July 17, 2018

The Broomstick Train

        In 1891 Oliver Wendell Holmes published one of his long, colloquial, anecdotal poems, which was all about New England’s witches returning from Hell to their old stomping grounds.  The punch line of the tale is that, after wreaking conventional misfortunes upon the locals, they are set to pulling the new electric tram cars, which had been introduced to Boston in 1887, Lowell in 1889, and Worcester in 1891.  It’s too long a poem to include the whole thing, but here are some excerpts, and you can read the complete poem here.

The Broomstick Train, or The Return of the Witches
Look out! Look out, boys! Clear the track!
The witches are here! They’ve all come back!
They hanged them high, — No use! No use!
What cares a witch for a hangman’s noose?
They buried them deep, but they wouldn’t lie still,
For cats and witches are hard to kill;
They swore they shouldn’t and wouldn’t die, —
Books said they did, but they lie! they lie!
In Essex county there’s many a roof
Well known to him of the cloven hoof;
The small square windows are full in view
Which the midnight hags went sailing through,
On their well-trained broomsticks mounted high,
Seen like shadows against the sky;
Crossing the track of owls and bats,
Hugging before them their coal-black cats.
Now when the Boss of the Beldams found
That without his leave they were ramping round,
He called, — they could hear him twenty miles,
From Chelsea beach to the Misery Isles;
The deafest old granny knew his tone
Without the trick of the telephone.
“Come here, you witches! Come here!” says he, —
“At your games of old, without asking me!
I’ll give you a little job to do
That will keep you stirring, you godless crew!”
They came, of course, at their master’s call,
The witches, the broomsticks, the cats, and all;
He led the hags to a railway train
The horses were trying to drag in vain.
“Now, then,” says he, “you’ve had your fun,
And here are the cars you’ve got to run.
The driver may just unhitch his team,
We don’t want horses, we don’t want steam;
You may keep your old black cats to hug,
But the loaded train you’ve got to lug.”
As for the hag, you can’t see her.
But hark! you can hear her black cat’s purr,
And now and then, as a car goes by,
You may catch a gleam from her wicked eye.

Often you’ve looked on a rushing train,
But just what moved it was not so plain.
It couldn’t be those wires above,
For they could neither pull nor shove;
Where was the motor that made it go
You couldn’t guess, but now you know.
Remember my rhymes when you ride again
On the rattling rail by the broomstick train!

        Like much of Holmes’s poetry, this builds verisimilitude for its claims with the inclusion of lots of specific local details - a writing tip that anyone can take note of.  When your realistic details are really concrete and accurate, your fantastical details also gain the aura of plausibility.  This poem also illustrates Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Invisible electric currents or invisible witches?  It’s all the same to the ordinary person riding the tram, and presumably even more so to the people in the late nineteenth century who saw the same tramcars that used to be pulled by horses, now suddenly running without visible means.  The converted tramcars even retained the harnessing hardware for the horses at the front.
        This poem was enormously popular, and it appears from this transit poster that the trams were even referred to as broomstick trains - or at the very least that anyone seeing this poster would understand the reference.  I don’t know whether Oliver Wendell Holmes made it up, although I'm guessing he did, and if the term was in common use, it wasn’t the only one he coined.  As a bonus linguistic note, Holmes was a doctor and coined the word anaesthesia.

[Pictures: See how tall they’ve grown, illustration by Howard Pyle from The Broomstick Train with Its Companion Poems, 1892 (Image from ibiblio.org);
By Broomstick Train, poster by Charles H. Woodbury, 1895 (Image from Digital Commonwealth).]

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