From witches in Salem to the notorious accused ax-murderer Lizzie Borden, tales of the uncanny, sinister, and strange abound in New England.
With so many spooky tales to choose from on All Hallows’ Eve, we turned to a local expert for the stories that will delight and frighten by the light of the jack-o’-lanterns.
Christopher Rondina, a Rhode Island resident and author of Vampires of New England and Ghosts of New England, shared the following four chilling tales to make your spine tingle as you munch on your Halloween candy.
The Lady in Black
New England historian Edward Rowe Snow called this tale the region’s “most unusual ghost story.”
The story begins during the Civil War, around 1861, when a young Confederate soldier was captured and imprisoned at Fort Warren on George’s Island in Boston. When no one would help the man’s young wife get in touch with her husband, she decided to rescue him herself.
“Her name has been bandied around a lot, but most people say her name was Melanie Lanier,” he said.
The legend is that she took the train up to Massachusetts, where she is said to have stayed overnight in Hull with the island fort visible from the shore. The next day she is said to have dressed herself in men’s clothing, caught a boat across to the harbor island, and found her way into the fort.
“Although she was apparently able to free her husband from the cell during the escape attempt, they were caught,” Rondina said. “She attempted to shoot a soldier who was trying to intercept them and instead the gun misfired and she killed her own husband.”
As Snow tells it, the soldier and his wife had planned to take over the fort, rather than escape. And when they were discovered, in the ensuing fight, her husband was fatally wounded.
It was discovered she was a woman, and she was told she would be executed as a spy.
According to Snow, as her last request, she asked that she be given a lady’s dress to wear. She was executed by hanging, and, seven weeks later, soldiers saw in the freshly fallen snow the imprint of “a lady’s slipper” across the grounds. The imprint led to nowhere.
In another version of the tale, Rondina said, when the soldiers discovered she was a woman, they didn’t have any clothing for a lady so they dressed her in a black cloak before she was executed.
The legend, he said, is that her ghost — complete with a great, black cloak — returns at all hours to haunt the fort, particularly anyone wearing a soldier’s uniform.
“They say specifically that her ghost still haunts the fortress and that unlike most ghost stories that she is said to be a very violent ghost,” Rondina said. “They say that when she’s been spotted that she actually lashes out, that people experience scratches and cuts and being pushed, that she’s both an angry and violent ghost.”
Snow’s version of the tale is the one park rangers at the fort share informally with interested visitors.
“A very important part of our interpretation of this story is informing the visitors of its falsehood,” ranger Kim Weglarz said in a statement. “Despite this, we have many visitors eager to hear it.”
A witch, a curse, and a stained monument
If you were to drive down Main Street in Bucksport, Maine, you’d come upon a stone obelisk with the name “Buck” engraved upon it. The monument was built for the town’s founder, Col. Jonathan Buck, who is buried nearby.
On the stone is a stain in the shape of a woman’s foot and leg: the result, according to some, of a witch’s curse.
Rondina said the legend is that the town’s founder, who died in 1795, was “obsessed with witches” and accused a woman in town of practicing witchcraft. He sentenced her to hang, ignoring her pleas for mercy. He made a spectacle of her and had her executed in the town square.
But just before she was killed, Rondina said, she laughed and said she would make him regret his words and that she would someday dance on his grave.
According to the town, Buck’s grandchildren erected the obelisk in 1852. As it weathered, the image of the leg appeared under the family name.
“People say it’s the woman’s curse come true,” Rondina said.
According to the town, the first record of the legend appeared in the Haverhill Gazette in 1899. In that article, according to the Town of Bucksport, the accused witch’s last words were as follows:
‘Jonathan Buck, listen to these words, the last my tongue will utter. It is the spirit of the only true and living God which bids me speak them to you. You will soon die. Over your grave they will erect a stone that all may know where your bones are crumbling into dust. But listen, upon that stone the imprint of my feet will appear, and for all time, long after you and you accursed race have perished from the earth, will the people from far and wide know that you murdered a woman. Remember well, Jonathan Buck, remember well.’
The consensus, the town said, is that the story was concocted after the stain appeared on the monument.
“Attempts have been made to remove the image, but it has always returned,” the town says in a document on the legend. “Over the years, people knowledgeable about monuments have explained that the image is the result of a natural flaw in the stone, perhaps a vein of iron which darkens through contact with oxygen.”
Mercy Brown and a vampire panic
New England was home to more than just a frenzy over witchcraft.
There was also a panic over vampires, fueled by outbreaks of tuberculosis, then called consumption.
In the late 1700s and 1800s, consumption was considered a spiritual disease, Rondina said.
“It was thought that some kind of a force was actually preying on you and sucking out your lifeforce,” he said. “And it became common practice throughout New England for almost 100 years for families who were experiencing these consumptive deaths to go to graveyards and actually exhume their deceased relatives, looking for corpses that were unnaturally fresh, or at least presumed to be unnaturally fresh.”
If they found a corpse that wasn’t as decomposed as they thought it should be, they’d assume the spirit of that person was rising from the grave each night — a vampire — drawing life from its living family members, he said.
According to Smithsonian, in Maine and Plymouth, Massachusetts, the issue was resolved largely by family members and neighbors turning the “vampire” facedown in the grave:
In Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont, though, they frequently burned the dead person’s heart, sometimes inhaling the smoke as a cure. (In Europe, too, exhumation protocol varied with region: Some beheaded suspected vampire corpses, while others bound their feet with thorns.)
Often these rituals were clandestine, lantern-lit affairs. But, particularly in Vermont, they could be quite public, even festive.
One particular story of a New England vampire is said to have reached an aspiring novelist named Bram Stoker.
In 1892, a young woman named Mercy Lena Brown fell ill and died in the farming community of Exeter, Rhode Island, from tuberculosis. Her mother and older sister had succumbed to the disease nearly a decade before, and her older brother, Edwin, had fallen ill too and moved away to Colorado Springs with the hope that the climate would improve his health. He returned to his hometown, dying, when Mercy was on her own deathbed.
After she died, according to Smithsonian, neighbors approached her father, George, to suggest that the tragic deaths in the family were due to an “unseen diabolical force” preying on the family. They advised that the bodies of Mercy, her mother, and her sister be exhumed in order to see if one of the dead women was surviving “on the living tissue and blood of Edwin.”
“Although the mother and the sister, who had both been dead for quite some time, were completely decomposed, Mercy’s body was alleged to have been very fresh when it was removed from the crypt,” Rondina said. “So the townsfolk concluded that she was absolutely a vampire and they had her heart cut out and burned.”
The ashes were fed to Edwin to try and cure him, but he died a few months later.
According to Smithsonian and Rondina, the story of the exhumation was reported on widely in the newspapers.
“It was quite a scandal and it really rocked the community, that people were really exhuming bodies and cutting up corpses under the belief that they were vampires in the dawn of the 20th century,” Rondina said.
According to Smithsonian, a 1896 clipping from the New York World about Mercy was among the papers of Stoker, whose novel Dracula was published in 1897.
The curse of Micah Rood
The New York Times reported on an unusual kind of apple in 1888. The “cherry-red” apples had a “snowy interior” with a “large red globule near the heart of the fruit resembling a drop of blood.”
“This peculiarity has been the subject of investigation, but no theory accounts for it as plausibly as the tradition of ‘Micah Rood’s curse,’” the Times reported.
Rondina said the story of Micah Rood and his apples takes place in the early 1700s, in the area of Franklin and Windham, Connecticut.
“He’s said to have had these amazing apples and was fiercely protective of his orchards and his strain of apples,” Rondina said.
The legend, according to the Times, is that one day a peddler carrying valuable jewelry was found murdered, his pack rifled through, under an apple tree on Rood’s farm. Even though the farmer denied knowledge of the crime, the Times said “suspicion attached itself to him” and he “became morose and moody and never prospered afterward.”
The next fall, apples from the tree where the murdered man was found were filled with the “bloody heart.”
“They said it was a silent judgement upon him and that the dying peddler’s curse upon the head of his destroyer had come home to roost upon Rood’s apple tree,” the Times wrote.
In the Times’ telling, Rood dies soon after the appearance of the apples. But Rondina presented a version with an alternative ending.
After the rumor began circulating that the farmer had murdered the peddler, Rood withdrew from society. When he hadn’t been seen for some time, Rondina said, the townspeople went to look for him.
“When they went to find him,” he said, “they found that he had hung himself in one of the trees in his orchard.”
After his death, Rondina said, the red appeared in the cores of his apples.
But there is still yet another telling. The Daily Constitution of Middletown, Connecticut, printed “The legend of Micah Rood” in 1876. In that version, Rood has killed the peddler, a German, out of revenge. His father had been killed by a Frenchman, and he mistakes the foreigner as being from France.
When a flyer arrives in town announcing that the peddler’s friends in Philadelphia are offering a reward for information about their missing German friend, Rood realizes his mistake. In order to get the reward money for his mother, he writes a confession sharing that the body of the peddler can be found under an apple tree on his property. He then hangs himself in the orchard.
According to Apples of Uncommon Character, despite the legend of the murderous origins of the fruit, farmers in Franklin “eagerly grafted” from the original Rood tree to grow their own crimson-cored apples, promoting the legend of the Rood curse. The apples themselves disappeared sometime after 1888.