March 26, 2019

Weird New England News: Goat Elected Mayor, Haunted Supermarket, Vermont Pigman and UFOs.

There are lots of strange things happening around New England lately. To begin with, a town in Vermont recently elected a goat as mayor. The good citizens of Fair Haven (population 2,500) have chosen Lincoln, a three-year old female Nubian goat, as their new leader. I suppose there's some joke in there about politics going to the dogs (or the goats) but I'm unable to find it right now.

Her honor the mayor. Photo: Boston Globe.

Happily, Lincoln is only the honorary mayor and will not be making any major civic decisions. That's probably a good idea, since during her first day of office she defecated on the floor of Town Hall. Fair Haven is actually run by a board of selectman and a town manager, and it was the town manager's idea to elect an honorary mayor as a way to raise money for a new playground. Lincoln beat out several other candidates, including a hamster named Crystal, to win the job.

It all seems like good-natured fun, but The Boston Globe points out that sometimes these things can take a dark turn. For example, in the 1980s a goat named Clay Henry was elected mayor of Lajitas, Texas. Clay Henry became a tourist attraction for his ability to guzzle beer but was violently killed by his own son, Clay Henry Jr., during a fight over a female goat. Clay Henry Jr. took over as mayor and local beer-drinking beast. His son, Clay Henry III in turn became the town's third goat mayor but was castrated by a neighbor who became furious when he saw the goat drinking beer on Sunday, a day when liquor sales were illegal. The mayor survived the attack. Hopefully things stay more peaceful up in Fair Haven.

Meanwhile, shoppers have reported a ghost at a Market Basket in Wilmington, Massachusetts. Market Basket, a locally-owned supermarket chain beloved for its fresh produce and low prices, was founded by Greek immigrants Athanasios and Efrosini Demoulas in 1917. In recent years the chain has been at the center of multiple lawsuits by members of the Demoulas family fighting for ownership, and in 2014 thousands of employees protested to support the rights of Arthur T. Demoulas, who is now the current owner. The ghost is perhaps just the latest chapter in the ongoing saga.

Photo: CBS Boston.

People who have seen the ghost report that she appears as a young woman in Victorian garb.Why is a modern supermarket being haunted by a Victorian ghost? No one seems to know but at least one person said she had earlier seen the ghost in her home, which is located nearby. Perhaps the ghost just wants to see what's on sale? A spokesperson for Market Basket made the following comment:
“As far as we know all of our stores are ghost-free,” Justine Griffin said in a statement to the Globe. “But if there’s anything to it, she’s probably attracted to our Victorian-era prices.”
Apparitions may be haunting Market Basket, but UFOs are haunting the skies of Connecticut. The Connecticut Post notes that eleven UFOs have been reported in the state so far this year. A wide variety of phenomena were seen, ranging from classic saucer-shaped objects to those that were large and triangular. Several witnesses in different towns reported seeing strange green flashes in the sky on different days. Last year 100 UFOs were reported in Connecticut so perhaps sightings are slightly down this year? 

Image: Connecticut Post.

No one in Connecticut has reported any strange extraterrestrial humanoids yet. Perhaps this is a blessing, since personally I find ET sightings to be kind of spooky. If you do want to learn about a spooky humanoid, I can direct you to the New England Legends podcast. This week they are talking about the Pigman of Northfield, Vermont. They also give a shout out to this blog!

Image: YouTube.

The Pigman is one of my favorite New England cryptids. This swine-headed monster was first seen lurking outside a high school dance in the 1970s and gained notoriety in the 1990s through the books of Vermont writer Joseph Citro. Is he a missing teenager who went feral? The unholy offspring of a lonely farmer and a farm animal? A high school trickster who sold his soul to Satan on Halloween? Accounts of his origin vary, but people in Northfield agree that he still lurks in the woods outside of town. One of these days I hope to visit Northfield and visit the Pigman's stomping grounds. Here's hoping I don't find him. 

Special bonus: here's an image of the Pigman looking buff that I found on Pinterest. I guess the feral life is good for your physique? The covered bridge in the background adds the right New England touch. 
Image: Pinterest.

March 14, 2019

From Monster to Mer-Bro: Four Centuries of New England Mermen

The more things change the more they stay the same. Yes, it's a cliche, but there's a grain of truth in it. Sometimes things seem like they are new but they are actually not. 

Take Gorton's Seafood, for example. Gorton's was founded in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1849. The company is still going strong and their longtime mascot, a fisherman wearing yellow rain gear, is widely recognized. But in recent months the company has tried appealing to a younger demographic by airing humorous ads featuring brawny mermen (a.k.a mer-bros) and a laid-back Neptune, god of the sea. Has Gorton's lost touch with its historic New England roots with this new advertising campaign? Not really. Although salty fishermen are an important part of our culture, mermen and their kin have also been reported in this area for hundreds of years.

An old-school merman. 
Mer-bros eating Gorton's fish sticks.
One of the earliest written accounts appears in Englishman John Josselyn's 1674 book An Account of Two Voyages to New England. Josselyn visited New England in 1638 and 1663, and on one of those trips he hear the following story from a colonist in coastal Maine:
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.
A triton is a type of merman from classical mythology. They are named after the god Triton, son of Poseidon, and like the sea itself are fickle and sometimes dangerous. Perhaps Mr. Mittin was well-read in Greek myth and unwilling to see if this particular triton was friendly or not. Interestingly, in one of the Gorton's commercials a mer-bro sheds purple tears. Coincidence?

The Puritans who colonized New England did not look fondly upon ancient Greek gods or aquatic humanoids, apparently thinking both were demonic in nature. This outlook can be seen in their response to the song that Thomas Morton wrote for the raucous May Day celebration in 1628 at Merrymount Colony in Quincy, Massachusetts. It invoked Neptune and Triton, along with more overtly erotic gods like Priapus, Ganymede (Jupiter's young boyfriend), and Hymen, the god of marriage. After learning of Merrymount's pagan-themed celebration the Pilgrims at Plymouth dispatched armed troops to arrest Morton and burn down his colony. Morton was trading furs and arms with the local Indians, which threatened the Plymouth colony's economy, but his pagan and libertine tendencies were a threat to morality.

You can burn down a rival settlement, but the mer-folk are not so easily eradicated. In 1714 a minister named Valentyn sailing past Nantucket's Great Point glimpsed a merman in the water. At first Valentyn and the ship's crew thought he was human:
We all agreed he must be some shipwrecked person. After some time I begged the captain to steer the ship more directly toward it. … We had got within a ship’s length of him, when the people on the forecastle made such a noise that he plunged down, head foremost, and got presently out of sight. 
The man who was on watch at the masthead declared that he had… a monstrous long tail.
That story is quoted in Edward Rowe Snow's book Legends of the New England Coast. Snow also claims that years later, in the early 1900s, a lighthouse keeper at Great Point saw something humanoid emerge from the ocean and crawl into the nearby woods. Other local residents also said they saw signs that something not quite human had been among the trees. Gorton's mer-bros are goofy and fun; the Great Point merman sounds a little bit spooky to me.

Speaking of spooky, Rhode Island horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's 1931story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" centers on a race of monstrous aquatic humanoids called the Deep Ones who live off the coast of Massachusetts. The citizens of the decaying port city Innsmouth have made a deal with the Deep Ones. The Deep Ones give them plentiful fish harvests and golden treasure from their aquatic realm. In return, the people of Innsmouth give the Deep Ones human sacrifices and have conjugal relations with the scaly monsters. Yikes! In Lovecraft's 1926 story "The Strange High House in the Mist," various sea-gods, including Neptune and a band of tritons, pay a visit to the titular house. At least in this story they aren't demanding sex or human sacrifice. 

Lovecraft wrote fiction; he never thought the Deep Ones were real. But even during his lifetime some of his acquaintances thought he was writing about real occult practices and entities. That movement only grew after his death and some occultists have even claimed the Deep Ones are actual beings. For example, the British occultist Kenneth Grant claimed that he successfully summoned the Deep Ones to appear during a ritual. (Note: they weren't particularly pleasant!) Similarly, the American ceremonial magician Michael Bertiaux claims he has contacted the Deep Ones at an isolated lake somewhere in Wisconsin. Lovecraft based the fictional Innsmouth on Depression-era Newburyport, so perhaps the Deep Ones really are lurking in the waters just off our coast.

Unlike the Deep Ones, Gorton's mer-bros are cheery and goofy. Is this just an advertising gimmick or are there other happy mermen in New England's past? Yes, there are. Elizabeth Reynard's 1934 book The Narrow Land contains several stories given to her by Mashpee Wampanoag Indians. One of these stories tells of Matilda Simons, a widowed Wampanoag woman struggling to feed her three children. When the Christian god doesn't answer her prayers she turns to the old Indian gods. In response, the sea god Paumpagusnit sends several aquatic giants from the ocean to help her. They speak in "the guttural voice of the sea" and save Matilda's family from starvation by bringing gifts of fish. 

So perhaps the mer-bros are not as newfangled as they at first appear. While they are part of the current trend to use folkloric creatures in advertising (like those beef jerky ads starring Sasquatch), these fishmen are also have deep roots here in New England. 

Speaking of deep New England roots, recently I was a guest on Jeff Belanger's fantastic New England Legends podcast. Jeff is a font of weird knowledge and we had a great time chatting about witches, monsters, and why there are so many strange legends from New England. I hope you'll listen if you can!

March 04, 2019

For Sale: The Home of A Salem Witch Trial Victim

Would you like to own a home connected to Salem witch trials? Now is your chance. The historic Solart-Woodward House in Wenham, Massachusetts just went on the market. The house has four bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms. and is priced at $599,000. That seems like a good price in this current market.

Although there have been additions since, the original part of the house was built in 1670. That's an old house. A friend of mine used to live in a house built in the 1680s, and you could feel the history seeping out of the walls. I imagine the Solart-Woodward house would feel the same.

The Solart-Woodward House
As you might expect, the house has a tragic history attached to it. It was built by John Solart, a French immigrant and the father of Sarah Good, one of the first people accused in the Salem witch trials. Solart operated the house as an inn but drowned himself a few years later. His wife (Sarah's mother) inherited Solart's wealth after the suicide and quickly remarried. Sarah and her sisters sued but failed to get any of the inheritance.

Sarah married Daniel Poole, an indentured servant who incurred heavy debts. She inherited these when he died in 1682. Sarah's second husband, William Good, paid off her debts but had to sell most of his property to do so. He and Sarah became homeless, wandering through Essex County begging for food and shelter with their young daughter Dorothy (often erroneously referred to as Dorcas in older scholarly works).

Many witch accounts from colonial New England follow a familiar pattern. A poor person (usually a woman) asks a wealthier person for food or money. When the wealthier person refuses them the poor person mumbles threats. The wealthy person then hits a string of bad luck (sick children, dying farm animals, household mishaps) and accuses the poor person of being a witch. Puritans were expected to take care of each other and offer hospitality, but resented it when they felt they were being taken advantage of. Witch accusations often arose from that resentment.

That resentment could sometimes turn deadly. It did for Sarah Good. When the afflicted girls of Salem began to name witches Sarah was among the first. As a poor female beggar she was an obvious target. She denied being a witch until the end, but the judges still found her guilty. They thought the contortions of the afflicted girls were credible evidence. They were convinced when four-year old Dorothy Good admitted to being a witch and accused her mother. They took William Good literally when he said he felt like his wife was a witch when she treated him poorly. Absurd as it now seems, it all added up to a death sentence for Sarah.

Sarah Good was executed on July 29, 1692. A well-known story claims that she uttered a dying curse. After she was sentenced to hang the Reverend Nicholas Noyes asked her once again to admit her guilt. She refused, reportedly saying, "I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink!" Sarah was executed, but twenty-five years later Reverend Noyes died from internal hemorrhaging. Blood gushed out of his mouth as he expired. Witnesses thought back to Sarah Good's dying curse.

Sarah Good's problems and death were caused by poverty. Ironically, after the witch trials ended William Good sued for damages and won. He received thirty pounds, which was several times more than the average laborer earned in a year.