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A Frightful Regional History of Halloween

Spooky apparitions, hob-goblins and witches were abroad in numbers here on Hallowe’en or so it seemed, considering numerous disappearances of such things as chairs, screen doors, wagons, dump carts and other articles not fastened down.”

“The United Opinion” newspaper, November 1931

Next Thursday is Halloween. After dark, little costumed hobgoblins will come to the door, and we will distribute chocolate to ward off any hex they might put on our house. It is a night deep with tradition, with activities ranging from parties and harmless pranks to vandalism. There are also thoughts of witches, vampires and ghosts. This column examines the history of Halloween as well as the stories of the supernatural from our area.

This autumn observance has roots in the religions of pre-Christian Europe. The autumn solstice was observed as the festival of Samhain. On this day, the Lord of Death gathered the souls of the dead, many of whom wandered the earth. Bonfires ruled the night and fortunes were told for the coming year. As areas were converted to Christianity, the church co-opted the pagan festivals it couldn’t stamp out. Nov. 1 became All Hallows or All Saints Day. The night before became All Hallows Eve.

In each country, the observance took on its own features. In England, Nov. 5 became Guy Fawkes Day, recalling the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 in which a group of Catholics plotted to blow up Parliament. Children in England celebrated the day with the burning of “guy” effigies and begging for candy or pennies. Elsewhere, treats were left out to ward off the wandering souls. Cabbage Night has an origin in Ireland, where ungathered garden produce was considered inedible because the spirits had spit on them.

The earliest settlers of New England observed the fall festival. To them, it combined all of the elements mentioned above as well as the completion of the harvest. But there was also a darker side. To them, the Devil and his evil band were a real part of their lives, something to be greatly feared. Witches were among them, casting spells on those who offended them. A New Hampshire observer wrote in 1832 that in his town, “There were few who do not believe in the apparitions of departed friends, and that witches were omnipresent.” The Salem witch trials of 1692 are the most well- known manifestation of this fear. My 8th great grandfather, George Jacobs, and my wife’s 8th great grandmother, Susannah North Martin, were both tried and executed as witches during that hysteria.

Witches

In the early 19th century, the belief in witchcraft had not died away. There are stories of witches in the local area. William Little’s History of Warren states, “Every town has had its witch or wizard, but if tradition is correct, Warren had more than its share.” Among the tales he relates is one of Nan Tucker, “who once sold some walnuts in old Haverhill, much to the displeasure of a certain elderly lady. That night Tucker and his wife could not sleep; all night long there was rattling of walnuts on the kitchen hearth.” In the morning, walnuts were piled in the form of a pyramid on the hearth-stone, having been returned by the witch.

“But stranger yet, the silk handkerchief that Mrs. T. had used as a night-cap, when she went to take it from her head, fell to the floor cut in a thousand pieces.”

Wells’ History of Newbury relates the story of an old West Newbury farmer “who affirmed that he had seen witches dancing along the crane in the fireplace at midnight and believed that some malady which affected his cattle was caused by a woman in the neighborhood.” Molding an effigy of the woman from tallow and beeswax, he stuck it with thorns and melted it before the fireplace. It was said that at that moment, the elderly woman fell down stairs and broke her arm.

Topsham Sketches includes the story of the witch house of Dame Tucker near Waits River. Having a dislike of a certain man, she put a spell on him as he was driving his team of oxen past her house. “She ran out to the road and snapped her fingers at the oxen and their yoke fell off,” not once, but twice. It was also reported that she would go into a trance, take the form of an animal and “annoy her neighbors.”

Probably the most famous story of a vampire in our area is the tale of Old Doc Benton. He was reported to be the son of early Benton, N.H., settlers. The story, which I first heard at Dartmouth’s Ravine Lodge, relates how Benton, while studying in Germany, traded his soul for the secrets of eternal youth.

Returning to practice medicine in Benton, his strange behaviors soon drove him into seclusion. The story tells of numerous strange happenings involving his attempts to secure the blood of children, adults and animals for his bizarre experiments.While he has not been seen since the 19th century, rumors of him around Mt. Moosilauke persist. It is a story best retold in a darkened room lit only by the flickering light of a fireplace, especially at Halloween time.

Old Haunts

If you live in a house built before 1940, it is likely that former residents died there. That gives rise to the idea that older buildings may be inhabited by the spirits of the deceased. Several years ago the Bradford Historical Society offered an opportunity for local residents to answer the question, “Is Bradford haunted?” Over 50 came to tell and hear story after story of spirits and unexplained phenomenon.

Residents of a 1785 house on South Main Street report hearing a child crying when they tried to sleep in a certain upstairs bedroom. Mysterious nighttime sounds of footsteps in a Main Street home may be those of the long dead housekeeper Mary Tuttle, trying to find her way to her upstairs bedroom. Visitors to a home across the street report ghostly apparitions and mysterious noises.

Joi Winchell of Corinth recently told me that she has experienced unusual occurrences at her 18th-century home. She related that late one night she heard laughter and the sounds of someone jumping on the bed and floor of an unoccupied upstairs bedroom. Twice she heard the sounds of workhorses passing on the road when there were none to be seen.

Jenn and Andy Boyce of Post Mills live in a house built on the site of the Commodore Hotel. The hotel was destroyed in 1910 and the Boyce home was built in 1914. They and their neighbors have heard unexplained old-fashioned music. Apparitions in 1890s apparel have been seen. In a recent interview, Jenn Boyce said that they thought of their home’s ghostly guests as friendly and benevolent.

Not all the occupied structures are old. The family of Crystal Eastman of Bradford lives in a home built in 1995. It also is said to have a family of three ghosts who live in that home. Eastman said the interactions between these two families led her to invite the Vermont Paranormal Investigators to examine her home. She said these ghost chasers found evidence of orbs, anomalies suggesting the presence of spirits. Other places might also be haunted. In Topsham, there is a haunted cellar hole and in Haverhill, there was an afflicted tavern. Both Colby-Sawyer and Dartmouth colleges have buildings reported to be occupied by resident spirits. A number of sources relate the story of Ezra “Wrench” Magoon, a farmer and bootlegger who has haunted the halls of one area hotel since his death in 1917.

Writer of the paranormal Joseph Citro suggests that Hartland “seems to have the highest ghost population in the state” and in his book Ghosts, Ghouls & Unsolved Mysteries describes resident specters ranging from the ghost logger and phantom highwayman to Hartland’s hippy ghosts.

It is said that Fairlee’s Lake Morey is the haunt of the ghosts of Samual Morey and his boat. Florence Kendall wrote a poem about it that appeared in a 1928 edition of The Vermonter magazine. It read in part: “And each year when midnight cometh, of the day he sank his boat. On the waters of Lake Morey ghostly craft is seen to float. On her deck the eerie Captain guides her swift and silent flight.”

Pranks

Whether or not one believes these stories of ghostly happenings, Halloween brings a yearly opportunity to let the imagination run wild. Called Hallow-Een in an 1871 edition of Bradford’s newspaper, The National Opinion, it was described in terms of the spells and charms that might be used on that night to predict a future mate. Searching the available copies of The United Opinion from the 1880s to 1910, I found no references to Halloween observances. That is not to say there were none, as other Vermont and New Hampshire publications report Halloween activities in many communities.

From 1910 forward, local columnists for The United Opinion mention holiday social activities for people of all ages. Schools, community halls and church vestries were the venues for activities ranging from masquerade balls to children’s parties. One such notice describes plans for a celebration to be held in Newbury where “witches, fortune tellers, your future husbands and wives will be in attendance.” A harvest supper and promenade were included.

One prank that occurred at the time, and reported 50 years later, was played against a 220-pound bully. Several youths removed his union suit from the family’s laundry line and strung it up on a power pole in front of the Bradford Academy. To the delight of all, “the November breeze ballooned it like an airport wind sock.” The bully “scowlingly prowled about his usual haunts, grim as a who-dun-it detective, but he found no clue.”

On Nov. 4, 1921, the Newbury columnist wrote: “Quite a commotion on our streets last Monday with ghostly figures in sheets and pillowslips which gave us creepy Ku Klux Klan feelings, which were not dispelled until their young mouths were filled with marshmallows and cookies.” The West Fairlee Center’s school, along with other area schoolhouses, was filled, it was reported, with “jack-o’-lanterns and white-robed spooks.”

There was a fine line between mischievous Halloween pranks and outright vandalism. In the Nov. 6, 1931 edition, the following appeared: “Halloween night gave some of the mischievous of town a chance to perform some pranks, some of which were interesting and others were damage to public property. Would those who participated please right up what they tipped over?”

That this was perhaps a long-standing tradition in Bradford is evident in the 1934 post-Halloween report: “Numerous disappearances of such things as chairs, screen doors, various dump carts and other articles not fastened down, as well as mysterious markings on windows. It was a great night for the youngsters and some of the older residents who the next day had to go about retrieving pieces of property that turned up in the most peculiar places. As those older citizens were on their salvage expeditions they no doubt were thinking of the number of years before when they too had made a lot of work for somebody on that night.”

Growing up in Orford in the ’40s and ’50s, I recall that Oct. 30 was trick or treat night. Weeks of planning went into carving pumpkins and arranging costumes. Notes reading, “Be ready for trick or treat, or else!” were left on neighborhood doorsteps. While some of the older boys were involved with vandalism, most pranks rarely rose above stringing toilet paper, smashing a pumpkin or applying a bit of soap to a window or two. As in most area towns, a Halloween party was held on the 31st. Ours was held in the Town Hall in Orfordville, complete with bobbling for apples, trying to eat donuts hanging from a string and a costume parade.

Excess?

By 1946, some felt that Halloween was getting out of hand. An anonymous letter signed “A Mother” was published in the local paper stating: “Hallowe’en has become a menace to many of the citizens of Bradford. Damage makes our village anything but Bradford the Beautiful.” An accompanying article read: “BAH!!! very inadequately expressed the way we feel about the way Hallowe’en is handled in this community.” It referred to the trick or treaters as practicing “rank bribery.”

A Bradford resident, a teenager at the time, recalls that others dumped a truckload of gravel on the front steps of the Bradford Academy, dropped water on the head of the owner of the Bradford bowling alley and created a potentially dangerous situation by removing the wooden front steps from some folks’ homes.

Despite these concerns, Halloween didn’t go away. Trick or treating for UNICEF was added. Families and businesses spent more on decorations and treats. Parties sponsored by community groups attempted to deter vandalism and in some communities, they did. The Bradford party in 1954 drew more than “400 children, adults and ghosts” for a parade, skits, treats and prizes. More elaborate costumes, often purchased or sewn by talented seamstresses, compared with costumes fabricated by youngsters themselves, made judging the “best costume” contest difficult.

Personally, I love Halloween and the harmless fun that goes with it. As the last vestiges of summer disappear and the days shorten, we decorate our home with our Halloween collection. I grow tiny white pumpkins and paint faces on them to give to friends and family. We always buy more candy than we need for the 75 to 100 trick or treaters who ply our street, many of whom come in from the surrounding rural area for better pickings.

A horror movie on television during Halloween week reminds me that when my heart beats faster and my palms get sweaty it is a sign that I am still among the living. No walking dead at our house, at least not this year. As to the “inexplicable activities” of ghosts, goblins and other horribles that stalk Halloween night, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: “Nobody has any conscience about adding to the improbabilities of a marvelous tale.”

This column is adapted from one published previously in the “Journal Opinion.” Coffin is the autho r of “In Times Past: Essays From the Upper Valley” available locally.