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Masjaks Maj — A Ghost Story


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Val Hvidtson has given me permission to use this story about her Smedjebacka family from Lassas in Terjärv, Finland. Her ancestor was Matts Johansson Smedjebacka, 1796-1833, whose son Johan Mattsson, 1821-1883 , married Maria Eliasdotter Warg, 1823-1869 , known as MasJaks Maj. John and Maria had 6 children including son Johan who emigrated to Kenora, Canada. Tyra Sandberg told the following story about Masjak's Maj:

Soon several small heirs to Masjak's toddled around the village. One also saw the mother time and again in the farms. Her purpose was always the same thing: to sell bread, butter or seed on the sly. What she was going to use the money for, people only suspected. Her husband Johan had always had a weakness for vodka. When Maj also began to take a drop like him, it was too much for the man. He couldn't tolerate seeing his wife lie drunk. He believed he could stave off her desire through denying her money. But the thirst was already too great and when she couldn't get money by honorable means, then she did it in her own style. When her husband's seed warehouse couldn't be used each time, she began to take what she could grab from others. According to the story which went around, Maj had thus become an alcoholic and to that end pinched such things as would help her get vodka. And she left without taking care of her spouse and children, as well as his old father.

People also claimed that Maj forgot her father Elias. He died destitute and suffering. And his curse hung over the place so the horses in the stall which lay nearest his room were often beaten and sweated at night. However, according to the communion book, Elias outlived his daughter Maj. According to the church books she died 3 January 1869 of typhoid fever.

An epidemic of typhoid fever went through the district and several dozens of people died. Nevertheless, in popular parlance, people said that Maria (Maj) had drunk herself to death! One story that Rebecka Ravald told may be near the truth. According to her the husband Johan had been to the city in order to get medicine for his sick wife. At the same time he fetched horse medicine in order to heal a horse which was sick. When he came home and gave the medicine, the bottles were mixed up. According to that story, the husband couldn't read and didn't know exactly which bottle was intended for the wife and which for the animal. And Maj died!

But it was after her death that Maj became famous for the myth which was heard told about her. That she walked abroad, as it was called. There were several people from her nearest family and others who had seen her after her death.

The husband and widower Johan married again. His new wife became Anna Maria Sunabacka-Forsbacka, born Sund, the parish clerk's daughter from Sunabacka. She had all eight children from her first marriage with Anders Mattsson Forsbacka. He had come as a son-in-law to Sunabacka and had Klocka's farmstead after Anders Nilsson Sund and his wife Anna Maj (Maria).

When Anders Mattsson Forsbacka died on 1 January 1869, and Maj two days later, it wasn't unexpected that their spouses, being both widowed and both with families, sought out each other. In their second marriage the pair had seven children, of whom only two lived to adulthood and then emigrated to the USA.

But when they were going to the wedding, Maj showed herself to her former husband Johan, and stood on the other side of the horse as he harnessed it to the sleigh. Later it was her son, Johan, b. 1852, who met his dead mother one evening on the way to the stable. He thought at first it was his fiancée who had come, and he greeted her. But instead it was his own dead mother to whom he spoke.

There are several different variations of what Maj is supposed to have said to him - one was that her stocking ribbon should be laid in the cemetery so that she could get peace. Another was that she said 'I can have no rest until you have paid my debt to Warg-Janne', the banker in the village during that period.

Gradually, however the stories about Maj's spirit which had revealed itself grew quiet. But how about reality. Had Maj been put through a whole lot of slander? That she existed is clear, since it has been documented that stories were going around.

The farm which she and Johan owned was one of the larger in the village. That they were rich, in addition, made village residents jealous to a certain degree. Even when Maj died they had, according to the tax register, 20 cows in their barn. A farm in disrepair can't keep that large a number of cows. And it was the woman of the house who was responsible for caring for the cattle in those days.

Were they in debt? Those records which the researchers have turned up don't show that to be the case. When the couple sold the farmstead in 1878, because their old age was nearing and they couldn't manage to care for the farm, they don't appear to have been debt-ridden. Of the purchase price, 2,000 marks were to be paid annually until the total amount of 14,000 marks had been completely paid. It was only later that it was revealed the purchaser, Johan Kettu or the Fox Man as he was called, had a mortgage of 10,000 marks with Warg-man as security for his loan, when he sold the homestead to Johan Gustafsson Rudback. When Johan and Anne-Maria sold the homestead there is nothing comparable in the purchase agreement. Probably the Fox Man bought the homestead with a loan.

It appears then that the story about Masjak's Maj has, at least in certain parts, been distorted. Her weakness for strong liquor can scarcely be questioned because that was a reasonably common habit at that time. As Kalle (Karl Hansson Bredbacka) related, one often used the first seed you got threshed for brewing vodka. Every larger farm had its still. The church book names several cases where a person 'died from strong drink'. That this was not noted for Maria Eliasdotter means that she probably died of typhoid fever and not as spiteful storytellers have said 'of strong drink'. One should have not begrudged Maj dying in peace, and not called it into question afterwards. If it was by mistake, by the medicine mix-up, that is a riddle which can't be solved either. Nor will it ever be truly clear if her uneasy spirit actually appeared. People in those days were full of superstition and imagination. Numbers of unexplainable occurrences were experienced and led to various stories. Masjak's Maj became best known because she appeared to many after her death.

As a result of Johan Mattsson Smedjebacka selling his homestead in 1878, a tradition and ownership was broken which was 250 years old. As early as the beginning of the 1600s, Matts Persson Hästbacka established this homestead in the village and then left it as an inheritance from one relative to the next. When new residents came to the farm in 1878, people began to call the place 'Nybonda's' (new residents).

June Pelo

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