Up the Hudson River by train

During my first trip to NYC, I wanted to spend some time outside the city and in New York State. I chose a trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line and certainly wasn’t disappointed.

On boarding the train at the iconic Grand Central Terminal, the passenger is soon transported through the urban landscape of Harlem and the Bronx and, after a mere 11 miles, the line then follows the Hudson River all the way to Poughkeepsie. The 73.5 mile journey takes passengers along the river through Westchester County and on into Putnam and Dutchess counties and the beautiful Hudson Highlands.

After a 1 hour 46 minute journey, the Metro-North train terminates at Poughkeepsie, ‘The Queen City of the Hudson’.

From the station, it is only a short walk to the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park. The Walkway is a formerly disused rail bridge which once carried freight trains high over Poughkeepsie and across the Hudson to Highland in Ulster County. The impressive bridge has now had its track removed and been converted into the world’s longest pedestrian bridge, providing a 1.28 mile walk which offers views up and down the Hudson River, as well as the sight of freight trains making their way along the CSX River Subdivision.

Having arrived at the Highland end of the bridge, a short walk down wooded back roads leads to the waterfront and views across to Poughkeepsie, prior to making the journey back.

All photos © Edmund Standing 2014

European-American Folk Traditions

When settlers from the British Isles and Germany arrived on the shores of North America, they brought with them not only Christianity, but also a variety of folk beliefs and practices related to every aspect of life and death.

To Appalachia was brought a belief in signs and omens, numerous proverbs, and folk healing practices centred on ‘Granny Women‘. Three fascinating posts on Appalachian folk magic can be read here, here, and here.

To the Ozarks came a form of folk magic very firmly grounded in Protestant Christianity, while holding much in common with other folk religious and magical systems. A helpful glossary of Ozark folk magic can be found here.

Meanwhile, the ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ brought from Germany a magico-religious systemknown as brauche, or ‘powwowing’. Powwowing is rooted in German esoteric traditions and makes use of both the Bible and material derived from European grimoires. Even today, the practice persists, albeit often still under a veil of secrecy. A good website providing information on the Pennsylvania Dutch traditions can be found here.

The wakes and feasts of country parishes

In pre-modern England, the anniversary of the dedication of the community’s church to its tutelary saint was marked yearly with great celebration. The following accounts of such festivities give an indication as to how far removed the Christianity of ordinary rural people was from the staid church-going of today.

Celebrations in the South West:

Then the inhabitants deck themselves in their gaudiest clothes, and have open doors and splendid entertainments, for the reception and treating of their relations and friends, who visit them on that occasion from every neighbouring town. The morning is spent for the most part at church, though not as that morning was wont to be spent, not in commemorating the saint or martyr, or in gratefully remembering the builder and endower. The remaining part of the day is spent in eating and drinking. Thus also they spend a day or two afterwards, in all sorts of rural pastimes and exercises, such as dancing on the green, wrestling, cudgelling, &c.[1]

Festivities in Lancashire:

The eve of such anniversary was the yearly wake (or watching) of the parishioners; and originally booths were erected in the churchyards, and feasting, dancing, and other revelry continued throughout the night. The parishioners attended divine service on the feast day, and the rest of that day was then devoted to popular festivities. So great grew the excesses during these prolonged orgies, that at length it became necessary to close the churches against the pageants and mummeries performed in them at these anniversaries, and the churchyards against the noisy, disorderly, and tumultuous merry-makings of the people. Thenceforth the great seal of the revels was transferred from the church and its grave-yard, to the village green or the town market-place, or some space of open ground, large enough for popular assemblages to enjoy the favourite sports and pastimes of the period. Such were the general character and features of the wakes and feasts of country parishes, changing only with the name of the patron saint, the day of the celebration.[2]

References:

[1] John Brand (1849) Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, Vol. II (London: Henry G. Bohn), p.5. Citing Henry Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares, Or The Antiquities of the Common People (1725).

[2] John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson (1867) Lancashire Folk-Lore (London: Frederick Warne and Co.), p.213.

Love and death in British folk magic

In addition to healing, attracting good fortune, and so on, compulsion is often an important element in folk magical systems, particularly in regard to love and relationships. This is illustrated below, where we see reference made to two candle rituals aimed at compelling the appearance of a lover, as well as the allegation of the use of powders for a similar effect.

As folk magic emerges from within the lived experience of ‘ordinary’ people, and as it is integrally linked to the everyday and the earthy, it should come as no surprise that in addition to petitions to God and use of religious items and symbols, an appeal to the mysterious power of death itself is sometimes made, whether that be through attempting to harm another or through seeking restoration through the use of items touched by death. Examples of this are also found below.

Compelling others in matters of the heart:

‘Buckinghamshire damsels desirous to see their lovers would stick two pins across through the candle they were burning, taking care that the pins passed through the wick. While doing this they recited the following verse:

It’s not this candle alone I stick,
But A.B.’s heart I mean to prick;
Whether he be asleep or awake,
I’d have him come to me and speak.

By the time the candle burned down to the pins and went out, the lover would be certain to present himself’.[1]

Women in Durham placed the end of a tallow-candle stuck through and through with pins in a box to hasten the visit/return of a lover.[2]

‘Whenever the superstitious person is in love, he will complain that tempting powder has been given him’.[3]

Harnessing the power of death:

‘It is said in Devonshire that you may give [ague] to your neighbour, by burying under his threshold a bag containing the parings of a dead man’s nails, and some of the hairs of his head: your neighbour will be afflicted with ague until the bag is removed. In Somersetshire and the adjoining counties, the patient shuts a large black spider into a box, and leaves it to perish…'[4]

‘Moss growing on a human skull, if dried, powdered, and taken as snuff, will cure the headache’.[5]

‘The chips or cuttings of a gibbet, or gallows, on which one or more persons have been executed or exposed, if worn next to the skin, or round the neck in a bag, will cure the ague, or prevent it’.[6]

18th Century Devonshire cure for convulsions: Make a ring, which ‘must be made of three nails, or screws, which have been used to fasten a coffin, and must be dug out of the churchyard’.[7]

References:

[1] William Henderson (1866) Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties Counties of England and the Borders (London: Longmans, Green, and Co.), p.139.

[2] Henderson (1866), p.138.

[3] John Brand (1849) Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, Volume III (London: Henry G. Bohn), p.308.

[4] Henderson (1866), p.118.

[5] Brand (1849), p.277.

[6] Brand (1849), p.277.

[7] Brand (1849), p.300-301.