Puritans Inhaling Swamp Gas

Sometime in late February of 1639, a man by the name of James Everell, along with two of his Puritan buddies, rowed his boat up the Muddy River of Massachusetts and spotted a weird light in the sky. The light appeared as a large flame, about three yards square, and then began to dart around the sky, taking on a different shape, like that of a swine, presumably still on fire.

pig roast
Maybe that fancy, dancy light was just the aliens’ way of inviting the men to a pig roast. photo credit: eric dickman Pig Roast ’05 via photopin (license)

After a few mesmerizing hours of watching the flaming pig streak back and forth across the sky, the three men realized that during that time, they had somehow ended up a mile upstream from where they’d been with no recollection of how they’d gotten there.

But here’s the really strange part. These three pals actually told people they’d watched a flaming pig fly through the night sky. By people, I mean they told John Winthrop, then governor of the Massachusetts Colony and among the puritanest of Puritans. On March 1, 1639 he wrote down the account in his now well-studied diary. It’s clear he found the tale a little odd, but also that he believed the tale-tellers to be credible men who generally made pretty bang-up witnesses.

JohnWinthrop
John Winthrop. If this man told me he’d been abducted by aliens, I’d probably believe him. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a few possible explanations, then, for what these reliable men saw. First, and obviously most likely, this could be the earliest written account of a North American UFO sighting and alien abduction. Alternatively, these gentlemen could have been boating to a safe distance away from the stocks before overindulging in their puritanical beer. Or of course the whole thing could just be an example of spontaneously igniting swamp gas reflecting off Venus.

Governor Winthrop proposed another explanation nearly five years later when two similar events occurred. During the second of these later events, a voice accompanied the mysterious lights. Winthrop’s most reliable witnesses said they heard the words, “Boy! Boy! Come away! Come away!”

The governor notes fourteen days later, the same voice could be heard again. The reason, he suggests, is that the colony had recently experienced a nearby shipwreck resulting in an explosion. All the victims’ bodies were accounted for except one. Logically, Winthrop theorized the Devil had possessed the body and was now using it, along with a freaky light show, to terrorize the colonists. Hmm. Maybe.

foil hat
This guy knows what I’m talking about. photo credit: c r i s They’re Coming To Take Me Away / 135.365 via photopin (license)

Then again, perhaps a bunch of enthusiastic otherworldly visitors were calling to their human would-be abductees as they have so many times in generations since. Personally, I’m a little skeptical, but perhaps you’re not. Perhaps you, or someone whose story you find credible, have experienced something that to the rest of us might seem a little far out there.

If so, then National Alien Abduction Day, observed in the US on March 20 every year for at least the last decade, may be just the day for you. As for me, I think I’ll avoid the swamp gas and the puritanical beer that day. Perhaps I’ll fashion a nice aluminum foil hat, too, just in case.

Drinks with the Devil Lead to Puking Pumpkins

This morning I’ve been living the stay-at-home mom’s dream. I took my children to school, covered my kitchen table in newspaper, and carved jack-o-lanterns. Okay, maybe it’s not every stay-at-home mom’s dream, or even mine, though I’m pretty sure my kids think I make them go to school just so I can play with their toys all day long.

Remember when we were kids and we had to do this with just a spoon and a steak knife. And bandaids.
Remember when we were kids and we had to do this with just a spoon and a steak knife. And bandaids.

I really did borrow their carving tools because I haven’t carved a pumpkin on my own since my oldest could manage to rub pumpkin guts in his hair, but tomorrow are the fall parties in my sons’ classrooms and while I did manage to dodge being put entirely in charge this time, I volunteered to help.

And no fall party would be complete without a few Jack-o-lanterns, that bizarre Halloween craft that traces its roots back to a not-so-nice wandering spirit named “Stingy Jack.” According to an Irish tale, Jack was a ne’er-do-well who had a run-in with the devil, a much more famous ne’er-do-well.

Because he was such a good guy, Jack invited the devil to join him for a drink. The devil agreed and even said he’d pay the bill when Jack suggested that the devil turn himself into a coin from which he could later transform back, thereby cheating the bar owner out of the price of the drinks. As soon as the devil transformed, Jack grabbed the coin and placed it in his own pouch next to a small cross he had presumably stolen from someone much nicer than himself. The devil was trapped and Jack only agreed to release him for a promise that he’d leave Jack his soul.

pumpkindrill
Don’t worry, my boys will get to carve they’re own pumpkins, too. They might even get to use Dad’s tools.

Some versions of the tale claim that Jack trapped the devil in a tree with similar results, but regardless of how it happened, the years went by and Stingy Jack died, as nearly all ne’er-do-wells eventually do. Of course, because of his ne’er-do-well ways, Jack didn’t make the cut for Heaven. The devil wouldn’t take him in either and so Jack found himself stuck. Not knowing where to go, he asked his old drinking buddy for directions. In answer, the devil flashed him what I have to assume was truly a devilish grin and tossed Jack a burning ember from the eternal fires of Hell.

Jack wasn’t too bothered. He simply placed the ember in the trusty old turnip he happened to be carrying with him into the afterlife, because that seemed like a pretty good folklore-y kind of thing to do. And ever since then, we’ve been carving vegetables because, well…because…um…

So it turns out this story might not really address the history of today’s jack-o-lanterns at all. There’s not even much evidence that the tradition is particular Irish in origin. Jack’s story is similar to tales from around the globe, used to explain the ghostly phenomenon of ignis fatuus, or the eerie lights that sometimes appear at night over marshy areas and, like a newborn’s smile, are often attributed to gas.

The Māori people of New Zealand were carving gourds to use as lanterns as early as 700 years ago, and it worked pretty well. On a night when little ghouls and goblins are running through the streets, it seems like a good idea to light their way. The practicality of the carved gourd as a way to see where one was going and ward off the evil of the night eventually merged with the spooky tale of Stingy Jack and the Jack-o-lantern we know and love was born, maybe as recently as the early 19th century.

So today the jack-o-lantern is a staple of Halloween décor and of fourth grade classroom fall parties, where it’s featured in the “puking pumpkin” experiment. How could I not volunteer to help with that!?

Uh oh. These pumpkins don't look like they're feeling so well.
Uh oh. These pumpkins don’t look like they’re feeling so well.

After the party tomorrow afternoon you can check out a video of the puking pumpkins on my Facebook page.