Folktale Friday: Reflections on Westborough Folktales, Past and Present

Note: Below are some reflections on Westborough folktales that I read at the end of the Westborough Reads program on March 31, 2019, where we read several of the folktales that have appeared in this blog series to each other. This post concludes the “Folktale Friday” series of blog posts.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian, Westborough Public Library

Many of the stories we have told her today were compiled and retold by Harriette Merrifield Forbes in The Hundredth Town published in 1889, right around the time that our country, and Westborough in particular, was experiencing rapid social change due to the Industrial Revolution. Many writers and historians gathered similar stories in their regions both in fear that they would be lost and that they had something important to tell us about ourselves and our communities.

When we talk about folktales, we are talking about stories that are always already out of date. They are stories that have been passed down, supposedly through generations, but are now out-of-sync with the culture in which we live. This is not to say that they are irrelevant. We continue to tell them because we believe that they hold some value for us.

What is this value? It could be that they possess some kind of lesson or instruction for our lives, sometimes spelled out at the end as a moral, but usually hidden beneath the story’s “surface” so that it requires us to tease out the lesson. Similarly, folktales might tell us something important about our community, and this “something” might also be buried as hidden treasure somewhere within the narrative. The value of folktales could be that the story encapsulates a “forgotten time,” and so it gives us a feeling of experiencing history and a chance to reflect on how our present is different from the past. The stories may also help us to define our community: if you know the story, you become part of an inner-circle that is mindful of our community’s past, and so by definition, your knowledge of the stories is a sign that you are a part of our community.

What does it mean to question the history of a story that is considered folklore? Does it matter that the details of the story are true? Or is the “general impression” important, just as long as there is some element of truth in the story, such as the names of people who truly existed?

We don’t ordinarily get the chance to compare folktales to “historical records,” as we do with some of the stories here. And when we do get the chance to compare them, the two rarely match up. But the difference between folklore and the historical record might give us clues about the power of the stories and why they continue to be told. Many of the stories we shared today involve criminality, which as a practice threatens the fabric of a community. Ruth Buck was an outsider. We know that she was so poor that she had to be placed on poor rolls, which is probably why she was chased out of Southborough to Westborough. She had a baby out of wedlock, which quite possibly contributed to her poverty. She had to do odd jobs around town to support herself. Talk of a turban that hid her ears because they were cropped “like a pig’s,” is taken as a sign that she was possibly a witch—or perhaps it was really a sign that she had committed burglary and had her ears cropped as punishment at some point in her life. All of these details come together to create a picture of a woman who did not fit into Westborough society and perhaps was perceived as a danger to it, whether she was truly a witch, a criminal, someone with psychiatric problems, or simply someone trying to survive with few resources at her disposal.

In The Hundredth Town, Forbes groups both Ruth Buck and Tom Cook together as two Westborough residents who were both influenced and perhaps guided by the Devil. Cook is a criminal, but he leaves town to ply his trade in other towns around New England, only to return later to live out his days on the Bowman Poor Farm here in Westborough. Is the fact that he did not live in Westborough throughout his prime contribute to the development of his reputation as a Robin Hood figure, so as not to disrupt the reputation of our modest town? Or was he himself a fabulist by recasting his life as “The Leveller,” a kind of Robin Hood, so as to protect his own reputation and perhaps garner some sympathy from those who might hold resentment against the social elite?

By the way, the notion that Robin Hood “stole from the rich and gave to the poor” is an American invention and is not rooted in the stories that were told about him back in England. In other words, Tom Cook could be more of a Robin Hood than Robin Hood! But the historical record does not indicate that Cook acted in this way. What is the appeal of this redistribution myth, and why did it develop in the United States, where the spirit of capitalism and individualism is so strong? We might find the answer by digging deep into the stories of Robin Hood and Tom Cook, where their myths are wrapped up in a desire to believe in some sense of divine justice: that those at the top who abuse their power and position will eventually fall at the hands of those who seek to uphold and protect moral right, even if it takes a criminal hero to topple them.

I pulled some of the stories we told today from twentieth-century newspapers. Are they folktales? If not, will they eventually become folktales? I included them in this program, because I had come across references to them in other parts of the archive’s collections—so they were stories that generated more interest than most that appear in newspapers—AND because of their themes of witches and criminality that appear in the other tales. It’s possible that if I hadn’t used these stories in our program today (or at some other point in the future), they could have “disappeared.” Who else would have found them and thought to retell them as folktales? Will our use of these stories in this program elevate them to the level of “Westborough folktales”? Will some of the stories that you told today be elevated as well? Perhaps time will tell.

What do these stories tell us about Westborough? What is their significance? And is it important for us to continue to tell them, since they all seem to be “out of sync” with the lives we live today? The Encyclopedia of Local History says that contemporary folk research sees folk “as representing a communicative process used by people acting in groups. In this view, folk is not a level of society [that is, it is not primitive or comes out of a lower class of people], but a type of learning and expression used by all people; it can be useful to reveal social needs and identities enacted in different settings.” It goes on to say that folklore speaks to “the significance of traditions and the role of community in passing and adapting those traditions.”

We gathered here today to tell stories to each other. And the stories we told are special, because they are stories that people in Westborough have told to each other for generations. The fact that we are all together here today telling familiar stories to each other in a community setting makes all of these stories special, because they work towards uniting us together as a community. In telling these stories to each other, we reaffirm our identities as Westborough residents and as a bonus are entertained by their intriguing plots and characters in the process.


Click here to read more Westborough Folktales!

Note that various versions of the same folk tale will be published so as to compare how each are told.

Westborough State Hospital Book Program

The Westborough Public Library will celebrate the publication of Westborough State Hospital with a lecture by the author, Katherine Anderson, on Thursday, August 1, 2019 at 7:00 p.m. in the Meeting Room.

Join award-winning author and asylum historian Katherine Anderson for a discussion of her newest Images of America book on the history of the Westborough State Hospital. Katherine has been photographing and researching the hospital for nearly a decade and will present a collection of images, artifacts, and little known facts about Westborough State. As a bonus, meet Mimi Baird, author of He Wanted the Moon about her father’s story of his time as a patient at Westborough.

The Westborough State Hospital, formerly known as the Westborough Insane Hospital, was the second homeopathic hospital for the insane in the United States. Its unique treatment methods were at the forefront of mental health care until it closed its doors as one of the last Massachusetts state hospitals in 2010. Solomon Carter Fuller, a pioneering African American pathologist, studied physical changes in the brain due to Alzheimer’s at the hospital, which was also the only New England state hospital with a dedicated unit for deaf and hard of hearing patients.

Katherine Anderson is a veteran special education teacher and has been researching and writing about asylums and mental health care for more than a decade.

Folktale Friday: “The Legend Of Lake Hoccomocca” (Westborough Historical Society Third Grade Program)

Judge W. Trowbridge Forbes and his four children in a boat on Hoccomocco Pond, ca. 1890.

Lake Hoccomocco was one of the places used by early Native Americans for hunting, fishing, and making tools.  According to Indian legend, the Evil Spirit or Hobomoc, hides beneath the dark surface of Lake Hoccomocco.  The legend starts with the story of the beautiful maiden Iano.

Many young Indians wanted to marry the beautiful Iano. She chose the young chief, Sassacus.  One brave, Wequoash, was angry at not being chosen. He wanted to get revenge.  On the eve of the wedding, Wequoash went off into the woods to go hunting for a mountain lion.  He found a mountain lion and killed it. 

On his way back to the village, Wequoash saw Iano out in a canoe on the lake.  He swam underwater to her canoe. As she leaned over the side, he grabbed her hair and pulled her into the water. He used a rock to sink the canoe and Iano’s body to the bottom of the lake.

Sassacus and his men were searching for Iano by moonlight when the chief saw his bride and her canoe disappear mysteriously into the dark waters.  He was convinced that the Evil Spirit Hobomoc had killed her.

When Wequoash returned a few days later with the mountain lion, he was praised by Chief Sassacus for his bravery. That was not enough for the greedy Wequoash!  He wanted to be the chief. He secretly poisoned Sassacus and killed him.

On a night one year later Wequoash saw a blue flame in the middle of the lake. Then a mysterious canoe floated across the lake. Wequoash got into the canoe. The canoe took him to the flame that turned into Iano’s face!

Another year passed.  Wequoash again saw the blue flame. The mysterious canoe came towards him again.  He boarded the canoe and traveled to the spot of Iano’s murder.  This time the spirit whispered, “Only once more.”

Wequoash became sad during the next year. He gathered his tribe about him on the shores of the lake. He finally confessed to the murders of Iano and Sassacus.  When the ghostly canoe came this time, it took Wequoash to the middle of the lake again. Now he saw the face of Sassacus in the blue flame. Wequoash was frightened.  He wrapped his cloak about himself and disappeared forever.

From that time on, every time the Indians crossed Lake Hoccomocco, they dropped a rock at the spot Iano was drowned. They wanted to please the Evil Spirit.  A pile of rocks was built up in the middle of the lake.  Years later, fishermen would often run into it.  If you stand at the side of the lake, look very hard out into the middle.  See if you can make out a rock pile marking Iano’s resting place.

* * *

Hoccomocco Pond on Otis Street, ca. 1970.

From “A Look at Westborough’s Historic Past,” The Community Advocate, June 27, 1997.

According to Jacqueline Tidman (former historical librarian):

It was said that this pond [Hoccomocco] was where a beautiful Indian maiden was drowned by a spurned lover, and her body and canoe were secreted in its depths. The man went on to poison her soon-to-be bridegroom, and assumed a position of leadership amongst their tribe.

On the anniversary of her death, the maiden’s spirit returned, beckoning the traitorous warrior back to the pond. On the second anniversary of her death, her spirit returned once again, drawing him to paddle out to the spot where he had drowned her.

On the third anniversary, he could contain his secret no longer, and confessed his crime. With the entire village watching, he paddled out to meet the maiden’s spirit. But, instead of the maiden, the spirit of his rival appeared, and amidst thunder and smoke the spirit and the murderer disappeared forever.

It is said that, even into the nineteenth century, people avoided the environs of the haunted pond—especially at night.


Click here to read more Westborough Folktales!

Note that various versions of the same folk tale will be published so as to compare how each are told.

Folktale Friday: Tom Cook (Forbes)

From The Hundredth Town by Harriette Merrifield Forbes, 1889, pp. 137-146.

There were two persons supposed to be in league with the Evil One living here part of the time contemporaneously, whose names are very familiar to most of the older people now in town, — Tom Cook and Ruth Buck. The former was well known in all the towns of Massachusetts, and more or less throughout New England. He lived in the house afterwards occupied by Dr. Hawes [Ed. note: the former blue “plaster house” near the corner of Lyman and East Main Street, which was torn down and replaced with another blue house] . . .

Here, October 6, 1738, Tom Cook first opened his innocent baby eyes on the world, whose wrongs, in his own eccentric way, he was to endeavor to right. Here he lived, developing his own personality, and by his sweet baby prattle, every day forcing his way further into his mother’s heart. When about three years old, he was taken very ill. Mrs. Cook doubtless received the deacons and listened to their prayers over her sick darling, but it was whispered among the women at the next Sunday’s service that the little boy was getting better, in answer to his mother’s wicked prayer, “Only spare his life ; only spare his life, and I care not what he becomes!”

After reading the paper he was asked if he had anything to say upon it, and he told the church that “he doubted whether he was in a state of Grace at the time of his taking sd oath and was in doubt whether he ought to take it; but insisted that he was not guilty of taking it in the Manner the church had understood, it was in no Passion &c. but as well as he could in the fear of God, even act of worship; but as all his prayers, public attendance &c. were then profane, so was this also, and he could not judge it any otherwise, &c.” After some debate, the Church decided that this confession was unsatisfactory, and it was a year and a half before he succeeded in making one which was sufficient to restore him to fellowship.

When Tom was about fifteen, his brothers, Robert and Stephen, were imprisoned and tried for killing an Indian at Stockbridge.

The Cook family moved to Wrentham, and in 1770 Mrs. Cook was living in Douglass, but was still helped by the Westborough church.

That the Evil One sometimes appeared, was a common belief, and on the Brigham farm, on Brigham hill, Grafton, can still be seen what was once supposed to be the print of his foot in a rock behind the barn. Tradition does not say how, or where, or when, Tom entered into a compact with the devil; but in some way, possibly by his mother, at the time of his illness, he was pledged to serve that individual for a number of years, receiving abundant help in return.

The last year rolled away, and found Tom still clinging to this life, and unwilling to enter upon any other. The devil came for him one morning, when he was dressing for another active day, and his head was full of plans for work. Tom had learned by that time to live upon his wits.

“Wait, wait, wait, can’t you?” he said to his visitor, “until I get my galluses on.” And as soon as the latter had signified his willingness to wait, he threw the suspenders into the fire and never wore them again. He lived many years after this.

Mr. Parkman, forty-one years after he had baptized Eunice Cook’s new baby, in the old Wessonville church, still keeps an interest in him, and writes in his journal under date of August 27, 1779: “The notorious Thom. Cook came in (he says) on Purpose to see me. I gave him wt admon” Instruction and Caution I could — I beseech God to give it Force! He leaves me with fair Words — thankf. and Promising.”

So he parted from the old minister, leaving him to admonish, instruct, and caution, while he, in his own way, straightened out the injustices of the world.

Cook was called a very attractive man; “of medium size, remarkably agile and well formed, — his face and head betokened unusual intelligence. His eyes were his most striking feature,” described by one who had seen him as “of deep blue, the most piercing and, at the same time, the most kindly eyes that he ever saw.” Before his long life closed he bore the scars of many an encounter; on one hand, every finger had been broken, and if set at all, generally in a very un-scientific manner. In some way the various bones grew together, and Tom’s body at length resembled some knotted, gnarled old tree. With children he was a great favorite. His pockets were always filled with toys, which he had stolen for their amusement, and nothing pleased him more than to relate his adventures to their wondering ears.

Among the large class who did not believe in his league with the devil, there were many who admired his shrewdness and skill, and, in a certain sense, were his friends. He was called a thief; now he is usually spoken of as “the honest thief;” his own name for himself was “the leveller.” He spent most of his time wandering about the country, stealing in one place with such skill and boldness that he was rarely detected, and bestowing his booty in another with an equal delicacy and kindliness. He was familiar with the simple habits of the people, and knew at what hour it was best to slip into the well-to-do farmer’s kitchen, to quietly abstract the pudding from the ‘”boiled pot,” and, carrying it in its steaming bag to the next house, where the man was poorer and the family larger, to drop it noiselessly in their less highly favored kettle.

He did not always do his work in so unobtrusive a manner. Many of his acts were unpremeditated and done in full sight. One day he was walking along the country road, and saw some children crying because they were hungry. Just that moment there passed a man on his way home from the corn-mill, with a load of bags of grain. Tom took one from the back of the wagon, and quickening his pace, walked ahead of the man, and gave the grain to the children’s mother. The man saw him, but did not think of its being one of his meal-bags, until he reached home and took an account of stock.

Another time he went into a house, and upstairs. His object this time was to procure a feather-bed for some poor invalid whose slender purse forbade the purchase of such luxuries. He selected the best the house afforded, tied it closely in a sheet, took it downstairs, and knocked loudly at the front door.

“Can I leave this bundle here, till I call for it in a few days?” he asked, politely.

The woman recognized him, but not the bundle, and preferred to have him carry it elsewhere. So he took it up again with an easy conscience, and trudged on.

The farmers bore his oft-repeated thefts, with but few attempts to bring him to justice. Some of the more wealthy, who naturally would have been his chief victims, paid him annually a sum, which exempted them from his depredations, and probably nearly equaled in value what Tom would have expected in the practice of his profession to wrest from them.

He did not confine his depredations to houses, but patronized stores as well. One time, after he had broken into a shop in Woonsocket, and was travelling along the highway, he heard sleigh-bells behind him, which he rightfully guessed belonged to the officers sent in his pursuit. He jumped a wall, went to a haystack, and commenced pull-ing hay for the cattle. The officers drove up and stopped.

“Hullo,” they shouted; “seen a man running past here?”

“Just went by,” answered Tom; “you’ll overtake him in a minute.”

As soon as they were out of sight, he took off his shoes, and in true Indian fashion tied them on with the toes at the heels, and tramped over the snow to a neighboring swamp. The officers finally returned, and saw where the man had come from, but could not find where he had gone.

Another time he was less successful, and was captured by the officers, and mounted on the horse behind one of them, and carried along towards the jail. By using his hands skillfully he managed to tie the man, unknown to him, fast to his horse. He then complained that he was tired of the horse’s hard gait, and asked permission to get down and ride on the other. This was granted him, and once seated behind the second officer, he proceeded quietly to tie him to his horse. This accomplished, he jumped down and disappeared in the woods, probably leaving the officers in firm belief that their missing prisoner was in league with the Evil One, who had sent unseen hands to help his ally in distress.

In the course of his long life he was often arrested. At one time he selected a meeting-house in one of the towns in this vicinity for a place where he could retire after a successful raid, and, undisturbed, look over his booty, and develop his philanthropic plans. It was mistrusted that all was not right, and a watch was set. One night, Tom appeared through the window, seated himself in one of the capacious square pews, with his bag by his side, and commenced hauling out his plunder. Each article he laid aside, after deciding on whom it should be bestowed. Then came a bottle of cider, and he put it down with a smack of satisfaction, — “Ah, this is good for old Tom.” — “Yes,” cried the officer, springing from his place of concealment, “and this is good for old Tom.” And he arrested him, and carried him to the “goal.”

But a time came when more imminent danger threatened Tom, when he was actually brought into court, and heard the awful words of the judge: “And I therefore sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead.”

But under these trying circumstances his courage did not fail.

“I shall not be there that day, day, day,” he answered.

And when the day for his execution came, he had managed in some way to break through bolt and bar, and the wondering authorities thought “best not to look him up.”

Tom never acquired wealth for himself, and, when a severe accident to his leg, together with advancing old age, took away his agility, his means of a livelihood were gone, and he settled down in Westborough. One of the last years of his life he spent on the farm of Mr. Levi Bowman, who boarded the town’s poor. His house was the last on the old Upton road, before reaching the poor-farm. Tom spent his winters contentedly under shelter, but in summer he wandered about, and finally, when nearly ninety years of age, he ran away from his home in the poor-house, and died near Boston. He was brought back here for burial, and at an expense of forty dollars was finally laid to rest.

He left no successor to go on with his cherished work. He had at one time, after the manner of the Jew Fagin, taken a young apprentice to teach him his trade. One evening he gave him a package of valuables to hide. The boy went away with them, and, soon returning, told Tom that he had put them under a certain large stone. When he fell asleep, Tom stole out and removed the goods. The next morning he sent the boy for them, who, coming back, sadly reported that they were gone.

‘”You must have been telling some one where you put them,” said Tom. But the apprentice honestly declared he had told no one.

“But you did,” said Tom; “you told me. That is no way to do business. Keep it to yourself.”

* * *

Note: In 1984, Jacqueline Dembar Greene published The Leveller, a young adult novel about Tom Cook. The book is available at the Westborough Public Library in the Westborough Center for History and Culture.


Click here to read more Westborough Folktales!

Note that various versions of the same folk tale will be published so as to compare how each are told.