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.