September 22, 2010

Rainsford Island: Quarantine Hospital, Unmarked Graves ... and a Viking?

A couple weeks ago we took a trip to Rainsford Island in Boston Harbor. Even though it's part of the Harbor Islands park system, it's not included on the official ferry route. It's a place most people don't see, so we were lucky to get there on an excursion sponsored by the Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands.

The eastern half of Rainsford Island.

There is a brief legend associated with Rainsford Island. According to Edward Rowe Snow, a prominent local maritime historian, a skeleton carrying an iron sword was unearthed on the island in the 1820s. Snow thought the skeleton belonged to a Viking named Torvald.

That's really not much of a legend, and it probably came from the same Norseman fever that gave rise to wild stories about the Newport Tower. The island's real history is actually a lot more interesting than the legend.

Tony ready to explore!

The island was first used by local Indians for fishing, and was later deeded in 1632 to one Edward Rainsford, who used it as a farm.

I guess farming on a small rocky island didn't work out, and in the 1700s Rainsford Island was used to quarantine sick sailors arriving from other ports. The authorities didn't want them carrying disease into Boston, so they were put in a hospital on the island until they either recovered or died.

Rainsford's cemetery.

And apparently a lot of them died. The island has a large graveyard that may contain thousands of bodies. If there were any headstones they're long gone except for these four stone posts, which probably supported a chain around an important person's monument. We don't know who that important person was.

Rainsford was also used to quarantine Boston citizens who were ill with diseases like yellow fever. Citizens and sailors alike were housed in a large hospital nicknamed the Greek Temple because of its large columns.

The Greek Temple (from this site).

Today, nothing remains of the hospital except a few foundation stones and possibly a stairwell.

The hospital's foundation today.

However, the rocks near the shore below the hospital site are carved with several centuries of graffiti. The oldest seems to be from 1647! It was amazing to see the names and dates of people who were quarantined or worked here over the years.

Rocky shore.

Historic graffiti on the rocks.

After the quarantine hospital was shut down, the island was used as a reform school and a poorhouse. Today, there's nothing on the island except a few foundations, an old well and graffiti.

The well on the eastern part of the island. Anybody down there?

It was definitely a great trip, even if we didn't see any Vikings.

September 20, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft's Grave

My recent posts have been about a trip Tony and I took along Route 44. Our appropriately final stop on the trip was Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island. We went to see the grave of H.P. Lovecraft.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, one of the most influential horror writers of the twentieth century, reinvented this Gothic genre for the modern world by combining New England folklore, science, and a grim materialist worldview. He was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890 to Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft and Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a traveling salesman. Winfield was hospitalized when H.P. was three years old, apparently for a mental breakdown, and died in 1898 from syphilis. (A lot of critics speculate this influenced most of H.P.'s fiction.)Lovecraft and his mother were later supported by his maternal grandfather and aunts, but the death of his grandfather in 1904 placed the family into near poverty.

The man himself.

Lovecraft eked out a living as a pulp writer. Stories with titles like "The Thing on the Doorstep" and "The Haunter of the Dark" appeared in pulp magazines like Weird Tales, Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories. Although he was popular with readers and loved writing, he never made much money. He died in 1937 from intestinal cancer, possibly exacerbated by a poor diet.

Unlike a lot of pulp writers, Lovecraft's work has grown in popularity. Hollywood makes movies influenced by it, and writers continue to emulate it. But why?

Swan Point in Providence.

In some ways, his work is repetitive and cliche ridden. Most tales involve a WASPy introverted narrator who stumbles upon unspeakable ancient evil and is driven insane or transformed into a hideous goopy mess. (See note above about insane syphilitic father.) Personally, I think his work remains popular partly because he created his own pantheon of monstrous deities for the modern world. These extradimensional entities, including the enormous squid-like Cthulhu and the sinister Nyarlathotep, and the mysterious books about them, like the fabled Necronomicon, comprise what fans label the Cthulhu Mythos.

A mournful monument.

Lovecraft himself was an atheist, and was quite explicit that he was writing fiction. But not everyone believes him. Some modern occultists like Phil Hine and Kenneth Grant claim they use his work in real, effective magic. Perhaps, they say, Lovecraft was really a sinister mage who encoded his dark knowledge in fiction. Or maybe he thought he was making things up but in reality was unconsciously accessing occult knowledge through his dreams. Who knows? Maybe the Lovecraftian gods really are lurking out there somewhere. Maybe someday Cthulhuism will become a major world religion, and Providence will be its Vatican City.

Offerings at Lovecraft's grave.

Lovecraft loved Providence and all of New England, and included lots of local folklore in his stories. He used witch lore frequently, but also referenced more obscure folklore as well. For example, "The Dunwich Horror" includes references to whippoorwills, the mysterious Moodus Noises and the standing stones on Burnt Hill. He really liked to ground his cosmic terror in the specific New England milieu. So, if you're out looking for Cthulhu or some other hideous Lovecraftian creature, you don't need to travel very far. A hideous unspeakable horror could be residing behind a gift shop on the Mohawk Trail even as we speak!

His tombstone, which reads "I am Providence", is in his family plot. When we visited it was surrounded by grave side offerings of stones, coins, and crow feathers placed there by fans of this New England original.


The cemetery is lovely, and you can visit Lovecraft's grave yourself following the directions on, a Rhode Island tourist site.

Remember that Swan Point is an operational cemetery, so if you go please be respectful. And don't even think of going on Halloween. My friend Matt, who is a Lovecraft expert, says the cemetery posts extra guards that night.

September 13, 2010

Red-Headed Hitchhiker of Route 44

There's a classic urban legend called the Phantom Hitchhiker, which goes something like this.

One night, a man's driving down a dark country road when he notices a young lady hitchhiking by the side of the road. She's pretty, with long blonde hair, and she's wearing a blue dress. The man thinks, "She looks safe. Why not pick her up?"

The young lady gets in the passenger seat and says "There's a big white farm house about a mile down the road. Could you drop me off there?"

The man agrees. The hitchhiker doesn't say anything else, and he doesn't push her for more information.

After a mile, the man sees a big white farm house. He turns to the young lady and says "Is this the place?"

But she's not there. The passenger seat is empty.

He pulls over in front of the farm house and looks in the back seat. She's not there either.

An old woman comes out of the house and says, "Hey! What's all the commotion?"

The man explains that a young woman just disappeared from his moving car. The old woman says,"What did she look like?"

"She was pretty, with long blonde hair, and a blue dress."

The old woman says "You just described my daughter. She died in a car accident on this road ten years ago tonight."

As far as ghosts go, the Phantom Hitchhiker is pretty innocuous. But there's a hitchhiking ghost on Route 44 in Massachusetts who seems a little more malevolent.

People who have seen the ghost describe him as a red-haired, middle-aged man in a flannel shirt. He doesn't say much, and is pretty quiet - at least at first.

In one story, a driver picks up the red-haired man, who gets in the back seat. Naturally, it's late at night.

"Where are you headed?", the driver asks.

The hitcher says nothing but just points straight ahead. But as they head down the road, he starts to giggle. The giggles become loud laughs.

"You want to tell me what's so funny?", the driver says. The hitchhiker says nothing, and the laughs become howls of wild, derisive laughter.

"You better knock it off if you want a ride!" the driver says.

The hitcher keeps laughing. The driver looks into the rearview mirror, and sees the red-haired man's face distorted with malice, his eyes bugged out with insane glee. And then, suddenly, the red-haired hitchhiker disappears like a soap bubble. Only his laughter lingers on, slowly fading away into the night.

The red-headed hitchhiker haunts Route 44 in Massachusetts along the Seekonk/Rehoboth border at night. It's the same stretch of road where Ananwan Rock is located. Luckily, Tony and I didn't encounter him on our trip down there. We were there during the day!

This story, and others about red-headed hitchhiker, can be found in Thomas D'Agostino's Haunted Massachusetts, and Joseph Citro's Weird New England. Some of the stories are even stranger than this one.

September 03, 2010

The Spirits of Anawan Rock

Someone should write a book called Notable Rocks of New England, because there are just so many of them. For example there's Dungeon Rock, Dighton Rock, and of course Anawan Rock in Rehoboth Mass., where Tony I stopped last weekend on our way to Providence.

An inconspicuous sign on Route 44.

We knew the rock was somewhere on Route 44, but we couldn't quite find it, so we stopped to ask directions. We were hoping to find a grizzled old-timer in a rocking chair who would say "Anawan Rock? Why you be wantin' to go there? Stay away if you know what's good for you..."

Instead, we stopped at a really nice farm, and asked a very pleasant woman if she knew where the rock was. Our hopes for Scooby Doo style mystery rose briefly when she said "Anawan Rock? No one's asked for directions there since that guy on the bike last year..." But they were dashed when her co-worker chimed in, "No, he was looking for some other rock. Anawan Rock's down the street near Uncle Ed's ice cream store!" We followed their directions past the ice cream store (which was not spooky), until we saw the sign for the rock.

Tony clambers up the rock.

Nothing weird or eerie happened on our trip to Anawan Rock, but the rock has a history that is tragic, and there's also a creepy legend attached to it. Why else would we want to visit it?

The tragedy occurred in August of 1676, when the Algonquin sachem Anawan and his men took refuge at the rock as King Philips' War was winding down. Metacom, aka King Philip, had been killed by the English in early August and the tide had clearly turned in favor of the colonists. As one of Metacom's supporters, Anawan knew he was next on the colonists' hit list.

Despite the drought, the rock was still covered with lush moss.

It's not clear why he chose this particularly rock for a last stand, but it could be because it's located near a swamp. The Algonquins often retreated to swampy areas in times of trouble, both for practical defensive reasons and because spirit allies like Hobbomok were more accessible in such places. Whatever the reason he went there, things didn't work out well for Anwan. He was tracked down by Captain Benjamin Church of Plymouth Colony, and surrendered on August 28 after Church promised he would not be executed.

Unfortunately for Anawan, the Pilgrims didn't keep their word. He was beheaded, and his head displayed on a pole at Plymouth for several years.

Another side of Anawan Rock.

With such a tragic history, it's not surprising Anawan Rock is now considered to be haunted. Phantom camp fires have been seen, and voices are sometimes heard in the woods crying out "Iootash!", which means "fight on" in the local Algonquin dialect. Strange screams and shouts can also be heard in the rock's vicinity. And these aren't old ghost stories from the 1700 or 1800s - paranormal researchers claim these phenomena are still happening today.

We didn't see any ghosts, and happily the bug spray kept away mosquitoes and ticks as well.

Tony and I didn't have any weird experiences, but we did have a strange coincidence. We were there on August 28, 2010, 334 years to the day when Anawan surrendered.

I got my information from Thomas D'Agostino's Haunted Massachusetts and Cheri Revai's book, which has the same name. You can also find plenty of information on the Web.