Posted tagged ‘Maine’

Blog Post 195 – Old Betty Booker and Witch Bridles

July 13, 2015

John Henry Fuseli, “The Nightmare” (1781 – via Wikimedia)

Author’s Note: This post is largely based on material I gathered for an entry in the upcoming ABC-CLIO three-volume series, American Myths, Legends, & Tall Tales: An Encyclopedia of American Folklore. The views and lore presented here, however, do not explicitly reflect the views of that publisher, and are entirely my own.

American history—and more generally, legend—contains its share of witches. In most cases, we hear or read about a witch at the receiving end of a lot of harsh accusations: milk stealing, poisoning livestock, and so forth. Not infrequently, however, a witch’s story takes a slightly different turn, and she becomes something more like a protagonist than a villain, albeit one with shades of gray around her morals. One of the best examples of just such a story is from rural nineteenth-century Maine, and it tells of a woman named “Old Betty Booker,” who gets a bit of a raw deal from a local captain and brings the full brunt of her witchcraft to bear on him for a bit of gleeful justice. The account below is found in Benjamin Botkin’s collection, A Treasury of New England Folklore:

HOW OLD BETTY BOOKER RODE SKIPPER PERKINS DOWN TO YORK

These two skippers, Mitchell and Perkins, were both Kittery salts, but of the two Skipper Perkins was the worst curried. Old Betty Booker wanted some fish, and she suggested her need to the skipper, “Bring me a bit o’ hal’but, skipper, when you git in—.”

“Show me your sixpence, ma’am,” was the thrifty reply.
And with an ill-boding scowl, and a shake of—
“Her wicked head, with its wild gray hair,
And nose of a hawk, and eyes like a snake,”

She watched the skipper sail away. The sea beat him up and down. The gale tore his sails, and the fish sheered away from his trawls. His men got sick, and his schooner came home poorer than she went. Then it got bruited about that Betty Booker was making a witch-bridle for the skipper, and was going to ride him down to York some wild night, whereat, the skipper, when it came to his ears, got into a mortal terror. He was sure to be at home, always, before dusk; and his doors were barred double, and he quaked and shivered and shook until the sun came up. Finally Betty sent the skipper word that the first stormy night she would ride him to York…

[H]e waited for Betty Booker; nor was she long in coming. An unearthly wail came down the wind, and there was a scratching of a hundred witch-claws on his door, and above all sounded the cracked notes of Betty Booker’s voice—

“Bring me a bit o’ hal’but, skipper!”…

With the cry of the hag, the gale rose higher, and with rougher buffetings it smote the old door that was built to look out on the sea; and then it began to open so the skipper felt a spatter of rain on his face. He heard the wild chatter of the witches, but he still held to his pushing, until he felt himself sliding along the rough floor. He made a leap for his bed, winding himself about in its coverings; the door flew open and in trooped the witches. They pounced upon the skipper, and stripped him to his skin; and while he cowered in his fear, old Betty bridled him and got upon his back, while the other witches climbed upon hers, and off they raced through the gale to York Harbor. When he lagged, they pricked him with their claws to make him go faster; and so they rode him as long as they wished, to get him back to Kittery before cock-crow, more dead than alive.

“Don’t say sixpence, skipper, to a poor old woman again,” was Betty booker’s parting admonition, as she and her familiars vanished into the mists of the darkest part of the night.

After that the skipper took to his bed, where for three weeks he nursed his wounds and told his story to his neighbors.

Botkin reports that the legend of Old Betty Booker may have been in some part based in real witchcraft performed in the York area, or at least in the practice of regional and maritime folk magic. He notes that one of the Kittery houses was torn down and inside a “witch-bridle” was found, composed of horsehair, tow, and yellow birch. Witch-bridles were thought to be a tool essentially similar in design a horse’s bridle, which a witch could slip over the head and into the mouth of a person or animal to force it to do her bidding. Accounts from both sides of the Atlantic describe situations in which witches use the bridles to force someone (or in some instances, a neighbor’s horse or other livestock) to become a mode of transport for the witch. Belief in witch-bridling was widespread during the Colonial era, and the phenomenon even appeared during the infamous witch trials of Salem. As a mode of transportation, they are coequal to flying ointments and broomsticks in most accounts. In the collection of Irish folktales assembled by Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats, similar stories of spectral bridling pepper legends of witches. George Lyman Kittredge’s Witchcraft in Old and New England contains an account of a man bridled in the same way as Skipper Perkins. In almost all instances, the victim remains aware of what is happening throughout the ride, but his or her memories of the event quickly fade in the morning, leaving only bruises and a battered, weary body as proof of any supernatural occurrence. The folk phenomenon of “hag riding,” which has been linked to sleep apnea and sleep paralysis in modern medical diagnosis, may offer some explanations to the stories behind the malady, if one is inclined to make such connections (I personally tend to keep the two ideas only loosely connected for my purposes, and try not to make assumptions about medical conditions two centuries hence without at least entertaining the supernatural explanation with equal credence). A person under the influence of the witch-bridle felt no control of his or her body, but remained lucid and felt the pressure of someone on top of him or her. In the medical phenomenon of sleep paralysis, sufferers report a feeling like a great weight on their bodies and an inability to control their limbs, which very much resembles the conditions described in the folklore (see Baughman motif G241.2 “Witch rides a person”).

Possibly my favorite element of the Betty Booker story is its clear assumption that Booker is not out of order for her treatment of Perkins. The story seems to recognize that Booker is in a vulnerable position in the community, and that Perkins is not doing his duty by acting in such a miserly way. Women like Old Betty provided social good in some ways, selling outbound sailors magical charms to raise winds or prevent drowning. For example, cords with knots tied in them could be used to raise winds on a becalmed ship, and dried cauls (amniotic sacs which sometimes surround a baby’s head after birth) taken from newborn infants were alleged to protect sailors from drowning. Widowed women and social outcasts were particularly susceptible to suspicions of witchcraft. In stories like that of Old Betty, witches were seen as a form of moral enforcement. The sailor’s miserly behavior goes counter to acceptable standards, and even the structure of the narrative seems to blame him for the misfortunes that follow. Maine witches in other stories often have righteous retribution as motivation for their occult activities. In one tale, a witch named Emma Alley gets slighted by a fish boat skipper in much the same way as Old Betty Booker, and curses him for his stinginess, which results in him not catching anything else for the remainder of the season.

Old Betty is associated with several other witches who lived in the “Brimstone Hill” area of Kittery, namely Mary Greenland and a woman named “Aunt” Polly Belknap. She may also have taken on other names during her tenure as resident witch, including Betsy Booker, Easter Booker (who is also referred to as Esther Booker and associated with a woman named Betty Potter, further adding to the confusion) or a character called “Black Dinah,” who reputedly used weather-pans in her magic and dowsed for buried treasure. According to George Alexander Emery, Old Betty’s home was on the land between Kittery and York, marked by “a stone wall extending north-west and south-east,” on which she and a companion raised a meager patch of vegetables and some chickens. An 1896 newspaper account from the Boston Evening Transcript recounts the Skipper Perkins story, but attributes the storm-raising and subsequent torments directed against the captain to a witch named Hetty Moye, and relocates the narrative to within fifty miles of Boston (to be fair, Maine was a part of Massachusetts until 1820, so the fine line between one state and the other can be muddled in tales from the early-to-mid nineteenth century).

Witch Woodcut (via Wikimedia Commons)

None of this is to say that Old Betty comes out with a completely clean nose in all narratives. Other tales associate her firmly with diabolical activities. In one story, she allegedly dances with the devil out on the village green to fiddle music on moonlit nights. Additionally, witches were believed to have control over weather and storms by using devices such as “weather-pans,” which a sorceress would heat up over a fire to release a tempest out at sea.

In at least one account, however, I find it extremely heartening that a witch comes out very well, even dispensing a bit of needed justice without doing too much serious harm in the process. That seems much better than days spent stealing milk or blighting cattle, in my opinion, which are often ways in which a witch might express her ire in folklore. What do you make of Old Betty? Is she the sort of witch you would include in your spiritual ancestry as an American witch? Or do you see her story as just another sensational portrayal with a slightly positive twist?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

REFERENCES:

  1. Beck, Horace P. 1957. The Folklore of Maine. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
  2. Bliss, William Root. 1893. The Old Colony and Other Sketches. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  3. Botkin, Benjamin, ed. 1947. A Treasury of New England Folklore. New York: Crown Publishers.
  4. Dorson, Richard M. 1946. Jonathan Draws the Long Bow. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
  5. Dorson, Richard M. 1964. Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
  6. Emery, George Alexander. 1873. The Ancient City of Georgiana and the Modern Town of York (Maine) from its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. Boston: G.A. Emery.
  7. Gregory, Isabella Augusta, and William Butler Yeats. 1988. A Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend, & Folklore. New York: Gramercy.
  8. Kittredge, George Lyman. 1956. Witchcraft in Old and New England. New York: Russell & Russell.
  9. Muise, Peter. “The Witch Bridle: Ride ‘Em Cowgirl!” New England Folklore Blog. April 10, 2010.
  10. Sylvester, Herbert M. 1909. Maine Pioneer Settlements: Old York. Boston: W.B. Clarke Co.

“Witchcraft Today: The Belief in Supernatural Feats in a New England Town.” Oct. 10, 1896. Boston Evening Transcript.

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Podcast Special – Mother Hicks

October 30, 2010

-SHOWNOTES FOR PODCAST SPECIAL-
Summary
A tale of a famous witch from Maine, adapted from Richard Dorson’s “Buying the Wind”

Play:

Download: New World Witchery Special – Mother Hicks

-Sources-
Based on tales found in Buying the Wind, by Richard Dorson.


Promos & Music
“Grifos Muertos” by Jeffery Luck Lucas, from his album What We Whisper, on Magnatune.com

Blog Post 24 – Book Review

March 3, 2010

Hello everyone,

So today I’d like to offer a review of a book I’ve cited several times on the blog already, Richard Dorson’s Buying the Wind.  It’s a book of folklore divided by region and focusing on the different stories, beliefs, and practices of those who inhabit those regions.  The regions he covers are broken down as follows:

  • Maine Down-Easters
  • Pennsylvania Dutchmen
  • Southern Mountaineers
  • Louisiana Cajuns
  • Illinois Egyptians
  • Southwest Mexicans
  • Utah Mormons

Each section then goes into further detail regarding the specific folklore of the regional group examined.  For example, under Southwest Mexicans, there is a section called “Proverbios” which contains the bits of folk wisdom like:

Dar atole con el dedo.

“To give gruel with the finger.”  (To deceive with words or acts, especially to deceive one’s husband).

Entre menos burros, mas olotes.

“The fewer donkeys, the more cobs.”  (The fewer, the better…corncobs, dried as well as green, are given burros to eat).

And under Louisiana Cajuns, in the section “Riddles,” we find:

What has a tongue and does not speak?  A shoe

What has teeth but does not bite?  A comb

If a man can lift two hundred and fifty barrels of rice when it is not raining, what can he lift during a rain?  An umbrella

Each section has its own unique attributes.  Some have the songs and proverbs of their region, some have stories and even some loose versions of “spells.”  I say loose because they aren’t exactly how-to’s on spellcraft, but provide some information that could be turned into a how-to pretty easily.  For example, the Louisiana Cajuns section has information on Hoodoo, including a tale from one informant who described a luck mojo bag that “was a little bag of linen and it had like nerves and then bones.”  The nerves are from a vulture, and the bones from a snake, which both could be used in a lucky mojo hand (though I’ve never heard of nerves being used, per se, but that’s what makes these accounts so interesting—their variety).

The entire book is loaded with bits of magic like this, as well as stories of witchcraft and magic which, while more fanciful, give insight into what the occult practices of those areas might be.  In the Southern Mountaineers section, for instance, there’s an interesting account of a “witch-ball,” which is a bit of hair, wax, and other substances rolled into a ball and “shot” at a victim to curse them.  I’ve seen similar stories in other books of American folklore, especially based in the Appalachian areas, so it’s interesting to me to see how prominent such a magical tool seems to be in that area, though it is largely forgotten elsewhere.

I learned a great deal from this book—the entire section on Illinois Egyptians, for example, was a revelation to me, and has opened up a whole new area of interest for me regarding New World Witchery.  And the stories, songs, and proverbs are fantastic!  I can’t get enough of the Southern “Jack” tales!

I should point out that Dorson uses the Aarne-Thompson system of folklore classification, which divides tales into various types for ease of cross-referencing.  It is definitely a book aimed at folklorists and not particularly at a wide audience, but I think anyone can get a great deal from reading it.  And it may open up a whole new love of folklore as a field of study for some folks.

I’ve been reading a borrowed copy from my public library, and it’s just about due to go back there, which was going to be a sad loss, as I still find myself referencing Buying the Wind frequently.  But thanks to a generous donation from reader/listener Amber (many, many thanks to her!), we’ll be able to procure a copy for future reference now.  So hooray for Amber!

That’s all for now!  Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 8 – Seaside Sorcery

January 28, 2010

De Windstoot, by Willem van de Velde II (from Wikimedia Commons)

Hello!  Today I’m going to take a look at some of the coastal magic found in Northeastern America and Canada (Southern coastal magic will be in a later post, I hope).  In the early days, American colonies and states depended greatly on foreign trade for supplies.  The wealth of natural resources here were valuable to people across the sea as well, and so much of the commercial backbone of North America during those years depended on seaports and sailing vessels and all those men and women who operated them.

I’ve always found that folks involved in seafaring business are a superstitious lot (and I mean that as a compliment, as I find superstition fascinating and useful in many cases).  At the very least, the vast ocean inspires people to consider their own smallness and to take precautions against their mortal end at the sea’s merciless whim.  With that said, let’s look at some stories, anecdotes, and practices from the Northeastern coasts of North America.

Some stories from Maine:

“The Cursing of Colonel Buck”, as retold by S. E. Schlosser.  In this story, an unscrupulous colonel takes advantage of one of his maids, then turns her out when she bears his sadly misshapen child.  In order to prevent any claims on his name, he accuses her of witchcraft and has her burned at the stake.  She curses him (perhaps his claims of witchcraft were not so unfounded) as she dies, and her leg falls from the pyre, where her son gathers the leg and runs away.  After the colonel dies, his tombstone develops a funny leg-shaped mark on it, which embarrasses the townsfolk.  They toss it in the ocean, but it comes back ashore.  Then they smash it and put up a new stone, but the leg-mark comes back.

So where’s the New World Witchery in this story?  Well, this tale is probably extremely exaggerated.  The main clue is that the witch is burned at the stake, a holdover from European witch-lore, but not a punishment found in the New World.  However, there’s one small fragment of worthwhile witchery in this tale:  the first reaction of the townspeople is to throw the stone into the sea.  The idea that natural water sources, especially moving ones like oceans and rivers, can cleanse cursed objects is solidly founded in other magical lore (see Albertus Magnus or hoodoo trick deployment practices).

Buying the Wind, by Richard M. Dorson, contains several excellent bits of Maine magical lore.  For example, in the title passage, the practice of “buying wind” is discussed.  Captains and crewmembers on becalmed ships would often be tempted to throw money overboard in order to purchase a quantity of wind from God/nature/the sea/etc.  The problem arises in that the quantity purchased is always vastly more than one expected to buy.  As one of Dorson’s informants puts it:

“Never buy wind when you’re on a boat.  You’re daring God Almighty, and he won’t stand for that.  You’ll get all the wind you want.”

In one tale, a captain tosses a quarter overboard, and immediately such a gale rises that it tears off the sails and mast from the ship and pushes it into shore, where it barely holds together as the crew disembarks.  The captain remarks that if he’d known God sold wind so cheaply he’d only have got a nickel’s worth.

Is this witchcraft?  Well, no, not exactly.  But the practice of buying something to control the weather is fairly common witch-lore.  Many tales exist of sailors buying cauls (the membrane which sometimes covers a newborn’s head after emerging from the womb) from dockside witches to prevent drowning at sea.  And those same dockside sorceresses sometimes sold knotted cords to help sailors call up wind as needed—each knot, when undone, would release an increasing amount of wind.  So buying the wind is certainly a magical maritime practice, if not outright witchery.

Magic and Witchcraft in Nova Scotia:

An interesting tale regarding a hidden treasure is recorded in Folklore of Nova Scotia, by Mary L. Fraser.  She writes:

“An old sailor who spent his life as a deep-sea fisherman around the coasts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland told of a great iron chest that was buried just beneath the water, so that its outline could be seen very distinctly. Every time the crew tried to work around it and, raise it up, thousands of crows, one of which was headless, would swarm around them, so that it was impossible for them to get at it. These crows they believed to be helpers of the decapitated guarding spirit.”

This tale is interesting, to me, because of the clear association of spirit allies with a sacred duty (such as guarding a treasure).   I can’t think of many witchier images than a murder of crows—including a headless one—swarming all over treasure-grabbers.

The same volume has several good bits of weather-lore, too:

  1. “If Candlemas day be fine and fair, The half of the winter’s to come an’ mair.”
  2. “Mackerel skies and mare’s tails, Make lofty ships carry low sails.”
  3. “A rainbow in the morning the sailor’s warning, A rainbow at night is the sailor’s delight.”
  4. “Heavy winds kick up a rain.”

The first of these is an old tradition which most people now know as a component of Groundhog Day.  I plan to do a post specifically on some of the traditions associated with early February sometime soon, so I’ll save further exposition on it here.  The second proverb refers to cloud patterns in the skies.  If high wispy clouds (“mare’s tails”) were seen along with clumpy scale-like cloud patterns (“mackerel skies”), then it was a good indication a storm would be coming soon and the sails should be lowered.  The third bit of wisdom is fairly common, though sometimes in different iterations (I know it as “red skies at morning, sailor take warning; red skies at night, sailor’s delight”).   Basically it just means that the weather conditions at dawn or dusk foretell the weather to come.  And the fourth quote is a logical enough assertion that where high winds blow at sea, rain is sure to follow.

Again, are these witchy?  Only insofar as the astute witch would know such proverbs and make use of them in his or her daily practice.  Reading the signs Nature provides has a lot to do with the mentality of witchcraft, which is constantly looking to the natural-and-other-worlds for guidance, instruction, and wisdom.

A Sailor’s Treasury, by Frank Shay, also supposedly provides a good many of early American sailors’ tales and charms (I cannot give a full recommendation as I have only been able to view snippets online, and no nearby library seems to have a copy of this out-of-print text).

Whew!  I’ve only presented a fragment of the nautical witchcraft out there, and already it’s a lot.  So I’ll save more seaside witchery for another day.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory


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