April 26, 2018

The Maypole of Merrymount: Religion, Sex and Money

When I was in elementary school, way back in the 1970s, we had to make May Day baskets as an art project. I don't remember what grade it was, but I do remember thinking "May Day? That's not really something we celebrate here." I knew it was a holiday in other countries, but was it something celebrated in Haverhill, Massachusetts? Still, I made my basket from construction paper and dutifully left it on a neighbor's doorstep like the teacher suggested.

Apparently I was on the dying end of a tradition, because May Day baskets were quite popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Maybe I would have been more enthusiastic about May Day if I had been allowed to dance around a Maypole, but that was not part of my school's curriculum.


The first and most famous Maypole erected in Massachusetts was the one put up by Thomas Morton at his colony of Merrymount in 1624. Morton was a well-educated English lawyer who had come to Massachusetts as part of a colonial expedition. Their colony, in what is now the city of Quincy, was initially called Mount Wollaston after Captain Wollaston, the commander of the expedition's ship. When Morton learned the captain was selling indentured servants to another colony in Virginia he encouraged the other servants to rebel. Wollaston fled, and Morton became the new leader of the calling. Preferring to call himself the colony's "host," he renamed it Merrymount.

Since Thomas Morton was an educated, literary type of guy, the name Merrymount had a variety of meanings to it. First, it indicated that the colony was to be a place of happiness now that Captain Wollaston was gone. Second, it was a play on the Latin word for the sea, mare, since the colony was on the coast. Ma-re-mount, get it? Finally, there was a sexual connotation to the colony's name, indicating it was someplace where the mounting (aka sex) was merry.

Puritans disapprovingly watching Maypole festivities at Merrymount.
As May 1st approached the colonists Merrymount erected an 80' Maypole topped with a pair of deer antlers. They fired rifles and pistols in celebration, and Morton composed a poem that was nailed to the pole. Morton's poem mentions various Roman sea deities like Neptune, Amphitrite and Triton, and ends with these lines:

With proclamation that the first of May
At Ma-re-Mount shall be kept holiday

Morton and the other colonists invited the local Indians to join them at their celebration, particularly the Indian women. Beer flowed, people got drunk, and a good time was had by all. The Merrymount men sang a song that was composed in honor of the celebration. Here are some of the lyrics:

Drink and be merry, merry, merry boys;
Let all your delight be in Hymen's joys
IĆ“ to Hymen, now the day is come,
About the merry Maypole take a roam. 
Make green garlands, bring bottles out
And fill sweet Nectar freely about.
Uncover thy head and fear no harm,
For here's good liquor to keepe it warm. 
Give to the Nymph that's free from scorn
No Irish stuff nor Scotch overworn.
Lasses in beaver coats come away,
Ye shall be welcome to us night and day

The "Hymen" mentioned in this poem is the Greco-Roman god of marriage, but again I am sure there is a double entrendre intended. 

Hymen, god of marriage
I suppose if Merrymount had survived as a colony the history of New England would have been quite different, but it didn't survive. Shortly after the May Day celebration the Pilgrims from Plymouth Colony marched on Merrymount. They chopped down the May Pole, arrested Thomas Morton, and exiled him from New England. Morton made his way back to Merrymount in 1630, but most of the inhabitants had scattered by then. This time, the Puritans of Boston arrested Morton and burned Merrymount to the ground. Morton was sent back to England.

Back in England, Morton and his wealthy patron Fernando Gorges successfully sued to revoke the Plymouth Colony charter, but Morton's victory was short-lived because the English Civil War started. Morton fled from the chaos back to New England, where he died penniless in York, Maine in 1647. I believe he is buried somewhere in York, but I couldn't find a location for his grave. Perhaps it has been lost?

The New England Puritans and Thomas Morton came into conflict for three big reasons:


The Puritans followed a very strict version of Christianity that had rigid rules about how people should behave. They also didn't celebrate holidays like May Day or even Christmas, which they associated with the Catholic and Anglican Churches. Holidays were one of the things they were trying to purge from the English church.

Thomas Morton, on the other hand, was an Anglican who clearly enjoyed a good holiday. He was also well-educated and appreciated the ancient paganism of Greece and Rome. I don't think he was a practicing pagan, but he did enjoy the literature and mythology of the Classical World, as evidenced by his poem's references to Roman gods. This was quite common for educated people of his time. For example, Shakespeare's late romances Cymbeline, Pericles and The Tempest all include pagan gods.

The Puritans specifically cast Morton as a sinful pagan, calling Merrymount Mount Dagon (after the ancient Canaanite sea god) and saying the maypole was a modern version of the Golden Calf. Morton took up this mantle proudly. He titled his book about New England The New English Canaan, and urged readers to help protect the new Canaan from the invading Puritans.


As mentioned above, the Puritans expected people to follow very strict codes of behavior. Sex was intended for married couples. Morton and the settlers at Merrymount had a more relaxed view on these matters.

I think it is useful to note that many of the Puritan settlers were already married and brought their families to New England with them, while most of the Merrymounters were unmarried men with no problem enjoying the company of the local Indian women or possibly even marrying them. Intermarriage between European colonists and indigenous people was common in parts of the New World where the colonists were single men, but the Puritans took a dim view of this practice.

Some historians have also suggested that homosexuality may have been tolerated at Merrymount. For example, the authors of the Boston History Project's book Improper Bostonians point out that Morton mentions Jupiter, the king of the gods, and Ganymede, his male mortal lover, when writing about Merrymount. Of course, Ganymede was also Jupiter's cupbearer so he may have been mentioned because of his connection with getting drunk. Still, male homosexuality was somewhat tolerated among educated Englishmen like Morton. For example, the character of Antonio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is clearly in love with Sebastian, something the other characters do not question.

Morton himself never married, for whatever reason, so he would have personally benefited from "hosting" a sexually liberal colony.


The Merrymounters were trading with the local Indians for beaver pelts, which brought them into direct conflict with the Puritans, who wanted to corner the trade in pelts. Morton and his men were also giving the Indians guns in return for the pelts, which the Puritans definitely didn't want. This just gave the Pilgrims one more good reason to shut down Morton's colony.


What would I have learned about Maypoles in elementary school if Thomas Morton had succeeded? Probably more than I did (which was nothing). Maybe in some alternate universe he did succeed, and happy New England school children descended from both English and Algonquin Indian ancestors frolic around Maypoles and learn their history. That's not the universe we live in, but Merrymount is still fondly remembered as a brief glimpse of what might have been. 

April 16, 2018

Controversy Over UFO Memorial in Massachusetts Town

I stumbled upon the following Associated Press item the other day. It's dated April 14, 2018:

SHEFFIELD, Mass. (AP) — A memorial in a remote corner of Massachusetts that marks a 1969 UFO sighting has been ordered moved, but one man who experienced a close encounter is objecting. 
The 5,000-pound (2,300-kilogram) memorial in Sheffield was installed in 2015, but was moved about 30 feet (9 meters) a few weeks later when it was discovered it was on town land. 
Now, Town Administrator Rhonda LaBombard tells The Berkshire Eagle it has to be moved again because it's on a town right-of-way easement. 
That's not sitting well with Thom Reed. He was 9 when he, his mother, grandmother and brother saw what he described as a "self-contained glow" that flooded their car with an amber light. About 40 people in several surrounding towns reported the strange light.
Reed is threatening legal action.

More information on the controversy can be found on Newser:

"This isn't fair to the community," says Reed. "It's not right having nothing there." Reed is also perplexed because he and town officials joined forces to give the memorial its current position. "She chose the spot herself," he says about LaBombard. Now Reed is threatening legal action. "This has come up more than once," he says. "We're not done with the monument." He was 9 when he, his mother, grandmother, and brother saw what he described as a "self-contained glow" that flooded their car with an amber light. About 40 people in several surrounding towns reported the strange light.

Thom Reed's encounter encounter with a UFO is one of the better-documented cases in recent history. I suppose I should say "encounters" plural, and not just singular. Reed had his first encounter in 1966 when he was just six years old. Reed awoke in the middle of the night to see small glowing orbs floating through the bedroom he shared with his younger brother Matthew in an old Sheffield farm house.

Photo of Sheffield UFO monument from Mass Live
Those orbs disappeared after a while, but several days later something even stranger occurred: small humanoid beings appeared in the boys' room. The small humanoids brought Tom and Matthew outside into the woods and led them into a metal craft. Inside the boys were shown images on a screen, including space ships and a willow tree. 

The humanoid visitations continued after this, and eventually they got so bad the family moved to nearby Great Barrington in an effort to end them. A large willow tree stood in front of their new home, indicating that the family wouldn't easily avoid the visitors who regularly invaded their home.

The Sheffield monument commemorates a very specific encounter the Reed family had with a UFO in 1969. Reed, his brother, mother and grandmother all saw a UFO while driving near Sheffield's covered bridge. All four members of the family were taken from the car and examined by aliens in a "warehouse like facility" before being returned to the car. Many other local residents called a local radio station to report strange lights in thy sky that night, lending some additional credence to Reed's tale. (I should note that the monument was paid for by private citizens, including Reed himself.)

A drawing by Thomas Reed of what he was shown on the screen.

Reed now lives in Kentucky and most recently ran a modeling agency in Miami, but he seems keen on proving to his hometown that his UFO experience was true. In 2015 the Great Barrington Historical Society voted to include information about Reed's extraterrestrial encounters in the town museum. Historical Society director Debbie Oppermann told The Boston Globe:

“I know we’re going to get a lot of backlash. We’re going to get hammered,” she said. “But we have given it an awful lot of thought, and, based on the evidence we’ve been given, we believe this is a significant and true event.” 
The historical society believes it is the first time a “mainstream” historical society or museum in the United States has declared a UFO encounter to be historical fact. But the decision was far from unanimous; of the nine members of the historical society’s board, three were “strongly opposed” to the decision, Oppermann said, but “it passed with consensus.”

It's interesting that the society claimed it was "a significant and true event." I don't doubt that these UFO encounters were significant for the Reed family and the people of Sheffield and Great Barrington. But were these events true in a verifiable, historical way? No hard physical evidence was found that an alien craft had visited Western Massachusetts. We just have the testimony of the Reeds and of their neighbors who saw some lights in the sky. 

Thom Reed's encounter with the strange humanoids reminds me of a visionary or religious experience. It also reminds me of classic haunted house stories, where the family relocates to escaped supernatural hauntings - only to have them follow. Or maybe his story is similar to European stories about fairies, where small beings invade the home to cause mischief. Or even, since this is New England, classic witchcraft stories of hags and demons tormenting sleeping victims. 

I think those types of stories are all significant, but are they true enough to merit a large stone monument? Is Thom Reed's story true enough to merit one? I suppose ultimately the people of Sheffield will have to decide.

April 08, 2018

Campus Ghosts at the University of Vermont

One thing I've learned from writing this blog is that you can usually find ghost stories on college campuses. Ivy League schools, state schools, old campuses or new ones - they generally have ghost stories attached to them. Is this because young people are more attuned to the spirit world, or is it just because they more likely to tell each other ghost stories?

This fall I was in Burlington, Vermont and visited the University of Vermont campus with my Vermonter friend Brian. The University of Vermont was founded in 1791 and is often referred to simply as UVM. This nickname comes from the school's Latin name Universitas Viridis Montis, or University of the Green Mountains. I feel like I'm back in school because I'm translating Latin!

UVM's campus sits high up on a hill outside of downtown Burlington and is filled with a mix of beautiful old buildings and newer more modern structures. On the chilly November day I visited it seemed like a great place to encounter a ghost.

One of the most haunted buildings on campus is Converse Hall, a large grey granite dormitory in the center of campus. When I visited Converse Hall was under construction and no students were living there. But perhaps the ghosts were still inside...

According to various online sources, Converse Hall is haunted by the ghost of a student who hanged himself in the attic in the 1920s. The stress of academia was more than he could endure, but even death has given him no escape since his spirit still lingers in the dorm. Some sources say the ghost's name is Henry.

Henry has been accused of causing various spooky phenomena in the dorm, like knocking mirrors off of walls, tearing down posters, slamming doors shut, and rearranging furniture in student's rooms. Despite dying almost 100 years ago it doesn't sound like Henry has matured much in the past century. Those all sound like typical freshman year pranks to me.

I've also read that the ghost haunting Converse Hall may instead be an engineering student who accidentally electrocuted himself in the 1980s. So which is it, Henry from the 1920s or a more recent ghost? There's no answer, and this type of ambiguity is very common in ghost stories. People encounter strange phenomena and then try to explain them by referring to events that happened in the past. Usually there are multiple explanatory stories. Sometimes not knowing is spookier than knowing.

The identity of the ghost haunting the Center for Counseling and Testing on South Williams Street is known, though. It is the spirit of a nineteenth century sea captain who once lived in the house. The building is called the Jacobs House (after the UVM professor whose widow donated it to the school in 1959), so many people assume the ghost is someone named Captain Jacobs. If the building is haunted it is more likely that the ghost is that of one Captain Nabb, a retired seaman who lived there until his death in 1877.

Staff working in the Jacobs House have reported a variety of poltergeist activity, and some claim to have even seen the captain himself. One counselor who worked there reported that one night he saw an elderly man with a large bulbous nose walking down the stairs. As he walked he shimmered "like a jellyfish" before he disappeared. That's kind of freaky. A janitor in building also reported seeing the same elderly man, and that he knocked over a bucket of water and flicked the lights before vanishing. I guess old sea captains can be kind of cranky.

Students and staff aren't the only ones who can partake in the ghostly antics. Even alumni might get a chance to see a restless spirit, since UVM's Alumni Association offices are housed in the beautiful and historic Grasse Mount building. Formally known was the Thaddeus Tuttle house, Grasse Mount dates to 1804 by and was originally named for the wealthy Burlington merchant who built it. Unfortunately Tuttle didn't remain wealthy for long and had to sell off his luxurious home. The house was later re-named to honor a French admiral.

UVM purchased the building in 1895 and used it as a women's dormitory until 1977. The women who lived there apparently loved Grasse Mount and one resident, Pearl Randall Wasson, even composed a song in its honor. Here are some topically appropriate lyrics:

Spirit of Grasse Mount, come to us we pray
Roll back the curtain from the dusty past...

I think the curtain from the dusty past has definitely been rolled back. Strange voices have been heard in empty rooms, and doors have been slammed shut by invisible hands. Is it the ghost of Thaddeus Tuttle, trying to reclaim in death what he lost in life? I haven't read any theories explaining Grasse Mount's supernatural shenanigans. But as I said, sometimes not knowing is spookier than knowing.