Friday, October 29, 2010

Jack O' Lantern

Image from the BBC Pumpkin Gallery

Irish legends tell us that the Jack O'Lantern was named after a neer-do-well named Stingy Jack who tricked the devil into paying for his drinks (or trapped him in a tree, or...well, there's quite a few devilish predicaments noted in folklore.)

They're all resolved when Old Scratch promises not to take Stingy Jack's soul. Jack, though, didn't quite cover all his bases. When Jack died, the devil, true to his word, let him pass by and journey toward the Pearly Gates.

St. Peter took one look at the Book, and informed Jack that he was at the wrong doorway. Jack reported to Lucifer, and found out the joke was on him; the Devil still refused to let him into his realm.

Unable to enter heaven or hell, Jack was compelled to walk the shadows of the earth for eternity. When he complained that he couldn't see, Old Nick tossed him a burning ember from Hades, guaranteed to never go out.

Jack scooped out a turnip (his favorite snack; he would steal one whenever he could, and always had one stuffed in his pocket) and to this day, it lights his way.

The Irish began to refer to his ghostly figure as "Jack of the Lantern," and then, simply "Jack O'Lantern."

And the ol' Jack O' Lantern would prove handy for all varieties of spooks, not just Stingy Jack. Irish lore claims that if a demon would encounter something as fiendish looking as itself, it would flee in terror. So the folk from the Emerald Isle would carve a gruesome countenance on a hollowed-out turnip and set it out on All Hallow's Eve to keep the roaming undead away.

The story and the use of a Jack O' Lantern crossed the Atlantic with the Irish Catholics of colonial Maryland, who soon discovered that a pumpkin was a heck of a lot easier to carve than a turnip, and that as an added bonus, the innards made a pretty tasty pie, too.

The tales and use of the Jack-O'-Lantern are at least two thousand years old.

The first were simple faces carved in hollowed turnips used as night lanterns. They were designed to both frighten away evil spirits and to guide and protect the living.

The symbolic protection provided by the Jack O' Lantern would carry over. Night watchmen in the mid-1600s were called Jack O' Lanterns, or the men with the lanterns, guarding the dark medieval cities and hamlets. The eerie connotation carried on, too - a Jack O' Lantern was another name for a will-o'-the-wisp, better known as ghost lights.

So hey, when you're carving out that split-toothed goblin with the triangular eyes, put a little soul and artistry into it - you're the latest link in a tradition that dates back millenniums.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Witch's Grave

image from the William A. Renfrow Online Gallery

Annapolis, Maryland, has its share of haunted history. In Truxton Park, near the head of Spa Creek past the ballfields, there's a gnarled tree leaning over the bank; the immediate area is known as the Witch's Grave.

One version of the local story claims that three witches were executed - two were hung, one burned - and buried there in the 1800’s. It's said that their ghosts haunt the local woods and can be seen from the road.

The second and more publicized bit of lore says that the victims of a vengeful witch spook the place. The crone was reportedly hung and buried here, but rose from the dead and escaped her grave, never to be seen again.

That wasn't good news for her executioners; she got her payback, and it's been told that you can see their apparitions hanging from the same tree that claimed her.

Some say the legend holds true during any dark evening; others say it only holds sway on Halloween. Oh, and if you stay and gawk too long, according to the lore, you could end up being one of those swinging bodies.

The Witch's Grave is the stuff of urban legend; no local documentation or history to support a local witch hunt or trial can be found. Still, the story started somehow and is passed on to this day...and Halloween is fast approaching if you have the itch to find that tree.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Rehmeyer's Hollow

Nelson Rehmeyer image from Dagger Press

Also known as Hex Hollow, this site in Shrewsbury, York County is home to the infamous 1928 Pow Wow (Pennsylvania Dutch witch doctor) murder of Nelson Rehmeyer.

The short story is that Rehmeyer was a self proclaimed Pennsylvania Dutch witch doctor. Neighbor John Blymire, another pow-wow doctor experiencing a streak of bad luck, was told that he had come under the hex of Rehmeyer by Nellie Noll, known as the River Witch of Marietta.

Blymire decided to break into Rehmeyer's home in search of a book of spells; burning the book or burying a lock of Rehmeyer's hair would remove the hex, according to Noll.

He went to Rehmeyer's home with two companions, and Blymire found Rehmeyer, demanding his hex book. A fight ensued, and the trio killed Rehmeyer, effectively ending one curse and starting another, compliments of the Pennsylvania court system. He got life for his crime. The Hex Murder was the trail of the era, and probably as close to a witchcraft trial as the state had in over three hundred years.

Rehmeyer's home, known as the Hex House, just became a museum in what's now called Spring Hollow Park. It's said that if you are in the area, you may see the faces of people that have died in Hex Hollow floating about. Cars in the area stall out for no reason.

It's also said that you can't get back to the main road from the same road you came in on, because they morph into a maze when you're by the Hex House. Cell phones often go on the blink in the area, so don't look for your GPS to bail you out.

One reader from the area wrote to debunk the tales. "I'm a local and most of the things said aren't true. However, do be careful. It can get a little strange, especially near the pond where it is said they threw bodies into as if it were a grave site."

The book Hex by Arthur Lewis was written about the murder. Brian Keene wrote two novels loosely based on Rehmeyer's Hollow and the region's powwow magic: Dark Hollow and Ghost Walk.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Witch of Highland

Highland Cemetery image from Buscatube

Located in Marion County, the small community of Mannington is rich in history. But its best known bit of lore doesn't involve Indian battles, the Civil War, or the oil and gas boom: Mannington is the home of one of the state's most enduring urban legends, The Witch's Grave at Highland Cemetery.

Highland Cemetery and its chapel sit off a rural dirt road, high on a hilltop. Abandoned for years (although it's now being used again for services), the chapel was supposedly once the meeting place for satanists.

The chapel reportedly doesn't have a cross in it; in fact, its decor is said to feature ancient Greek woman in a kind of Bacchanal theme. On Halloween, its attendance board is rumored to equal the number of people in the chapel, and is updated with each new or departing visitor by an unseen census taker.

(Don't just bust in to find out, please; the once abandoned church is now used for services again, and the remote graveyard has been vandalized too many times.)

But the main claim to paranormal fame for Highland Cemetery is that the graveyard is reputed to be the final resting spot of West Virginia's most famous witch.

She goes by many first names in lore: Zelda, Sarah Jane, or Serlinda Jane Whetzel. Her tombstone reads "Serilda Jane Whetzel, date of death: May 29th, 1909"; we assume that answers that question.

Whetzel shares the graveyard with an alleged warlock, Tusca Roy Morris ("Born November 11, 1874 Died December 30, 1900.") Both graves face west, toward the setting sun; the cemetery's other markers face east. Both tombstones are in a corner of the graveyard, under a dogwood tree.

As ominously spooky as the headstones' placement may seem, the reason probably lies in Highland Cemetery vandals, who have knocked down the markers several times and replaced them backwards. It's said that whenever the workers set the stones straight, the midnight partiers quickly return and reverse them again.

But the desecration of the stones can't explain away the carvings etched on them so easily. Whetzel's obelisk shows a staircase descending down into the fiery mouth of a demonic dragon.

A staircase ascending into heaven is a common enough depiction on a monument. The question is whether Whetzel's artwork shows a fall into Lucifer's underworld or is a century-old etching that time has eroded just enough to blur and contort the original image.

Tusca's stone shows a face with horns. Again, whether that's just a result of the ravages of time or something more sinister isn't known.

Of course, there's always the inconvenient fact that they were buried in Christian plots; apparently the good reverend back in the day didn't think the pair were Satan's spawns at the time of their deaths if he allowed them to be interred on church grounds.

At any rate, the local tale is that if you visit Highland Cemetery late at night, you'll see glowing in the woods and hear strange noises. The witch and her warlock companion have been reportedly spotted in the vicinity of their graves, quickly disappearing when approached. And on Halloween, a trip to the chapel will include your gang in a netherworld census headcount.

Urban legend or something more...?

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Legend Of Tuggy

Harriton cemetary
Harriton Family Cemetery from the Lower Merion Historical Society

The Harriton House, in Bryn Mawr, Montgomery County, dates back to 1682 when it was a 700 acre land grant given by William Penn to Rowland Ellis. The first home was built by Ellis in 1704 and was called Bryn Mawr, meaning "high hill" (the town is named after the house). It was sold to Richard Harrison in 1719.

Although a Quaker, Harrison was a tobacco farmer from Maryland. He grew tobacco at Harriton too, and employed slave labor to farm the crop. It's thought, in fact, that Harriton (Harrison had married Philadelphian Hannah Norris in 1717; some of the vast Norris family holdings were known as Norriton, thus their land became known as Harriton) was the northernmost slave plantation in America.

One of his slaves was named Tuggy, who knew some voodoo. She and some other Harriton slaves despised life in Pennsylvania and badly wanted to return to their Maryland families.

Tuggy tried to kill her hated owner, first by poisoning his morning cup of chocolate. But a timely knock at the door saved him from drinking the concoction and foiled the plot, so she came up with a Plan B.

She went to the graveyard with a wooden stake. Some think Tuggy was planning to use necromancy by raising a body from the dead to do her bidding, while others believe she was trying to cast a death spell on Harrison. Whichever, it worked - but on the wrong victim.

A bloodcurdling scream was heard from the graveyard that night. Being superstitious, no one dared venture into the boneyard until morning. There they found Tuggy's body, staked to a grave plot.

The legend says that she accidentally drove the stake through the hem of her dress, and Tuggy thought that a dead man's hand was pulling her down into the grave to join him. She died of fright.

(The house is a Historic Landmark and is now the centerpiece of a 16-1/2 acre park)