Prison Flashlight Tour – Ghost Edition at HMNS Sugar Land Oct. 18

Flashlight tours have become a mainstay of the season and always have something new to offer. Join David Temple, HMNS Associate Curator of Paleontology, for an after-dark flashlight tour of HMNS at Sugar Land, highlighting the history of this unique building and the ghosts that may still be haunting it.

Historic BuildingThe historic brick building that now houses HMNS Sugar Land was a state prison building before being renovated and reborn as a science museum in 2009.

This special Halloween tour, geared for patrons over the age of 13, is not for the faint-hearted or those who are afraid of things that go bump in the night!

What: Prison Flashlight Tour
When: Thursday ,Oct. 18, at 7 p.m.
Where: HMNS Sugar Land
How much: $25, $20 for members

Click here for advance tickets!

Ghosts of the Whydah [Real Pirates Exhibit]

Today’s post is brought to you by our guest blogger Alice Newman. Alice is a volunteer at HMNS and a contributor to our magazine, the Dashing Diplodocus.

Photo by jjsala, on Flickr.
Taken during an HMNS Flickr meetup.
Interested in attending a future event?
Follow the discussions on the HMNS Flickr Pool.

Ghosts, witches, and devils are haunting our halls! No, they aren’t left over from Halloween, rather, they are the spooky tales that accompany the exhibit Real Pirates.

In The Narrow Land, a collection of Cape Cod folk tales, author Elizabeth Reynard relates how young Sam Bellamy met golden-haired Maria Hallett beneath a blossoming apple tree in the Wellfleet cemetery. The two became lovers, and when Sam sailed to scavenge treasure from Spanish shipwrecks off the coast of Florida, he promised to return and marry her. Unsuccessful in his quest, Sam turned to piracy, eventually commandeering the Whydah, which wrecked in a terrible storm within sight of Maria’s hut. According to legend, Maria looked desperately for Sam’s body among more than one hundred that had washed ashore. Locals say she still searches for Sam; her mournful wails can be heard echoing off the Eastham cliffs. Some believe she had been “ruined” by Sam, and, in revenge, caused the Whydah to be destroyed by selling her soul to the devil in exchange for Sam’s. Others say she was a witch, who danced and sang madly along the shore and lured the Whydah to its harrowing doom.

And what of Sam Bellamy? In the fall of 1717, the same year that the Whydah went down, a mysterious, dark-haired stranger arrived in Wellfleet. He appeared to be anxiously waiting for someone and became a regular visitor to the cemetery and tavern that Maria and Sam had frequented. Though he had no job, he was well dressed and always had ready money. He died in his sleep three years later, beneath the same apple tree where Maria and Sam had first met; a belt of gold was found around his waist.

Spirits associated with the Whydah continue to linger nearly three centuries later. Barry Clifford, discoverer of the Whydah’s remains, recounts in his book, Expedition Whydah, how the start of his 1998 exploration was plagued with constant, often inexplicable obstacles — engine problems, an undermanned crew, GPS malfunction, heavy fog, a shark encounter, and more. While their salvage vessel was positioned over the wreck site, a crew member using a hand held radio clearly heard a voice over the open receiver repeating, “We want your boat… We want your boat…” Were the pirates of the Whydah trying to protect their treasure? The treasure hunters poured most of a bottle of rum into the water over the wreck site area and shared the rest in a symbolic drink with the pirates.

Their troubles ceased, and that season turned out to be one of their most successful, with the explorers ultimately finding the ship’s wooden hull.

Photo by jjsala, on Flickr. Taken during an HMNS Flickr meetup.
Interested in attending a future event? Follow the discussions on the HMNS Flickr Pool.

Maria Hallett has not been at rest, either. During the 1998 expedition season, a shaken patron at a restaurant in Wellfleet stated that he had seen a ghost of a young, blonde woman in the restroom. He quickly left the restaurant after signing his name, Bellamy, on the credit card slip.

Have the ghosts of the Whydah escorted the artifacts of their ship to our museum? If you find yourself visiting on a late tour, you might just want to keep a pint of rum handy to steady your nerves, or to appease the ghosts of the Whydah!


Clifford, Barry and Paul Perry. Expedition Whydah. New YorkL HarperCollins 1999.
Reynard, Elizabeth. The Narrow Land, 4th ed. Chatham, MA: The Chatham Historical Society, 1978.

A Trick or a Treat?

In less than a week, people all over the country, including right here at our museum, will be celebrating Halloween. Perhaps your workplaces and schools are already festooned with ghosts, skeletons, graveyards, and the like.  If you stop and think about it, you may wonder just how it is that we came to celebrate by trying to disguise ourselves or by trying to frighten people.  Is this a trick or a treat?

Picket fence and yellow trees
Creative Commons License photo credit: joiseyshowaa

The short answer as to why we celebrate this time of year with images of death is that we are in the middle of autumn, the season when nature itself is dying.  To fully understand why we celebrate Halloween when we do, we must fully understand the seasons.

Earth orbits the Sun with its axis pointed at the North Star, Polaris. As a result, its axis is tilted by about 23.5 degrees with respect to its orbital plane.  This tilt, combined with Earth’s revolution around the Sun, causes the seasons.  If the North Pole leans towards the Sun, the Sun is higher in our sky and we get more direct sunlight.  Also, daytime is longer than nighttime.  As the North Pole begins to tilt away fron the Sun, the Sun appears lower and lower across the sky, and daytime gets shorter and shorter.  Eventually, the slanted-in solar rays and short days bring about winter.  Very cold air masses form in the darkened Arctic and begin to move south, some of which can even reach Houston.

Keep in mind that the Earth’s axis does not tilt back and forth; it points at Polaris the whole time.  In June, the North Pole is leaning towards the Sun, but by December, the Earth’s motion has carried it to the other side of the Sun.  The North Pole, still tilting the same way, now leans away from the Sun.

A common misconception is that the Earth is closer to the Sun in summer and more distant in winter, and that is what causes our seasons.  In fact, Earth’s perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) occurs just after the new year (January 1-4), while aphelion (greatest distance from the Sun) occurs around the 4th of July.  Earth’s orbit is an ellipse, but the Earth-Sun distance does not change by enough to affect our seasons.

where are you?
Creative Commons License photo credit: shioshvili

In the cycle of seasons, there are four points of note.  At the March equinox, neither pole is tilted toward the Sun and the Sun is directly overhead at the equator.  The is the vernal (spring) equinox for us and the autumnal (fall) equinox for folks south of the equator.  At the June solstice, the North Pole is tilted as much as possible towards the Sun, and the Sun is overhead at 23.5 degrees North (the Tropic of Cancer).  This is the summer solstice for us and the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.  At the September equinox, once again neither pole tilts toward the Sun, and the Sun is again overhead at the equator.  This is our fall equinox and their spring equinox.  At the December solstice, the North Pole is tilted as much as possible away from the Sun, and the Sun is overhead at 23.5 degrees South (the Tropic of Capricorn).  This is the winter solstice for us and the summer solstice below the equator. 

We generally think of these points as the beginning of spring, summer, fall, and winter, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  After all, nothing magically happens with our weather on these dates.  We could just as well consider these points the midpoints of each season.  In that case, the seasons would begin and end at points roughly halfway between the equinoxes and solstices, in early February, May, August, and November.  If the equinoxes and solstices are ‘quarter days,’ the points halfway between them become the ‘cross-quarter days.’

The ancient Celts of Europe appear to have divided their year in precisely that way.  Gauls living in what is now France used a calendar of twelve lunar months with a 13th month added every 2.5 years (similar to the Hebrew calendar today).  Their two most significant months were Gamonios (lunar month corresponding to April/May ), which began the summer half of the year, and Samonios (lunar month corresponding to October/November) which began the winter half of the year.  Julius Caesar noted that daytime followed nighttime in Celtic days.  By extension, the dark (winter) half of the Celtic year preceded the light (summer) half, making Samonios the start of their new year.

The Celts in the British Isles (Irish and Scots) also had festivals aligned with the cross-quarter days.  In early February was Imbolc (or St. Brigid’s day).  Weather predicting traditions of this day are preserved in our current Groundhog Day.  Traditional May Day celebrations are similar to those of the Celtic BeltaneLughnasadh, in early August, marked the start of the harvest. 

'' The Sentiment of Light''
Creative Commons License photo credit: jdl_deleon

The most important, though, was Samhain (pronounced ’sah win’, not ‘Sam Hane’, due to rules of Gaelic spelling), in early November.  This three-day festival marked the beginning of the winter half of the year and the start of the whole year, like Gaulish Samonios.  It was the close of the harvest opened at Lughnasagh, and the time for culling excess livestock.  At this time, the veil between the living and the world of the dead was considered thinner than usual, and people looked forward to meeting and communing with ancestors and relatives who had died.  A ‘dumb supper‘ was set aside for departed relatives.  To scare away unwanted spirits, people dressed in frightening garb.  Note that these spirits were considered unpredictable and possibly mischievous because they were not the familiar ancestors–not because they were particularly evil.  Divination was also practiced at this time, as people sought to predict whom they would marry or how many children they would have. 

Doing the math, you’ve probably figured out that Halloween is not quite halfway from the equinox (September 22) to the solstice (December 21).  But remember, the Celts used a lunar calendar.  They celebrated their festivals on a certain phase of the Moon, possibly full moon, occurring nearest the cross-quarter day.  Upon the adoption of the Julian calendar, which was not strictly lunar, the festivals were moved to the beginning of February, May, August, and November, although this meant they were no longer exactly on the cross-quarter days. 

Creative Commons License photo credit:
The Wandering Angel

In the eighth century AD, Pope Gregory III moved the church’s commemoration of the souls in heaven (All Saints’ Day) from May 13 to November 1.  Another name for All Saints’ Day is All Hallows Day.  (’Hallow’ is an older term for ’sanctify’ or ‘make holy.’  Think of ‘…hallowed be thy name’ from the Lord’s Prayer).  The next day became All Souls’ Day.  The day before All Hallows Day or All Saints’ Day is All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.  The traditions of Samhain, with its similar focus on honoring the dearly departed, were a natural fit for All Hallows Day and All Hallows Eve.

Halloween, then, is ultimately just one expression of the human need to come to terms with death as a natural occurence and to honor those who have gone before.  In the season of the fall of the leaf, with the Sun taking a slightly lower path across the sky each day, the natural world is going through its own ‘death,’ providing a perfect context for our own activities.  We can therefore think of Halloween itself as a treat, not a trick.

I wish everyone a Happy Halloween, with many more treats than tricks.