Three Notes and a Handlist of North American Fairies
by Chris Woodyard and Simon Young
Abstract: [page 56] Much has been made of the failure of European fairy beliefs to cross the Atlantic to North America. However, we present three instances where such beliefs demonstrably prospered in the new world: a changeling case in New York; a number of North American fairy placenames; and a remarkable fairy flight from Prince Edward’s Island. The article ends with a handlist of fairy experiences from the colonial period to the Second World War.
Keywords: changelings, fairies, folklore, North America, trans-Atlantic
Longstanding consensus holds that European migrants to North America did not bring fairy beliefs1 with them to the New World or that only a negligible number of beliefs made the journey. This idea is to be found in the works of major folklorists including Richard Dorson (14-15) and Wayland Hand (“European Fairy Lore” 141-148), while British historian Owen Davies made a similar point in his 2013 work on witchcraft in the United States (37-38). It is certainly striking that Baughman’s Motif Index has literally scores of fairy stories from England, but only a handful from North America (xi and 203-233) and that the Wayland D. Hand Collection of American Popular Belief and Superstition (now on a million index cards at Utah State University),2 has, on the evidence of Hand’s 1981 article (“European Fairy Lore” 146, n. 3), little in the way of fairylore. It will come as no surprise that the most stimulating work on American fairies has focused on indigenous traditions.3
Now, there is no question that European fairylore was, in much of North America, a modest import, compared to, say, European witch-lore (Kent; Kittredge), not least, perhaps, because many European migrants came from areas where fairylore had largely vanished (Young, “Fairylore” 359). However, in the last generation, some local studies have shown that there may have been more European fairylore in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America than has been previously appreciated. Most strikingly, there is work [page 57] on Newfoundland fairies (particularly Rieti, Strange Terrain, though see also Rieti, “The Blast”; Narváez, “Newfoundland”; and Butler). But there are studies, too, on New England fairies (Muise and Young; and Muise, “Puritans”) that look at the interaction of European and indigenous fairylore and work on a fairy abduction case from Iowa from 1876 (Woodyard, “Banshees”). The aim of this article is not to challenge the consensus that North America had little fairylore of European extraction: on present evidence that seems a fair assessment. Instead, our goal is to show that there are sources that should be brought into the mix and that definite conclusions would be premature.
In the first of three notes, we look at an Irish changeling case from New York: here Chris Woodyard has been able to track down the original source, and we show how this event became confused in later folklore and anthropological scholarship. In the second, we offer some fairy placenames in North America, toponyms with “fairy” but also other less well-known fairy forms such as “Hob/Hobb.” In the third, we examine a late nineteenth-century fairy kidnapping from Prince Edward Island and point to a series of trans-Atlantic fairy journeys. We end the article with a handlist of fairy memorates and experiences from the colonial period through the Second World War for Canada and the United States. We are aware that there will be instances that we have overlooked, especially continental European fairy traditions (French, Iberian, Scandinavian, Slavic… e.g. Butler) that have perhaps escaped our notice. However, this list will be, we hope, a useful starting point for further work into Old World fairylore in the New World in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries.
Note 1: An Irish Changeling in New York
In 1865, Robert Hunt included the following passage in his Popular Romances of the West of England (a Cornish folklore collection):
A friend [of Hunt] writes me: “I saw an account in a newspaper the other day of an Irishwoman who was brought before the magistrates, in New York, for causing the death of a child by making it stand on hot coals, to try if it were her own truly-begotten child, or a changeling. I think [page 58] the notion was, that her own child would stand fire, but an imp would either die, to all appearance, or be spirited away. This is much worse than the plan of the woman of Brea Vean [a celebrated Cornish changeling case], who put the brat on the ashes’ pile, and beat it black with the broom” (Hunt 83).
We have many records of changeling belief and, indeed, Irish changeling ordeals from nineteenth-century Ireland. However, there are no references known to these authors from the post-famine community in the United States save this one. For many years, the reference, despite hours of searching, could not be traced, and there was even the concern that it had been invented (Young, “Five Notes” 57). Happily, Chris Woodyard has now located the article, and we publish it here for the first time in over a hundred and fifty years.
A Remarkable Case of Hallucination.
A Mother Burns her Child to Death.
Coroner Collins was yesterday called to hold an inquest upon the body of a child, aged three years, that resided with its parents in Eighty-third street, between Eleventh and Twelfth avenues. The circumstances attending the child’s death are somewhat remarkable. Mary Nell, the mother of the deceased, testified that a week ago last Monday, she fully made up her mind to test the question as to whether the deceased was her child. A man who formerly lived in the same house, had told witness that there were “fairies” about.
Before coming to this country from Ireland, witness was taught the common superstition of her country, that whenever “fairies” frequented a house it was presumptive evidence that some child in the family had been changed for another while in its cradle; and that the true way to test the matter was to heat a shovel red-hot, and then make the child sit upon it. If it were a fairy child, or one not belonging to the mother, it would fly away, but if it remained it was her own child. The mother says she made this test by heating a shovel until it was red-hot, and then she sat the child upon it. The result was, the child was burned so badly that it died in about a week afterwards. Mathias Nell, the [page 59] husband of the deluded mother, testified that he did not know about the child having been burned till just previous to its death; that for some time past he had occasionally thought his wife was insane, she acted so strangely. The jury rendered a verdict that “the deceased came to its death by burns received at the hands of its mother.”
Coroner Collins thought it best to take the mother into custody and hold her until such time as the question of her insanity can be judicially determined. She stated that she was 38 years of age, and was born in Ireland. (“A Remarkable Case” 8)
The dead son’s name was John, and he was three (“A Remarkable Case” 8) or five years old (“A She Devil” 2), depending on which newspaper reported the story. John’s burial place is unknown. While it is stated that Mary Nell came from Ireland, her husband has a German name, and he or his family likely came from the German-speaking world: Austria-Hungary, the pre-unification German states, German-speaking parts of Eastern Europe, or German-speaking Switzerland. It is possible that he is Matthias Nell, aged 42 years, who enlisted in the 162nd Regiment, September 30, 1862, at New York City (Documents 1032). After being mustered in as a private in Co. A. on October 18, 1862, he deserted on October 20, 1862, at Riker’s Island, New York Harbor (1032). He could, then, as the newspaper article suggests, have been home at the time of his son’s death; he may even have come home because of his wife’s poor mental health. There are a number of variants of his name, such as Mathias Nell and Matthias Noel. Mary Nell was sent to “the Insane Asylum, on Blackwell’s Island” (“Things” 3) in 1863. She is recorded as the widow of Matthias Nell, living at 645 W 59th, New York, in the 1882 New York City Directory (1199).
A few comments: First, there is the interesting inconsistency between Hunt’s friend remembering hot coals and the case itself, where a heated shovel was used. This was presumably a problem of memory: Hunt’s friend clearly did not have the article in front of him, and there is no known reference to a changeling being made to stand on coals. Note that we have other examples of horrific changeling rituals being misremembered; for example, a child who [page 60] had been threatened with a heated shovel was, in later retellings, dropped in boiling water (Young, “Some Notes” 40).
As to the folklore details given, we know of no Irish reference to “fairies” frequenting a house (as in the newspaper) because a changeling was there: in this respect, the fairylore offered in the newspaper does not correspond to Irish folk beliefs. Perhaps the reporter had misunderstood something he was told: in parts of Ireland where fairy belief was notably strong, there was the sense that fairies were omnipresent (Wilde 124-5). The test of placing a child on a heated spade (“Extraordinary Case” 2) or even in a heated oven (“Alleged” 5) is, meanwhile, known from Ireland: fire and iron are famously disliked by fairies (Piaschewski 67-73). In judicial cases from nineteenth-century Ireland, there were cases where insanity was suggested as a motivation for changeling deaths (e.g. Prior 169-91; Woods 822-25), whereas there were other cases where families or even communities acted together, clearly convinced of the efficacy of the changeling ordeal (e.g. Bourke 75-113).
Given these strong beliefs, it is not surprising that Irish migrants took their ideas about changelings with them. We have, as an interesting parallel of migratory changeling belief, an 1873 work of Lancashire folklore where an Irish changeling is recorded in Burnley, England. An Irish mother was convinced that her consumptive child had been changed by the fairies (Harland and Wilkinson 220).4 Another possible case of changeling belief in North America comes from Montreal in 1839. A mother, Susan Pengelly, became convinced that “that the fairies were coming to carry her off,” something that recalls changeling beliefs. This conviction was the beginning of a fit of insanity that ended with Susan killing her eleven-month-old baby (Pilarczyk 624-625): did she believe that the baby was a fairy? As is widely appreciated, neuroses and psychoses often find expression through folklore imagery and beliefs (see the essays in Gale et al. and Basu et al. for this important new field for folklorists). We have been unable to establish whether Susan was a Canadian, or whether she was a recently arrived emigrant: her name is Cornish in origin,5 and changeling beliefs were certainly still present in Cornwall in the 1830s (Young, “Five Notes” 87-116).
Finally, to avoid future confusion, it might be worth adding a few words about the afterlife of the New York changeling story. [page 61] Hunt was an influential writer in the United Kingdom, and his report of the New York changeling (rather than the article itself) rippled through other books; crucially, Edward Tylor summarized the case in his Primitive Culture in 1871 (77). However, sloppy referencing led to confusion about the date. In 1877, an article was published in the German review Das Ausland entitled “Profit!” by one “C.” This article included the following passage:
Unter den irischen Emigrirten in New-York verbrannten irische Eltern ihr Kind, weil sie dasselbe für einen Wechselbalg oder Feenkind hielten. Ein ähnlicher Fall kam in Irland selbst vor. Ein Irländer und seine Frau, Namens Mahonen, hatten in schwächliches Kind, und da es durchaus nicht gesund werden wollte, so waren die Eltern vollkommen überzeugt, das eine Feenmutter ihr gesundes Kind gestohlen und ihnen dafür ihren Schwächling gelassen habe. (438)
Among the Irish emigrants in New York some Irish parents burnt their child because they believed that it was a changeling or fairy child. A similar case occurred in Ireland. An Irishman and his wife, named Mahonen, had a sickly child and since it would not become healthy, the parents became fully convinced that a Fairymother had stolen their healthy child and left them a weakling.6
Note that the “Mahonen” changeling case is a famous incident dating to 1840, when one James Mahony (or Mahoney, spellings vary) was threatened with fire and with water but was not actually harmed. His case became a legal matter because he died the day after, probably coincidentally (Young, “Some Notes” 39-40). The account in Das Ausland was largely accurate (there seems not to have been Irish “parents,” but an Irish mother), but the problem was how this text, not the original or Hunt’s summary, was misunderstood. In 1897, a German scholar, August Löwenstimm gave a reading of this passage, citing Das Ausland:
In New-York verbrannten irländische Eltern im Jahre 1877 ihr Kind, welches sie für einen Wechselbalg hielten (Löwenstimm 28). [page 62]
In New York, in 1877, Irish parents burned their child, who they considered a changeling.
Löwenstimm evidently got the date from the year of publication of Das Ausland, assuming that this was a current news report. It was a mistake and, as his book was much read, the error was repeated. For example, Gisela Piaschewski (145), in what is still our best work on changelings, gave the 1877 date despite also referencing Tylor’s translation into German in 1873! This dating then spread back into the English-speaking world. For instance, E. P. Evans claimed in 1898 that the New York case dated to 1877 (210). We note this so that no future scholars will suggest that there were two different New York changelings. What we can say is that there is a single unambiguous reference to Irish changeling belief surviving the Atlantic crossing.
Note 2: Fairy Placenames in the New World
The cataloguing of American and Canadian placenames is still in its infancy; however, even a brief look at early records shows us that fairy toponyms from Britain traversed the seas. What follows is not, by any means, a complete list; it is intended, rather, to give some sense of the range of what might be uncovered with a systematic survey of North American placenames.
We will begin with placenames which include the word “fairy.” In addition to many Newfoundland fairy names (Rieti, Strange Terrain 66-67), there is a Fairy Hill at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and there was another at Antigonish (Creighton 102). A giant coastal cavern in Nova Scotia was known as the Fairy Hole. “Fairy Hole” is a common name in England, particularly northern England, and is usually associated with mid-sized caves there. Here, the name may have been in part inspired by Mi’kmaq traditions about dwarfs whom it was said dwelled in the place (Hornborg 89-90).
However, fairy toponyms are by no means limited to names with “fairy.” There are also names associated with what British folklorists sometimes term “solitary fairies,” bogies and goblins who lurk in the landscape. Perhaps most interesting are a series of American Hob Holes. Hobs are, in England, solitary fairies who, living out in the wilds, came to farmhouses where they helped (or sometimes [page 63] hindered) families (Briggs 222-223); the most famous hob-like figure in English folklore is Robin Goodfellow in Midsummer Night’s Dream. There are several Hob Holes or Hob’s Holes in the United Kingdom. The word “hob” meant several things, including, importantly for placenames, a diminutive for Robert or tussocks of grass (Wright 1898-1905, III, 183-184). An interesting point about North American Hob Holes is that they necessarily date to a period when Hob was no longer used as a personal name.7 Frequently, in English-speaking parts of Britain, the placename element “hole” is associated with supernatural creatures – it represents their lair. The likelihood, then, that a Hob Hole is a supernatural toponym is much higher than, say, a Hob Hill. Several English Hob Holes, particularly in the north, are associated with pools of water, e.g. Hob’s Hole, a cauldron of water on the Tees (Longstaffe 15): this is worth noting in relation to the North American Hob Holes
We have located four American Hob Holes. There is, first, a Hob’s Hole in Tappahanock, Virginia: the earliest attestation we can find for this name is from 1706 (Reps 529). Second, there is a Hob’s Hole in Plymouth, Massachusetts. In 1651, the following record was made: “At this meeting Nathaniell Morton Requested of the Towne a small moyetie of land lying betwixt the hieway by his house and the waterside or Creeke commonly called and known by the name of hobsholeallis Wellingsley” (Annual Report 33). Note that W. Davis claims that the earliest record is 1623 and that it was “a hole full of hobs or hubbies” (152)—an attempt to explain a name that no longer made sense, or a non-supernatural meaning for hobs? Then there was a Hob’s Hole in Connecticut, between Windsor and Hartford: The Hob Hole “is about as large as a small barn yard and is five or six feet deep, and water is always standing in it” (Russell 137). This information was published in 1890, but references to “deeds” by which the name was confirmed suggest that the name was already being used in the early nineteenth century. Finally, Hobby Hole is situated in North Carolina, near Stantonsburg, and is “[t]raditionally reputed to be bottomless” (Powell and Hill 245). We have been unable to find any early record for this.
Another name that recalls British supernatural toponyms is the Boggle Tree in Delaware, Kent County, Dover Hundred. The tree appears as a marker in a state law from 1866 (Laws 62). Boggle (or [page 64] Bogle) is a north country word, found in the Scottish lowlands, north-eastern England, and much of what is today Cumbria: it was applied not only to solitary fairies but also to devils and ghosts. There are a number of instances of Boggle Trees in Cumbria (Young “Fair Oak”, 16).
There are related names. In Accomac County, VA, there is a community named Bullbeggar (“For Sale: 185 Pigs” 7); the bullbeggar is a southern English solitary fairy, and there is a Boggart Road in Muskoka Lakes, Ontario (“boggart” is a cognate of “boggle” used in north-western England). “Boggle” and “boggart” and especially “bullbeggar” are much less likely than “hob” to have secondary meanings. “Boggle” and “boggart” can refer to scarecrows, and there are also rare surnames that sometimes cause confusion. Such alternative explanations might account for Boggart Road, but only with difficulty for Boggle Tree; Bullbeggar is unambiguously a supernatural name.
From “House with a History,” Kansas Agitator [Garnett, KS], 29 Sept. 1899. p. 3
Near Boston, in the town of Medford, Royall House was “better known as Hobgoblin Hall.” A contemporary document suggests that the name was given by its most famous resident, General Charles Lee, who effectively confiscated the house from a loyalist in the late eighteenth century (Dudley 42). This fact was afterward forgotten: “[t]he now deserted house was named Hobgoblin Hall for some [page 65] reason not very apparent to the historian. It is not recorded that it was ever haunted by anything but ghostly memories” (“House with a History” 3). The phrase “Hobgoblin Hall” was famously used by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863 for an inn in his “Tales of a Wayside Inn” (232). Longfellow employed the phrase in such a way that suggests that “Hobgoblin Hall” was well established in nineteenth-century American English: “A kind of old Hobgoblin Hall/ Now somewhat fallen to decay/ With weather-stains upon the wall/ And stairways worn and crazy doors” (232).
The term “Hobgoblin Hall” was used at least twice in Britain. We have found a house of that name between Stanford and Cotes in Leicestershire (“The Excursion” 2), and another stood at Yester in Lothian, Scotland (Stewart I: 94-5). Returning to the United States, there is also, note, a Goblintown Creek in Patrick County, Virginia (Rogers 66). Is this toponym perhaps based on a surname?
Note 3: A Trans-Atlantic Fairy Flight
Without question, the fairies of Atlantic Canada have been those most carefully studied by North American folklorists. However, even here there is a strong bias towards the fairies of Newfoundland (Rieti, Strange Terrain) and, to a lesser extent, Nova Scotia (Bennett 123-127; Fraser 69-77). The fairylore of Labrador, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island (PEI) has been neglected, and an extraordinary Canadian source about a pre-twentieth-century fairy experience relates to the last of these territories. The story is told at two removes: c. 1900, the author finds himself at a party where an old man remembers a fairy happening when he was young: this tale is set, then, in the early 1800s. The old man prefaces the story with the assertion, “see here, boys, there may be ghosts or there may not; but if there are none, there are fairies, and they are worse” (J.M.K. 137). As this source is in a rare publication, we will quote extensively:
[Roderick8 M___] was a married man and with his wife and small family lived comfortably on his farm. In meeting and conversing with him, one would not notice anything to distinguish him from other men of his calling; yet there were whispered tales of strange occurrences in connection with his life, and of remarkable absences from his home. [page 66]
For a long time we were inclined to credit all this to the imagination of village gossips; but one night an event occurred that fixed the truth of these rumors so firmly in our minds that I, for one, have never since for a moment doubted them.
On this night a crowd of neighbors, both old and young, gathered at Roderick’s house for a dance. Everything went on merrily, and all were enjoying themselves to the utmost. About ten o’clock Roderick lit the lantern and went out to the barn, as was customary, to see that everything was secure for the night.
When he had been absent about an hour the company became anxious concerning his whereabouts; a party of us determined to investigate, and we sallied forth in search of Roderick; but Roderick was nowhere to be found.
On the further side of the barn we discovered the lighted lantern on the ground, the sole occupant of the place; and, as it had snowed during the early part of the night it was quite easy to discover any tracks. We soon came upon Roderick’s footsteps leading down across the field away from the barn.
At first we concluded that he must have gone to one of the neighbor[s’] houses; but some of the party following up the footprints noticed something very peculiar about them.
For the first few yards there was nothing to be remarked; but going a little farther we perceived that the steps were farther apart, as if he had been running, and that the impression in the snow was becoming fainter, proceeding further we found a step only here and there.
On coming to a fence we noticed that the snow had been brushed off the top rail in two spots about three inches apart, as if the toes of two boots had been rubbed over it, and beyond the fence the snow was undisturbed.9
The party returned to the house; but their mirth was dampened, and time hung heavily on their hands. The old people shook their heads in silent significance, and recalled all the old stories they had heard of people being carried away in some mysterious manner; but nowhere could they find a parallel. [page 67]
About two o’clock we heard steps coming to the door, and eagerly we all pressed forward to see who it was. Imagine our joy and surprise on again beholding Roderick M____; but such a spectacle as he presented. I can see him yet as he burst into the house. His clothes were soaking wet from head to foot, and were coated over with a white crust, which upon further inspection proved to be salt spray. His long hair hung down over his forehead and his face, deathly pale, presented a wearied and ghastly appearance. After the first few moments of surprise some one ventured the question. ‘Roderick, where have you been?’
‘O’, said he, ‘those cursed fairies have been after me again. They plague me incessantly. I cannot rid myself of them by any means. To-night, just as I was coming in, two of them seized me, compelled me to drop my lantern, and then took me off to some foreign land. I think it must have been across the Atlantic ocean, for I never saw so much water before.
After hurrying me through many strange places they at last turned westward again: and crossing that vast ocean, one of them who seemed to be the leader asked if I would go with him the next time he came. I told him no, and all at once I was immersed in the billows beneath me; and each time I refused his request he ducked me in the briny ocean, and threatened me with many and more terrible punishments, until at length I was fain to give in, and tell him yes I would go again.
Very shortly we reached P. E. Island, and they dropped me down just where they had taken me up. So you see my friends, I have had quite a long journey since I left you; but do not envy me – for those fairies are the most cruel and wicked beings that have ever been created.’
The old man’s last words as he finished his story seemed to have broken the spell that bound us, and some one exclaimed: ‘What nonsense!’ but a stern look from the old man prevented any further remark on the question. (J.M.K. 137-140)
There are two folklore points that are worth unpacking from the story. First, Roderick is shown to have a continual relationship with the fairies: “They plague me incessantly.” The absences from home [page 68] recall British and Irish fairy doctors who vanish for periods to be with the fairies. Perhaps the earliest British reference dates from late sixteenth-century Cheshire.10 The bargaining with fairies in the sea ride recalls, meanwhile, the difficult relationships between fairy seers and their “familiars” in Ireland, where human beings are punished and put to the test by their fairy patrons (e.g. Maxwell 367).
Second, there are a handful of British and Irish stories about supernatural beings crossing the Atlantic. Perhaps the earliest appears in Cotton Mather’s Invisible World in 1693. The Bostonian described a ghost of a recently murdered man from London appearing in New England (Mather 59-61). There are many later versions of such transatlantic death messages. However, more relevant for present purposes, there are a handful of stories of men being whisked by spirits across the seas. One late eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century memorate from Wales has a female ghost carry a man across to Philadelphia, where he must carry out a trifling task for her (Jones 60-62); the man, interestingly, is dunked in a river when he initially refuses the woman (61). One Irish tale dating back to the mid-nineteenth century has a group of Irish fairies carry a man over the seas to America to see his daughter; he is allowed to stare at her down the chimney (Wentz 73) and after being taken elsewhere in America to see a friend, he is returned to Co. Fermanagh by morning. A tale, meanwhile, collected in the Irish school survey in 1928 has an Irish man flown across to New York by fairies who want to play football there,11 an adaptation, of course, of motif F331 “Mortal wins fairies’ gratitude by joining in their sport.” Roderick’s tale, then, is unusual. But it is not perhaps as unprecedented as it may first appear.
Handlist of North American Fairies c. 1700 to c. 1930
We have included all belief or experience references from c. 1700 to 1930, although we have, for lack of space, omitted the examples included in Rieti’s Strange Terrain for Newfoundland. The predominance of banshee and knocker references is striking. Does this reflect the special interest of folklorists and journalists, or do these two fairy forms dominate in North America? [page 69]
No Date, Banshee haunts branch of the Clan O’Grady in Canada. (O’Donnell 52-3)
c. 1903-1925, Artist (Stella Watson) sees, as a child, fairies who looked like Indians. (Johnson 58)
1921, Dancing elves among hops. (“Spiritist Finds Fairies” 6)
1910s, Nine-year-old girl (Dorothea Eastwood) sees three tiny men who looked like traditional gnomes run across her floor. (Johnson 172)
Early 1900s, Fairies or devils flash lights to wreck ships, Straits of Belle Isle. (Grenfell 271)
1850s(?), Irish settler hears banshee in woods (an owl!). (Traill 103-4)
Pre-1926, Mary Oliver saw fairy man on bridge to island and coming out of hole in the ground. (Johnson 34)
Prince Edward Island
1800s, Roderick flies across the ocean with the fairies. (J.M.K. 136-140)
1839, Woman (Susan Pengelly) convinced that fairies were coming to carry her off; she ended by killing her infant. (Pilarczyk 624-625)
1901, Tommyknocker warning, Tommyknockers as spirits of departed miners, fictional story. (“Tommynocker’s Warning” 20) [page 70]
No Date, Man haunted by spectre of changeling wife [recorded in Coshocton, OH]. (“Something About Ghost Stories” 5)
1890s, Banshee of the O’Dowds, contrasting Irish and Scottish banshees, joke story. (“The Banshee Foretold” 28)
1880s-1890s, knocker stories heard as a child. (Fisher Vane, “Spooks, Spectres, and Superstitions in Mining,” The Mining Journal, vol. 21, 1937, pp. 5 and 40, non vidi, qtd. in James, Folklore 153-4
1905, Tommyknockers or ghosts of the mine. (“Tommy Knockers” 4)
1860s, Tommyknockers heard in mine about to collapse, Peabody Mine. (Davis, “The Wrath” 26)
c. 1850s, Clay effigies of mining spirits made by Cornish miners. (Hand, “California Miners” 129)
c. 1850s, Miners, when confronted with unusual occurrences, say “a damned bloody Tommy Knocker is around” or “the spirits are working again.” (Hand, “California Miners” 129)
1930s, Cornish miner saved from slab of rock by Tommy-knockers. (James, Folklore 154)
Pre-1926, Irish poetess Ella Young says that she has heard fairy music in the United States. (“Fairy Folk” 7)
Pre-1926 (c. 1920?), An eight-year-old boy saw fairies in his playhouse, including one he called “Tinkle-Star,” Balboa Park. (Johnson 88)
1925, Nine-year-old girl (Jean Finlayson Holmes) sees two gnomes sitting on the crossbar of the frame of her bedroom window. (Johnson 180-181) [page 71]
1900, Banshee on Colorado mountaintop. (“Old” 353-354)
Early 20th c., Perry Boney thought by neighbors to be fairy. (Sterry and Garrigus 144-159)
c. 1817, Harriet Beecher Stowe, as a child, saw apparitions: “a tiny woman clothed in white… followed by a misshapen dwarf.” (“Mrs. Stowe” 632)
1880s, Dwarf dressed in velvet cut in two by workman’s spade. (“A Connecticut” 5)
1886, Hobgoblin jumps into buggy. (“A Buggy” 10)
District of Columbia
1854, Banshee wails on the shores of the Potomac signalling death of Thomas Devin Reilly. (“Thomas Devin” 5)
1908, Little men (knockers) wielding picks in coal mine. (Husband 64-65)
1899, Banshee warning for relative killed by cyclone. (“The Banshee’s Warning” 3)
1901, Col. H. S. Olcott asserts that he believes in fairies. (“Colonel” 329)
1903, A death-dealing “banshee flute” in court case. (“Banshee Flute” 4)
1922, Banshee shrieks in north side Chicago neighborhood, police cannot find. (“Banshee Shrieks” 6)
Pre-War?, Child (Silvia Birchfield) saw “snow fairies” in sparkly long white and silver robes. (Johnson 135)
1906, Small white man seen by three girls in house. (Pashke 19-20) [page 72]
1932, Crab Tree Farm is peopled with fairies, says Mrs. Scott Durand, the owner. (“Fairies and Weird Happenings.”)
Pre-1926, Child (Martha A. Smith) sees little people in a cherry tree who sang. Their leader was beautiful and golden-looking. (Johnson 84)
1927, Boy meets “a little man about half my size” in the countryside. (Startzman 3-5)12
1876-77, Banshee knocks to warn Indiana family of death. (“The Banshee Appears” 2)
1877, Tapping and wailing banshee tells of mother’s death. (“A Token” 13)
1876, Fairy Abduction. (Woodyard, “Banshees and Change-lings,” 230-238)
1886, Fairy Abduction. (Woodyard, “Banshees and Changelings” 230-238)
1891, William Allen White sees fairies dancing under elm tree. (White 200)
Caney Creek, Knott County
1926-1930s, Man (Tom Field) sees red-headed fairy, and his horse is lamed by elf-shot. He carries the fairy arrow-head as a charm against the fairies. (Briggs 7)
1899, “Old settler” sees “airy mermaids” near cave. Hunters see “curious floating apparitions” and dream of fairies and sylphs. (“Wonderful Cave” 13) [page 73]
1850s, Knocking “banshee” in a coffin, perhaps a Knocker. (“Graveyard Spirits” 2)
1916, Munes, American fairies invented by artist Frederick J. Waugh. (“Real American Fairies” 1)
1859, Treasure Gnome or Leprechaun appears in flame. (“An Apparition” 2)
Early 20th c., Man driving horse sees little man in green plaid jacket and bright yellow tie, keeps pace with running horse, “Found in Delmarva Historical Archives by Mark Chorvinsky.” (Bord 96-97)
1890s, Little Angels or fairies at deathbed. (Hamilton 90-97)
1930s-1963, Banshee announces deaths of family members and of John F. Kennedy. (Citro 149-150)
17th c., A jocular story in which dobbies from Whitby, Yorkshire, arrive in a horse’s mane. (Reynard 289-294)
c. 1840s-1850s, Good-natured fairies live in underground palaces and dance in fairies’ rings or carpets while the little brown people or pixies were malicious and pixilated mortals. (Farmer “Folk-lore” 252-253)
1894, Woman “pixilated” in power of “little brown people,” turns her cloak to dispel their glamour. (Farmer 252-253)
1780s, Justice Joseph Story told by mother to turn his jacket inside out for fear of the pixies. (Howard 197) [page 74]
1844, Girl possessed by foul-mouthed “King of the Fairies.” (“Strange Doings” 1; Muise, “Foul-Mouthed”)
1837-1849, Young woman surrounded by fairies and attended by special fairy “Katy.” (Hardinge 158)
1890, Goblin “orgy,” green, gnome-like creatures. (“Powerful Agents” 6; Woodyard, “Elemental Devils”)
Pre-1805, The Nain Rouge. (Skinner 146-149)
1860s-1928, Arthur E. Stilwell disobeys Brownies with disastrous results, receives business advice from Brownies, who also dictate novels. (“I Disobey the Brownies” 49; “How the Brownies” 47).
1906, Tommyknockers and other ghosts in the mines. (“Ghosts” 2)
1860, Billie Williams finds gold with the help of the knockers. (James, Folklore 154, discussing a 1912 interview)
Post-1860, Tommyknockers help miners find rich ore veins, protect them from and warn them of dangers in the mine, and are believed to be the spirits of dead miners. (James, “Knockers, Knackers” 166-67; Marguerite Humphrey, “The Tommy Knocker,” Nevada: Official Bicentennial Book, edited by Stanley Paher, Nevada Publications, 1976, p. 123, non vidi.)
1880, Miner sees a lantern bobbing by itself in mineshaft; believes it to be an omen of an accident, although it proves to have a natural explanation. (James, “Knockers, Knackers” 165, quoting “Another Subterranean Ghost,” Territorial Enterprise [Virginia City NV], 21 Jan. 1880, p. 3, non vidi)
1697, Hannah Duston aided by fairy queen Tsienneto to kill her Indian captors. (Speare 193; Muise, “Hannah Dunston”) [page 75]
1840s, Fairies with squeaky voices revealed as landlady’s three slatternly daughters. (Whittier 1)
1770s, Jimmy Squaretoe (devil or fairy?). (Stockman 1)
c. 1920, Photograph taken of fairies by child. (Doyle 160-1)
1900, Irish residents dubbed a local well the Dublin Spring. An Irish fairy was said to have brought the water for it from the lakes of Killarney in her apron. Fairies were declared to walk in the streets of Paterson, usually in the guise of an old woman with a cane begging. (from Evening News, 1900, qtd. in Gutman 563)
1896, Banshee seen by train crew. (“They Saw” 3)
1920s-30s, a fairy seen on a bird (Quinn 26-29); fairies behind a secret wooden door (51-53); fairies and a strange light (61-63).
1820s, A “little bulbous bottomed Dutch goblin in trunk hose and a sugar loaf hat” in charge of thunderstorms on Dunderberg, a mountain on the Hudson River, is saluted by prudent ship captains. Local legend used in fiction? (Irving 319)
New York City
1863, Changeling murder, mother burns child with hot shovel. (“A Remarkable Case” 18)
1905, Belief in the Banshee widespread in Irish residents of “Middle West Side” of city. (Herzfeld 22)
1860s, Banshee music heard by Irish officer during the Civil War, predicting his cousin’s death, shipboard, off Charlestown. (O’Donnell 137) [page 76]
1860s, Beautiful banshee seen by Irish Marine named O’Hagan during the Civil War in token of the death of his father, shipboard, off the Carolina Coast. (O’Donnell 138-40)
1880, Dwarf or gnome creature jumps fence and, like a poltergeist, throws objects, Zahller Farm. (“Bugaboo” 7)
1892, Man tells staff at hospital he has heard the banshee and will die. (“The Howl” 4)
1894, Cavalcade of fairies and fairy horses visit a Halloween party. (“A Cavalcade” 10; Woodyard, “Uncanny Hallowe’en Guests”)
1905, Mysterious banshee crying at Cleveland central police station, joke story. (“Spook” 16)
1911, Coachman cursed by child for scaring away the little people. (“Flitting Fairies” 1)
1908, Imps in Mystic Cave. (“Weird Imps” 48)
No date, Tommyknocker tradition diffused among non-Cornish miners: “Devil Tommy Knockers cause cave-ins, falling rock and timbers.” (Baker 121)
Mid-20th c., Woman sees little man in rompers and plaid shirt walk under running board of 1937 Dodge. (Arnold 26)
1897, Knocker-like Man in Black. (“The Factoryville” 4)
1895, Banshee wailing in the air. (“This Ghost” 9) [page 77]
1901, Adult male changeling cured with a shovelful of burning coals and fairies trying to lure cow into marsh baffled by four-leaved clovers. (“Philadelphia People” 10).
1905, Leprechaun? Lured by vision of Little Man in Green to leave home. (“Lured” 1, 4)
1890, Young man hears Banshee, fears it is a warning for him or his sister. False alarm. (“Heard” 3; “Fears” 9; “Devoy’s Sister” 7)
1903, Man sends Virginia fairy stone to President Theodore Roosevelt. (“Fairy Stone” 10)
c. 1810s, Fairies dance at Worden’s Pond/The Great Pond. (Hazard and Hazard 245)
1860s, Banshee in the shape of a white horse in Jesse James’s family. (“Jesse James” 6)
1913, Little man torn to pieces by dogs. (A. Evans 31-35)
c. 1900, Three young girls learned to dance by watching the fairies when they visited in the twilight. (Doyle 152-55)
1880s, Knockers in mines. (James, Folklore 155)
c. 1910, Belief in Tommyknockers common. (Hand, “Folklore” 142-143)
1871, Banshee produced sweet music in the air for victim of Peshtigo disaster [unknown location, home of E.V. Wilson]. (“Mysterious Sounds” 4) [page 78]
In this article, we have pointed out examples of surviving fairylore in North America and suggested some avenues for further study of this subject. The increased digitization and accessibility of popular sources such as newspapers, grave records, and genealogical data widens the ease and scope of the study of folklore. With the expansion of digitized primary-source data, more discoveries relating the persistence of Old World fairylore in the New World should be anticipated.
Thanks to Davide Ermacora, Ron James, Roberto Labanti, Kay Massingill, Peter Muise, and Droo Ray for help with this article. We are also in the debt of two anonymous peer reviewers and the editor for important additional help and advice.
1. For present purposes we have defined “fairies” as the great British fairyist Katharine Briggs did in 1976, to be the “whole area of the supernatural which is not claimed by angels, devils or ghosts” (Dictionary xvii). So while there is a focus on “the trooping fairies,” there are also banshees (literally, in Irish Gaelic, ‘fairy woman’), knockers (mine fairies), leprechauns, and trolls.
2. Folk Coll 36.
3. See, for example, Radin and Hornborg; note that Roth’s American Elves attempts an exhaustive catalogue of indigenous traditions, but his idiosyncratic organization makes the book difficult to use.
4. There is some ambiguity in the passage: “The belief in changelings is not yet extinct; especially amongst the lower Irish population. [new paragraph] A person now living in Burnley firmly believed that her withered, consumptive child was a changeling. She told the writer [resident in Burnley] that it would not live long; and when it died she said ‘the fairies had got their own’” (220). Burnley had an important Irish population (Burnley 93) and this kind of changeling belief at this date does not sound Lancastrian: note that consumption was particularly associated by the Irish with changelings (Bourke 32-33).
5. In Archer Software’s British 19th Century Surname Atlas (a CD-ROM based on the 1881 census), the surname Pengelly is concentrated in Cornwall, with the strongest nucleus in south-eastern Cornwall (particularly Liskeard) and just over the border in Tavistock in West Devon.
6. All translations are the authors’ own. [page 79]
7. We are indebted to Jeremy Harte for this important point (pers. comm. Nov 2018).
8. Roderick was not a popular name in the English-speaking world in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century. The few cases on record come from Highland Scotland. In British 19th Century Surname Atlas (see note 4), the forename is particularly associated with Lewis, Lochbroom, and Inverness.
9. In writing this, we recalled Ambrose Bierce’s short story “Charles Ashmore’s Trail” (Bierce 421-424), first published in 1893, where footprints disappear in the snow: “the trail of the young man had abruptly ended, and all beyond was smooth, unbroken snow” (422). No such folklore motif exists in Stith-Thompson.
10. Chester Recognizance Roll 239, m2, in the British National Archives for the years 1577-78.
11. Thomas Holly, Schools’ Collection, Na Tearmoinn [Co. Kerry], vol. 403, 1928, p. 330.
12. Startzman’s book contains many such references; most, though, are post-war.
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MLA citation (print):
Woodyard, Chris, and Simon Young. "Three Notes and a Handlist of North American Fairies." Supernatural Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, 2019, pp. 56-85.