March 29, 2023

A Visit to Medfield State Hospital: Charming and a Little Spooky

A few weeks ago Tony and I visited Medfield State Hospital, in charming Medfield, Massachusetts. Originally known as the Medfield Insane Asylum, the hospital is now a park open to the public. Intrigued? Read on. 

Medfield State Hospital opened in 1896, and was one of the state's first hospitals to deal with long-term patients with mental disorders. It was designed in the "cottage style," according to an informational sign erected at the hospital, with more than 50 buildings spread across 1.4 square miles. Many of the buildings are still standing, although they are now boarded up and public cannot access them. Medfield State today looks a lot like a small, traditional New England liberal arts college - but with absolutely no people. It's both charming and maybe a little spooky. 

Tony and I visited on a cold, snowy day, and there weren't many other visitors. A few people were walking their dogs, but that was about it. The hospital was quite bustling in the past, however. During World War II, almost 2,300 people lived at Medfield State. The hospital finally closed in 1993. 

In the early part of the 20th century, the hospital was self-sufficient. Patients grew crops on hundreds of acres of farmland, and tended more than 1,000 cattle and 3,000 chickens. That's quite an operation! Medfield State Hospital even was able to supply food to the other state hospitals in eastern Massachusetts. Even today there is still quite a bit of open land at Medfield State, including a bluff overlooking the Charles River. It has a great view!

You'd think there would be some weird legends associated with an abandoned insane asylum, but that's not really the case here. The only possible ghost story is quite recent. In 2017, the movie The New Mutants was filmed at Medfield State. Part of the X-Men series, The New Mutants tells the tale of five young mutants imprisoned in a spooky hospital. The movie wasn't released until 2020, and the director suggested The New Mutants might have been cursed by being filmed at the abandoned insane asylum. 

The director, Richard Boone, told The Boston Globe the following on August 20, 2020:

It was during the press push for the first trailer that Boone first spoke of “weird” things happening to crew members at Medfield State Hospital during filming. 

“Literally every single person on my crew — all my grips — all those people had weird things happen to them while they were there,” Boone told IGN of the abandoned state hospital, which also served as a filming location for “Shutter Island” in 2009. “I even told the behind-the-scenes crew to go interview everyone who had weird stuff happen to them for an extra on the Blu-ray.”

I would like a little more detail, but I don't want to buy the Blu-Ray. Not everyone was freaked out, though. Actor Anya Taylor-Joy said the following:

"I've shot in four abandoned mental institutions, so it's kind of a second home for me," Taylor-Joy said (ABC

That's a good attitude to have! Soon the hospital will be home to hundreds of people again. The town of Medfield will be developing Medfield State into apartments and an arts center, which is probably a good use of the property. Maybe some more ghost stories will emerge once people start living there full time again?

March 15, 2023

HP Lovecraft and the Witch's Familiar

In 1648, the healer Margaret Jones became the first person executed for witchcraft in Massachusetts. She was accused of various things, like making her clients sick just so they would buy her medicine, but also of having a small demonic spirit that did her bidding. This demon, or familiar spirit, took the form of a small child. Her accusers said they saw it around her Charlestown home, and in her jail cell after she had been arrested. The familiar spirit supposedly suckled on Jones's blood for nourishment, a grotesque parody of the mother/child relationship. 

The Devil also allegedly gave many other New Englanders accused of witchcraft familiar spirits (or familiars, for short). John Godfrey, who was accused of witchcraft four times between 1658 and 1669, was said to have a mysterious teat under his tongue, which he used to suckle his familiar spirit, which appeared large black bird. The testimony from the 1692 Salem witch trials is full of accounts of familiars in a bewildering variety of shapes: wolves, yellow birds, cats. Some were more monstrous, like the creature with a monkey's body, rooster's feet and human face that crept into John Louder's bedroom while he slept, or the three-foot tall humanoid ("all over hairy, all the face hairy") that supposedly did Sarah Osborn's bidding. Even in the late 19th century, people in Truro, Massachusetts told stories of a dune-dwelling witch who cursed local sailors and was attended to by a small black goat. 

Brown Jenkin, from Dreams in the Witch House (2005)

There's something particularly nightmarish about the idea of the familiar spirit. Local witchcraft accounts and legends are full of horrific imagery, but to me there's something extra spooky about these small demons. In animal form, they possess a demonic intelligence and malevolence at odds with their mundane, or even cute, appearance. As monstrous hybrids, they're the type of thing that makes you wake up screaming. Familiars are like something from a horror movie or story. 

At least one local horror writer wrote about witches' familiars. Rhode Island native H.P. Lovecraft (1890 - 1937) often drew on New England folklore for his weird tales. Witches make appearances in several of his stories, and a very nasty familiar spirit appears in his 1932 story "The Dreams in the Witch House." The story describes what happens to hapless graduate student Walter Gilman when he moves into a house once inhabited by Keziah Mason, a 17th century witch. Keziah supposedly was served by a familiar named Brown Jenkin: 

Witnesses said it had long hair and the shape of a rat, but that its sharp-toothed, bearded face was evilly human while its paws were like tiny human hands. It took messages betwixt old Keziah and the devil, and was nursed on the witch’s blood—which it sucked like a vampire. Its voice was a kind of loathsome titter, and it could speak all languages. Of all the bizarre monstrosities in Gilman’s dreams, nothing filled him with greater panic and nausea than this blasphemous and diminutive hybrid...

Brown Jenkin is a weird and ambiguous creature. Lovecraft is clearly using the classic image of the familiar from the 17th century witch trials, but he takes the concept much further. In the story, witchcraft is a form of advanced science. Keziah can travel through space and time via a hyperspace wormhole, and she wants to bring Walter Gilman with her to the center of the universe to meet Azathoth, the daemonic ruler of the world. The story is strange and unsettling mix of science fiction and folk horror. Sure, you can use the wormhole to visit alien planets, but there are also witches and books signed in human blood. So what is Brown Jenkin - an emissary from an alien world, or a servant of evil? Or maybe both? Even though Gilman manages to escape Keziah's clutches, Brown Jenkin manages to get the last laugh (or loathsome titter, to be more accurate). 

In addition to horror stories, Lovecraft also wrote poetry, much of it as scary as his fiction. Some if might even be scarier, like this poem simply called "The Familiars," from his sonnet collection Fungi from Yuggoth

XXVI. The Familiars

John Whateley lived about a mile from town,
Up where the hills began to huddle thick;
We never thought his wits were very quick,
Seeing the way he let his farm run down.
He used to waste his time on some queer books
He’d found around the attic of his place,
Till funny lines got creased into his face,
And folks all said they didn’t like his looks.

When he began those night-howls we declared
He’d better be locked up away from harm,
So three men from the Aylesbury town farm
Went for him—but came back alone and scared.
They’d found him talking to two crouching things
That at their step flew off on great black wings.

That's a pretty creepy poem, and the ending packs quite a wallop. Everyone thought John Whateley was insane, but (surprise!) he wasn't. In that poem and "The Dreams in the Witch House," Lovecraft imagines the witch's familiar in the modern world, where they're even more anomalous and frightening. Winged demons and human-faced rats belong in the semi-mythical past, not in industrialized New England.

A 16th century illustration of a witch and her familiars

If you believe in familiar spirits, you might wonder what happens to them after their witch dies. Do they go back to some infernal realm, or do they linger here in the physical realm? Here's another Lovecraft poem from Fungi which might be about that very topic:

XII. The Howler

They told me not to take the Briggs’ Hill path
That used to be the highroad through to Zoar,
For Goody Watkins, hanged in seventeen-four,
Had left a certain monstrous aftermath.
Yet when I disobeyed, and had in view
The vine-hung cottage by the great rock slope,
I could not think of elms or hempen rope,
But wondered why the house still seemed so new.

Stopping a while to watch the fading day,
I heard faint howls, as from a room upstairs,
When through the ivied panes one sunset ray
Struck in, and caught the howler unawares.
I glimpsed—and ran in frenzy from the place,
And from a four-pawed thing with human face.

So what's scarier, Lovecraft's familiars or the familiars from local folklore and trial documents? It's hard for me to decide. I suppose the scariest thing is that people once took this all very literally and executed people for supposedly working with familiar spirits. I enjoy reading Lovecraft and learning about local witch legends, but am happy to be living in an era where familiar spirits remain fictional. 

February 26, 2023

Visiting the Gates of Hell in Newburyport

A couple weeks ago Tony and I drove up to Newburyport. It's always a pleasure to visit Newburyport - so charming! so historic! - but we weren't looking for charm or history. We were looking for the GATES OF HELL. Cue the ominous music...

The gateway to Hell?

The gates of Hell are supposedly located in Maudslay State Park, 450 acres of woods, meadows and gardens situated on the banks of the winding Merrimack River. The park used to be the private estate of the Moseley family, and takes its name from the family's ancestral home in England. The grounds once included two mansions, a castle, greenhouses, stables, and other buildings. Most of these structures are now long gone. 

The Moselelys sold their estate for $5 million dollars in 1985 to the state of Massachusetts, and the state turned it into a park. I've wandered through a lot of parks in eastern Massachusetts, and Maudslay is quite different than most. Most parks around here are woodsy and often quite rocky. That's not the case with Maudslay. Although parts of it are heavily wooded, the landscape is more manicured, with open fields and some ornamental gardens that are still maintained. We could definitely tell it used to be an estate. There are also some ruins scattered around as well. 

It was a very pleasant park, even on a cold windy day. But according to local legends the gateway to Hell is said to be located there. I'm not sure why this is. There aren't any shocking scandals surrounding the Moseley family - no murders, no rumors of witchcraft, nothing. Nothing really creepy seems to have happened in the park either to caused these legends.  

Two structures in Maudslay State Park are alleged to be the gate into Hell. The first is the formal gate that once led into the estate. This is located right on Curzon Mill Road, just past the parking area if you drive towards the river. People who pass by this gate at night report seeing severed heads stuck on the spikes. Yikes. I've heard that adventurous young folks will park by the gate late at night, hoping (dreading?) to see the apparitions. Not being young or adventurous, we went there during the daytime. Happily we did not see any ghostly heads. Some people also report seeing the ghosts of small children playing in the park. 

Or is this the gateway to Hell?

The second structure that may be the gates of hell is a little spookier. Buried in the side of a small hillside is some kind of large underground room that was built in 1929. Was it a garage, perhaps? A large storage bunker? I don't know, but it's big, dark, and filled with graffiti. A large doorway, perhaps 15 - 20' high, leads into the underground room from the outside. It's definitely impressive, and maybe a little creepy. It was really dark inside, and very slippery since the floor was covered in ice. Again, happily we did not see any ghosts. 

I'm not sure why either of these gates are the gates of Hell, instead of just being haunted gates. Do they lead to the underworld? Do demons come out at night? Or maybe the ghosts hang around before heading through the gates to the underworld? I just don't know. The legend is a little vague.

The legend about the gates of Hell seems to be pretty recent. The estate only became a park in 1985, so I'm guessing it only appeared since then. That's just speculation on my part. If you have any information about the history of this legend please share it. 

I have noticed that anomalous or weird structures often attract equally strange legends. A house that looks like its sinking into the earth? Maybe it's because of Satanic rituals. A large iron cage around a grave? It must be intended to imprison a restless ghost. A cemetery gate that looks like spiders? Surely the cemetery must be haunted. I'll note that the Spider Gates cemetery may also contain a gateway to hell, so there are several convenient paths to Hell if you live in Massachusetts.

You get the idea. There are rational explanations for all these things, just as there are rational explanations for the two gates in Maudslay. With the estate long gone, the formal gates and the giant underground chamber now seem a little weird, though. Their original purpose has been forgotten, so people make up new legends to explain why they're there. At least I hope that's what's happening. Otherwise, we've got two gates to Hell in one small park, and that's not good. 

January 30, 2023

Haunted Houses and Terrifying Specters: Ghost (?) Stories from Weare, New Hampshire

There are a lot of ghost stories from New England, and one of my favorite types is what I call the "Scooby-Doo" ghost story. In these stories, the ghost is rationally explained away at the end. There is nothing supernatural in these stories, although people in them initially think there is. I call them Scooby-Doo stories because each episode of the Scooby-Doo ended with the ghostly terror being revealed as someone impersonating a ghost, not something supernatural. These stories are similar, but without all the greedy real estate developers and smugglers.

You can find these Scooby-Doo ghost stories in a lot of the local town history books which were written in the 19th century. I found a bunch of them recently in William Little's The History of Weare, New Hampshire, 1735 - 1888 (1888). In one story, an early settler named John Hodgdon was riding home to Weare on horseback one night when he saw something creepy in his cornfield. As the hair on his neck stood up, he saw a large white object appear on a small knoll in the field. It disappeared with an uncanny sound, only to reappear again. Hodgdon dismounted and walked through the dark field to the knoll, determined to discover what this ghostly object (or entity) was. He learned it was not a ghost, but was instead a large basket some of his workers had left in the cornfield. When the wind blew it rolled up the hill, and when the wind subsided it rolled back down. Mystery solved!

William Little, author of The History of Weare, New Hampshire

In another tale, David and Betsy Purington lived in an old shanty, and "one winter were terribly troubled with ghosts." David Purington thought it was the spirit of his deceased father-in-law. One night, a neighbor came to visit the Puringtons. As they sat talking a strange rapping sound was heard from the attic loft above them. It grew louder and louder and louder. David screamed out for the ghost to desist, but the infernal rapping grew louder! Their neighbor was the only one brave enough to climb into the attic to confront the ghost. After climbing the rickety ladder, she saw a chicken whose legs and been frozen by the cold. It was unable to walk, and made a rapping sound as it tried to stand. "The hen was carried to the room below, and the ghost was laid." Mystery solved! Hopefully the hen recovered from being frozen. 

In East Weare, there was another house that was supposedly haunted. A minister had once lived there, but after he moved away the house stood abandoned. People reported hearing strange noises and even seeing strange lights at night. Some brave schoolboys once approached the house during the day, but fled when they heard an eerie noise and heard the doorknob rattle. Eventually the apparitions stopped. When someone finally went into the haunted house, they saw a dead cat lying on the middle of the floor. Apparently the minister had left it behind when he moved and it had caused all the noise. Mystery solved! 

Or is it? A cat doesn't create ghostly lights. And clearly people didn't take very good care of their animals then...

William Little does include at least one ghost story in The History of Weare that's slightly ambiguous. A man name Mr. Eaton was out hunting raccoons one misty autumn night with some friends. Mr. Eaton paused to rest, when out of the mists emerged a terrifying ghost. "He could see the sunken eye-balls, the worm-eaten face, the shriveled hands, and he shook with terror." One of his friend arrived and Mr. Eaton explained what he had seen. The ghost was not visible to the friend. Many people in Weare believed Mr. Eaton had truly seen a ghost, but others suspected that he had just been drunk. So that mystery was perhaps not completely solved. 

There are a lot of books like The History of Weare out there, histories of New England towns written in the mid-to-late 19th century by people who lived in these places. New England had become a modern industrial area by this time, and you can sense the pride the authors feel in the progress their towns had made. At the same time, they're fascinated by the earlier, pre-industrialized way of life that is vanishing and the supernatural worldview that went with it. Maybe these rationalized ghost stories are the authors' way of straddling both worlds, of indulging the wonders and terrors of the past but also explaining them away with the light of reason. 

January 02, 2023

Eli Wing's Ghostly Arm

 Eli Wing was born in Wayne, Maine sometime in the early 19th century. In the fall of 1837, Eli took a job at a sawmill in Chesterville. He had recently graduated from a nearby Methodist seminary and wanted to earn some money to attend law school. Unfortunately, fate had other plans for Eli.

One day the owner of the mill, Captain Bachelder, asked Eli to go down and clean the water wheel that powered the sawmill. It had been clogged by weeds and was slowing down the mill's work. Always eager to please, Eli did as he was asked. Since he was new at the job, Eli tried to clean the wheel as it was turning, which was a big mistake. His hand got caught in the turning wheel, and the powerful motion of the wheel tore his arm completely off.

Bachelder and the others rushed to the trap door in the floor. Below them they saw Eli lying face down in a pool of bloody water; his arm was going around and around the wheel, spattering the mill with blood. (Helen Caldwell Cushman, Along Thirty Mile River, 2016)

For a while it seemed like Eli would die, but he was taken to a physician and survived. He worked briefly as a portrait painter, and eventually did attend law school and become a lawyer. Despite only having one arm, he lived to the ripe old age of ninety and is buried in the Wing Family Cemetery in Wayne. 

Eli's severed arm was not taken to the physician on that gruesome fall day. Instead, Captain Bachelder buried it by the river bank that after Eli had been carried off. While Eli went on to become a reputable member of the community, his arm did not. Instead, it became a disruptive spectral force. 

A few days after Eli's accident, two of the Bachelder children went to the river to fetch water. They came back in tears, telling their parents that long white arm had emerged from the river and tried to pull them in. Captain Bachelder was skeptical.

But soon other people saw the arm near the river, including a man who said it poured cold water on him as he was trying to drink from the river. Business began to drop off at the sawmill because people were afraid of the ghostly arm, so Captain Bachelder dug it up and buried it in a stone wall, hoping to lay the arm to rest. 

It didn't work. People across the area began to see the ghostly arm. It knocked on windows in the middle of the night, locked people in outhouses (and occasionally tipped them over), rang church bells, and knocked people's hats off their heads. Although some people even believe the arm had strangled a local woman, many others doubted this, and said the Eli's ghostly arm sometimes did good deeds, like punishing a farmer who stole gravestones or helping people who were outcasts. 

Although the arm was allegedly taken from the wall and buried with Eli Wing after he died, there are some people who say it still haunts the woods and backroads. 


I found this story in Helen Caldwell Cushman's book Along Thirty Mile River: Maine Campfire Tales of the Strange and Supernatural (2016). Caldwell Cushman lived most of her life in Maine, and collected local legends for newspaper articles and radio shows. She passed away in 1986. I first learned about her from Chris Packard, author of Mythical Creatures of Maine (2021).

I really like the idea of someone's ghostly arm flying around causing trouble (and possibly doing some good deeds). It's just such a weird and compelling image! I tried to find more information about Eli Wing, but couldn't find any. Caldwell Cushman claims he was buried in the Wing Family Cemetery, but Find-A-Grave does not list an Eli Wing being buried there. Of course, their listing may not be complete, or perhaps Eli was just a nickname and he's buried under a different name. 

In some ways this reads just like a ghost story, but I also wonder if there was a local tradition of blaming pranks on the arm. If some teenagers tipped over an outhouse, did they deflect blame onto the arm? If someone knocked off someone's hat, did they claim the arm did it? It may have been a joke that local people understood, even if they didn't like it.