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Posted By Michael Bell

Currier describes the story circle of bygone days. Can Internet social media—chat rooms, Facebook, podcasts, Twitter, social blogs, forums—ever replace the face-to-face sharing of community narratives? How about a group video call on Skype? Well, Skype may be as close as we can get, electronically, to an actual story circle. But how different these two contexts are! When you Skype, can you feel the warmth of the “roaring and snapping fire”? Can you smell the bean-porridge cooking in the pot? I could go on and on enumerating the qualitative differences between yesterday’s enfolding storytelling setting and today’s barren digital environment, but I think Currier’s own words paint the best picture:

One of the most memorable and pleasant occasions in my youthful days was one winter evening, when some of our friends came in for a visit. The family occupied one large room, on one side of which was a large brick fire-place; in this was a good roaring and snapping fire, which afforded sufficient light without any candles. Our family and friends sat in a semi-circle around the fire. There had just been a heavy snow-storm, and the trees were covered with snow. The full moon rose through the snow-laden evergreens, and shone brightly into our room through the east windows. Over the hard-wood fire, on the crane, hung a pot of bean-porridge, from which we all commenced our supper, each one stepping up and dipping out what one wished, and returning to one’s seat in the semi-circle; the last course being pumpkin-pie and cheese. Later in the evening we had popped corn, butternuts, apples, and cider. In the course of this rural visit several ghosts and witch stories were related, half to keep up the conversation, and half to make those stare who might take stock in their genuineness. Some of those that were related, on that occasion and at other times, I will relate as I heard them.


A woman of the neighborhood was at my father's house one evening, when some singular noise turned her attention to the subject of witchcraft, and I heard her relate, in substance, the following account: “I was out alone in the door-yard one bright moonlight evening last summer, gathering up some chips to build a fire with the next morning, when I heard several female voices, talking and laughing merrily, apparently coming down the road. They seemed to be rapidly approaching, and I waited to see who they were; when they got near me, I could see no one, but they were heard directly overhead in the air: I looked up and saw nothing but the bright stars. I could hear their talking and laughing as they passed along overhead. Their voices grew fainter and fainter as they passed off in an opposite direction from whence they came, until I could hear them no longer.”


This woman was free to state, with perfect confidence, that these voices were a company of witches going through the air to some unoccupied house to hold a frolic and have a dance. She believed  they could go invisibly in spirit, separate from the body, and were possessed with muscular power, equal if not superior to that in the body, to perform any diabolical acts they might fancy. And, however decrepit they might be in the body, they were as lively and bouyant in the spirit as they ever were in their youthful days.


AND MORE TO COME . . .

 
Posted By Michael Bell

If the lungs of a brother or sister who has died of consumption be burned, the ashes will cure the living members of the family affected with that disease. (Grafton County.)

That is the contribution of Dr. John McNab Currier to the vampire folklore of New England. For anyone who likes texts—and certainly that includes me—this is thin gruel, indeed. What I  really long for in my search for vampire incidents, of course, are descriptions of concrete events; the more detail, the better. But a generalized statement such as Currier provides is far better than nothing. Perhaps there is more here than a first glance suggests.

First, we now know that sometime prior to 1889—the date of Currier’s brief article in the Journal of American Folklore—someone in Grafton County, New Hampshire, was aware that there was a folk prescription for consumption that used the ashes from the burned lungs of a deceased sibling. I think we can make an educated guess that the ashes were to be ingested, a tentative conclusion that seems justified in that Currier himself was a physician who undoubtedly wrote many prescriptions. How else would the ashes be employed? If they were to be buried, worn as an amulet, scattered to the winds, or dealt with in any other manner, surely Currier would have included that in this entry.

Second, lacking an explicit narrative does not preclude building a context around the meager text. What might we reconstruct beginning with what Currier has given us?

Actually, Currier has served a generous portion of information in his three short notes to the Journal of American Folklore that were published in 1889, 1891 and 1893. He begins with some personal history that includes a wonderful description of evening story circles around the blazing hearth:

In the year 1800 my father purchased one hundred acres of  “wild land” in Grafton County, New Hampshire, lying upon the Connecticut River. For many years he struggled in the virgin forests, and paid for his farm; afterwards adding to it, by purchase, other lots of land partially cleared. He endured many hardships of pioneer life, without much of a chance for education; and it was not until the early settlers had paid for their farms, and had raised a surplus of produce, that any great interest was taken in educational matters. In such neighborhoods it was not strange that myths, beliefs in witchcraft, and reliance upon signs, should exist in a certain measure. Visiting among the neighbors was very common, particularly on autumn and winter evenings, without formality or invitation. Their “latch-strings were always out,” and when the rap was heard at the door the almost invariable reply was, the welcome words: “Walk in.” Conversation was on farming interests, politics, religion, neighborhood gossip, the “district school,” and now and then a bit of folklore received their attention, and that, too, without any reserve.

TO BE CONTINUED . . .