January 25, 2018

Finding Witches and Demons in The Woods

I have been a city person all my life, but I do like walking in the woods when I can.

My favorite seasons to walk in the woods are fall and winter. For one thing there are fewer bugs to deal with, but I also appreciate how the landscape is more apparent in those seasons. The leaves are down, the undergrowth has died, and I can really see the undulations of the earth and how the tree roots writhe around in the soil. I also like how clearly the local boulders, deposited here by glaciers eons ago, present themselves in the treeless months.

Walking around in the woods makes me want to read and write about local folklore. There's something about a giant boulder, a murky pond or an abandoned stone wall that inspires me to read about witches, ghosts and weird humanoid monsters. Maybe that's strange, but somehow those old stories make me feel connected more to the land here. Conversely, reading those stories makes me want to go out in the woods and explore. I think the local landscape inspired the folk stories, and in turn the folk stories color how I see the landscape. The two are reflections of each other, physical and mental landscapes that overlap.

A cave a few miles from my house. Creepy, right? It looked like someone had been living in it.

So when I am in a folklorey state of mind the woods seem like they are filled with strange possibilities. Who knows what I might see? Just around that hill I could encounter a crow that looks at me with knowing eyes, or maybe I'll see a strange footprint in the mud next to a stream. Anything seems possible.

In 1662, Robert Stern of Hartford, Connecticut was walking in the woods outside of that town. He thought at first that he was alone, but he soon realized he wasn't.

Robert Stern testifiethh as follows
I saw this morning Goodwife Seager in the woods with three more women and with them I saw two black creatures like to Indians but taller. I saw likewise a kettle over a fire. I saw the women dance around those black creatures and whiles I looked upon them one of the women, Goodwife Greensmith, said "Look who is a-yonder!" and then then they ran away up the hill. I stood still and the black things came towards me and then I turned to come away... (quoted in David Hall, Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England, 1991, p.158)

There are a lot of ways to think about that passage. Historically, it comes from the Hartford witch trials of 1662 - 1665. Rebecca Greensmith, mentioned in Stern's testimony, was found guilty of witchcraft and executed. Elizabeth Seager, also mentioned, was also found guilty but ultimately had her sentence suspended by Governor John Winthrop Jr.

You can also think about this passage in a sociological way. The black creatures, clearly demons, resembled Indians. The 17th century New England Puritans had a deep fear of the local Indian tribes. They fought with the Indians over land, and also considered them (as non-Christians) to be in league with the Devil. The Puritans' racial fears colored a lot of other witch trial accounts, where the Devil and his minions are portrayed as resembling Indians. You could also argue that Puritan notions about sexuality led them to think that women were more likely to be witches than men.

Another cave in the same woods.

But this story still remains fascinating and a little creepy to me even though I understand the historical and sociological aspects of it. Robert Stern said he stumbled upon witches and demons dancing around in the New England woods. There was a cauldron cooking over a fire. Just think about that for a moment. The woods that surround your house, the woods where you walk your dog and play with your kids, were believed to be the habitation of demons and witches. Who knows what you might find even today if you stray from the path into the trees? It's like we live in the middle of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

I have never come upon a witches Sabbath in the woods, but sometimes it feels like I could. I don't think there are witches and demons hiding out there in the forest, but sometimes it feels like there might be. I guess that's what comes from reading too much folklore and living in New England.

January 17, 2018

Cat, Crow and Cream: Perils of Being A Witch

Lots of younger people are interested in traditional forms of witchcraft these days, as a quick search through Tumblr will demonstrate. I think that's fine. Many people dabble in the occult and it's definitely an interesting topic. However, be aware that witchcraft is not all fun and games.  

For example, here is a little folk story about witches from late 19th century Western Massachusetts:

Daniel Smith was churning. He looked into the churn and then to see what progress he was making, but the butter was no nearer to coming the last time he looked than it was the first. The suspicion grew on Mr. Smith that there was something uncanny about this fact. The more he thought about it the more certain he became that there was a witch in the cream. To expel the evil spirit he dipped up a little of the cream, and threw it into the fire. Immediately after that the butter came. That same day it was reported that Widow Brown had burned herself. Then Mr. Smith knew it was the Widow Brown who had bewitched his cream. (Clifton Johnson, What They Say in New England, 1896)

Now compare that with this story collected in the 1930s in Peterborough, New Hampshire about a witch named Mrs. Stinson:

A cat somewhere in town was observed to act strangely; hot water was thrown upon her and straightaway Mrs. Stinson's back was dreadfully afflicted with St. Anthony's (erysipelas). On another occasion a good man near Sharon shot at a crow many times, but the bird only flew around and laughed at him. He at last took off a silver sleeve button and with it broke the crow's wing; immediately Mrs. Stinson was found to have a broken arm. (Eva Speare, New Hampshire Folk Tales, 1932)

Although we tend to think of folk stories about witches as spooky or creepy, most of them are actually instructional tales about how to defeat witches. They usually end with the the wise farmer or clever housewife defeating the witch through a little defensive magic, as the stories above illustrate. The heroine of these tales is not the witch.

Witches were believed to work their mischief by sending their souls out of their bodies and into food, animals, or farm implements. This was a cool magical power, but left the witches very vulnerable because their bodies experienced any harm inflicted on the food or animal. A silver object (a button or a bullet) could injure or kill even the toughest witch. 

So just a word of caution for young people thinking about practicing traditional forms of witchcraft. Watch out! Someone might throw the cream into the fire.

January 09, 2018

The Devil Monkey of Danville, New Hampshire

The other day I was poking around the Web and found references to something called the Danville Devil Monkey. I love that name, don't you? Devil Monkey. Devil Monkey. It makes me want to scream: DEVIL MONKEY!!!

Almost as good as its name is the fact that the Devil Monkey appeared in Danville, New Hampshire. Danville is a classic small New England town. There are some old farmhouses, a couple of churches, and it runs by town meeting. The town's website is promoting a fund-raising spaghetti dinner for the local Boy Scouts. Danville is like someplace from a Thornton Wilder play. So obviously it's where the Devil Monkey would appear.

The Danville monkey was first seen on August 21 by fire chief David Kimball when the creature leapt into the road in front of his truck. It jumped back into the woods, but Kimball was stunned by what he saw. What was a large monkey doing in southern New Hampshire?

“It jumped out of the trees,” Kimball said. “As soon as he hit the ground, he took a giant leap and went back where he came from. The first thought I had was: That’s nothing that’s native to here.” (Seacoast Online, September 14, 2001, "Residents Can't Stop Monkeying Around") 

Kimball consulted with the town librarian to determine what type of simian he saw. Kimball's best guess was that he saw a Humboldt's wooly monkey. Wooly monkeys are indigenous to the Amazon, not New England, so he was naturally puzzled by what he saw.

Several other Danville residents saw the animal in August and September that year. Scott Velleca saw the animal briefly in his backyard, while his wife Jen heard strange screeching noises coming from the woods. "It was a noise that didn't belong in my woods," she said. (Seacoast Online, September 14, 2001, "Residents Can't Stop Monkeying Around").

A local boy told his mother that peanut butter cookies he left in his treehouse disappeared. She at first thought her son was talking about an imaginary playmate, but after she learned about the monkey sightings she realized his story was probably true. Had the monkey taken the cookies?

A wooly monkey
Locals assumed the monkey was an escaped pet. It is illegal to own a Humboldt's wooly monkey as a pet and the owners (if they existed) never stepped forward. The town mobilized to capture the animal before the weather turned monkey-killingly cold. Denise Laratonda, Danville's animal control officer, partnered with the Humane Society to lure the monkey with female monkey urine. It did not work. Other Danville residents strung up bananas and oranges to lure the monkey into the open. Hunters with tranquilizer darts stood by the ready. A local DJ even dressed up a like a gorilla to entice the monkey.

Nothing worked. The Danville monkey remained elusive, something that was briefly seen, frequently heard, and impossible to catch. The story gained national media attention and Laratonda was scheduled to appear on NBC's Today Show to discuss the renegade simian. The September 11 terrorist attacks occurred before her appearance and the media turned its attention to more pressing matters.

The monkey continued to haunt Danville through September but then disappeared. Did it die? Was it recaptured by its mysterious owners? No one knew.

The creature reappeared eleven years later, when Haverhill, Massachusetts resident Michelle Andino saw a strange animal in her parents' Danville backyard. Andino was out cooking steaks on the grill when she heard the family's dogs barking. She assumed they had seen a deer, and was shocked instead when see saw something climbing a tree:

But what caught her eye was an animal at least two feet long with a 'white bottom' and dark brown over the rest of its body. She doesn't think it had a tail.

'It was really hugging the tree. It was climbing up like a human being,' she said. (Union Leader, September 26, 2012, "In Danville: Hey Hey It's A Monkey?") 

Andino's family had not lived in Danville in 2001, and she was surprised to learn that another monkey had been seen several years earlier. An animal control officer didn't find any signs of the creature.

As far as I know that was the last sighting of Danville's Devil Monkey. Maybe it will show up again in another few years to bewilder the town's citizens.

Did you notice there really isn't anything devilish about the Danville monkey? Maybe it was a little impish to steal a small boy's cookies but that certainly wasn't Satanic. The people who saw it didn't seem particularly frightened. Puzzled, amused, and intrigued but not necessarily scared. No one called it the Devil Monkey at the time, but it seems to have gained that nickname on the Internet in recent years.

There is a cryptid called the Devil Monkey that has been seen in other parts of the country. Devil Monkeys are reputed to be vicious and attack livestock, much like a chupacabra might. This video from Animal Planet gives a spooky overview of the Devil Monkey:

Personally, I don't think the Danville monkey was one of these terrifying monsters, but I could be wrong. Still, there is a tendency in American culture for anomalous things to get classified as scary and evil but sometimes strange things are just strange. Not every unusual animal is a deadly monster.

I also think it's interesting that so many people assumed in 2001 that the monkey had escaped from unknown owners. This is a common trope in stories about cryptids. Giant cats, apelike wild men, and other creatures are explained away as escaped circus animals or exotic pets. It sounds like a reasonable explanation, but the animals' owners almost never show up. If you ran a zoo or circus wouldn't you want to recapture one of your valuable missing animals?

What was the Danville monkey if it wasn't a ravenous Devil Monkey or an escaped pet? Sadly I don't have a better explanation. But I do know that if you're missing some peanut butter cookies you might want to look high up in the trees for an elusive simian with a sweet tooth.