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.