September 15, 2019

Goody Cole: Old Tales of New Hampshire Witchcraft

As the days grow shorter my thoughts turn once again to old stories about witchcraft! Those of us in New England are lucky to live someplace blessed with an abundance of strange and spooky witch tales.

I am particularly fond of witchcraft accounts from the 17th century, back when the Puritans were establishing their settlements in a land much different from the one they left behind. Demons and monsters were thought to lurk in the woods, but even scarier things could be hidden inside the walls of a neighbor's home. The Puritan witchcraft stories read like horror films or dark fairy tales.

For example, here is some testimony from Abraham Perkins of Hampton, New Hampshire. One evening in November 1662 while he was walking by the home of Goodwife Eunice Cole he heard two voices in conversation. Goody Cole had been widowed earlier that year, so he was curious who was talking with her at night. He paused near her house and listened:
I heard a discoursing . . . and, harkening, I heard the voice of Eunice Cole and a great hollow voice answer her, and the said Eunice seemed to be discontented with something, finding fault, and the said hollow voice spake to her again in a strange and unworldly manner . . . as if one had spoken out of the earth or in some hollow vessel...
Perkins was disturbed by this, so he ran and brought two friends back to her house with him. The three men stood outside and heard more strange things:
We three went to her house and harkened, and heard the said Eunice Cole speak and the said strange voice answer her diverse times, and the said Eunice Cole went up and down in the house and clattered the door to and again, and spake as she went, and the said voice made her answer in a strange manner . . . and there was a shimmering of a red color in the chimney corner (quoted in John Demos, Entertaining Satan, 1982)
That testimony sounds like something from a horror novel or a very dark fairy tale. The great hollow voice is creepy enough, but the shimmering red  color is the perfect ending to Perkins's account. 

In addition to dealing with infernal forces, Goody Cole also supposedly had a penchant for stealing children. Well, at least she tried to steal children, but they always got away. Here is testimony from Sarah Clifford of Hampton, who claimed in 1673 that Goody Cole tried to steal away nine-year old Ann Smith:
... and then the child told her that there came an old woman into the garden with a blue coat and a blue cap and a blue apron and a white neck cloth and took this girl as she told us by the hand and carried her into the orchard and threw her under a pearmain tree, and she was asked to live with this old woman and she said if she would live with her she would give her a baby and some plums... (quoted in David Hall, Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England, 1991)
Young Ann Smith refused Goody Cole's offer. In response, Goody Cole threatened to kill her and then allegedly struck her on the head with a rock. The girl said that Goody Cole then turned into a dog, climbed a tree and flew off. 

Goody Cole was a childless elderly widow. Maybe she really did want the little girl to come live with her. Maybe the encounter did turn violent. But did she really turn into a dog and fly away? The testimony is a mix of the realistic and the fantastical, like "Hansel and Gretel" set in coastal New England. 

Cole was arrested and tried for witchcraft three times. She spent several years in jail but always avoided the gallows. Despite being whipped and serving time Goody Cole still filled the people of Hampton with fear.  Everything from minor household mishaps to major accidents were blamed on her. In 1657 eight people drowned when a small ship sank in the Hampton River. According to tradition Goody was to blame (although she was jailed at the time), and the incident was popularized in a poem by 19th century poet John Greenleaf Whittier:
"Fie on the witch!" cried a merry girl,
As they rounded the point where Goody Cole
Sat by her door with her wheel atwirl,
A bent and blear-eyed poor old soul.
"Oho!" she muttered, "ye're brave to-day!
But I hear the little waves laugh and say,
'The broth will be cold that waits at home;
For it's one to go, but another to come!" (John Greenleaf Whittier, "The Wreck of Rivermouth", 1864) 
Even after she died in 1680 the strange stories about Goody Cole continued. Legends say her body was buried at a crossroads. To keep her from causing mischief after death the citizens of Hampton drove an iron stake through her heart. Just to make sure the magic worked they also placed a horseshoe on top of her as well. But it's hard to kill a legend or a fairytale. In 1938, as Hampton celebrated its tricentennial, several people claimed to see Goody Cole's ghost walking through the oldest parts of town. The town posthumously pardoned her for being a witch that same year.

I know that fairy tales aren't true, and neither are these scary stories about Goodwife Eunice Cole. If anything, the real scary story is how an elderly woman was harassed and accused of demonic crimes by her neighbors for decades, simply because she was a curmudgeonly widow. But even if the stories aren't true I still get a thrill reading about hollow voices speaking from the earth and strange red lights shimmering by the chimney. 

September 11, 2019

The Ghost Who Falls Forever: A Haunted Providence Hotel

A couple weeks ago I posted about H.P. Lovecraft's ghost appearing at a house in Providence. Some Lovecraft fans responded to me that it was unlikely Lovecraft would appear as a ghost since he was a materialist who didn't believe in the afterlife. I jokingly replied that as a skeptic Lovecraft would just think himself back into non-existence if he came back as ghost.

All of this made me think a little bit about ghosts. If they do exist, what exactly are they? How does being a ghost work? It seems like three main types of ghosts are encountered:

1. Some ghosts are supposedly the souls of people who continue on after death. Although they are aware they are dead they maintain the personalities they had while they were living and are interested in the mortal life they left behind. These are often the ghosts that have unfinished business, or watch over a house or business they were attached to. Some of these ghosts are benevolent, acting like guardian angels for their loved ones who are still alive, and some are the exact  opposite, acting maliciously towards living people who "trespass" on property they still view as theirs.

Providence's Graduate Hotel, which is said to be haunted.
2. On the other hand, some ghosts are said to be the souls of people who don't know they're dead. They often died such sudden or violent deaths they didn't to realize they were dying. As a result their souls remain here in a confused and often very emotional state. These ghosts might be the souls of small children, murder victims, or the victims of sudden accidents. These are the ghosts that are supposedly seen sobbing, wailing, or wandering around in a confused state. Psychic mediums and other spiritual practitioners will often try to help these spirits move on to the afterlife.

3. Finally, some ghosts aren't quite the souls of people at all. Instead, they are simply spectral records of a traumatic act that happened in the past. For example, battle fields are often said to be haunted by phantom armies that replay old battles over and over. Sites of massacres or accidents that claim many lives are also supposedly haunted in similar ways. The smell of burning buildings and the cries of battlefield victims float through the air, but there is no soul, either intelligent or confused, behind these phenomena. They are simply like films that loop for eternity.

Well, at least that's what people say. Which brings me to the subject of this week's post: a ghost that supposedly haunts the Graduate Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island. The Graduate was built in 1922 and was originally called the Biltmore Hotel. The iconic "Biltmore" sign still remains on its roof.

Like most old hotels the Graduate is allegedly haunted. According to legend, on October 28, 1929 a wealthy businessman checked into the hotel and had a grand old time. He ate, drank and danced like he didn't have a problem in the world. The economy was good and he was making money hand over fist.

Everything changed the next day. The stock market crashed, precipitating the Great Depression. October 29, 1929 became known as Black Thursday. It certainly was a dark day for the businessman staying at the hotel. When he heard the news he realized he had lost everything in the crash. It was more than he could take and threw himself out the window of his 14th floor room. He died instantly when he hit the sidewalk.

His ghost supposedly still haunts that room on the 14th floor and he re-enacts his death repeatedly, over and over and over. Some guests who stay at the hotel have reported seeing someone falling past their window, but when they look outside there is nothing there. All of these guests have stayed in one of the rooms the businessman fell past as he plummeted to his doom. The businessman keeps throwing himself out the window, possibly forever.

So what type of ghost is this, if it exists? Personally, I think it would be type 3, a recording of a traumatic event that replays repeatedly. At least that's what I hope. It's depressing to think that someone is so traumatized that they keep trying to kill themselves over and over. That almost sounds like something that could be true and not just a fun legend. 


My source for this week's post is Rory Raven's excellent book Haunted Providence

September 02, 2019

Some Good News: Bigfoot Delays Bridge Construction?

There is a lot of bad news out there right now. A category 5 hurricane (one of the strongest on record) just hit the Bahamas and will probably hit the U.S. mainland this week. There was a mass shooting in Texas, and a boat fire off the coast of California may have killed more than 20 people. There are protests in Hong Kong, and the political situations in the United States and Britain aren't so great either. 

Do you need a break? I know I do. So here's some news from the small town of Bradford, Vermont: Sasquatch may (or may not) have caused delays on a bridge's construction. 

Residents of Bradford (of which there are about 2,800) were surprised last week to find flyer at the town post office addressing rumors that the closure of the Creamery Bridge (which crosses the Waits River) had been caused by the activities of one or more Sasquatch. A photo of the flyer is below:

Photo: Seven Days Vermont.
The flyer caused surprise because this was the first time anyone had heard anything about Bigfoot causing the closure. Rather than quelling the Bigfoot rumor the flyer actually started it. Which was probably the the point...

The bridge is only 100 feet long but has been closed for over a year with no construction work yet done. People in Bradford have been puzzled and annoyed. Alexander Chee, a Dartmouth College professor and Bradford resident, had the following to say:

"Bigfoot is actually the most plausible reason, because I feel like you could build several new bridges in the time that that bridge has been closed," Chee said with a laugh. "And if you can't, what's wrong with you? Really, what is going on?!" (from Seven Days Vermont)

A Vermont transportation official also addressed the rumor:

J.B. McCarthy, the Vermont Agency of Transportation project manager for the Bradford bridge, said the work is simple enough, but errors in design drawings have delayed it. Sasquatch hasn't played a part, he said: "I wish I could blame it on that!" (from Seven Days Vermont)

According to The Boston Globe, additional copies of the flyer have appeared around Bradford on bulletin boards and outside businesses. Most people in town are just accepting the Sasquatch rumor as a hoax and a form of protest against the delayed construction.  

“The only Sasquatch I’ve seen is my boyfriend,” said Sherry Brown, who was working the counter at Village Eclectics near Main Street. 
Amy Cook, a local veterinarian, said, “I have not treated Sasquatch” — but added that she might not be able to say even if she had, given HIPAA restrictions. (from The Boston Globe)

Still, there's a very, very slight chance that Sasquatch may indeed be lurking near town, at least according to Pearl Sullivan, who lives next to the Waits River:

“About a month ago,” she says, “my husband and my daughter and a couple of her friends swam a little ways down the river. There’s a part where the water gets really shallow, and I saw these huge footprints in the water. They just seemed way too big to be ours.” 
She shrugs. 
“And then this comes along.” (from The Boston Globe)

Sasquatch or not, I'm just going to enjoy this weird little story before I get back to reading all the bad news out there. 

August 28, 2019

H.P. Lovecraft's Ghost Appeared at This House

In 1971 the ghost of H.P. Lovecraft appeared to a Brown University undergraduate living in an apartment at 10 Barnes Street in Providence, Rhode Island. Lovecraft, a well-known author of horror and weird fiction, lived in this building from 1926 until 1933. He died in 1937 from intestinal cancer exacerbated by malnutrition.

The appearance of Lovecraft's ghost is briefly mentioned, as if it were no big deal, on page 441 of L. Sprague de Camp's H.P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975). No big deal?! It's the ghost of H.P. Lovecraft!

10 Barnes Street, Providence, Rhode Island.
I'm assuming that de Camp didn't believe the story, and probably no one else did since it doesn't appear in many places. Lovecraft himself was a staunch materialist and didn't believe in the human soul so he wouldn't believe this story either. But let's suppose for a moment this story is true and that Lovecraft's ghost really did manifest to a Brown student in 1971. Why would he appear at 10 Barnes Street and in that particular year?

Ghosts allegedly appear in places to which they have strong emotional connections. We've all heard stories about ghosts appearing in the places where they were murdered, but ghosts also appear at locations where they had positive emotional experiences. That might be the case here. Lovecraft spent his most productive and successful years as a writer at 10 Barnes Street. While living there he wrote some of his most famous stories, including "Call of Cthulhu," "The Dunwich Horror," and "At The Mountains of Madness." Perhaps his spirit had fond memories and didn't want to leave.

Ghosts are also said to appear when they have unfinished business. They show up when they want someone to bury their undiscovered body or send a message to their surviving loved ones. I don't think Lovecraft's ghost appeared in 1971 to reveal any dark secrets, but he probably had a lot of unresolved issues. His childhood and adolescence were like something from a Gothic novel: both parents dying in an insane asylum, the slow dissipation of his family's wealth, his mother telling him he was too hideous to be seen publicly, and a nervous breakdown in his teenage years.

A statue of Lovecraft at the Providence Art Club.
His adult life was also quite complicated and full of contradctions. Here a few examples:

  • Lovecraft was a racist and an anti-Semite, yet he married the Jewish immigrant Sonia Greene and was best friends with Samuel Loveman, a gay Jewish poet to whom he dedicated the homo-erotic short story "Hypnos."
  • Lovecraft seemed to have little interest in sex but his stories are full of bestiality, incest and intercourse with monsters.
  • Lovecraft lived most of his life in poverty but thought full-time work was beneath him. Towards the end of his life he survived on a near-starvation diet but spent his meager income on postage answering letters from anyone who wrote to him. According to one estimate he wrote up to 100,000 letters.
  • Lovecraft didn't believe in the supernatural, but based many of his stories on dreams and nightmares so vivid that some occultists are convinced he really had access to occult secrets. 

So, I think it's very likely that Lovecraft's ghost (if it exists) has some unfinished business.

Ghosts may also be vengeful, appearing because they are angry at the living. But why would Lovecraft be angry at a Brown undergrad? Maybe because Lovecraft always wanted to attend Brown University and study astronomy but couldn't even finish high school due to his fragile mental state. Perhaps after death his ghost appeared to berate whichever poor Brown student was living at 10 Barnes Street in 1971. I can also imagine that a student at that time could be a long-haired hippie, something that might also anger the conservative author. 

Of course this is all just speculation on my part. Lovecraft's ghost probably didn't even appear at Barnes Street. However, if you want to find out, you can rent an apartment there. Nothing is available right now, but it looks like they rent for around $1,200/month.  Maybe the next time one comes on the market someone will find out for sure if the ghost of H.P. Lovecraft is still lingering around Providence. 

I was inspired to write this because this past weekend was I attending NecronomiCon 2019, the bi-annual H.P. Lovecraft convention in Providence. I was browsing through Rory Raven's Haunted Providence: Strange Tales From The Smallest State (2008) to prepare for my trip and read the story about 10 Barnes Street. Raven's book directed me back to the original source, de Camp's biography of Lovecraft. 

August 21, 2019

Dining at A Haunted Restaurant

A few years ago we were in Provincetown for the annual Tennessee Williams Festival. We met a group of friends for brunch at Local 186 and, since it was a sunny September day, decided to eat outside. Little did we know what that brunch would bring...

One of my friends ordered a Belgian waffle, and when it arrived it came topped with a mountain of whipped cream and an enormous dusting of powdered sugar. It looked very tasty, but just as we were about to eat a gusty breeze blew in from the harbor. The powdered sugar blew off the waffle and all over the person who ordered it. To make matters worse he was wearing a black shirt.

He wiped off the sugar, ordered another Bloody Mary, and moved on. We all assumed the mishap was just caused by a random seaside breeze - but we may have been wrong. Local 186 is supposed to be haunted. Perhaps a ghost had caused the sugar incident?

Many restaurants, hotels and guest houses are allegedly haunted these days. I think in the more superstitious past people would be afraid to patronize a haunted establishment but now having a resident ghost is considered an extra attraction for a business. An establishment needs good food, attentive service, and preferably an undead entity. Owners publicize their ghosts in an attempt to entice customers. Modern capitalism can absorb everything, even the restless dead.

The ghost who supposedly haunts Local 186 was a businesswoman herself so she may not mind. Her name is Esther Chamberlain, and for many years she ran the restaurant and the guest house above it when it was called Esther's Inn. She was a formidable and driven entrepreneur, and even after death she is said to be interested in how the business is run. 

For example, several staff have said the ghost has rearranged silverware when they weren't looking. Here's a quote about Esther's ghost from Sam Baltrusis's book Paranormal Provincetown:
Jeffrey Doucette, a veteran ghost tour guide, said he's heard stories of table settings being rearranged and objects moving at Local 186 if guests or employees don't adhere to basic rules of etiquette. "I ran into one woman while I was giving the tour and she confirmed that the restaurant and inn's namesake was a bit of a stickler... The spirit seems to be interested in table manners..."
Esther's ghost is apparently polite and there aren't any particularly horrific stories about her. She doesn't sound sinister, just stern. 

We had dinner at Local 186 just a couple weeks ago. Our meal passed without incident (and was quite tasty) but I noticed the Ouija board that had been in the bar on past visits was gone. Paranormal investigator Joni Mayhan told Baltrusis that sometimes people playing with Ouija boards can accidentally summon sinister entities. I think that would be doubly the case for drunk folks at a bar. Maybe the ghost haunting Local 186 isn't really Esther at all? 

Perhaps the owner removed the Ouija board for psychic safety but there may be another reason. Baltrusis notes in Paranormal Provincetown that the website Building Provincetown claimed Local 186 was reputedly haunted. That has been taken down since Baltrusis's book was published in 2016 and there's no mention of it. I wonder if the new owner is downplaying the ghost angle? If so maybe that's why they removed the Ouija board as well. 

It's their business and they can market it however they please. But if Esther's ghost really does haunt Local 186 I am sure she will stick around to make sure patrons use the right fork and place their napkins in their laps. 

August 12, 2019

Abducted by Aliens on Cape Cod: Robert Matthews

I just came back from spending some time in Truro on Cape Cod. Truro is on the Outer Cape and there are a lot of woods and undeveloped beaches out there. I'm a city person and I am always impressed by how dark it gets at night when you're away from the urban light pollution. Out in Truro we could see hundreds of stars after sunset. It was amazing!

Of course, as a city person I also get a little freaked out by how dark it gets. I won't deny it. Driving down a road with no streetlights or walking down an unlit path at night can be scary. Who knows what you might encounter? There are lots of coyotes and foxes on the Cape, and those are just things you might meet on land. Who knows what lurks in the dark water, or even in the dark skies? Lots of strange things can happen at night on the Outer Cape. 

For example, take the case of Robert Matthews. In 1966 Matthews was 19 years old and newly inducted into the United States Air Force. His first assignment as an airman was to the North Truro Air Force Station. Following instructions, Matthews took a bus on October 1 to Dutra's Market* in Truro and then used a payphone to call the Station. He told them he had arrived in Truro; the airman on the other end told Matthews a truck would come pick him up. The time was 8:45 pm.

Salty Market in Truro (formerly Dutra's Market)
North Truro Air Force Station was only a couple miles from Dutra's Market so Matthews didn't think it would take long for the truck to arrive. But as he waited by the side of the road he noticed something unusual above him. There were lights moving back and forth across the night sky. They weren't like anything he had seen before in his life. They certainly didn't look like they belonged to an airplane. As he watched them he was filled with a strange fear.

Only a few minutes had passed but he called the station again and told them something weird was happening. Could they please hurry and pick him up? Matthews was surprised when the airman on the other end said they had already dispatched a truck for him nearly an hour ago. When it arrived at Dutra's Market the driver couldn't find Matthews and had returned to the station. Matthews was confused - only a few minutes had passed, not an hour, and he hadn't moved from in front of the market. There was no way he could have missed the bus. But when he looked at his watch he saw it was 9:45 pm. Somehow he had missed an hour of his life.

The bus stop across from the market.
This was not the first unusual occurrence in Matthews's life. When he was five or six years old he woke up one night to see a glowing green figure standing next to his bed. He tried to scream but was unable to make a sound or move. The luminous green entity pulled up his pajama top and proceeded to do something - Matthews wasn't sure what - to his chest. In the morning he told his mother that he had seen a ghost in his room. She reassured him he had just had a nightmare but Matthews remembered the experience for years afterwards, unsure if it had been real or just a dream.

It wasn't until 1984 when he was an adult that he received confirmation his experience might have been real. But this time Matthews was out of the Air Force and no longer on Cape Cod. While on vacation and looking for some light reading he saw the cover of Budd Hopkins's book Missing Time:

The creature on the book's cover looked just like the entity which had appeared in his room when he was a child.

Matthews contacted Budd Hopkins who quickly answered his letter. They had something in common: they had both seen strange things in the sky over Truro. Before writing about UFOs Hopkins was best known as a painter and sculptor and had a studio on Cape Cod. His interest in UFOs had first been kindled by seeing an object in the sky off the coast of Truro in 1964. Only later did he come to write about alien abductions and missing time, the phenomena where abductees forget their experiences at the hands of alien abductors. 

When Matthews met Hopkins in person Hopkins facilitated a hypnotic regression session for him. Matthews was brought back to that hour in Truro he couldn't remember. While in a trance he described how the lights he had seen that night came down from the sky and landed near the market. They belonged to a flying craft of some kind. Matthews entered the craft and encountered four alien beings. Much as they did when he was a child, the creatures examined his chest before putting him back on the street. The creatures had been studying him for years. 

Robert Matthews was the subject of an episode of Unsolved Mysteries - you can watch it here. Did he really encounter alien creatures outside a convenience store on Cape Cod? It sounds bizarre and unbelievable, but I think lots of strange things happen on the Outer Cape at night. 

As I researched Matthews's story I was reminded of two old stories from Truro. In one, Captain Sylvanus Rich is abducted every night by a witch who rides him like a horse, leaving him exhausted until the spell is broken. In another tale, a sailor who steals donuts from a witch is also haunted and ridden each night. While these stories aren't identical to Matthews's account they do have similarities: strange entities who come at night, men who are powerless to resist them, and Truro. 

I don't think the explanation is as easy as either witches or extraterrestrials. Maybe these stories are all just attempts to explain the phenomenon called sleep paralysis, but maybe there's something else going on here. Either way, a lot of strange things happen on the Outer Cape at night. 


One of my main sources for this week's story was Paranormal Provincetown: Legends and Lore of the Outer Cape by my friend Sam Baltrusis. Lots of good spooky stories are in it plus a photo of yours truly. 

*Dutra's Market is now Salty Market.

August 06, 2019

Visiting Strange Graves: A Scary Encounter with the Countess

It was a November night in 1984, and we had just seen A Nightmare on Elm Street in my hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts. The "we" in this case were me, my friend Christine, and Cesar, an exchange student from Mexico spending the year at our high school. We had screamed and been appropriately terrified during the movie, and we were in the mood for more scary stuff after it ended. We had watched teenagers encounter terror and death. Maybe we wanted to encounter them ourselves?

"Let's go to the Countess's grave," Christine suggested in the parking lot.

"Yes!" I said. I knew about the grave but never been there myself.

"What is the Countess's grave?" Cesar asked.

We tried to explain. I had first heard about the grave when I was in fourth grade. Some kids from Haverhill's Rocks Village neighborhood told me what they were doing on Halloween night. They were going to wait outside an old cemetery to see if the Countess emerged from her grave. I'm not sure what would happen next, but having seen old Dracula movies I assumed that a countess must also be a vampire. They seemed to feel the same way too.

As a teenager I knew the vampire legend probably wasn't true but the grave still had a reputation as being spooky and somehow supernatural. Perhaps it was haunted, or possibly cursed. It was the perfect place to visit after seeing a horror movie so we got in Christine's car and followed the river until we reached Rocks Village. The old Colonial homes of Rocks Village are charming during the day but they were pretty spooky that night. The Greenwood Cemetery was even spookier, surrounded as it was by a black iron fence.

The Countess's Grave. Photo from Haverhill Public Library.

We drove into the cemetery. Spookiest of all was the Countess's grave. Her gravestone was surrounded by a black iron cage. What supernatural evil had it been built to contain? What horror was trapped within? What...

Suddenly we heard something scratching on the roof of the car.

"Oh my God!" Christine said. "Did you hear that?!"

Conversation came to a stop as we listened intently. Then we heard it again. Something scratching on the roof. It sounded like fingernails, or maybe knives. We had just seen Freddie Kruger terrorize teenagers with his knife-fingered glove...

Then we heard laughter from the back seat. Christine and I turned around to see Cesar with his hand out an open window, scratching his fingers along the car's roof.


We didn't know it at the time, but the Countess's gravestone had originally been enclosed in the iron cage to keep tourists from chipping pieces off as souvenirs. Mary Ingalls (1786 - 1807) was apparently the United States's first countess, a title she assumed after marrying Count Francois de Vipart when she was only 21. Count de Vipart had wound up in Rocks Village after fleeing a rebellion in Guadaloupe and he supposedly fell in love with Ingalls at first sight. Their marriage was passionate but unfortunately short-lived. Mary died a few years later after they wed and her husband returned to France. 

Their doomed romance was immortalized by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier in his 1863 poem "The Countess." The poem was quite popular in the 19th and early 20th century and Mary's grave became a tourist attraction. Fans of the poem who visited the grave chipped off small pieces as souvenirs until an iron cage was put up around it. 

I say Whittier "immortalized" the Countess but none of my friends knew anything about his poem or the Countess's real life. They certainly weren't taught to us in high school literature or history courses. We just knew that it was a strange grave, and a strange grave must have a strange story attached to it. Not knowing the real story we just made one up that seemed appropriate.

This is actually pretty common in New England. There are lots of strange-looking graves that are perfectly innocuous, but strange legends arise because of the grave's unusual appearance. Here are just a few I know about:

Midnight Mary's Grave, New Haven, Connecticut. Mary Hart's epitaph describes how she died at midnight on October 15, 1872 and contains this ominous quote from the Book of Job: "The people shall be troubled at midnight and pass away." Because of that ominous quote, legends have developed claiming that Mary was buried alive, was an evil witch, and/or that she kills anyone who visits her grave at midnight.

Black Agnes, Montpelier, Vermont. This large sculpture of a robed figure is actually titled Thanatos (death in Greek) and marks the grave of a wealthy businessman. Most graves in the Green Mount cemetery are much more modest, and so folklore has transformed Thanatos into Black Agnes, a statue that kills anyone who sits on it.

The Witch's Grave, York Maine. Mary Nasson's grave in York's Old Burying Ground is covered with a huge stone slab. A plaque nearby explains that the slab was placed there to keep animals from digging up her body but local legends claim Mary was a witch. The slab keeps her restless soul from rising out of her grave.

Colonel Buck's Monument, Bucksport, Maine. The large funerary monument erected to honor the founder of Bucksport has a strange stain on it shaped like a boot. The stain is probably caused by iron in the stone. Legends claim that it was placed there as a curse by a witch the Colonel executed.

You get the idea and may even know of some similar graves yourself. These legends may not be historically accurate but they definitely are psychologically powerful. Cemeteries remind us of our own mortality and these strange graves speak to us with particularly loud voices. 

Like a good horror movie they tell us the scary things we secretly long to hear. They tell us about the thin line between the living and the dead, about our darkest fears, and about the inescapable power of death itself. But also like a horror movie, our encounters with these strange graves are voluntary. We choose to visit them and (possibly) experience frightening things, but (usually) escape intact in the end. 

The Countess's gravestone was removed for repairs and sadly no longer stands in the Greenwood cemetery. I haven't seen Christine or Cesar in many, many years but I still fondly remember that night we visited a haunted grave.

July 24, 2019

Bigfoot, Poltergeists, and Witches: 300 Years of Weird Phenomena

A few weeks ago I posted about the states where you are most likely to see a UFO.  Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire were in the top ten, which makes sense because they are all rural states where you can get a good look at the night sky. After I posted that I wondered to myself, "I wonder if there are any statistics about Bigfoot sightings?"

Well, the Internet has answered my question. A recent article on Ok Whatever examines statistics from the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization to determine what states have the highest (and lowest) cumulative number of hairy humanoid sightings.

A Bigfoot carving in Mocksville, North Carolina
Washington leads the way with a whopping 666 sightings. And yes, that is the Biblical number of the Beast so apparently the beast in question is Sasquatch. Washington is large and very woodsy which is supposedly the terrain that Bigfoot really likes. California, another large state which also has huge forests, comes in second with 441 reports. 

New England doesn't fare well in this list with Rhode Island and Vermont in the bottom five. Rhode Island is small and densely populated which might explain why there have only been five reported Bigfoot sightings. Vermont, however, is heavily forested and parts of it are quite rural so I would expect more than nine sightings.

The remaining New England states don't have high numbers of sightings either:

Connecticut: 17
Maine: 17
Massachusetts: 35
New Hampshire: 16

Despite low numbers some of the New England sightings are still pretty creepy. And quite familiar to anyone who's read a lot of paranormal accounts or folklore. Take this reported encounter, for example. On May 27, 2016 a married couple in Hancock, New Hampshire was awakened at 3:00 am by strange screaming sounds in the woods near their house. The screaming was followed by a knocking on the outside of their house and the sound of multiple things rustling through the trees and undergrowth. The husband went out on the back deck:
I felt like there were multiple sets of eyes on me. As I stood there I could hear breaking limbs, tree shaking and what sounded like a creature with serious power. My 12 gauge felt like nothing and I knew I better get back in the house. The noises carried on for a half hour.
After hearing something rush right up to him and grunt in the darkness he retreated inside. The noises eventually stopped. In the morning the couple saw broken tree branches and trampled plants near their home.

A camper in Western Massachusetts reported something similar: rocks were thrown at him one night in the fall of 2016.
I was camping in Massachusetts on top of October Mountain by a pond through the evening something was throwing small rocks at my tent I smelled it foul smell like dead fish. Rocks coming on the opposite side about 50 yards away I heard wood knocking I had no idea what it was until I heard some noises a growling sound and some yells this was going on for about 25 minutes then I shined a flashlight Into the Woods, I do not see anything but after that the noises went away the next morning. I woke up I found some broken limbs near where the sounds were coming from.
Although some people actually do report seeing large hairy humanoids many others just report these strange phenomena: knocking sounds, shrieks, rocks thrown by unseen hands, and damaged trees. Is all this really being caused by Bigfoot, who some people claim is just a large undiscovered apelike animal? It sounds like poltergeist phenomena to me. And it would have been familiar to the earliest English settlers of this region.

This type of weird phenomena has been reported in New England for hundreds of years. Here is testimony from John Russell in 1683 about the experiences of one Nicholas Disborough of Hartford, Connecticut:
This providence becomes amazing things: things being thrown at him and his boy, night and day in house and field: sometimes in open places where one might see a quarter of a mile about and no appearance of hand or person to throw them. The things were stones, dirt brickbats, cobs of Indian corn. 
People in New Hampshire and Massachusetts also reported similar occurrences during the 17th century as well. Here is William Morse's description of a strange assault on his house in Newbury, Massachusetts in 1679:
On last Thursday night my wife and I being in bed we heard a great noise about the house of knocking against the roof with sticks and stones throwing against the house with great violence; whereupon I arose myself and my wife and saw not anybody but was forced to return into the house again the stones being thrown so violently against us...
The Puritans interpreted these phenomena as witchcraft and trials often ensued. In fact, William Morses' own wife was eventually convicted of witchcraft. I think in most cases the phenomena can be explained away as pranks played by angry neighbors or relatives, but it's interesting that the same weird things are supposedly happening to people in the 21st century. The only thing that changes is the explanation.

The Puritan settlers understood these phenomena through their religious worldview. Weird sounds and rocks thrown by invisible assailants were caused by witches in league with the Devil. The witches needed to be arrested and punished to stop the phenomena. Three centuries later modern New Englanders understand them through a scientific worldview. Those weird knocking noises and thrown rocks are interpreted as the work of a large as-of-yet undiscovered hominid creature that lives in the woods. We just need to capture a Sasquatch and then we'll understand why they behave the way they do. The Sasquatch explanation is an improvement over the witchcraft one because at least no one is being arrested and executed. 

So which is it, witches or Sasquatch? I suspect it's actually neither. I don't have a good explanation myself, but I suspect in 300 years people will have a totally different interpretation for the same old tricks.

July 13, 2019

The Demon Dog and Ghostly Boy of Hell's Half Acre

For over one-hundred years people in Bristol, Vermont have said that South Mountain is haunted by ghosts. One ghost is a large dog; the other is a little boy. Although the ghosts are still said to haunt the  mountain (you can hear them on a quiet night if you listen) the explanation for how they got there has changed over time. 

The story of the ghosts begins way back in 1800. That was the year a Spanish man named DeGrau appeared in Bristol. DeGrau told anyone who would listen that as boy he had come to South Mountain with his father and a party of Spanish prospectors. They had found a rich vein of silver on the mountain and smelted in down into silver bars. And when DeGrau said rich vein he meant rich! They had more silver than they could carry out with them, so they buried the majority of it on the mountain. DeGrau's father and the others planned to come back at a future date to recover their treasure but they never did. 

An alternate version of the story claims that DeGrau was actually a Spanish pirate, and that he and his crew had been carrying their loot from the coast towards Canada when they were attacked by an Indian war-party. Most of the the pirates were killed in the battle but not before they buried their treasure. Only DeGrau had escaped alive.

And now poor DeGrau, whether vicious pirate or son of a prospector, decades later could not find the exact spot where the silver bars had been buried. The landscape had been altered by the earthquake of 1755. He dug around futilely on the mountainside for a while and then wandered off. He never returned but the rumor of the lost treasure remained. People in Bristol would sometimes try to find the treasure but like DeGrau never succeeded. They did find old mining implements which led them to think there was truth to the legend, as did the discovery of a Spanish doubloon.

Things changed in the middle of the 19th century when large group of Canadian prospectors arrived. Led by a man named Uncle Sim Corserer, this group was better organized and more determined than the dilettantes who had preceded them. For more than a decade they ran a serious mining operation on South Mountain. They dug multiple pits and tunnels into solid rock, determined to find the silver.

Corserer and his crew were guided by a spiritualist medium who told them where to dig. However, the medium also warned them that the treasure was guarded by two evil spirits. One of them was a savage dog, which the Spaniards had sacrificed near the treasure. Its ghost now wandered the mountain howling and threatening anyone who got close to finding the silver. The other ghost was a small boy, who also had been sacrificed to create a guardian spirit. He wandered the woods and slopes with a red-hot iron bar and bore the wound that ended his life: a bloody gash across his throat. 

Although some locals were skeptical the Canadian prospectors swore they had heard and seen these angry spirits. The area where they dug earned the nickname Hell's Half Acre and people began to avoid it, partially from fear of the ghosts but also because it was dangerous: the Canadians had excavated multiple half-hidden shafts and pits into which a person could easily plummet. Eventually Sim Corserer and his crew departed empty-handed. Maybe the ghosts had prevented them from finding the treasure? 

People say the ghosts still haunt Hell's Half Acre but the story about them has changed. According to the new story, many years ago a boy decided to explore the prospector's abandoned excavations on South Mountain. He brought his faithful dog with him. He never returned home and although his family searched for him they were unable to find any sign of their child or his canine companion.

Years later a hiker stumbled upon a dog's skeleton in the dense woods. It was lying next to a deep pit. At the bottom of the pit was the skeleton of a small boy. The hiker deduced that the boy had stumbled into one of the area's hidden pits and died. His faithful dog was unwilling to leave its master and stayed at the top of the pit until it too passed away.

It is said that if you listen on a quiet night you can hear the boy's cries and the howling of the spectral dog. Are they the tragic ghosts of recent legend or the more sinister demonic guardians the prospectors warned of? Either way, you explore Hell's Half Acre at great risk. The terrain is treacherous and riddled with pits and tunnels hidden in the undergrowth. You don't want to become the third ghost haunting the mountain.


I got a lot of my information for this post from Joseph Citro's book Weird New England and also from online sources like this one. Treasure hunting was a popular pastime in 19th century New England and the area is full of legends similar to this one. See for example this legend from Ipswich, Massachusetts. Sim Corserer was not the only person who wasted years digging for treasure under the direction of a psychic. Hiram Marble did something similar in Lynn, Massachusetts and his tunnel still remains. 

July 05, 2019

Were There Really Witches in Salem?

Were there really any witches involved in the Salem witchcraft trials?

I think most people would answer "No!" Rational folks know the 19 people executed in 1692 were innocent victims of a warped judicial system in a theocratic Puritan society. But I also think that for other people the question lingers unanswered. Maybe, just maybe, there was something behind those trials other than just land-grabs and simmering small-town grudges? Maybe (just maybe) something uncanny occurred in Salem Village 350 years ago...

Witch is a word with several different meanings. It can mean people who get magical powers from the Devil and use them to harm people. It can mean practitioners of a nature-focused religion like Wicca. And sometimes it can even just mean people who use folk magic. Were any of these present in 1692 Essex County?


The Puritans of Salem believed the Massachusetts Bay Colony was under assault by a conspiracy of witches. These witches looked like ordinary members of colonial society but secretly had sold themselves to the Devil. In return the Evil One gave them magical powers they used to torment their neighbors with illness, convulsions, nightmares, and even death. Testimony from the Salem trials contains terrifying accounts of demons, Satanic gatherings in the woods, and murderous magic. Surprisingly, dozens of women and men from all levels of society confessed to being witches in league with the Devil.

The Lords of Salem
A scientific worldview claims all of this is false. Witchcraft simply doesn't exist and neither does the Devil. There's no evidence that any kind of magic exists but diabolic witches still remain a persistent theme in pop culture. The 1960 film Horror Hotel featured a coven of Devil-worshipping witches in a small New England town, as did the 2014 TV show Salem, which showed diabolic witches in 1692 Salem. Rob Zombie's 2012 film The Lords of Salem did the same. Netflix's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is also about a secret society of Satanic witches in New England, and was just renewed for two more seasons. Clearly viewers like watching devilish witches cause trouble.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
This idea is not just confined to pop culture. Some Christian denominations still believe in the literal truth of the Devil and his witchy minions. But hopefully even the most fundamentalist modern Christian knows you can't prove there were any Devil-worshipping witches in Salem. Why? Because the Puritans, who were the original fundamentalists, ultimately came to that very same conclusion. 

Governor William Phipps ended the Salem trials when he realized they were getting out of control - and after his own wife was accused of being a witch. Once the trials were over Massachusetts Puritans did a lot of soul-searching. They realized the huge number of confessions had been elicited under torture and because the only way to avoid the gallows was to confess and accuse others of being witches. Ann Putnam, one of the leading witnesses, confessed in 1706 that her testimony was false and had sent innocent people to their death. Reverend Samuel Sewall, who served as a judge during the trials, also confessed to wrongly convicting innocent people.

These confessions didn't mean the Puritans stopped believing in witches. Hardly. Many of them still did, and also in the machinations of Satan. They simply realized it was impossible to prove someone was a witch. The Reverend John Hale examined this problem in his 1697 book A Modest Enquiry into The Nature of Witchcraft. He concluded that evidence supporting claims of witchcraft was probably trickery caused by the Devil himself. Satan was behind the Salem witchcraft trials after all, but he used fake evidence to divide the community and kill innocent people. The Devil caused all the trouble, not witches.


I think if the Puritans realized there weren't any diabolic witches 350 years ago we can accept the same thing today. But perhaps, though, there were pagan witches? You know, the kind who practice ancient fertility religions and dance around Maypoles? There are plenty of them in modern Salem so perhaps they were around in 1692 as well?

The idea of witchcraft as a pagan religion was popularized by the anthropologist and Egyptologist Margaret Murray in her 1921 book The Witch Cult in Western Europe. According to Murray, an ancient pagan fertility cult survived in Western Europe until the 17th century when it was finally eliminated by the dominant Christian culture. Cult members worshipped an ancient horned god similar to Pan that their Christian persecutors thought was the the Devil. The cult's rituals, intended to bring fertility to the land, were misinterpreted as demonic ceremonies and black magic by its enemies. In short, Murray believed there really had been witches but they had actually been misunderstood and oppressed pagans.

Margaret Murray
Murray's book received a lot of criticism from her fellow academics when it was published. One complaint was that she assumed testimony from the European witch trials was an accurate reflection of reality instead of realizing it was elicited through torture and shaped to provide judges what they wanted to hear. For example, Murray claimed testimony about the Devil appearing to witches was really about a cult member wearing a horned mask. Testimony about cursing a farmer's field was really a misinterpretation of a fertility ceremony.

You get the idea. Murray had a conclusion she wanted to reach and shaped the evidence to support it. Still, despite all the criticism Murray's hypothesis was influential for much of the 20th century. Academics didn't give her much credence but her work was influential on pop culture. For example, horror writer H.P. Lovecraft mentions her work in several stories, and he personally felt there may have been some pagan elements at work in Salem:
“For my part – I doubt if a compact coven existed, but certainly think that people had come to Salem who had a direct personal knowledge of the cult, and who were perhaps initiated members of it. I think that some of the rites and formulae of the cult must have been talked about secretly among certain elements, and perhaps furtively practiced by the few degenerates involved… Most of the people hanged were probably innocent, yet I do think there was a concrete, sordid background not present in any other New England witch case.” (H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters, 1929 – 1931, 1971, p. 181, edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei)
The idea of pagan witches hasn't influenced pop culture the way the idea of diabolic witches has, possibly because it is newer. However, you can find it in (spoiler alert) Thomas Tryon's 1973 novel Harvest Home, which features a pagan cult in a small rural Connecticut town and also Robin Hardy's 1973 film The Wicker Man, although it is set in England, not New England. I guess '73 was a banner for pagan witches in pop culture!

Some Wiccans have claimed there were actual pagan practitioners in 17th century Salem. The late Gwen Thompson, an important New England Wiccan leader in the 1970s, used to say "The real Witches in Salem were never caught or arrested because they were busy sleeping with the judges." She may have been joking, but she did trace her ancestry back to the 17th century Salem and hinted that her family practiced Wicca even before they immigrated to Massachusetts from England in the 1600s.

In 2005, Robert Mathiesen (a professor of Slavic and Medieval studies at Brown University) and Andrew Theitic (a Wiccan high priest initiated by Gwen Thompson) co-authored The Rede of The Wiccae: Adriana Porter, Gwen Thompson and The Birth of A Witchcraft Tradition. Thompson said she inherited her witchcraft from her grandmother Adriana Porter, and in their book Mathiesen and Theitic analyze a piece of ritual poetry attributed to Porter to see if it originated in the 17th century or even earlier.

Scene from The Wicker Man (1973)
Their textual analysis showed that parts of the poem had been written in the 20th century but parts of it incorporated older folklore. However, Mathiesen and Theitic didn't find anything to support Thompson's claim that her version of Wicca was practiced in the 17th century. They did find that Thompson had ancestors in Salem during the trials and that members of her family had later studied esoteric topics like Spiritualism. It seems likely that Thompson had inherited some occult lore from her grandmother but it was probably not older than the 19th century.

Finally what would a discussion of pagan witchcraft be without a mention of Tituba, the Parris family's female slave? She was an important figure in the Salem trials, being one of the first accused and one of the first to confess. Some older histories (like Marion Starkey's The Devil in Massachusetts) state that Tituba practiced Voudoun, a non-Christian religion with African roots, and that she terrified Betty Parris and her cousin into hysteria by demonstrating traditional African magic to them. 

There is no evidence for this. Trial records only show that Tituba made a witch-cake (a type of English folk magic) at the urging of Mary Sibley, an English Puritan neighbor of the Parrises. There's no record of her practicing any type of Voudoun. Folklorist Samuel Drake and the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are probably responsible for the idea that Tituba practiced Voudoun and it continues to spread today through Arthur Miller's play The Crucible and Ryan Murphy's TV show American Horror Story. Some historians think that Tituba was an Arawak Indian, not African, which makes it unlikely she would be familiar with an African religion. 


While there probably weren't any diabolic or even pagan witches in Salem there was still a lot of magic being practiced. For example here are more details about witch-cake Tituba made. It was made from flour and urine from an allegedly bewitched girl at the behest of the Parris's neighbor Mary Sibley. The cake would have been fed to a dog to see if the witchcraft symptoms (convulsions, fits, uncontrolled vocalizations, etc.) were transferred to the animal. If they were it meant the girl was bewitched. 

Mary Sibley did not think this was witchcraft, although I think a lot of modern people might. She was just trying to be a helpful neighbor. Historians know that people from all levels of New England society practiced magic or consulted people who did. Ship captains met with astrologers to determine the best date to embark on a voyage. Young women examined egg whites to learn the career of their future husband. Homeowners nailed horseshoes above doors to keep out witches.

Various types of magic are mentioned in the Salem trial documents and in the sermons of New England's Puritan ministers, who exhorted their congregants to abandon magic and turn to God. The ministers thought that all types of magic came from the Devil, but the average person in colonial New England had a different view. Magic wasn't good or evil, it was just a tool to get things done. They weren't witches - they were just normal 17th century colonial English people.

Some forms of magic were probably passed on through oral tradition, like the witch-cake or using a horseshoe to protect your home. Others were learned from books. Accused witch Dorcas Hoar practiced palm-reading, which she said she read about in a book. Perhaps that's also how she learned to examine the veins in someone's eyes to foretell their longevity. Some of these magical techniques are still practiced today and you can get your palm read in Salem only a few block from where alleged witches were interrogated. 

So were there really any witches in Salem? Probably not, but there were a lot of people practicing magic and it's amazing that we know so much about what they did. Sometimes history can be just as weird as any legend or myth. 

June 26, 2019

Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire Among the Top States for UFO Sightings

I feel like UFOs are having a resurgence these days. They've been showing up in all kinds of media, most recently in The New York Times in late May, which reported that U.S. Navy pilots witnessed strange flying objects over the East Coast from the summer of 2014 until March 2015.

You know something is serious when it is in The New York Times, and it's really serious when they include video footage. If you haven't seen the video (which was taken by the pilots) I suggest taking a peek. It's pretty impressive and maybe a little spooky.

In addition to those two objects (one that spins like a top and one that seems to be smaller and speeding above the ocean) The Times earlier published a video in 2017 of a 40 foot long oval object that hovered above the ocean. Again, it was seen by Navy airmen, and the video was released by the Defense Department's Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. That sounds pretty serious, but everyone involved from the military to the media has been careful to note that there is probably a terrestrial explanation for these sightings. The pilots who saw the objects expressed amazement about their experience, not fear, which is reassuring. It doesn't sound like we're going to be invaded by extraterrestrials anytime soon.

I suppose there could be some natural explanation for these UFOs, or they might be secret experimental aircraft from the United States or another country. However, as I've pointed out before, people have seen weird things in the sky for hundreds of years. It's unlikely any country was developing advanced flying craft in the 17th century. For now I think these Unidentified Flying Objects will continue to remain unidentified.

If you want to see one head north. The best places to see UFOs in New England are Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire. In fact, according to USA Today, those are some of the best places to see UFOs in the entire country. Of the fifty states, Vermont is ranked first in UFO sightings, with 80.8 sightings per 100,000 people between 2001 and 2015. Maine came in third nationally, and New Hampshire fifth. The other New England states did not crack the top ten. Step it up, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts!

It's important to note that other states had more overall sightings. California had the most overall sightings with 15,836 followed by Florida with 7,787. Those are both very populous states, though, so the three northern New England states still each had a higher ranking per person. USA Today does note that sightings wane during the winter in the north (because people stay inside during the cold nights) but for some reason Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire still are all in the top ten.

One possible factor the article mentions: those states all have reasonably good internet service. Most UFO sightings are reported online these days, and if you're not online you can't tell people about the weird thing you saw hovering above the woods. That's a possibility. Maybe, though, the answer is just this: New England has always been a weird place and it continues to be one. A high likelihood of seeing a UFO is just one of the nice things about living here.

June 16, 2019

The Venus Glass, or Fortune-Telling with An Egg

The Puritan ministers who dominated early New England really hated magic. Their hatred of witchcraft is well known, but they didn't even like simple folk magic or fortune-telling. 

They warned their parishioners against using magic in sermons and  pamphlets, and from these documents we know what type of magic was being practiced at the time. Because the ministers weren't just complaining about an imaginary problem. They were complaining about forms of magic that people were actually using. 

Various forms of fortune-telling were common because, like all humans, the early New Englanders were interested in learning about their futures. Palm-reading and astrology were as popular in the 17th century as they are now, but some other types of divination popular then are barely practiced at all today. For example, here is what Reverend Deodat Lawson complained about in 1692: "the Sieve and the Scissors, the Bible and the Key, and the White of an Egg in a Glass."

Cotton Mather had preached against those same types of magic three years earlier:
This is the Witchcraft of them, that with a Sieve, or a Key will go to discover how their lost Goods are disposed of. This is the Witchcraft of them, that with Glasses and Basins will go to discover how they shall be Related before they die. They are a sort of Witches who thus employ themselves. 
A sieve and scissors. A Bible and a key. An egg in a glass. Your average 21st century psychic is more likely to use Tarot cards, but those other three types of magic were very popular in the 17th century. They were discussed by many ministers and also come up in the witchcraft trial records. I've written about the Bible and key and sieve and scissors before, so today I'm focusing on using an egg and a glass. 

Technically, fortune-telling with an egg is called ovomancy but the New England Puritans called the practice "the Venus glass." Venus is the planet that astrologically rules matters of love, and the English colonists used an egg in a glass to predict who they would marry. Therefore the practice was called the Venus glass. It was used primarily by young women. 

It worked something like this. You would separate the egg's white from its yolk and then slip the white into a glass of water. Being a colloid, the white would form shapes as it floated in the water. These shapes would be examined to determine the career of one's future husband. For example, if the egg white looked like a ship, your husband would be a sailor. If it looked like a plow, your husband would be a farmer, etc.

You get the picture. It seems pretty harmless to me, but not to the ministers of the 17th century. Reverend John Hale of Beverly, Massachusetts described two times when using the Venus glass went horribly, horribly wrong. 

In the first case a young woman "did try with an Egg and a Glass to find her future Husband's calling; till there came up a Coffin, that is a Spectre in the likeness of a Coffin. And she was afterward followed with a Diabolical molestation to her death; and so died a single person. A just warning to others, to take heed of handling the Devil's weapons, lest they get a wound thereby."

Take note. Not only did this poor woman die after using a Venus glass, she died single, which was one of the worst things that could happen to a woman in patriarchal Puritan society. 

In the other case, Reverend Hale spoke with one of the afflicted girls of the Salem witch trials. This girl confessed that before she had become afflicted by witches she had used a Venus glass to learn about her future husband. After she confessed this to Reverend Hale she was "speedily released from those bonds of Satan." At least this time there was a happy ending. 

So consider yourself warned. If you get tempted to use the Venus glass, maybe you should just make an omelet instead. 


My sources for this week's post: Richard Godbeer's The Devil's Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England and John Hale's A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft

June 04, 2019

Shadrack Ireland and The Immortality Cult

When the Puritans colonized New England in the 1600s they were a young rebellious religious movement. Back in England they were trying to overthrow the established Church of England, and here in North America they were trying to create a theocracy. They were a bunch of radicals. 

Flash forward one hundred years to the 1700s. The Puritans had become the established religion of New England. Their church was conservative and not interested in changing. Sunday sermons were heavy on the theology and light on the emotion. They were, sad to say, boring. The Puritans had become the thing they had once rebelled against. 

In the 1730s and 1740s a new religious movement swept across the colonies. Historians now call it the First Great Awakening, since it was the first of many emotionally charged religious revivals that occurred in America. During the First Great Awakening traveling evangelical ministers crossed the region preaching fire-and-brimstone sermons to large crowds. One famous evangelical of the time, George Whitefield, delivered more than 18,000 sermons. People passed out from overwhelming emotion when he spoke. Whitefield stirred up strong religious feelings wherever he went. 

Shadrack Ireland, a pipemaker in Charlestown, Massachusetts, was one of those people who heard Whitefield speak. It had a strong effect on him, and afterwards Ireland declared that something had changed in his mind and body. He realized that he was now perfect and immortal. He was never going to die. 

Shadrack Ireland's "Square House" in Harvard, Massachusetts. 
Ireland started to preach to anyone who would listen. According to Ireland, people needed to practice celibacy. No sex please! Only those who had achieved perfection could take spouses and have intercourse. And since they were perfect, they could even take second "spiritual" spouses if they were married. Rules about adultery no longer applied to those who were perfect (like Ireland). 

Shadrack Ireland left his wife and six children and moved to Grafton, Massachusetts where he gathered a small group of followers. The authorities in Grafton didn't appreciate his heretical teachings and pressured him to leave. He went to nearby Harvard, where his followers built a large house known as the Square House where they lived communally. It still stands today. Ireland also took a spiritual wife, one Abigail Lougee. He declared himself the Second Messiah, and although he lived a relatively quiet life people came to visit him from other towns for spiritual guidance.

Just a quick aside: Ireland was not unique in his beliefs at this time. He was just one representative of a larger movement. For example, in Easton members of a church also declared themselves immortal and all took new spouses. In Hopkinton, a man named Nat Smith even declared himself God. Smith wore a hat with a sign reading "I am God" and routinely disrupted the town's Sunday meetings by blowing a ram's horn. He eventually became a follower of Shadrack Ireland. 

Ireland lived in the Square House for several decades. Did he really think he was going to live forever? Maybe, but it was not to be. One night in September 1778 his followers noticed that he had somehow changed. Ireland told them that his work was done and God was going to take him. He also instructed them not to bury him, though, since the world would end shortly and he would be resurrected. After telling them this he went up to his bedroom and died. 

His followers took his body and put it in the cellar. Some accounts say it was placed in a plain wooden coffin, others that it was placed on a stone slab. All accounts agree that his body remained in the Square House's cellar for a long time. So long that it started to smell. Still unwilling to bury their leader, Ireland's followers covered his body with lime hoping that it would cover the terrible stench. It didn't. Finally someone took his body and buried it in unmarked grave nearby.

Although Shadrack Ireland's body departed his spirit may have lingered. After his death some of his followers remained in the Square House until eventually Mother Ann Lee, the spiritual leader of the Shakers, came to Harvard. Most of Ireland's followers became Shakers and Mother Ann took up residence in the Square House. Although she liked the building she felt that Ireland's spirit remained as an evil influence in it. It was so bothersome to her that she banished it to Hell.

Did his spirit really linger, or was this just Mother Ann Lee's way of finally claiming the Square House (and the people in it) as hers? Either way, it was the end of Shadrack Ireland. 

Special thanks to Rhonda for pointing me towards an article that mentioned Shadrack Ireland, and thanks to Dave Goudsward for sending me a copy of it!