September 26, 2018

Cat Folklore, Part I: Do Cats Suffocate Babies?

My family had dogs and cats as pets when I was young. I loved them all, but for some reason I always thought of myself as a 'dog person' for many years. Maybe it was because dogs are friendly in such an uncomplicated way, or maybe it was because cats have such sharp claws.

One of our cats was a large Siamese who bit several of my friends and everyone in the family except me. I suppose I should have seen his mercy as a sign that I was actually a 'cat person', but I didn't. I only came to that realization when I finally had a cat as an adult. Unlike a dog, he was clean, quiet, and didn't take up much space. He was like the ideal room mate!

He was also very affectionate. Whenever I would lie on my back, whether napping on a bed or reading on the couch, the cat would crawl on top of my chest. Slowly he would work his way up my torso, purring every inch, until his face was touching my chin and his paws were on my neck. I would scoot him back down, but he would always make his way back up.

I have read that a cat touches your face if they like you. I've also read the theory that cats have scent glands in their paws and by touching your face they mark you as their human. I am not sure if these are theories are true, but they beat the old theory: that cats try to steal your breath, particularly if you are a baby.

This is quite an old piece of folklore, dating back to at least the 16th century England. I suspect it is even older than that. It is also an enduring myth. It was recorded here in New England by several 19th century writers. Although Fanny Bergren doesn't include it in her encyclopedic Current Superstitions, Sarah Bridge Farmer does include it in her short 1894 piece "Folklore of Marblehead, Mass.", stating simply that "Cats sat on the breasts of children and sucked their breath."

Clifton Johnson has more to say about this belief in What They Say in New England (1896):
Many believe that cats will cause the death of babies by sucking their breath. The only reason they suggest for the attraction is that the cats are attracted by the baby's breath because it is sweet. They will tell that cats have been caught in the act, and give much detailed evidence. The story ends with the killing of the cat, and a great commotion to restore the gasping baby's breath. 
I cringe at the thought of the innumerable cats killed due to misunderstanding of their motives. Although his informants, primarily farmers from western Massachusetts, believed cats suffocated babies Johnson explains it is not true:
Physicians do not credit the breath-sucking part of the stories, and I will suggest one or two explanations of the phenomena. Firstly, there might have lingered about the baby's mouth fragments of a recent lunch that the cat was removing when found with it's mouth near the baby's; and secondly, the baby's gasping may have been caused by fear of the cat, or by the alarming commotion on its account among its relatives.
While this myth is obviously not true I still hear people mention it even today. Most of them say it jokingly, but I think the humor hides an uneasiness that many people have around cats. Or who knows, maybe people are acknowledging their own weird and powerful fascination with our feline friends. 

September 19, 2018

Did H.P. Lovecraft Witness An Alien Autopsy?

Did H.P. Lovecraft witness an alien autopsy? I cannot tell you how happy I am to type that sentence. It's an absolutely insane question even to pose, but it brings together two things I love: horror master H.P. Lovecraft and UFOs. And some people think the answer is "Yes!"

As many people know, Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890 - 1937) was one of the world's most influential horror writers. Lovecraft spent most of his life in Providence, Rhode Island and loved New England deeply. He incorporated New England locations and folklore into stories like "The Dunwich Horror" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."

Image from the H.P. Lovecraft archives.
Dreamers, dream-worlds and nightmares also appear often in his work, and many of his stories were even inspired by actual dreams he had. Lovecraft could recall his dreams in great detail and they provided the basis for stories like "Call of Cthulhu," "The Statement of Randolph Carter" and others.

In early 1920 Lovecraft had a dream that he later referred to as the "Eben Spencer plot" because he hoped to use it as the basis for a story. He never did, but the dream is interesting on it's own. In the dream Lovecraft was an army lieutenant and surgeon named Eben Spencer. The year was 1864, and Spencer/Lovecraft was on furlough in his hometown in upstate New York after being injured in the Civil War. While out for a walk he meets a friend:
Soon a very young man of my acquaintance came up to me with an air of anxiety and began to speak in guarded accents. He wished me to go with him to his brother - my professional colleague Dr. Chester - whose actions were greatly alarming him. 
... The doctor for the past two years had been conducting secret experiments in a laboratory in the attic of his home, and beyond that locked door he would admit no one but himself. Sickening odours were often detected near the door... and odd sounds were at times not absent.
Eben Spencer is taken to Dr. Chester's laboratory, where the sinister Dr. Chester shows him something grotesque:
Soon he emerged, bearing on a large glass slab what appeared to be a human arm, neatly severed just below the elbow. It was damp, gelatinous and bluish-white, and the fingers were without nails. 
'Well, Spencer,' said Dr. Chester sneeringly, 'I suppose you've had a good deal of amputation practice in the army. What do you think, professionally, of this job?' 
I had seen clearly that this was not a human arm, and said sarcastically, 'You are a better sculptor than doctor, Chester. This is not the arm of any living thing.' 
And Chester replied in a tone that made my blood congeal, 'Not yet, Spencer. Not yet!' (Selected Letters of H.P. Lovecraft, Volume 1, Arkham House, Sauk City, Wisconsin, 1965, pages 100-102).
From behind a curtain Dr. Chester then brings out another, even larger arm. Ominously, Dr. Chester tells Spencer to "Watch the curtain!" but here the dream begins to fade. Lovecraft awoke in his bed, noting "I have never seen Dr. Chester, or his young brother, or that village since. I do not know what village it was. I never heard the name of Eben Spencer before or since. Some dream!"

Civil War surgical instructions from the Mutter Museum.

I agree! That is some dream, but perhaps not an unprecedented one for a writer of horror stories. And since this post has the words "alien autopsy" in its title, what if anything does it have to do with aliens? It seems more like a rehash of Frankenstein than anything else.

In 1997 Joseph Trainor, editor of the now defunct UFO Roundup magazine, decided to investigate what inspired Lovecraft's dream. Trainor thought the severed arms sounded like they could have been from extraterrestrials, and he also knew there had been sightings of strange flying craft in upstate New York in the 1860s. Was there some hidden truth in Lovecraft's dream?

Trainor conducted research in New York and consulted with New York state historian Carol Maltby. He found the following:
  • A young army surgeon and lieutenant named Elbridge Gerry Spencer lived in the New York village of Brockett's Bridge in the 1860s. He went by the nickname Gary. He was briefly furloughed with a minor injury around 1862.
  • Nearby lived an herbalist, Dr. David Chester Smallwood. Smallwood had a younger brother, just like in Lovecraft's dream. Dr. Smallwood also owned a three-story house with an attic. 
  • Spencer left Brockett's Bridge in the late 1860s. His departure was sudden; his sister's obituary notes that he "disappeared from the area..." Searching through census records, Trainor found an E. Gary Spencer in  Iowa working as a farmer. By 1880, Spencer was working as a "commercial traveler," or traveling salesman. 
  • Trainor could not ascertain what happened to Dr. Smallwood. 
Trainor speculated that while gathering herbs in the woods Dr. Smallwood found a damaged UFO that had crashed - and some of its injured occupants. Perhaps he showed the remains of the aliens to Lt. Spencer, who fled town soon after seeing the strange limbs. At one point Trainor thought that Lovecraft's dream was some kind of past life memory, but he developed another theory later. He speculated that while working as a traveling salesman Spencer met Lovecraft's father, who was also a salesman. He told the strange tale to Lovecraft's father, who in turn told it to his young son. Lovecraft perhaps did not remember the story consciously but it appeared in his dreams.

I can hear you asking, "Is any of this true?" I honestly can't say. It sounds like Trainor found some interesting information that is similar to Lovecraft's dream, although the names don't quite match entirely. I suppose your acceptance of this story hinges on your feelings about UFOs in general. I just find it fascinating whether or not the story is true.

What I find particularly interesting, though, is that this is another myth that's developed around H.P. Lovecraft's life. Although there are probably others this is the third one that I've encountered. The other myths are:
1. Lovecraft's stories contain real occult knowledge. In this myth, Lovecraft either consciously or unconsciously (through his dreams) incorporated actual magic and occult secrets into his stories. The Necrononmicon is real, entities like Cthulhu exist, and Lovecraft traveled to other dimensions in his sleep. This myth started to form while Lovecraft was still alive but was popularized by the British occultist Kenneth Grant. Thanks to Grant's influence, you can now buy many books about Lovecraftian ritual and magick online and in New Age bookstores. 
2. The Necronomicon is hidden under the campus of Bradford College (now Northpoint Bible College) in Haverhill, Massachusetts. According to this legend, Lovecraft dated a co-ed at Bradford College and hid a copy of The Necronomicon, a book of blasphemous knowledge, in one of the tunnels underneath the school. 
I think the alien autopsy story fits in nicely with those other two, don't you?

I don't like to debunk stories on my blog. Instead I like to think about what they mean and what they say about New England. Myths are stories that people find meaningful and that are important, regardless of their literal truth. Why do people create these myths around H.P. Lovecraft and his fiction? Clearly people still find his stories to be powerful and convincing. And something so convincing can't just be fiction, can it?

September 09, 2018

Malicious Pixies on the North Shore: A Story from Marblehead

What comes to mind when you hear the word 'pixie?' I tend to think of cute things that are boyishly feminine like pixie haircuts or manic pixie dream girls like Zoey Deschanel. I remember from my distant teenage Dungeons and Dragons days that pixies were little flying fairies similar to Tinkerbell. Our culture tends to portray pixies as twee and sparkly. 

I like twee and sparkly, but those may not be the correct words to describe pixies. Like most fairies, older legends often describe them as ambiguous beings whose relationship with humans can be problematic. They like to have fun at the expense of humans. Here, for example, is some fairy folklore from 19th century Marblehead, Massachusetts:

The pixies, on the contrary, were malicious. They, too, were tiny, but of a brown color; they delighted to bewilder people; a person who was "pixilated," as they called it, would wander about for hours. The only remedy for such afflicted persons was to turn their garments. The belief in this was very strong. I knew a woman fairly well educated, as the education of women went sixty years ago, who told me in perfect good faith that she herself had been "pixilated" and had wandered an hour or more unable to find her home, until at last, recognizing that she was in the power of the little brown people, she turned her cloak, when the glamor vanished; in a moment she saw where she was, and was soon in her own house. (Sarah Bridge Farmer, "Folk-Lore of Marblehead, Mass.", The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 7, No. 26 (July - Sep., 1894), pp. 252 - 253.)

This account probably comes from the 1830s, but in the 19th century fairy folklore was quite rare in New England among those of European descent. Most of the region had been originally colonized by Puritans from England's East Anglia region, which while rich in witch-lore was poor in stories about fairies. The coastal town of Marblehead, on the other hand, was founded by fishermen from many parts of England, including some with rich fairy folklore. In England, stories about pixies are most common in in Devon and Cornwall. 

Turning your garments (i.e. wearing them inside out) is a well-knonw defense against fairy enchantment in English folklore, and is summarized in the rhyme "Turn your cloak/For fairy folk." It was apparently well-known in Marblehead, if this note from Caroline King Howard is any indication:

Judge Story used to tell with great delight, that when he was a boy living in Marblehead, his mother always warned him, when he went to the pasture, to drive home the cows, to turn his jacket inside out for fear of the pixies. (Caroline King Howard, When We Lived in Salem, 1822 - 1866)

It's my understanding, and I could be wrong, that fairies become confused when you wear your clothes inside out. In their confusion they break the spell and set you free. Causing some confusion of any kind will often break a fairy spell. For example, a famous folktale tells how a woman's child has been replaced by a fairy changeling. When the woman brews egg shells in a pot (which is unusual) the changeling becomes amazed and disappears. Her child reappears in its place. Yay! A happy 

The Native Americans in this region told (and still tell) stories about small magical beings similar to European fairies. Like their European counterparts, these small beings love to mislead travelers and sometimes even kidnap them. Belief in these beings was widespread across the New England tribes and almost certainly predates European colonization. While it is possible that current Native American stories about them show European influences, it is also possible that Europeans and Native Americans encountered similar beings but on different continents. Perhaps there is some truth behind those old folk tales. If you get lost in the woods get ready to turn your coat inside out...

September 03, 2018

Death's Head, Cherubs and Urns: Gravestone Art in Bradford Burial Ground

This past Saturday was cool and pleasant, and you could sense that fall is on the way. So why not get into the autumnal mood and visit a historic old cemetery? We decided to visit Bradford Burial Ground in Bradford, Massachusetts.

In 1665 settler John Heseltine gave land to the town of Bradford to be used for a church and a cemetery. The church is long gone, but the cemetery still remains and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The oldest gravestone is from 1689, but it is believed that there are older burials in the cemetery along with multiple unmarked graves. The Burial Ground is sometimes called the Ancient Burial Ground, which is kind of a nice name.

Walking through the cemetery we noticed the three major motifs you see on old gravestones in Massachusetts: death's heads, cherubs, and willows and urns. Death's heads are the earliest motif of the three, appearing first in the 1600s. Cherubs appeared by the mid-1700s, while the willow-and-urn motif became popular later in that century. Some historians have argued that the evolution of New England funerary motifs arose from changes in New Englanders' religious views, with the death's head representing the grim Puritan world-view, the cherub a more humanistic approach to religion, and the willow-and-urn a more intellectual one. Others have claimed this is not true and that the motifs just changed with the fashions of the time. Specific motifs lasted longer in some towns than others due to the influence of local stone carvers, and there is quite often chronological overlap between the motifs in the same cemetery. 


The Bradford Burial Ground has a nice assortment of stones engraved with death's heads. There's something morbid but also charming about these stones. Maybe because this motif is frequently used to illustrate books and on Halloween decor I've just gotten used to it. It also is one of those quintessentially New England things, like clam chowder made with cream or old white wooden churches. 

This stone is beautiful and very well-preserved. 

The flowers carved on the side borders contrast with the winged skull. 

This death's head is more abstract than the others and its wings are replaced with flowers.  The stone also has what looks like a typo: "Hear lyes buried...", but spelling was less circumscribed in the early 18th century. 
What looks like another abstract death's head, but without the typo. Is this  even supposed to be a skull or is it a face?


In my mind cherubs are those cute little angels that appear on Valentine's Day cards and in Renaissance paintings. The cherubs in Bradford Burial Ground are definitely not cute. They're actually quite grim. Latin inscriptions (memento mori) appear on the cherub stones, but not on the earlier death's head stones. 

Similar to the cherubs are these carvings, which are sometimes called "portraits." They aren't supposed to actually look like the person buried under them, but are symbolic representations of a human. Like the cherubs they are somewhat grim and have the Latin "memento mori" under them. 


These stones are less morbid and grim than the earlier stones. They are more melancholy. The willow and urn were symbols of mourning from the ancient Mediterranean and appeared in New England as part of the Classical revival in art and architecture. 

A more ornate carving adorns this stone. 

Although they are more gracious, some of the willow-and-urn stones are inscribed with dire warnings to the living. For example, one stone has this carved on it;

Think blooming youth when this you see
Tho young yet you may die like me
Like you a rosy youth was I
Yet in my youth was called to die

Another stone tells us this:

Think, friends, when you these lines have read
How soon we're numbered with the dead
Our years are few and quickly fly
O friends remember you must die

Consider yourself warned. Carpe diem! 


Not every gravestone fits into one of those three categories (and maybe those portraits are really a fourth category). For example, some are just decorated with a floral motif: 

Others feature just a name but with no decoration at all, not even a death date. Were these the graves of paupers or people whose families couldn't afford more elaborate gravestones?

And this headstone features a finger pointing heavenward, letting us know where the grave's occupant has gone. This is a motif I've seen in a few other cemeteries in this area, but it's not as common as some of the others. 

I hope you had a great summer and are excited for the coming of autumn!