January 25, 2015

The Black Horse and the Devil's Hole: A Story from Rhode Island

Many years ago a Catholic priest in Woonsocket, Rhode Island was trying to get his parishioners to build a church.

This was back when French Canadian immigrants first settled in Rhode Island, and things were hard. Everyone wanted a nice stone church, but the parishioners worked all day at difficult menial jobs. They had almost no free time and very little energy to work on the church. 

The priest was discouraged, but determined to get a good church for his flock. He prayed and prayed to God for guidance, until one night the Virgin Mary appeared.

She said, "God has answered your prayer. Outside in the yard you will find a horse. He has the strength of twenty horses, and can work without food and water."

The priest was elated."Thank you Holy Mother..."

The Virgin raised one finger in warning. "But he is no ordinary horse. He will obey your commands, but whatever you do, don't take off the special bridle he wears!" And with that ominous note, the Virgin disappeared in a blinding flash of light.

The priest went outside, and as promised found a horse standing in his yard. The beast was enormous and blacker than night itself. It looked at the priest with angry red eyes, a bridle jammed tightly in its mouth.

The beast's diabolic nature was obvious to the priest. Had God sent the Devil to work for good? But the priest accepted that God works in mysterious ways, so he named the horse Old Nick and led him the next morning to where the church was being built.

"Whatever you do, don't take off his bridle," the priest said as he gave the horse to the foreman. The foreman was a spooked by the gigantic horse, and readily agreed to the priest's command. Things went well for a while. The horse was able to haul heavy stones tirelessly all day and the church went up quickly.

But the longer Old Nick worked on the project, the sicker and more listless the foreman became. Every night he dreamt that Old Nick glowered and spoke, threatening to drag him to Hell. Finally he couldn't take anymore and just lay feverish in bed.

He summoned one of the younger parishioners to his house. "I want you to take over managing the church construction," he moaned. "But whatever you do, don't take the bridle off Old Nick."

"No problem," the young man said. "Don't take off the bridle!" He whistled as he walked back to the construction site, pleased at his promotion.

The young man was not the brightest person in the parish, and didn't understand why everyone was so nervous around Old Nick. It was a hot summer day, and around noon time he went down to the Blackstone River to cool off. He brought Old Nick with him. As the young man splashed around, he felt bad for the horse, who looked hot and uncomfortable.

"Do you want a drink of water, horsey?" he said. "Here, let me take off that bridle so you can drink."

As soon as he took off the bridle the horse gave terrifying neigh that shook the earth. It knocked the man across the river with one hoof, and then leapt across the water in one jump. Old Nick landed on a ledge on the other bank so heavily that the stone split in two, and he disappeared down into the newly formed chasm.

When the priest found out what happened he rushed to the chasm, but it was too late - the demonic horse had made his way back to Hell. He had also opened a gateway to that infernal realm, and for many years the chasm was a source of unholy phenomena. Wagons passing by would lose their wheels, and people walking by at night told of horrific wailing emerging from the cave. Some people even claimed that strange, wolfish beings were seen lurking nearby. These were the loup garous, the Satanic werewolves of French folklore. The priest became disillusioned - how could God let this happen? - and neglected his parish.

Dues to all these strange activity the chasm became known as the Devil's Hole. Things went on this way for many years until a new priest came to Woonsocket. He was astonished that a gateway to Hell was allowed to be open in his parish. Gathering together a group of brave men, he erected a cross at the Devil's Hole and said prayers to God. From that time onward the strange phenomena stopped, and Woonsocket was freed from the black horse's curse.


The Devil's Hole is supposedly located in the Fairmount area of Woonsocket. This guys in this video try to find it, but don't have much luck. I think the video is pretty funny, but has some obscenity so don't watch if you find that type of thing offensive.

I'd be curious to find out when this story was first told. I've seen it in M.E Reilly-McGreen's Rhode Island Legends and in S.E. Schlosser's Spooky New England, but I'm assuming it is older than those books, which were both printed recently. The Catholic themes are interesting and aren't seen in too many New England folk tales. There are many places in New England named after the Devil, and many stories to explain them, but not very many involve the Virgin Mary!

The magic horse who can help build things is an old folk motif, and is found for example in the Norse myth about the gods building Asgard. I mentioned that in an earlier post about the Devil building a barn. 

Finally, I'll just say that I love a story where someone is told not to do something. "Don't use this key!" "Don't go in the basement!" "Don't stay out past midnight!" You just always know the warning will be ignored at some point.

January 19, 2015

The Proof Is In The Pudding - Proof of Satan!

Small things go wrong in my life all the time. My computer at work does something weird, the Facebook app on my phone stops working, my waffles come out burned, or I miss the bus. I just take these things for granted and don't usually read anything into them.

If I lived a couple centuries ago I wouldn't be so sanguine in the face of these minor misfortunes. Thing often went wrong for our New England ancestors. Butter wouldn't churn, cattle got sick, the loom malfunctioned while weaving, a blight killed the corn. Some people would just take these things for granted, but others would find a supernatural cause. Maybe it was God, but maybe it was Satan and his followers...

John Brown of Lynn, Massachusetts was one of those people. In the late summer of 1692 John got a hankering for Indian pudding.

He desired an Indian puding to be made, which was done, and the flour and suet were white and good when put into the pot, but when (it ) came out (it) was red like a blood pudding...

That's right! His Indian pudding, instead of coming out golden brown, came out blood red. John Brown almost immediately knew who was at fault. It was Sarah Cole, a woman he had argued with over religion (she said all church-goers were devils) and also over some hogs. He had gotten ill after their spat about church-goers, and after they argued about hogs his Indian pudding turned blood red. John was fed up, and accused Sarah of witchcraft. He even testified in front of the magistrates at Salem about the Indian pudding.

Some things we might consider minor inconveniences were actually a big deal for the early settlers. If butter didn't churn, you had no way to preserve your milk. If your cow got sick, you probably wouldn't even have milk. If the loom broke you might have to go naked, and if a blight killed your corn your family could starve. These were were major problems. I can understand how someone might have blamed a witch for these things, even if I disagree with their logic.

But a discolored Indian pudding doesn't seem that important to me, and I really love Indian pudding. Was it really worth blaming Satan and his minions?

Apparently in New England it was. Here is something from a 1722 edition of the New-England Courant:

We are at present amus'd with a very odd Story from Martha's Vineyard, which however is affirm'd for a Truth by some Persons lately come from thence, viz. That at a certain House in Edgar Town, a Plain Indian Pudding, being put into the Pot and boil'd the usual Time, it came out of a Blood-red Colour, to the great Surprise of the whole Family. The Cause of this great Alteration in the Pudding is not yet known, tho' it has been Matter of great Speculation in the Neighborhood.
And here is another story, from the May 25, 1767 issue of the Boston Evening-Post, provides a possible and specifically Satanic explanation for unusual puddings.
They write from Plymouth, that an extraordinary Event has lately happen'd in the Neighborhood, in which, some say, the Devil and the Man of the House are very much to blame. The Man, it seems would now and then in a Frolick call upon the Devil to come down the Chimney; and some little Time after the last Invitation, the good Wife's Pudding turn'd black in the boiling, which she attributed to the Devil's descending the Chimney, and getting into the Pot, upon her Husband's repeated Wishes for him. Great Numbers of Peoples have been to view the Pudding, and to enquire into the Circumstances; and most of them agree, that the sudden Change must be produc'd by a Preternatural Power. But some good Housewives of a Chymical Turn assign a Natural Cause for it...
Three years ago I actually wrote briefly about those two newspaper articles, but I thought the topic was worth revisiting after I found the story about John Brown.

I think these stories are entertaining and illuminating examples of how people try to make sense of the world, particularly misfortune. Why do bad things happen to good people - or good puddings? When is it acceptable to invoke a supernatural cause, like God, Satan, black magic, or Mercury retrograde? When is the cause considered natural?

I don't think most contemporary New Englanders would blame the Devil or a witch if their pudding came out an odd color. Like the "good Housewives of a Chymical Turn" we would find a natural cause. And as the two newspapers indicate, even in the 1700s people were divided over the line dividing the natural and the supernatural. Maybe most early New Englanders only blamed the supernatural for really bad things, like mysterious deaths or unexpected calamities such as famines or epidemics. Many modern people don't invoke supernatural causes at all, blaming bad things on a random mechanistic universe.

Happily for Sarah Cole, it seems like the magistrates in Salem didn't share John Brown's concerns over the Indian pudding. On February 1, 1693 she was found not guilty of witchcraft and set free.

January 11, 2015

Bigfoot Found in Maine, Lovecraft Discovered in Beer!

2015 is off to a great start if you like weird New England stuff. I hope it keeps up!

First off, a twelve-year old boy in Turner, Maine claims to have video footage of Bigfoot trekking through the woods. Is it really a giant hairy hominid? Is it a hoax? Is is something else altogether? Watch the video and decide for yourself:

The Bangor Daily News has coverage of the sighting. Bill Brock, a Maine Bigfoot hunter and host of "Monsters Underground" on Destination America, came out to investigate. In addition to the video there were footprints and mysterious howling noises. After looking at the evidence, Brock decided he was unable to conclude anything either way. I admire someone who is comfortable with ambiguity!

Here's a longer video where Brock and a friend evaluate the evidence they have:

Interestingly, Turner was home to another possible monster earlier in the 1990s and 2000s, when a mysterious canine creature roamed through the woods. It emitted high-pitched screams, had eyes that glowed in the dark, and was blamed for the death of a Doberman. A weird-looking dead dog-like animal was found in 2008 - was it the Turner monster?

Moving from creepy things found in the woods to creepy things found in can, Rhode Island's Narragansett Beer company is releasing an H.P. Lovecraft honey ale to the world on January 19.

Lovecraft, a Rhode Island native, was one of the seminal American horror writers and incorporated lots of local New England lore into his stories. But why a honey ale? Narragansett was inspired by a fictional elixir, known as space mead, that appears in some stories inspired by Lovecraft's own work. The space mead allows people to travel between the stars. The honey ale won't allow you to do that, but maybe it will make you feel as if you can. The company also promises another Lovecraft beer in spring, which will be inspired by his story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." I eagerly await tasting a beer based on a tale about evil fish-people!

January 04, 2015

Recent UFO Sightings in New Hampshire

It's easy for me to get lost in New England's old weird folklore. Every now and then I need to stick my head up from the old books and look at what's happening now - New England's new weird folklore.

A lot of people use the word paranormal when they are talking about strange modern phenomena. 'Paranormal' sounds more scientific than 'folklore,' and I suppose it suits the technological era that we live in. But I don't think it's dismissive to lump modern paranormal phenomena with older folklore. Both terms refer to the same thing: weird activity or stories that don't comfortably fit in other more reputable categories like history, science, or religion.

Anyway, regardless of terminology, on December 1, 2014 someone stopped at a traffic light in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and saw a UFO. They didn't see a metallic spaceship or anything of that sort, but instead some mysterious lights in the sky. Shining through the cloud cover they could see a large white circle of lights. Sometimes the lights had a bluish tinge, sometimes pinkish, but mostly they remained white.

There was an additional light that rotated around the circle of lights, but the circle itself stayed stationary.

It stayed in the same place with the bigger light just rotating around the circle of stationary light. I kept trying to see if there was a craft there, but could not make out any shape of a craft as this was just above the cloud cover. My first thought is that whoever it was must have thought they were hiding above the cloud, but the lights were clearly visible.

When the traffic light turned green the witness drive forward and pulled off the road, but when he looked back up the UFO had disappeared.

Carl Jung in 1910 (from Wikipedia)

It's a cool sighting! I don't know what UFOs are, but people have been seeing them for centuries. There are many theories about what they are, but the psychiatrist Carl Jung might be able to shed light (forgive the pun) on this particular incident. Jung claimed there were similarities between UFOs and the many circular holy symbols in world religions. For example, he drew connections between saints' halos, Hindu and Buddhist mandalas, the wheel seen by the prophet Ezekiel, and modern UFOs. Jung claimed all of these were mystical experiences, and that circular shapes symbolized spiritual wholeness.

I like that theory, but what would he say about the large number of triangular UFOs seen in New Hampshire? Mark Podell, an investigator with MUFON (Mutual UFO Network), investigates 5 - 10 New Hampshire UFO sightings each month. Many people see circular UFOs, but many others see triangular lights in the sky. If you want to see one yourself, you might want to visit Franconia Notch at night. Podell says that's where 80% of the reports come from. I've been up there many times myself, and it is very, very dark at night. It's probably a good place to witness strange phenomena.

You can hear more from Mark Podell, and see a video of a possible UFO seen in Derry, in the video below.

I found the information about the UFO in Portsmouth from the MUFON website, which is always interesting.