June 21, 2017

The Black Flash of Provincetown: Hoax or Horror?

The first time I heard of the Black Flash was back in the early 2000s. I had bought a copy of Joseph Citro's Passing Strange: True Tales of New England Horrors and Hauntings (1997). This is an excellent book and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in local folklore and spooky stories.

It also contains a lengthy section about the Black Flash, a mysterious entity who supposedly terrorized Provincetown in the late 1930s and early 1940s. I have vacationed on the Outer Cape for many years and was intrigued to learn about this local legend. Provincetown has a lot of strange characters, but the Black Flash was strange even for P-town.

According to Citro, the Black Flash first appeared in the fall of 1938 when children in Provincetown reported a sinister figure lurking in the dunes or hiding behind trees. They described the entity as being about 8’ tall and dressed all in black. He wore a long black cape and black hood that covered his head. Some children also said he had long silver ears and flaming eyes.

At first the adults in town just dismissed these accounts as stories from kids with overly active imaginations. But that changed when an adult woman named Maria Costa encountered the Black Flash in October. She was walking by Town Hall when the Black Flash jumped out from behind the bushes and started to chase her. He made a strange buzzing noise like a giant insect. Costa was terrified and ran into a nearby coffee shop, where she hysterically explained what happened. Several customers ran outside but couldn’t find a trace of the Black Flash. He had vanished.

Other people were also accosted by the Black Flash that fall. For example, a teenage boy ran to the police station after the creature jumped out at him on his way home from the library. He was terrified and in tears, and told the police the Flash had spit blue flames at him.

The Black Flash had the ability to leap over tall fences, and some locals even said he had springs in his heels. For example, a man named Charles Farley saw the creature lurking in his backyard and fired his shotgun at it. The Flash just just laughed and jumped, unharmed, over an eight-foot fence. He then disappeared from view.

Commercial Street in Provincetown (from Wikipedia)
In another case, the police got a call one night that the Black Flash was in a school playground, which was surrounded by a tall fence. Four police officers entered the yard with flashlights and pistols drawn. They got a good look at the Black Flash, and one officer swore his face was really just a silver painted mask. They told the Flash to surrender or they’d fire, but the Flash just laughed and jumped over the 10-foot fence that surrounded the school. Then he once again disappeared.

According to Citro, the Black Flash terrorized Provincetown for about seven years. The last time the Flash appeared was in December of 1945. Four children from the Janard family were playing in their yard on Standish Street when they saw the Flash creeping toward them through the fog. They ran into their house, terrified. Their parents weren’t home and they didn’t know what to do.

They could hear the Flash turning the doorknobs of the house, trying to get in. The youngest children hid behind chairs, but the oldest boy, Allen, filled a bucket with hot water and ran up to the second floor. He could see the Flash outside right below him. He opened the window and dumped the bucket of water on the Flash’s head. The Flash let out a startled gasp, and then slunk off like a wet cat.

And that was the last time the Black Flash was ever seen in Provincetown.

All this may sound like an urban legend, but there is evidence that something really occurred. On October, 26, 1939, The Provincetown Advocate printed a front-page article titled "Fall Brings Out the Black Flash. Hard Winter Certain As Cabin Fever Stories Start." To quote from the article:

It ain’t usually until “cabin fever” time that the balmy stories start. After folks have been penned up here for too long a time, in too little space, with just the same faces to look at every morning, afternoon and evening, then the crazy yarns begin circulating.

But winter seems to be shutting in early this year. Here it is only October and the “Black Flash” has been prowling, scaring kids so that they won’t go out nights and won't go to bed, grabbing women, jumping over ten foot hedges with no trouble at all. “Chair springs on his feet” is the explanation.

On November 9, the paper ran a short follow up piece titled “Chief Denies Current Rumors.”

Chief of Police Anthony P. Tarvers this morning absolutely denied the rumors current that the so-called “Black Flash” had been captured. “As far as I am concerned, the Black Flash is dead and gone,” said the chief.

Those are the only newspaper accounts of the Black Flash that can be found. You might notice that according to The Provincetown Advocate, the Flash was only active for a few weeks, not several years. The more extended and elaborate stories that Citro cites didn't appear in the papers, but were collected by the writer Robert Ellis Cahill for his book New England's Mad and Mysterious Men, which was probably first published in the 1980s. (My copy doesn't have a publication date in it.)

Cahill went to Provincetown and interviewed many locals about the Black Flash. He includes their stories in his book, and has a few accounts that Citro didn't include in Passing Strange. For example, Cahill writes how a pool shark named Eight Ball Eddie was convinced the Black Flash was really a gay man in drag who got his thrills by scaring people. Note: Eight Ball Eddie said all this in much blunter and homophobic language than I'm using.

After sharing his theory with friends, the pool shark finally encountered the Flash on his way home late one night. Eight Ball Eddie described him as large tall man, but definitely a human in a costume, not a monster. He wore a black hood, and had silver eyes that glowed in the dark. Eddie told him to get out of his way, but the Flash didn't. Instead, he lunged at Eddie and slapped him on the face so hard Eddie fell over. The pool shark ran home in panic, pursued by the Flash until he reached his door. The next morning Eddie's face still bore a red handprint.He was less dismissive of the Flash after that!

There were several theories about who (or what) the phantom was. As mentioned above, a few locals thought the Black Flash was a gay tourist who had stayed past the summer season and was terrorizing the town from a shack hidden in the dunes. Others thought he might be teenager John Williams, who was quite fast and a weightlifter. But although Williams was athletic enough to be the Black Flash he was a sailor and often at sea when the Flash appeared.

Francis Marshall, a retired Provincetown police chief, told Cahill that the Black Flash was actually four men who terrorized the town as a hoax. Marshall refused to divulge their names, but said that two of them were already deceased by the time he spoke to Cahill.

Spring-heeled Jack (from Wikipedia)
So perhaps the Black Flash was really just a short-lived hoax whose legend grew in the telling, but there are interesting parallels between the Flash and Spring-heeled Jack, a legendary monster from England. Spring-heeled Jack was first seen in London in 1837; the last sighting was in 1904. Like the Black Flash, Spring-heeled Jack was described as tall human-figure dressed in black, often with a black hood on his head. Some witnesses said he had fiery red eyes, and others said he could spit out blue fire. He was called Spring-heeled Jack because he could jump so high people thought he had springs in his shoes.

All of this is very, very similar to the Black Flash. If you believe in the supernatural, were they the same entity? Or were people just telling similar stories?

I also see some similarities between the Black Flash and the scary clown hysteria that the US experienced last year. In both cases, people reported entities whose sole purpose was just to scare people. They both seem to be people in costumes, but there also seem to be some supernatural elements to the stories as well as human pranksters.

When I go to the Cape this summer I'll keep my eyes peeled for the Black Flash, but hopefully he won't slap me if I see him!

*****

In addition to the sources I cite, you can read more about the Flash in Provincetown Magazine, and in this great blog post by Theo Paijmans. I first wrote about the Black Flash several years ago but wanted to revisit this fascinating story now that I had more information.

June 13, 2017

UFO Hunters Rescued By Police

Being a paranormal researcher probably has a lot of risks associated with it. You might get kidnapped by Bigfoot, for example, or maybe abducted by aliens. Ghost hunters even occasionally bring home a spirit with them, which isn't usually a good thing.

Happily, I think most of those risks are pretty rare. Has anyone been kidnapped by Bigfoot in living memory? This doesn't mean monster- and ghost-hunting are risk free, but the risks are usually just those associated with being outdoors in isolated areas. You know, things like catching Lyme disease, falling and breaking a leg, or stumbling upon a group of drug-using teenagers.

On Thursday, June 8, three young UFO hunters had to be rescued from the Blue Hills, which are located just south of Boston. The three teenagers had come from the Plymouth area to watch the skies for strange objects. For those of you not familiar with them, the Blue Hills are the highest hills in the Boston area so they afford a good view the night sky.

Unfortunately the trio was a little unprepared for their excursion. It took them longer to climb to the top of Buck's Hill than they thought, they hadn't brought any flashlights, and one of them was only wearing slippers. To make things worse, the terrain was wet and extremely rocky. They didn't have any trouble getting to the top of the hill, but rather than risk descending in the dark they called for help.

The State Police arrived on the scene with several patrols, police dogs, and even a helicopter. They eventually found the teens and led them down the hill along a less treacherous path. So, although they probably should have been better prepared at least the trio was wise enough to know when they needed help.
 
The story has a happy ending, but it's made even happier by this: the UFO hunters found what they were looking for. One of the teens who is a self-described "UFO magnet" told WHDH-TV the following:

"We saw a couple we had never seen before... We saw these two ships that had like these bright spotlights and then we saw this weird orb thing that was like a spotlight..."

She also told The Boston Globe that,

“We should’ve brought flashlights and charged our phones and maybe brought better hiking gear,” she said. “But it was overall very worthwhile because it was a beautiful hike.”

As far as seeing the UFOs, she said: “It was very interesting, but also pretty creepy.”
Better creepy than dangerous. If you're going to explore lonely places at night please be careful out there. I don't think the aliens will get you but the ticks, rabid raccoons and slippery rocks just might.

June 04, 2017

The Nantucket Merman

I've always liked monsters. Well, at least I like reading about them. I've never met one face-to-face but plenty of New Englanders have. People see all sorts of things around here: Bigfoot, extraterrestrial creatures, pukwudgies, and even the occasional lake monster.

What people don't see much of these days is mer-people. Mermaids and mermen don't seem to be very common around here now, but in the past they were apparently more plentiful. For example, an aggressive triton was seen off the coast of Maine in the early 1600s, while a sailor named Captain Dodge exhibited a mermaid's corpse in a Boston museum in the 1820s.

A merman was even seen off the coast of Nantucket. The year was 1714, and a minister named Valentyn was sailing past Nantucket's Great Point when it happened. Here is a quote from the good reverend's journal:

“It appeared like a sailor, or a man sitting on something; and more like a sailor, as on its head there appeared to be something like an English cap of the same color.

We all agreed he must be some shipwrecked person. After some time I begged the captain to steer the ship more directly toward it. … We had got within a ship’s length of him, when the people on the forecastle mad such a noise that he plunged down, head foremost, and got presently out of sight.

The man who was on watch at the masthead delared that he had… a monstrous long tail.” 

There's something a little creepy about that account. I can imagine the ship's crew going from "Oh, look there's a sailor in the water" to "Oh crap, that guy's got a giant fish tail!" in just a few panicky moments. I know I would.

That may not have been the only sighting of a mer-person near Nantucket. According to folklorist Edward Rowe Snow, the keeper of Great Point's lighthouse claimed to have seen something humanoid crawl out of the ocean and head into nearby Coskata Woods in the early 1900s. Some other locals claimed to have seen signs of something living in the same forest.

Great Point Light from Wikipedia.
The Coskata Woods are very old and have not been logged since 1711. It makes sense that an ancient primal sea being would want to visit an ancient forest.

Perhaps memaids and mermen are still swimming in the waters off our coast. I hope so, because I do like monsters. And make no mistake, mer-people do have a monstrous side. Folklore tells of mermaids who sink ships by raising storms or abduct handsome sailors to be their lovers, while mermen and tritons sometimes attack young women walking alone on the beach. So though I hope there are still some mer-people out there, I don't want to meet one face-to-face, and hope you don't meet one either.
 *****

Most of the information about the Natucket merman can be found in Edward Rowe Snow's book Legends of the New England Coast

May 28, 2017

Wild Men In The Woods: Strange Creatures Seen In Haverhill, Massachusetts

I was born and grew up in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Like most classic New England mill towns, it was big enough to qualify as a city but small enough so I felt like I knew everything about it. I was wrong. Something I didn't know when I lived there: it was also home to a couple of hairy wild men. Hideous subhuman monsters lurked in the woods surrounding the city.

Maybe I suspected this even as a child. When I was quite small I saw Lon Chaney Jr. in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Chaney of course played the Wolfman in this low-budget 1948 comedy. The movie also featured Frankenstein's monster (Glenn Strange) and Dracula (the great Bela Lugosi himself), but somehow only Chaney's lycanthropic anti-hero managed to worm its way into my brain.

Lon Chaney Jr. in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein
After seeing Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein I had a nightmare where I looked into a mirror and saw myself as a werewolf. I woke up screaming. Later I had a dream that I was in my backyard when two hairy hands grabbed me from behind. Again, I woke up screaming.

Around the same time I saw a movie called Dinosaurus (1960). The plot involves construction workers accidentally awakening hibernating dinosaurs and a Neanderthal caveman. The dinosaurs didn't scare me, but the caveman did. A scene where the Neanderthal looked into a house's windows haunted my dreams, and I had a nightmare where a caveman was peering into my family's living room through the windows.

Perhaps these were just the dreams of a little kid who was easily terrified by bad movies, but maybe I knew deep down that something weird, hairy and humanoid was lurking around Haverhill. Recently my childhood suspicions have been confirmed: two wild men have been seen there in the past.

A still from Dinosaurus
In the summer of 1826, a Haverhill man named Andrew Frink came down with a heavy fever. His family treated it the best they could, but he grew worse and worse by the day. Eventually Frink became completely delirious. While his family was not looking he climbed out of bed and ran from the house.

Several days later, people reported seeing a "wild man" at the edge of town. Hoping that it was really Andrew Frink, a search party scoured the woods. Much to their surprise, the wild man was not Frink, but was "literally a wild man from the woods."

The story comes from George W. Chase's The History of Haverhill, Massachusetts (1861), and Chase goes on to write:

It was supposed from his appearance he was some unfortunate, who, having perhaps met with some disappointment in life, had, in a fit of insanity fled from society.

Chase doesn't say what happened to the wild man. Perhaps they just let him go back into the woods. Poor Andrew Frink was found several weeks later. His body was found in a stream where he had apparently drowned while delirious.

A wild man reappeared in Haverhill in July of 1909. Here is an article from the July 14, 1909 issue of The Boston Post:

WILD MAN HUNT ON IN HAVERHILL

Haverhill, July 12 - The police of this city have been searching the woods near Gile Street and towards Newton, N.H. for a wildman who has been terrorizing the residents in that vicinity. He appears at dusk, very lightly clad. 

That's it. I couldn't find any more information. Did they catch the wild man, or did he escape to have lightly-clad adventures elsewhere?

Wild man stories were common in nineteenth century and early twentieth century newspapers. Sometimes the wild men were described as apelike beings similar to Bigfoot, as was the case with the Winsted wild man from Connecticut. At other times the wild men seemed more human, as if they were primitive forms of mankind that had yet to emerge from the wilderness. Or perhaps they were civilized humans that were devolving to a more animalistic state.

Wild men have been part of Western civilization for thousands of years. Somewhere out there, where the fields turn to forests and the roads end, strange animalistic men have always lurked. In the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh, the gods send a wild man named Enkidu to harass King Gilgamesh. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed the forests were full of satyrs, wild half-human creatures, and they are even mentioned in the Bible.

But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there. (Isaiah 13:21)

John the Baptist, who roamed the wilderness wearing animal skins, also has some characteristics of the wild man archetype, although he's portrayed more positively than the satyrs that Isaiah fulminated against. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, wild men were believed to haunt the forests, and nobles often covered themselves with leaves and hair to impersonate them during masquerades. Today, Americans see Bigfoot or Sasquatch hiding among the trees.

If wild men can be found in so many places, why not also in Haverhill, Massachusetts? Now that I'm an adult I'm not frightened by scary movies (well, maybe a little), but I do still wonder if there are wild men out there in the woods, waiting for the right moment to show themselves and peer into the living room window.

May 21, 2017

Sex, Whales and Witchcraft: The Legend of Ichabod Paddock

I've lived in New England my whole life, but I have only been to Nantucket once. It was a memorable trip. The island is full of beautiful historic old homes and lots of upscale amenities. It's a great spot for a posh summer vacation.

This was not always the case. Once it was a desolate isolated island. Herman Melville describes it in Moby Dick (1851):

Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it — a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don’t grow naturally; that they import Canada thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day’s walk a prairie...  
This does not sound like the summer playground of millionaires. It was not, but it was the whaling capital of the world. Melville himself sailed on the Charles and Henry, a Nantucket whaling ship, in 1842, which was one of the inspirations for Moby Dick.

Although the Wampanoag who originally lived on Nantucket may have occasionally killed whales, whaling as an industry only began there in 1690 when Ichabod Paddock arrived from Cape Cod. Paddock was a Quaker, an accomplished whaler, and a semi-legendary figure.

Image from here.

There are several legends about Paddock. For example, one claims that while he was in the Pacific he threw his favorite harpoon into a whale. The harpoon reached its mark, but the whale escaped. Thirteen years later, he was once again in the Pacific. His ship sighted a whale, which the crew successfully captured and killed. While they were cutting it up they found a harpoon embedded deep in its flesh. It had the initials "I.P." on it. It was the same whale Paddock had harpooned thirteen years ago.

One of the weirder legends tells how Paddock's ship was pursuing a whale named Crookjaw. No matter how hard Paddock's crew threw their harpoons they just bounced off Crookjaw. Even Ichabod himself could not harpoon the whale. Frustrated and unwilling to admit defeat, Ichabod put a knife between his teeth and dove into the ocean. As his terrified crew watched he swam right towards Crookjaw.

Crookjaw opened his mouth and swallowed Paddock whole.

Much to his surprise, Paddock did not die inside the darkness of a whale's stomach. Instead, he found himself inside a comfortable ship's cabin. Lanterns hung from the ceiling, and a large feather bed sat against one wall. A table filled the center of the room, and two people were playing cards at it. One was a beautiful blonde woman who had a shining green fish tail instead of legs. The other was a dark-clad man who smelled of fire and brimstone.

When the card players saw Paddock the dark man threw down his cards in anger and disappeared. The blonde woman (mermaid? witch?) smiled at Paddock.

"What were you wagering on?" he asked her.

"Why you, of course." She smiled again.



Meanwhile, the crew of Paddock's ship waited for some sign of their captain. After swallowing him Crookjaw just sat immobile, floating silently as the waves splashed against him. The crew didn't know what else to do. Their harpoons and knives were useless against the whale.

After several hours, Crookjaw opened his mouth and Paddock swam out on a torrent of water. He climbed back aboard his ship. "Boys," he said with a big grin, "We need to come back here tomorrow. I've got more work to do!"

Paddock and his crew came back the next day, and once again Paddock swam into the whale's mouth. His crew waited for hours while Crookjaw floated passively in the water until their captain emerged from the whale. Then they came back the next day. And the day after that.

This went on for quite a while. Rumors began to circulate around Nantucket that Paddock had been seduced by a devilish woman who lived in a whale, and they eventually reached the ears of his wife. Mrs. Paddock was young, beautiful, and unwilling to cede her husband to a witchy mermaid. She developed a plan.

One day as Paddock was about to set sail his wife ran down the wharf to his ship. "Husband!" she cried, "Husband! I have brought you a gift."

In her hands she held a glistening new harpoon. It's sharp tip shone brightly in the sun. Paddock thanked her and set sail for his assignation with her gift in his hand. Mrs. Paddock smiled a cold smile as the ship left the wharf.

When the ship found Crookjaw in his usual spot Paddock prepared to dive into the sea, but one of his crew stopped him. "Captain," he said, "Don't you think you should try that new harpoon your wife gave you? It's mighty fine. Maybe it can pierce the monster's skin."

Grudgingly, Paddock took up the harpoon. He knew it couldn't harm the enchanted whale, and he was eager to see his marine mistress. Still, he needed to keep up some level of appearance. He drew back his arm and threw the shining harpoon at Crookjaw.

The harpoon easily pierced the whale's hide, and with a hideous groan Crookjaw rolled over on his back. He was dead. Mrs. Paddock had asked a local blacksmith to forge a harpoon with a silver tip, and silver is one metal that always defeats witchcraft.

The crew didn't find a ship's cabin inside the whale when they cut open its stomach, just bile and half-digested fish. Paddock searched desperately through the offal for some sign of his lover, but all he found was long yellow seaweed and a few seashells.

*****
This story appears in quite a few places and with several variations. In some versions the seductress is clearly a witch, and in others a mermaid. I found this version in Nathaniel Philbrick's Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602 - 1890. Philbrick notes that Paddock was eventually kicked out of the Quakers after he "sailed about in a vessel where dancing was performed and he a partaker therein." The story about Crookjaw may be a legend but it seems to say something true about Paddock's personality.

Witches and sailors have a fraught (and often sexual) relationship in New England folklore. For example, Captain Sylvanus Rich was seduced by a witch who gave him the "sweet milk of Satan," while Skipper Ireson was ridden like a stallion at night by a witch as punishment. The Paddock legend is more elaborate but clearly fits in this genre.
Hercules, Hesione, and the Sea Monster, from the Museum of Fine Arts
Heroes have been swallowed by giant sea monsters throughout history. For example, Hercules was swallowed by a sea monster that came to eat the Trojan princess Hesione. He emerged alive several days later after killing the monster from the inside, but not before losing all his hair due to the acid in the monster's stomach. Two lessons to learn: Hercules is invulnerable but his hair isn't, and sea monster acid is nature's depilatory.

Jonah and the Whale, Pieter Lastman, 1620
The most famous person to emerge from a whale's stomach is of course the Biblical prophet Jonah. Jonah was told by God to preach in Nineveh, but didn't want to because he was afraid of the hostile reception he'd get there. He booked passage on a ship going in the opposite direction, but the crew threw him overboard after God besieged the ship with a storm. A whale swallowed Jonah, swam to Nineveh, and vomited him up on the shore. Jonah got the message and started preaching. 

In the movie Pinocchio, Gepetto is swallowed by a whale, and Pinocchio eventually goes inside to save him. This act of sacrifice turns the puppet Pinocchio into a real boy. 

Hercules, Jonah and Pinocchio find heroism, destiny and redemption inside their respective whales. Ichabod Paddock finds witchcraft, secret sex and the Devil. But after all, this is New England.