By Thomas D'Agostino
In the first part of this series I spoke of certain superstitions pertaining to cats, witches, and apples. This part may delve a bit deeper into the macabre or arcane. New England folk were, and in some cases, still are a very superstitious lot. Whole books could be written on the number of different superstitions and how they vary from state to state and town to town.
One of the more familiar of these old beliefs is the telling of the bees. Many farmers kept bees on their property to help in pollinating the crops. The farmer and the bee worked hand in hand in fields to create sustenance for both and both respected each other quite reverently. So much so that when a member of the family died, it was the duty of one of the members in the household to go out and tell the bees the sad news. It was feared that if the bees were not informed of this tragedy, they would attack and kill a family member before leaving the farm for good. Customs varied from the patriarch to the eldest sibling of the family as to who was given responsibility for the task.
Keep your dog in and quiet after midnight, for it was a belief that if a dog howled at the witching hour, it was a sign that someone in the immediate neighborhood would soon die.
The Quakers believed that people could not be possessed by demons, but rodents could. Mice and rats were the most common pests in households and the Quakers kept a scornful and fearful eye on them. To the Quaker, a mouse or rat were minions of Satan and were capable of supernatural powers. The Quakers held firmly that when the mice vacated a home there would soon be a death within its walls. They also believed that when rats that inhabited the wharves made themselves scarce, the ship departing that wharf would never return. They were also responsible for eating the harvests and chewing the foundations of the homes, both items being the fruits of labor that god had bestowed upon the family.
The only way one could rid their lives of these servants of the underworld was to scribe a hateful letter of warning threatening their deaths unless they vacated the premises immediately. They would then leave it where the mice or rats could find it.
Puritans were quite different in their superstitions and in many cases created laws around them. The Puritans believed that kissing mixed the souls and therefore such affection was a dangerous act. Laws were enacted to deter kissing in public and those who were caught in the act of smooching were put in the stocks, or whipped, or both.
One of the more macabre superstitions that circulated in the colonies was an idea that was termed "Bier Right." It was a belief that the body of a murder victim would bleed when touched by the murderer. It was also known as the "ordeal of the touch." This posthumous revenge was accepted well into the 18th century but found its way into the arcane when John Adams, who would later become the second President of the United States, was defending a client.
The judge ordered the alleged murderer to undergo the ordeal of the touch, but Adams quickly refused to submit his client to the test, calling it "black arts and witchcraft," a subject that was still taboo many years after the famous witch trials were terminated.