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Creepy Characters from History

Halloween_CharactersHISTORY MATTERS

Once each year we working stiffs can parade through the streets of Portsmouth acting as insane and tasteless as a candidate running for re-election. That day is Halloween, formerly a holiday for children. But in recent years adults have stormed the haunted castle and stolen Halloween away. (Continued below)


My theory is that, if grown-ups insist on dressing-up for Halloween, they should depict people from Portsmouth’s past. That way, at least, they can teach the kids a little history at the same time.

For the record, I love the Portsmouth Halloween Parade. I love the stock costumes at the Halloween superstore. And I love ghost stories, unless they are presented as real history. No matter what you may read or hear, there is not a single “documented” or “authentic” haunting in town, unless one clings to the Provincial Records of our superstitious ancestors who imagined demons behind every rock and witches (almost always female neighbors) who turned into cats. Show me a supernatural tale from colonial days, and I’ll show you the property dispute or legal hassle that spawned it. Show me an early record of an apparition, and I’ll show you an ancient witness who needed glasses. 

A skeptic’s guide to local Halloween costumes

People who think otherwise usually haven’t done their homework. They barely scratch below the surface and accept hearsay from any witness as fact. It’s always more fun to repeat and expand the myths than to search for the truth. Sure, there are charlatans with electronic devices that measure stuff. The dials twitch and the lights flash, but for historians, it’s just theatre. Enjoy it, but don’t fall for it. Inevitably the “ghostbuster” has a commercial interest. Spooky stories can be a great way to grab tourist dollars and introduce visitors to history, but too much folklore can be a dangerous thing. Salem, Massachusetts has branded itself as “WitchCity” over a tragic 1692 historic event that involved cruel injustice, but no “real” witchery at all. Today their chamber of commerce logo is a Hollywood-style witch and a popular Web site touts Salem as the city “where it’s haunted every day of the year.” Portsmouth can do better.  

Do I believe all paranormal research is a hoax? By no means. Do I think we’re alone in this vast universe? No way. There are more things in this universe than we can imagine, to paraphrase Shakespeare, but let’s not confuse historical facts with folklore, or ghostly “investigations” with science. Our kids deserve better role models.  

There are boundless gross and gory tales – some real, some fictional -- from which to craft this year’s Halloween costume. Consider the following suggestions, submitted for your approval. Then when people ask -- "And who are you supposed to be?" -- you can teach them a little about Portsmouth’s past.

Writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich tells us of the Portsmouth boy who, imitating some chickens, once leaped off a barn roof and landed on his head. He was never quite right after that. The Chicken Man was often seen scratching the ground with his foot, cackling and pecking at things. He always wore a few chicken feathers in his cap.

The infamous "Portsmouth Hermit" was born in 1720 and is the region’s most documented 18th century homeless person. Benjamin Lear (not to be confused with Benjamin Lincoln Lear, the son of George Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear)  wandered around the city until he died at age 82. Lear was often seen gnawing from a large slab of meat that he carried with him. This character is especially suited for men with long facial hair who have not bathed in weeks. Not recommended for vegetarians.

In 1905, according to the local newspaper, a crazed-looking unshaven man kept showing up at the home of a family in Elliot, Maine demanding dinner. This easy-to-make costume requires only a knife, a fork, and a very hungry look.


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Saturday, February 17, 2018 
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