USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘New England’
Legends

The Ghost Around the Bend

Background:

My informant is a twenty-one-year-old college student in Boston, Massachusetts. She is studying to be a nurse and has worked in the emergency room at both Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Performance:

“I heard this from my boyfriend at the time…I was seventeen and he was twenty-one. He was a volunteer fireman when he wasn’t doing construction. Cops and firemen know each other, like, pretty well in Essex County. Uh…I can’t remember if he said that he like heard this from someone or if he was there or what it was, but I remember the story wicked well…so I guess there’s this one road in Essex with a really sharp bend or curve in the road and people get in accidents there all the time…every time the police show up they just get really quiet when people tell them how it happened because they all have the same story about seeing a little kid chase a ball into the road and like flipping their cars trying to like, uh, get out of the way or something….anyway, I guess that some kid was hit by a car there in the 70’s or something. I guess it’s some, uh, like, big open secret, you know? Like all of the cops know about it but normal people don’t until they get in the very same accident.”

Thoughts:

This is a classic ghost story with a clear causal narrative. The child was hit by a car, and now car accidents that happen on that same road are attributed to the child’s death. The added details about it being an “open secret” amongst first responders adds a layer of legitimacy that may otherwise be missing; the police are meant to be inherently trustworthy, thus if they insist the story is true, we must also believe it.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic

The Witches

Background:

My informant is 52 years old and has lived in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts for her entire life. Beverly is next to Salem and was part of the original settlement until 1668. She has remained close friends with many of the people she grew up with in town. Many of the children she grew up with still live in town as adults an have also chosen to raise their children there.

Performance:

“We didn’t really tell this story a lot because…well, it’s sad, I guess…but also because I knew Cory back then and I didn’t want to…I don’t know. You knew Mrs. Smith* (gestures to me), she was like the mother of the whole town, really. She did girl scouts, all of that. We’d always play in their stream. The Smiths were descended from Rebecca Nurse, who was one of the witches who was hanged during the trials and stuff. Anyway, you remember, Mrs. Smith had two different colored eyes: one blue, one brown…it might have been kind of scary if she weren’t so nice, but everyone always said that that was one of the signs that she was a witch…or maybe it wasn’t that she was a witch, but that she was descended from one…I’m not sure, but I can’t really imagine anyone thinking she was an actual witch…anyway she had six children, and her youngest was a daughter named Lucy* who was maybe three or four when all of this happened. Lucy had her mom’s eyes: one blue, one brown. I was in high school, so maybe fifteen? It was the winter, and Mrs. Smith was inside cooking while Lucy was watching TV in the other room. She heard a loud bang and when she ran in and saw that Lucy had pulled the TV onto herself and unfortunately she passed away. The very next day the blizzard of ’78 rolled in…it was…just brutal. The worst storm I’ve ever seen. Rumor was, it happened because Lucy died. Funny thing is, when Mrs. Smith died almost forty years later, a red tide rolled in the next day…couldn’t go in the water for almost two weeks. No fishing, nothing. People…well, I don’t think anyone had too many questions after that. Tell that story to anyone who didn’t grow up in Essex County and they’ll just laugh at you but to people here…I mean, how can you not believe it even just a little?”

*To protect the privacy of the family in the story, my informant chose to change the names during her performance. I respected her choice in this transcription.

Thoughts:

This story is interesting because it uses local history and folklore as a scapegoat for natural phenomena. The Smith’s were a direct link to the town’s heritage and their lives became a part of a greater mythology. From the tone of her story, I didn’t get the impression that the Smith’s were personally blamed for either the blizzard or the red tide; rather, the magic itself was to blame. It’s a much more holistic, “natural” magic than the powerful dark magic at the center of Salem Witch legends.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic

Witch Woods

Background:

My informant is 87 years old and has lived in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts for his entire life. He attended a nearby boarding school and Harvard University, where he studied history under famed professor Samuel Eliot Morrison. He has taken a lifelong interest in local history, artwork, and lore. 

For context, Beverly Farms is a small village within the larger city of Beverly. Beverly is adjacent to Salem, and was a part of the original settlement until 1668. Beverly Farms is much more rural than Beverly proper, and is closer to the neighboring town of Manchester-by-the-Sea than it is Salem. With the exception of the Witch Woods story, Beverly Farms has very little folklore or history that relates to the Salem Witch Trials.

Performance:

“My parents weren’t from here so I heard this from the other kids at school. Some of their families have been in town for, oh, I don’t…hundreds of years, I suppose….you know, the Hale’s, the Conant’s, the Cabot’s…Mostly I just heard that the witches were coming to take us from our beds but as we got older the story got more complex…So as you know, back in the 1600’s, Beverly was still a part of Salem. But since it didn’t have a church, it wasn’t quite as inhabited as it was over in Salem…well, everyone knows this part, but people over in Salem got it in their heads that there were witches in town and started hunting them down and killing them. Stoning, hanging, all of that. Soon as the witches realized they were being hunted, most of them…well, most of them were smart enough to get out of there…so they took off in the middle of the night, all of them, and crossed the river to come over here. They ran until they hit the woods and then kept going…all of the way up here, right down on Common Lane. It’s why you get the shivers when you drive down there at night…you know, roll your windows up and such. They’re all still there, you know. All the witches.”

Thoughts:

Growing up in the area, this was a common ghost story in my household. I remember asking if the witches were real and my grandfather telling me that, yes of course they were, and if I knew what was good for me I’d lock my windows at night. Unlike many scary stories told to children, I don’t recall their being any lesson or imperative behind it. This story seemed to be more about local pride than reinforcing or discouraging certain behaviors.

Legends
Narrative

New England Ghost Story

Informant EB is a senior at the University of Southern California majoring in political science. EB is originally from Boston, Massachusetts, but he has spent the majority of his youth in Connecticut. Here, he shares a ghost story known to a town in Connecticut called Dudley Town.

EB: “So Dudley Town is a famous old colonial town in Cornwall, Connecticut, and most people who are from Connecticut know of it as a spooky, old ghost town. Back in the mid to late 1700’s, Dudley Town was mostly farmland and it was used for farming purposes only. But because other businesses were opening up and it was located on an area that was not ideal for farming, the agricultural production suffered and eventually closed down. So the story is that there was a doctor in this town who killed all of his patients when he would go visit them at their homes. He would poison his patients by giving them the wrong medication. This doctor was known to be a Satanist and that he believed that if he followed and did what the devil instructed him to do, he would be rewarded with a rich and fruitful afterlife. So he did this for years and years up until he hung himself in the middle of town. It has been known that his dark, evil spirit haunts the remains of this old town and that no one will really go near it because of all the strange things that have happened. I think it is even closed off to the public today.”

Where did you earn about this legend?

EB: “Um well I heard it while going to school when I was younger and it is a story that is talked about in school by our the older classmates. I have heard variations of the story over the years, but it is something that has been talked about among friends and schoolmates for generations.”

Does this legend have any significant meaning to you?

EB: “Uh kind of in that it is was talked about in school as a way to warn the students to not venture over to that town because of what happened, but it mostly freaked me out when I first heard in school.”

What context or setting would you share this story?

EB: “I have shared this legend to other people when it has been close to Halloween, but I feel like if I were to run into someone who is from Connecticut, they would have a better understanding of the whole ghost story thing and we would be able to relate to it better. I feel like most people who aren’t from Connecticut would look at me weird because they may not know the historical background of old colonial towns like Dudley and or they might now believe in the supernatural. But it’s also a fun story to share for entertainment purposes too.”

Analysis:

Connecticut is a New England state that is prominently known for its coastal cities and its mysterious rural areas. The remains of an old colonial settlement, Dudley Town is known to be cursed. Plagued by hundreds of unexplained deaths and tragedies, this town is now prohibited to the public and has been reclaimed by the surrounding forest. The remains of this eerie town are now fully covered by trees and wildlife. I found it interesting how the informant learned about this legend in school while he was a new student and how it is tradition each year to share this legend with the younger incoming students.

general
Material

Scrimshaw – The Whaler’s Art

Context:

I was perusing the shops in downtown Lahaina, HI, when I wandered in to a Scrimshaw shop. Curious, I asked the shopkeeper, who had worked at the shop for more than 20 years, about the art.

 

Interview:

Me: So what is scrimshaw, and where did it begin?

Informant: Scrimshaw is carved and dyed ivory – usually whale teeth and bone. It is New England whalers that scrimshaw is usually attributed to. It is a whaling art that the New England whalers started doing in the late 1700’s early 1800’s when they were out at sea. They were bored, they were uh, they wanted to make gifts for their family members back home, so the teeth and the bone were the leftovers from the whaling industry – the whales were hunted for their fat, their blubber mainly, which was used for, among other things, lamp oil. The bones and the teeth were leftovers, unneeded. And so, the whalers started carving them. The thing about ivories and bone, is that it is one of the oldest mediums that man has worked in general, you know, you get stuff that is carved out of woolly mammoth tusk. Though, so what they specifically attribute to scrimshaw is work such as what is done on sperm whales’ teeth. [See picture for an example of scrimshaw]. And it’s actually an engraving process, where the artwork is hand-engraved into the ivory, which is first polished. Then they take a sharp tool and engrave the design. And then they rub ink into it.

Me: Okay. And I noticed that most of the pieces here are nautical themed. Was that the norm for scrimshaw?

Informant: Yes. It was more often than not nautical themed, or, when you look at antique pieces it was often of things that reminded the whalers of home.

Me: Now, I know that Lahaina was once a whaler’s village, and by the fact that there is a scrimshaw store here, I would assume that when whalers had come here they brought the practice with them?

Informant: Yes. How Hawaii comes into play, is that when the whalers started whaling in the Pacific, Lahaina became the whaling capital of the Pacific because we are a natural three-sided port. So they had safe mooring out here by the road stead, the Lahaina road stead. And uh, they didn’t really whale in Hawaii, the whalers just wintered here. Where the actually whaled was around Alaska.

Me: Okay. That makes some sense. Follow the migration patterns.

Informant: Yes. And because of the ice floes, they would be up around Alaska for much of the year, as all the ships were wooden hulled. So they would sail back down to Lahaina, because back in that era, when they sailed into the Pacific they would have to sail all around the southern end of South America and back up. So it took them months to get into the Pacific and so they didn’t want to try and get back to New England every year.

Me: Makes sense.

Informant: Yes, thus Lahaina became the home base, if you will, for the Pacific whaling industry. So most of the whaling vessels around Hawaii were at sea for around 2-5 years. Some of them might have been inspired by the tattooing, the Hawaiian/Polynesian tattooing they saw. But, scrimshaw as an art was not inspired by the Polynesians, as they did not work bone and ivory in that way.

Me: Awesome. So who would the whalers give these carved and dyed ivory pieces to? And do any of the pieces tell stories or have stories about them?

Informant: The whalers would often give these to people back home. Sometimes, when you see the antiques, they will often be documents of the whaling voyage, of things they saw along the way, or sometimes, women were a popular subject matter.

Me: Yeah, I’ll bet.

Informant: Yes, and so there was a small genre of pornographic scrimshaw, but that was more rare. It was more often with those that they would take pictures from magazines or similar things and essentially copy such pictures onto the teeth/bones. As most, if not all, of them did not have any art training, you know, most of them were illiterate whalers just thinking about their family. So most of the scrimshaw pieces do tell of some kind of event or something similar. So I hope that is what you are looking for.

Me: Yeah, this is great. Thanks a lot.

Informant: You’re very welcome.

 

Analysis:

Carving ivory, as the informant said, is one of the oldest known practices of mankind. Carved mammoth tusks and bone have been found at prehistoric sites all over Europe. Ivory was most likely used because it is so malleable, and an easy medium to carve or engrave. Scrimshaw, in particular, is probably the best-known example of colonial American folk art. It was created and performed by people who were bored, had no training in art, in engraving or carving or even drawing. Whalers were often illiterate, or at the most slightly educated. They simply put to use the tools and the materials they had on the ship to commemorate a voyage or event on a voyage. Furthermore, with the demise of the whaling industry, the only material now used for making modern scrimshaw is fossilized bone and ivory, which is rather rarer and more expensive to acquire. So, though it began as a true folk art, it is now mostly made by professional artists who can afford the raw materials used as the medium.

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