August 25, 2013

Throw the Pig Overboard

My brother and father like to sail, but I'm definitely a landlubber. Sometimes I just get seasick riding the bus, never mind actually being out on the water.

Maybe that's why I don't write too much about New England's rich maritime folklore, but the following piece of nautical nonsense was so interesting I couldn't ignore it. It's from Robert Cahill's 1990 book Olde New England's Strange Superstitions.

Cahill writes that the Puritans who settled in New England did not approve of using compasses on ships. What power could possibly make a metal needle move except for Satan, their arch-enemy? In 1635, a ship called Angel Gabriel, which navigated by compass, was wrecked in a storm off the coast of Maine. Most of the passengers and crew were lost at sea. Many other ships without compasses in the same fleet reached shore safely, so the Puritans felt Satan had a hand in the Angel Gabriel's destruction. Served them right for using a compass!

Cahill then goes on to say that many ships coming from England used pigs as a rudimentary navigation system. That's right, pigs. Livestock was often carried on ships to supply food for the lengthy crossing, but in addition to providing bacon pigs had an additional use. Sailors believed that pigs innately knew where the closest land was, even if they couldn't see it. If a ship was lost at sea the crew would throw one of the pigs overboard and watch to see which direction it was swimming. The helmsman would then steer the ship in the same direction.

Somehow following a swimming pig was not considered Satanic, while following a magnetic needle was. I'm glad we live in a more enlightened age, and I'm sure any pig making a trans-Atlantic crossing today feels the same way.

August 16, 2013

Goldenrod Folk Medicine

Nothing says "Happy late summer!" like a congested head and a scratchy throat. I unfortunately have a cold (blech!), but I know many people also suffer from pollen allergies at this time of year. There are lots of wildflowers blooming in the parks, meadows, and along the roadsides. So pretty, so irritating to the sinuses.

One wildflower that sometimes gets blamed for summer allergies is goldenrod. I can remember people complaining about goldenrod pollen when I was a kid, and I sometimes still hear that complaint. Well, apparently we are all wrong. According to the National Audubon Society Field Guide to New England, the allergies ascribed to goldenrod are actually caused primarily by ragweed.

Don't fear this goldenrod plant!
Perhaps the following will further help rehabilitate goldenrod's reputation: in 19th century New Hampshire, goldenrod actually was believed to prevent rheumatism. That's arthritis to us contemporary Americans.

If you look at the stem of a goldenrod plant you may see a small swollen lump or gall. This gall is caused when an insect (usually trypeta solidaginis, a type of fly) lays its eggs in the plant. After the egg hatches a small larva will live inside the gall until it matures, crawls out, and flies away.

In New Hampshire it was believed that carrying one of the galls in your pocket would prevent rheumatism. These so-called "rheumaty-buds" were only effective while the grub inside them was still alive. Once the grub died you would need to get another gall. (It seems kind of cruel to carry these grubs around just so they could die, but I don't think 19th century rural folk were too concerned with the pain and suffering of insects.) I'm guessing the galls were considered effective against rheumatism because they resemble the swollen joints arthritis sometimes causes, but I'm just speculating.

I've poked around a trying to find information about the life-cycle of trypeta solidaginis, but without too much luck. From the little I found it appears the galls can usually be found in the autumn. I would suggest examining, but not plucking, a gall. Let the trypeta solidaginis live its life!

And if you are suffering from rheumatism or arthritis, please see a doctor. 

I found this little tidbit about in Fanny Bergen's article "Some Bits of Plant-Lore" from The Journal of American Folklore, Jan. - Mar., 1892.

August 10, 2013

Mary Hortado's Demonic Assailants

The horror movie The Conjuring was quite successful at the box office this summer. I think one reason for its popularity is because it's supposedly based on a true story. True stories of the supernatural always seem more powerful than fictional ones, and it's probably been that way since people started to tell stories.

Increase Mather. Thanks Wikipedia!

In early New England there were of course no movies, so people read stories of supernatural events. Reverend Increase Mather's 1682 book An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences was chock full of them, including the following one about Mary Hortado of Salmon Falls, Maine and her Portuguese husband Antonio. Mather titled it "A Brief Narrative of sundry Apparitions of Satan unto and Assaults at sundry times and places upon the Person of Mary the Wife of Antonio Hortodo, dwelling near the Salmon Falls: Taken from her own mouth, Aug.13, 1683."

Or, as we would say in the 21st century, "based on a true story."

Mary's troubles started one day in June of 1682. The sun was setting, and Mary heard a voice at her door, but when she opened it no one was there. Weird, but nothing particularly creepy. Maybe Mary thought it was just a prankster, but an hour later when she was standing in the doorway an unseen hand punched her in the eye. Yikes!

The odd occurrences continued that week. A large stone was thrown into the house by invisible hands and then disappeared. Shortly afterwards the Hortados' frying pan rang like a bell, loud enough for the neighbors across the river to hear it.

Perhaps it was good that the assailants were mostly invisible, for the glimpses the Hortados caught of them were a little unnerving. For example, one day Mary and her husband Antonio were canoeing across the river when they noticed that something was swimming in front of them. The creature had the "head of a man new-shorn" and the tail of a white cat. They couldn't see the rest of its body and the creature vanished. It reappeared and followed them again when they returned home across the river. Another apparition appeared twice to Mary in the shape of a woman dressed for travel, once brandishing a fiery brand and laughing silently at her. I think the implication here is that the woman was a witch's spirit, probably from a distant town or city (hence the traveling clothes).

Image taken from this blog about 17th century American women.

The spirits also continued to invisibly assault Mary. She was struck by a stone thrown by unseen hands, bitten on the arms ("the impressions of the Teeth being like Mans Teeth"), and scratched on the breast. Her husband Antonio also experienced strange things, but to a lesser degree. He heard footsteps on the second floor of their house when no one was upstairs, and found large sections of their fence thrown down. Perhaps most troubling, he found large hoof prints near the ruined fence, though no cattle were in the area. Was a demon (or Satan himself) responsible for leaving the prints?

The situation became so bad that the Hortados abandoned their house to live on the other side of the river. Before they did, they tried to keep the spirits away by placing bay leaves at the entrances of their house. Increase Mather writes:

I am further informed, that some (who should have been wiser) advised the poor Woman to stick the House round with Bayes, as an effectual preservative against the power of Evil Spirits. This Counsel was followed. And as long as the Bayes continued green, she had quiet ; but when they began to wither, they were all by an unseen hand carried away, and the Woman again tormented.

Although as a Puritan minister Mather disapproved even of protective magic, it seems like bay leaves were the anti-witchcraft herb of choice in the 17th century seacoast area.

By the next year the invisible assaults stopped, and the Hortados' life returned to normal. As Mather writes, "Since when said Mary has been freed from those Satanical Molestations." (I really wanted to use the phrase "Satanical Molsestations.")

I enjoy these stories for their creepy details (I find the cat-tailed creature particularly spooky) and for their insight into the mythic world of witchcraft our ancestors believed in. However, I can understand that some people want an explanation about what was happening in Salmon Falls during 1682. Increase Mather certainly thought it was an authentic case of demonic assault, and I suppose that explanation is sufficient if you believe in demons.

If you want a more scientific explanation you can find one Emerson Baker's book book The Devil of Great Island. Baker, a historian at Salem State, claims that "a close reading of the story indicates that the attacks covered up a serious case of domestic abuse."

Domestic abuse was a major crime in Colonial New England, and one of the few recorded cases that went to trial actually involved Mary's brother-in-law Moses Worcester. Baker bases his argument on the claim that Mary was alone (or perhaps only with her husband) when the attacks happened. He may be right, but I don't think the text is really detailed enough to make that deduction. You can read An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences for yourself and decide. I'd suggest you keep the lights on, because some of the stories are pretty creepy. 

August 04, 2013

Lovecraft, Poe, and Ghosts in St. John's Churchyard

Last week while we were down in Providence we stopped by St. John's churchyard. Because it was a beautiful day and we all like visiting cemeteries we had a nice time. But if we went at night it seems like I might be telling a different story.

St. John's dates back to the early 18th century, and it's reflected in the gravestones. Rather than the grim skulls you see in older New England cemeteries, the monuments here are decorated with smiling cherubs, urns, and weeping willows. Providence was a well-established commercial port by the 1700s, and people were feeling a lot better about life (and the afterlife).

However, horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890 - 1937) reports having a different experience. He wrote the following to a friend:

"About the hidden churchyard of St. John's - there must be some unsuspected vampiric horror burrowing down there & emitting vague miasmatic influences, since you are the third person to receive a definite creep of fear from it ... the others being Samuel Loveman and H. Warner Munn. I took Loveman there at midnight, & when we got separated among the tombs he couldn't be quite sure whether a faint luminosity bobbing above a distant nameless grave was my electric torch or a corpse-light of less describable origin."

Lovecraft also admitted to a friend that he once sat on a tomb in St. John's to write rhyming acrostics of Edgar Allan Poe's name. What's the Poe connection? Well, Poe lived in Providence in the late 1840s while he was courting the poet (and Spiritualist) Sarah Helen Whitman, whose house was behind the cemetery.

Lovecraft wrote in another letter, "...Poe knew of this place, & is said to have wandered among its whispering willows during his visit here 90 years ago." Although the willows have been replaced by a giant beech tree, St. John's is still an evocative place, rich with history and literary tradition. Oh, and maybe something emitting "vague miasmatic influences," if you're into that type of thing.

Next week I won't be posting about H.P. Lovecraft, but if you want to learn more about him be sure to  check out NecronomiCon, a convention dedicated just to this master of horror! I think the word "miasmatic" will be used often.  It take place August 22 - 25 in Providence and passes are still available.

I got my information for this post from Michael Bell's Food for the Dead, and from Dark Destinations.