Boston By Night

15 Oct

Boston is an old city, one of the oldest colonial settlements in the Americas, and it has long been fertile ground for superstition, myth and folklore. The woods of New England and upstate New York have a certain reputation for having been haunted by devil-worshippers, witches or creatures of the night during the time of the pilgrims and the later colonies (the Headless Horseman, for instance). But the strands of fate binding the region aren’t all bad. The city did spawn the Boston Tea Party, which helped to create a new nation dedicated to freedom and liberty. The city also saw the Salem Witch Trials. It’s the city where Ben Franklin grew up, and the place where the infamous Strangler stalked. In other words, it’s a place of potency. New things are created daily at MIT, while Harvard graduates figure out how best to steer the course of society. Boston is a city of secrets, layered with history. Buried under the weight of the past, secrets from Boston’s pre-colonial and colonial history promise profits and threats to visitors. The Massachusetts woods creep over forgotten ruins and strange colonies. Boston proper is a layered city, where the sediment of past cultures pack into a bedrock that isn’t easily dislodged by the passing fads of the 21st century. Europeans came here with agendas that were variously devout, venal, hopeful and strange. Once Boston was a revolutionary city, full of ideas and promise. Its possibilities have been fading, lost in a mire of apathy and the frantic pace of too-rapid change. What legacies continue to reach forward, out of history, to continue to affect the present? These legacies not only give Boston’s past an identity but also serve, through means both mystic and mundane, to define its future. Along lonely roads, in deep woods and on the grounds of isolated and ancient houses, strange things lurk. Boston and its surroundings have long known the tread of those who walk in other realms – centuries-long hauntings, spirits both benign and malevolent and creatures unknown to either science or superstition, just to name a few. Let’s take a look at the city of Boston and its environs with all its old, witchy New England atmosphere .

New England is, and has been, home to many writers and is the setting or subject of many a written work. There are tales of such curiosities as an inexplicably slowly spreading desert along the coast of Maine, John Childs’ alleged flight from the steeple of Boston’s Old North Church in 1757 and Dudleytown, long swallowed by Connecticut’s woods and (if the many stories are to be believed) a place of madness, haunted by demons and the ghosts of the damned. Perhaps most famous for his books The Scarlett Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne was a prolific writer of tales, both long and short, as well as a contrite descendant of John Hathorne (a judge during the infamous Salem Witch Hysteria of 1692). Perhaps most interesting (for fans of supernatural fiction at any rate) are Hawthorne’s stories that detail mysteries leading scientists to the so-called Elixir of Life. Architect of a universe without symmetry or sanity, H P Lovecraft challenged the preconceptions of his readers through his Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, a collection of stories in which mankind is alone and helpless in a reality as cruel and mysterious as it is vast. Lovecraft wrote a lot more than just fiction about malevolent entities from beyond the stars, however, and a brief glance into his other works grants a measure of insight into the mind of a brilliant and perhaps mildly disturbed would-be recluse, who was quintessentially New Englander in his character. Heavily inspired by Lovecraft (among others), Stephen King is likewise a writer committed to the overarching strangeness of his native land. Although a few of his works have strayed beyond New England’s border, many are set in locations, both real and fictitious (but still quintessentially New England), among those states, most especially in his home state of Maine.

Then there is the dark tale of the Bleached Schooner. Long-term residents of Boston know the legend: if you stand before the lighthouse on Little Brewster Island and recite an original poem (as a teenage Ben Franklin did) in honour of long-drowned lighthouse keeper George Worthlake, the Bleached Schooner will enter your dreams on the following midnight. The vessel is distinctive. Its timbers are unvarnished and rough, all white sun-baked driftwood, and its sails are tattered gossamer. It flies a grey, washed-out Union Jack and its figurehead wears a blindfold. The ship has a crew of 14: one for each Virtue and Vice. These entities take the forms of the drowned, those lost at sea or executed pirates from New England history. Mysterious conjecture holds that the crew represent the potential paths of a man’s soul and that the captain is the elusive final enlightenment itself. Others believe in a more prosaic answer: Boston’s history as a port of call and a wellspring of revolution has imprinted itself on the collective unconscious, and the ship is the combined hopes and fears of travellers over the centuries. Copp’s Hill Burial Ground is a small cemetery, but in its time across from Bunker Hill, the cemetery has had almost 350 years to collect a prodigious number of corpses, ghosts and strange ambience. So many bodies have been buried here that the overcrowded cemetery has long since lost track of who most of the dead are. Many of them were unearthed and reburied elsewhere to make room. Other dead had no markers of their own, like the thousands of African American workers buried there. Many famous tombs remain, the best-known of which is that of the Mather family: spiritualist and Salem Witch Trial judge Cotton Mather is buried here with his father and son. It’s rumoured that, desperate for room, the gravediggers crushed the corpses of the poor to a broken pulp that would allow mass internments to take up less space. Between the tomb of the witch hunter, the cemetery’s natural significance and the resonance left by the American Revolution, Copp’s Hill Burial Ground has become a formidable place of supernatural power, but all of these influences have poured into a centre of death and desecration.

Yet the most dangerous and most enlightening parts of hidden Massachusetts may be the places that everyone has forgotten. Boston sits in one of the oldest parts of America, but its history is only a fraction of the story of a land and its people. As culture sweeps away tradition and new powers replace the old, forgotten peoples and events build up. They become a shadow story for the whole region. It has a spirit of its own – and around Boston, that spirit has had centuries to grown and resent the fact that it has never been truly told. This collective, secret power manifests as the Wood of Empty Houses, a twilight lattice of forgotten people and tales that crosses the entire Commonwealth and beyond. The Wood is barely known, except for its guardian, Black-Eyed John. Local folktales say that John is the spirit of a Redcoat killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. They say he was a witch who sold his soul to the Devil to rise from a pyre, but Satan demanded a thousand brave souls before he’d give John back his fair looks. This is why John still thirsts for the souls of patriots. When he is fair and whole again, he’ll take a bride to a secret mansion in the woods. Together, they’ll hide from the Devil in that grand, secret house. A few superstitious farmers won’t plant or even walk anywhere that John’s ghost was supposed to have ridden, but the legend is fading, and each year fewer and fewer live to tell the tale. For good or ill, the Wood of Empty Houses captures spirits that have been displaced by history through accidental tragedy and political machinations. Intentional or not, the Wood was born from injustice and it is perhaps fitting therefore that it lies here, at the heart of the city of secrets: Boston by night.

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