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Dressing for the Dead Zone

If you're going to dress up like a weirdo,
make sure it's someone we know.

VISIT: The Grave Site
carved pumpkin
The last time the leaves fell a group of my friends went to a Halloween party dressed as victims of the Titanic. Everyone in the group wore vintage formal clothing with hoary whiteface makeup and dark sunken eyes for that just-frozen-at-sea look. Their slicked back hair was stiff and hung with plastic icicles. Each accessorized his or her outfit with bits of real seaweed, barnacles, starfish and assorted shark bites. All seven wore frosty white life preservers as they stumbled stiffly into each other on the dance floor like a zombie slam dance. The sight was downright horrific, and since that is the point of Halloween, they captured first prize in the costume contest.

Back in my day kids were the only ones wearing the costumes, while adults hid in the shrubbery looking at their watches. And there weren't a lot of options. You had your basic caveman, princess, devil, Lone Ranger, skeleton, Frankenstein, vampire, witch, Wolfman, musketeer, fairy or cat. Beyond the age of eight it was decidedly uncool to spend more than 10 minutes preparing the costume, which led to an annual population explosion of hoboes and tramps, created by quickly applying burnt cork and pillaging the rag bag under the kitchen sink. Simple, effective, cheap. The costume was merely the means to obtain a bag of candy.

But no more. Preparing for Halloween has become, like most Americanized holidays, a competition fit only for the strong, the resourceful and the wealthy. Watch out kids! The grown-ups are back, and they don't play the game for Sweet Tarts.

The dancing Titanic team couldn't beat the guy that showed up at my own adult Halloween party a few years back. A least, I think it was a guy. He never rang the doorbell; we just found him standing there, arms hanging limp, his body completely wrapped in yellowed gauze. There was one grayish eye, it seemed, way back inside the bandages, half shut, half bloody. What we could see between the bandages, here and there, looked soft and wet and nasty. He never spoke, not once all night. He never drank or ate. Three hours later the mummy man was still sitting on the sofa, breathing that same wheezing gasp. We guessed he had not bathed for a week and eaten nothing but tuna without brushing his teeth in order to develop that amazing aroma. Each time he moved to a new room, it was empty in minutes. The mummy was the last guest to leave, and we debated dropping him from a third story window just to see if was already dead, when he suddenly rose, wheezing, and limped away. I still do not know who it was. Except for a six-foot man at the Disney Store dressed in a giant Winnie-the-Pooh costume the other day, I've never seen anything more frightening than that mummy.

Which got me thinking that there may be a way to turn this sick new trend away from the dark side and into the light. For historians, you see, there is no Halloween. Like morticians, we live perpetually, happily, among the dead. So why not provide Seacoast-area adults with a DIRECTORY of local characters ideal for Halloween depiction? That way, we all learn a little about our heritage while dressing up like idiots. Kids can play too while trick-or-treating. When people coming to the front door ask, "And who are you supposed to be?" just train your children to recite a bit of history. For starters, here are some area characters to impersonate:

Skull Goody Cole: This one is too easy, and I feel badly for NH's only condemned witch of Hampton from the 1600s (later redeemed), but you have to start somewhere. No pointed black hats, please. She probably wore an old shawl, carried a cane and looked like your grandmother after 20 years in a Boston debtor's prison.

The Demented Man of Elliot: 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 simple costume requires only a fork and a  very hungry look.

Ruth Blay: Poor Ruth Blay of South Hampton was sentenced to death for killing her own stillborn child and was hanged in Portsmouth in December 1768. She was declared innocent at the last moment, but too late. Sheriff Thomas Packer had done the deed and gone home for lunch. Local mobs hung him in effigy. Ruth Blay impersonators should wear a noose around the neck and do a lot of accusatory finger-pointing.

The Chicken Man of Portsmouth: Thomas Bailey Aldrich tells us of the Portsmouth boy who, imitating some chickens, leaped off the barn and landed on his head. He was never quite right after that and was often seen to scratch the ground, cackle and peck at his foot. He always wore a few chicken feathers in his cap.

Nicholas Newman: Not a scary character, Aldrich describes 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!"

Phillip Babb: Another evil figure in local lore, this ghostly murderer from the Isles of Shoals reportedly wore a bloody apron, carried a butcher knife and hated Puritans.

Benjamin Lear: The famous "Portsmouth Hermit" born in 1720, one author tells us, "vegetated 82 years" wandering around the city. He was often seen gnawing from a large slab of meat that he carried with him. Vegetarians should not select this costume.

Molly Bridget: Driven from town to town with other homeless poor, Molly Bridget was staying at the Portsmouth almshouse in 1782. Testing to see if she was truly a witch, the locals burned pigs' tales in the fireplace there, and Molly suddenly died on the spot. At her burial a storm arose, further convincing citizens of her evil origins.

Jack Ringbolt: Check my recent column that exhumed this 1846 ballad about a local seaman who refused to be buried on land. You will need a mummy sleeping bag (with feet cut out for locomotion) and a clever special effect that makes your head appear to be on fire. Carry a portable tape recorder playing messages like "Trick or Treat!" since Jack's corpse did not move its mouth when speaking.

Louis Wagner: I hate to see Karen and Anethe Chrisiansen, the 1873 Smuttynose Murder victims, exploited any more than they are already in the Kathryn Bigelow film "Weight of Water". But who minds exploiting a murderer? Imagine Louis, their killer at the Isles of Shoals, as a turn-of-the-century fisherman for your costume. He looks a little like Rasputin in the movie. The film also stars Sean Penn. Perhaps it should be renamed "Dead Man Rowing."

Passaconnaway: Why not put a positive role model among this bloody mix? As chief of the local Indian tribes, this sachem kept the peace for the first 50 years of European occupation in New Hampshire. He wore a cool leather hat like an upside-down funnel and a bear's head around his waist like a hip belt. Froget the traditional feathered headress. Native New Englanders had their own cache'.

Lady Ghost: The every popular 14th wife of the pirate Blackbeard was left on White Island to guard her husband's treasure, which she reportedly still does. Legends seem to favor her costume as a diaphanous gown that does not blow in the breeze, so be sure to starch it down flat. Just repeat "He will come back!" endlessly, and most locals will know who you are portraying. Isles of Shoals summer visitors still chant that phrase to the departing ferry.

Ms. Otis and Ms Brackett : Parson's History of the Town of Rye tells us that in 1691 a young Brackett girl was kidnapped by Indians during the Brackett Lane Massacre and taken off to Quebec, Canada. In Dover, the same thing had happened in 1689 to Christine Otis when her family was wiped out and their garrison destroyed. This flexible duo could be played by two young girls or two adults. Ironically, both women returned alive and well about 40 years later, likely with distinct French Canadian accents.

Captain Waldron: When this early Dover leader cheated the local Indians, they took revenge during the famous Cochcecho "massacre". For those into gory makeup, the natives cut off his 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.

The Rock-Throwing Devil: In 1682 George Walton's house in New Castle was pelted repeatedly with a shower of rocks. Most amazingly, the rocks fell from inside the house. Objects like the cooking spit and candles flew around the house and up the chimney as attested to by witnesses. For those who don't like all the fuss and expense of this silly holiday, here is a solution. The Rock-Throwing Devil was never actually seen. So if you don't see me at your Halloween party, look again. I'm the one in the Rock-Throwing Devil suit.



By J. Dennis Robinson

1999 SeacoastNH.com
All rights reserved. Updated 2003

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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