May 15, 2022

Finding Bigfoot in The Old Farmer's Almanac (and the Flea Market)

Do you read The Old Farmer's Almanac? I do, even though I'm not a farmer (but I am getting old). It's sold at supermarkets and CVS stores here in Boston, so clearly it's not just intended for farmers. It's for anyone who likes weird and possibly useful information

I like it for the astronomical information (full moons, sunrise and sunset times, etc.), and also the weird little facts the editors list for each month. For instance, the 2022 edition of the Almanac notes that J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI's notorious first director, died on May 2,  and that stage and TV magician Doug Henning was born on May 3. Fun facts about the cycle of life and death. 

The Almanac also notes that Bigfoot was seen in Hollis, New Hampshire on May 7, 1977. Another fun fact, this time about the weird things that happen in this part of the world. 

I was excited to see this mentioned in The Old Farmer's Almanac, since it's a famous New England Bigfoot sighting. In fact, I wrote about it way back in 2015. I was planning to rewrite that post, but I like the original so much I'm posting it again. I found Bigfoot in the Almanac, but in 1977 some folks found him at the flea market...


Finding Bigfoot At the Flea Market: An Encounter from 1977

When I was a kid my parents often took my brother and me to flea markets and yard sales. It was the 1970s and I guess this was the thing to do. Quite often we didn't find anything good, but every now and then we'd get some great stuff. I still have a large teak Buddha I found, and we definitely found plenty of old paperbacks about weird occult and paranormal topics.

I never had an actual paranormal experience at a flea market, but apparently they do happen. Or at least they did, back in the 1970s.

On the evening of May 7, 1977 a Lowell, Massachusetts man named Gerald St. Louis arrived at a flea market site in Hollis, New Hampshire. St. Louis had brought his wife and two sons with him. The flea market began the next day, and the St. Louises wanted to get a good spot to set up their table early in the morning. After sunset they went to sleep in their pickup truck. Attached to the truck was a small trailer. 

They were awakened that night when their truck began shaking. Standing next to their vehicle was a large humanoid. Mr. St. Louis later described the creature as being 8 or 9 feet high, brown-colored, and covered in long hair. When he turned on the headlights it became startled and ran across the parking lot, jumping easily over a four-foot high fence. Once over the fence it stood and stared at the truck. 

Needless to say the St. Louis family got out of there fast. They drove to the Hollis police station and reported their sighting to Chief Paul Bosquet. The police inspected the area, but found no sign of the creature. The ground was covered in pine needles and not even any footprints could be seen. Well, at least according to the press at the time. I've seen at least one article online that says 16-inch footprints were found in the soil.

Chief Bosquet said he thought the family had seen a bear. Whatever it was, it seriously spooked them. They left Hollis quickly and didn't even take their trailer with them. I guess they got more than they bargained for at that flea market. (Get it? Bad pun.)

Was it just a bear? I have no idea, but someone else had a similar experience a few days earlier. A woman named Regina Evans was camping in Hollis on May 5, 1977 when she was awakened in the middle of the night by someone shaking her trailer. She did not see the culprit, but large footprints were found nearby.

Andre the Giant and Lee Majors in The Six Million Dollar Man.

The 1970s was a heady time for paranormal phenomena. The occult and metaphysical movements of the late 1960s had paved the way for Bigfoot, UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle to conquer America. Bigfoot was featured in movies like The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972),  In Search of Bigfoot (1976), and just plain Bigfoot (1970), where a biker gang tries to save women captured by the cryptid. Bigfoot also showed up on TV. He was actually a bionic robot created by aliens on an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, while on the kids' show Bigfoot and Wildboy he fought crime.

As a result of all this, most Americans knew what Bigfoot looked like and what he did - jump out of the woods, scare people, and then disappear. Were the experiences of the St. Louis family and Regina Evans colored by the media? It's very possible, but something really did shake their vehicles in the middle of the night, and the St. Louises seemed legitimately scared.

Perhaps it was pranksters enacting the role of Bigfoot. It's a time-honored tradition. In ancient Greece people dressed like satyrs and in the Middle Ages they dressed like leafy, hairy wildmen. Dressing in an ape costume and running through the woods might just be part of our cultural heritage. We all think there are monsters in the woods, so someone needs to play the part. 

Or who knows? Maybe there really are creatures lurking in the woods, and they are the ones who change costumes over time, appearing as whatever we expect, a goat-footed daemon to the ancient Greeks and a huge hairy monster to someone who just wanted to go to a flea market.

Bigfoot was not seen again in Hollis, but happily he's still out there somewhere, lurking behind the trees and evading easy categorization.

April 24, 2022

Edward Dimond, the Wizard of Marblehead

This is my final Marblehead post, at least for now. It's a fascinating town and I hope to write more about it in the future. But today I just want to talk about Edward Dimond, the wizard of Marblehead. 

Witches and magicians of all types were generally viewed with suspicion in early New England. People definitely consulted fortune tellers and herbal healers in times of need (despite their Puritan ministers telling them not to), but those fortune tellers and healers often became scapegoats when things went wrong. Openly practicing magic was a risky business, and you might find yourself hanging by your neck from a tree. 

Edward Dimond of Marblehead seems to be an exception to this rule. He had a reputation in town as a powerful magician, and was known as Wizard Dimond. But unlike many others who practiced magic, he was a well-respected member of the community. 

The Old Brig, Edward Dimond's house. Photo from the Phillips
Library at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Born in 1641, Dimond claimed he came from a long line of famous astrologers and necromancers. Records indicate Wizard Dimond’s profession was “shoreman” and tradition says he was a retired sea captain. Like most Marblehead residents he had a strong connection to the ocean and his house, called the Old Brig, was supposedly constructed from the planks of a ship. It still stands today on Orne Street. 

Unlike most towns in Massachusetts, Marblehead wasn’t founded by Puritans looking to practice their religion but instead by fisherman and sailors who just wanted to earn a living. They were more tolerant of magic and fortune-telling than their Puritan neighbors, particularly if it helped them in their daily lives. In other towns Wizard Dimond would have been accused of witchcraft. In Marblehead, he was a valued member of the community.  

According to legends, Dimond used his magic to help ships off the coast of Marblehead when they encountered trouble. On stormy nights, Wizard Dimond positioned himself in the graveyard on Burial Hill, roaming around the tombstones and shouting orders to ships miles away. The sailors on those ships should have been too far away to hear his voice, but amazingly they did, and they also knew to follow his commands if they wanted to safely reach the harbor. The hungry waves claimed those who didn’t heed the wizard of Marblehead.

Old Burial Hill, Marblehead.

People also came to Wizard Dimond to learn the future, but one of his specialties was finding lost or stolen objects. He once helped an elderly couple locate their stolen money and also identified the man who stole it. 

Another well-known Marblehead legend tells how he helped an elderly widow. The widow, who was quite poor, came to Dimond’s house on a cold winter night. All her firewood had been stolen, she said, and she would freeze to death unless he found the thief. Using his magical abilities, Wizard Dimond first learned the thief’s name. Going further, he then cast a spell on him, cursing him to walk up and down the Marblehead streets until sunrise with a huge, heavy log tied to his back. In the morning the thief, cold and exhausted, confessed to the widow and returned her firewood. He learned his lesson and never stole again. 

Dimond claimed that magical powers ran in his family. His granddaughter was Moll Pitcher, the famous fortune-teller of Lynn, so maybe there is some truth to that claim. 

Edward Dimond died in 1732 at the venerable age of 91. His grave site has been long forgotten, but perhaps his spirit is still roving around Burial Hill on stormy nights, giving orders to ships at sea.

*****

If you like reading about Massachusetts's magical past, you may enjoy my book Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts, which was published last October. It's available wherever you buy books online


 

April 09, 2022

Wilmot Redd, the Witch of Marblehead

This is my second post about Marblehead. As I mentioned in my last one, Marblehead is incredibly charming and beautiful. It's the archetypal old New England seaside town. And as we all know, old New England towns often have some weird legends attached to them...

Engraving of a witch by James Caulfield, courtesy the Wellcome Collection

In Marblehead, that weird legend is about Mammy Redd, a fearsome witch who lived in the 17th century. According to various 19th century sources, Mammy Redd was a hideous old woman who terrorized the people of Marblehead. In New England Legends and Folklore (1883), Samuel Adams Drake wrote the following about her:

This woman was believed to possess the power of malignant touch and sight, and she was able, so it was whispered, to cast a spell over those whom she might in her malevolence wish to injure. To some she sent sickness and death, by merely wishing that a 'bloody cleaver' might be found in the cradle of their infant children.

A popular rhyme about Mammy Redd from the 19th century described another of her evil powers:

Old Mammy Redd

Of Marblehead

Sweet milk could turn

To mould in churn

Other versions of the rhyme specify that the mold looked like "blue wool," which sounds pretty gross. Ruining dairy products (milk, cream, or butter) is a classic New England witch's hex. 

Photo by my friend Onix Marrero

The legend of Mammy Redd is based, quite loosely, on Wilmot Redd (or Read, depending on the source), a Marblehead woman who was executed during the Salem witch trials. She was the wife of a fisherman and, like many of the woman accused of witchcraft by the Puritans, was older and cantankerous. Some sources describe her as "grouty," which means rude or ill-tempered. She was not a witch, but was simply unpopular. 

Most records from her trial are lost, but those that remain describe an argument Redd had with a neighbor, Mrs. Syms. Syms believed Redd's maid had stolen some bed linens, and  exchanged harsh words with Redd. At the end of the argument, Redd supposedly cursed Syms, telling her she would never defecate or urinate again. Soon after, Syms began to suffer from constipation and had difficulty urinating. These problems only ended once she moved away from Marblehead. 

This is an absurd thing to be executed for, but the Salem judges accepted even the most ridiculous accusations at face value. During her questioning, the afflicted Salem girls (the driving force behind the witch hunt) claimed they saw Wilmot Redd's spirit offering them the Devil's black book to sign. This alleged vision sent the girls into convulsions. While most people in the courtroom took them seriously, Wilmot Redd did not. When a judge asked her opinion of the girls' convulsions, she said "My opinion is they are in a sad condition." Grouty to the end, Wilmot Redd was hanged on September 22, 1692 at Gallows Hill in Salem. 

Photo by Onix Marrero

Like everyone executed for witchcraft in Salem, Redd's body was discarded in an unmarked grave somewhere near Gallow's Hill. Perhaps her family retrieved it and secretly reburied her, perhaps not. Many years later, the town of Marblehead erected a monument to her in Old Burial Hill graveyard. As you can see from the photo, people leave coins at her grave to honor her memory. 

The town also named this small behind pond behind Old Burial Hill Redd's Pond in her honor. She and her husband lived next to the pond in the 17th century, and although her house is long gone her memory and legend still survives to this day. 

Photo of Redd's Pond by Onix Marrero

*****

If you like witch legends and the history behind them, you might like my newest book, Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts, which is available wherever you buy books online. 


March 26, 2022

The Grave of Susanna Jayne: Bats, Angels and the Grim Reaper

Marblehead is one of the prettiest towns in Massachusetts, with an amazing and historic downtown, dramatic ocean views, and streets full of Colonial-era homes. Lots of people visit it for these reasons, but this past weekend we went for a different one: to see the grave of Susanna Jayne.


Like so many coastal New England towns, Marblehead is quite old. It was founded in 1635 as a fishing village by English colonists, and its first cemetery, Old Burial Hill, was established three years later. Old Burial Hill is located on a rocky outcrop overlooking the town center and the harbor. This was also the site of Marblehead's first meeting house (the Puritan term for a church). The meeting house is long gone, but the cemetery remains. 


We were lucky enough to visit on a rainy, foggy day. Our stroll through Old Burial Hill was really atmospheric due to the mist and wet weather, which also kept a lot of people indoors. We we had the place to ourselves. This was my first time visiting Old Burial Hill, and it's already one of my favorite cemeteries. 


Old Burial Hill was one of the locations for the movie Hocus Pocus, which draws some tourists. Nearly 600 Revolutionary War veterans are buried there, which is another draw, but we had come particularly to see the grave of Susanna Jayne. The wife of Peter Jayne, a local schoolmaster, Susanna died in August of 1776. Her epitaph reads:

Deposited Beneath this Stone the Mortal Part of Mrs. Susanna Jayne, the amiable Wife of Mr. Peter Jayne, who lived Beloved and Died Universally Lamented, on August 8th, 1776, in the 45th Year of her Age.

Many of the gravestones I visit have some legend associated with them, but there isn't a legend attached to Susanna Jayne's grave. It's just an incredibly beautiful headstone with lots of symbolism that, to the modern eye, is very gothic. 

Susanna Jayne's headstone is on the right. It's recently been embedded 
in stone to preserve it. 

The headstone was carved by Henry Christian Geyer (1727 - 1785), a Boston artisan who made many other Massachusetts gravestones. Some of Geyer's work follows standard styles popular at the time, while others, like Susanna Jayne's gravestone, are quite creative.  



The centerpiece of Jayne's headstone is this carving of the Grim Reaper, portrayed as a skeleton holding a scythe. The skeleton is crowned with laurel wreaths, and holds the sun in one hand and the moon in the other. (Sadly, the moon has been damaged.) Overall, the message is one of Death triumphant and the passage of time. 

The Grim Reaper is encircled by snake biting its own tail. This image, known as the ouroboros, is a symbol that dates back to the ancient Egyptians and was found on the wall of King Tut's tomb. It's had many meanings over the centuries, but most commonly represents eternity and the cycles of time. More time symbolism appears at the top of Susanna Jayne's headstone, where Geyer carved an hourglass framed by two bones. Time passes, and Death takes us all.


However, the universe is not purely mechanistic and grim. There's a moral aspect, symbolized by the angels and bats that hover around the corners. Good and evil play a role in the eternal drama as well. 



Modern gravestones are quite subdued these days, and very plain. I miss the artistry and symbolism of the older headstones. Susanna Jayne's gravestone is a work of art, and was actually photographed by the well-known artist Ansel Adams. If you'd like to see some beautiful New England art, I'd recommend taking a trip to Old Burial Hill.


You can read more about Susanna Jayne's gravestone here. More details about Henry Christian Geyer can be found here.

March 06, 2022

The Ghost of Central Burying Ground

Boston is one of the oldest cities in America. It was first settled by the Puritans in 1630, and downtown Boston has some fine old cemeteries that reflect the city's age. Copp's Hill Burying Ground, the Granary Burying Ground, and King's Chapel Burying Ground are the resting places for patriots, Puritans, founding fathers, and possibly even Mother Goose

Those three cemeteries are amazing places to visit, and if you haven't been you should go today! They're also quite popular with tourists. But if you want a quieter, spookier, cemetery experience you should visit Central Burying Ground. It's the least popular of the four downtown cemeteries, but definitely has its own particular charms. 

I visited Central Burying Ground recently on a warm Saturday. I was meeting a friend downtown and arrived early, so I decided to kill some time wandering around the cemetery. It's located on Boston Common right next to the Boylston T station, but despite its convenient location very few visitors were there that day. There were only two people other than myself: someone feeding squirrels, and an Emerson student sitting on a crypt smoking a cigarette. 

At first I wasn't even sure it was open to tourists. Most of its gates were locked, and it took me a while to find the one open entrance. But once I was inside I had the cemetery mostly to myself. 

Central Burying Ground is the newest of the four old cemeteries. It was established in 1756, and is the resting place of British soldiers who died during the Revolution, American patriots from the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Boston Tea Party, composer William Billings, and painter Gilbert Stuart. Stuart is well-known for his portraits of George Washington, and is probably the most famous person buried there. 


According to local lore, Central Burying Ground is also home to at least one ghost. In the 1970s, a local dentist named Matt Rutger was walking through the cemetery on a pleasant spring day when he had a strange encounter. He was alone in the cemetery, but kept feeling someone tapping him on the shoulder. There was no one behind him when he turned around. The weird tapping continued, until finally he felt someone grab him by the collar and pull him backwards. Again, there was no one there. 

Rutger was understandably disturbed, so he began to walk quickly towards the cemetery gates. As he did, he saw something odd. 

"'I saw a young girl standing motionless in the rear corner of the cemetery, staring at me intently.' She wore a white dress, and her utter immobility in and of itself seemed eerie. Dr. Rutger turned in the opposite direction, but, to his amazement, the girl instantly relocated to the front of the cemetery, nearly fifty yards from where she'd stood only moments before. Dr. Rutger changed directions a couple more times, and each time the ghostly figure cropped up at a different station. Finally he made it to the sidewalk, but as he strode away he felt a hand slip into his pocket. He watched in amazement as his car keys levitated free of his pocket, dangled in mid-air, then fell with a jingle to the ground." (Holly Mascott Nadler, Ghosts of Boston Town, 2002).

That's quite the encounter. Rutger is not the only person who's encountered a ghost at Central Burying Ground. According to Sam Baltrusis's Ghosts of Boston (2012), other visitors have reported seeing a ghostly young girl in the cemetery, and one woman on a tour even became annoyed because she thought a fellow tourist was tapping her on the back. No one else had touched her, though. Some visitors have also said that someone (or something) grabbed their keys from their pockets. The ghost is apparently quite consistent. 

No one has identified the ghost who haunts Central Burying Ground. Many of the cemetery's graves have been disturbed by construction, so if you believe in ghosts perhaps that is what causes the alleged haunting. For example, in 1836 many bodies were moved to new tombs to accommodate a Boylston Street extension, and in 1895 many bodies were found in unmarked graves during construction of the subway line. They were re-interred in a large mass grave in the cemetery's northwest corner. No one likes to be awoken rudely from their sleep, right?

I did not see anything strange when I visited, but just had a peaceful cemetery stroll. I'd definitely recommend going to Central Burying Ground if you are interested in ghosts, or just want to enjoy a quiet space in the busiest part of the city. 

February 27, 2022

Visiting the Devil's Den

There are at least 110 places in New England that have the word “Devil” in their name, and forty-three of them are in Massachusetts. Hmmm. What does that say about the Bay State? There's Devil’s Hollow in Marshfield, the Devil’s Landslide in Wellesley, Devil’s Garden in Amherst, etc. And in Newbury, there is... the Devil's Den. 

Last weekend Tony and I took a trip up to Newbury to visit the Devil's Den. The Den is actually a small cave located in an old, abandoned limestone quarry. There are a lot of old quarries in New England, but this one is really old. It was first quarried in 1697 and finally shut down in 1830. The quarry is not large but is very dramatic looking, which is why is probably why it got its devilish reputation.

Long after these quarries had ceased to have a commercial value, pleasure parties were accustomed, during the summer months, to seek rest and recreation there, beguiling the time with marvelous stories in which the Prince of Darkness was given a conspicuous place. In later years, the young and credulous found traces of his Satanic Majesty's footsteps in the solid rock, and discovered other unmistakable signs of his presence in that locality; and ever since the Devil's Den, the Devil's Basin, and the Devil's Pulpit have been objects of peculiar interest to every native of old Newbury. (Ould Newbury. Historical and Biographical Sketches, John James Currier, 1896)

That passage mentions several devilish places. The Devil's Basin was another nearby limestone quarry, filled with water, which I believe was about a half mile away from the Devil's Den (according to Volume 3 of Contributions to the Geology of Eastern Massachusetts, 1880). I'm not sure if the Basin still exists, but according to this site it was located south of the Devil's Den. That area now seems to be mostly landfill which is why I think the Devil's Basin is gone. The Devil's Pulpit was a large boulder nearby but we couldn't locate that either. 



The Devi's Den still exists, and in the early 19th century young boys who lived nearby would perform a strange initiation ritual at it. They believed that a certain magic word had been written on the floor of the cave which would kill anyone who entered it. Certain precautions had to be taken before entering the cave to nullify this curse.

I suppose that no boy ever went to that place alone, and a sort of solemn ceremony attended his first visit with his older playmates, to a scene bearing an appellation ominous enough to call up every vague dread of his youthful heart. The approach on these occasions was rather circuitous, through the pastures, until an elevated mass of stone, standing quite solitary, was reached, designated as “Pulpit Rock.” To the summit of this, the neophyte was required to climb, and there to repeat some accustomed formula, I fear not very reverent, by way of initiation, and supposed to be of power to avert any malign influences to which the unprepared intruder upon the premises of the nominal lord of the domain might otherwise be subjected. (George Lunt, Old New England Traits, 1873)

In other words, after repeating the irreverent phrases from Pulpit Rock, (aka the Devil's Pulpit), it was safe to enter the Devil's Den. However, even then it was only safe to enter the cave with companions - never alone.

Old graffiti at the Devil's Den

Other than this curse and ritual, the Devil's Den had one other interesting feature. The Devil’s Den was made of limestone, but also had deposits of a mineral called chrysotile, a naturally occurring form of asbestos. Chrysotile is soft and chewy, and in the 19th century boys going into the cave would supposedly chew it. Hopefully, they avoided any dangerous side effects. Ingesting asbestos is probably scarier than than a Devil's curse!

I first learned about the Devil's Den while writing my first book, Legends and Lore of the North Shore. Back then, the Devil's Den was on private property, but it is now part of the 28-acre Jennie Lagoulis Reservation. It's worth a visit if you're in the area. Despite it's scary name and legend, you shouldn't be too spooked if you visit. The reservation is the site of a children's nature camp. If little kids can brave the terrors of the Devil's Den you can too.

*****

If you like New England legends, you might like my newest book, Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts. It's available now wherever you buy books online!


February 13, 2022

Hallucinations, Magic Crows, and Witches: Random Thoughts While Making Bread

The other day I made some brown bread. Many of you might be familiar with this delicious loaf, but if you're not here's the scoop. It's a bread made with rye flour, wheat flour, and cornmeal that is usually sweetened with molasses. You usually find it at clambakes these days, but in the past it was just an everyday bread. 

Some people make brown bread by steaming it in cans, but although that results in a very moist loaf it is not really necessary. You can bake it in a regular pan. I was feeling a little bit Goth, so I baked mine in a skull-shaped Halloween pan I have. 

Brown bread has its roots deep in New England's culinary history. It's had different names in the past, like "rye and Indian," which refers to the rye flour and the cornmeal, which was once called Indian meal since it originated with the local indigenous people. Sometimes brown bread was also called "thirds" because the recipe called for one third each of wheat, rye, and cornmeal. Wheat does not grow well in New England and was very expensive here in the 17th and 18th centuries, so the English colonists made their bread by mixing this precious commodity with the other two grains, both of which grow better in this climate.

I oiled and floured my skull-shaped ban so the bread came out looking like this!

As I made my brown bread, interesting stories about rye and cornmeal came to mind, one about the Salem witch trials and one from local Algonquin lore. 

Here is the Salem story. Most historians think the Salem witch hunt was caused by social and psychological factors. But what if there was a simple biological cause? In 1976 Linnda Caporael, a biology grad student at the University of California Santa Barbara, suggested that ergot, a fungus found on grain, might be responsible for the witch trials.

The English colonists grew a lot of rye, and during warm wet weather, ergot grows on rye. Ergot contains a compound similar to the hallucinogen LSD. People who consume rye ergot-infected with ergot can suffer from hallucinations, auditory disturbances, convulsions, strange skin sensations, vomiting, and psychosis. These symptoms sound like the symptoms suffered by the allegedly bewitched Salem girls. Carporeal argued that the spectral visions and strange fits these girls experienced were caused by the fungus.

This theory received a lot of publicity when it was published, even meriting a front-page article in The New York Times. A critique was published a few years later by Nicholas Spanos and Jack Gottlieb, two psychologists from Carleton University. They argued there was not strong evidence connecting ergotism to the Salem witch trials.

Convulsive ergotism, they claim, is only found in people with a Vitamin A deficiency. Someone with sufficient Vitamin A in their body suffers instead from gangrenous ergotism, a different variety of the disease which causes gangrene and rotting flesh. (Yikes.) The farmers in Salem Village consumed lots of dairy products, and the residents of Salem Town ate plenty of fish, both foods rich in Vitamin A. If ergot was present they should have suffered from gangrene, which they didn’t. 

Spanos and Gottlieb also point out that some symptoms of convulsive ergotism weren’t present in Salem, like vomiting and diarrhea. Most importantly, though, the afflicted girls only experienced their torments at specific times, usually in the courtroom when accused witches were brought in. Outside of the courtroom they were usually symptom-free. This strongly suggests their symptoms were not caused by ergotism. Many people who testified during the trials also said they only testified because they feared imprisonment or execution. It would be nice if the witch trials had been caused by something as simple as a fungus, but regrettably it seems that human ignorance and malevolence were more likely to blame.

That's kind of a weird and unpleasant thing to consider while making bread, but the other story is happier. It's connected to cornmeal. Corn was one of the staple foods for the local Algonquin tribes, and many tribes told stories about how it was brought to Earth from heaven by a crow. 

Here's one version of that story from Kitt Little Turtle (1940 - 2004), a Nipmuck medicine man from Webster, Massachusetts. It appears in the book Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing From New England (2014), edited by Siobhan Senier.

Many generations in the past, the Nipmuck lived only by hunting and gathering. They depended entirely on wild game and other food they could forage. Because of this they were always on the move and never settled in one place. 

One year food was very scarce and the Nipmuck were close to starvation. During this time a crow appeared in a vision to a young man. The crow told the man about a wonderful plant that would prevent the Nipmuck from starving. 

The man wanted to go find this plant, but the crow told him it was too far for him to ever find. The crow would bring it to him. The crow also told him that the crows would follow the Nipmuck forever if they grew this special plant. It was, after all, the crows' favorite food. 

A few days later the man was wandering through the woods when a crow appeared. It was the same one he saw in his vision. The crow gave the man three seeds: corn, squash, and beans. These are the Three Sisters which grow well together in the same field. The crow told the man how to cultivate and harvest these crops. 

Ever since that time, the crows visit whenever the corn is harvested to get the share that is due them. 

There you have it. Two stories, one delicious loaf of bread!

January 17, 2022

A Werewolf in Natick? A Story for the Wolf Moon

On Monday, January 17, the Full Wolf Moon will rise at 4:13 pm and cast its lupine light across New England. Get out there and howl, folks! We're supposed to have a lot of rain here in Boston, so the moon may not be visible, but it will still be up in the sky even if you can't see it. 

In honor of the Wolf Moon, here is a story about a possible werewolf I found on Phantoms and Monsters. Phantoms and Monsters is a great site if you enjoy reading about paranormal encounters - check it out if you like weird tales.

The story goes something like this. In the spring of 2006, a group of friends from Natick decided to go camping. Rather than drive up to New Hampshire or out to western Massachusetts, they decided to camp closer to home. They chose a patch of woods behind some apartment buildings near an old, abandoned factory.

Oliver Reed in The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

My first thought on reading this was, "That's probably not an official camp site." My second thought was, "Camping near an abandoned factory sounds like it would be spooky." My second thought was definitely correct.

The person who submitted the story wrote:

Now before I go further I must say that my area has experienced very weird sounds. Although in my opinion, they are very un-wolf like. They sound like a woman screaming crossed with long dog barks. A very indescribable and terrible sound. They come from various directions, though usually from the apartment area. (Phantoms and Monsters)

Coyotes? Maybe, or maybe not. But strange sounds in the woods just add to the spooky vibe.

The friends set up their tents and settled in for the night. After everyone had fallen asleep, one of the campers left her tent to urinate. She felt like she was being watched, though, so she woke up her boyfriend and asked him to come with her. He also felt they were being watched as they stepped away from the tents. 

As he stood watch, the boyfriend saw something moving through the trees away from the tents. It was tall, grey, and covered in fur:

He could see it through the brush... a large (approximately 6.5-7 foot in height) man-shaped figure, covered in grayish fur, sporting wolf-like features and a bushy tail swaying behind it. He was shocked and ran into the tent, leaving his girlfriend who came running in a moment later, after hearing the rustling of the creature.

They spent the rest of the night awake in their tent, occasionally hearing strange cries in the woods. They and the other campers quickly left the woods once the morning came.  

That's the end of the story. Like most monster stories, it's pretty simple. People see monster, people freak out, monster leaves. It's as if the monster just wants to be seen and acknowledged. Maybe the monster just wants to remind us that there are still weird things lurking out there in the world, even in a patch of woods near an abandoned factory.

An abandoned factory in the woods behind some apartments sounds like a liminal space to me. A liminal space is someplace that isn't quite one thing or another, a zone between one place and another. Liminal spaces are thresholds. 

It makes sense that the campers would see a werewolf in a liminal space. A werewolf is part human and part animal. It's both these things, and yet neither. The campsite was forested but formerly industrial, it was suburban and yet wild. It's the type of place where teenagers go to do forbidden things, and where campers would see uncanny creatures. It makes sense.

Did they really see a werewolf? I can hear some of you asking that question. I am a little skeptical that there are large, physical monsters roaming around our woods. (Of course, I don't go into the woods late at night!) I don't think that means the campers made this story up, though. There are lots of middle positions between hardcore skepticism and total belief. Maybe the campers inadvertently conjured up something from deep inside their psyches, or maybe they glimpsed the spirit of that land, what the ancient Romans would call a genius loci.

Happy Wolf Moon everyone!

January 11, 2022

Stomping through the Snow with Bigfoot in 1976

We had a nice storm last Friday, getting around 10 inches of snow here in the Boston area. I made sure to strap on my boots and stomped around in the snow while it was still fresh.

Forty-five years ago, in December of 1976, someone stomped through the snow near Robinson State Park in Agawam, Massachusetts. Someone who apparently did not wear shoes. Residents of the town found bare footprints, and each footprint was 27 inches long. Someone, or something, quite large had been walking in the snow.

Many people assumed the tracks were made by Bigfoot. It was 1976, after all, and Bigfoot was a popular topic in the mass media. Bigfoot tracks were being seen all across the country. A documentary about the mysterious humanoid, In Search of Bigfoot, had played in movie theaters around the US, and a bionic Bigfoot (from outer space!) had been featured on The Six Million Dollar Man, a popular TV show.  So perhaps it was inevitable that Bigfoot would even appear in Massachusetts. 

Ted Cassidy as Bionic Bigfoot in The Six Million Dollar Man

The Agawam police took the footprints seriously, sending out a "Bigfoot team" to investigate. Bigfoot hunters, who were less common in 1976 than they are now, also came to town. At least one of them, Lee Frank, was invited by a concerned Agawam citizen.

"The prints look good - but "Bigfoot" tracks are a dime a dozen...we really need to see him," said Lee Frank, who reportedly travels all over the United States investigating sightings of the legendary animal.

Frank and other trackers spent Wednesday night camping in zero temperatures beside the footprints in the snow, but failed to spot a 7 to 12-foot monster on the prowl by Westfield River. "Bigfoot" investigators also planned to spend Thursday camping in the woods in hopes of spotting the big fellow.

"Whatever the tracks are, they merit further investigation," Frank said, adding that it is impossible to determine at this point how the tracks were made." ("'Bigfoot' Eludes Team On Overnight Campout", Morning Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), December 31, 1976, from Bigfoot Encounters).

The Agawam police were unsure if the footprints were really made by Bigfoot, or if they were a hoax. It turns out they were a hoax. In early January, the police confiscated two large plywood feet from David Deschenes, a 16-year old Agawam resident. 

"I did it as a joke for the little kids around here, but it got out of hand. The next thing I knew the police were out at two in the morning looking around, taking it seriously. I didn't feel like going out to tell them I was 'bigfoot'", Deschenes said. ("Bigfoot Sorry About Stepping On Law," Kenosha (Wisconsin) News, January 6, 1977, from Bigfoot Encounters).

I find hoaxes really interesting, because even if they are not strictly true, they illustrate what people think might be true. So while Bigfoot was not really running around Agawam, people were willing to think he was. David Deschenes was just enacting something his neighbors thought might be possible. The people in 1976 weren't that different from previous generations of New England residents, many of whom also believed large hairy humanoids were running around the region. They called them "wild men" instead of Bigfoot, although, if real, they were equally tricky and elusive as their modern counterpart. 

David Deschenes may have been a hoaxer, but he was also a trend-setter. In 1977, the company K-Tel produced and marketed plastic Bigfoot snowshoes for children. Kids all across the nation were soon leaving Bigfoot tracks in the snow, just like David had. I wanted these as a kid, but never bought them! I should have followed David's lead and just made my own.

January 02, 2022

Two Phantom Houses Adrift in Time

I was browsing through my library of New England books and came upon two interesting stories. Both are supposedly true, and although they occurred more than 100 years apart they are very similar. They're about phantom houses that seem to travel through time. 

The first story comes from Footsteps in the Attic (2002), a book by paranormal investigator Paul Eno. In the summer of 1975, Eno was vacationing in Vermont when he met two local surveyors, Clement Ridley and Bud Harper. They told Eno about something strange they had seen. 

The previous summer, Ridley and Harper had been hired to survey a farmer's land in Johnson, Vermont. As they looked over the property they noticed an old wooden farmhouse that was not shown on any maps. The house was rundown but there was fresh laundry drying on the clothes line and smoke coming from the chimney. Someone was clearly living there. Oddly, there weren't any cars parked in the yard or any electrical or phone lines. 

The John Balch House, Beverly Massachusetts

Ridley and Harper saw a man in the yard. He carried an axe over one shoulder and wore an old-fashioned wide-brimmed hat. They called out to him, wanting more information on the property, but the man didn't hear or see them. They called out again and walked closer to the house. This time the axe-wielding man seemed to see hear something, but didn't see the surveyors even though they were only fifty feet away. 

Ridley and Harper got a little spooked. Why couldn't the man see or hear them? And should they be concerned he was carrying an axe?They decided to leave the area. 

They returned a few days later to continue surveying the land, but when they arrived they were surprised to find there was no old wooden house. Instead, they just found an overgrown cellar hole. Some of the stones looked blackened, as if they had been scorched in a fire long ago. 

Ridley and Harper were even more spooked than they had been when they encountered the man with the axe. A few days later, they learned from someone at Johnson's town hall that there had once been a house in that location - but it burned down in 1910.

Cue the spooky music.... 

Here's a very similar story, but from the 1840s. Caroline Howard King, a wealthy young woman from Salem, was vacationing in Beverly, Massachusetts with her family when she too encountered a house seemingly adrift in time. 

On a warm summer day King went for a walk in the woods with her cousin Nony and their maid Lucy Anne. People in Beverly called the woods Witches Woods, and said they were haunted. King and her companions didn't think anything strange would happen to them on a sunny afternoon, but they were wrong. 

After walking for only a short while they realized they were lost. It seemed as if the path they had followed into the woods had vanished. They wandered around for what seemed like hours until they finally came upon the ruins of an old farmhouse. King knew this was what the locals called the Homestead, and it was said to be haunted. Very little remained of the farmhouse – just a foundation, a chimney, and a stone stoop. An enormous lilac tree grew next to it. The trio explored the Homestead but there wasn’t much to see.

They soon located a path that climbed up a nearby hill. When they reached the top they could see a farmhouse below them where the ruined Homestead should have been, but this one was not in ruins. It was well-kept and smoke rose from its chimney. A small lilac shrub grew in front of it. As they watched a woman emerged and fed a flock of chickens in the yard from the stone stoop. Lucy Anne ran down to ask the farmwife for directions while King and her cousin waited at the top of the hill. 

Lucy Anne was dejected and confused when she returned. She couldn’t find the cozy little farmhouse anywhere, just the ruined Homestead and “hateful solemn old pine trees.” But now that she was back on the hill she once again could see the well-kept farmhouse with its smoking chimney. It was as if King, Lucy Anne, and Nony were looking backwards in time to a moment in history before the Homestead became a ruin. 

The threesome became even more eager to find their way home after they had this frightening realization. Luckily, they found a dry stream bed and after following it towards the ocean they emerged from the woods near their vacation house.  

Caroline Howard King includes that story in her memoir When I Lived In Salem (1822 - 1866), and I also include it in my new book Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts. The similarities to Paul Eno's story are pretty obvious. One difference is that people in Beverly knew there was something weird about the Homestead, but no one in Johnson, Vermont seemed aware of the phantom house in their town. Also, the Homestead can only be seen in its original state from a distance, not up close, unlike the Johnson house.

I'm not really sure what to make of these stories. Neither one provides an explanation of why these houses seem to slip through time (if that's even what's happening). Or are the people who see them looking through some kind of window to the past? It's not clear.

If there's any lesson, it's that the past is not really gone and is here all around us. We live in one of the oldest parts of the US, with a rich history of strange phenomena. Maybe that history sometimes literally shows itself to the lucky few. And who knows, maybe 200 years from now someone will see a phantom McMansion appear along with its ghostly owner on a riding lawnmower. We too will become part of New England's weird and wonderful past.