December 30, 2019

Ghosts, Treasure and A Scam in Exeter, New Hampshire

Rainsford Rogers arrived in Exeter, New Hampshire in 1798. Exeter was a sleepy rural town back then and Rogers made a big impression when he arrived. Not only was he an outsider, which was exciting in itself, but he also claimed he could command spirits and ghosts. 

This was a big deal in Exeter. According to Charles Henry Bell's History of the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire (1888), Exeter's citizens hadn't had many encounters with the supernatural. There weren't any witchcraft accusations in the town's past, and there weren't even any haunted houses. Well, Bell notes that one house did for a time experience some poltergeist activity ("strange and inexplicable freaks of self-propelling furniture and the like") but "it never received a bad name on that account." Exeter was just a practical-minded place full of hard-working people. So it was quite exciting to hear Rainsford Rogers say he could invoke spirits.

Rogers became an Exeter celebrity and was soon befriended by twelve of the town's wealthiest citizens. Rogers confided to these men a great secret: there was buried treasure hidden somewhere nearby. The spirits would guide Rogers to it but he needed men he could trust to help dig it up. Anyone who helped him would get a share of the treasure. He asked the twelve if they were trustworthy. With visions of treasure in their eyes they said yes.

A woodcut of a ghost from this blog!
Rogers and his followers fell into a pattern. Rogers would consult with the spirits to determine where the treasure was, and then the twelve men would try to unearth it. The digging always took place late at night, usually in desolate locations like swamps or in the woods. Rogers also told the men they needed to wear white caps while digging, and the people in Exeter named the group the White Caps. 

They made frequent night-time trips in search of treasure. One night while they were out digging a ghost appeared to the White Caps. 
On one of the nocturnal excursions there appeared before the eyes of the awe-stricken diggers a figure all in white, representing a spirit, which uttered some words which were not well understood. One of the "white caps" anxious to lose nothing of the weighty communication, responded - "a little louder, Mr. Ghost; I'm rather hard of hearing." (Bell, History of the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire, 1888, p. 413).
But despite many nights spent excavating the White Caps never found any treasure. The spirits finally told Rainsford Rogers why. He needed a special divining rod (or dowsing rod) made from expensive materials. Such an artifact could only be produced in Philadelphia. Rogers asked the White Caps if they could contribute money towards the cost of the divining rod. They agreed, giving him several hundred dollars and a new saddle for his horse. 

A diving rod or dowsing rod.
Rogers rode out of Exeter with the money. The White Caps waited eagerly for his return. And waited. And waited. After several weeks they finally realized they had been duped, something their neighbors had suspected all along. Rogers was in fact a serial con-man, and had tricked people in many states out of their money. Born in Connecticut and originally employed as a schoolteacher there, Rogers changed careers when he learned that fooling gullible people with spiritual hocus-pocus was more profitable than educating children. (Sadly I think that may still be the case.)

He pulled his most notorious scam in Morristown, New Jersey, where he fooled 50 wealthy men into believing ghostly entities would reveal buried gold left behind by the British troops in the Revolutionary War. His antics in Morristown were far more elaborate than those in Exeter. He made his followers stand in magic circles inscribed on the ground in the woods, exploded pyrotechnics hidden under the soil, told people to carry bags containing bone dust for protection, and dressed up like a ghost to lurk outside houses. He also told his wealthy followers to give him large amounts of money. He was eventually arrested, but when a still-faithful follower paid his bail he fled town. 

A book detailing Rogers's criminal exploits (called The Morristown Ghost) was published in 1792.  Some historians speculate that Rogers wrote the book himself, both as a money-making venture and to vengefully humiliate the people in Morristown by revealing their gullibility. Unfortunately no one in Exeter ever read The Morristown Ghost so they were vulnerable to Rogers's scheme.

It's easy for a 21st century person to look back and laugh at how foolish people were, but at the time it was widely believed that America was littered with buried treasure. Legends like this were found across the country, and the treasures were usually thought to be guarded by fearsome spirits that could only be tricked through magical means. Here in Massachusetts several examples immediately come to mind: the alleged pirate treasure at Dungeon Rock in Lynn, the terrifying treasure cats of Ipswich, and the legend of Hannah Screecham of Cape Cod. There are dozens of other examples from across New England alone. Washington Irving wrote several stories on this theme, and some historians even say that treasure hunting (or money-digging as it was known) might have influenced Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion. 

Although we don't believe in buried treasure these days, sadly there are still unscrupulous people out there who will take advantage of vulnerable people. Our beliefs have changed but human nature hasn't.

December 23, 2019

The First Illustration of A Christmas Tree

My brain is fogged with eggnog but here is a very brief pre-Christmas post. 

Christmas trees have their origin in Germany, probably in the city of Strasbourg, and it seems likely that German immigrants in Pennsylvania were the first Americans to decorate Christmas trees. The earliest known drawing of an American Christmas tree is by a German-born artist named John Lewis Krimmel. Krimmel's drawing dates to 1812 or 1819, when he was touring the Pennsylvania countryside. Krimmel's drawing was not published, though, and was only discovered many years later.

The first published American illustration of a Christmas tree was this one:

From the American Antiquarian Society.

It appeared in The Stranger's Gift by Herman Bokum, which was published in Boston in 1836. Bokum was a German immigrant who taught at Harvard; the book describes his travels through America and was promoted as a book that could be given at Christmas.

Although Christmas trees originated in Germany they were actually popularized in America by New England Unitarian authors like Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Margaret Fuller. According to historian Stephen Nissenbaum, these writers felt that ceremonial gift-giving around the Christmas tree could teach children patience and charity. Fuller, Sedgwick and other reform-minded writers were very popular in the early 19th century and their stories about Christmas trees were read by thousands. 

Fast forward two-hundred years, and Christmas trees are now a ubiquitous part of the holiday in America. Are patient and charitable children? Only Santa Claus knows for sure... Enjoy your holiday!

December 18, 2019

The Witch with Twenty Cats: A Classic New England Curse

Today was very dark and gloomy, with a snowy morning turning into a rainy afternoon. There was barely any sun at all. I suppose I should write about some cheery holiday topic, but I want to write about witches instead. Sometimes a spooky story can lighten up a gloomy day just as easily as a shiny Christmas tree!

The story comes from Robert Ellis Cahill's little book Olde New England's Strange Superstitions (1990, third edition) and takes place in Sutton, Massachusetts. Sutton is a small town in Worcester County and is perhaps most famous for the geologic formation Purgatory Chasm. It seems it also was once the home of at least one witch. Or maybe she was just an innocent old woman?

The story, as Cahill relates it, goes something like this. Many years ago an elderly widow named Goody Wakefield resided in Sutton. She was something of a curmudgeon and lived by herself near the river. Well, to clarify, she lived without human companionship but she did live with a lot cats. Twenty of them, to be exact.

Goody Wakefield was quite poor but never went hungry. Her cats kept her fed. Every day they would troop down to the river and catch pickerel. They'd then bring the fish home to Goody Wakefield. She kept the pickerel in the pockets of the wool coat that she wore all year long. People in Sutton would see her wandering through town with fish in her pockets, and in the summer heat they would smell her as well.

A daguerrotype from the 1860s
As an eccentric elderly woman with a lot of cats she developed a reputation as a witch. Most townspeople avoided her. They feared the evil eye and the malodorous smell that emitted from her coat pockets. But two young men decided to do something about this eccentric woman who disturbed people in Sutton. They devised a plan to kill Goody Wakefield's cats.

The two men hid in the bushes by the river, and as Goody Wakefield's cats paraded down to catch fish they killed them one by one. Seventeen of the felines met their doom that day - only three escaped. When the men were done they piled the bodies on a stone in front of Goody Wakefield's house and shouted until she came outside.

Goody Wakefield emerged from her house and was horrified to see her cats had been slaughtered. As she wept the two men laughed and laughed, mocking the old woman's tears. They continued laughing even as she pointed a trembling finger at them and shrieked:


Several neighbors were drawn by the commotion and witnessed Goody Wakefield's curse. The two young men laughed at the old woman but the neighbors didn't. They were filled with dread. And one year later they remembered her curse when one of the young cat killers drowned in the river. They remembered again when the second young man caught a strange disease that left him a babbling maniac for the rest of his life.

The neighbors didn't know if the two men were punished by God or cursed by the Devil, but they remembered Goody Wakefield's curse.

Well, that's the story. I hope it cleared up your winter gloom! There are a few things about it that I find interesting. First, I have only seen it in Cahill's Olde New England's Strange Superstitions.  It doesn't appear in History of the town of Sutton, Massachusetts, from 1704 to 1876 : including Grafton until 1735; Millbury until 1813; and parts of Northbridge, Upton and Auburn so I'm not sure where Robert Cahill heard the story.

It certainly follows the format for a classic New England witch's curse story. In these stories, an innocent person (like Goody Wakefield) curses the people who are persecuting them as a witch. The curse then comes true. These stories are a kind of ambiguous about why the curse work, but I think it is usually implied that God himself is punishing the people who persecuted the witch. I mentioned one of these last week (Sarah Good's dying curse on Samuel Noyes), but others include this curse on Colonel Buck, or this one cast by an alleged witch named Aunt Rachel. 

Robert Ellis Cahill claimed that he himself was the object of a dying witch's curse, one that was centuries old. During the Salem witch trials an elderly farmer named Giles Corey was accused of being a witch. He refused to speak to the judges so Salem sheriff George Corwin staked Giles to the ground and piled rocks upon his chest. The sheriff thought this form of torture would make Giles talk but it didn't. The sheriff piled on more and more rocks, but according to tradition Giles's only words were: "More weight." He died without speaking. 

According to legend, every sheriff of Essex County since that time was cursed with heart problems and blood disease. George Corwin died of a heart attack at a young age as did many of his successors. One of those successors, centuries later, was Robert Ellis Cahill who served as sheriff from 1974 until 1978. Cahill suffered a heart attack and stroke in 1978 at the age of 44. The curse was only broken when the Essex County sheriff's office was moved from Salem to its current location in Middleton. 

After he retired as sheriff Cahill devoted his time to writing books about local New England folklore. He wrote more than thirty books (I have several of them), so I guess something good came out of Giles Corey's curse in the end. 

December 10, 2019

Is The House of The Seven Gables A True Story?

I just recently finished re-reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic 1851 novel The House of The Seven Gables. This New England Gothic tale is full of murder, ghosts, witchcraft, curses and hidden secrets. And although it is fiction much of the plot is based on actual events. 


The House of the Seven Gables
begins in 17th century Salem, Massachusetts. Wealthy and powerful Colonel Pyncheon wants to build his family estate on land owned by Matthew Maule, a poor farmer, but Maule refuses to sell. Pyncheon acquires the land after he accuses Maule of witchcraft. Before Maule is executed he curses Pyncheon, saying “God will give him blood to drink!” The colonel is unphased by the curse and builds his dream house, an enormous wooden structure with seven gables. 

The Turner-Ingersoll Mansion in Salem
He never gets to enjoy it. On the day the house is finished he is found dead inside a locked room. It appears the Colonel has choked to death on his own blood. Everyone in Salem assumes this is Maule's curse in action.

Generations later, the House of Seven Gables is still owned by the Pyncheon family but has fallen into disrepair. The house’s only inhabitants are Hepzibah Pyncheon, an elderly eccentric, and young Mr. Holgrave, a boarder who earns his living making daguerrotypes (an early type of photograph) and practicing hypnosis. They are soon joined by Phoebe, Hepzibah’s young cousin from the countryside, and also by Clifford, Hepzibah’s brother who has recently been released from decades of imprisonment for murdering his wealthy uncle. The house is also said to haunted by multiple ghosts. Meanwhile Judge Pyncheon, a wealthy and powerful cousin, has secret plans for the family and house...


In some ways The House of The Seven Gables is a classic Gothic novel. It features a crumbling old house, dark family secrets, murder, and eerie happenings. But unlike many Gothic writers who opted for exotic settings Hawthorne instead set the novel in his own hometown and based many of the plot points on actual occurrences.

A youthful Nathaniel Hawthorne
For example, the House of the Seven Gables is a real building, although technically it is called the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion. It was erected in 1668 and during Hawthorne’s youth was owned by his cousin Susannah Ingersoll. Hawthorne often visited and learned the history of the house, which by the 1840s had lost some of its gables. In 1908 the house was renovated became a museum. Although the full number of gables were restored some renovations were not historically accurate. A small store inspired by one in the novel was added, and a secret passage was also constructed. 

Matthew Maule and his curse were also inspired by real people and events. Matthew Maule is fictional, but the Maules were an actual family involved with the Salem witch trials. The most famous of them was Thomas Maule (1645 – 1724), a Quaker who initially accused Bridget Bishop of witchcraft but later changed his views. After the trials ended Thomas Maule was arrested for publishing pamphlets critical of the witch trials.

Hawthorne based Matthew Maule’s fictional curse on the actual one hurled by Sarah Good (1653 – 1692) at the Reverend Samuel Noyes during her trial for witchcraft. Good shouted, "I'm no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink!" Sarah Good was executed by hanging. Twenty-five years later Noyes died when he choked to death on his own blood, much like Colonel Pyncheon does in the novel. Locals believed it was Sarah Good's curse coming home to roost. Hawthorne felt a personal connection to the Salem trials because one of his ancestors was Judge John Hathorne; Hawthorne may have added the "w" to his surname to distance himself from this notorious hanging judge.

Hawthorne claimed the Pyncheon family was fictional, and that he had chosen the name to reflect their greedy, grasping nature. However, shortly after the novel’s publication members of an actual Pynchon family contacted him asking if the novel's family in the novel was based on them. Ooops! 

Did Hawthorne really not know there was a Pynchon family? I’m not sure. They were early colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and one of them, William Pynchon, served as a magistrate in the witchcraft trials of Mary Bliss Parsons of Springfield in the 1670s. The most famous modern Pynchon is novelist Thomas Pynchon, author of classics like Gravity's Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49. 
A portrait of Captain Joseph White
Finally, the murder of Clifford's uncle was probably inspired by a similar murder that happened in Salem in 1830. Captain Joseph White, a wealthy older bachelor, was found bludgeoned to death in his bedroom. Various relatives were suspected, and ultimately two of them, Joseph and Frank Knapp, were convicted and hanged. Their friend Richard Crowninshield, who actually did the bludgeoning, hanged himself in his jail cell. 

Although Nathaniel Hawthorne incorporated many true events into The House of The Seven Gables there's also a lot in the novel that's purely imaginary, like a wizard who can enter people's dreams, a flock of small misshapen chickens, and a ghost who plays the harpsichord. It's definitely fiction. I'd forgotten how weird and clever nineteenth century novels can be and I really enjoyed reading it. I recommend it if you're in the mood for something Gothic and unusual. 

December 04, 2019

Folklore Books for the Christmas Season

I originally published this post last December. It was published just three days before Christmas, so I thought I would re-post it this year earlier in the month. Read on for some books to help you get in the holiday spirit!
 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

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, looking at why the Puritans hated Christmas, which 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 peacefully 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 reading “The Festival" will put things in perspective. 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.

November 25, 2019

Was Jingle Bells Written for Thanksgiving?

Most people are familiar with the song "Over the River and Through the Wood." It's associated with Thanksgiving and the lyrics go like this:
Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandfather's house we go;
the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow. 
Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather's house away!
We would not stop for doll or top,
for 'tis Thanksgiving Day. 
Over the river, and through the wood—
oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes and bites the nose
as over the ground we go.
There are more verses but you get the idea. I always associate this song with the 1973 TV special "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" since the kids sing it at the end of the show but the song actually dates back back to 1844. It was originally a poem composed by the Massachusetts author Lydia Marie Child. Child was born in Medford and her grandfather's house still stands in that city. (These days most people sing "to grandmother's house" rather than "grandfather's house.")

Currier and Ives, Home to Thanksgiving

The song is about riding a sleigh to Thanksgiving dinner (obviously). Although snow really isn't that common in Massachusetts in November sleigh rides (and snow in general) used to be major themes for Thanksgiving.

For example "Jingle Bells," another sleigh ride song, was also written for Thanksgiving. We now associate it with Christmas but that wasn't always the case. Interestingly, "Jingle Bells" was also written in Medford - James Pierpont supposedly wrote it at that town's Simpson Tavern in 1850. I guess Medford was the place to be for songwriters in the 19th century. (Thank you Snopes for the background on "Jingle Bells.") 

Snowy Thanksgiving were also common themes in the visual arts. For example one of Currier and Ives most popular prints was titled "Home to Thanksgiving," which shows guests arriving at a wintry New England farm.

So what's up with all this snowy Thanksgiving imagery? It doesn't snow that often in November in southern New England. Well, there are two answers. First, the climate was probably colder in the 19th century. The so-called Little Ice Age was just winding down when Child and Pierpont wrote their ditties but thing were still colder than they are today. Medford probably saw more November snow than it does now. 

There's also a cultural reason for the snow imagery. As I've mentioned in other posts, people in New England did not really celebrate Christmas widely until the 19th century. The Puritans who founded New England didn't celebrate the holiday because they didn't think there was a Biblical basis for it, and that tradition stuck in New England for many years. They did celebrate Thanksgiving though. Modern Christmas celebrations often feature snowy imagery in anticipation of winter, but Thanksgiving filled this role for our New England ancestors. 

Thanksgiving was the holiday that kicked off winter, not Christmas. Also Thanksgiving was not always celebrated in November. The date was announced by the local government and in some years Thanksgiving was celebrated in December. Historian James Baker notes that Thanksgiving could be celebrated as late as December 22. So sometimes Thanksgiving really was the start of winter. 

I got a lot of this information from James Bakers book Thanksgiving: The Biography of An American Holiday (2009). While explaining the snowy Thanksgiving imagery Baker also illuminated something about how we currently envision the holiday. Modern Thanksgiving imagery tends to focus on the harvest and on vibrant fall foliage but that's also a cultural creation. At least here in New England the harvest is over by late November and most of the trees have already lost their leaves. The leaves that do remain are brown and brittle. The natural world isn't looking very festive right now, which is probably why we brighten up Thanksgiving with thoughts of snowy sleigh rides or overflowing cornucopias. Whether Puritan or post-modernist we all need some holiday magic to get through the gloomy time of year. 

November 20, 2019

We Don't Celebrate Thanksgiving Because of The Pilgrims

Thanksgiving is the ultimate New England holiday. It has deep historical roots in this region and the menu, with its emphasis on turkey, pies, root vegetables, and cranberry sauce, draws upon traditional Yankee cookery. But what are the true origins of the holiday?

As children Americans are taught that we celebrate Thanksgiving because of the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims. Surprisingly that is not true. It is true that in the autumn of 1621 the Plymouth colonists held a feast in honor of their first successful harvest in Massachusetts. They feasted upon corn, wild fowl, and five deer that were brought to the feast by the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit and ninety of his men. The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag partied for three straight days. I'm sure everyone had a big food hangover.


However, we don't celebrate Thanksgiving because of this harvest festival. We celebrate Thanksgiving because of Puritan religious culture. The Puritans, both in England and here in North America, did not celebrate many holidays. Christmas? No thanks. St. Valentine's Day? No way. Halloween? Definitely not! Unlike the Catholics and Anglicans they mainly celebrated what were known as 'providential holidays.' These were holidays announced to commemorate significant events in a given year. For example if things went poorly (plagues, droughts, military defeat) the Puritan leaders would announce a fast day. People were expected to abstain from eating, attend religious services and atone for their sins. 

On the other hand when things went well (military victory, end of a plague, etc.) a day of Thanksgiving would be announced. People would feast with their families, give thanks for their blessings, and (again) attend religious services. It's important to note that Thanksgiving days always occurred on weekdays, lasted for one day only, and involved religious services. It's also important to note that some years had multiple Fast days and Thanksgivings, depending on what was happening. Some years might have none at all. They were declared as needed.

Here are some examples. In 1630 the Puritans in Boston declared five fast days from April through June but only one Thanksgiving day on July 8. In Scituate there were 34 fast days from 1634 - 1653, but only nine Thanksgivings. Over time the practice of providential holidays gradually spread from Puritan New England to the other American colonies. John Hancock, leader of the Continental Congress, declared July 20, 1775 as a fast day for the thirteen colonies. In 1777 December 18 was declared a Thanksgiving day for all the colonies. When George Washington became the first president he proclaimed two Thanksgivings: November 11, 1789 and Thursday, February 19, 1795. After the Civil War Thanksgiving finally became an official, regularly occurring national holiday.

I know that's a lot of dates but the important thing is that Thanksgiving was celebrated at many times and for many different reasons. It didn't have one origin and it was not celebrated to commemorate the 1621 harvest celebration in Plymouth. The Pilgrims did not become linked with Thanksgiving in popular American culture until the early 1900s, several decades after the account of their 1621 feast was rediscovered by historians in 1820. 


Here's the really strange part: technically the 1621 harvest celebration was not even a day of Thanksgiving. It didn't involve any religious services and it lasted for a full three days rather than just one. It did not meet the criteria for a Puritan Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims never called it Thanksgiving, and other Puritans wouldn't have recognized it as such. It was just a harvest celebration. 

The Plymouth harvest celebration was initially declared the first Thanksgiving by Reverend Alexander Young in his 1841 book Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers. Reverend Young's claim slowly gained popularity and is now widely accepted as fact. I only learned otherwise when I read James Baker's Thanksgiving: The Biography of An American Holiday (2009). Baker was a historian at Plimoth Plantation who was puzzled that he couldn't find any sources connecting the Pilgrims to Thanksgiving earlier than the 19th century. When he started to research he realized why.

I love myths and legends, and even if we don't celebrate Thanksgiving because of the Pilgrims their story has still become an important part of the holiday. The aspirational image of the Pilgrims and Wampanoags feasting together is a model of something we should all strive for in our holiday celebration and our lives.

November 13, 2019

Folklore and Pagan Gods in The Lighthouse

My work schedule has been very busy the last few weeks, but I did manage to see The Lighthouse, the new film by Robert Eggers, the New Hampshire-born director who gave us The Witch a few years ago. My review is a little delayed but I wanted to post it anyway because The Lighthouse has some interesting New England folklore in it. Be warned: my review has a few (but not many) SPOILERS.


The plot is relatively simple. In the late 1800s, two lighthouse keepers (or wickies as they're called) arrive for duty at a lighthouse located on a small rocky island off the coast of Maine. The older wickie, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) has served on the island many times before. His new assistant, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is a former lumberjack reporting for his first stint in a lighthouse. When asked what happened to his previous assistant, Wake replies that he went insane and became convinced the lighthouse was enchanted and that merfolk haunted the island. Oh, and by the way Wake adds, never kill a seabird because they contain the souls of dead sailors.


After this ominous set-up the two men settle into a monotonous routine. As the senior lighthouse keeper Wake tends to the actual light itself, a role he guards jealously. He forbids Winslow from even entering the chamber at the top of the lighthouse and instead assigns to him all the manual labor: hauling coal, cleaning their tiny living quarters, and emptying bedpans. Winslow grows to resent his poor treatment, and his unhappiness is only compounded by a one-eyed seagull that regularly torments him. Winslow's sole pleasure is a scrimshaw mermaid he finds hidden in his mattress which fuels his sexual fantasies.

Over the course of their four-week stint the two men gradually come to an understanding, but things become complicated when the ship that is supposed to bring their replacements is delayed by a powerful storm. The men are stuck on the island. The storm lasts for weeks, and when their liquor runs out Wake and Winslow start to drink kerosene sweetened with honey. And that's when things start to get really weird...


As he did with The Witch, Robert Eggers incorporates local folklore into his film to make it feel authentic. Much of the dialogue was influenced by 19th-century writers including Sarah Orne Jewett, whose novels and stories were drawn from her experience living in Maine. I've read that Eggers used Jewett's work to craft the two distinct dialects the lighthouse keepers speak: Wake's nautical one and Winslow's inland Maine dialect. I think Willem Dafoe has the easier job, since he basically gets to talk like a pirate or Mr. Crabs from Spongebob Squarepants. Robert Pattinson, on the other hand, has to speak with an accent somewhere between a classic Boston accent and the "Yah cahn't theyah from heyah" Mainer accent. He does a good job though, and I enjoyed hearing him deliver his dialogue.


One of the key plot points is Wake's admonition to never kill a seabird. This is an actual piece of nautical folklore although I think it is particularly local. Many people are familiar with it from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where a ship becomes cursed after a sailor kills an albatross. According to this article the belief was still extant as late as 1959, when sailors transporting an albatross in a cage blamed various malfunctions on the bird's accidental death.

However, there is one possible link to Maine's folklore. Maine lumberjacks believed that is was bad luck to kill gray jays (also known as gorbeys), which were small birds that frequented lumber camps. They were said to be the souls of dead lumberjacks, and hurting a gray jay would bring grave misfortune. In one tale a brutish lumberjack plucks the feathers from a gray jay on a cold winter night, thinking it is the soul of a deceased colleague that he despised. When he awakes in the morning he finds he finds himself bald, weak, and constantly pursued by stormy weather. He had plucked the feathers from his own soul.


The island in The Lighthouse may be haunted by a mermaid. I won't give away too much, but if it is she's definitely not the happy Little Mermaid variety. There are quite a few mermaid and merman stories from New England, and none of them are happy. They're much closer to horror stories than fairy tales.


One of the earliest comes from John Josselyn's 1674 book An Account of Two Voyages to New England. Josselyn, an Englishman, visited New England in 1633 and 1638. While visiting Maine some of the settlers told him about strange things that had happened to them.
One Mr. Mittin related of a triton or merman which he saw in Casco Bay. This gentleman was a great fowler, and used to go out with a small boat or canoe, and fetching a compass about a small island (there being many small islands in the bay), for the advantage of a shot, was encountered with a triton, who laying his hands upon the side of the canoe, had one of them chopt off with a hatchet by Mr. Mittin, which was in all respects like the hand of a man. The triton presently sunk, dyeing the water with his purple blood, and was no more seen.
Gruesome. Merfolk were generally believed to be aggressive, and an almost identical encounter with a violent merman supposedly happened in Gloucester Harbor in Massachusetts, according to author Edward Rowe Snow. 

Snow also claims that in 1900 a lighthouse keeper at Nantucket's Great Point saw something humanoid emerge from the ocean and crawl into the woods near the beach. Other people who lived nearby saw signs that something large had crawled through the underbrush and made a nest. It's kind of creepy. The plot of The Lighthouse might not be that far from reality (or at least folklore). 


There are several references to classical Greek and Roman gods in The Lighthouse. The myth of Prometheus, the Titan who was punished for stealing fire from Mount Olympus, is alluded to throughout the movie, as is the myth of Proteus, the shapeshifting Old Man of the Sea. I was also struck by this curse that Wake hurls at Winslow when the younger man complains about Wake's cooking:

WAKE: Hark, Triton, Hark! Bellow, and bid our father, the sea king, rise up from the depths, full-foul in his fury, black waves teeming with salt-foam, to smother this young mouth with pungent slime... 
(addressed directly to Winslow)... to choke ye, engorging yer organs till ye turn blue and bloated with bilge and brine and can scream no more... only when, he, crowned in cockle shells with slithering tentacled tail and steaming beard, takes up his fell, be-finn├Ęd arm -– his coral-tined trident screeches banshee-like in the tempest and runs you through the gullet, bursting ye, a bulging bladder no more, but a blasted bloody film now -- a nothing for the Harpies and the souls of dead sailors to peck and claw and feed upon, only to be lapped up and swallowed by the infinite waters of the dread emperor himself, forgotten to any man, to any time, forgotten to any god or devil, forgotten even to the sea... for any stuff or part of Winslow, even any scantling of your soul, is Winslow no more, but is now itself the sea.

Triton was the son and herald of the sea-god Poseidon and mermen were sometimes called 'tritons' after him (as in Josselyn's account). Wake seems to be invoking Poseidon but the 'slithering tentacled tail' also makes me think of H.P. Lovecraft's squid-like deity Cthulhu, and Eggers has said that Lovecraft's weird fiction was one of the film's inspirations.


The references to classical mythology are more prominent than the nods to Lovecraft, though, and I don't think they are out of place in a film set in New England. Many of the original English colonists were well-versed in classical mythology. For example, Thomas Morton invoked a variety of pagan gods (including Neptune, Triton, Priapus and Ganymede) at his 1628 May Day celebration in what is now Quincy, Massachusetts. Of course, the Pilgrims at Plymouth weren't too happy about this and burned down his settlement, but even the die-hard Puritans of Boston and Connecticut knew their ancient gods. For example John Winthrop Jr., the son of Massachusetts's first governor, was so skilled in alchemy and medicine that his peers dubbed him the Christian Hermes. 

In 1776, four captive British sailors carved a statue of Bacchus, the god of wine, for an innkeeper in Windham, Connecticut, while in 1820 Ephraim Lyon of Eastford, Connecticut started a church of Bacchus and declared himself its priest. Perhaps Lyon was just really the town drunk, but in the 1800s many large New England towns also built athenaeums, libraries named after the Greek goddess of wisdom. Many athenaeums were decorated with statues of her. In downtown Boston there are also several large mercantile buildings from the late 19th century decorated with statues of Poseidon and Hermes as well. New England was founded by Puritan Christians but they brought the gods of their ancestors with them as well. We can try to escape the past but it usually catches up with us, which is one of the film's themes.


I'm the perfect audience member for The Lighthouse. I like horror movies, I like art films, and I love weird old New England stuff. I enjoyed The Lighthouse and will probably see it again. It had good actors, beautiful cinematography, sea shanties, writhing tentacles, a sinister seagull, and something gruesome in a lobster trap. 

I'm curious how audiences will react to the movie. When I saw The Witch some audience members were puzzled and angry after it ended because it was not the straightforward horror film they expected. The Lighthouse is much weirder than The Witch and even harder to categorize. Is is a dark slapstick comedy? A mythopoetic meditation on the price we pay to tell the truth? A 19th century nautical version of The Odd Couple with repressed erotic undertones? If you see it let me know what you think.

November 03, 2019

Encountering A Ghost at New Hampshire's Haunted Resort

Well, another Halloween has come and gone. I'm a little sad because it's one of my favorite holidays but I console myself at its passing by knowing that the truly spooky season has just begun. Halloween kicks off the darkest time of the year. The days are rapidly getting shorter, the trees are growing bare, and we set the clocks back tonight. Boston may even see some snow flurries on Friday.

In other words, we're entering the bleak, barren time of the year.  It's the perfect time for weird tales and ghost stories - particularly if they might be true. Someone emailed me a story (which might be true) just last week and gave me permission to share it. Here it is for your November pleasure.


In October of this year a Canadian woman (I'll call her Shawna), her daughter, and a cousin decided to visit New Hampshire during foliage season. Their trip included staying at the Bretton Woods Resort. Bretton Woods is one of the great New England resorts, with a fabulous old grand hotel (the Mount Washington) and the smaller Bretton Arms Inn on the grounds. Bretton Woods has everything you could want in a mountain resort: good food, fireplaces, hiking and horseback trails that wind through the woods and along rivers, and skiing in the winter.

Lobby of the Mount Washington Hotel.

Bretton Woods also has a ghost. Shawna discovered this first hand during her visit while staying at the Bretton Arms Inn.
On our first night my teenaged daughter woke up screaming that she saw an apparition beside her bed (we were in a bedroom with two twin beds adjacent to the main room). As a result we had to sleep with the lights on for the second night. For the record, my daughter does not believe in ghosts (at all) and does not suffer from nightmares
I put it from my mind until a week after we returned to Toronto and Googled Mt Washington Resort when I discovered the resort has a history of this (we had no idea before).
Like most paranormal accounts the story is quite short. I think it's interesting that Shawna didn't know about the resort's haunted history. It makes her story more credible.


The ghost that haunts Bretton Woods is said to be the spirit of Caroline Stickney, the wife of Joseph Stickney, a wealthy industrialist who built the Mount Washington Hotel in 1902. Mr. Stickney died one year after the hotel was completed, but Caroline remarried a wealthy European prince and continued to spend her summers at the hotel. She had a private suite she stayed in, and even had a special balcony built above the main dining room so she could survey what the other guests were wearing. She wanted to be sure that she was the best dressed person in the room! 

A portrait of Caroline Stickney at the Mount Washington Hotel.

Caroline Stickney died in 1936. The winter after she died a hotel caretaker reported seeing strange things. He said he saw a well-dressed woman walking into the dining room at night - and there were no guests staying in the hotel at the time. That winter other staff reported that lights would turn themselves off and on when no one was in the room.

Caroline's ghost has haunted the resort ever since. She is a benevolent ghost but can be frightening to those who aren't prepared for the encounter. Her spirit is the most active in Room 314 of the Mount Washington Hotel, which was her private suite while alive. Guests who stay in this room often report a wide range of strange phenomena including flickering lights, faucets and fireplaces that turn themselves on and off, and objects disappearing. 

Tony and I stayed at Bretton Woods way back in November 2013. There weren't a lot of guests at the time since foliage season had ended and ski season hadn't begun. Our room was in the Mount Washington and the hotel, with its long empty corridors and formal public spaces, reminded me of the one in The Shining. We didn't encounter anything ghostly but we did have dinner with a family member who lived in the area. She had once worked at a conference there and had seen strange things happen. Office supplies vanished only to reappear someplace else, and files had moved around on their own. 

As a hotelier who loved the Bretton Woods I don't think Caroline Stickney means any harm to the guests. But still it must be quite a shock to wake up in the middle of the night and see her standing above your bed.

October 24, 2019

Pickets, Cabbages, and the Pigman: Halloween Lore

I used to have a neighbor from Detroit, Michigan. One day in the fall while we were discussing the neighborhood trick-or-treaters he told me that he wasn't a big fan of Halloween.

When he was a kid in Detroit the night before Halloween was called Devil's Night, and it was a night for arson and vandalism. Teenagers would light fires across the city and burn down abandoned buildings, of which there were a lot at the time. In 1984, there were more than 800 fires in Detroit on October 30. Yikes! Happily things have gotten much better since then and in 2018 there were only four fires on Devil's Night.

His experience in Detroit was much different from mine growing up in the 1970s in Haverhill, Massachusetts. The night before Halloween didn't have a special name or any activities (criminal or otherwise) associated with it. Kids might pull some pranks on Halloween night itself (egging houses, throwing toilet paper in trees) but nothing as serious as arson. The main focus was on trick-or-treat (before it was banned because of a poison candy scare) and Halloween parties. And it was definitely only a one day celebration. There were no other days with special names.

Vintage photo from this site.

I assumed that's how things always were but I was wrong. Like all holidays Halloween changes and evolves over time. When my mother was a child in Haverhill during the 1940s there were three nights of activity around Halloween. Three! Here's an account by Charles W. "Charlie" Turner that appeared in The Haverhill Gazette's October 27, 2005 issue. Charlie's looking back nostalgically to his childhood in the Acre, a dense urban neighborhood in Haverhill:
"It all began on October 28, which was known as Cabbage Night. ... Many families raised cabbages in their gardens and young men went there to steal them. Afterwards, they raced through the streets throwing the plants at houses along the way. Ma warned me to stay away from the windows just in case..." 
"The second night, Oct. 30, was called Beggars-Night. This was the night when children put on their costumes and went from door to door in search of treats. ..." 
"On Oct. 31, Halloween came and most everybody stayed home. This was the night for mischief ... a return to those places that ignored a child's request for a treat. Most of the time it was cut clotheslines and soaped windows in our neighborhood. However, on the other side of Main Street, things could be worse. There were broken windows, messes on porches, and even an occasional tipped car." 
It turns out that special names for either Halloween or the days surrounding it were once common across the country. Most of them were coined after the pranks that kids pulled. Baltimore had Moving Night (because you moved things out of your neighbor's yard), Ohio had Doorbell Night (because of ring and run) and Vermont had Clothesline Night (because you'd throw toilet paper on clotheslines).

Are any of those special names for Halloween or the days surrounding it still in use today? Well, I think the citizens of Northfield, Vermont still observe Picket Night on October 30, when kids steal pickets from fences.

I know this because Northfield is supposedly home to one of New England's creepiest monsters: the Pigman! This porcine terror is associated with Picket Night and Halloween. According to one version of the legend, on October 30, 1951 a high school student named Sam Harris left his house for some Picket Night fun. He was planning to egg houses, throw toilet paper, and steal pickets with some friends. But he never showed up at the rendezvous point to meet his friends, and he never went back to his parents' house either. Sam Harris was never seen again. It was as if he vanished into thin air.

Did he vanish, or was he transformed? Later that fall someone (or something?) strange was seen in the woods outside town. It had the body of man but the head of a hideous pig. People in Northfield whispered that it was really Sam Harris and that he had sold his soul to the Devil. He had become a hideous pigman. 

Image from American Horror Story.

The town historian responded to these rumors with a column in the local paper. There were no such things as monsters, she wrote, and Sam Harris had been a good boy and a model citizen. But the day after the column was published the historian was found murdered in the Devil's Washbowl, a desolate area in the woods. The words "PICKET NIGHT" were carved into her flesh. The message was clear: the Pigman was real. Something monstrous and piglike is still said to be lurking in the woods outside Northfield to this day...

How's that for a story? There are several different legends associated with the Pigman but that one is particularly creepy and very appropriate for Halloween. It's nice to know that weird old folklore is still being celebrated in New England. Have a safe and happy holiday but whatever name you celebrate it!

October 15, 2019

Bunhgole Liquors: Salem's Haunted Liquor Store

A few weeks ago we went up to Salem on a pre-Halloween excursion. We did a lot of our usual things. We drank cocktails made with pumpkin vodka. We visited witchcraft stores. We bought candy at Ye Olde Pepper Company. We visited a cheesy haunted house where we had to wear 3-D glasses.

You get the idea. We also took photos of Bunghole Liquors on Derby Street. It's a popular photo stop because it has a cool retro sign and "bunghole" sounds like a dirty word. Of course a bunhgole is actually the hole cut into a wooden cask so liquor can flow out, but the owners of Bunhole Liquors still play up the raunchy innuendo of the name. Their website has the motto "We're not #1 butt we're right up there," and you can buy t-shirts with slogans like "I Got It In the Bunghole."

Like many places in Salem, Bunghole Liquors is surrounded by some strange legends and weird history. According to their website the building on Derby Street was originally a funeral home where embalming was performed in the basement. During Prohibition the funeral home operated as a speakeasy. Guests would drink contraband alcohol in the basement surrounded by corpses and embalming equipment. It sounds creepy to me but I guess some people will do anything for a drink! The secret password to get in was "See you in the bunghole."

There are persistent rumors that a network of tunnels once ran between various buildings in Salem, and according to Sam Baltrusis's book Wicked Salem the bootlegging morticians smuggled in their illicit booze using a tunnel that ran from the basement of the funeral home down to the harbor. Is that true or just a rumor? I don't know but you can read more about Salem's tunnels in Christopher Jon Luke Dowgin's 2012 book Salem Secret Underground: The History of the Tunnels in the City.

After Prohibition the owner of funeral home gave up on embalming and went into the liquor business legally. In 1933 Bunghole Liquors became the second liquor store to open in Salem after Prohibition.  The tunnel (if it existed) was sealed up and the embalming equipment was sealed in the walls behind plaster. So let that sink in for a minute. Bunghole Liquors used to be a funeral home. Corpses were embalmed in the basement. The equipment was just shoved into the walls and hidden away. And there may have been a secret tunnel.

That sounds like the setup for a horror film to me, and unsurprisingly some staff at Bunghole Liquors have reported some strange things when working late. According to Baltrusis's Wicked Salem workers at the Bunghole tend to avoid the basement, a location where security cameras have recorded unexplained lights. Several have reported seeing a woman disappear after walking into the store. Perhaps strangest of all are the accounts of an unseen phantom cat that rubs against the legs of people working there. 

It's all kind of spooky, but what do you expect from a store that sells wine, beer and spirits? Get it? Spirits? I know, a bad pun. 

October 06, 2019

Slipperyskin: Bear, Monster, or Spirit?

If you've ever encountered a bear out in the woods you know they can be pretty scary. But do you know what's even scarier than a bear? A super-intelligent bear. One that is sly, tricky and really hates humans.

People in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom were supposedly harassed by such a creature in the 1700s. The Wabanaki Indians called him Wejuk or "wet skin" because he always slipped away when they tried to capture him. Following the Wabanaki lead the the English settlers called him Slipperyskin.

Slipperyskin caused a lot of trouble. He knocked over fences, terrorized livestock, and ruined cornfields. Those are probably things any ordinary bear might do, but Slipperyskin was no ordinary bear. He was a very intelligent and tricky bear, so he also put rocks into maple syrup buckets and farm machinery. He once rolled a log at hunters who were chasing hime. He even threw stones at small children walking to school. Bears don't have opposable thumbs so I'm not sure how he accomplished this.

It was pretty obvious Slipperyskin didn't like humans. The feeling was mutual and many attempts were made to catch or kill the pesky bear. None were ever successful but at least one was quite humorous. In the early 1800s Vermont governor Jonas Galusha came up with a scheme to trap Slipperyskin. The governor doused himself with female bear scent and walked into the woods, hoping to lure Slipperyskin into a clearing where hunters waited with rifles. Mere minutes after heading into the woods the governor ran into the clearing chased by an amorous Slipperyskin. The hunters fled in panic at the sight of the giant lustful bear. Governor Galusha escaped with his life but sustained severe damage to his dignity.

Although he was quite a terror Slipperyskin never killed anyone but he was once accused of eating a minister. One day a group of ministers were picnicking on the shores of Westmore's Lake Willoughby when the bear emerged from the bushes with a furious roar. The holy men fled in all directions as the ursine horror attacked their picnic lunch.

After Slipperyskin departed they returned to the picnic ground. All of the ministers were present expect one. The ministers looked with dread upon the picnic blanket where a mass of torn clothes and amorphous biological matter hinted at the grim fate of their missing companion. It was clear the bear had killed and devoured him. However, closer examination later showed the disgusting mess to be half-eaten cheese and not a human corpse. Their missing companion was later found alive and well. Under the cover of the bear attack he had secretly fled an unhappy life in Vermont and set up a new one in Chicopee, Massachusetts.

Vermonters stopped seeing Slipperyskin in the early 1800s but his legend lives on. Some of the stories about him, like those with the governor and the ministers, are pretty humorous and I wonder how seriously we're supposed to take the stories about this clever and infuriating bear. Was he even real? After all, bears don't normally do the things Slipperyskin did. 

Some Bigfoot researchers think the stories are really garbled accounts of Sasquatch encounters but I'm not entirely convinced. I think the Wabanaki would be able to reliably identify a bear, as would the English frontiersmen who were settling in Vermont. And besides, does it make sense to explain away a legendary bear with a legendary hairy humanoid?

There's a big chance Slipperyskin might just be a tall-tale people told to amuse each other. Still, folks in New England have been encountering weird things in the woods for centuries, and often those weird things throw rocks and cause mischief. They ruin farm machinery and cause trouble in bars. At different times people have called them witches, demons, poltergeists, Bigfoot, or even Slipperyskin. Maybe they're all just different manifestations of some strange phenomenon associated with this corner of the country.

Think of it this way. Perhaps Slipperyskin was just one manifestation of the New England genius loci, which is a Latin term meaning "spirit of a place." Maybe this clever bear was just a particularly cranky version of the spirit of this stony and wooded corner of the country. Then again, does it make sense to explain away a legendary Vermont bear with a concept from ancient Roman religion? Maybe not but it's interesting to consider. 

I first learned about Slipperyskin in books by Vermont's Joseph Citro. A great source of information about him is this article in The Northland Journal

September 25, 2019

Abducted to the Witches' Sabbath: Joseph Ring and A Devilish Debt

The Devil must have really wanted Joseph Ring to become a witch. Over the course of two years poor Joseph was spirited away to the Witches' Sabbath against his will dozens of times. It often happened at night while he was asleep but also happened during the day. Some neighbors even claimed to have seen him walking down the road and then vanish in broad daylight. 

Joseph Ring was born in Salisbury, Massachusetts in 1664. There isn't much known about his early years, but when he was twenty-six he enlisted in a military expedition to Casco, Maine. The English settlement at Casco had been besieged by French troops and their Indian allies and the Puritans sent four ships to relieve the settlers. The expedition was in vain. When the ships arrived they found that Casco had been burned to the ground and most of the inhabitants slaughtered. 

This was probably a traumatic thing for Joseph to see. There was a lot of anxiety and trauma about the war with the French and Indians in New England in general at that time. Everyone knew a story about a burned village, a massacre, or some other atrocity. 


But surprisingly Joseph claimed that seeing the burning settlement was not the most frightening thing about the expedition. No, the most frightening thing was that he made a bet with Thomas Hardy. 

On this way to Maine Joseph had stopped at a tavern on New Hampshire's Great Island. While he was there he met Thomas Hardy who invited him to play shuffleboard, a game of chance played by sliding a coin down a table. Joseph was young and didn't have any money, but Hardy loaned him some money to play. Joseph lost the game and left the tavern owing him two pounds. 

After the expedition Hardy frequently asked Joseph for the money he was owed. But was he just interested in money or something more? He was quite insistent and appeared to Joseph at odd times and in almost unnatural circumstances. For example, Joseph once encountered him on an isolated road where Hardy was riding on horseback with a strange group of men and women. Joseph later stumbled upon Hardy drinking cider with two women in the middle of dense woods. The woods were dangerous, full of wild animals and angry Indians, but Hardy and his companions seemed unconcerned. 

Each time they met Hardy asked Joseph for the money he was owed. Joseph didn't have two pounds and was unable to repay the debt. Hardy was sympathetic and suggested instead that if Joseph simply signed his name in a black book his debt would be forgiven. In fact, signing the book might even bring good things into his life. Wouldn't he like to sign his name?

Something about the book made Joseph uneasy and he refused to sign. Other things made him even uneasier. Once after leaving Hardy and his strange companions in the woods Joseph thought they had turned into black pigs and run off into the trees. At other times Hardy and his friends had appeared as flaming balls of fire. 


Joseph realized that Hardy was a witch, and while Joseph owed him two pounds he didn't want to repay the debt with his soul.

The situation went from bad to worse. He refused to sign the book but Joseph began to be abducted to the Witches' Sabbath, being taken bodily to the eerie gathering where the witches celebrated their service to the Devil. The abductions happened frequently and in the same manner each time. Strange figures would appear and carry him away through the air. Joseph would suddenly find himself at the Sabbath and then feel a painful blow upon his back that immobilized him. He was unable to move and could only watch the witches feast and celebrate. Someone would present him with a book to sign, which he always refused. The scene would dissolve into terrifying noise and chaos, and Joseph would find himself back in the normal world.

Although neighbors allegedly saw him vanish he was not able to tell them what was happening. Thomas Hardy and the other witches had enchanted Joseph so he was unable to talk about the Sabbath and his unwilling sojourns there. In August of 1691 the spell upon him worsened and he became unable to speak at all. 

The spell was finally broken in April of 1692 when Susannah Martin, a widow who lived nearby, appeared in Joseph's bedroom while he slept. Joseph had seen her before with Thomas Hardy and knew she was a witch. As he lay immobile in bed she viciously pinched his feet. She vanished from his room, but for some reason her attack had released him from the spell that silenced him. He could speak again. 

The name "Susannah Martin" may be familiar to you from the Salem Witch trials. She was one of the nineteen people hanged for witchcraft, and Joseph Ring's testimony helped seal her fate. He told the magistrates about his abductions, the debt he owed Thomas Hardy, and about Susannah Martin's friendship with him. Joseph's brother Jarvis also testified against Martin, claiming that she had appeared in his bedroom and lain upon his immobilized body.

Joseph and his brother were only two of many people who testified against Susannah Martin, but their statements helped convict her. She was executed on July 19, 1692 on Salem's Gallows Hill. Thomas Hardy was not convicted of any crimes, despite Joseph's insistence that he was a witch of the most devilish kind. 

Joseph Ring's story gives me a lot to think about. Some historians think his intense fear and fantasies about Thomas Hardy were misplaced traumas actually caused by what he saw at Casco, Maine or by stories he heard about Indian attacks. Psychologically that makes a lot of sense to me. His mind focused on the minor issue of a two pound debt rather than process the horror he saw in Maine. 

As someone who likes weird stories I'm also intrigued by his account of being abducted by witches, which echo accounts of people abducted by fairies or even UFOs. The phenomenon remains constant but the explanation changes over time and across cultures. 

I'm also saddened that his testimony contributed to the death of Susannah Martin. Joseph clearly believed Thomas Hardy was the witch most responsible for tormenting him, but in 17th century Massachusetts women were much more likely than men to be convicted of witchcraft. Something psychological was clearly happening to Joseph but it was not Susannah Martin's fault.

It probably wasn't Thomas Hardy's either. I do wonder if Joseph continued to live in fear of Hardy and the debt he owed even after the Salem witch trials concluded. Sadly Joseph Ring died only twelve years after the Salem witch trials ended. In 1704 he was captured by Indians in a raid and burned alive. Ironically, Joseph Ring's life ended right back where his trauma began. 


Information about Joseph Ring can be found in the Salem witch trial transcripts and in documents from that time by Cotton Mather and Robert Calef. There is also some good information online. Marilynne Roach's The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege was also incredibly helpful.