December 29, 2013

Witches Woods in Beverly: A Headless Ghost, A Mystery Farm, and of Course Witches

I'm working on a book about North Shore folklore (which hopefully will come out in the fall of 2014), and I've found a lot of interesting stories. I'm saving most of them for the book, but I thought this was a good one to share for a gloomy early winter day.

In the town of Beverly, Massachusetts is a large wooded conservation area officially called Beverly Commons, but which has also been know for many years as Witches Woods. The story most currently told about the name is that Giles Corey supposedly hid out in these woods while trying to escape from the Salem witch trials. I'm not sure how true that story is. Giles Corey was quite elderly when he was accused of witchcraft and it wasn't easy to get from Salem Village to Beverly back in the 1600s. Still, it's a good story.

Even better stories about Witches Woods can be found in Caroline Howard King's When I Lived in Salem, 1822 -1866. This book, which is a collection of reminiscences about daily life on the North Shore in the early 19th century, is fascinating. Do you want to know what people ate for dessert in 1836? Marlborough pudding and cranberry pie, of course. What happened to a woman if she fell asleep during the interminable Sunday church services? A church official called the Tidy Man (aka the Tithing Man) would tickle her awake with a fox-tail mounted on a pole. Drowsy men weren't treated so gently - they were whacked back into consciousness with a wooden knob mounted on the other end.

Caroline Howard King's family owned a summer home in Beverly called Thisselwood, which abutted Witches Woods. She doesn't mention any stories about witches, but does write about some other spooky occurrences happening in the area.

Thisselwood, from the Harvard University Library.
 According to her book, the locals believed that a headless ghost wandered through the woods. Although they were reluctant to speak of him, many had seem him walking forlornly among the trees carrying his head under his arm. No one knew what tragedy had led him to this doom. Caroline King and her family jokingly named him Heady, but Caroline didn't laugh on late night carriage rides through the woods. She was quite afraid of seeing Heady.

She never did see the decapitated ghost, but had instead another odd experience in Witches Woods. One summer morning in 1841 Caroline (who was nineteen at the time) set off for a stroll in Witches Woods with her nine-year old cousin Nony and a maid named Lucy Anne. After walking for while the group decided to have a snack and rest under some hemlock trees a short distance from the path. When they were done eating they walked back to the path - but it wasn't there. Despite searching in all directions no path could be seen at all. It was if it had vanished.

Caroline and her companions wandered through the woods for hours, but somehow always came back to the exact same spot. They could hear the ocean and knew they weren't far from home but were unable to get there.

Trying one last time to find the path they stumbled upon a clearing in the woods, in the middle of which stood the remains of a long-abandoned house: a chimney, a cellar-hole, and a stone stoop with an enormous lilac bush growing next to it. This ruin, Caroline knew, was called by her neighbors the Homestead, and was shunned and said to be haunted.

A path led from the clearing up a small hill, and the group decided to follow it. From the top of the hill they had a view over the woods, and could see nearby at the foot of the hill a cozy farmhouse with smoke rising from the chimney. The house had a broad stone stoop, and as they watched a woman came outside and scattered feed for the chickens. Excitedly, Lucy Anne ran down towards the house to ask for directions home.

Caroline and her cousin waited, and waited, and finally a dejected Lucy Anne returned. No matter how many times she had walked around the hill she couldn't find the farmhouse. In fact, all she saw were "hateful solemn old pine trees." However, she had found a dry stream bed which they followed out of the woods to the beach and eventually home to Thisselwood.

James Russell Lowell, from Wikipedia.

The writer James Russell Lowell was staying with the King family at the time. Lowell claimed he had the second sight and had seen a ghost at Elmwood, his family's estate in Cambridge (now the home of Harvard University's president), so he set off into the woods determined to find the haunted farm. He never found either the abandoned ruin or the elusive farmhouse (which was clearly a ghostly image of the ruin as it formerly appeared).

What would have happened if he or Lucy Anne actually had found the house and asked the farm wife (if that's what she was) for directions? What if they went inside for a drink of water or a bite to eat? I think they should be thankful they never found they house, because fairy tales and ghost stories suggest they might still be inside today.

December 22, 2013

Is the Ghost of Charles Dickens in Boston?

This is my second haunted hotel story in a month, but I'm just going with it. So...

Did you know that the ghost of Charles Dickens possibly haunts the Omni Parker House Hotel in Boston? Yes, the author of A Christmas Carol's spirit could be here with us Yankees, which I think is pretty cool.

We're all so familiar with Dickens's most famous story now that we don't realize how innovative it was when it was published. A Christmas Carol is not just a great story, but it's a transformational book that helped change Christmas from a drunken revel into a holiday about charity and giving. Along with Clement Moore's A Visit from Saint Nicholas it has influenced how generations of Americans think about the Christmas holiday. For example, the phrase "Merry Christmas" was popularized by Dickens book.

Although it was an immediate hit in England when it was published in 1843, it took time for A Christmas Carol to gain popularity here in the United States. But by the late 1860s A Christmas Carol was enormously popular on this side of the Atlantic too and Charles Dickens had become a literary sensation. Christmas had long been suppressed in New England, and many people actually thought that he had invented the holiday. Dickens had initially visited the United States in 1842 for his first reading tour, but when he arrived in Boston in November of 1867 he was a bona fide celebrity.

Literary superstar Charles Dickens
His first reading of the book was for the Saturday Club, a private literary club whose members included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Agassiz. The club met one Saturday a month for dinner at the Parker House Hotel, which was the same hotel that Dickens made his headquarters while in Boston.

On November 30 Dickens gave his first public American reading of A Christmas Carol at the Tremont Temple near Boston Common. 'Reading' apparently does not do justice to what Dickens did on the stage. He paced back and forth, he voiced each character differently, and he acted out key scenes. In short, he gave a complete one man show, and the audience was reportedly reduced to tears by the end of his performance. A follow-up performance on Christmas Eve had the same effect. He was so popular that guards had to be stationed outside his hotel room to keep away the eager fans.

Dickens left Boston for a tour of the East Coast, but returned to the city for one last visit in April 1868 before he departed for London. The tour took a lot of his energy, and he died in 1870 at the age of fifty-eight.

The Parker House has been in business for a long time, and it's hard say if the paranormal phenomena happening there are actually linked to Dickens. He stayed on the third floor of the Parker House, and even today one of the elevators supposedly will travel to the third floor without the buttons being pushed. Who (or what) is so eager to get to the third floor? It could be Dickens's ghost, or it could be one of the other famous people who've stayed at the Parker House. Actress Charlotte Cushman loved to stay in the Dickens Suite, so perhaps it's her spirit. Or perhaps it's actor John Wilkes Booth, who may have plotted Lincoln's assassination at the Parker House, or more happily hotel founder Harry Parker, whose ghost has appeared to guests and inquired about their stay.

Other than poking around on the web I found this information in Holly Mascott Nadler's Ghosts of Boston Town, Susan Wilson's The Omni Parker House - A Brief History of America's Longest Continuously Operating Hotel, and Amy Whorf McGuiggan's Christmas in New England.

December 15, 2013

Traditions and Magic for a Snowy Day

The first snowstorm of the year is always exciting to me. I like the way it transforms the city into someplace magical, even just for a little while. Everything is so quiet and bright. Of course then the plows come...

Not surprisingly, there are quite a few traditions and divinations associated with snow from New England. Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks it's magical.

I think most people associate Christmas with snow in their minds, but even though we're all dreaming of a white Christmas in reality there's no guarantee of one in much of New England, particularly in the southern parts. I suspect we all want a white Christmas because snow is pretty and makes a nice backdrop for holiday lights, but there's also an old saying that "A green Christmas means a full graveyard." Not only is it pretty but I guess snow is good for your health.

However maybe we shouldn't literally be dreaming of a white Christmas, but rather just hoping for one, because another tradition claims that to dream of a snowstorm is a sign of the speedy death of a relative.

Not all the New England snow traditions are quite so gloomy. People in Winn, Maine used to say that if you rub your hands with the first snow of winter you won't have sore hands all season. I'm sure this was good advice for the hard-working farmers of Winn, and probably would still be useful for those of us who spend our lives at keyboards today. If you try it out let me know if it works.

This next belief may or may not be gloomy, depending on how much you like snow. In the nineteenth century people in Massachusetts believed the following:

The day of the month of the first snowstorm indicates the number of storms in the year.  

Let's see, yesterday was the fourteenth so that means we'll have fourteen storms this year. If we count the one we just had we'll only have thirteen. Depending on your feelings about snow this could be good news or it could be devastating.

Lastly, here's something to remember for next year: if you wish on the first snowflake of the season you'll get your wish. 

I found this information in Fanny Bergen's 1896 book Current Superstitions.

December 08, 2013

The Haunted Mt. Washington Hotel

Have you ever seen The Shining or the read the book? When I was young I thought the haunted Overlook Hotel was based on the Mt. Washington Hotel in New Hampshire.

I was wrong. The Overlook Hotel was actually based on a hotel in Colorado where Stephen King worked when he was young, but sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. Even though the Mt. Washington Hotel doesn't have a connection to The Shining, it does have a resident ghost.

Moonrise over the Mt. Washington Hotel.

Here's the story. Construction on the Mt. Washington Hotel was started in 1900 and completed in 1902. The largest wooden building in New England, the hotel was the brainchild of Joseph Stickney, a wealthy industrialist. Unfortunately Mr. Stickney didn't get to enjoy his hotel very long, dying only one year after it opened to the public.

Carolyn Stickney
You might think the ghost that haunts the Mt. Washington is poor Joseph Stickney's, but apparently it is his wife's. Carolyn Stickney remarried a European prince shortly after Joseph's death and enjoyed spending her summers at the hotel. She built a private dining room for her and her friends, and also had a special balcony constructed that overlooked the hotel's main dining room. This allowed her to see what other guests were wearing and change her clothes to ensure she was the best dressed woman in the room.

Carolyn Stickney's private dining room is now a bar.
After Carolyn died in 1936 the staff at the hotel started to report strange things. During the empty winter months caretakers claimed they saw an elegant woman walking into the dining room and that lights would turn themselves on and off. When a posed photo of the summer staff was developed a shadowy woman could be seen looking at them through a window, but no one had been at the window when the photo was taken. Creepy!

That's a big empty lobby!
Interestingly, the architects who designed the hotel incorporated what they considered an anti-ghost measure. The hotel has several towers, and the number of stairs leading up to each tower is different. This is supposed to confuse ghosts and encourage them to leave, but I suppose since Carolyn Stickney was so intimately involved with the hotel her spirit is not fazed by oddly numbered steps.

Stay here if you dare!
Luckily for hotel guests Carolyn's ghost is harmless. As a former hotelier she's not going to do anything to hurt business! Still, the unprepared might find themselves frightened, particularly if they stay in room 314. This elegant room used to be Carolyn Stickney's private apartment and it still contains the giant four-poster bed she slept in.

Guests staying there often report uncanny incidents. For example, according to this review on Trip Advisor, one family staying there experienced a flickering lamp, the fireplace turning itself off and then back on again, and a child's toy disappearing and then reappearing. The management's response on Trip Advisor? "Thank you for sharing your experience from your recent stay with us at the hotel. We are very pleased that we were able to meet your expectations..."

Fireplace in the main lobby.
The hotel's management doesn't make any secret of the ghost, and actually recount the ghost legend on their website. A clever marketing ploy? Perhaps, or maybe they're just notifying guests of what they might experience. When Tony and I were staying at the Mt. Washington in November we had dinner with some family who live in the area, and conversation turned to the hotel's ghost. One family member had attended a conference at the Mt. Washington where supplies kept strangely vanishing, and she also had a friend who had stayed in Room 314. The friend had indeed witnessed flickering lights and the shower turning itself on and off when no one was using the bathroom. Again, creepy!

If you want the full haunted hotel experience I recommend visiting in early November like Tony and I did. It's between foliage and ski season, and the hotel when we were there was pleasantly quiet despite the presence of three small conferences. It's a really big hotel! If you tire of ghost hunting the Mt. Washington has a spa, activities like horse back riding, and miles of trails. I hiked into the woods for three hours and didn't see a single other person. I did see an otter and pileated woodpecker. Not as exciting as a ghost but still pretty cool.

December 01, 2013

Folklore in the Media: Magic Shoes, Sea Monsters, and New England Vikings

There were three stories related to New England folklore in the media this week. Very often there are none, so it's a bonanza!

Newport's Old Colony House once served as Rhode Island's State House.

First, my good friend Ed directed me to this article in The Providence Journal about some very old shoes found underneath the floorboards at the Old Colony House in Newport. The brown leather shoes date from the 1830s, and were probably left there when the Old Colony House was being renovated in the 1840s. Shoes are often found in the walls and chimneys of old buildings, and it's believed they were placed there while the buildings were under construction to bring luck. The Old Colony House is still standing so I guess the shoes worked their magic.

Second, Atlas Obscura recently published this fun map showing various water monsters across the United States.

New England is represented by four aquatic oddities. In Vermont's Lake Champlain  you can find Champ, a cousin of the Loch Ness Monster who has been seen swimming in the lake since the 1600s. In Maine, the White Monkey (a small pale-skinned man with webbed hands) haunts the Saco River and was last seen in the 1970s. Also in Maine, Lake Pocomoonshine is inhabited by a serpentine monster who leaves enormous snake trails through the woods surrounding the lake. And last but not least, a sea monster has been seen of the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts for hundreds of years. 

Many other New England lake monsters and sea serpents are not shown on this map, but I still learned a lot from it. I never knew there was an aquatic goatman in Texas or a lake monster called Slimy Slim in Idaho!

Boston's Leif Erikson statue outside Kenmore Square.
Finally, the Boston Globe's travel section has an article about places the Vikings visited in New England. Or, more accurately, places people have at one time or another said the Vikings visited. There is no firm proof Leif Erikson amd his crew made it this far down the coast when they visited North America, but the article lists some fun places to visit including stone towers in Weston, Mass. and Newport, Rhode Island.

That's all for this week. Next week, a haunted hotel in the White Mountains!