Sunday, October 29, 2017

Just in Time for Halloween: A Haunting Tale of Witches, Broomsticks, Black Cats, Owls, Bats, and Mayhem!

This week, as I explored another of Sarah Eva Howe Salyers's scrapbooks, I came across a lengthy poem written in pencil on legal-sized, lined paper now yellowed with age. At the top was a title: "The Broomstick Train; or The Return of the Witches."

Ah!, I thought. Sarah had written a poem that would be perfect to post close to Halloween! The longer I read, the more I wondered: Sarah wrote many fanciful, delightful poems, but did she write this one? An online search quickly revealed that the poem was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes (father of the more-famous Supreme Court justice of the same name) circa 1890 and published with illustrations in 1892.

Here, in handwriting typical of Sarah's when she was in school (circa 1895), is the entire poem, with all of its quirky punctuation and phrasing. The illustrations by Howard Pyle (1853-1911) are from the 1892 edition, now in public domain.

More illustrations, plus footnotes explaining many of the poem's references and providing historical context, are beautifully posted online. Out of curiosity, I researched a few of the lines and terms myself. I posted my findings as footnotes below. Note that "train" refers to an electric trolley car that runs on tracks.

Look out! Look out, boys! Clear the track! 
The witches are here! They’ve all come back.
They hanged them high, —No Use! No use!
What cares a witch for a hangman’s noose?
They buried them deep, but they would n’t lie still,
For cats and witches are hard to kill;
They swore they should n’t and would n’t die.
Books said they did but they lie! they lie!

— A couple of hundred years, or so,
They had knocked about in the world below,
When an Essex Deacon dropped in to call,
And a homesick feeling seized them all;
For he came from a place they knew full well,
And many a tale he had to tell.
They longed to visit the haunts of men,
To see the old dwellings they knew again,
And ride on their broomsticks all around
Their wide domain of unhallowed ground.

In Essex County there’s many a roof 
Well known to him of the cloven hoof;
The small square windows are still in view
Which the midnight hags went sailing through,
On their well-trained broomsticks mounted high,
Seen like shadows against the sky;
Crossing the track of owls and bats,
Hugging before them their coal-black cats.

Well did they know, those gray old wives,
The sights we see in our daily drives:
Shimmer of lake, and shine of sea,
Brown’s bare hill with its lonely tree,
(It was n’t then as we see it now,
With one scant scalp-lock to shade its brow;).

Dusky nooks in the Essex woods,
Dark, dim, Dante-like solitudes,
Where the tree toad watches the sinuous snake
Glide through his forests of fern and brake;
Ipswich River, its old stone bridge;
Far off Andover’s Indian Ridge,
And many a scene where history tells
Some shadow of bygone terror dwells, —
Of “Norman’s Woe”1 with its tale of dread,
Of the Screeching Woman2 of Marblehead,
(The fearful story that turns men pale:
Do n’t bid me tell it, — my speech would fail.

Who would not, will not, if he can,
Bathe in the breezes of fair Cape Ann,
Rest in the bowers her bays enfold,
Loved by the sachems and squaws of old?
Home where the white magnolias bloom,
Sweet with the bayberry’s chaste perfume,
Hugged by the woods and kissed by the sea!
Where is the Eden like to thee?

For that “couple of hundred years, or so,” 
There had been no place in the world below;
The witches still grumbling, “It is n’t fair;
Come give us a taste of the upper air!
We’ve had enough of your sulphur springs
And the evil odor that round them clings;
We long for a drink that is cool and nice, —
Great buckets of water with Wenham ice;
We’ve served you well up-stairs, you know;
You're a good old fellow — come, let us go!”

I do n’t feel sure of his being good,
But he happened to be in a pleasant mood, —
As fiends with their skins full sometimes are, —
(He’d been drinking with “roughs” at a Boston bar.)
So what does he do but up and shout
To a graybeard turnkey, “Let ‘em out!”

To mind his orders was all he knew; 
The gates swung open and out they flew
“Where are our broomsticks?” the beldams cried.
“Here are your broomsticks,” an imp replied.
“They’ve been in the place you know — so long
They smell of brimstone uncommon strong
But they’ve gained by being left alone, —
Just look, and see how tall they’ve grown.”

“And where is my cat?” a vixen squalled.
“Yes, where are our cats”? The witches bawled,
And began to call them all by name
As fast as they called the cats, they came.
There was bob-tailed Tommy and long-tailed Tim,
And wall-eyed Jacky and green-eyed Jim,
And splay-foot Benny and slim-legged Beau,
And Skinny and Squally, and Jerry and Joe,
And many another that came at call, —
It would take too long to count them all,
All black, — one could hardly tell which was which
But every cat knew his own old witch
And she knew hers as hers knew her. —
Ah, did n’t they curl their tails and purr!

No sooner the withered hags were free    
Than out they swarmed for a midnight spree.
I could n’t tell all they did in rhymes
But the Essex people had dreadful times.
The Swampscott3 fishermen still relate
How a strange sea-monster stole their bait;
How their nets were tangled in loops and knots,
And they found dead crabs in their lobster pots.
Poor Danvers3 grieved for her blasted crops, ––
And Wilmington mourned over mildewed hops.
A blight played havoc with Beverly beans, ––
It was all the work of those hateful queans!
A dreadful panic began at “Pride’s,”
Where the witches stopped in their midnight rides
And there rose strange rumors and vague alarms
‘Mid the peaceful dwellers at Beverly Farms.

Now when the Boss of the Beldams4 found
That without his leave they were ramping round,
He called, — They could hear him twenty miles
From Chelsea Beach to The Misery Isles;
The deafest old granny knew his tone
Without the trick of the telephone.
“Come here, you witches! Come here!” says he, —
At your games of old, without asking me!
I’ll give you a little job to do
That will keep you stirring, you godless crew!”

They came, of course, at their master’s call 
The witches, the broomsticks, cats, and all.
He led the hags to a railway train
The horses were trying to drag in vain.
“Now, then,” says he, “you’ve had your fun,
And here are the cars you’ve got to run.
The driver may just unhitch his team
We do n’t want horses, we do n’t want steam;
You may keep your old black cats to hug,
But the loaded train you’ve got to lug.”

Since then on many a car you’ll see
A broomstick plain as plain can be;
On every stick there 's a witch astride, —
The string you see to her leg is tied.
She will do a mischief if she can,
But the string is held by a careful man,
And whenever the evil-minded witch
Would cut some caper, he gives a twitch.

As for the hag, you can't see her,
But hark! you can hear her black cat's purr,
And now and then, as a car goes by,
You may catch a gleam from her wicked eye.
Often you 've looked on a rushing train,

But just what moved it was not so plain.

It could n't be those wires above,

For they could neither pull nor shove;

Where was the motor that made it go

You could n't guess, but now you know.

Remember my rhymes when you ride again

On the rattling rail by the broomstick train!


1Herman's Woe   a reference to "The Wreck of the Hesperus," a narrative poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, first published in 1842. The poem presents the tragic consequences of a sea captain's pride and ends with a prayer that all be spared such a fate "on the reef of Norman's Woe." See

2Screeching Woman of Marblehead – Reference to a tale of an English woman captured by Spanish pirates in the late 17th century.

3Swampscott and Danvers are towns in Essex County, Mass. Danvers is the location of the Salem Witch Museum.

4Beldam is an old term (1500s) for a malicious, shrewd, ugly woman, especially an old one; archaic term for grandmother; also a witch.

The complete poem "The Broomstick Train," with footnotes and illustrations, is posted at 

A segment of Sarah's transcription of the poem "The Broomstick Train" by Oliver Wendell Holmes

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Greetings! Cards and Notes Tell Stories of the Early 1900s

If email, Facebook, and Twitter had been around in the early 1900s, we would have no insight into communication among members of the Howe and Salyers families of Carrollton, Kentucky. Thank goodness people actually wrote notes and cards to each other – and thank goodness Sarah Eva Howe Salyers pasted so many of those notes and cards into her scrapbooks.

The most recent scrapbook I've explored contains many cards, and each one tells us something not only about Sarah but about the time in which she was a young woman. Today we'll look at some of those cards from the 1920s and 1930s.

Some cards in the scrapbook celebrate birthdays, while others are for staying in touch. Here are examples of both kinds.

These two birthday cards are pasted to old, crumbling pages, and I dare not try to remove them to see who sent them and who received them.

This birthday card was probably addressed to one of Sarah's children.
This sweet card invites someone to visit.
Someone is nudging the recipient of this card to write back. The sender, or maybe Sarah herself, tagged the dogs with the names of Sarah's children: James Richard, Bob, and Mary Alice.
Sarah's sister Leonora Alice Howe sent this postcard from Cincinnati to her brother-in-law (Sarah's husband), William Levi Salyers, while he was traveling on business.
Sarah sent this card to her husband, who was again traveling in his job as a representative of Moore Brothers Company, distributor of stoves and furnaces. She wrote a poignant note: 
"Who looks for your buttons now?"

Sarah kept many cards that have a Dutch theme. Most of them, like this one, are stereotypical – a child wearing wooden shoes, a windmill, and messages written in ethnic vernacular to simulate mispronunciation of American speech. I know from her descendants that she often used this phrase about the weather: "There's just enough blue in the sky today to make a Dutchman a pair of britches." I'll post more Dutch-themed cards in future posts, maybe with some insight about American attitudes about Dutch immigrants in the early 1900s. 
I wish I knew the story behind this card. Who sent it? Who received it?

Last but not least, this card sent by Sarah's son James Richard ("Jim") to his sister Mary Alice, suggesting that it might apply to her. It was in the early 1930s, and letters in the scrapbook reveal that Mary Alice had caught the eye of a young man named Lawrence. Jim suggested that she would jump up and run after him if he walked down her street.

Postcards and note cards tell a lot of stories. We'll look at more of them in a future post. In the meantime, I'll take a break from blogging to spend time with visiting relatives – three generations descended from Sarah's daughter Mary Alice.