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