“Upon The Gallows Tree”: E. Merrill Root’s poem “Witchcraft”

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A rendering of Bridget Bishop, the first to be executed of the alleged Salem witches.

A rendering of Bridget Bishop, the first to be executed of the alleged Salem witches.

About a year ago I was browsing through the Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One—The Authors, and I read the entry on a writer named E. Merrill Root. I had never heard of him before. E. Merrill Root was a poet and professor who spent much of his career at Earlham College in Richmond,Indiana. Edward Merrill Root was born on January 1, 1895 in Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated from Amherst College and did civilian war-related work as a conscientious objector with Quakers in France before returning to the U.S. and attending Andover Theological Seminary for a year. In 1920 he became an English professor at Earlham, a Quaker institution, and remained there until retiring in 1960. Root was a traditional poet who usually worked in rhyme and standard metrical patterns. He demonstrated particular skill with the sonnet form. Root was a student of Robert Frost’s, and Frost was an admirer of his work.

The seal of William Stoughton, the judge who oversaw the Salem Witch Trials. This seal was affixed to the execution warrant for accused witch Bridget Bishop.

The seal of William Stoughton, the judge who oversaw the Salem Witch Trials. This seal was affixed to the execution warrant for accused witch Bridget Bishop. (Photo by Margo Burns).

In addition to poetry, Root wrote a biography of the English writer Frank Harris as well as essays and polemical works on American education. Root was a strongly anti-Communist conservative. I can’t speak to the quality or nature of his political writings. There’s a stereotype in the culture that poets and artists are generally liberal, and while this is often true, it is also a stereotype. Twentieth century poets and writers who are generally identified as political conservatives include Allen Tate, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Peter Viereck, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Louis Bromfield, Walker Percy, and Wallace Stevens. Some prominent authors, such as American novelist John Dos Passos, moved rightwards after the Second World War after holding leftist positions during the Twenties and Thirties.

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I have been impressed by Root’s poems. In keeping with this spooky time of year, I wanted to share a poem of Root’s about the Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts during 1692-93. It’s a kind of ballad, and I find it wonderfully evokes the weirdness and hysteria of that time, ending with a particularly haunting image. This is from his collection entitled The Seeds of Time, published in 1950. In the original version the first and third lines are indented, but this is problematic in wordpress, so all lines are flush against the margin here. Now let’s travel back to Salem…..


‘Tis Salem, 1696—
Beware the evil glance!
The woods are deserts dim and full
Of dismal circumstance.

New England is the Devil’s realm,
Good Cotton Mather knows—
There copper demons throng the dark
Amid a waste of snows.

Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather

Children, infected with the night,
Gibber and shriek and twitch:
God save them—and God save us all!—
From demon and from witch.

Like beasts upon all fours they crawl;
Their flesh turns blue and black;
The foam is froth upon their lips;
Their limbs grow numb and slack.


(That hag, old Tituba, is there—
The creature of the night:
She hears the rustle and crepen bustle
Of witches in their flight.)

"Tituba and the Children"

“Tituba and the Children”

“ ‘Tis Goody Nurse!” the children cry,
“ ‘Tis Reverend Burroughs, too!”
(Upon their foreheads and their hands
The sweat is ghastly dew.)

Ann Putnam cries,–she is but twelve,–
“His two dead brides!—they say
He slew them both, he stabbed them both;
And see, their cheeks are gray.”


And Goodwife Putnam, like a bow
Too tightly strung, is there;
She sees the specters of the dark
Flutter across the air.

“How oft,” cries she, “how oft hath he
Plagued the poor godly child!—
See, yellow birds flit round his head.”
Her rolling eyes are wild.

salem P36362963_b

“The red calf’s head,” one child doth shriek,
“Its ears are stiff and pert—
See, See!” She points at vacant air;
Then swoons and falls inert.

“ ‘Hoccanum come!’ ” (Ann Putnam saith)
“Old Goody Nurse did cry;
And just that night—that very night—
My father’s cow went dry.”


The others pant, “The black dog runs—
Yet see, it hath her head!”
“She rides the water like a cork,
Who should be drowned and dead.”

“The white sow roots the earth in dreams…
I may not sleep by night.”
Haggard and hollow are their cheeks;
Their eyes are thronged with fright.


Why wonder then that juries pale
And swoon in sympathy?
Why marvel witches hang like fruit
Upon the gallows tree?

———-E. Merrill Root


Patrick Kerin


The Seeds of Time by E. Merrill Root. Falmouth Publishing House, Portland, Maine. 1950.

Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One–The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001.


In The October Country…..

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For me, October always has two contrasting dimensions. The first is the traditional season of harvest, golden afternoons and “mists and mellow fruitfulness.” There’s an excitement in the air with the return of the school year. It’s a time of homecoming parades, crisp mornings, apples, pumpkins, hayrides, football games, and trees in their vibrant colors of orange, scarlet, and gold. But there is another side of October. In my neck of the woods, there are those rainy days or overcast afternoons that evoke a moodiness, an eerieness, a mystery. This is the time associated with Halloween, but this is not the domain of kid revelry and lighthearted chills.

This aspect of October evokes a world of specters, decay, and haunting secrets. Maybe it’s also because I first read The Scarlet Letter and some of Hawthorne’s unearthly tales in an autumn long ago that I find myself thinking of old New England, of the Salem Witch Trials, of apparitions and weird forces walking abroad. It’s a time and mood that calls to mind the authentic creepiness of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I am reminded of all these things when I read the delightfully uncanny tales in Ray Bradbury’s The October Country, first published sixty years ago in 1955. Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Illinois in 1920.

Many of the stories in The October Country first appeared in Bradbury’s first short story collection entitled Dark Carnival. That book appeared in 1946. The October Country included those stories and added others. Dark Carnival was published by Arkham House, the legendary publishing firm of horror, mystery, and supernatural fiction out of Wisconsin operated by the famous Wisconsin writer August Derleth. The October Country is dedicated to Derleth.

Ray Bradbury in the 1950s.

Ray Bradbury in the 1950s.

I first read The October Country during Christmas vacation in seventh grade. It is a classic collection of Bradbury’s tales of horror, weirdness, mystery and the fantastic. Bradbury takes is into strange worlds in which a baby can become a murderous monster, a man recalls a child’s death by drowning, and a bedridden boy’s dog brings him messages and visitors from the beyond. Once you enter you’ll find it hard to leave.

This is the October Country:

“…that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain….”

—-Ray Bradbury

Patrick Kerin

An Autumn Classic: “Hang On Sloopy” and the OSU Marching Band

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It was fifty years ago–on October 9, 1965– that The Ohio State University Marching Band first played the McCoys’ monster hit “Hang On Sloopy” during an OSU football game. The song has become a football season staple ever since, traditionally played during the transition from the third to the fourth quarter. Whenever I recall my own football-playing days at Greenhills High School in Cincinnnati, Ohio, one of the recurring memories is hearing the band strike up this song at the end of the third quarter, firing up the crowd and the team and sending a new burst of energy through the stadium.

The song was originally recorded by an R&B group called The Vibrations, but was later recorded by The McCoys, a group from the Midwest. Some of its members were from Union City, Indiana, and two of its members, the Zehringer brothers (Rick Zehringer would change his name to Rick Derringer), were from Fort Recovery, Ohio. The song entered the charts on August 14, 1965 and hit number one on October 2, 1965. The song was a favorite on the campus, often played on the jukebox at one of the local bars, and one of the staff arrangers for the OSU band, John Tatgenhorst, persuaded the director that the band should do the song. The rest is truly history. “Hang On Sloopy” later became the official state rock song of Ohio and the official song of OSU. Here’s to those autumn Friday nights and fall afternoons across Ohio when the gridiron comes alive.

Patrick Kerin (center, #50 and then #53, Greenhills High School, 1980-1983).



Wikipedia article on “Hang On Sloopy;” OSU youtube channel