October 10, 2017

Apple Lore: Death, Love and Magic

The other day I went to the farmers market and was very excited to see a bin full of small greenish brown apples. I am an apple fanatic, and those little beauties were Roxbury Russets. They actually weren't much to look at, but they have a long history in New England. In fact, Roxbury Russets are the oldest type of apple grown in the United States.

Their origin is a little murky, but they are said to have first been discovered growing in Roxbury, Massachusetts way back in the mid-1600s. One source claims they were growing as early as 1649. The word "discovered" is a little puzzling. It implies that some hapless Puritan just stumbled upon an apple tree, but apples are not native to New England. The Roxbury Russet must have been introduced by someone, but who? I've read that William Blackstone, the first Englishman to live on  the Boston peninsula, grew apple trees on what is now Boston Common. Perhaps the Roxbury Russet is a wild American version of an English cultivar he planted, its seeds carried into the hills of Roxbury by a bird or beast.

That's just speculation on my part. According to folklore, the first person to grow Roxbury Russets was a colonist named Joseph Warren. He died falling off a ladder while picking apples. That story almost seems too ironic to be true, but death by apple may have been a common thing in Colonial New England. For example, a man named Peter Parker died in the 1700s when a giant barrel of his home-made cider rolled off a wagon and crushed him. This happened in his orchard on top of Roxbury's Mission Hill (formerly known as Parker Hill), near what is now McLaughlin Park next to the New England Baptist Hospital. I lived on Mission Hill for many years, and every fall a local neighborhood group gathered the apples that still grow in the park to make cider. Some of the trees in the park may be descendants of Peter Parker's original trees. No one ever reported seeing Peter Parker's ghost, though.

Roxbury Russet apples
Given the apple's Biblical connections with sin, death and sex, it's not surprising there is some weird apple folklore in New England. Some of it is downright creepy. Take the strange story of Roger Williams's corpse. Williams was the founder of Rhode Island, and in 1936 his descendants exhumed his body to move it to another location. They were horrified to find that the roots of a nearby apple tree had grown into Williams's coffin and apparently absorbed most of his corpse. There were very few bones left inside and the tree roots had taken the shape of Williams's body. The roots are now part of the collection at the John Brown House museum in Providence.

The legend of Micah Rood is similarly grim. Micah Rood was a surly farmer who lived in Connecticut in the 1600s. One night a traveling peddler came to Rood's house and asked if he could spend the night. Rood grunted that he could. In the morning the peddler's cold dead body was found lying underneath one of Rood's apple trees. The peddler had been murdered and his money and wares stolen. The town naturally suspected Rood but had no evidence to prove he was the killer. The next autumn, though, all the apples that grew from Micah Rood's trees had a single blood-red spot in their white flesh.

One end of the sin continuum is death, but the other end is sex, and apples are a key component in a lot of nineteenth century New England love magic. Most of it is focused on determining who your true love is. For example, here's a simple charm involving apple seeds. If you have several potential lovers in mind, take some apple seeds and name each seed after one of the potential mates. Wet the seeds and then stick them to your forehead. The last seed to fall off is the person you are meant to be with.

Similarly, you can take two apple seeds and name them after two potential lovers. Wet them. Put one seed on each eyelid. Blink rapidly. Whichever seed falls off last represents your true love.

You can also predict a lover's name using an apple peel. Remove an apple's peel so it comes off in one long piece. Throw the peel over your shoulder onto the ground. Turn around and examine the peel. What letter does it form? That letter will be the first letter of your true love's first name.

Those love charms are kind of cute and would make good party games. This last one is a little more spooky. Stand in front of a mirror holding a lamp (or candle) and an apple. As you eat the apple repeat the following words:

Whoever my true love may be
Come and eat this apple with me

Is your true love supposed to arrive in person or just appear in the mirror? I'm not sure. That charm is in Fanny Bergren's 1896 book Current Superstitions, and she notes that it is particularly effective when done on Halloween. If you dare to try it let me know what happens.

October 03, 2017

The Ghost Dog of Boston College

The other night I dreamed that I was being chased by a large invisible dog. It had been sent to kill me by some unnamed enemies. It never caught me, which I take as a good omen. I think I had this dream because before I went to sleep I was thinking about the one time I was actually bitten by a dog.

We tend to think of dogs as man's best friends, but there is a long history of ominous dogs in art, literature and folklore. Quite often they are associated with death. For example, European legends tell of the Wild Hunt, a band of demonic hunters and ghostly hounds that roam the land during the dark months of the year. Anyone who sees the hunt will die, so it's a phenomenon best left unexperienced. Other sinister black dogs can also be found in English folklore, including the infamous Black Shuck of East Anglia. Going further back in history, the Greeks claimed the underworld was guarded by a three-headed dog named Cerberus, while the Egyptian god of embalming had the head of a black canine.

These tales may sound like quaint stories from the distant past, but ghastly dogs still continue to rear their toothy heads. For example, the psychologist Carl Jung had the following dream:

"I was in a forest - dense, gloomy fantastic, gigantic boulders lay about among huge jungle like trees. It was a heroic , primeval landscape. Suddenly I heard a piercing whistle that seemed to resound through the whole universe. My knees shook. Then there were crashings in the under brush, and a gigantic wolfhound with a fearful, gaping maw burst forth. At the sight of it, the blood froze in my veins. It tore past me, and I suddenly knew: the Wild Huntsman had commanded it to carry away a human soul. I awoke in sudden terror."

When he awoke Jung learned that his mother had died in the night. The Wild Hunt struck again.

Demonic hounds also appear in art, both high- and low-brow. In his novel The Western Lands William S. Burroughs writes about "door dogs" which are "not guarders but crossers of thresholds. They bring Death with them." If post-modern novels are not your cup of tea, you can also find demonic dogs in horror movies like 1978's Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell.

Devil Dog (1978)
Here in New England, our most famous creepy canine is probably the black dog of Connecticut's West Peak. He's an adorable little black terrier, but you can only see his cute fuzzy face twice. If you see him three times you'll perish. This part of the country was first colonized by East Anglian Puritans, and it's tempting to see a connection between this black dog and the better-known English Black Shuck.

This has all been preamble, because what I really wanted to write about this week was Boston College's O'Connell House. O'Connell House was built in the 1890s as a private residence and was eventually left to Boston's Archbishop William O'Connell. O'Connell in turn gave it to Boston College. The 32,000 square foot mansion currently serves as the school's student union building.




As befits an old building on a college campus, there are a lot of ghosts stories attached to O'Connell. One of the ghosts that appears at O'Connell is said to be a small dog. In the October 31, 2002 issue of The Boston College Chronicle, one of the building's five resident student managers claimed she sometimes saw it in her room:

"Every now and then I'll be lying in bed and see this little dog sitting under my desk looking at me...  It's there and then it disappears. It's kind of eerie and definitely a mystery."

None of the resident managers owned a dog, of course. It was clearly a spectral being.


In 2001, famed psychic investigator Lorraine Warren visited O'Connell House. (Lorraine and her husband Ed's work as ghost-hunters inspired The Conjuring films.) She validated the students' experiences.

According to Zach Barber, O'Connell House manager and A&S '04, Warren sensed three spirits in the house.  
"She said that there were two ghosts in the attic that either hanged themselves or jumped, and there was also a dog spirit that she said was following her around the house," said Barber." She also said, "You must hear furniture moving around up there (in the attic) all the time." Barber confirmed that some O'Connell House staff members have, in fact, reported hearing such noises on the ceilings of the rooms below the attic in the past." (The Heights, Volume LXXXII, Number 22, 23 October 2001)

Boston College students have various theories about what the ghosts are: one is a child who drowned in a fountain, one is a madwoman who had been confined in the house, another is someone killed by a jealous lover. I haven't read any theories about the dog, though.


Why is this dog so well-behaved compared to some of its folkloric counterparts? Perhaps the students raise enough hell on their own and don't need any help from the dog, or perhaps the school's culture of Catholicism and rational inquiry help keep the little beast in check. Or maybe he's just a lonely little ghost-dog looking for affection. Hopefully we'll get some answers when the next group of psychics investigate O'Connell House someday in the future.

September 25, 2017

Lumberjacks and the Devil: Two Stories from Maine


1. THE DEVIL'S MAGIC AXE

Many years ago a lumberjack named Robert Cartier lived and worked in Millinocket, Maine. I suppose "worked" is an exaggeration. Cartier was a lazy drunkard and a trouble-maker. He preferred drinking in the bars or starting fights over cutting down trees.

One day the Devil appeared to Cartier. The Devil said, "Robert, I'd like to make a deal with you. It's a shame you need to spend so much time working as a lumberjack. You're doing an excellent job spreading evil by drinking and picking fights. I'd rather you spent your time doing that. What do you think?"

Cartier agreed.

"Well," said the Devil, "Here's the deal. I'll give you a magic axe. It can cut down trees all by itself. You won't need to lift a finger. You just need to whistle to make it happen. In return, I get your should when you die."

Cartier wasn't very smart, so a few years of easy living in exchange for eternal damnation sounded like a bargain to him. He agreed to the Devil's deal.


The next day Cartier went into the woods with the Devil's axe. He sat in the shade eating, drinking whisky, and whistling while the axe cut down tree after tree. When he was done in he went into town to drink more and pick fights. He had plenty of energy for mischief because he had done so little all day.

For many years Cartier spread misery at night while the Devil's axe chopped down trees all day. But one night in a bar Cartier had a moment of drunken clarity: he had spent his life doing evil and was doomed to Hell. Cartier staggered out of the bar into the night, eager to find atonement.

The next morning some lumberjacks found Cartier's body in the woods. His head been chopped clean off with one blow of an axe. The murder weapon was never found, but some people say the Devil's magic axe is still out there, ready for some unwary soul to start whistling in the woods.

2. JACK AND THE DEVIL

People in Dyer Brook, Maine say there is a special place in the woods where you can meet the Devil. If you go there seven nights in a row the Devil will appear and speak to you. 

A logger named Jack learned about this place and went there for the required number of nights. On the seventh night the Devil came and talked with Jack. He warned him not to ride the logs in the river next day or he would die. Jack was foolhardy and laughed at the Devil's warning. 

The next day Jack went went to work. A huge number of logs were being driven down the river. Jack jumped from log to log, nudging them with his pole to keep them moving downstream. He was about to leap onto another log when suddenly a flaming pickaxe appeared in front of him. He remembered the Devil's warning and jumped back to shore. Several men died that day in a logjam, but Jack didn't.

After this the other lumberjacks began to notice strange things about Jack. For example, when he was out chopping wood the sound of two axes could be heard, even though he was at the only person visible. Jack also was often heard talking to someone that no one else could see. Maybe it was just an imaginary friend, but people knew that Jack had gone to the Devil's meeting place. They stared to call him Jack-the-Ripper because his strange behavior scared them.

Once Jack drove his axe into a tree so hard the handle split in two. But when Jack pulled it out the handle was strangely once again whole. The lumberjacks who witnessed this avoided him like the plague.

One day the boss walked with Jack to a clearing in the woods. It was full of brush and logs. "Clean this mess up," the boss said and walked off. The boss was spooked by Jack and thought it would take him several days to clean the clearing. Jack came back to camp in just a few hours. All the brush and logs had been neatly stacked in a pile. It would have taken dozens of men to do what Jack did alone in just a short time. The other men at camp whispered that he had supernatural help.

After that all the lumberjacks refused to work with Jack-the-Ripper. He left Dyer Brook and was never seen again.

*****

I really like these two stories. They're short, sweet and spooky. The first one comes from Charles A. Stansfield's Haunted Maine (2007), which is packed with great legends. The other one comes from The WPA Guide to Maine: The Pine Tree State, which was produced in the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project as a way to employ out-of-work authors. Why doesn't the US government pay people to collect folklore today? That's how I want my tax dollars spent.

September 20, 2017

A Weed That Cures Witchcraft and Elf-Sickness

Today is cloudy and dark. A hurricane is churning off the coast. Autumn officially starts in a few days. All this puts me in the mood for some witchcraft. So here goes!

Whenever I walk around the Boston area, I see a lot of plants growing wild. They grow in yards, they grow in parks, they grow in empty lots and along the sidewalks. I suppose you might call them weeds, but that term seems a little derogatory, doesn't it? Many of these plants are actually herbs that historically have been associated with healing. We've just forgotten what they were used for.

Some of them I recognize, like mugwort, dandelion, and mullein, but I'm still learning the names of others. For example, I believe this inconspicuous looking plant growing on Memorial Drive is actually dock weed (or dock). I'm glad to know where it is. It might come in handy in case I am bewitched or afflicted by elves.


According to Pamela Jones's book Just Weeds: History, Myths and Uses (1994), the Medieval Anglo-Saxons valued dock weed as a cure for "elf-sickness." Like many other Europeans, the Anglo-Saxons believed that elves shot people with invisible arrows and made them sick. Many Anglo-Saxon sources also link elves with witches since they were both sources of illness and suffering.

For example, one Anglo-Saxon book of cures contains a recipe for an herbal salve to treat sickness caused by "the elfin race and nocturnal goblin visitors and for the women with whom the devil hath carnal commerce." Another such book has a chapter dedicated to cures against "every evil wisewoman and the elfin race," while another, the Lacnunga, lists witches, elves, and Norse gods as possible causes for illness.

The Puritans who colonized New England did not worry about Norse gods, and they didn't really worry much about elves either. But they worried about witches a lot. A lot. The Salem witch trials of 1692 are the most famous New England trials, but there were many others before them, and even a few afterwards. For the Puritan settlers, witches were a real concern and they were always looking for ways to combat their malevolent magic.

For example, in 1685 a woman living in East Hampton, Connecticut* named Elizabeth Howell became strangely ill. She felt sharp piercing pains as if being stuck with pins, and claimed to see a strange black creature lurking at the foot of her bed. She also supposedly vomited up a pin. Before she died, Howell cried out that she was being bewitched by a neighbor, Elizabeth Garlick.

Goody Garlick was arrested and brought to trial for witchcraft. Several people testified against her, including one Goodwife Simons, who claimed that while suffering from fits two neighbors arrived with dock weed to cure her illness. When she learned that the dock weed had been provided by Goody Garlick she threw it onto the fire. She suspected that Goody Garlick was bewitching her and didn't trust the dock weed. Perhaps it would just make her feel worse! But it's clear that her neighbors thought the dock weed would help cure her. I think it's fascinating that a centuries-old belief dating back to the Anglo-Saxons appeared in 17th century Connecticut.

So there you go. Random weeds growing near the sidewalk actually have a connection to witchcraft, and perhaps even elves. New England is a great place to live!

*****

* East Hampton is now part of New York but for a time in the 1600s it was part of Connecticut. 

I got most of my information about Goody Garlick and the dock weed from this Smithsonian article and this article in the East Hampton Star. I also found another Anglo-Saxon leech book that mentions burning herbs as a cure for elf-sickness, but historians don't seem to think that is why Goodwife Simons threw the dock weed into her fire. 

September 12, 2017

Bradford College: The Necronomicon, Strange Lights, and Ghosts

What is it about colleges and ghost stories? It seems like most colleges have at least one restless spirit wandering their hallowed halls. Maybe it's because young people are more perceptive of the supernatural, or maybe it's just that young people like a good scary story. Either way, if you want to find a ghost college campuses are a good place to look.

I grew up in Haverhill, Massachusetts. When I lived there it was home to two colleges: Northern Essex Community College (NECCO to the locals) and Bradford College. I've never heard any ghost stories about NECCO, and Renee Mallett, author Haunted Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts, writes that "...it's not haunted in the slightest, at least as far as anyone has come forward to say." It's not a residential campus so that might be the reason why.

Bradford College, on the other hand, is the setting for many ghostly encounters and paranormal legends. Perhaps this is because it was home to thousands of young people for nearly two centuries. Bradford was founded as an academy for girls back in 1803, became a junior college in 1932 and then a four-year co-ed college in 1971. Bradford College closed in 2000 for financial reasons, and it's campus is now home to Northpoint Bible College.

Photo by Stephen Muise (my brother!)
My favorite story about Bradford College is that the Necronomicon, a legendary book of malevolent magic, is hidden somewhere in the tunnels beneath the campus. The tunnels are quite real, and a colleague of mine who attended Bradford said they were originally built so the wealthy young ladies of Bradford Academy didn't need to go outside in inclement weather. According to the legend, horror author H.P. Lovecraft was dating one of these young ladies in the 1920s and decided to hide the Necronomicon below the campus to keep it safely hidden away.

There are a couple reasons why this story is almost certainly just a legend. First, the fabled Necronomicon is not real. This mythical book was a fictional creation  Lovecraft used in many of his tales but it did not exist outside the pages of his stories. After his death several authors published their own versions of the Necronomicon, which you can still buy from Amazon or your local bookstore. I can't vouch for their magical efficacy, but they certainly aren't hidden under Bradford College.

The second reason this is just a legend? Lovecraft never dated anyone. There's no record of him having romantic feelings for anyone until he met his wife, and even then she talked him into their short-lived marriage. Lovecraft dating someone is more unbelievable than the Necronomicon.

Photo: Stephen Muise
A weirder and somehow more believable ghost story about Bradford was sent to me by someone who reads my blog. I'll call him Greg for the sake of anonymity. Greg was a freshman at Bradford College in 1980. One night in late September or early October of that year, Greg and some other freshmen were carrying a case of beer into their dorm when a sophomore named Larry stopped them in the hall. He explained that he didn't want to be alone that night. It was the one-year anniversary of something strange that happened.

He told them the following story. One year ago, Larry, his roommate Ray, and a couple other students decided to take LSD on a Friday afternoon after class. They had planned to take it outside on the beautiful campus, but rainy weather confined them to Larry and Ray's room. Things went poorly. As the acid kicked in Ray became extremely paranoid, and began to rant about a flashing red light in the corner of the room. No one else could see it. Ray started to scream accusingly at his friends so they left him alone (and tripping) in his room. Hours later Ray was still screaming about the flashing red light and was taken to the school medical facility. He never came back to his room, and several days later his father came and collected his belongings. No one ever learned what happened to Ray.

That was the end of Larry's story. Greg and the other freshmen kind of laughed at it, but a few weeks later Greg experienced something that made him reconsider the story. Greg had been hanging out in Larry's room and as he left he saw the words "WELCOME BACK RAY" appear on the door. They vanished as soon as he read them. This freaked Greg out but he didn't say anything.

The appearance of those words was the start of some weird occurrences in the dormitory. One night Greg was awakened by someone screaming in the room next to him. He listened through the wall but couldn't make out what was causing the commotion. Several days later he learned that one of the boys in that room had left Bradford College and gone back to live at his parents' house. The boy was upset because he kept seeing a flashing red light.

Greg also started to see a flashing red light, often out of the corner of his eye. Greg wrote, "I thought that either it was just my imagination or this dorm was really haunted and I was going to be its victim in some way." He had trouble concentrating and his grades began to fall. During this time Greg learned that another student had also supposedly seen a red flashing light, this time in the bathroom while he was drunk.

Hearing this did nothing to settle Greg's nerves. He continued to see the red light, his grades continued to fall, and he became deeply depressed. In the spring of 1981 he finally hitchhiked home and never returned to Bradford.

That's the end of Greg's story. I find it really fascinating and don't quite know what to make of it. Greg seems to think that "WELCOME BACK RAY" was a premonition that like Ray he too would eventually drop out of Bradford. If that's the case it came true. And did Ray's initial bad acid trip accidentally open a doorway for something uncanny to come through?

Photo: Stephen Muise
That story about the flashing red light is just one of many told about Bradford College. The most famous ghost story is that the campus is haunted by a spirit called Amy, who was a young woman who had an affair with a priest. When she became pregnant she either killed herself or was murdered by the priest. The college is also said to be haunted by the ghost of a drama professor who was murdered by student who impregnated her. Yikes! That's a lot of sex and violence for such a small college.

Are any of these stories true? I can't really say, but the folks at Ghost Encounters have investigated Bradford College and you can read their results here. Sometimes when you to college you learn things you didn't expect.