May 25, 2014

Old Burying Ground in Cambridge, and Maybe Some Ghosts

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, so I suppose it's appropriate that I stopped by Cambridge's Old Burying Ground yesterday on my way to see a matinee. I've walked by this historic cemetery for years and have never gone inside.

I'm glad I did. Like most cemeteries it was very peaceful inside, even though it's only a few steps from the Harvard Square T-stop. In fact, tt was so peaceful someone was sitting in the lotus position meditating.

The Old Burying Ground dates back to the early 1600s, and has lots of gravestones in the three classic New England styles: skulls, cherubs, and willow and urn.

A very ornate death's head.

Another ornate carving, this time of a cherub.
This cherub looks a little dour.

Willow and urn.

There are also some things I hadn't really seen before. Some of the gravestone inscriptions are in Latin. Not just a little Latin, like "Requiescat In Pace," but paragraphs of dense Latin.

Break out the Latin dictionary!
 The Latin-inscribed markers all seem to be for Harvard faculty and librarians. If you were erudite while alive, you might as well let people know it after you're dead too.

In addition to the Latin gravestones, some other stones had elaborately unfinished backsides. Take a look at this one.

But from the front, it's just a standard gravestone.

The Old Burying Ground is host to several soldiers from the Revolutionary War. There's a prominent marker for several Cambridge men who were killed at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and two African-American soldiers from the Revolution are also buried in the cemetery. I didn't find their markers, but one of the men was named Neptune Frost, which is an amazing name. The other black soldier's name was Cato Stedman, so they both had Latin names.

I assumed there must be a ghost story associated with the Old Burying Ground, but there really isn't anything definite. Sam Altrusis, in his book Ghosts of Cambridge: Haunts of Harvard Square and Beyond, claims that the Old Burying Ground is indeed full of spirits, but they're not particularly malevolent or active. None of them are identified by name. It sounds like they're just hanging out enjoying the peaceful surroundings.

If you do want someplace a little more haunted, you might visit Christ Church Cambridge, which is located next door. The church is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a British soldier who was buried inside the building during the Revolution. His burial so angered the local Patriots that they rioted and vandalized the building, and his spirit has haunted the place ever since. The lesson to this story? Be nice to dead people, and they'll be nice to you.

May 18, 2014

Ephraim Gray, the Immortal Man of Malden

Tony and I have a lot of friends who were either born in Malden, Massachusetts or live there now. On Friday we saw three friends - one was born in Malden and two live there now. On Saturday, we met a group of people out at a bar, and there were at least five Maldonians there.

Malden plays a significant role in my life, but oddly I don't believe I've ever shared any Malden lore on this blog. To rectify this, here's the story of Ephraim Gray, the immortal man of Malden.


Ephraim Gray was a reclusive man who lived in Malden in the 19th century. He lived in the center of town in a big house, which he seldom left. Whenever his neighbors did see Ephraim he never looked them in the eye, and just grunted when spoken too. Ephraim didn't have any family, and lived only with a single manservant. The manservant would handle all the complex interactions with the outside world, like shopping and paying the bills.

Ephraim lived quietly for many years, until one day his neighbors noticed foul odors emanating from his house. Occasionally they would see the manservant open the windows to let out plumes of noxious, chemical-scented smoke. A modern person would suspect that Ephraim was cooking meth, but Ephraim's neighbors just chalked the fumes up as another one of his eccentricities.

The strange odors went on for many years as well, until one morning in 1850 Ephraim's manservant appeared at the police station. Ephraim Gray was dead.

The servant explained that for many years Ephraim had been trying to create an elixir that would grant him immortality. Unfortunately, even though he had quaffed many test brews, Ephraim had lost his race against time and died before he perfected the formula.

However, the servant also explained that he believed Ephraim's experiments would preserve his employer's body perfectly. Ephraim Gray was therefore to be buried immediately with no embalming or other mortuary preparations. The servant was quite firm on these conditions because he would only inherit Ephraim's estate if they were fulfilled.

Ephraim Gray was buried in a small crypt in a cemetery in the center of town. The servant lived in Ephraim's home for a few years before he too passed away. But the stories about Ephraim's quest for immortality lived on, and in 1870 reached the ears of two Harvard medical students. The students were curious to see if the rumors were true, and traveled out to Malden one dark night and broke into the crypt.

Olde Time Malden!

When the students pried the lid off Ephraim Gray's coffin they were amazed to see that his body was perfectly preserved. Ephraim Gray had not decayed at all in the last twenty years! Their curiosity satisfied, they resealed the coffin and returned to Cambridge.

Well, at least that's what they told people. In 1900 the cemetery needed to be relocated to make room for a new road, and all the bodies were moved to a new location. But when the workmen came to move Ephraim's body, they were surprised to see that his coffin was empty. No trace of his body could be found and it has never been located to this day.

Hard-headed skeptics claimed that the Harvard students had stolen the body to dissect, but other people in Malden whispered that perhaps Ephraim's immortality formula had really worked. Maybe it had just taken decades for it to kick in, and that he had finally awoken from his dormant state. Since he was a loner, he probably just walked out of the graveyard without saying a word.


I have a few thoughts on this story. It appears in quite a few books, including Joseph Citro's Passing Strange and Weird New England, and Ceri Revai's Haunted Massachusetts.  Joseph Citro also mentions that Edward Rowe Snowe wrote about Ephraim Gray in the middle of the twentieth century. I can't find any record of the story that is older than that, but if someone knows where it originated please let me know.

I searched through Births, Marriages and Deaths of Malden, Massachusetts, 1649 - 1850 which is on Google books. There were records for a few people named Gray in it, but nothing for an Ephraim Gray. Maybe he was born someplace outside of Malden, which could explain why his birth is not listed. Maybe his death is not listed because he never really died!

Last week I wrote about Harvard students raising the Devil. This week it's Harvard students robbing graves. What will those kids get up to next?

May 11, 2014

Once Again, Harvard Students Plan to Raise Satan

Once again some Harvard students are planning to raise Satan on campus. It's not the first time it's happened, and probably won't be the last. 

So, here's the story. Tomorrow evening some students at Harvard University's Extension School will be participating in a Satanic Mass. The students are part of the Extension School's Cultural Studies Club, and are holding the devilish rite as a way of learning about other religions.

The Boston Archdiocese is outraged, saying the Black Mass mocks Catholicism and is contrary to "charity and goodness." The school's administrators responded to the church and said they support the club in this educational endeavor. The club is also planning to perform rituals from other religious traditions like Shinto and Buddhism.

The Black Mass will be led by the Satanic Temple of New York. Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves says they will base their Mass on La Bas, a 19th century novel by the French Decadent Joris-Karl Huysmans. Greaves is an atheist and a Harvard alumnus, and claims the ritual is more political than religious in intent.

“This is not a supernatural ritual,” Greaves told the Daily News. “We don’t believe in the supernatural. And I don’t think belief in the supernatural should give you any privilege, since any deeply held belief should be protected."

"...There’s no stronger cultural symbol for the revolt against the general idea of arbitrary authority and revolt against ultimate tyranny,” Greaves said of Satan. “There’s no better a construct that can act as a narrative for our works and goals.”

The Satanic Temple of New York is no stranger to publicity. They've been in the news recently with their efforts to erect a statue of the goat god Baphomet in front of the Oklahoma state capital building. Last summer, Greaves and the Temple performed a Pink Mass at the grave of Christian fundamentalist Fred Phelps's mother with the intent of making her lesbian in the afterlife.

Lucien Greaves (center) celebrating the Pink Mass

The Satanic Temple seems like a group of political pranksters more than serious Satanists, but their presence on campus still indicate how things have changed at Harvard University. Harvard was founded in 1636 to train Puritan ministers and they took the Devil quite seriously.

The last time Harvard students tried to raise the Devil things didn't go the way they expected. That story goes something like this. One day, way back in the 1640s, Harvard's president Henry Dunster was called away to Concord on business. A group of student took advantage of his absence to experiment with some black magic. After all, Harvard had an extensive occult library, so why not use it?

Harvard's Dunster House, named after Henry Dunster, the school's first president.
The student's did succeed in raising Satan, but unfortunately were not able to control him. The Evil One proceeded to run amok on campus. In a panic, the students sent a message to Dunster that he needed to come back to campus immediately. Dunster mounted his horse and galloped back to campus to handle the rampaging demon. He was a well-trained minister and knew just what to do.

When he arrived at Harvard he poured the contents of his gunpowder horn onto the ground and told the Devil to appear. Satan obeyed, apparently drawn by the familiar, sulfurous smell of the gunpowder. Dunster ignited the gunpowder and the Devil disappeared in a fiery explosion, leaving behind only a foul smell. There's no word on whether the students were expelled or were given extra credit for successfully applying what they found in the library.

I'm all for youthful occult experimentation, but I do think caution is required, particularly if you're summoning Satan. Let's hope Greaves or one of the students brings a horn of gunpowder in case their ritual is more effective than they think.

(The story about Henry Dunster and the Devil was first told by one of his descendants in Proceedings of The Centennial Celebration of The One Hundredth Anniversary of The Incorporation of The Town of Mason, N. H., August 26, 1868 and has since been repeated in various folklore books.)

May 04, 2014

Roger Babson's Dogtown Boulders

I've been working this winter on a book about the legends and lore of Massachusetts's North Shore. The title? Legends and Lore of the North Shore, of course!

While I was researching the book Tony and I took a trip up to Dogtown Common, the Colonial-era ghost town on Cape Ann. Dogtown is famous for many things, including witches and maybe a werewolf, but one of its most visually interesting features are the boulders carved by Roger Babson during the Great Depression.

Stone walls delineate former farms in Dogtown Common.
Roger Babson was a very successful financier in the early part of the 20th century, and accurately forecast the Depression. Descended from some of Gloucester's earliest settlers, Babson was unhappy with how people thought about poor, abandoned Dogtown. Rather than focusing on the village's uncanny history and Yankee Gothic atmosphere, he felt people should instead celebrate the hard-working colonists who had founded Dogtown.

Boulders, boulders, boulders!
To rehabilitate its image, he proposed hiring a group of local masons to carve motivational slogans into some of the boulders that are scattered across the Dogtown plateau. And there are a lot of boulders there! The rocky, unproductive soil was one reason the settlers ultimately abandoned the place.

The Gloucester city leaders agreed to Babson's odd proposal. He was willing to pay the masons himself, and since it was the depths of the Depression the men needed the money. Babson also sweetened the deal by donating five hundred acres of land to Gloucester so the city could have a new reservoir.

In the end, the masons carved Roger Babson's slogans into thirty-six boulders across Dogtown Common. They also carved numbers to mark the cellar holes of the settlers' abandoned homes, and a boulder indicating the former village's main square.

Roger Babson died in the 1960s, but I think if he were alive today he might be disappointed at the effect his boulders have. Rather than diminishing Dogtown's creepy atmosphere, they actually increase it. The boulders might have been cornily motivational in the Depression when Dogtown was mostly meadow, but since that time it has become a dense forest.

The carved rocks actually make the forest seem more desolate, not less. They're just another abandoned human endeavor, like the ghost town itself. Whenever I stumbled upon one hidden among the trees, I wasn't motivated to work hard or save money. Instead, I was reminded that time and Mother Nature will ultimately overturn everything, whether it's a village founded by Puritans or boulders carved by an eccentric millionaire. Roger Babson did contribute to Dogtown's reputation, just not in the way he thought.