October 17, 2017

Devilishly Strong Witches

Can someone be too strong? That sounds like a weird question to a modern person. We live in a culture that values athletics and physical fitness, drawing on the ancient traditions of the Classical World. However, things were different here in the 17th century, when being too strong could get you accused of witchcraft.

Take Nathaniel Greensmith, for example. He and his wife Rebecca were early settlers of Hartford, Connecticut. In 1662 Rebecca was accused of bewitching a neighbor named Ann Cole. Under interrogation Rebecca confessed to being a witch. She claimed the Devil had first appeared to her in the woods in the shape of a fawn that skipped around her. The fawn appeared several times before it finally spoke, inviting her to join a coven of witches that met in the forest. The witches attended the meeting in a variety of forms, including one who flew there in the the shape of a crow. Rebecca later had sexual congress with the Devil "with much seeming (but indeed horrible) delight to her."


Rebecca implicated her husband in her confession and claimed he was a witch as well. She said she had often suspected him of being a witch, particularly since he was abnormally strong for someone his size. Nathaniel was small in stature but could easily and untiringly lift heavy objects. For example, she once saw him bring home a cart full of huge logs that he had loaded himself. She thought he was small and "weak to my apprehension, and the logs were such that I thought men such as he could not do it." When asked how he could load and unload such heavy logs, Nathaniel told her "he had help that (she) knew not of." Rebecca assumed he meant the Devil, as did the Hartford magistrates. Both he and Rebecca were executed for witchcraft in 1662.

The issue is not that Nathaniel Greensmith was strong, but that he was small and strong. No one would have questioned what he did if he was some burly Puritan dude. But he wasn't, and since he defied expectations his strength was viewed with suspicion.

Perhaps the most famous strong witch is Reverend George Burroughs, who was executed during the Salem witch trials. Like Greensmith, Burroughs was quite small but was able to lift very heavy objects. For example, he was once seen to carry a full barrel of molasses just by inserting two fingers into the barrel's hole, which was something that no one else could do. A witness also testified that he saw "Mr. George Burroughs lift and hold out a gun of six foot barrel or thereabouts, putting the forefinger of his right hand into the muzzle of said gun and so held it out at arms end only with that finger..."


It seems that Burroughs liked to show off, which didn't sit well with his neighbors. Puritan men were expected to exhibit moderation and Burroughs wasn't meeting that expectation. This, along with a series of deceased wives and bad relationships with former parishioners in Salem, factored into his trial for witchcraft. Burroughs could lift a gun with one finger but sadly couldn't escape the hangman's noose. He was executed on August 19, 1692.

Is there some lesson to be learned from these stories? Maybe that anyone who defies the norm of their culture is likely to be viewed with suspicion, or that if your neighbors thought you were a witch any aberrant behavior, no matter how innocuous, could be interpreted maliciously. Those aren't happy lessons to learn, but keep them in mind the next time you want to carry around that barrel with just two fingers.

*****

I got this information from David Hall's Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England
Richard Godbeer's article "Your Wife Will Be Your Biggest Accuser" in the summer 2017 issue of Early American Studies, and various online sources.





October 10, 2017

Apple Lore: Death, Love and Magic

The other day I went to the farmers market and was very excited to see a bin full of small greenish brown apples. I am an apple fanatic, and those little beauties were Roxbury Russets. They actually weren't much to look at, but they have a long history in New England. In fact, Roxbury Russets are the oldest type of apple grown in the United States.

Their origin is a little murky, but they are said to have first been discovered growing in Roxbury, Massachusetts way back in the mid-1600s. One source claims they were growing as early as 1649. The word "discovered" is a little puzzling. It implies that some hapless Puritan just stumbled upon an apple tree, but apples are not native to New England. The Roxbury Russet must have been introduced by someone, but who? I've read that William Blackstone, the first Englishman to live on  the Boston peninsula, grew apple trees on what is now Boston Common. Perhaps the Roxbury Russet is a wild American version of an English cultivar he planted, its seeds carried into the hills of Roxbury by a bird or beast.

That's just speculation on my part. According to folklore, the first person to grow Roxbury Russets was a colonist named Joseph Warren. He died falling off a ladder while picking apples. That story almost seems too ironic to be true, but death by apple may have been a common thing in Colonial New England. For example, a man named Peter Parker died in the 1700s when a giant barrel of his home-made cider rolled off a wagon and crushed him. This happened in his orchard on top of Roxbury's Mission Hill (formerly known as Parker Hill), near what is now McLaughlin Park next to the New England Baptist Hospital. I lived on Mission Hill for many years, and every fall a local neighborhood group gathered the apples that still grow in the park to make cider. Some of the trees in the park may be descendants of Peter Parker's original trees. No one ever reported seeing Peter Parker's ghost, though.

Roxbury Russet apples
Given the apple's Biblical connections with sin, death and sex, it's not surprising there is some weird apple folklore in New England. Some of it is downright creepy. Take the strange story of Roger Williams's corpse. Williams was the founder of Rhode Island, and in 1936 his descendants exhumed his body to move it to another location. They were horrified to find that the roots of a nearby apple tree had grown into Williams's coffin and apparently absorbed most of his corpse. There were very few bones left inside and the tree roots had taken the shape of Williams's body. The roots are now part of the collection at the John Brown House museum in Providence.

The legend of Micah Rood is similarly grim. Micah Rood was a surly farmer who lived in Connecticut in the 1600s. One night a traveling peddler came to Rood's house and asked if he could spend the night. Rood grunted that he could. In the morning the peddler's cold dead body was found lying underneath one of Rood's apple trees. The peddler had been murdered and his money and wares stolen. The town naturally suspected Rood but had no evidence to prove he was the killer. The next autumn, though, all the apples that grew from Micah Rood's trees had a single blood-red spot in their white flesh.

One end of the sin continuum is death, but the other end is sex, and apples are a key component in a lot of nineteenth century New England love magic. Most of it is focused on determining who your true love is. For example, here's a simple charm involving apple seeds. If you have several potential lovers in mind, take some apple seeds and name each seed after one of the potential mates. Wet the seeds and then stick them to your forehead. The last seed to fall off is the person you are meant to be with.

Similarly, you can take two apple seeds and name them after two potential lovers. Wet them. Put one seed on each eyelid. Blink rapidly. Whichever seed falls off last represents your true love.

You can also predict a lover's name using an apple peel. Remove an apple's peel so it comes off in one long piece. Throw the peel over your shoulder onto the ground. Turn around and examine the peel. What letter does it form? That letter will be the first letter of your true love's first name.

Those love charms are kind of cute and would make good party games. This last one is a little more spooky. Stand in front of a mirror holding a lamp (or candle) and an apple. As you eat the apple repeat the following words:

Whoever my true love may be
Come and eat this apple with me

Is your true love supposed to arrive in person or just appear in the mirror? I'm not sure. That charm is in Fanny Bergren's 1896 book Current Superstitions, and she notes that it is particularly effective when done on Halloween. If you dare to try it let me know what happens.

October 03, 2017

The Ghost Dog of Boston College

The other night I dreamed that I was being chased by a large invisible dog. It had been sent to kill me by some unnamed enemies. It never caught me, which I take as a good omen. I think I had this dream because before I went to sleep I was thinking about the one time I was actually bitten by a dog.

We tend to think of dogs as man's best friends, but there is a long history of ominous dogs in art, literature and folklore. Quite often they are associated with death. For example, European legends tell of the Wild Hunt, a band of demonic hunters and ghostly hounds that roam the land during the dark months of the year. Anyone who sees the hunt will die, so it's a phenomenon best left unexperienced. Other sinister black dogs can also be found in English folklore, including the infamous Black Shuck of East Anglia. Going further back in history, the Greeks claimed the underworld was guarded by a three-headed dog named Cerberus, while the Egyptian god of embalming had the head of a black canine.

These tales may sound like quaint stories from the distant past, but ghastly dogs still continue to rear their toothy heads. For example, the psychologist Carl Jung had the following dream:

"I was in a forest - dense, gloomy fantastic, gigantic boulders lay about among huge jungle like trees. It was a heroic , primeval landscape. Suddenly I heard a piercing whistle that seemed to resound through the whole universe. My knees shook. Then there were crashings in the under brush, and a gigantic wolfhound with a fearful, gaping maw burst forth. At the sight of it, the blood froze in my veins. It tore past me, and I suddenly knew: the Wild Huntsman had commanded it to carry away a human soul. I awoke in sudden terror."

When he awoke Jung learned that his mother had died in the night. The Wild Hunt struck again.

Demonic hounds also appear in art, both high- and low-brow. In his novel The Western Lands William S. Burroughs writes about "door dogs" which are "not guarders but crossers of thresholds. They bring Death with them." If post-modern novels are not your cup of tea, you can also find demonic dogs in horror movies like 1978's Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell.

Devil Dog (1978)
Here in New England, our most famous creepy canine is probably the black dog of Connecticut's West Peak. He's an adorable little black terrier, but you can only see his cute fuzzy face twice. If you see him three times you'll perish. This part of the country was first colonized by East Anglian Puritans, and it's tempting to see a connection between this black dog and the better-known English Black Shuck.

This has all been preamble, because what I really wanted to write about this week was Boston College's O'Connell House. O'Connell House was built in the 1890s as a private residence and was eventually left to Boston's Archbishop William O'Connell. O'Connell in turn gave it to Boston College. The 32,000 square foot mansion currently serves as the school's student union building.




As befits an old building on a college campus, there are a lot of ghosts stories attached to O'Connell. One of the ghosts that appears at O'Connell is said to be a small dog. In the October 31, 2002 issue of The Boston College Chronicle, one of the building's five resident student managers claimed she sometimes saw it in her room:

"Every now and then I'll be lying in bed and see this little dog sitting under my desk looking at me...  It's there and then it disappears. It's kind of eerie and definitely a mystery."

None of the resident managers owned a dog, of course. It was clearly a spectral being.


In 2001, famed psychic investigator Lorraine Warren visited O'Connell House. (Lorraine and her husband Ed's work as ghost-hunters inspired The Conjuring films.) She validated the students' experiences.

According to Zach Barber, O'Connell House manager and A&S '04, Warren sensed three spirits in the house.  
"She said that there were two ghosts in the attic that either hanged themselves or jumped, and there was also a dog spirit that she said was following her around the house," said Barber." She also said, "You must hear furniture moving around up there (in the attic) all the time." Barber confirmed that some O'Connell House staff members have, in fact, reported hearing such noises on the ceilings of the rooms below the attic in the past." (The Heights, Volume LXXXII, Number 22, 23 October 2001)

Boston College students have various theories about what the ghosts are: one is a child who drowned in a fountain, one is a madwoman who had been confined in the house, another is someone killed by a jealous lover. I haven't read any theories about the dog, though.


Why is this dog so well-behaved compared to some of its folkloric counterparts? Perhaps the students raise enough hell on their own and don't need any help from the dog, or perhaps the school's culture of Catholicism and rational inquiry help keep the little beast in check. Or maybe he's just a lonely little ghost-dog looking for affection. Hopefully we'll get some answers when the next group of psychics investigate O'Connell House someday in the future.

September 25, 2017

Lumberjacks and the Devil: Two Stories from Maine


1. THE DEVIL'S MAGIC AXE

Many years ago a lumberjack named Robert Cartier lived and worked in Millinocket, Maine. I suppose "worked" is an exaggeration. Cartier was a lazy drunkard and a trouble-maker. He preferred drinking in the bars or starting fights over cutting down trees.

One day the Devil appeared to Cartier. The Devil said, "Robert, I'd like to make a deal with you. It's a shame you need to spend so much time working as a lumberjack. You're doing an excellent job spreading evil by drinking and picking fights. I'd rather you spent your time doing that. What do you think?"

Cartier agreed.

"Well," said the Devil, "Here's the deal. I'll give you a magic axe. It can cut down trees all by itself. You won't need to lift a finger. You just need to whistle to make it happen. In return, I get your should when you die."

Cartier wasn't very smart, so a few years of easy living in exchange for eternal damnation sounded like a bargain to him. He agreed to the Devil's deal.


The next day Cartier went into the woods with the Devil's axe. He sat in the shade eating, drinking whisky, and whistling while the axe cut down tree after tree. When he was done in he went into town to drink more and pick fights. He had plenty of energy for mischief because he had done so little all day.

For many years Cartier spread misery at night while the Devil's axe chopped down trees all day. But one night in a bar Cartier had a moment of drunken clarity: he had spent his life doing evil and was doomed to Hell. Cartier staggered out of the bar into the night, eager to find atonement.

The next morning some lumberjacks found Cartier's body in the woods. His head been chopped clean off with one blow of an axe. The murder weapon was never found, but some people say the Devil's magic axe is still out there, ready for some unwary soul to start whistling in the woods.

2. JACK AND THE DEVIL

People in Dyer Brook, Maine say there is a special place in the woods where you can meet the Devil. If you go there seven nights in a row the Devil will appear and speak to you. 

A logger named Jack learned about this place and went there for the required number of nights. On the seventh night the Devil came and talked with Jack. He warned him not to ride the logs in the river next day or he would die. Jack was foolhardy and laughed at the Devil's warning. 

The next day Jack went went to work. A huge number of logs were being driven down the river. Jack jumped from log to log, nudging them with his pole to keep them moving downstream. He was about to leap onto another log when suddenly a flaming pickaxe appeared in front of him. He remembered the Devil's warning and jumped back to shore. Several men died that day in a logjam, but Jack didn't.

After this the other lumberjacks began to notice strange things about Jack. For example, when he was out chopping wood the sound of two axes could be heard, even though he was at the only person visible. Jack also was often heard talking to someone that no one else could see. Maybe it was just an imaginary friend, but people knew that Jack had gone to the Devil's meeting place. They stared to call him Jack-the-Ripper because his strange behavior scared them.

Once Jack drove his axe into a tree so hard the handle split in two. But when Jack pulled it out the handle was strangely once again whole. The lumberjacks who witnessed this avoided him like the plague.

One day the boss walked with Jack to a clearing in the woods. It was full of brush and logs. "Clean this mess up," the boss said and walked off. The boss was spooked by Jack and thought it would take him several days to clean the clearing. Jack came back to camp in just a few hours. All the brush and logs had been neatly stacked in a pile. It would have taken dozens of men to do what Jack did alone in just a short time. The other men at camp whispered that he had supernatural help.

After that all the lumberjacks refused to work with Jack-the-Ripper. He left Dyer Brook and was never seen again.

*****

I really like these two stories. They're short, sweet and spooky. The first one comes from Charles A. Stansfield's Haunted Maine (2007), which is packed with great legends. The other one comes from The WPA Guide to Maine: The Pine Tree State, which was produced in the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project as a way to employ out-of-work authors. Why doesn't the US government pay people to collect folklore today? That's how I want my tax dollars spent.

September 20, 2017

A Weed That Cures Witchcraft and Elf-Sickness

Today is cloudy and dark. A hurricane is churning off the coast. Autumn officially starts in a few days. All this puts me in the mood for some witchcraft. So here goes!

Whenever I walk around the Boston area, I see a lot of plants growing wild. They grow in yards, they grow in parks, they grow in empty lots and along the sidewalks. I suppose you might call them weeds, but that term seems a little derogatory, doesn't it? Many of these plants are actually herbs that historically have been associated with healing. We've just forgotten what they were used for.

Some of them I recognize, like mugwort, dandelion, and mullein, but I'm still learning the names of others. For example, I believe this inconspicuous looking plant growing on Memorial Drive is actually dock weed (or dock). I'm glad to know where it is. It might come in handy in case I am bewitched or afflicted by elves.


According to Pamela Jones's book Just Weeds: History, Myths and Uses (1994), the Medieval Anglo-Saxons valued dock weed as a cure for "elf-sickness." Like many other Europeans, the Anglo-Saxons believed that elves shot people with invisible arrows and made them sick. Many Anglo-Saxon sources also link elves with witches since they were both sources of illness and suffering.

For example, one Anglo-Saxon book of cures contains a recipe for an herbal salve to treat sickness caused by "the elfin race and nocturnal goblin visitors and for the women with whom the devil hath carnal commerce." Another such book has a chapter dedicated to cures against "every evil wisewoman and the elfin race," while another, the Lacnunga, lists witches, elves, and Norse gods as possible causes for illness.

The Puritans who colonized New England did not worry about Norse gods, and they didn't really worry much about elves either. But they worried about witches a lot. A lot. The Salem witch trials of 1692 are the most famous New England trials, but there were many others before them, and even a few afterwards. For the Puritan settlers, witches were a real concern and they were always looking for ways to combat their malevolent magic.

For example, in 1685 a woman living in East Hampton, Connecticut* named Elizabeth Howell became strangely ill. She felt sharp piercing pains as if being stuck with pins, and claimed to see a strange black creature lurking at the foot of her bed. She also supposedly vomited up a pin. Before she died, Howell cried out that she was being bewitched by a neighbor, Elizabeth Garlick.

Goody Garlick was arrested and brought to trial for witchcraft. Several people testified against her, including one Goodwife Simons, who claimed that while suffering from fits two neighbors arrived with dock weed to cure her illness. When she learned that the dock weed had been provided by Goody Garlick she threw it onto the fire. She suspected that Goody Garlick was bewitching her and didn't trust the dock weed. Perhaps it would just make her feel worse! But it's clear that her neighbors thought the dock weed would help cure her. I think it's fascinating that a centuries-old belief dating back to the Anglo-Saxons appeared in 17th century Connecticut.

So there you go. Random weeds growing near the sidewalk actually have a connection to witchcraft, and perhaps even elves. New England is a great place to live!

*****

* East Hampton is now part of New York but for a time in the 1600s it was part of Connecticut. 

I got most of my information about Goody Garlick and the dock weed from this Smithsonian article and this article in the East Hampton Star. I also found another Anglo-Saxon leech book that mentions burning herbs as a cure for elf-sickness, but historians don't seem to think that is why Goodwife Simons threw the dock weed into her fire. 

September 12, 2017

Bradford College: The Necronomicon, Strange Lights, and Ghosts

What is it about colleges and ghost stories? It seems like most colleges have at least one restless spirit wandering their hallowed halls. Maybe it's because young people are more perceptive of the supernatural, or maybe it's just that young people like a good scary story. Either way, if you want to find a ghost college campuses are a good place to look.

I grew up in Haverhill, Massachusetts. When I lived there it was home to two colleges: Northern Essex Community College (NECCO to the locals) and Bradford College. I've never heard any ghost stories about NECCO, and Renee Mallett, author Haunted Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts, writes that "...it's not haunted in the slightest, at least as far as anyone has come forward to say." It's not a residential campus so that might be the reason why.

Bradford College, on the other hand, is the setting for many ghostly encounters and paranormal legends. Perhaps this is because it was home to thousands of young people for nearly two centuries. Bradford was founded as an academy for girls back in 1803, became a junior college in 1932 and then a four-year co-ed college in 1971. Bradford College closed in 2000 for financial reasons, and it's campus is now home to Northpoint Bible College.

Photo by Stephen Muise (my brother!)
My favorite story about Bradford College is that the Necronomicon, a legendary book of malevolent magic, is hidden somewhere in the tunnels beneath the campus. The tunnels are quite real, and a colleague of mine who attended Bradford said they were originally built so the wealthy young ladies of Bradford Academy didn't need to go outside in inclement weather. According to the legend, horror author H.P. Lovecraft was dating one of these young ladies in the 1920s and decided to hide the Necronomicon below the campus to keep it safely hidden away.

There are a couple reasons why this story is almost certainly just a legend. First, the fabled Necronomicon is not real. This mythical book was a fictional creation  Lovecraft used in many of his tales but it did not exist outside the pages of his stories. After his death several authors published their own versions of the Necronomicon, which you can still buy from Amazon or your local bookstore. I can't vouch for their magical efficacy, but they certainly aren't hidden under Bradford College.

The second reason this is just a legend? Lovecraft never dated anyone. There's no record of him having romantic feelings for anyone until he met his wife, and even then she talked him into their short-lived marriage. Lovecraft dating someone is more unbelievable than the Necronomicon.

Photo: Stephen Muise
A weirder and somehow more believable ghost story about Bradford was sent to me by someone who reads my blog. I'll call him Greg for the sake of anonymity. Greg was a freshman at Bradford College in 1980. One night in late September or early October of that year, Greg and some other freshmen were carrying a case of beer into their dorm when a sophomore named Larry stopped them in the hall. He explained that he didn't want to be alone that night. It was the one-year anniversary of something strange that happened.

He told them the following story. One year ago, Larry, his roommate Ray, and a couple other students decided to take LSD on a Friday afternoon after class. They had planned to take it outside on the beautiful campus, but rainy weather confined them to Larry and Ray's room. Things went poorly. As the acid kicked in Ray became extremely paranoid, and began to rant about a flashing red light in the corner of the room. No one else could see it. Ray started to scream accusingly at his friends so they left him alone (and tripping) in his room. Hours later Ray was still screaming about the flashing red light and was taken to the school medical facility. He never came back to his room, and several days later his father came and collected his belongings. No one ever learned what happened to Ray.

That was the end of Larry's story. Greg and the other freshmen kind of laughed at it, but a few weeks later Greg experienced something that made him reconsider the story. Greg had been hanging out in Larry's room and as he left he saw the words "WELCOME BACK RAY" appear on the door. They vanished as soon as he read them. This freaked Greg out but he didn't say anything.

The appearance of those words was the start of some weird occurrences in the dormitory. One night Greg was awakened by someone screaming in the room next to him. He listened through the wall but couldn't make out what was causing the commotion. Several days later he learned that one of the boys in that room had left Bradford College and gone back to live at his parents' house. The boy was upset because he kept seeing a flashing red light.

Greg also started to see a flashing red light, often out of the corner of his eye. Greg wrote, "I thought that either it was just my imagination or this dorm was really haunted and I was going to be its victim in some way." He had trouble concentrating and his grades began to fall. During this time Greg learned that another student had also supposedly seen a red flashing light, this time in the bathroom while he was drunk.

Hearing this did nothing to settle Greg's nerves. He continued to see the red light, his grades continued to fall, and he became deeply depressed. In the spring of 1981 he finally hitchhiked home and never returned to Bradford.

That's the end of Greg's story. I find it really fascinating and don't quite know what to make of it. Greg seems to think that "WELCOME BACK RAY" was a premonition that like Ray he too would eventually drop out of Bradford. If that's the case it came true. And did Ray's initial bad acid trip accidentally open a doorway for something uncanny to come through?

Photo: Stephen Muise
That story about the flashing red light is just one of many told about Bradford College. The most famous ghost story is that the campus is haunted by a spirit called Amy, who was a young woman who had an affair with a priest. When she became pregnant she either killed herself or was murdered by the priest. The college is also said to be haunted by the ghost of a drama professor who was murdered by student who impregnated her. Yikes! That's a lot of sex and violence for such a small college.

Are any of these stories true? I can't really say, but the folks at Ghost Encounters have investigated Bradford College and you can read their results here. Sometimes when you to college you learn things you didn't expect.

September 04, 2017

Milton's Ghost Road

I always imagine that Labor Day weekend will be warm and sunny. You know, it's the end of summer so we should spend one last day at the beach or have a big picnic. That's not always the case, however. The Sunday of this past Labor Day weekend was cold and rainy. It felt more like November than September.

Tony and I went down to Milton, Massachusetts for a little day-trip in the raw weather. Our main goal was to visit the Eustis Estate, a huge 19th century house that was recently opened to the public by Historic New England. It's a really beautiful building with some amazing architectural details, and they've restored the interiors with period fabrics and wall treatments.



Since it was a gloomy day and the house was relatively empty I kept thinking of Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House. I don't mean that in a bad way either. The building has a lot of presence and would make a great setting for a movie. On a sunny day you might film something by Edith Wharton, but on a gloomy day it was definitely the setting for a horror movie.

Can you see the leaves changing? Autumn is coming early this year...
I didn't find any ghost stories associated with the Eustis Estate, but there is a haunted location in Milton just a few miles away. Although it just looks like a pleasant country road, Harland Street in Milton is supposed to be home to several ghosts. In fact, the locals call it Ghost Road. Perhaps I should write it this way: GHOST ROAD. That looks more frightening. And there are definitely some frightening stories attached to it.

The stretch of Harland Street between Hillside Street and Unquity Road has been said to be haunted for decades. According to Robert Ellis Cahill's book New England's Ghostly Haunts (1982), people living there complained so often of strange noises and ghostly apparitions that they finally brought in a group of psychic investigators.

This looks like a Ghost Road to me...
Two of the investigators, Elaine Favioli and Edward Ambermon, saw "jellyfish-like blobs with discernible ears and mouths," while other spirits appeared in human form. One was a woman in a long gown, and the other was an American Indian the investigators named Mingo. A Ponkapoag Indian named Mingo did live in Milton, but I'm not sure if this is really his ghost or if the investigators just used his name. As Cahill notes, an Indian ghost named Mingo also haunted the Barnstable House on Cape Cod. Are they the same ghost or just two unfortunate souls with the same name?

Those jellyfish-like blobs sound pretty creepy, and Ghost Road keeps it's creepy reputation even today. Several people on message boards claim the road is haunted by a family that walks up and down the road at night, and that the family is made up of an Indian ghost named Mingo, a headless Puritan woman, and her child.

Other people say they've encountered a man walking up and down Ghost Road late at night. No one knows who he is, and he refuses to show his face. A black car has also been spotted parked by the side of the road. It flashes its lights at everyone who drives past. Are the two related somehow? All of these ghosts (plus horrifying unearthly shrieks) are only manifest during the night. Happily Tony and I went during the day.

Ghost Road passes through swampy conservation land and Tony wondered why people often report paranormal activity near swamps, like this one or the Hockomock Swamp in the Bridgewater Triangle. It's a good question. I suppose one could argue people are misinterpreting natural phenomena as ghostly activity. Swamps are dark and full of wildlife, so maybe people hear frogs or foxes and think they are hearing human voices. Luminous swamp gas might be interpreted as glowing ghosts.


Still, that wouldn't explain things like a family of ghosts walking in the night or a black car parked by the side of the road. Swamps tend to be undeveloped (and therefore very dark at night) so perhaps they serve as blank slates onto which we can project our fears, be they restless Indians whose land we stole or faceless men who lurk in our neighborhoods.

Finally, I'll just point out that local American Indian tribes viewed swamps as gateways to the underworld. They felt they were good places to contact spirits and their shamans would visit swamps to find spirit allies or seek visions. They were not evil places but places of power. Maybe people today are seeing the spirits that have always been there but just filtered through a modern American worldview.

August 29, 2017

Howling In The Woods: A Terrifying Tarzan In Wellfleet

Imagine yourself alone in the woods on a late autumn evening. The leaves are down and bare tree branches rattle in a chill wind blowing off the nearby ocean. It's quiet. All you can hear is the sound of dry leaves crunching underfoot. Maybe the smell of snow is in the air.

Suddenly, in the deepening gloom, you hear a howl. You can't tell where it's coming from but it sounds close. You pause. Maybe it was just a dog?

Then you hear it again. It sounds closer this time. It's definitely not a dog. Is it a human? Maybe, or maybe it's something you don't want to face alone in the dark woods.

The thing howls again, even closer, and fear overpowers curiosity. You run for home like the Devil himself is behind you. For all you know, maybe he is.


In December of 1939, the Cape Cod town of Wellfleet was plagued by someone (or something) that screamed and howled in the night. It was a season for strange apparitions on the Outer Cape, for the this was the same time that Provincetown's more famous Black Flash was running amok a few miles down Route 6. Unlike the Black Flash, though, no one ever saw the source of the strange howls that were heard in Wellfleet. He, she, or it remained unseen.


The noises were focused in Wellfleet's Paine Hollow neighborhood, and were heard only at night. Some locals jokingly said they were being made by Tarzan, but others took the noises seriously enough to form an armed mob:
‘Tarzan’, in case you don’t know, is the name of our local phantom, a sequel to Provincetown’s ‘Black Flash’, maybe. Anyhow, the people were out the other night, armed with clubs and hammers and shot guns to track down the source of the strange noises that had tormented them for days. They combed Paine Hollow with minute precision, but ‘Tarzan’ remained elusive. (The Provincetown Advocate, "Tarzan Is Making Wellfleet Uneasy", December 14, 1939)
I suppose the noises were most likely made by a hoaxer, but The Advocate also suggests it was a local bull unhappy that his owner had locked him up during deer hunting season. Whatever it was, it's never a laughing matter when armed people go stomping through the woods looking to find a monster. Anxiety was running high that year on the Outer Cape. A sea serpent had been found in January in Provincetown, fishermen were afraid Nazi U-boats were lurking under the waves, and the Black Flash had terrorized Provincetown a few weeks earlier. People were stressed and ready to shoot something.


Happily, no one was shot and I couldn't find any information about the Wellfleet Tarzan beyond that one article. Maybe the hoaxer quit when he learned about the armed mob, maybe the cow stopped complaining, or maybe Tarzan swung back to the jungle. Either way, Tarzan made an impression on the people of Wellfleet:

The residents scoff at the thought of a phantom ‘Tarzan’ swinging through the tree tops South Wellfleet, yodeling like a sick sea-clam to scare little boys. But the good neighbors look beneath their beds before retiring these nights - I betcha! (The Provincetown Advocate, "Tarzan Is Making Wellfleet Uneasy", December 14, 1939) 

August 20, 2017

Something Monstrous Is Out There: The Truro Wild Man of 1879

I am fascinated by old stories about wild men in New England. What is a wild man? Well, I'm sure you're familiar with Sasquatch, who is said to be large, hairy and humanoid. Before the concept of Sasquatch caught on in the 20th century, though, folks in these parts reported seeing wild men. And yes, I just used the phrase "folks in these parts." It makes me feel like I should be smoking a corn cob pipe, but it's a good gender neutral descriptor and I'm letting it stay.

Anyway, back to the wild men. Unlike Sasquatch, who is supposedly a distinct species of animal, wild men are a little more ambiguous. The term was used to describe all sorts of strange beings: apelike monsters, humanoids covered in hair, and even people with mental illness who lived in the woods. A wild man was basically any human (or human-shaped) being who dwelt outside the boundaries of society. Invariably they elicited a terrified reaction from anyone who saw them.

Cornhill Beach in Truro
For example, citizens of Truro, Massachusetts were terrified when a wild man appeared in that Cape Cod town in May of 1879. I spend time in Turo every summer, and even though it's now a beautiful vacation town there are still a lot of big empty spaces. You can walk in the woods for hours and not see anyone, and even the beaches are devoid of other people at certain times of day. I suppose it's not surprising that a wild man would appear there.

The Truro wild man was first seen crawling in and out of the windows of an abandoned house by a group of school children. They of course reacted with terror and ran home to tell their parents they had seen a monster. The children described the wild man as gigantic and shirtless.

At first the adults in town didn't take the story seriously, but the children continued to see the wild man for several days in the vicinity of the abandoned house. Fear spread through the neighborhood and a search party was finally formed to find the wild man. They searched the abandoned house and the area around it but did not find the monster. It seemed that he had escaped.


The identity of the wild man was revealed a few days later. He was not a monster after all, but was actually a "well-disposed" man of Portuguese descent who was interested in buying the abandoned house. Apparently he had been climbing through the window so he could see what the interior looked like before he purchased the property. I don't know why he was shirtless.

That information comes from the May 29, 1879 issue of The Provincetown Advocate. Although in the end there was no actual wild man, I find it fascinating that both children and adults thought there could be a monstrous hairy humanoid wandering through town. Even if a real wild man was not in Truro there were wild men lurking in the shared Truro subconscious.


It's also interesting that the wild man in question was really someone Portuguese. People of Portuguese descent now compose a big part of the population in southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod, but there was a time when mostly people of English ancestry lived in those areas. The kids in Truro were basically freaked out by someone from a different ethnic group. It's good that the story had a happy ending and that the "wild man" was not shot by a search party.

August 09, 2017

Vikings in Boston? Norumbega Rises Again!


"I have to-day the honor of announcing to the discovery of Vinland, including the Landfall of Leif Erickson and the Site of his Houses. I have also to announce to you the discovery of the site of the Ancient City of Norumbega." (Eben Norton Horsford and Edward Henry Clement, The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, A Communication to the President and Council of the American Geographical Society their Special Session in Watertown, November 21, 1889)


"If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.” (Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz)

*****

If you've ever been to Kenmore Square in Boston you might have noticed a statue of famed Viking Leif Erikson in the middle of Commonwealth Avenue. I bet Leif wasn't as youthful and perky as this statue portrays him, but I'm willing to acknowledge artistic license. But more importantly: why is this statue here?
The author and Leif Erikson

Eben Norton Horsford helped put it there.

Near Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge stands a plaque that claims: "On this spot in the year 1000 Leif Erikson built his house in Vineland." What? Leif Erikson lived in Cambridge? That'sjust  not true. The plaque is also the work of Eben Norton Horsford.

Further down the Charles River, in Weston, stands an anomalous stone tower. A plaque at its base claims the tower marks the site of the ancient city of Norumbega, which was a Viking settlement. Eben Norton Horsford strikes again.

Eben Norton Horsford
Horsford was born in 1818 in upstate New York. He trained as a civil engineer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and had a successful career as an academic, eventually teaching at Harvard for 16 years. According to Wikipedia, he specialized in topics like "phosphates, condensed milk, fermentation, and emergency rations."

Horsford is most famous for his reformulation of baking powder. He replaced the traditional cream of tartar with calcium biphosphate, which made it more reliable and effective. With this new formula he founded the Rumford Chemical Works and became a very wealthy man. You can still buy Rumford Baking Powder even oday.

Horsford made his money in the physical sciences, but his real passion was not baking powder or fermentation. It was proving the Vikings visited America before Columbus did. Horsford was not alone in his passion. The theory that Norsemen had been the first Europeans in America had initially been popularized by a Danish scholar named Carl Christian Rafn in 1837, and it found a lot of support in late 19th century America. At that time many Catholics from Southern Europe were immigrating into the United States, and the more established Anglo-Saxon Protestants (like Horsford) didn't like it. They also didn't like the fact that Christopher Columbus was a Catholic from Southern Europe. It just felt unseemly somehow!

A youthful and fresh-faced Leif Erikson

We now know that Norse explorers did reach the America's first, thanks to the discovery in the 1960s of a Viking settlement in L'Anse au Meadows, Newfoundland. Archeologists say the settlement was established around 1,000 AD and probably supported a maximum of 130 people. They did not stay long or make a lasting impact. So no, Columbus was not the first European to reach North America, but he was the first to make any real impact.

Horsford had no archaeological training, but he did have a lot of money to promote his theory that Vikings had not only come to North America, but they had come to Massachusetts. Conveniently, he found proof right in his own backyard.
The amateur archeologist claimed to have unearthed that proof — rocks that he said were the foundation stones of Erikson’s house — around the corner from his Cambridge home along the banks of the Charles River. “Horsford basically walked from his house, went to the riverbank, found rocks, and said, ‘Aha! This is a house,’ ” says William R. Short, an author and independent scholar specializing in Viking-age topics. “But they don’t look like the foundation stones of typical Viking-age houses. They look like the rocks of Cambridge.” ("Uncovering New England's Viking Connections," The Boston Globe, November 23, 2013.)
Horsford theorized, in his 1890 book The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, that the Norsemen had come to the Charles River basin in search of oak burrs (those large lumps that grow on the side of oak trees) which they used to make drinking cups and other items. They were so valuable that the Norse created a vast series of dams and canals across Massachusetts to transport them to the ocean:
At first the maser wood (oak burrs) would be gathered near the settlement, as we have seen; but the supply would soon be exhausted. The choppers must go farther. There were no horses, no roads. The obvious method of transportation was by water, - at first from the immediate wooded shores of the Charles, then from the shores of its tributaries, and the along artificial canals, conducting to these tributaries and the river. (The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, 1890, p. 29)
Horsford claimed to have found Viking-built canals in Newton, Weston, Cambridge, Woburn, Dedham, Brighton, and many other towns in Massachusetts. Skeptics argued that these canals and other stone structures had obviously been built by English colonial settlers, but Horsford said they had simply repaired pre-existing Viking canals. Again, he had no evidence to support his theory.

Oak burr!

How many Norsemen would it take to build all this? Horsford estimated about 10,000 of them lived in Massachusetts.


As I wrote two weeks ago, the name Norumbega probably comes from a mistranslation of the Italian phrase "non oro bega," meaning "no gold to quarrel about." Italian cartographers had put it on maps of New England to indicate there was no gold here. Horsford claimed the word Norumbega was an Algonquin interpretation of the word Norvege, meaning "Norway," and was the name of the Viking settlement. Needless to say, the local Indians have no memory or records of Vikings settling the Charles River.

Even during his lifetime Horsford's theories faced opposition from historians. For example, the Massachusetts Historcial Society opposed the effort to erect the statue of Leif Erikson, and one National Geographic Society publication even stated the following:

"The most incautious linguistic inferences, and the most uncritical, cartographical perversions, are presented in Eben Norton Horsford's 'Discovery of America by Northmen." (quoted in Horsford's The Problem of the Northmen,1889)

"Cartographical perversions" is a pretty strong condemnation. After his death Horsford's works fell into relative obscurity. I'm sure the changing demographics of Massachusetts's population probably had a role to play, as the state became increasingly Catholic. The particular anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiments that helped fuel his efforts died out.

 

Horsford's thriving Viking city may have been a delusion, but the monuments he erected remain to remind us of the mythical Norumbega and the real-life dreamers and eccentrics who make our region's history so rich. Even though Leif Erikson never sailed up the Charles River New England is still a strange and wonderful place.

August 02, 2017

Dublin Lake: Horrifying Monsters That Induce Madness

This week I was going to write another post about Norumbega, the Atlantis of Maine, but I'm putting that topic on hold for now. Something more interesting has come up: lake monsters so terrifying they drive people insane. Who can resist a story like this?

The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript recently ran an article about monsters that supposedly lurk at the bottom of a lake in Dublin, New Hampshire:

At its surface, Dublin Lake may be a family-friendly body of water – offering the region a place to fish, swim, and recreate – but dive deeper and you might not like what you find.

Legend has it that a yet-to-be-classified form of sea monster dwells in caverns at the deepest point of the lake, which is 100-feet according to New Hampshire Fish and Game.

While those who have allegedly seen the monster have been driven mad, that doesn’t stop some lake-goers from hoping they find Dublin’s underwater cryptid. ("The Search for the Dublin Lake Monster," The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, July 26, 2017)
Accounts of the Dublin Lake monster date back to the 1980s. According to one story, the monster was first encountered when a scuba diver became separated from his group and did not return to the surface. Several days later a group of teenagers encountered him in the woods, naked and raving about hideous creatures he had encountered in a cavern at the bottom of the lake. He was unable to describe them because their terrifying appearance had driven him completely insane.

It does look like monsters could be in here... (photo from Wikipedia)

I love it! That's a really fantastic legend and there is another version as well. In the alternate version, a group of scuba divers were using a diving bell to try to reach the lake's bottom. The tether was not long enough, so one of the divers swam down to the murky bottom. He did not return and his companions assumed he was dead. Several days later, hikers encountered a naked madman in the woods near Lake Dublin. It was of course the missing diver, who had been driven totally insane by the hideous creatures he saw. Due to his fragile mental state he was unable to tell anyone what the creatures looked like.

Most lake monsters are describable, and usually look like giant snakes or extinct plesiousaurs. They may be strange or unusual, but aren't ugly to a madness-inducing degree. That really makes the Dublin Lake monsters stand out. Some sources say the diver referred to something vaguely eel-like, but others are totally silent on what the creatures look like. Isn't it better to let the imagination run wild?

Another distinctive feature of this legend is that some accounts claim air-filled caverns exist at the bottom of the lake. This is where the creatures live, which seems to imply they aren't your average giant eel or aquatic dinosaur. Who knows what they are?

Some of you may have a prurient curiosity about why the diver is found naked. What happened to his diving gear and scuba suit? Well, your curiosity will not be satisfied. No one knows, which makes this whole thing even creepier.

To sum up: the Dublin Lake monsters are so hideous they drive grown men insane, they might dwell in air-filled caverns, and for some reason they want to take your clothes off. All of this combines to make a really great legend.

Although a lot of local residents weren't familiar with the story they became enthusiastic when they learned about it:

“I haven’t heard of the legend but I love it and hope it’s true,” said Augusta Petrone, of Dublin, who said that as a child, she heard a rumor that the lake didn’t have a bottom. “I’m 80 years old and I used to not believe a lot of things. I’m hoping they find Atlantis..."

I think that's a great attitude to have about your local monster. Scuba diver Maurica Smith was also excited about the legend:

“I would definitely love to go out to Dublin Lake again, to explore a little deeper,” said Smith. “I’ve also heard that there is a space ship down there, which would be cool.”

It sounds like there are several legends circulating about the lake, perhaps inspired by its great depth. If anyone knows anything else about Dublin Lake please leave a message in the comments.

*****
You can read more about the Dublin Lake monsters at Cryptopia. Hopefully it won't drive you insane!


July 27, 2017

The Lost City of Norumbega: David Ingram's Journey


"Everything about Norumbega is in dispute." 

Kirsten Seaver, "Norumbega and 'Harmonia Mundi" in Sixteenth-Century Cartography,"
Imago Mundi, Vol. 50, 1998

*****
In 1568, a young Englishman named David Ingram joined Captain John Hawkins as a crew member on one of his ships. Ingram was from the small town of Barking in Essex, and apparently he was looking for adventure - and was willing to overlook the nasty fact that Hawkins was a slave trader whose coat of arm was emblazoned with the image of an African child in chains.

Ingram set sail with Hawkins for the Caribbean with six vessels, but when they reached the coast of Mexico the fleet was attacked by Spanish pirates. Four of Hawkins's ships were captured by the Spaniards, and more than two hundred of his men (including Ingram) were forced onto the remaining two ships. There was not enough food or water for so many men and survival seemed grim. Captain Hawkins was not a compassionate man, so he put ninety-six men ashore near the Tampico River in Mexico. He gave them money and bolts of cloth, keeping the food and weapons for himself, and then sailed off.

The money was useless - there was nowhere to spend it and nothing to buy - but I suppose they could have traded the cloth with the local Native Americans. They didn't get a chance, though, because shortly after being put ashore a band of Native Americans captured the sailors, robbing them and killing those who resisted. They then told the survivors to head west to a nearby Spanish settlement.

Many of the crew headed west, but David Ingram had other ideas. Maybe he was afraid of the Spaniards, maybe he didn't trust the Native Americans, but he and several others decided to go north. They were aiming for the North Atlantic Coast, where Ingram knew English fishing boats visited the region's teeming fisheries. It was more than a thousand miles away.

For months Ingram trekked across North America, getting food, shelter and directions from various tribes along the way. By 1569 he made it to the coast of Maine with at least two other English companions.

Ingram's story sounds pretty incredible, doesn't it? Was it really possible for someone to walk from Mexico to Maine in one year in the 1500s? His journey seems almost unbelievable, but once he reached Maine things got really bizarre. Ingram claimed that he discovered a vast Native American kingdom filled with gold and silver in Maine. It was called Norumbega.

An early map showing Norumbega's location in Maine

According to Ingram, the people of Norumbega dressed in the softest animal pelts and decorated their bodies with gold and pearls.
"All the people generally wear bracelets as big as a man's finger upon each of their arms, and the like on each of their ankles, whereof one commonly is gold and two silver and many of the women also do wear great plates of gold covering their bodies and many bracelets and chains of great pearls." (Emmie Bailey Whitney, Maine, My State, 1919)
Gold and pearls were outrageously plentiful in the kingdom. The rivers were filled with pieces of gold as large as a man's hand, while pearls could be gathered by the fistful. Ingram himself collected large amounts of pearls upon first arriving but threw them away because he got tired of carrying them. It didn't really matter because he could always just pick up more.

The Norumbegans were friendly and led Ingram to their leader, a king named the Bathshaba who lived in the city of Arembec. Ingram claimed that Arambec was about half a mile across, and its buildings were roofed with precious metals. The Bathsheba received Ingram in a hall whose roof was supported by twelve pillars of polished crystal, whose walls were lined with gold, and whose ceiling was made of silver. In other words, it was really nice. 

The Bathshaba took pity on Ingram and gave him furs to wear, a house to live in, and a wife to cook for him. It sounds like a good deal, but Ingram was still eager to return home to England. He eventually found a French ship bound for Europe and returned made his way to London.

Francis Walsingham
Back in England Ingram became something of a celebrity. He told his story to eager audiences in pubs, and discussed Norumbega with leading intellectuals like Dr. John Dee, who was Queen Elizabeth's astrologer and Shakespeare's inspiration for Prospero in The Tempest. Ingram also told his story to Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's secretary and spymaster, who in turn told it to Richard Hakluyt, a clergyman and author who was promoting English exploration. Hakluyt published an account of Ingram's journey called The Relations of David Ingram in 1582, and also included it in his influential 1589 book The Principall Navigations Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation.

Several expeditions tried to reach Norumbega, but none were successful. In fact, no one ever found the city, even when Maine was successfully colonized by the English.

I suppose this is not surprising to you. We all know, from our vantage point in the 21st century, that there was no city of precious metals in Maine. It never existed. Even Hakluyt grew suspicious of Ingram's story, and removed it from later editions of The Prinicipall Navigations. It's not even entirely clear if Ingram was ever even in North America (which he claimed was full of elephants).

Why did people believe him? Well, the Spanish had actually discovered large cities in Mexico, and they were indeed filled with gold, so it seemed plausible these cities might exist elsewhere. A place named Norumbega, or something similar, had appeared on a Portuguese map of North America in 1548. The French explorer Jean Alfonce de Saintonge claimed he visited Norumbega in the 1540s, and found a city "with clever inhabitants and peltries of all kinds of beasts." Saintonge doesn't mention gold, but animal pelts were very valuable, so wouldn't gold be found there as well?

In short, Ingram didn't make up Norumbega out of thin air. Europeans already believed it was an actual place. He was building on some preexisting stories and some of his details do seem plausible. For example, he claims the Norumbegans ate a lot of quahogs and piled up their shells on the shore. It is true that Maine's coastal tribes ate a lot of shellfish, and those piles of shells (called middens) can still be seen today.

Ironically, the name Norumbega may come from a misunderstanding of an archaic Italian phrase "non oro bega," which means "no quarrel about gold." The historian Kirsten Seaver claims that early Italian explorers noted this on a map as a way of telling others there was no gold in the region (and therefore no reason for colonizing countries to quarrel). "Non oro bega" was then written by later mapmakers as "aranbega," and finally as Norumbega. A note indicating a lack of gold finally became a mythical city full of it.

As I mentioned above, many of Ingram's contemporaries came to doubt his story, and English colonists in the region found no trace of Norumbega. The Native American groups in Maine also have no traditions or history regarding a city of gold. You would think that it would recede forever into the realm of myth, but that isn't the case. As I'll discuss in my next post, Norumbega rose again in the 19th century.

July 19, 2017

Spend Your Summer Vacation With Sasquatch and H.P. Lovecraft

Do elementary school students still need to write essays about what they did on their summer vacation? I seem to remember this was a common practice when I was a child, but honestly I'm not sure if it's a real memory or just something that I saw on TV a lot.

Either way, I usually spent my summer vacations swimming in a nearby pond, playing Dungeons and Dragons, riding my bike, and doing children's theater. These activities were supplemented by long periods of reading musty paperbacks, mostly science fiction, fantasy and horror, but also paranormal and occult books too. Erich Von Daniken, Charles Fort, John Keel, Charles Berlitz - I was an indiscriminate reader of weird stuff. These authors confirmed my suspicions that the Bermuda Triangle was a gateway to Atlantis guarded by UFOs flown by Sasquatches from the hollow Earth.

Of course I'm kidding about those UFOs (well, mostly), but I suspect a lot of my readers had similarly strange summers. Unfortunately that sense of untrammeled possibility tends to shrink as you get older, as does the amount of vacation time you get. It's hard to focus on Sasquatch when you've got bills to pay and a family to care for.

If you want to immerse yourself in high weirdness this summer but have limited time, you might want to try one of these short but intense experiences: NecronomiCon Providence, and the International Cryptozoology Conference 2017. Spend a weekend experiencing strange New England at its best! It's almost as good as spending the whole summer reading musty old paperbacks.

Author H.P. Lovecraft

NecronomiCon Providence takes place August 17 - 20 at Providence's Biltmore and Omni hotels. This multi-day convention celebrates the life and work of H.P. Lovecraft, Rhode Island's master of horror and weird fiction. Lovecraft included a lot of authentic local lore into his stories so folklore buffs should find plenty to enjoy. NecronomiCon is a mix of popular culture programming and academic lectures so really there's something for everyone.

For example, if you're in an intellectual mood you can attend a lecture on non-Euclidean geometry (one of Lovecraft's favorite tropes) or one titled "The Madness of Minds: Consciousness and Materialism in Lovecraft’s Fiction." Heady stuff! Other sessions feature panelists discussing Lovecraft's well-documented and unfortunate racism. If you're in a pop culture mood, you can watch a Lovecraftian film, play a role-playing game, or take a virtual walking tour of Providence. And you won't want to miss the tongue-in-cheek Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast. It's a weekend of fun and unspeakable chaos for the whole family! I've attended NecronomiCon in the past, and when I left my mind was overflowing with strange and uncanny knowledge.
  
If you'd rather head up north, you can attend the International Cryptozoology Conference 2017, which will be held on Labor Day weekend at the Clarion Hotel on September 3. This looks like it will be a fantastic conference. It features well-known speakers like Linda Godfrey, who investigates werewolf and dogman sightings, Loren Coleman (one of the leading figures in American cryptozoology) and Joseph Citro, one of my favorite New England folklore writers. I am sure that spooky stories will abound.

A new documentary about the Mothman of Pleasant Point will also be shown at the conference. I love the Mothman stories, so I was excited to hear about this. Attendees will also have the opportunity to learn about sea serpents, Sasquatch, and even hear from an expert on how to carve Bigfoot sculptures with a chainsaw. Again, fun for the whole family, but you may want to keep the chainsaw away from the kids. 

When you go back to school (or work) you'll definitely have something to talk about. If other people say things like "I went fishing and camped in the White Mountains this summer," you can smile the confident and knowing smile of one who has experienced strange things before you share your bizarre summer adventures.

July 10, 2017

Vermont's Giant Prehistoric Frog

Have you ever seen the movie Trog (1970)? It's a British horror film and was the last movie that Joan Crawford made before she died. It's not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is one of my favorites.


The basic premise is this: some handsome young spelunkers are exploring a cave when they encounter something terrifying. The surviving spelunker is driven insane by what he saw, but anthropologist Dr. Brockton (Joan Crawford) believes he has seen a prehistoric hominid. She manages to capture the creature, names him Trog, and tries to teach him to be human. Of course it doesn't go well and by the end of the movie Trog is ripping off people's arms, setting fires, and terrorizing small children.


There are many things to like about Trog: Joan Crawford, stop-motion animated dinosaurs, bad dialogue, and a gory ending. But I really like the idea that lurking underneath our mundane landscape are ancient, prehistoric beings frozen in time waiting to emerge and amaze us. It's been the premise of a lot of horror movies, but none are quite as good as Trog.


I don't think anyone now really believes that there are prehistoric monsters sleeping in suspended animation below our feet, but in 1865 some miners in Vermont discovered something deep under the Green Mountain State. It was not Trog, but was instead a frog. The New York Herald ran the following article on October 20, 1922:

Vermont's Monster Frog

Unearthed 114 Feet Underground by Workmen In a Mine Shaft
To The New York Herald : In the summer of 1865 workmen while digging in a new shaft at an ochre mine at Forestdale, Vt., unearthed a huge bullfrog at a vertical depth of 114 feet underground. The frog lay dormant in a sort of pocket or miry hole, and aside from the fact of its being found at so great a depth its large size and its excellent state of preservation attracted attention.

The frog was 14 inches long from the tip of its head to the end of its spine, which is really big, but otherwise resembled an ordinary bullfrog. At first the miners just thought it was dead, but it soon began to twitch and eventually revivified. After showing it to several townspeople the miners brought it to a pond, where it lived and croaked loudly for many years.

The reporter goes on to speculate that the giant frog had been hibernating for thousands of years, and had been frozen underground during an ice age. (This is almost exactly the same plot as Trog!) The frog story was told to the Herald reporter by one Frank Rogers of Brandon, Vermont, who claims to have seen the frog emerge from the mine when he was 15 years old.


Sadly, I think this story is probably a hoax, and it was not the only story of its kind. Joseph Citro cites several similar ones, some dating back to the 1700s, in his book Weird New England. This 1922 story may just have been the latest version of a long folklore tradition. Giant frogs also figure in some Native American myths from New England, like this one about how the hero Glooskap defeats a giant frog, so the local obsession with monstrous frogs could be something that predates English settlement.

I recently read Alan Moore's Lovecraftian comic series Providence. One character proposes the following interesting idea: the subterranean, the past, and our subconscious are all the same thing. According to this character, when we dig underground we are digging into our past, and also digging into our subconscious dreamworld. So perhaps those Vermont miners found something subconscious that wanted to see the light of day. Hopefully it was happy croaking in that pond.

July 04, 2017

New England Folklore In The News: UFOs, Sasquatch Graffiti, Monomoy and Witch Talk!

There has been a surprising amount of strange New England folklore in the news this week. Summer is usually a slow time for news, but I guess that doesn't hold true if it's really weird and unusual.

UFOs in New Hampshire

First up, someone in Merrimack, New Hampshire took a photo of an unidentified thing in the sky on June 26. What is it? An alien craft? A giant space jellyfish?

Something strange seen over Merrimack, New Hampshire
The photographer sent the photo to NH1 News and several other websites. A NH1 meteorologist thought it might be the sun refracting off some clouds, while the people at UFO Sightings Hotspot thought it was probably just a lens flare.

The photographer didn't actually see the object/flare with their naked eye, only through their camera. They wrote the following on UFOStalker.com:

I took my kids to the park, clouds came in and it got dark, the sun was shining threw the clouds on the right so I started taking photos as it was beautiful as I was looking at the pictures I captured I noticed it away from the sun under the clouds not with my eyes with my photo.  so here it is no idea what it is but it's interesting

New Hampshire has a long and venerable history with UFO sightings. And as many people know, one of the most famous UFO abductions allegedly occurred in the Granite State when Betty and Barney Hill had an unusual encounter on a lonely road in 1961. Were they really abducted by aliens, or is there another explanation? Their niece Kathleen Marden recently spoke at a UFO convention in Roswell, New Mexico. You can read her thoughts on the case here

Bigfoot Graffiti in Kennebunk, Maine

Meanwhile, people up in Kennebunk, Maine were disturbed by strange activity of another kind. Not alien abductions, but rather someone defacing property with spray-painted images of Sasquatch. CBS News reports that Kennebunk police arrested a 36-year old man they say is responsible and charged him with criminal mischief and possession of drugs. There's no word on what motivated him to paint images of Sasquatch around town. 


Weird Tales from Monomoy Island

The Boston Globe recently ran an article about Cape Cod's Monomoy Island. Currently uninhabited, Monomoy once was home to a small village of fishermen and their families. The Globe notes that the islanders also had the reputation for being shipwreckers:

On stormy nights, Monomoyers would walk a limping old horse down the beach with two lanterns hanging from a pole mounted on his saddle. Mariners trying to get around the Cape would mistake the lanterns for the lighthouse, turn too soon, and wreck on the bars. The most sinister version of this story has the villagers murdering the ship’s crew. Wrecking continued until as recently as 1909, with the wreck of the Horatio Hall. Today, many homes in Chatham have china and silverware from the Hall and other wrecks.

Someone in the comments posted a link to an article in Cape Cod Life that downplays the shipwrecking and argues instead that most of the Monomoyers actually tried to save people from shipwrecks. That same article also notes that the island was haunted by a ghost called Old Yo-Ho who stalked Monomoy's shore at night, carrying a lantern and endlessly calling out his own name. 

Image from Cape Cod Life. 

Let's Talk About Witches!

Do you want to hear me talk about witchcraft? If you said yes, this is your lucky day. WAMC, an NPR affiliate from New York, interviewed me for their podcast "Listen With The Lights On." I talk about an early witchcraft trial from Springfield, Massachusetts, a young lady who was tormented by a spectral witch in the 1840s, and some teenage boys who encountered something witchy in the Freetown State Forest. 

That's it for this week. Who knows what weird stories will show up next? I'm hoping they're as good as these were!

June 27, 2017

Did H.P. Lovecraft Believe In Witches?

New England produced three of the world’s most famous horror authors: Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, and H.P. Lovecraft. They are all great in their own ways, but I find myself re-reading Lovecraft’s stories more than anything the other two wrote. Maybe it’s his overwrought prose, maybe it’s all those hideous tentacled monsters, or maybe it’s because he used a lot of authentic New England lore in his writings. Folk beliefs, legendary places and bizarre history all show up in Lovecraft’s work.

He also incorporated New England’s witchy history into several of his stories. In “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” a wealthy young Providence scholar learns that one of his ancestors was an evil alchemist who fled Salem to escape the 1692 witchcraft trials, while in “The Shunned House” a man in Colonial Providence is suspected of witchcraft:
“Etienne’s son Paul, a surly fellow whose erratic conduct had probably provoked the riot which wiped out the family, was particularly a source of speculation; and though Providence never shared the witchcraft panics of her Puritan neighbours, it was freely intimated by old wives that his prayers were neither uttered at the proper time nor directed toward the proper object.”
And of course, “Dreams in the Witch House” is full of witchcraft, as you might guess from the title. The story tells how college student Walter Gilman rents a room in an old house once inhabited by a witch named Keziah Mason. Mason escaped the Salem trials in 1692 by drawing strange diagrams on the wall of her jail cell; legends say she and her ratlike familiar spirit now haunt the house where Gilman is staying.

Still from the 2005 film Dreams In The Witch House.
 It turns out the legend is true, and soon she tries to get Gilman to become a witch:

“The expression on her face was one of hideous malevolence and exultation, and when he awaked he could recall a croaking voice that persuaded and threatened. He must meet the Black Man, and go with them all to the throne of Azathoth at the centre of ultimate Chaos. That was what she said. He must sign in his own blood the book of Azathoth and take a new secret name…”

Much of this is classic New England witchcraft lore (although the name Azathoth is Lovecraft’s own creation). Lovecraft incorporated other types of New England lore into his stories so it’s not really surprising.

H.P. Lovecraft

What is surprising is that Lovecraft believed that witches were real – at least to some extent. Lovecraft was a materialist and didn’t believe in magic or the supernatural, but he did think there was something real behind the legends.
“Something actual was going on under the surface, so that people really stumbled on concrete experiences from time to time which confirmed all they had ever heard of the witch species. In brief, scholars now recognize that all through history a secret cult of degenerate nature-worshipers, furtively recruited from the peasantry and sometimes from decadent characters of more select origin, has existed throughout northwestern Europe…” (H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters, 1929 – 1931, 1971, p. 178, edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei)
According to Lovecraft, this cult was once the dominant religion in Europe but was forced underground by the “more refined, evolved and poetic polytheism” practiced by groups like the Druids, the Romans and the Norse. In retaliation to attacks by these dominant groups the cult turned to malevolent magic and became identified as witches.

Lovecraft didn’t think many of these real witches came to New England as settlers, but he suspected that a few of them did make their way to Salem.
“For my part – I doubt if a compact coven existed, but certainly think that people had come to Salem who had a direct personal knowledge of the cult, and who were perhaps initiated members of it. I think that some of the rites and formulae of the cult must have been talked about secretly among certain elements, and perhaps furtively practiced by the few degenerates involved… Most of the people hanged were probably innocent, yet I do think there was a concrete, sordid background not present in any other New England witch case.” (H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters, 1929 – 1931, 1971, p. 181, edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei)
Although this theory may seem strange now, Lovecraft wasn’t the only person who thought this way. It was widely accepted in the early 20th century. In the letter laying out his theory Lovecraft acknowledges Margaret Murray’s influential 1921 book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Murray was a prominent British Egyptologist with an interest in folklore and witchcraft. The Witch-Cult claimed that people accused of witchcraft in Europe were actually members of a pagan religion that secretly survived the Christianization of Europe.

Margaret Murray

Murray’s book received a mixed response when it was released. Critics felt she took the alleged witches’ confessions too literally and distorted the historic record to fit her theory, but the general reading public was more appreciative and Encyclopedia Brittanica even asked her to author their entry on witchcraft. Lovecraft was just reiterating an accepted theory of his day. Current historians discount Murray’s hypothesis and don’t think there was a secret witch cult in Europe or Salem. 

So even though there wasn’t really a secret witch cult in Salem, H.P. Lovecraft thought there might be. It just adds to the strange mix of folklore that makes New England such an interesting place.