Saturday, October 20, 2012

Fall River

Let me tell you about a man named Joe, although that was almost certainly not his real name. It was a common moniker to men of his station and status, much in the same way a black man in the south might have been called George by a white man. No one took the trouble to learn the name, and just as often no trouble was taken to give it. I discovered “Joe” while reading a 46-year-old account of a woman in reference to one of the most well-known events of the late 19th century, particularly in New England.

Marion Hicks Campbell's Letter is published in "Mysterious New England"
Before I can tell you about Joe, let me tell you about Marion Hicks Campbell. She is the only person to ever mention him in a public context. This is what she did in a letter written to Yankee Magazine in response to an article that appeared in August of 1966. Only a little more is known about Marion Hicks Campbell than is known about Joe. She may be the author of one of two books historical sketches on Old Dartmouth and Bedford, published before World War II. The art of her letter writing suggests a familiarity with storytelling. Unfortunately, Marion Hicks Campbell does not give a date to the event she narrates in the letter. But, she states it was over half a century, and as the letter to Yankee Magazine was dated November 16th 1966, this would place the events of her meeting and what it revealed sometime in 1916, at the latest.

So, sometime in 1916 or earlier, somewhere in Massachusetts, Marion had stopped one evening at a farm in a county adjoining the one in which she resided. She asked the owner about the best squash varieties to plant in her own garden. The farmer was kind enough to show her around his operation while his wife cleaned up from their recent supper.

Turn-of-the Century New England Farm
During the tour, an “oldish” man hurried 
by them carrying a pail of scraps for the chickens.  The farmer commented on him casually as a “a man who belongs on a chicken farm. But it would never work. He could feed the biddies and collect eggs, but he couldn’t kill a chicken for market if his life depended on it.”  Marion Hicks Campbell described him as one with a gentle face, and an anxious expression in faded blue eyes. She was curious about him, and the farmer had a tale he could tell. He said, “Joe, I call all my men Joe no matter what their name is, he’s been worse than he is today (referring to his nervousness). But he says he’ll be better now.”

Every night, Joe would sit at the table with his employers after supper and talk about their days. Joe would slink off to read the daily paper and then head to bed (farmhands rise before dawn after all). The week before, he had become agitated and jittery after reading the paper. The only article of note the farmer could find that might have set him off was on what had long since been regarded as the most notorious murders in New England History, and possibly America altogether. Having a good relationship with his employer, Joe unburdened himself of the story, and now the farmer was the one who was agitated, not knowing what should be done about what he now knew of Joe. Marion Hicks Campbell offered to help bear that responsibility. This was what the farmer told her.

19th Century Fall River was among one of the wealthiest cities in Massachusetts.
Joe had been born the runt of a large family with an old New England name. The family ran a farm, but Joe was unable to take part much in that life, on account of being too “spleeny” and weak to perform anything by light farm work. This made him a target or ridicule for his siblings. He didn’t excel in school either, and by no account could he be called an educated man. But at age 21, his father gave him a small sum of money, and Joe set out the nearest city to seek his fortune. This was the in the closing decades of the 19th century, and the city was Fall River, Massachusetts.

Some of you probably have an idea where this story is going now.

Joe was a simple young man who made his way honestly, and benefited from the kindness of his new community. While he wasn’t strong enough for regular farm labor, there was always work for an “odd jobs” man in those days. He kept his living expenses low, and found work where he might sleep in a spare room and eat kitchen leftovers. He was well liked, trusted and did well for himself. The letter goes on to reveal Joe as a man of feeling and morality as well.

Joe worked frequently at 92 Second Street, not far from the Fall River Business District. The house was home to the small, moderately wealthy Borden family consisting of an elderly businessman named Andrew, his second wife Abby, his daughters Emma and Elizabeth “Lizzie”, and an Irish maid named Bridget Sullivan, whom the family called “Maggie”. Events in that house on the sweltering day of August 4, 1892 are both well documented and an enduring mystery. Here is what we know.

 Andrew left the house at around 9:00am that morning, leaving his wife Abby and Lizzie (32) (both she and older sister Emma (41) were spinsters and daughters of Andrew’s first wife, now 30-years dead) alone with Maggie. Emma was some 15 miles away in Fairhaven, visiting friends. The Bordens had hosted a guest the night before, an uncle called Mr. Morse, who had since left the house. There has never been any evidence that showed either Emma or Mr. Morse were anywhere near the house during the next two hours.
Andrew and Abby Borden 
It was known that the Borden family, perhaps stemming from Andrew Borden’s known-stinginess and a recent incident of burglary, was very careful about bolts and door locks. The house was nearly impossible to break into without a key, and the interior was devoid of hiding places. The front door was even bolted and double-locked that morning behind Andrew. Abby was upstairs cleaning the room in which Mr. Morse had slept in. Maggie was washing windows and Lizzie was about her business, reportedly engaged in several different activities. 

Andrew returned home somewhere between 10:30-11:00am and was admitted by Maggie. Lizzie sat with her father in the sitting room, helped him out of his shoes, and told him that her stepmother had received a note to go see someone in town who was ill, though Lizzie said she didn’t know who it was. About 10 minutes later, Andrew Borden lay down on his couch in the sitting room to nap. This was a regular habit. Maggie, exhausted from window washing, went to her own rooms to rest, while Lizzie went to the barn to search for “fishing line sinkers to be used on a holiday the next week”. Other accounts reference that she was eating pears in the barn or the backyard.

Andrew Borden murdered on the couch where he napped.

During this time, someone took a single-edged weapon, probably a hatchet, and struck Andrew Borden 11 times in the head while he slept on the couch. One blow literally split his eyeball in two. Maggie was alerted to this when Lizzie yelled up to her from the sitting room, asking her to come quickly, “Someone has killed father”. Maggie ran across the street to a neighbor’s house who was also a doctor. Finding him not home, she ran further down to bring Lizzie’s friend Alice Russell. It was during this period of activity in the house, that Lizzie “became anxious about her stepmother”, and that Abby’s body was found in the guest bedroom with 19 similar blows to the head. Blood had congealed around the body, and it was later concluded by authorities that her death had preceded her husband’s for up to an hour.
Abby Borden murdered while cleaning the guest room.
From there, things get rather muddy. Lizzie soon became the prime suspect, though had no blood on her.  I’ve read different accounts of evidence against Lizzie, almost all circumstantial. She appeared calm throughout the commotion. She spoke sharply to a policeman when he asked her about her mother, stating that Abby was not her mother, but stepmother. That she slept in the house that night, although the idea was that an axe murder might still be on the loose, and perhaps inside the house. A day before she became an official suspect, she burned a dress in the stove, saying it had been ruined by paint. Her rooms and belongings were not searched until several days after the murders. I’ve read that a police officer, on duty watching the house the night following the slayings saw Lizzie go down to the cellar to use the privy and return with a bucket full of bloody clothes that he assumed were just menstrual napkins.

Lizzie Borden
History also questions Lizzie’s general character. She is sometimes written as mild-mannered, and was an active church member (though this has never made one incapable of committing crime). Other accounts color her as a known sneak thief and shoplifter, who hungered for luxury and suffered under her father’s supposed frugality. Despite being a wealthy family, the Bordens occupied a neighborhood filled with many of the poor gentility of Fall Rivers, which was considered a wealthy town in those days. Their house was modest compared to the neighborhood of The Hill, just a mile or so away, and a place in which they could have well afford to live. It’s also suggested that the Borden sisters’ poor prospects of marriage and spinsterhood is due to living in a neighborhood beneath them.

The Borden household was not supposed to have been happy. The sisters called their Stepmother only by the name Mrs. Borden. They didn’t take meals together. The door separating the girls’ upstairs bedrooms from their parents was always locked. They received guests in their own parts of the house. There is even a report that Lizzie kept pigeons at one time, which her father, deciding they were unwanted, dispatched with a hatchet.

1893 coverage of the Lizzie Borden trial
Speaking of the hatchet, no murder weapon was ever really identified. A hatchet head was found in the barn, but, though it fit into the skull holes in Andrew and Abby’s skull, it couldn’t be positively identified as THE murder weapon. This combined with no physical evidence, evidence rendered inadmissible, and strong Victorian values held by the all-male jury, helped Lizzie Borden acquittal of the murders after a 13-day trial. Seems as though the men of Fall River couldn’t conceive of a young, respectable woman, so like their own daughter, killing her parents with such savagery.

But, what does this have to do with our itinerate laborer Joe? To me, that is the most interesting part of the story. According to the farmer (remember the farm where Marion Hicks Campbell heard the story? Follow me back there), our odd job man Joe had taken a shine to Miss Lizzie Borden. The farmer had even used the phrase “fallen in love”. Seems he identified with Lizzie, she being disliked in her family as he had been in his own. She was dominant and strong where he was shy and weak, and he called her a “good looker”.

It appears as though our young man Joe would do just about anything to please Miss Lizzie Borden. Did this include unknowingly helping her get away with murder? I’ve never read any testimony that places Joe, or anyone of his description at the house that day, but according to the story that was told to the farmer, Joe was there in the morning doing small yard chores, specifically raking litter (yard waste) and loading it into a the Borden’s wheelbarrow for disposal at a nearby site used for such. Here I will quote directly from the letter.

“Lizzie came to the kitchen door and beckoned him over. She was wiping off a hatchet with a piece of rag. She handed him the hatchet and told him to put it in the barn. He saw nothing strange about the request, or about her wiping it off. Everyone wiped off tools in those days to keep them in good condition. Tools cost money and money was scarce.

“She tossed the rag into the midst of the litter in the barrel and then said ‘wait, I’ve got something else to throw away.’ She went into the house and handed him a small bundle wrapped in paper and tied with a string. He put the hatchet in the barn and the bundle in the wheelbarrow, and was soon trudging his load down the street to a lot where fill was needed. He felt proud that he could show Miss Lizzie that he could handle a man-sized load, even though it was light.

“After he dumped the stuff, he had to rest awhile [and eat] . . . When he had eaten he took the wheelbarrow back to the Borden barn  . . . He noticed people going in and out of the house more than usual. . . ’Abby and Andrew Borden have been murdered,” replied a woman to whom he’d asked about the situation. “With a hatchet,” she added, though she could hardly speak for crying.

Joe felt sick and slumped down. He had liked the Bordens and couldn’t believe they had been murdered. He thought, in his simple way, that if someone was going around killing with a hatchet, he’d better hide the Borden hatchet out of site. He didn’t want any more murders. Joe went back to the barn and hid the hatchet Lizzie had given him. It was only then that he thought about his encounter with Lizzie that morning. He was sure she couldn’t do such a thing.

But now he was frightened. He stumbled out of the yard, afraid that policemen would question him, and returned to the rubbish lot. But in the time since he’d dumped his load, others had dumped loads as well, burying the bundle and rag too far down to be retrieved. Joe took it as a sign that he should mind his business. He felt confident that police would find the murderer. He went about his work, feeling sick at heart. After Lizzie Borden’s acquittal, he couldn’t stand to stay in Fall River any longer, afraid he would meet her by chance.

Joe didn’t tell much of his life after that to the farmer, but he gathered that Joe had become a drifter. He wandered from town to town, doing what work he could. He slept in haymows in summer, and tried for warm dairy barns in the winter. He never stayed long in any place, but said people were always good to him.
The skulls of Abby and Andrew Borden, and the head of a hatchet found on the property are on display to this day in Fall River, MA

Now, the farmer was worried over what to do about Joe. The story he had been told weighed heavily on him, and he thought he should tell the police. But all that Borden business had happened so long ago, and it would probably kill Joe to be harassed by reporters and police now. He told Marion Hicks Campbell that he was going to ask a friend of the family who was a judge for his advice on the matter.

The matter was never discussed with the judge. That night, perhaps with his ears burning, Joe packed his few belongings and left the farm. He might have caught a boxcar to the Midwest, or boarded a packet on the coast. He might have slipped away to the woods and joined the pickers in the cranberry bogs. Who knows?

Who knows who Joe was, if he was some drifter who had a powerful imagination and invented the story, or if Marion Hicks Campbell, or the farmer were the ones with the imagination? Who knows if Lizzie Borden really did murder her parents with a hatchet that August day in 1892. 

If she did, she hardly benefited from it. Though she and sister Emma inherited an estate of over $125,000 and bought a mansion in the fashionable district of The Hill, they lived as pariahs. Both were scorned by Fall River society and Lizzie died alone in 1927, along with her secrets. She joins the ranks of Jack the Ripper and the Villisca axe murderer, something we can never be sure about. Today, the Borden House at 92 Second Street is a bed and breakfast, immensely popular with those who have macabre fascinations or continued interests in the case. For my part, I would love to know what happened to the man called Joe.

What do you think?


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Witches of The Commons

The typical rendering of a New England Witch, taken from art inspired by the events in Salem.

The American witch is something that seems to belong distinctly to the northeast. While adaptable to rural communities in the Midwest, and melded into the form of the voodoo priestess in the Deep South, the most classic version of the old crone is a vision that seems directly uprooted from the old country and planted firmly in the rocky soil of old New England. And that’s where our story will take place, in the stone-ridden ghost town known as the Commons Settlement, a highland area inland from the coast of Gloucester and Rockport on Massachusetts’ Cape Ann.

The trail that was once Main Street in The Commons

Residents of the Commons moved inland to form the settlement due to considerable threats of attack by natives and especially pirates and Ottoman corsairs who prayed upon coastal villages. The settlement was established in 1693 (a year in which the neighboring village Salem was still in the grips of its famed witch trials and the associated hysteria), and provided a main route between Gloucester and Rockport. By the mid 18th century and into the early 19th century, the town boasted between 80-100 families in residence. Citizens of the Commons were notable fixtures in the Revolution, with descendents of the settlers rowing General Washington across the Delaware River before the Battle of Trenton. Resident Isaac Day served as a gunner on The Constitution, affectionately known today as “Old Ironsides”.  But this period also saw events that triggered the decline of the village.

The success of American Revolution and the War of 1812 led to greater defense of the coast, and native tribes in the area had long since been quelled. Now, in the dawning of the 19th century, residents began moving back toward the harbor where industry was more plentiful. The exodus from The Commons was compounded by soil that made agriculture difficult. A thriving fishing and trading community lay east, and the residents of The Commons followed.

Artist rendering of Main Street

All too quickly, the town’s residents became made up of vagabonds and drifters squatting in abandoned houses. A few of the respectable citizens stayed behind in the settlement, widows of sea captains and such. They kept large dogs to guard against their unsavory neighbors. As these residents died off, their dogs began to overrun the community, and it soon earned the name by which it is known today: Dogtown. By this time, the town was known as a collection of riff raff from the coast, and a place where the ill repute would be right at home. Derelicts who begged at the harbor or traded fortune telling for goods, former slaves and a general assemblage of the “tetched” from across the villages of Cape Ann now established and redefined Dogtown.

One such woman, Aunt Becky Rich, sold “Dire Drink”, a brew of foxberry leaves, spruce tips and wild herbs, to those at the harbor to those feeling “Springish” (suffering from spring fever). Other odd denizens included Tie, a female freed slave who wore men’s clothing and employed herself by building stonewalls, hauling wood and doing the roughest work of men. The young people of Rockport occasionally visited Aunt Becky and others in the old village for fortune telling, which was a common skill there. The curiosities of divination and the promises of loose woman brought many sailors and even sons of respectable families calling in Dogtown.

But as time went on, the oddities became odder. Granther Stannard, who had once been a proud sea captain in his younger days, now lived in a small clay and sod hut called “The Boo”. He served as the village’s cobbler and dentist until he became convinced his legs were made of glass and he could no longer walk. Pam Wasson was notorious as a bonafide witch of the old Salem Village tradition. She was accused of flying around on her broomstick and taking the shape of a crow until she was shot by soldiers using a silver button as a bullet. That same day, a doctor was called from Gloucester to attend her for a leg injury and was said to have extracted the silver button from her wound.

The most notorious of the witches of Dogtown was Thomasine “Tammy” Younger. She would visit the docks at the Harbor and demand tribute of goods from sailors, lest they be hexed. Harbor men took this threat seriously, and this was how Tammy Younger and others from Dogtown made a living. Younger had a particular advantage, as her home sat directly on the road between Gloucester and Rockport, allowing her to act as a toll keeper. She would frequently watch for carts on the road and was said to hex a traveler's Oxen to stand still until they paid her in goods.

Known far and wide for her evil eye, it was said of Younger’s talents that she could “hex a load of wood right off the wagon if none was yielded to her without argument.” She was also a great favorite of pirates and buccaneers, who visited her for fortune telling and a general good time. When she died, the residents of her home refused to go to bed until her coffin was removed. Legend has it that the people of Cape Ann were so relieved when she finally died at 76 that they buried her in a coffin inlayed with silver.

The last resident of Dogtown was Black Neil Finson, who resided there in 1814 and was loved by the town’s witches. He cohabitated with several of them until they died and was eventually found living in a cellar hole covered by wood planks and half dead in the middle of winter. He was removed by authorities of Gloucester and taken to the town’s poorhouse, where he died a week later of “sheer comfort”.

One of many boulders carved during the 1930s

The last house in Dogtown was torn down in 1845 and nature has reclaimed most of what remains of the old settlement. Hearthstones and other small markers of civilization, including numerous paths bring hikers, ecologists and historians back to the site. Dogtown regained some of its former color when Roger Babson commissioned unemployed stonecutters to carve inspirational inscriptions on approximately three-dozen boulders during the Great Depression. But the reflection of the village and its mark upon the land still takes on an ethereal, haunting quality that suits a ghost town. This was captured best by Thomas Wentworth Higgins, who wrote of the place:

“Three miles inland we find the hearthstones of a vanished settlement . . . an elevated tableland overspread with great boulders as big as houses and encircling a girdle of green woods and another girdle of blue sea. I know nothing like that gray waste of boulders . . . In that multitude of monsters there seems a sense of suspended life; you feel as if they must speak and answer to each other – the silent nights, but by day only the wandering seabirds seek them on their way across the Cape.”

A quiet trail through a once colorful community

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday Freakout: Eerie on Etsy

It's Friday. I'm ready to blow up. So it's time to calm things down and frolic around Etsy, especially since today is the Etsy Global Craft Party. I'll be attending the Houston party tonight. Of course, I'm always looking to have my imagination fired by creepy things. This is my OCTOBER Country.

But! It's not October yet. So I thought I'd explore some fun products that have all the requisite creepiness, with the whimsy of summer equally represented. Here we go:

Grichels leather deluxe bi-fold wallet

This is one boss wallet. It reminds me of being a kid in the summer, and spending all my time in the woods, swearing I saw faces in the bark. I picked this one since it's a tad less sinister than some of the other designs (though they are equally awesome). For me, this calls to mind all the watchfulness I experienced in the woods, and in a way, it's right out of a Disney fairytale. Ya know, the kind where the princess has reached that bad part of the woods where the trees grab at her and there are eyes in the shadows. Exactly the spot I hope to retire to!

Cemetery Raven box/ aged wood trinket box

RavenofSkys has the market cornered on creepy housewares, jewelry and lots of other goodies. I'm always impressed by her work. This one felt appropriate since I love visiting cemeteries, even in hot weather (watch out for my report on Houston's Glenwood cemetery next week). I've got my eye on this little treasure, since I've got so many similar treasures to place in it.

Haunted House Antique Picture in Metal Frame

You might call it dilapidated, but we all know any house in extreme disrepair is that way because it's clearly haunted. I love this little vintage portrait, with a mix of emptiness and foreboding. It definitely needs to hang in the hallway.

Dark Sky Dock - 8x12 Fine Art Photograph

How many of us went to the lake in the summer as kids? Many of us probably, and those days were carefree, sunburned and full of memories. Some of us went to the ocean as well, but as I always say, that's an entirely different ghost story (which I'll get into another day). There are many fabulous tales of terror, or ghost yarns that center around the lake. I can think of one by Ray Bradbury that is chilling but heartbreaking and warm all at once. Water is always a place where we tend to dwell on eerie subjects, perhaps because we are always aware of how dangerous and powerful an element it is. I spent much time up in the foothills of New Hampshire's White Mountains as a child, at woodland cottage that my grandparents owned on the shores of a small lake. It was a beautiful and peaceful place, but when night came, I was always frightened unless my cousin Kim was with me. Together, we always turned the darkness on itself and used the night hours to spin our own creepy yarns and let our imaginations dance in the shadows. I find that hard to do as an adult. I take myself too seriously now, or maybe not seriously enough. But I remember the way the dock looked at night from the windows of the cottage, and how there were always strange lights on the water, and stranger noises coming through the trees.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Gulf Coast Graveyards

So I've barely had a day off since October of last year, when I took a birthday trip to the beautifully wicked city of New Orleans, LA. While there, I obviously soaked up the creepy, and spent my days rooting out the authentic from the tourist. There is plenty of both in this old city, and much of it remains despite the high waters of 2005. That being said, I sadly did not venture out from the quarter, and restricted my activities to investigations of old horrors, instead of recent ones. That is another pilgrimage all together. I managed to find the legit voodoo and occult shops, avoided the ghost tours, and sought out all the spots in the quarters known for macabre histories, and sometimes regaled bystanders on the grim history all around them. Never pay hard-earned cash for an official tour when a well chosen book on the area and a willingness to converse with strangers can get you an even better experience.

But I am veering off course.

There is no better place than NOLA to start an examination of Gulf Coast graveyards. The water table of this bowl-shaped berg on the edge of the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain (two bookends that proved devastating to the city) makes burial in the ground impossible. Thus we have the magnificent Necropoles of New Orleans. We visited one such as the last stop before piling into the car for the 5 hour ride back to Houston. It was a toss-up between Lafayette Cemetery and one of the St. Louis Cemeteries. Being close to the edge of the Quarter and one of (if not the) oldest cemeteries in NOLA, we chose St. Louis Cemetery #1. At 9am, the graveyard was open, serene and approachable. The sky was overcast, and the black cat that counts the necropolis as part of his territory, is friendly and affectionate. Many of these photos are available in my Etsy Shop.

There's plenty to appreciate in this cemetery, from founders of the city, voodoo queens with several rumored burial sites (you'll know these vaults because of the many markings and offerings from visitors), and entire families wiped out by Yellow Jack (yellow fever) that gripped the Gulf Coast port towns throughout the early settlements through the 19th century.

Though the cemetery is kept in good repair by the a city-based organization, many of the tombs are in disrepair, cracked or in pieces. But I doubt even the highest of human effort to keep up with nature could stop the decay of a place like St Louis #1, especially with the kind of nature New Orleans experiences. It's also fairly standard for vegetation to grow anywhere it can in the subtropical climate of the Gulf Coast. Above you'll see I took a shoot of a wildflower vining out of a crack in one of the tombs, a good four feet above the nearest bit of soil.

I had hoped this photo would have a good story behind it, but I've not been able to find out where this statue's head has gone off to, or when it took a hike, or why, or how. This is part of the large Italian monument and vault. A similar alcove on the other side of the rounded vault has a statue made famous in scenes from Easy Rider.

In some cases, age adds a lot of charm. This intricate wrought iron fencing around a family plot has rusted over so completely that there is new dimension to the design. I was immediately drawn to it, and, if monuments and decoration on graves are intended to draw attention as much as to pay tribute to the dead, this gate served better than the vault itself.

Higher up, there are fewer signs of rust, but wrought iron, so often identified with Louisiana and French architecture, was found throughout the cemetery. I imagine some of these lighter pieces may be restored or replaced as nature attacks over the years.

The signs of wear also add interesting dimensions of color to the older tombs and vaults. I did notice that there were some newer graves (they definitely stand out among the ancient ones). Some of the newer burials have been in the 21 century even, and being a popular cemetery that takes up a mere city block and has been in use since the 18th century, I can't help but wonder if bodies are displaced to make room for the new. And of so, who is chosen to go, and how much does a family pay to stay?

Though all in all, the cemetery is peaceful and well-respected, I will leave you with one small note of disquiet, as my mother pointed out when we turned the corner to see the line of poorer vaults lining the western end of the cemetery. Strangely, very little about St. Louis reminded me of death. Though sometimes austere, and ornate, it always seemed a celebration of life (which seems in keeping with the spirit of the city itself). But this last row took me far away from New Orleans, and to a much darker past than this city, post Katrina or Pre, can conjure.

Are you not also reminded of crematory ovens?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Back from the Dead!

Yes, I'm Back! It's been a crazy busy eight months, and I'm sure I don't have to tell you that running your own business and working full time at the same time leaves little time for extracurriculars. But, I've so missed my little blog project, and I've got some material with which to jump back into the fold.

I'll also be changing the scope of this blog a tad to focus on artisans, crafters and designers that I admire. Many will be right in line with the online graveyard I like to explore, but others will deviate into new territory. I'll also be showcasing my own art projects from time to time.

So, we've got some lost time to make up for. Shall we dance?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Keeping Up With October

The dark month is flying by, and the world has kept me too busy to enjoy it. I admit that I feel like I'm missing my favorite time of year. So I'm back here to remind myself what I love about October, and why I try to inhabit its country all-year-round.

When we look at October, and especially Halloween, those of us in the United States realize that we are celebrating a time that has been considered sacred for over one thousand years. But do we realize how modern we've made Halloween? This is not a bad thing, of course. But many of our traditions are very American, and some are less than 100 years old. Let's look at the old and the new of October, and see if we can't capture a little of the American October essence.

Things to do in the October Country

1. Catch the Leaves

This is probably the oldest October activity in history (at least in places where October brings fall foliage). Growing up in rural Massachusetts, this was one of my favorite activities. The changing season brings a lot of blustery weather in the midst of startlingly beautiful colors of gold, red, orange, brown, green and mixes of each. The wind knocks the dying leaves loose and they literally rain down over children screaming with joy, and they are tough buggers to catch!

This is something fairly pastoral, and perhaps is only still done in the country, where trees are abundant. But if you have a park you can visit, take your dog, take your kids, take your loved one, and take yourself on a windy day and try to catch some color. If you do, catch one for me, as Houston Texas does not have an Autumn.

2. Pumpkin Carving
One of the most ubiquitous tradition in North America, but a fairly recent one as well. The Jack-O-Lantern tradition came to us from Ireland. The legend usually entails a wicked man, who is too wicked even for hell, being given a ever-burning ember by the devil to light his way through eternity on earth. The man, "Jack", carves a turnip to serve as his lantern. Immigrating to the U.S., the Irish retained their tradition. But substituted turnips, which are hard to carve, for the yielding flesh of the pumpkin (which did not grow in Ireland at the time). Today, pumpkin carving is elaborate and sometimes lucrative, with carving contests awarding prizes in excess of $25,000 for winners and a profitable kit and pattern industry in the market.

Remember not to waste the pumpkin seeds! Highly nutritious and often delicious, the pumpkin seed is considered by nutritionist to be a super food, with numerous vitamins, amino acids, iron, calcium and other benefits. The pumpkin seed can be helpful in everything from dental issues, to depression to cancer. Plus, they are extremely yummy!

Garlic spiced Pumpkin Seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons margarine, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon garlic salt
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2 cups raw whole pumpkin seeds

Preheat oven to 275 degrees F (135 degrees C).
Combine the margarine, salt, garlic salt, Worcestershire sauce and pumpkin seeds. Mix thoroughly and place in shallow baking dish.
Bake for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

3. Apples and Apples and APPLES

For me, nothing embodies Autumn like the crisp, tangy taste of a freshly picked Macintosh apple. For many, Apple picking is the high watermark of the Harvest season. For those in the south and out of reach of those cooler-weather-loving apples orchards, it means lower prices and a more plentiful selection of apples at the super market. For nearly everone, it means the joys of apple cider. Different from your juice box variety apple drink, Cider is made from crushed apples, whereas apple juice is made from boiled peels and cores. So, in reality, apple cider has more apple juice . . . than apple juice. Sorry Motts. Cider is truly heavenly when spices such as cloves, allspice, orange peels and cinnamon sticks are added to the liquid as it's slowly heated. This is the essence of hot apple cider on brisque Autumn days.

Historically, Apples have also been used in Autumn for divination. Bobbing for apples is a treasured pastime using both marked(european) and unmarked(American) apples to divine who would be the first to marry in the new year, and to whom. Irish traditions of snapping an apple (biting an apple on a string without using hands) is still an observed Halloween tradition.

4. Scrying and Divination

And more from the divination chapter, Halloween and October have always been considered prime times for seeking hidden knowledge. Halloween, as the Pagan New Year, is the time where the veil between the living and the dead is purported to be very thin, and an excellent time for spells and divination. Practioners cast lots, stones, and scry with crystals, mirrors, water, ashes or nuts. Pumpkin seeds can be used for divination by inscribing them with nordic runes and casting them. Others may opt for a classic black mirror for their All Hallow's Eve scrying.

Easy scrying mirror

Use an existing tabletop mirror, remove the glass.Take the flat black spray paint and begin to coat 1 side of the glass with even, light strokes. Apply 1 thin coat and allow to dry. Apply following coats, drying completely in between coats, until no light shows through the glass. Insert the glass back into the mirror frame. Be sure to bless the mirror according to your own traditions to prevent inviting anything unwanted. Scry away!

5. Cemeteries

Strangely, I find that cemeteries are largerly avoided in much of the United States during October and the Hallween season. Many cemeteries even discourage visits, as seasonally-inspired visits often result in vandalism and destruction of property. But I heartily recommend spending a little time with the dead during the dark month, whether you know them or not. Besides being a place of excellent atmosphere, cemeteries are beauitful, peaceful and full of history. Whether you explore tombstones, do rubbings (if allowed), leave some flowers on a random grave or just ponder what the lives of the deceased might have been like, it is time well spent, and, I like to think, does not go unnoticed or unappreciated.

Observing the Mexican El Dia De Los Muertos tradition, place a candle on the grave of a loved one. This doesn't HAVE to be done on Halloween or the day of the dead, but should be done at night. Unfortunately, many people are nervous about visiting graveyards at night, and some don't permit visits after dark. Still, if the opportunity arises, go ahead. You'll be glad you shared a little bit of life with the dead.

6. Tell a Ghost Story

There is no better way to get close to the dead then to speak about them. Everyone knows a ghost story, some sad, some frightening, some strange and outrageous. My favorite ghost stories are the ones thought to be true, or who at least have their roots in history or folklore. The library, bookstore, and probably your great uncle or grandfather are full of such stories. So browse the shelves and pick a brain or two. You never know what spirits are haunting the places, and the people right next to you.

Now, I'm off to New Orleans to do some of my own investigations of mysterious and creepy history. Many photos and memories of the haunted big easy are right around the corner. I'll see you soon!


Saturday, September 25, 2010

Raising the Dead - PMBP

For the Practical Magic Blog party, I thought I’d dabble on a subject raised in the film. I always really loved the part when Jillian and Sally try to raise Jimmy, Jillian’s psychotic boyfriend, from the dead after poisoning him with Deadly Nightshade (classiest of the poisoning substances). Besides being an absurdly bad decision to resurrect someone trying to murder you, the spell looked rather easy, and I've always longed for a Zombie of my very own!

Skip to the 4:00 mark to get to the good stuff.

A closer look at the ingredients that the producers/scriptwriters felt would, in combination, bring life to the dead reveal some pretty standard deep magic materials. Blue sage, Madagoria (Mandrake root), Henbane (another poisonous herb) and lots of beeswax candles are among the decipherable ingredients. Then there is a lot of gesturing, tricks with the tongue and whip cream, and the delightful sticking of needles in the eyes of the dead.

So, I decided to see how much this little song and dance that ends badly for all involved has in common with other methods of raising the dead. In order to do that, I needed to actually find other methods of raising the dead. Luckily for me and every other seeker of the obscure, there is Google.

E-How Method: How to Raise the Dead

Ah! There truly is an E-How for everything. This helpful little gem suggested many paths to follow for emptying out the grave, and with very little overhead needed. For its voodoo method, all that is needed is a puffer fish (the really poisonous fugu) ground up into powder and tested on someone who may or may not die from ingestion (if they do, you can resurrect them next). E-how also suggests you try your psychic abilities after dousing the corpse with animal blood, or perform your own free-style incantation in the garden of good and evil. Loud music and consistent shocking with electrical currents are also viable options. Warnings consist of brain-eating Zombies and making sure the subject is actually dead before you perform any resurrection work on them, as you may just end up killing them and creating more work for yourself.

Randy Demain - Crazy Christian Method

According to evangelist and Youtube-proclaimed whack job Randy Demain, westerners have made this Jesus-commanded act of resurrecting the dead too difficult. Randy proclaims that he raised aUgandan folks from the dead. After being rudely interrupted while in the middle delivering “The Message” to a congregation, Randy was shown to the stiff body of a woman in the tall grass. In his vexation over being interrupted just to be shown some dead woman, he commanded the woman to live in the name of the Lord, because he needed to get back to his congregation. The dead woman abided, was brought back to the compound where she stole money and ran off before being converted.

Witchcraft method:

Surprisingly (or not, if you are at all familiar with Witchcraft), there are no methods for raising the dead that Google can reveal. Wiccans and Pagans almost categorically condemn the idea of violating nature in such a way. But then there is that little thing called Necromancy. Sure, most modern witches don’t touch the stuff, and the very root of the world means black magic. But it’s still a category and perhaps my last best hope for getting that Pet Zombie I’ve kinda always wanted.

Practiced all the way back to antiquity, Necromancy can be found throughout ancient Europe, notably in Greek mythology. The ancient Necromancer was pretty hardcore about his craft, wearing dead people’s clothing and even engaging in a little cannibalism (hopefully only of those they weren’t bringing back to life). They also had strict scheduling policies: bodies could be raised up to 12 months after death. Afterwards only the spirit could be summoned. A classic afterlife warranty program.

In medieval Europe, resurrection was linked with Demonology and Astrology (via Arabic influences), and was practiced by highly-educated members of the lower Christian clergy, not Witches. Offering sacrifices and invoing various demons, these necromantic rites mingled the occult with Christian and Jewish tradition and were considered prayers as opposed to witchcraft by ecclesiastical authorities. The Munich Manual is a Bavarian grimiore of the 15th century that outlines rites and general information on demonology and prayer. It has not been published in modern English.


Well, so much for the fantasies inspired by Practical Magic. As far as the Google Gods can say, I will never really be able to get my pet zombie or raise my childhood dog from the grave. So I’ll stick to watching Jimmy Angelov be resurrected only to choke out Nicole Kidman and be buried under the rosebushes. Or I’ll just keep killing and resuscitating house flies. That’s a start, right?

As part of the Practical Magic Blog Party, I'm giving all readers 20% off any purchase through Monday at My October Country's Etsy Store. Just convo me on Etsy with "Raising the Dead" after purchasing to be refunded the 20%!