October 25, 2009

October Monster Mania: the Black Dog of West Peak

A small, non-descript black dog is said to live on West Peak, a mountain near Meriden, Connecticut. He's cute and friendly, but a little unusual. His bark is soundless, and he doesn't leave any footprints, even in the snow. But still, how dangerous can a little black dog be?

Quite dangerous if you see him three times. There's a local saying about the black dog: "If a man shall meet the Black Dog once, it shall be for joy; and if twice, it shall be for sorrow; and the third time, he shall die." (Note to self: Don't visit Meriden more than twice!)

Legends about the black dog were described by the New York geologist H.W. Pynchon in an 1898 article in Connecticut Quarterly. Unfortunately, Pynchon himself became part of the dog's legend.

In his article, Pynchon writes he first met the black dog while riding his buggy towards West Peak on a beautiful spring day. The little canine trotted beside his carriage, climbed with him up and over the mountain, and even waited outside while he had lunch in a tavern. Pynchon enjoyed the dog's company, but it ran off as evening came on.

A few years later, Pynchon returned to West Peak with a fellow geologist. As they climbed, Pynchon told his friend about the black dog he had seen years ago. "Funny," said the friend, "I've seen that dog twice before while climbing this mountain in the past." (Cue ominous music here.)

As they continued their climb, the two men noticed a small shape waiting for them on a high ledge. It was the black dog, happily wagging his tail. Suddenly, Pynchon's friend lost his grip and fell hundreds of feet to his death. He had seen the dog three times, and died. Pynchon had now seen dog twice, and his day ended in sorrow.

That's all Pynchon wrote in Connecticut Quarterly. You'd think he would avoid West Peak, but he didn't. Several years later, he once again climbed the mountain, this time alone. He never came down alive. Instead, his body was discovered at the bottom of the same cliff where his friend died. Had he seen the black dog for the third fatal time? Only the mountain and the dog know for sure.

A little black dog might seem like an unusual monster, but monstrous black dogs are very common in British folklore, where they too are often portents of death. The most famous black dog in the U.K. is the Black Shuck, who has haunted East Anglia for centuries, and has even caused church towers to collapse. The rock band The Darkness recorded an obscenity laced ode to the Black Shuck. Sadly, there's no real video available, just music.

The black dog of West Peak is less outrageous than its British cousins. After all, he does live in Connecticut, a state known for its good taste.

(This story is well known, but I got my information from David Philips' Legendary Connecticut. Traditional Tales from the Nutmeg State.)

October 18, 2009

October Monster Mania: the Bennington Monster

In the early 19th century, a stagecoach full of passengers was traveling by Glastenbury Mountain near Bennington, Vermont. The night was rainy, and the horses were skittish - perhaps more skittish than they normally would be in bad weather. Eventually, the driver brought the carriage to a halt and dismounted because the road had been washed out.

And that's when he noticed the enormous footprints in the muddy road. Were they human? Were they animal? He couldn't tell. The other passengers left the coach to look at the prints, but no one could ascertain what type of creature made such unusual tracks.

And that's when some thing, unseen in the dark, attacked the coach and knocked it over with several blows. The passengers saw a pair of eyes staring at them from the dark, and then heard something roar and rush off into the darkness.

They had an encounter with the Bennington Monster.

The Bennington Monster has been seen many times since then. For example, in September 2003, Ray Dufresne of Winooski Vermont was driving by Glastenbury Mountain when he saw a large "black thing" by the road. It was well over six feet tall, and was "hairy from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet."

On September 16 that same year, a writer named Doug Dorst was driving near Bennington College when he saw something he at first thought was a man in a snowsuit. As he got closer, he realized the enormous, stocky creature he saw wasn't quite human. Several other sightings occurred around the same time in 2003.

I remember reading about this in 2003. At the time, local law enforcement officials thought it was Michael Greene, a known prankster who lived in the area. But Mr. Greene denied it, saying he wouldn't be dumb enough to run around the woods in a furry costume in hunting season.

So what is the Bennington Monster? A Yankee relative of Bigfoot? The folks over at the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization certainly have collected reports from Vermont, so maybe it is.

Or maybe, like the other creatures I've posted about this month, it's just another reason to keep your doors and windows locked when you're driving through the dark woods.

(I got most of this information from Joseph Citro's book Weird New England.)

October 10, 2009

October Monster Mania: the Dogtown Werewolf

The other night, I had a dream about the New England modernist painter Marsden Hartley. In the morning, I started to research Dogtown online. Surprise! Marsden Hartley painted there in the 1930s. What a strange coincidence.

"Dogtown" by Marsden Hartley.

Dogtown is surrounded by strange coincidences. Some of them, added together, may lead one to believe New England's only werewolf lurks on this stony (yet swampy) plateau.

But before the werewolf, the basics. Dogtown is located between Gloucester and Rockport on Cape Ann, Massachusetts. In the late 17th and early 18th century it was a village of about one hundred families, who had settled on the plateau as a refuge from pirates and the British navy. After the war of 1812 the coastal areas became safer, and most villagers moved to Rockport and Gloucester.

Only a handful of widows, independent-minded women and vagabonds remained, and they soon acquired a reputation as witches. The feral dogs they kept for protection gave the village its name. In 1830 Dogtown's last inhabitant, freed slave Cornelius Finson, was moved to the Gloucester poorhouse. Dogtown became a ghost town.

Dogtown is now a rugged 3,000 acre park where visitors can see the village's abandoned cellar holes, and large boulders that philanthropist Roger Babson employed local masons to carve during the Great Depression.

Does this boulder inspire, or just make you feel depressed?

Where does the werewolf fit in? Look at these coincidences:

  • According to the late folklorist Richard Cahill, the local Agawam Indians claimed their ancestors had heads like dogs, and that eating a certain plant would give anyone the same canine features. (Note: I haven't seen this folklore in any other sources, so I can't verify the Agawam Indians really believed this.)
  • In the early 1600's, the first European settlers on Cape Ann were regularly attacked by wolves.
  • One of Dogtown's last inhabitants, a woman named Daffy Archer, wore a wolf's tooth around her neck. FYI, she also made medicinal brews out of snail mucous.
  • In the 1890s, a Gloucester sailor named James Merry successfully wrestled to the ground a bull pastured in Dogtown. On the night September 10, 1892, he returned alone for a rematch, and was found dead the next day with his throat torn out. Friend's didn't think the wound looked like it was made by a bull. He died on the full moon.

James Merry commemorative boulder in Dogtown, borrowed from here.

  • On March 17, 1984, a Boston resident saw a large animal roaming the cliff's above Crane's Beach. Because of its size he thought it might be a mountain lion, but local wildlife officials insist no mountain lions live on Cape Ann. March 17 was a full moon.
  • On March 21, a dead deer was found on Crane's Beach. It had been mutilated, but not eaten. That same night near the road to Dogtown two teens saw a "gray monstrous dog-like animal, running into the woods. It had big teeth and was foaming at the mouth."

Those are the coincidences. Do they add up to a verifiable werewolf? Maybe, maybe not. But I suggest being extra cautious if you see any big gray dogs near Gloucester or Rockport.

My main resource for all this is Richard Cahill's Things That Go Bump in the Night. I don't think its available online, but you can find it at many New England gift shops.

October 02, 2009

October Monster Mania: Alien Abductors

This month I'm counting down to Halloween with some New England monsters. No witches or ghosts this month - they're so common around here they don't really count as monsters!

Let's start with a little story about an inter-racial couple living in New Hampshire in the early sixties. They both worked for civil rights, were members of the NAACP, and the husband sat on the local Civil Rights Commission. They were pretty forward thinking for 1961. New England has long been the home of innovators.

Betty and Barney Hill

But Betty and Barney Hill didn't become famous for their politics. They became famous because they were the first people in the world to be abducted by a UFO.

On September 19, 1961 the hills were driving home to Portsmouth from Canada when they saw a strange light in the sky. Betty first thought it might be a satellite, but it followed them for many miles. At one point it appeared to briefly land on Cannon Mountain, only to take off and follow them again. Finally, the light (now clearly a flying saucer) descended in front of the Hill's car, causing Barney to brake abruptly. Barney left the car to get a closer look at the saucer, which had moved away from the road and was hovering over an adjacent field. He saw some human (or humanoid?) figures looking through its windows at him. He panicked, returned to the car, and drove back to Portsmouth ASAP.

Sounds like the end of the story, no? It should be, but Betty was troubled by strange dreams throughout that fall, Barney developed warts in an unusual pattern on his genitals, and neither of them could account for two hours of missing time. They both seemed to have amnesia about part of their trip! Concerned, they talked with local UFO researchers and underwent several hours of hypnosis.

Their sessions with the hypnotists revealed what happened in those two hours. The Hills had been taken aboard the saucer by a group of small men with large bulbous foreheads. Betty's nervous system was scanned, samples of her skin and hair were taken, and the men tested her to see if she were pregnant. Barney received a similar exam, but his also included an anal probe (ouch!) and a sperm sample taken through a strange cup placed over his genitals. (The warts he developed mirrored the outline of the cup.)

The Hills gained notoriety when their story appeared in the press and as a popular book, The Interrupted Journey. It was later filmed as a TV movie, The UFO Incident.

Both of the Hills are now deceased, but their experience left an important legacy to American culture. Thousands of people have claimed since that they too were abducted by aliens, spawning a small industry of books and movies. Alien abduction was even studied by a Harvard psychiatrist.

Estelle Parsons and James Earl Jones (the voice of
Darth Vader) in The UFO Incident.

What really happened to the Hills? Was it all just lies? Were the memories really just constructed by the hypnotists? Was it a spontaneous release of the naturally occurring hallucinogen DMT? Perhaps the aliens weren't really from space at all, but are related to elves or fairies, who also show an unhealthy interest in human reproduction in old folktales.

Or, maybe, the Hills really were abducted by aliens.

Whatever the case, it's pretty dark in the White Mountains at night, particularly in the fall and winter. If you find yourself driving up there keep your doors locked!