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  • Irish Changeling in New York February 18, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    Ok there has been a lot of energy and desperation spent on this one: Beach has wasted, in fact, about six hours of his life trying to chase down the story. If any reader should happen to find a newspaper version there will be a bright shiny book of some description put in the post in the very near future: at least to the first. Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com The book need not involve fairies.

    As we have noted here on other occasions the nineteenth-century Irish sometimes mistreated children who they believed to be changelings. To the best of Beachcombing’s knowledge, among western Europeans, this rather worrying behaviour was restricted to the Gaels, at least in the later nineteenth century. However, as the Irish travelled across the world at this date it follows that they may have brought their habits with them to other places.

    Beach knows of two sources that suggest that an Irish family in New York mistreated and, in fact, killed a child believing that it was a fairy. They seem to have burnt the poor bairn. Beachcombing tries not to think about it too much.

    In 1877, in the city of New York, an Irish immigrant and his wife burned their child to death under the delusion that they were ridding themselves of a changeling.’ ‘Superstition and Crime’, Popular Science Monthly 54 (1898), 206-221 at 210. The author here, one Evans is inexact and, as life is brief, Beach would have given up on it or perhaps better would have come to the conclusion that the city, the year and likely the outcome had got mixed up in Evans’ sieve-like mind.

    However, another reference is more difficult to kick around the backyard. The estimable, brilliant and witty Robert Hunt in Popular Romances of the West of England: The Drolls, Traditions, and Superstitions of Old Cornwall (London 1881) writes, 94: ‘A friend writes me: ‘I saw an account in a newspaper the other day of an Irishwoman who was brought before the magistrates, in New York, for causing the death of a child by making it stand on hot coals to try if it were her own truly-begotten child, or a changeling.’’

    So it happened and it seems to have happened in New York and it happened prior to 1881. But where is the article in question? Are there any other examples of Irish families bringing Irish fairy customs with them?


    24 Feb 2012: The great Boria Sax has written in with an article not to the changeling case in question but from the New York Times in 1895 and referring to Bridget Cleary, perhaps the last changeling killing. What Beachcombing finds fascinating is the way that changeling violence had to be explained to Anglo-Saxon audiences. It is this that makes Beach think the missing ‘article’ was not, as two readers have suggested, an invention. ‘An Irish correspondent of the London Spectator writes to inform the readers of that paper that the English papers seem to have missed the real point of that horrible chapter in the history of superstition – the murder of Mrs Cleary in the County of Tipperary. She did not fall victim to the belief in witchcraft or in demoniacal possession – neither has any real hold in Ireland. She perished owing to the belief to this hour singularly prevalent in Munster, and, I am told, also in the West. A prominent tenet of the believers in the fairies and their powers is the superstition of ‘the changeling’. Spenser in the Faery Queen writes. From thence  a Fairy thee unweeting reft, There as thou slepst in tender swaddling band/ And her base elfin broods there for thee left; Such men do changelings call, so change’d by fairies theft. In Munster when a child appears delicate or a young woman consumptive or hysterical, the conclusion often is that the child or woman has been carried off by the fairies, to be made a playmate or nurse to the young fairies, and that a fairy substitute resembling the person taken away is deposited in its place, which belief is that if the changeling be tortured by fire, its fairy parents will hear its cries, rush to its aid, carry it back to fairyland, and at the same moment restor the real person, who will be found sleeping calmly on the bed. Cleary and ‘the neighbours’ evidently believed that the being they tortured was not Cleary’s wife, but a changeling. He addressed her ‘In the name of God, are you Bridget Boland?’ (her maiden name) believing that thus adjured the being would confess it was a fairy. He said when he set fire to her: ‘You will soon see my wife come down the chimney’ believing that the fairies would snatch away the tortured fairy and restore his real wife. Again, after the burning, many of the men of the locality sat up all night in a ‘fort’ (earth embankment of ancient Irish village) armed with black-handled knives [this detail is incorrect, Beach!]. These poor people thought that a fairy procession would pass by; that in its midst would be Mrs Cleary riding on a gray horse, and that if any one rushed forward and cut her bonds with a black-handled knife (a potent weapon against all evil spirits) she would at once be restored to the world. In the tales of Terror Wonder it was thus that Fair Janet rescued Tam Lin from the fairies. She sat at Giles Cross on Halloween at the ‘murk and midnight hour’ when she sees the fairy host go by. ‘First she let the black pass/ and next she let the brown/ But quickly ran to the milk-white steed, And drew its rider down’ Thus fair Janet rescued Tam Lin; thus the poor dwellers on the slope of Shere-na-mon (the witche’s Hill, a haunted mountain) believed they would rescue Bridget Cleary.’ Thanks Boria!

    25/2/2012: Invisible writes in with this from The Democrat and Standard Coshocton , Ohio 12 May 1903 from a story called “Something About Ghost Stories, People Who Believed in the Supernatural.” By James Mugness. ‘The author talks about the ghost of Caesar, jack-o-lanterns, and ghostly folklore, but also mentions ghost stories told by local men, including a black dog story, which I have seen in earlier newspapers. I don’t know if this tale is something local or, more likely, folklore which he had read somewhere. Another man, we are told, lost his wife in child bed. She was a beautiful woman in life, but in death looked haggard and cadaverous. He buried her, but afterwards a spectre haunted him which purported to be the ghost of his wife, telling him she was not really dead, but was living: and that haggard figure he had buried was not his wife, but was substituted by some fairies for her. This spectre haunted him nightly, claiming to be his wife, and one night, to convince him more fully, she let the babe she had left with him nurse at her breast, and dropped a few drops of breast milk on the bed-clothes, which was plainly visible in the morning. The husband believed it an illusion but couldn’t get rid of the phantom. He told the matter to his pastor who told him it was an illusion and to shake it off if he could. But the man never fully got rid of it.’ As Invisible goes on to note this is a classic changeling tale. It would be fascinating if this was recorded in the US!’ Thanks Invisible!