Monday, October 23, 2017

"With a Pounce Like Great Guns" - The Earthquake of 1727

New Englanders were a superstitious lot in the 17th and 18th Centuries. One natural event that occasionally terrified Yankees were earthquakes. Most, if not all, colonists understood earthquakes were a natural occurrence, but saw them as part of a divine intervention by God. According to one 17th century account, "it pleased God suddenly to raise a vehement earthquake coming with a shrill clap of thunder, issuing as is supposed out of the east, which shook the earth and the foundations of the house in a very violent manner to our great amazement and wonder, wherefore taking notice of so great and strange a hand of God's providence, we were desirous of leaving it on record to the view of after ages to the intent that all might take notice of Almighty God and fare his name." 

Of course, what colonists did not know at the time was Massachusetts sat on its own fault line. Worse, the geographic "hot spot" for this fault line was located between Cape Ann and Newburyport.

In the evening hours of October 29, 1727 (Julian Calendar), an earthquake struck Massachusetts. Scientists disagree as to the exact epicenter, but most have narrowed it down to three possible locations: Amesbury, Newbury or off the coast of Hampton, New Hampshire. It is believed that when the earthquake struck, it measured between 5.3 and 6.0 on the modern Richter Scale.

One Newbury resident wrote that the earthquake began "with a pounce like great guns." According to Cotton Mather "The night that followed the 29th of October, was a night whereto New England had never, in the memory of man, seen the like. The air never more calm, the sky never more fair; everything in all imaginable tranquility; but about a quarter of an hour before 11, there was heard in Boston, passing from one end of the town to the other, a horrid rumbling like the noise of many coaches together driving on the paved stones with the utmost rapidity. But it was attended with a most awful trembling of the earth, which did heave and shake so as to rocque the houses, and cause here and there, the falling of some smaller things, both within doors and without. It cannot be imagined but that it gave an uncommon concern unto all the inhabitants, and even a degree of consternation unto very many of them. The first shock, which was the most violent, was followed with several others, and some repetition of the noise, at sundry times, pretty distinct from one another. The number of them is not entirely agreed; but at least four or five are allowed for; the last of which was between five and six of the clock in the morning. It extended for scores of miles, west and south. . . . What added unto the terrors of it, were the terrible flames of light in the atmosphere, which accompanied it. . . .The vessels on the coast were also made sensible of it by shivering that seized on them."

An article from the November 3, 1727 edition of Boston’s Weekly News-Letter, described the shocking event in great detail. "The night after the last Lord's Day about 40 minutes after 10, in a calm & serene hour, the town was ... [suddenly] extremely surprised with the most violent shock of an earthquake that has been known among us. It came with a loud noise like thunder. The earth reel'd & trembled to a great degree. The houses rock'd & crackl'd as if they were tumbling into ruins. Many of they inhabitants were wakened out of their sleep, with the utmost astonishment: and others affrighted run into the streets for safety. Thro' the Goodness of GOD, the shock continued but about 2 or 3 minutes: and tho' some damage was done in the houses; yet none of the people received any bodily injury. For several times in the morning, there were heard some distant rumblings; and some fainter shocks were felt. But since that, the Earth, has been quiet; and tho' the minds of the people are yet greatly and justly affected."

In Newbury, the quake left large fissures in the ground, while the inhabitants described the roaring of the earthquake as similar to a massive firing of cannon. Minister Matthias Plant noted "Many chimneys were thrown down, stone walls fell, springs destroyed and others opened . . . it was a terrible, sudden and amazing earthquake." 

In a sermon given by Hampton’s Reverend Nathaniel Gookin, the minister declared "The shake was very hard, and was attended with a terrible noise, something like thunder. The houses trembled as if they were falling; divers chimneys were cracked and some had their tops broken off. It was especially so in the south parish, where the hardest shake seemed to be on the hill, where the house of God stands. Three houses on that hill had their chimneys broken, one of which was the house of the Reverend Mr. Whipple. When the shake was beginning, some persons observed a flash of light at their windows, and one or two saw streams of light running on the earth; the flame seemed to them to be of a bluish color. These flashes, no doubt, broke out of the earth; otherwise it is probable, they would have been seen more generally, especially by those who were abroad. The sea was observed to roar in an unusual manner. The earth broke open, near the south bounds of the town (as it did in divers places in Newbury) and cast up a very fine bluish sand. At the place of the eruption, there now (above two months after) continually issues out considerable quantities of water; and for about a rod around it, the ground is so soft, that a man can’t tread upon it without throwing brush or some other thing to bear him up. It is indeed in meadow ground, but before the earthquake, it was not so soft but that men might freely walk upon it. A spring of water, which had run freely for fourscore years, and was never known to freeze, was much sunk by the earthquake, and frozen afterwards like any standing water. There were divers other shocks the same night; yea, the sound was heard, and sometimes the shake felt every day for a fortnight after…"

The earthquake was felt as far north as Maritime Canada and as far south as Connecticut. The most severe damage was along the New Hampshire and Massachusetts coastlines.

The 1727 earthquake couldn’t have come at a worse time. New Englanders had experienced an abnormally hot summer coupled with a drought. In September New England was battered by a series of violent Nor’easters. Many concluded the sins of New England had incurred God’s wrath. As the Reverend Gookin reflected "All of us saw a necessity of looking to God for his favor and protection; and I would hope that many did, not only look to God in that time of their distress, but did truly and heartily return to him. Many are now asking the way to Zion with their faces thitherward. They say, Come, and let us join ourselves to the Lord in a perpetual covenant, not to be forgotten."

A few New Englanders rejected the religious underpinnings of a vengeful God and instead put forth various scientific explanations for the quake. Some speculated the September storms had triggered the earthquake. Boston minister Thomas Foxcroft suggested that underground caverns filled with flammable vapors were exploding, thus causing the earthquakes. Thomas Prince, another Boston minister, believed earthquakes were caused by underground vacuums. Of course, Marblehead’s John Barnard was perhaps the closest when he theorized that the surface of the earth was shifting in response to subterranean shocks.

Monday, October 16, 2017

"The Savage in Man is Never Quite Eradicated" - The New England Vampire Panic

In the late 18th century, a bizarre panic set in throughout rural New England and continued almost until 1900.  Known today as the “New England Vampire Panic”, the century long fear appears to be in response to outbreaks of “consumption”, known today as tuberculosis.  The first known reference to an American vampire scare appeared in the June 1784 edition of the  Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer. Moses Holmes warned people to beware of “a certain Quack Doctor, a foreigner” who had urged families to dig up and burn dead relatives to stop consumption. Holmes had witnessed several children disinterred at the doctor’s request and wanted no more of it: “And that the bodies of the dead may rest quiet in their graves without such interruption, I think the public ought to be aware of being led away by such an imposture.”

Tuberculosis is a bacterial disease that primarily attacked the lungs.   The infection spreads easily via a sneezing, coughing, speaking, or spitting.  As a result, the infection could easily pass among a family living in close quarters.  When one family member died of consumption, other members were often infected and gradually lost their health.

In the 19th century, the causes of consumption were unknown.  However, many New England residents believed that this was due to the deceased sufferer draining the life from other family members. Fearing that their dead family members may come back to life, many bodies were exhumed to see if any showed signs of being a vampire. The corpse was deemed to be feeding on the living if it was determined to be unusually fresh, especially if the heart or other organs contained liquid blood.

After the culprit was identified, there were a number of proposed ways to stop the attacks. The most benign of these was simply to turn the body over in its grave. In other cases, families would burn the "fresh" organs and rebury the body. Occasionally, the body would be decapitated. Affected family members would also inhale smoke from the burned organs or consume the ashes in a further attempt to cure the consumption and internal organs ritually burned to stop the "vampire" from attacking the local population and to prevent the spread of the disease.  In some areas of New England, participants would burn the heart of the deceased.  

The odd rituals were not simply a family affair.  Often whole towns would participate.  An account of a vampire ritual in Manchester, Connecticut noted hundreds of people appeared for such an event.  “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton . . . It was the month of February and good sleighing.”

Many 19th Century New Englanders, including those in Newburyport, were justifiably skeptical of the practice.  One newpaper noted the practice was an "old superstition" and a "curious idea".  Another opined “we seem to have been transported back to the darkest age of unreasoning ignorance and blind superstition, instead of living in the 19th century, and in a State calling itself enlightened and christian” In 1859, Henry David Thoreau grimly noted “The savage in man is never quite eradicated. I have just read of a family in Vermont--who, several of its members having died of consumption, just burned the lungs & heart & liver of the last deceased, in order to prevent any more from having it.”   

What caused this multi generational fear?  The Boston Daily Globe suggested “perhaps the frequent intermarriage of families in these back country districts may partially account for some of their characteristics.”  European newspapers suggested the phenomenon was the result of copycat killings inspired by “modern novels”.  Somewhat humorously, a reporter for the London Post declared that whatever forces drove the “Yankee vampire,” it was an American problem and most certainly not the product of a British folk tradition.  

Historians suggest the concept of “vampires” was likely introduced by German immigrants or Hessian soldiers during the American Revolution.  Desperate for a way to explain and combat the deadly disease, many New Englanders simply adopted the erroneous belief that the undead were the root cause of their misery.

The last recorded vampire ritual was near the end of the 19tth Century.  By then, the unusual panic caught the attention of Bram Stoker and H.P. Lovecraft and possibly influenced some of their literary works.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"Whipped Not Exceeding Ten Stripes" - Attempts to Curb the Violence of Boston's Pope's Night

Each year in 18th Century New England, November 5th was celebrated as Guy Fawkes' Day.  The holiday marked the 1605 disruption of the “Gunpowder Plot”.  

During colonial times, the annual commemoration became known as “Pope's Night” and quickly evolved into an anti-Catholic celebration. Effigies of the Devil, Pope, and government officials were often fought over by rival mobs and eventually burned in a huge bonfire.  

By the mid-18th century, violence had become an established part of the Pope Night tradition in Boston. Residents attacked each other with clubs and brickbats, often resulting in serious injuries and even death. Isaiah Thomas recalled that "altho' persons were seldom killed, yet broken heads were not infrequent".

Another resident complained in a letter to the Boston Evening Post “The rudest and lowest Sailors out of Boston ... fall upon one another with Clubs and Cutlasses, in a Rage and Fury which only Hell could inspire ... what Madness must seize the two Mobs, united Brethren, even as they would appear against Popery, to fall upon each other, break each other's Bones, or dash one another's Brains out!”

Naturally, Boston's elites were appalled by the rowdy festivities of Pope’s Night and described the revelers as "rude and intoxicated Rabble, the very Dregs of the People, black and white".  Many residents urged authorities to crack down on the lawless behavior.  In response, in 1748, Boston justices of the peace announced that "whereas sundry persons have heretofore gone about the streets ... armed wh. clubs & demanding money of ye inhabitants and breaking ye windows of ye who refuse it", constables would be dispatched to keep the peace. In 1753 the Massachusetts General Court resolved that "all riotous, tumultuous and disorderly Assemblies" were prohibited from  "carrying pageants and other shews through the streets and lanes of the town of Boston and other towns of this province, abusing and insulting the inhabitants".  Following an accident on Pope Night in 1764 which resulted in the death of a local boy, the "Sheriff, Justices, and Officers of the Militia" were ordered to clamp down on Pope’s Night activities.  

Of course, authorities also attempted to discourage extortion of residents by Boston youths. In the days leading up to Pope’s Night, young boys from the North End and South End of Boston would often go door to door ringing bells and begging for money to support their faction's activities.  If unsuccessful, the boys would often resort to threats of violence to secure payment.  In response, the Massachusetts General Court 1769 Riot Act imposed penalties for shaking down wealthy residents:  “Be it enacted, That if any Persons being more than three in Number, and being armed all or either of them with Sticks, Clubs, or any kind of Weapons, or disguised with Vizards (so-called) or painted or discolored Faces, or being in any other Manner disguised shall assemble together having Imagery or Pageantry for a public Shew, Shall by Menaces of otherwise exact, require, demand, or ask, any Money or other Thing of Value from any of the Inhabitants or other Person in the Streets, Lanes, of any Town within this Province ... shall for each Offense forfeit and pay the Sum of Forty Shillings, or suffer imprisonment not exceeding one month; or if the Offender shall be a Negro Servant, he may be whipped not exceeding Ten Stripes.”

Unfortunately, law enforcement officials were so overwhelmed during Pope’s Night celebrations that they were simply rendered ineffective and irrelevant.  However, in rare instances, offenders were apprehended and prosecuted.   In 1752, a sailor named John Crabb was clubbed to death on Pope’s Night by Thomas Chubb and a slave named Abraham. Chubb was arrested, tried and convicted.  Afterwards, he was branded on the hand and sentenced to a year in prison for his part in the killing. It is unknown what happened to Abraham.

Even General Washington attempted to discourage the destructive behavior of Pope’s Night.  During the Siege of Boston the commander ordered “As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form'd for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain'd, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.”

Ironically, it was time itself that led to the decline in celebrations.  The last Pope’s Night in Boston was in 1776.  Newburyport ceased celebrating the event after 1778.  Salem continued its celebrations until 1817.  Portsmouth appears to be the lone holdout...continuing its Pope’s Night celebrations well into the 1890s.