October 28, 2020

The Hideous Crone of Fall River

This story allegedly first appeared in the April 3, 1845 edition of The Weekly News, a Fall River newspaper. Newspapers at that time often published some pretty outrageous stories, so take this one with a grain of salt, or maybe even a tablespoon of salt. Still, it's a good story for Halloween and has a weird surprise ending. 

*****

In the mid-1700s, a dilapidated old hut stood on the banks of the Quequechan River in Fall River. The hut had been abandoned for many years and was perched perilously on the river bank:

By whom it was created, and why in that uninviting, if not dangerous spot, nobody could tell. It had long been deserted except by bats and reptiles, and was fast going to decay under the alternate action of the sun and rain.

The hut was widely believed to be haunted, and locals avoided walking by it, particularly at night. An elderly woman, called the Crone of the Quequechan, was sometimes seen near the hut, and some people claimed she was a witch. These same people suggested burning the hut down or pushing it into the river, but these drastic actions were not taken. 

Francisco Goya, "Wicked Woman" 1819 - 1823

One December night, though, bright lights were seen shining forth from the cracks and holes in the hut. Smoke rose up from its chimney. Someone - or something - was inside! Fearfully, the people who lived nearby gathered together to decide a course of action. 

Some thought they should approach the hut as a group (for safety) and with a Bible (for even more safety). Some thought they should send for a minister. Others thought an armed group should attack the hut and burn it down. 

As they deliberated an elderly women appeared in the crowd. It was the Crone of the Quequechan herself. 

Her head was thrust forward, exhibiting a nose of uncommon magnitude, covered with warts and carbuncles, beneath which a mouth, half open, extending almost from eager to ear, showed here and there a few long dark tusks projecting out like half burnt stumps in a newly cleared field... Her large bony hands, foul with sore and accumulated filth, were thrust forward, and her long hooked fingers, incessantly in motion, seemed eager to seize whoever or whatever might come in her way.

Angrily, the crone surveyed the gathered crowd. "Who talks of throwing me or mine into the Quequechan? Who talks of priests and Bibles? Who talks of guns and fire?" she said as stalked among them. At first the citizens of Fall River shrank back in terror from her hideous gaze, but soon their fear turned to anger and they pushed her to ground. 

When the crone collapsed to the floor the crowd gasped. Everyone came to their senses. She was just a poor old woman, and they had nothing to fear from her. They regretted even thinking about burning down her hut.  

Their regret was short-lived, though. The crone stood up, grabbed an infant child from its mother's arms, and dashed off into the night. The crowd (or perhaps mob is really a better term?) followed after her. 

They pursued her to the dilapidated hut, where they managed to wrest the child from her arms. Holding her down, the mob prepared to burn the hut down. Other than a wooden stool and a pile of straw, the only piece of furniture was a small wooden chest. "Please!" begged the crone. "Don't throw that in the fire!"

One man in the mob opened the chest. Inside was a letter, which he read aloud:

Boston, June ye 10, 1700

Mary, 

I am in the iron grip of the king's bloodhounds! Take care of thyself.

Kidd

The mob turned to look at the crone. "It's true," she said. "I am the last mistress of Captain Kidd, the pirate!" The mob was stunned. The crone grabbed the letter and stalked off into the night, never to be seen again in Fall River.  

*****

The story allegedly first appeared in The Weekly News in 1845, but the version I worked from appeared in 1953 in The Herald News. There are a few different versions of the story. For example, Massachusetts: A Guide to the Bay State (1937) claims the mob only learned the crone was Captain Kidd's mistress after they stoned her to death. That's really grim. I like the 1953 version better since it has a more dramatic ending. Her announcement and subsequent disappearance into the night is like an 18th century mic drop. 

Painting of Captain Kidd by Howard Pyle

The story plays with the tropes of the classic New England witchcraft tale: the old woman with the spooky reputation, the crowd of suspicious neighbors, and the threat of mob violence. But there's a twist - the crone is not a witch, and she's not just an ordinary old woman. She was once the lover of Captain Kidd, the notorious pirate imprisoned in Boston before being sent to England for trial and execution. Witches were quite common, but pirate mistresses were rare and unusual. 

Was there really a Crone of Quequechan? All the pieces individually are plausible: an old woman suspected of witchcraft, an imprisoned pirate, and of course those suspicious and intolerant New Englanders. If the story is true I think it's been reshaped for dramatic effect. The ending is ridiculous and over-the-top, and I love it. 

October 14, 2020

Take A Tour of New England's Lovecraft Country

It's October, so let's take a tour. No, not a foliage tour - a tour of Lovecraft country.

We've been watching Lovecraft Country on HBO these past few weeks. It's a horror/fantasy series based on Matt Ruff's novel of the same name; the main character is a Black veteran of the Korean War who likes science fiction and fantasy literature. The series explores a variety of genres (occult horror, science fiction, ghost stories, Indiana Jones style adventures) to examine racism and what it's like to be Black in America.

Despite the title, there's not a lot of Lovecraft in the show. H.P. Lovecraft (1890 - 1937) was a Rhode Island native and is considered one of the world's most influential horror writers. In recent years a lot of critical attention has been paid to the racism in his work, and Lovecraft Country in some ways is the attempt of genre fans, like author Matt Ruff and show runner Misha Green, to grapple with the negative aspects of the stories they love.

In one sense, the title Lovecraft Country refers to the fictional genres the show explores, the worlds of fantasy and horror fiction. However, the term "Lovecraft Country" existed before either the novel or the show, and was coined by scholars to refer to the various towns and places Lovecraft repeatedly mentions to in his fiction. Most of those places are in New England, so New England is actually Lovecraft country.

One of the reasons Lovecraft's fiction remains effective is because he blends facts and fiction. For example, he'll slip a fictional book like the Necronomicon into a list of actual occult books in a story. He'll mention real people like Cotton Mather or Dr. John Dee while discussing fictional occultists. Its a technique that leaves the reader wondering what's real and what's not.

He used a similar technique when writing about geographic locations. The monster-haunted coastal town of Innsmouth is fictional, but it's supposedly located near Rowley and was inspired by Newburyport, both real towns in Massachusetts. Many of the fictional locations he mentions are actually based on real ones, so you could take an actual tour of Lovecraft country. It might be a nice way to spend an October day. Just watch out for those tentacled monsters.

And here's a word of practical caution - if you do visit any of these places please follow COVID-19 protocols. Wear a mask. Maintain six feet of distance. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer. Stay healthy and keep the horror in your life fictional.

Arkham: 

This decaying city with a sinister history appears in many of Lovecraft's stories. It's the home of Miskatonic University, a prestigious school whose library contains a copy of the accursed Necronomicon. Arkham was the site of witch trials in the 17th century and residents believe that witchcraft still secretly happens there. 

Photo from StreetsOfSalem.com

Arkham's location was not clearly defined in Lovecraft's early stories, but in later stories the town is clearly an analogue of Salem, Massachusetts. The cemetery in his 1923 story "The Unnamable" was inspired by Salem's historic Charter Street Burying Ground, and some family names that Lovecraft uses (like Derby and Pickman) are old Salem family surnames. 

Featured in: The Unnamable (1923), The Dunwich Horror (1928), The Dreams in the Witch House (1933), The Thing on the Doorstep (1937).

Boston:

Boston is obviously a real place. According to Lovecraft, the Massachusetts capital is riddled with underground tunnels home to man-eating, dog-faced ghouls. Hopefully that isn't true. Lovecraft also claims there is an entrance to the realm of dreams in Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street, which probably isn't true either but sounds nicer than ghoul tunnels.

Boston's North End. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

Featured in: Pickman's Model (1926), Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927)

Chesuncook:

Ancient stone ruins can supposedly be found in this small Maine town. Hidden beneath the ruins is a stairway of 6,000 steps that leads to a pit full of shoggoths, hideous protoplasmic monsters. A secret cult of witches gathers there to celebrate their rituals. 

I don't think the pit of shoggoths is real, but Chesuncook is. It's actually a small lakeside town that Henry David Thoreau visited in the 1840s, and today is popular spot for rafting trips. The word "chesuncook" means "place of geese," which doesn't sound particularly frightening. 

Featured in: The Thing on the Doorstep (1937)

Dunwich:

"Outsiders visit Dunwich as seldom as possible, and since a certain season of horror all the signboards pointing towards it have been taken down..." According to Lovecraft, this central Massachusetts town is full of historic architecture, but "most of the houses are deserted and falling to ruin" while Dunwich's only church has been converted into a grimy general store. The inhabitants of Dunwich are rumored to be both inbred and abnormally intrigued by black magic. 

Wilbraham Methodist Meeting House, from LostNewEngland.com

Dunwich is totally fictional, but was inspired by a visit Lovecraft paid to a friend in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. He enjoyed the trip, and I'm sure he appreciated Wilbraham's historic town center. Some aspects of Dunwich were also inspired by a visit to Athol, Massachusetts. 

Featured in: The Dunwich Horror (1928)

Haverhill:

Haverhill, Massachusetts is the birthplace of two academics who learned things they'd rather forget. Walter Gilman studied theoretical physics while staying in an old 17th century Arkham house once inhabited by a witch and died a strange death. Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, a professor at Miskatonic University, experienced a strange bout of amnesia for several years. When it subsided he claimed his mind had been kidnapped by monstrous alien beings from the past.

Haverhill is real, and is where I was born. As a child I was intrigued and yet terrified to see it referenced in Lovecraft's fiction. Lovecraft's friend William 'Tryout' Smith lived in Haverhill and he visited the city often. 

Featured in: The Dreams in the Witch House (1933), The Shadow Out of Time (1936)

Innsmouth:

According to Lovecraft, this decaying Massachusetts port city experienced a strange plague in 1846, although some residents say it was actually a massacre of some kind. Shortly thereafter a religious group called the Esoteric Order of Dagon took over Innsmouth. The Order was investigated by the US government in 1928 and many of its members arrested. The Navy also torpedoed an unknown target off the city's coast. 

Parker River Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport

Innsmouth is another fictional creation, but is very closely modeled on Newburyport, Massachusetts. Lovecraft visited that city in 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, and wrote that it was so run down "it is today locally known as the City of the Living Dead." When Lovecraft visited the business district was nearly abandoned and many of the buildings were falling into ruin. Today it's a thriving and renovated tourist destination.

Featured in: The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936)

Kingsport:

Another Massachusetts town with strange secrets. Some residents are said to practice ancient rites during winter solstice. An elderly man who hates immigrants supposedly uses black magic against them. Locals discourage anyone from visiting a strange old house that sits on top of a nearby cliff. 


Another fictional town, but like Innsmouth also inspired by a real location, this time Marblehead, Massachusetts. Lovecraft was an enormous fan of Colonial architecture, and he wrote that his 1922 visit to Marblehead was "the most powerful single emotional climax experienced during my nearly forty years of existence." That must be some really good architecture. 

Featured in: The Terrible Old Man (1920), The Festival (1923), The Strange High House in the Mist (1926)

Providence:

Lovecraft was born in the Rhode Island capital and lived most of his life there. The epitaph on his monument in the Swann Point Cemetery reads: "I Am Providence." He clearly loved the city and set many of this stories there. In Lovecraft's world, an old house on Benefit Street was haunted by a life-sucking fungus, a church steeple on Federal Hill housed a mysterious giant crystal, and the city was home to psychic artists, reincarnated wizards, and nautical cult members. Those things may not be true, but Providence is still pretty amazing even in real life.

Featured in: The Shunned House (1924), The Call of Cthulhu (1926), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927), and The Haunter of the Dark (1935).

October 06, 2020

The Norton Witches: Small Town Legends

Well, it's October. Spooky month, as people say. Every month is spooky on this blog, but I'll try to share some particularly nice stories this October. Let's conjure up those Halloween vibes! 

*****

I don't think I've ever been to Norton, Massachusetts but I may have passed through it. It sounds like a small, quiet New England town. They only got their first traffic light in 1997, so it's very quiet. But small New England towns often harbor strange secrets, as every Stephen King fan knows. 

For example, a rock behind the Norton's elementary school supposedly is imprinted with the Devil's footprint. The Evil One made it in 1716 as he carried off George Leonard, who had sold his soul for material wealth. 

Norton is also located inside the Bridgewater Triangle, an area famous for its paranormal activity. The town certainly has had its share of weird happenings. For example, a couple weeks ago I posted about a lizard man seen in Norton in 2001. More famously, in 1971 a Norton police officer named Thomas Downy saw something with an 8 to 12 foot wingspan flying overhead as he drove home through Easton late one night. Small towns seem to get the best monsters! 

Norton was first settled in 1669, so it's a relatively old town. These days people tend to blame paranormal phenomena on ghosts, aliens or dimensional gateways, but in the past witches were usually blamed for strange events and misfortunes. That was certainly the case in Norton.

The most famous witch in Norton's history is Ann Cobb. Interestingly, very little is known of her witchy exploits but a bridge in town is named after her (Ann Cobb Bridge). It is more commonly known as Witch Bridge or Witch's Bridge. Ann Cobb used to live near the bridge that now bears her name, which was about two miles away from the town center. According to a local legend, one day she set out from her home for the center and arrived there within minutes, much to the consternation of the townspeople. How had she traveled so quickly? People suspected that perhaps she flew, or was transported by some sort of evil spirit. The incident was enough to cement her reputation as a witch and to merit a bridge being named after her. Ann Cobb died in poverty as a ward of the town in 1798.

Dora Leonard was also suspected of being a witch. Farmers blamed Dora and her magic when their animals escaped from the barn or their pens. Two young boys also blamed her for their bad luck hunting squirrels. According to the boys, they had trapped a particularly large squirrel in a tree and shot at it repeatedly. They missed every shot, though, and the squirrel escaped unharmed. As the boys trudged home they saw a strange cat watching them. They told everyone who would listen that the cat was really Dora and she had bewitched their guns. Much like Ann Cobb, Dora Leonard was impoverished in her old age and the town took care of her financially. As she lay dying in 1786 her house was filled with strange noises. The neighbors who were attending her final moments fled in terror. 

Naomi Burt was the third Norton woman believed to be a witch. Like Dora Leonard, Naomi was said to cause mischief and minor mishaps. Wagons lost their wheels if they passed by her house and oxen escaped their yokes thanks to Naomi's witchcraft. Children particularly feared her and held their breath if they passed by her residence. Sadly, Naomi committed suicide on July 4, 1808. Old legends about witches are entertaining and spooky, but being impoverished and a social outcast can be grim and lonely. 

*****

My sources for this week's post are Duane Hamilton Hurd's History of Bristol County, Massachusetts. With Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men, Part 2 (1883), and George Faber Clark's  A History of the Town of Norton, Bristol County, Massachusetts, from 1669 – 1859 (1859. This article from Patch.com also had good information about the Norton witches. 

September 28, 2020

Pale, Ghastly, Deadly: An Old Boston Ghost Story and The Politics Behind It

On May 2, 1687, Joseph Beacon was sound asleep in his Boston, Massachusetts home when suddenly someone appeared in his bedroom. It was 5:00 a.m. in the morning.

It was Joseph's brother. Joseph, who couldn't tell if he was asleep or awake, was puzzled by this since his brother was thousands of miles away in London, England. He was also concerned since his brother's "countenance was very pale, ghastly, deadly and he had a bloody wound one side of his forehead."

"Brother!" says the affrighted Joseph.

"Brother!" answered the apparition. 

Said Joseph, "What the matter brother? How came you here."

The apparition replied, "Brother, I have been most barbarously and injuriously butchered, by a debauched and drunken fellow, to whom I never did any wrong in my life."

The bloody apparition went on to say that his murderer was trying to flee London and would sail to New England on one of two ships, either the Foy or the Wild. The apparition urged Joseph to get an order from the governor if either ship arrived and have the murderer arrested. "I'll stand by you and prove the indictment," the apparition said. Then it vanished.  

At the end of June, Joseph Beacon received word from London that his brother was dead. While trying to hail a coach he had been attacked by a drunk stranger. The drunkard hit him on the head with a fire iron, and Joseph's brother lay unconscious until he died on May 2nd. The murderer was arrested and brought to trial but managed to escape execution. 

Cotton Mather, 1663 - 1728

That story appears in Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), which was written by the Reverend Cotton Mather of Boston, one of the most prominent Puritan clergymen in New England. Wonders is mainly concerned with defending the legitimacy of the Salem witch trials, which had just occurred the previous year. Many people questioned the trials even when they were happening, and after they ended public opinion began turning against everyone involved. Mather was trying to counteract that:

We cannot but with all thankfulness, acknowledge the success which the Merciful God has given unto the sedulous and assiduous endeavors of our honorable rulers, to detect the abominable witchcrafts which have been committed in the country... If in the midst of the many dissatisfactions among us, the publication of these trials, may promote such a pious thankfulness unto God for justice being so far executed among us, I shall rejoice that God is glorified...

It might seem weird to include a ghost story in a book defending the Salem witch trials, but I think it was part of Mather's strategy for the book. "See? There are ghosts, so therefore there must be witches too..."

Or, to break it down step by step, his strategy might look like this: 

A. Do you believe in ghosts? If yes, then...

B. You have to believe in witches. And if you believe in witches, then...

C. You have to believe the Salem trials were legitimate and not a tragedy.

I don't think it's the best argument. Believing in ghosts doesn't necessarily mean you have to believe in witches. And even if you do believe in witches, it doesn't mean the Salem trials were legitimate. For example, Reverend John Hale, another Puritan clergyman, argued in his 1697 book A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft that it's impossible to prove witchcraft in a trial. Hale believed that witches might exist but argued that the the Devil can take the form of an innocent person. That time you saw your neighbor tormenting you with witchcraft? It may really have been the Devil in disguise. 

Ultimately Cotton Mather lost the argument and his reputation was ruined for defending something indefensible. He was on the wrong side of history. The lesson of the Salem trials was pretty clear: don't accuse your neighbors of being part of a supernatural conspiracy. 

Sadly, the lesson didn't really stick. In the 1980s hundreds of people were accused of being part of a child-abusing Satanic conspiracy. The Satanic Panic, as it was called, destroyed families and led to prison terms for many innocent people. It was all based on sham psychology but no one stopped the Satanic Panic until it was too late. 

Now we have the Q Anon conspiracy theory, which has been spreading online for several years. Basically, this theory claims that a cabal of wealthy and powerful Satanists are abducting children for nefarious purposes and that Donal Trump will defeat them with mass arrests of his political opponents and journalists. It's obviously a fake rumor designed to rile up sentiment against the Democrats, but many people still believe it. 

Folks, you can put on the brakes. Liking or believing in one weird thing doesn't mean you have to believe all of them. Just because you like crystals doesn't mean you have to be an anti-vaxer. Just because you believe in UFOs doesn't mean you have to buy into Q Anon or any other conspiracy that is going to harm actual, living humans. The paranormal should be something fun to explore. It shouldn't be a slippery slope leading to mob violence and witch trials. 

September 14, 2020

A Lizard Man in Norton, Massachusetts

It happened on a warm night in the summer of 2001. A young man was working late at a store in his hometown of Norton, Massachusetts. At 11:30 pm he locked up and started to walk home.

He lived just a mile away, so even though it was quite dark he took a shortcut through the woods. It was a route he had taken many times before without incident. But tonight would be different. 

The path through the woods was dimly lit by distant streetlights. Partway down the path the man yawned, and was terrified to hear something roaring as if in response. It sounded like a large animal. He froze. In the dim light he saw someone, or rather something, emerge from behind a tree. The creature was nearly 8 feet tall and reptilian in nature, resembling a lizard with a man's face. It was powerfully built and looked like it could "have ripped the witness limb from limb if it wanted to." 

Photo from Spawn of the Slithis (1978)
This is all pretty weird, but here's where it gets weirder. As the young man stood there, terrified, he suddenly saw a flash of bright light in the sky. When he looked back at the tree the lizard creature was gone. Stranger still, the young man's watch said it was 1:45 a.m. More than an hour had passed and he didn't know what had occurred in that missing time. 

*****

That's the end of the story. It appears in Albert Rosales's book Humanoid Encounters: 2000 - 2009, and Rosales found the story online on a site called "Your True Tales." There are lots of interesting things about this story.

First of all, it's about a lizard man, which is pretty amazing. Lizard men do pop up in North American folklore and cryptozoology now and then; the most famous is the Lizard Man of Bishopville, North Carolina who was seen in that town for several years beginning in 1986. There aren't many stories from New England about lizard men, though. This one's kind of an anomaly.


The Lizard Man of Bishopville appeared in swampy areas. So did this one. Norton, Massachusetts has lots of swamps within its boundaries, including parts of the infamous 16,000 acre Hockomock Swamp. The Hockomock Swamp is the center of an area called the Bridgewater Triangle, which is famous for its paranormal activity. Norton sits squarely inside that triangle, so perhaps its not totally surprising a reptilian humanoid would appear in a giant swamp also known for its ghosts, UFO sightings, and Sasquatch encounters. 

So are there lizard monsters hibernating in the muddy swamps of Norton? Maybe, but maybe not. The strange flash of light and the missing time at the end of the story seem to indicate the creature is not really of this world. After all, strange lights and missing time are often associated with UFOs, not animals that live in the woods. If the Norton lizard man was just a physical creature he would have trudged off, not disappeared in a flash of light. 

Personally, I'd call the police or at least Animal Control if I encountered a large lizard creature. This person didn't, which is perhaps why this story is not that well known. Also, lots of weird things are said to happen in the Bridgewater Triangle. Giant snakes, phantom panthers, strange lights, Bigfoot, pukwudgies. If it's paranormal it's probably happened there. In another place or another time a lizard man would probably stand out. In the Bridgewater Triangle he's just another guest at the party.