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When we talk about folktales, we are talking about stories that are always already out of date.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.

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