May 20, 2020

I Am Giving a Free Online Witchcraft Talk on May 27, 2020

I will be giving a free online talk about Massachusetts witchcraft legends on Wednesday, May 27, 2020 at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time. Learning about spooky New England legends is the perfect way to spend a quarantine evening, isn't it?

Don't be like these folks - practice social distancing!

The event is sponsored by the Tewksbury Public Library but is open to everyone. If you want to attend you'll need to register in advance

I'll be talking about everything from the first witchcraft trials in the 1640s to modern 21st century legends about witch-haunted places. Massachusetts has such a rich history of witch legends - I hope you can join me!

May 18, 2020

Orgiastic Gnomes Terrorized a Massachusetts Family in 1895

I want to thank Simon Young and Chris Woodyard of the Fairy Investigation Society for telling me about the following bizarre story. 

Here's a trigger warning - there is sexual assault involved. 


Newspapers in 19th century America often printed some pretty outrageous stories. Publishers wanted to sell papers, and sometimes the stories that sold best were about weird supernatural phenomena, like this one about a family persecuted by goblins. 

The story, which was printed in the July 6, 1895 issue of The Cincinnati Enquirer, begins by describing an abandoned house in a village in Worcester County, Massachusetts. The house is "sadly dilapidated, with ragged roof and windows, in an inclosure, overgrown by brush and weeds, at the mercy of the elements, for nobody enters its creaking doors nor approaching it nearer than necessity demands. To old and young alike it is the abode of mystery and dread—of specters to torment and vanquish the strongest man!"

Many years ago a family named Dane lived in the village. They were prominent members of the community with ancestry dating back to the Puritan era. The Danes lived a respectable and unremarkable life. One day Mrs. Dane was home alone with a servant when the crockery and dishes began to fall off the shelves. At first the two women were puzzled, but they grew scared once the dishes were thrown at them by invisible hands. Even the broken pieces on the floor flew about the room, cutting the Mrs. Dane and the servant. When the men of the family returned home that evening the poltergeist activity occurred again with greater ferocity, knocking over chairs, bureaus, and mirrors. 

Up until this point the story is a classic haunted house story of the kind that has been told in New England for centuries. But it gets weirder. 

The Danes decided to leave their house and stay with their neighbors, the Grahams. The weird phenomena follow them. The Grahams' house is filled with the sounds of wood being chopped, furniture breaking, and strange voices issuing threats. This goes on for a while, until one night during a thunderstorm all hell breaks loose. 

During the storm the families' candles are mysteriously extinguished and the house is plunged into darkness. But the Grahams and Danes are suddenly not alone. Illuminated by flashes of lightning, they see that the house is filled with monstrous, foul-mouthed gnomes: 

When lightning projected vivid flashes into every nook and corner of the Graham domicile it was found to be peopled with an innumerable multitude of gnome-like creatures, with large eyes and noses, perpendicular mouths, a superabundance of hair on heads and chins, and complexion of bright green. These monsters laughed grimly and made threatening gestures. As an evidence that they prided themselves upon their hideousness the most grotesquely hideous among them were the leaders of their orgies, and gave the word of command, supplemented by voluminous profanity (The Cincinnati Enquirer, July 6, 1895, p.6)

The Danes decide to leave the house, hoping that the hideous gnomes will follow them and spare the Grahams. The gnomes have other plans, though. All the members of both families find themselves unwillingly propelled into their beds where they are unable to move. Then - there's no other way to say this - the gnomes rape everyone. 

Then began an orgy of grosser kind than can be risked in a description for the public eye. Truthfully might these devoted people have felt that “Hell is empty and all is devils here,” for in the bottomless pit no darker devilments are devised. The house was suddenly illuminated by phosphorescent gleams, making the green gnomes still greener, and at once their acts were of the grossest and most utterly indescribable obscenity. Those old tales of phallic orgies in Pompeii seem to have been rendered tame and semi-decent in comparison... (The Cincinnati Enquirer, July 6, 1895, p.6)

At one point the gnomes also whip their female victims with "illuminated wires" and two of the women "carried the marks of the devil’s flogging as long as they lived." Yikes!

The gnomes disappeared when the sun rose, but they returned to the house every time there was a thunderstorm to torment the Danes and Grahams. They turned bread into rats and meat into snakes. They threw a blood-like fluid onto people that caused festering sores, and threw real human blood on the walls, permanently staining them. 

The Danes and Grahams held a prayer meeting to exorcise the evil gnomes. The little monsters failed to appear during the next thunderstorm, but the Grahams' house was instead pelted with boulders that smashed the windows and lodged in the fireplace. During the same storm a "luminous apparition" also appeared in the sky, denouncing the Puritan witchcraft trials of the 1600s. 

The article ends inconclusively. The Dane house is destroyed by lightning and villagers see green gnomes dancing in the flames as it burns. The Graham house becomes abandoned and is eventually destroyed. But it's not clear what happens to the two families or the gnomes, or even which haunted house is being referenced at the start of the story. 

There's a lot to think about here. It's interesting that the story appeared in an Ohio newspaper. If it had appeared in a Massachusetts paper readers would have wanted more details, like the village's name or the years when it happened. They would also have suspected it wasn't true. But perhaps to an Ohio reader Massachusetts was a distant land where people used to hang witches and weird things happened*, or at least a place where people told strange stories like this one. 

Parts of Ohio were settled by New Englanders, so it makes sense that a story like this appeared in The Cincinnati Enquirer. And some aspects of it do seem authentically New Englandy to me, like the poltergeist activity (which has been reported in this region for more than 300 years) and the connections to the Puritans and the witch trials which are alluded to. 

The weirdest part of the story obviously is those evil, hyper-sexualized green gnomes. There are plenty of local stories about fairies and other Little People, but nothing like this one. I'm going to assume they came from deep inside the author's imagination. At least I hope so. 

*OK, both of those are true. 

May 05, 2020

Snakes, Children, and the Human Soul: Ancient Folklore in New England

I used to live in a house that had an old cracked cement wall in the front yard. This was a very urban neighborhood - you could hear the subway go by - but the wall was still home to a colony of garter snakes. Every spring I enjoyed seeing them emerge from hibernation to sun themselves on the wall or walkway.

Garter snakes are the official state reptile of Massachusetts, and they're also harmless. Perhaps I would have felt differently each spring if they had been rattlesnakes or cobras. Still, you should probably treat snakes with respect, as the following tale shows. It comes from What They Say in New England, Clifton Johnson's 1896 collection of local folklore.

Image from this site.
Many years ago there was a little girl who always liked to eat her supper outside. Her parents humored her in this, but one evening they became curious and followed her when she left the house with her plate.

...She went along out there by a stone wall and set down, and she rapped on her plate, and out there come a big rattlesnake, and went to eatin' off the plate with her. And when the snake got over on to her side of the plate too much, she'd rap him with her spoon, and push him away, and say, "Keep back, Gray-coat, on your own side."

Needless to say, her parents were quite horrified to see their young daughter sharing her food with a poisonous snake. They sent her off to stay with some relatives and while she was gone they killed the rattlesnake. It did not quite have the effect they expected.

...The little girl come home again, and then she found out her snake was killed. Arter that she kind o' pined away and died. I've hearn 'em tell about that a good many times, and I s'pose that's a pretty true story (Clifton Johnson, What They Say in New England, 1896, p. 66)

Johnson collected the folk stories in his book from people in rural western Massachusetts (where there are indeed rattle snakes), so I was surprised to see a very similar piece of folklore in Vance Randolph's 1946 classic Ozark Magic and Folklore. The Ozark Mountains are geographically and culturally very far from Massachusetts, but here's that same story again:

There are several old tales about an odd relationship between snakes and babies. According to one story, well known in many parts of the Ozark country, a small child is seen to carry his cup of bread and milk out into the shrubbery near the cabin. The mother hears the baby prattling but supposes that he is talking to himself. Finally she approaches the child and is horrified to see him playing with a large serpent - usually a rattlesnake or copperhead.

Randolph goes on to say:

The mother's first instinct is to kill the snake, of course, but the old-timers say that this would be a mistake. They believe that the snake's life is somehow linked with that of the child, and if the reptile is killed the baby will pine away and die a few weeks later. I have heard old men and women declare that they had such cases in their own families and knew that the baby did die shortly after the snake's death (Vance Randolph, Ozark Magic and Folklore, 1946, p. 257)

It seems pretty clear from Randolph's book that people took this belief seriously, as several people claimed it had happened in their own families. It wasn't just a fairy tale.

Imagine my surprise then, when I also found a very similar story in Grimm's Fairy Tales, which was first published around 1812. The Brothers Grimm collected their stories in Germany, but here again is that story about killing a snake. In their version of the story the snake brings precious stones and gold to the child when it eats and the child gently hits the snake with a spoon to encourage it to eat more.  Despite these differences the story has the same sad ending:

The mother, who was standing in the kitchen, heard the child talking to some one, and when she saw that she was striking a snake with her spoon, ran out with a log of wood, and killed the good little creature.
From that time forth, a change came over the child. As long as the snake had eaten with her, she had grown tall and strong, but now she lost her pretty rosy cheeks and wasted away. It was not long before the funeral bird began to cry in the night, and the redbreast to collect little branches and leaves for a funeral garland, and soon afterwards the child lay on her bier (Grimm's Fairy Tales, "Stories About Snakes," 1812).

The belief connecting the health of children to snakes actually seems to go way back. It's much older than even the Brothers Grimm. The Swedish writer Olaus Magnus alludes to it in his 1555 book History of the Northern Peoples, which describes life in Sweden in the 16th century. Magnus wrote that:

There are also pet serpents, which in the farthest tracts of the North have the reputation of protective deities. They are reared on cows' or sheep's milk, play with the children indoors, and are regularly seen sleeping in their cradle, like faithful guardians. To harm these creatures is regarded as sacrilege. However, such practices are survivals from ancient superstition, and since the adoption of the Catholic faith are completely forbidden. (Olaus Magnus, History of the Northern Peoples, Book II, Chapter 48, "On the fight waged by shepherds against snakes")

I suspect that this belief is much older than even the 16th century, and Magnus seems to think it is ancient. It certainly seems to allude to some very old beliefs about the human soul. The French academic Claude Lecouteux suggests that by sharing food with a human the snakes in these stories become the human's guardian spirit, or perhaps even the spiritual double of the human. They are a human soul externalized in animal form. When the snake is killed the human soul dies. 

Illustration from History of the Northern People
Of course, I don't think people in 19th century Massachusetts understood it that way, but for some reason the belief still lingered on. Maybe someday I'll figure out exactly how a belief like this traveled from Medieval Europe all the way to Western Massachusetts. But until I do, please be kind to your local snakes. You never know whose soul it might be!


Claude Lecouteux's excellent book Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages has a lot of information on topics similar to this one.