Saint Agnes of Rome

She was a Christian martyr, beheaded at the orders of the Roman emperor Diocletian, on January 21st, 304 AD. She is the patron saint of girls, virgins, gardeners, and victims of sexual abuse. Her legend includes many supernatural occurrences, and Agnes was one of the most popular saints in 18th and 19th century England. 

Agnes of Rome was said to have supernatural powers. These included the ability to make hair grow at a rapid level, the ability to strike men blind, and even the ability to raise the dead. Her Feast Day falls on January 21st, and on its eve, January 20th, it is said that young single ladies may be given dreams of their future husbands by Saint Agnes. But only if they follow certain rituals. Some of these rituals are quite bizarre and involved—more about them later!

But first, who was Agnes of Rome and how did she acquire such patronage?


Born in Rome, in the year 291 AD, Agnes was the daughter of a wealthy nobleman. She was very beautiful, and very rich. Before her lay a life of extreme privilege. This was both a blessing and a curse, since it ensured, for better or for worse, that many young suitors wanted to make her a bride.

When Agnes was only thirteen years old, the guys came a’ courting. Agnes, however, was a devout Christian. And this was a world where Christianity was illegal, condemned by the government, and Christians were regularly fed to the lions by Roman authorities. Agnes vowed to never marry and keep her virginity. This was a most dangerous decision, indeed. (At the tender age of thirteen, the girl was probably terrified, and rightly so!)

Needless to say, the local young men were not happy about this. They too, were of noble birth and used to getting what they wanted. No way was Agnes going to get away with this pious behavior!


One of Agnes’ suitors happened to be the son of Sempronius, an important Roman prefect. When Agnes refused to marry him, the son got mad and convinced his father to arrest her for being a Christian. For her punishment, Sempronius came up with the most humiliating thing imaginable. Agnes was to walk through the streets naked, subject to all kinds of taunts and embarrassment, not to mention assaults. The walk would end at a brothel, where Agnes would then be forced to work as a prostitute for the rest of her life.  

Agnes was stripped naked and ordered to begin her walk of shame—but her nakedness did not last for long! Agnes’ hair began to grow rapidly, so fast that in no time it was down to her toes, thick and lustrous enough to clothe her entire body. (And you thought Lady Godiva was good?)


Nonetheless, Agnes was forced to enter the brothel. It is said that men came, with the intent of raping her, but upon seeing that she was such a pure and beautiful girl, many could not bring themselves to defile her. The ones that did dare attempt it were instantly struck blind! 

The son of Sempronius, eager to get his due, showed up at the brothel with the intention of raping Agnes. But, before he could even get his toga off, the boy was struck, not only blind, but dead! Agnes, however, was not beyond forgiveness. Maybe she realized she had killed the son of a powerful politician and had second thoughts. For whatever reason, Agnes began to pray over the villain. Miraculously, he was restored back to life.

After this spooky and powerful display of Agnes’ supernatural abilities, Sempronius became terrified. He recused himself from the entire matter. But Agnes was still to be given no peace. Other Roman authorities, sent at the command of Emperor Diocletian, came to the brothel and accused Agnes of witchcraft.  Her punishment was—you guessed it! To be burned at the stake.

They bound Agnes in ropes and tied her to the woodpile. But when they lit the pyre, there was a problem. Apparently, the stakes would not burn, and neither would Agnes!

The Roman authorities were really fed up by now. They ordered one of their guards to behead Agnes and finally put an end to her. And so it was, she died.

Or did she?

Agnes’ parents, being rich noble people, had her buried in a well sealed tomb. According to the legend, eight days later Agnes’ parents went to visit her gravesite. There they encountered a chorus of angels, and Agnes herself, standing outside the tomb. There was also a white lamb by her side.


The lamb, a symbol of purity, is one of the icons still associated with Saint Agnes. She has traditionally been depicted as a young girl with long hair, holding a lamb. The word ‘agnus’ in Latin means ‘lamb’.

The Vatican has even gotten involved with an homage to Saint Agnes!

Ever since the 16th century, the Vatican has performed a ritual of the Blessing of the Lambs on Saint Agnes’ feast day.  On this day two lambs are brought from the Trappist abbey of Tre Fontane in Rome and are blessed by the Pope. The following summer, the lambs are shorn, and their wool is used to weave sacred garments called pallia. On the 29th of June, which is the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the Pope gives these pallia to the newly appointed archbishops.


Now back to Saint Agnes Eve, as all the single ladies await their dreamy husbands… Be assured that Saint Agnes may send you visions of your future man! But only if you follow certain rituals, which are as follows:

  • You must fast on this evening, and go to bed with no supper.
  • Take one sprig of rosemary, and one sprig of thyme. Place them in each of your shoes. Put the shoes beneath your bed.
  • It also helps to walk up the stairs backwards, if your bedroom is on the second floor.
  • Take pins from a pincushion and transfer them to your sleeve while reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
  • Then, remove all your clothing, and lie naked on the bed.
  • Before you fall asleep, say this prayer:

“Saint Agnes, that’s to lovers kind

Come ease the trouble of my mind.”

Then merely go to sleep, and wait for your dreams. According to some legends, it is said that the man himself will appear in your room, and the two of you will have a great feast (thus making it worth skipping supper!)

For the more adventurous, there is this ritual from Scotland: On Saint Agnes Eve at midnight, girls would gather together in a field.

They would throw grain on the soil, representing growth and fertility. They would then recite this prayer:

“Agnes sweet and Agnes fair,

Hither, hither, now repair;

Bonny Agnes, let me see

The lad who is to marry me.”

So if you happen to live near a field, and have some friends who are game, this might be a fun ritual to try.


Saint Agnes Eve became wildly popular in 18th and 19th century England. John Keats, the famous poet, even dedicated one of his most beloved poems to it, titled “The Eve of Saint Agnes”. 

“They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,  

 Young virgins might have visions of delight,      

And soft adorings from their loves receive      

Upon the honey’d middle of the night,      

If ceremonies due they did aright;  


As, supperless to bed they must retire,     

And couch supine their beauties, lily white;      

Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require

Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.”

The entire poem can be read here:

Have a beautiful and blessed feast of Saint Agnes.

Friday and Thirteen: A Brief History

Today is Friday the Thirteenth. How are you feeling? Many people fear this day. They just want to get the day over with, and they will be extra careful to avoid ladders, cracks in the sidewalk, and black cats. There is even a scientific name for fear of Friday the Thirteenth! It is technically called “Paraskevidekatriaphobia”. (I can’t pronounce it, either.) But it’s a thing, discussed among psychiatrists and medical professionals. For many, the fear is real.

But is there any truth to the rumors? Are Fridays and the number thirteen so very bad? Read on to find out some facts and fictions of this superstition…


Have you ever noticed that notorious killers have 13 letters in their names?

JACK THE RIPPER (count ’em)

CHARLES MANSON (count ’em)

JEFFREY DAHMER (you guessed it!)

Cue eerie music.

Humankind has long associated the number 13 with evil.  Some office buildings and hotels have been built without a 13th floor. Some airlines, including  Continental and Air France, do  not have a 13th row in their planes. Even Winston Churchill, the ultimate pragmatist, refused to sit in the 13th row in theaters.

But wait!  Thirteen may not be as bad as we think.

Consider the ancient Aztecs. They were pretty smart, and they  revered the number 13.   The Aztec week lasted 13 days.  They measured their year in 260 days.  It was divided into 20 thirteen day periods. The thirteen day period was called a Trecena.

The Aztecs even had a goddess of the number 13.

In Aztec mythology, the goddess Tlazolteotl ruled the 13th Trecena. She was, to be fair, a bit of a bad girl — the goddess of sin and patron saint of adulterers.  However, Tlazolteotl  was also beneficent and wise. It was her place to forgive sins of a sexual nature. In Aztec culture, she was associated with the steam bath and encouraged it as a purification ritual.

In Tarot, although 13 is the Death card, it is not necessarily to be feared, as the card represents true change and reinvention that can only come about through symbolic death.


One of the reasons 13 got its bad rap was because of the Last Supper. Jesus had 12 disciples, so including himself there were 13 people attending the infamous dinner.  Some say Judas Iscariot was the last to arrive (the 13th guest). Judas eventually betrayed Jesus with a kiss, pointing him out to the Roman soldiers as a political agitator. This, of course, resulted in the crucifixion of Jesus.

It is believed that Judas the betrayer later committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree, thus adding to the horror.

On the other hand — these events were necessary for the salvation of humankind. The Gospel of Judas speaks of these events as a Divine plan, conspired between Jesus and Judas, all necessary for the enlightenment of planet Earth. So maybe 13 turned out to be lucky in the long run…


In 19th century America, a society was created to dispel the myth of unlucky 13, once and for all!

In 1881, Captain William Fowler,  an American Civil War veteran, took it upon himself to form “The Thirteen Club”.  Fowler  had taken part in 13 major battles and had been forced to resign on August 13, 1863. On September 13, 1863 he purchased the Knickerbocker Cottage in New York. The cottage would later be used for his club dinners.

The first dinner of The  Thirteen Club took place at 8:13 P.M. on Friday, January 13th, 1882, in Room 13.  There were of course, 13 people in attendance.  All subsequent meetings took place in room 13 on Friday the 13th.

On the December 13, 1886 meeting, Robert Green Ingersoll, a member and prominent lawyer, declared:

“We have had enough mediocrity, enough policy, enough superstition, enough prejudice, enough provincialism, and the time has come for the American citizen to say: “Hereafter I will be represented by men who are worthy, not only of the great Republic, but of the Nineteenth Century.”

By 1887, the Thirteen Club was 400-strong, over time gaining five U.S. Presidents as honorary members: Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Not bad pickings!

It should also be noted that the United States came from 13 original colonies.  The 13 stripes on our flag represent these. (Count ’em!)


And what about the day itself? Is the day so intrinsically evil? According to the nursery rhyme, “Friday’s child is loving and giving…” Besides, that, most folks love Friday, as it is the beginning of the weekend.

Friday got a bad rap because of its association with evil events in the Bible. A lot of bad stuff allegedly happened on Fridays. Besides Jesus crucifixion, the Great Flood, which wiped out all humankind, except Noah and his brood, is believed to have begun on a Friday.

Also, the day the Devil tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden also supposedly took place on a Friday. This led to the fall of humankind, the banishment of Adam and Eve from paradise, and a lot of bad stuff in general.

But Friday can also be good. Even the day of the Crucifixion, for example, is known as “Good Friday” — the implication being that even great suffering will eventually lead to wisdom, enlightenment, and happiness.

The name Friday comes from the Old English work  frīġedæġ, meaning the “day of Frig”, thus associating it with the Germanic goddess Frigg, and also the Roman goddess Venus. Both are goddesses of love.

In Norse mythology, Friday is the day of Freya. She is the goddess of love, sex, beauty, fertility and gold. Freya was also quite fond of black cats. They accompanied her during her various visitation, and she often had black cats riding around with her in her magic chariot! What’s not to like?

Have a safe and happy Friday the 13th!

Witch of the Week: Rhiannon and the Winter Solstice

“Rhiannon rings like a bell through the night

And wouldn’t you love to love her?

Takes to the sky like a bird in flight

And who will be her lover?”

She may not exactly be a witch. Depending on who you talk to, Rhiannon may be a Celtic goddess, a Christian queen, a Welsh sorceress, or a Scottish fairy. Nonetheless, these origins are witchy enough. Rhiannon had some magickal powers, and a special connection to the Winter Solstice, which is now upon us.

On this, the longest night of December 21st, it is said that Rhiannon rides on a white horse through the dreams of her people. During this supernatural intervention, she is able to bring humans to liminal spaces and Otherworlds. There, mere mortals are able to create their own visions of glory, and make their deepest desires come true! For this reason, the night of the Winter Solstice was called “Wish Night” in Wales and Scotland.

But who was Rhiannon, and why did she have such magickal powers?

The first writings about Rhiannon appear in the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh mythology, written between the 11th and 13th centuries. The Marinogion is considered one of the earliest works of British storytelling. However, her roots trace back much earlier, to the ancient Celts, where she appears as a sun goddess. She is associated with horses and birds, especially songbirds. Rhiannon was said to have kept three pet songbirds who tweeted melodies that had the power to wake the dead, or lull an army to sleep! She is also said to rule the element of wind.

Interestingly, the Stevie Nicks song has references to birds and wind, although Nicks claims that at the time she wrote it, she was unaware that Rhiannon had this association.

“She rules her life like a fine skylark

And when the sky is starless

All your life you’ve never seen a woman

Taken by the wind…”

Her name, “Rhiannon” comes from the Common Brittonic word for “queen”.

She is portrayed as wise, intelligent, powerful and strategic. She also had superhuman strength. Like King Arthur, Rhiannon is said to have ruled during the Early Middle Ages, between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of modern Britain.   

In the Mabinogion, Rhiannon starts out as a fairy princess from the Welsh Otherworld, the daughter of a great fairy king. She was betrothed to marry a man named Gwawl, but she was not happy with this engagement. Instead, she was interested in a man named Pwyll—a human who also had supernatural powers and happened to be a king. It was Pwyll who drew Rhiannon into the human world.  

Love at First Sight

One day Pwyll went to a fairy hill, and Rhiannon appeared to him as a goddess riding upon a magnificent white horse.

Needless to say, he was smitten, and rode after her. Since she knew every man loves a chase, Rhiannon outran Pwyll. The race lasted for three days, but finally Rhiannon allowed herself to be caught. Pwyll immediately proposed to her, and she happily accepted, as this would keep her from marrying the dreaded Gwawl. Rhiannon and Pwyll conspired together to fool Gwawl and get Rhiannon out of the betrothal.

As it turned out, most of the conspiring was done by Rhiannon. Pwyll seems to not have been very clever, and in the Mabinogion, Rhiannon says of her husband, “Never was there a man who made feebler use of his wits.” It was perhaps for this reason that Rhiannon, as queen consort, was said to rule early Briton, and is sometimes compared to King Arthur.

A few years after marrying Pwyll, Rhiannon gave birth to their son, a child born on May Eve, and named ‘Pryderi’. But tragically, the infant disappeared one night while under the care of his nursemaids. Because the nursemaids were scared that they would be accused of kidnapping, they came up with a plan to frame Rhiannon. (That’s loyalty for you!) Here’s where it gets really gross, so be warned.

Blood and Sacrifice

The nursemaids killed a puppy and then smeared its blood on the face of their sleeping queen. When she awoke, with blood all over her face, Rhiannon was accused of not only killing, but eating her son!

As penance, Rhiannon was made to sit outside the castle walls, and tell passersby what she had done.

“I am she who killed my only child, and this is my punishment, to sit here and tell my tale to all comers.”

This punishment went on for four years. Pwyll remained loyal to her during this time, never believing that his wife was capable of the heinous act. Rhiannon, it seems, accepted her fate and was obedient to her punishment. This, however, was a strategy as well, because as the punishment went on, the people became more loyal to Rhiannon and didn’t believe her to be guilty. Rhiannon gained the people’s acceptance through her unfair sentence. Also, by making a pubic display of things, Rhiannon knew the news of the prince’s disappearance would travel far and wide. Rhiannon realized that eventually, word may get around that her son was missing, she had been targeted unfairly, and thus he would be returned.

Return of the Son and the Sun

After the four year punishment was finished, the son did, in fact, return. He was travelling with a lord named Tyrnon, his adopted father. Because of his special fairy genes, the son had grown far beyond his four years, and now appeared as a young man. Tyrnon and Pryderi came as guests to Rhiannon’s castle. His parents suspected immediately that he was their lost boy.

As it turned out, Pryderi had been kidnapped by a monster. Lord Tyrnon had rescued him and raised him as his own. The young man, however, looked so much like  Pwyll there was no doubt to his true paternity. Thus, the story had a happy ending. Pryderi remained at the castle with is true parents.  Rhiannon was declared innocent of any wrongdoing. And when Pwyll died, Pryderi took over the kingdom and was a great ruler in his own right.

And as for Rhiannon…

“She is like a cat in the dark

And then, she is the darkness.”

Rhiannon went on to do many magickal things with her fairy ways. She was said to be a great mathematician, and the patterns of the solstice were calculated by her. This may have been the reason why she had special powers during the winter solstice, which is also, it should be noted, the return of the sun!

On this night, Rhiannon has the ability to infiltrate the dreams of humans. It is said she can then transport them to Otherwords, and Otherlands. Here, where time and dimensions are different, mere mortals are given the gift of creating their own visions. Hence, they can make manifest their deepest desires.

So be careful what you wish for tonight. Rhiannon may visit you, transport you to the Otherworld, and help make your dreams come true!

The Virgin of Guadalupe

She is known as “Our Lady”, the virgin mother of Jesus, and the Patron Saint of the Americas. Her shrine at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is the most-visited Catholic shrine in the world, and the world’s third most-visited sacred site.

Today, December 12, marks the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

She is said to have appeared to a man named Juan Diego in 16th century Mexico. Her image, which was left on Juan Diego’s cloak, is now enshrined in the Basilica. And weirdly, the image has not tarnished nor faded in almost five hundred years!

But who is the famous lady, and what did she want with Juan Diego?

Juan Diego was an indigenous Mexican peasant and a member of the Chichimec tribe. He was over fifty years old at the time of the apparitions. He was basically a nobody, an old man by standards of the time—but he was unique in the sense that he was a baptized Catholic.

 According to Nican Mopohua, a 17th-century account written in the native Nahuatl language, which Juan Diego spoke, the Virgin Mary appeared four times to him, and once to his uncle, Juan Bernardino. The first apparition occurred on the morning of Saturday, December 9, 1531.  While walking down the road, Juan Diego saw a vision of a young woman at a place called the Hill of Tepeyac, which later became part of Villa de Guadalupe, in a suburb of Mexico City. The woman spoke to Diego in his native Nahuatl language (the language of the Aztec Empire), identified herself as the Virgin Mary, “mother of the very true deity”. She asked Juan Diego to petition for a church to be built at that site in her honor.

Poor Juan Diego! He must have been amazed, confused, and flabbergasted, but what could he do? He went to the Archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, and told him what had happened.

The archbishop wasn’t buying it.

He sent Juan Diego away with no plans for the new church. But later that day, the Virgin appeared to Diego again and told him not to give up.  And so, the next day, Sunday, December 10, 1531 Juan Diego spoke to the archbishop a second time.

This time, the archbishop wanted proof. He instructed Diego to return to Tepeyac Hill. He was to ask the woman of a miraculous sign to prove who she was. So, Juan Diego returned, and saw the Lady for the third time. She agreed to give him a fool proof sign on the next day, which would be December 11.  

But then tragedy struck!

On Monday, December 11, Juan Diego’s uncle, Juan Bernardino, became ill. Since Diego had to attend to his uncle, he could not visit the Virgin that day. Instead, he stayed with his uncle, whose condition deteriorated. On the next day, December 12, Diego journeyed to Tlatelolco to get a Catholic priest to hear Juan Bernardino’s confession and help minister to him on his deathbed.

Now Juan Diego was embarrassed! He had not kept his part of the bargain, and had not met the Virgin on Monday. He was scared, and wanted to avoid her. So, he took an alternate route around Tepeyac Hill, as he went to get the priest.

Yet the Virgin would not be outdone. She intercepted him and asked where he was going. Juan Diego explained what had happened. The Virgin then asked: “¿No estoy yo aquí que soy tu madre?” (“Am I not here, I who am your mother?”). She then assured him that his uncle was now fully recovered.

The Virgin then instructed Juan Diego to accompany her to gather flowers from the summit of Tepeyac Hill. This should have been impossible, as it was the dead of winter and the land was barren. But! You guessed it. When Diego went to the hill, he found a beautiful garden of Castilian roses in full bloom. Not only were the roses blooming, but this particular strain was not native to Mexico, so the occurrence was doubly strange.

The Virgin arranged a bouquet of roses inside Juan Diego’s cloak. The fresh roses were meant to be the “miraculous sign” the archbishop had asked for. Diego then went to see Archbishop Zumárraga. When he opened his cloak, the flowers fell to the floor. But there was more! Not only did the miraculous roses tumble to the ground, but the Virgin had left her own image in the fabric.

It is that fabric that remains in the Basilica today.

Needless to say, after a sight like that, the archbishop hopped to it! He got his men to erect a makeshift church in honor of the Lady.

But there’s more to the story.

The next day, December 13, Juan Diego found his uncle fully recovered as the Virgin had assured him. Juan Bernardino claimed that he had seen her at his bedside.  She had instructed him to inform the archbishop of her presence, and of his miraculous cure. Also, she had told him she desired to be known under the title of ‘Guadalupe’.

On December 26, 1531, a procession formed to transfer the cloak with the miraculous image back to Tepeyac Hill. There it was installed in a small, hastily erected chapel. The Indians were celebrating, and it was the custom of the Chichimecas to play with bows and arrows. While some celebrants fired arrows into the air in jubilation, one of them accidentally pierced the throat of an Indian who was walking with a group. The Indian was killed instantly.

But! The corpse was carried into the chapel and laid beneath the sacred image. The arrow was extracted, and crowd prayed aloud to Our Lady of Guadalupe for a miracle. And… You guessed it! Minutes later, the man regained consciousness and rose, completely healed. Only the scar remained visible until the day he died.

This miracle was a catalyst for conversion. Following this impressive feat, 9 million Indians converted to Christianity. Spaniards and Mexicans who had previously been mortal enemies, now joined together in faith of the Virgin.

In the end, it seems, the Virgin’s work was all about bringing people together.

Have a holy and sacred Feast of Guadalupe.

Saint Nicholas and the Prostitute Stockings

“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.”

So goes the line from the famous 19th century poem, “The Night Before Christmas”. But it is an odd custom, isn’t it? Why would anyone ever come up with the idea of filling a bunch of smelly socks with candy and gifts? I wondered. So I did some sleuthing and found out, according to legend, the origin of this custom.

Today, December 6th, marks the Feast of Saint Nicholas, and of course his evil counterpart Krampus, who tags along with him on his gift giving. While Nicholas is the “good saint” distributing gifts to children who have been virtuous, Krampus deals with the bad kids, often flogging them with a whip and carrying them away to unknown destinations. Krampus served to teach kids that they must be good all year long, or they’d be in for some SERIOUS punishment…

But back to the stockings. Many people have a tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace during the Christmas season. The belief is that Santa (or Saint Nick) will come and fill the stockings with goodies. Indeed, the “Stocking Stuffer” business is huge among retail stores, as they sell all kinds of little baubles and goodies, enticing shoppers to buy, since those stockings MUST be stuffed! Many countries in Europe have a tradition of filling children’s stockings, and also shoes, with treats on Saint Nicholas Day.

But the stuffed stockings actually have a deeper, more profound meaning. Would you believe that stuffed stockings once saved three women from a life of prostitution?

The real Saint Nicholas was Nicholas of Myra (15 March 270 – 6 December 343), also known as Nicholas of Bari. He was an early Christian bishop of Greek descent from the maritime city of Myra in Asia Minor, what is now modern-day Turkey.

 Nicholas was known to do all kinds of good deeds, and there are many legends about him. But I found one particularly intriguing.

It was said in a village near Myra there lived a man with three daughters. The man had lost his fortune and was destitute. Since daughters, in those days, were somewhat of a burden, he had one goal in mind: to marry them off and get them out of the house. But alas, since they were so poor, the man had no dowry to give to his daughters. And without a dowry — well — there’d be no gain in marrying them. Hence, no decent man would ever ask for their hands.

(By the way, YES! It’s appalling! But that’s how they did things back then. Women were like cattle, to be raised and traded off, with essentially no worth except what their father could offer into the marriage bargain, usually a large dowry.)

Since there was no hope for these three daughters, the only thing to be done was that they be sent out into the world to become prostitutes. (Yeah, of course. Logical solution, right?)

The night before the girls were planning to report to the local pimp, they washed their stockings, as having clean feet would be necessary for their new profession. Since they had no modern-day dryers or laundromats, the girls hung the stockings above the hearth to help them dry. Then they went to bed, terrified about what the next day would bring.

But something happened to change the course of their lives.

Enter the good Saint Nicholas.

According to the legend, Nicholas threw a bag of gold through the window. As the bag flew through the air, some of the gold coins flipped out and landed in the stockings!

Hence began our custom of hanging stockings by the chimney in hopes that they will be filled with goodies by the benevolent Santa Klaus!

The girls woke up to find the bag of gold, and the stray coins that had fallen into their stockings. At this point they decided to reassess their decision to become street walkers…

But good old Saint Nick did not stop there! It is said on the next night he repeated the procedure, and then again on the next night, so that there were, altogether, three bags of gold for the sisters. The girls were DEFINITELY NOT reporting to the local pimp!

Since it was the 4th century, and women had very few choices, it is said that the father used the gold for the girls’ dowries, and in turn got them married off to some respectable men. And they lived happily ever after.

But I like to think that maybe the girls went into business together, opened a sock shop, made a fortune and lived happily ever after…

At any rate, what we know for sure is that Nicholas himself was a generous soul, a giver of gifts, and someone who looked out for those less fortunate than himself.

Happy Saint Nicholas Day, and may your stockings always be stuffed with good things.

Alse Young: The First Witch of the American Colonies

Since Thanksgiving is upon us, I thought it might be fun to continue my Witch of the Week series with a woman that few of us have heard of, but nonetheless plays an important role in American witch history.

Alse Young (also called Alice Young) was the first person to be executed for witchcraft in the American Colonies. She was put to death in 1647, some forty years before the famous Salem Witch Trials, and some twenty years after the Mayflower first landed at Plymouth Rock.

A Scarce Commodity

Nowadays, when we think of witchcraft accusations, we imagine crazed Puritans and religious fanatics who were eager to point the finger at any nonconforming member of the group and have her done away with. But interestingly, the Puritans did not start out like that. In fact, accusations of witchcraft were nonexistent among the early pilgrims.

There was a reason for this. Women were simply too scarce. If the pilgrims ever expected to actually populate their colony, they could not go about executing women willy-nilly.

Case in point: at the first Thanksgiving, there were only four adult women present. That’s right! Four! All the others had died in the harsh New England winter. (So much for those paintings that show a bevy of bonnet-clad females serving up platters of turkey.)

The pilgrims’ ship, the Mayflower, landed at Plymouth Rock in November of 1620. Around a year later, in the fall of 1621, they had a harvest feast that lasted three days. During this time, they dined with the indigenous people of the area, who had taught them much about farming the land, and gave thanks to God for having survived for a year in their fledgling colony. This harvest feast, of course, became our Thanksgiving.

The pilgrims may have been giving thanks for their survival, but truth be told, many of them had not survived. Of the 102 original passengers who came on the Mayflower, only 51 of them were still alive. These included the 4 adult women, 22 adult men, and 25 children and teenagers.

The main concern of the pilgrims would have been keeping people alive. Therefore, accusations that could lead to death were not popular.

But fast forward twenty years. The colonies were now better established. The people had more time to dwell on the Good Book, and come up with interpretations about witchcraft.

“Secret Black and Midnight Hags…”

The main reason Puritans hated witches so much came from two passages in the Bible. These were: Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”; and Leviticus 20:27, “A man or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death.”

Alse Young lived in the town of Windsor, in the colony of Connecticut, and by 1642, Witchcraft was one of 12 capital crimes decreed by the colonial government. The government was cracking down, and Alse was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The details of Alse’s life are rather sketchy. She was born in Berkshire, England in either 1615, or 1600, depending on which source you read. She migrated to the American Colonies some time in the 1630’s, which would have made her either a teenager or a thirty-something woman at the time. There is a record of her giving birth to a daughter, also named Alice, in 1640. Some historians think it would have been extremely unlikely, given the times and health care, that a forty-year-old woman would give birth back then, so let’s use the timeline of Alse being born in 1615.

Alse was married to a man named John Young. There was no marriage record, but a document written by a physician named John Winthrop described him as having been “married to a woman hanged as a witch in Hartford”. Since Alse was, thus far, the only woman who had been hanged for witchcraft in Hartford, historians agree that this statement confirms their marriage.

Alse’s marriage may have, ironically, been what led to her witchcraft accusations. John Young was a landowner. Town records confirm that he purchased a forty-acre plot of agricultural land on the Farmington River, and also a home lot directly across from it. The Youngs would have been considered reasonably well off. Alse had also never given birth to a son. This meant, in the event of her husband’s death, Alse would have inherited her husband’s estate. That is… unless! Unless SOMEONE could prevent her from inheriting, by say, having her put to death for witchcraft! In such a case, the land would be given to the government.

I know! How convenient, right?

Satanic Panic

Land was a big deal back in those days. And the society really didn’t like women being landowners. Scholars now believe many accusations of witchcraft against women were, at least in part, based on these types of greedy land grabs.

Alse’s husband, however, was alive and well. But in 1647, an epidemic of either influenza, or some other deadly disease broke out and swept through Windsor. Windsor’s mortality records for that year show that the death rate increased substantially. People of important families died, and many of them happened to be neighbors of the Youngs. In total, twenty-seven people died that year at a rate four and a half times higher than the death rate of six persons the previous year.

This would have really gotten people riled up and put superstitions on high alert. They would have believed evil was at work. Maybe even the Devil was present among them… And maybe even witches, working for the Devil, had created this disease.

No one knows for sure, but historians have speculated that the panic of the epidemic, combined with Alse’s potential to inherit land if anything happened to her husband, may have led to her accusations. She also may have been a healer, as women often were, and unable to prevent deaths in the epidemic. This would have gotten people angry. People often look for a scapegoat in these situations, and it seems Alse was given that role.

On May 26, 1647, Alse Young was taken to the gallows in Hartford’s Meeting House Square and publicly hanged. She was only thirty-two years old.

All in the Family

Interestingly, in this area where Alse lived, there were also several other lots of married sisters, with the maiden name Tinker who also had emigrated from England. All of these women and their families left Windsor shortly after Alse’s hanging. Historians believe that either Alse or her husband were related to this family grouping. John Young left also. There is a 1649 record of him selling his land and moving to another town.

Were the Tinker sisters persecuted or accused? Maybe after Alse’s demise, they decided to get out of town before the hangman came for them. Was Alse really a witch, perhaps even a member of a sisterhood of witches?

We’ll never know for sure. However, some thirty years later, Alse’s daughter Alice, and her grandson, Thomas, were also accused of witchcraft!

Alse’s daughter Alice Young married a man named Simon Beamon of Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1654. They resided in Springfield and had many children there. After her husband died, Alice and her son Thomas Beamon were accused of witchcraft. In 1677 Thomas Beamon sued another man for slander – specifically, for saying that “his mother was a witch, and he looked like one.” (It may sound funny to us now, but remember these kinds of insults were taken very seriously, and people lost their lives. As far as looking “like a witch” – well, that could be anything. You might have an odd birthmark, a crooked nose, or some other imperfection.) Luckily, Thomas won the case, and Alice was never indicted. Historians believe that since Alice had sons who inherited her property, and also a son who went to court for her, it was less likely that her witchcraft accusations would stick.

As it turned out, Alse Young was eventually exonerated, too. In February of 2017, more than 360 years after she was put to death, Alse Young was officially pardoned, and her name cleared, by the Windsor Town Council in a resolution that passed unanimously, declaring her innocent.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving! Light a candle for Alse. And be thankful that those Witchcraft Laws have been repealed. 😊

Happy Halloween: Honoring the Celts

Happy Halloween! I hope the dark season finds you in good spirits, and a bit magical. On this special, sacred day, I thought it might be fun to explore the festival and the ancient worlds where it originated. So buckle in, and come along with me to pre-Roman Europe, where it all began.

Most people know that Halloween has its roots in the Celtic festival of “Samhain” (pronounced Sow-in). The Celts who formulated it were ancient European tribes. Most people associate the Celts with Ireland and Scotland, but, according to historical sources, the Celts actually had a much farther reach. Celtic tribes lived in various parts of Europe. In fact, they occupied parts of what is now France, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Bohemia. In the south, Celts occupied parts of Spain and Portugal, and Turkey in the Mid-East.

There are many of us with Celtic blood! If your bloodline includes European roots, you probably have a bit of Celt in you.

This might be a reason why Halloween resonates so strongly in some of us. For me, it is DEFINITELY a favorite holiday.  

The Celts had a belief in “the Otherworld”, although the concept itself is ill defined. It is difficult to know exactly what our Celtic ancestors believed, but we do know they had beliefs in gods and goddesses, faeries, ghosts and all sorts of other-worldly beings.

As the sun faded, and dark part of the year closed in around them, the Celts would have observed everything in nature dying. Thus, their thoughts might have centered upon loved ones they had lost. Just like any other people, it would have been important for them to honor their dead, whom the believed had passed on to the Otherworld.

October 31st marks a halfway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. To be fair, some historians have argued about the exact dates – most likely the Celts were not calling the month “October”, but nonetheless, they would have been able to scientifically observe the patterns of the sun, and eventually figure out this midpoint. The ancient Samhain festival would have taken place somewhere near the end of October and the beginning of November.

Writings from ancient Ireland tell us that Samhain was celebrated as a mandatory three day festival. Yes, mandatory! You HAD to attend the feasting and revelry. The village Chieftains were required to go around and check that all their people were making merry during this time.

It was believed that any individual who chose not to participate would be subject to the wrath of the gods. This could result in sickness, or even in death.

It is clear that our Celtic ancestors took the festival very seriously!

And some, of course, went overboard in the celebration. There are recorded incidents of people going on drinking binges for six or seven days. Human nature has always been human nature… Give us an inch, we’ll take a mile.

During all this feasting and celebrating, it was also believed that beings from the Otherworld would be popping in and passing by. The Celts thought that the natural world and the Otherworld were only separated by veils, and during certain times of the year, these veils became thin. Samhain was one of the times when the veils were extremely thin.

Beings from the Otherworld could include the faeries, the gods and goddesses, the goblins, the tricksters, the spirits of family members, and many more. Not wanting to be inhospitable, the Celts would often set a table, with food, for these other-worldly beings.

If the other-worldlies were given food to appease them, they would be less likely to play tricks and cause harm to humans. (And some of them could be very nasty. The Celtic faerie world was definitely not all sweetness and light. Faeries were known to kidnap, maim, blind and even kill people.)  This practice of leaving food to appease spirits is believed to be the origins of our Trick or Treating traditions today.

Some historians believe the Celts also originated the “dumb supper”. This is a ritual in which a family would set a place at their own table for the dearly departed. During dinner, everyone had to keep absolute silence – hence “dumb” – as a way to honor the dead.

Samhain was also a great time for divination. The Celts had a special relationship with apples. (So did many others, including Eve, the Devil, the Beatles, and Steve Jobs!) The simple apple has long been a fruit of fascination. During Samhain, when apples were harvested, they were also used to predict love relationships.

One practice involved the peeling of apples. Young girls tossed the apple peels on the ground, and the shape or letters the peel took was an indication as to whom her future beau would be.

Another divination ritual was bobbing for apples. Initials of young men were carved into the apples. They were then set in a bowl. The young ladies would take turns – with their hands tied being their backs – bobbing for the apple of the man they loved. If a girl was skillful enough to bite the desired apple in one try, the match was considered to be a favorable one. Two tries were not as good as one, but the match was still favored. However, if it took the maiden three tries or more to obtain the desired apple, her love match was doomed!

During Samhain, the Celts also were known to dress up and wear masks. Since it was believed evil spirits from the Otherworld were present, wearing a mask was a way to blend in and fool them. If you wore a mask and were disguised as an evil being, the chances were better that the evil beings themselves would leave you alone. You would be considered “one of them”.  This is believed to be the origins of our costume wearing traditions today.

So, now you might be wondering, how did Samhain change to Halloween? They are similar celebrations, but they are not exactly the same.

In the 1st century, most of Europe became occupied by Rome. The Romans themselves were pagans at this time, and Celtic pagan practices were probably still observed widely around Europe, with traditions blending. This lasted until around the 3rd century. It was then that Roman Emperor Constantine switched his faith to Christianity. It became required that Europeans convert as well. However, a lot of the pagan practices were essentially kept intact, but they were given different names.

In Christianity, it was still important to honor the dead. After all, many of them were saints, and had suffered greatly and been martyred for their beliefs! The Church declared November 1st as the official “All Saints’ Day” in which saints could be honored. November 2nd became “All Souls Day” in which all souls of the dearly departed could be honored, even those who had not been canonized as saints.

Needless, to say, October 31st fell on the evening before All Saints’ Day. Saints were known as “the hallowed” – wearing halos. So saints’ day was called “All Hallowed” and the night before was “All Hallowed Eve”. The slurring of the word is attributed to the beautiful Scottish brogue, which would have pronounced it more as “Halloween”. (Imagine Jamie Frazer saying it. You get the idea.)

Halloween itself went through many changes. It was never celebrated in the early American colonies, due to Puritans who simply would not have it! But over time, the European influence of our Celtic ancestors took hold. Well, to he honest, these influences came from our Celtic ancestors, and also from the indominable spirit of Capitalism! (What better way to make a buck? Candy sales bring in $ millions yearly to the US economy. Not to mention costumes and decorations.)

But regardless of our modern trends, it is important to respect and remember the traditions from whence they came.

Thanks for reading, and have a divine All Hallows Eve!

Witch of the Week: Geillis Duncan

The spooky season is upon us, and as part of my Halloween tributes, I thought it might be fun to start a new series on one of my favorite topics—Historical Witches! These women were sometimes notorious, sometimes popular, but most often obscure. All Historical Witches are dear to my heart. They suffered horribly and died as unique types of martyrs, usually forgotten along with their mangled bodies and the ashes of the pyres they were burned upon. These women deserve some recognition.

So, come along with me on a journey to 16th century Scotland! Here we will explore the life and death of one young witch who was the first victim in what became the most gruesome witch hunt in the history of the British Isles.

The Healing Touch

Geillis Duncan was a young girl from the small town of Tranet, East Lothian, near Edinburgh. She worked as a maidservant for one David Seton, the town bailiff. We don’t have a birthdate for Geillis, but historians believe that in 1590 she was probably about 16 years old. Geillis had never been formally educated. She was probably illiterate. But she seemed to possess a unique talent for healing. (This may have been a family trait or practice, as many uneducated women at the time worked as herbalists, midwives, and healers, their skills being handed down through generations.)

Geillis’ talent for healing might have gone unnoticed, except for the fact that her employer, David Seton, seemed to have an overactive imagination, and many suspicions about witchcraft. He apparently associated Geillis’ healing abilities with the supernatural.

In the meantime, other events in Scotland were occurring that were making people, and in particular King James, increasingly fearful of witches. It was these events that really made things bad for Geillis.

More about Geillis in a minute, but first it is necessary to understand the milieu she was immersed in, which led to her demise…

Double Double, Toil and Trouble

At this time, King James VI of Scotland was engaged to Princess Anne of Denmark. In September 1589, Anne attempted to sail to Scotland so the wedding could take place. However, storms on the sea were so severe that her journey was stopped short. Her ship, badly damaged, barely made it back to Denmark. The impatient king then decided that he would sail to Denmark himself, claim his bride, and bring her home.

James made it to Copenhagen in January 1590. His crossing had been equally perilous, with several storms at sea. When he got to Denmark, he found more than his bride…

As it turned out, witch hunts and the persecution of witches were in full swing in Europe at this time. A book titled Malleus Mallifcarum (The Hammer of Witches) had recently been published and had become popular across the continent. Malleus was the first book to declare, with a Papal Bull from the Pope, that witches were in league with the devil, and that they intended to hurt, maim, and kill others. Furthermore, witches could control the weather!

This, of course, led to the belief that the storms King James and Anne had faced at sea were most likely the creation of witches. And sure enough, in April 1590, two women in Copenhagen were arrested. They confessed to creating the storms in an effort to kill the monarchs.

When I say “confessed”, I really mean “tortured until they could bear it no more.” Needing desperately to end their own pain, people accused of witchcraft usually admitted guilt. This happened quite often. Torture of prisoners accused of witchcraft was perfectly legal in Denmark. Furthermore, it was expected that since witches worked in groups, there was never just one or two of them alone. Anyone accused was also tortured until they admitted to working with others, who were also witches. Hence, the two women arrested in Copenhagen eventually “revealed” other “members” of their group. Eventually seven women were put to death in Denmark for attempting to kill the king with storms.

Anne and James returned to Scotland, but the seeds of paranoia had been planted in the king. It has been said that it did not take much to rile up King James. Scotland is a dark, stormy and spooky place to begin with. It has a rich folklore of ghoulies, ghosties, and long-legged beasties. Besides that, when James was an infant, his father, Lord Darnley, was murdered. It was suspected that his own mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had participated in the murder. You can see how such events would make James a bit skittish. Apparently it would be quite easy to get James believing in witches, demons, werewolves and the like. He could easily be provoked to launch a full blown campaign against witches.

And that is exactly what he did, beginning with the ill-fated Geillis Duncan.

“Art Thou a Witch?”

In the autumn of 1590, David Seton began to notice that his maid Geillis, in addition to her strange healing powers, had a habit of sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night. He came to the conclusion that this must mean Geillis was a witch. He confronted Geillis, yelling “Art thou a witch?” She claimed she had only been tending the garden. Seton became angry, accused her of lying, and proceeded to torture her to get the truth.

Torture was, apparently, within Seton’s legal rights as her employer. He was determined to get a confession out of her. When Geillis would not talk, Seton, with the help of some other men, employed a device called the Pilliwinks.

The Pilliwinks, also called thumbscrews, was a tool that consisted of two metal pieces, screwed together, like a vise. The victim’s hand was placed inside it, and the device was tightened in an effort to get the victim to confess. Fingers could be crushed, and those subject to the Pilliwinks often suffered permanent damage to their hands.

Still, Geillis did not confess.

Seton then employed another method of torture. He tied ropes around her head and, like the Pilliwinks, tightened them steadily with a vise. The rope torture could lead to fracturing of the skull and facial burns. Her head must have been throbbing, and no doubt the poor girl could not think straight. But still, Geillis did not confess.

Seton then employed another terrifying method. He made Geillis strip naked, and all the hair was shaved from her body. He then “examined” her, looking for “witch marks.” It was believed that when the devil took a woman and made her a witch, he would mark her, like a branding, as she would be forever in service to him. Of course, any normal person could have a number of marks upon their body, such as birth marks, bug bites, scars, etc. But, in this case, it was the finding of a so-called “devil’s mark” that finally broke Geillis.

“All I Have Done Is By Witchcraft”

Seton found a mark on Geillis’ neck. With this, the maid gave an elaborate confession, admitting “All I have done is by witchcraft.” She claimed she was, in fact, in league with the devil, and had given up her mortal soul.

After enduring the Pilliwinks and skull warp, no one is really sure why the finding of the mark made her confess. Some historians believe that Geillis may have been sneaking out at night to meet a lover. The devil’s mark may have been a hickey, and Geillis, embarrassed, may have made up the elaborate confession. Maybe she figured she was already defeated. In the hyper religious and pious world of 16th century Scotland, running out to meet a young lover in the middle of the night would have been her ruin. After undergoing so much torture, she probably just gave up. Historians also agree that this type of “examination” for “witch marks” was akin to rape. Geillis would have been terrified, confused, and utterly unable to defend herself.

At any rate, Geillis’ confession was notable because it was the first occasion of a Scottish witch claiming to have been in league with the devil. It would lead to a horrible, bleak time in Scotland, resulting in the unjust deaths of many people, both women and men.

In November 1590, Geillis was brought to prison in Edinburgh.

Once in prison, Geillis, most likely under pressure of more torture, admitted to being part of a coven. Her confession got more elaborate. She then claimed she had attended a meeting of witches, with over two hundred people present. The meeting was held at The Kirk of North Berwick on Halloween night. The devil had been present. The purpose of the meeting was to plot how to bring about the demise of King James VI, as instructed by the devil. She gave authorities the names of at least eight other women and men who were supposedly involved. And not only that! Geillis claimed that her coven was working with the witches in Denmark, and together they had conjured the sea storms!

A confession like this would have no doubt left James salivating. All his suspicions were coming true! James then insisted upon meeting with the witches in person and hearing their stories, so he could draw his own conclusions. Needless to say, he decided they were all guilty.

Could it be? Did the witches really have magical powers, and a plot to take over the kingdom of Scotland? Or was this the overactive imagination of superstitious king who had witnessed one too many conspiracies?

Young, Fair, and Damned

Sadly, Geillis remained in prison for another year, until it was decided she would be burned at the stake. She was only about eighteen years old.

On the day of her execution, Geillis tried to retract her accusations, claiming that David Seton had forced her to confession with his extreme torture methods. But at that point, no one paid attention to her.  She was executed on 4 December 1591 at Castlehill, Edinburgh. 

The other accused women, once arrested, revealed more names, and in total, over one hundred people were arrested in what came to be known as the North Berwick Witch Trials.

All of these women had unique stories, which I will save for another installment in my Witch of the Week series.

But for now, let’s have a moment of silence to honor Geillis. A teenager. A maidservant. A girl with no money or resources. A girl whose only “crime” was having a natural gift for healing, and possibly a weakness for a boy who may have been her lover.

What do you think of Geillis Duncan? Let me know in the comments!

Happy Death-day, Edgar Allan Poe

Today we celebrate the Death-day of one of my favorite authors, that Master of the Macabre himself, Edgar Allan Poe!

He lived a life that was almost as horrific as the stories he penned.

“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence– whether much that is glorious– whether all that is profound– does not spring from disease of thought– from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.”

Bleak Beginnings

Edgar Allan Poe was born in a Boston boarding house on January 19, 1809. His parents were Shakespearian actors, performing in a production of King Lear. Edgar was the second of three children, with an older brother Henry and a little sister, Rosalie. His father, David Poe, a notorious alcoholic, abandoned the family in 1810 when Edgar was just one year old. The very next year his mother, Eliza, died of tuberculosis. Little Edgar was then taken in by his godfather, a wealthy Virginia merchant named John Allan, and his wife Frances. 

Although his adoptive parents were rich, life did not go well for Edgar. He did not get along well with his foster father, and was sent away to boarding school. John Allan also saw fit to enroll Edgar at West Point, a military school. Edgar did not fare well there, and was eventually thrown out.

A Teenage Bride

Having been officially abandoned by his foster father, Poe moved to Baltimore and reunited with some of his blood kin. He lived with his widowed aunt Maria Clemm, her daughter Virginia (Poe’s first cousin), his brother Henry, and his invalid grandmother Elizabeth Cairnes Poe.

Edgar fell in love with his young cousin, Virginia. On May 16, 1836 they were married. She was thirteen years old, and he was twenty-seven.

Before you balk and get grossed out, keep in mind that the vast age difference would have not been so weird back then as it is today. The concept of teenager only became a “thing” in around the 1950s. Throughout most of the history of humanity, seven years old was actually considered an adult. (Remember practices like child labor. It wasn’t right, but humans did it.) Likewise, the idea of first cousins marrying was not unheard of, and it fact considered quite normal. (Queen Victoria married her first cousin Albert, for example.) Still, a thirteen year old bride would have raised a few eyebrows, and Virginia lied about her age in the registry, claiming to be twenty-one.

Despite all this, Edgar and Virginia appeared to be very much in love. She called him “Eddy” and he called her “Sissy”. According to accounts of friends, the couple did not share a bed until Virginia turned sixteen. His years with his young wife were perhaps the happiest Edgar Allan Poe had even known.

Poe the Poet

Edgar then began working in various writing jobs, including assistant editor for the Southern Literary Messenger and contributing author for the Baltimore Saturday Visitor.

Poe published his first novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket  in 1838. That same year he became assistant editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. He published numerous articles, stories, and reviews, enhancing his reputation as a critic. Also in 1839, the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was published in two volumes.

He wrote some of the first literary criticisms, as well as some of the first short stories. He is considered the inventor of crime novels and detective stories. Some of his most famous works include: The Fall of the House of Usher, The Black Cat, The Telltale Heart, The Pit and the Pendulum and Murders in the Rue Morgue.

He published The Raven in 1842, and it became an overnight success.

Trouble and heartache, however, were never far behind.

Poe’s wife Virginia became ill with tuberculosis in around 1842. She spent a few sickly years, with Edgar devoutly caring for her, until she finally passed away in 1847.

It was said that after Virginia’s death, Edgar was never quite the same. His behavior became increasingly erratic and unstable. He tried to court other women but had difficulty sustaining romantic relationships. He, himself, would suffer the fate of death not too long after, in 1849.

A Long, Strange Trip

Poe’s death itself has always been shrouded in mystery.

He had moved to New York, but in the fall of 1849 he went to Richmond, Virginia where he visited a woman named Elmira Royster, to whom he became engaged. He left Richmond on September 27, 1849 and was heading back to New York. But he never made it home.

On October 3, 1849, Poe was found “delirious” on the streets of Baltimore outside  a pub called Ryan’s Tavern. He was “in great distress, and… in need of immediate assistance”, according to Joseph W. Walker, a printer, who found him.

Walker sent a letter requesting help from an acquaintance of Poe, one Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass. His letter reads as follows:

“Dear Sir—There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you, he is in need of immediate assistance. Yours, in haste, Jos. W. Walker.”

Snodgrass’s first-hand account describes Poe’s appearance as “repulsive”, with unkempt hair, a haggard, unwashed face and “lusterless and vacant” eyes. His clothing, Snodgrass said, which included a dirty shirt but no vest and unpolished shoes, was worn and did not fit well.

Dr. John Joseph Moran, who was Poe’s attending physician, gives his own detailed account of Poe’s appearance that day: “a stained faded, old bombazine coat, pantaloons of a similar character, a pair of worn-out shoes run down at the heels, and an old straw hat”.

Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in this condition. It was believed the clothes he was wearing were not his own, as wearing shabby clothes was out of character for the usually well dressed Poe. (While promoting The Raven, Poe was known to show up at readings wearing a black cape, a top hat, and other elegant clothing.)

He was taken to the Washington Medical College where he died on Sunday, October 7, 1849 at 5:00 in the morning. The true cause of his death is still unknown. Some have speculated he may have had a brain tumor, diabetes, an enzyme deficiency, syphilis,  apoplexy, delirium tremens, or epilepsy. Still other speculate his death may have actually been a suicide due to depression. (One year previous, Poe nearly died from an overdose of laudanum,  which at the time was easily available as a tranquilizer and pain killer.)

Or perhaps he simply reunited with his one true love, Virginia. (That is what I, personally, tend to believe.)

Some sources say that Poe’s final words were “Lord help my poor soul”. Suspiciously, all medical records have been lost, including his death certificate.

But he leaves behind an amazing legacy — a body of literature that includes Gothic tales, dark romanticism and phantasmagorical poetry. The man who spent his life shrouded in death now lives on as a never-out-of-print horror icon.

Happy Death-day, Edgar!