March 30, 2014

Fairies at a New Hampshire Inn

Lots of witches and ghosts lurk in New England folklore, but not many fairies. Why is that?

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, "Fairy faith is, we may safely say, now dead everywhere ... It never had much hold upon the Yankee mind, our superstitions being mostly of a sterner and less poetical kind." He also claims that any fairy beliefs found in New England were brought here in the 1700s by Irish Presbyterians.

That quote is from Prose Works of John Greenleaf Whittier, which was published around 1866. He then goes on to provide a story to prove the Irish brought the fairies with them.

Poet John Greenleaf Whittier, 1807 - 1892.

In the early 1800s, a surly, unhappy man decided to open an inn in New Hampshire. Business suffered because of his dour personality and "poverty came upon the house and its tenants like an armed man." The man's wife, who was of Irish descent, remained hopeful despite the dire financial situation. A better day would come, she told her husband and daughters.

The inn's business did improve, but for an odd reason: a troupe of fairies took up residence in the building. Although they were invisible to mortal eyes, their quiet, squeaky voices could be heard by everyone who visited the tavern. It was noted by several visitors that they spoke in a distinct Yankee/Irish dialect.

Word spread throughout the area about the fairies, and curious crowds gathered to hear them speak - and to spend money on food and drink. Life was good for the innkeeper, his wife, and three daughters.

Gradually, though, people began to question the reality of the fairies. Why had they taken up residence in New Hampshire? How come no one could see them? Whittier claims these doubts arose because fairies just weren't part of New England culture:

Had the place been traversed by a ghost of disturbed by a witch they could have acquiesced in it very quietly; but this outlandish belief in fairies was altogether an overtask for Yankee credulity. As might have been expected, the little strangers, unable to breath in an atmosphere of doubt and suspicion, soon took their leave, shaking off the dust of their elfin feet as a testimony against an unbelieving generation.

Some skeptics said the fairies weren't even real. The skeptics claimed some men from Massachusetts had come to hear the fairies and pried away a board in the ceiling - to reveal the innkeeper's three daughters upstairs speaking like the fairies. The skeptics also claimed that once the hoax was revealed the fairy visitation stopped. The innkeeper's wife dismissed this rumor, claiming instead that the fairies had simply gone back to Ireland.

I have a few rambling thoughts on this story. It does seem Whittier was correct that New Englanders were happy to believe in supernatural beings, but only if they were scary and malevolent. The witchlore and ghost stories from this area are full of gruesome creatures and grim situations. You don't encounter too many playful magical creatures in the folklore of this area, but there are a few exceptions.

Whittier doesn't name the town where the inn stood, but only gives the first letter of its name: S. There aren't many New Hampshire town names beginning with S, and since Whittier lived most of his life in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts I suspect the inn was in southern New Hampshire. Maybe it was in Salem, or possibly Sandown?

Southern New Hampshire does seem to have a stronger fairy tradition than other parts of New England. You can see my post about Tisenetto, the Derry fairy, here. Some people also claim this little green man seen in the 1950s was another version of the Derry fairy. You can find some more speculation on the topic of fairies in New Hampshire here.

March 23, 2014

UFO Statistics, Mountain Lions, and Colonial New Year in the News

Here are a few folkloric things that have been in the media recently. I write a lot about the past, but strange things are still alive and well in New England!

UFO Statistics for 2013

MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network, has released their data on the number of UFO sightings in the year 2013. You'll be happy to know that although New England is a small region we still reported a sizeable number of strange things in the sky. Here are the number of UFO sightings by state:

Maine: 51
New Hampshire: 42
Vermont: 25
Massachusetts: 106
Rhode Island: 21
Connecticut: 73

It all adds up to a grand total of 318 UFOs seen here last year. The numbers from states like California, Texas and Florida are much higher, but on a per person basis New England fares really well. Maine and Vermont have some of the highest number of sightings per person in the United States. Spherical objects were the most commonly reported in New England, except in New Hampshire where people reported more star-shaped UFOs. This infographic from OuterPlaces explains it all:

I love reading about UFOs, but don't really have a firm opinion about what they are. Extraterrestrial craft? Ancient gods or fairies in a new disguise? Omens of the End Times? Manifestations of the collective unconscious? Any of those sound interesting to me. UFOs are still fascinating even if many of the sightings are hoaxes or misinterpretations. After all, what does it mean that we are willing to believe there just might someone (or something) out there in the universe?

Giant Cat Seen (or Not?) in Winchester, MA

On a more terrestrial note a large cat-like animal, possibly a mountain lion, was seen in Winchester, Massachusetts in late February and again in March.

No mountain lions have been confirmed in Massachusetts for more than 150 years, and Winchester, an upscale suburb only eight miles from Boston, seems like an unlikely spot for such a large predator to appear. However, a mountain lion was killed by a car in Millford, Connecticut in 2011. That animal had been tagged earlier in its life by biologists in South Dakota, so I suppose its not impossible for a mountain lion to make its way to Massachusetts.

The animal left tracks, and police sent them to wildlife experts for analysis. I don't know if the citizens of Winchester were excited or terrified when the police posted on their website that the tracks had been confirmed as mountain lion tracks. Yes, that's right, a mountain lion was stalking around Winchester.

And then things got murky. The wildlife experts claimed they had never said the tracks were from a mountain lion. Instead, they believed the tracks were from a large dog or maybe a coyote. Winchester police are sticking with their story, though.

So, just like with UFO sightings, there's no good resolution. Is that light in the sky the planet Venus or a spaceship? Did people see a large coyote or was it a mountain lion? For the moment we have to be comfortable with uncertainty (and lock up the pets if you live in Winchester).

Colonial New Year

For many years, the American colonies celebrated New Year's on March 25 rather than January 1. Although most of Europe had upgraded to the Gregorian calendar, England and her colonies refused to follow a Papish innovation (even though it was correct) and continued using the older and inaccurate Julian calendar. The Boston Globe has a nice article about how the change was finally made.

March 15, 2014

Moll Ellis's Bee: The Witch's Familiar and the Human Spirit

Here's an interesting witch story from Cape Cod. I think it illustrates how really old metaphysical beliefs survived in disguise until quite recently in New England. The story is from William Root Bliss's 1893 book The Old Colony Town and Other Sketches.


Everyone in Plymouth knew that Moll Ellis was a witch, but no one knew it better than Mr. Stevens. Moll and Mr. Stevens had argued about something (as people in small towns do), and for three years since she had tormented him in small ways with her witchcraft.

Stevens had been able to ignore the years of minor but annoying witchery, but his patience ran out one day when he was hauling a big load of hay in a ox-driven cart. The oxen had just pulled the cart across a stream when something spooked them. They reared up, and the hay fell into the stream and was ruined.

Mr. Stevens stomped over to Moll's house. He barged inside, and found her lying on her back with her eyes shut, "a-muttering dretful spell words." He yelled at Moll that if she every bothered him or his cattle again he would have her hung as a witch.

Frightened to find her enemy inside her home, Moll opened her eyes and apologized. She also said she would never bother him again, but while she was talking to Mr. Stevens something strange happened.

When she was talking, a little black devil, that looked just like a bumblebee, flew into the window and popped down her throat; 't was the one she had sent out to scare the cattle...

That little black bumblebee is Moll's familiar spirit. According to New England folklore, the Devil gives his witches minor devils called familiars to work their mischief. Although sometimes monstrous in form, familiars most often appear as animals like birds, cats, dogs and toads. Insect familiars are rarer, but not completely unknown. In addition to Moll's bee, a witch from Rock's Village near Haverhill, Massachusetts had a familiar shaped like a junebug.

Like a lot of our local witch lore, the demonic familiar spirit is an idea that originated in Europe. But before it even became associated with the Devil and malevolent witches, it was a widely held metaphysical concept. For example, here is a story from a 14th century book about the Cathars, a heretical Christian sect.


Two men were sitting by the side of a river when one of them fell asleep. As the other man watched, a small lizard emerged from the sleeping man's mouth. The lizard crawled along the river bank and then crossed over the river using a branch that extended from one bank to the other. While it was on the other side it crawled in and out of a donkey's skull that was lying on the ground.

The man who was awake moved the branch, trapping the lizard on the other side. As the lizard tried to find a way across the river the sleeping man began to thrash in his sleep. The man replaced the branch and the lizard scurried back into the sleeping man's mouth. When the sleeper awoke he told his friend how he had dreamt he crossed a mighty river and explored a palace that had many entrances and chambers.

The two men were quite puzzled by this and went to one of the Cathar religious leaders, who were known as the perfecti.

"The soul," he said, "resides permanently in the body of man; the spirit, on the other hand, goes in and out of the human body, exactly as the lizard who went from the sleeping man's mouth to the donkey's head, back and forth."
(The story is quoted in Claude Lecouteux's Witches, Werewolves and Fairies (2003).)


The Cathar story is not the earliest version of this tale. Similar accounts appear in Norse sagas, and in a story about King Guntram, a Frankish king who lived in the sixth century. 

Somehow, this belief in an animal spirit that can leave the body survived for more than 1,300 years, finding its way from a story about a king to Moll Ellis, a witch who lived in Plymouth. Over time it became transformed from a neutral statement about human metaphysics to a demonic story to scare children, but it's still exciting to find these little ancient gems hidden in our local folklore.

March 09, 2014

Early New England Gravestone Styles: From Morbid to Contemplative

I enjoy walking around old cemeteries, and I bet a lot of my readers are the same. The really, really old graveyards are the most interesting to me. They give a glimpse at what life (and death) was like here centuries ago.

The earliest gravestones you can find are from the 17th century, when this area was a hotbed of orthodox Puritanism. Although the Puritans apparently weren't as grim as many people think (they did invent Thanksgiving, after all!), their religious outlook was still pretty gloomy. Gravestones from this era are decorated with skulls, usually winged.

Grave of Edward Dean, 1716, Charter Street Burying Ground, Salem

The Puritans were staunch Christians, but their religious beliefs didn't provide a lot of hope for the individual. Only God knew who would be admitted to Heaven, and He didn't tell anyone. Even the most devout people went through life fearing not only death, but that they would be sent to Hell by God. I've read somewhere that young Puritan children were often sent to look at open graves and watch burials so they could meditate on their own mortality and innate sinfulness.

The fears created by Puritan religious beliefs were probably compounded by how unstable the New England settlements were in the 17th century. Indian attacks, war with the French, piracy, outbreaks of disease, and the occasional witch hunt all made the world feel threatening. No wonder they carved skulls on their tombstones.

Grave of Sarah Gardner, 1791, Charter Steet Burying Ground, Salem
Although death's heads continued to be used in the 18th century, they were slowly replaced by a new image: cherubs. It's almost like the winged skulls grew their skin back! Cherubs started to appear shortly after the Great Awakening swept over New England. The ministers of the Great Awakening emphasized personal revelation and close study of the Bible, rather than relying solely on official religious authorities. Many schisms split apart the New England churches, and people found new enthusiasm for religion. There was also an emphasis on resurrection, which is reflected the cherubs, who are often smiling. The settlements at this time began to feel more permanent, and there were fewer external threats to New England.

Grave of Captain Clifford Crowninshield, 1809, Charter Street Burying Ground, Salem

Gravestones decorated with willows and urns slowly replaced the cherubs in the 19th century. The urn-and-willow motif apparently began in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was a center for intellectual trends like the Greek revival, which sought a return to classical forms in art and architecture. Also spreading across New England from Harvard University was Unitarianism, which brought a more intellectual approach to the old Puritan congregations. Both skulls and cherubs were too visceral for this new, more philosophical strand of Christianity. In the 19th century New England was the intellectual and financial center of the United States, and I think the new peace and prosperity are probably reflected in this soothing grave art as well.

If you want to read more about this, you should check out "Death's Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow," a famous article printed in 1967 in Natural History. The authors lay it all out in much greater detail than I did. Have fun exploring your local graveyard!

March 02, 2014

Cabin Fever, Wendigo Psychosis, and a Chenoo Story from Maine

This winter drags on and continues to be cold and snowy. Some of us might be suffering from a little cabin fever by now, but I hope no one is suffering from wendigo psychosis.

Before you can diagnose someone with that particular mental illness, you need to know what a wendigo is. The wendigo is a mythical monster found in the folklore of some Indian groups from the Northeast and Midwest. Generally pictured as huge, emaciated giants with an insatiable desire for human flesh, wendigos are humans who have been transformed into ravenous cannibals. The mechanism for this transformation varies. Some tribes claim it is done through magic (whether purposefully or as an attack by an enemy), while others claim just one taste of human flesh will transform anyone into a wendigo.

Which leads us to wendigo psychosis. Psychologists and anthropologists coined this term in the early 20th century as they studied native societies with wendigo myths and found that some individuals had a fear of becoming a wendigo. This psychosis was particularly prevalent during the long cold winter months when food was scarce, and family and friends started to look very tasty...

Wendigo psychosis could be cured through rituals, but in extreme cases people claiming to be nascent wendigos were killed. That seems quite harsh, but I suppose you might do the same if someone you knew was threatening to eat you.

The Indians in northern New England believed in similar creatures, although they didn't call them wendigos. Instead they were called chenoos, giwakwa, or kiwakwa, but I'm just going to use chenoo for simplicity. Like wendigos chenoos are gigantic and emaciated, but they are also lipless because they hungrily chew them off. Their screams will kill anyone who hears them, and chenoos get their power from a human-shaped lump of ice that has replaced their heart.

There are lots of gruesome chenoo stories, but because winter is almost over (I hope), here's one that is not too nasty from the Passamaquoddy of Maine.


Many years ago a young newlywed couple set off to spend the winter in the woods. They were following the traditional pattern of their people, where the tribe would come together in the summer and fall when food was plentiful, then split into smaller units during the winter when food was scarcer.

The couple set up camp by a river deep in the forest. One day while her husband was out hunting the wife heard something large stomping around outside her tent. It was a chenoo. He stuck his head into the tent and glowered at her hungrily.

Thinking quickly, the woman said, "Welcome father!" The chenoo had been planning to eat her, but was surprised at being addressed so politely. She invited the monster to come sit by the fire.

When she heard her husband approaching she went outside and explained that a chenoo was inside their home. He too addressed it as father. The chenoo was so pleased that it declared it would not eat them (at least not immediately) and moved in with them.

The chenoo lived with them for many weeks. In some ways it was quite helpful. For example, since it was so tall the husband would ride upon its back while hunting game. It also offered protection against the other chenoos that roamed through the woods. The young couple once watched in amazement as their chenoo killed a rival chenoo that wanted to eat them. Then they watched in horror as their "father" ate the corpse. Despite the benefits, they realized that at some point they too would anger the chenoo and it would eat them. 

The next day the woman made a mixture of water and salt and offered it to the chenoo as a beverage. The chenoo greedily drank it down and almost immediately vomited up a human-shaped lump of ice. This was the heart of the dead rival it had recently eaten, and the woman threw it on the fire. The chenoo shrank in size, and vomited up another human-shaped ice lump. Clearly her "father" had been busy eating other chenoos, and the woman tossed this on the fire as well.

Finally, the chenoo vomited up a third icy lump and transformed into a little old man. As the woman went to toss the ice onto the fire, the former chenoo grabbed her hand. "Daughter wait!" he cried. "That is my heart! I will die if it melts." He took it from her and swallowed it down.

Due to the efforts of the woman, the chenoo was cured. Well, at least mostly.


I found this story in Charles Godfrey Leland's 1884 book The Algonquin Legends of New England.  There are other legends where the chenoo is cured completely or destroyed, but I like the ambivalent ending of this one. Even if you get rid of one monster you know another one will just show up next winter.