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.