Date of Performance/Collection:
Location: New Lebanon, NY
Informant: J.R. – 23 year old male, originally from New York State, attended the same high school as the collector
This legend has been told to me many times from many different sources, specific to a boarding school in the remote mountains of the New York Berkshires.
The boarding school mentioned was founded on land that once functioned as a Shaker settlement. The Shakers were a religious minority that sought out to create a utopian, self-sufficient society centered on God. Many of their principles required the separation of man and woman, absolute abstinence was expected. As a result, should a woman become pregnant while she was a member of the settlement, she would be cast out of the community. I have paraphrased the core legend as told by J.R. below.
It was told to me that, though the old Shakers that inhabited our dormitory buildings were required to be abstinent, there were times where a woman would become pregnant and attempt to hide her symptoms until the child was born. If she carried to term, she would deliver the baby and either leave the community or, much more nefariously, kill the child and hide the remains. This story over time was transformed into the legend that the remains of the dead babies would be placed in the walls of the buildings they were constructing as a way to give them a “burial.”
While the the folklore is based in historical accuracy , the belief in the dead babies represents a superstition specific to the school that added mystique and served to entertain (or frighten) the students, The urban legend would be shared or performed to freshman as somewhat of an initiation in to the culture of the school. Variations or abbreviations of the story would reappear in conversation, for example, “be careful, don’t get captured by the Shaker babies!” Due to the age of the settlement the school was established on, and the previous history of the land, ghost stories were commonplace in the conversation and folklore of the school and provided a link between the past and the present of a place that remained for the most part, physically unchanged.
For more information on the Shaker community and its ties to folklore, see:
Wolford, John B. “Shaker Studies and Folklore: An Overview.” Folklore Forum, 1989, pp. 78–107., doi:10.1.1.491.9188.