June 23, 2020

The Minister's Veil: Guilt, Murder and (Maybe) Demons in Old Maine

I appreciate Nathaniel Hawthorne's fiction more and more as I get older. I find the weird mix of the supernatural, the sentimental and the moral very appealing. I recently read his short novel The Blythedale Romance, which is about a 19th century commune, a psychic, and a love triangle, and it was really fantastic. I recommend it if you're into that sort of thing.

Today, however, I want to write about "The Minister's Black Veil,"which was published in 1832 and is one of Hawthorne's better known short stories. Like some of his other work it is based on a kernel of truth, and in addition to Hawthorne's story some interesting legends have grown up around that kernel.

First the fiction. In "The Minister's Black Veil" Hawthorne tells the story of Reverend Hooper, a minister in a small New England town in the 1700s. A quiet but respected member of his community, Reverend Hooper shocks his congregation one Sunday by arriving at the church wearing a black veil over his face. He delivers his sermon without explaining why he's wearing, or even mentioning, the black veil. The congregants are unnerved.

Photo from a 2015 fashion show by Thom Browne
That same day Reverend Hooper, still wearing the veil, presides over a funeral. As he prays over the open coffin a mourner believes she sees the corpse shudder when it sees what is under the veil. Another mourner believes they see the deceased person's spirit walking next to the minister in the funeral procession. That night Reverend Hooper presides over a wedding, his face still covered in black. At the wedding reception he sees himself in a mirror and runs out in terror.

He continues to wear the veil in the following days and his fiancee begs him to take it off. She tells him that people in town think he's trying to hide from his sins:
"What grievous affliction hath befallen you," she earnestly inquired, "that you should thus darken your eyes for ever?" 
"If it be a sign of mourning," replied Mr. Hooper, "I, perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil." 
"But what if the world will not believe that it is the type of an innocent sorrow?" urged Elizabeth. "Beloved and respected as you are, there may be whispers that you hide your face under the consciousness of secret sin. For the sake of your holy office do away this scandal."
The gentle reverend refuses to remove his veil and his fiancee leaves him. He wears the veil for the rest of his life, becoming an object of both fear and reverence in town.
By the aid of his mysterious emblem—for there was no other apparent cause—he became a man of awful power over souls that were in agony for sin. His converts always regarded him with a dread peculiar to themselves, affirming, though but figuratively, that before he brought them to celestial light they had been with him behind the black veil. Its gloom, indeed, enabled him to sympathize with all dark affections. 
Reverend Hooper leaves the veil on even as he lies on his death bed. As he breathes his last breaths he initially agrees to let someone remove the veil, but as they reach for it he pushes them away with the last bit of his strength, telling them to leave it on. When he dies he is buried in the veil.
The grass of many years has sprung up and withered on that grave, the burial-stone is moss-grown, and good Mr. Hooper's face is dust; but awful is still the thought that it mouldered beneath the black veil.
That's Hawthorne's story. It's mysterious and a little creepy. What does that black veil mean? Why won't Reverend Hooper show his face? American high school students have pondered those questions for decades.

Photo from a 2015 fashion show by Thom Browne
That's the fiction, but there is some fact behind it. Hawthorne based his fictional story on the real life of Joseph Moody, which he probably read about in Jonathan Greenleaf's 1821 book Sketches of the Ecclesiastical History of the State of Maine. Moody was born in 1700 in York, Maine and served as a town clerk, register of deeds, and county judge. He became minister of York's second Congregational church in 1732. In 1738 he started to act strangely after his wife died:
Mr. Moody's disorder was of the nervous kind. He supposed that the guilt of some unforgiven sin lay upon him, and that he was not only unworthy the sacred office he held, but unfit for the company of other people. He chose to eat alone, and kept his face always covered with a handkerchief when in company. (Jonathan Greenleaf, Sketches of the Ecclesiastical History of the State of Maine, p. 13)
His congregation waited three years for him to recover but in 1741 they finally hired another minister to take his place. Unlike Hawthorne's Reverend Hooper, Moody eventually did remove the handkerchief but not before earning the nickname "Handkerchief Moody." He died in 1753 and is buried in York. 

There has been a lot of speculation about why Joseph Moody wore that handkerchief. What was the unforgiven, secret sin he was concerned with? These leads us to several legends about Moody, the  most popular legend of which is that he killed someone when he was a boy. According to Gail Potter in Mysterious New England (1971), he accidentally shot his best friend on a hunting trip. He lied and told everyone his friend had been killed by Indians, but "for years the face of his dead friend rose accusingly before him." He finally decided to wear the veil as a form of secret penance and only confessed to killing his friend on his deathbed. 

Photo from a 2015 fashion show by Thom Browne
There is some truth to that story but it's not entirely accurate. When he was eight years old Joseph Moody and his friend Ebenezer Preeble were playing with a pistol when it went off and shot Preeble in the head, killing him. This is gruesome but apparently was not a secret that Moody concealed from anyone. It probably wasn't related to the handkerchief on his face, which the Museums of Old York believe he wore because of grief at his wife's death and just overall emotional exhaustion.  

Another legend from Mysterious New England claims that Moody accurately predicted the outcome of the Battle of Louisburg, when the troops from the English colonies fought the French for control of a fortress in Quebec. On June 17, 1745 Moody was preaching in York while the English troops battled the French far to the north. He prayed fervently from the pulpit that God would deliver Louisburg to the English. He abruptly stopped and then loudly thanked God for giving the English success and delivering the fortress to them. His congregation later learned that at that very moment the French had surrendered hundreds of miles away. Somehow Moody knew what had happened. 

I don't know if that story is true but it's also good one. A third legend relates to Moody's diary, which he kept beginning when he was 20 years old. He wrote the diary in Latin and in code. According to Kate Holly-Clark, who has given ghost tours in York, the contents of the diary are deeply disturbing. The diary's contents remained a mystery until the 1970s or 1980s when it was decoded by a retired York man who had been a code-breaker for the military. He was shocked by what he read. The diary contained omens of doom, mysterious portents, and references to demonic beings. He finally stopped working on the diary because he was too disturbed by its contents. 

Again, that story is quite creepy but is it true? You can read excerpts of Moody's diary online now. I didn't see anything about demons, but maybe those pages haven't been made public. Or maybe it's just a legend... 

I'm sure that Joseph Moody didn't think he'd inspire nearly three-hundred years of legends and a classic short story when he donned that handkerchief. 

June 16, 2020

I Will Be on Midnight Society Radio, Thursday 6/18/20

Just a short post to say I will be a guest on Midnight Society Radio this Thursday, June 18. Host Tim Weisberg and I will talk about all kinds of strange New England lore: monsters, witches, haunted locations, and more. The show airs 10:00 pm - 1:00 am Eastern time.

You can listen online at Midnight.fm. I hope you can tune in!

June 14, 2020

Social Distancing, Bigfoot, and a Night-time Theft in Brimfield

Social distancing. It's the phrase on everyone's lips these days - and I hope those lips are hidden behind a mask. Maintaining a safe distance from others is one of the ways we can help end the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Public health experts have been doing their best to spread the social distancing gospel, and they have an unusual ally helping them: Bigfoot. The ever-elusive cryptid has become the unofficial poster boy for social distancing. 

It makes perfect sense. After all, have you ever been closer than six feet to a Sasquatch? Probably not. When someone gets too close to Bigfoot he runs away. Or maybe he throws a boulder. Either way, he doesn't want to catch COVID-19. 

Shortly after the pandemic started in the U.S. I started seeing "Bigfoot: Social Distancing Champion" memes showing up in my social media. I don't know who first created it but the meme has really taken off this spring. Here are just a few samples:

You can buy "Bigfoot: Social Distancing Champion" tee-shirts online, and there is even a Bigfoot: Social Distancing Champion running challenge to benefit U.S. food banks. All participants run on their own, unlike traditional road races.

There are also quite a few videos out there. My favorite is this one from Gatorland, an alligator theme park outside of Orlando. The park's new mascot is Social Distancing Skunk Ape, which is the Florida term for Bigfoot. He's insistent you stay distant! 

Bigfoot's social distancing even made news here in Massachusetts. In April, Brimfield resident Tod Disotell reported that a six-foot tall Bigfoot statue had been stolen from his front yard. Disotell, an anthropologist who has appeared on Spike TV's show 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty, had been adorning the statue with face masks and signs encouraging social distancing. 

From Twitter
Disotell's statue became something of a local attraction, but was stolen the night of April 22. Security camera footage showed two hooded figures cutting a security chain before absconding with the statue. Happily, police located the statue a few days later in downtown Worcester. Bigfoot is now back in Disotell's front yard to encourage people to maintain social distancing. 

People use the symbol of Bigfoot in all kinds of ways. Corporations put him in a lot of ads, but I find his non-commercial appearances more interesting. During the insanely snowy winter of 2015 (aka Snowmageddon), a Somerville, Massachusetts man in a Yeti costume became an internet sensation. In 2017, a marijuana leaf-covered Bigfoot gained brief fame as Pot Sasquatch. And last fall,  a small Vermont town learned that construction on a bridge was delayed due to Bigfoot. The big monster doesn't usually say much but people find lots of ways to make this shy, quiet cryptid speak for them.

The real Bigfoot hasn't said anything about this current fame, but that's probably because he's out in the woods social distancing. He's setting a good example for all of us. 


Tune into Midnight Society radio this Thursday, June 18 to hear me talk with host Tim Weisberg about cryptids, witchcraft, and other weird New England themes. The show airs live from 10:00 pm - 1:00 am Eastern time. It will be a spooky good time!

June 11, 2020

Charming and Grim Folklore from Maine

I am working from home today and sitting next to an open window to let in the breeze. It's also letting in the pollen. The table I'm sitting at is covered with fine yellow dust.

I sneezed three times just now. That's not unusual for me. If I sneeze, I usually sneeze three times. That's probably more information than you want to know, but according to some old folklore from Maine, it means I should get ready to encounter a stranger soon.

Gertrude DeCrow, writing in The Journal of American Folklore in 1892, noted "Sneezing three times in succession is a sign of a stranger coming." In the same article she also wrote "To sneeze between eleven and twelve is sign of a stranger." I sneezed well after noon, so I guess only one stranger is coming.

DeCrow's article, simply titled "Folk-Lore from Maine," contains lots of charming tidbits like that. Here are a few more:

If ants build sand up around their holes, it is a sign of rain.  
If you step over a mop-handle it is a sign you will never be married. 
If the palm of the right hand itches, you shake hands with someone that day; if the left hand, you will receive money.  
If a broom, standing beside a door, falls over across the door, it is a sign of a stranger.

DeCrow doesn't explain where in Maine she found this folklore, but it seems like it's from a small town or rural area. In urban areas you meet strangers all the time, but that's not the case in small towns or the country. Meeting a stranger would be a big deal and therefore worthy of an omen.

She also includes a lot of folklore about the weather and about love. This old-fashioned type of folklore is kind of charming. It makes me think about a simpler, slower way of life. I picture myself riding a horse and farming and talking with neighbors at church socials. It's an idyllic image, particularly to a city person like myself. This folklore also makes me feel like people were living in a world filled with meaning and enchantment, something that can be missing from modern life, particularly in 2020. After all, I am working at home today due to a pandemic.

Vintage whippoorwill illustration from Etsy

But my idyllic image is only a fantasy. Rural life can be hard, and was probably really hard in the 19th century. Why else would DeCrow include a section called "Death Signs?"

If a person, carrying a corpse or empty coffin by a house, speaks with a member of the family residing in it, there be death within the year in the house. 
Instance: Mrs. Mary P. stopped a man thus to inquire who was dead, and one of her own children died within a few months. 
If there is a white horse in a funeral procession, it is a sign that another person in the same family will die before the year is out. 
If a tick bug is heard, it is a sign of death.

I'm not sure what she means by a "tick bug" and I don't want to find out. Omens of death also appear among some of the other beliefs she describes. For example, under "Moon Signs" she mentions that seeing the new moon first through a window means you'll hear about someone's death within the week. If you see it through an upper pane, an older person will die; through a lower pane, a younger person. That's grimly specific.

"Folk-lore from Maine" also includes some beliefs about birds: "Bird Signs." Much of this folklore is also focused on death:

If a whippoorwill sings night after night near a door or under a window it is a sure sign of approaching death in the house.  
Instance: A whippoorwill sang at a back door repeatedly; finally the woman's son was brought home dead, and the corpse was brought into the house through the back door. 

Even if you make it through the night without hearing a whippoorwill you still may not be safe. If you see a partridge on the doorstep in the morning you should be afraid - it's another omen of death.

That's a lot of death omens. Let's face it, the good old days weren't really that good. Certainly life was slower-paced and people may have felt more connected to their community (for good or ill), but all these omens show us the truth behind the idyll. Life was hard in 19th century New England, and medical care was primitive by modern standards. Death was a constant worry. 

The fantasy is nice, but the truth actually makes me feel more connected to those Mainers in the past. 


Those of you who are familiar with the writer H.P. Lovecraft might have perked up when I mentioned whippoorwills above since they appear in some of his stories. I wrote more about whippoorwills in more detail a few years ago.

June 03, 2020

A Charlestown Minister Brought the Illuminati to America

There's a lot going on in our country right now and it feels strange to write this blog at the moment. But some of you may want distraction from our latest crises, and it gives me something to do other than just obsess over the news. So here we go...

Jedidiah Morse, 1761- 1826
Do you remember when everyone on the Internet was concerned about the Illuminati? I'm thinking back to 2012, before our current president was elected and we had a lot less to worry about. That was the year that Beyonce and Jay-Z named their newborn daughter Blue Ivy. According to some people on the Internet, this was not just an eccentric pop-star child's name. No, her name was an acronym for "Born Living Under Evil; Illuminati's Very Youngest." 

Skeptical about that claim? Well, 2012 was the same year that Ke$ha released the video for her song "Die Young," in which Ke$ha and some sexy Goths gyrate and grope each other in front of a light-up pentagram as pink inverted crosses flash on the screen. Shocking reveal: Ke$ha has the Eye in the Pyramid symbol on the seat of her unitard! Commenters on YouTube said the video proved she was one of the Illuminati. Or maybe she was just trying to spice up a pop song with a controversial video...

Or perhaps you remember 2009, when Lady Gaga's video for "Bad Romance" caused a stir. It's mostly remembered for its vinyl costumes, choreographed dancing, and shoes by Alexander McQueen. But perhaps it was secretly about Lady Gaga dedicating herself to the will of the Illuminati and the goat-god Baphomet? Well, at least that's what some people online thought.

I probably just revealed a lot about my taste in music and also my skepticism about the Illuminati. I can hear some of you ask: "But who are the Illuminati?" Many people believe they are a secret organization determined to rule the world, but their real history is less impressive. The Order of the Illuminati was a secret society (similar to the Masons) founded in Bavaria in 1776. Based on the principles of the Enlightenment, the Illuminati were dedicated to reason, rationality, and the end of political tyranny. They were opposed to monarchy, religion, and superstition. Membership in the group grew for several years until the ruler of Bavaria banned secret societies in 1785.

That was the end of the Illuminati, but their reputation lived on in two books: John Robison's Proof of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe (1797) and Augustin Barruel's Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (1797). Both books claimed the Illuminati were secretly behind the French Revolution, and that they wanted to overthrow the established social order in Europe. It wasn't true, but the shadowy, elusive (and non-existent) Illuminati gave the elites of Europe something to project their fears on.

We can blame a man named Jedidiah Morse for spreading the concept of the Illuminati to the United States. Morse was a conservative Congregationalist minister in Charlestown, Massachusetts and delivered a sermon warning against the Illuminati in May of 1798. It was only the first of several sermons he wrote about them. Here is a sample of his April 25, 1799 sermon, titled "A Sermon Exhibiting the Present Dangers and Subsequent Duties of the Citizens of the United States":
"It has long been suspected that Secret Societies, under the influence and direction of France, subversive of our religion and government, existed somewhere in this country. This suspicion was cautiously suggested from this desk... with a view to excite a just alarm, and to put you on your guard against their secret artifices. Evidence that this suspicion was well founded, has since been accumulating, and I now have in my possession complete and indubitable proof that such secret societies do exist, and have for many years existed in the United States. I have my brethren, an official, authenticated list of the names, ages, places of nativity, professions, etc. of the officers and members of a Society of Illuminati..."
Morse didn't actually reveal any names in that sermon, though. Still, sermons were a form of popular literature at the time and Morse's sermons about the Illuminati were published in multiple editions, gaining a wide readership. He was instrumental in spreading the idea of the Illuminati, and conspiracy theories in general, to the United States. I guess it's another of those historic firsts we always like to brag about in Massachusetts.

Although Morse was wrong about the Illuminati, I do think it's helpful to understand the time he wrote in. The American Revolution had ended but there was a lot of internal conflict in the United States. The Puritan church had split into warring conservative and liberal factions, which eventually gave us the Congregational and Unitarian churches. Ministers were losing the influence they once had over New England society and the mercantile and laboring classes gaining more power. On a national level, the country was split between Federalists who wanted a strong central government and anti-Federalists who wanted the states to have more power. 

There was a lot of conflict, Jedidiah Morse was anxious, and he needed someone to blame. In 1692 the Puritans blamed Satan and a conspiracy of witches for their problems; a century later Morse blamed the Illuminati.

Some of these conflicts persist into the present day, as does the idea of a shadowy group of Illuminati who are trying to manipulate world affairs. The Illuminati were not widely discussed for most of the 20th century, but Robert Anton Wilson and Kerry Thornley changed that in 1968. Wilson and Thornley were Discordians, members of a parody religion dedicated to Eris, the Ancient Greek goddess of chaos. They two men decided
“...that the world was becoming too authoritarian, too tight, too closed, too controlled”. They wanted to bring chaos back into society to shake things up, and “the way to do that was to spread disinformation. To disseminate misinformation through all portals – through counter culture, through the mainstream media, through whatever means. And they decided they would do that initially by telling stories about the Illuminati.” 
At the time, Wilson worked for the men’s magazine Playboy. He and Thornley started sending in fake letters from readers talking about this secret, elite organisation called the Illuminati. Then they would send in more letters – to contradict the letters they had just written. (BBC.com, "Accidental invention of the Illuminati conspiracy")
Wilson also later wrote Illuminatus!, a trilogy of comedic novels about the Illuminati and other secret societies trying to take over the world. Wilson and Thornley wanted people to question their reality and think for themselves. Unfortunately, their prank had the opposite effect. People took their joke seriously and began to believe the Illuminati were real. 

And they still do. There are people in America who secretly believe the Illuminati control the media, the government, and the economy. They also think the Illuminati reveal themselves through the secret symbols that they use, many of which are from Freemasonry or ceremonial magic. They'll probably even think I wrote this blog post because I am an Illuminatus.

I'm not, but we live in a society that increasingly believes in conspiracy theories. And it all started with a minister in Charlestown, Massachusetts.