May 24, 2015

The Moodus Noises: Part I

Quite a few years ago I was reading The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, a collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories published by Penguin. I was reading pulpy stories of tentacled terrors, but since it was a Penguin edition they had footnotes so I could feel intellectual. I was having my cake and eating it too.

In "The Dunwich Horror," Lovecraft's tale of central Massachusetts wizardry and invisible monsters, the people of Dunwich are troubled by strange rumbling sounds that come from a hill in their village. The footnote indicates Lovecraft incorporated these noises into his story after reading about similar noises in Moodus, Connecticut. But while Lovecraft's story was fiction, the Moodus noises were real.

Dean Stockwell in the 1970 film of The Dunwich Horror. Is he blocking out the Moodus noises?
That's how I personally first learned about the Moodus noises, but people have been hearing them for centuries. Moodus, which is a small village in the town of East Haddam, was originally called Machimoodus, which means "Place of Noises" or "Place of Evil Noises" in the Algonquin language. The noises were recorded by early Puritan settlers, and continue even today. The Hartford Courant reported that the noises were heard as recently as March, 2011.

The noises are centered around Mount Tom, where the Salmon and Moodus Rivers come together. They sound like cannon shots or explosions, and when they happened in 2011 emergency responders rushed into action, looking for a fire or explosion. There was nothing to find. The noises had come from deep inside the earth.

Here's how a July 1891 Boston Globe article describes them. The noises had been heard in Moodus just a few days earlier:

They are heard intermittently. Sometimes the mountain is silent for 25 or 30 years, then suddenly the strangest sounds break forth, a deep sepulchral, voluminous sound, like the moaning of an imprisoned monster, that seems to boom in subterranean caverns of the earth, and is heard distinctly 10 or 12 miles away.

The noises begin with a seemingly far away low rumbling note that speedily swells in volume and intensity, and culminates in a vast rolling sound, like the muttering of distant thunder, and the ground trembles as if with the throe of an earthquake.
Another Boston Globe article from March 1940 gives a similar description:

Virtually every householder in Moodus rushed to the cellar last night just before midnight to see whether his furnace had blown up, and finding it hadn't called neighbors on the telephone. Thus it was learned that the famous Moodus Noises had returned after about four years.

... Moodus has been shaken at irregular intervals by strange subterranean concussions. The sounds are reported to emanate from the mouth of a great cave, high on a hillside in view of virtually every house in town. No one apparently has ever been at the mouth of the cave when the noises issued forth, however.

"You can always distinguish these noises from blasting; the concussion is so much greater," one resident said today.

They sound scary and kind of awesome, so I can understand why Lovecraft put them into one of his stories. The Algonquians who originally lived in Moodus thought they were awesome and scary too, and therefore ascribed them to their god Hobomok, who was also awesome and scary. The Indians who actually lived on Mount Tom were specialists in interpreting the voice of Hobomok and were consulted as oracles by other local tribes.

When the Puritans showed up in the 1670s they asked the Indians about the strange booming sounds. They responded that they were the voice of Hobomok, and that he was unhappy because the English had come to Connecticut. (He probably was.)

Of course, the Puritans had their own interpretation. They didn't believe in Hobomok and thought the Indians were actually worshiping the Devil. Stephen Hosmer, Haddam's first minister, wrote the following to a friend in August of 1729:

I have been informed that in this place before the English settlements, there were great numbers of Indian inhabitants, and that it was a place of extraordinary Indian Powwows, or in short, that it was a place where the Indians drove a prodigious trade at worshipping the devil. ... Now whether there be anything diabolical in these things (the noises), I know not; but this I know, that God Almighty is to be seen and trembled at, in what has been often heard among us.

Once the Devil gets invoked you know things are going to get weird. Next week I'll post some of the crazy Colonial era legends about the noises, which involve witches, alchemists, and underground battle caves. Stay tuned!

Update: the second part of this post is now up!

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