September 06, 2021

Last Room at the Inn: A Cape Cod Ghost Story

I just started watching the new season of American Horror Story, and the first half of the show is set in Provincetown, Massachusetts. It's not the first time the show has invoked New England's weird history. The second season was also set in Massachusetts (at an asylum full of dark secrets), and the show has invoked the myths and legends surrounding the Salem witch trials a few times. 

In the new season, a writer and his family move to Provincetown in the off-season so he can focus on his work. I'm sure nothing good will come of it, and it reminded me of a story I heard recently from a friend. Like the fictional writer, my friend moved to Provincetown in the off-season to do some writing. And like the writer, my friend also encountered something strange. There's one big difference though - my friend swears his story is true. 

In the 1980s, my friend (whom I'll call James) moved to Provincetown to work on a book. To cover his expenses, he took a job as the front-desk clerk at an inn in town. He worked the nightshift. The inn (which is still in business today) had multiple buildings and many rooms. 

On his first night on the job, the owner showed him where all the room keys were. They were all organized very neatly, but there was one key kept separate from all the rest. 

Not the haunted inn, just a motel I liked the looks of...

"That room," the owner said, "Don't let anyone stay there except as a last resort. It's not... a good room." The owner's stern expression discouraged James from asking any questions. 

Fall turned into winter, and James didn't need to think about the unrentable room. Business was slow, and the inn never became full. But that changed one holiday weekend in February. The weather became unseasonable warm, and all the rooms filled up - except that one. It was the only room left.

James was at the desk at midnight when a car pulled up. The driver came in, and asked if a room was available. "There's no place else in P-town with a vacancy," he said. "I'll take any room you have."

James rented him the last room.

The next morning he told one of the housekeeping staff he had rented the last room. The housekeeper, an older local woman, looked at him in horror. "You're never supposed to rent that room!" she said. 

"I know," James said. "But we were totally full. Can you tell me why we're not supposed to rent that room out?"

"Only if you help me clean it," she said. "I hate going there alone."

After the guest checked out, James and the housekeeper went to the unrentable room. James was disappointed when they opened the door. It looked just like any of the other rooms, with a large double bed and small bathroom. There was nothing strange at all. They set about stripping the sheets.

"Many years ago," the housekeeper said, "a young woman checked into this room by herself. No one thought much of it. She stayed one night, and then added another night. In the morning, she didn't check out. I came into this room to see if everything was OK."

"It wasn't. She had shot herself in the middle of the night. She had put a pillow over her head to mute the sound, and there was blood and brains and feathers everywhere. It was horrible. The worst thing I've ever seen."

The housekeeper explained that the young woman's ghost still haunted the room. People would hear her crying at night when the room was vacant, and the housekeepers heard her footsteps when they came in to clean. 

James and the housekeeper finished making up the bed, left the room, and closed the door. "And that's why," the housekeeper said, "the owner doesn't like to rent the room. That's also why he put twin beds in there. It discourages people from taking the room. No one likes to sleep in small beds these days." 

James was confused. "But there aren't twin beds in there," he said. "There's just one big bed. We changed the sheets on a double bed."

The housekeeper opened the door to the room. Inside were two twin beds.

*****

That's a great story, and it's perfect for Labor Day as the summer vacation season winds down and we move into fall. Thank you, "James" for sharing it with me!

I have a few updates. If you want to hear some interesting stories about witches (not ghosts), I'll be speaking Thursday, September 9 at 7:00 pm for the History Project about "Witches, Sex and Queer People: 1644 - 2021." The talk is free. You can register and find more details here


Also, my new book Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts is now available wherever you buy books. It contains more than 70 stories about Bay State witchcraft, from witch trials in the 1600s to paranormal encounters in the 21st century. It's what you want to be reading this fall as the days grow short and the weather turns cool! I wouldn't suggest reading it at a haunted inn, though...



August 23, 2021

Kimball Tavern: Ghosts for Sale

How many haunted taverns are there in New England? A lot, I guess, because this is my second post about a haunted tavern this summer.

Today's tavern in question is the Kimball Tavern in my hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts. The tavern sits near Bradford Common on the south side of the Merrimack River, and was built around 1690 by Benjamin Kimball. Seven generations of the Kimball lived in it for the next two centuries.


The tavern played an important part in local history, because it was here that a group of local landowners met to create Bradford Academy (later Bradford College) in 1803. In 1921 the building was sold to the Marble family, who operated an antique store there, and it was later bought by Bradford College. 

Sadly, Bradford College shut down in 2000, and Kimball Tavern was then sold to the Wood family, who ran an antiques store from it. The Woods shut down their store a few years ago, and the building is once again for sale. The asking price is $599,000.

In addition to getting a 300+ year old building with six bedrooms and three baths, the buyer may also get some ghosts. According to Roxie Zwicker's Haunted Pubs of New England (2007), a former Bradford College student named Tom experienced strange phenomena in the tavern. 

Your author in front of the tavern.

For example, once when making a presentation the projector became mysteriously unplugged, and photos taken of him during the presentation seem to show a shadowy figure standing between him and the camera. In fact, Tom could not be seen in the photos at all.

Tom also claimed that many people glimpsed shadowy figures through the windows when the building was unoccupied. Tom and a friend visited the tavern one night to take photos, and saw a group of figures looking at them from an attic window. These figures also appeared in the photos. Tom believed they were the spirits of the Kimball family.

Many local children also thought the building was haunted, and according to Christopher and Nancy Obert's Legendary Locals of Haverhill, Massachusetts (2011), people have claimed to hear the sound of a young girl inside, as well as see the shadow of a dog and hear footsteps in empty rooms. So there you go. If you buy this building you might get some ghosts. 

Sadly, I don't have an extra $600K lying around, so I won't get the chance to own this beautiful old (and possibly haunted) building. Hopefully whoever buys it will run it as a business of some kind, or even a museum, so I will get a chance to see the inside. Hopefully the ghosts will stick around as well.

*****

I'll be a guest on Midnight FM this Thursday, 8/25/21, to discuss my book Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts. I'm excited to talk with host Tim Weisberg about New England's weird and wonderful folklore. The show airs at 10:00 pm Eastern time!

August 14, 2021

The Sweet Milk of Satan: A Cape Cod Witch Story

Tony and I were down in Truro on Cape Cod recently, and we found a gravestone I've wanted to see for a long time. It belongs to Sylvanus Rich, who was born in 1720 and died on July 3rd, 1755. There's an interesting legend about Rich and a local witch. It goes something like this. 

*****

Sylvanus Rich was a sea captain. Not much is known about him, but something strange happened to him once during a routine sea voyage carrying carrying corn from North Carolina to Boston. As his ship was sailing north along Truro's Atlantic coast he told his crew to drop anchor. He had seen a small hut nestled among the dunes.

"I want some fresh milk," Rich told his men. "I'm tired of brackish water and rum. I bet whoever lives there has a cow that that gives milk." The crew watched as he rowed himself to shore (alone) and made his way to the hut. When he rowed back to the ship he had a jug of milk with him. "I was right," he said. "The old woman there had some milk for me. But she was the ugliest hag I've ever seen!" Rich retired to his cabin with the creamy beverage, but as soon as he did a fierce gale arose that shredded the ship's sails. The crewmen pounded on his cabin door for guidance, but he did not emerge until the next morning.

Sylvanus Rich's grave in North Truro Cemetery

"What's that?" Sylvanus Rich said groggily to his crew. "The sails are shredded and we're drifting? That's not my concern... Last night the hideous hag came to my cabin. She threw a magic bridle over my head and rode me like a horse up and down the Cape until sunrise. See?" He lifted his shirt, and his crew gasped at the red marks on his torso. They looked like they were made by a woman's shoe. 

"She will come again tonight," Captain Rich said. "I must prepare for her." His crew wasn't sure if he grimaced or smiled as he returned to his cabin and locked the door. 

For several days the ship drifted aimlessly off the Truro coast. Each night the dune-dwelling old witch came and used the captain as her steed, riding him up and down the Cape. Sylvanus Rich was under her spell and helpless to resist her. He spent his days and nights locked in his cabin. 

The crew was feeling desperate (and thinking mutinous thoughts), when they saw another ship approaching from the distance. By a strange coincidence, it was captained by Sylvanus Rich's son. When the crew told him his father was bewitched, Sylvanus's son went down to his cabin. The crew could hear the two men talking inside but were unable to make out what was said. 

Finally, Sylvanus Rich emerged onto the deck. "What are you all looking at?" he said. "My son's ship has materials to repair our sails. Get to work! We need to bring this grain to Boston."

The sails were repaired, and the ship finally arrived in Boston. The merchant waiting for the shipment of corn asked why it was so late. Sylvanus Rich simply said, "Blame it on the sweet milk of Satan."

That's the end of the legend. His gravestone is in Old North Truro Cemetery, but I couldn't find much information about Sylvanus Rich's life. He was born in Eastham, Massachusetts in 1720, and had at least two children with his wife Mary. His son Isaiah was born in 1744, and would only have been 11 years old when Sylvanus died. It seems unlikely that Isaiah was captaining a ship at the age of eleven, so I'm not sure how much of this legend is based on fact. 

There are a lot of New England legends about witches using magic bridles to ride men like horses. There are at least two others from Cape Cod specifically about witches riding sailors! I guess it was an occupational hazard of the time, like scurvy or getting seasick. New England witch stories aren't usually erotic, but I think the sexual undertones in these witch bridle stories are pretty obvious. Milk, usually associated with motherhood and sustenance, has a more sinister and unwholesome role in this tale. 

We never learn what transpired in the witch's hut, or what Sylvanus's son says to him that finally breaks the spell. I like that mystery. I also like that the witch is not killed or harmed at the end of this story. Instead, she is free to seduce and torment more sailors with the SWEET MILK OF SATAN. 

I included this story in my new book, Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts, which is available now for pre-ordering and will mail on September 1. You can purchase it all your favorite online book vendors. 


*****

My main source for this story was Elizabeth Renard's book The Narrow Land (1934), and she got the story from Shebnah Rich's Truro, Cape Cod, or Landmarks and Seamarks (1884), with additional details from oral tradition.  

August 03, 2021

Bottomless Ponds of New England: Monsters, Witches, and Dead Horses

I read a lot of books about local legends and folklore, and have discovered some weird things. I recently learned there are several bottomless lakes and ponds here in New England. Yes, you read that correctly. There are several bodies of water here that are immeasurably deep. And some have monsters in them...

One of these bottomless bodies of water is Hall's Pond in Brookline. Hall's Pond is located just off Beacon Street, one of the Boston area's busiest thoroughfares, and you can even take the Green Line trolley to it. Very convenient!

The pond is now part of Amory Park, and there is a nice boardwalk that leads you around it. The last time I visited it was teeming with fish, turtles, and birds. Hall's Pond used to be much larger and swampier, and is actually the remains of an ancient cedar swamp. The soil is quite peaty, and creates an oily sheen on the water. 

Hall's Pond in Brookline

The January 28, 1902 proceedings of the Brookline Historical Society, include the following information about the development of Amory Park:

The town's purchase was about eight acres, which includes a part of Hall's Pond, the dreaded hole and terror of youngsters, which was believed to be bottomless.

The 1954 - 1955 proceedings of the Society include the following reminiscence from one Mrs. Luquer:

The story goes that, in my childhood, one dark night, a man with his horse and buggy went down what he thought was Essex Street straight down to Beacon Street right down into Hall's Pond where there was quicksand and he was never seen again. I remember I often skated on the Pond and always wondered whether I was over the horse and buggy.

It's a grim story, but not as terrifying as the stories told about Dublin Lake in Dublin, New Hampshire. According to a July 26, 2017 issue of the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, in the early 20th century people thought the lake was bottomless. More contemporary legends say it is the home of hideous monsters who live in underwater caves:

Lore surrounding the lake monster dates back to the 1980s, when a free-diver allegedly went missing after a routine dive. The diver was found a number of days later, naked and incoherently babbling about monsters. 

Another version of the story states a diver was using a diving bell when exploring the lake’s bottom, but the tether was not long enough as he descended. 

After heading down deeper to find the caverns, the diver disappeared. A group of hikers found the diver in the woods naked days later, with the diver once again was babbling about monsters. ("The search for the Dublin Lake Monster," Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, July 26, 2017)

I think the whole "naked diver babbling insanely about monsters" is pretty creepy. Perhaps those monsters are from another planet, because another legend claims there is a spaceship or UFO at the bottom of the lake. 

Dinglehole, a small pond in Millis, Massachusetts, is also believed to be bottomless. Much like Hall's Pond, Dinglehole was once larger and swampier. In the 18th and 19th century, legends said it was haunted by a headless ghost who misled travelers. People also heard the ringing of a mysterious bell near the pond, giving it the name Dinglehole. (The bell went "dingle dingle dingle.")

Hall's Pond in Brookline

A headless ghost and mysterious bell are bad enough, but the the Devil and his witches would gather near Dinglehole to celebrate the Witches Sabbath. The witches arrived in the shape of weasels, raccoons, and other small woodland animals. 

One evening, a local hunter was walking home when he noticed a large raccoon watching him from a tree. Unable to resist such an easy target, the hunter shot the raccoon and hit it squarely in the chest. Nothing happened to the raccoon. It sat there unharmed. Did the hunter notice a slight smirk on its face? He fired several more shots, each time hitting the raccoon, which continued to ignore the bullets.

Finally, it dawned on the hunter that this was no ordinary animal. He plucked a branch from a nearby witch hazel shrub, a plant known for its magical powers, and fired it from his rifle like a small harpoon. It hit the raccoon in the face. The animal then vanished. Several days later, the hunter learned that Murky Mullen, a local woman suspected of witchcraft, had an unexplained injury on her face. Clearly, she (or her spirit) had been wandering the woods in the shape of a raccoon. (That story appears in Ephraim Orcutt Jameson and George James La Croix's 1886 book The History of Medway, Mass. 1713-1885.)

Hall's Pond, Dublin Lake and Dinglehole are just three bottomless bodies of water I learned about while researching other things. I assume there are probably others out there in New England. Of course, modern science says a bottomless pond or lake is an impossibility. After all, the center of our planet is hot and molten. If a lake reached all the way down to Earth's molten core it would probably be some kind of volcano, not a nice body of water you can swim in or skate on. 

I suspect the idea of a bottomless lake reflects an older view of the world, one in which the universe was filled with water. We now know that our planet is a sphere floating in the void of outer space. Many earlier civilizations believed the world was a flat disc that floated in an infinite abyss of water. For example, in the Babylonian creation myth, the only two beings that exist at the beginning of time are Apsu, the primal god of fresh water, and Tiamat, the dragon goddess of the sea. There is no land. It only appears after Apsu and Tiamat are slain and the god Marduk divides the waters using Tiamat's corpse. 

A similar situation is seen in the Biblical Book of Genesis, where God separates the waters from the waters during the creation of the world. There is water above the world, and water below the world.

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

So in a traditional Biblical view, the world looks something like this:

The Earth is surrounded by water, both above and below. This is alluded to in the Flood story, where not only are the "windows of heaven" opened to make it rain, but "all the fountains of the great deep broken up" as well. God is letting all the primal waters back in, returning the world to its primal state of chaos. 

I think local legends about bottomless bodies of water might reflect this older cosmology, even if accidentally. The ponds and lakes in these stories are not only immeasurably deep, but they are also associated with terrifying things. Dead men and dead horses, lost in the middle of the night. Monsters so hideous they cause insanity. Witches, ghosts, and even the Devil himself. The forces of chaos are lurking just below the surface, ready to drag the unwary down into the fathomless waters. These things are probably just lurking in our subconscious, not in the water, but I'd still be careful. You don't want to wander too far from shore and get in over your head. Who knows what you might find there?

*****

I wanted to give you an update on my new book, Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts. I got my author's copies the other day, and they look great. I'm really excited for people to read this one. 


It's currently available for pre-order on Bookshop.org, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, Amazon, and most other places you buy books. It will be available on September 1, just in time for the fall and spooky season. 

July 17, 2021

The Whitehorse Tavern: Ghosts and A Pirate!

The historic Whitehorse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island is on a lot of lists. It's on the National Register of Historic Places. It's on a list of the world's oldest restaurants, coming in at number 10. The Boston Globe recently placed it on a list of of the best places to eat in Newport. You get the idea. It's a historic and prestigious restaurant.

Those are some good lists to be on, but here's you should really care about: the 10 most haunted bars in America. There are a lot of haunted bars in this country, and the Whitehorse Tavern came in at number five. 

The Whitehorse was originally built in 1653 as a home for Francis Brinley, one of the early Newport colonists. Brinley sold the building in 1673 to William Mayes, Sr., who opened a tavern in it. His son, also named William Mayes, took over operation of the tavern in 1702. I don't think he paid too much attention to the business, though, since he also worked as a privateer for the English. 

A privateer was basically a licensed pirate. Mayes had permission from the English government to attack and steal from French ships, since they were one of England's political rivals at the time. Later, Mayes just became a full-on criminal pirate and raided ships sailing in the Indian Ocean, no matter who they belonged to.

After a decade of sailing the high seas, Mayes returned to Newport and resumed his duties at the tavern. His sister, Mary Mayes Nichols, took over after his death, and the business remained in the Nichols family for nearly two centuries. It acquired the name Whitehorse Tavern in 1736. The building was briefly a boarding house in the early 1900s before once again becoming a tavern. 

Hotels, restaurants, and bars often have ghost stories attached to them. It makes sense (if you believe in ghosts). Lots of people move through buildings like that, and they leave their spiritual mark on the place. The Whitehorse has been in use for almost four-hundred years, and many people have stayed there in its incarnations as a tavern and a rooming house. A lot of lives have been lived there, and some have probably ended there too. 

One ghost haunting the Whitehorse is said to be the spirit of an elderly overnight guest who died many years ago. He now wanders through the tavern in Colonial-era clothing, and is often seen by staff and guests near the fireplace in the dining room. He's also been seen in one of the bathrooms. HauntedHouses.com, which has a nice writeup about the Whitehorse, notes that this ghost sometimes pesters female guests, which is creepy, and not in a supernatural way. 

Other ghosts haunting the premises include a young girl who cries, and a presence that watches over the tavern and its staff. The latter is said to be mostly benevolent, and might possibly be the spirit of a former owner. This is something often reported at other long-running restaurants - business owners like to keep working after their deaths. For example, see my 2019 post about Local 186 in Provincetown.

The Whitehorse is only open for dinner this summer, so Tony and I weren't able to go inside during our recent Newport day trip. Maybe next time we'll get to try the food - and try to see a ghost in the bathroom. 

*****

This is totally unrelated to the Whitehorse Tavern, but I wanted to share some exciting news. I have a new book coming out in September. Here's the cover:

The cover makes me chuckle every time!

As you can probably guess, Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts is about... well, witches and warlocks from the Bay State. For many years I looked for one book with all the local witch stories. I never found one, so I wrote it myself. It contains dozens of legends, historical accounts, and paranormal encounters, dating from the 1600s to the 21st century. So much witchcraft!

Although the book doesn't come out until September, you can pre-order it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Bookshop, and Books A Million. Why delay? You know you'll want a copy as soon as the nights start to get longer...

July 05, 2021

The Newport Tower: Vikings, Knights Templar, and Benedict Arnold

This weekend Tony and I took a quick day trip to Newport, Rhode Island. It was cool and rainy, which is perfect weather for exploring historic seaports with a history of strange happenings. 

One sight I really wanted to see was the Newport Tower, located in Touro Park. The Newport Tower is an old stone structure that has stood for centuries on a hill overlooking the harbor. It is protected by an iron fence these days so sadly you can't get too close to it. There are several theories about about who built the tower, and why they did so.

For example, it is sometimes called the Viking Tower. In the early 19th century, a Danish archeologist theorized the tower was erected by Norse explorers who came south to Rhode Island from Vinland (the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and New Brunswick) centuries before Columbus visited the New World. I am not quite sure why the Vikings would have built such a tower, but the theory was quite popular. 

In the 19th century, many Anglo Americans embraced the theory that Vikings had journeyed far down the Atlantic coast. As I mentioned a few years ago, some even believed there had been a vast Viking metropolis along the banks of the Charles River in Massachusetts, where Boston and Cambridge now stand. This simply isn't true. The only known Viking settlement in North America was in Newfoundland, which only supported around 150 people, and only lasted for a few years. There's no evidence for Viking settlements in New England. 

Nineteenth century Anglo-Americans were open to the Viking theory for political and cultural reasons. Many of them were disturbed by the large number of Catholic immigrants entering the US from southern Europe at the time. They also didn't like that Christopher Columbus, an Italian Catholic working for Spain, had been the first person to open up North America to European colonization. They wanted to believe a Northern European, like themselves, had done this first. While it is true that Vikings reached North America long before Columbus, they made very little impact and didn't stay very long. 

Back to the Newport Tower. The Viking theory was just the first of several theories claiming the tower had been built by some forgotten European explorers who came before Columbus. Perhaps the tower was built by Irish monks in the 6th century. Or maybe it was the Portuguese. Some people have even suggested it was the Knights Templar, fleeing to North America from persecution in the 14th century. The New England Antiquities Research Association has an extensive monograph outlining the various theories here

Unfortunately, there's no good evidence to support any of them. There isn't any evidence that Irish monks or the Knights Templar came to Rhode Island before Columbus, and most historians and archaeologists believe the Newport Tower was actually built by Benedict Arnold, the first royal governor of Rhode Island, sometime in the 17th century. (Note: Benedict Arnold's great-grandson, also named Benedict Arnold, was the notorious Revolutionary War traitor.) 

Arnold refers to a "stone-built mill" in his will, and the Newport Tower is located near the site of Arnold's home. Documents from the early 18th century refer to "the old stone mill," and carbon-dating suggests the tower's mortar dates to the late 17th century. The tower is similar to other stone mills in England, and archaeological excavations at the tower didn't unearth any artifacts older than the colonial era. 


I think the evidence indicates pretty clearly that this tower was built by Benedict Arnold (or someone hired by him). Surely someone in 17th century Newport would have mentioned discovering a giant stone tower of unknown origin when they settled the area, but they didn't. Instead, they mention a mill built by Governor Arnold. Not everyone may share my opinion, but I think a 350 year old stone windmill is still pretty cool, even if it wasn't built by Vikings. 

June 25, 2021

Bigfoot At the Cemetery Gates

I love Bigfoot stories, and the weirder they are the more I like them. Here is a particularly spooky one from Rehoboth, Massachusetts. I first heard it on the Unsolved Mysteries podcast episode "The Creatures of Hockomock Swamp," but it appeared in the local news before that. 

*****

In the spring of 2019, thirty-seven year-old Tracy Manzella was visiting her parents at their Rehoboth home. Tracy and her siblings had grown up in the house, which is situated on a very woodsy road. As a child, Tracy had always felt like something in the woods was watching her whenever she was outside, but she never saw anything strange. 

Rehoboth sits within the fabled Bridgewater Triangle, and although Tracy was aware of the legends and paranormal sightings associated with the Triangle she had never seen anything strange herself. Members of her family had seen strange lights in the sky or near their house, but not Tracy. Not until that cold, drizzly, spring day in 2019

Tracy had gone for a run on the country roads near her parents' house. As she made her way back, she passed by an old cemetery that sits nestled in the woods about fifty feet from the road. She had gone by it countless times before, but this time as she ran by she saw something very strange. An enormous creature stood in front of the cemetery gates.

Image from the film Abominable (2006)

The creature was humanoid, and covered in stringy red hair. It was massively built, with broad shoulders and a broad chest. It was also really, really tall. Tracy estimated it must have stood fifteen feet high. It reminded her of an ogre or a troll.

What stood out most about this fantastic creature, though, was its face. Although it was not close to the road, Tracy could see fangs, and its gray-skinned face was demonic-looking. She sensed that the creature was evil. 

Tracy was terrified. She was afraid the creature would notice her and chase after her. Luckily it didn't. Tracy ran back to her parents' house, where she drew a picture for her mother of what she had seen. 

She has not seen anything strange since then. In October, 2020, Tracy Manzella told a Taunton Gazette reporter the following:

"It's the last experience in the Bridgewater Triangle that I would have personally wanted to have. Not because of how scary it was, or unsettling, but simply because of all of the legends of the Bridgewater Triangle that I have read about over the years or learned about. To me, the Bigfoot sightings always seemed like the most ridiculous and far-fetched of all of the things that people have seen," she said. "...I just feel like this particular experience is so outlandish that it's hard to believe if someone tells you that this is what they've seen." ("Exploring the Bridgewater Triangle: Our reporter and photographer head out when the lights go down and the legends come out," The Enterprise, October 27, 2020).

In some ways, her encounter seems like a typical Bigfoot sighting: a large hairy humanoid was briefly seen in the woods. On the other hand, the creature was really big, even for Bigfoot. Fifteen feet tall is enormous! The fangs, demonic face, and overall evil vibe are also atypical for Bigfoot sightings. 

Local paranormal investigator Christopher Pittman was quoted in the podcast, saying that almost everyone who reports seeing a Bigfoot in the Bridgewater Triangle describes something slightly different. Witnesses describe creatures of different heights, with different colored fur, and a variety of faces. None of them are the same. So perhaps there isn't a typical Bigfoot encounter, even in relatively small area like the Bridgewater Triangle. 

I don't think that Bigfoot is a physical animal, although many people would disagree with me. I think people who encounter Bigfoot are probably having a mystical experience of some kind, and that Bigfoot is a land spirit or genius loci, as the Romans would call it. The Romans and Greeks believed the wilderness was haunted by satyrs, centaurs, and nymphs. In America, we believe it's haunted by a large hairy humanoid. 

The fact that Tracy saw the giant creature near a cemetery also seems significant somehow, as does its menacing appearance. Cemeteries are of course believed to host to a variety of supernatural beings, including ghosts, vampires, and occasionally demons, but the way this creature blocked the cemetery gate immediately made me think it was some type of guardian.


In several European cultures, people believe that a cemetery is guarded by the spirit of the first being buried there. In many cases the guardian will be a human spirit, but sometimes it might be the spirit of an animal that was killed and buried explicitly for this purpose. For example, in England cemeteries are often guarded by spectral black dogs (called church grims) which are believed to be the ghosts of dogs killed and buried there. Cemetery guardians need not be so specific, either. A local friend of mine will pour out water or leave a coin for the guardian when he visits a cemetery, but I think he just considers the guardian the spirit of the place, not the soul of the first creature buried there. 

So did Tracy Manzella see the cemetery's guardian spirit? I really don't know, and it's not something that can be proven, but the creature's size, position and terrifying visage certainly would prevent anyone from entering that graveyard. It's just speculation on my part, and I certainly don't think the first being buried in the cemetery was a fifteen-foot demonic creature. She may have experienced something else entirely, but I enjoy tying these modern paranormal encounters with older streams of myth and folklore.   

June 13, 2021

A Vermont Black Cat Death Curse

 Many years ago, a farmer was walking home through the countryside late at night. He felt a little spooked because the road was dark and lonely.

After walking for a while he saw a strange procession walking towards him in the gloom. Nine black cats were carrying a tiny black coffin draped in velvet. It was a funeral procession. 

As the cats walked past him, one turned to the farmer and said, "Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum is dead." The farmer was too shocked to reply and the cats processed off into the darkness.

The farmer was relieved to get home. The fireplace cast a cheery glow, and his wife greeted him with a bowl of warm soup. Their cat lay sleeping by the fire, as it did most nights. Everything seemed normal. 

As he ate his soup, he told his wife what he had seen. "And then," he said, "one of the cats turned and spoke to me. It said, 'Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum is dead.' What do you think that means? Who is Tom Tildrum or Tim Toldrum?"

Upon hearing this, the farmer's cat opened its eyes and stood on its hind legs. It seemed to grow in size and importance. The cat said, "Tim Toldrum's dead? Then I'm the King of the Cats!" It howled triumphantly and flew up the chimney, never to be seen again. 

*****

You may have heard that story before. It's an old folk tale called, appropriately enough, the King of the Cats. There are many versions of it, mainly from England, Scotland, and Ireland, but there are some from continental Europe as well. The gist of the stories is usually the same, although the cat names vary: Dildrum and Doldrum, or Madam Momfort and Mally Dixon, or Dan Ratcliffe and Peggy Poison. At the end, though, the humans always discover their humble domestic pet was secretly a special supernatural being. 


A strange New England version of King of the Cats was printed in The Journal of American Folklore in 1908. Author Clara Kern Bayliss noted the following:

WITCHCRAFT - At Shaftsbury, Vermont, eighty years ago, the belief in witches was quite general, and even the children knew the rhyme which brought disaster into the family circle; for it often happened that a witch would come down the chimney in the form of a black cat, and say, - 

"I, Tattaru,  

Tell you

To tell Tatterrier

That sits by the fire

That Tatterags is dead."

And soon after that some of those sitting around the fireplace would sicken and die. (Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 21, No. 82 (Oct - Dec., 1908), p. 363)

The similarities with the King of the Cats story are obvious. The black cat which speaks, the cryptic names and announcement of a death, and even the fireplace - all of these are shared with other versions of the story. But rather than ending in a surprise revelation, the Vermont version ends in death. 

It's kind of strange to see a playful story transformed in this way, but it's totally understandable given New England's history and culture. England, Scotland, and Ireland have lots of lore about fairies and other magical beings. A story whose ending reveals that a common house cat is magical nobility fits in well with fairy lore, and some version of the King of Cats are explicitly about fairies.

When the Puritans colonized New England they did not bring their mother country's fairy lore with them. However, they did bring lore about witches. Lots and lots of it! 

It was believed that witches could transform themselves into animals, and sometimes even speak in animal form. So in the Puritan worldview, a talking cat would not be feline nobility or a fairy, but would instead be a malevolent witch. And what do witches do? Cause misery and death. The core for the story remains, but the ending is quite different and reflects old New England's grim culture. 

One thing I really like about Bayliss's account is this:

...for it often happened that a witch would come down the chimney in the form of a black cat...

I have so many questions about that word "often." Was this a weekly occurrence? Monthly? Life in 19th century Vermont sounds really dangerous. It makes me glad I don't have a fireplace. 

June 06, 2021

The Devil Made Me Do It: Is The New Conjuring Film True?

I'm a big horror movie fan, and enjoyed the first two Conjuring films, The Conjuring (2103) and The Conjuring 2 (2016). Both films are based on supposedly true cases examined by Ed and Lorraine Warren, Connecticut paranormal investigators. Played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, in these films the Warrens are portrayed as clean-cut, devout Catholics who are deeply in love with each other. I think their relationship is one of the reasons the Conjuring movies stand out in the crowded horror field. Ed and Lorraine are so wholesome it's almost comical at times. 

The real-life Warrens are now deceased, and a 2017 article in The Hollywood Reporter suggests they may not have been as wholesome as their film counterparts. According to the Reporter, Ed Warren initiated a relationship with a 15-year old girl when he was in his 30s and married to Lorraine. The girl eventually moved in with the Warrens and lived with them for forty years. At one point, the girl became pregnant with Ed's child and Lorraine arranged for her to have an abortion, something clearly at odds with the Warrens' public image as strict Catholics. 

A scene from The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.

So what does it mean when a movie like The Conjuring says it's "Based on a true story?" Very little, I think. It's marketing, and not a legally defensible claim. Take it with a big grain of salt. You certainly won't see Ed Warren having sex with teenage girls in the Conjuring movies, or his wife arranging for an abortion. And I think that's OK, as long as you realize the movies are basically fiction.

The newest Conjuring movie has just been released: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. It's a great title, and once again it's supposedly based on a true case investigated by the Warrens. 

Here are the facts of the case. On February 16, 1981, nineteen-year old Arne Cheyenne Johnson of Brookfield, Connecticut, stabbed his landlord, Alan Bono, several times in the chest with a knife. Johnson's fiancee, Debbie Glatzel, watched as it happened and later testified that Johnson growled like an animal as he did it. 

Johnson was arrested and charged with murder. When asked why he killed Bono, Johnson said, "The Devil made me do it." He claimed he was possessed by a demon. 

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

It had started the previous summer. On July 3, 1980, Debbie Glatzel's brother, 11-year old David, woke up in a panic. He said he had seen a demon in his sleep, "a man with big black eyes, a thin face with animal features and jagged teeth, pointed ears, horns and hoofs." David continued to see the demon throughout the summer, and a house-blessing by the a local priest did nothing to stop his visions. David sometimes even saw the demon in the daytime, when it appeared as an old man wearing a flannel shirt and jeans. According to People magazine:

In desperation, the Glatzels called on a couple from nearby Monroe, Conn. who are self-styled “demonologists.” Ed and Lorraine Warren, both 54, were professional artists until 1968, when they decided to pursue what was until then an avocation, the occult. Though they accept no fees for conducting demonic investigations, they lecture indefatigably (at up to $1,000 per), and once hosted a weekly local TV show, Ghost Hunting With Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Lorraine, who also claims the gift of clairvoyancy, describes her first encounter with David Glatzel: “While Ed interviewed the boy, I saw a black, misty form next to him, which told me we were dealing with something of a negative nature. Soon the child was complaining that invisible hands were choking him—and there were red marks on him. He said that he had the feeling of being hit.” ("In a Connecticut Murder Trial, Will (Demonic) Possession Prove Nine-Tenths of the Law?", People, October 26, 1981)

The Warrens believed there were 43 demons inside David, and coordinated several exorcisms. They had little effect. At one point, in desperation, Arne Cheyenne Johnson taunted the demons to enter his body instead. Again, it had little effect. David was eventually sent to a private school for "disturbed children."

Johnson seemed changed, though. After his taunt during the exorcism, he too claimed to see the demon that David had seen, and Debbie later testified he fell into trances in the months leading up to Bono's murder. 

On February 16, Johnson and Debbie Glatzel were taken to lunch by Alan Bono, who was Debbie's boss at a kennel and was also their landlord. Johnson's sister Wanda and Glatzel's nine-year old cousin Mary joined them. Bono supposedly drank heavily during lunch, and later that day became agitated and grabbed Mary. Johnson argued with Bono, and stabbed him several times in the chest and stomach. Johnson then walked into the woods, where he was found by the police. It was the first murder in Brookfield's 193-year history. Johnson was convicted of first-degree manslaughter and served five years of a 10 - 20 year prison sentence. 

After the trial ended, an author named Gerald Brittle published a book about the case, The Devil in Connecticut, which was written with help from Lorraine Warren. When the book was republished in 2006, Brittle was sued by David Glatzel and his brother Carl for misrepresenting them in the book. Carl also claimed his brother's possession had been a hoax created by the Warrens to take advantage of David's mental illness. Arne Cheyenne Johnson and Debbie Glatzel, who were by this point married, stood by the Warrens and author Brittle, claiming they accurately presented the situation. 

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

So there you go. Were David Glatzel and Arne Cheyenne Johnson really possessed by demons, or were the Warrens taking advantage of a mentally ill boy? I can't say, but it's interesting that David, the subject of the Warrens' exorcisms, now claims he was not possessed. 

The judge in Johnson's trial didn't accept his claim of demonic possession. As we all learned from the 1692 Salem witch trials, it's impossible to prove the Devil's existence in court.

'Demon' defense rejected in Conn. murder trial.

Danbury, Conn. - A Superior Court judge yesterday refused to allow a much-publicized "demon defense" to be used in the murder trial of a Connecticut man. 

The defense strategy was to try to prove that Arne Cheyenne Johnson was possessed by demons when he allegedly stabbed a neighbor to death eight months ago. 

The jury process had just begun when Judge Robert Callahan said the defense that attorney Martin Minnella planned was "irrelevant and I am not going allow it, period." (Boston Globe, October 29, 1981)

I haven't seen The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It yet, but have seen the trailer. It shows Arne Cheyenne Johnson walking down the road covered in blood, Lorraine Warren being dragged off a cliff by a monstrous arm, a little boy getting pulled into a waterbed, and Lorraine Warren saying, "It's a witch's totem. We think your family was cursed, and that connection is still open." 

It looks like a great horror movie, but is it a true story? Probably not. Horror movies require literal monsters, but the real situation in Brookfield seems complicated and nuanced. 

May 22, 2021

Book Reviews: Folk Magic, Bigfoot, and More Folk Magic

Book, books, books! I have a lot of books about folklore and legends, but somehow alway find room for more. This week I'm reviewing some recent books I really enjoyed. 

First up, let's talk about New World Witchery, by Cory Thomas Hutcheson. This book is a massive, 452-page compendium of magical folklore from across North America. Hutcheson has a PhD in folklore and is the long-time cohost of the New World Witchery podcast, so he really knows his stuff. I was a guest on the podcast several years ago and had a great time. 



Like many of my readers, Hutcheson is also a practicing witch, and New World Witchery is written primarily for an audience eager to get its hands dirty and do some magic. Other people will enjoy the book as well - there's so much information in it! - but he includes exercises and tips for those who want to do more than just read. 

New World Witchery covers a wide range of topics, with chapters on divination, animal magic, counter magic, necromancy, dealing with the Devil, and a whole lot more. The book draws upon the many diverse magical traditions found in North America, including Hoodoo, Southern Conjure, Mountain Magic, Cuaranderismo and Brujeria, Pow-Wow, and Neo-Paganism. Even if you're familiar with a variety of folk magic traditions you'll definitely learn new things. I did. 

For example, in addition to the traditions above, Hutcheson also discusses New England Witchery, which is a favorite topic of mine. I've been studying it for years but I still found new insights in his book. Before reading New World Witchery, I didn't know that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote an article about the hallucinogenic ointments witches allegedly used to fly to their devilish revels. Now I do! 

Another book in a similar vein, but also very different, is Folkloric American Witchcraft and the Multicultural Experience by Via Hedera. The publisher, Moon Books, sent me a copy for review, but I would have purchased this one anyway. 



Hedera is a practicing witch who lives in the Pacific Northwest, and she is also ethnically multi-racial, which shapes the tone of Folkloric American Witchcraft

Every one of my grandparents were a different ethnicity from the other; my siblings, their siblings and I all have different fathers and thus have different genetic backgrounds. My mother was adopted so I spent a good deal of my life immersed in cultures that I am not ethnically related to but very familiar with. It's an old story, an American one, a magical one... (Via Hedera, Folkloric American Witchcraft, p.21)

While New World Witchery provides you with maximum magical information, Folkloric American Witchcraft gives you the inspiration to use it. Hedera does include spells and charms that you can use, but she is more concerned with finding the motivation to practice folk magic in America's weird, messy, and often violent history. 

American folk magic and witchcraft is a crossroads of clashing cultures. Brought together by adversity, theft, enslavement, expansion, love, war and liberty, our culture as Americans is defined by our diversity, and our traditions of magic were birthed first by a synthesis of European, African, and Indigenous spiritual beliefs and superstitions, and then later by all the many parts of the world (Via Hedera, Folkloric American Witchcraft, p. 64)

After reading Folkloric American Witchcraft you'll want to get off the couch and start casting spells. I know money is tight these days for many people, but if you can afford it I would recommend both New World Witchery and Folkloric American Witchcraft. They work together well as companion books. 



Finally, and on a totally different topic, there's Mike Dupler's On the Trail of Bigfoot: Tracking the Enigmatic Giants of the Forest, which was sent to me by New Page Books. I am a Bigfoot fan, and really enjoyed On the Trail of Bigfoot. There are a lot of Bigfoot books out there, and I liked Dupler's book because it provides a nice overview of current thinking about Bigfoot. 

Dupler addresses questions like the following: Does Bigfoot make structures in the woods? How does Bigfoot communicate? If those topics sound dry (and they aren't), you might enjoy the chapter titled, "Is Sasquatch Interdimensional?" Dupler believes Bigfoot is a physical animal, but does speculate about other dimensions. Here's a description of something seen at the famous Skinwalker Ranch in Utah:

While watching from a bluff one evening, team members saw a strange yellow light appear. This glowing anomaly grew and morphed into a tunnel. One of the crew watched the spectacle through binoculars and, to his amazement, a large faceless black humanoid exited the tunnel and lumbered away. The creature seemed reminiscent of a Sasquatch. The tunnel then dissipated as if it had never been there, leaving the creature in the night with the shaken investigators (Mike Dupler, On the Trail of Bigfoot, p. 117)

I love a strange Sasquatch story, and Dupler includes many in his book, including classics from the 19th and early 20th century with titles like "The Salmon River Devil" and "The Beast of Mica Mountain." Trappers and hunters sure seemed to encounter lots of weird, hairy humanoids back then. 

There you have it: books about folk magic, folk magic, and Bigfoot. Perfect beach reading as summer begins!

May 08, 2021

Chloe Russell: "The Old Witch or Black Interpreter" and Her Dream Book

Chloe Russell was born in 1745, about three hundred miles southwest of Sierra Leone. At the age of nine she captured by slave traders, brought across the Atlantic, and sold to a Virginia plantation owner named George Russel. When Russel died his cruel and violent son inherited the plantation. He was incredibly abusive towards Chloe, and she contemplated suicide:

Such a cruel treatment at length drove me to the resolution of destroying myself!... But the night previous, I dreamed that I saw my father, who told me that he had just come from the world of spirits, where there was nothing but joy and happiness. He informed me that he was killed by the fire of the Baccaranas (white slavers) twenty moons after I was captured by them, in attempting to rescue my mother, whom they had taken. 

He said that he had been made acquainted with my resolve to destroy myself, and had come to persuade me not to do it, as it would soon be well with me, and I should be free from my master. This singular dream made such a deep impression upon my mind, as to deter me from committing suicide the succeeding day... (Chloe Russell, The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book, 1827)

Things didn't improve for Chloe though, so she once again contemplated suicide. Her father appeared to her again in a dream, this time accompanied by a spirit clad in purple who gave Chloe the ability to foretell the future:

Young woman, stay thy hand and raise it not against thy own life, for thy afflictions shall shortly cease. Thy unjust punishments have enkindled the the wrath of the Most High, who has commissioned me to unrivet thy chains, and to vest thee with power to foretell remarkable events, and prophecy things that that shall surely come to pass, whereby thou shalt gain thy freedom, and be ranked among the most extraordinary of thy fellow-creatures... (Russell, The Complete Fortune Teller, 1827)

When she awoke from the dream, Chloe Russell had the power to predict future events. She supposedly foretold the American Revolution and many other major occurrences. Her reputation spread through Virginia, and eventually a neighboring plantation owner asked for her help. His uncle had died after hiding a fortune worth $60,000 and hadn't told anyone where it was. Using her powers, Chloe told the plantation owner it was hidden inside a wall in the uncle's house. He found the hidden money, and used part of it to purchase Chloe's freedom. He also paid her $500, with which she purchased a house and started working as a professional fortune teller. She was quite successful, and eventually spent $3,000 purchasing the freedom of other slaves from her violent former master. 

That story appears in the 1827 edition of a small book called The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book, whose author was "Chloe Russell, a woman of colour in the state Massachusetts, commonly termed the Old Witch or Black Interpreter." The book was first published in Boston around 1798. There were several other editions, but Chloe Russell's biography only appears in the 1827 edition, which seems to have been the last. 

Her biography seems almost unbelievable, and there are some aspects of it that are clearly not true. She mentions that tigers live in Africa (they don't), and says she spent her childhood 300 miles southwest of Sierra Leone (which would be in the middle of the ocean). On the other hand, she was sold into slavery at the age of nine, so her memory of her childhood home may understandably have been faint. However, many readers may also be skeptical of her claims to psychic powers, and recall that other well-known fortune-tellers, like Lynn's Moll Pitcher, also supposedly predicted the American Revolution. 

On the other hand, records indicate that a free Black woman named Chloe Russell did indeed live in Boston in the early 19th century. Censuses from 1820 - 1833 indicate that she lived on Belknap Street, which was in Beacon Hill's historic Black neighborhood. Her occupation is described either as a washerwoman or a cook. She also owned a building which she may have operated as a rooming house.

It seems very likely that Chloe Russell also worked as a fortune teller. As I mentioned in my recent post about treasure digging, after the Puritan era many people worked as dream interpreters, fortune-tellers, and magical consultants. These people often came from the society's lower echelons, and it was a good way to earn some extra income if you had the talent.

The contents of The Complete Fortune Teller vary by edition. Some contain lists of dream interpretations. For example:

Cards - If you dream you are playing at cards, it denotes you will soon be married.

Cattle - To dream of driving cattle, is a sign you that you will be prosperous through life. 

Cat - Should you dream of a cat, you must expect trouble. 

I don't know much about cards or cattle, but I do know that cats are trouble, so maybe there is validity to these interpretations! Some editions contain instructions on palm reading, and on how to determine a person's character by the moles on their body.  

Love spells are included as well. For a man who is romantically interested in a woman, Russell counsels him to soak flowers in musk and cinnamon oil and wear them on his body for three days, bathing them each day with the aforementioned fragrances. After three days, he should send half the flowers to the woman in a small packet with a note, and keep the other half of the flowers on his person. True love will result. 

Scholars question who actually wrote The Complete Fortune Teller. Its contents are very similar to other popular fortune-telling books of the time, and it seems likely that an enterprising publisher simply repackaged older material under a new title. Little is known about Chloe Russell's life beyond the book, but I suspect the publisher attached her name to The Complete Fortune Teller in order to capitalize on her reputation. Hopefully Russell got a portion of the profits. 

There are lots of questions. When and how did Russell get from Virginia to Boston? Did Russell write her own biography, and how much of it is true? Nicole Aljoe, the director of Northeastern University's Africana Studies program, is working with her students to find out more about Russell's life. You can see a presentation by Professor Aljoe on the topic here. Hopefully she'll publish a book or article on the topic.

Other than Professor Aljoe's presentation, I got most of my information from Eric Gardner's article, "The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book: An Antebellum Text by "Chloe Russel, A Woman of Color," The New England Quarterly, June 2005, Vol. 78, No. 2 (June 2005), pp. 259 - 288. 

One last note: if you're into Tarot cards, Chloe Russell is represented on a card in the Hoodoo Tarot Deck.

April 29, 2021

Old New England Cemetery Lore: Watch Your Step

This past Saturday was warm and sunny, and although I'm always happy to stay home with a pile of obscure books I decided to go for a walk. I went to one of my favorite places, Brookline's Old Burying Ground. 

It's a really charming cemetery, well-cared for with just the right amount of decay. Although it's only a few miles from downtown Boston it feels like a rural environment. A few notable folks are buried there, including Zabdiel Boylston, a local physician who inoculated people against smallpox in 1721. It was the first inoculation campaign in North America, and Boylston got the idea from Onesimus, a slave in the household of Cotton Mather, the (in)famous minister associated with the Salem witch trials.



Cotton Mather's stepmother, Anna Mather, is also buried in Old Burying Ground. Her husband Increase Mather (also associated with the Salem trials) is buried at Copp's Hill in Boston, but she outlived him by several years and was buried in Brookline in 1737. Her grave is marked by a beautiful and well-preserved stone. 

As I wandered through Old Burying Ground I thought about some old New England cemetery folklore I've been reading recently. Some of it is probably familiar. For example, if you feel a cold chill for no reason it's probably because someone has walked over the site of your future grave. I think that one is well-known. 


A related piece of lore says that you should never step on anyone's grave when you're in a cemetery. That makes sense to me. If the living get a chill from someone just walking over their future grave, think how annoyed the dead must be when you step on their actual grave. Unfortunately, sometimes this advice is hard to follow, particularly in old cemeteries. The graves are placed really closely together at Brookline's Old Burying Ground, and it is hard not to step on one. There are also lots of unmarked graves, so you're probably unintentionally walking on someone. I think the intent behind this piece of lore is what's really important: treat the dead with respect. 

Many years ago when I was a kid I went for a bike ride with my friend Bobby in a neighborhood cemetery. We were riding pretty fast and goofing around, and I started to worry that we weren't being respectful. I said, perhaps half-jokingly, that we shouldn't be too loud or we'd disturb the dead. 

Bobby laughed and said, "I'm not afraid of any dead people!"

As soon as he said that he skidded, fell off his bike, and scraped his knee up really badly. His pants were torn and there was a lot of blood. We both left the cemetery immediately and went home. We kind of laughed but were also a bit spooked. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but I've never forgotten it. 


Speaking of forgetting, according to another piece of old lore you shouldn't spend too much time reading gravestone inscriptions. This is bad news for me, since I really like to read old inscriptions. I'm not sure what constitutes too much time and hopefully I am under the limit. I can understand the sentiment, though, because when I read too many gravestones I do feel a little lightheaded from all the dates and names. It's like when I spend too much time on Instagram!

One final piece of advice: you shouldn't walk through a cemetery on your way to see friends. You run the risk of carrying death to their house if you do. Happily, I just went back home after visiting Old Burying Ground. It was a pleasant way to spend a sunny afternoon. 


I got this cemetery lore from Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England (1896) and Fanny Bergen's Current Superstitions (1896).

April 18, 2021

Rats, Cats, and Death: Horror on Haskell Island

Haskell Island is located off the coast of Harpswell, Maine. It's a small island, and apparently has no full time residents these days, just vacation homes. It looks quite idyllic, but like many quaint New England locales Haskell Island has a strange past. 

According to legend, the island was first colonized by the two Haskell brothers, way back in the 1600s. The Hakells were very industrious and transformed the island into an agricultural paradise. They planted an orchard, plowed the land into fertile fields, and fished in Casco Bay. The brothers prospered in their little Eden. 

Unfortunately, one day they accidentally brought some rats to the island in their boat while transporting supplies. Haskell Island had everything the rats could want: food, water, places to nest, and no predators. The rats multiplied rapidly and soon threatened the brothers' livelihood.

Antique Haskell Island postcard from Amazon. "A pretty place which I visited yesterday..."

To stop the rats, the Haskell brothers brought a couple of cats to their island. The brothers didn't provide any food for the cats and expected them to survive by killing rats. The cats met their expectations. They ate rats, and there were so many rats that the cats thrived and multiplied. Soon there were more cats than rats, and eventually there were no rats left at all, just an island full of hungry cats. 

The cats roved the island, howling with hunger. They climbed the apple trees, roamed the fields, and paced the shore, looking for something to kill and eat. 

The Haskell brothers had to do something about the ravenous felines, but something happened before they could devise a plan: one of them became sick. He fell seriously ill, so his brother took the boat and went to the mainland to get a physician. "Hurry back," the sick brother said weakly as he lay in bed. 

Can you see where this is going? An island full of hungry cats, an incapacitated man lying weak and helpless in bed? When the healthy brother returned to the island, he and the physician were horrified by what they found inside the Haskells' house. The sick brother had been ripped to shreds, and the cats were tearing the last morsels of flesh from his body. At last their hunger was sated. 

*****

It's a simple little story, but really resonates with me. It appears in Horace Beck's 1957 book The Folklore of Maine. The Maine Encyclopedia says Haskell Island was named for a Captain Haskell who purchased, but never lived on, the island, so I don't think the man-eating cat story is true. Still, it has the power of a good horror movie, and reads like an environmentalist fable. The brothers try to master the island, but end up doomed by their own actions and the invasive species they brought to the island. 

It reminds me of "Bart the Mother," a 1998 episode of The Simpsons where Springfield is overrun by ravenous lizards. At first people are happy because the lizards eat all the pigeons, but then realize they'll need to import snakes to eat the lizards, and then gorillas to eat the snakes...


Horace Beck notes that there is a coda to the story. According to some people, the sick brother was not killed by cats, but by pirates. He had seen the pirates burying their treasure on Haskell Island, and they killed him to keep their secret safe. Then they made it look like the cats had done it to deflect attention. I don't find that explanation quite as compelling, though. The story is structured like a version of "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed A Spider," and randomly introducing pirates just doesn't make sense.