May 30, 2015

The Moodus Noises: Part II

This is my second post about the mysterious Moodus noises. You can read part one here.

Once the English settled in Connecticut they developed their own theories to explain the mysterious subterranean noises. They of course didn't believe in the Algonquin god Hobomok, although some thought he might really be a demon of some kind or perhaps just the Devil under another name.

But they did believe strongly in the Devil, who was often blamed for strange occurrences and misfortunes. And if the Evil One himself wasn't the responsible party, then perhaps it was witches, who were his earthly minions. And someone sinister just had to be behind the terrifying booming Moodus noises.

It was a strange mix of things in East Haddam: Indian legends, weird sounds coming from a mountain, religious beliefs about Satan and witchcraft. Strange but I suppose quintessentially New England, and from that mix emerged the following story, quoted here from Charles Skinner's Myths and Legends of Our Own Land (1896):

It was finally understood that Haddam witches, who practised black magic, met the Moodus witches, who used white magic, in a cave beneath Mount Tom, and fought them in the light of a giant carbuncle that was fastened to the roof...

If the witch-fights were continued too long the king of Machimoddi, who sat on a throne of solid sapphire in the cave whence the noises came, raised his wand: then the light of the carbuncle went out, peals of thunder rolled through the rocky chambers, and the witches rushed into the sky.

I love the idea of good witches battling it out with bad ones. It's a theme is found often in continental European folklore. The historian Carlo Ginzburg documents many variants of it in his book Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches Sabbath. Some cultures believe troops of good witches fight bad ones, while others think the fight is between packs of good werewolves (!) battling evil witches, or gangs of good shamans against evil spirits. Usually the benevolent supernatural beings live in the village of the person telling the story, while the bad ones live in the village next door. Funny how that always works out. It's kind of the supernatural version of Red Sox vs. Yankees, I suppose, except in these stories the fight is usually over the fertility of the land rather than the World Series.

In European lore these battles are often presided over by one dominant supernatural being, such as a goddess or mysterious military leader. That role is filled in Moodus by the "king of Machimoddi," who is the spirit of Machimoodus, the original Algonquin name for the area. But who is he? Is he Hobomok, the Devil, or someone else entirely? This king seems strangely ambivalent for the Devil, who I can't imagine would just sit idly by during a battle of good and evil.

I don't know where or when this story first originated. Perhaps it was brought to Connecticut by someone familiar with European lore, or perhaps it was developed independently by the people of Moodus.

It is significant that the cave was supposedly lit by a giant carbuncle. We don't hear that word often now, but it's an old terming meaning any red gemstone. This giant gem features prominently in the next legend about the Moodus noises.

In the 1760s an elderly man named Doctor Steel arrived in East Haddam, claiming he had been sent to Connecticut by King George to stop those pesky Moodus noises. He also claimed the cause of the noises was the giant carbuncle which, depending on the legend, either illuminated the cavern where the witches fought or blocked the entrance to the cave. Like a dentist removing a bad tooth, Doctor Steel was going to remove the bothersome gem.

After building a small house on Mount Tom the good doctor locked himself inside. Curious passersby noticed strange smells and sounds emanating from within. Several weeks after his arrival, Doctor Steel was seen to emerge from his house and make his way to the entrance of a cave that led deep into the mountain. Several hours later, people in the village saw a bright red light illuminate the mountain top. It was the glow of the carbuncle! Dr. Steel had successfully removed the giant gem.

In the morning the villagers went to congratulate the doctor, but found that he had already departed for England by ship, taking the giant gem with him. Unfortunately, he never arrived back in England. The carbuncle was filled with uncanny supernatural power, and a storm destroyed the ship and drowned all its passengers. The gem sank to the bottom of the Atlantic.

The gem carried with it an evil fate, for the galley sank in mid-ocean; but, though buried beneath a thousand fathoms of water, the red ray of the carbuncle sometimes shoots up from the sea, and the glow of it strikes fear into the hears of passing sailors. 

The Moodus noises stopped for a few years after Dr. Steel's operation, but eventually they began again. The local Indians nodded wisely. A new red gem was growing in the cave...

Geologists now claim the Moodus noises are caused by micro-earthquakes that occur underneath Mount Tom. I suppose that's a scientifically accurate explanation, but it's not as appealing as the earlier legends. I like idea of a cave deep beneath the earth, illuminated with a red glow, and presided over by a mysterious king. If you ever find that cave let me know.


Note: In addition to Charles Skinner's book, another good source for Moodus legends is David E. Philips's Legendary Connecticut.

May 24, 2015

The Moodus Noises: Part I

Quite a few years ago I was reading The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, a collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories published by Penguin. I was reading pulpy stories of tentacled terrors, but since it was a Penguin edition they had footnotes so I could feel intellectual. I was having my cake and eating it too.

In "The Dunwich Horror," Lovecraft's tale of central Massachusetts wizardry and invisible monsters, the people of Dunwich are troubled by strange rumbling sounds that come from a hill in their village. The footnote indicates Lovecraft incorporated these noises into his story after reading about similar noises in Moodus, Connecticut. But while Lovecraft's story was fiction, the Moodus noises were real.

Dean Stockwell in the 1970 film of The Dunwich Horror. Is he blocking out the Moodus noises?
That's how I personally first learned about the Moodus noises, but people have been hearing them for centuries. Moodus, which is a small village in the town of East Haddam, was originally called Machimoodus, which means "Place of Noises" or "Place of Evil Noises" in the Algonquin language. The noises were recorded by early Puritan settlers, and continue even today. The Hartford Courant reported that the noises were heard as recently as March, 2011.

The noises are centered around Mount Tom, where the Salmon and Moodus Rivers come together. They sound like cannon shots or explosions, and when they happened in 2011 emergency responders rushed into action, looking for a fire or explosion. There was nothing to find. The noises had come from deep inside the earth.

Here's how a July 1891 Boston Globe article describes them. The noises had been heard in Moodus just a few days earlier:

They are heard intermittently. Sometimes the mountain is silent for 25 or 30 years, then suddenly the strangest sounds break forth, a deep sepulchral, voluminous sound, like the moaning of an imprisoned monster, that seems to boom in subterranean caverns of the earth, and is heard distinctly 10 or 12 miles away.

The noises begin with a seemingly far away low rumbling note that speedily swells in volume and intensity, and culminates in a vast rolling sound, like the muttering of distant thunder, and the ground trembles as if with the throe of an earthquake.
Another Boston Globe article from March 1940 gives a similar description:

Virtually every householder in Moodus rushed to the cellar last night just before midnight to see whether his furnace had blown up, and finding it hadn't called neighbors on the telephone. Thus it was learned that the famous Moodus Noises had returned after about four years.

... Moodus has been shaken at irregular intervals by strange subterranean concussions. The sounds are reported to emanate from the mouth of a great cave, high on a hillside in view of virtually every house in town. No one apparently has ever been at the mouth of the cave when the noises issued forth, however.

"You can always distinguish these noises from blasting; the concussion is so much greater," one resident said today.

They sound scary and kind of awesome, so I can understand why Lovecraft put them into one of his stories. The Algonquians who originally lived in Moodus thought they were awesome and scary too, and therefore ascribed them to their god Hobomok, who was also awesome and scary. The Indians who actually lived on Mount Tom were specialists in interpreting the voice of Hobomok and were consulted as oracles by other local tribes.

When the Puritans showed up in the 1670s they asked the Indians about the strange booming sounds. They responded that they were the voice of Hobomok, and that he was unhappy because the English had come to Connecticut. (He probably was.)

Of course, the Puritans had their own interpretation. They didn't believe in Hobomok and thought the Indians were actually worshiping the Devil. Stephen Hosmer, Haddam's first minister, wrote the following to a friend in August of 1729:

I have been informed that in this place before the English settlements, there were great numbers of Indian inhabitants, and that it was a place of extraordinary Indian Powwows, or in short, that it was a place where the Indians drove a prodigious trade at worshipping the devil. ... Now whether there be anything diabolical in these things (the noises), I know not; but this I know, that God Almighty is to be seen and trembled at, in what has been often heard among us.

Once the Devil gets invoked you know things are going to get weird. Next week I'll post some of the crazy Colonial era legends about the noises, which involve witches, alchemists, and underground battle caves. Stay tuned!

Update: the second part of this post is now up!

May 17, 2015

Mary Toothaker and the Devil's Protection

Although it is warm and sunny out I am in the mood for witchcraft stories. Honestly I am always in the mood for witchcraft, but this month is always the busiest period at my day job, and I think I crave tales of the bizarre and supernatural as an antidote.

So here's a story, which is lurid, upsetting, and weirdly ironic. It comes from the Salem witch trials. The more I read about those dark days the more strange stories I find. This particular one is about a woman named Mary Toothaker, a woman whose life was saved by her confession.

Mary Toothaker lived in Billerica with her husband Roger and daughter Martha. Roger had a reputation as a folk-healer and bragged that he could fight witches with magic. When the witch trials broke out he was naturally accused of witchcraft - it's a fine line between white and black magic, after all - and eventually died in jail. In the summer of 1692 Mary was accused of witchcraft as well.

In addition to being accused of tormenting the usual gaggle of afflicted Salem girls, Mary was also accused of bewitching Timothy Swan of Andover. There was bad blood between Swan and Mary's family. In 1687 he had been accused of raping her relative Elizabeth Emerson, holding his arm against her throat so she could not cry out for help. He was acquitted of rape, but the court still ordered him to pay child support for the child Emerson conceived after his assault.

Swan later contracted a mysterious illness (which eventually killed him in 1693). During her trial, Mary Toothaker confessed that she had hurt Swan using witchcraft, and in particular that her specter had "squeezed his throat." An eye for an eye, I suppose. But revenge (according to her confession) was not the sole reason she had become a witch. The Devil had promised her safety.

It's hard to imagine now, but in 1692 Massachusetts consisted primarily of small rural villages. The colony was merely decades old, and its future was uncertain. The biggest threat came from the local Indians, who were allied with the French. Indian raids were a constant concern for English settlers in Massachusetts, and this concern was only magnified in the 1690s when Essex County was flooded with refugees fleeing Indian attacks in Maine. Billerica is now a cute bedroom community, but when Mary Toothaker lived there in the 1600s it was a frontier settlement whose residents feared for their lives.

So when Mary gave herself to the Devil, she asked for safety from Indian attacks for her and her son, a war veteran who had been wounded in a skirmish with Indians. The Devil, who appeared as a man with a dark complexion, agreed. Mary signed away her soul on a piece of birch bark.

At least that's what she confessed. No one who confessed during the Salem trials was executed, so it was the smart thing to do on Mary's part. After hearing her initial testimony the judges sent her to Salem's jail until they determined her sentence.

Two days later, on August 1, 1692, an Indian raiding party attacked Billerica. Most of Mary's neighbors were killed. It's very likely that if she had been home she would have died as well. Several days later the Indians returned and burned down the Toothaker farm, which was unoccupied.

In 1693 Mary was declared innocent of witchcraft and released from jail. She returned to Billerica with her 12 year old daughter Margaret. A few years later, on February 1, 1695 another Indian raiding party attacked Billerica. Mary was killed. Her daughter taken away as a captive and disappeared from the historical records.

I found this story in historian Emerson Baker's new book A Storm of Witchcraft. Baker speculates that Mary may have actually thought herself a witch. Her family did practice magic, and perhaps she thought Timothy Swan's suffering was caused by her own hatred of him. That's hard to determine, but her fear of Indian attacks was shared by most English settlers, and it's interesting that the Devil appeared to her as a dark-skinned man and that she signed a piece of bark rather than the more traditional European style book that is mentioned in other accounts. It makes sense to ally yourself with what you fear. Her confession provides a good window into the mindset of the time.

I don't think there was any unusual supernatural agency at work here, but it's odd that Mary was safest when she was locked up in jail. She got her wish for protection, even if only for a while.

May 10, 2015

The Ballad of Giles Corey: It's Complicated...

Last year when I was writing my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore I stumbled on something called the "Ballad of Giles Corey." Various sources called it a nineteenth century ballad. I included it in my book.

Giles Corey was a Wizard strong, 
A stubborn wretch was he;
And fitt was he to hang on high
Upon the Locust-Tree.

So when before the magistrates
For triall he did come
He would no confession make
But was compleatlie dumb...

They got them then a heavy beam.
They laid it on his breast;
They loaded it with heavy stones,
And hard upon him prest.

"More weight!" now said this wretched man;
"More weight!" again he cried;
And he did no confession make,
But wickedly he dyed.

One thing that's interesting about this ballad is that it assumes Giles Corey really was a wizard. This is kind of shocking, since as most Massachusetts school children learn Giles Corey was really an elderly farmer who refused to enter a plea to the crime of witchcraft during the Salem trials. Corey had a significant amount of property, and he knew that if he was found guilty the sheriff would seize all his land and goods. Corey hoped that by not speaking when interrogated he could save his estate for his children. The sheriff was determined to get a plea, and piled stones on Corey's chest in an effort to get him to speak. Corey's only words: "More weight!" Corey died without entering a plea, and his children got his estate. Corey was a martyr to political injustice.

I was curious to learn more about the "Ballad of Giles Corey." Why did its composer portray him as an evil wizard? Was there even a composer, or was it a folk song? I finally found the complete version of the ballad in Samuel G. Drake's 1866 book The Witchcraft Delusion in New England. Drake claims the ballad appeared in a newspaper 15 years earlier. The full and original title is "Giles Corey and Goodwyfe Corey. A Ballad of 1692."

Seeing the full title, I can understand better why Corey is portrayed as a wizard. It seems like the author was trying to portray the worldview of Salem circa 1692 (including ye quainte olde tyme spellings).  The ballad appeared anonymously, but Drake seems to think it was written by John Greenleaf Whittier. I can't find any evidence for that myself, but Whittier did like to play up the supernatural in his folk tales and poetry. Whittier experts, chime in!

The field where Giles Corey died is now the Howard Street Cemetery in Salem.

The original ballad gives equal time to Giles Corey's wife Martha, who was accused before Giles was and was ultimately hanged for witchcraft. Like so many women accused of witchcraft she was loud and argumentative.

This Goody Corey was a Witch
The People did believe
Afflicting of the Godly Ones
Did make them Sadlie greave

Giles Corey is usually portrayed as an innocent and brave man, so most accounts of his death leave out the inconvenient fact that he too believed his wife was a witch. He even testified that she had bewitched some of their animals. Only after he himself was arrested did he seem to understand that the trials were a farce. Hopefully he felt some regrets about testifying against her.

Stories about Giles Corey also usually leave out the fact that he was extremely violent, and beat one of his own indentured servants to death in 1676. The man had stolen some apples. The law allowed for the beating of indentured servants so Corey was not charged with murder, but was instead fined. Corey was generally a "very quarrelsome and contentious bad neighbor" according to neighbor Robert Moulton. For example, Giles Corey himself had stolen apples from a neighbor's orchard, and was later accused of sabotaging a neighbor's mill and setting another neighbor's house on fire. In short, he was bad news. You can see why his neighbors might want to get rid of him...

Corey was violent, a bad husband, and a bad neighbor. But he was still innocent of practicing witchcraft.

He was so unpopular the of Salem were willing to overlook that he was killed without even going to trial. Technically he wasn't even officially executed; he just died during questioning, which makes his story even more relevant to today. Just because he was an unpleasant and nasty man doesn't mean his death was right. Life is never black and white, and good and evil adhere to situations, not to people. Hopefully our justice system has improved in the last three hundred years.

May 03, 2015

Ghosts of the Great Elm and The Witching Elm

Many years ago, a great elm tree used to dominate the landscape of Boston Common. It was so large is was just referred to as the Great Elm.

According to Wikipedia, at its height the tree was nearly sixty-five feet high and the canopy of its branches spread out over eighty feet. It was so big that it had a hollow a child could climb into. That's a really big tree!

The tree eventually fell in a winter storm in 1876, but it was estimated to be over 250 years old at its demise. Even in the 1830s the tree was surrounded by a fence to protect it, and a plaque nearby proclaimed that the tree had been in existence since before the English settlers arrived. I don't know if that can be proven, but I like the idea of one last piece of the older, wilder world surviving into the Industrial era.

A 19th century photo of the Great Elm (from Wikipedia)

A lot of stories and legends gathered around this "vegetable patriarch," as it is called it the 1838 book The Boston Common, or Rural Walks in Cities. For example, Samuel Barber claims that Benjamin Franklin used to play under the tree while tending his family's cattle on the Common. Quaint and patriotic!

Not all the legends are quite so charming. The Common wasn't just used for cattle-grazing; it was also used for executions. Executions were a public affair in the Colonial era, and large crowds would turn out to watch. This was the era before television, and executions were often festive (if gruesome) sources of entertainment. For the common people they were a chance to take a break from work, while the government regarded public executions as a good deterrent to future law-breakers.

Murderers and other criminals were executed on the Common, but the definition of "criminal" three hundred years ago was much broader than it is today. Dozens of rebellious Indians were publicly executed, as were four witches and several religious dissenters like Quakers. On some occasions gallows were constructed to do the dirty deed, but in other cases large sturdy trees were used. We do know that Mary Dyer, the famous religious dissident, was hanged from a tree on the Common in 1660 after her final return to Boston from exile.

We don't know exactly which of the many trees on the Common were used for hangings, but tradition assigns the grim role to the Great Elm. It certainly was big enough.

A plaque on Boston Common commemorates the spot where the Great Elm once stood, but ghosts of those unlucky people hanged on its branches may still linger. According to my friend Sam Baltrusis's book Ghosts of Boston: Haunts of the Hub (2012), tenants in a nearby commercial building reported hearing clanking chains in their empty basement. Perhaps they were psychic echoes of the shackles used to restrain doomed criminals as they were led to their deaths? More significantly, the ghost of a woman in Puritan attire has been sighted near the Great Elm site. The ghost weeps and wails before disappearing. Baltrusis speculates that it might be the ghost of the Irish witch Goody Glover, who was hanged on the Common, but there unfortunately are many other possible candidates.

Now to shift gears, from ghost stories to young adult fiction. The Great Elm, or something very much like it, reappears in C.N. Crawford's new young adult novel The Witching Elm. The book's young hero, Tobias Corvin, lives in an alternate universe's version of Boston. The city is called Maremount, and it was founded by Algonquian and English magicians.

In our world's history Maremount, or Merrymount, was a free-loving, multicultural settlement destroyed by the Pilgrims in the early 1600s. In The Witching Elm Maremount is a place where magic is real, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have its problems. Only the upper classes are allowed to practice magic, and as the novel begins Maremount's forces of oppression, led by the mysterious Rawhead, are cleansing the city of illegal magicians and witches. Tobias's family is under suspicion, and for safety Tobias is transformed into a raven and sent to an even stranger city in another dimension: modern-day Boston, Massachusetts.

After regaining his human form Tobias takes shelter at Mather Academy, a prestigious old boarding school located near Boston Common. But things at the school are not quite what they seem. Why are students turning into withered corpses? What's the connection between the Academy, the Salem witches, and Nathaniel Hawthorne? What's up with the weird jewelry some students wear?

After Rawhead's minions appear in Boston to find Tobias, a new tree mysteriously grows at the site of the Great Elm. And then the executions begin...

I really enjoyed reading The Witching Elm, which was sent to me by the authors. (C.N. Crawford is really two people, Christine and Nick Crawford.)  I appreciated the way elements of New England folklore were woven into the book to make a compelling mystery. It's sort of like Harry Potter meets The House of Seven Gables meets this blog. If you like any of those things, or are just a fan of well-written YA fantasy, I'd recommend you purchase a copy. Don't read it too late at night, though, because things do get a little gruesome for the students and faculty at Mather Academy...