Category Archives: Hallowe’en

Watching a fictional witch become a historical woman

It was a dark and stormy night … in late nineteenth Century Strafford County, New Hampshire, near Dover and the seacoast. The Bartlett family’s fields were soaked too wet for haying the next day. There was time to swap tales with a visitor at the kitchen table. One story went like this.

Well, then; up in Barrington, take the road that leads through Fly Market, then up around by Jerry Kingman’s and Eliphalet Foss’s, over Muchdo hill, past Robert Stacy’s to Hardscrabble, and there on till you take the road that leads over to the Leathers’s, and when you are pretty well on your way, you will pass an old cellar-hole. There was where the old witch lived, and her name was Moll Ellsworth.

She lived alone, except a black cat without a white hair on it. She planted her own garden, and raised enough for her. She went out carding and weaving. Sometimes she laid out the dead and watched all night with them alone.

She would take no money but silver, and she always bit it when she took it, else it would have worked harm to her, as a witch. Even witches have their limits like other people.

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Sator-rotas part 2: appreciating an ancient meme by ear

The previous installment (link) about the sator-rotas square

S A T O R
A R E P O
T E N E T
O P E R A
R O T A S

emphasized how the words of the famous diagram arrange themselves into a meaningful and nearly ordinary Latin sentence. That saying and the square it comes from might be composed together in tandem, step-by-step. Those steps, in turn, might serve as a recipe for composing other tight word squares. This dynamic relationship between form and content would plausibly appeal to literate Latin speakers, especially those interested in word play.

The memory of the sensible “word square recipe” saying has been obscure until now. Part of the reason is that a different and simple way to order the words competes for the analyst’s attention. The competing word orders are the rows or columns read in rank or file order. That is:

sator arepo tenet opera rotas

or:

rotas opera tenet arepo sator

Each of the rank-or-file sequences makes a linear palindrome which is a one-verse poem in its own right with an especially straightforward relationship to the poem’s subject, the tight sator-rotas square form. There are also some subtler correspondences as well. Much of the potential appeal of these verses doesn’t depend on a listener’s literacy, in Latin or otherwise.

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Sator-rotas: understanding an ancient viral meme

This year’s Hallowe’en posting proposes an original plausible interpretation for a famous but superficially nonsensical Latin phrase. The oldest extant examples of the text are about 2000 years old, graffiti from Pompeii, five words of five letters apiece, four of them ordinary Latin words, arranged in a word square:

R O T A S
O P E R A
T E N E T
A R E P O
S A T O R

Sometimes the square is found written in the reverse order (or if you prefer, rotated ninety degrees either left or right – the result is the same regardless):

S A T O R
A R E P O
T E N E T
O P E R A
R O T A S

Through the centuries since Pompeii, versions of the square have been placed in a variety of settings, from chambers hidden within Christian churches, in aged books of magic spells, and as a spirit medium’s chant in Tales from the Crypt on television.

Now, what could something like that mean?

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A small personal brush with the beyond for Hallowe’en

A custom in the United States is to decorate the graves of military veterans with small American flags to observe the Memorial Day holiday in late May. Despite the best efforts of families, neighbors and veterans’ organizations, some graves are overlooked. By late October, many of the flags that were placed back in the spring have been lost, displaced during the summer and early fall by maintenance crews or uprooted by the wind. Some flags end up littering the ground.

If I’m visiting a cemetery and I see a flag on the ground, I try to return it to the grave it came from. If I can’t figure out which grave that was, then I’ll plant it beside any nearby likely grave marker which lacks a flag.

Usually, the placement or replacement of a flag is simple. One time, however, I discovered at my feet an austere government-issue marker, darkened by time, flush with the ground, and partly overgrown with grass. It seemed to have been overlooked that May, and maybe was nearly forgotten altogether. I had a spare American flag, and decided to place it there.

The wooden dowel that served as a miniature “flagpole” slid easily into the ground. When I tried to reposition the flag, however, it wouldn’t come back out. Not to be too imaginative about it, but it was if someone or something was pulling on the other end of the dowel from underground.

That story has a happy ending. I left well enough alone. The grave was welcome to keep the flag. I was only trying to make the installation neater anyway. The flag survived the winter, and the now more easily visible grave got a brand new flag the next spring. Thereafter somebody began to look after the marker. These days, the stone is much more visible and the grass around it is trimmed. Sometimes small bunches of flowers appear. Thank you for your service, Mister Wilmot.

For this Hallowe’en, the Uncertaintist recounts a very recent instance where your ob’d correspondent’s attention was directed to another neglected gravestone, whether by happenstance or by something hidden.

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Was the Barnstable church lady a bootlegger?

2017 story image

There was a loose end left over from last year’s Hallowe’en story (click on its image at left). Records attest that Elizabeth Lewis Blachford (1712-1790) of Barnstable Massachusetts, lived a virtuous life centered on her farm, family and church. However, some writers claim that in 1773 she was fined for selling distilled liquor without a license. Had she really?

It turns out that it isn’t easy after all these years to say one way or the other whether the alter ego of the folktale witch Liza Tower Hill was a convicted petty criminal. But if Mrs. Blachford was fined, then her neighbors – the same neighbors who delighted in telling nasty tales about her – helped her pay.

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The many makeovers of Boston’s best known ghost

Pirate Anne Bonney helping to shape the spirit’s spirit

The tragedy of the Lady in Black who haunts the fortress on George’s Island in Boston harbor is so closely linked with New England’s celebrated popular historian Edward Rowe Snow (1902-1982) that some people think he invented the story himself. Here’s how Snow told it for a Boston television show in 1970 (video link).

The Lady in Black is perhaps New England’s most unusual ghost story. It all began in the Civil War in 1861 when a young Confederate captain, [was] captured and taken to Fort Warren, where he was lodged in the Corridor of Dungeons.

His wife found out, landed at this fort on a rainy night, came up, whistled to him, he answered and a rope was lowered and she was taken into the fort at one of the long musketry embrasures here.

They met. They planned not to escape from the fort, but to capture the fort, turn the guns of the fort against Bos[ton, to change] the entire course of the war. But it was not to be, because they were detected, and in the battle which followed, her husband was mortally wounded.

After his funeral, she was told that she must be executed as a spy. And they gave her a final request, and she asked that she be given a lady’s dress to wear. They gave her the lady’s dress, and wearing it, she was swung out into eternity.

And after that, after she was buried by the side of her husband, seven weeks went by, and then the first ghost-like [ events] came. A group of officers, after a fresh snow storm, were crossing the beautiful parade grounds. They got about halfway across, and the leader, looking down into the snow, noticed tracks of a lady’s slipper, going nowhere.

Cue some ominous music. We can be sure that that version of the story is made up. How?

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