February 21, 2017

The Truro Panther

This past weekend I was talking at a party to someone who lives in Provincetown. At some point in the conversation I mentioned that I write about local folklore. Eventually our conversation turned to the Truro Panther.

"I think I saw it once," he said. "It was late at night, and I was driving down Route Six past Pilgrim Lake into town."

That stretch of the road is really dark, I remarked. He agreed.

"I saw an animal run across the road in front of my car. I just caught a glimpse of it, almost like a shadow. Whatever it was, it had a long curving tail."

I asked him if maybe it had just been a coyote.

"No, definitely not. It had a long tail, just like a cat."

Had my friend seen the elusive Truro Panther? Maybe he had.

*****

The Truro Panther is also known as the Pamet Panther and the Beast of Truro. If you've never been to the town of Truro on Cape Cod, you might not understand why people think a panther might be living there.

Located on the outer Cape, Truro is very busy on summer days. Route Six is filled with cars passing through to Provincetown, and Truro's beaches are bustling with families of tourists. But the summer hustle and bustle is deceptive. There isn't really much of a town center in Truro, and most of the houses are surrounded by a dense scrubby forest of wind-stunted pines and oaks. Much of the town's land is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore and can't be developed. There are deer and coyotes in the woods, and seals and sharks swim offshore. 

Last year in August we saw a school of bluefish feeding on a school of minnows in the shallows off Longnook Beach. Then a group of seals arrived and began to feed on the bluefish. There were big pools of blood in the water. Needless to say, I didn't go swimming. Truro can feel like the edge of the world, particularly to a city person like me.

In the mid-19th century people in Truro reported seeing a strange creature lurking around their farms and in the woods. They couldn't quite identify it. Was it a wolf? Was it some type of big cat? Apparently some locals thought it might have been a lioness that escaped from a ship en route from Africa. Whatever the creature was, people called it the the Truro Hyena because of the eerie sounds it made at night. Livestock went missing. Paw-prints were seen in the sand. Women and children refused to leave their homes after dark. 

Eventually a hunting party was formed. Boys and men armed with guns searched through the woods and along the beaches, and although they found paw-prints they never captured the animal. The whole incident was parodied by Thomas Stone, a physician who lived in nearby Wellfleet, in a poem called The Hyena Hunt:

Some vow it is a lioness, bore
By ships from Afric's sunny shore,
That paces now our Cape sands o'er;
Moaning for whelps, most piteously.

Some still, a hyena, whose fearful howl,
Had shook the woods of Tonegal,
In company with the fierce jackal,
Fighting the Fellah, hideously.

Some unbelievers, with taunting sneer,
Swore 'twas a goat, a dog, a deer,
Whose footsteps, magnified by fear,
Had seized the fearful hearted.

But there those fearful footsteps stand,
Imbedded on Atlantic's strand,
And the moaning cry runs through the land,
As if from loved ones parted.

It was easy for Stone to characterize those 19th century Truro citizens as yokels. After all, even back then people knew there were no giant cats living on Cape Cod.

Well, no one told the giant cat, because in 1981 it reappeared. The first signs appeared in September, when about a dozen house cats were found dead across town. Police believed the cats were probably the victims of feral dogs.

Later that fall, William and Marcia Medeiros of Truro were walking on a path through the woods near Head of the Meadow Beach when they saw a large cat-like animal. It was broad daylight, and they watched the animal for about five minutes before it disappeared into the woods. They said the animal had a long curving tail and probably weighed about 80 pounds.

On December 16, Truro police officer David Costa returned home from duck hunting when he noticed that one of his pigs had been attacked.

"He was just barely alive. The claw marks were long and almost looked like someone did it with a razor blade. The marks were horizontal," he said, not up and down the pig's body, an indication that the attacking animal had jumped on the hog's back. (The Boston Globe, January 4 1982, "Is A Mountain Lion Loose on Cape Dunes?", p.13)

Costa's pig was so grievously wounded it had to be slaughtered. On December 20, two other pigs in South Truro were also attacked, but their wounds were much less serious.

Animal tracks were found near the South Truro pig pen, and state wildllife officials thought a single dog had carried out the attack. However, the soil was too sandy to tell for sure what had made the tracks. Dogs tend to hunt in packs, so would just one dog attack two pigs?

A woman living in North Truro was awakened in the middle of the night by an animal shrieking loudly outside her home. When she and her husband investigated the next day they found animal tracks around their yard. Again, the soil was too sandy to determine with certainty what made them. Later, a tourist visiting from New York called town selectman Edward Oswalt to report seeing a large cat-like animal in North Truro.

Various theories were proposed. The official one was that the attacks had been carried out by wild dogs, but many people thought the creature was a mountain lion. This could be possible (there is enough open space and game in Truro), but it's unclear how a mountain lion would make it all the way to the Outer Cape. The animal would need to either swim across the Cape Cod canal or walk over all bridge, and then make its way down to Truro. It doesn't seem plausible. And besides, Massachusetts wildlife officials believe that mountain lions are extinct in the state.

Other locals thought that perhaps a camper had set loose a pet mountain lion, and a rumor spread that  someone had been seen in Provincetown walking a panther on a leash. Maybe that panther had escaped?


In the end there was no clear resolution. The sightings and livestock killings stopped, and the creature became part of Truro folklore. Is something still lurking out there in the scrubby forests of the Outer Cape? My fried saw something strange crossing the road, so maybe there is.

February 12, 2017

Pot Sasquatch, The Boston Yeti, and The Return of The Wildman

Before I delve into this week's topic, I wanted to let you know I will be speaking at Boskone, New England's longest running science fiction and fantasy convention. Boskone 54 takes place February 17 - 19 at the Westin Boston Waterfront at 245 Summer Street. On Saturday afternoon I'll be moderating a panel titled "New England: The Legend, The Lore, The Mystery," and on Sunday at noon I'll be participating in a panel on how fiction writers use mythology in their work. If you are attending Boskone be sure to say hello! I am sure it will be a great convention.

Now, onto this week's topic. The groundhog saw his shadow, predicting six more weeks of winter, and that certainly seems to be the case in New England. We just had a blizzard last week, and now another storm AND a blizzard are on track for today and tomorrow. Nature's fury has been unleashed, and along with ice and snow our region has been visited by some mysterious creatures.

On February 9, Channel 22 meteorologist Janille Paglie was reporting from Springfield about that day's blizzard when she and her crew noticed something odd behind her. Someone dressed in a Sasquatch costume covered in pot leaves was cavorting around in the snow. At first the "creature" played some hide and seek, and then frolicked openly in the street. Channel 22 dubbed it Pot Sasquatch, and it became an internet sensation.

Pot Sasquatch reminded me of the Boston Yeti, who roamed the deserted streets of Boston during the Snowmageddon blizzards of 2015. Like Pot Sasquatch, Boston Yeti was clearly a human in a cryptid costume who appeared during inclement winter weather. The yeti was eventually revealed to be Someville resident John Campopiano, who said in an interview with The Improper Bostonian that he was always fascinated with UFOs and Bigfoot as a child. The yeti outfit was an old Halloween costume he owned which he felt compelled to don during the 2015 snowstorms. There was very little snow here in 2016, but the Boston yeti did emerge from hibernation for the February 9 blizzard.

OK, so what's going on here? Why did Massachusetts see not one but two cryptid impersonators playing in the same blizzard? Some photos might help explain the situation a little bit.

Boston Yeti (Somerville, Massachusetts)
Pot Sasquatch (Springfield, Massachusetts)
Krampus (Ischgl, Austria)
European winter mummer, photo by Charles Freger
European winter mummer, photo by Charles Freger
Many regions of Europe have traditions of people in monstrous costumes parading at winter. Krampus is probably the one best known in the United States, but there are other similar traditions across Europe. The costumed celebrants in these processions often represent the cold dark forces of winter, although sometimes they instead represent the powers of spring that ultimately banish winter for another year. These mythical creatures are frightening, magical, and sometimes playful, and they are an important part of local seasonal celebrations.

We don't have those traditions in the United States. Some folklore-minded Americans are trying to create Krampus processions here in the States, but I am not sure if it will ever catch one. Most Americans associate spooky costumes with Halloween, not the winter. But when I see Pot Sasquatch and Boston Yeti, I can't help but wonder if our own indigenous version of these traditions might be forming spontaneously. Krampus needs a lot of explanation, but most Americans know what Sasquatch and the Yeti are.

Even if Sasquatch processions don't become a tradition, I think Pot Sasquatch and Boston Yeti show that some people yearn to dress up like monsters in the winter, and that other people repond to them. It just feels right somehow. Maybe the winter makes us wish we could sprout fur and run wild.

Humans have been dressing up as monsters for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks paraded around in satyr costumes, Medieval Europeans dressed like leaf-covered wildmen, and Austrians still disguise themselves as Krampus. Now someone in Springfield has dressed like Pot Sasquatch. He may just seem like a weirdo looking for attention, but he's really the latest incarnation of an ancient time-honored tradition.

February 05, 2017

An Old Haunted House in Cambridge

I am one of those people who actually likes winter. Once the grim darkness of early January is gone winter here in New England is actually pretty nice. There is a certain clarity to this time of year. The leaves are down and I can really see the landscape in all its contours. Rocks and boulders that are hidden most of the time are visible now, and its easier to see those hardy birds who haven't flown south.

It's also a good time to do stuff around the house. For some reason, when February comes I always like to make traditional New England recipes. Yesterday I made cranberry bread, and today I'm cooking pumpkin soup. There's just something homey about winter. The nesting impulse from autumn continues into these months, but without the pressure and commercialism of the holidays.

Of course, the spooky vibe from Halloween continues as well. It's still dark and dead outside, and it still seems like a good time for ghost stories. (Really, is any time not good for ghost stories?) Here's one from a friend who for many years lived in the Cooper Frost Austin House, which is the oldest house in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Cooper Frost Austin House

The Cooper Frost Austin House was built in 1681 by Samuel Cooper. Cooper and his family were prominent members of Cambridge society, with several of them serving as deacons in the Puritan church or in municipal leadership positions. The house remained in the same family for 250 years (!) until 1913, when it was given to the organization now called Historic New England. The house is open several times a year for tours, and is worth visiting if you enjoy early Colonial architecture.

My friend was one of several resident caretakers who have lived in the house since 1913. When he was moving in, he met with the previous caretaker to see if there were any tips he needed to know. She gave him an overview of the property and the grounds, and explained the multiple rules for living in a historic house. And then she said:

"Oh, and by the way, I think there's a ghost in the house."

"A ghost?" my friend said.

"Yes, a ghost. I've sensed a presence in the house, particularly in the east bedroom upstairs. It feels like a woman, and sometimes it feels like she's watching me when I sleep. But don't worry! I don't think she's malevolent."

And with that she left, and my friend was left alone in the house. Naturally, he had already selected the east bedroom as his new bedroom.

Months went by, and my friend didn't experience anything strange. He slept through the nights without feeling any unusual presences. However, something weird happened one day when he was at the Boston Public Library. He had gone to the library to research the history of the house, and he mentioned to a young man working at the reference desk that he was now living in the Cooper Frost Austin House.

"The Cooper Frost Austin House?" the young librarian said. "Ugh. I've been inside that house and I'll never go back there again."

"Why? What happened?" my friend said.

"I spent the night there one time. Never again! A friend of mine was living there and asked me to house sit while he was out of town. At first everything was fine. It's a great old house and I was happy to have it all to myself, if even just for a weekend."

"That night I went to bed, and fell fast asleep. I was sleeping deeply when I started to have this uneasy feeling. It felt like someone was ... watching me. When I opened my eyes I saw a woman standing at the foot of the bed, staring at me. She had on old-fashioned clothes, and she didn't look happy to see me. I screamed and she vanished into thin air. I sat downstairs wide awake for the rest of the night, and I've never gone back inside that house."

Of course, the librarian said he had been sleeping in the east bedroom when he had seen the ghost.

My friend ended up living there for many years, and said he never saw the ghost, but occasionally people who visited him said they sensed something in the house. Personally I've spent a lot of time in the Cooper Frost Austin House and never saw a ghost.

I did ask my friend who he thought the ghost might be. His only thought was that she might be Susan Austin, who was born in the house and lived there in the 19th century. Susan Austin was apparently very attached to the house.

Why is Susan Austin haunting the house? That is, if there is even a ghost and if she is actually it. There's no good answer to that question. Instead, all we have are some good spooky stories from an old New England house. But sometimes spooky stories are enough, particularly on a cold winter day.

January 31, 2017

"I Will Make You Afraid": Sleep Paralysis and Witchcraft

Are you ever afraid of the dark? I will admit that sometimes I still am. Now and then when I go to bed after watching a horror film I have this brief moment where I wonder if someone is standing in the corner of my bedroom. Luckily no one ever has been, but I am all too aware of how vulnerable I am when I'm asleep.

I dream quite vividly and there have been occasions where I have dreamed that someone is in my bedroom with me. Once, in a very memorable dream, someone in a black hooded shirt stood behind me and whispered in my ear while I was unable to move. It was not just memorable - it was also a little freaky.

I think dreams like that are common, but some people experience something even more extreme called sleep paralysis. Here's how Wikipedia defines it:

Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon in which an individual, either during falling asleep or awakening, briefly experiences an inability to move, speak, or react. It is a transitional state between wakefulness and sleep. It is often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations to which one is unable to react due to paralysis, and physical experiences (such as strong current running through the upper body). These hallucinations often involve a person or supernatural creature suffocating or terrifying the individual, accompanied by a feeling of pressure on one's chest and difficulty breathing. 

It sounds terrifying, doesn't it? During the various New England witch trials, many witnesses testified that witches or demonic spirits entered their rooms at night to sit on their chests, causing them harm and great fear. Were these demonic visitations simply sleep paralysis?

Here is a particularly vivid example given as testimony by one Mary Hale against Katherine Harrison of Wethersfield, Connecticut, who was accused of witchcraft.

That about the latter end of November, being the 29th day, 1668, the said Mary Hale lying in her bed, a good fire giving such light that one might see all over that room where the said Mary then was, the said Mary heard a noise, & presently something fell on her legs with such violence that she feared it would have broken her legs, and then it came upon her stomach and oppressed her so as if it would have pressed the breath out of her body. Then appeared an ugly shaped thing like a dog, having a head such that I clearly and distinctly knew to be the head of Katherine Harrison, who was lately imprisoned upon suspicion of witchcraft... (quoted in John Taylor's 1908 book The Witchcraft Delusion in Connecticut, 1647 - 1697)

Hale also testified that although her parents were sleeping in the same room they were unable to hear her shouts for help.

A week later, the entity appeared again. This time the room was dark, but Hale was able to feel the entity's face and could tell that it was a woman. Her parents again did not hear her cry out, even as the oppressive entity hurt her fingers.

It appeared again on a windy December night. This time it spoke to Hale in a threatening manner, using Katherine Harrison's voice:

Entity: "You said that I would not come again, but are you not afraid of me."

May Hale: "No."

Entity: "I will make you afraid before I have done with you."

(quoted in John Taylor's 1908 book The Witchcraft Delusion in Connecticut, 1647 - 1697)

After saying this Hale felt a crushing weight on her body, which made her scream in pain. Her parents slept on and did not awaken. The entity said, "Though you do call they shall not hear till I am gone." It also promised to never come again if Hale agreed to keep its visitations a secret, which she refused to do.

Image from this informative BuzzFeed article about sleep paralysis.

It's really tempting to say that this is just a simple case of sleep paralysis. The nighttime visitation, the crushing weight, the inability to move or be heard - all these are the hallmarks of sleep paralysis. However, I think the situation is more complex than that. Certainly, it sounds like Mary Hale was familiar with sleep paralysis, either through personal experience or by hearing about it from neighbors. But she was also using the experience of sleep paralysis to accuse someone of witchcraft.

The interpretation of sleep paralysis is conditioned by culture. People in different societies explain it in different ways. Modern American sufferers may see humanoid beings, which are sometimes interpreted as extraterrestrials, in their bedrooms during an attack but they don't see people they know. However, in Cambodian culture sleep paralysis is said to be caused by the ghosts of dead relatives. In Italian folklore, it is sometimes said to be cause by a catlike monster.

Alien visitors, deceased relatives, and cat-monsters weren't how the Puritans explained sleep paralysis. Instead they explained it as witchcraft. Unfortunately, unlike some of those other explanations, witchcraft requires a witch. Extraterrestrials aren't human, deceased ancestors are already dead, and Italian cat-monsters can't be arrested and punished. In early New England, though, witches were real people who could be arrested and punished.

Usually they were unpopular neighbors, which was the case with Katherine Harrison. Harrison had originally been a servant girl in Wethersfield and reportedly did not get along well with others in town. Harrison also dabbled in fortune-telling, which made her neighbors look at her with suspicion. Her neighbor's feelings of enmity only grew when she married a successful local farmer, and enmity later turned into outright hostility when Harrison's husband died and she inherited his estate. An unpopular, lower-class woman had suddenly become one of Wethersfield's wealthiest citizens. How could this happen to someone so reviled? Clearly, something supernatural was involved...

More than 30 people testified against Harrison, who was found guilty in May of 1669 and sentenced to death. Luckily, her case was referred to John Winthrop, Jr., the governor of Connecticut. Although Winthrop practiced alchemy and other forms of magic he was very skeptical about witchcraft. He demanded stricter forms of evidence than the lower courts did and as a result her conviction was overturned. Although Harrison was banished from Wethersfield she escaped with her life.

I think the story of Mary Hale and Katherine Harrison is a cautionary one. Many of us will experience some strange phenomena in our life: sleep paralysis, an uncanny dream, or maybe even an unusual entity. These type of things have been happening throughout human history and will probably happen until humans go extinct. They're just part of our life.

Our interpretation of these strange experiences is important. We can use them to accuse our neighbors of witchcraft, or we can accept them as something strange and wondrous that shows us a hidden side of existence. Personally I'm voting for the second choice, and I hope you do too.

*****
In addition to Taylor's book, I found information for this post at the Wethersfield Historical Society.

January 22, 2017

A Spectral Flying Dwarf In Connecticut

My friend Simon Young at the Fairy Investigation Society sent me the following story via an old newspaper clipping. Unfortunately the year of publication is missing, but it seems to be from a paper called The Globe-Democrat and is probably from the late 19th or early 20th century.

The date is January 11 (of whatever year), and the byline is New Haven, Connecticut. The headline reads:

AN ACCOMMODATING GHOST
A Massachusetts Dwarf Who Appears or Disappears In Night or Day - He Is Cut In Two By A Workman's Spade

Who can resist a headline like that? The article goes on to describe how for the last thirty years the people of North Haven have reported seeing a spectral dwarf in the vicinity of Shear's Brickyard.

Many men and women who have been riding and walking along the highway after nightfall have seen the strange figure of a dwarf about three feet high. Sometimes he would be dressed in one color of clothing and then of another. When people told of what they had seen they were received with incredulity by some, and other would put faith in the stories. 

On the night of January 9, five men employed at the brickyard had a vivid encounter with the mysterious dwarf. Owen McNulty, Oscar Jansen, Septa Maganzo, Pasco Servisco, and Lorenzo Partico were walking home from the brickyard at about 7:00 pm when the dwarf appeared in the road in front of them. He was about three feet tall, and wore a black velvet coat trimmed with fur and a "cocked hat" (a tricorn or perhaps bicorn hat). His clothes looked like they were fashionable 100 years ago, and he carried a lantern in his hand.

Owen McNulty was carrying a spade home from the brickyard, and swung it at the dwarf. It passed through the entity's body, and the dwarf disappeared. The men panicked and ran off, crossing themselves for protection.

I just want to interject and ask why do so many people attack supernatural beings when they encounter them? From shooting at Bigfoot to attacking dwarfs with spades, people in these accounts often react violently. And you know what? It never works.

Anyway, back to the story. The next day the five men went back to the spot where they had seen the dwarf. McNulty once again had his trusty spade. The black-clad dwarf appeared again, even though it was daytime, and without his lantern. Not learning his lesson from the previous night's encounter, McNulty swung his spade again at the dwarf. He succeeded in cutting the dwarf into two pieces, but he was probably not prepared for what came next.

Rather than fall over and die, the two halves of the dwarf's body floated forty feet up into the air and rejoined together. Then, with a blinding flash of light, the dwarf disappeared.

The men went back to boarding house where they all lived and described to their landlady what they had just witnessed. In response, she told them that many people had seen the same thing and that it wasn't really that unusual. I guess flying ghost dwarfs were just a common occurrence in the neighborhood!

The article ends by noting that there is a tradition in the neighborhood that "many years ago a sailor of dwarfish stature sailed up the Quinebec river (sic), his boat was capsized, and he drowned." I am assuming that Quinebic is a variant spelling of Quinnipiac, the large river that flows through North Haven. Connecticut readers, let me know if this is correct.

American newspapers in the 19th century often ran stories about ghosts, monsters, and other strange occurrences. They were a good way to increase readership, and people didn't have access to the almost unlimited weird news we now have via the internet and shows like Ancient Aliens or Finding Bigfoot. Newspapers had to do it all.

I suppose this story could be a hoax, but the article does include names and a verifiable location, so perhaps these men really did encounter something. And maybe that something really did have a long tradition of appearing to people in the neighborhood.

The people of North Haven explained the dwarf as a ghost (who was apparently once from Massachusetts), but he also sounds suspiciously like a fairy. Although quite powerful, fairies are often small in stature and often appear in the garb of an earlier era. But the distinction between fairies and ghosts are blurry. Whether by living under ancient burial mounds or including deceased humans in their company, fairies are often associated with the dead. This may also be why fairies often appear in antiquated clothing - they're just wearing what they wore while alive.

Ghost or fairy? It's really impossible to say. I think at some point it just becomes futile to categorize or define paranormal occurrences. All we really have are the strange stories people tell and our inclination to categorize what is inherently disorderly.

I've included the full article below in case you want to read the original: