March 29, 2016

Fighting Joe Hooker and His Women

Lots of interesting and historic things have their origin in Massachusetts. For example, the first public library in America was the Boston Public Library, and the first American college was Harvard.

But perhaps some less savory things have their origin here as well. For example, does the word "hooker" have its origin in the Bay State?

Prostitution is often referred to as the world's oldest profession, and has a very long history. There were prostitutes long before Massachusetts was ever founded, and there still will be when this Commonwealth is gone and forgotten. However, I'm concerned not with the origin of the practice, but rather with the origin of the word hooker to describe its practitioners.

One popular story claims the term originated with General Joseph Hooker. Hooker was born in Hadley, Massachusetts in the year 1814. Hooker came from a prominent family and entered the United States Military Academy in 1837. After graduating Hooker had a distinguished career, fighting against the Seminoles in Florida and receiving several promotions during the Mexican-American War.

After these initial successes it seemed like Hooker's career might be short-lived, though. He retired in 1858 after testifying against his former commanding officer during a trial. Many of his former colleagues resented his testimony, and after leaving the Army he worked as a farmer in California, a career at which he was only modestly successful. He seemed to be more successful at picking up bad habits. During the Mexican-American War he had developed a reputation as a lady's man, and now as a farmer he also spent much of his time drinking and gambling.

General Joseph Hooker (b.1814, d.1879)

When the Civil War broke out Hooker asked to re-enlist. He was refused at first, but the Union Army finally relented and assigned him the rank of brigadier general. Overall Hooker acquitted himself honorably, winning some key battles and losing others. During the war he also got the nickname "Fighting Joe Hooker," although not necessarily for his prowess on the battlefield. He got the nickname when a newspaper omitted a dash in their headline. The headline should have read "Fighting - Joe Hooker Attacks Rebels" but was mistakenly published as "Fighting Joe Hooker Attacks Rebels."

Despite the belligerent nickname and a string of battlefield successes, Hooker still maintained a reputation for heavy drinking, gambling, and womanizing. Was it all just bad PR? Maybe, but there may have been truth behind it as well.

Which brings me back to the question of whether the word "hooker" is derived from General Hooker.  The theory is that Hooker and his soldiers liked to frequent prostitutes, and even encouraged them to set up shop near their encampment.

This story appears in quite a few places, including Bruce Gellerman and Erik Sherman's 2010 book Boston Curiosities, which mentions it when describing a statue of Hooker that stands in front of the State House. It's even said that an area in Washington D.C. known during the Civil War for its prostitutes earned the nickname Hooker's Division because Fighting Joe spent so much time there.

It's a great story and I wish it were true, but unfortunately it isn't. Although Americans usually use the word hooker as a term for a prostitute, it actually has a very long history as a word used to describe criminals. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first used in 1567 to describe a thief who snatched bags using a hook. How literal!

These hookers or anglers be most perilous knaves! Caveat for Common Cursetors (1567)

Hooker later was used to describe any thief, but particularly one who stole watches. One theory is that since hooker was used to describe thieves it gradually became attached to prostitutes, who engage in a different form of criminal activity. It may also describe their ability to hook or entice clients.

Another theory traces the term's origin to Corlear's Hook, a section of New York City that had a lot of brothels, but I don't think linguists put much stock in that one.

Regardless of which of these two theories is the right one, unfortunately for Massachusetts this is one thing that didn't start here. Fighting Joe Hooker's unsavory reputation didn't give rise to the term hooker. The word hooker has been used to describe prostitutes since at least 1845, long before Hooker came to national prominence. We lost this one, but I guess we'll just have to find solace in the Boston Public Library and Harvard!

March 21, 2016

Moll Cramer, the Witch of Woodbury

I'm always happy when I discover a new witch story. (I bet you're the same way if you're reading this blog!) Although New England doesn't have an infinite supply of witch stories, it does have hundreds of them, so hopefully I can keep discovering new stories for years to come.

This week's witch story is new to me, and comes from the charming town of Woodbury, Connecticut. If you've ever seen a horror movie you know that charming New England towns often harbor gruesome secrets. That's sort of true in this case, but not entirely. Let's say the story is probably half charming and half gruesome. It's about a woman named Moll Cramer.

The earliest version of Moll Cramer's legend apparently appears in William Cothren's 1872 book History of Ancient Woodbury, Connecticut: From the First Indian Deed in 1659 to 1854, Volume 2. According to Cothren, Moll lived in the 1700s and was the wife of Adam Cothren, Woodbury's blacksmith.

Adam and Moll didn't really get along, and Adam told friends and neighbors that whenever he and Moll fought strange things would happen around the smithy. Most suspiciously, he claimed that he could not hammer a shoe onto a horse after he and Moll had quarreled. It was believed at the time that witches were afraid of iron, horseshoes in particular, so Adam deduced that Moll was using some type of magic to interfere with his horseshoe work.

In other words, she was a witch.

Adam eventually kicked Moll and their son Adam Jr. out of the house, and with no one to turn to Moll built a small thatched hut out in the woods and became a beggar. She managed to beg enough food and money for her and her son to scrape out a pitiful existence. Although her reputation as a witch made her a pariah it also encouraged people to give her what she needed. They were just too afraid to refuse.

A postcard of the oldest house in Woodbury, from this site. Charming or spooky?

The following story illustrates why. One day Moll went to a farmer who had a barn full of fat, healthy pigs. She asked the man for just a small piece of bacon for her and her son. Please, please, just one small piece sir? The farmer scornfully refused. This poor woman had no right to any of his food, he thought. After all, he worked hard for what he had, while she just wandered around begging. Moll skulked off into the woods, muttering.

A few days later one of the farmer's pigs came down with hog cholera. The next day another fell ill, and then another. Trying to recoup his losses, the farmer slaughtered his remaining pigs so he could sell the pork to his neighbors. But even the meat from the healthy pigs turned black and pestilential as soon as the animals were butchered. The farmer was at his wit's end. How would he make his living if all his pigs were gone? Unfortunately, he didn't have to worry very long. The farmer himself contracted cholera through a scratch on his arm and died a quick but horrible death, grunting and squealing.

So, you can see why most people gave Moll whatever she asked for.

That's the gruesome side of Moll. A more charming version of her story appears in They Found A Way: Connecticut's Restless People (1938) by Iveagh Hunt Sterry and William H. Garrigus. In this version, Moll is married to a man named Bill Cramer who breeds race horse. Unfortunately, even in this version of the story theirs is still not a happy marriage. Whenever Moll is the jockey their horse wins the race. Whenever Bill is the jockey their horse loses. This makes him feel emasculated, and he jealously evicts her from their home.

It doesn't help him win any races, however. The horses refuse to race for Bill, and continually escape from their stable to find their way to Moll's thatched hut. In despair and shame Bill finally hangs himself in the stable. His heirs try to sell his horses but are not successful because horseshoes will not stay attached to their hooves. Moll has by this time earned a reputation as an animal-enchanting witch and is reduced to making a living as a beggar.

Sterry and Garrigus do include the story about the pig farmer, but they also say Moll was kind to animals and children. Moll's hut was located near some abundant berry patches, and while she glared at any adults who picked her berries she smiled kindly when small children picked them. Moll's berries were said to be extra sweet and produced the best pies. That's an unexpectedly domestic side to the same witch who killed a pig farmer through cholera.

It's interesting how the later version of the story gives Moll a kinder and more gentler side. By the 1930s most people in New England did not fear witchcraft, and witch stories could be a little more cheerful. Sterry and Garrigus also add a little romance, claiming that Moll was a great beauty - at least until she aged prematurely from living in the woods.

No one knows what happened to Moll, and this is something that both stories agree on. She and her son (who is absent from the Sterry/Garrigus version) just disappeared from Woodbury. Did they die in some undiscovered place in the woods? Did they move on to a friendlier town where they could start again? Or did Moll ascend to some extra-dimensional witchy plane of existence?

There's no answer, but this site claims that some people in Woodbury believe that Moll's ghost still wanders through the woods, knocking on people's doors on windy nights and begging for food. So maybe if you're down in Woodbury some dark and gloomy night you can ask her yourself.

Just be sure to give her what she wants.

March 14, 2016

York Maine's Haunted Gaol and the Ghost of Patience Boston

Last weekend while Tony and I were driving home from Lewiston we stopped in York, Maine. York is a really old town steeped in a lot of history, so naturally there are some strange legends there.

York was founded in 1623 by the explorer Fernando Gorges, was later absorbed into Puritan Massachusetts, and was at one time decimated by Indian raids. And now it's a tourist resort! When I was a kid we went to the beach and the zoo in York, but I don't remember visiting York's Old Gaol. I think would remember if I had been there, because it is pretty spooky.


York's Old Gaol was built in 1719 and is the oldest existing prison in America. It's a big red building that looks like it might be a barn, but you won't find any happy cows or cute horses inside. Instead, you'll find five small stone cells, some with walls that are two and half feet thick. The cell windows are covered with iron bars, and to make escape even more difficult the windows were framed with sharpened saw blades. Ouch! Those early colonists were pretty serious about their laws.

The Old Gaol has witnessed 160 years of misery: it held prisoners from 1719 until 1879. Naturally, an old building with such a tragic history has a ghost associated with it. Tour guides sometimes feel strong waves of negative energy, and visitors have reported hearing eerie moans when no one else is around. Some staff are reportedly hesitant to work in the building after dark.

The ghost is thought to be the restless spirit of Patience Boston. When I first started researching this story I thought it would just be a fun legend about a ghost, but Boston's real life was disturbing enough even without adding in the supernatural.

A Native American, Boston was born in 1711 on Monomoy Island off the coast of Cape Cod. When her mother died her father sold her into servitude, but she didn't adapt well to the servant life. Boston drank heavily, let the cows out into the fields to eat the corn, and tried to burn down the house a few times. Clearly she was not a good employee. She also resisted converting to Christianity, which was another strike against her in Puritan New England.

After the terms of her servitude ended she married an African American servant, but their marriage was an unhappy one. Boston continued to drink heavily, fought with her husband, committed adultery and even threatened to kill their unborn baby. She didn't, but ironically, the baby was born deformed and died within two weeks.


Boston later gave birth to a second child, which died within two months. Remembering her previous threats, her husband accused her of murdering this baby and had her arrested. Boston was a very heavy drinker, and possibly not in her right mind. At first she denied killing the baby, then she confessed, and then she recanted. Because her story was so inconsistent the judges found her innocent of murder.

After the trial she became the servant of a man named Joseph Bailey and went with him to Maine. Now before I get to this story's grisly conclusion let me just say that Patience Boston was obviously a very troubled person. She lived almost three centuries ago so we'll never know exactly why. Psychological flaws? Structural oppression? An abusive childhood? Years of alcoholism? Whatever the cause, she clearly had an obsession with killing children that could only lead to tragedy.

Once Boston was in Maine she continued to drink heavily, and also at one point she told nieghbors that she had given birth and murdered her child. This claim was dismissed as a hoax, since no body could be found and an examination showed that she had not recently given birth to a child.

On July 9, 1734, Boston went out for a walk with her master's grandson. As they strolled by a well she dropped her walking stick down into the water. When the child leaned into the well to help retrieve it she pushed him in. The boy struggled to get out, but Boston pushed him under with a heavy branch until he died. After years of threats and hoaxes she had finally and unequivocally murdered a child.


She went to the authorities and confessed, and they imprisoned her in York Gaol for many months.While awaiting trial she finally converted to Christianity.

The court sentenced her to death, but her execution was delayed because she was pregnant for the third time. She gave birth to a healthy baby who was given up to a local family for adoption. Patience Boston was executed on July 24, 1735.

So is there a ghost in York's Old Gaol? I can't say, but an old prison certainly seems like a good place to find a ghost, and Boston's tragic life seems like the kind that would result in a restless and unhappy spirit.


My sources for this week's post were Joseph Citro's Weird New England, Thomas D'Agostino's A Guide to Haunted New England, and this fascinating site about early American crime.

March 07, 2016

Ghost Stories and Lewiston Maine's Riverside Cemetery

One of the nice things about writing about folklore in New England is that in almost every place I visit there's some weird or interesting story.

Case in point: Lewiston, Maine.

Tony and I are alumni of Bates College in Lewiston, and this past weekend we went up to the campus for a volunteer event. It was nice to visit Bates again, and interestingly someone we met that weekend said he had heard Bates's Pettigrew Hall is haunted. I had never heard that, but I had once read somewhere that the college's Schaeffer Theater was haunted.

Do you see what I mean? I visit one small college campus and there might be two haunted buildings. Fantastic! However, I'm not writing about Bates today. Instead, I'm focusing on Lewiston's Riverside Cemetery, which is a short walk from campus on the banks of the Androscoggin River.


Back when I was a student I went to Riverside with a group of friends. I remember that it was a chilly spring day, and there was still snow on the ground. We hadn't heard any specific ghost stories about the cemetery, but we proceeded cautiously. It was sooo quiet, and we had all watched way too many horror films. There were five of us, and my friend John was bringing up the rear.

I turned around to say something, and noticed that John wasn't there. He had gone missing.

This made my hair stand on end. We were alone in the cemetery, so where had he gone?

It turns out he was hiding behind a gravestone, waiting to jump out and scare us. John was a big-time prankster, so he couldn't resist the opportunities a spooky cemetery provided. He once jumped out from under the bleachers wearing a rain coat and wielding a hockey stick while a friend and I were jogging on the track at night, so the attempted cemetery prank was really a minor one for him.


John felt like something spooky should happen in a quiet cemetery, but apparently some people have actually had weird and unusual things happen to them in Riverside Cemetery. Or perhaps it's not so unusual. Old cemeteries should always have a ghost or two in them.

The clearest account I have read appears in Michelle Souliere's book Strange Maine. Michelle was contacted by someone who shared their experience from October, 2007.

Three people who lived in Lewiston decided to take a walk in Riverside Cemetery on a bright October afternoon. The cemetery is on a bluff overlooking the Androscoggin, and it's a pleasant place to walk. The three sat on a bench overlooking the water for a while before deciding to visit the Libby Mausoleum. The mausoleum is secluded away from the main part of the cemetery in a wooded glen. (Note: Tony and I didn't take any pictures of the Libby Mausoleum on our trip. Sorry about that!)

As they approached the mausoleum they felt a strange, oppressive energy in the air. At this point I personally would have turned back, but instead they continued walking towards the stone structure. One the three decided to try to communicate with whatever entity was possibly present, but didn't receive any response. Well, at least not a verbal one.

The air grew increasingly cold, and one of the trio turned back. The person who had tried communicating with the presence gave up and lit a cigarette. As she inhaled, she heard a cracking noise. The top half of a birch tree near the mausoleum had split off and was falling right towards her! She and her friends ran, and the tree crashed to the ground right where they had been standing.

The three quickly left the cemetery, but continued to sense a strange presence around them for several days.

In addition to her book, Michelle Souliere also writes a blog called Strange Maine. The story about the Riverside Cemetery also appears there, and the comments are really quite interesting. Some people wrote to say that they too have had strange experiences at the Riverside Cemetery, and have photographed orbs of ghostly energy or seen spectral beings. Many others wrote to say that they visit the cemetery all the time and find it a peaceful place, including the Libby Mausoleum.

So is the Riverside Cemetery haunted or not? I'm not qualified to say, but I do think with paranormal phenomena you sometimes get whatever it is you are looking for. Personally, I have always liked cemeteries, and when I was a kid I used to sometimes ride my bike through one near my parents' house in Haverhill. Nothing really unusual ever happened, until one day when I was riding through it with my friend Bobby. We were being loud so I said something about how we needed to be quieter and more respectful of the dead.

Bobby said, "Ha! I'm not afraid of any ghosts."

Wham! As soon as he said it he lost control of his bike and fell off. He scraped up his knee pretty bad. We joked about the situation for a long time afterwards.

Was it a ghost that pushed over Bobby's bike? Again, I can't say, but it certainly does feel like something spooky should happen in quiet old cemeteries.

The grave of a soldier killed at the battle of Gettysburg.

Sadly, one thing that really does happen at the Riverside Cemetery is vandalism. Quite a few stones had been knocked over, which is sad. There is a lot of history in this and other cemeteries, and even if you don't believe in ghosts you should be respectful of the dead. 

By the way, recently I've been the guest on two awesome podcasts. If you want to hear me talk about New England witchcraft (and who wouldn't), check out New World Witchery, an excellent blog and podcast. If you'd rather learn about farming folklore, listen to the Ghost Fawn Farm Podcast. It's planting season so why not learn some strange old Yankee folklore?