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.