New England folklore

Magic in New England’s Fields: People of God in the Devil’s Lands

There was a magic in the woods and glens of Colonial New England. Puritan settlers while quick to eye the forests and mountains with suspicion and fear of maleficium, they just as easily looked upon fellow men and women of God-fearing English stock with fear. The Natives of the region, exemplified by the Abenaki of the northeast, practiced their own form of ‘magic’ in land’s that Puritans believed was once the Devil’s dominion.

To Cotton Mather it made sense that the Devil would stalk the lands of New England as where else would he be than among a group who hated him the most, “Where will the Devil show the most malice, where is hated, and hateth the most.” From his Wonders of the Invisible World of 1693 we get a glimpse of the Devil’s power over not just man but the world itself, creator of wars, heresies and storms, ” Once more, why may not Storms be reckoned among those Woes, with which the Devil does disturb us? It is not improbable that Natural Storms on the World are often of the Devils raising. We are told in Job 1.11, 12, 19. that the Devil made a Storm, which hurrican’d the House of Job, upon the Heads of them that were Feasting in it.”

According to a 2012 lecture by Stephen Mitchell, professor of Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University, everything which happened on Earth was connected morally and physically in the Puritan mind. These groups saw ship wrecks, storms and infant death with equal suspicion of the Devil’s handiwork as a product of God’s divine plan. Disease or ‘possession’, according to Mitchell, were handled by Puritans through fasting and prayer. These actions further ratifying the connection between the spirit and physical.

Mather wrote of the Natives of Massachusetts at the time of colonization, “The Indian Powawes, used all their Sorceries to molest the first Planters here; but God said unto them, Touch them not!” Mather continued, “The New-Englanders are a People of God settled in those, which were once the Devil’s Territories.”

One can imagine the pious indignation Puritan’s experienced when they witnessed Native American ‘magic’ in New England. In 1624’s Good Newes, Englishman Edward Winslow wrote, “The office and duty of the Powah is to be exercised principally in calling up the Devil, and curing diseases of the sick and wounded.” The Powah is the Native “powwow” where priests with special powers of divination were exercised over nature, often for the benefit of man but also as a weapon. According to Winslow’s Newes, which preceded Mather’s work by nearly 70 years, the magic men of Native New England, “can raise storms and tempests which they usually do when they intend the death and destruction of other people.”

The most potent conjurer figure from the colonial period was a Pennacook sachem known as Passaconaway who is said to move rocks and return leaves to life. From a modern perspective Passaconaway was a member of a magic practicing tradition that appears to have a marvelous and intimate connection to nature. Yet viewed with the suspicions of Puritan New England Native sorcerers share talents with the Devil himself.

Roger Williams, theologian and New England colonist leader, viewed the healing actions of Native priests with more nuance, “They conceive there are many Gods or divine powers within the body of the man: In his pulse, his hearts, his lungs.” Instead of pulling from Satan for power, these priests, removed the malignant forces within man, an intimate power connected to a larger ideal. However, Williams did write, “These priests and conjurers (like Simon Magus) do bewitch the people,” going on to say rather contradictory, “most certainly (by the help of the Devil) work great cures.” (For Williams reference of Simon Magus, see Acts 8:9.)

One such skilled practitioner was Pennacook sachem Passaconaway, known for leadership skills as well as magic, Passaconaway oversaw a confederation from northern Massachusetts deep into New Hampshire. Uniting tribes from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire to bulwark Mohawk aggression, Passaconaway also is said to have possessed powers as a m’teowlin, ‘deep seeing one.’ or powwow.

The native sachem exploits were chronicled by William Wood in his 1634 work, New England’s Prospect, “(Passaconaway) can make the water burn, the rocks move, the trees dance, metamorphize himself into a flaming man.” Going on to describe Passaconaway’s skills, Wood wrote,”in Winter, when there is no green leaves to be got, he will burn an old one to ashes, and putting those into the water, produce a new green leaf, which you shall not only see, but substantially handle and carry away; and make of a dead snakes skin a living snake, both to be seen, felt, and heard.” Wood, who said powwow practitioners were imbued with exorcist and necromancer charms, did note that the sorcery talents of Passaconaway may be nothing more than, “deceptio visus” or visual tricks.

Men and women of the m’teowlin, shamans or the Midewiwin, the Grand Medicine Society, held a unique place in their communities as healer and shapers of nature. These figures could not only heal, but said to command the course of a river, seeing the future, working with spirits of the departed, aiding in hunts or communal ceremonies. These figures were important mediators with the coursing power around them as their special connection to every tree, rock or animal. One example of the power of shaman is told about the Abenaki at war where a seer consulted with spirits and determined a group of Iroquois foes were on an island and if the Abenaki attacked the next day they would wipe out the opposing force. According to the story, the battle was joined and not a single Iroquois survived, each victim having their head cleaved off and placed on a poll.

An interesting footnote to the belief that New England was filled with heathens thriving in the Devil’s dominion was that when the witchcraft hysteria swept New England in the 17th century Natives were not singled out for punishment. Puritans, it appears, were more suspicious of the Devil working through their fellow English than of the Natives of New England. Even though the New English wilderness contained Biblical evil, Native’s of the region were rarely prosecuted or suspected of maleficum.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Salem Witch Hysteria and PTSD Roots Pt. II

burroughs2(Note: The following is an expanded excerpt of a paper I wrote for a Magic and Witchcraft class. For Part I to the article, click here.)

In April of 1692, with witch trial testimonies in full swing, Thomas Putnam claimed his daughter Ann was visited by the spectral figure of Reverend George Burroughs who proceeded to torture the young girl. A month later, Ann Putnam testified that two apparitions appeared to her. According to Ann they were the wives of Burroughs, allegedly killed by the minister’s own hand. The constant whisper of his mistreated spouses followed Burroughs from his earliest days in Salem Village through his forcible return as witch cabal leader. His second wife, widow Sarah Ruck Hathorne whom he married in 1682, was the sister-in-law of Essex County Magistrate John Hathorne, a man who became deeply involved in the later witchcraft accusations against Burroughs. Sarah Hathorne Burroughs died in Falmouth, Maine in 1689.

Mercy Lewis, a young woman with personal history with Burroughs, then charged the minister with also appearing as a specter to her in May. Burroughs allegedly went to Lewis to get her to sign a pact with the Devil as well as try to recruit other area girls into his diabolic scheme.

It seems clear that even if the barest of historical accounts of Minister Burroughs are accurate, he cut an unusual, potentially fiery and eccentric frontier character. Known for unusual strength, like lifting a long musket with a single hand or hoisting a filled barrel with just his fingers, Burroughs may have also been in conflict with the Puritan fathers over faith.

Accusations of witchcraft further enflamed the war scars of southern New England. Ann Putnam Jr. reportedly told investigators that Burroughs had bewitched the soldiers of Governor Edmund Andros in 1688-1689. Several figures key to the Salem witch hysteria, like Magistrates John Hathorne and Johnathan Corwin whose fact finding efforts in Maine may have led to the decision to leave Falmouth virtually defenseless during 1690s mass Abanaki assault, made a variety of mistakes during King William’s War. It seems that war-time shortcomings may have been projected onto Burroughs during the trial. Hathorne and Corwin were the lead inquisitors in Salem and pressed a confession from young Abigail Hobbs who claimed she had been approached by the Devil in the woods outside Falmouth, Maine four years earlier. Hobbs was yet another Casco Bay refugee driven to the Village. The solicitation in the woods was not happenstance as the woods were widely regarded as an evil place.


Was the psychological hysteria of Salem’s young women a manifestation of the stress of war, communal squabbles and frontier life? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a widely accepted psychological diagnosis that could be applied to the accusers. However, the individual nature of PTSD does not properly grapple with the group dynamic that gave credence to the wild accusations. Epidemic hysteria, a physical or psychological manic state manifested by a group, seems to fit the Salem case perfectly. Provoked by stress and nurtured by community values or worries, epidemic hysteria has several recorded instances in Europe, from a Black Death induced mass dance hysteria in German to the French “Barkers” who crawled around like dogs, social stress can spread like a thought virus through a community. Could the young women of Salem, reeling from war and reflecting the spiritual worries of their communities; and personal prejudices of their parents have turned to Burroughs as scapegoat? Was Mercy Lewis, who was familiar with Burroughs unconventional ministerial style as well as intimate to his household, the well from which the prejudice sprung from? Could Mercy Lewis, scarred by war and fallen from a position of affluence, also been witness to or possibly victim of Burroughs reputed ill temper during her brief time as maidservant?

Inarguably an unconventional clergyman Burroughs easily becomes the apostate minster of Satan in New England when portrayed by the vivid imaginations of young women, isolated and near a zone of conflict. Death loomed with each raid, Satan rallied his forces in the treeline and frontiersmen needed a strong spiritual figure to guide them in a time of war. Burroughs was effortlessly painted as a failed, questionable religious leader, with a rebellious desire to live apart from the civility and strict leadership of Massachusetts Bay. When viewed through the critical lens of Salem Village religious leaders, Burroughs became not only an enemy of the village, but the colony and the Puritan faith. The men of Massachusetts had gone to war in Maine and returned with losses, physical and financial. Stung by these defeats, it seems their judgment may have been clouded when presented with a figure as odd and spiritually unconventional as Burroughs. The wayward Burroughs was a casualty at the confluence of personal circumstances, religious prejudices and group psychological trauma that led to his execution as leader of the mythic witches of Salem Village.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Werewolves, New England and Stephen King

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Author Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf (turned into the forgettable movie Silver Bullet) is a rapid fire 12 chapter short story about a werewolf hunting a New England town. If you’ve never visited New England we have a distinct character than the rest of America. We’re known as frugal, lovers of the Boston Red Sox, who revel in the seasonal cycles and then bemoan those same seasonal cycles. King, a native New Englander, captures perfectly the seasons, regional peculiarities, and quirky local behaviors of residents in the six state region.

What King also does effectively is to introduce the werewolf to our modern folklore. Unless you return to the Wabanaki Malsumsis legend, which has been called into question, the lands of New England have a sparse folkloric relationship with the lycanthrope. There are some encounters with wolves that primed colonial New Englanders for fear, but they never became entrenched as folktales, except in Dogtown.

On the northshore of Massachusetts there is a place of scrub and rock known as Dogtown, a location where the main werewolf legend of New England lives. A now abandoned community founded by colonists as defense against pirates, Dogtown lost its population and quickly became refuge for feral dogs. This area also has a series of wolf related coincidences including a folktale that the Agawam people of region believed ingesting a plant can turn human into dog. A resident of Dogtown was also said to have worn a wolf tooth as a charm and as late as 1984 report of a large wolf like creature was seen in the area.

Colonial era reports of wolves throughout the Massachusetts Bay Colony are plentiful and added to the strange lore of the land. The presence of the wolf, as well as nuisance insects, forced colonists to move around seeking less threatening places of habitation. The city of Boston was essentially a quiet spit of land, sparsely inhabited, until colonists arrived there seeking a less insect and wolf robust location. How edgy and fearful colonials of the period were of wolves was exemplified by a brief panic detailed in the journal of John Winthrop. The Massachusetts Bay governor, Winthrop wrote of a man wandering through the swamps west of Boston who heard the howls of wolves which sent him into a frenzy of shouts seeking help. This howling of his own alerted a resident who attempted to call back to the man in the night. This raised alarm as worry quickly spread that Natives of the area were actually attacking the night journeyman. Imaginations were never quick to leap to the supernatural when they could have easily done so, considering the colonists came from a region replete with beastly folklore.

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A good portion of early Massachusetts Bay Colony residents came from the region of East Anglia, which like any other region of Britain has its share of myths and folktales. However, in the period before and through the Great Migration that led to the population of New England, tales of a demon dog called ‘Black Shuck’ sprung up throughout East Anglia. Rumored to haunt Suffolk and Norfolk counties, according to a 1958 article in the journal Folklore, the legendary spectral dog took shape with a single eye to be found ominously gazing over churchyards, fens and coastlines. This phantom dog’s hauntings seemed confined to the lore of old England and never leapt to the wolves of New England.

According to Wabanaki beliefs there were fraternal twin brothers born- Malsumsis, the wolf, and Glooskap. In their origin story Malsumsis is a angry character who rips from his mother’s womb, killing her in the process. The Wabanaki lived throughout what is known as modern day Maine dating back to Paleo Indian North America. The Malsumsis legend continues that the two brothers reveal the item that can kill them, a knowledge Malsumsis tried to use over and over again to kill his brother. Each time the wolf Malsumsis failed, learning that the natural objects like pine root or owl feathers were feints. Ultimately, Glooskap kills his wolf brother with a fern root, the object revealed earlier to be the tool to take Malsumsis life. Modern scholars have since cast doubt on the Wabanaki origins of Malsumsis, believing it may have been a confusion to a related Algonquin story or perhaps creative interpretation of the story.

King places the werewolf in a modern agrarian New England setting, choosing a pious character to hunt the town folk spread across the Maine countryside. There is little exploration as to how the character becomes a werewolf, except in passing. Without spoiling the story, which I recommend reading, the werewolf never fully understands how he became a ravenous shapeshifter, outside of an encounter with a strange flowers near a graveyard. King connects the natural world with the werewolf, not unlike the 1941 movie The Wolf Man where the shapeshifter emerges when the wolfbane blooms at the autumn full moon. This passing reference to floral experience, not the traditional infection by werewolf by or gypsy curse, establishes an ancient connection that doesnt rely on spells or witchcraft but a natural dark magic.

Overall the shapeshifting creatures of European lore never took root in colonial New England. The edge which colonists lived kept them ever vigilant to wild animals, like wolves, and less likely to jump to lycanthropic conclusions. Their pious imaginations were inflamed with worry about the devil skulking the woods of New England along with his allies within the Native populations, and later by tales of witchcraft, rather than werewolves.