30)

Watch out for self-aware ghosts, I guess. Although my trip to Dudley Road was peaceful, I did find the Freetown State Forest to be kind of unnerving when I visited although I can't pinpoint why. Was it the sounds of gunfire from a nearby firing range? The group of drugged-out teenagers we encountered on a secluded path? The sound of dead trees creaking in the wind? All of these?

Or perhaps it was really the puckwudgies, small malevolent fairies who are said to live in the forest. Wood and Kolek have an even more unnerving visit than I did, with Wood becoming briefly and frighteningly possessed by the spirit of a puckwudgie. This is why I only go to these places during the day!

So, if you like good old-fashioned ghost investigations with creaking doors, rosaries that shatter, and misty figures advancing through the dark woods I think you will like More Ghost Chronicles. And at this time of year, who doesn't like those things?

Happy Halloween everyone!

October 21, 2018

Halloween Love Magic and Summoning Demons

People in 19th century New England often celebrated Halloween by performing love magic. Halloween did have the spooky supernatural aspect we love today but it was also a time for romance and discovering your future spouse. This was particularly true for girls or young women, who would perform a variety of rituals aimed on Halloween night designed to identify who they would marry.

These rituals were often called "projects," which sounds much less threatening than ritual, rite, or even magic spell. Still, they are clearly folk magic and folklore books from the 19th century contain many accounts of Halloween projects. They were performed with simple ingredients that almost anyone could acquire, like a cabbage, cornmeal, or a small dish of dirt.

One popular project requires nothing more than a ball of string. To find out the identity of your true love, do the following at midnight on Halloween. Take a ball of string and walk to a well, an old barn or an abandoned house. If none of those are available even a cellar or basement will do. You just need an empty structure of some kind. 

Turn your back and throw the ball of string over your shoulder into the barn, well or cellar. Then, with your back still turned, began to wind the string back into a ball. As you wind it, recite the following rhyme:

I wind, I wind, my true love to find,
The color of his hair, the clothes he’ll wear,
The day he is married to me.

Your true love should appear and wind the string with you. 

Someone in Maine contributed that to Fanny Bergren's 1896 book Current Superstitions. I can see why it would be appealing to a young person. You get to go someplace spooky at midnight (on Halloween no less), there's a special rhyme, and love is involved. It all sounds like harmless fun, right?

I think so, but apparently not everyone shares my opinion. A cautionary tale about this type of "project" appears in Frederic Denison's 1878 book Westerly (Rhode Island) and Its Witnesses. According to Denison, during the Revolutionary War two young women named Hannah Maxson and Comfort Cottrell were staying at the Westerly home of one Esquire Clark. One day while Mrs. Clark was bed-ridden from illness and the Esquire was away on business the two young ladies had to entertain themselves.

They decided to do some magic. Taking two balls of yarn, Hannah and Comfort went to a well and "tried to bring their beaus, by throwing each her ball of yarn into the well, and winding them off while they severally repeated a verse from the Scriptures, backwards." Completing their project, they proceeded to the front of the house to await the arrival of their true loves.

As the sun began to set they saw a tall figure walking down the road towards them. At first they were excited. Was it a rich handsome man? But as the figure drew nearer their excitement became terror. The tall figure was a monster! "It was some eight or ten feet high, and marched with a stately step, but with eyes, as they said, 'as big as saucers,' and breathing flame from his distended jaws." Hannah and Comfort fled into the house and hid behind the bed where Mrs. Clark lay ill and incapacitated. 

At this time Esquire Clark arrived home, entering through the back door. He could see through the glass panes over the front door "the steady unmistakable gaze of the demon" looking into the house.  Being a pious man, Esquire Clark immediately began to pray. At the sound of the holy words the monster departed into the darkness. Alas, its departure was too late for Mrs. Clark, whose weakened constitution could not endure the supernatural excitement and who died soon afterwards. The two young women gave up their experiments in magic and became devout Christians.

Frederic Denison found this story in a November 1860 issue of The Narragansett Weekly. It's author was one Deacon William H. Potter, a former resident of Westerly. Being a religious man, I guess his aim was to show the dangers of toying with the supernatural. I'm sure you noticed that the women in this story don't recite a cute little rhyme while winding the yarn. Instead, they recite Christian psalms backwards, a practice associated with summoning the Devil. The moral: folk magic will really summon the Devil, so don't do it!

Deacon Potter adds a strange epilogue to the story. Not being content to illustrate the dangers of magic, he goes on to claim the magic was not even real. According to Potter, the demon was actually a young neighbor, Daniel Rogers, who had seen Hannah and Comfort working on their project and decided to play a prank on them. Once it began to get dark he put a large pumpkin on his head and walked towards their house. He initially planned to reveal his identity but decided not to after seeing the terror he caused and learning of Mrs. Clark's death. Only seventy years later did he tell the truth about what had happened.

Gladys Tantaquidgeon, an anthropologist and Mohegan medicine woman, recorded a similar story from the Wampanoag of Martha's Vineyard in 1928. In this version of the story, a minister on Martha's Vineyard had four daughters. One night while he was away preaching they decided to try a "project." The details are not given, but it involved removing their undergarments and hanging them by the fireplace. Once they complete their spell a storm erupts and they hear something clawing at the door. The four sisters hide in terror. When their father comes home he sees a large monster, "part human and part animal" trying to enter the house, which departs upon his arrival. He warns his daughters to never play with magic again. 

Tantaquidgeon also recorded a version of the string project in 1928, but with a slightly different rhyme: "Here I wind, here I wind, here I hope my true love find." Her informant told her that your beloved would emerge from the well or cellar holding the other end of the string. 

The Puritan clergy who led New England's 17th century colonization were opposed to magic in all its forms, and you can still see that mentality lingering centuries later in these stories. I think you can also see concerns about women's independence and sexuality as well. These stories say, "See what happens when women try to control their own love lives? The Devil gets involved." Sadly I think that's another mentality that still lingers today. 

Note: I found the Tantaquidgeon material in William Simmons's Spirit of the New England Tribes.

October 16, 2018

Peabody's Witch Rock: Occult Symbols Connected to The Salem Witches?

Do you have an extra $600,000 sitting around? Are you interested in New England history or witchcraft? If so you might want to purchase the house at 348 Lowell Street in Peabody, Massachusetts, which recently went on the market. The house was the home of John Proctor, one of the people executed during the Salem witch trials.

Proctor, who was immortalized in Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, was a farmer in Salem Village. One of his servants, a young woman named Mary Warren, was one of the afflicted girls who accused dozens of innocent people of witchcraft. Perhaps if Proctor had played along he would have escaped the gallows, but he didn't. Instead he told Warren that she was faking her symptoms and if she didn't stop he'd beat her. He also threatened to beat John Indian, a slave and the husband of Tituba, when he accused Proctor's wife of being a witch. Needless to say, Proctor's doubtful and threatening attitude didn't sit well with the afflicted girls and they soon accused him of being a witch too.

Proctor was executed on August 19, 1692. His wife escaped the gallows because she was pregnant at the time and did not give birth until after the trials had ended.

The real estate listing for the Proctor house claims it dates to 1638, but the Peabody Historical Society says it is unclear how old most of the current structure is. It's likely that multiple additions and renovations have been made over the property's 300+ years of occupation. It does have six bedrooms, which is nice, and has a dining room "which can accommodate your largest holiday gathering." There's also an inground pool.

Image from Historical Archaeology, Vol. 15, No. 1.
This weekend as I was taking the train to Salem for Halloween festivities two friends reminded me of something I had forgotten: there is a large mysterious boulder near the Proctor House called Witch Rock. I wrote about it a few years ago in my book Legends and Lore of The North Shore (2014). The boulder is covered with occult symbols that may (or may not) be connected with the Salem witch trials.

The boulder was first discovered in 1978 by a group of archaeologists surveying Peabody. They were intrigued by the stone's faintly visible sigils which were done in black paint. (The photo above has been retouched to highlight them.) To quote one of the archaeologists who found the boulder:
The central symbol, which is over a meter in diameter, is a pentacle or five-pointed star with point downward surrounded by concentric circles. The appearance of the star has been heightened by infilling. Between the circles at the points of the star are poorly preserved cabalistic designs. The lesser symbols are a caduceus and a composite figure made from the sign for Aries (reversed) and the Cross of Lorraine or the Archiepiscopal Cross. (Richard Michael Gramly, "Witchcraft Pictographs from Near Salem, Massachusetts." Historical Archaeology, Vol. 15, no. 1(1981), pp. 113 - 116.)
When I first heard about Witch Rock I thought "Oh, that has got to be a fake." The archaeologists considered this a possibility too, but they tested the paint and discovered that it was not modern paint. It was made from hematite and either milk or egg whites. In other words, not something that you can buy at Home Depot and was probably not applied to the rock by teenagers who liked Black Sabbath. It was probably quite old and had survived the harsh winters and summers only because the rock faces south and had a very rough surface which held the paint.

But just how old are those sigils really? Archaeologist Richard Michael Gramly conjectured in 1981 that the boulder was the work of 17th century Salem Villagers who were afraid of witches. Although the reverse pentagram is often a symbol of the Devil, Gramly notes that it has also been used to avert the evil eye.
The entire composition would appear to be a warning against witches. Freshly painted and exposed to view the granite block with its pictographs would have drawn the attention of every passerby. If it were painted in the late seventeenth century, the composition would have sheltered nearby residents from all sorts of evil. The pictographs are not likely to be the work of witches but rather of people mortally afraid of their powers. (Richard Michael Gramly, "Witchcraft Pictographs from Near Salem, Massachusetts." Historical Archaeology, Vol. 15, no. 1(1981), pp. 113 - 116.)
There is one problem with this theory: there's no evidence that the people of 17th century Salem Village used these symbols for defensive magic or even used them at all. There's lots of documentation about the types of defensive magic Puritans did use, including witch bottles, horseshoes hung over entrances, daisy wheel carvings, and iron implements hidden in walls. Inverse pentagrams and the caduceus aren't mentioned in those documents. The Puritan clergy hated all magic, even the benign kind, so it seems likely a giant sigil-covered boulder at the epicenter of the Salem witch trials would have drawn their attention and ire. But it didn't, so perhaps the symbols didn't exist in 1692.

Gramly does briefly also consider the possibility that people may have painted Witch Rock in 1892 as parts of the bicentennial observances of the Salem trials. Lectures were held in the area at that time and witch trial souvenirs were sold so perhaps someone created the sigils as part of the commemorative events. He thinks the paint used is older than the 1890s though. 

Jeff Belanger points out in his book Weird Massachusetts that the symbols resemble some in Francis Barrett's 1801 book The Magus. Perhaps occultists painted the symbols on the boulder in the 19th century. But then again, Barrett used lots of older grimoires to compose The Magus - he was not the first person to use these symbols. They existed before the book's publication.

I don't think the mystery of Witch Rock will be resolved given the current information we have. It's just one of those weird and interesting things about New England. I have never been to Witch Rock, but my friends who have been say it is on private property and is surrounded by poison ivy. Salvatore Trento includes a map in his 1997 book Field Guide to the Mysterious Places of Eastern North America, but I do not know if it is accurate. Trento also notes that Witch Rock is in Danvers. It's an easy mistake to make and is one that I unfortunately included in my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore

There are several other boulders in New England named Witch Rock, including one in Rochester, Massachusetts and another (well, technically Witches Rock) in Bristol, Connecticut. Perhaps destinations for autumn road trips?

October 08, 2018

A Gargoyle Sighting in Massachusetts?

Most paranormal reports fit into a few categories. There are your Bigfoot sightings, your ghostly encounters, and your UFO sightings. Those are the big three. Then there are also regional categories, such as the pukwudgies that people see in New England, and categories that appear only for a short time, like the creepy clown craze that swept the country a few years ago. 

It's not one of the biggest categories, but there has been an increase in winged humanoid reports recently. I think the most famous winged humanoid in the United States is the Mothman of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. I first learned of the Mothman back in the 1980s when I read John Keel's famous book The Mothman Prophecies. It's a freaky and unsettling tome that really goes down the rabbit hole of paranoia, but the Mothman himself didn't really get much mainstream acknowledgement until the Richard Gere film of The Mothman Prophecies came out in 2002. Like the book, it's weird and creepy.

Mothman painting by famous pulp artist Frank Frazetta. 
The Mothman's popularity has grown since then, and this cryptid, who in the book and film is an eerie omen of doom, has now become a cute internet meme, particularly on Tumblr. For example see below:
Adorable Mothman from this Tumblr blog. 
I don't think the Mothman has been seen in New England (please tell me if I am wrong), but another weird winged humanoid recently was. Someone in Abington, Massachusetts saw a gargoyle in February, 2018. The report appears on Phantoms and Monsters, and the site's owner said it was originally posted on Reddit in August. Here it is:
... About 6 months ago I saw this insane thing. It was about 3 AM, I had been up late as I normally am. I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. It was dark as Hell except for the stars and moon. As I was smoking I heard this noise of something flying. I look up and see this winged creature land on my neighbor's roof and just sit there like a Gargoyle would. I thought I was seeing sh*t or seeing something wrong but then the creature jumped up and flew away and I could see its whole body. It was the size of a small human but massive wings. It reminded me of a Gargoyle. I don't know what the f**k I saw but it was crazy. Has anyone ever had an experience seeing something like this? Humanoid creature with wings?
Lon Stickler, the owner of Phantoms and Monsters, contacted the Redditor who had posted the story and asked for more details. Their response follows:
... I couldn't see the creature's face because it was dark and it was on the roof facing away from me. It looked black with a wing span upon flight maybe 4 - 5ft. The creature itself while crouched on the roof looked the size of a smaller human maybe 4ft. I watched it trying to figure out what I was looking at, for maybe 1 minute, then it jumped and flew off. Even when it flew away it still looked on the shorter end. As it flew, its legs hung but still in an almost crouching position. It wasn't a massive creature but it was definitely humanoid in appearance. 
Some of you may know that Abington is located within the Bridgewater Triangle, an area in Massachusetts famous for paranormal activity. I don't think anyone has reported a gargoyle there before, but people have seen other large winged creatures in the Triangle. In 1971, a police officer driving to his home in Easton late one night saw something more than six feet tall and with a wingspan of eight to twelve feet. As he drove towards it the creature flew straight up into the air and off over the trees. The officer reported it but investigators found no sign of the creature. (This account is included in Loren Coleman's 2001 book Mysterious America.)

A scene from the 1972 movie Gargoyles
For those skeptics out there, it's important to note the Hockomock Swamp sits in the center of the Bridgewater Triangle, and many large birds live in swamps, including the great blue heron, which has a wingspan of 5 - 6 feet. However, great blue herons aren't usually active at night. There are numerous species of owl in Massachusetts, though, and the great horned owl has a wingspan of up to 5 feet. Owls are active at night.

On the other hand, owls aren't really "humanoid in appearance" and people have been seeing strange flying creatures for years. I don't think they can all be misidentified owls. I don't know what people are seeing. I guess I'll just wait and see if gargoyles start increasing in Massachusetts. And then I'll start locking my windows at night!


Special thanks to my friends Steve and Cornelia for bringing this story to my attention.