In Episode 227, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger spend Christmas on a Narragansett, Rhode Island, sheep farm searching for a unique breed of sheep that takes its name from a spell cast by a local witch after the brutal Christmas blizzard of 1811 hit Benny Nichols’s flock. Against all odds, a young Ancon sheep survived the storm, but the ewe’s strange winter coat drew the attention of local witch Tuggie Bannocks.
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[WIND, SHEEP BAHHHING]
RAY: Merry Christmas, Jeff!
JEFF: Merry Christmas to you too, Ray!
RAY: Standing in a field of sheep in Narragansett, Rhode Island, seems like a strange way to spend the holiday.
JEFF: I can’t argue with you there. But the life of a farmer is 24x7x365. The animals need tending every day of the year including Christmas Day. It’s hard work for sure.
RAY: Sure! But… uhhh… we’re not farmers, Jeff. We couldn’t handle it.
JEFF: That’s true too. But this week’s story is a strange one that has to do with a breed of sheep that got their ominous name because of a Christmas Day blizzard that occurred right near us. Today, we’re searching for the Witch Sheep of Narragansett.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger, and Happy Holidays to you and yours.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, thank you for joining us on Episode 227 of the New England Legends podcast – our Christmas special episode. If you give us about fifteen minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
JEFF: We’re so glad to have you with us out in this cold farmer’s field as we chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. If you’re in a holiday mood and want some weirdness, be sure to check out some of our past holiday specials. They’re all available on our Web site. Maybe you can start a new tradition around your fireplace this year.
RAY: Before we go looking for the Witch Sheep of Narragansett, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!
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JEFF: So Ray, I know being outside at a farm on a cold, December day doesn’t exactly make you think of the Christmas holiday. But there was once a breed of sheep called the Ancon Sheep.
RAY: I’ve never heard of Ancon Sheep, but I’m no expert by any stretch of the imagination.
JEFF: I hadn’t heard of it either. So I did some digging. The Ancon Sheep, was also called the Creeper Sheep because it had really short legs and couldn’t hop over fences very easily—it just kind of creeped along. The breed came about in 1791 when a sheep was born malformed in Massachusetts. It had little stubby legs, and the shepherd of that flock knew sheep like this could be in demand, so from that one sheep, a new breed was born. The breed survived for almost a century before it was allowed to go extinct.
RAY: That’s pretty wild. Kind of the early days of genetic engineering.
JEFF: That’s exactly what it was. Anyway, early on, the breed was referred to as Ancon sheep, Otter sheep, or creeper sheep. But after an odd Christmas more than two centuries ago… many folks started referring to them as witch sheep because of a strange spell that was cast right here in Narragansett that all began one cold Christmas morn. To figure out what happened let’s head back to 1811.
RAY: It’s Christmas Eve of 1811, and a farmer named Benny Nichols has just gone to bed with his wife Debby.
JEFF: The Nichols farm sits between Fender Zeke’s Corner and Narragansett Bay. In fact, the farm property is bordered by the ocean on one side.
RAY: Shortly after going to bed, the weather outside turns foul.
RAY: There’s snow. But pretty soon… it turns into a full-blown blizzard. All night long the snow falls, piling up outside.
[STORM SLOWLY FADES TO MORNING]
JEFF: Benny Nichols is tossing and turning in bed. His house is completely dark, so it’s not time to get up yet. But still, he’s so restless. He usually rises with the sun, but today he can’t seem to sleep, so he gets out of bed, feels his way to the nearby kitchen, and lights a candle.
JEFF: The house is so dark, so Benny holds the candle up to his clock on the wall. He blinks twice in shock. The clock reads 9AM! He holds the candle up to the window and sees that there’s snow completely covering the windows!
BENNY: Get up! Get up, woman! It’s nine o’clock and we’ve had the worst snowstorm you’ve ever seen!
RAY: Benny is panicked, not only is the hour late, and not only is there more snow than he’s ever seen waiting for him outside, but his flock of sheep could be in dire straits. Benny knows from experience that when timid sheep get stuck in a blizzard, they’ve been known to gather into a tight group and continue to back up trying to get away from the storm. If they back themselves into the sea, they’ll all be drowned by now.
JEFF: It’s a terrible start to Christmas day. Benny opens his front door….
[DOOR CREAKS OPEN]
JEFF: He pushes his hand through the wall of snow to watch it fall. He’s slightly relieved to see the snow has drifted up against his windows and doors, it’s not like there was eight feet of snow. Still, there IS several feet of snow out there, and he can’t see his sheep anywhere. His heart pounds. The thing is, he’s seen this before. Years ago during a bad winter storm, many of his sheep backed themselves into the ocean trying to get away from the wind, and they drowned. He found a few barely alive in the surf and had to slit their throats to save the mutton meat. It was a tragic loss… one he prays isn’t repeated today.
RAY: Benny pulls on his good Sunday boots, because his regular boots are not enough for this storm. The frugal Benny is furious at potentially ruining his best footwear, but this is an emergency.
RAY: Digging his way through the snow he gets far enough from the house to see that the snow drifts are all blown inland, away from the water. That’s a good sign, because sheep tend to back up against the oncoming wind. Hopefully this means the sheep didn’t get themselves near the unforgiving ocean.
RAY: A few more minutes of Christmas morning digging, and a strange mound of snow catches Benny’s eye over by the hay ricks.
JEFF: Benny carefully rakes away some of the snow to discover many of his sheep are hiding underneath the snow. He finishes digging them out and is relieved to see they’re okay. Next, he spies another odd-shaped drift of snow over by his stone wall.
JEFF: He digs his way over to discover most of the rest of his flock who are also going to be okay. The only one missing is the little ewe, one of the creeper breeds. He was the rarest and most valuable. But still, Benny needs to count his Christmas blessings. Some farms in the area lost many cattle that were frozen solid. For Benny to get by with his entire flock, but one. That’s divine providence.
RAY: After hours of work, Benny gathers his sheep into a safe place and is finally able to enjoy some Christmas dinner with his wife, Debby. It’s been two weeks since Christmas, when Benny is working on his farm as he does every day. He’s out near one of his hay-ricks when he spots a hole in the snow. It’s no bigger than maybe two or three fingers in diameter, but Benny’s trained eye immediately recognizes this as a breathing hole.
RAY: He carefully chips away at the ice around the hole to discover his tiny Creeper ewe shivering in the cold, and nearly dead. The young sheep had eaten off most of his wool for food, and can barely lift his head. Benny carefully scoops up the young sheep, tucks him under his coat for warmth, and carries him back to the house.
[DOOR OPENS AND CLOSES]
JEFF: Debby’s face streaks with tears when she sees the little lamb almost skeletal. She wraps the fragile animal in an old petticoat, and warms a bowl of milk. Soon the lamb is lapping up spoonfuls of the stuff. After just a few hours of warmth and food, Debby and Benny are relieved to see life returning to the young animal.
[ONE SHEEP BAHHHH]
RAY: With food and warmth, the little creeper sheep quickly bulks up in the coming days. He’s running around the Nichols’s small home and getting into all kinds of mischief. The problem is, though the sheep is putting weight on quickly, the wool takes a lot longer to grow. The sheep can’t go outside like this or he’ll freeze. So Debby gets to work.
RAY: She cuts up an old blue flannel shirt so the sleeves cover the sheep’s front legs, and she sews two red flannel sleeve for the hind legs. And now the young creeper sheep has something to wear to keep him warm.
[DOOR OPENS AND CLOSES]
JEFF: Benny reintroduces the creeper sheep to the flock, and at first the other sheep are nervous. I mean, what are these strange colors on this little animal? So Benny decides to wait for nightfall, then bring the little sheep out to the flock when they won’t notice him.
JEFF: The plan works.
RAY: The following night, Benny is sitting around his fireplace with two neighbors who have come over to discuss buying some of his sheep. Benny is serving up some of his locally famous Flip.
JEFF: Flip is a popular drink here in New England. I’m curious to see how Benny makes his.
RAY: Sure, because everyone makes this holiday drink it a little differently.
JEFF: So he’s pouring some flat ale into a glass. Annnnd now he’s adding an egg. Okay, and now he’s pouring in some sugary syrup mixed with cinnamon.
RAY: And he just added a shot of rum…. And it looks like a dash of nutmeg.
JEFF: He’s mixing it up in the glass… so it’s a little frothy… and here comes the final touch.
RAY: Okay, I’ve never seen anything like this. He just pulled a hot poker out of the fire. It’s glowing red hot. And is he going to….
RAY: Yup! He just dipped the hot poker into the drink to heat it up!
JEFF: That’s New England Flip. A holiday treat.
RAY: Just as the three men are sipping their flip, suddenly there’s a strange sound outside.
[BANG BANG BANG ON DOOR]
JEFF: An old woman has just barged into the Nichols’ home! It’s Tuggie Bannocks, an old crone of a woman, an unapologetic witch, and a ward of the town. Debby moves quickly to help Tuggie remove her mittens, and offers her a seat by the fireplace.
TUGGIE: (CATCHING HER BREATH) Thanks be to praise! Thanks BE to praise!
JEFF: Tuggie glances at the steaming cups in the hands of the three men seated nearby. She looks over to Benny Nichols.
TUGGIE: Pour me a cup of that Flip.
JEFF: Benny, still in shock, pours and mixes another cup.
JEFF: Heats it with the hot poker, then offers the cup to Tuggie who practically gulps the hot, boozy drink.
TUGGIE: Mrs. Nichols, I’m telling you I’m witch-rid by ole Mum Amey!
RAY: Mum Amey is another old crone in town. And another woman known for her witchy abilities.
TUGGIE: She cast a spell on me, I tell you! In the mornings I wake up and see bite marks on the corner of my mouth. I’ve been pinched in the night. I’ve had my hair pulled! And my butter won’t come ‘til I drop a red-hot horseshoe in the cream to drive her out.
RAY: Tuggie is clearly agitated at this point. But she goes on…
TUGGIE: I saw Mum Amey talking to a black cat… and just to be sure, I dropped a silver sixpence in her path, and just before she got to it on the road, she turned back and went the other way. No witch can step over silver! [GETTING MORE EXCITED NOW] But the reason I come running to your door on this cold night is because I just saw Mum Amey chasing your sheep! I tell you she’s about to cast a spell on the lot of them!
JEFF: At this point, she now has Benny’s full attention. His sheep are his life and livelihood.
BENNY: How did she look, Tuggie? What is Mum Amey doing to my sheep?
TUGGIE: I just saw her wearing a red and blue blanket, and running on all fours like an animal spooking those poor sheep! She’s got the devil in her, I tell you!
BENNY: (LAUGH OF RELIEF) Ha! That’s no witch, woman! That’s my creeper covered in old clothes!
JEFF: Tuggie is insulted, as if she couldn’t tell the difference between a sheep in old clothing and a devil witch casting spells. Benny offers to go fetch his sheep and show her up close. But Tuggie won’t have it. She gathers her things and heads toward the door.
TUGGIE: It’s high time to stop such outrageous goings-on, dressing up sheep like devils and scaring old women. Ole Tuggie Bannocks hasn’t forgot how to cast a project herself. I guess they won’t laugh at witches then!
JEFF: And with that, Tuggie storms back out into the night.
RAY: Benny and Debby stare at each other nervously. Everyone knows Tuggie’s witchy reputation. Could they be in danger of one of her projects… or spells?
JEFF: They don’t have to wait long to find out. That night they hear dancing on their rooftop, and a strange, high voice…
TUGGIE: I’ll project yea, Benny! I’ll project yea!
JEFF: And with that, smoke and soot pours into the house through the chimney. The entire winter the Nichols are plagued with bad luck. A hole was burned in Debby’s petticoat, and whenever Debby draws near the creeper, it won’t eat. It just runs from her. Debby tries to break the spell or ward it off, but nothing works until the spring.
[SNIP SNIP SNIP]
RAY: Once all of the wool is sheared from the creeper sheep, Tuggie Bannocks spell is broken. And from then on, people around Rhode Island start referring to this unique breed of sheep, as witch sheep, because of a strange and brutal Christmas storm that lead to a witch’s spell. And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: The Ancon, or Otter, or Creeper, or Witch sheep, was allowed to go extinct in 1876 when they weren’t really needed anymore. Fences got taller, and sheep farming more organized.
RAY: Most of what we know about this story comes from an 1879 book called Recollections of Olden Times by Thomas Hazard. And a second book called “In Old Narragansett: Romances and Realities” by Alice Morse Earle published in 1898. We know Alice Earle took some liberties with the story, but we loved this holiday tale enough to look past it.
JEFF: There was indeed an epic snowstorm that struck the region in late December of 1811, that included over a foot of snow and gale force winds that wrecked ships out on the sound, and did take the lives of some of the farm animals. So there’s historical context for the storm.
RAY: What a way to spend Christmas day, though. Digging out from the worst snowstorm you’ve ever seen, and working all day for the sake of your sheep.
JEFF: Plus one little unique lamb who survived against all odds. It seems like a fitting way to end this one. Sometimes, even in the worst of conditions. Even when the snow and ice pile up, there’s still hope.
JEFF: Merry Christmas, Ray.
RAY: Merry Christmas to you Jeff. And happy holidays to YOU, we appreciate you coming along with us on all of our adventures. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast – you can find us for free wherever you get your podcasts, and please tell a friend or two about us. It goes a long way in helping our community grow.
JEFF: Thank you and happy holidays to our patreon patrons! We appreciate you being the backbone to everything we do. You help with our hosting, and production, and marketing costs. We couldn’t do this without you. AND our patrons get early access to new episodes plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear all for just $3 bucks per month. Just head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
RAY: We’d like to thank our sponsor Nuwati Herbals, thank you to Michael Legge and Lorna Nogueira for lending their voice acting talents this week. And our theme music is by John Judd.
JEFF: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.