December 17, 2022

Christmas Chaos: Puritans, Saturnalia, and Lords of Misrule

On December 25, 1621, some young men in Plymouth, Massachusetts wanted to celebrate Christmas. Their celebration sounds pretty meager by modern standards – just playing a few ball games in the street. However, when William Bradford, Plymouth’s governor, saw what was happening he shut their little party down. He told them they shouldn't be celebrating Christmas, but he was willing to let them observe the day by praying piously indoors. They could not have any fun, however, particularly not in public.

A still from Kranky Klaus (2003), a film by Cameron Jamie.

This sounds like a Grinchy move, and it was. Unlike Governor Bradford and many other Plymouth colonists, the game-players weren’t Puritans. They hadn’t realized how strongly the Puritans hated and feared Christmas. In 1659, the Massachusetts legislature even passed a bill banning Christmas - that's how much they hated the holiday. The bill was repealed in 1681 by Sir Edmund Andros, a much-despised governor appointed by the English king, but Christmas was still not widely celebrated in Massachusetts, or New England in general, until the mid-19th century. Schools and business remained open, and churches did not hold religious services on Christmas. A few  people on the margins of New England society celebrated Christmas, but most didn't.

Puritans hated Christmas for two reasons. First, they thought it was just a pagan holiday that had become thinly Christianized. There’s probably some truth in that. The Bible does not indicate the date of Christ’s birth, so the early Church fathers decided it should be celebrated on December 25, a time when people across the Roman Empire were already celebrating various winter holidays like the Saturnalia and the birthday of Sol Invictus, the sun god. It made good political sense for the new religion to piggyback on already popular holidays.

Saturnalia by Antoine Callet

Puritans also hated Christmas because it was celebrated very differently in the 17th century than it is now. Christmas was a raucous and chaotic holiday that featured lots of drunken public revelry and social disorder. There is still some heavy drinking at Christmas these days, but in the 17th century Christmas was associated with large, drunken, disorderly mobs roaming through the streets and countryside. This can be traced back to the Roman Saturnalia, which celebrated the god Saturn, who had supposedly ruled over Earth’s Golden Age. During Saturn’s reign, everyone had been equal. There were no slaves and no masters, no kings and no subjects, no bosses and no employees. It was blissful and idyllic anarchy, with the Earth providing bountiful food so no one needed to work. These beliefs about the Golden Age were reflected in the Saturnalian celebrations holiday, with masters waiting on their slaves, men dressing as women, and much public drinking and ribaldry. All boundaries were dissolved. 

Saturnalia was a season of misrule, a time when society’s rules were temporarily inverted or suspended. It was a release valve, a way for the lower classes to temporarily let off some steam and a way for the upper classes to buy some good will. After the Roman Empire collapsed, this pattern continued in Europe through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, but Christmas became the holiday of misrule, not Saturnalia. In many European towns and cities, prominent lower class men were appointed the Lord of Misrule by their fellows to preside over the holiday debauchery, leading crowds that mocked priests, noblemen, and the wealthy with impudence. Carolers, often drunk and in costume, demanded food and drink at wealthy homes. Once the celebrations ended, the Lord of Misrule stepped down and the old hierarchical relationships reasserted themselves until Christmas came around again. 

Illustration from Masks of Misrule (1996) by Nigel Aldcroft Jackson

The misrule of Christmas was antithetical to the Puritan values of hard-work, moderation, and self-control, but some modern Americans have recently have shown interest in bringing back a little of the old Christmas chaos. Some contemporary witches and occultists acknowledge a Lord of Misrule in their winter solstice rituals, and the Krampus, a monstrous Yule creature associated with misrule from northern Europe, has become increasingly popular, appearing on t-shirts, tree ornaments, and in movies. Krampus celebrations are a long-standing tradition in Germany and Austria, and some Americans are trying to bring it here.

Idyllic holiday anarchy sounds like fun, but there was definitely a dark side to Christmas misrule. The threat of violence lurked beneath the surface, and vandalism sometimes occurred, even in Puritan New England. For example, a group of young men in Salem, Massachusetts harassed 72-year-old John Rowden on Christmas night in 1679. The men forcibly entered Rowden's home, caroled, and then demanded wine as payment for their performance. Rowden refused, and in retaliation the young men pelted his house with stones and branches for 90 minutes, knocked down a stone wall, and stole six pecks of apple from his cellar. Something similar happened in Deerfield, Massachusetts in 1794, when shopkeeper John Birge was awoken at 2:00 am on December 22 by a group of drunken men demanding entrance to his home. He refused, and the men broke his windows.

Perhaps if Rowden and Birge had played along, their property wouldn't have been damaged. Much like Halloween's trick-or-treat, if you gave out food, liquor or money at Christmas you and your home would escape unharmed. The threat of violent retaliation was an integral part of the holiday.

A still from Kranky Klaus (2003), a film by Cameron Jamie.

Back in 2007, I saw a short documentary by Cameron Jamie called Kranky Klaus, which follows a group of Krampuses as they roam around an Austrian town in a pre-Christmas celebration. The movie is unsettling. The Krampuses are aggressive and violent. They try to break into a pizza shop, and when a female employee stops them they push her into a snow bank. They enter a nightclub, where they knock over tables, wrestle patrons to the floor, and whip people. The Krampuses terrify a group of children, and then shove snow into pedestrians' faces in the street. No one stops them because it's a holiday tradition, but a lot of folks seem unhappy and terrified. You can watch Kranky Klaus on YouTube for yourself. What are your thoughts? Misrule and Christmas chaos sound like fun on paper, but the reality looks pretty scary.

I love weird old traditions, but I'm happy with the tamer, milder Christmas we now celebrate. The Puritan's anti-Christmas attitude wasn't defeated by misrule, but by 19th-century capitalism and a kinder, gentle approach to raising children. The prospect of happy children opening presents under a tree won out over the Puritan's "bah humbug" attitude, and over Christmas misrule as well. Feel free to celebrate Christmas (or not) as you see fit, but I'll be sitting by the tree, drinking eggnog, and listening to Mariah Carey, trying to find that happy medium between grumpy Puritan and kranky Krampus. 


My favorite book about the history of Christmas is Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America's Most Cherished Holiday. I got much of this post's information from it. 

December 05, 2022

Bewitched in the Woods: Old Rif and the Rabbit

A few weeks ago I went to the Boston Athenaeum and found lots of old witch stories in various in old New Hampshire history books. A few weeks ago I wrote about Mother Carr from Weare, New Hampshire. Here's another witch story I found, this time from the town of Windham. As the days grow shorter I find myself drawn more and more to these stories!

Many years ago, an enslaved Black man named Old Rif and a man named George Simpson were out hunting in the woods near Windham. After hunting for a while they became lost.

The sun was sinking behind the western hills, and they came to a halt. At that moment they saw a rabbit standing upon its hind legs, looking at them; they tried to frighten it away, but it would not away at their bidding. Old Rif knew that the rabbit was bewitched, and he had heard that to shoot silver sleeve-buttons at a rabbit would destroy the witch. So he loaded his gun, putting in his silver sleeve-buttons, and shot the rabbit. The witch was instantly killed, their minds immediately became clear, the ground at once became familiar, the pathway was plain before them, and they readily and quickly found their way home. He (Old Rif) was said to be the last slave in New Hampshire, and died not far from 1842 (L.A. Morrison, History of Windham in New Hampshire, 1719 - 1883 (1883))

There are lots of interesting things about this story. First of all, there's Old Rif. He's a reminder that there was slavery in New England. I am not an expert on the history of New England slavery, but it seems that although the New Hampshire legislature banned slavery in 1789, it was not completely abolished until the 1850s. Was Old Rif really the last slave in New Hampshire? I will leave that to a better historian than me to determine. Regardless, Old Rif is clearly the hero of this story. He knows that he and George Simpson are bewitched, and he knows how to end it.

Young Hare, by Albrecht Durer

He ends the witch's spell in a traditional way - by shooting a silver button at an animal that is actually a witch in bestial form. Silver bullets are familiar to modern readers from Hollywood werewolf movies, but any silver object would do the trick. If you don't have a bullet, use a button. 

Maybe the most famous story of a witch being shot with a silver button is the one about Peg Wesson from Gloucester, Massachusetts, who had taken the form of a crow to harass a group of soldiers. It's unclear in either story if the witch is possessing an actual animal, or if the witch has merely sent out their soul in the shape of an animal. Either way, the result of the silver button/bullet is the same - the animal is injured or killed, as is the witch. 

In the Peg Wesson story, Peg is only injured after a soldier shoots the crow with a silver button. But in this story about Old Rif, the witch dies as soon as the rabbit is shot. I wish there was more information about the witch in this story. Who were they? Did they just keel right over in their house? Did anyone find a silver button embedded in their corpse? I suppose we'll never know.

It's a little strange that the witch is never identified in Old Rif's story, but the witch is almost never the main character in these stories. These stories are instructional tales, intended to tell the listener or reader how to fight witchcraft. The witch's identity didn't really matter to the person in Windham who first told this story. What did matter was instructing people how to stop a witch.

I will end with a couple disclaimers. One, your neighbors are not evil witches hexing you. Two, please don't go around shooting random animals if you get lost in the woods. That little bunny just wants to eat some grass in peace. 

November 22, 2022

The Tough Pie Crusts of Old New England

My family always eats the same meal every Thanksgiving, consisting of turkey, squash, potatoes, turnip, stuffing and cranberry sauce. Appetizers might vary, and Tony and I eat tofurkey, but the outline of the main meal remains the same. It's basically it's a lot of autumn vegetables boiled up and mashed. Delicious!

Thanksgiving has its roots in the old New England Puritan feast days, and it's surprising how closely my family's menu matches what people would have eaten three hundred years ago. I'm descended from relatively recent immigrants (I'm only second generation American on my father's side), but somehow this was the menu that my Quebecois grandmother learned to cook. 

Dessert traditionally consists of the same three pies: squash, mincemeat, and apple. Again, these are the pies that my grandmother always made. Why squash instead of pumpkin? I have no idea. Thank God that the One Pie company still makes canned squash. When they stop we might need to abandon the squash pie for pumpkin.

This year I'll be helping out by baking the squash and mincemeat pie. My mother always makes her pie crust with flour, oil and water. It makes a very delicate crust, but is hard to roll out. I make my crust with shortening, flour, and butter. It is not quite so flakey and delicate, but it is easier for me to handle. Now, do you want to hear about a really tough pie crust?

I can hear you asking, "What does all this have to do with New England folklore?"

Pie is very, very old form of food. There are recipes for pie-like dishes from ancient Rome and Egypt. In Medieval England, pies usually contained a mix of sweet and savory ingredients. Mix together some fish, some fowl, some game, some vegetables and some fruit and voila! A pie. Although the ingredients have changed over time, the basic concept has remained the same: food baked inside a pastry crust. 

The pie crusts of old were generally not the tender, flaky delights that we experience today. Whether it's butter, oil or shortening, fat is inexpensive to buy these days. In the past that was not the case, and many people made their pie crusts just from flour and water with no fat added. Fat adds tenderness to the pastry, so these fat-free crusts were quite tough.

You may think I exaggerate the toughness, but it was noted by several authors. In the 1500s this type of dough was called "strong dough." The English cookbook author Hannah Glasse included the following instructions in 1747's The Art of Cookery: "First make a good standing crust, let the Wall and Bottom be very thick..." If I'm not misinterpreting her, it sounds like the crust can stand up on it's own like Play-Doh. Yikes! 

The Swedish minister Israel Acrelius lived in Delaware during the middle of the 18th century, and experienced some tough pie crusts firsthand. He wrote in 1759 that the crust "of a house pie, in country places ... is not broken even if a wagon wheel goes over it." Acrelius was probably exaggerating a little, but you get the picture.

The pie crusts in Colonial New England were as tough as those in Delaware, if not tougher. Rye grows better in our climate than wheat, so rye flour was the most commonly used flour here. Have you ever baked with rye flour? It is much, much harder than wheat flour, so imagine making a fat-free rye flour pie crust. It was probably like edible ceramic.

A sturdy rye pie crust appears in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Oldtown Folks (1869), which is set in late 1700s Massachusetts. Two abandoned children find shelter for the night at the home of a friendly farmer. In the morning he sends them on their way with kindly words, and a pie:
Sol added to these words a minced pie, with a rye crust of peculiarly solid texture, adapted to resist any of the incidents of time and travel, which had been set out as part of his last night's supper. 
The crust was so hard that it could be carried without a pan. Now that's a strong crust.

The hard crust does explain one thing that has always puzzled me. Housewives in pre-Industrial New England made dozens and dozens of pies in the weeks leading up Thanksgiving, and a cook prided herself on the number and variety of pies she could produce. Although some of these pies were eaten at Thanksgiving, the majority were stored in the root cellar for the winter. I always wondered if people had dozens and dozens of pie pans in their houses, but apparently they didn't. They probably just turned the pie out of its baking pan and stuck it on the shelf. The crust was so hard it would hold its shape for months. I wonder how the flavor held up?

In his 1877 book Being A Boy, Massachusetts-born writer Charles Dudley Warner talks about how a boy could steal pie from the root cellar by hiding it under his coat: 
And yet this boy would have buttoned under his jacket an entire round pumpkin-pie. And the pie was so well made and so dry that it was not injured in the least, and it never hurt the boy's clothes a bit more than if it had been inside of him instead of outside; and this boy would retire to a secluded place and eat it with another boy, being never suspected because he was not in the cellar long enough to eat a pie, and he never appeared to have one about him.
So Warner is writing about a pie so solid and so dry that someone could stuff it in their shirt without it leaking. Wow! 

Traditional New England menus are great, but let's praise innovation where we can. I don't think anyone wants to go back to eating rock solid pie crust, no matter how portable it is.


If you want to learn more about traditional New England pies, I recommend James Baker's Thanksgiving: The Biography of An American Holiday and Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald's America's Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking. I got most of my information from those two books, which are great! This post is an updated version of one I wrote on this topic way back in 2015. 

November 12, 2022

Mother Carr, the Witch of Weare: Turn Your Clothes Inside Out

A few weekends ago I went to the library and randomly looked through the histories of some New Hampshire towns, hoping to find interesting stories about witchcraft and ghosts. Many 19th century town histories include those local legends, and I was happy to find several stories I had not read before. 

Some of those stories were about Mother Carr. She lived in Weare, New Hampshire in the early 1800s, and many people suspected her of being a witch. There are several accounts of her allegedly bewitching her neighbors, including this one.

Antique postcard of Weare, NH from Wikipedia

One summer day some of Mother Carr's neighbors went berry-picking in the woods. It was a very successful trip. They returned carrying buckets that overflowed with ripe juicy berries. When Mother Carr saw all the delicious berries she asked if she could have some, but her neighbors refused. She stomped off angrily, telling them they would regret their stinginess. (Cue the ominous music...)

A few weeks later, the same group of neighbors went into the woods to pick berries again. And once again, they filled their buckets with plump, juicy berries. But as they began to make their way back to Weare they became lost. They wandered around for hours, unable to find the path that led home. No matter how hard they tried they couldn't find their way out of the woods, even though they had been there many times before. 

Suddenly, one of the berry-pickers remembered Mother Carr's angry words, and realized she had cursed them. They would never find their way home as long as they were under her spell! Someone suggested that if they turned their clothes inside out the spell would be broken. It sounded foolish, but everyone was afraid of being stuck in the woods overnight, so they turned their coats, shirts, pants and skirts inside out. To their amazement, it worked. Although they were tired and bedraggled, they were able to find their way out of the woods.

Antique postcard of Weare, NH from Wikipedia

That is the end of the story. It might sound alien to a modern reader, but turning your clothes inside out is a very old form of folk magic. However, it was most often used to prevent fairies from leading you astray, not witches. As the 17th century English poet Richard Corbet wrote in his poem "Iter Boreale":

As in a conjurers circle, William found

A menes for our deliverance: Turne your cloakes,

Quoth hee, for Puck is busy in these oakes:

If ever yee at Bosworth will be found,

Then turne your cloakes, for this is Fayry-ground.

Special thanks to Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog for posting this piece of poetry! I am not 100% sure of the metaphysics behind this folklore, but I think turning your clothes inside out is supposed to confuse the fairies, which makes them stop hexing you. 

But why would people in New Hampshire do this when they were lost in the woods? When the English Puritans came to New England they didn't bring much fairy folklore with them, but they did bring a lot of witch lore. Instead of blaming misfortunes on fairies they blamed them on unpopular neighbors (like Mother Carr) they thought were witches. Practices that were once used to protect against fairies were used to protect against witchcraft. 

I found this story in William Little's 1888 book The History of Weare, New Hampshire, 1735 - 1888. These old history books are amazing. You never know what you'll find!

October 23, 2022

The Spookiest States: Vermont and Maine Lead the Pack

People often ask me if New England is weirder or scarier than other parts of the country. I’ve been asked this by podcasters, other writers, and even personal friends. It would be easy for me to respond with a joke about scary Massachusetts drivers, our weird infatuation with Dunkin Donuts, or the frightening price of housing. But I generally avoid going for the easy laugh and try to answer the question sincerely.

Certainly, it seems that New England has a reputation in popular culture as a strange place. I usually mention that the world’s three most famous horror writers all came from New England. Edgar Allen Poe (1809 – 1849) was born in Boston, and although he left as a child he returned when he was 16 to work and enlisted in the army. He didn’t remain in Boston long, and although he thought the Bostonian literary establishment was uptight he still published his first book with the byline “a Bostonian.” 

The second writer is H.P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937), who was born in Providence and spent most of his life there. Lovecraft incorporated lots of New England history and legends into his fiction. He definitely understood the weird appeal of the region’s moldering Puritan cemeteries, old coastal towns, and dark woods. Lastly, there is the legendary Stephen King (b. 1947), who was born in Maine and still lives there. Many of his novels, including classics like Salem’s Lot and Pet Sematary, are set in Maine.

I like to think there's something unique about New England which inspired these three influential writers. Certainly, New England has some strange history due to the Puritan colonists who came in the 1600s. They brought over their beliefs in witches, ghosts and the Devil, but not the more charming folklore like fairies. That definitely shaped our region's culture. And like most of the United States, our region has its history of violence, racism and genocide. Perhaps all these things, combined with a sometimes strange and dramatic landscape and our long dark winters, helped inspire Poe, Lovecraft, and King. (The author Faye Ringel explores these themes in her book 1995 book New England’s Gothic Literature.)

But does this really mean New England is weirder or scarier than other parts of the country? And how would you even go about measuring these things regionally? I wouldn't know how to even start, but someone has tried. Cycling Frog, a THC and CBD company in Seattle, compiled a ranked list of the scariest states in the country. Vermont ranked number one, Maine came in second, and Connecticut placed fifth. Not too bad for such a small part of the United States!

The other New England states are apparently not as spooky. New Hampshire was 14, Rhode Island 19, and Massachusetts was way down the list at 35. I feel ashamed as a Massachusetts native that we ranked so low. Massholes, we need to try harder to be spooky.

Upon reading this list two questions came to my mind. How did they rank the states, and why did a CBD/THC company do this? Sadly, I can only answer the first one. Cycling Frog looked at how many of the following each state had:

1. Serial killers (from

2. Haunted locations (from

3. UFO sightings (from National UFO Reporting Center)

4. Ghosts (from

5. Top 100 horror films set there (from

To measure equitably across states, they wanted to show how many of each phenomena the states have per 100,000 people. For example, Texas had the most number of serial killers with 890 (!), but it has a very large population. This means that Delaware, which has a much smaller population, actually has the highest number of serial killers per person, with 41 serial killers per 100,000 inhabitants. According to Cycling Frog, this makes Delaware the most murderous state. (Note: Massholes, we do NOT need to try harder at being serial killers.)

Vermont was ranked the scariest because it had the highest number of UFO sightings and haunted places per person, and also had a high number of ghost sightings as well. That's pretty impressive, which is why they think Vermont is the scariest state. But is it? When I think of Vermont, I tend to think of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, rolling green hills, and peaceful hippies. Maybe all that peace and love is just a cover for the true horrors of Vermont. 

Let's face it, I don't think this survey is statistically valid, but it is fun to think about as we approach Halloween. Apparently if you live in Vermont, Maine or Connecticut you're ensured a spooky Halloween. The rest of us may just have to console ourselves by eating extra candy corn and Twix. 

October 03, 2022

Dreams in the Witch House: Lore, Familiars, and the Devil's Book

This week I've been reading "The Dreams in the Witch House," H.P. Lovecraft's classic 1932 tale of witches, creepy little monsters, and non-Euclidean calculus. This is one of those Lovecraft stories I come back to repeatedly, and re-reading it this time I was struck by how Lovecraft incorporates real New England folklore and history into it. Much of the story is focused on how one becomes a witch, something that was central to the 17th century Puritan witch trials. There is also a particularly creepy familiar spirit in it. 

Here's a basic plot summary, but you can also read the story yourself here. Walter Gilman is a college student at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts, where he is studying mathematics and folklore. Gilman is convinced there is a connection between advanced mathematics and the old New England witch stories, and his research leads him to rent a room in a squalid boarding house that was built in 1600s known as the Witch House.

Gilman's room was once the abode of Keziah Mason, who was arrested for witchcraft during the Salem witch trials. Under questioning, Mason told Judge John Hathorne that certain lines and angles could be used to move "through the walls of space to other spaces beyond," and then later disappeared from her locked jail cell. Strange geometric curves and angles were found drawn on the cell's walls with "some red, sticky fluid." Centuries later, Keziah Mason is said to haunt the Witch House where she once lived, appearing there at night with Brown Jenkin, a human-faced rat that serves as her familiar spirit. 
Gilman thinks Mason knew the secret of traveling through other dimensions. Soon in his sleep he dreams that he can too, inspired by his study of mathematics and the strange angles of the walls and ceiling in his room. In his dreams, he flies through "limitless abysses of inexplicably coloured twilight and bafflingly disordered sound; abysses whose material and gravitational properties, and whose relation to his own entity, he could not even begin to explain." He dreams that he visits other planets, including a world whose heavy gravity almost crushes him, and one where he sees a vast city and strange non-humanoid beings. In his journeys he also sees Keziah Mason and Brown Jenkin, who seem to be following him around the universe in his dreams. 

Spoiler alert: Walter Gilman is not dreaming. He really is traveling through the universe and other dimensions, and Mason and Brown Jenkin really are following him. Since he has intuitively and unconsciously mastered the art of extra-dimensional travel, they recognize him as a fellow witch, and want him to be fully initiated into the dark mysteries of witchcraft: 
He must meet the Black Man, and go with them all to the throne of Azathoth at the centre of ultimate Chaos. That was what she said. He must sign in his own blood the book of Azathoth and take a new secret name now that his independent delvings had gone so far. What kept him from going with her and Brown Jenkin and the other to the throne of Chaos where the thin flutes pipe mindlessly was the fact that he had seen the name “Azathoth” in the Necronomicon, and knew it stood for a primal evil too horrible for description.
Oh, and they want him to sacrifice a human infant as well. I won't give away the ending, but it's one of the gorier and gruesome endings to a Lovecraft story. 

H.P. Lovecraft loved New England and its history, and incorporates lots of local references into "The Dreams in the Witch House." John Hathorne (mentioned above) was a real Salem witch trials judge and an ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne; the infamous Cotton Mather is mentioned as well. Walter Gilman's hometown is Haverhill, Massachusetts, the same as me! One of his mathematics instructors at Miskatonic University is Professor Upham, a name possibly inspired by Charles Upham, the historian who wrote Salem Witchcraft (1867), one of the first important studies of the Salem trials. And there actually are several buildings in Massachusetts called the Witch House, including the most famous one in Salem

Original 1933 illustration from Weird Tales

The crux of the story is whether Gilman will become fully initiated into witchcraft. Will he sign his name into the Black Man's book using his own blood? Lovecraft pulled this concept directly from records of the New England witchcraft trials. The Black Man was a Puritan term for the Devil, and he and his book were mentioned in many witchcraft trials. The book was a Satanic parody of the Bible and of the covenants that Puritans signed when they joined churches. According to the Puritans, signing your name in the Black Man's book made you a witch. Lovecraft made up the part about sacrificing an infant, though. That does not appear in any New England witch trials, although certainly witches were accused of harming babies and children. The Puritans also believed that the Devil would baptize his witches after they signed the book, which doesn't appear in Lovecraft's story. It's probably just too tame for a horror story. 

Brown Jenkin, Keziah Mason's familiar spirit, is very similar to the familiars found in New England witch trials. The Puritan's claimed that the Devil gave witches small demons, called familiar spirits, to do their bidding. In return, the witches just had to feed them with their blood. The trials of the Salem witch trials mention familiar spirits who appeared in a variety of forms, including birds, cats, and wolves. Like Brown Jenkin, some appeared as monstrous hybrids. For example, Bridget Bishop was accused of having a familiar that looked like a monkey with rooster feet and a human face, and Sarah Osborne's familiar was supposedly a small humanoid covered in hair. Lovecraft's Brown Jenkin would fit right in with these two.

One interesting thing I noticed on re-reading "The Dreams in the Witch House" is that Keziah Mason and Brown Jenkin are trying to help and protect Walter Gilman during his trips through space and time, even though he doesn't realize it. For example, when he finds himself on a planet with heavy gravity they show him how to travel back to Earth. It's only when he refuses to sign the book that they become hostile towards him. He's not acting the way a witch should!

"The Dreams in the Witch House" has been filmed at least three times, once in 2005 as part of the Masters of Horror anthology TV series, and also as a low-budget movie earlier this year, at last according to Amazon Prime. A version of "The Dreams in the Witch House" will also air later this month as an episode of Guillermo del Toro's new anthology Netflix show Cabinet of Curiosities. I hope they include all the weird New England witch references in it!


If you want to read more about New England witches, please check out my book, Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts. It's available wherever books are sold online and is perfect October reading!

September 21, 2022

Rufus Goodrich's Funeral: A Devilish Deal Gone Bad

As I watched the enormous number of mourners at Queen Elizabeth's recent funeral, I found myself wondering how many people will attend mine. I hoped that I would get a big turnout. 

It's kind of a morbid thought but I think it's a common one. And as I had this thought, I was reminded of a weird and grim little tale about a man named Rufus Goodrich. It appears in Catharine Melinda North's 1916 book History of Berlin Connecticut and it will make you think twice about wishing for a big funeral. 


Many years ago, people used to gather at the cider mill in Berlin, Connecticut to enjoy hard cider and good gossip. One day a man named Rufus Goodrich, who lived in nearby Rocky Hill, came into the mill and ordered some cider. He had a big smile on his face and seemed almost giddy with excitement. 

Someone said, "Why so happy Rufus?"

Rufus took a sip from his cider and explained he had just sold his soul to the Devil. Everyone in the cider mill fell silent. 

Rufus went on to say that the Devil promised him he would be famous if he just signed away his soul. Rufus had asked the Devil exactly how famous he would be. 

The Devil replied, "Well, let's just say there will be thousands at your funeral. Thousands." This sounded pretty good to Rufus, so he sold his soul to the Devil. 

Once he finished telling his story, Rufus slammed down his now-empty cider mug and stood up. "See you folks later. I'm off to become famous," he said and strutted out the door. 

No one saw Rufus around Berlin or Rocky Hill for a few days after that. People thought maybe he had gone to Boston or New York to become famous. But they soon learned the terrible truth when a local farmer complained that huge swarms of flies kept buzzing in and out of his barn. And a horrible smell was coming from the back of the barn too...
A group of local men gathered their courage and made their way to the back of the barn. They had to cover their noses and mouths to keep out the flies and the stench. When they reached the back of the barn they found the body of Rufus Goodrich. It was covered with flies. 

The men thought of the Devil's promise when they saw Rufus's corpse. There were thousands of flies crawling on him. Thousands. 


I love these gruesome little New England folk stories. A lot of them are quite grim, but this is one of the grimmest. I haven't seen it anywhere except in North's book, and I wonder where she heard the story. I haven't been able to locate any records of a "Rufus Goodrich" but the Goodriches were a well-known Rocky Hill family, so perhaps it is based on an actual person. It might be quite old too. Earl Chapin May, in his book Century of Silver, 1847 - 1947, claims the story dates back to the 18th century.

To sum up: be careful what you wish for. 

September 11, 2022

Ghosts and Graffiti at Fort Revere

Over Labor Day weekend Tony and I drove down to Hull, Massachusetts. Hull is of course a popular destination in the summer because of Nantasket Beach, but we had a different destination in mind. We wanted to visit a haunted fort. 

Fort Revere sits on top of Telegraph Hill, a promontory that looks out over the town and Boston Harbor. The views are amazing, and I can understand why someone would build a fort there. You definitely would be able to see any ships approaching Hull, as well as a view of the one road leading into town.

Hull was first colonized by the English in 1622, and they considered fortifying the hill as early as 1633. It wasn't until the American Revolution, though, that anyone actually built anything there. In 1775, General Joseph Palmer constructed the first fort and named it Fort Independence. After the war that name was given to the fort on Castle Island in Boston, and the Hull fort was demolished and buried. 

The current fort on Telegraph Hill was constructed from 1898 - 1906. Named Fort Revere, it housed troops during the Spanish-American war and was armed with multiple cannons. In 1948 the US Government finally decommissioned the fort and gave it to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is now a public park. 

Where are the ghosts in all this history? Well, according to local legends, the fort is haunted by the spirits of 200 French soldiers who died of smallpox in 1778. The soldiers had been captured by the British while fighting in Nova Scotia, but had been freed in a prisoner exchange. They were sent to the fort in Hull, where French marines were garrisoned. Unfortunately, most of the freed prisoners died from smallpox. Their countrymen buried them somewhere on the hill's slopes. Local archaeologists tried to find their grave in 1976 but were unable to locate it. 

The smallpox victims were real, but are the ghosts? Tony and I didn't encounter anything odd, but we went during the daytime and didn't try to engage with any restless spirits. I'm not that brave! Maybe if we had we would have experienced some of the strange phenomena said to occur. People say unseen entities will throw a rock back to you if you throw it down one of Fort Revere's many dark tunnels. They also say shadowy shapes can be seen flitting by doorways and whispers are heard in empty rooms.

As my friend Sam Baltrusis notes in his book Haunted Boston Harbor, paranormal investigators have recorded strange EVPs (electronic voice phenomena) in the fort. Anne Kerrigan and Michael Markowicz, of the group East Bridgewater's Most Haunted, investigated the site in 2007. Markowicz recored an EVP that sounded like a choir singing, which is pretty freaky. They also captured voices saying, "What do you want with us, Michael?" and "Watch us, watch you." That's even freakier.

Happily, they didn't encounter any malevolent energy at the fort. Tony and I didn't either, although we did encounter a lot of graffiti. A lot!  Some of it is over 20 years old, so I don't think anyone has been cleaning the inside of the fort. The outside is almost spotless though (and has amazing views).

We had a good time exploring the fort. If you want to visit someplace historic, scenic, and possibly haunted, I'd recommend Fort Revere. 

August 29, 2022

Gerald the Bigfoot Goes Missing in Bernardston

On the night of April 22, 2020, thieves stole a large statue of Bigfoot from the Brimfield, Massachusetts lawn of Tod Disotell. Disotell, an anthropologist at UMass Amherst, had appeared on the TV show 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty and liked to decorate his Bigfoot statue with surgical masks and messages about COVID social distancing. 

Security camera footage showed two showed two hooded figures cutting a chain before absconding with the statue. Happily, police located the statue a few days later in downtown Worcester. Bigfoot was returned to Disotell's front yard. The thieves were never apprehended.

Sadly, Bigfoot thieves have struck again, this time in Bernardston, Massachusetts. On June 22, they stole an 18-inch concrete statue of Bigfoot from the front lawn of Sarah Gray. The statue, which she named Gerald, was a 2021 Christmas gift from her husband and children. 

Photo from The Greenfield Reporter

The Greenfield Reporter has the scoop:
“I was out doing errands and I came back and realized that he was missing from our front yard, off of our stump out here,” Sarah said in her kitchen on Friday. She posted a picture of the statue to Facebook to explain it had disappeared and ask for help finding it. That post got 250 shares and she placed near the stump a large sign asking for the statue’s return, but Gerald remains missing.

“We don’t know what happened. I don’t know if somebody thought he was maybe free,” she said.

Sarah said she did not report the incident to the police because she does not want to burden them with such a matter.

“It was upsetting, but I didn’t want to really involve the police and make a huge deal out of it,” she said. “But for me, it’s very sentimental. I have no hard feelings toward the person that took him or whatever – I would just like my Bigfoot back.”
The Reporter also notes that various friends have shown Gray photos of Bigfoot statues they have seen, but none were Gerald. 

If you've stolen Gerald, please return him! Alternately, if Gerald simply ran off on his own, I hope he returns back to Bernardston and the family that loves him. 

August 18, 2022

Vampires, Punk Rock and Local Legends in The Pallbearers Club

I don't often review novels here, but Paul Tremblay's new book The Pallbearers Club is based on an important piece of New England folklore. Tony gave it to me, thinking I might like it. He was right! It's creepy and very steeped in weird local history. 

The Pallbearer's Club tells the story of Art Barbara, a local rock musician, and his friendship with a mysterious woman named Mercy Brown. Art and Mercy first meet when Art is a high school student in Beverly, Massachusetts. He's tall, skinny, acne-ridden, and has a serious case of scoliosis. He's not the most popular kid in school and doesn't participate in any extracurricular activities. In order to beef up his college applications, he starts the Pallbearers Club, a group that attends funerals of people who don't have anyone to mourn them. Other than Art, only two other Beverly High students are members.  

And then Mercy joins. She's older than Art and is a student at Salem State. She introduces him to punk rock and alternative music. She has her own car. She helps him write a paper for a class on local history. The topic: the famous Rhode Island vampire Mercy Brown. 

Wait, what? The Pallbearers Club is presented as a memoir by "Art Barbara," but Art admits that this is a pseudonym. It's not his real name. "Mercy Brown" is not really his friend's name either. Art gives her that name in his memoir because... well, because he suspects she's a New England vampire.  

I've written about New England vampires before, and they're not like the vampires you see in pop culture. In the 19th century, tuberculosis was rampant across this area. No one knew what caused the disease, which was called 'consumption' at the time because it consumed people's lives and health. It often killed entire families, slowly and one person at a time. Some New Englanders believed the disease was actually caused by a dead family member feeding from the grave on the life force of their loved ones.

Artwork from The Pallbearers Club

Mercy Brown is the best-known of the alleged New England vampires. Beginning in the 1880s, consumption began killing multiple members of the Brown family of Exeter, Rhode Island. The family's mother, Eliza, was the first to die, followed by her daughters Mary and Mercy. When young son Edwin grew ill, neighbors convinced his father George Brown to exhume their corpses to see if any showed signs of life in the grave. Mercy's corpse was undecayed and had blood in its hearts, which according to local folklore indicated she was feeding on Edwin. Her heart and liver were burned to ashes and mixed with water, which was given to young Edwin to drink. This was supposed to prevent Mercy's vampirism and save Edwin's life, but he died two months later. (Michael Bell's book Food for the Dead is the best non-fiction book about New England vampires.)

Is "Mercy Brown" in The Pallbearers Club really a vampire? Art certainly seems to think so and blames her for some unfortunate and unusual events in his life. Mercy vehemently disagrees. The Pallbearers Club is full of notes from Mercy in red pen, offering her perspective on events. Maybe, she suggests, Art is really a drug addict and incapable of moving on from the past. 

Who is right, Art or Mercy? I won't tell you. The Pallbearers Club is a creepy slow burn and keeps you guessing until the last page (and maybe even after). It doesn't have a lot of gore or violence, so when the weird stuff happens it's all the more effective. There are some nice twists, and I definitely was surprised by the ending. This is also very much a New England novel, set almost entirely in Providence, Rhode Island and Beverly. Tremblay lives north of Boston, and his love and knowledge of the region really shines through. If you like New England, weird folklore, and a twisty plot, add this to your reading list. 

July 31, 2022

Hiding Shoes to Bring Luck and Avert Evil

I’m always excited when some local folklore appears in the news, as it did this week. Several Boston-area news outlets reported that archaeologists working at the historic Tilden House in Canton, Massachusetts unearthed some shoes buried underneath the kitchen floor. Why all the excitement over some shoes? Because they could possibly be a form of protective magic. 

The Tilden House was built in 1725 by David and Abigail Tilden in what was then part of Dorchester, Massachusetts. That part of Dorchester ultimately became a separate town, Canton, in 1797. A strange and interesting fact: it was named Canton because Elijah Dunbar, one of the town’s leading citizens, thought it was on the exact opposite side of the planet from Canton, China. This is not the case, but the name stuck. 

A photo of hidden shoes from England. 

For those of you not from the Boston area, please note the names of the two cities are not pronounced the same. The town in Massachusetts is said CANT-in, or more often CAN’-in, with some kind of glottal stop instead of the “t”. The city in China is often pronounced can-TAWN, but it’s true Chinese name is Guangzhou. It’s also important to note that Cantonese cuisine originates from Guangzhou, not the Massachusetts town. 

The Tilden House is currently owned by the town of Canton, and leased to the Canton Historical Society, who are restoring and modernizing it so it can be used as a history center. After archaeologists removed the kitchen floor, they found several pairs of shoes, along with bottles, plates, and other items, all of which seemed to date from the mid-19th century. All these items could just be trash that past residents discarded, but it’s also possible the shoes were placed there to protect the house from witches or evil spirits. 

Hidden shoes are often found in the walls, ceilings, or under the floors of old buildings in England and North America, and historians suspect it was a form of protective magic. For example, back in 2013 archeologists found shoes hidden under the floor of the Old Colony House in Newport, Rhode Island. But why did our New England ancestors think hiding shoes would defend against evil magic? Historians  Matthew Cochran and Jeanne Ward explain it this way:

This well-documented practice dates from the l5th to the early 20th century. The underlying premise of using concealed shoes as a means of personal or household protection lies both in the shoe’s shape as well as the personal qualities imbued in a shoe by the wearer. Shoes take on the literal shape of the wearer and therefore can act as a form of proxy for the wearer. If a malicious entity is presumed to be haunting you, the concealment of the shoe in a relatively inaccessible space, such as the cellar or the attic, may draw the malicious entity to the shoe instead of you. And, if luck holds, the malicious entity may become trapped in the shoe (from the Maryland Archeology Newsletter, quoted here.)

This explanation makes sense to me, since it matches another important type of protective magic in New England: the witch bottle. I've written about witch bottles before. When someone thought they were being cursed by a witch, they would fill a bottle with their own urine, and then add nails, broken glass, and other sharp items to it. The urine acted as a substitute or proxy for the victim. The witch's evil magic would be drawn to the urine, which came from their victim, rather than to the actual intended target. To make things worse for the witch, the sharps objects would send pain and physical harm back to the witch. 

I suppose you should always have some old shoes, a bottle and some nails on hand just in case things start getting weird? It's like a supernatural form of recycling. But please, don't go around accusing your neighbors of witchcraft.

July 13, 2022

Dog Days and Dog Lore

The other day while browsing through The Old Farmer's Almanac, I saw this notation for July 3rd: Dog Days Begin. I experienced the dog days quite viscerally today myself. I was out walking around during my lunch and noticed that it was blindingly bright, unpleasantly hot, and extremely humid. I felt a little stupefied. 

The dog days of summer begin on July 3rd and end on August 11th. They are said to be the hottest days of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, and get their name from the star Sirius, which rises in conjunction with the sun during this time. Sirius is part of the constellation Canis Major (Latin for the Greater Dog), which follows Orion through the sky. 

A mosaic of a dog from Pompeii

The ancient Greeks were the first people to call this time of year the dog days. For example, in The Iliad, the poet Homer has the following to say: 

...all radiant as the star which men call Orion's Hound, and whose beams blaze forth in time of harvest more brilliantly than those of any other that shines by night; brightest of them all though he be, he yet bodes ill for mortals, for he brings fire and fever in his train... (Homer, The Iliad, Book 22, translated by Samuel Butler)

Some Greeks tried to appease Sirius the Dog-star (and the heat it brought) with sacrifices, a practice taught to them by Aristaios, the divine son of Apollo. 

The Dog-star Sirius was scorching the Minoan Islands from the sky, and the people could find no permanent cure for the trouble till the Archer-King Apollon put it in their heads to send for Aristaios. So, at his father's command, Aristaios ... left Phthia, and settled in Keos. He raised a great altar to the Rain-god Zeus and made ritual offerings in the hills to the Dog-star and to Zeus himself, the Son of Kronos. In response, Zeus gave his orders - and the Etesian Winds refresh the earth for forty days. The priests of Keos still make yearly sacrifice before the rising of the Dog. (Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica)

The ancient Romans also believed that Sirius rising created the hottest days of summer. Here is what Pliny the Elder wrote on the matter:

Who is there that does not know that the vapour of the sun is kindled by the rising of the Dog-star? The most powerful effects are felt on the earth from this star. When it rises, the seas are troubled, the wines in our cellars ferment, and stagnant waters are set in motion... There is no doubt that dogs, during the whole of this period, are peculiarly disposed to become rabid. (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Chapter 40)

An interesting side note about Pliny the Elder: he died while trying to save people from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. His Natural History was only published after his death. 

From the Greeks and Romans, the concept of the dog days has been passed down to us. I think most modern Americans are still familiar with the idea, even if they don't know the exact dates that comprise the dog days. They might also know the song by Florence and the Machine, "Dog Days Are Over." Fire, fever, rabid dogs, troubled seas, and stagnant waters. The dog days don't sound like much fun. No wonder Florence is so glad they're over. 

I can hear someone out there saying, "But I love summer! Summer is awesome! The beach! Cookouts! School vacation! Trips to Europe!" Yes, all those things are amazing parts of the summer season. We don't live in the ancient Mediterranean world, where summers were inescapably hot and hellish. We live in a world with ice cream and air-conditioning. Of course, with climate change, people around the world are once again experiencing the sometimes terrifying power of summer - wildfires, heatwaves, and droughts are increasing every year. And not everyone is fortunate enough to have air-conditioning and ice cream.

An interesting side note about trips to Europe: I read today that an American tourist was injured when he tried to retrieve his phone after dropping it into Mount Vesuvius. Happily, the volcano was not erupting at the time.

Thinking about the dog days made me curious to see if I could find some New England lore about dogs. I found a few intriguing tidbits in What They Say in New England (1896), Clifton Johnson's collection of local folklore. Although Johnson notes that it was considered healthier to have dogs than cats as pets, he does include some sinister lore about dogs. For example, he writes about a dog in Hadley, Massachusetts that howled every night when the 9:00 pm church bell rang. The citizens of Hadley assumed this was an omen of something bad, but they weren't quite sure what. 

They probably thought the dog's howling foretold someone's death, because Johnson also writes that it was believed a dog howling under a window foretold a death in the house. 

There was a dog went and howled under the window of a house up near where I lived. He howled and howled; and they drove him off, but no sooner done it than he was right back again. And in two or three days an old lady that lived there died. (Clifton Johnson, What They Say in New England (1896))

Johnson also writes about a related belief. If a dog howls in the yard, the first person who walks through the front door will soon die. Dogs are man's best friend, but also an omen of doom. I suppose they're like the dog days of summer in that respect. Some people think they're lovable and fun, while others look at them with dread. 

June 26, 2022

Don't Mess with Thankful Buck: Witchcraft, Black Cats, and A Punished Husband

In my last post, I wrote about Nathan Selee, an alleged wizard who lived in Easton, Massachusetts in the 18th century. People in New England believed that witchcraft ran in families, so it's not surprising one of his sisters was also considered a witch. Her name was Thankful Selee Buck.

Once again, I get my information about the Selee family from William L. Chaffin’s History of the Town of Easton (1886). The stories about Thankful are not as outrageous as those told about her brother. There are no demonic imps running sawmills, or mysterious strangers presenting books of evil magic. Instead, we mostly have classic New England tales of witchcraft.

For example, Chaffin writes that "Loads of hay were sometimes stopped in front of her house, and could not move until she gave the signal, when a black cat was seen to come out from under the hay and glide away." This type of legend is associated with many other witches across New England, although not always with a black cat involved. And just what (or who?) was that mysterious feline? 

A neighbor was said to have caught a black cat doing some mischief, and to have given her a severe beating on the head; the next day it was observed that Thankful Buck had lost an eye. (Chaffin, History of Easton)

Stories about mysterious animals and injured witches have been told in New England for hundreds of years, starting with the Puritans. It was widely believed that witches could project their souls out of their bodies in the shape of animals. These animals were still subject to physical harm, though, so if someone hurt the animal the injury would appear on the witch's human body. Ouch! In some stories, the animals are even killed, which causes the witch to die.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Chaffin does tell two stories about Thankful Buck that are more unusual. They both relate to her family. First, he writes that she was "said to have performed her incantations at midnight with her daughters, one of whom inherited her name and reputation, by pouring water from one pan into another." As I mentioned, New Englanders believed witchcraft ran in families, so it makes sense people in Easton thought at least one of Thankful's daughters was a witch. The detail about using two pans of water is an interesting one, and I don't think I've seen that one before. If anyone tries this at midnight, let me know the result!

Finally, Chaffin writes that Thankful once sent her husband to buy her a particular type of wool fabric. He returned home empty-handed, and was unable to enter the house due to an angry Thankful's magic. Only when he came home with the fabric was he able to get into the house. This story makes me laugh - do not make a witch angry! - but it also points out how often these stories about the fear of powerful women. Clearly, she was the one in charge of the Buck household. 

William Chaffin claims that even when he was writing in 1886, some of his Easton neighbors still believed these stories were true. Chaffin is skeptical; he wonders, for example, why Thankful Buck didn't use her magic to save her eye, or if perhaps Thankful and her brother Nathan deliberately cultivated reputations as witches to instill fear in their neighbors. 

I suppose that's possible - see for example the Dogtown witches - but I think it's more likely the Selees and Bucks were just unpopular with their neighbors. Perhaps they were demanding, or maybe they were rude and ill-mannered. It didn't take much to get accused of witchcraft in these small New England town. Happily, they lived after the witchcraft trials ended, so they were not brought to court or executed. I appreciate these old witchcraft legends, but I always try to remember they were about real people, not magical witches. 

June 12, 2022

Satanic Imps, A Wizard and Grim Predictions in Easton, Massaschusetts

A while ago my friend Sam Baltrusis asked me if I knew anything about a haunted mill pond in Easton, Massachusetts. I did not – this legend was new to me. I am always excited to learn about a new local legend, so thank you Sam for pointing me towards this one. 

I did some research and found some interesting stories about the pond and the alleged wizard who used to live nearby. If you visit Mill Pond in Easton today, you will find the following sign:

 “Site of the the sawmill built by John Selee in the 18th century and continued by his son, Nathan, a wizard who purportedly used satanic imps to run the mill at night.”

William Seltzer Rice, "Mill on the Stanislaus," 1940

The sign was put up in 1999, and I appreciate that Easton’s Conservation Commission included the legend of Nathan Selee on it. Legends like this one are an interesting and important part of our local history and heritage. And who doesn't love a story about Satanic imps?

Nathan Selee was born in 1733, served as a private in the American Revolution, and died in 1815 at age 82. That’s what Vol. 103 of the Daughters of the American Revolution Lineage Book (1928) tells us. The Lineage Book doesn’t say anything about Selee’s alleged supernatural antics, though. For that, I turned to to William L. Chaffin’s History of the Town of Easton (1886), which says the following about the Selee sawmill:

Nathan Selee sawed lumber there late in the century; and strange stories were told, and even believed by superstitious people, about the Devil or his imps running the mill at night, Nathan Selee being reported as knowing too much about magic arts, and being on too good terms for awhile with their author. But sawing logs by water- power on cold nights seems rather uncongenial work for his Satanic Majesty; it would be more easy to credit his running a steam saw-mill, with a blazing furnace. It is wiser to acquit Mr. Selee of any such questionable partnership, and to think that the rolling and buzzing of wheel and saw, which the belated passers-by supposed they heard, were all in their own brains, and might easily be accounted for by the strength and quantity of hard cider or New England rum they had taken.

According to legend, witches were often given small demons (called familiars or imps) to help them with their work by the Devil, and male witches were often credited with being unnaturally industrious by their superstitious neighbors. These are of course only legends, and Chaffin is basically saying Nathan Selee's neighbors were just drunkards who mistook the routine sounds of the mill for something supernatural. 

This might be true, but it seems Nathan Selee definitely had a sorcerous reputation around Easton, because Chaffin includes another legend about him in his History:

Mr. Selee was a clairvoyant, and many stories are current of what he saw and foretold. He was in Stimson Williams's house on one occasion, and knowing his gifts in that direction, one of Mr. Williams's daughters asked him to tell her fortune, but he declined; and after leaving the house, he said to a man who came out with him that if she could see what the next week would bring her, she would not have asked to have her fortune told. She died the next week.

Spooky! That sounds like a classic legend to me. Despite supposedly having accurate psychic powers, though, Nathan Selee ultimately gave up on the magical arts. He didn't want to deal with the Devil. Again, from Chaffin’s History of the Town of Easton: 

The story is still believed also, that, having sought long for a certain book on magic which he thought would perfect him in the art, the door of his shop opened one day and a stranger handed him the book and vanished. Directly upon the departure of this strange visitant a wild storm began to rage; the winds howled, the lightnings flashed, the thunders roared, and destruction seemed to impend. Mr. Selee took the book and all other books of the kind that he possessed, and threw them into the fire; and then going to the door and looking out he saw the sun shining, and everything beautiful and peaceful. This determined him to have no more to do with the dangerous subject.

I'm not sure why folks in Easton thought Selee was a wizard. In the 1600s, people who were demanding and cantankerous were the ones often accused of witchcraft by their neighbors. I haven't found anything that indicates Selee was either of those things, but that may have still been the case. 

Happily, Nathan Selee was born after the witchcraft trials ended, because otherwise his sorcerous reputation could have led to his execution by hanging. Rather than a tragic tale, he's left a legacy of interesting legends and a nice sign alongside a peaceful pond. 

I wish I had learned about this story while I was writing my book Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts, but maybe I can include it in a second edition? If you want to read lots of other stories about witches in the Bay State, you can find my book wherever you buy books online.