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.