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.