Category Archives: Hallowe’en

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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Another ghost witch, overlooking Montego Bay

Rose Hall before restoration

So far, this year’s Hallowe’en story (link and link) has focused on an eighteenth century New England woman, Elizabeth Blachford, whose neighbors caricatured her as the witchy Liza Tower Hill, a fictional character which survives to this day. Elizabeth’s case raises a follow-up question: Is that rare? Have long-lived supernatural tales constellated around other ordinary people?

Meet Rosa (Kelly) Palmer, 1718-1790, Elizabeth Blachford’s contemporary. Rosa lived in Jamaica. Her alter ego is named Annie Palmer. Annie was a wicked slave mistress, a sadistic sexual glutton who murdered two or three of her husbands. Her fourth fled for his life. Annie was herself murdered, strangled by her righteously vengeful slaves. And then the story got better! Annie ruled her plantation by witchcraft until she was defeated by a local adept in Obeah (Jamaica’s African-derived folk magic, comparable with Haitian Voodoo), but not before Annie had killed his granddaughter with the help of a blood-sucking demon. Now Annie’s ghost haunts a Jamaican tourist destination, soon to be the setting for a major motion picture (maybe, the project’s been in development for years).

Spoiler alert: Rosa’s real life story can’t compete with Annie’s legend.

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The ghost witch of Barnstable, continued

lady and devilThe previous post (link) told how Elizabeth (Lewis) Blachford, 1712-1790, had acquired notoriety among her neighbors in Barnstable, Massachusetts. She kept strong ties with the local church, was an exemplary wife, mother and grandmother, and enjoyed neighborly involvement in the life of her community. Despite that, a delusional accusation, a few marginally mysterious events around town, her own assertiveness and a residence literally off the beaten path  combined to launch a local cottage industry of spinning tall tales about her alter ego, the powerful and vengeful Liza Tower Hill, the Witch of Halfway Pond.

In part because the prime audience for such folk stories included children, the tales survived into the next generation after Elizabeth died. One of those children who heard the fables grew up to be the premier Barnstable genealogist, Amos Otis. Seventy years after Elizabeth’s death, Otis published in the local newspaper some of what he had heard as a boy, with the intention of entertaining a new generation. He also published many facts about the real Mrs. Blachford, whom he believed (mistakenly) to have been a distant relation of his wife.

Otis notes in passing that something he’d said about Elizabeth had soured his relationship with one of her grandsons. The grandchildren stuck up for their beloved grandmother, but they were dying off as Otis was writing in the early 1860’s. By 1900, it was no longer seriously possible that anybody who had actually met Elizabeth was still alive. The stories about Liza Tower Hill had long since detached themselves from anything that really happened. With nobody left to distinguish Elizabeth Blachford from the vivid folk character Liza, the stage was set for a twentieth century woman single-handedly to make church lady Elizabeth over into the devil’s very own femme fatale.

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The ghost witch of Barnstable, Massachusetts

pond view

Mary Dunn Pond

In the charming Cape Cod district of Yarmouth Port, a street actress entertained patrons of a twenty-first century haunted house tour. She played Elizabeth (Lewis) Blachford, 1712-1790, who lived just across the town line in Barnstable. Michael Feist (link) describes the performance:

… satanic Elizabeth Lewis … invited us to watch her stir fish scales into an already merrily boiling pot sporting ear of warthog and eye of newt. “My mother died when I was young,” she explained, to furnish living proof of why she had lived in the woods of those days alone with her father. Now, she cackled, she stays totally alone on Mary Dunn Road, next to Halfway Pond, where strange dancing lights are wont to hover.

Ms. Lewis unwound the yarn of how she had turned herself into a cat for swimming across the ocean. “All witches wear red shoes,” she hissed in near-feline abandon…

However, about 140 years earlier, Cape Cod historian Frederick Freeman wrote of this same woman,

[William Blachford’s] wife was of good order of mind, connected with the best families in town, and 53 years (to the day of her death), a member of the Barnstable church, ” exemplary and pious.” Thirty-five years she was a widow, and, left with a young family and small estate in an obscure portion of the township, contrived by rare industry, uncommon energy, and good management, to bring up her children respectably, she at last going to her grave under the weight of nearly four-score and ten years, 1790, honored and commended by her pastor.

How could a pious church lady and community pillar in real life be remembered in death as a reclusive shape-shifting minion of Satan? Could it be because her ghost seduced a midnight visitor to her former home who’d unwittingly summoned the devil?

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