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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.


Costume Ideas for the Portsmouth Halloween Parade

Blackbeards_Lady_Ghost by J. Dennis Robinson


Poor Ruth Blay was the last woman hanged in Portsmouth in 1768 for the crime of concealing the death of her stillborn child. Nothing funny about that. A recently published book suggests that Ruth was also concealing the name of the father of her child. She died to save his reputation. It has been suggested that her lover was the local minister, and a married man. Any clerical outfit will do here. Add horns, hooves, and a forked tail, since this guy clearly went to Hell.  

Aldrich described Nicholas Newman of Portsmouth as cross-eyed, very short and bowlegged. The last of the Portsmouth town criers, he carried a gigantic bell and had a booming voice. Newman walked sideways through town like a land crab shouting "Hear All! Hear All!" Wear a Revolutionary-style three-cornered hat and throw in some salacious local news as you wander the city streets.

Another exploited figure in local lore, this ghostly “murderer” from the Isles of Shoals reportedly wore a bloody apron and carried a butcher’s knife. That’s because Phillip Babb of Smuttynose Island was actually a butcher. Despite the legend, there is no evidence he harmed anyone. Buy a big rubber blade and an apron smeared with ketchup. Cover yourself with fish guts to capture that authentic 17th century Shoals scent.

A poor woman driven from town to town, Molly Bridget was staying at the Portsmouth almshouse in 1782. Testing to see if she was truly a witch, the townspeople burned a few pig tails in the fireplace there. Molly suddenly died on the spot, proving to the superstitious locals that she was indeed a witch. A pair of those large, greasy, dried, pig ears sold as dog treats are required here. Also pick up a pork snout from the butcher. These appendages should be worn, not by the person portraying Molly, but by everyone else in the town that condemned her.

This fictional character comes from an 1848 ballad by Portsmouth poet James Kennard, Jr. Jack Ringbolt was a sailor who died in Portsmouth but insisted on being buried at sea. Some friends wrapped his corpse in a blanket and weighted it with iron. They rowed Jack’s body to the mouth of the PiscataquaRiver and tossed it overboard. According to Kennard’s poem (he was a highly religious invalid who could neither move nor talk) Jack’s body burst into flames and hovered above the ocean. Then it disappeared over the horizon. For this costume you will need an old mummy sleeping bag (with a hole cut out so you can walk on tip-toes). Rig up some lights that make your head glow.

As in Hollywood, there aren’t many great roles for women here. Our weirdoes tend to be men, and the women are usually their victims. At least Portsmouth “madam” Mary Baker made a successful living in the city’s Combat Zone. She dressed in fine outfits, wore large hats, reportedly had a diamond in her teeth, and exploited underage girls in her brothel off Water Street.

I hate to see Karen and Anethe Christiansen, the 1873 Smuttynose Murder victims, exploited any more than they already have been. So please, leave them alone. But Louis Wagner was a bad man and he deserves to be remembered as a monster. Despite a boat-load of conspiracy theories, trust me, Wagner was guilty. All you need to portray him is a knit fisherman’s cap, a hatchet, an oar, and a bible – since Wagner found religion moments after his arrest. The character will be more convincing if you declare your innocence with a thick, 19th century Prussian accent.

Legend says that the pirate Blackbeard left his 14th wife on the Isles of Shoals to guard his stolen gold. The facts in the life of Edward Teach belie the wife, the location, the timing, and the treasure itself. But it’s still a good story. Descriptions of the imaginary “Lady Ghost” usually show her in a diaphanous gown that does not blow in the breeze. So be sure to starch and iron your outfit flat. If you endlessly repeat the sentence "He will come back! He will come back!” all devoted Shoalers will get the message.

Residents of Dover will recall that their early leader Richard Waldron cheated the local Indians. They took revenge during the famous Cochcecho "massacre". For those into gory makeup, the Natives cut off Waldron’s nose and ears, which they put in his mouth before slashing him across the chest and forcing him to fall on his own sword. Waldron was 74 years old so this costume is ideal for seniors.

In 1682 George Walton's house in New Castle was pelted repeatedly with a shower of rocks. According to reports, the rocks even fell from inside the house. The cooking spit and candles flew up the chimney. Another new scholarly book, The Devil of Great Island, suggests that the so-called supernatural events were caused by very human hands. Family members had strong motivation for killing the wealthy Mr. Waldron to inherit his property. Since the legendary “Rock Throwing Devil” was invisible and never seen by witnesses, it makes the perfect costume for adults who prefer to stay home on Halloween.

Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes books on local history that are available in selected bookstores and on His history column appears every other Monday in the Portsmouth Herald and can also be seen online exclusively on Robinson’s history Web site at


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