December 17, 2023

Spooky Holiday Reading: Merry Christmas, or Scary Christmas?

I'm sure you've heard the 1963 song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Andy Williams croons in his soothing voice,"...there'll be scary ghost stories, and tales of the glory of Christmases long, long ago." Although modern Americans tend to associate ghosts with Halloween, in Victorian England ghosts were associated with Christmas. I suppose this makes sense in some ways. After all, Christmas occurs at the darkest point of the year, which seems like a good time for ghosts to be out haunting. 

In the spirit of a spooky Christmas, here are four things you can read to get you in the holiday spirit. Two of them are even available free online, if you're feeling cash-strapped after holiday shopping. 

1. The Fright Before Christmas: Surviving Krampus and Other Yuletide Monsters by Jeff Belanger

This is the latest book by Jeff Belanger, a local author, paranormal investigator, and host of the New England Legends podcast and TV show on PBS and Amazon Prime. Full confession: the publisher sent me a copy of this book to review, and I've appeared on Jeff's podcast in the past. This is a great book for anyone interested in learning about the spooky folklore of Christmas. 

Me holding my copy of Fright Before Christmas!

I think by now most people are familiar with Krampus, the horned Austrian monster who terrorizes folks at this time of year, but Jeff also writes about many other strange Christmas creatures that are less well-known. For example, have you heard of Hans Von Trapp, the Cannibal Christmas Scarecrow of Alsace, France? Merry Christmas - but sleep with the lights on.

2. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

The protagonist of this novel by Joe Hill (Stephen King's son) is Vic McQueen, a psychic, ass-kicking, biker mama who grows up in Haverhill, Massachusetts (my hometown). The villain is a creepy vampire named Charles Talent Manx III. Imbecilic yet cunning, child-like yet predatory, Manx travels around the country in an old Rolls Royce. 

Armed with gingerbread-scented laughing gas, Manx abducts small children and brings them to Christmasland, a creepy holiday-themed amusement park that exists just beyond the border of our reality. He and Vic battle it out in this book that will make you gasp out "Merry Christmas..." as you slip into a vampiric, gingerbread slumber.

3."The Festival" by H.P. Lovecraft (free online)

One of my favorite stories by this Rhode Island master of weird horror.  A young man visits his family's ancestral Massachusetts hometown to participate in its traditional winter solstice celebration for the first time. Although he's charmed by the town's Colonial-era architecture, he's unnerved by its residents' silent, expressionless demeanors. 

He's even more unnerved when he follows a crowd of celebrants into a church, then into its crypt, then down ancient stone steps deep into the earth... Is he really entering a subterranean realm, or just his own fetid subconscious? Either way, he discovers a fungus-filled, maggoty hellscape. You'll scream "Merry Christmas!" before losing your sanity. 

4. The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James by M.R. James (free online)

If "The Festival" sounds too lurid for you, may I suggest the ghost stories of M.R. James? James was an Englishman and Anglican priest who wrote ghost stories every Christmas to entertain his friends. His stories often feature bookish academics or lonely clergymen visiting old historic sites and encountering supernatural evil. 

It's all very proper and British. But while his stories are subtle and heavy on the atmosphere, they often end with shocking violence and death. Nothing says "Merry Christmas!" like an undead Satanic nobleman devouring your face. 

Enjoy your holidays, and I hope all your horrors are confined to the printed page this December.  

December 03, 2023

Haunted by the Nantucket Mermaid

This post is about a mermaid who has fascinated, and possibly haunted, people for centuries. But I want to start by talking about a human man: Ichabod Paddock. 

Ichabod Paddock was born around 1661 in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, and died around 1750. He's buried in Middleborough, Massachusetts. Paddock is remembered today for two things: his pioneering role in the Nantucket whaling industry, and his alleged extramarital affair with a mermaid. As a whaling pioneer, Ichabod came with his two brothers to Nantucket in 1690 and taught the islanders how to hunt whales. Their actions were instrumental in making Nantucket into the whaling capital of the world. 

Oddly, we have more details about his alleged (and probably legendary) affair with the mermaid than we do about his actual life as a whaler. The legend goes something like this. Once while on a whaling voyage, Ichabod was swallowed alive by a large, seemingly invulnerable whale nicknamed Crookjaw. The local whalers thought Crookjaw was somehow magical, and this was confirmed by what Ichabod found inside the creature's stomach. Rather than digestive fluids and half-eaten fish, Paddock found a cozy ship's cabin with lit lanterns, a luxurious featherbed, and a table. Two people - a beautiful, golden-haired mermaid and the Devil himself - were playing cards at the table when Ichabod arrived. 

Engraving from 1817 by John Paas

The mermaid won the game, and the Devil angrily disappeared in a flash of sulfurous smoke. "What were you playing for?" Ichabod asked. "We were playing for you," the mermaid said, "and I'm glad I won." She took Ichabod by the hand and led him to the bed, where they made passionate love for hours. 

Ichabod eventually emerged from Crookjaw's mouth and swam back to his ship, but the next day he again commanded the crew to sail to the magical whale so he could enjoy more of the mermaid's loving embraces. After several hours he emerged from the whale and returned to his ship, only to sail back to Crookjaw and the mermaid the next day, and the next after that. Ichabod's passion for the beautiful mermaid was insatiable. 

Eventually, news of Ichabod's strange extramarital affair reached his wife, Joanna. Ichabod was a formidable whaler, but Joanna was equally formidable in her own way. Since both Crookjaw and the mermaid were magical creatures, Joanna asked a local silversmith to craft a silver-tipped harpoon. At the time, silver was believed to have the power to harm magical creatures like witches, mermaids, and even invulnerable whales like Crookjaw. Vestiges of this belief still remain today, with the idea that werewolves and vampires can be killed with silver bullets. 

Joanna presented the silver-tipped harpoon to Ichabod as a gift. He accepted it, and although he was a formidable whale-killer and mermaid-lover, he apparently wasn't bright enough to realize that silver  could kill enchanted whales and the lustful mermaids who live in them. At the urging of his crew, Ichabod hurled the silver-tipped harpoon at Crookjaw, expecting it to bounce off the whale's impenetrable hide. Instead, it sunk deep into the body of Crookjaw, who died with a groan and a geyser of blood. 

Ichabod screamed in horror, incredulous at what he had done. What had happened to his beloved mermaid? When the crew butchered the whale's body, nothing was found inside its stomach except some long yellow seaweed that reminded them of a woman's hair. The beautiful mermaid was gone. 

In 1710 Ichabod and his wife left Nantucket and returned to mainland Massachusetts, eventually having nine children. According to author Nathaniel Philbrick, little else is really known about the life of Ichabod Paddock. His legendary encounter with the mermaid has lived on, though, and is still surprisingly resonant with some people today. 

For example, the book The Ghosts of Nantucket: 23 True Accounts (1984) contains the following story which a Nantucket woman told author Blue Balliett. The woman came from an old Nantucket family, and went to visit the Nantucket Whaling Museum with her sister who was visiting the island. While touring the museum, the woman became entranced by a painting of a young man. She had the strange feeling that she somehow knew him, and had been in an intimate relationship with him, similar to a marriage. She said:

"I was held by a magnetism of some kind that was so strong I couldn't move. It wasn't that I was objectively interested in him, or thought I saw a family resemblance of some kind. It was rather that he had an iron grip on me." (Blue Balliett, The Ghosts of Nantucket: 23 True Accounts(1984), p.62)

The woman remained staring at the painting, immobilized, until her sister came and shook her arm, asking if something was wrong. This ended the trance.

 A mermaid illustration from 1687

The woman later went to visit her minister, and told him about her strange encounter with the painting. The minister explained that it was a portrait of Ichabod Paddock, who had fallen in love with a mermaid who was killed by a silver harpoon. The woman felt dizzy as she heard the story, because ever since she was a young child she'd had a weird "recurrent memory" that popped into her head like a daydream:

"It goes like this: I remember being in pitch darkness and having an excruciating pain in my side as I swim back and forth, back and forth, in black water. I also remember phosphorescence around me, the kind you see in the ocean on a dark night. I always thought it was peculiar, and I used to tell myself that maybe it was a memory of being inside the womb or something." (Blue Balliett, The Ghosts of Nantucket: 23 True Accounts(1984), p.62)

Her encounter with Ichabod's portrait seemed eerily meaningful to her as she listened to the minister talk. Were these daydreams memories of a past life? Was she somehow the mermaid, reincarnated in 20th century Nantucket? She wasn't sure, but for months afterward she had a craving (which she resisted) to revisit the museum to see the portrait, and would wake up in the middle of the night seeing Ichabod Paddock's face floating above her bed. 

Perhaps it was just coincidence that this woman's unusual, recurring dream fit so well with the mermaid legend. That's what I thought, until I received an email from a young woman who is a member of the Paddock family, which still exists today. Like the woman in The Ghosts of Nantucket, she also feels a strange connection to the legendary mermaid, writing that "In my mythos, I am the mermaid who was given the opportunity to reincarnate because of winning half of Ichabod's soul." 

About two years later, I received an email from a man who was also a Paddock, telling me that his daughter felt a powerful connection to the mermaid legend, that she had a large mermaid tattoo on her back, and that she often dreamt of being a mermaid. I arranged to talk with him and his daughter, who it turned out was the young woman who had already emailed me. We had a nice conversation over Zoom, and I learned a lot about their family history and connection to the mermaid story. I didn't get the impression that either the young woman or her father literally believed she was the reincarnated mermaid, but rather that the mermaid was a source of family pride and artistic inspiration. 

Unlike the woman quoted in Ghosts of Nantucket, this young woman didn't feel upset or scared by the legend. Neither did her father. They thought the the legend was an interesting part of their family's genealogy. I don't blame them. Many people descended from old New England families have witches in their family tree, but only a few have a mermaid.

Mermaids aren't just cute cartoons, like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, or sexy fantasy figures, like you might see online. Mermaids are the modern iteration of ancient ocean spirits. They are elemental beings personifying the vast and unknowable waters that cover most of our planet. The ancient Greeks knew them as nereids and oceanids, the nymphs who lived in the seas and ocean. Nymphs were powerful godlike beings who were feared and petitioned for their blessings. Mermaids may also partly have their origin in stories about the Sirens, seductive female monsters that lured sailors to their doom. The seductive and possible devilish Nantucket mermaid certainly seems to share some traits with the Sirens. 

You may not believe in mermaids, just like you may not believe in invulnerable magic whales like Crookjaw. But you can't deny the hold mermaids still have on our imagination. They may not be seen in the ocean as often as they once were, but they still haunt our dreams and subconscious. 

November 20, 2023

Fowl or Fair: Thanksgiving Weather Magic

Thanksgiving is fast approaching. It's the holiday most closely associated with New England, having its origin in the old Puritan tradition of celebrating thanksgiving days. Many of the foods we associate with the holiday, like cranberries, pumpkins, and turkey, are also foods indigenous to New England. 

This is a New England-centric blog, and I like to post something about Thanksgiving each year. So here, from 19th century Massachusetts, are some ways to predict on Thanksgiving what the weather will be during the upcoming winter:

Method #1 - Examine the feathers of your chickens. Do they seem particularly thick? If so, a hard winter is on its way.

Method #2 - Examine the breastbones of your chickens (after you have cooked and eaten them, sadly). Do they seem particularly light in color? If so, you can expect a lot of snow. If they are dark, you won't get much snow at all.

Method #3 - Look at the breastbone of your goose (again, after you have cooked and eaten them). Is it particularly dark? Yes? You can expect more rain than snow.

James Audubon, Wild Turkey, 1825

On the surface, method #1 appears to be the most "scientific." It seems logical that chickens will grow heavier feathers if a cold winter is coming. But do chickens' bodies somehow intuit what the weather will be like in the future, and then grow extra feathers in response to it? Do they actually grow heavier feathers if the next few months will be cold? I don't know think that's true. Chickens do tend to molt in the fall, but I don't think their feathers grown back heavier if the future weather will be cold. 

Method #2 seems more magical, and relies on similarity in color:  white breastbone = white snow. Method #3 also relies on magical color similarity, but doesn't predict if heavy snow is coming, only the proportion of rain to snow. I guess this is because of the goose's affinity for water? I suppose eating both chicken and goose would give you the most accurate forecast, telling you if you'll get more snow than rain, and also how heavy the snow will be.  

I found these methods of predicting the weather in Clifton Johnson's 1897 book What They Say in New England. Interestingly, there's no weather prognostication centered on turkey bones. Turkeys have long been the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving feast, but the magic associated with turkeys is focused on the wishbone

There are other forms of folk magic based on fowl. For example, Fanny Bergren's 1896 book Current Superstitions contains this unusual piece of advice from Winn, Maine:

"Swallow a chicken's heart whole, and the first man you kiss afterwards will be your future husband." 

Chicken hearts apparently had a lot of magical power, because elsewhere in the book Bergren notes the following:

"Swallow a chicken's heart whole and make a wish. It will come true." 

I don't think people eat a lot of chicken hearts these days, and even if you do I don't recommend swallowing them whole. You won't get married and your wish won't come true if you choke to death on a chicken heart. Chew your food!

I'm vegetarian, so I'm not eating any of these birds next week. I couldn't find any weather magic involving pumpkins, potatoes or Tofurkey, so let know if you try any of these divinations. I want to be prepared for the winter weather! 

October 25, 2023

Black Agnes: Montpelier's Death-Cursed Statue

As I mentioned before, Tony and I recently traveled up to Montpelier, Vermont to see our old friend Brian. He showed us around Vermont's charming capital, and also showed us some of its spooky sights, including the infamous Black Agnes statue. 

When we reached Montpelier, Brian immediately took us on a tour of Green Mount Cemetery. He is a Montpelier native, and had a lot of gossip and stories about the different folks buried in Green Mount. For example, he showed us a funerary statue of a young girl called "Little Margaret." Little Margaret's family commissioned a local sculptor to carve the statue after she died (apparently of spinal meningitis), but refused to pay because one of the statue's shoes only had five buttons instead of six. The sculptor was about to apologize when he looked again at the photo of Little Margaret the family had given him to work from. One of her shoes was missing a button in the photo. The sculptor stormed back to Little Margaret's family, showed them the photo, and angrily collected his payment.  

Brian also told us that the road leading to Green Mount Cemetery has been the site of many deadly auto accidents. "When I was young, this road was routinely covered in human viscera," he said, morbidly joking. At least I hope he was joking. 

The Black Agnes statue

Towards the end of the tour, we reached the grave of John Erastus Hubbard (1847 - 1899), a wealthy Vermont businessman. Hubbard's grave features a spectacular bronze sculpture of a robed figure titled Thanatos. This statue is more popularly known as Black Agnes. 

According to legend, terrible luck comes to anyone who sits on Black Agnes's lap. Accounts differ as to what form the bad luck will take. Some say three unlucky things will occur to the person who sits on her lap, others say it will be an uncountable amount of bad luck. That doesn't sound good. Still another legend claims that anyone who sits on Black Agnes's lap will die within seven days, which is perhaps the worst luck of all. 

Many years ago, three teenage boys went to Green Mount Cemetery during a full moon. They dared each other to sit on the statue's lap. Not wanting to look cowardly, each boy took a turn sitting on Black Agnes. They all laughed. It was just a dumb statue, after all. Nothing to be afraid of. But within a week, one fell and broke his arm, one was in a serious car accident, and the third boy drowned while canoeing on the Winooski River. Some people said these misfortunes were just coincidences, but others said it was the curse of Black Agnes. 

Well, at least that's one legend. All the legends vary slightly, with some saying, for example, that you only suffer Black Agnes's wrath if you sit on her when the moon is full. Personally, I say why take the risk? Just don't sit on the statue, regardless of the moon phase. I don't recommend sitting or climbing on any cemetery statue. It is disrespectful to the dead, even if there isn't a death curse. 

Brian told us that the Black Agnes legend didn't exist when he was a kid, and that it must be relatively recent. That could very well be the case - new legends arise and old ones disappear all the time. There are in fact other allegedly cursed statues named Black Agnes around the United States. There is one in Washington, DC, which was originally a grave marker in Baltimore for a dead Civil War general in the Union Army named Felix Angus. It was apparently moved from Baltimore because too many fraternity and sorority pledges kept sitting on it as part of their rush process, daring each other to risk the death curse. It seems likely the Black Agnes legend traveled from the DC area to Montpelier, but I'm not sure how. 

Some folks, apparently in an attempt to debunk the Montpelier version of the legend, have pointed out that the statue is clearly of a male, so therefore the legend cannot be true. This argument doesn't hold up for me. It's 2023, and we all know that gender is a social construct. A statue of a male can easily be named Black Agnes. 

John Erastus Hubbard (1847 - 1899)

John Erastus Hubbard, upon whose grave Black Agnes sits, generated some controversy while he was alive. Hubbard came from a prominent Vermont family, and his wealthy aunt left a significant amount of money in her will to the city of Montpelier to build a library. Hubbard was unhappy about this, and managed to get his aunt's will overturned and inherit the money himself. Montpelier officials took him to court, and he eventually agreed to pay for the library. Upon his death, he left the majority of his fortune to Montpelier as well. However, this late generosity did not necessarily win him many fans among the city's citizens, some of whom noted that a terrible thunderstorm raged through Montpelier the night Hubbard died, which they took as an omen indicating the state of his soul. 

October 15, 2023

The Devil's Washbowl: Home of the Pigman?

Tony and I recently took a weekend trip up to Vermont. Our final destination was Montpelier to see an old friend, but we made a few stops along the way. Some people visit Vermont to see fall foliage and quaint towns. We wanted to see the Pigman!

The Pigman is the resident monster of Northfield, Vermont, a cute little town best known as the home of Norwich University, the oldest private military college in the United States. But if you journey outside the charming downtown and into the dense woods, according to legend you might encounter the half-human, half-porcine horror known as the Pigman. He's said to lurk most frequently in an area known as the Devil's Washbowl, a densely wooded, rocky, and remote area. 

Way back in 1971, a Northfield farmer's twenty-year old son disappeared from home. Perhaps he had run away to the big city, the police suggested. He was never found, but shortly after his disappearance various animals went missing around town as well: mostly dogs and cats. Were these things connected? 

One night a farmer heard something rummaging through his garbage cans. Thinking it was a raccoon, the farmer flicked on his outside light. It wasn't a raccoon. It was a naked man. His body was covered in short white hair, and he had the face of a pig. The man - creature? - ran off into the darkness. 

A few weeks later, during a high-school dance, four students were smoking and drinking in a sand pit behind the school. As they talked, they saw something move towards them in the night. It was a naked man with the hideous face of a pig. Terrified, the four students ran into the school gymnasium and told their friends what they had seen. A group of students ran out to see the creature, but it had vanished, leaving behind only beaten-down undergrowth as proof it had been there. 

Jeff Hatch was one of the students that rushed out to find the Pigman, and many years later he told Vermont author Joseph Citro about the creature. Citro included the legend in his book Green Mountains, Dark Tales, and in subsequent books, like Weird New England and The Vermont Monster Guide. According to Hatch, locals at first suspected the Pigman was living at a nearby pig farm (which makes sense), but many motorists that year reported seeing a strange white creature near the Devil's Washbowl, a stony hillside depression that a stream runs through. A young couple that had parked their car near the Devil's Washbowl for a romantic interlude also claimed the Pigman had attacked them, and the young man had the claw marks on his body to prove it. 

Small piles of bones and piles of hay, which seemed to have been used as bedding, were found in caves near the Devil's Washbowl, further lending credence to the idea it was the Pigman's lair. Jeff Hatch claims the police went to investigate, but never found anything. 

Some people want to see the Eiffel Tower or the Pyramids. Ever since reading this story, I've wanted to see the Devil's Washbowl, so we made it a stop on our Vermont trip. Devil's Washbowl Road is easy to find on Google maps, but when we visited it was not marked by any street signs. (It looked like they had been stolen by vandals.) It's a dirt road that wends its way along a steep, wooded hillside. There are a few houses and farms along the road, but mostly you're in the woods. Devil's Washbowl Road is pretty, but it also reminded me of the beginning of a horror movie, particularly as we were two city boys out of our element. 

I had asked Joseph Citro how to find the Washbowl itself, and he told me I would see it when the road passed over a culvert. After mistakenly thinking a small stream was it, we came to the actual Devil's Washbowl. Many geologic features in New England bear the Devil's name, often because they are rough and vaguely inhospitable to humans. This is one of them. A stream runs down a rocky hillside, empties into a rocky basin, and then disappears into the woods. I haven't found a specific legend explaining the origin of the Washbowl's name, but it does look like someplace where the Devil would wash his hands after committing a nefarious deed. 

Would you go down there? We did not...

We pulled over and got out of the car to take some photos. Other than the sound of rushing water, it was very quiet. I debated climbing down into the Washbowl itself to find one of the caves, but I (wisely) decided not to. My main concerns: breaking a leg, getting Lyme disease, touching poison ivy, getting eaten by the Pigman. Four good reasons to stay near the car. And then Tony noticed a good reason to get back in the car: a big piece of animal scat, relatively fresh. Was it from a bear, or maybe a coyote? Or perhaps it was from a half-man, half-pig, humanoid monster? We didn't stick around to find out. 

Jeff Hatch seemed to think the Pigman was actually the farmer's son who went missing in 1971, who somehow devolved after living in the woods. That's the original theory, and there are a few other theories circulating these days about the creature's origin. One suggests that he is the unholy offspring of a lonely farmer and a much beloved swine. I won't comment on that one, other than to say I don't think that's how biology works.  

Another, more detailed story about the Pigman's origins seems to have appeared online around 2013. This story claims he was originally a teenager known as Sam Harris. On October 30, 1951, Sam went out to cause mischief in Northfield. The night before Halloween was called Picket Night in Northfield, and it was the designated night for kids to wax windows, egg cars, and throw toilet paper in trees. Sam left home that night but didn't return... until three years later. Sam appeared on his parents' front porch one night in 1954, naked, squealing and tossing bloody pig innards on the porch floor. The sight supposedly drove his mother to suicide (she threw herself into a pen full of ravenous hogs), and a teacher who tried to debunk the legend was found dead with the words "PICKET NIGHT" carved on her body. 

Still not going down there...

In 2014, another addition to the legend appeared online, this time from horror author William Dalphin, who grew up in Northfield. Dalphin claims that in the 1980s, a group of teenagers camping near the Devil's Washbowl encountered the Pigman, who clubbed one boy on the head and dragged him off into the woods. The boy was never seen again, except possibly by one local man who said he had seen the teenager rummaging through his trash, wearing just a pair of torn jeans. His body was covered with short white hair and his eyes had a hollow expression. Dalphin intended his story as fiction, but it has since been cited as part of the actual legend. 

Northfield is not the only place in the United States that is supposedly terrorized by a pigman. A bridge in Denton, Texas, is said to be the home of a pig-headed madman who menaces teenagers. He is either a local hunter transformed into a were-pig after being bitten by a feral hog, or he is the disfigured victim of gangsters who cut off his nose and sliced open his cheeks. Also haunting bridges are the the Pigman of Hawkinsville, Georgia, the Pigman of Angola, New York, and the Pigman of Shelby County, Tennessee, who is said to appear near the bridge at night if you shout, "Pigman" three times. A similar legend is told about Pig Lady Road in Hillsborough, New Jersey, where a monstrous Pig Lady appears if you say her name three times. 

I enjoyed my trip to the Devil's Washbowl, even if it was a little creepy. Perhaps next year I could road-trip across the country, visiting assorted haunted Pig People locations? I suppose I could, but maybe that would be pushing my luck. I should probably count myself lucky I didn't see the Pigman on our trip to Northfield. 

September 21, 2023

The Haunted Charlesgate: Ghosts, College Students, and Weird Engimas

Living someplace old and historic, like the Boston area, brings both perils and joys. Among its current perils is the decaying subway system, which has been well-documented elsewhere. To avoid the most hellish parts of the MBTA, lately my commute home from work has involved more walking. Which brings me to one of the joys of living in the Boston area: beautiful old architecture. 

Most nights, I walk through parts of Back Bay on my way home. Among all the beautiful old brownstones and apartment buildings, one in particular stands out: the former Charlesgate Hotel, located at the corner of Beacon Street and Charlesgate East. The hotel was designed by John Pickering Putnam, a prominent local architect, and completed in the 1890s. Putnam apparently loved the building he created, and took up residence there with his own family. 

He died there on February 23, 1917 at the age of sixty. A legend claims it was suicide, but he really died of natural causes. Still, esotericists of a certain bent will notice he died on the 23rd, making his death an example of the 23 enigma, the idea that the number 23 is considered strange, somewhat sinister, and connected to unusual phenomena. So maybe Putnam's death date was a precursor of the weirdness that was to come...

The Charlesgate operated as a hotel until 1947, when it was sold to Boston University as a dorm. In 1981, it was sold to Emerson College, which also used it as a dorm until 1995. It was during those 14 years that the Charlesgate acquired its reputation as one of the most haunted buildings in Boston. Here are a few of the ghostly legends from that time..

The building was said to be haunted by the ghost of Elsa Putnam, John Pickering Putnam's daughter, who died as a little girl when she was playing with a ball on an upper floor. The ball rolled into an open elevator shaft, and Elsa ran after it and fell to her doom. This story is not true - Elsa Putnam lived until the 1970s and had several children of her own - but many Emerson students still reported seeing her ghost. 

Another legend claims that mobsters owned the building in the 1930s and murdered three people in the elevator. The ghosts of these gangland slaying victims were often seen wandering in the dormitory. Emerson students also claimed they saw the restless spirits of young women who had committed suicide in the building back when it housed female Boston University students. 

A phantom "Man in Black" was also seen lurking around the elevator. No one was quite sure who he was, but students were afraid to encounter this black-clad ghost, particularly late at night. 

Even when ghosts were not seen, Emerson students living in the Charlesgate experienced a variety of strange phenomena including unexplained cold spots, toilets flushing by themselves, and doors slamming shut. Some students also claimed the hotel had once been the headquarters for a demonic cult. According to an article in a 1990 issue of Fate magazine:

"Also at one point, a good part of Charlesgate Hall's residents allegedly belonged to a demonic cult. 

When Emerson College bought Charlesgate Hall as a dormitory in 1980, it was not completely filled by students. It was claimed that some members of the cult still lived there, and it was not unusual for students to walk by the open door of a room belonging to a cult member and find a group of them chanting."

Well, college is supposed to expose you to new experiences, isn't it? The same Fate article also claims that Emerson forbid students from using Ouija boards in the Charlesgate - and then goes on to describe a group of them using one to contact spirits in the dorm. I guess college is also about defying authority.

The Charlesgate's ghosts have been written about in many places: The Berkeley Beacon (Emerson's student paper), The Boston Phoenix, Emerson's official newsite, and various books about haunted locations in Boston. The building also appears in Scott Von Doviak's 2018 novel, Charlesgate Confidential, as do some of the ghost stories. The combination of a creepy old hotel, ghosts, and college students makes the Charlesgate an appealing subject for writers.

The Charlesgate is no longer a dormitory, but instead is filled with condos and apartments. I haven't heard of any ghosts appearing in the building since it became condos. Are any ghosts even there now? Maybe the ghosts were chased away during the renovations, or maybe they were conjured up by the Emerson students who lived there. College students tend to like ghost stories, and many local New England colleges are said to have haunted dormitories. 

I mentioned the 23 enigma at the start of this post. Although the concept first appeared in works by William S. Burroughs, it was popularized by the author Robert Anton Wilson. Wilson didn't necessarily believe the 23 enigma was real, but rather that it showed how people have the ability to find patterns in random occurrences. Some people starting seeing the number 23 in all kinds of unexpected places once they learn about the enigma. The number is only meaningful, though, because they think it is significant. They are creating a pattern out of random data.

Perhaps the ghost stories at the Charlesgate are something similar. Students heard rumors the dorm is haunted, and then noticed lights flickering, strange cold spots, and weird noises at night. These all could have perfectly rational explanations - old buildings often have bad fuses, drafty windows, and frisky rodents - but students interpreted them as ghostly phenomena because they had heard the rumors. 

This is, of course, all speculation on my part. The only way for me to know for certain would be to rent an apartment at the Charlesgate and see what happens. A one bedroom starts at $2,400/month, which is more than I have budgeted for ghost-hunting. Or then again, maybe I'm just scared that the legends are true? I don't want to encounter the Man in Black late at night, no matter what he is. 

August 20, 2023

Beyond Skinwalker Ranch: Orbs, Pukwudgies, and Sacred Chants

I don't watch a lot of paranormal TV shows, but I felt compelled to watch Beyond Skinwalker Ranch when I heard they filmed an episode here in Massachusetts. Pukwudgies, glowing orbs, and people wandering around a bleak wintry New England swamp? Count me in.

First, a little background. Skinwalker Ranch is a ranch in Utah where people have supposedly witnessed many strange phenomena over the years, like UFOs, Bigfoot, cattle mutilations, glowing orbs, and electromagnetic disturbances. The ranch is named after a type of legendary shape-shifting Navaho shaman, the skinwalker. Skinwalker Ranch has been the subject of books, movies and TV shows, including the History Channel's Secrets of Skinwalker Ranch. Beyond Skinwalker Ranch is a spin-off of that show, where paranormal investigators visit places that are not Skinwalker Ranch.

An illustration of a pukwudgie from Beyond Skinwalker Ranch

On July 18, Beyond Skinwalker Ranch aired an episode where two investigators, Andy Bustamente and Paul Beban, visit the Bridgewater Triangle in Massachusetts to find similarities between the weird phenomena there and what goes on at Skinwalker Ranch. The Bridgewater Triangle is an area in southeastern Massachusetts where a lot of strange phenomena have been reported, and was given its name by cryptozoologist Loren Coleman in the 1970s. I'm not sure when they filmed the episode, but Bustamente and Beban wear winter coats and you can see their breath, so I'm guessing sometime last winter or fall? I'm a sucker for anything filmed in the New England woods, particularly when the leaves are down, so I was hooked. 

Bustamente and Beban first visit three locations in the Triangle. The first is Skim Milk Bridge, an old Colonial-era stone bridge in West Bridgewater. The bridge was once part of a busy commercial route, but roads were rerouted and now it's part of a hiking trail in the woods. In 1916, a young woman went missing while canoeing, and her body was found under the bridge. There have been rumors since that time that the bridge may be haunted, but blogger Kristen Evans contacted me after reading this post and said the body may have actually been discovered at another bridge. 

Location number two is Anawan Rock, a large rock where Chief Anawan was captured by English colonists in 1676 during King Philip's War. Anawan was executed shortly thereafter. Much like Skim Milk Bridge, Anawan Rock is also said to be haunted. 

Finally, Bustamente and Beban wander into the Hockomock Swamp looking for pukwudgies, the small, hairy, magical humanoids that are said to lurk in the swamps and woods of New England. But before they head into the swamp, they talk with Raynham resident Bill Russo about his famous 1990 encounter with a pukwudgie. This is one of my favorite pukwudgie stories and is very creepy to hear. 

Andy Bustamente in Beyond Skinwalker Ranch

Do the Beyond Skinwalker crew actually find anything? They don't find a pukwudgie, but while walking around the swamp at night they do find an animal den which their infrared equipment shows to be very warm. They also hear something walking around and snapping branches. The investigators say this is strange, but maybe it was just a fox or a raccoon walking back to its cozy den? All of Bustamente and Beban's equipment also malfunctions at one point, leaving them with no recorded data. "No data is data," someone says at the end of the show. 

At another point, their equipment shows high levels of background radiation and their compasses all indicate that north is in different directions. I thought this was interesting, but a local resident who is with the two investigators expresses some concern about the high radiation. He raises a good point. Should people who live nearby be worried about radiation? No one answers the question, so I'm assuming they don't? 

The highlight of the episode is that they see two glowing objects in the sky. UFOs? UAPs? Call them what you will. They see the first one at Anawan Rock. Bustamente and Beban discuss playing some kind of Algonquin chant to summon the spirits haunting the rock, but since they don't have one handy they instead play a recording of a Hebrew religious chant that was used in an earlier episode. As the chant plays, a glowing object flies above them through the night sky. They insist it is not a plane, and although I suppose it could be a drone I was willing to suspend my disbelief. The weirdness of the situation was very appealing to me. Playing a Hebrew chant at a rock haunted by Algonquin ghosts to summon a UFO? It doesn't quite make any sense but seems very appropriate somehow for 21st century America. 

They see the other glowing object when they're out looking for pukwudgies. Again, it flies above them through the night sky, and this time one of the Beyond Skinwalker crew says the FAA shows no planes flying near them. This glowing object appears spontaneously without any Hebrew chanting. The crew doesn't get a pukwudgie, but does get another UFO, which is a good consolation prize. 

Overall, I enjoyed the episode. It was great to see some local people and locations on the show, and I liked seeing the UFOs, whatever they were. Did Beyond Skinwalker Ranch find any definite evidence of weird paranormal phenomena? Not really, and I doubt anyone ever will. By it's very nature, the paranormal can't be pinned down, categorized, or satisfactorily explained. That would just make it normal, not paranormal. It's the little hints at an answer, and the mystery itself, that keeps us watching these shows, and lures us into the New England swamps and woods.

August 08, 2023

A Nantucket Ghost Story: The Man with the Long Chin

Nantucket is a playground for the very wealthy these days, but that has not always been the case. In the past, the island has been home to Native Americans, Puritans, Quakers, whalers, and an assortment of artists and eccentrics. Nantucket has a very long history, and a long history usually means ghost stories. 

After the whaling industry collapsed in the mid-19th century, Nantucket became sparsely populated. There wasn't a lot of economic development on the island, which meant that very few of the old historic houses were torn down to make room for new ones. Those old houses are now mostly vacation homes for the wealthy, but there may be some unexpected guests stopping by to visit, as the following story indicates. 

The oldest house in Nantucket. 

It comes from Blue Balliett's 1984 book, The Ghosts of Nantucket: 23 True Accounts. I bought this at a used bookstore a few years ago, and really enjoy it. It's full of old-fashioned ghost stories, and also has some charming line drawings of old Nantucket houses. 

Back in July of 1981, a seven-year old girl named Jesse and her parents were invited to a dinner party at an old house on India Street in Nantucket. The adults were having a great time at the party, but Jesse was the only child there and quickly became bored. To keep her entertained, one of the hosts suggested she take a tally of interesting items in the house: candlesticks, mirrors, brass doorknobs, etc. 

The adults could hear her counting in a nearby room counting as they talked and ate dinner. But their dinner conversation was suddenly interrupted when Jesse ran into the dining room, terrified and exclaiming that she had seen a strange man in the house. Her parents and the hosts followed the frightened child into the room where she said she had seen the man, but there was no one there. 

Jesse said the man had a very large chin and was wearing a strange, dark blue suit. He had tipped his hat to her and then vanished into thin air. Although she had been scared, Jesse said he seemed friendly. She emphasized repeatedly that he had a long face and very large chin. Since Jesse was safe and unhurt, the adults at the party didn't take her story very seriously. After all, children do have active imaginations. 

Vintage photo from Ebay

A few weeks went by, and Jesse and her parents had mostly forgotten about her strange experience. One afternoon they were invited back to the old house on India Street, and the owners showed them something they had found in the attic. It was a line drawing that showed people attending a garden party at the house, probably from the 1940s or 1950s. 

When Jesse saw the drawing she said, "That's him! The man with the long chin." One of the people in the drawing was indeed a man with an unusually long chin. Some text on the back of the drawing identified everyone in it. The long-chinned man was William Hunt, a previous owner of the old house. 

After doing a little research, the current owners of the house learned that William Hunt had committed suicide in 1961, twenty years before he tipped his hat to Jesse. 


This is a very satisfying ghost story to me. It has an old house, someone encountering the supernatural, and proof at the end that the encounter was real. That proof is often a major aspect of classic ghost stories. For example, think of phantom hitchhiker stories. Someone always has to independently verify and identify the hitch-hiking ghost. "That girl hitchhiking was my daughter, and she died on this night twenty years ago on the way to her prom. You saw her ghost!" Or this story, from Cape Cod: "That seaweed you found only grows on the bodies of people who drowned. You saw the sailor's ghost!" 

In these older, classic ghost stories, someone who did not witness the paranormal encounter has to confirm it was authentic, or someone finds a piece of outside evidence (a piece of seaweed, a drawing, etc.) that confirms the encounter. It's what makes these stories satisfying. If this story just ended with Jesse telling everyone she had seen a long-chinned man it wouldn't quite feel the same. 

July 09, 2023

The Glocester Ghoul: A Monster and A Pirate in Rhode Island

A while ago I was poking around on the Internet and saw articles about a monster called the Glocester Ghoul. I had never heard of this terrifying creature before, and of course wanted to find out more. This is what I learned...

The monster supposedly lurks in the woods and swamps of Glocester, Rhode Island, a small town in the northwestern part of the state. Here's a fun fact about Glocester. Its name used to be spelled "Gloucester," like the town in Massachusetts, but in 1806 its citizens decided to change the spelling to "Glocester" to avoid confusion with the Massachusetts port. The two towns are different in other ways, as well. Gloucester, MA is haunted by witches and sea-serpents. Glocester, RI, is haunted by a large scaly monster that roams through the woods: the Glocester Ghoul. 

Image from TeePublic 

One of the earliest accounts of the monster was an article that appeared in various newspapers (including The Boston Globe) in January and February of 1896. Titled "Monster, Cow, or Ghost?," the article claims a Glocester man named Neil Hopkins encountered a monster while walking home from work one night:

"It seemed to be all a-fire; it had a hot breath," Hopkins told his neighbors. "There was a metallic sound, like the clanking of steel against steel... I could hear the dead branches and twigs crackling under the heavy tramp."

Unfortunately Hopkins only caught a brief glimpse of the creature before it ran off into the woods, but he said "it was as big as an elephant, and that he is certain it had no tail." 

The article goes on to suggest the creature may have been the same one seen seen in 1839 by Albert Hicks and three other local men. They believed Captain Kidd had buried some of his treasure on a Glocester farm and were digging to find it, but their efforts were interrupted by the appearance of a monster. Hicks described the following:

"It was a large animal, with staring eyes as big as pewter bowls. The eyes looked like balls of fire. When it breathed as it went by flames came out of its mouth and nostrils... It was as big as a cow, with dark wings on each side like a bat's. It had spiral horns like a ram's, as big around as a stovepipe. Its feet were formed like a duck's... The body was covered with scales as big as clam shells, which made a rattling noise as the beast moved along..."

That's an impressive monster, even if it's only as big as a cow, and not an elephant, like Neil Hopkins said. It sounds like some kind of dragon, doesn't it? 

Beyond the scaly monster, there are a few other interesting things about this story:

1. Treasure-digging was a common activity in the 18th and 19th centuries. People thought New England was full of buried treasure, and would get together with friends to try to find it. They never seemed to succeed, though, often saying they had been on the verge of finding the gold only to be scared off by a monstrous guardian of some kind, like demonic dogs, sinister black cats, and maybe even the Devil himself. Digging for Captain Kidd's treasure and encountering a monster would have been a familiar theme to a 19th century newspaper's readers.

2. Albert Hicks, who was digging with his friends for pirate treasure, ironically later became one of the last people in the United States to be executed as a pirate. Hicks was born in 1820 in Foster, Rhode Island, and was executed in New York in 1860 after killing three men on a small boat to steal their money. He dictated a confessional biography before his execution. In it, he claimed to have killed dozens (if not hundreds) of people as a pirate and highway robber. Hicks had a reputation as a teller of tall tales, so he may have exaggerated his victim count. 

Drawing of Albert Hicks from an 1860 newspaper (via Wikipedia).

3. Despite being fond of tall tales, there's one thing not found in Hicks's biography, The Life, Trial, Confession and Execution of Albert Hicks, and that's a large scaly monster. Hicks does mention digging for treasure when he was young, but says nothing about encountering a monster. If he had encountered a monster I'm sure it would have been in there. So perhaps this story was created by someone else?

According to folklorist Stephen Olbrys Gencarella, the story was written by a reporter for a New York newspaper, The New York World, where it was published on January 12, 1896. That reporter based their story on an earlier one that had appeared in The Providence Journal on May 5, 1889, which was titled "Glocester Gold Digging." The Journal article contains various Glocester legends, including one about six men who went digging for Captain Kidd's treasure on November 13, 1833. One of the men was indeed Albert Hicks, and the six men saw a creature that looked exactly like the one in The New York World article. The big difference between the two articles are that the men also see a meteor strike the earth before they see the monster, and it is other men who describe the monster, not Albert Hicks. Hicks only played a minor role, but The New York World reporter probably played it up to capitalize on Hick's notoriety. 

One note about that meteor: the six men took the meteor as a good omen, and didn't seem to connect it with the appearance of the monster. 

The story about the Glocester monster appeared in various newspapers in 1896, but then more or less disappeared for over a century. The story reappeared on the blog Strange New England in 2019, where the monster was given the catchy name "The Glocester Ghoul." The name seems to have stuck, and I've seen the Glocester Ghoul mentioned a few places online. You can now even buy a Glocester Ghoul tee-shirt online:

From TeePublic

I feel like every state deserves a good monster, so hopefully knowledge of the Glocester Ghoul will spread. Is there really a large, scaly creature lurking in the woods and swamps of Glocester? Probably not, but I write that from the safety of my home on a sunny summer day. I might have a different opinion if I were out in the woods at night. I don't think anyone's allegedly seen the creature since the 1800s, but if you have drop a note in the comments. I'd be curious - and a little scared - to know more...


I got a lot of my information from Stephen Olbrys Gencarella's article "Lovecraft and the Folklore of Glocester's Dark Swamp," which appeared in Lovecraft Annual, No. 16 (2022), pp. 90 -127. 

June 11, 2023

Strange and Stranger: Some American Fairy Encounters

I had the day off today, and spent some time organizing my books. As I was moving my musty tomes around I picked up Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People by Janet Bord, something I haven't looked at in a few years. Published in 1997, Fairies gives a nice overview of fairy lore and encounters from around the world. 

Although much of the book deals with the Ireland and Great Britain, Bord does devote a chapter to fairies from other places. The chapter is evocatively titled "Dwarfs, mummies, and little green men: Little People around the world." Bord discusses some interesting fairy encounters from the United States in the chapter. Here are a few of my favorites, in increasing order of strangeness.  

STRANGE: In the 19th century, a young man in Snowhill, Maryland, was wooing a young woman who lived in the nearby town of Pocomoke. One night he discussed marriage with her, but they argued because she was not really keen on the idea. As he rode away from her house in his wagon, the man noticed something strange. A little man wearing a green plaid jacket and yellow necktie stood near the woods. The little man smiled but didn't speak, even when the young man tried to start a conversation. Unnerved, the young man whipped his horses and rode off. Even though the horses were galloping at a good speed, the little man in green ran after the wagon and caught up to it. He ran next to the wagon, smiling maniacally at the young man. The little man disappeared once the wagon left Pocomoke. The young man believed the strange occurrence was an omen, warning him away from the young woman. He stopped seeing her and eventually married someone else. 

STRANGER: In an undated encounter from the Morongo Valley of California, a man was driving his truck when a little green man ran into the road. He braked and came to a sudden stop. As he sat in the truck, trying to figure out what he had just seen, he heard a noise coming from underneath his truck. He got out and saw that the little green man was trying to remove a protective metal plate near the radiator. The man got back in his car, drove to a nearby friend's house, and wired the plate back in place. The next day he found the screws lying in the road where the little green man had removed them. 

STRANGEST: The weirdest story comes from Farmersville, Texas. In 1913, a boy named Silbie Latham and his two brothers were out cutting cotton when their dogs started barking wildly. The boys ran to see what was upsetting the dogs.

What they found was a little man about eighteen inches tall, and dark green in colour. He wasn't wearing any clothes, but his body looked like a rubber suit, including a hat that looked like a 'Mexican hat.' As the boys looked on, the dogs jumped on the little man and tore him to pieces. The boys saw that he had human-looking internal organs, and red blood. Afterwards, the dogs avoided the spot where the remains lay rotting in the sun, and they seemed frightened. Next day, when the boys went to the place again, there was nothing to be found, not even a bloodstain (Janet Bord, Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People (1997), p.71)

Many years later, in 1978, Silbie Latham told his story to a staff person at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. The staff person said that Latham clearly believed the story to be true, and rejected the staff person's suggestion that the little green man had just been a large frog. 

That's really an insane story, right? Things must be bigger and weirder down in Texas, because Bord does include a few stories from Massachusetts in the book, but they're not nearly as crazy as that one. For example, she discusses the Dover Demon, the infamous humanoid cryptid seen in Dover, Massachusetts on April 21 and April 22, 1977 by several teenagers. The first person to see the creature was Bill Baxter, age 17, who was driving down a wooded road with two friends. He saw a creature that looked like this:

That drawing is the actual one Bill made that night. He claimed he saw a creature about the size of a baby, with long spindly limbs and fingers that wrapped round the rocks. Its eyes glowed bright orange in the car headlights. His two friends did not see the creature, but three other teenagers did, including John Baxter, age 15, who was walking home from his girlfriend's house. Baxter drew the following picture:

The creature was dubbed "The Dover Demon" by cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, and the name stuck. The Dover Demon has become pretty famous, and is one of those creatures that has never really been pigeon-holed or satisfactorily categorized. Was it one of the Little People, as Janet Bord suggests? Was it an extraterrestrial creature of some kind? Or was it all just a hoax? There's no clear answer, and no one saw the Dover Demon again. 

Janet Bord includes a couple other encounters from Massachusetts, and unlike the Dover Demon they involve beings that are more obviously fairies. In the spring of 1974, teenaged Jane Woodruff was walking to high school in Lexington with a friend when they saw something - or rather someone - sitting in patch of weeds on the side of the road. It was a leprechaun.

'Did you see that?' we exclaimed in unison. Surprisingly enough, we both described the leprechaun the same way: green clothes, a long thin curved golden pipe between his lips and a flopped-over conical cap (Janet Bord, Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People (1997), p.73) 

A year later, Woodruff and a friend named Orin saw hundreds of small fairies dancing in a field of blue wildflowers in the town of Ashby. The fairies were only around 5 inches tall. Although the thought of encountering hundreds of fairies is a little unnerving - what if they swarm you? - Woodruff's stories are very gentle compared to the others.

In Fairies, Bord evaluates the many possible theories about what fairies might be. For example, some people think they are really extraterrestrials, some think they are the remnants of an earlier and smaller human race, and others theorize they could perhaps be the spirits of the dead. Bord reviews all the different theories, and concludes that there's really no strong evidence for any of them. And yet people still continue to encounter them, in stranger and stranger ways. 

May 14, 2023

The Possession of Martha Robinson

Today is a beautiful sunny day, but I'm sitting inside the house reading about demonic possession in colonial New England. I'm fascinated by the story of Martha Robinson, a young Bostonian who became possessed by the Devil in December of 1740. Well, at least people thought she was possessed. Long after the Salem witch trials had ended, people in New England still thought the Devil was trying to lead people astray...

Martha was the twenty-something daughter of Samuel and Mary Robinson. Her parents were members of the Old South Church, but Martha was ambivalent about religion until she heard the famous minister George Whitefield preach. Whitefield was an evangelist who preached to huge crowds across the American colonies in the 1700s, moving people with his emotional sermons. After hearing Whitefield preach in Boston, Martha decided to join the Old South Church. 

William Blake, The Ghost of A Flea, 1819 - 1820

Her move to godliness did not proceed according to plan. After joining the church, Martha went to hear a sermon by Gilbert Tennent, another traveling evangelist. She was impressed with his preaching, and arranged a private meeting with him. But as she began to talk with Tennent, she was suddenly filled with incredible anger:

"The Devil filled me with such rage and spite against [Tennent] that I could have torn him to pieces and I should have torn his clothes off if my friends had not held me."(quoted in D. Brenton Simons, Witches, Rakes and Rogues. True Stories of Scam, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in Boston, 1630 - 1775, 2005)

A shocked Tennent said Martha was possessed by the Devil, and immediately began to pray over her, with the assistance of other ministers who were present. Their prayers didn't work. After that encounter with Tennent, Martha frequently blasphemed, used obscenities, and sang nonsense songs. She, her family, and friends all believed she was possessed by the Devil.

Our main source of information about the possession of Martha Robinson is the diary of Joseph Pitkin, a wealthy merchant from East Hartford, Connecticut. Pitkin was visiting Boston for business in March, 1741, and during that visit he was invited to meet Martha Robinson. She had heard that Pitkin was a devout Christian, and wanted to talk with him. Pitkin visited Martha twice during his 1741 visit, both times accompanied by local Bostonians. 

Martha displayed a wide variety of behavior during Pitkin's two visits to her home. At times she was polite and pleasant, speaking cordially with Pitkin. She prayed with him. At other times she raged, screamed, and said "There is no God" and other blasphemous statements. Martha also told Pitkin of a strange occurrence the previous night. She and her aunt had heard the noise of a large goat bleating from the inn where Pitkin was staying. The eerie bleating was then swept away by a strong wind. 

Joseph Pitkin went home to Connecticut, but returned to Boston in 1743, and once again visited Martha Robinson. She no longer acted strangely, and said she was no longer possessed by the Devil. Martha said that "God had gradually delivered her from that distress" (quoted in Simons, Witches, Rakes, and Rogues, 2005). She was apparently cured of her strange ailment. In 1746, she married a Charlestown man and settled into a more traditional life. 

Was Martha Robinson really possessed by an evil spirit? As many historians have noted, Puritan New England was not a great place to be a young woman. Young women and girls were near the bottom of the social hierarchy, having little freedom or power. Their behavior was also restricted by social norms that said women should be modest, moderate-tempered, and well-behaved. Much like the allegedly bewitched girls in 1692 Salem, acting as if she was possessed may have given Martha an opportunity to misbehave, openly express anger at authority figures, and even question the existence of God, one of the foundations of New England society. She may have consciously faked her possession, or perhaps she was acting out the role unconsciously, simultaneous defying society's restrictions but also enacting the expected social behaviors of someone who was possessed.

Joseph Pitkin's diary is available online, but I've based this blog post on material from D. Brenton Simons's excellent 2005 book, Witches, Rakes and Rogues. True Stories of Scam, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in Boston, 1630 - 1775. It's a great book!