November 25, 2020

Bones, Apples, and Pie: Folk Magic for Thanksgiving

Since it's a holiday this week I thought I'd turn away from the usual witches and ghosts to write about something more light-hearted. But fear not! I'll get back to the spooky stuff next week. 

While browsing through some old books I came upon this familiar piece of folklore:

The forked bone just in front of the breastbone of a chicken or other fowl is known as the wishbone. If this bone chances to fall to you, preserve it and put it on the shelf behind the stove to dry. When properly seasoned you take hold of one end, let a friend take hold of the other, each make a wish, and then both pull. The wish of the one that has the top with his piece when it breaks will come true. (Clifton Johnson, What They Say in New England, 1896) 

Many of you have probably broken the wishbone and the tradition has very old roots. The Latin term for the wishbone is furcula, which apparently means 'little fork', and different types of folklore about this particular bone date back to at least the Middle Ages. Jeffrey Webb's American Myths, Legends, and Tall Tales (2016) claims they date back even further, to the ancient Etruscans who lived more than 2,000 years ago. It's a very intriguing bone, apparently. 

Mel McCuddin, Wishbone (2011), at the Art Spirit Gallery.

The specific tradition of getting your wish if you get the bigger piece of the bone is not ancient but is still quite old. Edward Armstrong's book The Folklore of Birds (1970) claims the practice of wishing upon the bone originated in the 1700s. So if you pull on the wishbone this year during your socially distanced celebration recognize that you are carrying on a centuries-old tradition, albeit under unusual circumstances.

Not everyone eats turkey so sadly not everyone can participate in the wishbone tradition. I did once buy a Tofurky that included a fake wishbone in the box but those fake bones aren't part of the Tofurky anymore. There is folklore about making pie, however, so even vegans can join in the holiday fun:

When a girl trims piecrust, and the trimming falls over her hand, it is a sign she is going to marry young (Clifton Johnson, What They Say in New England, 1896)

Nineteenth century folklore collections are full of omens that predict marriage. In a pre-liberated era, marriage loomed even larger in people's minds than it does today, and it particularly did for young women, who usually had limited career and life choices. Even the humble act of making pie could provide an indicator of one's marital future.

If you are making apple pie you have even more options for fortune-telling. One well-known tradition instructs a woman to peel an apple in one strip and then throw the peel over her shoulder. The peel will form the shape of a letter on the ground, and that letter will be the first initial of the man she will marry. Some accounts say you need to swing the peel around your head three times before throwing it down, so don't omit that crucial step.

A weirder piece of apple folklore comes from Maine. A young woman curious about her marital prospects should eat an apple at midnight while standing in front of a mirror. In one hand she should carry a lamp or candle for light. As she eats the apple she should recite the following incantation:

Whoever my true love may be

Come and eat this apple with me

Something about eating an apple at midnight and evoking an unknown lover to appear sounds a little spooky to me. I guess I wasn't able to resist the urge to write about spooky things after all. Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving, even if you spend it alone this year.


In addition to Clifton Johnson's book, I got material for this week's post from Fanny Bergen's book Current Superstitions (1896).

November 16, 2020

Where the Witches Hid: Four Legendary Witch Locations in Massachusetts

When the Salem witch trials happened in 1692, most of the accused were arrested and put on trial. A handful, however, got wind of their arrest and fled Salem. Philip and Mary English escaped to New York, while John Alden either fled to either New York or Duxbury. Constable John Willard ran off to Lancaster, but was arrested there and ultimately executed in Salem. 

The Salem witch trials loom large in the history of Massachusetts, and many legends have developed around them. Here are four legendary locations where victims of the Salem witch trials supposedly hid from their persecutors. Is there any truth to these legends? Read on...

Witches Woods (Beverly)

There is a forested area in Beverly called Beverly Commons, but it was once known as Witches Woods. One explanation for this name is that Giles Corey, one of the more famous victims of the Salem witch trials, fled Salem Village home after being accused and hid in Beverly. 

I haven't found any evidence that Corey hid in Beverly before his arrest. Corey's fame rests on the fact that he was crushed to death with heavy stones while being interrogated by Salem's sheriff. Folklore claims that he stubbornly refused to answer any questions as the stones were piled on his body and his only dying words were, "More weight." His story and reputation grew over the years, and in the 19th century a poem called "The Ballad of Giles Corey" even claimed he was a sinister wizard and not a victim of injustice. But there's nothing to show he fled to Beverly. 

I certainly understand the temptation to connect an infamous historic personage like Giles Corey to a locale with an odd name. But I think Witches Woods got its name for an even stranger reason. According to Caroline King Howard, a wealthy Salem resident who vacationed in Beverly with her family in the 1840s, Witches Woods was said to the location of a haunted farmhouse. The farmhouse usually appeared as an old ruin, but at other times it seemed to be inhabited and in good repair. Travelers often got lost in the woods near the strange house, wandering for hours in an area that was not that large. A headless ghost also reputedly haunted the woods, wandering sadly among the trees with his head under one arm.

The Garrison Witch House (Rockport)

After farmer John Proctor of Salem Village was accused of witchcraft, his pregnant wife Elizabeth fled north to Rockport on Cape Ann. Her sons lived in that town and built a house to shelter their mother. The house, called the Witch House or the Garrison Witch House, is still standing today.

This is another legend that is probably not historically accurate. Elizabeth Proctor was imprisoned with her husband but her execution was delayed because she was pregnant. She was not executed and she and her child were released from prison in May of 1693. There's not evidence that she fled to Rockport.

The website Vintage Rockport points out that the Garrison Witch House was originally just called the Garrison House and may actually predate the Salem trials, possibly being built in the 1670s. But Vintage Rockport also points out that the house has been called the Witch House since at least the early 1900s. Here's a postcard from 1926 showing the Witch House:

I do wonder how and why the legend of Elizabeth Proctor became attached to this house. I also wonder if the house was originally associated with some other witch whose name has long been forgotten. Although the Salem witches are the most famous in the state, there were hundreds of witches in Massachusetts, both legendary and historical, who are less well known. 

It's also possible the term "Witch House" might have just meant "old creepy house." When I was a child in Haverhill there was a spooky looking Victorian house a few blocks from us. It loomed above the street on an embankment and was in perpetual disrepair. I sometimes heard people refer to it as the "Witch House." No one said a witch actually lived there, but it looked like one might. 

Witch Rock (Rochester)

Witch Rock is a large boulder in Southeastern Massachusetts. When I first wrote about it several years ago I was aware of four interconnected theories explaining its name:

1. The rock was originally the site of local Native American religious ceremonies. When the Puritans arrived they mistakenly identified these ceremonies (and the rock) with witchcraft.

2. When the Puritans arrived they noticed that the Native Americans avoided the rock and therefore they named it Witch Rock.

3. According to a Rochester legend, the soul of an executed witch is trapped inside the rock, along with some nefarious demons. The witch and demons can sometimes be heard howling from inside as they try to escape through the boulder's cracks.

4. The local Native Americans thought a witch was trapped inside the rock.

Commenters on my blog pointed out that there was also a fifth explanation. One of Rochester's early settlers was a man named Mark Haskell. According to tradition, Haskell was asked to be a juror in the Salem witch trials. He refused, and to avoid persecution he fled south to Rochester. He took shelter near a large boulder, which was named Witch Rock in commemoration. This story seems to be well-known among Haskell family genealogy buffs, and Mark Haskell is often referred to by them as Witchcraft Mark. 

I really don't know which of these theories is correct. Perhaps there is some truth to all of them? The boulder has been called Witch Rock since at least the late 19th century, and even today it is painted with the image of a witch and is often the site of Halloween festivities. The legend lives on!

Witch Caves (Ashland)

Many years ago Tony and I traveled out to Ashland to find the mysterious Witch Caves. 

After the witch trials ended in 1693, the families of those who were accused moved west out of Salem to Framingham. According to tradition, they sheltered in a series of caves while they built houses in their new home. The caves are now located in a large park in Ashland, which split from Framingham in the 1840s.

It took us a while, but I think we found the caves that day. They were filled with dead leaves a yard deep and didn't look that safe, but here are a couple photos from way back in 2012. Forgive the low quality!

Did refugees from the Salem witch trials live in these caves? It's possible. Families from Salem did settle in this part of the state - a Framingham street near the park is named Salem's End Road, and historians have confirmed that a house on that road was built by Sarah Clayse, who was the sister of Rebecca Nurse and Mary Easty. 

Rebecca and Mary were executed as witches during the Salem trials, while Sarah was only imprisoned. After the trials ended she and her husband Peter left Salem for Framingham. They didn't want to live near the people who had murdered their relatives. Several other Salem families followed them. So there is some basis to the Witch Caves legend. We don't know for certain that the refugees lived in the caves, but we do know that the settled in that area. 

Do you know any other legends about places where witches hid? Please leave a comment if you do. I'm curious to learn more.

November 11, 2020

The Two Voices: A Ghost Story from Maine

It's been a busy few weeks, what with Halloween, the election, and some big projects at work. But now I finally have a moment to breathe and work on the blog. So here's a story that was told to me by a family member. She swears it is true, and I have no reason to doubt her. It's pretty creepy so don't read any further unless you want to be unsettled. 


Laurie is a nurse, and many years ago she was working at a hospital in Maine. She was on the night shift at the ICU when the following strange incident occurred. 

Laurie and one other nurse were the only staff in the ICU that night. The hospital was a small one, and there was only one patient in the unit: a middle-aged man who had been comatose for several weeks. His prognosis was not good and the doctors thought he would soon die.

As Laurie and her co-worker sat at the desk that night they heard something odd coming from down the hall. It was the voice of a small child. "Help me! Help me!" the voice said. "He's coming to get me!" It sounded like it was coming from the comatose patient's room.

Visiting hours were long over - it was after midnight. No children were supposed to be in the ICU. Laurie and her co-worker ran down the hall to the patient's room, but when they went inside there was no one there except the patient. He was lying immobile and unconscious in the same position he had been in for weeks. 

Puzzled, Laurie and her co-worker returned to the nurse's desk. But as soon as they were seated they once again heard the small child's voice. "Help me! Help me! He's here!"

They began to walk down the corridor back to the patient's room. As they drew near to it they heard another voice. Not a soft child's voice, but a deep, hoarse voice. Something about it sounded sinister. "I have you now," it said. "You cannot escape from me." 

Laurie and her colleague ran into the patient's room. There was no one inside except the comatose man and he was still lying in the same position. 

Laurie and the other nurse left the room. By this time they were starting to feel a little spooked. They returned to the nurse's desk and sat down.

Again, they heard the small child's voice coming from down the corridor. "Help me! Help me! He's here to take me away!" They heard the other, deep sinister voice laugh.

Laurie looked at her co-worker and said, "I'm not going into that room again." Her co-worker nodded in agreement. "Me neither."

They sat at the desk for hours, listening fearfully to the two voices coming from the patient's room. At 3:00 a.m. the voices suddenly stopped and a life support alarm went off. Laurie and her colleague ran down to the patient's room. He had died and could not be revived. They never heard those two voices again. 


Was there something supernatural happening in the patient's room? Or were both of the voices coming from him? I suppose that all depends on your worldview.