January 31, 2016

The Dogtown Witches

Most of the witches in New England history bore that label unwillingly. They were innocents accused of witchcraft during one of the area's witch crazes, or they were social outcasts called witches by their suspicious neighbors.

But in a desolate part of Massachusetts's Cape Anne, a group of women seemed to have taken on the mantle of witch deliberately as a way to survive harsh economic times. They were the Dogtown witches.

Their story starts in the early 18th century. In the year 1721 the town elders of Gloucester, Massachusetts decided to open up more land for settlement. This coastal community north of Boston had been growing for almost 100 years, and space was growing tight in the main part of town.

Dogtown is very, very rocky.

When Gloucester was first established much of the land was covered with thick forest. Over time most trees had been cut down for firewood or lumber, and by 1721 a high, rocky plateau just outside town was almost completely treeless. The elders named this plateau the Commons Settlement and encouraged young families to build homes there.

At first all went well. The land was too rocky for farming, but craftsmen like barrel makers, blacksmiths and millers settled the area. Livestock grazed among the plateau's many large boulders. The Commons Settlement thrived.

Things were good for several decades, but when the Revolutionary War began many of the Commons' men were called away as sailors and soldiers. To make matters worse, Gloucester's meeting house was relocated. The meeting house was the town's civic and religious center, and it was originally located close to the Commons Settlement. However, wealthy families who lived on the waterfront resented the long commute to Sunday services and eventually persuaded the town to move the meeting house closer to the harbor. With this move the Commons Settlement changed from an up and coming neighborhood to an isolated backwater.

Old boundary walls in Dogtown.
Families began to leave the settlement for better locations, abandoning their homes and businesses, and people from the lowest levels of Gloucester society began to move into the empty houses. Freed slaves and elderly widows soon made up most of the Commons' population. Wealthier Gloucesterites began to derogatorily call the place Dogtown, and the nickname stuck.

The area is officially called Dogtown Common even today. Legend says it was called Dogtown because of the feral dogs who roamed its empty streets. That's quite possible, but there are other poor marginal communities in the US that share the same name. It may just be a standard American name for a bad place to live.

Boulder marking the site of Dogtown's old public square, now overgrown with trees. 

Some of the Dogtowners survived on charity and working menial jobs in town, but many of the elderly widows made their living as herbalists... and witches. This was of course risky work. Less than 100 years earlier the Salem witch trials had wreaked havoc in Massachusetts, but the Dogtown witches somehow avoided legal problems or violence.

Some of the women positioned themselves as healers and fortune tellers. For example, Daffy Archer sold a medicine made of snail mucous. Rachel Rich also sold a healing tonic, but hers was made of fox berry leaves, spruce tops, and other herbs, which sounds less icky. She also told fortunes by examining coffee grounds. Her daughter Becky did similar work but preferred to use tea leaves instead.

The Riches were mostly benevolent, but some of their neighbors followed a more malevolent path. Molly Jacobs was also a fortune-tellers but also threatened anyone who didn't give her money. Luce George operated in a similar way, but the most-feared witch in Dogtown was Thomazine "Tammy" Younger, Luce's niece.

House foundation.

Tammy Younger lived in a collapsing house near the main road that passed through Dogtown to Gloucester. Whenever she heard a wagon or horse approaching her house she would throw open the shutters and glare at the oncoming travelers. Then Tammy would threaten to curse them unless they gave her money to pass by safely. She was quite fearsome in appearance and was quite successful at collecting tolls from terrified travelers.

Tammy's reputation lingered even after her death in 1829. When she died her nephew ordered a coffin from John Hodgkins, a local carpenter. The Hodgkins family was used to having coffins in their home, but Mrs. Hodgkins felt an unnatural chill around Tammy's coffin - even though it was empty. She believed Tammy's ghost was lurking around their house and demanded that her husband move the coffin to the barn.

The last inhabitant of Dogtown, a freed slave named Cornelius Finson, died in 1839. After his death the settlement became the ghost town that it still is today. For many years it was a popular spot for picnickers, and wealthy philanthropist Roger Babson hired local masons to carve motivational slogans into some of the boulders. Babson came from one of Gloucester's prominent families, and he wanted people to remember the hard-working craftsmen who founded the settlement, not the witches who lived there at its demise.

One of Babson's boulders.

Over time the forest reclaimed Dogtown, and it's now 3,000 acres of thickly-wooded, rock-strewn wilderness. It's beautiful, magical and kind of spooky. Babson's boulders are still there, but they're hidden by the trees, and whenever I visit I don't think about hard-working craftsmen. I think about the Dogtown witches.


There are quite a few books about historic Gloucester and Dogtown, but one of the best is probably Elyssa East's Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town (2009). If you decide to visit Dogtown go with a friend. It is large, rocky, and there have been a couple murders there. The locals also claim there have been some unexplained disappearances.

Me wandering through Dogtown.

January 24, 2016

Finding Bigfoot in Maine and New Hampshire

This month Animal Planet aired two episodes of Finding Bigfoot that were filmed right here in New England. I'm not a regular viewer of this show, but how could I resist these two episodes?

If you're not familiar with Finding Bigfoot, here's how the show works. The show has four Bigfoot experts (three true believers and one designated skeptic) who travel around the world searching for everyone's favorite hairy hominid. They meet with a group of locals who share their Bigfoot sightings, and then follow up with a few in-depth interviews/investigations. These usually include re-enactments of the sightings, complete with CGI Sasquatches running through the woods. Awesome!


The show's experts also go out into the woods, usually at night, and try to find Bigfoot. This involves lots of night-vision cameras, and people knocking on trees or making howls that supposedly sound like Bigfoot. Let's hope they don't accidentally issue a Bigfoot mating call.

In the episode "Maine's Bigfoot Event," the experts visit the Pine Tree state for the first time. They visit Loren Coleman's Museum of Cryptozoology in Portland. Loren Coleman was writing about weird monsters before the Finding Bigfoot experts were even born, and his museum looks like a lot of fun. I should really take a field trip up there one of these weekends!


After looking at Coleman's map of recent Bigfoot sightings the experts hold a town-hall style meeting with local residents. Dozens of people raise their hands when asked if they've seen a Sasquatch, and we see a few people tell their stories in more detail. I wonder how long these meetings last in real life? There's no such thing as a boring Bigfoot sighting, but I'm assuming the producers edit out the parts they think are dull.

On this episode we only get to see two re-enactments. In one, a couple feeding chickens behind their house see something large and hair run down a ridge. In the second, a father and son walking in the woods behind their house encounter a gigantic hairy humanoid. When shown how wide the creature's shoulders were, one of the experts says something like, "You saw a big stud." Again, let's hope no mating calls are accidentally issued.

The rest of this episode consists of the experts out in the woods looking for Bigfoot. One of the premises behind the show is that Bigfoot are just very intelligent animals that communicate with each by knocking on trees and howling. The experts try to lure Bigfoot out of hiding by knocking on trees and howling.

I don't think that Bigfoot is large undiscovered animal, but I do find it interesting that the show's experts usually get some kind of response, whether a distant animal cry or a mysterious knocking sound. The skeptic in me thinks that the woods are always full of noises if you listen hard enough, so it might just be coincidence that they often hear responses. The less skeptical part of my brain is reminded of seances, where the spirits communicate by knocking on tables or blowing out candles. There's always something lurking out there in the dark giving hints that it exists, but it very seldom shows its face.

I liked the Maine episode, but I loved "Grand Bigfoot Hotel" which was filmed in a lot of places I've been. The experts stay at the Omni Mount Washington Hotel, which I've stayed at and is famously haunted. They don't mention the ghost, but they do go wandering at night on the trails behind the hotel. I saw an otter and a huge woodpecker when I stayed there, but sadly the experts don't see Bigfoot.

The Mount Washington Hotel

The local re-enactments include a snowboarder who saw a giant thing walking through the snow, a couple who saw two Bigfoot shaking trees behind their house, and a couple who saw something weird cross the road in Franconia Notch. I've driven through the notch many times, and it is a very dramatic place with huge cliffs and unusual weather. Betty and Barney Hill were abducted by a UFO just down the road, so there's a history of strange things happening in that area.

The experts go looking for Bigfoot evidence near the Frankenstein Cliffs, another place I've visited, but I think the high point of the show is when they recruit a local alphorn player to wander in the woods with them to lure Sasquatch out of hiding. Alphorns are those gigantic horns they play in the Swiss mountains.

Calling for a Ricola or Bigfoot?

Did anyone really think that Bigfoot would show himself after hearing someone play a giant wooden horn? Of course not. But maybe that's not what this show is about.

I'll suggest that perhaps Finding Bigfoot isn't really about finding Bigfoot. Maybe it's really about giving local people across the country their 15 minutes of fame. Maybe it's about showing strange and interesting local places, like a big spooky hotel and a cool little museum. And maybe it's really about giving viewers hope that they too might glimpse a strange creature wandering through their own backyards.

January 17, 2016

Haunted Happenings and Theater People in Kennebunkport

The other day I was at the Boston Athenaeum poking around in the library's folklore and occult collections. These books are kept way, way down in a deep dark windowless basement, which seems appropriate for the subject matter. The basement is brick-floored, low-ceilinged, adjacent to the Old Granary Burying ground, and probably very old.

Many of the Athenaeum's occult books are from the 19th century, and cover topics like spiritualism, astrology, and the local witch trials. Their covers are made from well-worn leather, and their pages are musty with age. Quite a few of them are in German. I haven't found a copy of the Necronomicon yet, but it's probably just sitting somewhere waiting to be shelved.

So, in this very atmospheric situation, the book that strangely caught my attention was Prominent American Ghosts (1967) by Susy Smith. The pages are not musty, and it's a light blue hardback. And let's face it, the name Susy Smith doesn't sound very ominous.

Her name may not be ominous, but a little poking around on the web revealed that Susy Smith (b. 1911, d. 2001) was quite prolific as an occult author. She wrote thirty books, including How to Develop Your ESP (2000), The Enigma of Out of Body Travel (1965), and The Afterlife Codes: Searching for Evidence of the Survival of the Human Soul (2000). Smith was a psychic and channeler, and had her first experience with a ghost when she encountered her deceased mother's spirit. After this encounter she began experimenting with the Ouija board, which led to a lifelong fascination with ghosts and the paranormal.

In short, Smith knew her stuff about ghosts (and may still, if her spirit is hanging around this material plane). To research Prominent American Ghosts, Smith traveled across the country from New Orleans to Hawaii interviewing people who had seen ghosts and visiting haunted locations. Happily for this blog she also visited New England, and wrote about a haunted house in Kennebunkport, Maine.

The house in question is the Gideon Merrill house, which was built in 1754. It remained in the Merrill family for a couple generations before it was sold to undertaker Samuel Lewis in 1830. Lewis only practiced his trade in the house for a short time before moving and selling the property to the Wells family, who owned the property until 1940, when they in turn sold it to Robert Currier, a theatrical producer from New York City who ran the Kennebunkport Playhouse.

Theater people and ghosts apparently go together like peanut butter and jelly. Currier was nonplussed to find an old coffin in the house's basement (perhaps leftover from the days of Samuel Lewis), but he was a little more surprised when guests began to see ghosts in the house. Currier's guests, primarily actors and singers, consistently saw the same two ghosts: a pleasant-looking young woman in Quaker clothing, and a gloomy-looking man dressed like a soldier. Currier and his friends nicknamed the soldier Ned after a book they were reading called Dead Ned; the Quaker woman was nicknamed Nellie. 

Psychically sensitive people who stayed in the house would see Ned and Nellie, but even those who didn't see them experienced strange phenomena. Doors were slammed by invisible hands, footsteps were heard when no one was present, and cold areas chilled guests to the bone. A professional medium named Leslie Tolman (aka Madame Shah) left the house in a panic in the middle of the night and advised Currier to sell it immediately. Dogs barked at unseen presences.

Singer Jane Morgan

The singer Jane Morgan, who had a top ten hit in 1957 with "Fascination" and was Currier's sister, reported that doors would unlock themselves. Morgan was afraid to spend the night alone in the house, and thought that Ned had murdered Nellie when she didn't requite his love.

Most of the phenomena were focused around two parts of the house: the attic, and a bedroom on the second floor. This bedroom was once inhabited by Old Lady Wells, a local herbalist and rumored witch. For the last twenty-four years of her life Old Lady Wells spent most her time confined to this room, leaving only to bring herbs up to the attic to dry. Some guests who slept in this bedroom saw the friendly Quaker ghost, but on one occasion another guest was awoken in the middle of the night when a window shattered. He assumed a rock had been thrown through the window, but nothing was found either inside or outside the building.

Strange noises have been heard in the attic, and cats ran worriedly up and down the stairs that led to that space. One night an actress who had driven up from New York pulled into the driveway of the house. It had not yet been opened for summer and no one was staying there. Then why did she see a flickering light shining out of an attic window? Unnerved, the actress refused to go inside until she found a friend in town to accompany her. They found the doors locked and the house unoccupied. When they went upstairs to the attic they found it empty ... except for a candle stub on the floor.

The Kennebunkport Playhouse burned to the ground in 1971, ending the influx of theater people into town. The Gideon Merrill house is still standing but I didn't find any recent reports of hauntings there. Perhaps the actors and other show business types were easily spooked or enjoyed telling each other scary stories, particularly when they were staying in a historic New England home. Or perhaps people drawn to work in the theater are just more psychically sensitive than the rest of us.

No one ever identified who Ned and Nellie might really be, and the connection with Old Lady Wells is suggestive but vague. Witches tend to hang around as ghosts after they die, but why wasn't the ghost of Old Lady Wells ever seen? The answers to these questions might have to wait until the next actor or actress takes up residence at the Gideon Merrill house.

 I think the Gideon Merrill house is still standing, but I don't know if Ned and Nellie are still wandering through its rooms. We might have to wait for another actor or actress to stay there to get the answer.


Other than Prominent American Ghosts, my other main source for information was this page on SoMeOldNews.com. It seems to be referencing a newspaper article from the 1960s, which leads me to believe the ghosts haven't bee seen for a while.

January 10, 2016

The Little People with the Deadly Stare

This post is probably better suited for Lent, but I thought I would share it now because it is also a little bit spooky, and seems appropriate for a rainy gloomy Sunday like today. So here goes!


The Passamaquoddy Indians live in northern Maine on the Canadian border. They dwell primarily in two areas, Indian Township in Princeton and Pleasant Point Reservation in Perry. Many Passamaquoddy also dwell in Canada across the border, which was drawn through their ancestral lands centuries ago.

Most Native American folklore from New England is full of interesting supernatural beings, and Passamaquoddy lore is no different. Their stories tell of demi-gods, thunderbirds, and talking animals. They also tell of magical little people.

The Passamaquoddy claim there are two types of little people associated with their tribe. The first are the Nagumwasuck, who live alongside the Passmaquoddy on their reservation and have a society that parallels the human one. When a human dies the Nagumwasuck mourn. When a human baby is born the Nagumwasuck celebrate. When a church was built on one of the reservations the Nagumwasuck made a tiny version of their own.

Although they are hideously ugly and don't like to be seen, the Nagumwasuck overall are benevolent. Not so their cousins the Mekumwasuck. The Meckumwasuck are quite short (about three feet tall) and have extremely hairy faces. They live in the woods outside human society and dress in outlandish clothing. Overall this doesn't sound so bad, but here's the kicker: anyone the Mekumwasuck looks directly at will sicken and die.


The Passamaquoddy converted to Catholicism centuries ago, and apparently the Mekumwasuck converted along with them. These dangerous creatures now watch over the church, and will punish anyone who tries to violate the Catholic Church's rules.

For example, back in 1970 several men broke into a Passamaquoddy church to steal the sacramental wine. This was a bad idea. The Mekumwasuck appeared and chased off the men, who were terrified. One of the would-be-thieves tried to escape through a window but got stuck. The little people beat him until he broke through the window and ran off into the night.

Even minor infractions can draw the attention of the Mekumwasuck. In 1971 the local priest gave the community permission to hold a dance in the church - even though it was Lent. (If this were a horror film the ominous music would play.) People were uneasy because dancing during Lent didn't sound quite orthodox, but about seventy-five people still came out for it.

Shortly after the dance started a teenage boy nervously said the thought he had seen a Mekumwasuck lurking nearby. He asked his cousin if he could see it. At first the cousin refused to look, fearing the entity's deadly stare, but finally worked up his courage and looked. He too saw the Mekumwasuck.

Clearly this was a bad omen. Within minutes everyone fled the dance. Happily no one died that night, but if they had not heeded the Mekumwasuck's warning who knows what might have happened? It was the last time anyone tried to hold a dance during Lent.


I first read about the Mekumwasuck in Joseph Citro's book Passing Strange (1996), but it seems like the story originally appears in Katharine Briggs's A Dictionary of Fairies (1976). The Passamaquoddy information is one the few New World sections in Briggs's book, which covers mostly European fairy lore.

Interestingly, Briggs claims she was given the information by Susan Stevens, an anthropologist who married into the Passamaquoddy. Stevens was actually serving as a chaperone at the Lenten dance that ended so abruptly. That means that story actually happened and is not just a traditional tale handed down over time.

Briggs suggests that the Mekumwasuck are basically European gargoyles adopted into a Native American culture, but I think she has it backwards. Native Americans in New England already had traditions about magical little people well before the Europeans arrived, and these traditions changed based on the situations the different tribes found themselves in.

For example, while the Mekuwasuck kill anyone who desecrates the Catholic Church, the similarly-named Makiwasug of Mohegan folklore are less malevolent and less focused on Christianity. While the Makiawasug also do not like being looked at they will not kill anyone who sees them, but instead will simply steal their belongings. Sometime in the past the Passamaquoddy and the Mohegan probably shared similar beliefs about the little people, but those beliefs have diverged over time based on their subsequent histories.

January 03, 2016

Bigfoot in New England: Sixty-Seven Credible Sightings?

A few weeks ago I was at the supermarket and something caught my eye while I waited in the checkout line. It was this:

How could I resist? I'm a big Sasquatch fan and have been ever since I was a child. Well, to be honest when I was a child I was really more terrified of Sasquatch than a fan, but I guess I've been interested in him in one way or another for most of my life. He was a big part of the 1970s cultural milieu when I was growing up and it's been interesting to see how this hairy humanoid has once again become a big part of American culture these days. Thank you internet and reality TV!

1970s children's TV show Bigfoot and Wildboy
What's inside Newsweek's Bigfoot: The Science, Sightings, and Search for America's Elusive Legend? You'll find brief interviews with Bigfoot researchers, theories about the creature's origin, and lots and lots of photos. There is also some nice historical information about Bigfoot, including mention of Connecticut's Winsted Wildman (who was seen in the 1890s) and a Sasquatch tale told to Teddy Roosevelt by a hunter.

There was some other weird and interesting stuff in the magazine, like a photo of an alleged fossilized Bigfoot head from Utah. The concept of a petrified Bigfoot head is pretty cool, regardless of whether the rock pictured actually is one.

Fossilized Bigfoot head or just a rock?

My favorite part of this magazine is the map showing how many credible Bigfoot sightings have been reported in each state. The map is based on data kept by the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO). Here is the breakdown for New England at the time of publication:

Connecticut: 5
Maine: 13
Massachusetts: 22
New Hampshire: 13
Rhode Island: 5
Vermont: 6

That makes a total of sixty-seven credible sightings. New England may be one of the best regions for healthcare and education, but we are seriously lagging behind other states in our Bigfoot sightings. Washington is the leader with 613 sightings (!), California is next with 431, and Florida comes in third with 306. New Englanders, we need to step it up!

Unfortunately, the magazine doesn't define what makes a Bigfoot sighting credible. (The BFRO notes that they won't publish fake or joke reports, but I'm not sure how they determine what's fake.) I think in general a credible Bigfoot report is one that follows the current cryptozoological model in defining Bigfoot as "a large, hairy, bipedal non-human primate that is distributed over the North American continent to varying degrees of concentration." In other words, Bigfoot is basically an unknown species of animal that we just haven't captured yet. If your report fits into that view of Bigfoot it is credible.

That's the approach taken on reality shows like Finding Bigfoot, where researchers tramp around in the woods looking for physical evidence. Evidence consists of things like footprints, scat, hair and even sometimes structures made from branches. The magazine has a photo of one such structure and speculates it may have been used as a hunting blind by the creature. When walking through a park near my house in Boston I found a very similar structure (see below). Was Bigfoot visiting Boston, or was this just made by teenagers who wanted a place to smoke pot?


Personally, I don't think Bigfoot is just an undiscovered species of primate, and happily Newsweek's Bigfoot magazine does give some space to alternate theories in a brief section called "Wild Theories." Among those theories are the following:

Bigfoot is actually the Biblical Cain, cursed by God to be extra hairy and wander the Earth for committing the first murder. This theory has its origin in Mormon elder David Patten's encounter with a large hairy creature in 1835. The creature said it was indeed cursed to roam our planet forever and lure men into evil.

Bigfoot is an extraterrestrial and comes from another planet. After all, they are sometimes seen in conjunction with UFOs.

Bigfoot is an extradimensional being who can teleport and appear anywhere, even inside people's homes. Some are good, but some might just be evil...

Some Native American groups think that the large humanoid is a spiritual being here to offer guidance. 
I'm a fan of wild theories. Although a lot of Bigfoot stories match the cryptozoological model, many of them don't. Sometimes Bigfoot has six fingers and long beautiful hair. Sometimes he only has three toes or cloven hooves. Sometimes he wears clothing or has a black dog with him. Sometimes he communicates telepathically.

Those weird stories are best explained by weird theories. Are they less credible than thinking that Sasquatch is an undiscovered primate? Definitely, but many people don't think any theory about Sasquatch is credible. A lot Americans believe that Bigfoot just doesn't exist.

There's a spectrum of credibility, with our current scientific knowledge at one end (there is no Bigfoot) and some of the more creative spiritual explanations at the other (Bigfoot is really Cain or maybe an extradimensional being). I'm a fan of the strange and unusual, so I hope people keep reporting Bigfoot sightings that stretch our sense of what is possible.