March 22, 2018

I Was A Teenage Witch: Stories from the Salem Witch Trials

When most people think of a witch, they picture an elderly, disheveled woman wearing rags. This is the archetypal witch in Western culture, but when you read through witch trial accounts you'll see that all kinds of people were accused of being witches. For example, while many people accused in the Salem witch trials were indeed elderly women, many others didn't fit that profile. Women of all ages were accused, as were men. In fact, even teenagers and children were accused of and confessed to being witches.

For example, fourteen-year old Will Barker Jr. told the judges that one night while he was bringing the cows home from grazing the Devil appeared in the form of a dog. Barker ignored the Devil's enticements, but after a sleepless night the Devil appeared to him again in the form of a "black man." This is an ambiguous term that has several meanings in the witch trials. In some cases it means a man in black clothing, sometimes it means a man with dark skin, and in other cases it means a man with coal black skin. It's not entirely clear which Barker intended, but apparently he found the Devil more persuasive as a human than as a canine. Baker agreed to serve the Devil and flew with him on a pole to Five Mile Pond in Andover where he was baptized as a witch. In return for his services Barker was promised a new set of clothes, but he told the judges the Devil never honored his end of the bargain.

From Wikipedia
Stephen Johnson, also age 14, was out planting corn at midsummer when the Devil came to him in the shape of a small talking “speckled bird.” The next day he came again as a black cat. Johnson ignored the Devil those first two times. It was only when he came in the shape of a man that Johnson put his fingerprint on a sheet of paper and promised to serve the Devil. (In return for selling his soul he was supposed to receive some new boots, but he never got them.) Shortly afterwards, while swimming alone in the Shawsheen River, the Devil appeared with two men and two women and baptized him by tossing him in the water.

Can you see the pattern here?

Mercy Wardwell, age 15, said the Devil came to her first in the shape of a dog, but later looking like a man whose romantic attentions she had rejected. Wardwell did not get the luxury of a baptism in a pond or river. Instead, the Devil simply dunked her head into a bucket of water. On the other hand, Betty Johnson, who was 21 but described by her parents as "simplish at best," confessed that the Devil first came to her in the shape of a man, but then later appeared as two cats. She was baptized as a witch in a neighbor's well. The Devil said he'd give her a shilling but never did.

From the Public Domain Review
Richard Carrier, age 18 and son of accused witch Martha Carrier, told the judges that one night while walking home he encountered a well-dressed man with a high-crowned hat. The man claimed he was Jesus Christ, so the teen signed his name in the man's book. Big mistake. The man in the hat was of course really the Devil, who promised he'd give Carrier a horse and some new clothes. As you can guess, neither one ever materialized. The Devil later appeared to him as a little yellow bird.

Mary Lacy Jr., age 15, confessed that the Devil initially appeared to her as a horse, but later looked like a "round gray thing." She refused his offer of baptism and didn't sign his book, but still agreed to serve him. The Devil told her she would want for nothing in the world. He encouraged Lacy to misbehave and run away from home, which she did.

The repetitive elements are pretty apparent in these accounts. The Devil approaches the potential witch several times in different forms. Sometime he is an animal, sometimes he is a man. The Devil makes a deal with the witch, but ultimately never keeps his side of the bargain. The witch signs a document and agrees to serve the Devil. The Devil baptizes the witch.

Of course, not all these stories are exactly the same. Mary Lacy didn't agree to baptism or make a bargain, or specifically mention the Devil appearing as a man. Mercy Wardwell saw the Devil first as a man, and then as two cats; the others said they saw the Devil in a different order, first as an animal and then as a human.

These teenagers were all from Andover, Massachusetts, and were all interrogated in Salem on July 21, 1692. On the one hand, they probably all were imitating each other when they made their confessions. By July it had become widely known that no one who confessed had been executed, so many defendants from Andover were told by their relatives to confess to save their lives. Richard Carrier was at first hesitant to confess, but after the judges tortured him by tying his neck to ankles (!) he told them what they wanted to hear. These stories of the Devil in many shapes were told to avoid torture and death.

On the other hand, the judges and spectators that were present found these stories convincing. They didn't think of them as lies told by scared young adults but as true accounts of how the Devil operates in the world. The Andover teens created these stories using elements from their culture's view of the spiritual world. These stories give us insight into the older mental world that used to be prevalent in New England. It's terrifying to think they were elicited by threat or application of torture but still fascinating to learn how our local ancestors thought people became witches.

There are lots of sources for information about the Salem trials, but one of my favorites is Marilynne Roach's The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of A Community Under Siege. It's very thorough!

March 13, 2018

UFOS Old and New, from Vermont and Massachusetts

I'm taking a break from witches and "Olde Tymey" folklore this week to post about more recent folklore, namely UFOs. Strange stories aren't just a thing from from the past; people also encounter strange phenomena today.

Up first: was a giant UFO hovering over a lake on the Vermont border? The answer is yes, according to UFO Sightings Daily. A blogger named Scott Waring posted the following image to that site after he found it on Google Earth street view:

You can check out the image yourself on Google here. The UFO is allegedly hovering over Lake George, which is on the border of Vermont and New York. I think it is on the New York side in this photo, but maybe it floated over to Vermont as well.

Here how the news was reported by the U.K.'s Daily Express:

UFO-SPOTTERS were sent into a frenzy when an unexplained silver-grey sphere was captured on a Google Earth camera as it hovered in the skies above the USA. The orb was seen floating above trees on the border between Vermont and New York State. 
UFO enthusiasts were quick to declare a finding although many viewers thought the mystery object was actually a drop of water on the camera lens.

It looks more like a motorcycle helmet than a water drop to me. It also reminds me of this smiley face spaceship from the 1980s movie Heavy Metal

Check out this Youtube video if you want to read more suggestions about what the Lake George UFO might be. Some viewers think if might just be the Google Photo sphere icon, which unfortunately seems likely (see below). I'd rather think it was a giant smiley face UFO than a corporate logo. 

The Google photo sphere icon. 
But still, whether or not the Lake George UFO is real, what remains interesting is that people continue to see UFOs. As I've mentioned on this blog before, I saw a UFO in Haverhill, Massachusetts in the 1970s when I was a small child. One summer evening I was outside in my family's back yard with my brother and a boy who lived nearby. As we played in the dusk we saw a bright light descend from the sky and go down behind a hill. We were terrified and all ran into my parents' house. Our neighbor was so scared he refused to go home until his parents came back from the meeting they had gone to. 

This happened a long time ago but the memory and the fear we felt still remain vivid. We were all very young, so who knows what we really saw. Was it a helicopter? A falling star? Fireworks? They are all possibilities, but since it was the 1970s we fervently believed that flying saucers lurked in the night sky. We all knew that strange light was really a craft piloted by alien creatures. 

The UFO we saw probably had a mundane explanation, but apparently we weren't the only children who saw strange things in Haverhill. My brother recently found record of a UFO sighting that also occurred in our hometown, but many years earlier:

Ufologist Loren Gross reported that in Haverhill, Massachusetts, USA, on December 17, 1959, at 08:00 a.m., four children on a school bus saw a flash in the sky, then watched a silver, domed disc land in a field. 
A door on the craft opened and a humanoid occupant exited. (from URECAT - UFO Related Entities Catalog, an online resource of extraterrestrial sightings)

The original source is a self-published booklet by Loren Gross called "The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse: UFOs A History. 1959: October-December." I found a PDF copy online, which contains this detailed account:
...Darcelle Nolan, 8, a second grader at St. Joseph School, told of seeing something even more startling yesterday morning on Broadway in Ayers Village while enroute to school on the school bus. 
Darcelle, along with nine-year-old Diane Pearson of 1320 Broadway, reported that they saw a bright flash in a field nearby, and 'we saw something round, silvery colored land in the field and it had a dome on top. A door opened and something in light colored clothes got out.'
She reports that four children on the bus saw the object. Her mother, Mrs. Richard Nolan of 16 South Crystal St., said this morning, 'At first I didn't believe it, but after she told me the story, I believed her. She's not the type to make up stories.' 
Gross also notes that a child at Haverhill's Tilton School saw something strange in the sky a few days earlier. Perhaps Haverhill was having a pre-Christmas UFO scare? Gross writes that he found these accounts in press reports.

Is there any connection between what the kids saw in 1959 and what we saw in the 1970s? Maybe the only connection is that we were all young. I don't have a nice summary statement to wrap this post up, but I think that's probably appropriate when writing about UFOs. They're just weird and hard to categorize. Whether they are corporate logos or spaceships from another planet I think we'll be hearing about them for as long as we live.

March 04, 2018

Did Moldy Grain Cause The Salem Witch Trials?

I think most people agree on the facts of the Salem witch trials. In 1692, nineteen people were executed for witchcraft, one died while being tortured, and several died in prison. More than 150 people from Massachusetts and Maine were accused. The trials ended as soon as they began, and were the last major witchcraft trials in New England.

There had been other witchcraft trials in 17th century New England, but none as large and deadly as the Salem trials. Historians have argued for years over what caused this terrifying social anomaly. Proposed explanations include mass hysteria, greed, Puritan misogyny, discord among neighbors, and stress caused by Indian attacks. There is probably some truth in all of these, but what if the cause was not social but biological? What if the Salem witch trials were caused by a fungus that grows on moldy grain?

The moldy grain theory first appeared in the April 2, 1976 issue of Science magazine in an article by Linnda R. Caporael titled "Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?" Caporael was a biology grad student at UC Santa Barbara, and she hypothesized that the Salem trials had been caused by ergot, a fungus that grows on grains, particularly rye.

Caporael's article explains that ergot (claviceps purpura) often grows on rye (and sometimes other grains) when the weather is warm and wet. Rye was the most widely planted Old World grain among the Puritans, and the spring and summer of 1691 were hot and humid in Massachusetts. The rye harvested that year would have been consumed in 1692. She theorizes that it was infected with ergot.

Barley infected with ergot, from Wikipedia
People who eat ergot-infected grains can develop a disease called ergotism. It comes in two varieties. Gangrenous ergotism causes an infected person's extremities to die and rot away. Fingers, toes and ears develop gangrene and fall off. Picture leprosy, but caused by grain. Scary! The second variety is called convulsive ergotism, which has very different symptoms, including the following:

  • Tingling sensations in the skin and fingers
  • Vertigo
  • Headaches
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Hallucinations
  • Bodily convulsions

Ergot contains the alkaloid isoergine, aka lysergic acid amine, a molecule similar to that found in LSD, which can cause hallucinations. Perhaps all those Puritans were just having a really bad trip?

Caporael's article goes on to explain how some of the behaviors seen in the Salem witch trials might be caused by convulsive ergotism.
Accusations of choking, pinching, pricking with pins, and biting by the specter of the accused formed the standard testimony of the afflicted in almost all the examinations and trials. The choking suggests the involvement of the involuntary muscular fibers that is typical of ergot poisoning; the biting, pinching, and pricking may allude to the crawling and tingling sensations under the skin experienced by ergotism victims. Complaints of vomiting and "bowels pulled out" are common in the deposition of the accusers. The physical symptoms of the afflicted and many of the other accusers are those induced by convulsive ergot poisoning. (Linnda R. Caporael, "Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?", Science, vol. 192, April 2, 1976) 
The article also suggests that the demons people saw were just hallucinations, such as the thing with a monkey's body and bird's feet that choked John Londer while he slept, as were the spectral witches that people saw inside their homes or roaming the landscape. The Puritans didn't have a scientific understanding of ergotism so they explained away the strange symptoms as evil magic sent by witches.

Caporael's article really struck a chord when it was published. It received quite a bit of publicity, and even made the front page of The New York Times in an article titled "Salem Witch Hunts in 1692 Linked to LSD-Like Agent." LSD was a widely used drug in the 1970s and the link with contemporary drug culture made sense to a society dealing with its own hallucinating kids.

The ergot theory still remains popular, even though most people now don't know where it came from. I often see commenters online mention ergotism when discussing the Salem trials, and it comes up sometimes when I talk with people about New England witchcraft. Just a few weeks ago I was leading a tour in Boston and when I mentioned witchcraft someone asked about ergotism.

People still remember Caporaels' theory, but they don't remember the rebuttal that two psychologists published a few months later. Nicholas Spanos and Jack Gottlieb published an article titled "Ergotism and the Salem Village Witch Trials" in the December 24, 1976 issue of Science. The two authors outline some compelling reasons why ergotism did not cause the Salem trials.

First, only people suffering from Vitamin A deficiency contract convulsive ergotism; people with healthy vitamin A intake get the gangrenous variety. Vitamin A is found in dairy products and fish. Salem Village was a successful farming community with lots of cows and Salem Town was a seaport with lots of fishing activity. It seems unlikely that anyone had a Vitamin A deficiency.

Further, ergotism usually strikes entire families (since everyone is eating the same grain). That did not happen in Salem, where only a few members of families were afflicted by witchcraft. The afflicted girls also did not report diarrhea or vomiting, and more importantly they did not die or develop permanent dementia, which happens in severe cases of ergotism. Their skin also did not turn a livid color, which is another symptom of the disease.

The afflicted girls did not actually suffer convulsions or pain in a way that was consistent with ergotism. They would suffer fits and convulsions when a suspected witch was brought into the courtroom for them to see, but their symptoms would subside when the suspect confessed, when passages were read from the Bible, or when the suspect touched them. Their convulsion were clearly not the symptoms of a disease. As Spanos and Gottlieb write:

The afflicted girls were responsive to social cues from each other as well as from the accused and were therefor able to predict the occurrence of each other's fits. In such cases one of the girls would cry out that she saw the specter of an accused witch about to attack another of the afflicted. The other girl would then immediately fall into a fit.... 
... Taken together, these facts indicate that the afflicted girls were enacting the role demoniacs as that role was commonly understood in their day. (Nicholas Spanos and Jack Gottlieb, "Ergotism and the Salem Village Witch Trials, " Science, December 24, 1976)

Spanos and Gottlieb also point out that the afflicted girls were only a small subset of all the witnesses in the Salem witch trials. Dozens of people testified against the accused witches, and most of them showed no symptoms of ergotism at all.

So it seems extremely unlikely that ergotism caused the Salem witch trials or even played any role at all. It's too bad, because modern science is great at treating physical disease, but not so great at dealing with psycho-social eruptions. We can probably prevent outbreaks of ergotism, but that won't help us prevent future witch hunts. Witch hunts still occur around the world, and we've even seen seen similar phenomena within the last few decades in the United States, like the Satanic panic of the 1980s or the evil clown scare of 2016. If only they were as easy to treat as a troublesome fungus.

February 25, 2018

Tales from Granary Burying Ground: James Otis and the Lightning Bolt

I love the term "burying ground," don't you? There's something very raw and primitive about it, but at the same time it's kind of charming because no one really uses the term anymore. Modern people inter their dead in cemeteries, not in burying grounds or even graveyards. I can understand why. Cemetery is a more gracious sounding word that masks what happens to the deceased, while burying ground is quite blunt. Yup, this is where we bury them.

The Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street is one of Boston's oldest cemeteries. It was originally founded in 1660, and got its current name in 1737 from a granary that stood next to it. In the 1830s some Bostonians tried to rename it to Franklin Cemetery, after Benjamin Franklin's family who are buried inside the graveyard. The name didn't catch on, though, and we still know it by it's older, blunter, primitive name.

Many famous people have their final resting places within the Granary Burying Ground: patriots, Puritans, mariners, politicians and poets. Some of them, like lawyer James Otis, have strange stories surrounding their lives and deaths.

James Otis's grave on a stormy evening.
James Otis (b. 1725, d. 1783) is probably best known for coining the phrase "Taxation without representation is tyranny." It's a phrase many children learn in school while studying the American Revolution. Otis uttered those words during a five-hour (!) speech he made arguing against the "writs of assistance," which were laws that allowed British troops to search any colonist's home without needing a search warrant or even probable cause. Naturally the writs were extremely unpopular in Massachusetts. Otis lost his case agains the writs of assistance but parts of his epic speech were reprinted as a pamphlet and helped rouse ant-British feeling in the colonies.

Surprisingly, Otis had originally been pro-British. He came from a prominent Loyalist family, but he joined the revolutionary cause when his father was denied a promised appointment as Chief Justice of Massachusetts. Perhaps his abrupt transition from Loyalist to Revolutionary helps explain why the British troops despised him so much. In 1769 he got into an argument with several British officers in a coffeehouse. The fight turned physical, and one of the officers struck Otis on the head with a cudgel.

Here comes the strange part of the story. After the attack Otis's mental capacities declined precipitously and he was unable to work further as a lawyer. Some sources say his mental decline began before the fight, while others claim the blow to his head caused it. Whatever the cause, Otis left the Boston area to live at a friend's home in Andover. His sister came to visit often, and whenever she did Otis told her that he wished God would take him from this world with a lightning bolt. I guess he wanted death his to be fast, painless, and just a little dramatic.

James Otis
He got his wish on May 23, 1783. While standing outside the Andover house with some family members, Otis was struck by a bolt of lightning. He died instantly. No one else was injured, and Otis’s body was not burned or damaged in any visible way. Witnesses say the corpse had an expression of calm repose.

Did God hear his wish? Was it just luck? It's hard to say. In Ancient Greece it was considered a holy act to die by lightning, and Otis's contemporaries in Massachusetts seemed to feel the same way. Many years later, in the 19th century, workers who opened his grave discovered the roots of a mighty elm tree growing from his skull. This too was taken as a good omen, as his brain "had been transformed into branch and leaf and blossom, thus breathing itself forth again into the free air and the Universal Flow.”

The elm tree is long gone but you can still visit Otis's grave, which is prominently located in the front of the burying ground near Tremont Street.

February 10, 2018

Haunted Gay Bars of Boston: the Ramrod and the 1270 Club

My last few blog posts have focused on 17th century stories about witches. This week I'm changing things up. Let's talk about haunted gay bars instead.

I should say, "Let's talk about haunted gay bars again." A few years ago I wrote about the rumor that Jacques Cabaret, Boston's famous drag bar, was haunted by a former performer's ghost and may even have been a temporary morgue to house victims of the 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire. My post was circulating around the internet again recently and some people reached out to share two other Boston haunted gay bar stories.

The first story is about the stately old building at 1270 Boylston Street. It was originally built as a horse carriage factory, but in the 1970s and 1980s it was home to a gay club called simply the 1270 Club. The 1270 Club featured some of Boston's best DJs and was a popular spot for dancing. The club's three floors were filled with a diverse mix of gays, lesbians, and even adventurous straight people who came for the music. Here is a quote from a 1981 Boston Globe article hinting at the club's mystique:
The 1270 Club is viewed as a mysterious club were heterosexuals don't dare tread because they've heard it's gay. For most of the week the club does cater to a predominantly gay clientele, but the exception is Wednesday when live rock is booked and the evening often becomes one of the best around town...  (Steve Morse, "Short Cuts," Boston Globe, April 9, 1981)
After the 1270 Club closed the building was the site of several other other gay bars: Maximum Security, Tatoo, and finally Quest. Currently the building is home to the Baseball Tavern, a straight sports bar.

That's the history, now here's the ghost story a friend told me. In the mid-20th century many gay bars were controlled by organized crime, and allegedly this was once the case with The 1270 Club as well. The straight mobster who owned the club didn't care about its gay clientele as long as he made money off them. He was living the good life until one night he brought two female prostitutes home to his suburban house. The three adjourned to a room above the garage for some erotic fun, but unfortunately in his eagerness the mobster forgot to shut off his car. The next morning the mobster and the two women were found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning.

According to the friend who told me this story, the mobster's ghost was sometimes encountered lurking around the 1270 Club by the staff. My friend knew someone who worked there who had encountered the ghost. I got the impression the ghost wasn't seen when the club was busy, but only before or after hours when a handful of staff were alone in the large empty building.

I don't know if the story is true, but it is interesting. The straight mobster undone by his own lust, dead and unable to profit any longer off the community he exploited, seems like a fitting ghost to haunt a gay bar. The 1270 Club was an important place for gays and lesbians in Boston when it was open, and a ghost story like this helps keep its memory alive in the community.

The other story I heard (from several people) is about the building at 1254 Boylston Street. This is just a few doors down from 1270 Boylston, so we have two spooky gay bars on the same block. This building houses the gay nightclubs Ramrod and Machine, but in an earlier incarnation it was just a gay leather bar called The Ramrod. The dancefloor at Machine is located in what was once the unused basement of the Ramrod. According to a couple informants, this basement space was used by one of the local medical schools to store human body parts. Leathermen partied one floor above a grim collection of medical specimens. Jars filled with formaldehyde-soaked body parts lined dusty old shelves in a space that today is filled with dancers, drag queens, and Ryan Landry's campy theatrical productions.

I didn't hear any actual ghost stories associated with Ramrod/Machine, just that the basement was once filled with human body parts. Which is probably creepy enough, right? It's interesting that the basements of Jacques and the Ramrod were both said to be storage areas for dead bodies, although for one it was only temporary. Is this just a folklore trope or were they actually used for this purpose?

That's all the information I have right now. I've been to both of these locations and never noticed anything paranormally weird, but please feel free to share anything you know in the comments. I always enjoy learning more about the place I live, even if the information is kind of gruesome.