December 22, 2020

Fat Graveyards, Hay, and Magic Cows: Folk Magic for Christmas

This is definitely shaping up to be one of the stranger Christmases in recent American history, with most of the traditional festivities being canceled due to the pandemic. So why not cozy up by the Yule log (even if its on your computer screen) and enjoy some old New England folklore about Christmas?

As a lot of you know, for many years Christmas was not celebrated in New England. The Puritans didn't believe there was any basis for it in the Bible - the date of Jesus's birth is not given, after all - and suppressed Christmas celebrations here. New Englanders began to celebrate the holiday more widely in the 19th century as the Puritan influence weakened, and all of the folklore I present to you is from the late 19th century. 

Much of it concerns the weather, since Christmas falls close to the astronomical start of winter. I'm just going to give you the grimmest piece of lore first. Let's get it over with.

 A green Christmas make for a fat graveyard. 

Ugh. That's from Fanny Bergen's 1896 book Current Superstitions. This next one comes from Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England (1896):  

A green Christmas makes a full churchyard. The foundation for this saying is the fact that open winters with their constant freezings and thawing are very unhealthy.

I don't think there's any medical validity behind that, do you? I hope not, because with climate change we're going to get more "open winters." I'm going to chalk this one up to old time Yankees considering almost everything as an omen of death, which is true. These folklore books have a huge number of death omens. I think those sayings also demonstrate the law of inversion that shows up sometimes in folklore. A green, pleasant Christmas foretells death, or the groundhog seeing his shadow on a sunny day indicates six weeks of bad weather. Something foretells its opposite.

Here's another one from Clifton Johnson, which is less grim:

Half the pork and half the hay

On Christmas Day

Johnson notes that men used to visit their neighbors on Christmas to see how the hay and pork were holding out. It sounds very bucolic and a nice way to see folks, doesn't it? It's also practical. On Christmas there are still three more months of winter to come, so you definitely want to have enough food for your livestock and yourself. There are similar sayings about Candlemas Day on February 2.

To me, the most magical piece of Christmas folklore is the following:

There is a saying that on the night before Christmas when the clock strikes twelve the cows kneel in their stalls. Some young girls in Hadley, years ago, sat up to discover whether this was true or not. At midnight they went out to the barn, and sure enough when the hour struck the cows knelt. At any rate, that was what the girls said. (Johnson, What They Say in New England)
That story is very similar to the European belief that animals can talk at midnight on Christmas Eve. The exact origins of that legend are murky, but are probably tied to the belief that Christ was born in a stable. Some sources say God allowed the animals in the stable to speak so they could praise the newborn messiah, something they have been able to do once a year ever since. 

The New England version of the legend is a little more subdued. It's as if people wanted to believe in Christmas magic, but couldn't fully commit. "Talking cows? No way. Cows that kneel at midnight? Hmm. Well, maybe..." It's interesting that Johnson has the caveat "At any rate, that was what the girls said," as if he or his informant knew people would receive the story with skepticism.

He also includes this version of the legend:

A still older story told in town with the same theme is that at midnight when the Christmas Day begins, all the cattle in the yards and fields might be seen kneeling with their heads turned towards the east in adoration. Two girls of the olden time, who were eager to see for themselves whether this was true or not, sat up on Christmas Eve until the spellbound hour, and then visited the farm cattleyard. But the cattle made no sign that they were at all affected.

So which is it? Do the cattle kneel or not? For now, I am comfortable with the ambiguity and holding both possibilities in my mind. Please let me know if you happen to say up until midnight to see what happens. I'd be curious to know. 

Have a safe and happy Christmas!

December 15, 2020

The Festival: Christmas with H.P. Lovecraft

You might be surprised to learn that H.P. Lovecraft, Rhode Island's famous master of horror, wrote a Christmas story. "The Festival" was published in Weird Tales in 1925, and like much of Lovecraft's fiction it combines local folklore, horror tropes, and the his own personal obsessions into a weird, unnerving tale. 

The story begins with a man arriving in an old Massachusetts coastal town called Kingsport for the first time. He's also the narrator, and he tells us he's there to join a celebration that his family has kept for centuries. It's an old family tradition he's heard of but never participated in before.

It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten. 

Lovecraft was well-versed in New England colonial history, and he's probably referring to the 17th century when he mentions the "elder time when the festival was forbidden." The Puritans did not celebrate Christmas because they didn't think there was any evidence for the holiday in the Bible. In fact, Christmas was not widely celebrated in New England until the 19th century. 

The narrator's ancestors were not English Puritans, though. He claims they "they had come as dark furtive folk from opiate southern gardens of orchids, and spoken another tongue before they learnt the tongue of the blue-eyed fishers." Lovecraft was something of a racist, and you can see some of that in this description, but he may also be alluding to the fact that New England's coastal towns were often more diverse than some of the area's other English settlements. Even if they were dominated by the Puritans, coastal towns did attract sailors and merchants from all over the world. 

A portrait of H.P. Lovecraft as an 18th gentleman by Virgil Finlay.

That was definitely the case in Marblehead, Massachusetts, which inspired Lovecraft's fictional Kingsport. Marblehead is a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic from Salem, and is difficult to get to even today. It was even harder to reach in the past. Unlike its neighbors, Marblehead was first settled not by East Anglian Puritans but by fishermen from a variety of areas. In its early years Marblehead had a reputation as a rough, unchurched town where old practices lingered. For example, some British fairy folklore was remembered in Marblehead that was not found anywhere else in Massachusetts, brought there by its original colonists. In Lovecraft's story, something even weirder is found in Kingsport.

Marblehead was one of Lovecraft's favorite places. He first visited it in December, 1922, and described it in nearly orgasmic terms as "the most powerful single emotional climax experienced during my nearly forty years of existence." He returned several more times before writing "The Festival." Lovecraft was obsessed with New England's Colonial era, and he loved Marblehead's extensive and well-preserved colonial architecture. When the narrator finally reaches Kingsport and sees it glistening on a snowy night, he is basically describing Marblehead: 

...willow-trees and graveyards; endless labyrinths of steep, narrow, crooked streets, and dizzy church-crowned central park that time durst not touch; ceaseless mazes of colonial houses piled and scattered at all levels like a child's disordered blocks; antiquity hovering on grey wings over winter-whitened gables and gambrel roofs...

It sounds very charming, right? In reality Marblehead is very charming, but since this is an H.P. Lovecraft story and not a Hallmark Christmas movie we know something sinister is lurking under the Currier and Ives scenery of Kingsport. Our narrator will encounter something much more terrifying than eggnog and fruitcake. 

One giveaway is that he is coming to meet family he has never seen before. Many of Lovecraft's stories deal with people coming to bad ends after investigating their family tree. They find out their ancestors were cannibals ("The Rats in the Walls"), albino gorillas ("Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn..."), or evil, undead, murderous wizards ("The Case of Charles Dexter Ward"). Insanity and death usually ensue. Lovecraft was very concerned with his own heritage. He was obsessed with his role in America's racial hierarchy as white man of English descent, but also keenly aware that both his parents had died in an insane asylum. Ancestry is a double-edged sword.

These issues definitely appear in "The Festival." When the narrator reaches the home of his distant relatives it is a scene right from a history book. The main room has a thick-beamed ceiling and a massive fireplace. Old books line the walls. There's even an old woman spinning at a spinning wheel. What could be more proper and New Englandy? But something seems off. His hosts don't speak and their faces are oddly waxen, like masks. Their gloved hands are unnervingly flabby. And one of the old books is the Necronomicon, a forbidden book of ancient, evil knowledge.

His hosts take it with them when they leave for the big celebration, which is probably a good sign this won't be your average holiday party. The narrator follows them into the street, and they join a throng of hooded and silent people making their way up a hill towards an old church. Oddly, whenever the narrator bumps into someone he notices their body is unusually soft and pulpy. By the way, I also forgot to mention that four of the narrator's ancestors were hanged during the Salem witch trials.

Illustration by Virgil Finally for Colour Out of Space

"The Festival" has a bizarre ending, even for an H.P. Lovecraft story. The narrator and the other celebrants make their way down an enormous secret stairway carved into the bedrock under the church, finally arriving at a huge underground cavern. It's illuminated by a pale green fire that throws no shadows, and an oily black river flows through it. 

Fainting and gasping, I looked at that unhallowed Erebus of titan toadstools, leprous fire, and slimy water, and saw the cloaked throngs forming a semicircle around the blazing pillar. It was the Yule-rite, older than man and fated to survive him; the primal rite of the solstice and of spring’s promise beyond the snows; the rite of fire and evergreen, light and music. And in the Stygian grotto I saw them do the rite, and adore the sick pillar of flame, and throw into the water handfuls gouged out of the viscous vegetation which glittered green in the chlorotic glare.

The narrator joins in the celebration, but cannot maintain his composure when hideous winged monsters arrive to carry the hooded celebrants even further into the underworld. One of his hosts silently tries to convince him by pulling out a watch and signet ring that belonged to the narrator's great-great-great-great grandfather - which were buried with him in 1698. The host's waxen face slips off - it is a mask- revealing something so horrible the narrator throws himself into the river in terror. 

He wakes up in a hospital; the staff tell him he was pulled from the harbor. They diagnose him with 'psychosis' due to his ravings. As part of his treatment they let him read a copy of the Necronomicon, and a  passage in it leads him to believe that the people at the ritual were really long dead sorcerers and witches whose souls had created new bodies to inhabit from the worms and maggots that ate their corpses.

"Great holes secretly are digged where earth's pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl."

And that is the end of the story. It's one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, and if you haven't read it you can do so online here. It's Christmas but filtered through Lovecraft's various obsessions. 

Speaking of obsessions, I realized when I was almost done writing this post that I had already written about "The Festival" a few years earlier. I guess it's one of those things I return to every year. Maybe it's my new holiday tradition. Happy holidays?

December 06, 2020

Mary Webster, the Half-Hanged Witch of Hadley

Here's something interesting I just learned: Margaret Atwood was inspired by to write her famous novel The Handmaid's Tale by the story of a 17th century Massachusetts woman accused of witchcraft. That woman was Mary Webster.

Mary Webster lived in Hadley, Massachusetts. Like many women accused of witchcraft, Mary was older, poor, and cantankerous. Her neighbors in Hadley blamed her for many of their misfortunes. For example, they believed that she caused animals to misbehave when they passed by her house:

Teams passing to and from the meadow went by her door, and she so bewitched some cattle and horses that they stopped, and ran back, and could not be driven by her house. In such cases, the teamsters used to go into the house and whip or threaten her, and she would then let the teams pass. She once turned over a load of hay near her house, and the driver went in and was about to chastise her, when she turned the load back again. (Sylvester Judd, History of Hadley, 1863)

People also said she caused weird phenomena to occur inside their homes:

She entered a house, and had such influence upon an infant on the bed or in the cradle, that it was raised to the chamber floor and fell back again, three times, and no visible hand touched it. There is a story that at another house, a hen came down chimney and got scalded in a pot, and it was soon found that Mary Webster was suffering from a scald. (Sylvester Judd, History of Hadley, 1863)

You'll note that her neighbors in Hadley felt empowered to inflict violence on her when their animals misbehaved. They acted as vigilantes, but in 1683 Mary was formally accused of witchcraft and sent to Boston for a legal trial. Witnesses testified that she had "familiarity with the Devil," who came to her in the shape of a large black cat. They also testified that she suckled imps with her blood so they would do her bidding. The Boston magistrates did not find the evidence convincing and acquitted her. Mary Webster was freed and sent back to Hadley.

Italian woodcut from 1520.

The next year, in 1684, one of Hadley's most prominent citizens became gravely ill. Philip Smith was a church deacon, a lieutenant in the militia, and a representative to the Massachusetts General Court, the colony's legislative body. Philip's body was wracked with great pain, like he was being stabbed with hundreds of pins, and as a a pious man he at first  endured his illness as divine suffering inflicted from God. As the pain worsened he grew delirious, though, and eventually claimed that Mary Webster was bewitching him. He had been one of the officials responsible for sending her to Boston and they had exchange angry words upon her return to Hadley. 

Philip Smith's family began to notice strange things in their home after he named Mary as his tormentor. The house was often filled with an unnatural musky smell, as if a large unseen animal was hiding inside. Perhaps the smell came from the invisible creature, roughly the size of a cat, that could be seen roaming underneath Philip Smith's bedcovers while he tried to sleep. Or perhaps the odor was sent by Mary Webster herself - Philip said he could see her specter hovering by his bedside. 

A group of young men decided to take matters into their own hands (once again). But this time they did more than whip Mary. On a cold snowy night they dragged her from her house and hanged her from a tree. Eventually they cut her down. Miraculously she was still alive, so the vigilantes buried her body in the snow and fled. 

Mary Webster survived her hanging and being left for dead in the snow. She lived until 1696 and died at the age of seventy. Philip Smith succumbed to his illness shortly after Mary's hanging. The vigilantes apparently escaped punishment. 

It's a grim story about mob violence being inflicted on a social outcast. Now let's jump ahead three centuries. Canadian author Margaret Atwood was researching her ancestry when she learned about Mary Webster. Atwood at first planned to write a novel about Mary's life but eventually changed her plans. Instead she wrote The Handmaid's Tale (1985), which is dedicated to Mary Webster. You can certainly see how the violence, religious persecution, and misogyny that Mary experienced informed Atwood's novel and the ensuing TV show. 

It would be nice if Atwood eventually wrote a novel set in 17th century Massachusetts about Mary Webster, although I realize the research could be daunting. Still, it might just be too grim for me to read.

November 25, 2020

Bones, Apples, and Pie: Folk Magic for Thanksgiving

Since it's a holiday this week I thought I'd turn away from the usual witches and ghosts to write about something more light-hearted. But fear not! I'll get back to the spooky stuff next week. 

While browsing through some old books I came upon this familiar piece of folklore:

The forked bone just in front of the breastbone of a chicken or other fowl is known as the wishbone. If this bone chances to fall to you, preserve it and put it on the shelf behind the stove to dry. When properly seasoned you take hold of one end, let a friend take hold of the other, each make a wish, and then both pull. The wish of the one that has the top with his piece when it breaks will come true. (Clifton Johnson, What They Say in New England, 1896) 

Many of you have probably broken the wishbone and the tradition has very old roots. The Latin term for the wishbone is furcula, which apparently means 'little fork', and different types of folklore about this particular bone date back to at least the Middle Ages. Jeffrey Webb's American Myths, Legends, and Tall Tales (2016) claims they date back even further, to the ancient Etruscans who lived more than 2,000 years ago. It's a very intriguing bone, apparently. 

Mel McCuddin, Wishbone (2011), at the Art Spirit Gallery.

The specific tradition of getting your wish if you get the bigger piece of the bone is not ancient but is still quite old. Edward Armstrong's book The Folklore of Birds (1970) claims the practice of wishing upon the bone originated in the 1700s. So if you pull on the wishbone this year during your socially distanced celebration recognize that you are carrying on a centuries-old tradition, albeit under unusual circumstances.

Not everyone eats turkey so sadly not everyone can participate in the wishbone tradition. I did once buy a Tofurky that included a fake wishbone in the box but those fake bones aren't part of the Tofurky anymore. There is folklore about making pie, however, so even vegans can join in the holiday fun:

When a girl trims piecrust, and the trimming falls over her hand, it is a sign she is going to marry young (Clifton Johnson, What They Say in New England, 1896)

Nineteenth century folklore collections are full of omens that predict marriage. In a pre-liberated era, marriage loomed even larger in people's minds than it does today, and it particularly did for young women, who usually had limited career and life choices. Even the humble act of making pie could provide an indicator of one's marital future.

If you are making apple pie you have even more options for fortune-telling. One well-known tradition instructs a woman to peel an apple in one strip and then throw the peel over her shoulder. The peel will form the shape of a letter on the ground, and that letter will be the first initial of the man she will marry. Some accounts say you need to swing the peel around your head three times before throwing it down, so don't omit that crucial step.

A weirder piece of apple folklore comes from Maine. A young woman curious about her marital prospects should eat an apple at midnight while standing in front of a mirror. In one hand she should carry a lamp or candle for light. As she eats the apple she should recite the following incantation:

Whoever my true love may be

Come and eat this apple with me

Something about eating an apple at midnight and evoking an unknown lover to appear sounds a little spooky to me. I guess I wasn't able to resist the urge to write about spooky things after all. Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving, even if you spend it alone this year.


In addition to Clifton Johnson's book, I got material for this week's post from Fanny Bergen's book Current Superstitions (1896).

November 16, 2020

Where the Witches Hid: Four Legendary Witch Locations in Massachusetts

When the Salem witch trials happened in 1692, most of the accused were arrested and put on trial. A handful, however, got wind of their arrest and fled Salem. Philip and Mary English escaped to New York, while John Alden either fled to either New York or Duxbury. Constable John Willard ran off to Lancaster, but was arrested there and ultimately executed in Salem. 

The Salem witch trials loom large in the history of Massachusetts, and many legends have developed around them. Here are four legendary locations where victims of the Salem witch trials supposedly hid from their persecutors. Is there any truth to these legends? Read on...

Witches Woods (Beverly)

There is a forested area in Beverly called Beverly Commons, but it was once known as Witches Woods. One explanation for this name is that Giles Corey, one of the more famous victims of the Salem witch trials, fled Salem Village home after being accused and hid in Beverly. 

I haven't found any evidence that Corey hid in Beverly before his arrest. Corey's fame rests on the fact that he was crushed to death with heavy stones while being interrogated by Salem's sheriff. Folklore claims that he stubbornly refused to answer any questions as the stones were piled on his body and his only dying words were, "More weight." His story and reputation grew over the years, and in the 19th century a poem called "The Ballad of Giles Corey" even claimed he was a sinister wizard and not a victim of injustice. But there's nothing to show he fled to Beverly. 

I certainly understand the temptation to connect an infamous historic personage like Giles Corey to a locale with an odd name. But I think Witches Woods got its name for an even stranger reason. According to Caroline King Howard, a wealthy Salem resident who vacationed in Beverly with her family in the 1840s, Witches Woods was said to the location of a haunted farmhouse. The farmhouse usually appeared as an old ruin, but at other times it seemed to be inhabited and in good repair. Travelers often got lost in the woods near the strange house, wandering for hours in an area that was not that large. A headless ghost also reputedly haunted the woods, wandering sadly among the trees with his head under one arm.

The Garrison Witch House (Rockport)

After farmer John Proctor of Salem Village was accused of witchcraft, his pregnant wife Elizabeth fled north to Rockport on Cape Ann. Her sons lived in that town and built a house to shelter their mother. The house, called the Witch House or the Garrison Witch House, is still standing today.

This is another legend that is probably not historically accurate. Elizabeth Proctor was imprisoned with her husband but her execution was delayed because she was pregnant. She was not executed and she and her child were released from prison in May of 1693. There's not evidence that she fled to Rockport.

The website Vintage Rockport points out that the Garrison Witch House was originally just called the Garrison House and may actually predate the Salem trials, possibly being built in the 1670s. But Vintage Rockport also points out that the house has been called the Witch House since at least the early 1900s. Here's a postcard from 1926 showing the Witch House:

I do wonder how and why the legend of Elizabeth Proctor became attached to this house. I also wonder if the house was originally associated with some other witch whose name has long been forgotten. Although the Salem witches are the most famous in the state, there were hundreds of witches in Massachusetts, both legendary and historical, who are less well known. 

It's also possible the term "Witch House" might have just meant "old creepy house." When I was a child in Haverhill there was a spooky looking Victorian house a few blocks from us. It loomed above the street on an embankment and was in perpetual disrepair. I sometimes heard people refer to it as the "Witch House." No one said a witch actually lived there, but it looked like one might. 

Witch Rock (Rochester)

Witch Rock is a large boulder in Southeastern Massachusetts. When I first wrote about it several years ago I was aware of four interconnected theories explaining its name:

1. The rock was originally the site of local Native American religious ceremonies. When the Puritans arrived they mistakenly identified these ceremonies (and the rock) with witchcraft.

2. When the Puritans arrived they noticed that the Native Americans avoided the rock and therefore they named it Witch Rock.

3. According to a Rochester legend, the soul of an executed witch is trapped inside the rock, along with some nefarious demons. The witch and demons can sometimes be heard howling from inside as they try to escape through the boulder's cracks.

4. The local Native Americans thought a witch was trapped inside the rock.

Commenters on my blog pointed out that there was also a fifth explanation. One of Rochester's early settlers was a man named Mark Haskell. According to tradition, Haskell was asked to be a juror in the Salem witch trials. He refused, and to avoid persecution he fled south to Rochester. He took shelter near a large boulder, which was named Witch Rock in commemoration. This story seems to be well-known among Haskell family genealogy buffs, and Mark Haskell is often referred to by them as Witchcraft Mark. 

I really don't know which of these theories is correct. Perhaps there is some truth to all of them? The boulder has been called Witch Rock since at least the late 19th century, and even today it is painted with the image of a witch and is often the site of Halloween festivities. The legend lives on!

Witch Caves (Ashland)

Many years ago Tony and I traveled out to Ashland to find the mysterious Witch Caves. 

After the witch trials ended in 1693, the families of those who were accused moved west out of Salem to Framingham. According to tradition, they sheltered in a series of caves while they built houses in their new home. The caves are now located in a large park in Ashland, which split from Framingham in the 1840s.

It took us a while, but I think we found the caves that day. They were filled with dead leaves a yard deep and didn't look that safe, but here are a couple photos from way back in 2012. Forgive the low quality!

Did refugees from the Salem witch trials live in these caves? It's possible. Families from Salem did settle in this part of the state - a Framingham street near the park is named Salem's End Road, and historians have confirmed that a house on that road was built by Sarah Clayse, who was the sister of Rebecca Nurse and Mary Easty. 

Rebecca and Mary were executed as witches during the Salem trials, while Sarah was only imprisoned. After the trials ended she and her husband Peter left Salem for Framingham. They didn't want to live near the people who had murdered their relatives. Several other Salem families followed them. So there is some basis to the Witch Caves legend. We don't know for certain that the refugees lived in the caves, but we do know that the settled in that area. 

Do you know any other legends about places where witches hid? Please leave a comment if you do. I'm curious to learn more.

November 11, 2020

The Two Voices: A Ghost Story from Maine

It's been a busy few weeks, what with Halloween, the election, and some big projects at work. But now I finally have a moment to breathe and work on the blog. So here's a story that was told to me by a family member. She swears it is true, and I have no reason to doubt her. It's pretty creepy so don't read any further unless you want to be unsettled. 


Laurie is a nurse, and many years ago she was working at a hospital in Maine. She was on the night shift at the ICU when the following strange incident occurred. 

Laurie and one other nurse were the only staff in the ICU that night. The hospital was a small one, and there was only one patient in the unit: a middle-aged man who had been comatose for several weeks. His prognosis was not good and the doctors thought he would soon die.

As Laurie and her co-worker sat at the desk that night they heard something odd coming from down the hall. It was the voice of a small child. "Help me! Help me!" the voice said. "He's coming to get me!" It sounded like it was coming from the comatose patient's room.

Visiting hours were long over - it was after midnight. No children were supposed to be in the ICU. Laurie and her co-worker ran down the hall to the patient's room, but when they went inside there was no one there except the patient. He was lying immobile and unconscious in the same position he had been in for weeks. 

Puzzled, Laurie and her co-worker returned to the nurse's desk. But as soon as they were seated they once again heard the small child's voice. "Help me! Help me! He's here!"

They began to walk down the corridor back to the patient's room. As they drew near to it they heard another voice. Not a soft child's voice, but a deep, hoarse voice. Something about it sounded sinister. "I have you now," it said. "You cannot escape from me." 

Laurie and her colleague ran into the patient's room. There was no one inside except the comatose man and he was still lying in the same position. 

Laurie and the other nurse left the room. By this time they were starting to feel a little spooked. They returned to the nurse's desk and sat down.

Again, they heard the small child's voice coming from down the corridor. "Help me! Help me! He's here to take me away!" They heard the other, deep sinister voice laugh.

Laurie looked at her co-worker and said, "I'm not going into that room again." Her co-worker nodded in agreement. "Me neither."

They sat at the desk for hours, listening fearfully to the two voices coming from the patient's room. At 3:00 a.m. the voices suddenly stopped and a life support alarm went off. Laurie and her colleague ran down to the patient's room. He had died and could not be revived. They never heard those two voices again. 


Was there something supernatural happening in the patient's room? Or were both of the voices coming from him? I suppose that all depends on your worldview. 

October 28, 2020

The Hideous Crone of Fall River

This story allegedly first appeared in the April 3, 1845 edition of The Weekly News, a Fall River newspaper. Newspapers at that time often published some pretty outrageous stories, so take this one with a grain of salt, or maybe even a tablespoon of salt. Still, it's a good story for Halloween and has a weird surprise ending. 


In the mid-1700s, a dilapidated old hut stood on the banks of the Quequechan River in Fall River. The hut had been abandoned for many years and was perched perilously on the river bank:

By whom it was created, and why in that uninviting, if not dangerous spot, nobody could tell. It had long been deserted except by bats and reptiles, and was fast going to decay under the alternate action of the sun and rain.

The hut was widely believed to be haunted, and locals avoided walking by it, particularly at night. An elderly woman, called the Crone of the Quequechan, was sometimes seen near the hut, and some people claimed she was a witch. These same people suggested burning the hut down or pushing it into the river, but these drastic actions were not taken. 

Francisco Goya, "Wicked Woman" 1819 - 1823

One December night, though, bright lights were seen shining forth from the cracks and holes in the hut. Smoke rose up from its chimney. Someone - or something - was inside! Fearfully, the people who lived nearby gathered together to decide a course of action. 

Some thought they should approach the hut as a group (for safety) and with a Bible (for even more safety). Some thought they should send for a minister. Others thought an armed group should attack the hut and burn it down. 

As they deliberated an elderly women appeared in the crowd. It was the Crone of the Quequechan herself. 

Her head was thrust forward, exhibiting a nose of uncommon magnitude, covered with warts and carbuncles, beneath which a mouth, half open, extending almost from eager to ear, showed here and there a few long dark tusks projecting out like half burnt stumps in a newly cleared field... Her large bony hands, foul with sore and accumulated filth, were thrust forward, and her long hooked fingers, incessantly in motion, seemed eager to seize whoever or whatever might come in her way.

Angrily, the crone surveyed the gathered crowd. "Who talks of throwing me or mine into the Quequechan? Who talks of priests and Bibles? Who talks of guns and fire?" she said as stalked among them. At first the citizens of Fall River shrank back in terror from her hideous gaze, but soon their fear turned to anger and they pushed her to ground. 

When the crone collapsed to the floor the crowd gasped. Everyone came to their senses. She was just a poor old woman, and they had nothing to fear from her. They regretted even thinking about burning down her hut.  

Their regret was short-lived, though. The crone stood up, grabbed an infant child from its mother's arms, and dashed off into the night. The crowd (or perhaps mob is really a better term?) followed after her. 

They pursued her to the dilapidated hut, where they managed to wrest the child from her arms. Holding her down, the mob prepared to burn the hut down. Other than a wooden stool and a pile of straw, the only piece of furniture was a small wooden chest. "Please!" begged the crone. "Don't throw that in the fire!"

One man in the mob opened the chest. Inside was a letter, which he read aloud:

Boston, June ye 10, 1700


I am in the iron grip of the king's bloodhounds! Take care of thyself.


The mob turned to look at the crone. "It's true," she said. "I am the last mistress of Captain Kidd, the pirate!" The mob was stunned. The crone grabbed the letter and stalked off into the night, never to be seen again in Fall River.  


The story allegedly first appeared in The Weekly News in 1845, but the version I worked from appeared in 1953 in The Herald News. There are a few different versions of the story. For example, Massachusetts: A Guide to the Bay State (1937) claims the mob only learned the crone was Captain Kidd's mistress after they stoned her to death. That's really grim. I like the 1953 version better since it has a more dramatic ending. Her announcement and subsequent disappearance into the night is like an 18th century mic drop. 

Painting of Captain Kidd by Howard Pyle

The story plays with the tropes of the classic New England witchcraft tale: the old woman with the spooky reputation, the crowd of suspicious neighbors, and the threat of mob violence. But there's a twist - the crone is not a witch, and she's not just an ordinary old woman. She was once the lover of Captain Kidd, the notorious pirate imprisoned in Boston before being sent to England for trial and execution. Witches were quite common, but pirate mistresses were rare and unusual. 

Was there really a Crone of Quequechan? All the pieces individually are plausible: an old woman suspected of witchcraft, an imprisoned pirate, and of course those suspicious and intolerant New Englanders. If the story is true I think it's been reshaped for dramatic effect. The ending is ridiculous and over-the-top, and I love it. 

October 14, 2020

Take A Tour of New England's Lovecraft Country

It's October, so let's take a tour. No, not a foliage tour - a tour of Lovecraft country.

We've been watching Lovecraft Country on HBO these past few weeks. It's a horror/fantasy series based on Matt Ruff's novel of the same name; the main character is a Black veteran of the Korean War who likes science fiction and fantasy literature. The series explores a variety of genres (occult horror, science fiction, ghost stories, Indiana Jones style adventures) to examine racism and what it's like to be Black in America.

Despite the title, there's not a lot of Lovecraft in the show. H.P. Lovecraft (1890 - 1937) was a Rhode Island native and is considered one of the world's most influential horror writers. In recent years a lot of critical attention has been paid to the racism in his work, and Lovecraft Country in some ways is the attempt of genre fans, like author Matt Ruff and show runner Misha Green, to grapple with the negative aspects of the stories they love.

In one sense, the title Lovecraft Country refers to the fictional genres the show explores, the worlds of fantasy and horror fiction. However, the term "Lovecraft Country" existed before either the novel or the show, and was coined by scholars to refer to the various towns and places Lovecraft repeatedly mentions to in his fiction. Most of those places are in New England, so New England is actually Lovecraft country.

One of the reasons Lovecraft's fiction remains effective is because he blends facts and fiction. For example, he'll slip a fictional book like the Necronomicon into a list of actual occult books in a story. He'll mention real people like Cotton Mather or Dr. John Dee while discussing fictional occultists. Its a technique that leaves the reader wondering what's real and what's not.

He used a similar technique when writing about geographic locations. The monster-haunted coastal town of Innsmouth is fictional, but it's supposedly located near Rowley and was inspired by Newburyport, both real towns in Massachusetts. Many of the fictional locations he mentions are actually based on real ones, so you could take an actual tour of Lovecraft country. It might be a nice way to spend an October day. Just watch out for those tentacled monsters.

And here's a word of practical caution - if you do visit any of these places please follow COVID-19 protocols. Wear a mask. Maintain six feet of distance. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer. Stay healthy and keep the horror in your life fictional.


This decaying city with a sinister history appears in many of Lovecraft's stories. It's the home of Miskatonic University, a prestigious school whose library contains a copy of the accursed Necronomicon. Arkham was the site of witch trials in the 17th century and residents believe that witchcraft still secretly happens there. 

Photo from

Arkham's location was not clearly defined in Lovecraft's early stories, but in later stories the town is clearly an analogue of Salem, Massachusetts. The cemetery in his 1923 story "The Unnamable" was inspired by Salem's historic Charter Street Burying Ground, and some family names that Lovecraft uses (like Derby and Pickman) are old Salem family surnames. 

Featured in: The Unnamable (1923), The Dunwich Horror (1928), The Dreams in the Witch House (1933), The Thing on the Doorstep (1937).


Boston is obviously a real place. According to Lovecraft, the Massachusetts capital is riddled with underground tunnels home to man-eating, dog-faced ghouls. Hopefully that isn't true. Lovecraft also claims there is an entrance to the realm of dreams in Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street, which probably isn't true either but sounds nicer than ghoul tunnels.

Boston's North End. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

Featured in: Pickman's Model (1926), Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927)


Ancient stone ruins can supposedly be found in this small Maine town. Hidden beneath the ruins is a stairway of 6,000 steps that leads to a pit full of shoggoths, hideous protoplasmic monsters. A secret cult of witches gathers there to celebrate their rituals. 

I don't think the pit of shoggoths is real, but Chesuncook is. It's actually a small lakeside town that Henry David Thoreau visited in the 1840s, and today is popular spot for rafting trips. The word "chesuncook" means "place of geese," which doesn't sound particularly frightening. 

Featured in: The Thing on the Doorstep (1937)


"Outsiders visit Dunwich as seldom as possible, and since a certain season of horror all the signboards pointing towards it have been taken down..." According to Lovecraft, this central Massachusetts town is full of historic architecture, but "most of the houses are deserted and falling to ruin" while Dunwich's only church has been converted into a grimy general store. The inhabitants of Dunwich are rumored to be both inbred and abnormally intrigued by black magic. 

Wilbraham Methodist Meeting House, from

Dunwich is totally fictional, but was inspired by a visit Lovecraft paid to a friend in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. He enjoyed the trip, and I'm sure he appreciated Wilbraham's historic town center. Some aspects of Dunwich were also inspired by a visit to Athol, Massachusetts. 

Featured in: The Dunwich Horror (1928)


Haverhill, Massachusetts is the birthplace of two academics who learned things they'd rather forget. Walter Gilman studied theoretical physics while staying in an old 17th century Arkham house once inhabited by a witch and died a strange death. Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, a professor at Miskatonic University, experienced a strange bout of amnesia for several years. When it subsided he claimed his mind had been kidnapped by monstrous alien beings from the past.

Haverhill is real, and is where I was born. As a child I was intrigued and yet terrified to see it referenced in Lovecraft's fiction. Lovecraft's friend William 'Tryout' Smith lived in Haverhill and he visited the city often. 

Featured in: The Dreams in the Witch House (1933), The Shadow Out of Time (1936)


According to Lovecraft, this decaying Massachusetts port city experienced a strange plague in 1846, although some residents say it was actually a massacre of some kind. Shortly thereafter a religious group called the Esoteric Order of Dagon took over Innsmouth. The Order was investigated by the US government in 1928 and many of its members arrested. The Navy also torpedoed an unknown target off the city's coast. 

Parker River Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport

Innsmouth is another fictional creation, but is very closely modeled on Newburyport, Massachusetts. Lovecraft visited that city in 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, and wrote that it was so run down "it is today locally known as the City of the Living Dead." When Lovecraft visited the business district was nearly abandoned and many of the buildings were falling into ruin. Today it's a thriving and renovated tourist destination.

Featured in: The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936)


Another Massachusetts town with strange secrets. Some residents are said to practice ancient rites during winter solstice. An elderly man who hates immigrants supposedly uses black magic against them. Locals discourage anyone from visiting a strange old house that sits on top of a nearby cliff. 

Another fictional town, but like Innsmouth also inspired by a real location, this time Marblehead, Massachusetts. Lovecraft was an enormous fan of Colonial architecture, and he wrote that his 1922 visit to Marblehead was "the most powerful single emotional climax experienced during my nearly forty years of existence." That must be some really good architecture. 

Featured in: The Terrible Old Man (1920), The Festival (1923), The Strange High House in the Mist (1926)


Lovecraft was born in the Rhode Island capital and lived most of his life there. The epitaph on his monument in the Swann Point Cemetery reads: "I Am Providence." He clearly loved the city and set many of this stories there. In Lovecraft's world, an old house on Benefit Street was haunted by a life-sucking fungus, a church steeple on Federal Hill housed a mysterious giant crystal, and the city was home to psychic artists, reincarnated wizards, and nautical cult members. Those things may not be true, but Providence is still pretty amazing even in real life.

Featured in: The Shunned House (1924), The Call of Cthulhu (1926), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927), and The Haunter of the Dark (1935).

October 06, 2020

The Norton Witches: Small Town Legends

Well, it's October. Spooky month, as people say. Every month is spooky on this blog, but I'll try to share some particularly nice stories this October. Let's conjure up those Halloween vibes! 


I don't think I've ever been to Norton, Massachusetts but I may have passed through it. It sounds like a small, quiet New England town. They only got their first traffic light in 1997, so it's very quiet. But small New England towns often harbor strange secrets, as every Stephen King fan knows. 

For example, a rock behind the Norton's elementary school supposedly is imprinted with the Devil's footprint. The Evil One made it in 1716 as he carried off George Leonard, who had sold his soul for material wealth. 

Norton is also located inside the Bridgewater Triangle, an area famous for its paranormal activity. The town certainly has had its share of weird happenings. For example, a couple weeks ago I posted about a lizard man seen in Norton in 2001. More famously, in 1971 a Norton police officer named Thomas Downy saw something with an 8 to 12 foot wingspan flying overhead as he drove home through Easton late one night. Small towns seem to get the best monsters! 

Norton was first settled in 1669, so it's a relatively old town. These days people tend to blame paranormal phenomena on ghosts, aliens or dimensional gateways, but in the past witches were usually blamed for strange events and misfortunes. That was certainly the case in Norton.

The most famous witch in Norton's history is Ann Cobb. Interestingly, very little is known of her witchy exploits but a bridge in town is named after her (Ann Cobb Bridge). It is more commonly known as Witch Bridge or Witch's Bridge. Ann Cobb used to live near the bridge that now bears her name, which was about two miles away from the town center. According to a local legend, one day she set out from her home for the center and arrived there within minutes, much to the consternation of the townspeople. How had she traveled so quickly? People suspected that perhaps she flew, or was transported by some sort of evil spirit. The incident was enough to cement her reputation as a witch and to merit a bridge being named after her. Ann Cobb died in poverty as a ward of the town in 1798.

Dora Leonard was also suspected of being a witch. Farmers blamed Dora and her magic when their animals escaped from the barn or their pens. Two young boys also blamed her for their bad luck hunting squirrels. According to the boys, they had trapped a particularly large squirrel in a tree and shot at it repeatedly. They missed every shot, though, and the squirrel escaped unharmed. As the boys trudged home they saw a strange cat watching them. They told everyone who would listen that the cat was really Dora and she had bewitched their guns. Much like Ann Cobb, Dora Leonard was impoverished in her old age and the town took care of her financially. As she lay dying in 1786 her house was filled with strange noises. The neighbors who were attending her final moments fled in terror. 

Naomi Burt was the third Norton woman believed to be a witch. Like Dora Leonard, Naomi was said to cause mischief and minor mishaps. Wagons lost their wheels if they passed by her house and oxen escaped their yokes thanks to Naomi's witchcraft. Children particularly feared her and held their breath if they passed by her residence. Sadly, Naomi committed suicide on July 4, 1808. Old legends about witches are entertaining and spooky, but being impoverished and a social outcast can be grim and lonely. 


My sources for this week's post are Duane Hamilton Hurd's History of Bristol County, Massachusetts. With Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men, Part 2 (1883), and George Faber Clark's  A History of the Town of Norton, Bristol County, Massachusetts, from 1669 – 1859 (1859. This article from also had good information about the Norton witches. 

September 28, 2020

Pale, Ghastly, Deadly: An Old Boston Ghost Story and The Politics Behind It

On May 2, 1687, Joseph Beacon was sound asleep in his Boston, Massachusetts home when suddenly someone appeared in his bedroom. It was 5:00 a.m. in the morning.

It was Joseph's brother. Joseph, who couldn't tell if he was asleep or awake, was puzzled by this since his brother was thousands of miles away in London, England. He was also concerned since his brother's "countenance was very pale, ghastly, deadly and he had a bloody wound one side of his forehead."

"Brother!" says the affrighted Joseph.

"Brother!" answered the apparition. 

Said Joseph, "What the matter brother? How came you here."

The apparition replied, "Brother, I have been most barbarously and injuriously butchered, by a debauched and drunken fellow, to whom I never did any wrong in my life."

The bloody apparition went on to say that his murderer was trying to flee London and would sail to New England on one of two ships, either the Foy or the Wild. The apparition urged Joseph to get an order from the governor if either ship arrived and have the murderer arrested. "I'll stand by you and prove the indictment," the apparition said. Then it vanished.  

At the end of June, Joseph Beacon received word from London that his brother was dead. While trying to hail a coach he had been attacked by a drunk stranger. The drunkard hit him on the head with a fire iron, and Joseph's brother lay unconscious until he died on May 2nd. The murderer was arrested and brought to trial but managed to escape execution. 

Cotton Mather, 1663 - 1728

That story appears in Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), which was written by the Reverend Cotton Mather of Boston, one of the most prominent Puritan clergymen in New England. Wonders is mainly concerned with defending the legitimacy of the Salem witch trials, which had just occurred the previous year. Many people questioned the trials even when they were happening, and after they ended public opinion began turning against everyone involved. Mather was trying to counteract that:

We cannot but with all thankfulness, acknowledge the success which the Merciful God has given unto the sedulous and assiduous endeavors of our honorable rulers, to detect the abominable witchcrafts which have been committed in the country... If in the midst of the many dissatisfactions among us, the publication of these trials, may promote such a pious thankfulness unto God for justice being so far executed among us, I shall rejoice that God is glorified...

It might seem weird to include a ghost story in a book defending the Salem witch trials, but I think it was part of Mather's strategy for the book. "See? There are ghosts, so therefore there must be witches too..."

Or, to break it down step by step, his strategy might look like this: 

A. Do you believe in ghosts? If yes, then...

B. You have to believe in witches. And if you believe in witches, then...

C. You have to believe the Salem trials were legitimate and not a tragedy.

I don't think it's the best argument. Believing in ghosts doesn't necessarily mean you have to believe in witches. And even if you do believe in witches, it doesn't mean the Salem trials were legitimate. For example, Reverend John Hale, another Puritan clergyman, argued in his 1697 book A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft that it's impossible to prove witchcraft in a trial. Hale believed that witches might exist but argued that the the Devil can take the form of an innocent person. That time you saw your neighbor tormenting you with witchcraft? It may really have been the Devil in disguise. 

Ultimately Cotton Mather lost the argument and his reputation was ruined for defending something indefensible. He was on the wrong side of history. The lesson of the Salem trials was pretty clear: don't accuse your neighbors of being part of a supernatural conspiracy. 

Sadly, the lesson didn't really stick. In the 1980s hundreds of people were accused of being part of a child-abusing Satanic conspiracy. The Satanic Panic, as it was called, destroyed families and led to prison terms for many innocent people. It was all based on sham psychology but no one stopped the Satanic Panic until it was too late. 

Now we have the Q Anon conspiracy theory, which has been spreading online for several years. Basically, this theory claims that a cabal of wealthy and powerful Satanists are abducting children for nefarious purposes and that Donal Trump will defeat them with mass arrests of his political opponents and journalists. It's obviously a fake rumor designed to rile up sentiment against the Democrats, but many people still believe it. 

Folks, you can put on the brakes. Liking or believing in one weird thing doesn't mean you have to believe all of them. Just because you like crystals doesn't mean you have to be an anti-vaxer. Just because you believe in UFOs doesn't mean you have to buy into Q Anon or any other conspiracy that is going to harm actual, living humans. The paranormal should be something fun to explore. It shouldn't be a slippery slope leading to mob violence and witch trials. 

September 14, 2020

A Lizard Man in Norton, Massachusetts

It happened on a warm night in the summer of 2001. A young man was working late at a store in his hometown of Norton, Massachusetts. At 11:30 pm he locked up and started to walk home.

He lived just a mile away, so even though it was quite dark he took a shortcut through the woods. It was a route he had taken many times before without incident. But tonight would be different. 

The path through the woods was dimly lit by distant streetlights. Partway down the path the man yawned, and was terrified to hear something roaring as if in response. It sounded like a large animal. He froze. In the dim light he saw someone, or rather something, emerge from behind a tree. The creature was nearly 8 feet tall and reptilian in nature, resembling a lizard with a man's face. It was powerfully built and looked like it could "have ripped the witness limb from limb if it wanted to." 

Photo from Spawn of the Slithis (1978)
This is all pretty weird, but here's where it gets weirder. As the young man stood there, terrified, he suddenly saw a flash of bright light in the sky. When he looked back at the tree the lizard creature was gone. Stranger still, the young man's watch said it was 1:45 a.m. More than an hour had passed and he didn't know what had occurred in that missing time. 


That's the end of the story. It appears in Albert Rosales's book Humanoid Encounters: 2000 - 2009, and Rosales found the story online on a site called "Your True Tales." There are lots of interesting things about this story.

First of all, it's about a lizard man, which is pretty amazing. Lizard men do pop up in North American folklore and cryptozoology now and then; the most famous is the Lizard Man of Bishopville, North Carolina who was seen in that town for several years beginning in 1986. There aren't many stories from New England about lizard men, though. This one's kind of an anomaly.

The Lizard Man of Bishopville appeared in swampy areas. So did this one. Norton, Massachusetts has lots of swamps within its boundaries, including parts of the infamous 16,000 acre Hockomock Swamp. The Hockomock Swamp is the center of an area called the Bridgewater Triangle, which is famous for its paranormal activity. Norton sits squarely inside that triangle, so perhaps its not totally surprising a reptilian humanoid would appear in a giant swamp also known for its ghosts, UFO sightings, and Sasquatch encounters. 

So are there lizard monsters hibernating in the muddy swamps of Norton? Maybe, but maybe not. The strange flash of light and the missing time at the end of the story seem to indicate the creature is not really of this world. After all, strange lights and missing time are often associated with UFOs, not animals that live in the woods. If the Norton lizard man was just a physical creature he would have trudged off, not disappeared in a flash of light. 

Personally, I'd call the police or at least Animal Control if I encountered a large lizard creature. This person didn't, which is perhaps why this story is not that well known. Also, lots of weird things are said to happen in the Bridgewater Triangle. Giant snakes, phantom panthers, strange lights, Bigfoot, pukwudgies. If it's paranormal it's probably happened there. In another place or another time a lizard man would probably stand out. In the Bridgewater Triangle he's just another guest at the party. 

September 01, 2020

Chicken Blood and Steel Rods: Magic and Treasure in 18th Century Vermont

In the 18th and early 19th centuries many New Englanders believed the area was riddled with buried treasure. I've written about this a few times before, but basically people thought pirates, or sometimes Spanish explorers, had buried gold and silver all over New England. It was in fact a very common pastime for people to dig for treasure. All you needed was spare time and a shovel - and some magic.

Before you could dig for treasure you had to find it. Sometimes local legends provided the location where the treasure was buried. For example, that's the case with Dungeon Rock in Lynn, Massachusetts, which according to legend collapsed onto a pirate and his treasure during an earthquake and was subsequently the site of a famous attempt to unearth the buried booty. The treasure was never found.

However, if local legends were no help you'd need some magic to locate the treasure. Many people turned to dowsing rods for assistance. Traditionally dowsing rods were made from forked witch hazel branches, but in some cases they were made of various metals, sometimes expensively. They were most often used to find water but in theory could also find buried gold. Well, at least in theory.

If the dowsing rod wasn't working out you could always try following your dreams, and I mean that literally. There are many accounts of New Englanders dreaming about the location of buried treasure. For example, Silas Hamilton (1736 - 1816) of Whitingham, Vermont, kept a notebook where he recorded dozens of tips and stories he'd heard about buried treasure across New England. Many of them involved dreams:

... Mrs. Woodbury and her daughters have dreamed sundry times in a remarkable manner of money or  hid (sic) treasure in Brookfield on her husband's farm in Brookfield in the Bay State. 
Ebenezer Felton of New Salem dreamed of money hid.  
Mr. Lamb informs that Bezalel Pierce informs that his brother of South Hadley dreamed of a large quantity of money hid near Mount Tom on the West Side of the Connecticut River.  
Also Capt. Doneson dreamed of hid money on Fisher's Island on Mount Prospect near a rock not the bigness of a haycock. Said Prospect is on on the west end of the island. 

You get the idea. But still, learning where the treasure was hidden (or "hid" as Hamilton would say) was really just the start of the process. You still had to dig it up, which sounds easier than it was. Yes, New England soil is stony, but that's not why it was hard to get the treasure. It was hard because the treasure was almost always protected by supernatural guardians and magic spells.

Various legends tell of the eerie guardians that watch over the hidden gold. Giant ghosts on horseback, armies of black cats, devilish hounds, and undead pirates - these were just a sample of the demonic beings a treasure-digger might encounter. Certain magical precautions had to be taken to ward them off. Treasure-digging should only take place at midnight, for example, and strict silence must be observed by all participants. Some stories also claim the digging had to be doe within a protective circle drawn on the ground.

Breaking any of these rules would allow the demonic guardians to attack, but even worse it would make the treasure move. That's right - even after you found the treasure, it could still move to a new location. Many treasure-diggers claimed they had the hidden gold within reach, just a single shovelful of dirt away, only to see it disappear or sink deeper into the earth when someone spoke or made too much noise. Imagine their frustration. It's like being one number away from winning PowerBall. The whole process of finding the treasure had to begin all over again.

Silas Hamilton believed that he had a solution to this problem. It involved animal blood:

Take nine steel rods about ten or twelve inches in length, sharp or piked to pierce into the earth, and let them be besmeared with blood from a fresh hen mixed with hogging. The make two circles around  the hid (sic) treasure. One of the said circles a little larger in circumference than the hid treasure lays in the earth, the other circle some larger still, and as the hid treasure is wont to move to North or South or East or West place your rods as described on the other side of this leaf (page).

Silas Hamilton's illustration from Green Leaves from Whitingham

In essence, the rods created a cage around the treasure which prevented it from moving away. The circular formation is reminiscent of the magical circles that have been cast by ceremonial magicians for centuries.

Just a few words about Silas Hamilton. He was a wealthy landowner, and helped found Whitingham in the 1770s. He was an important and reputable person, yet he was writing about smearing steel rods with chicken blood to prevent buried treasure from moving around in the ground. I think it shows how prevalent and normal magic was in New England at  the time.

I don't think Silas Hamilton ever found any pirate gold, and I don't think many people ever did. That didn't stop them from trying, though. Treasure digging sounds like a fun activity to me. You got to run around late at night in the woods with your friends, hoping to get rich while simultaneously scared of encountering a ghost or some demonic animal. It sounds like a lot of the paranormal shows that are on TV right now, or even some weird legend trips I've been on myself. Perhaps finding the treasure wasn't really the point. No one ever got rich, but I'm sure people kept doing it because they wanted to hang out with their friends and have some spooky fun.

One closing thought. Whitingham, Vermont is a small town on the Massachusetts border, and one of its most famous residents was Brigham Young, the second leader of the Mormon Church. The Mormon Church was founded by Joseph Smith, who was also born in Vermont and later said he was led by an angel to unearth a book written on golden plates buried in a hill.


I got the information about Silas Hamilton from Clark Jillson's 1894 book Green Leaves from Whitingham, Vermont: A History of the Town.

August 25, 2020

Cursed Movie Filmed in Abandoned Insane Asylum

A new X-Men movie is being released this week. The New Mutants comes out on the 28th, and is notable for two reasons. First, it's actually being released in theaters, so if you dare to to the movies you can see it on the big screen. Second, it was filmed in Massachusetts in 2017, but its release was delayed for several years. The director has hinted that the movie is "cursed."

The New Mutants tells the tale of five young folks who are imprisoned in a spooky hospital because their mutant powers are considered dangerous. Much of the movie was shot at Medfield State Hospital, an abandoned 100-year old insane asylum in Medfield. It sounds like an appropriately spooky setting.

Medfield State Hospital. Photo by Ghostfacesouthshore on Wikipedia.

The movie was originally supposed to be released in 2018, but was delayed due to studio mergers and conflicting opinion's over the final tone of the film. The director, Josh Boone, has suggested the movie is cursed and that perhaps filming at Medfield State caused it.

It was during the press push for the first trailer that Boone first spoke of “weird” things happening to crew members at Medfield State Hospital during filming. 
“Literally every single person on my crew — all my grips — all those people had weird things happen to them while they were there,” Boone told IGN of the abandoned state hospital, which also served as a filming location for “Shutter Island” in 2009. “I even told the behind-the-scenes crew to go interview everyone who had weird stuff happen to them for an extra on the Blu-ray.” (from, "The story of ‘The New Mutants,’ the ‘cursed’ Marvel movie filmed in Mass.")

I was of course intrigued by the idea of a haunted insane asylum nearby, so I did a little research. Here's what I found. Medfield State Hospital opened in 1896 and was composed of dozens of buildings spread out over 900 acres of land. The hospital was designed on a "cottage plan," with many small buildings intended to create a homey atmosphere. It closed in 2003, and is now open to the public as a park. You can walk on the grounds (it looks like a college campus) but can't enter any of the buildings for safety reasons.

Here's what I didn't find: any stories about ghosts, hauntings, or a curse. I was a little surprised, given it's an abandoned insane asylum, but most visitors say Medfield State is very peaceful.
The citizens of Medfield really seem to enjoy the park-like atmosphere, and several articles I've read online have recommended visiting. 

The cast of The New Mutants

There are probably a few reasons why no spooky stories are attached to Medfield State. It's hard to think of a place as scary when people are walking dogs, playing frisbee, and having picnics there. By opening it up to the public the town has effectively made it wholesome and inherently unspooky. Fencing it off and putting up "No Trespassing" signs would have done the opposite.

Also, the hospital only closed in 2003, which isn't that long ago. It's probably not long enough for any really good local legends to arise or gain traction. Maybe they'll show up in a few years.

It's quite possible The New Mutants will kick off some new legends. Maybe locals will say, "Oooh! Medfield State is so creepy. I heard they filmed a movie there and it was cursed!" It certainly sounds like the start of a good urban legend, doesn't it? The only problem is that you have to buy the Blu-ray to learn about the creepy stuff. Hopefully someone at Marvel will release those interviews on YouTube or another format so the legend can spread.