Finding Halloween in the Archives

The month of October, marked by grey rainy days and bright orange and red foliage certainly has me feeling a bit spooky. While Halloween as we know it is generally a twentieth-century phenomenon, New England has a long history of superstitions and ghost stories. We all know the gothic tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Washington Irving but there are some lesser-known American ghost stories hiding in the stacks at the American Antiquarian Society and I made it my personal goal to find them. After browsing the shelves, I found that AAS has a whole collection of material about witchcraft, superstition, and the occult. Here is a glimpse of what I found.

The Haunted Schoolhouse at Newburyport, a pamphlet produced by Loring publishers of Boston in 1873, tells the story of some peculiar happenings at a one room schoolhouse in Newburyport, MA. Students and teachers alike began to notice rapping, strange lights, and bells ringing when no one was around. “At times the whole school-room has been illuminated, while the school has been in session, by a strong, yellow glow, which on dark days has proceeded from the entry and entered through the partition window.”

According to the story, a student and teacher finally meet the ghost responsible, possibly a former student at the school: “The figure was that of a boy of thirteen. The visage was remarkably pale, the eyes were blue, the mouth sad, and the whole effect was that of extreme melancholy. The general picture was that of a child prepared for burial and prepared, moreover, in a poor and makeshift way.”

Were these happenings the handy work of a mischievous young boy? A student was rumored to have taken credit for the hoax some years later but the story leaves the ending to the reader’s imagination so we may never know.

Another good find, Remarkable Apparitions and Ghost Stories or Authentic Histories of Communications (Real or Imaginary) with The Unseen World, a collection of stories compiled by Clarence S. Day in 1848, is not only full of chilling old fashioned ghost stories but also includes some terrifying images. Day introduces the book saying, “If any one doubts that telling ghost-stories is the proper employment for a winter’s night, let him open his window and look out. Can anything be more spectral? There is not a hill or a hollow in sight but has put on a shroud, and stares at him with a still, white face, the phantom of itself. The trees stand like giant skeletons, lifting their bleached arms toward the trooping clouds that hurry across the sky, like witches flocking to their sabbath. What is all that but a ghost-story in dumb-show, told by the earth to the stars?”

A particularly interesting story within the volume, written by Cotton Mather, “An Account of a Young Woman who fell in Love with the Devil”, takes place in Hartford, CT around 1662. The plot includes a young woman visited in her bedroom by the devil, a public witch burning, and of course, the eventual return to daily life.

My exploration of the ghost stories of New England’s past makes me happy to be living in 2012, safely removed from witch burnings and haunted one room school houses. Though a stroll through the dark, climate controlled, and often-eerie stacks of AAS on an autumn afternoon leaves me wondering what I might encounter as I turn the corner.

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