November 29, 2021

The Ghost of Catherine's Hill: You Better Give Her A Ride

There's a lonely stretch of Route 182 in Maine. It's known as Black's Woods Road, and runs between Franklin and Cherryfield. This part of the state is quite rural, and the trees press heavily in on the road, particularly on a dark, moonless night. 

The road climbs a small mountain known as Catherine's Hill, and if you're unlucky you might see Catherine herself one night while driving along Route 182. Catherine is a ghost, and appears as a forlorn young woman wandering the side of the road in an evening gown, either pale blue or white in color. 

If you see Catherine, you should stop and offer her a ride. She'll tell you she's going go to Bangor. You should let her in even though it's a long drive and you might not be going that way. Otherwise, bad luck will come to you. 

Photo from Pinterest

Here's an example. One night a salesman was driving along Route 182 when he saw Catherine walking by the side of the road. He was in a hurry and was also unnerved by the sight of a young woman in a formal gown alone in the woods. He instinctively knew something was uncanny about her, so he sped past without stopping. It was a fatal mistake. As he glanced in the rear view mirror, he saw Catherine suddenly sitting in the back seat of his car - without her head. Her bloody-necked corpse filled him with terror (of course!) and he lost control of the car. He died instantly when it hit a tree.

Some legends say Catherine was driving to her prom with her boyfriend when they got in an accident and both died. She was decapitated, and now walks along Route 182 trying to find her boyfriend. Sometimes Catherine is even seen wandering headless along the side of the road. You should still stop and offer her a ride if you see her in this condition, unless you want something bad to happen to you. The bad luck isn't always immediate. Sometimes it takes a few days, but it always comes. Better to just offer her headless corpse a ride. 

There are a few variations of the legend. Maybe she died on the way to her wedding, and maybe she died in the 1800s in a carriage accident. Despite the minor fluctuating details, the core of the story remains the same: offer Catherine a ride or face the consequences. 

To me, the legend feels like a variant of the classic ghostly hitchhiker story. In that story, which is told all across the country, a driver picks up a young woman who is hitchhiking. The driver agrees to take her to her destination. Upon reaching the destination, the young woman vanishes. The driver asks somebody at the destination if they can explain what happened, and is told, "Why, that young woman was my daughter/sister/grandmother/etc. and she died in an accident this very night many years ago!" The Catherine's Hill legend includes some of these elements (the young woman who died, someone giving her a ride) but omits the revelation at the end. Instead, it substitutes a curse - anyone who doesn't offer Catherine a ride suffers a horrible fate. It's a nice twist on a classic story. 

This story has apparently been told for many years, but I just learned about it recently when someone who heard me on a radio show emailed me about it. Thank you Larry! It is a great story! If anyone is interested in learning more, this article from the Bangor Daily News is quite good. You can also check out Marcus Librizzi's book Dark Woods, Chill Waters: Ghost Stories from Down East Maine (2007). 

Speaking of books, they make good holiday gifts. My new book, Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts, is now available wherever books are sold online. It's the perfect gift for almost anyone!

November 21, 2021

Plymouth, 1734: A Haunted Mansion and A Court Case

It's Thanksgiving week, so here's a spooky story about a haunted mansion from Plymouth, Massachusetts. It's spooky if you believe in ghosts, but it's even spookier if you've ever been a landlord. Read on...

In 1725, a wealthy sea captain named Thompson Phillips married Hannah Cotton, the daughter of Reverend Josiah Cotton of Plymouth. Shortly after their marriage, Phillips built a large mansion in Plymouth for him and his new wife to live in. It was one of the finest homes in town.

Sadly, Thompson Phillips drowned in a storm while sailing to Jamaica. Shortly after remarrying, his widow also died, from smallpox. Ownership of the mansion passed to Reverend Cotton. 

Reverend Cotton lived on a prosperous farm just outside of town and did not really want to own a large empty mansion. He tried to sell the house, but the local economy was in a slump and he could not find a buyer. He decided to rent it out and soon found some tenants. 

Foremost among them was John Clarke. Clarke worked as a joiner, a type of skilled woodworker. He renovated several rooms into workshops, and lived in the mansion with his family and some apprentices. His colleagues Thomas Savery and Samuel Holmes and their families also moved into the mansion, as did a spinster named Ann Palmer. For a while all was good. The tenants lived and worked in the deceased sea captain's mansion, and Reverent Cotton collected rent from them. 

Gwendolen Raverat, Clerk Saunders' Ghost, 1918 woodcut.

The good times didn't last. In January 1733, the tenants began to hear strange noises. Sometimes they sounded like the death moans of a dying person, and at other times like a cane being struck against the walls. The tenants couldn't discern where the noises were coming from. Adding to the weirdness, doors and cabinet drawers would open on their own accord. 

Various people, both inside and outside the house, also reported strange lights. For example, one night Mary Little, who lived near the mansion, saw a strange blue light ("a pale blewish light") in one of the upstairs windows. She watched the light for nearly 30 minutes before it disappeared. The next morning she asked John Clarke's wife if the apprentices had been up in the attic late at night with a candle. Mrs. Clarke looked surprised. No one had been upstairs at all!

News of the strange phenomena began to spread through Plymouth, and soon nearly everyone in town believed the mansion was haunted. Large crowds gathered outside the house at night trying to see the weird blue lights or hear the mysterious groans. 

Reverend Cotton was unhappy about the rumors and believed they were false. Several weeks before the alleged hauntings became public, he had argued with John Clarke. Cotton wanted to move one of his son-in-laws into the mansion and wanted John Savery, Clarke's colleague, to move out. Clarke was infuriated. He shouted that the house was haunted and that he, and all the tenants, would move out. Cotton didn't believe the house was haunted and thought the rumors about ghosts were just a way to get back at him.

By October of 1733, all the tenants had vacated the mansion, claiming they were unable to live with the supernatural phenomena. Reverend Cotton attempted to find new ones, but no one was willing to move in. Many people believed the house was haunted, and those who were skeptical didn't want to deal with the large crowds of gawkers who gathered outside almost nightly.  

Cotton finally took his former tenants to court. They owed him unpaid rent and had broken their lease, but he thought it unlikely he'd be able to get recompense for that in court. Instead, he sued them for slander. The case was heard on March 5, 1734 in the Plymouth County Inferior Court of Common Pleas. Reverend Cotton was ill and could not attend the trial, but his lawyer, John Cushing Jr., grilled the defendants. He argued they had lied about the hauntings to break the lease and prevent Cotton from renting to future tenants. After all, Cushing said, it was the 18th century. How could anyone still believe in ghosts, witches, and demons?

Cushing (and Cotton, who had helped develop their legal strategy), underestimated the jury's belief in the supernatural. The jury believed the house was indeed haunted and also believed Cotton's former tenants were telling the truth. They found them innocent of slander. Cotton appealed the case and brought it to Plymouth Superior Court a month later. Once again a jury found the defendants innocent, and this time also required Cotton to pay their court costs. Clearly, people in Plymouth believed in ghosts.

Reverend Cotton gave up trying to sue the tenants, and eventually he moved into the allegedly haunted mansion with his own family. They lived there for more than five years, and never experienced any strange phenomena. Cotton also wrote an essay decrying superstitious beliefs, but sadly never published it. The building was eventually sold, and still stands on King Street in Plymouth today. As far as I know, no one has reported any ghosts since. 

My source for today's post was Douglas Winiarski's article "'Pale Blewish Lights and A Dead Man's Groan: Tales of the Supernatural from Eighteenth-Century Plymouth,"which appeared in The William and Mary Quarterly, Oct. 1998, Vol. 55, No. 4, p. 497 - 530. 

If you want to read more supernatural tales from the Bay State, I recommend my new book Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts, which is available wherever books are sold online. It's a perfect Christmas gift too!

November 11, 2021

The Plymouth Vampire of 1807

Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and many people associate the holiday with Plymouth, Massachusetts. This is where the Pilgrims held a feast in 1621 that is sometimes said to be the "first Thanksgiving." That may not really be the case, but it's still a beloved American myth that is remembered every year around this time. 

But why does no one talk about the Plymouth vampire in November?

Most people don't associate vampires with Plymouth, but maybe they should. According to folklorist Michael Bell's excellent 2001 book Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires, there was at least one documented case of vampire belief in Plymouth.

Note that I coyly wrote "documented case of vampire belief." There were no real vampires in New England, but according to Bell's research some people did believe they existed. The New England vampires were not like the Hollywood, pop-culture bloodsuckers we know today. Hollywood vampires kill their victims by drinking blood. New England vampires killed people with tuberculosis, and only killed members of their own families. 

Tuberculosis, or consumption as it was called in earlier centuries, is an infectious bacterial disease that affects the lungs. People with latent tuberculosis show no symptoms, but those with active tuberculosis are afflicted with violent (and often bloody) coughing, fever, and severe weight loss. About 50% of people with active tuberculosis die if the disease is not treated. Tuberculosis spreads when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or even speaks. It spreads easily in crowded conditions, like prisons, asylums, or small New England farm houses inhabited by large families. 

If one member of a family died from the disease, quite often other members would slowly waste away and die from it as well. People had many false ideas about what caused tuberculosis until Robert Koch identified mycobacterium tuberculosis in 1882. In some parts of New England, people believed it was caused by a dead person feeding off their living relatives. If one person in a family died from the disease and then others developed symptoms afterwards, the still-living relatives might blame the person who died. They thought the dead person was feeding off their living family members from the grave. 

Michael Bell documents 18 cases of New England vampirism in Food for the Dead, from 1793 to 1892. I assume there were more that went unrecorded. The Plymouth vampire case occurred in 1807, and was first mentioned in an 1822 Philadelphia newspaper article which was reprinted in a Plymouth newspaper. The author of the article writes about Plymouth as if it were a superstitious backwater:

In that almost insulated part of the State of Massachusetts, called Old Colony or Plymouth Colony, and particularly in a small village adjoining the shire town, there may be found relics of many old customs and superstitions which would be amusing, at least to the antiquary... 

There was, fifteen years ago, and is perhaps at this time, an opinion prevalent among the inhabitants of this town, that the body of a person who died of a consumption, was by some supernatural means, nourished in the grave of some one living living member of the family; and that during the life of this person, the body remained, in the grave, all the fullness and freshness of life and health...

The author goes on to explain that in 1807, of a Plymouth family of 14 children and two parents, only the mother and son had not died of tuberculosis - and they were both extremely ill with it. Some neighbors decided to help the family by digging up the grave of the daughter who had most recently died. They suspected she was feeding on her mother and brother. If the sister's corpse looked fresh and alive, this would confirm she was the one causing the illness. To stop her from feeding, they would turn her corpse face down in its coffin. This would prevent her from stealing the vitality of her brother and mother. 

At the appointed hour they attended in the burying yard, and having with much exertion removed the earth, they raised the coffin upon the ground; then, displacing the flat lid, they lifted the covering from her face, and discovered what they had had indeed anticipated, but dreaded to declare. Yes, I saw the visage of one who had long been the tenant of a silent grave, lit up with the brilliancy of youthful health. 

Sadly, the exhumation did not work. The shock of seeing his sister's corpse was too much for the surviving brother - he died two weeks later. The mother lived for a year before finally succumbing to the disease as well. 

A local physician wrote a rebuttal in the next issue of the Plymouth newspaper. He claimed no family of sixteen had died of tuberculosis, and also tried to argue that the people in Plymouth were not superstitious:

During a residence of nearly forty years in the district referred to, and favoured with opportunities of correct observation regarding this subject, the writer of this reply has not been made acquainted, with but one solitary instance of raising the body of the dead for the benefit of the living; and this was done purely in compliance with the caprice of a surviving sister...

You can see why I said he "tried to argue," because he states that at least once a body was exhumed to prevent it feeding on the living. But you know, only once.

That local physician might have found some comfort knowing that the vampire belief in Plymouth was not as extreme as it was in other parts of New England. The people in Plymouth believed simply turning the corpse face down would stop it from feeding. In other places, people believed the vampiric corpse's lungs and liver had to be burnt to ashes, and then ingested by their living relatives. Yes, you read that right. In order to prevent their vampiric relative from sucking their life out, people would eat or drink the ashes of their liver and lungs. 

It sounds almost unbelievable, but Bell has very good documentation in Food for the Dead. If you're interested in the topic I recommend his book highly. It would make interesting reading material before you get together to dine with your family at Thanksgiving.


Thanksgiving is the start of the holiday shopping season. Might I suggest buying copies of my new book Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts for the people in your life? It's available wherever you buy books online