July 20, 2020

Henry Tufts: Wizard, Fortune-Teller, and Criminal

Henry Tufts (1748 - 1831) led what might euphemistically be called a colorful life. Tufts was born in Newmarket, New Hampshire and spent many years as a criminal, earning his living as a thief, con-man, gambler, and counterfeiter across New England. He also was a bigamist, marrying a woman named Lydia Bickford around 1770 and then several other women after that without divorcing any of them. This doesn't include the many, many other women he also slept with as he bamboozled his way across the countryside.

At least that's what he claims in his 1807 autobiography, which is titled A Narrative of the Life, Adventures, Travels and Sufferings of Henry Tufts, Now Residing at Lemington, in the District of Maine. In Substance, As Compiled from His Own Mouth. I think any suffering that Tufts endured came mostly from his own sociopathic nature and chronic lying, but that's me. Your opinion may differ. The book was reprinted in 1930 with the shorter and blunter title The Autobiography of A Criminal. 

Woodcut of an 18th century criminal

I'm not sure it's all 100% true, but Tufts's autobiography is a very entertaining read. It's well-written, quite funny, and consists mostly of how he gets himself into (and then out of) bad situations. What's most interesting though, at least to readers of this blog, was that Henry Tufts often made money as a traveling wizard and fortune-teller. Even though Tufts was a scam artist, A Narrative of the Life etc. provides information into how 18th century New Englanders viewed the occult and magic. 

For example, while tarrying briefly in Norwich, Vermont, Tufts let the locals know he could predict the future. Young people visited him to get their fortunes told, while "sometimes, too, did the elderly approach my levee to enquire for lost goods, so that I had business enough, and was generally received with a hearty good welcome, go whither I would. Indeed I found it in no way difficult to cajole my ignorant followers into the belief of whatever idle tale I was pleased to fabricate..."

His services as a fortune teller were much in demand. Even while he was imprisoned in Exeter, New Hampshire (for desertion from the Continental Army) several young women visited him to get their futures told. Tufts would normally be happy to make money off them, but in this case he had just cut a hole in the wall of the jail and was preparing to escape. Rather than indulge the women, he chased them off with "unseemly language, as caused them to scamper down the stairs with more than customary agility." Spoiler alert: he escaped from jail and embarked on more criminal endeavors. 

Engraving of a lobster
It's not always clear what method Tufts used to tell fortunes, but during one period he used a small lobster claw. 

I had picked up, by chance, the small claw of a lobster, which I informed the people as I passed along, was an enchanted horn; by virtue of which I could predict future events; but that, unfortunately, I had lost another horn, its counterpart, to which had been attached the rare property of enabling its possessor to foretell past events. This ridiculous tale was accredited by many; I therefore gained much celebrity, as a conjuror; sometimes my fee amounting to eight shillings in an evening.

Tufts led people to believe he was a "Salem wizard." Being a wizard was no longer a criminal offense in the 1700s, and by that time it seems Salem already had the reputation for being the source of powerful magic, a reputation it maintains to this day. If Tufts had claimed to be a Salem wizard in the 1690s he would have been hanged; in the 1770s it was a way to market his talents. 

Tufts also let people think he worked with the Devil. Again, this would be a dangerous claim to make in the the 1600s but was good marketing in the 1770s, giving Tufts an aura of mystery and danger. 

In respect to myself, it was the concurrent opinion, that I must be an extraordinary wizard, complete master of the black art, and able to employ the agency of the devil, whenever I saw fit. The belief of those things I endeavored to cultivate, well knowing, that reputation is sometimes of more advantage, in our intercourse with the generality of mankind, than are real requirements, because a fool may possess it. 

The Devil was invoked when Tufts found himself once again in Exeter jail, this time for stealing livestock with an accomplice, James Smith. The jailers put Tufts and Smith in adjacent cells. Friends smuggled tools to Tufts which he used to secretly drill a hole through the wall, and not even Smith knew he had made the hole. 

As Tufts prepared to escape, he whispered to Smith through the wall they shared that he was leaving the jail "by the help of the devil, who is now at my beck and call, whenever I need his assistance." Smith already believed that Tufts was a wizard and begged him to free him using his magic. Tufts agreed, saying that first Smith must throw his clothes out the window of his cell, which he did. 

Tufts then told Smith he must repeat the following spell to escape the jail:
Come in old man,
With that black ram,
And carry me out,
As fast as you can
Smith did as he was told. While he repeatedly recited the spell Tufts escaped through the hole he made and put on Smith's clothes, which were lying on the ground outside. Tufts fled into the countryside wearing Smith's clothing while poor gullible Smith was left naked in jail reciting the spell. 

Henry Tufts eventually gave up his life of crime and settled in Lemington, Maine, where he made a living as a physician. He had learned to be a physician from Molly Ockett, an Abenaki woman whose medical skills he required when he was suffering from a knife wound. Tufts lived among the Abenaki for several years and learned how to use local herbs and roots to treat illnesses. 

Indian doctors (as they were called) were in high demand at the time, much like Salem wizards, but happily the practice of medicine involved much less deception. If Tufts is to be believed, he was an honorable doctor who devoted himself to healing the sick. I'm just not sure we can believe anything he wrote...

July 13, 2020

Zoom Talk about Massachusetts Witchcraft Legends: Wednesday, July 15 at 6:00 pm

I will be giving a Zoom talk about Massachusetts witchcraft legends this Wednesday, July 6 at 6:00 pm for the Tyngsborough Public Library. Some people just associate witchcraft stories with October but this blog's readers know better! You can find more information and register here

I hope you can join me!

July 09, 2020

The Clown Scare of 1981 That Terrified Boston

With the COVID-19 pandemic I haven't been taking any long road trips to visit strange places. I've been exploring closer to home, though, and luckily there are some weird places very close by. That's one of the nice things about New England. There are spooky stories all over the place. 

Recently I took a short trip to the Lawrence School in Brookline, Massachusetts. Built in the early 20th century, the Lawrence School is part of Brookline's public school system. It's a very stately looking building, but in May of 1981 some students at the school reporting something very unusual: creepy clowns. 

Actor Lon Chaney as a clown in He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

On Tuesday, May 5, 1981 the Brookline Police received a report that two men dressed as clowns had approached children on Longwood Avenue near the Lawrence School. The men were driving a van and tried to entice the children into the van by offering them candy. According to The Boston Globe

The vehicle was describe as an older model black van with ladders on the side, a broken front headlight and no hubcaps.  
Brookline Police called the town's school department and told administrators to be "extra cautious." 
School Superintendent Robert I. Sperber instructed all ten elementary schools to warn pupils. (The Boston Globe, May 7, 1981, p. 21, "Beware 'clown' pupils told")

This was not an isolated incident, but was instead just one of several creepy clown sightings across greater Boston that spring. Officials in Boston's school system were told the last week of April to warn elementary and middle school pupils about sinister clowns. The memo was sent on May 6:

"It has been brought to the attention of the police department and the district office that adults dressed as clowns have been bothering children to and from school," the memo said.  
"Please advise all students," it continued, "that they must stay away from strangers, especially ones dressed as clowns." (The Boston Globe, May 7, 1981, p. 21, "Beware 'clown' pupils told")

Yes, especially ones dressed as clowns. Boston Police even issued a citywide bulletin for a clown who had been seen in a black van near Franklin Park in Roxbury and the Curley School in Jamaica Plain. He was reportedly naked from the waist down and was wanted for questioning. 

Just a few days later, though, the clown scare had died down in Boston. On May 9, The Globe reported that a clown driving a pickup was stopped by police in Randolph, but was released when they realized he was delivering a "clown-a-gram" to a department store in Canton. No other clowns were arrested because no other clowns, particularly creepy ones, could be found. There was nothing behind all the reports the police had received. 

... police officers in Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, Randolph and Canton all said yesterday that their departments had received no calls from adults who claimed to have seen clowns doing anything questionable.  
The police said virtually all reported sightings of clowns originated with children aged 5 to 7. Police could offer no evidence of any child being harassed, molested, injured or kidnapped in the metropolitan area by a person in a clown's get-up. 
No adult (civilian) or police officer has even seen a clown. We've had calls saying there was a clown at a certain intersection and happened to have (police) cars sitting there, and the officers saw nothing. When the officers get there, no one tells them anything. I don't know if someone's got a hoax going or not, but it's really foolhardy." (The Boston Globe, May 9, 1981, p. 15, "Police discount reports of clowns bothering kids")

A May 13 article in The Globe told parents how to talk with their children about 'stranger danger,' noting that 27 children had been murdered in Atlanta. The clown scare may have been a hoax, but the world could indeed be dangerous for young children. 

The Lawrence School in Brookline
That seems to be the end of the 1981 creepy clown scare in Boston, but the phenomenon popped up in other parts of the country later that spring. Author Loren Coleman notes in Mysterious America (2007) that children in Providence, Rhode Island reported scary clowns soon after the Boston clown scare, and by late May children in Kansas and Missouri were reporting the same thing. Children were seeing the clowns in Pennsylvania by June. Once again, Massachusetts was the cradle of innovation, since we brought America its first scary clown panic. I don't think tour guides on the Freedom Trail will be bragging about this one too much.

Coleman thinks that the media helped to spread the panic. Parents read about the clowns in the newspapers or saw it on TV and mentioned them to their children. The children then reported seeing the clowns, which got reported to the media. More parents read about the clowns and told their kids. And so it went. Luckily, unlike the Satanic panic that came a few years later, no innocent people were arrested.

The creepy clown phenomena first appeared in 1981, but has happened several times since then. Many of you might remember the big, nationwide clown scare in 2016. Although no one really knows why America was receptive to the idea of creepy clowns back in 1981, Coleman notes that creepy clowns (or phantom clowns, as he calls them) tend to show up in election years. That was certainly the case in 2016, and I feel like those clowns were just foreshadowing the scary circus we're living through now. Will clowns show up to scare us in time for this year's election? I hope not. We all have enough to worry about already. 

July 02, 2020

Fireworks, UFOs and Anxiety: Weird Stories from The 1960s and Today

People across the United States have been reporting increased use of fireworks this spring and summer. The local, homegrown fireworks displays have started earlier in neighborhoods around the country and reportedly feature more intense explosives than in past years. A few different theories are floating around about why this might be. Personally I think it's because people are cooped up at home (and because Americans like to blow things up), but there have also been some conspiracy theories put forth to explain the increase in fireworks. As humans we like to find secret patterns in events. 

I won't repeat any conspiracy theories, but I will suggest something really bizarre: maybe extraterrestrials are behind this year's loud and extended fireworks display. They want you to be distracted by the noise and explosions so you won't see the UFOs hovering above us.

I'm just joking (mostly), but Satellite Internet has once again released its annual ranking of the states with the most UFO sightings. Based on data from the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC), Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut were all in the top ten last year. Way to go New England! Rhode Island was 14th in the ranking, while sadly Massachusetts was all the way down at number 39. We need to do better.

Overall, Americans saw nearly twice as many UFOs in 2019 as they did in 2018. I am currently reading George Hanson's book The Trickster and the Paranormal, and Hanson points out that people tend to experience more paranormal phenomena (including UFOs) when they are stressed, anxious, or experiencing chaos. 

Huh. I think that is a pretty good description of how life has been in the U.S. for the last few years. Things have only gotten even more stressful in 2020 with the pandemic and political events, and according to NUFORC's data UFO sightings increased by 112% over 2019 in just the first three months of this year. I can only assume even more people will see UFOs as things get more and more stressful. Let's hope the number of UFO sightings (and our stress levels) start to go down at some point. 

July 2 is often celebrated as World UFO Day to commemorate the alleged saucer crash in Roswell, New Mexico. Here in New England, the UFOs sometimes arrive a few days later, usually just in time for Independence Day and fireworks. For example, in 1960 a Massachusetts woman wrote to the United States Air Force inquiring about a UFO she and her boyfriend had seen over Revere Beach on July 4 of that year:

Could you please tell me whether anyone reported this sighting and whether it has been explained or not? Approximately 1,000 people might have been watching the same Fourth of July fireworks display and seen the same thing... 
My boyfriend... and myself were parked along the beach waiting for the fireworks to begin at about 10:00 pm. About 9:45 pm I noticed an orange disk in the sky a little right of center of (the) car. ... We watched it for about another 20 minutes before it moved swiftly down closer to the ocean where we were startled to see a reflection in the water of the orange disk above. It was hard to tell how low to the water it was or how big because is was out some distance. 

Eventually two more disks joined the first one, and then all three zoomed away "like lightning." The fireworks display began 20 minutes later. I don't know if the Air Force responded to the letter writer.

Strange objects returned to the Massachusetts skies in July of 1963. According to the July 9 issue of the Quincy Patriot-Ledger, two Air Force veterans saw a UFO over Dedham, Massachusetts on July 3. At least eleven other people had previously reported seeing something similar, mostly flying over towns on the South Shore. The object had a white light on top and an orange light on its bottom, which sounds a little like the orange UFOs seen in 1960 at Revere Beach. 

A few days later, on July 6, the Patriot-Ledger published an article by one of its reporters. In late June he had set up a camera in his Quincy back yard to photograph the motion of the stars. When he developed the film he saw patterns of lights on the photos as if objects had flown into view, hovered, and then left:

About two weeks ago I took a photograph that makes me wonder what is flying in our skies.  
The original purpose of the shot was to photograph the tracks left by stars passing overhead as the earth revolved.... 
This week I had the film developed. On the slide I immediately saw something which shouldn't have been there - a clear pattern of lights which moved into the camera's view, hovered in at least seven spots, then left the camera's view once more. 

The lights were orange, white and silver. A local UFO investigator claimed they were similar to lights seen by two teenage girls in West Quincy in mid-June. 

On July 11, the Patriot-Ledger reported that even more people had seen mysterious flying objects, which were often (but not always) described as having orange lights on the bottom and white lights on top. A total of 21 people reported seeing UFOs near the South Shore in June and early July of 1963. Gerald S. Hawkins, director of the Boston University Observatory and staff astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and Harvard College Observatory, said the photos taken by the Patriot Ledger reporter came "very close to scientific evidence about UFOs."

Very close, but not conclusive. There weren't any more reports from the South Shore after July 11, and no one proposed a definitive explanation for what had been seen. As in so many paranormal events, the different accounts and data seem like they are pointing towards something - but it's never clear exactly what. Everything appears to be coalescing into a coherent narrative, but never does. 

Were the objects seen in 1963 the same ones reported in 1960? They sound similar, but not identical, and not everyone in 1963 saw UFOs with orange lights. In both 1960 and 1963, the UFOs were seen in coastal areas near Boston, but not exclusively - the two Air Force vets saw one in an inland town west of Boston. 

In both years the UFOs were seen around early July. Perhaps that's just because more people were outside in the warmer weather and looking at the sky, possibly for fireworks. Maybe there's some other reason these things were sighted in the same season three years apart. I don't think we'll ever know.  

Humans like nice tidy stories to explain why anomalous things happen, whether it's an increase in fireworks or a rash of UFO sightings near Boston in the 1960s. The universe doesn't always provide us with easy answers though, even if they would make us feel less anxious. 


I found the information about the 1960 and 1963 UFO sightings on Loren Goss's amazing UFO history site. It's definitely worth a visit.