March 22, 2020

Daisy Wheels and Witch Marks in New England

People in pre-modern New England used a variety of magical techniques to protect their homes from witches. Some of these are attested to in witch trial documents, where we read about people hanging horseshoes over doorways or lining their windows with bay leaves. The Puritans thought the world was full of sinister magical forces and they tried to ward them off with these protective spells. 

Historians and archaeologists believe other techniques were used as well. For example, a cat skeleton and a pot were found buried under the entrance of a historic tavern in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The cat was killed with a single blow to the skull. Animal burials inside walls or under foundations are also commonly found in England, and it's believed the animals were buried to somehow deter witches from entering the buildings. Pots (and shoes) are also commonly found buried under or hidden inside walls, and researchers believe they were intended to trap witches. 

Unfortunately, no one has found a historic document that explicitly spells this out so it's not clear if that's really the case. Researchers assume these odd burials had a magical purpose but the people who performed them didn't leave any written explanations. Because witches were perceived to be a common threat it seems likely these burials were protective magic. It's likely - but not proven. 

The Fall 2019 issue of Historic New England magazine had an interesting article about daisy wheels, another likely form of defensive magic. "Magic Markings" by Michael J. Emmons, Jr. examines a type of distinctive circular marking that is found many older New England buildings. They look like this:

From Spade and the Grave
You can see why they're called daisy wheels. Emmons notes that one of these markings is found in a Portsmouth, New Hampshire house built in 1664, and that they are found in many other old buildings in New England and along the East Coast:
I have encountered dozens of sites featuring these symbols. They are found on walls, doors, fireplace lintels, stairs, attic beams, and even floorboards, and they probably exist in hundreds of early American houses. Apparently created (most of the time) with compasses or carpenters' dividers, the symbols typically consist of an inscribed outer circle enclosing six pointed "petals" that stretch from the circle's center to its perimeter, thus resembling a flower. ("Magic Markings," Michael J. Emmons, Jr., Historic New England, Fall 2019, pp. 4 - 8.)
Emmons goes on to write that they are thought to be "..'witch marks' or 'hex signs,' protective inscriptions to guard one's house, and family, against misfortune (and perhaps actual witches)." He also lays out some other theories: that they were used by carpenters when designing buildings, or were simply doodles carved into the walls by children. There's no strong proof for those theories either, and currently we just don't know the purpose of the daisy wheels. 

From Country Living
Personally, I think they probably did have a magical purpose, at least at some point in history. As this site points out, daisy wheels are not limited to North America. The ancient Romans seem to have been the first to carve daisy wheels into buildings, and after they conquered Britain the symbol began to appear there as well. It can be found in many Medieval English churches, often carved near baptismal fonts, and carved into furniture as well. The Puritans brought the practice with them when they colonized New England, and in addition to houses the symbol also appears on some 17th century grave stones. I think there must be a purpose to something that was done for nearly 2,000 years. 

But perhaps over time the exact purpose was slowly forgotten until finally the practice finally died out. Americans stopped carving daisy wheels into houses by the middle of the 19th century. Significantly, that's also when most Americans had stopped believing seriously in witches. Witchcraft changed from something to be feared to something quaint and folkloric. Witches became the subject of stories told to scare children, not entities to protect your house from. 

March 14, 2020

A Giant Woman and A Man-Faced Dog: Strange Encounters in The 19th Century

Today's post is about strange stories and how they don't always make sense. 

People report seeing a lot of weird things, but most of them can be placed into certain categories. Did you see a large hairy humanoid in the woods? We'll categorize that as Bigfoot. Did you see a glowing light in the sky? We'll call that one a UFO. You saw a semi-transparent person in an old house? That was a ghost.

You get the picture. As humans we like our world to be neat and orderly, and that includes even the weird things that are in it. Putting things in categories helps us make sense of the world. If something can be named it becomes less threatening. But not everything can be easily categorized or named. People sometimes report things that are unique, unusual and don't have an easy explanation. And they've done so for hundreds of years. 

I was recently reading John Greenleaf Whittier's 1847 book The Supernaturalism of New England. Whittier was a popular 19th century poet who was born in my hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts, and he had an abiding interest in New England folklore. Some of his most popular poems were based on old legends, but The Supernaturalism of New England is not a book of poetry. It's a collection of legends and what we modern folks would call "paranormal encounters."

Some of these stories are easily categorized: witchcraft tales, accounts of premonitory dreams, haunted houses. But some are much stranger and harder to categorize, including the following story which was told to Whittier by a neighbor who was walking near Haverhill's Kenoza Lake when she witnessed something otherworldly.

It was a warm summer evening, just at sunset. She was startled by the appearance of a horse and cart the kind used a century ago in New England... The driver sat sternly erect, with a fierce countenance; grasping the reins tightly, and looking neither to the right nor the left. Behind the cart, and apparently lashed to it, was a woman of gigantic size, her countenance convulsed with a blended expression of rage and agony, writhing and struggling... Her head, neck, feet and arms were naked; wild locks of grey hair streamed back from temples corrugated and darkened. The horrible cavalcade swept by across the street, and disappeared at the margin of the pond. (Whittier, The Supernaturalism of New England, edited and with an Introduction by Edward Wagenknecht, 1969, p.75)

Whittier notes that "I have heard many similar stories, but the foregoing may serve as a sample of all." Sadly, he doesn't tell any of the similar stories so it's hard to understand what is going on here. Although the cart is old-fashioned I don't think this is just a ghost story. Perhaps the woman is being taken to Hell by the Devil, which was a common theme in New England legends? But if that's the case, why is she gigantic and so enraged? And why is she being dragged into Kenoza Lake? It's a really puzzling story.

Image from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Whittier also includes this next story, which was told to him by a friend who was "a man of strong nerves, sound judgment in ordinary matters, and not particularly superstitious." Still, this unsuperstitious man also encountered something creepy in Haverhill:

... He was standing one moonlight evening, in a meditative mood, on the bridge which crosses Little River near its junction with the Merrimack. Suddenly he became sensible of a strange feeling, as if something terrible was near at hand; a vague terror crept over him. "I knew," said he, in relating the story, "that something bad and frightful was behind me - I felt it. And when I did look round, there on the bridge, within a few paces of me, a huge black dog was sitting, with the face of a man - a human face, if ever I saw one, turned full up to the moonlight. It remained just long enough to give me a clear view of it, and then vanished; and ever since, when I think of Satan, I call to mind the Dogman on the bridge. (Whittier, Supernaturalism, p. 53)

Aaah! That's an unnerving little story. It sounds more like the description of a nightmare than something encountered in waking life. Was this dog-creature the Devil, a vision, or something else? Whittier doesn't really say but he does include it with others about the Devil. Does the Devil normally appear as a human-faced dog? And if it was the Devil why didn't he say or do anything? Again, it's another puzzling story.  

Image from Cryptomundo
Interestingly, there are Japanese folktales about human-faced dogs called jinmenken. These creatures are said to be omens of ill-fortune but not particularly evil. When spoken to they usually say "Leave me alone." The dogman that Whittier describes sounds a little more sinister than that. 

I don't have any big conclusions to draw about these two stories. As I said earlier, sometimes people encounter weird things that don't fit into any clear categories. Giant women being dragged into lakes. Dogs with human faces. People saw weird things in the 19th century and people still see weird things today. And sometimes those things don't make sense. I guess it's just part of being human.

March 05, 2020

Pyewacket: A Familiar Spirit with Origins in New England

Matthew Hopkins was a notorious witch-finder who terrorized the East Anglia region of England from 1644 to 1647. His short but infamous career happened during the English Civil War, when there was a lot of social unrest, and Hopkins made money by charging different towns to find the witches who supposedly caused it. It is estimated he was responsible for the deaths of 300 innocent people.

Hopkins died at the age of 27 in 1647 from tuberculosis, but before his death he published an influential witch-finding manual titled The Discovery of Witches (1647). In the book he claims he got started in the witch-finding business because there were several women in his home town of Manningtree who were witches. Here (writing about himself in the third person) he explains what happened:

... In March 1644 he had some seven or eight of that horrible sect of Witches living in the Towne where he lived, a Towne in Essex called Maningtree, with divers other adjacent Witches of other towns, who every six weeks in the night (being alwayes on the Friday night) had their meeting close by his house and had their severall solemne sacrifices there offered to the Devill...

Hopkins goes on to write that he heard one of the witches calling out to her familiar spirits. Familiar spirits were allegedly magical entities that witches commanded to do their bidding. They often appeared in the form of animals, and many people believed they were demons loaned to witches by the Devil and that they nourished themselves by sucking the witches' blood.

An illustration from The Discovery of Witches
Hopkins wrote down the names of the familiar spirits the Manningtree witch called. Those names were Holt (who appeared as a white kitten), Jarmara (a fat legless spaniel), Vinegar Tom (a greyhound with the head of an ox), Sack and Sugar (a black rabbit), and Newes (a polecat or ferret). She summoned other familiar spirits as well: Elemanzer, Peckin the Crown, Grizzel Greedigut and Pyewacket. It's quite a list of names, and in case you suspect Hopkins just made them up he writes that their names were such as "no mortall could invent."

I don't think he's quite right. I think Hopkins or his associates actually did invent most of those names, but he didn't invent the name Pyewacket. That's the name of a Native American tribe that lived in New Hampshire and Maine in the 17th century. Matthew Hopkins never visited New England, but he probably did hear about the explorations of Darby Field.

Darby Field was an Irishman who came to New England in the 1630s and settled in New Hampshire around 1638. Many of the colonists were focused on work, family and God, but Field apparently had a more inquisitive spirit. Although he worked as a ferryman he could also speak the local Alonquin dialects and was interested in exploring the area around him. In 1642 he decided to climb the White Mountains and hired some local Native guides from a village called 'Pigwacket' to help him. Pigwacket was Field's rough English transcription of Pequawket, a name of one of the Abenaki groups that lived in New Hampshire and Maine. 

Field's mountain-climbing expedition was well-known at the time and appears in both Massachusetts governor John Winthrop's journal and in a book by the explorer Ferdinando Gorges. It seems likely that Matthew Hopkins heard the name Pigwacket and incorporated it as "Pyewacket" into The Discovery of Witches. The Puritans erroneously believed that Native Americans worshipped the Devil so it makes that Hopkins would use a Native American word as a demon's name.

The Pequawket sadly no longer exist as a distinct group - they've merged with other Abenaki tribes - but the name Pyewacket continues on long after Hopkins's death. Pyewacket is the name of Kim Novak's cat in the movie Bell, Book and Candle (1958), has appeared as a character in several novels, and is the title of a recent horror film. I searched Tumblr and saw a lot of photos of animals named Pyewacket, while Instagram has over 7,000 posts with the hashtag #pyewacket. The dominant colonial culture's use of the word has outlived the actual indigenous people who inspired it. 

I don't think Pyewacket's origins in New England (and in Puritan xenophobia) is well-known. I just stumbled on it recently in Emerson Baker's excellent book A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and The American Experience (2015). There's always something new to learn about our region's weird history.