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.