December 13, 2017

Why The Devil Loves Christmas

In 1662, Rebecca Greensmith of Hartford, Connecticut was arrested and charged with witchcraft. She confessed to meeting the Devil, but she denied having signed a contract with him. Well, at least she hadn't signed one at the time of her arrest. Rebecca and the Devil were waiting for a special day to sign it: Christmas.

The Reverend John Whiting of Hartford wrote the following in a letter:

But that the devil told her, that at Christmas they would have a merry meeting, and then the covenant should be drawn and subscribed. ... Mr. Stone (being then in court) with much weight and earnestness laid forth the exceeding heinousness and hazard of that dreadful sin, and therewith solemnly took notice (upon the occasion given) of the devil's loving Christmas. (quoted in David Hall's Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England.)

That sounds a little strange to modern readers. Why would the Devil love Christmas? Isn't it a holiday about hope, love and charity?

Merry Christmas?

Four-hundred years ago, Christmas was a very different holiday than it is today. It wasn't focused on family, gift-giving, and children. Instead, it was characterized by heavy drinking and public rituals that inverted the social order. Europe and its colonies were agricultural societies then, and food and alcohol were most plentiful during the late autumn and early winter. Crops had been harvested, herd animals slaughtered, and beer brewed. There was no more farm-work to be done.

In short, it was a great time to have a huge party. Wealthy people would feast themselves and their friends at home. People from the lower social classes, usually groups of young men, roamed around at night in disguise. The young men (called mummers) would usually target the homes of the wealthy, where they would perform a skit or song in return for food or beer. This is the origin of the wandering Christmas carolers so often portrayed in Christmas stories or movies. If they were denied entry or not given gifts for their performance, the mummers would retaliate with violence or by vandalizing property.


Some hints of this older-style Christmas can still be heard in the lyrics of Christmas carols. For example, "The  Gloucestershire Wassail" describes men threatening a butler to give them good strong beer and demanding entry to a wealthy person's home:

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all. 
Be here any maids? I suppose here be some;
Sure they will not let young men stand on the cold stone!
Sing hey O, maids! come trole back the pin,
And the fairest maid in the house let us all in.

The lyrics of "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" describe something similar:

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer
We won't go until we get some;
We won't go until we get some;
We won't go until we get some, so bring some out here

Christmas was raucous, drunken, socially disruptive, and occasionally violent. The Puritans valued order, sobriety, and hard work. They didn't want anything to do with Christmas.

During their brief tenure ruling old England the Puritans tried to suppress Christmas celebrations. The Puritans who colonized New England did the same. It was even illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. Anyone found doing so could be fined five shillings.

Puritan ministers in New England wrote sermons against Christmas. The Reverend Increase Mather wrote the following, equating Christmas with pagan deities and Satan:
The Feast of Christ's nativity is attended with such profaneness, as that it deserve the name of Saturn's Mass, or of Bacchus his Mass, or if you will, the Devil's Mass, rather than have the holiday name of Christ put upon it. (A Testimony Against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practiced by Some in New-England, 1687).
Mather mentions Saturn for a very specific reason. The Bible doesn't provide a date for Christ's birth, and the early Christian church fathers decided to place it on December 25 to coincide with pagan Roman winter holidays like Saturnalia, which venerated the harvest god Saturn. This compromise between Christianity and paganism was another argument the Puritans used for hating Christmas.

So there you have it. That's why the Puritans thought the Devil loved Christmas. Their efforts to suppress Christmas were modestly successful. Christmas wasn't widely celebrated in New England until the mid-nineteenth century. Christmas is now the biggest holiday in the United States. The Puritans would have blamed Satan, but I think it's just because people like to have fun.


My favorite source for information about Puritans and Christmas is Stephen Nissenbaums's fantastic book The Battle for Christmas. It's great for anyone who wants to really understand the weird history of Christmas in America.

December 08, 2017

The Monster of Lake Champlain

I recently was up in Burlington, Vermont, which is located on the shores of Lake Champlain. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Lake Champlain is big! Really big! It's over 100 miles long and 14 miles wide. Strange things might lurk in a lake that big.

Well, according to local legends, something strange does indeed lurk in the lake. It's a monster named Champ, and it supposedly has been seen more than one-hundred times.

A lot of books and websites claim the creature was first seen by French explorer Samuel de Champlain way back in 1609, who described as "a 20- foot serpent, with a horse-shaped head and body as thick as a keg." This claim was even repeated by Discover magazine in 1998. Unfortunately, it just isn't true. De Champlain never wrote about a giant serpent in his journal. The story that he had seen Champ first appeared in a 1970 issue of Vermont Life and spread from there.

Lake Champlain in November. It looks like a good home for a monster...
The real first sighting of Champ was reported on Saturday, July 24, 1819. A letter to The Plattsburgh Republican claimed that one Captain Crum had seen a monster while he was on the lake:

Captain Crum took a particular survey of this singular animal, which he described to be 187 feet long, its flat head with three teeth, two in the center and one in the upper jaw, in shape similar to the sea-horse - color black with a star in the forehead and a belt of red around the neck - its body about the size of a hogshead with hunches on the back as large as a common potash barrel - the eyes large and the color of a pealed (sic) onion... (quoted in Robert Bartholomew's The Untold Story of Champ: A Social History of America's Loch Ness Monster)

This account appeared shortly after a wave of sea serpent sightings near Cape Anne in Massachusetts. The letter was titled "Cape Ann Sea Serpent on Lake Champlain," and was signed "Horse Mackerel," so perhaps it was meant to be taken as a joke.

Later sightings were not quite so humorous. In 1826 two men fishing reported that a thirty foot serpent slithered out of a cave. They said it was covered in black and red spots and smelled terrible. In the summer of 1873 a group of men working on the lake's shore claimed they saw a large serpentine monster. According to the July 9, 1873 issue of The Whitehall Times,

From his his nostrils he would occasionally spurt streams of water above his head to an altitude of about 20 feet. The appearance of his head was round and flat, with a hood spreading out from the lower part of it... His eyes were small and piercing, his mouth broad and provided with two rows of teeth, which he displayed to his beholders. (quoted in Robert Bartholomew's The Untold Story of Champ: A Social History of America's Loch Ness Monster.)

Other people also reported seeing the monster that summer, and it was blamed for a rash of missing farm animals.

Help the homeless by feeding Champ spare change in Burlington.
Champ has made many other appearances over the years. For example, in 1915 it disrupted a canoe race:

"The Lake Champlain sea serpent has again appeared to the astounded inhabitants of this place. He was seen at the encampment of the American Canoe Association when, coming to the surface in the neighborhood of a flotilla of cruising canoes, he scattered the occupants in panic." (The Burlington News, April 1915)

I also like this testimony from someone who saw Champ in 1981:

"I said, 'Holy Jesus, look at that thing.' I've seen porpoises and whales when I was in the Navy, but this wasn't like that. It was 40 or 50 feet long, the whole thing." Walter Wojewodzic of Port Henry, N.Y, quoted in The Burlington Free Press, Feb. 10, 1981.

Is there any conclusive evidence that Champ exists? No, not really. If there was you'd read about Champ in biology class and not on this folklore blog. On June 30, 1981 the New York Times published the following photo of Champ taken by Vermont resident Sandra Mansi. Many people take this as the best evidence yet for Champ's existence:

It's a great photo, but no one has ever been able to affirm its veracity. Mansi unfortunately threw away the negative, which prevented experts from looking at the image for more details. She also said she couldn't remember exactly where she took the photo. Several people have taken videos of Champ as well, but they are equally inconclusive.

Is Champ a giant prehistoric plesiosaur that has somehow survived for millennia in Lake Champlain? That seems unlikely. Is Champ just a hoax? I think that's unlikely too. Some Champ sightings may be pranks, but I think a lot of people sincerely see strange things on the lake.

Good benches for monster viewing.
Bodies of water are mysterious and full of latent power. Folklore and legends tell us that water hides secrets, like lost Atlantis, sunken treasure, and mysterious monsters. Maybe the initial Captain Crum story, which was probably a hoax, acted like a magic spell, summoning something people always suspected lurked in the water but had never been named. Champ could be a manifestation of Lake Champlain, given form through local folklore and showing itself to a select few. I didn't see Champ while I was in Burlington, but maybe one day you'll be lucky and see him yourself.


Additional sources: John Bartholomew's excellent articles in The Skeptical Inquirer (here and here), Wikipedia, and this newspaper article: "Just maybe, scientists say, a monster's in Champlain," The Boston Globe, June 28, 1981, p. 1.

November 30, 2017

John Godfrey: Witch and Troublemaker

When I was a kid in Haverhill, Massachusetts I wasn't that interested in local history. I knew about the city's heroine Hannah Duston, but that was about all I knew. Other stories from my hometown's past remained unknown to me. Perhaps if I had known about John Godfrey, a trouble-making witch who lived in the mid-1600s, I would have been more excited about Haverhill history.

Was Godfrey really a witch? Probably not, but he was definitely a trouble-maker. Most of what we know about him comes from court records in Essex County, where he was involved in dozens of legal cases. Sometimes he was the defendant, sometimes he was the accused. Most of these court cases involved disputes over small amounts of money or property; in others Godfrey sued neighbors for slander. At other times Godrey appeared in court to face charges of drunkenness, theft and cursing.

As historian John Demos writes, "Taken as a whole, the records depict a man continually at odds with his peers..." And as we know, people at odds with their peers in 17th century New England were often accused of witchcraft.

It appears that John Godfrey emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony sometime around 1635 and found employment as a herdsman in the town of Newbury with wealthy settler John Spencer. Godfrey was most likely a teenager at this time. Young Godfrey was kind of odd, and even then some folks thought he might be a witch. For example, in 1640 he talked with a Newbury man named William Osgood about finding a new employer. Osgood at the time was building a barn for Godfrey's current employer, John Spencer.

John Godfrey, being then Mr. Spencer's herdsman, he on an evening came to the frame where diverse men were at work; and said that he had gotten a new master against the time he had done keeping cows. 
The said William Osgood asked him who it was; he answered he knew not. He again asked him what his name was; he answered he knew not. He then said to him, "How wilt thou go to him when thy time is out?" He said, "The man will come and fetch me." Then William Osgood asked him "Hast thou made an absolute bargain?" He answered that a covenant was made and he had set his hand to it... 
William Osgood then answered "I am persuaded thou has made a covenant with the Devil. He (Godfrey) then skipped about and said, "I profess, I profess." (from David Hall's Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England (1991). I added modern punctuation for clarity.)

Osgood may have lied about this conversation, but its also possible Godfrey was actively cultivating an image as a witch. As a young man with no family and a lowly job, he may having a reputation as a witch was a way to gain some influence and intimidate people. That's just speculation on my part, but it seems some people in 17th century New England did knowingly cultivate witchy personas. Further supporting my hunch, Godfrey later explained to one Charles Brown of Rowley how the Devil took care of his witches:

...Godfrey spoke that if witches were not kindly entertained the Devil will appear unto them and ask them if they were grieved or vexed with anybody and ask them what he should do for them and if they would not give them beer or victuals they might let all the beer run out of the cellar and if they looked steadfastly upon upon any creature it would die... (Hall, Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England (1991).)

It's easy to picture Godfrey explaining this to Brown, and then asking him for food and drink in a vaguely threatening tone. Hand it over, friend, because I might just be a witch!

Godfrey left Newbury and became an itinerant herdsman, finding employment with a variety of landowners and farmers across Essex County in Massachusetts. Godfrey lived and worked in many towns, including Ipswich, Andover, Haverhill and Salem. He never married and had no children.

This made Godfrey an anomaly among the local Puritans, who generally were rooted in one location and had networks of close kin to support them. Historian John Demos speculates that Godfrey may have been homosexual, noting his unmarried status and his use of the term "c*ck-eating boy" to insult someone who got a herding Godfrey wanted for himself. This is just speculation, but it's not impossible. Legal documents clearly describe homosexual men living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony around this time.

By 1658 Godfrey's argumentative personality, unusual lifestyle and talk about witchcraft caught up with him. He was accused of witchcraft. Other witchcraft accusations followed in 1659, 1666 and 1669. Amazingly, Godfrey was never found guilty, but documents from his trials give a fascinating glimpse into 17th century witchcraft beliefs in New England.

For example, witnesses talk about familiar spirits, the small demons that did a witch's bidding. It was believed that witches had small teats hidden on their bodies from which their familiar spirits sucked blood for sustenance, and Charles Brown testified that he once saw Godfrey yawn in church and saw a strange teat under his tongue. Further, Job Tyler later testified that one night John Godfrey came to visit the Tyler family's house. When he entered the house a large black bird flew in the door with him. Godfrey tried to catch the bird, which finally escaped through a hole in the wall. When Job Tyler asked Godfrey why the bird came in the house, Godfrey answered: "It came to suck your wife." Maybe Godfrey was perhaps joking, but maybe he was implying that Goodwife Tyler was herself a witch. Either way he demonstrated his knowledge about familiar spirits. (Godfrey's comment reminds me of that really gruesome scene from The Witch with the crow!)

John Remington Jr., a fifteen-year old boy from Haverhill, also testified about a large black bird. Remington was riding a horse back to his family's home when the dog accompanying him began to whine and whimper. Remington also suddenly something strange that reminded him of apple cider. At this point a large crow appeared. Remington's horse abruptly fell on its side, injuring Remington's leg. When he recovered he mounted the horse again and rode towards home, but the crow followed, swooping down and biting the dog. Godfrey had argued with Remington's father earlier about working for him as a herdsman, but had not been hired. Godfrey was later heard to say that had Remington Jr. been a full-grown man something much worse would have happened to him. Remington's testimony implies that the crow was somehow controlled by Godfrey, but it's not clear if it was supposed to his familiar spirit, Godfrey transformed into a crow, or an animal he was controlling.

Strange animals appear in several other witnesses' testimony. Isabelle Holdred and her husband argued with Godfrey over money, and after the argument Holdred was assaulted by a progression of  animals that appeared to her over the course of several nights. Holdred was first attacked by a bumblebee, followed by a bear that growled and asked her if she was afraid. The next night a snake appeared, which frightened Holdred so much she couldn't talk for thirty minutes. A spectral horse also appeared in her bedchamber, as did a large black cat that lay on her as she slept and stroked her face. Holdred was the only one who saw those animals, but her son was with her when a neighbor's ox attacked her after looking at her with "great eyes."

Witnesses also claimed that Godfrey could send his spirit double (or specter, to use the Puritan terminology) to cause trouble. John Singletary, who had argued with Godfrey over money, claimed that he was visited by Godfrey's specter while in jail. The specter said that if Singletary paid Godfrey what he was owed he would free him. Singletary refused Godfrey's offer and tried to strike him with a stone, but "there was nothing to strike and how he went away I know not." Elizabeth Button claimed that Godfrey appeared in her bedchamber several times one night, even though the door was firmly bolted, implying that it was his spirit that had visited her.

A man named John Griffing even testified that Godfrey could travel over great distances quickly or appear in two places at once. For example, he once saw Godfrey on the road to Newbury at the same time Godfrey was confined to jail in Boston. Griffing also said he and Godfrey once set out together for the Rust family's house in Andover. It was a cold day and snow covered the ground. Griffing was on horseback and easily outpaced Godfrey, but when he go the Rust home he found Godfrey already inside, warming himself by the fire. Clearly he could only have gotten there by witchcraft.

Despite all this testimony against him, Godfrey was never found guilty of witchcraft. Perhaps the judges knew he was just a troublemaker who fought with all his neighbors. They certainly saw him in court often enough to be familiar with him! John Godfrey died in 1675, probably in Boston or Charlestown. Not much is known about his death, but fittingly there was a trial to decide who would receive his modest estate. Even in death Godfrey couldn't stay out of court.

In addition to David Hall's book, I found John Demos's "John Godfrey and His Neighbors" in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Apr., 1976) to be really valuable

November 20, 2017

Burlington, Vermont: Giant Phantom Cats and the World's Tallest Filing Cabinet

There's something weird and magical about small New England cities in November. A sense of stillness pervades the streets. Old gray houses press up against the sidewalks, parking lots sit half-empty, and bare branches brush against the power lines. All the citizens are hidden away inside but out on the street there's a feeling of strange possibilities.

Tony and I recently visited Burlington, Vermont. You might not think of Burlington as quiet. It has a thriving downtown, with dozens of restaurants and bars and a pedestrian-friendly shopping district. Students from the University of Vermont buzz around. Elementary school students visit the aquarium that overlooks Lake Champlain.

But if you venture outside of the lively downtown area things get much quieter. That eerie sense of possibility emerges. Who knows what you might encounter when you walk around the corner? What strange entity or object will you stumble on? For example, you might encounter the world's tallest filing cabinet.

The world's tallest filing cabinet stands at 208 Flynn Street in what looks like an abandoned lot. There's a supermarket across the street but the filing cabinet stands alone, surrounded only by dead weeds and a shopping cart full of old dishes. It emblematizes the magic you can find in small New England cities. It's weird, impressive and puzzling. It may not even really be the world's tallest filing cabinet, but it's definitely big.

The filing cabinet was created by local artist Bren Alvarez in 2002. Alvarez was inspired by the ongoing delays in building the Southern Connector, a road that would connect busy highway I-89 with downtown Burlington. The filing cabinet's official name is "File Under File Under So. Co., Waiting For...". The Southern Connector still hasn't been built.

Alvarez intended this to be commentary on bureaucratic delays, but I think it has a completely different effect. The sculpture is slowly eroding from rust, and vandals have graffitied as high as they can easily reach. Set as it is in an overgrown field, the sculpture is like an artifact from some post-apocalyptic future revealed when the waters of a swollen Lake Champlain finally recede from the city centuries from now. It is totally worth visiting if you are in the area, and if you collect china maybe you can find something valuable in the shopping cart.

The world's tallest filing cabinet is just one of the strange things you might encounter. In 1988, a Burlington woman named Susan Lily encountered something even stranger. Lily was driving home from work late one summer night when she decided to get a bite to eat at a local Wendy's restaurant. As she drove around the back of the restaurant to the drive-through she noticed two cats lurking around the dumpster. But these were not ordinary cats. They were big (real big!) and oddly shaped:

Susan says, "They were the size of a forty- or fifty-pound dog, but they were real slim and their legs were disproportionately long." 
Susan has always lived around animals and can distinguish among different varieties of cats. These were something unknown. She says, "The largest domestic cat is the Norwegian Forest cat. But these were short-haired. They were much taller than Maine Coons. I have no idea what I saw."

Those quotes are from Joseph Citro's book The Vermont Monster Guide (2009), which I bought in Burlington. Citro goes on to note that after Susan picket up her burger at the drive-through window she looked back at the dumpster. The cats had disappeared, and although she visited that same Wendy's many more times she never saw them again.

A metal monolith made of filing cabinets looms in an empty lot. Giant cats prowl around a dumpster behind a fast food restaurant. Even in the city weird and magical things are lurking!

November 15, 2017

Bewitched Dogs Killed in Salem and Other Strange Animal Stories

There are lots of weird little stories buried in the accounts of the Salem trials. For instance, did you know that two dogs were killed because people thought they were bewitched?

In October of 1692, a dog in Salem was killed after it began to act strangely. The afflicted Salem girls claimed it was being ridden and tortured by the invisible spirit of John Bradstreet. John was the brother of Dudley Bradstreet, a Justice of the Peace from Andover who had refused to issue any more warrants to arrest alleged witches. After his refusal the afflicted girls accused Dudley himself of witchcraft. He and his family fled Essex County, as did his brother John, who fled north to Maine after the "bewitched" dog was killed.

A dog was also killed that month in Andover when an Andover girl claimed it was actually a demon in canine form. After the dog was shot Reverend Increase Mather, one of the colony's leading ministers, pointed out the absurdity of trying to kill a demon with a bullet. Clearly, he said, the dog could not have been an evil spirit since spirits cannot be killed. Sadly for the dog his protestations were a bit too late.

Animals of many kinds appear in local stories about witchcraft, usually acting strangely if not downright sinisterly. After ruling out natural causes, the early New Englanders had three explanations for why animals might act strangely.

The most common explanation was that they were bewitched. Witch trial documents and local folklore are full of stories about bewitched animals. Sometimes they sicken and die, but more often they just do weird things. Pigs jump high up in the air. Calves make unnatural noises and contort their bodies in strange positions. Oxen refuse to pull their wagon. Stories like these are found from the 1600s until the early 20th century, so its clear they were deeply embedded in the local culture.

Unfortunately, folklore says the best way to unwitch your animal is to physically harm it, whether by beating it or cutting off part of its body, like an ear or tail. Yikes! This is inhumane, but was grounded in the theory that witches cause mischief by sending their souls out of their bodies. A bewitched animal misbehaved because a witch's soul was temporarily inside it, causing an otherwise mundane farm animal to act strangely. Hurting the animal was supposed to also hurt the witch and cause their soul to leave the animal. I don't believe witches can send their soul into animals, but if you do hold that unusual belief please do not beat your animal. Or cut off its ear. Just sprinkle it with some salt or wave a sage bundle around it instead. You could even try holy water, but if it is a cat, don't bother trying because cats just don't change.

A witch's soul didn't always maintain human form when it was out causing trouble. It could take the shape of an animal as well. For example, in 1662 Rebecca Greensmith of Hartford, Connecticut confessed that when she attended the witches Sabbath one of her fellow witches flew there in the shape of a crow. In 1692 Katherine Branch, a serving girl from Stamford, Connecticut, claimed she was approached by a group of cats who briefly turned into women before resuming feline form. The cats were of course witches who were trying to recruit her to their devilish cause. According to a story from 1893, a Cape Cod witch named Moll Ellis could send out her soul in the shape of a bee, which emerged from her mouth when she slept.

Cats, birds, dogs, bees - their forms were many, but they all were intent on working evil. Unfortunately for the witch, their souls were vulnerable to physical harm when in animal form. A story from Clifton Johnson's What They Say In New England (1896) illustrates this. One night a miller from western Massachusetts left home to grind corn at his mill, despite urging from his wife to keep her warm in bed. While he worked at the mill a frisky black cat appeared, purring and rubbing against him. As he shooed the cat away it fell into the grindstone, which ripped off one of its paws. The cat disappeared with an unearthly howl. When the miller got home he found his wife in bed, moaning and looking pale. When he pulled down the coverlet he saw that one of her hands had been torn off, revealing her to be a witch.

Animals that acted strangely might be controlled by a witch's soul or might even be a witch's soul in animal form, but the third explanation was the most terrifying. The Devil and his demons could assume animal form. That weird pig or twitchy dog might just be a spirit come from Hell to torment and trick the good Puritans of New England.

One of Salem's most famous accused witches, the slave Tituba, claimed that the Devil appeared to her both as a dog and a monstrous hog. The Devil must have liked pigs, because the citizens of Topsfield, Massachusetts claimed the Devil in the shape of a hog haunted a bridge over the Ipswich River until he was banished by a Puritan minister. Rebecca Greensmith saw the Devil in the shape of a deer, while in Salisbury, New Hampshire, ministers praying over a woman who sold her soul to the Devil were menaced by a large black cat that leapt at them from a tree. As Increase Mather noted, the Devil and his demons could not be killed in any form, but they could be expelled or banished.

Happily, we've made a lot of progress in understanding animal behavior. Be sure to love your animals, no matter how weirdly they act.

I found the information about the bewitched dogs in Marilynne Roach's epic The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of A Community Under Siege (2002). It's an amazing if dense book that I recommend to anyone who wants all the details of the Salem witch trials. The other animal stories can found here on my blog.