Massachusetts

Black Cats, Lucky Bones and Superstitious New Englanders

New England Puritans were a superstitious lot who believed luck ruled their lives. They took measures to ward of bad luck, attract good luck and change their luck from good to bad. One of their odder customs was to place old shoes in the walls of a house wards off evil.

superstitious

A superstitious New Englander's view of improper horseshoe management.

The Puritans’ beliefs about luck came down through the ages. They hung horseshoes over an outer entrance to ward off witches or to bring good luck. The open end was always up; otherwise, luck will run out.

Clifton Johnson collected old New England superstitious beliefs in his 1896 book, What They Say in New England: A Book of Signs, Sayings and Superstitions. He lists some ways New Englanders dealt with that mysterious thing called luck, such as:

  • Carry a lucky bone and nothing will harm you. The bone is from a codfish head, three-quarters of an inch, narrow, notched and pearly white. Two lucky bones from the head of the same fish will make your luck doubly sure.
  • Dropping bread and butter with the butter side downs brings bad luck.
  • Rock an empty chair and you will have bad luck.
  • Spit on your bait for good luck fishing. But only the ignorant spit on money.

Superstitious Minds

To this day, some New Englanders hold fast to the old superstitions. Many, for example, believed in the Curse of the Bambino until the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004. And many superstitious New Englanders still believe in some or all of the following:

  • When you leave the house for a journey or an errand, don’t turn back if you forgot something. If you do have to turn back, sit down before you start again.
  • Tripping on something is a sign of bad luck. The remedy is to walk over it again. If you’ve tripped on a stone, go back and touch it.
  • If you put on an apron inside out, wear it that way or your luck will change. That applies to stockings or any article of clothing. Some believe you can remedy the error by spitting on the garment. More genteel practitioners of this superstition will only wet their finger with their tongue and touch the garment before turning it right side out.
  • If you spill salt at the table, you will argue with your best friend. Throw the salt on the stove and you will break the spell by throwing the salt over your shoulder or on the stove.
  • If you have bad luck playing cards, get up and move around your chair. Or blow on your cards to change your luck.
  • See a pin and let it lie, come to sorrow by and by.
  • Finding a penny is surer to bring you good luck than anything else.
  • It is good luck to fall up a hill.
  • It is unlucky to get out of the side of the bed you are not accustomed to.

Animal Superstitions

Superstitious New Englanders have a litany of beliefs about luck and animals. Not all of them are benign. To this day, shelters in Salem, Mass., and throughout New England refuse to allow adoptions of all-black or all-white cats for fear their new owners will sacrifice them in a blood ritual.

Some other animal superstitions include:

  • If a spider spins down from the ceiling toward you, it will bring good luck. But killing a spider will bring bad luck. More than a few superstitious New Englanders will gently usher a spider out the front door.
  • If you move to a new home, don’t bring the cat with you. It will bring bad luck.
  • If you see a cat sitting with her tail to the fire, expect bad luck.
  • If a strange dog or cat comes to live with you, it will bring good luck. A black cat will bring its owner good luck.

This story about superstitious New Englanders was updated in 2019.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. David Ruddeforth

    October 17, 2014 at 8:47 am

    “Wasps”-The Original OCD

  2. Kathy Walunas

    October 17, 2014 at 10:16 am

    This is awesome! Lots of cool stuff to share with my class!

  3. Cynthia Price

    October 17, 2014 at 10:19 am

    Those superstitions were carried over from England. An upright horseshoe holds in luck ( though that is disputed in parts of the country) there are many old superstitions like this

  4. Bobo Leach

    October 17, 2014 at 11:27 am

    Grew up hearing a lot of these from my grandmother.

  5. Martha Knightly

    October 17, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    Barbara Cahillane, the shoe part…do you suppose that’s why we can’t match our shoes?

  6. Barbara Cahillane

    October 17, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    That must be it . . . Who’s house do take the walls out of first?

  7. Molly Landrigan

    October 17, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    Yes, Cynthia, I was always told to put the horseshoe upright to keep the good luck in, too.

  8. Molly Landrigan

    October 17, 2014 at 8:55 pm

    I was always told if you found a coin heads up, to pick it up and give to a friend for good luck but if it was tails up just turn it over for good luck and for the next person to find it, too.

  9. Karen Ingalls Bryan

    October 18, 2014 at 8:28 am

    Not so lucky! They are hanging the horseshoe upside down! LOL

  10. Dennis McMahon

    October 18, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    We’re so worried about political correctness these days one might consider some of the facts behind various American historical groups and events. We have sort of homogenized a lot of it ignoring the political and religious POSITIONS and ACTIONS of all folks who came here ostensibly to avoid persecution…perhaps at a time when the SHOE was ON THE OTHER FOOT. We have adopted the demonization of certain figures of Anglo-American history depending on who was writing it and what state they arrived in; Charles I, James II and others given short shrift in our text books; Pilgrims raised to an elevated status…but, well, there were severe differences in the Anglo-Irish-French-Spanish world in those days. Some transferred customs are deemed “odd” at worst and “fun” at best. However, having said that and not urging all to brush up on the 17th century, let’s enjoy Fall fun from whatever group it came from…

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