Sunday, September 30, 2018

Robert Johnson at the Crossroads

I don't know how I have managed to keep this blog as long as I have and not brought up one of the great American spooky stories, but I have, so it is long since time that I brought this up.

The story goes that one night, some time between the late 1920s and the mid-1930s, shortly before midnight, at a crossroads near Dockery Plantation in Mississippi, a good harmonica player but lousy guitar player named Robert Johnson begasn a ritual to summon the Devil. Johnson pulled out his guitar and began to play, quite poorly. Shortly after the stroke of midnight, a large man, his skin and clothing as black as coal, approached, took the guitar from Johnson, tuned it, played a short tune, and handed it back to Johnson.

Johnson got the guitar into position, played, and was shocked to discover that he was now amazing. He looked up towards the coal-black man, only to find that he had vanished. Johnson walked back through the dead of night, and would soon discover that he was now a brilliant guitarist not just on the instrument that he had brought to the crossroads, but on every guitar that he picked up.

Johnson's newfound skill began to bring him success. He had became a popular guitarist and singer at the juke joints of the American south, and also found himself popular with the ladies.

But he knew that there was a cost, and that the Devil would quite literally collect his due. Johnson knew that in exchange for his talent, he had pledged his soul to the Devil, and that he would burn for eternity after his death.

As he shot to local fame, Robert Johnson wrote and performed songs with the usual blues subject matter of hard women and harder working conditions, difficult lives, and the need for relief. But he also wrote and performed other songs. Songs about bad dealings at crossroads. Songs about being pursued by demonic hounds. And songs about the Devil pursuing him. Some hold that he was writing songs based on the folklore of the region, but others claim that he was trying to tell people about what he had done.

One day, in August 1938, Johnson began behaving strangely, and people reported seeing him walking on all fours and howling like a dog. He had been working as a musician at a dance hall in Greenwood Mississippi at the time, and despite his odd behavior, he showed up for work that night and performed as normal. Later on, he fell ill, and suffered from painful convulsions that lasted for three days. Finally, he died. Some say he was poisoned by a jealous husband (again, he was popular with the ladies, not all of whom were single), some say that he simply dropped dead without cause. Most agree, though, that the Devil had made good on his part of the bargain, and now expected Robert Johnson to pay the bill.

Commentary: As I said above, this is one of the great American spooky tales, and I am surprised that I haven't covered it before. However. I am happy to do so now.

For anyone who tells you that overt connections between music and Satan began with heavy metal, let me introduce you to the mother genre of all rock music - the Blues. Stories such as this one surround Robert Johnson, one of the great early figures of the blues, but some would hold that other musicians (including Tommy Johnson - there were a lot of men with the surname Johnson in early blues, just as there were a lot of men with the surname King in mid-20th century blues) made the same deal. And blues music often contained Satanic imagery and subjects, such as Robert Johnson's own The Devil and Me Blues and Hellhound on My Trail Blues. Overtly Christian imagery and subjects were also, of course, part of early blues, which makes sense as blues is closely connected to Gospel music.

Robert Johnson was born in 1911, and died in 1938 at the age of 27 years. He had wandered the south as a musician and manual laborer during the 1920s and 30s, with accounts holding that he had either run away from home or been kicked out by his father as a teenager. However, as is typical for an African American in the early 20th century, his life was not well documented, and it is difficult to sort out what was true and what was rumor.

One thing that does seem to be certain - he hung out at juke joints as a young man, and played harmonica well. However, he wanted to be a guitar player, and was so bad at it that many musicians, including iconic bluesmen such as Son House, recall him "annoying people to death" with his attempts to coax any sort of decent sound out of a guitar. Then he vanished for somewhere between six months and a year, and when he re-appeared, Son House recalls being amazed at how skilled a guitar player Johnson had become.

I set the story in Dockery, Mississippi, but others would place the story in other locations throughout the south. Robert Johnson was a traveling worker and musician, and there is no shortage of crossroads in the south that claim to have been the location of his Faustian bargain.

Although the story of Robert Johnson is the prototype of the bargain between a musician and Hell, it is not the first such story. As documented in one of my earlier entries, the violinist Paganini is said to have either made such a pact himself, or to have bee the product of a pact between his mother and a demon. And, of course, in more recent years, heavy metal musicians play up this Satanic imagery to create their own mythologies.

Of course, the truth probably has less to do with deals made in Hell than with hard work. As noted, Robert Johnson vanished from the juke joints for somewhere between six months and a year. Though the documentation is sparse, he probably traveled to work, possibly with his family, and while doing so, he appears to have found a guitar teacher. The identity of the guitar teacher is unclear (and, really, it might have been more than one) but most sources point towards Ike Zimmerman (or, in some records, Zinnerman) being the teacher. It is said that the two played guitar at night in cemeteries in order to be in a quite place for practice, which may explain another variation of the story, where Johnson is said to have made his deal with the Devil in a cemetery, while playing his guitar on a tombstone.

Sources: Wikipedia, Open Culture, UDiscover Music, NPR, The Guardian

Haunted Bathroom, Bangladesh

As report by NBC news, in 2013:

Thousands of workers at a garment factory in Bangladesh stopped working and rioted earlier this week, demanding that a ghost be removed from their building. The problem began when a female worker said she felt sick and attributed her condition to “an attack by a ghost” inside a toilet in the women’s washroom. According to news reports over 3,000 frightened workers at a plant in the city of Gazipur protested, with dozens of them vandalizing the factory before police used tear gas to quell the riot.

As later reported by Stranger Dimensions, "The woman didn’t actually see a ghost. However, after falling ill, she assumed the vengeful toilet spirit was the cause of her illness. A djinn, perhaps."

The reports all suggested that factory owners brought in religious leaders to perform a ceremony to either exorcise the spirit or else put it to rest. Regardless, searching for this found no further reference after 2013, so I assume that the matter is resolved.

Little is said about the nature of the ghost, other than that it may be a Djinn rather than a ghost, and even there it is unclear if that is the web site author's views or the view of the local people, so make of that what you will.

Commentary:  Unfortunately, I don't have much in the way of stories for south Asia, as I am not literate in the languages of the region. As a result, I tend to see stories from this region only when they emerge into common world folklore, or when they are considered "wacky" and grab people's attention. But as one considers this particular story, the initial jokiness of "hey a haunted bathroom!" fades away as you wonder what conditions led to people being ready to riot.

As is pointed out by the Center for Inquiry and NBC, this appears to be a case of mass hysteria, where one worker became ill, and it set off a series of self-reinforcing events that included panic, violence, and mass action. Such events are fairly common throughout history, and that this appears to be such a case is unsurprising.

What interested me is a comment within Stranger Dimensions' write-up, not typically a website that I see containing these insights, but I think that they hit on something here. They note that conditions in many of these factories can be difficult, are often exploitative, and these tend to be unpleasant places to work. I do not know if these descriptions apply to this factory, but if they do, then that would  explain tensions being at a point where something that might, under other circumstances, be considered silly would lead to mass violence. I wonder if anything beyond the ritual was done to try to ease the workers' minds.

Sources: NBC News, Center for Inquiry, Stranger Dimensions, Mysterious Universe

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Haunted Lake (AKA The Pond outside of Francestown, NH)

Near Francestown, New Hampshire, there is a pond or small lake, known both as Scoby Pond (after David Scoby, who built a grist mill in the area) and by the more evocative name of Haunted Lake.

Image from old postcard of Scoby (AKA Scobie) Pond

The pond is, despite it's moniker, a rather picturesque place (rather like a place I worked once, a remote and quite beautiful lake with the dreadful name of Hell Hole Reservoir, but that is a story for another time). There are a number of explanations as to how the pond came to be named Haunted Lake, and the one that is, unfortunately, most likely true is that a fire burned the area at some point prior to 1753 (when the diary of Matthew Patten refers to it as Haunted Lake) and the burned-out and skeletal-looking remains of trees suggested to the settlers that the place had an eerie and otherworldy nature.

However, there are other possible origins for the name (and for these, go to the link for the History of Francestown below and start on Page 432).

One story holds that the children (and likely grandchildren) of David Scoby made tremendous sport out of running about in the dark to frighten people (described delightfully in the history as "Liquor-Laden Loafers") by pretending to be spirits and monsters. Given that a similar thing seems to be the origin of ghost stories at California's Rispin Mansion, I have to admit to a fondness for this explanation. That said, the "Scoby Boys" weren't active until the 1780s at the earliest, and, as noted above, the lake was referred to as "Haunted Lake" by 1753, so while this may have kept the name going, the name likely inspired the Scobys and was probably not inspired by their antics.

Another story says that two travelers bought land in the area, and in the 1740s, travelled to the area, starting out separately but eventually meeting and traveling together. One night, while camping near, or on the shore of, the pond, they fought, and one killed the other. The murders gave the victim a half-hearted burial and left the body. When Matthew Patten (a land surveyor) was sent out to perform surveys of the area, he and his chain men (people who assisted the surveyor by using chains that helped to measure distance) camped on the shore of the lake, and heard groaning and shrieking, as if from a man in desperate pain. The work crew, despite Pattens' efforts, left for Bedford the next day without completing the survey.

Yet another story holds that Davis Scoby found a skeleton of a large, but young, man while preparing the land for his mill. It is not specifically said that there are any haunting elements associated with this discovery, but that would seem appropriate for the lake's name.

Finally, one more story: Two hunters set out to hunt and trap near the lake. They would camp together at night, but head out in different directions during the day. One evening, one of the campers failed to return to camp. When the other camper went out to find him the next day, he discovered that his companion had been killed by one of the animals that prowled the area. The surviving hunter headed back for the 

 The odd thing is that, aside from the lake's name, and the 18th century reference to the sounds of pained shrieks and moans, there is little to indicate that anyone has had weird experiences out here. This is disappointing, but there you go.

That said, there is a lengthy list of deaths that occurred (or, at least, are said to have occurred) at the lake up through the late 19th century. None of them are said to be supernatural, but it will still make you feel somewhat creeped out.

Commentary:  This is a fun one. Most likely, the name haunted lake is due either to an eerie post-fire appearance, as noted above, or to bits of local folklore with little basis in reality. It's just the way that these things tend to go. But, that said, every community needs its local haunted property, and given that it is filled with water and typically literally opaque to humans, a lake makes for a good one.

There really isn't too much to say about the story itself, but I would like to discuss something having to do with two of the sources that, given what I do as my day job, I find interesting. The first is the diary of Matthew Patten - diaries such as these were kept by many people in the 18th and 19th centuries, and most were lost, a few found there way into special collections, and a few of those were published. These are often used by researchers who have to do historic research, and I found myself often consulting my copy of a similar diary, though this of a sailor, called Three Years Before the Mast when working on my masters thesis (this contained discussions of early Santa Barbara, California, and as my masters thesis looked, in part, at the archaeology of culture contact, this was a useful resource).

The second thing that is interesting is the late 19th century town history of Francestown. Books like this were common in the late 19th and early 20th century, and for people doing any sort of historical research, or research into local folklore, these are gold mines. I often use these when writing historic contexts for my day job, and have found them consistently useful. Plus, it's fun to find out what all of the various places names in your town actually mean.

Sources: iO9Cow Hamphshire Blog, Diary of Matthew Patten, Published Book, History of Francestown, New Hampshire's Haunted Places,