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. 


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!