January 29, 2011

Wicked Weird: The 3 Most Bizarre Happenings In New England History

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New England's history is ripe with unusual events. And while I am tempted to explore the possibility that ancient Irish, Scandinavian or Portuguese sailors were the first Westerners to arrive on New England's shores, as some fringe scholars suggest, this post will instead focus on events that undoubtedly did happen. The authenticity of these happenings, however, do not detract from their bizarreness.

3. The Boston Molasses Flood

If you've ever walked along Commercial Street in Boston on a hot, summer's day and encountered a faint, sweet-smelling aroma, you may have caught a whiff of New England's unusual past. On January 15, 1919, a 58-foot high, 90-foot wide, cast-iron molasses tank exploded in Boston's North End, sending 2.3 million gallons of sticky, viscous molasses rushing outward. The resulting molasses waves garnered heights of between 8 and 15 feet and moved at speeds of 35 mph. With a force of 2 tons per square foot, the great molasses flood made short work of buildings, trains and trucks; burying some and hurling others into the melee. At the end of the day, 21 Bostonians were dead and 150 others were injured. 

To add intrigue to irregularity, there is not a 100-percent consensus as to why the Boston molasses disaster occurred. Possibilities include inadequate tank design/construction as well as unanticipated fermentation or sudden temperature increases within the tank. I'm fairly certain that this is the only recorded case of a molasses flood wreaking havoc on a city, but let me know if you have heard otherwise.

Further Reading:
Georgia Institute of Technology: Boston Molasses Disaster
Environmental Graffiti: This Day In History

2. The Crushing of Giles Corey

Many of you likely learned about the Salem witch trials in school and are familiar with the historical episode's overarching bizarreness. Essentially, if you were living in 17th-century Salem, MA and a bunch of creepy little girls -- such as Ann Putnam, Mercy Lewis, and Abigail Williams -- decided they didn't like you, they accused you of witchcraft and you went to jail. Then you'd either rot in jail or stand trial, be found guilty and get carted off to Gallows Hill for a good ole' hanging. Yeah. I know. Pretty weird stuff. But it gets weirder.

Of the 20 witches that the Salem court sentenced to death, one witch -- or more correctly, wizard, as that is what the people of Salem called male witches -- was never found guilty. Giles Corey, an 80 year-old farmer whose third-wife Martha was in jail awaiting trial for witchcraft, was accused of witchcraft himself after speaking out in his wife's defense.

In a strategic move, Giles Corey refused to stand trial, which made it more likely that his sons would be able to inherit his property (as guilty witches automatically forfeited their estates). Unfortunately, the corporal punishment for refusing to stand trial in those days was worse than the punishment for being found guilty. Giles didn't get a relatively quick hanging death; instead, the people of Salem put a wooden board on top of his body and loaded the board with stones until the life was crushed out of him.

This is the only documented case of death-by-crushing, also known as pressing or peine forte et dure, to have occurred in North America. The British invented the excruciating execution style in the 14th century and officially banned it in 1772. 

Further Reading: 
University of Missouri-Kansas City: The Man of Iron: Giles Corey
1. The Dark Day of New England

The weirdest event to have ever occurred on -- or more accurately, above -- New England soil was the infamous Dark Day of 1780. On May 19th of that year, people all over New England -- from the western-most corners of Connecticut up into the northern-most settlements of Maine -- woke up to a normal New England morning. But as the day progressed, the sun began to burn with an unusual reddish hue and a dark, massive cloud with an eerie, yellow phosphorescence began to stretch across the sky. By midday, New England was cloaked in darkness. Day-blooming flowers retracted their petals, night-singing songbirds unleashed their tunes and most everyone stopped their work and huddled together by candlelight. This was no hurricane, no nor'easter, no solar or lunar eclipse.  It was, in many opinions, the end of the world... Armageddon... God's final judgment...

In my hometown of Woburn, MA, local farmer Samuel Thompson was plowing his 87 acres when the darkness set in. Samuel chronicled the event, noting that "such a Darkness was never known (I believe) by the oldest person living. People that were out could not see anything but gross darkness, could not find the way even unto their neighbors where they were acquainted, horses could not see to travail." The darkness lasted for approximately 15 hours, dissipating during the afternoon on May 20th. As the clouds parted, confused roosters crowed to welcome the return of the sun.

Today, we know the cause of the Dark Day, but for over two centuries the origins of the event remained shrouded in mystery (pun intended). The phenomenon's culprit? Canada. In May of 1780, a massive forest fire in southern Ontario sent columns of dense smoke into the upper atmosphere. On the 19th, air currents carried those smoke columns over New England.

Further Reading:
Going Boston: The Dark Day of New England
University of Missouri: Darkness Visible
William C. Campbell et al: Woburn: Forgotten Tales and Untold Stories

If you like this post, check out Wicked Weird: The 3 Most Bizarre Ancient Structures in New England 


  1. i thought that the crushing of giles cory was in Salem....i guess i was wrong

  2. funny..i was just saying the same thing to myself