January 23, 2024

Tales of A Tentacled Lake Monster: Fact or Fiction?

Does a tentacled, horned, snake-like monster haunt Nagog Pond in Littleton, Massachusetts? There aren't a lot of legends about lake monsters here in the Bay State, so I was excited when I first stumbled upon the possible Littleton lake monster a few years ago. It has been lurking in the back of my mind since then, and I finally decided to do a little more research. 

Nagog Pond is on the border of Littleton and Acton, and was formerly called Nagog Lake. It's a kettle hole pond, meaning it was formed thousands of years ago when the glaciers melted at the end of the last ice ice. Kettle hole ponds are so-called because they hold water just like a tea kettle. 

I've seen a few explanations for the name "Nagog," which is apparently derived from a word in one of the local Algonquin dialects. Some people say nagog means "corner," since the lake is in one corner of Littleton, and other say it is derived from "magog," which means water. As an FYI, Nagog is pronounced NAY-gog. Nagog Pond was used for fishing and recreational sailing in the past, and it now supplies drinking water to the nearby town of Concord. 

Illustration from Uriah Jewett and the Sea Serpent of Lake Mephemgagog (1917)

To understand the monster, you first need to know a little local history. Littleton was originally established in 1645 as Nashoba Plantation, a village for local Nipmuc and Pennacook Indians who had converted to Christianity. It was one of six so-called Praying Indian Villages that were created in Massachusetts by the Puritan minister John Eliot. The term "plantation" here does not refer to a large farm based on slave labor like you would find in the old American south, but instead to a farming settlement. The Praying Indians from Nashoba and the other villages were forcibly moved to Deer Island in Boston Harbor during King Philip's war by their English neighbors who thought they would join Philip (Metacomet) in his rebellion. Many of the Indians died from starvation and exposure on Deer Island, and the rest intermarried with English settlers or gradually joined other Indian groups after the war ended. All the Praying Indian villages eventually became English towns. 

The last Indian to live in Nashoba was Wunnuhhew, also known as Sarah Doublet, who returned to the village after King Phillip's War. Doublet sold the remaining 500 acres of Nashoba in 1734 to cover the cost of her care when she was elderly. She died two years later. 

Sarah Doublet is one of the topics in John Hanson Mitchell's 1998 non-fiction book Trespassing: An Inquiry into the Private Ownership of Land. This is where the monster comes in. Mitchell's book is the only place I've found reference to the Nagog Pond monster. According to Mitchell, Sarah Doublet and the other Indians at Nashoba believed the pond was home to a large monster named Ap'cinic. Ap'cinic was a horned water-serpent, and also had tentacles that it used to probe the shoreline for prey. The creature seemed to have a particular appetite for human intestines. 

"She knew the terror that flies by night, the fiery worm, the gnashing devils, and the legends of the tentacled, horned monster who would reach up out of the dark waters of Nagog at certain times and draw the entrails of passing villagers down into the depths." (Mitchell, Trespassing, p. 23)

Mitchell talks about Ap'cinic's tentacles a few other times. An earthquake struck the area in the 1600s, and he describes the monster reacting to it: "... the waters of Nagog churned and roiled and swelled, and the horned water beast who lived most of his time unseen beneath the surface rose up and spirited his vicious hunting tentacles through the drying air." (Mitchell, Trespassing, p. 65) 

At one point in the book, Mitchell encounters some teenagers illegally swimming in Nagog Pond. He tries to warn them away by telling them about Ap'cinic:

"It had these long tentacles, they say, and a huge gnashing beak and horns on its head. At night it would reach up and feel along the shore for people, fishermen, swimmers, things like that. If it caught you, it would either drag you down into the waters, or worse, slice you open and suck out your intestines."

The teenagers were quiet for a minute.

"You mean it would like eat you alive?" Tracy asked. 

"Yeah, suck out your inner body parts while you clung to a tree."

"Cool," she said. (Mitchell, Trespassing, p. 154)

The teenagers are intrigued, but not too worried. After all, is the story about Ap'cinic even true? Was there ever a monster lurking in the pond? You may wonder the same thing yourself. 

To be clear, Trespassing is marketed as a non-fiction book. It is about the history of Littleton, Massachusetts, about people who actually lived, and even about the dry business of town governance. Town hearings about zoning are a key part of the book. Ap'cininc is only a very small part of Trespassing

From Native People of Southern New England, 1500 - 1650.

Sarah Doublet (Wunnuhhew) really lived in Nashoba, but we don't know much about her life, and sadly Mitchell doesn't cite any sources for the legend of Ap'cinic. It's possible he made the story up. On the other hand, it's entirely possible that the Indians at Nashoba did believe a horned serpent lived in the pond. Horned serpents were part of the Alonquin cosmology. The anthropologist Kathleen Brandon writes:

"Among the manitou known to the Ninnimissinuok (i.e. New England Indians) was the giant horned or antlered, under (water) world serpent, a being familiar to other Algonquian-speaking people as well. Images of this fearsome underwater dweller sometimes decorated amulets, bowls, and other objects." (Kathleen Bragdon, Native People of Southern New England, 1500 - 1650, 1996, p.187)

So perhaps the Indians at Nashoba did believe a horned serpent lived in this particular pond, but John Hanson Mitchell doesn't present any concrete evidence they did. He doesn't explain where he found the name Ap'cinic, or why he thinks Ap'cinic had tentacles. 

I think the word "manitou" is key to understanding what's happening with Ap'cinic. Manitou means spiritual power, or anything that has a lot of spiritual power. My hunch is that Mitchell is responding to the spiritual power he feels around Nagog Pond, and he's trying to tell the reader what it feels like for him, and what he thought it felt like for the Indians who lived there hundreds of years ago. Mitchell has written several books about the history of Littleton, and has a deep awareness of its history and geology. Ap'cinic is the sensation Mitchell feels when he is near the pond. Ap'cinic is how Mitchell experiences the spirit of the place:

"Back at the car I stood on the road for a while looking up at the hill, simply feeling the sensation. Nothing happened, nothing seized me by the throat and dragged me back into the swamps to draw me, struggling, into the murky depths. And below me at the pond, I could not see the slimy gleam of the blind, searching tentacles of the Ap'cinic, feeling along the shores for victims." (Mitchell, Trespassing, p. 109)

If you were to probe the depths of Nagog Pond with a camera, I don't think you would find any trace of a giant monster. But perhaps, if you were sitting in the woods by the lake on a still autumn night, with your phone silenced and your mind cleared from worries, you might catch a glimpse of Ap'cinic. Maybe it would look differently to you, and instead of a horned serpent you'd see a hairy humanoid wading along the shore, or a giant black bird flying overhead, or a strange glowing orb hovering above the water. Or maybe you'd just get the feeling of a sentient presence surrounding you. 

The ancient Romans had a term for the spirit of a place: genius loci, or local spirit. Your belief in spirits as actual autonomous beings, or as a psychological metaphor, will depend on your intellectual temperament. But Ap'cinic may still hold a strange power, even if you think of him simply as a psychological experience:

"...a lake provides a ready-made metaphor for the Soul of the World, a symbol of the collective unconscious, an imaginative nexus where individual perception (or "misperception") and collective myth meet. Regardless of the actual characteristics of the lake, it is transformed by the Imagination into a reflection of the unconscious itself, becoming a dark, impenetrable, bottomless kingdom which does not yield up its dead. (Patrick Harpur, Daimonic Reality. A Field Guide to the Otherworld. 2003, p. 129)

That sounds intimidating, doesn't it? But perhaps less intimidating than a tentacled monster that wants to eat your intestines. 

December 17, 2023

Spooky Holiday Reading: Merry Christmas, or Scary Christmas?

I'm sure you've heard the 1963 song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Andy Williams croons in his soothing voice,"...there'll be scary ghost stories, and tales of the glory of Christmases long, long ago." Although modern Americans tend to associate ghosts with Halloween, in Victorian England ghosts were associated with Christmas. I suppose this makes sense in some ways. After all, Christmas occurs at the darkest point of the year, which seems like a good time for ghosts to be out haunting. 

In the spirit of a spooky Christmas, here are four things you can read to get you in the holiday spirit. Two of them are even available free online, if you're feeling cash-strapped after holiday shopping. 

1. The Fright Before Christmas: Surviving Krampus and Other Yuletide Monsters by Jeff Belanger

This is the latest book by Jeff Belanger, a local author, paranormal investigator, and host of the New England Legends podcast and TV show on PBS and Amazon Prime. Full confession: the publisher sent me a copy of this book to review, and I've appeared on Jeff's podcast in the past. This is a great book for anyone interested in learning about the spooky folklore of Christmas. 

Me holding my copy of Fright Before Christmas!

I think by now most people are familiar with Krampus, the horned Austrian monster who terrorizes folks at this time of year, but Jeff also writes about many other strange Christmas creatures that are less well-known. For example, have you heard of Hans Von Trapp, the Cannibal Christmas Scarecrow of Alsace, France? Merry Christmas - but sleep with the lights on.

2. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

The protagonist of this novel by Joe Hill (Stephen King's son) is Vic McQueen, a psychic, ass-kicking, biker mama who grows up in Haverhill, Massachusetts (my hometown). The villain is a creepy vampire named Charles Talent Manx III. Imbecilic yet cunning, child-like yet predatory, Manx travels around the country in an old Rolls Royce. 

Armed with gingerbread-scented laughing gas, Manx abducts small children and brings them to Christmasland, a creepy holiday-themed amusement park that exists just beyond the border of our reality. He and Vic battle it out in this book that will make you gasp out "Merry Christmas..." as you slip into a vampiric, gingerbread slumber.

3."The Festival" by H.P. Lovecraft (free online)

One of my favorite stories by this Rhode Island master of weird horror.  A young man visits his family's ancestral Massachusetts hometown to participate in its traditional winter solstice celebration for the first time. Although he's charmed by the town's Colonial-era architecture, he's unnerved by its residents' silent, expressionless demeanors. 

He's even more unnerved when he follows a crowd of celebrants into a church, then into its crypt, then down ancient stone steps deep into the earth... Is he really entering a subterranean realm, or just his own fetid subconscious? Either way, he discovers a fungus-filled, maggoty hellscape. You'll scream "Merry Christmas!" before losing your sanity. 

4. The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James by M.R. James (free online)

If "The Festival" sounds too lurid for you, may I suggest the ghost stories of M.R. James? James was an Englishman and Anglican priest who wrote ghost stories every Christmas to entertain his friends. His stories often feature bookish academics or lonely clergymen visiting old historic sites and encountering supernatural evil. 

It's all very proper and British. But while his stories are subtle and heavy on the atmosphere, they often end with shocking violence and death. Nothing says "Merry Christmas!" like an undead Satanic nobleman devouring your face. 

Enjoy your holidays, and I hope all your horrors are confined to the printed page this December.  

December 03, 2023

Haunted by the Nantucket Mermaid

This post is about a mermaid who has fascinated, and possibly haunted, people for centuries. But I want to start by talking about a human man: Ichabod Paddock. 

Ichabod Paddock was born around 1661 in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, and died around 1750. He's buried in Middleborough, Massachusetts. Paddock is remembered today for two things: his pioneering role in the Nantucket whaling industry, and his alleged extramarital affair with a mermaid. As a whaling pioneer, Ichabod came with his two brothers to Nantucket in 1690 and taught the islanders how to hunt whales. Their actions were instrumental in making Nantucket into the whaling capital of the world. 

Oddly, we have more details about his alleged (and probably legendary) affair with the mermaid than we do about his actual life as a whaler. The legend goes something like this. Once while on a whaling voyage, Ichabod was swallowed alive by a large, seemingly invulnerable whale nicknamed Crookjaw. The local whalers thought Crookjaw was somehow magical, and this was confirmed by what Ichabod found inside the creature's stomach. Rather than digestive fluids and half-eaten fish, Paddock found a cozy ship's cabin with lit lanterns, a luxurious featherbed, and a table. Two people - a beautiful, golden-haired mermaid and the Devil himself - were playing cards at the table when Ichabod arrived. 

Engraving from 1817 by John Paas

The mermaid won the game, and the Devil angrily disappeared in a flash of sulfurous smoke. "What were you playing for?" Ichabod asked. "We were playing for you," the mermaid said, "and I'm glad I won." She took Ichabod by the hand and led him to the bed, where they made passionate love for hours. 

Ichabod eventually emerged from Crookjaw's mouth and swam back to his ship, but the next day he again commanded the crew to sail to the magical whale so he could enjoy more of the mermaid's loving embraces. After several hours he emerged from the whale and returned to his ship, only to sail back to Crookjaw and the mermaid the next day, and the next after that. Ichabod's passion for the beautiful mermaid was insatiable. 

Eventually, news of Ichabod's strange extramarital affair reached his wife, Joanna. Ichabod was a formidable whaler, but Joanna was equally formidable in her own way. Since both Crookjaw and the mermaid were magical creatures, Joanna asked a local silversmith to craft a silver-tipped harpoon. At the time, silver was believed to have the power to harm magical creatures like witches, mermaids, and even invulnerable whales like Crookjaw. Vestiges of this belief still remain today, with the idea that werewolves and vampires can be killed with silver bullets. 

Joanna presented the silver-tipped harpoon to Ichabod as a gift. He accepted it, and although he was a formidable whale-killer and mermaid-lover, he apparently wasn't bright enough to realize that silver  could kill enchanted whales and the lustful mermaids who live in them. At the urging of his crew, Ichabod hurled the silver-tipped harpoon at Crookjaw, expecting it to bounce off the whale's impenetrable hide. Instead, it sunk deep into the body of Crookjaw, who died with a groan and a geyser of blood. 

Ichabod screamed in horror, incredulous at what he had done. What had happened to his beloved mermaid? When the crew butchered the whale's body, nothing was found inside its stomach except some long yellow seaweed that reminded them of a woman's hair. The beautiful mermaid was gone. 

In 1710 Ichabod and his wife left Nantucket and returned to mainland Massachusetts, eventually having nine children. According to author Nathaniel Philbrick, little else is really known about the life of Ichabod Paddock. His legendary encounter with the mermaid has lived on, though, and is still surprisingly resonant with some people today. 

For example, the book The Ghosts of Nantucket: 23 True Accounts (1984) contains the following story which a Nantucket woman told author Blue Balliett. The woman came from an old Nantucket family, and went to visit the Nantucket Whaling Museum with her sister who was visiting the island. While touring the museum, the woman became entranced by a painting of a young man. She had the strange feeling that she somehow knew him, and had been in an intimate relationship with him, similar to a marriage. She said:

"I was held by a magnetism of some kind that was so strong I couldn't move. It wasn't that I was objectively interested in him, or thought I saw a family resemblance of some kind. It was rather that he had an iron grip on me." (Blue Balliett, The Ghosts of Nantucket: 23 True Accounts(1984), p.62)

The woman remained staring at the painting, immobilized, until her sister came and shook her arm, asking if something was wrong. This ended the trance.

 A mermaid illustration from 1687

The woman later went to visit her minister, and told him about her strange encounter with the painting. The minister explained that it was a portrait of Ichabod Paddock, who had fallen in love with a mermaid who was killed by a silver harpoon. The woman felt dizzy as she heard the story, because ever since she was a young child she'd had a weird "recurrent memory" that popped into her head like a daydream:

"It goes like this: I remember being in pitch darkness and having an excruciating pain in my side as I swim back and forth, back and forth, in black water. I also remember phosphorescence around me, the kind you see in the ocean on a dark night. I always thought it was peculiar, and I used to tell myself that maybe it was a memory of being inside the womb or something." (Blue Balliett, The Ghosts of Nantucket: 23 True Accounts(1984), p.62)

Her encounter with Ichabod's portrait seemed eerily meaningful to her as she listened to the minister talk. Were these daydreams memories of a past life? Was she somehow the mermaid, reincarnated in 20th century Nantucket? She wasn't sure, but for months afterward she had a craving (which she resisted) to revisit the museum to see the portrait, and would wake up in the middle of the night seeing Ichabod Paddock's face floating above her bed. 

Perhaps it was just coincidence that this woman's unusual, recurring dream fit so well with the mermaid legend. That's what I thought, until I received an email from a young woman who is a member of the Paddock family, which still exists today. Like the woman in The Ghosts of Nantucket, she also feels a strange connection to the legendary mermaid, writing that "In my mythos, I am the mermaid who was given the opportunity to reincarnate because of winning half of Ichabod's soul." 

About two years later, I received an email from a man who was also a Paddock, telling me that his daughter felt a powerful connection to the mermaid legend, that she had a large mermaid tattoo on her back, and that she often dreamt of being a mermaid. I arranged to talk with him and his daughter, who it turned out was the young woman who had already emailed me. We had a nice conversation over Zoom, and I learned a lot about their family history and connection to the mermaid story. I didn't get the impression that either the young woman or her father literally believed she was the reincarnated mermaid, but rather that the mermaid was a source of family pride and artistic inspiration. 

Unlike the woman quoted in Ghosts of Nantucket, this young woman didn't feel upset or scared by the legend. Neither did her father. They thought the the legend was an interesting part of their family's genealogy. I don't blame them. Many people descended from old New England families have witches in their family tree, but only a few have a mermaid.

Mermaids aren't just cute cartoons, like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, or sexy fantasy figures, like you might see online. Mermaids are the modern iteration of ancient ocean spirits. They are elemental beings personifying the vast and unknowable waters that cover most of our planet. The ancient Greeks knew them as nereids and oceanids, the nymphs who lived in the seas and ocean. Nymphs were powerful godlike beings who were feared and petitioned for their blessings. Mermaids may also partly have their origin in stories about the Sirens, seductive female monsters that lured sailors to their doom. The seductive and possible devilish Nantucket mermaid certainly seems to share some traits with the Sirens. 

You may not believe in mermaids, just like you may not believe in invulnerable magic whales like Crookjaw. But you can't deny the hold mermaids still have on our imagination. They may not be seen in the ocean as often as they once were, but they still haunt our dreams and subconscious. 

November 20, 2023

Fowl or Fair: Thanksgiving Weather Magic

Thanksgiving is fast approaching. It's the holiday most closely associated with New England, having its origin in the old Puritan tradition of celebrating thanksgiving days. Many of the foods we associate with the holiday, like cranberries, pumpkins, and turkey, are also foods indigenous to New England. 

This is a New England-centric blog, and I like to post something about Thanksgiving each year. So here, from 19th century Massachusetts, are some ways to predict on Thanksgiving what the weather will be during the upcoming winter:

Method #1 - Examine the feathers of your chickens. Do they seem particularly thick? If so, a hard winter is on its way.

Method #2 - Examine the breastbones of your chickens (after you have cooked and eaten them, sadly). Do they seem particularly light in color? If so, you can expect a lot of snow. If they are dark, you won't get much snow at all.

Method #3 - Look at the breastbone of your goose (again, after you have cooked and eaten them). Is it particularly dark? Yes? You can expect more rain than snow.

James Audubon, Wild Turkey, 1825

On the surface, method #1 appears to be the most "scientific." It seems logical that chickens will grow heavier feathers if a cold winter is coming. But do chickens' bodies somehow intuit what the weather will be like in the future, and then grow extra feathers in response to it? Do they actually grow heavier feathers if the next few months will be cold? I don't know think that's true. Chickens do tend to molt in the fall, but I don't think their feathers grown back heavier if the future weather will be cold. 

Method #2 seems more magical, and relies on similarity in color:  white breastbone = white snow. Method #3 also relies on magical color similarity, but doesn't predict if heavy snow is coming, only the proportion of rain to snow. I guess this is because of the goose's affinity for water? I suppose eating both chicken and goose would give you the most accurate forecast, telling you if you'll get more snow than rain, and also how heavy the snow will be.  

I found these methods of predicting the weather in Clifton Johnson's 1897 book What They Say in New England. Interestingly, there's no weather prognostication centered on turkey bones. Turkeys have long been the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving feast, but the magic associated with turkeys is focused on the wishbone

There are other forms of folk magic based on fowl. For example, Fanny Bergren's 1896 book Current Superstitions contains this unusual piece of advice from Winn, Maine:

"Swallow a chicken's heart whole, and the first man you kiss afterwards will be your future husband." 

Chicken hearts apparently had a lot of magical power, because elsewhere in the book Bergren notes the following:

"Swallow a chicken's heart whole and make a wish. It will come true." 

I don't think people eat a lot of chicken hearts these days, and even if you do I don't recommend swallowing them whole. You won't get married and your wish won't come true if you choke to death on a chicken heart. Chew your food!

I'm vegetarian, so I'm not eating any of these birds next week. I couldn't find any weather magic involving pumpkins, potatoes or Tofurkey, so let know if you try any of these divinations. I want to be prepared for the winter weather! 

October 25, 2023

Black Agnes: Montpelier's Death-Cursed Statue

As I mentioned before, Tony and I recently traveled up to Montpelier, Vermont to see our old friend Brian. He showed us around Vermont's charming capital, and also showed us some of its spooky sights, including the infamous Black Agnes statue. 

When we reached Montpelier, Brian immediately took us on a tour of Green Mount Cemetery. He is a Montpelier native, and had a lot of gossip and stories about the different folks buried in Green Mount. For example, he showed us a funerary statue of a young girl called "Little Margaret." Little Margaret's family commissioned a local sculptor to carve the statue after she died (apparently of spinal meningitis), but refused to pay because one of the statue's shoes only had five buttons instead of six. The sculptor was about to apologize when he looked again at the photo of Little Margaret the family had given him to work from. One of her shoes was missing a button in the photo. The sculptor stormed back to Little Margaret's family, showed them the photo, and angrily collected his payment.  

Brian also told us that the road leading to Green Mount Cemetery has been the site of many deadly auto accidents. "When I was young, this road was routinely covered in human viscera," he said, morbidly joking. At least I hope he was joking. 

The Black Agnes statue

Towards the end of the tour, we reached the grave of John Erastus Hubbard (1847 - 1899), a wealthy Vermont businessman. Hubbard's grave features a spectacular bronze sculpture of a robed figure titled Thanatos. This statue is more popularly known as Black Agnes. 

According to legend, terrible luck comes to anyone who sits on Black Agnes's lap. Accounts differ as to what form the bad luck will take. Some say three unlucky things will occur to the person who sits on her lap, others say it will be an uncountable amount of bad luck. That doesn't sound good. Still another legend claims that anyone who sits on Black Agnes's lap will die within seven days, which is perhaps the worst luck of all. 

Many years ago, three teenage boys went to Green Mount Cemetery during a full moon. They dared each other to sit on the statue's lap. Not wanting to look cowardly, each boy took a turn sitting on Black Agnes. They all laughed. It was just a dumb statue, after all. Nothing to be afraid of. But within a week, one fell and broke his arm, one was in a serious car accident, and the third boy drowned while canoeing on the Winooski River. Some people said these misfortunes were just coincidences, but others said it was the curse of Black Agnes. 

Well, at least that's one legend. All the legends vary slightly, with some saying, for example, that you only suffer Black Agnes's wrath if you sit on her when the moon is full. Personally, I say why take the risk? Just don't sit on the statue, regardless of the moon phase. I don't recommend sitting or climbing on any cemetery statue. It is disrespectful to the dead, even if there isn't a death curse. 

Brian told us that the Black Agnes legend didn't exist when he was a kid, and that it must be relatively recent. That could very well be the case - new legends arise and old ones disappear all the time. There are in fact other allegedly cursed statues named Black Agnes around the United States. There is one in Washington, DC, which was originally a grave marker in Baltimore for a dead Civil War general in the Union Army named Felix Angus. It was apparently moved from Baltimore because too many fraternity and sorority pledges kept sitting on it as part of their rush process, daring each other to risk the death curse. It seems likely the Black Agnes legend traveled from the DC area to Montpelier, but I'm not sure how. 

Some folks, apparently in an attempt to debunk the Montpelier version of the legend, have pointed out that the statue is clearly of a male, so therefore the legend cannot be true. This argument doesn't hold up for me. It's 2023, and we all know that gender is a social construct. A statue of a male can easily be named Black Agnes. 

John Erastus Hubbard (1847 - 1899)

John Erastus Hubbard, upon whose grave Black Agnes sits, generated some controversy while he was alive. Hubbard came from a prominent Vermont family, and his wealthy aunt left a significant amount of money in her will to the city of Montpelier to build a library. Hubbard was unhappy about this, and managed to get his aunt's will overturned and inherit the money himself. Montpelier officials took him to court, and he eventually agreed to pay for the library. Upon his death, he left the majority of his fortune to Montpelier as well. However, this late generosity did not necessarily win him many fans among the city's citizens, some of whom noted that a terrible thunderstorm raged through Montpelier the night Hubbard died, which they took as an omen indicating the state of his soul.