May 21, 2017

Sex, Whales and Witchcraft: The Legend of Ichabod Paddock

I've lived in New England my whole life, but I have only been to Nantucket once. It was a memorable trip. The island is full of beautiful historic old homes and lots of upscale amenities. It's a great spot for a posh summer vacation.

This was not always the case. Once it was a desolate isolated island. Herman Melville describes it in Moby Dick (1851):

Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it — a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don’t grow naturally; that they import Canada thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day’s walk a prairie...  
This does not sound like the summer playground of millionaires. It was not, but it was the whaling capital of the world. Melville himself sailed on the Charles and Henry, a Nantucket whaling ship, in 1842, which was one of the inspirations for Moby Dick.

Although the Wampanoag who originally lived on Nantucket may have occasionally killed whales, whaling as an industry only began there in 1690 when Ichabod Paddock arrived from Cape Cod. Paddock was a Quaker, an accomplished whaler, and a semi-legendary figure.

Image from here.

There are several legends about Paddock. For example, one claims that while he was in the Pacific he threw his favorite harpoon into a whale. The harpoon reached its mark, but the whale escaped. Thirteen years later, he was once again in the Pacific. His ship sighted a whale, which the crew successfully captured and killed. While they were cutting it up they found a harpoon embedded deep in its flesh. It had the initials "I.P." on it. It was the same whale Paddock had harpooned thirteen years ago.

One of the weirder legends tells how Paddock's ship was pursuing a whale named Crookjaw. No matter how hard Paddock's crew threw their harpoons they just bounced off Crookjaw. Even Ichabod himself could not harpoon the whale. Frustrated and unwilling to admit defeat, Ichabod put a knife between his teeth and dove into the ocean. As his terrified crew watched he swam right towards Crookjaw.

Crookjaw opened his mouth and swallowed Paddock whole.

Much to his surprise, Paddock did not die inside the darkness of a whale's stomach. Instead, he found himself inside a comfortable ship's cabin. Lanterns hung from the ceiling, and a large feather bed sat against one wall. A table filled the center of the room, and two people were playing cards at it. One was a beautiful blonde woman who had a shining green fish tail instead of legs. The other was a dark-clad man who smelled of fire and brimstone.

When the card players saw Paddock the dark man threw down his cards in anger and disappeared. The blonde woman (mermaid? witch?) smiled at Paddock.

"What were you wagering on?" he asked her.

"Why you, of course." She smiled again.



Meanwhile, the crew of Paddock's ship waited for some sign of their captain. After swallowing him Crookjaw just sat immobile, floating silently as the waves splashed against him. The crew didn't know what else to do. Their harpoons and knives were useless against the whale.

After several hours, Crookjaw opened his mouth and Paddock swam out on a torrent of water. He climbed back aboard his ship. "Boys," he said with a big grin, "We need to come back here tomorrow. I've got more work to do!"

Paddock and his crew came back the next day, and once again Paddock swam into the whale's mouth. His crew waited for hours while Crookjaw floated passively in the water until their captain emerged from the whale. Then they came back the next day. And the day after that.

This went on for quite a while. Rumors began to circulate around Nantucket that Paddock had been seduced by a devilish woman who lived in a whale, and they eventually reached the ears of his wife. Mrs. Paddock was young, beautiful, and unwilling to cede her husband to a witchy mermaid. She developed a plan.

One day as Paddock was about to set sail his wife ran down the wharf to his ship. "Husband!" she cried, "Husband! I have brought you a gift."

In her hands she held a glistening new harpoon. It's sharp tip shone brightly in the sun. Paddock thanked her and set sail for his assignation with her gift in his hand. Mrs. Paddock smiled a cold smile as the ship left the wharf.

When the ship found Crookjaw in his usual spot Paddock prepared to dive into the sea, but one of his crew stopped him. "Captain," he said, "Don't you think you should try that new harpoon your wife gave you? It's mighty fine. Maybe it can pierce the monster's skin."

Grudgingly, Paddock took up the harpoon. He knew it couldn't harm the enchanted whale, and he was eager to see his marine mistress. Still, he needed to keep up some level of appearance. He drew back his arm and threw the shining harpoon at Crookjaw.

The harpoon easily pierced the whale's hide, and with a hideous groan Crookjaw rolled over on his back. He was dead. Mrs. Paddock had asked a local blacksmith to forge a harpoon with a silver tip, and silver is one metal that always defeats witchcraft.

The crew didn't find a ship's cabin inside the whale when they cut open its stomach, just bile and half-digested fish. Paddock searched desperately through the offal for some sign of his lover, but all he found was long yellow seaweed and a few seashells.

*****
This story appears in quite a few places and with several variations. In some versions the seductress is clearly a witch, and in others a mermaid. I found this version in Nathaniel Philbrick's Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602 - 1890. Philbrick notes that Paddock was eventually kicked out of the Quakers after he "sailed about in a vessel where dancing was performed and he a partaker therein." The story about Crookjaw may be a legend but it seems to say something true about Paddock's personality.

Witches and sailors have a fraught (and often sexual) relationship in New England folklore. For example, Captain Sylvanus Rich was seduced by a witch who gave him the "sweet milk of Satan," while Skipper Ireson was ridden like a stallion at night by a witch as punishment. The Paddock legend is more elaborate but clearly fits in this genre.
Hercules, Hesione, and the Sea Monster, from the Museum of Fine Arts
Heroes have been swallowed by giant sea monsters throughout history. For example, Hercules was swallowed by a sea monster that came to eat the Trojan princess Hesione. He emerged alive several days later after killing the monster from the inside, but not before losing all his hair due to the acid in the monster's stomach. Two lessons to learn: Hercules is invulnerable but his hair isn't, and sea monster acid is nature's depilatory.

Jonah and the Whale, Pieter Lastman, 1620
The most famous person to emerge from a whale's stomach is of course the Biblical prophet Jonah. Jonah was told by God to preach in Nineveh, but didn't want to because he was afraid of the hostile reception he'd get there. He booked passage on a ship going in the opposite direction, but the crew threw him overboard after God besieged the ship with a storm. A whale swallowed Jonah, swam to Nineveh, and vomited him up on the shore. Jonah got the message and started preaching. 

In the movie Pinocchio, Gepetto is swallowed by a whale, and Pinocchio eventually goes inside to save him. This act of sacrifice turns the puppet Pinocchio into a real boy. 

Hercules, Jonah and Pinocchio find heroism, destiny and redemption inside their respective whales. Ichabod Paddock finds witchcraft, secret sex and the Devil. But after all, this is New England.

May 17, 2017

Skunk Cabbage Folklore

Last weekend I was walking through a park near my house and saw that this plant was growing near some streams:



It is of course skunk cabbage. Technically it's eastern skunk cabbage, or symplocarpus foetidus if you like Latin. There's also a western skunk cabbage that grows in the Pacific Northwest. Skunk cabbage gets its name from the pungent odor it releases when its leaves are damaged or when it flowers very early in the spring. I don't know if pungent is strong enough a word - its odor is reminiscent of skunk spray or rotting meat. One of the chemicals that produces its odor is cadaverine, which is also the chemical that makes rotting corpses smell.

When I saw the skunk cabbage I thought, "There must be some interesting folklore about this plant." And there is. Skunk cabbage was used by several local Indian tribes for medicinal purposes.

Before I list those purposes, I just want to say this: DO NOT TRY ANY OF THESE CURES. I am not a  doctor and am not recommending using skunk cabbage to heal anything. I am simply listing this folklore because I find it interesting.

The Micmac claimed that skunk cabbage could be used to stop headaches, while the Mohegan believed that rolling and chewing a raw leaf would prevent convulsions or epileptic fits. The Abenaki used it to reduce swelling, while the Malecite, who live in extreme northern Maine and Canada's Maritime provinces, also used it for unspecified medicinal purposes.

Again, I wouldn't try any of those remedies because parts of the skunk cabbage plant can be poisonous.
 


Those uses for skunk cabbage came from local tribes. Several Indian tribes outside of New England also used the plant medicinally and for magic. For example, the Iroquois would apply skunk cabbage leaves to a dog bite. This was done not just to heal the wound, but also to make the biting dog's teeth fall out. I was bitten by a dog once and understand the impulse behind this practice.

The Iroquois also used skunk cabbage to increase fertility by passing it over a woman's genitals, and also to fight really bad body odor. For the latter, they would dry the leaves into a powder and rub it into their armpits like deodorant.

Much like the Iroquois, the Menominee of Wisconsin also use skunk cabbage to treat wounds. However, they used it also for tattoos:

Tattooing was not employed by the Menomini so much for the design as for the treatment of diseases, being a talisman against their return. The medicines were tattooed in over the seat of the pain. Not all of the herbs used were identified, for the writer did not see them growing. Among them were powdered birchbark, charcoal pigment, skunk root, deer's ear root (Menyanthes trifoliata L.), red top root (Lobelia cardinalis L.?), black root (unknown), and yellow root, probably Oxalis acetosella L. The medicines were moistened and tattooed into the flesh with the teeth of the gar pike, dipped in the medicines. The various colors stay and form a guard against the disease. (Huron Smith, "Ethnobotany of the Meonmini Indians," Bulletin of the Public Museum of Milwaukee, December 10, 1923)

I think it's wonderful that the world is full of such interesting folklore. We are surrounded by amazing things if you just know where to look.

*****

Most of the information for this post came from the Native American Ethnobotany Database.

May 09, 2017

Paging Dr. Freudstein: Burials Inside Old Houses?

Have you ever seen a horror movie called The House by the Cemetery (aka Zombie Hell House)? It's from 1981, and although it was directed by infamous Italian goremeister Lucio Fulci much of it was actually filmed in Concord and Scituate, Massachusetts.

One British reviewer called it "hackwork of almost awesome incoherence." The story, such as it is, involves researcher Norman Boyle and his wife Lucy moving with their son Bob from New York City to a spooky New England mansion. Norman's boss had previously lived in the house - that is, until he killed his girlfriend and then committed suicide under strange circumstances. For some reason Norman thinks it will be the perfect location to write a book about old houses.

The Boyles move into the house, aided by a local realtor who neglects to tell them that the old house has been the site of many, many multiple murders in the past. But why let some inconvenient history get in the way of a good commission? The house of course is also located next to an old spooky cemetery.
This is actually the Ellis Estate in Scituate, Massachusetts.
Italian horror movies from the 1980s are famous for their almost nonexistent plots, and House by the Cemetery certainly fits that mold. Norman researches the old house. Lucy realizes the door to the cellar is nailed shut. A mysterious babysitter that no one asked for arrives and starts to care for Bob. Everyone hears weird noises. The realtor is killed by something lurking in the cellar. The babysitter cleans up the mess. Bob meets a little girl in the cemetery that no one else can see. The cellar-monster kills more people. And so it goes for 87 minutes of gore and non-sequitur filled dialogue.

I confess: I love House by the Cemetery. It's a terrible movie, but somehow the incoherence and bad dubbing makes it all seem dreamlike to me. It's also nicely filmed. Even though I love it, I don't think Lucio Fulci really understood much about New England when he made it. For example, the house is located somewhere called "New Whitby, Boston." Didn't Fulci didn't know that Boston is a city, not a state?

A sinister babysitter!

There is also a scene that made me roll my eyes. While Lucy is cleaning the house she rolls back an old rug. What's that underneath it? Why, it's a gravestone embedded in the floor. The house's original owner, one Dr. Jacob Freudstein (!), is buried under the living room. Lucy freaks out, but when her husband comes home he calms her down. "Most of the old houses in the area have tombs in them," he says. "That's because in the winter it freezes here."

That's when I rolled my eyes. I have been in innumerable old New England houses, I grew up in an old house, and none of them had tombs in them. Lucio Fulci just made that up, I thought.

But maybe I was wrong. Because at least one old New England might have a tomb in it. Maybe Lucio Fulci was right?

The house in question is the Gideon Straw House in Newfield, Maine. Built in the 1700s, the kitchen of this large farmhouse supposedly contains the grave of Gideon Straw's daughter, Hannah Chadbourne. According to Robert Ellis Cahill's book New England's Ghostly Haunts (1983), her final resting place is marked by a gravestone on the floor that reads:

SACRED to the memory of Mrs. Hannah
Wife of Ira Chadbourne
Who died March 2, 1826 - age 30
Blest are the dead, who die in Christ
Whose triumph is so great. 
Who calmly wait a nobler life
A nobler life shall meet

According to Cahill, the Straw House was used as a hunting lodge for many years, and it was traditional for the hunters to stand around Hannah's grave and salute her with their beers. Cahill also says some of them made rude jokes at Hannah's expense.

Perhaps it's no surprise that the house has a reputation for being haunted. One owner reported strange whistling noises coming from all the fireplaces, while still another claimed to have seen Hannah's ghost looking in the window. That owner also said he awoke one night to find Hannah caressing his cheek. Yikes!

At one point the building was sold to two schoolteachers, who at first enjoyed living in a haunted house. They changed their minds after one particularly noisy night when something unseen slammed the doors and charged up and down the stairs until sunrise. The two teachers left shortly thereafter.

So after reading Cahill's book I thought maybe Lucio Fulci was really on to something. But then I tried to find more information about the Gideon Straw house and Hannah's ghost. It turns out that the story just isn't true. Several past owners have said they never experienced any ghosts, and that Hannah is definitely not buried in the kitchen. The gravestone people talk about was probably just a spare marker kept on the property after the family replaced it with a nicer one. If it ever was on the property it's not there now. All this information is from a site specializing in the paranormal. When even a paranormal site tells you there's no ghost, there's probably no ghost.

It's a little disappointing that the Straw house is (probably) not haunted because it does make for a good story. It would have been nice if Lucio Fulci had included some authentic old New England lore in House by the Cemetery. On the other hand, I suppose he did include an authentic legend, even if it was not true.

Fulci made one other film set in New England: City of the Dead, aka Gates of Hell. This film is set in H. P. Lovecraft's mythical town of Dunwich, but in Fulci's movie it looks suspiciously like a small dusty town in Italy. The plot involves the ghost of a priest that committed suicide who makes people vomit up their innards when he stares at them. Maybe I should see if that's a piece of authentic folklore too?

*****

Just a reminder, I will be speaking about the monsters of Cape Cod on Saturday, May 13 as part of the Provincetown Paracon. Other speakers include Adam Barry and Amy Bruni from the TV shows Ghost Hunters and Kindred Spirits, and there will be a special Traveling Museum of the Occult and Paranormal as well. I hope you can make it!

Me and Paracon organizer Sam Baltrusis talking about the event on What's New Massachusetts.

May 01, 2017

A Spooky Lamp, A UFO, and An Ancient Oak

Unusual stories about New England have been in the news lately. First off, Salem's mayor posted the following picture on Twitter on Wednesday, April 26:


Mayor Kim Driscoll then asked: "Anybody else see a face in this light?...Totally eerie, eh." Well, I do see a face in this light, and apparently many other people did too. Driscoll's Tweet became national news after it was picked up by the Associated Press. Newspapers across the country published the photo, including The New York Times and The Boston Globe. The U.K.'s Daily Mail even published an article about it.

This is a classic case of pareidolia, a tendency to see sentient beings in inanimate objects. The most famous New England example of pareidolia was New Hampshire's late, great Old Man of the Mountain, but Mayor Driscoll's photo is a great example as well. This probably wouldn't have been news if another town's mayor had taken the photo, but as we all know Salem has a reputation for the spooky and supernatural. I hope the mayor's photo encourages some tourists to visit and take in what the city has to offer.

Of course, not all spooky things are as charming as a face in a street lamp. Like, for example, giant triangular UFOs that appear while you're driving around at night. The U.K.'s Sunday Express reported on April 11 that a man in Orrington, Maine told the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) that he saw just such a craft on Friday, January 13.

Image from Express U.K. (but not of the Maine UFO)

According to the unnamed witness, he and several friends saw the craft around 11:19 p.m. as they drove down Brewer Lake Road. They first saw red lights hovering above a dam on the lake, but the lights soon moved towards the witness's car and hovered above it. According to The Sunday Express:

He initially thought it could be a plane from Bangor International Airport.

He added: "But there was something unusual about the lights."

“This triangular silhouette went from being far off the road and fairly high in the air (500 – 700 feet) to swooping in very close probably 400 feet off the road and 200 feet high."

“The way the object moved down closer was very odd and I was euphoric, but terrified at the same time…"

The man went on to describe a bizarre encounter that they tried to film.

He said: "We were all looking at the black equilateral triangle that had glowing bright red lights on each end."

"The object also had a centre light that glowed white and the object was dark against the clear night sky and it had to have been 40 to 60 feet across."

“But we looked at the video after and we couldn’t see anything but darkness…”

The witness and his friends also saw a second, larger triangular craft nearby. Although the sighting happened in January, it was only recently reported to MUFON, who are investigating. A MUFON spokesperson said the following: "Please remember that most UFO sightings can be explained as something natural or man-made." True, but hard to remember when you're on a dark country road and see a giant triangle above your car!

Finally, an ancient and historic oak tree has passed away. Citizens of my hometown Haverhill, Massachusetts are mourning the loss of the centuries old Worshipping Oak. The oak had stood since the 1600s, and according to tradition was the tree under which the first Puritan settlers held their worship services.

The Worshipping Oak in happier days (from Wikimedia Commons)

I must have traveled past the tree thousands of times in my life, but never realized how old and important it was. Interesting history is everywhere in New England! Get out there and see it before it vanishes.

April 25, 2017

Grave Robbers, Resurrection Men, and Med Students

I recently finished Colson Whitehead's excellent new novel The Underground Railroad. I can understand why it won the Pulitzer. It's an interesting mix of history, fantasy, adventure, and social commentary. It also gruesome and upsetting, which you'd expect from a novel about slavery.

Most of the novel takes place in the South, but one very short chapter deals with a 19th-century Boston medical student who moonlights as a grave robber. The city's medical schools need dead bodies for dissection class, and very few people are willing to leave their corpses to science. It's the perfect opportunity for an ambitious young man with bad morals...

After finishing The Underground Railroad I decided to look into grave robbery in old New England. Whitehead's book is fiction, but he incorporates a lot of fact into it. Does he accurately portray the local grave robbing business?



The answer is yes, more or less. In the 18th and 19th century, Boston medical schools were given the corpses of executed criminals by the government to dissect. Unfortunately, the stream of executed criminals was not enough to satisfy the schools' demand for fresh corpses. To increase their supply, medical professors turned to grave robbers euphemistically called "resurrection men." The resurrection were more than happy to dig up freshly buried bodies and sell them to the schools.

Surprisingly, legal penalties for resurrection men were quite light. They often got away with just a slap on the wrist. They had to worry more about being beaten by an angry mob of mourning relatives than being arrested by the police. It seems strange, but grave robbing did not become a felony in Massachusetts until 1815, when the legislature passed a bill called "An Act to Protect the Sepulchers of the Dead."

To avoid angry relatives (and later the police), resurrection men sought out corpses that no one important cared about. The graves of paupers, the insane, and the homeless were all good sources of revenue. African-American cemeteries also made good targets for the resurrection men. Corpses from the lower social levels of society could be taken more easily.

Since the penalties for grave robbing were originally light, sometimes even faculty and students from medical schools tried their hand at it. It saved them from having to pay the resurrection men and seems to have been viewed almost as a fun activity. For example, at Harvard Medical School a secret student society called the Spunkers Club routinely robbed graves in the years before the Revolution. Sam Adams's son was a member, as was William Eustis, who later became U.S. Secretary of War. The Revolutionary War later provided a steady stream of bodies; George Washington himself complained from his headquarters in Cambridge about the theft of a soldier's body. Happily, the Spunkers Club is no longer in operation.

It is now illegal to pay for a human body in the United States, and medical schools rely on donations. You can read more about the process in this National Geographic article. WARNING: It has photos of actual corpses. You can read more about the Spunkers Club at the History Channel. No photos of corpses there.


*****

FYI, I will be speaking about the monsters of Cape Cod on Saturday, May 13 as part of the Provincetown Paracon. Other speakers include Adam Barry and Amy Bruni from the TV shows Ghost Hunters and Kindred Spirits, and there will be a special Traveling Museum of the Occult and Paranormal as well. I hope you can make it!

Me and Paracon organizer Sam Baltrusis talking about the event on What's New Massachusetts.