December 28, 2016

Was 2016 The Year of The Witch?

This year is grinding to a close, so I thought I'd see what stories on this blog from 2016 were the most widely read.

I was kind of surprised by the result. Overwhelmingly, stories about witches and witchcraft were the most popular this year. Monsters, haunted locations and weird seasonal folklore all took a back seat - 2016 was the year of the witch here on New England Folklore.

Drumroll, please! Here are the top five stories I posted this year:

1. By far the most popular story was this one from January about the Dogtown Witches. These 18th century widows made their living as fortune-tellers, herbalists, and by threatening to bewitch travelers passing through their North Shore village. The story of the Dogtown witches is charming, empowering and a little scary. In short, it's everything I like in a Yankee witch story. As an added bonus, Dogtown Common (the village where they lived) is now an abandoned ghost town in the middle of an enormous forest in Gloucester.

2. Readers also really liked this post about "How to Make a Witch Bottle," a type of classic New England defensive folk magic. Maybe people reacted to the crafty aspect. All you need is a jar, some nails, and your own urine. How much easier could it be? On the other hand, maybe a lot of my readers are plagued with supernatural problems and feel the need to defend their homes with magic. I hope that's not the case, but 2016 has been a very strange year...

3. In February of 2016 Robert Eggers's art-horror film "The Witch" was released to wide critical acclaim. I loved the movie, but I've heard mixed things from friends. Some horror movie fans were bored and confused by the slow pace and 17th century dialect, and art film aficianados didn't see it because they were afraid of the violence and bloodshed. I think the main audience for this film was intelligent people who love the creepy side of folklore, which happily describes all of this blog's readers. My review of "The Witch" was the third most popular post of 2016, and focused on how the film did and didn't reflect authentic New England witch lore. Spoiler alert: New England witch lore has fewer naked people and goats.

4. Do you see what I mean about 2016 being the year of the witch? So much witchcraft, but I'm not complaining. One exception to the witchcraft trend was this post about Connecticut's haunted fairy village. I spent much of 2016 researching New England fairy lore, so I was happy that readers responded well to this one. The legend features sinister fairies, an axe murderer, and a cursed ghost town, so there is a lot to respond to.

Image from From

5. Rounding out the top five is another witch-oriented post. I asked "How Did Tituba Become Black?", and that question apparently resonated with readers. Tituba was one the key figures in the Salem witch trials. A slave in Reverend Samuel Parris's household, Tituba was one the first people accused of witchcraft. She set the pattern for all the trials with her vivid confessions and incriminated several others as witches. Popular culture has depicted Tituba as black for many years, but she was actually an Aarawak Indian from the Caribbean. Read the post to find out how this transformation happened. (Hint: Arthur Miller and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow both made it happen.)

Ashley Madekwe as Tituba on TV's Salem.
I've had a lot fun writing this blog in 2016, so thank you for reading and letting me share my obsession with the weird side of New England. I hope you'll keep reading in 2017. Happy New Year!

December 20, 2016

Do The Witches Ride At Christmas?

I wanted to read something wintry to put me in the holiday spirit, so I picked up a collection of Icelandic folklore: J.M. Bedell's Hildur, Queen of the Elves, and Other Icelandic Legends (2016). I thought, "Iceland is cold and snowy, so I'm sure these legends will put me in a Christmas mood."

Although it doesn't always work out that way, this time I was right. Not only are these legends set someplace icy and dark, many of them are explicitly about Christmas. However, unlike the stories we tell about Santa, Rudolph, and Mrs. Claus, these Icelandic stories are quite spooky. Apparently really terrible things happen in Iceland during Christmas. Malicious supernatural beings are very active there in late December.

For example, in "The Magicians of the Westmann Islands," a group of magicians who have fled to an offshore island to escape the plague threaten to kill one of their fellow sorcerers by Christmas Eve if he doesn't return to them. The lone sorcerer has fallen in love with the last woman in Iceland (everyone else has died from the plague) and refuses to return to the magicians. They send an assortment of demons to kill him on, but happily his beloved defeats them with help from her dead grandfather. I don't know about you, but that's not the type of story I usually hear at Christmas here in the United States.

One recurring themes in the Icelandic legends is that you absolutely don't want to be home alone on Christmas Eve. You should go to church with your family because bad things happen to those who stay home alone on Christmas Eve. What type of bad things, you ask? Well, perhaps elves will break into the house and kill you, which happens in the title story "Hildur, Queen of the Elves." These are not the nice pretty elves that one finds in a Tolkien novel, that's for sure.

If the elves don't get you, the witches might. In "The Witch Ride", a minister marries a beautiful  young woman. Her only flaw is that every Christmas Eve she disappears and refuses to say where she goes. This goes on for several years, until one Christmas Eve a new farmhand is working alone on the minister's farm when he encounters the minister's wife. She throws a magical bridle over him and rides him like horse to the witches' Sabbath, where she presents the Devil with a bottle of human blood. Merry Christmas?

It's interesting to compare these stories to local New England folklore. The magical witch bridle is something that also appears in New England folklore, but Christmas Eve has no particular connection with witchcraft or evil here. New England's witches are active year round, and their malicious actions are motivated by personal grudges and feuds, not by the calendar.

In New England lore, Christmas might even be a time antithetical to witches. Benjamin Franklin's brother James printed the following in a 1792 edition of his almanac:

This month (December) is a great Enemy to evil Spirits, and a great Dissolver of Witchcraft, without the help of Pimpernal, or Quicksilver and Yellow Wax... Some Astrologers indeed confine this Power over evil Spirits to Christmas Eve only; but I know the whole Month has as much Power as any Eve in it: Not but that there may be some wandering Spirits here and there, but I am certain they can do no Mischief, nor can they be seen without a Telescope.

Shakespeare wrote something similar in Hamlet. Here is Marcellus, one of the guardsmen of Elsinore, talking about ghosts and witches at Christmas:

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

How common was the belief that Christmas was antithetical to witches and ghosts? This article in Early Modern Literary Studies looks at the passage in Hamlet, and finds some evidence that it was a widely held belief, but also finds other evidence for the opposite - that people thought witches were actually very active at Christmas. I haven't found any other New England references to Christmas being antithetical to witches anywhere except the Franklin almanac (quoted in Stephen Nissenbaum's book The Battle for Christmas).

I do know that ghost stories were quite popular in England at Christmas-time up until the modern era, but here in New England the ghosts are not tied to a seasonal calendar. Summer, winter, fall or spring: they are active all year round, much like the witches.

The Puritans dispensed with the old seasonal calendar when they came to New England. They acknowledged few of the old holidays, and to them Christmas was just another work day. Perhaps when they trashed the holiday calendar they freed the ghosts and witches to work their mischief on any date, not just December 25th. But I do like the sentiment that at least one night a year might be hallowed and gracious, a night free from evil and danger.

December 11, 2016

A Sexy Puritan Christmas: Lewd Behavior at Yule in Old New England

The war over Christmas has been going on for centuries. Is the holiday too commercial? Is it too religious? People have been arguing those points for hundreds of years, but you don't hear a lot of people complaining these days that Christmas is too sexual.

Surprisingly, that was a complaint lodged against Christmas in the past. Before Christmas became focused on children, gift-giving, and cozy crafts, it was a raucous public holiday where the lower classes drank heavily and roamed through the streets. They traveled from house to house demanding food and drink from their wealthier neighbors, who themselves were drinking heavily and also feasting on the best foods from the recent late autumn harvests.

All that partying sometimes led to lascivious behavior, as illustrated by the following information from Stephen Nissenbaums' book The Battle for Christmas.

When the Puritans founded New England they banned the holiday outright. Puritan theologians did not believe there was any Biblical justification for celebrating Jesus's birth in December, and they also knew that Christmas was placed on December 25th by early Christians to co-opt the pagan Roman holiday of Saturnalia. They didn't view Christmas as a Christian holiday, but rather as a pagan survival that encouraged disorderly behavior.

Unfortunately for the Puritans, some people in New England continued to celebrate Christmas. These celebrants were originally people on the fringes of Puritan society: servants, the poor, and sailors and fishermen. To help quash the lingering Christmas festivities the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony even passed a law in 1659 levying a five shilling fine against anyone found celebrating the holiday.

This law wasn't successful. People have always loved an excuse for a party, even in 17th century New England, and authors and diarists of the time often disapprovingly noted that their trashy neighbors were enjoying the holiday in the old-fashioned, drunken way. Much to the dismay of the Puritans, Christmas even briefly became legal during the short three-year governorship of the royally-appointed Sir Edmund Andros.

Yule-tide partying continued even after Andros was sent back to England in 1689. In fact, the problem seemed to be worsening. Cotton Mather, Boston's leading minister, wrote the following in his journal in December of 1711:

I hear of a number of young people of both sexes, belonging, many of them, to my flock, who have had on the Christmas-night, this last week, a Frolick, a reveling feast, and Ball...

Uh-oh. Not only were the marginal people celebrating Christmas, but now the children of good upstanding Puritans were too. Note how he is specifically concerned about "young people of both sexes."

Reverend Mather took action and preached against Christmas parties in 1712 and 1713. He preached the following:

The Feast of Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in Licentious Liberty... by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by Rude Reveling...

Mather also told his congregation that "Abominable Things" were done in the name of Christmas. What were these unnameable abominations? Pre-marital sex.

Mather wasn't just being alarmist. Historians have analyzed New England birth records from the early 18th century, and they've found that the largest number of children were born in September and October, roughly nine months after Christmas. Even more interesting, many of these children were born only seven months after their parents were married. In other words, they were conceived illegitimately during Christmas, and their parents only married once they realized a child was coming.

The lewd behavior associated with Christmas was finally tamed not by preaching, but by commercialism. In the 19th century the holiday became associated with gift-giving and Santa Claus, and those associations remain with us today. The battle against lascivious Christmas behavior was won, but not with Cotton Mather's weapons of choice.


I highly recommend Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas if you like strange Christmas lore and history. It's a fascinating book!

December 06, 2016

The Winsted Wild Man: A History of Connecticut's Hairy Humanoid

Before there was Bigfoot, there was the Wild Man. Like Bigfoot, he was large, hairy and often naked, and he lurked in the woods and lonely meadows, emerging only to terrorize and amaze those who witnessed his emergence into the civilized world.

One particularly famous Wild Man has haunted part of Connecticut for nearly a century. His name? The Winsted Wild Man.

Here is a timeline of his appearances:

August 28, 1891 - People riding a coach through Winsted, Connecticut see a large animal run across the highway and leap over a fence. It stands on two legs. The passengers think it may be a gorilla. The New York Times speculates it is a gorilla that escaped from a circus several years ago and was sited in nearby South Norfolk the previous winter. However, the Times also notes that some Winsted residents think it might be a wild man known to live in the area.

September 8, 1891 - A Mrs. Culver of Colebrook, a town near Winsted, frantically reports that the wild man/gorilla spent the night sleeping on her porch. Six police and many civilians search the area but nothing is found.

August 21, 1895 - Winsted Selectman Riley Smith is out picking berries with his dog in Colebrook when he sees the wild man emerge from a clump of bushes. The wild man, who yelled loudly as he ran past Smith, is described as "a large man, stark naked, and covered with hair all over his body." Both Smith and his dog were terrified and fled the area.

Winsted in 1877, from Wikipedia.

August 23, 1895 - Passengers on the coach through Winsted once again see the wild man on the isolated road between Winsted and Colebrook. The North Adams Transcript reports that the wild man may be one of several who were seen in the area several years earlier, and that farmers in the area believe the wild man is stealing their small livestock. The Transcript also notes that a large hunting party is being planned for Sunday, August 25.

August 25, 1895 - Two hundreds armed men search the area around Winsted and Colebrook for the wild man. They find a cave on the Beardsley Farm that contains fresh bones and one old shoe. Footprints of bare feet are found outside the cave, which was located about three miles from where Riley Smith encountered the wild man. The wild man himself is not seen. Some people suggest the wild man is really a local man known to be suffering from alcohol withdrawal, but the man doesn't meet the description of the person seen by Smith.

Also on the 25th, picnickers find a small isolated cabin and report it to the authorities, but it is revealed to be the home of Mort Pond, a known hermit.

A Medieval European image of a wild man.
 August 30, 1895 - According to The North Adams Transcript, two women vacationing from New York City report encountering the wild man while passing through Winsted. They claim it was clearly a gorilla, and had "large white teeth, black hair, a muscular form and is about 6 1/2 feet tall." The Transcript also reports that this is probably the same gorilla who menaced Norfolk the previous winter. The Norfolk gorilla was sealed inside a cave by local citizens who covered the entrance with chains, but it broke the chains and escaped. It was also impervious to being shot with bird shot.

September 3, 1895 - Mrs. Culver once again reports seeing the wild man, as does a Mr. E.L. Perkins. Mrs. Culver claims the wild man was clad in rags, had long black hair and a beard, and was about 45 years old. Once again hunters scour the area, and once again they come up empty-handed.


I got most of this material from Chad Arment's absolutely amazing book The Historical Bigfoot, which compiles hundreds of old newspaper articles about wild men, "gorillas", and other hairy humanoids. It's really interesting to read these old accounts from Connecticut. Some witnesses clearly think they're seeing a man, others think they're seeing a gorilla, and others are seeing something in between. What did these people really see, if anything?

Let's face it, the gorilla explanation is pretty ridiculous. I don't think a gorilla would survive a Connecticut winter, and the story about the gorilla breaking chains to escape from a cave sounds like pure fantasy to me. Arment's book contains dozens of newspaper articles from across the country claiming an escaped gorilla is menacing a particular small town. There just weren't that many gorillas in the United States in the 19th century, never mind escaped ones. Even if a gorilla did escape, it probably wouldn't be able to survive.

Some modern writers have speculated that the Winsted Wild Man was just a hoax created by Louis T. Stone, a Winsted newspaperman known for his tall tales. He did work for the local paper in 1895, but the first accounts appeared in 1891. Perhaps he just helped to shape the story, rather than creating the Wild Man from whole cloth?

Also, Louis Stone died in 1935, so how do we explain the Winsted Wild Man once again rearing his shaggy head in the 1970s?


July 24, 1972 - Wayne Hall, aged 19, and David Chapman, aged 18, are hanging out at Chapman's house near Crystal Lake when they hear a strange noise from outside. It is late at night, but in the murky light they see a large hairy humanoid who is about eight feet tall. The creature emerges from the woods and walks into a neighbor's barn. The two teens watch the creature roam around for about 45 minutes until it disappears back into the woods.

September 27, 1974 - Four teenagers parking in the woods near Rugg Brook Reservoir are terrified when they see a six-foot tall, 300-pound hairy creature walking near the reservoir. Winsted police officer George Corso is stopped by two of the teens while patrolling downtown, and he returns to the reservoir with one of the boys in his patrol car, who insists they keep the doors locked and the windows shut. Corso later described the boy as obviously agitated and believed he had seen something that scared him. At the reservoir the boy claims to see the creature again, but Corso is unable to see what the boy does. The next day the police investigate the area and find no sign of anything unusual.


That information is from David Philips's book Legendary Connecticut. Will the Winsted Wild Man appear again? Probably, but maybe not for another fifty or sixty years. Just like the satyrs and centaurs of the ancient world, I'm sure he's out there just beyond the fringes of town, hiding in the woods outside our consciousness, waiting to surprise us again.

November 28, 2016

The Devil In The Shape of A Hog: Three Encounters With Satanic Pigs

What do you picture when you think of the Devil? Maybe you picture a man with fiery red skin, horns, and a tail. Or perhaps you picture someone with bat wings and a goat's head. Maybe you just see a black goat, as in the recent movie The Witch.

The New England Puritans saw the Devil quite a bit, but they didn't necessarily picture him the same way we do now. Many people who encountered him described as a man in black clothing wearing a tall hat, which were signs of wealth. The Puritans were deathly afraid of the local Indian tribes, so to others the Devil appeared as man with tawny skin like an Indian's.

And to others, he appeared as giant hog.

On March 1, 1692, Reverend Samuel Parris's slave Tituba confessed to the Salem magistrates that the Devil had asked her to serve him as a witch.

Judge Hathorne: What? Have you seen a man come to you and say serve me? What service?

Tituba: Hurt the children and last night there was an appearance that said "Kill the children" and if I would not go on hurting the children they would do worse to me.

Judge Hathorne: What is this appearance you see?

Tituba: Sometimes it is like a hog and some times like a great dog. (Note: this appearance she sayeth she did see four times.)

Judge Hathorne: What did it say to you?

Tituba: The black dog said "Serve me," but I said I am afraid. He said if I did not he would do worse to me.

(Testimony recorded by Ezekiel Cheever on March 1, 1692.) 

The Devil and his demons appeared to the people of Salem in a bewildering variety of forms: dogs, cats, humans, human-headed birds, and long-nosed hairy little humanoids with wings. Satan's manifestation as a hog was just one among many shapes he took.

But it was shape he took in other times and places as well. For example, the Devil also appeared as monstrous hog in Milford, Connecticut. Four men sat down near a large boulder to play cards, an activity forbidden by the Puritan leadership. Their game was interrupted by the appearance of a huge hog, which frightened the men so much that they abandoned their cards and fled.

Once four young men upon ye rock
Sate down at chuffle board one daye
When ye Deuill appearde in shape of a Hogg
Ande frighten'd ym so they scampered awaye
Ande left Olde Nick to finish ye play.

That little poem appears in Edward Rodolphus Lambert's 1837 book History of The Colony of New Haven, Before and After The Union with Connecticut. Lambert calls it an "ancient stanza" and I am not sure of its origin. The rock under discussion was named Hog Rock after this incident with the Devil. At some point after the Revolutionary War the rock became known as Liberty Rock, which is its official name today.

Liberty Rock, formerly known as Hog Rock.

Milford is blessed to have another boulder also known as Hog Rock, which is located on an offshore island. According to legend, the pirate Captain Kidd may have buried some of his treasure underneath it. Milford's a lucky town to have two such legendary boulders!

According to George Lunt's 1873 book Old New England Traits, the Devil also appeared as a hog in the Massachusetts town of Topsfield, where he menaced travelers trying to cross a bridge over the Ipswich river:

He appeared in the shape of a monstrous hog, taking his station, at night, in the very centre of the bridge; and those who had occasion to cross it, on horseback or on foot, were either fain to turn back, as he encountered them, bristling and snarling, or rushed by, if their occasion demanded it, in a state of extraordinary trepidation. 

This went on for quite a while until Topsfield's minster, one Revered Capen, decided to take care of the Devilish problem. One night he went to the bridge and saw the monstrous hog. The Satanic swine grunted and snorted at the minister, but he was undaunted by its bestial display. He calmly faced the beast and said:

You that were once an angel of light, ain't you ashamed to appear in the shape of a dirty swine?

Ouch! Take that, Satan. The reverend's insult was more than the devil-hog could take, and it leapt into the Ipswich River, never to be seen again.

Parson Capen House, Topsfield, Massachusetts.

George Lunt says this happened about 100 years before the book was written, during the lifetime of his father. The minister in the story may be Joseph Capen (1658 - 1725), who led Topsfield's church for more than 30 years. Capen's house is now a museum that is open to the public. Please leave your pet pigs in the car if you come to visit.

Although I jest a little bit, I do find these stories fascinating and creepy. The thought of monstrous devil pigs is more unsettling to me than the thought of demonic goats. Goats have a certain dignity and majesty (it's the horns I guess), and although pigs are very intelligent animals there is something about their omnivorous appetite that is unnerving. Plants, animal flesh, garbage - they'll eat it all. I can see why the Puritans thought Satan might take the form of a hog.

November 21, 2016

Trick Or Treat For Turkey? Masked Beggars At Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is full of traditions. Eating turkey, baking pies, watching football, putting on a costume and begging for food from neighbors...

What's that? You don't dress up and beg for food? Well, I suppose it's not a tradition anymore, but in the past it was common for children to dress up on Thanksgiving and go door to door, asking their neighbors for food.

Records of it can be found in the early 19th century, when the destitute would ask for food from their wealthier neighbors. Here is an account from Salem in the 1820s or 1830s:

For two days before Thanksgiving Day our back door was besieged by pensioners, who all came with the same whining request, "Please give me something for Thanksgiving." My mother always had ready a store of rice, flour, Indian meal and apples, which were dispensed to the crowd, while the more favored family retainers were given in addition tea, sugar, raisins, and oftentimes a pair of chickens or a turkey. Each one brought a stout cotton pillow case into which the measure of rice would be poured, and then a strong twine tied tightly round the outside to separate it from the flour, which came next, and so on to the extreme capacity of the pillow case (Caroline King Howard, When I Lived In Salem, 1822 - 1866, p.110).
The people doing the begging in this case were not children, but actual adults who either needed the food or worked for the King family and collected the food almost as a bonus. While her mother seems to have taken her role seriously, Caroline King Howard's use of the word "whining" doesn't sound very charitable. Some local children even thought it was funny to dress like they were poor and go begging too:

It used to be a great joke for the young people of those days to dress up in shabby old clothes, and on the night before Thanksgiving to go around as beggars, imposing upon their friends, and I remember the glee with which my friend Lucy used to describe her working upon her mother's sympathy to such a degree, by her eloquent and lifelike personation of a poor widow with two small children to support, that her pillow case was overbrimmed with good things... (Howard, When I Lived In Salem, 1822 - 1866, p.111)
A similar account is found in George Lunt's 1873 book Old New England Traits:

It was the practice of some of this class to knock at the doors of those thought to be better off, on the evening before, begging "something for Thanksgiving"; and, by way of a joke, the children of comfortable neighbors and friends would often array themselves in cast-off bizarre habiliments, and come in bands of three or four to the houses of those
whom they knew, preferring the same request... It was a queer fancy, thus to simulate poverty... (pp. 106 - 107)
So what's going on here? The answer partly lies in the agricultural cycle of Northern Europe and England, where the first New England colonists came from. In pre-modern Northern Europe, late fall and early winter was the time when there was the most food available. The crops would have been harvested, the beer brewed, and the animals slaughtered before winter. It was often the only time of year when fresh meat was available. However, this season's rich bounty was not evenly distributed. The wealthy usually had more than they could use, while their poor neighbors often didn't have enough.

Photo: Library of Congress

The tradition of seasonal begging, sometimes called mumming or masking, arose as a way to address this disparity. The poor, often wearing masks or outrageous costumes, would travel from house to house, asking for food and alcohol. Sometimes they would sing a song or perform a short play in return. This is where the tradition of Christmas caroling comes from. Although many carols are now religiously themed, some of the older carols are explicitly about begging for food. For example, these lyrics from "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" are pretty blunt:

Now bring us some figgy pudding

Now bring us some figgy pudding

Now bring us some 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 it right here

I'm listening to a version of this song right now, and it's being sung by a choir of charming children. It should really be sung by a group of drunken hungry peasants in a vaguely threatening manner.

But perhaps the children's choir is not totally inappropriate. According to Stephen Nissenbaum's excellent book The Battle for Christmas, children and teens often joined their poor neighbors in their masked begging. They might not have needed the food as much, but like the poor they were very low in the social hierarchy. So maybe a choir of drunk, threatening children would be the most authentic?

Photo: Library of Congress

The Puritans who colonized New England did not condone the celebration of Christmas, claiming there was nothing in the Bible to support the raucous parties and mumming found in England and Europe. In the New World, they wanted a society free from the drunken disorder associated with Christmas and banned its observance. Instead they instituted religious holidays like Thanksgiving, where people were supposed to reflect on the good things God had given them.

Give people an inch and they'll take a mile, the old aphorism says, and that's what happened with Thanksgiving. By the early 19th century, Thanksgiving celebrations lasted for several days and involved feasting, dances, games and heavy drinking. Thanksgiving was never as raucous as the old European Christmas celebrations, but it was the closest thing New England had.

Thanksgiving is now always held on the fourth Thursday of November, but that's a recent innovation. In the past it was sometimes celebrated as late as December. Thanksgiving was in many ways the Puritan replacement for Christmas, and the masked begging associated with a traditional English Christmas became attached to Thanksgiving instead.

Interestingly, in some places this tradition continued well into the 20th century, particularly among children. I don't think New England was one of them, and the photos used in this post are mostly from New York City, where children dressed up and begged until the 1950s. Interestingly, they often dressed like poor beggars, a practice so common that children were often organized into "Ragamuffin Parades." Pretending to be poor as a joke is not something that's approved of today, so it all seems kind of weird and maybe a little cruel to me. The tradition seemed to finally die when Halloween trick-or-treating became widespread.

I think this is a fascinating topic and I have lot of questions. How widespread was this practice in New England? The two examples I found are both from Massachusetts, and in his book Thanksgiving: The Biography of An American Holiday, historian James Baker claims it was only found on the North Shore. But if that's the case, how did the same practice end up in New York City?

I think there's a lot more that could be written about we ended up with the traditions that we have today. If by chance a stranger in a creepy mask knocks on your door this Thanksgiving, make sure you give them something nice to eat!

November 14, 2016

Was Shirley Jackson A Witch?

This October I decided to read some classic horror stories. I thought I would celebrate Halloween in a literary way.

Unfortunately I didn't make too much progress. I only managed to read Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw" and Shirley Jackson's short novel The Haunting of Hill House. The James story is fun (if you don't mind really long sentences), but Jackson's novel made a bigger impact on me. It was quite creepy and actually gave me some nightmares. I haven't read anything like that in a long time!

At some point I want to reread it so I can figure out how Jackson did what she did. I think it's partly because the book is about someone with severe psychological problems who also experiences actual supernatural events. That's a potent combo. I think most horror authors throw their weight behind either the psychological aspect or the supernatural aspect of their story. Jackson goes for both.

But there's also something about Jackson's writing style, which is simple but somehow also unsettling. She really knew how to use words to create an uncanny effect. It seems almost magical somehow.

Which leads me to the heart of this week's post: was Shirley Jackson a witch?

A new biography of Jackson came out this fall. Ruth Franklin's book Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life has been getting good reviews and it's on my reading list. Maybe it will answer that question more fully, but here's what I have been able to gather about Jackson's life (and witchery) so far.

Jackson was born in 1916 in San Francisco to wealthy parents (her grandfather designed Gothic mansions) but was not interested in conforming to their socialite expectations for her. She wanted to be a writer. While in college at Syracuse University she met and fell in love with the future literary critic Stanley Hyman. They married, and Hyman got a teaching job at Vermont's Bennington College, which then was an all-girls' school. Hyman taught classes, wrote criticism, and had multiple affairs with colleagues and students, which he flaunted to Jackson.

Jackson stayed at home, raised their children, and did all the housework. She was the traditional American housewife. But she also wrote short stories, novels, and non-fiction books that were very successful. Many of her works, like "The Lottery," The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in The Castle, are considered classics. She was soon the primary income earner in their home, although it seems that Hyman never really acknowledged it. Jackson died on August 8, 1965 while taking a post-lunch nap.

Jackson's fascination with the macabre and the uncanny started at a relatively young age. When she was sixteen she became interested in witchcraft and read everything she could find on the topic. It was an interest that continued through her life. The large house she and Hyman shared in Vermont had an enormous library (larger than Bennington College's) and included hundreds of books on the subject of witchcraft. Her fascination with the dark arts manifested itself in her own writings, which are full of references to magic and the supernatural. She even wrote a children's book about the Salem witch trials, and also a short story simply titled "The Witch."

The public relations people at Farrar and Strauss used Jackson's knowledge about witchcraft to promote her first collection of short stories when it was published in 1949. Claiming that she wrote "with a broomstick instead of a pen," they went so far as to leak a story that she had cursed her husband's publisher Alfred A. Knopf. The story goes something like this. Knopf and Hyman had been arguing about a book of Hyman's criticism, and Jackson supposedly said that she would curse Knopf if he ever came to Vermont. (She said her powers didn't extend to New York City.) Jackson made a wax doll of Knopf and stuck a pin in its leg. That winter Knopf went skiing in Vermont. Wouldn't you know it, he broke his leg...

The press ate it up, but Jackson was embarrassed. At least that's what she told her parents in a letter, claiming that if she really had a broomstick she would fly back to California and hide in their cellar. She couldn't have been that embarrassed, though, since she later used her witchy reputation to promote future books. For example, Jackson sent the following biographical blurb to her publisher:

I live in a dank old place with a ghost that stomps around in the attic room we’ve never gone into (I think it’s walled up) and the first thing I did when we moved in was to make charms in black crayon on all the door sills and window ledges to keep out demons, and was successful in the main. There are mushrooms growing in the cellar, and a number of marble mantels which have an unexplained habit of falling down onto the heads of the neighbors’ children.

At the full of the moon I can be seen out in the backyard digging for mandrakes, of which we have a little patch, along with rhubarb and blackberries. I do not usually care for these herbal or bat wing recipes, because you can never be sure how they will turn out. I rely almost entirely on image and number magic. (Quote found on this site.)

Although the story about Knopf might not be true, and that blurb might be exaggeration, Jackson actually did practice magic. It's apparent even from the blurb that she really did know quite a bit about witchcraft, and not just in an academic sense. Visitors to her house would see amulets and charms lying around on shelves and tables, and those who were lucky were treated to a Tarot card reading by Jackson. Her readings were said to be uncannily accurate.

Because she was saddled with all the domestic chores, Jackson sometimes also used magic to help around the house. For example, if she was unable to find a particular utensil in a cluttered kitchen drawer, she would slam the drawer loudly. Then, she would name the utensil she wanted. When she opened the drawer the utensil she wanted would be on top and easily found. Magic or just physics?

Was Shirley Jackson really, really a witch? It's a question that doesn't have an easy answer. It's hard to say exactly what makes someone a witch. Is it practicing magic? Being in league with hidden forces? Playing malicious tricks on enemies (and unsuspecting readers)? Jackson did all three, but maybe in her case it was just part and parcel of being a gifted writer. But then again, maybe not...


There is a lot of information about Shirley Jackson on the web, but I found this site, this site, and this site very interesting and useful. 

November 09, 2016

Captain Dodge and the Mermaid

Many years ago, when I was just a small boy, my parents took me and my brother to visit Harvard's museums. I remember seeing the vast collection of taxidermied animals, the glass flowers, and the dinosaur skeletons, which were pretty cool to me back then. (They're still pretty cool now!)

The exhibit I remember best, though, was something called the Fiji Mermaid. This was a small, mummified corpse of a hideous mermaid. Of course, the placard next to the glass case explained that it was not really a mermaid, but was actually a 19th century hoax someone created by sewing a monkey's torso onto a fish's tail. Hoax or not, it was seared into my memory, and the name Fiji Mermaid has stuck in my head ever since. It's one of those things you can't unsee once you see it.

Harvard's Fiji Mermaid. Now you can't unsee this thing either...

I think the Fiji Mermaid is probably the most famous mermaid to visit Boston's shores - it was once owned by P.T. Barnum - but it is not the only one. In the 1820s, decades before the Fiji Mermaid appeared, the whole city was talking about another mermaid who came to visit.

The story starts in 1822 with a man named Captain Dodge, who sailed into Boston Harbor bearing an incredible tale. Dodge said he had met a mermaid, captured her, and left her behind on an island. Dodge seemed quite fond of the mermaid and said he was hoping to go back and teach her human language and culture. He was like a nautical Henry Higgins, I guess.

The Bostonians he met were quite skeptical. It was only the 1820s but even then people in Boston prided themselves on their education and ability to sniff out a fraud. Dodge only had a drawing of his mermaid as proof, and people were unwilling to believe Dodge's story until they saw the see the real thing. Vowing to prove himself no liar, Dodge sailed off, promising to return with the mermaid.

Months passed. Captain Dodge's ship reappeared in Boston Harbor, carrying cargo from around the world but not the one thing everyone was most eager to see: the mermaid. Where was she, the crowds at India Wharf asked? Captain Dodge explained that sadly he found only her corpse when he returned to the island where he had left her. Apparently dragging a mermaid out of the ocean and leaving her stranded on an island was really bad idea. She couldn't survive outside of a marine environment.

Shouldn't someone should have charged Dodge with murder, or at least manslaughter? No one did. Instead people just ghoulishly demanded to see the corpse. I'm suppose most Bostonians were just skeptical of the whole story and didn't really think there was a mermaid to kill anyway. However, some local naturalists approached Dodge and politely asked him to bring the dead sea maiden to Boston for anatomical study. This, they argued, would help prove he was telling the truth. Dodge equivocated and sailed off without promising anything to anyone.

In 1824 Dodge once again sailed into Boston Harbor -  this time with the body of the mermaid on board his ship. Her corpse was enclosed within a glass case. Dodge made arrangements with the New-England Museum to exhibit the mermaid in their building on Court Street. Admission cost twenty-five cents. The mermaid was not allowed to be examined outside of her glass case. Those local naturalists were out of luck.

The New-England Museum (now gone), from Wikipedia

So what exactly did Dodge have inside the case? Was it an actual mermaid? Here is a description from an 1824 issue of The New York Mirror And Ladies Literary Gazette:

The question asked, is, Is it really and truly, bona fide, a Mermaid? We answer, go and see. Examine for yourself. If the skin of a large cod-fish stuffed, with the skeleton of a child’s body put on in the place of the cod’s head, the jaws and teeth of a cat inserted into that which represents the head of the child, and the whole, except for the scaly part enveloped in a bladder, or some other skinny substance, and smoked well with burning camphor, can make a Mermaid, then as sure as a fish is a fish… there is a Mermaid now to be seen in the room adjoining the New-England Museum…

So no, it was not an actual mermaid. Much like the Fiji Mermaid, it was created from the parts of various other animals. Let's hope it wasn't actually made from the body of a child.

Dodge had been sailing in the Pacific before he came to Boston with his mermaid, which helps explain where he got it. According to Wikipedia, fishermen in Japan and other Pacific nations often created these "mermaids" out of animal parts for religious reasons. They're kind of like the Pacific island version of jackalopes, I suppose. Dodge had purchased it during his voyage and then brought it back to New England to show. Did he think it was really a mermaid, or did he know if was fake? That's hard to say, but I suspect he knew it was a hoax. Otherwise, he would have let the naturalists examine it.

Dodge's mermaid corpse was one of the first to appear in the United States, but others soon followed, including the more famous Fiji Mermaid, which was promoted by none other than the great circus impresario P.T. Barnum. There is some debate over whether Harvard's mermaid is actually the same one that Barnum owned, but if not it's still a good example of these mummified mermaids. I think Loren Coleman's Cryptozoology Museum in Portland Maine has one as well. There are quite a few of these taxidermy oddities out in the world,and the term "Fiji Mermaid" is often used to describe any of them. 

As far as I know, no one has ever found an authentic mermaid (or merman) corpse. Skeptics might say that's because they don't exist, but perhaps mermaids are really manifestations of the ocean's spirit, beautiful but dangerous, and cannnot ever be captured. As for Dodge's mermaid, she long ago disappeared and hasn't been seen since.

My sources for this week were Edward Rowe Snow's 1957 book Legends of the New England Coast, and also this great fairy tale blog which led me to the quote from The New York Mirror.

October 30, 2016

The Pigman Cometh! Vermont's Porcine Horror Returns.

It is Halloween, and every Halloween I become jealous of the citizens of Northfield, Vermont. I'm not jealous of their clean country air or access to great dairy products. No, I'm jealous because Northfield has its very own special monster associated with Halloween.

I am jealous because they have the Pigman.

The Pigman first trotted into the public eye in 1999 when author Joseph Citro published Green Mountains, Dark Tales, a collection of spooky Vermont folklore and stories about the paranormal. Citro included an allegedly true story about a creature known as the Pigman, which lurked outside of Northfield in an area called the Devil's Washbowl. Citro heard the story from a Northfield man named Jeff Hatch at a public reading he was giving, but Citro estimated that hundreds of people were also familiar with the Pigman.

The Pigman's fame grew through subsequent books that Citro published, through para-normal themed TV shows, and through the internet. If you are not familiar with the Pigman, here are the basics.

In 1971 a group of Northfield high school students snuck out of a school dance to smoke and drink beer in the woods behind the school. Their illicit fun was spoiled when a naked hairy humanoid with a swine's head lurched out from the trees, grunting. The teens fled back into the school in panic. What was this creature and where had it come from? No one was quite sure. Some locals thought it was the offspring of a farmer who was inappropriately affectionate with his livestock, while others thought it might be a teenage boy who disappeared the previous yet and had gone insane. Others murmured ominously about gnawed animal bones found in caves near the Devil's Washbowl and a pale white thing that menaced teens in parked cars...

Another pig-headed monster appears on this year's season of American Horror Story.

That's the original basic story told by Citro. Another origin story appeared in 2013. According to this version, in 1951 the Pigman was just an average Vermont teen named Sam Harris. On October 30, Sam went out with some eggs and toilet paper to vandalize his neighbors' houses. October 30 is called Picket Night in Northfield, and it's the night that kids cause their Halloween mischief. (Coincidentally, that is tonight!) Unlike his peers, Sam never came back home after egging houses. The police and hundreds of volunteers searched for the boy but he was never seen again.

Well, maybe he was. A male figure seen wearing a pig's head was seen roaming through the gloomy autumn woods. People whispered that Sam had given himself to the Devil the night he disappeared and now was a force of evil. His parents dismissed these rumors, preferring to believe he was dead, until the night Sam appeared briefly on their porch, squealing like a hog and chewing animal entrails. His distraught mother killed herself thirteen days later by throwing herself into a pen full of hungry swine. Later, a local historian who tried to defend Sam's reputation in the newspaper disappeared and was found dead in the woods with the words "Picket Night" carved on her forehead. No one defended Sam after that. Instead, they just feared the Pigman.

Those are the two basic Pigman stories. People still report Pigman sightings, though, and every year around Halloween I search the Web for some new tales of this porcine horror. This year, I didn't even need to look! Someone posted a Pigman story as a comment right on one of my old posts. Here it is.

My father was a very practical man who was well grounded ... not one for an interest in strange sightings. There was a time, however, he told me about two encounters he had with what he described as seeing " A DOG WITH A HUMAN HEAD "... they happened in 1984 and 1985. I believe what he saw was the Pigman as they both occurred in the Northfield, Vt area, specifically West Brookfield, and Brookfield. My brother-in-law was with him when they witnessed the first encounter. My mother was present during the second. He ran inside his home to get a rifle to shoot it because he said it didn't look natural and needed to be killed (I wouldn't have killed it ... I would have reported it to the police) but it was gone when he came back out. It REALLY shook them up .. I even found a cryptozoology sighting form in a dresser drawer he obviously decided against mailing out.

I'm not giving my name because I know what kind of backlash there would be... I don't need it ... but every word I've written is true. 
I'm grateful to whoever left me this little Halloween present, although it leaves me with questions. Did someone's Dad really see the Pigman AND then mistake it for a dog with a human head? Where does one get cryptozoology sighting forms? There probably aren't good answers to those questions, but it's the time of year for scary stories, whether or not they're 100% true.

Of course, I write that from the safety of my well-lit home in the city. If I lived up in Northfield, I'd probably be a little more nervous now that the days are short and the woods are very, very dark.


If you want to read more about the Pigman, you can see my other posts here, here and here. Oh, and here too!

October 24, 2016

Proctor's Ledge: Site of the Salem Witch Executions

This past weekend Tony and I went up to Salem with some friends. It's almost Halloween, so it's time to indulge in all the spooky goodness the Witch City offers in October, like pumpkin-flavored cocktails, haunted attractions staffed by people in rubber monster masks, and shopping at the Wiccan shops.

We go up every October, but this year we took a somber detour before we went downtown to the Halloween festivities. We went to find Proctor's Ledge, the site where the city's famous nineteen accused witches were executed in 1692.

Historians were only recently able to accurately determine where the witch trial's gallows stood. It was known the executions happened on Gallows Hill, but not precisely where. In the 18th century two locust trees had been planted at the site as a memorial, but by the 19th century they were gone and there was no record of where they had been. Most historians in the 1800s simply assumed the executions had occurred at the top of Gallows Hill.

In the 1920s Salem historian Sidney Perley put forth an alternate theory. The doomed prisoners were brought to the gallows by ox cart, and Perley felt that the top of Gallows Hill was too steep for an ox cart to ascend. Based on eyewitness testimonials he instead argued that the gallows were built lower down the hill in an area known as Proctor's Ledge.

Perley's theory was verified just this year by seven scholars who worked together as the Gallows Hill Project. They combed through thousands of records trying to find references to the site. The final piece in the puzzle was found by historian Marilynne Roach in an account from the trial of Boxford's Rebecca Eames.

On August 19, 1692 Eames was being brought into Salem by Boxford constables when they encountered Salem constables bringing five accused witches to the gallows for execution. They were accompanied by a large crowd. Not wishing to miss the execution, the Boxford men left Eames at "a house below the hill" owned by John Macarter. During her examination later that day Eames testified that she had been able to see the hangings from Macarter's house.

This was the key that historians were looking for. The location of Macarter's house was well-documented, and it would have had a view of Proctor's Ledge, confirming Perley's theory. Further, Eames would not have been able to see the top of Gallows Hill from the house, ruling out the other theory. (As an FYI, Rebecca Eames was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to hang but happily was never executed.)

Proctor's Ledge today is an empty lot owned by the City of Salem. Located at 15 Proctor Street, it's nestled between some houses and hidden away behind a Walgreens. It's an incongruous location for someplace so infamous and darkly legendary. Happily it is located several miles from the busy downtown area, so I don't think anyone will be selling fried dough or souvenir t-shirts outside it any time soon. And I write that as someone who later that day ate fried Oreos on Salem Common and owns a Salem t-shirt. I have no problem with people making money off tourism or having fun. I love the carnival atmosphere of Salem in October, but Proctor's Ledge shouldn't be part of it.

A memorial ring of shells someone left on the ledge.
The city is developing plans for a memorial of some kind, but until then I think it's best if the site is left untouched. This is a spot where nineteen people were executed for crimes they never committed. It's one of the most infamous places in American history. Visiting it was a somber and quite frankly unnerving experience.

My sources for this week's post: Benjamin Ray's Satan and Salem, plus this article in The Salem News.

October 19, 2016

Foul-Mouthed Fairies and Spirit Possession in 1846

The Massachusetts town of Wrentham is perhaps currently best known as the location of some famous outlet malls, but the town is actually quite old. It was founded in the 1600s, and like a lot of old New England towns has at least one weird incident in its history. And so I relate the following set of bizarre events...

A prominent physician named Dr. Larkin lived in Wrentham in the early 1800s. Larkin was married, had at least one child, and was a member of one of the local Protestant churches. In short, he was part of the town establishment.

Unlike most of his neighbors, though, Dr. Larkin became interested in mesmerism in the year 1837. Also known as animal magnetism, mesmerism was founded by the German Franz Mesmer in the late 18th century. Mesmer believed that all animals were filled with a vital life force which could be manipulated to produce healing effects. Mesmerists would manipulate the life force through a variety of means including the laying-on of hands and hypnosis.

Franz Anton Mesmer (from Wikipedia)

A young servant girl named Mary Jane lived with the Larkin family at this time. The Larkins were upstanding members of the community, but Mary Jane was something of an outsider. She had been born in Nova Scotia, was Roman Catholic (how shocking!), and was subject to strange fits. Dr. Larkin tried but was unable to find a physical cause for her fits or to treat them.

One day in 1844 Dr. Larkin had an "a-ha!" moment. Why not try to cure Mary Jane's fits through mesmerism? Mary Jane's fits improved slightly, but surprisingly when she was under hypnosis she was able to accurately diagnose the ailments of Dr. Larkin's other patients. Her diagnoses were so reliable that Larkin depended on her whenever he encountered an illness he couldn't diagnose.

So far so good. What doctor wouldn't want a magical office assistant? But of course that's not the end of the story.

Mary Jane claimed that while she was hypnotized she was attended to by a group of spirits. Some of them were quite benevolent. For example, a group of kind and lovely fairies from Germany would appear to her. Their leader was a female spirit named Katy whom Mary Jane claimed was her guardian angel. Katy was described as being beautiful and good, and it was she who supposedly diagnosed the patients. Sometimes when the good fairies appeared strange knocking sounds would be heard throughout the Larkin house, which seemed unusual, but they were minor inconveniences compared to the help the fairies provided.

Unfortunately, sometimes other spirits spoke through Mary Jane. These spirits were foul-mouthed and loved to spout obscenities at the doctor and his family. These nasty beings didn't just stop at swearing. They also engaged in poltergeist activity.

Her entranced lips, as if moved by automatic action over which she had no control, gave utterance to the most blasphemous oaths and rude speeches; at the same time the furniture was often moved about violently by unseen hands, and heavy weights were lifted from place to place. On one occasion, the whole family being assembled round the couch of the magnetized sleeper, and every door being shut, a heavy flat-iron, last seen in the kitchen - quite distant off - was suddenly placed in their midst, and at the request of Mrs. Larkin, as suddenly disappeared, and was next found in the kitchen...(American Spiritualism: A Twenty Years Record of the Communion Between Earth and the World of Spirits, Emma Hardinge, 1870)

The leader of the foul-mouthed spirits was a deceased sailor who swore as much in death as he did in life. Mary Jane sometimes called this spirit Captain Goodhue, and declared that he was king of the fairies. Goodhue could accurately (if obscenely) describe what Dr. Larkin did even when he was away from home. He also drank copious amounts of rum through Mary Jane.

The ghosts of other deceased spirits also began to speak through Mary Jane, and Larkin recorded the life stories of more than 270 of these entities. He supposedly was able to verify that many of their stories were true.

By 1846 Mary Jane's behavior had become even stranger. The drunken sailor's spirit would pull Mary Jane's limbs out of joint, and although this caused her no pain it made her unable to move until Dr. Larkin put them back in place. Other spirits hovered around Mary Jane, pinching her and causing her great pain. She told the doctor she was willing to endure this suffering because it would help stave off Mrs. Larkin's death, whose impending approach the spirits had warned her of. Mary Jane had accurately foretold the death of one of Dr. Larkin's children so he took her warning (and sufferings) quite seriously.

All these bizarre events drew the attention of Dr. Larkin's neighbors, and many of them began to mutter unfavorably about him. As you can imagine, people in a small 19th century New England town didn't take well to spirit possession, heavy drinking, and swearing maid-servants. Some neighbors were particularly annoyed because they were often called in to help the doctor put Mary Jane's limbs back into their sockets. A committee was convened to investigate, and Mary Jane was found guilty of disturbing the peace. (Some sources say the charge was actually necromancy.)

Dr. Larkin pleaded with the police not to arrest Mary Jane until she had completed the painful suffering necessary to save his wife. Although skeptical they honored the doctor's wishes, and waited the allotted time before arresting the servant girl. She was finally sentenced to sixty days in Dedham's jail for lewdness, indecency, profanity, and disturbing the peace. Upon hearing the sentence Mary Jane is reported to have said, "Is that all? Well, I think I can stand it."

As for Dr. Larkin, he was threatened with excommunication from his church unless he signed a document declaring that he didn't believe the living could communicate with the dead. Church membership was crucial for his professional success, so he signed.

There's so much happening in this story that I don't know where to begin. I guess I can start by saying I used two sources: Emma Hardinge's book and a newspaper article from the December 5, 1846 issue of The Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics. Hardinge was a Spiritualist and believed that everything that occurred at Larkin's was really caused by spirits. The Portsmouth Journal is quite skeptical and believes Dr. Larkin was taken in by a conniving servant. Real spirits or a hoax? I will let you decide for yourselves.

There is very little fairy lore from early New England, which makes this story even more unusual than it is. The Puritans who colonized this region brought over plenty of witch, ghost and Devil lore from England, but almost no fairy lore. I think it's significant that Katy was Roman Catholic and from Nova Scotia, a region whose colonizers did bring fairy stories to the New World. I suspect that she was probably Irish or Scottish.

Some of her behavior while possessed by the spirits was reminiscent of that shown by the afflicted girls in the Salem witch trials. I wonder if the town leaders had that in mind when they arrested her for disturbing the peace? They may not have wanted others in Wrentham to emulate her behavior.

Most modern Americans don't group fairies and dead spirits together, but the connection between the two is strong in some older European folklore. For example people often reported seeing deceased humans living among fairies, and it's not a coincidence that fairies dress in old-fashioned clothes. So-called fairy mounds in Britain and Ireland are often actually ancient burial mounds. And much like ghosts, fairies are often active around the dark time of year, including Halloween.


Special thanks to Simon Young of the Fairy Investigation Society for forwarding me the article from The Portsmouth Journal which inspired this post!

October 10, 2016

Creepy Clowns Invade New England (Again) In October 2016

Phantom clowns. Evil clowns. Creepy clowns. Whatever you call them, they're back with a vengeance in New England this October.

The nation's first phantom clown scare took place here in the Boston area way back in the spring of 1981. Several small children in Boston and Brookline reported in April of that year that they had been approached by clowns in a van. The clowns allegedly offered the kids candy if they would get in their van, but the kids wisely refused. By May children from across Boston and neighboring cities were reporting the sinister clowns, but the police were never able to find any evidence to support the children's claims. The hysteria died down by the summer, but small children in other cities across the country did report creepy clowns later that year. The 1981 clown craze had started in Boston and spread to the other cities.

There have been other creepy clown crazes since then, but the current one is the largest that I can recall. This year's clown craze started in the summer when children in South Carolina reported clowns in the the woods behind their apartment building. It has since spread to at least 26 states.

There are some big differences between the 1981 clown scare and this one. In 1981 the clowns were reported almost exclusively by small children. Although young children started the current scare, here in New England the people reporting the clowns have tended to be older. Middle school, high school, and even college students are at the heart of this year's clown craze. I think that's because social media has played a huge part in the current hysteria. Rumors of clowns have spread on Twitter and Facebook, and tweens, teens, and young adults are heavy social media users.

The phenomena can be broken down into three components: internet rumors spread through text messaging and social media, pranksters who act out the rumors by donning clown masks, and unsubstantiated sightings. No one has actually been hurt by evil clowns. Let's face it, there probably aren't any evil clowns out there.

Here's a list of creepy clown sightings that have happened recently in New England. All of these have occurred between October 3 and October 10. It's amazing how quickly this has spread! Let's hope it ends soon before some hoaxer dressed in a clown outfit gets hurt by an angry mob. 

CONNECTICUT: On the night of Monday, October 3, the police department in Storrs was flooded with calls from concerned University of Connecticut students claiming that scary clowns had been seen on campus. The police received nearly 30 calls, but very few of the callers had actually seen the clowns themselves. They had merely heard reports they were on campus. However, a few callers did say they had seen clowns near dormitories and near the Storrs cemetery. The police investigated and did not find any clowns.

The rumors continued to spread across campus through social media, and as the night went on students left their dorms armed with hockey sticks and golf clubs to find the clowns. Police estimate that hundreds of students made their way to the Storrs cemetery to confront the rumored clowns. By 1:00 a.m. the students finally returned to campus. Similar scares happened the same night at Quinnipiac and Sacred Heart Universities, but apparently without bloodthirsty mobs forming.

From the Connecticut State Police.

In unrelated incidents six teenagers were arrested in Ansonia, Naugatuck and Prospect for making threats while posing online as clowns, but none of the threats were deemed credible. In Meriden, police investigated five reports of people dressed as clowns, including one  who swung a baseball bat at a car. 

MAINE: The first creepy clown in Maine was reported in Orono (home to a large state university), and another shortly thereafter was seen in Bath on Front Street. Those two sightings seem kind of innocuous, but things took a darker turn when students at a middle school in Naples learned on Facebook that their school was going to be attacked by evil clowns. The police later arrested the 12-year old male student who made the threat and charged him with terrorizing the school. The police also explained he had no intention of actually carrying out an attack.

Things got even hairier in Auburn, Maine. A woman was sitting on the porch of her Gamage Avenue house when an SUV stopped in front of it. The passenger window rolled down to reveal a man wearing creepy clown makeup. The woman laughed and said "I'm not afraid of clowns."

Then the clown formed a gun shape with his fingers, the woman said, and mouthed the word 'bang.'
"I picked up my 9 mm — I didn't point it at him directly," the woman said, "and said, 'Back at ya, clown.'"
The driver of the SUV decided Gamage Avenue was no longer the place for hijinks.
The woman, who did not want to be identified, reported the weird incident to police. She handled the clown encounter with finesse, she said, but once the SUV was gone, she started to feel unsettled.
There were people walking in the area when the encounter occurred, she said. There were children outside playing and she shuddered at the thought of how things might have played out if the situation had turned ugly.
"It seems like something bad is going to happen," she said.

Clowns have also been reported in Wells, Kennebunk, Gorham, and Standish. Most of these reports have been made on Twitter.

MASSACHUSETTS: On Monday, October 3, police were called to Merrimack College in North Andover to investigate reports of a clown carrying a pitchfork. One dorm was evacuated (a clown had been seen on the third floor) and all students were ordered to shelter in place, but police did not find any clowns. A clown was also reportedly seen lurking in the woods near campus.

Several other Massachusetts colleges also experienced clown scares around the same time. Police at Boston's Emmanuel College were flooded with calls about a clown on campus, as were police at UMass Amherst. Again, no clowns were found. Clown scares were also reported at high schools in various towns including Dedham, Walpole and Hanover.

Photo from the Auburn Police department.
Several people have been arrested in Massachusetts for making clown threats. A student in Methuen was arrested after he wore a clown mask to Methuen High School and brandished his cell phone like a gun, while a 17-year old in Rehoboth was arrested for making threats online against Dighton-Rehoboth Regional High School. In Auburn, a man was arrested for disturbing the peace when he donned a clown mask and drove behind a school bus full of elementary school students. It turns out he was the father of one of the students and was playing a poorly-timed joke.

A resident of Northhampton was sent an anonymous text message that showed a clown smashing a pie onto a car. When they returned home they found pie all over the front of their vehicle. Clowns were also seen lurking near a McDonald's restaurant. In Agawam, a video of a clown standing outside an shopping plaza caused a social media frenzy until it was revealed to be a promotion for a local haunted Halloween attraction. 

NEW HAMPSHIRE: Someone wearing a clown outfit used a megaphone to scream at passing students on the UNH campus in Durham. Some students took the situation very seriously because they saw police and emergency vehicles heading onto campus, but it turns out the vehicles were actually responding to an unrelated fire alarm at a dorm. A UNH football player later posted a photo on Twitter of himself with the person he said had been doing the clowning.

Clowns were also reported near the Keene State campus (no one was found), and in the town of Berlin (again, no one was found). In Fremont, a woman claimed she saw a clown holding balloons near the side of a road, while a video reportedly showed a creepy clown in the woods behind Fremont's Ellis school. Meanwhile, administrators at Bedford's Lurgio Middle School heard rumors of evil clowns from students and decided to investigate. They found the students were simply repeating stories they had read on Twitter.

In the town of Dover, police responded to a report that someone was being chased down the street by a clown. They didn't find anything. A Dover middle school student also reported seeing a clown in the woods behind the school. Again, nothing was found.

RHODE ISLAND: New England's smallest state has had a small number of clown sightings - for now. Police in Pawtucket investigated alleged clown threats against two schools but found nothing to substantiate them. There have been rumors that clowns have been hanging around outside schools, and a story was circulating that a clown had chased someone out of Slater Park with a machete. When police investigated the machete rumor they found it had originated in a message on Pokemon Go! Ugh.
"This thing's a national phenomenon," Public Safety Commissioner Antonio Pires said of the clown reports that have surfaced in at least 26 states, including all 6 in New England. It has been particularly troubling for schoolchildren, he said. "They have a high level of anxiety over it. When you begin to see it running like wildfire, the concern is the kids' psyche."
VERMONT: Two students at Bellow Free Academy (BFA) in St. Albans received text messages from someone named "Clide Daklowns" indicating he was planning to scare students at BFA and nearby Missisquoi Valley Union Middle/High School. The police were brought in and quickly learned the messages had been sent by a student at another high school. The student claimed he was just passing along messages he received from someone else. No charges were filed.

October 03, 2016

A Terrible Critter with Eyes Like Fire Coals: Revisiting the Dogtown Werewolf

A few years ago I blogged about the Dogtown werewolf, but it seems like a good time to revisit this topic. I was just recently researching this topic for my friend Sam Baltrusis's upcoming book about haunted crime scenes, and a producer from a paranormal show had also asked me what I knew about the topic. But most importantly, I really like werewolves!

New England folklore is filled with stories about witches, ghosts and the Devil himself, but there aren't very many about werewolves. Although the French Canadians of Vermont and Maine tell some tales about the loup-garou you don't find many werewolf stories in southern New England. One of the few comes from Dogtown on Massachusetts's Cape Ann.

Dogtown Common is a large park situated between the cities of Gloucester and Rockport. Once a thriving Colonial village, today Dogtown is 3,000 acres of forest, swamps and boulders. The ruins of the old village can be still be seen among the trees, along with boulders that wealthy Gloucester financier Roger Babson carved with motivational slogans. It's a weird landscape that has inspired artists and poets, and is haunted by legends of witches and strange disappearances.

Dogtown may also be home to a werewolf, at least according to the late author Robert Ellis Cahill (b.1934 - d. 2005). Cahill is an interesting figure in New England folklore. Before becoming a writer Cahill had worked as a Massachusetts politician and spent four years as Essex County sheriff, operating out of nearby Salem in that latter job until he suffered a major cardiac arrest in 1978. Heart attacks had long been a professional hazard of Salem's sheriffs, a problem supposedly dating back to the witch trials of 1692. During those trials accused wizard Giles Corey supposedly cursed Sheriff George Corwin, who died of a painful heart attack at a young age. Many of his successors suffered from heart attacks as well. The curse only ended after the sheriff's office was moved from Salem to nearby Middleton.

Robert Ellis Cahill (from Wikipedia).
Perhaps his encounter with a folkloric curse led Cahill to the next phase of his career, which was writing books about New England's weird and spooky history. He published more than thirty short books which had titles like New England's Cruel and Unusual Punishments, New England's Mountain Madness, and Haunted Ships of the North Atlantic. It was in one of these books (New England's Things That Go Bump in The Night) that he discussed the Dogtown werewolf.

On the evening of March 17, 1984 a Boston man named David Myska saw a large, mysterious animal loping along the cliffs near Crane Beach in Ipswich. Myska thought it might be a mountain lion, but those felines have been extinct in Massachusetts for centuries. Myksa claimed it was too large to be a coyote. So what was it? The creature was also seen in nearby Rowley, and four days later a dead deer was found near Crane Beach. Its throat had been slashed and large tooth marks were found around its neck and chest. Oddly, none of the deer's flesh had been eaten.

Ipswich and Rowley are not Dogtown, but they are located just a few miles away across the Annisquam River. Could the animal seen in those towns been the same one sighted a few days later by two teens running down Raynard Street in Gloucester? They described it as “gray monstrous dog-like animal… It had big teeth and was foaming at the mouth.” Yikes. Raynard Steet leads directly into Dogtown.

According to Cahill, the history of Dogtown is littered with hints about werewolves. For example, he claims that the Indians who originally inhabited Cape Ann said they were descended from a race of dog-headed men. He claims they also believed that anyone who ate the wolfbane plant would revert to their ancestral form: hairy, fanged, clawed, and lupine. I haven't seen this folklore anywhere except in Cahill's book, so take it with a grain of salt. And whatever you do, don't eat wolfbane, which is highly poisonous, with or without salt.

Dogtown is famous for the witches who lived there in the 18th and early 19th century, and Cahill notes that one of these witches, Daffy Archer, wore a wolf's tooth around her neck as a pendant. Witches are famous shape-shifters, so I suppose it's not much of a leap to connect witches with werewolves. If Peg Wesson, an infamous Gloucester witch, could send out her soul in the shape of a crow perhaps some other witch could transform into a wolf.

Me in Dogtown. I didn't see a werewolf that day (that I know...)

Cahill also interprets a famous incident from Dogtown's history as a possible werewolf attack. On September 10, 1892, a Gloucester sailor named James Merry drunkenly decided to wrestle a bull pastured in Dogtown. The previous year Merry, inspired by toreadors he had seen in Spain, had successfully wrestled the same bull to the ground, so why not try it again? In his drunken stupor Merry forgot that bulls grow quickly, and the bull was much, much larger than it had been twelve months earlier. It won the rematch and gored Merry to death. The sailor's lifeless body was found the next morning in the pasture.

That's the official story, but Cahill claims that the moon was full the night of September 10, and that Merry was found with his throat torn out, something no bull would do. Cahill asks: could Merry have been killed by a werewolf?

I would say this is all pretty slender evidence for a werewolf, but Cahill does cite one story that makes me hesitate in saying he concocted the whole thing. In her 1879 book Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian, Sarah Emery tells the following tale about Amos Pillsbury, a man who lived in Dogtown and worked for her Emery's father as a laborer. One night Pillsbury was walking home from work, a route that took him through thick woods. As he traveled this dark road he encountered a "terrible critter":

"A terrible critter? What was it like Pillsbury?" father inquired.

"Oh, Mr. Smith, it was a terrible big critter, as big as Brindle's calf; its eyes were like fire coals, and it ran past me through the bushes, about a rod from the road, with every hair whistling like a bell. It must have been the wolverine."

"The what, Pillsbury?"

"The wolverine. My old granny used to keep us young 'uns quiet with stories about the wolverine out beyond in the woods. I used to be afeared to stir ten yards from the door o' nights; but, as I had never seen the critter afore, I had begun to think it was one of granny's stories, but I seed him last night, sartin sure ; and his eyes were like fire coals, and every hair whistled like a bell." 

Pillsbury here is using the word wolverine to refer to a wolfish creature, not to the Hugh Jackman character from the X-men movies or the large burrowing animal found in Alaska. It was something his grandmother had told him about since childhood, and he was so obviously scared by seeing it that local men hunted for the creature for two days. They didn't find any sign of it.

So does this all add up to a bona fide werewolf? I'd like to think so, but it might just be wishful thinking on my part. If it is, I'm not the only one who feels that way. A couple years ago we went to a performance/haunted house in Salem called Gallow's Hill, which re-enacts legends from the North Shore's past. According to the performers at Gallow's Hill, the Dogtown witches used werewolves to guard their houses. So, whether it's true or not, the legend of the Dogtown werewolf lives on.