August 09, 2020

Pine Grove Cemetery: Murder, Legends, and History on Cape Cod

We were down on the Cape last week, and one day we decided to visit Pine Grove Cemetery in Truro. I had read about Pine Grove in the past but never visited since it is off the beaten track. With so many things shut down this year we had ample time to explore this old cemetery.

There are two aspects to Pine Grove: the charming historic side, and the creepy uncomfortable side. Let's talk about the charming historic side first. Pine Grove was established in 1794 by Truro's Methodist church. Although the church is no longer there, the cemetery remains and is still in active use. Like much of Cape Cod, Truro's open spaces have been reclaimed by the forest. The cemetery was once in an open field behind a church but is now hidden in the woods down a half-mile dirt road. 

Photo from Digital Commonwealth. You can see the cemetery behind the church.
Pine Grove Cemetery today.
There are no houses on the dirt road, and Pine Grove is totally surrounded by the Cape Cod National Seashore. This means the cemetery is isolated and very quiet. When we went we were the only people there for well over an hour. 

The oldest grave at Pine Grove is that of James Paine, who was buried in 1799, while the newest burial seems to be from this year. There are over 800 monuments in Pine Grove in a variety of styles. We saw one old-fashioned death's head, several winged cherubs, and many willow-and-urn motifs. Lots of notable Cape Cod families are buried here.

So that's the charming part: an old cemetery full of historic gravestone down a quiet country road. Now here, unfortunately, is the creepy part: four women were murdered and dismembered here in 1969. That dirt road in the woods and the isolated cemetery seem more unsettling once you know that detail.

On January 24, 1969, two young women from Providence, Rhode Island checked into a rooming house in nearby Provincetown. Patricia Walsh and Mary Ann Wysocki, both 23, were introduced by the landlady to another guest, a 24-year old local carpenter named Antone "Tony" Costa. Costa, who was tall and clean cut, helped Walsh and Wysocki carry their bags to their rooms. Walsh and Wysocki vanished shortly afterwards. Their car was spotted abandoned near a marijuana patch behind Pine Grove cemetery, but then it too vanished.

The police began digging and found four bodies in the sandy soil behind Pine Grove. Two of them were Walsh and Wysocki. The other two were Sydney Monzon, 18, of Eastham, who had vanished on Memorial Day of 1968, and Susan Perry, 17, of Provincetown, who had been missing since September 8, 1968. The families of Perry and Monzon had assumed their daughters had simply run off. It was the Summer of Love, after all, and many young people were leaving home to become hippies.

Coverage of the crime from Life Magazine, July 25, 1969
The police soon located the missing car in Burlington, Vermont, where Tony Costa was paying for its storage. He was quickly arrested and charged with murder. Many local women, including the daughter of novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr., testified that Costa had invited them to visit his marijuana patch behind Pine Grove cemetery. Luckily they had declined. 

The details of the murders are grisly. The four women had been all been dismembered. Blood stained rope was found tied to a tree and in Costa's room at the boarding house. The local DA claimed that cannibalism had also occurred, but that was later recanted. 

Photo from Life Magazine

Costa was charged with murdering three of the four women, but during his trial other suspicious incidents came up. He had driven to Pennsylvania with two young women who disappeared, as did a woman he lived with in San Francisco. A woman he dated had been found drowned in her bathtub. Costa was ultimately suspected of murdering eight women, but was convicted only of murdering Wysocki and Walsh. He received a life sentence. Costa committed suicide in his cell at Walpole State Prison in 1974. He was 30 years old.

Those are the facts in the case, but as you might imagine these murders have entered local folklore. It's hard for a small town to forget something so grisly and legends are often how communities remember their past. 

The most persistent legend I've read is that Costa used this brick crypt to dismember his victims. I'm not sure if that story is true. The crypt is in the cemetery, and I think the actual crimes occurred in the woods behind Pine Grove. Still, the crypt is the main destination for legend-trippers. Anomalous structures (like an empty crypt with an unlocked door) tend become the focus of legends.

Note: I didn't enter the crypt, but only stuck my phone inside. I think historically this crypt was just used to hold bodies awaiting burial - no one is entombed inside it - but it still felt wrong to go inside. In 2007, paranormal investigators reported some strange things in the crypt, including Electronic Voice Phenomena and the sudden loss of power to their equipment. But were these just the normal ghosts one would expect to find in an old cemetery, or were they associated with the 1969 murders?

The grave in the woods where the women was buried is long gone, hidden away by the undergrowth and trees, but Tony and I still walked down the dirt road behind the cemetery. It was very, very quiet in the woods. The cemetery had been full of birds and grasshoppers, but the woods were completely silent. It was unnerving. Maybe the birds just like the cemetery's open landscape more. Maybe the woods hold a memory of what happened. Either way, we were alone nearly a mile from the main road where something terrible had occurred. It was not a good feeling. 

I took a photo of this crossroads we came upon. There have been legends and myths about crossroads for millennia, and they are said to be places where people can encounter ghosts, underworld deities, and the Devil. When I saw this I thought,"This would be a really creepy place to be at Halloween." Apparently I was not the first person to think along these lines. Evelyn Lawson wrote the following in The Provincetown Register in 1969:

"As Dinis (the district attorney) talked... I felt my skin prickle in dread and disgust. The place where the bodies had been found... was near an old cemetery, not far from a back dirt crossroad, the typical traditional site for the witches' Sabbath..." (quoted in Life Magazine, July 25, 1969)

Just to be clear, no witches were involved in these murders. Modern witches follow a spiritual or religious path and don't sacrifice people in the woods. It's probably just a coincidence the murders happened near a crossroads, but it does add some creepy resonance to the situation, and there have been rumors that people conduct sinister rituals in the woods. I didn't see any signs of ritual activity and I think they are just rumors. Costa apparently was interested in the occult and had books about magic in his cell at Walpole, which has probably added fuel to the rumor that Satanic activities happen in the woods behind Pine Grove. 

Would I visit again? I'd definitely go to the cemetery again, which is beautiful and historic. The crypt was a little off-putting, but nothing too scary. The woods behind Pine Grove were pretty creepy, though, and I'm not sure if I would go back. A little advice: if you decide to visit please don't go alone. Even if there aren't any ghosts it is still an isolated spot where something terrible happened. It's better to be safe than sorry. 

August 01, 2020

A Werewolf in Pawtucket, Rhode Island

Many, many years ago when I was a small child I saw Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) on some local TV station. Although this movie is a very broad comedy, I was still really scared by the monsters in it, particularly by the Wolfman. I was probably five years old so maybe this is understandable, or maybe I was just a really cowardly kid. Regardless, the Wolfman was portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr., and his transformation from a mild-mannered human to a hirsute and ferocious monster terrified me. 

Lon Chaney Jr. in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein
Lon Chaney Jr. in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein

He was also the most sympathetic of the movie's monsters, though, so I was also fascinated. Once I got over my fear of werewolves I learned to love stories about them. Sabine Baring Gould's The Book of Werewolves (1865) is a good source for European legends, as is Montague Summers's The Werewolf in Legend and Lore (1933). Both of those are easily available, but sadly, there isn't too much written about New England werewolves. Maybe that's because we don't have a lot of werewolves here, which could be a good thing depending on how you feel about ravening monsters.

The word werewolf comes from an Old English term, werwulf, or man-wolf, and refers to a human who can transform into a wolf. The reasons for this ability vary in old legends and include things like curses, deals with the Devil, or witchcraft. The idea that someone can become a werewolf after being bitten or scratched by one is a more recent pop culture innovation. Lycanthropy (the fancy term for werewolfism) was originally considered a moral condition, not an infectious disease. 

There are lots of New England legends about people transforming into animals, but they're usually about witches, and witches don't like to change into wolves. Witches prefer to transform into more discrete animals like birds, cats, and even horses. It's easier to cause mischief that way. No one suspects an innocent-looking bird but people are pretty suspicious when a wolf shows up. Still, during the Salem witch trials Tituba confessed to seeing cats, birds and wolves in the company of witches, implying that these were either demons or witches in animal form. 

That's not the only local connection between witches and wolves. There is also an obscure legend that one of Cape Ann's Dogtown witches, Daffy Archer, may have been a werewolf or had one at her command. You can read more about the Dogtown werewolf here

Some of New England's other werewolf legends come from French-Canadian immigrants, who brought stories of the loup-garou with them from Quebec. A loup-garou is someone, usually male, who has signed a deal with the Devil and can transform into a wolf. They are scary and dangerous, but happily can be repelled by prayer and religious symbols, as this tale from Vermont shows

Those stories are over a hundred years old, but I just read another werewolf account, and it's relatively recent. It appears in Albert Rosales book Humanoid Encounters: 2000 - 2009. According to Rosales, on December 16, 2008, four students in Pawtucket, Rhode Island decided to take a walk in the woods after finishing their exams. They followed an old waterway deeper and deeper into the woods. As they walked it became increasingly quiet. 

Noticeably quiet. No birds. No squirrels. No breeze.

Scarily quiet.

The students suddenly became aware that they were not alone. Someone - or rather something - was in the woods with them. The creature was about six feet tall. It stood upright like a man, but had the head of a wolf. The students stood still in terror, petrified that the creature would approach them. 

The wolf creature looked around, sensing it was not alone, but did not see the students. Finally it ran off further into the trees and was lost to sight. After waiting to make sure it was really gone the students left the woods. One of the witnesses was convinced the creature was a werewolf. 

What did the others think it was if not a werewolf? Rosales's book doesn't say. It also doesn't include some details that would be useful, like how old the students were or their names. Still, I'm happy to find another local werewolf story to add to my collection. This reads like a classic paranormal encounter: the journey out of consensus reality into the woods, the eerie expectant stillness, the advent of a strange entity, and the return back to the normal world. 

The moral aspects of older werewolf stories are missing here. There's no witchcraft or deal with the Devil. Instead, we just have some young folks who have an encounter with a monstrous being in the woods. The lesson is not a moral one, but rather an ontological one: there are still monsters lurking out in the trees. 

July 20, 2020

Henry Tufts: Wizard, Fortune-Teller, and Criminal

Henry Tufts (1748 - 1831) led what might euphemistically be called a colorful life. Tufts was born in Newmarket, New Hampshire and spent many years as a criminal, earning his living as a thief, con-man, gambler, and counterfeiter across New England. He also was a bigamist, marrying a woman named Lydia Bickford around 1770 and then several other women after that without divorcing any of them. This doesn't include the many, many other women he also slept with as he bamboozled his way across the countryside.

At least that's what he claims in his 1807 autobiography, which is titled A Narrative of the Life, Adventures, Travels and Sufferings of Henry Tufts, Now Residing at Lemington, in the District of Maine. In Substance, As Compiled from His Own Mouth. I think any suffering that Tufts endured came mostly from his own sociopathic nature and chronic lying, but that's me. Your opinion may differ. The book was reprinted in 1930 with the shorter and blunter title The Autobiography of A Criminal. 

Woodcut of an 18th century criminal

I'm not sure it's all 100% true, but Tufts's autobiography is a very entertaining read. It's well-written, quite funny, and consists mostly of how he gets himself into (and then out of) bad situations. What's most interesting though, at least to readers of this blog, was that Henry Tufts often made money as a traveling wizard and fortune-teller. Even though Tufts was a scam artist, A Narrative of the Life etc. provides information into how 18th century New Englanders viewed the occult and magic. 

For example, while tarrying briefly in Norwich, Vermont, Tufts let the locals know he could predict the future. Young people visited him to get their fortunes told, while "sometimes, too, did the elderly approach my levee to enquire for lost goods, so that I had business enough, and was generally received with a hearty good welcome, go whither I would. Indeed I found it in no way difficult to cajole my ignorant followers into the belief of whatever idle tale I was pleased to fabricate..."

His services as a fortune teller were much in demand. Even while he was imprisoned in Exeter, New Hampshire (for desertion from the Continental Army) several young women visited him to get their futures told. Tufts would normally be happy to make money off them, but in this case he had just cut a hole in the wall of the jail and was preparing to escape. Rather than indulge the women, he chased them off with "unseemly language, as caused them to scamper down the stairs with more than customary agility." Spoiler alert: he escaped from jail and embarked on more criminal endeavors. 

Engraving of a lobster
It's not always clear what method Tufts used to tell fortunes, but during one period he used a small lobster claw. 

I had picked up, by chance, the small claw of a lobster, which I informed the people as I passed along, was an enchanted horn; by virtue of which I could predict future events; but that, unfortunately, I had lost another horn, its counterpart, to which had been attached the rare property of enabling its possessor to foretell past events. This ridiculous tale was accredited by many; I therefore gained much celebrity, as a conjuror; sometimes my fee amounting to eight shillings in an evening.

Tufts led people to believe he was a "Salem wizard." Being a wizard was no longer a criminal offense in the 1700s, and by that time it seems Salem already had the reputation for being the source of powerful magic, a reputation it maintains to this day. If Tufts had claimed to be a Salem wizard in the 1690s he would have been hanged; in the 1770s it was a way to market his talents. 

Tufts also let people think he worked with the Devil. Again, this would be a dangerous claim to make in the the 1600s but was good marketing in the 1770s, giving Tufts an aura of mystery and danger. 

In respect to myself, it was the concurrent opinion, that I must be an extraordinary wizard, complete master of the black art, and able to employ the agency of the devil, whenever I saw fit. The belief of those things I endeavored to cultivate, well knowing, that reputation is sometimes of more advantage, in our intercourse with the generality of mankind, than are real requirements, because a fool may possess it. 

The Devil was invoked when Tufts found himself once again in Exeter jail, this time for stealing livestock with an accomplice, James Smith. The jailers put Tufts and Smith in adjacent cells. Friends smuggled tools to Tufts which he used to secretly drill a hole through the wall, and not even Smith knew he had made the hole. 

As Tufts prepared to escape, he whispered to Smith through the wall they shared that he was leaving the jail "by the help of the devil, who is now at my beck and call, whenever I need his assistance." Smith already believed that Tufts was a wizard and begged him to free him using his magic. Tufts agreed, saying that first Smith must throw his clothes out the window of his cell, which he did. 

Tufts then told Smith he must repeat the following spell to escape the jail:
Come in old man,
With that black ram,
And carry me out,
As fast as you can
Smith did as he was told. While he repeatedly recited the spell Tufts escaped through the hole he made and put on Smith's clothes, which were lying on the ground outside. Tufts fled into the countryside wearing Smith's clothing while poor gullible Smith was left naked in jail reciting the spell. 

Henry Tufts eventually gave up his life of crime and settled in Lemington, Maine, where he made a living as a physician. He had learned to be a physician from Molly Ockett, an Abenaki woman whose medical skills he required when he was suffering from a knife wound. Tufts lived among the Abenaki for several years and learned how to use local herbs and roots to treat illnesses. 

Indian doctors (as they were called) were in high demand at the time, much like Salem wizards, but happily the practice of medicine involved much less deception. If Tufts is to be believed, he was an honorable doctor who devoted himself to healing the sick. I'm just not sure we can believe anything he wrote...

July 13, 2020

Zoom Talk about Massachusetts Witchcraft Legends: Wednesday, July 15 at 6:00 pm

I will be giving a Zoom talk about Massachusetts witchcraft legends this Wednesday, July 6 at 6:00 pm for the Tyngsborough Public Library. Some people just associate witchcraft stories with October but this blog's readers know better! You can find more information and register here

I hope you can join me!

July 09, 2020

The Clown Scare of 1981 That Terrified Boston

With the COVID-19 pandemic I haven't been taking any long road trips to visit strange places. I've been exploring closer to home, though, and luckily there are some weird places very close by. That's one of the nice things about New England. There are spooky stories all over the place. 

Recently I took a short trip to the Lawrence School in Brookline, Massachusetts. Built in the early 20th century, the Lawrence School is part of Brookline's public school system. It's a very stately looking building, but in May of 1981 some students at the school reporting something very unusual: creepy clowns. 

Actor Lon Chaney as a clown in He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

On Tuesday, May 5, 1981 the Brookline Police received a report that two men dressed as clowns had approached children on Longwood Avenue near the Lawrence School. The men were driving a van and tried to entice the children into the van by offering them candy. According to The Boston Globe

The vehicle was describe as an older model black van with ladders on the side, a broken front headlight and no hubcaps.  
Brookline Police called the town's school department and told administrators to be "extra cautious." 
School Superintendent Robert I. Sperber instructed all ten elementary schools to warn pupils. (The Boston Globe, May 7, 1981, p. 21, "Beware 'clown' pupils told")

This was not an isolated incident, but was instead just one of several creepy clown sightings across greater Boston that spring. Officials in Boston's school system were told the last week of April to warn elementary and middle school pupils about sinister clowns. The memo was sent on May 6:

"It has been brought to the attention of the police department and the district office that adults dressed as clowns have been bothering children to and from school," the memo said.  
"Please advise all students," it continued, "that they must stay away from strangers, especially ones dressed as clowns." (The Boston Globe, May 7, 1981, p. 21, "Beware 'clown' pupils told")

Yes, especially ones dressed as clowns. Boston Police even issued a citywide bulletin for a clown who had been seen in a black van near Franklin Park in Roxbury and the Curley School in Jamaica Plain. He was reportedly naked from the waist down and was wanted for questioning. 

Just a few days later, though, the clown scare had died down in Boston. On May 9, The Globe reported that a clown driving a pickup was stopped by police in Randolph, but was released when they realized he was delivering a "clown-a-gram" to a department store in Canton. No other clowns were arrested because no other clowns, particularly creepy ones, could be found. There was nothing behind all the reports the police had received. 

... police officers in Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, Randolph and Canton all said yesterday that their departments had received no calls from adults who claimed to have seen clowns doing anything questionable.  
The police said virtually all reported sightings of clowns originated with children aged 5 to 7. Police could offer no evidence of any child being harassed, molested, injured or kidnapped in the metropolitan area by a person in a clown's get-up. 
No adult (civilian) or police officer has even seen a clown. We've had calls saying there was a clown at a certain intersection and happened to have (police) cars sitting there, and the officers saw nothing. When the officers get there, no one tells them anything. I don't know if someone's got a hoax going or not, but it's really foolhardy." (The Boston Globe, May 9, 1981, p. 15, "Police discount reports of clowns bothering kids")

A May 13 article in The Globe told parents how to talk with their children about 'stranger danger,' noting that 27 children had been murdered in Atlanta. The clown scare may have been a hoax, but the world could indeed be dangerous for young children. 

The Lawrence School in Brookline
That seems to be the end of the 1981 creepy clown scare in Boston, but the phenomenon popped up in other parts of the country later that spring. Author Loren Coleman notes in Mysterious America (2007) that children in Providence, Rhode Island reported scary clowns soon after the Boston clown scare, and by late May children in Kansas and Missouri were reporting the same thing. Children were seeing the clowns in Pennsylvania by June. Once again, Massachusetts was the cradle of innovation, since we brought America its first scary clown panic. I don't think tour guides on the Freedom Trail will be bragging about this one too much.

Coleman thinks that the media helped to spread the panic. Parents read about the clowns in the newspapers or saw it on TV and mentioned them to their children. The children then reported seeing the clowns, which got reported to the media. More parents read about the clowns and told their kids. And so it went. Luckily, unlike the Satanic panic that came a few years later, no innocent people were arrested.

The creepy clown phenomena first appeared in 1981, but has happened several times since then. Many of you might remember the big, nationwide clown scare in 2016. Although no one really knows why America was receptive to the idea of creepy clowns back in 1981, Coleman notes that creepy clowns (or phantom clowns, as he calls them) tend to show up in election years. That was certainly the case in 2016, and I feel like those clowns were just foreshadowing the scary circus we're living through now. Will clowns show up to scare us in time for this year's election? I hope not. We all have enough to worry about already.