Supernatural belief and custom were the order of the day.
Culture is a set of stories we tell ourselves again and again.
Nine or ten years ago I was working with Joe and Carol Bruchac on an Adirondack tall tale collection. "Joe," Carol said, "show Vaughn those letters. Maybe shell have some ideas." The broken-down manila folder Joe producedfour or five inches thick and crammed with blue ballpoint or penciled letters on lined paperwas my introduction to Don Bowman, our garrulous Sacandaga Valley guru.
Folklorist that I am, the first words out of my mouth were, "Well, lets start by classifying them. Well know where to go from there." Three years and two Adirondack folklore books later, Joe mailed me copies of the letters, typed and bound. There were lots of them: history and legend, humor and horror, personal anecdotes and contemporary commentaryall so woven into chatty, fascinating, serendipitous letters that I could not tell warp from weft. When the strands were all teased out, Id found 425 separate narrative units: tall tales and jokes; supernatural lore; Native American teaching stories.
A resourceful, independent, seventeen-year-old country kid when he went to work on the Sacandaga Valley demolition crew in 1927, Don Bowman already knew how to do a mans work. He was smart and curious and outgoing. In his words, "I listened and learned." He put it all down in notebooks. He held onto these stories, until, in retirement, he began sending letters and articles to people he hoped might be interested. In retrospect, Don Bowman knew he had helped demolish a world, a way of life. The Sacandaga Valleys own ancient mariner, Bowman is compelled to tell them over and over until we remember for him.
Except for Don Bowmans exquisite localizations, Sacandaga Valley ghosts, witches and demons behave very much like their 15th and 17th century European and New England ancestors.
Bowmans accounts of valley denizens from other dimensions are close cousins to tales collected by Gardener, Jones, Thompson and Jagendorf in other parts of rural New York State at about the same time. Stories about devils in the form of black dogs, about nightmares (witches turning their victims into horses and riding them all night), about black sabbaths and slipskins and werewolves and the black cats paw which, cut off, turns out to be the millers aunts hand, are well-traveled and more than twice-told. People talkedin the woods, after church, in the store. As time went on, tales of real local people or stories set in actual places were embellished with fragments from traveling legends about saints, sorcerers, and scholars.
Valley talkers had charms as old as fear itself, for baby, beast, and crops. Spells for managing malevolent entities and tips recognizing the Devils many disguises were around for the asking. Sacandaga ghosts were helpful, interesting and funny in some cases; violent and vindictive in others; self-dramatizing or just plain wispy on occasion. Except for lovelorn suicides and that well-traveled, transparent, sunbonnet-wearing woman rocking on the porch, the vast majority of Bowmans ghosts were men. (Maybe the more mature female spirits were just glad, finally, to be able to rest!) Dutch Jake, attached as he is to the details of his wardrobe, is my favorite. The sinister, bottomless Big Vly, and Sacandag, the hungry river godghosts of a ravished placeare there in every telling.
These legends, traveling tales told or believed for true, were passed on to press home a lesson: Stay away from the strange old woman on the edge of town. Dont be seduced by beauty. Dont attempt to control the wild forces of nature. Dont be curious. Dont go parking (even in the horse-drawn buggy) with your sweetie. If you dont follow the rules, youll disappear in the swamp or the beautiful girl you cant resist will be transformed to a tormenting hag. Stay within the circle of your own fire. Dont talk to strangers.
Granny Women, Powwows and Witches
By the time the notices that the valley was to be flooded arrived, descendants of 18th century settlers had intermarried with Abenakis and Mohawks, creating a hybrid culture and a barter economy stretching back five and more generations. Native shamanistic and herbal healing lore were overlaid with Mohawk Valley Palatine German power doctor traditions. Granny women descended from Europes wise women practiced midwifery, healing, protection from spells. Some of them, for a price or a grudge, were also known to cast spells.
In those days before radio or penicillin or even that many cars, before anyone except the "storekeep" and a few rich folks had telephones, country people carried on pretty much as they always had. And I mean always. Valley healers operated in a tradition so ancient they didnt always understand the words of their own incantations, passed verbatim for who knows how long, from who knows exactly where.
Curing and cursing motifs passed down to the 20th century are ancient and very nearly universal. Accounts of miraculous healings, as well as of maledictions, are part of mythology worldwide. For a very long time midwives, fortune tellers, traditional healers and even sorcerers were part of life, at court and in the country. Practices similar to ones used by Sacandaga Valley granny women and powwows appear to have been conducted by Egyptian magicians before the time of Moses!
In the late middle ages, scapegoating of midwives, eccentrics, psychics, widows, women too beautiful or smart for their own good, intellectual dissidents and the mentally ill was widespread. Healersas well as Jews and Joan of Arcwere branded heretics, with the church and the urban, male medical doctors the ruthless oppressors. By the witch hysterias end, millions in the New World as well as the Old were executed in the name of righteousness. Most of the victims (some say 85%) were women.
A document commissioned in 1486 by Pope Innocent III and written by German monks Kramer and Sprenger, the Maleus Maleficarum or The Hammer of Witches, was the text for the European witch purges. Motifs from the document found their way into migrating tales and became the legacy both of 17th century New England settlers and of their Sacandaga Valley descendants. Here is part of what that document said:
For this must always be remembered, as a conclusion that by Witches we understand not only those which kill and torment, but all Diviners, Charmers, Jugglers, all Wizards, commonly called wise men and wise women and in the same number we record all good Witches, which do no hurt but good, which do not spoil and destroy, but save and deliver. It were a thousand time better for the land if all Witches, but especially the blessing witch, might suffer death.
These projective, paranoid accusations made their way into oral tradition. Occasionally, in one place or another, often when there was a perceived threat to the social fabric, the ghastly unreasoning erupted and ruined lives one more time.
Disturbingly, more than 400 years after the Inquisition, a Sacandaga Valley granny woman was tried in a general stores back room. The charges, all without actual evidence, were straight from the Maleus Maleficarum and the Salem witch trials. Don Bowman countered these assumptions with anecdotes from his own experience and, in at least one case, tells us he was a character witness for a woman charged with witchcraftin the 20th century, not forty miles from where I sit writing.
Scapegoating and ostracizing seem to be hard-wired human responses. Many stories describe the good wives, envious of younger, independent, attractive women, whispering about the succubus (a seductive female demon). Since an astounding number of social ills seem always to have been blamed on poor single women, needy widows were suspect. Widows who had inherited their husbands property, on the other hand, had more financial independence than other women and were not subject to male control. Imagining these nonconforming women to be evil emissaries from another realm would have allowed people to rationalize their fear and jealousy. The old migrating tales were attached to these women and retold for true.
A friend, now in his 80s and a descendant of Lake Luzerne-Warrensburg area settlers, remembers going with his dad to see the covered bridge Osborns Bridge was named for go underto the accompaniment of political speeches and a festive local brass band. I asked him if he knew about any Sacandaga Valley witches.
Oh, yes. Every little hamlet had their own, you know. Theyd tell fortunes and heal people. May Day, every little settlement had its own fair. The witches would set up booths and tell your fortune. When the dam came in, they all got together and put a curse on it. Said theyd fixed it so it would never hold. I think, when the dam held and the lake filled up, thats about when people stopped believing in em.
Legends warning people how not to be are called cautionary tales. Sacandaga Valley variants remind us of their cousins: Susanna and the Elders, Faust, Odysseus and the Sirens, todays tabloids and yesterdays broadsides.
In the Sacandaga Valley, the word powwow referred to a Native shaman or healer, usually a man. Even though they practiced somewhat different traditions, its likely that, by Mr. Bowmans day, most granny women and powwows were of mixed European and Indian ancestry. Bowmans accounts confirm what Ive heard from local families conversant with this sort of thing. Both say the granny women and powwows learned from one another. Rather like contemporary specialists, each called on the other in a pinch.
Here and there, valley healing knowledge, and maybe a little magic as well, continue unbroken. The few people I know who still keep the old ways are descended from both New England settlers and Indians. Often they are active members of a Christian congregation as well. When I ask them where they learned, they will mention a grandparent, male or female, or sometimes a neighbor. The referent to Native powwows and witches mostly has gone the way of old Sacandag himself. However, as Don Bowman himself might say, who knows what lies buried under those deep waters?
The Great Sacandaga Reservoir was created in 1930 by order of the Hudson River Regulating District. In 1922, public reaction to three serious Upper Hudson River flash floods and subsequent epidemics overcame legislative resistance to a proposal first introduced in 1867. The state legislature voted to dam the Sacandaga River, a main tributary of the Upper Hudson. Although flood control was the publicly stated reason, perusal of the list of businesses and municipalities among which the costs were apportioned suggests a subtext of interest among the powerful in harnessing the water power of the Sacandaga River: Henry Ford and Sons, Green Island; Adirondack Power and Light Company, Mechanicville; Hudson Valley Railway Company, Stillwater; United Paperboard Company, Northumberland; Union Bag and Paper Company, Glens Falls; International Paper Company, Glens Falls, among others.
It is impossible to avoid noticing that none of those with a vested interest in creating the Sacandaga Reservoir were valley residents. The Hudson River Regulating District took land and livelihood. It uprooted congregations where generations had been baptized and married. The reservoir inundated cranberry bogs, covered bridges, factories, schools, blacksmith shops, picnic spots, barbershops, crossroads stores, the Big Vly itself. 27,000 acres were annihilated, including the elaborate Sacandaga Park with its dance pavilion, amusement park and theater; the right of way for the Fonda, Johnstown and Gloversville Railroad; the villages of Conklingville, Day Center, Batchellerville, West Day, Beechers Hollow, Fish House, Osborn Bridge, Benedict, Dentons Corners, Cranberry Creek, Mayfield and Musonville. Three Indian villages were sacrificed. Buildings not taken down and moved were abandoned, razed and burned.
Some saw the handwriting on the wall, fixed up their places and sold before word about the dam got out. Others held on until the very last, even taking children to school in rowboats as the waters rose. Those whose property extended up the mountain, particularly on the north shore, were able to move to higher ground and maintain a subsistence living.
Displaced valley natives made their way to Amsterdam or Gloversville, Schenectady or Albany, Saratoga or Glens Falls, to try a hand at city life and indoor work. Others, older and lucky, found relatives elsewhere to take them in. The very plucky picked themselves up and started over. Some just didnt get over the loss enough to do much of anything for the rest of their lives. Some of their children arent over it yet.
Known gravesor at least the headstoneswere transburied to higher ground, but older valley natives say no one could have found and moved all the home burials. They say they saw coffin parts floating in the new reservoir. They say those disturbed spirits wander the lake to this day.
Of the original Hudson River Regulating District investors still in business, none uses water as a main power source.
I did a great deal of reading, trying to understand how these stories wound up in the Sacandaga Valley . . . My most helpful connection, appropriately enough, was a ghost:
In January, 1993, I was driving from my home in the Eastern Mohawk Valley to Cooperstown, in Otsego County, where I had permission to search the New York State Historical Associations archives for supernatural tales. Coming into town from Oneonta past the old motel, time collapsed beween that blustery, bleak afternoon and another winter, twenty-plus years earlier, when my husband and I were students in the Cooperstown Graduate Program of American Folk Culture.
The late Dr. Louis C. Jones, my mentor and the founder of the graduate program, was on my mind. Before coming to Cooperstown where he made his name as a specialist in American folk art, "Uncle Lou"as graduate students traditionally called himtaught folklore at Albany Teachers College. A charter member of the New York Folklore Society, Dr. Jones was first known as an investigator of New York State supernatural lore. Turning between Riverbrink (the rambling, haunted estate where Lou and Aggie Jones lived when they were king and queen of the graduate program) and the stone house across the river (where they lived in retirement), I remembered yet another winter afternoon.
Maybe ten years before, my husband and I sat with Lou and Aggie in the stone house, enjoying the fire and their nurturing company. While Aggie finished dinner, Lou took us up the long, steep stairs to his study, lined floor to ceiling with books. When I expressed amazement that he had his own copy of A Handbook of Irish Folklore, Lou grabbed the maroon leather and board-bound volume off the shelf, scrawled in red ballpoint, "For Vaughn with love, Lou," right there under the elegant, black, young mans script "Louis C. Jones, Fredericksted, St. Croix, 1946," and handed it to me across his massive desk.
"Youll use it," he said.
Now, driving down the back street along the lake, past the grand old Otesaga Hotel, the Farmers Museum and the golf course to the NYSHA library lot, it seemed I should be getting ready to dash upstairs to class in the room on the left, across from the second floor stacks. Instead, I turned in the first door to the right, with its glass window marked "Special Collections." Laid out on the large oak library table was a pile of worn folders. I opened the one on top to find yellow, legal-size sheets of meticulously classified, red ink notesin Uncle Lous minuscule, calligraphic hand with those very tall capital letters! Slantwise, in the margins, hed even noted titles of books he considered critical in understanding New York States demons, ghosts, and witches.
"Youll use it," it seemed I could hear him say.
List in hand, I made my way to the cellar stacks, where I spent hours going through shelves of old, rare volumes, including copies of the Maleus Maleficarum, the Long Lost Friend, Cotton and Increase Mather. Old and very long out of print, everything Id worried about finding was there.
Uncle Lou, thanks for being there when I needed you.
Mr. Bowman, its been a privilege.
Disturbingly, more than 400 years after the Inquisition, a Sacandaga Valley granny woman was tried in a general stores back room. The charges, all without actual evidence, were straight from the Maleus Maleficarum and the Salem witch trials.
The Introduction published here was excerpted from The Witch of Mad Dog Hill, by Don Bowman, ed. by Vaughn Ward (available from New York Traditions, our on-line gallery shop). Published by the Greenfield Review Press ©1999. Reprinted by permission.
This tribute appeared in Voices, Vol. 28, Spring-Summer 2002. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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