April 27, 2020

Bathsheba Sherman: Evil Witch or Innocent Victim? The Story Behind The Conjuring's Villain

This probably won't be a surprise to hear, but I'm a big horror movie fan. Zombies, summer camp killers, carnivorous alien monsters - yes please! I like arthouse movies like The Lighthouse, schlock like Friday the 13th, and the mainstream horror films that have been popular the last few years. 

One of the decade's most popular horror films was The Conjuring (2013), which tells the story of the Perron family and their encounter with the malevolent spirits haunting their old Rhode Island farm house. The film is based on true events - the producers based the script on the real-life paranormal investigation carried out by ghost-hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren. 

Bathsheba Sherman from The Conjuring (2013)
The Warrens believed that the main spirit haunting the Perron's house was the ghost of Bathsheba Sherman. According to local legends, Bathsheba was a devil-worshipping witch who murdered at least one child in the 1800s. The film claims Bathsheba committed suicide by hanging herself her from a tree and that her spirit lingered at the farm to torment any future owners. 

Obviously I like weird legends, but I also like to know the truth behind them. Did Bathsheba Sherman really commit the crimes The Conjuring attributes to her? Suicide. Devil-worship. Infanticide. Those are some serious charges to level against a 19th-century farm woman.

My friend Sam Baltrusis discusses the hauntings at the Perron house (and many others) in his new book Mass Murders: Bloodstained Crime Scenes Haunting The Bay State. The book is about haunted sites in Massachusetts, and the Perron's property in Burrillville straddled the Massachusetts/Rhode Island border. Baltrusis interviewed Andrea Perron, who lived in the house when she was a child, about Bathsheba Sherman and the stories surrounding her:

According to Perron, the alleged murderess was a far cry from the blood-spewing villain that was portrayed on the silver screen. In fact, Perron believes that Sherman was targeted by her nineteenth-century community and the witch hunt continues in the afterlife... 
“There’s nothing recorded that substantiates the idea that she practiced witchcraft,” Perron said. “If she did, it would have been a Salem-style death. As we saw with the innocent people who were hanged in 1692, witch was a dangerous word to say..."

There’s no way that she secretly practiced witchcraft, especially since Sherman was given a proper Christian burial next to her family. “She was buried in hallowed ground and that wouldn’t have been the case if she had been found guilty of witchcraft,” Perron confirmed (Sam Baltrusis, Mass Murders (2020).

Well, if she wasn't a Devil-worshipping witch, maybe she was still a baby murderer who killed herself? Not true, says Perron. There's no evidence that she killed anyone, and she didn't die by suicide either. Bathsheba Sherman died in 1885 from natural causes at the age of 73.
Photo of the Perron's house by Frank Grace, Trig Photography.
Perron says the Warrens were the first people to suggest that Bathsheba's ghost was the malevolent force haunting their house. It sounds like the Warrens made this decision after they researched the town's folklore. 

So does this mean the house isn't haunted? Not quite. Perron claims that the old farm house is indeed haunted but by a variety of ghosts, including seven soldiers, a young girl murdered in 1849, and others. Perron said she has also contacted Bathsheba's spirit but that she is not malevolent. 

The Burrillville house was recently purchased by a couple who intend to open it up for paranormal tours. I suppose if I took the tour I'd find out the truth about the ghosts, but I think I'll pass. I've seen one too many horror films to feel safe in a haunted house.

April 18, 2020

Monsterland: Legends, Evidence, and Bigfoot in Leominster, Massachusetts

Although many of my posts about older folklore, I like new folklore as well. It's called paranormal encounters or urban legends these days, but I'm always happy to read about UFOs, hauntings, and encounters with strange cryptids. Sometimes these modern stories are just as weird and scary as the demon-obsessed tales of the 17th century.

Ronny LeBlanc's 2016 book Monsterland discusses legends, paranormal phenomena, and general weirdness in Leominster, Massachusetts. As you can tell by the title, it also includes some monster sightings, and here's a particularly creepy story that appears in it. 

Way back in the 1950s, a man entered a Leominster bar on a warm summer night. He was visibly agitated, and when the manager asked him why the man said he had just seen a "terrifying monster" on the Old Mill Road near the railroad bridge. He asked the manager to call the police to investigate.

Image from the 2018 film Primal Rage: Bigfoot Reborn.
The manager made the phone call and the police said they were on their way. As the man waited for them to arrive he became more and more agitated. Finally, he said he couldn't wait for the police any longer. He was going to go kill the monster himself and bring back its body as proof.

He rushed out of the bar. When the police arrived the manager told them the man had gone to find the monster on his own. The officers drove down to Old Mill Road and found the man's car parked by the side of the road with its lights on. No one was inside. The woods were very dark, so rather than risk getting lost they decided to wait for the man to return. They waited. They waited longer. They waited and waited.

But the man never came back.

After this incident that part of Leominster was nicknamed Monsterland. People reported seeing apelike creatures and finding large humanoid footprints in the ground. Others said their car engines would mysteriously die in the area. Teenagers partied at the railroad bridge party and tried to see the monster. You can see a 2009 video of Old Mill Road and the railroad bridge here.

The woods abutting Old Mill Road now have some condo developments in them, but the legend of Monsterland (and maybe even the monster itself) still lives on. Large areas of Leominster remain undeveloped, including over 4,000 acres in Leominster State Forest.

One way to determine if a story is legend is by how vague the details are. Legends take place on "warm summer night," not on a specific day. Their protagonists are identified generically, like "the man" in the Leominster monster story. They don't have specific names. Legends are vague and archetypal: a warm summer night, a monster, and a man who never came back.

But is there ever any truth behind legends like this one? On June 27, 2010, Bill and Julie Penning took hike in the Leominster woods. As they walked towards their destination (a local reservoir) they heard something moving around in the trees near the trail. Branches crunched. It sounded like a large animal. They assumed it was a deer, but both got a "weird feeling." They kept hiking until the realized they were lost and decided to turn back.

When they got back to area where they heard the animal they got a big surprise:
“We had just been there, and when we came back there were footprints, with five toes, and at least three and a half inches deep in the mud, they were some serious tracks,” Bill said. 
The Pennings both experienced an eerie feeling and decided they wanted to get out of the area. 
“Where it was early spring there was a lot of brush and berries around us, but not a sound could be heard by anything, no birds, or other animals, just a weird feeling,” Julie said. 
Bill said he felt disorientated, and they both spent more time trying to find a way out due to the feelings they had. ("A Sighting Unseen," Leominster Champion, January 13, 2012)
The Pennings contacted LeBlanc, and they returned to the woods to make a plaster cast of the footprints. The foot prints were about ten inches long and much wider than a normal human foot. The depth of the prints indicated they were made by a very heavy creature and the gait was not like that of a human.

Ronny LeBlanc (left), with Bill and Julie Penning in Leominster.
LeBlanc and the Pennings eventually wound up on an episode of Animal Planet's Finding Bigfoot, and the experience of seeing the tracks spurred LeBlanc to write Monsterland. He later went on to star in the Travel Channel's Expedition Bigfoot in 2020.

So is there really a monster living in the forests of Leominster? Scientists would tell us no, and it's important to listen to scientists (particularly right now during this pandemic). There's no conclusive evidence indicating large hominids are living in New England. 

However, people have been seeing large hairy monsters in this area for centuries, and I think the Pennings did encounter something. I just don't know what it was. Personally, I don't think Bigfoot (or whatever the Leominster monster is) is an animal. Maybe he's some weird manifestation of our subconscious, maybe he's the spirit of the landscape, or maybe he's visiting from another dimension. And maybe, when I get my courage up, I'll visit Monsterland and find out. 

April 09, 2020

Molly Bridget and the Bewitched Pigs: A New Hampshire Witchcraft Story

Molly Bridget lived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire during the 1700s. Molly made her living telling fortunes for sailors and young lovers (as fortune tellers do) but over time she developed a reputation for being a witch. People in Portsmouth grew to fear and hate her.

Molly was never wealthy to begin with, and as she grew older she slipped into poverty. Sometime around the Revolutionary War she wound up living in Portsmouth's almshouse (or poorhouse). This was not to her liking so she decided to move south to Boston for a fresh start.

Unfortunately her reputation preceded her and when she arrived in Boston the following occurred:

Finding her way to Boston, the police gave her warning to leave the city forthwith.
"Why?" she asked.
"Is not your name Molly Bridget?"
"No, sir," she replied. "Do you think I am such a despicable creature as Molly?"
(Charles W. Brewster, Rambles About Portsmouth. Second Series. 1869)

The police weren't fooled. Molly realized that she wouldn't be able to leave her old identity behind so with a heavy heart she returned to Portsmouth and the almshouse.

An English woodcut of a witch from 1643
The almshouse was managed by a man named Clement March. One day in 1782 Mr. March noticed that the almshouse's pigs were acting strangely. His thoughts immediately turned to his resident witch, Molly Bridget. Had she bewitched the pigs?

There was only one way to find out. Like many people at that time, Mr. March believed that when a witch cursed something (or someone) they created a magical connection with the object of their curse. If Molly had cursed the pigs there was a connection between her and the animals. Molly's evil magic flowed from her into the pigs through this connection, but Mr. March thought he could use the connection to his advantage. He could make pain flow from the pigs back into Molly. If Molly felt enough pain she would stop cursing the animals.

Putting his plan into action, Mr. March took a knife out to the stye and cut off the pigs' ears and tails. He thought that this would be enough pain to cure the pigs of their strange behavior, but that was not the case.* He then decided to up the ante and burn their severed ears and tails, but when he went to gather them up the ears and tails were missing. Clearly this was more witchcraft! He surmised that Molly had made them disappear somehow.

Not willing to give up, Mr. March gathered the dead leaves and wood chips that were in the pig stye. These were soaked in the pigs' urine, feces, and blood, and therefore still had a connection to the animals and to the witch who had theoretically cursed them. He then burned the chips and leaves in the almshouse's various fireplaces.

The fires had a sudden and violent effect on Molly Bridget:

After the fires were kindled, Molly hastened from room to room in a frenzied manner. She soon went to her own room, and as the flames began to subside her sands of life began to run out, and before the ashes were cold, she was actually a corpse. (Brewster, Rambles About Portsmouth, 1869)

Mr. March and the residents of the Portsmouth almshouse took this as proof that Molly had indeed cursed the pigs. On the day of her funeral a violent storm struck Portsmouth, which was taken as further evidence that she was a witch.


Like last week's post about the witch of Pepperell, this story shows how the belief in witchcraft lingered in New England well past the witch trials of the 1600s. Also like last week's legend, there's no official documentation about Molly Bridget and her witchcraft. The only account I've found is in Charles W. Brewster's Rambles About Portsmouth (1869). 

So is this story true or just a legend? Brewster has the following to say on the matter:

These are facts - how far the results were induced by the superstitious feelings of that day, the reader is left to judge. The poor creature might have believed herself a witch, and the expectation expressed that the burning of the pigs' tails would kill the witch, might have so wrought upon her mind as to produce the result.

I might also suggest that stories like these tend to become more legend-like over time. Perhaps Molly Bridget just died from natural causes and people in Portsmouth created the legend about her death over the years. By the time Brewster wrote down the story 80 years later it had become the traditional witch legend it is now. 

* I don't think cutting off an animal's ears and tail will ever improve its behavior. Be kind to animals!

April 01, 2020

The Cursed Village: The Witch of North Pepperell

North Pepperell is a village that no longer exists. Centuries ago it was a prosperous part of the Massachusetts town of Pepperell. But now it's just a memory and a few ruins hidden in the woods. The village became a ghost town after it was cursed by a local witch. Well, at least that's what the legends say.

Pepperell was settled in 1702 and incorporated as a town in 1775. Pepperell was known for its farmlands and orchards, but the village of North Pepperell was a center of industrial activity. Located along the Nissitissit River, the village (which was also called North Village) supported a sawmill, a gristmill and a cloth mill, as well as a blacksmith and a cigar manufacturer. It also had a school and a tavern.

Sometime in the early 1800s a strange woman moved to the village. Some sources don't name her, while others claim her name was Mrs. Lovejoy. New Englanders can be standoffish even today, but back then the region's Puritan influence was still strong and newcomers who didn't fit in were viewed with great suspicion. And Mrs. Lovejoy definitely did not fit in with the industrious folks of North Pepperell.

She lived alone in a rundown shack near the schoolhouse, and she let her pigs and cows wander into her neighbors' fields. She dressed strangely and wore a handkerchief over her head. She also never talked with her neighbors. None of this behavior is particularly criminal or really even that strange, but it was enough to make Mrs. Lovejoy's neighbors eye her with suspicion.

I'm sure you can see where this is going. People in North Pepperell soon began to mutter that Mrs. Lovejoy was a witch, and eventually three men decided to do something about the "witch" in their midst. In 1820 they went to Mrs. Lovejoy's shack and dragged out the elderly woman. Then they branded her in the middle of her forehead with a hot iron rod.

She shrieked in pain, but when she regained her composure she cursed her assailants. "This village will die. Flames will devour your businesses! The river will dry up! Death will visit each house!" And with that she fled into the woods, never to be seen again.

At first the people of North Pepperell congratulated themselves on getting rid of Mrs. Lovejoy, but their attitude changed as misfortune repeatedly struck the village. First the sawmill burned in a mysterious fire, then the gristmill. Over time the village's other businesses burned as well. The town's industry was decimated. People tried to rebuild, but the village's dam burst and the river's water level sank to a level that couldn't support any mills. 

Of course, the river was still deep enough to drown a four-year old boy who fell in. His accidental death was just one of many that haunted North Pepperell. One man tripped over a chair, instantly breaking his neck, while another died when he fell from his wagon after the horses became startled by something unseen. A respected community member choked to death in front of his family during dinner. A young woman went to milk the cows in the barn and disappeared. Her body was never found.

Those villagers who didn't die under mysterious circumstances began to move away, driven by economic desperation and fear of the witch's curse. The last of the curse's victims may have been two elderly sisters who died in 1900. One night they saw a fire in the woods near their house and tried to extinguish it. The fire overwhelmed them both, but only one body was ever found.

They were the last inhabitants of North Pepperell. Now the village has been taken over by the trees and birds. A few rock walls are the only signs that anything was ever there at all.


This legend appears in a few different places, but the most comprehensive account I've seen is in Joseph Citro's 2004 book Cursed In New England: Stories of Damned Yankees. Joe is a great storyteller and I always enjoy reading his books.

There are lots of stories in New England about witches' curses, and most follow the same  basic pattern. Suspicious townspeople harass someone they suspect is a witch. The harassment turns violent or even deadly. The suspected witch curses their abusers. The curse happens and the townspeople regret what they did.

The story about North Pepperell fits this pattern, but it's interesting that it supposedly happened in 1820. Certainly witchcraft beliefs lingered in New England well after the 17th century witch trials ended, but it's surprising to read about people attacking an alleged witch in the 19th century. Of course, the story may not be true and could just be a legend to explain the misfortunes that ruined North Pepperell. I don't think there are any legal documents or town records corroborating the legend of Mrs. Lovejoy.

On the other hand, according to Cursed In New England, some people speculate that Mrs. Lovejoy may have actually been a Quaker who was persecuted for her religious belief. I suppose that's possible, since the Massachusetts Puritans executed several Quakers in the 1600s. The anti-Quaker laws were repealed in the early 1660s, though, so it seems strange that the North Pepperell villagers would still be branding a Quaker 120 years later. Maybe I just underestimate how bigoted and violent people can be.

Regardless of its truth, the lesson behind this legend is ambiguous, as it is with many of these witch's curse stories. Mrs. Lovejoy is presented as an innocent old eccentric who is not a witch. On the Yet, she has the ability to curse an entire village, causing destruction and many deaths. What agency is responsible for the curse coming true? Is it God? Karma? Or perhaps it's witchcraft after all?