In Episode 238, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger visit Holden, Maine, searching for an ancient and cursed funeral carriage that made the newspapers back in 1901 because locals believed it was cursed. That hearse showed up on the front lawn of various families in town, and death soon followed. The legend spread to the point where no one wanted to touch this vehicle the papers dubbed: The Hoodoo Hearse.
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RAY: Okay… we’ll make a left onto Route 1A, and that will lead us right into Holden, Maine…
RAY: Oh shoot… wait a second….
JEFF: Yeah, it looks like…
RAY: Yeah, it looks like there’s a funeral procession coming through.
JEFF: That’s a lot of cars. I guess the deceased had a bunch of friends.
RAY: We can only hope to have this many people attend our funeral one day.
JEFF: I agree. It’s kind of apropos that we’re stuck behind a funeral procession, because we’ve come to Holden looking for a hearse.
RAY: Well, we just found one! But it seems to be otherwise occupied.
JEFF: No, the hearse we’re looking for dates back a long time. Centuries. And this hearse may be cursed. They say if you wake up to find it parked on your lawn, someone in your family will soon die. Today we’re searching for the HooDoo Hearse of Holden.
JEFF: Hi, I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to Episode 238 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about fifteen minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
JEFF: Thanks for riding along with us as we chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. Most of our story leads come from you. Like this one! Thanks to Lare (lair) Johnson for sending us an email. We love it when you get involved with us. You can contact us through our Web site, through our super secret Facebook group – which isn’t really the best-kept secret – we now have over 7,000 members. Or you can call or text our legend line anytime at 617-444-9683.
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RAY: Okay, Jeff, hearses are kind of creepy anyway.
JEFF: Sure, it’s the last ride our corpses take before we become worm food.
RAY: There’s that. I guess we can’t help but feel our own mortality when we see one.
JEFF: It’s no surprise those uneasy feelings may turn to worries of curses and things like that.
RAY: So how are we going to find this cursed Hoodoo hearse of Holden, Maine?
JEFF: To find this hearse, we’re going to have to head back to 1896.
RAY: It’s late fall of 1896 here in the small town of Holden, Maine, just east of Bangor. Over in Bangor, a man has just died, and his family needs to get his body about 40 miles south of Bangor to Brooksville, Maine on the coast.
JEFF: Of course, when a loved one dies, you want to send them off the finest way possible. That means the Holden Hearse. It’s historic, storied, and legendary in every way. It’s the fanciest hearse around. It’s large, polished, jet black. This horse-drawn carriage is the finest ride your deceased loved one can take.
RAY: And this hearse has been around for a LONG time. The hearse was built in England back in the late 1700s, so it’s already more than a century old. The hearse came over Massachusetts and immediately drew the attention of a public who was just dying to get a closer look.
JEFF: I get it. Dying… Good one.
RAY: Sorry. So this large, and fancy hearse carriage goes into service in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where it carts the deceased to their final burials.
[HORSE AND CARRIAGE]
RAY: This hearse is in such high demand, it’s earning revenues of close to $1000 dollars a year.
JEFF: So we’re talking big bucks.
RAY: We are!
JEFF: After 25 years of service in Ipswich, the hearse is sold to some business partners in New Wrentham, Maine, where it continues to gain attention and earn a lot of money for its owners. People from parts of Hancock and Penobscot counties have all purchased the services of this now iconic hearse. And then in 1896, the town of Holden, Maine, purchases the hearse for $700 of local taxpayer money. Some locals invest in the hearse, because of course you still need to pay a driver and care for the horses that pull the hearse.
RAY: So here we are in November of 1896. There have already been six hearse drivers who have gotten old and passed away since this stately carriage went into service in New England just over a century ago. And now the seventh driver of this hearse has been asked to bring a casket from Bangor to Brooksville for burial.
[HORSE AND CARRIAGE]
JEFF: When the driver finishes his delivery in Brooksville, he discovers the family of the deceased is too poor to pay his full fare. When you consider the time, feeding and boarding the horses, plus boarding the driver, this trip is going to be a financial loss. So the driver comes up with an idea.
[SEA GULLS OCEAN]
JEFF: Brooksville is right on Maine’s coast. So the drivers purchases 600 pounds of salt codfish, and uses the hearse to bring it back to Holden for sale.
[HORSE AND CARRIAGE]
RAY: Salt codfish is tough to get in the land-locked Holden. So the profits from the fish sale should help with the loss the driver just suffered. But when he arrives back in Holden…
[HORSE AND CARRIAGE STOP]
RAY: Some locals are appalled. They’re furious! Carrying a cargo of dead fish isn’t just disrespectful. It’s sacrilegious! How could he!
JEFF: Come on… aren’t people over-reacting here a little bit? Does it really matter he carried some fish back in the hearse?
RAY: It doesn’t bother me, but you know how people are. One indignant person tells another, and suddenly this thing that isn’t really a thing… well… it becomes a thing.
JEFF: How so?
RAY: Okay, some of the Holden old-timers send for their lawyers and update their wills to stipulate that their mortal remains will NOT be carried in this carriage that was sullied by codfish!
JEFF: Alright, I get how that’s bad for business. Having people put in their wills they don’t want their family doing business with you.
RAY: But there’s another problem.
JEFF: What’s that?
RAY: We need to understand a little about how the funeral business works. This hearse has contracts with two cemetery associations that stipulate that they WILL be the hearse company hired for any burials in those cemetery associations.
JEFF: Oh! The plot thickens!
RAY: Right. So if someone wants to be buried in one of those cemeteries…
JEFF: Annnnd the deceased updated his will to say don’t use this specific hearse…
RAY: Exactly. Now we have a legal problem. If you want to be buried in a certain cemetery, you MUST use this hearse. If you don’t want to use this hearse, then you have to find somewhere else to be buried…
JEFF: And you need an alternate ride to that new cemetery that will cost you $15 dollars.
RAY: There are some folks in town who can care less that codfish was once delivered inside this hearse. They’re still willing to do business… buuuut other Holden folks are stubborn. They’re digging in… I mean LITERALLY digging in.
[DIG DIG DIG]
RAY: They start to fence off burial plots on their own land, so they won’t need a cemetery or a hearse, thank you very much.
JEFF: Holden is now divided into two factions: The pro-hearse and the hearse-haters. The fight continues throughout the winter of 1897. Then the courts rule on the contracts in favor of the hearse. A contract is a contract, a fish delivery should be inconsequential from a legal standpoint.
RAY: But this does NOTHING to settle the dispute. In fact, it’s worth mentioning that no one from the anti-hearse families have died in the six months since this feud started. They’re THAT stubborn about not wanting to have their corpse ride in a hearse sullied by codfish.
JEFF: Though the law is on their side, the fuss has caused enough problems that the town of Holden decides to retire their storied hearse and put it into storage.
[BARN DOOR SLAMMING]
JEFF: So I guess that ends the feud.
RAY: You’d think that would be the end. But it’s not. There’s still a rift in town. Some folks in Holden owned financial shares in that hearse. Others are STILL offended that their favorite hearse was ruined by transporting codfish in less than a year since it first went into service in town. That’s when some of the boys of hearse-hating side of town sneak into the old storage barn…
[SQUEEKING WHEELS ROLLING]
RAY: And wheel the hearse to the front lawn of a hearse-supporting family to be found the next day when the sun comes up.
JEFF: Okay, so now it’s a prank.
RAY: Sure, it seems harmless enough. But then the strangest thing happens… a few days after the hearse was left on the yard of this family…
RAY: One of the family members dies.
JEFF: Come on, though. I’m sure that’s a coincidence.
RAY: Sure. Probably just a coincidence.
JEFF: A month later, some kids pull the same prank again.
[SQUEEKING WHEELS ROLLING]
JEFF: This time with a different pro-hearse family. Still leaving it to be found in the front yard.
JEFF: And soon after a member of THAT pranked family dies.
RAY: This is getting weird.
JEFF: The third time the prank is pulled.
JEFF: Now we’re talking local terror.
RAY: Some suggest they burn up this obviously cursed hearse and be done with it forever.
JEFF: But the pro-hearse faction of Holden is stubborn too. Burning it up would be like giving in. Losing. Even though the hearse isn’t in service anymore.
RAY: It’s late one night when five of the anti-hearse boys from Holden steal the hearse again.
[SQUEEKING WHEELS ROLLING]
RAY: And start pushing toward their next victim’s home. But suddenly…
[HORSE GALLOPING UP]
RAY: The constable rides up and catches the boys red-handed.
RAY: The boys appear before a judge who warns them if this hearse is moved again, it will be reform school for each of them.
JEFF: Holden decides to paint this hearse, give it a fresh coat of varnish, and then they try to sell it for almost any price. But it’s too late. Given the reputation, no one wants it. So the hearse stays put for good, and this story makes the wire service under the headline: The Hoodoo Hearse…. And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: This week’s story is pulled right out of a June 15, 1901 newspaper article. It was originally reported by the New York Sun newspaper.
RAY: I love the two sub-headlines of this article: An Ancient Vehicle that Pointed the Way to Death in Maine. And: Bitter controversy over use of the conveyance for carrying cod fish–good health follows its ostracism.
JEFF: They just don’t write like that anymore.
RAY: No they don’t. Do we know what happened to the hearse?
JEFF: We don’t. It’s lost to history, which likely means enough time passed that it was either scrapped, destroyed, or any number of other things that can happen to an obsolete antique.
RAY: That’s too bad.
JEFF: When we think of cancel culture, it’s easy to think of it as a modern problem. Something brand-new.
RAY: Yeah, it really isn’t, is it?
JEFF: Nope. Some folks in Holden were offended. They boycotted the hearse, and they got it shut down. Boycotts are powerful. We’re seeing that now as the world reacts to Russia invading Ukraine. Sometimes we fight with our wallets.
RAY: This hearse definitely became a thing.
JEFF: That it did!
RAY: It seems to me that carrying a load of codfish is a pretty minor infraction. But some folks got it in their craw that this was unforgivable, and that spread.
JEFF: The hearse issue became such a thing that it was shut down, and then cursed! You may argue that various people were old or sick, and were going to die anyway, but it doesn’t matter. Give something enough attention—whether positive or negative—and it becomes a legend.
RAY: I’ve never given so much thought to a hearse before in my life.
JEFF: I get it.
RAY: But we’re always thinking about our patreon patrons! These are our insiders. The backbone of what we do. For just $3 bucks per month they get access to new episodes plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear! If you want to become a bigger part of our family, head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
JEFF: We’d like to thank our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals, and our theme music is by John Judd.
Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.