June 21, 2017

The Black Flash of Provincetown: Hoax or Horror?

The first time I heard of the Black Flash was back in the early 2000s. I had bought a copy of Joseph Citro's Passing Strange: True Tales of New England Horrors and Hauntings (1997). This is an excellent book and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in local folklore and spooky stories.

It also contains a lengthy section about the Black Flash, a mysterious entity who supposedly terrorized Provincetown in the late 1930s and early 1940s. I have vacationed on the Outer Cape for many years and was intrigued to learn about this local legend. Provincetown has a lot of strange characters, but the Black Flash was strange even for P-town.

According to Citro, the Black Flash first appeared in the fall of 1938 when children in Provincetown reported a sinister figure lurking in the dunes or hiding behind trees. They described the entity as being about 8’ tall and dressed all in black. He wore a long black cape and black hood that covered his head. Some children also said he had long silver ears and flaming eyes.

At first the adults in town just dismissed these accounts as stories from kids with overly active imaginations. But that changed when an adult woman named Maria Costa encountered the Black Flash in October. She was walking by Town Hall when the Black Flash jumped out from behind the bushes and started to chase her. He made a strange buzzing noise like a giant insect. Costa was terrified and ran into a nearby coffee shop, where she hysterically explained what happened. Several customers ran outside but couldn’t find a trace of the Black Flash. He had vanished.

Other people were also accosted by the Black Flash that fall. For example, a teenage boy ran to the police station after the creature jumped out at him on his way home from the library. He was terrified and in tears, and told the police the Flash had spit blue flames at him.

The Black Flash had the ability to leap over tall fences, and some locals even said he had springs in his heels. For example, a man named Charles Farley saw the creature lurking in his backyard and fired his shotgun at it. The Flash just just laughed and jumped, unharmed, over an eight-foot fence. He then disappeared from view.

Commercial Street in Provincetown (from Wikipedia)
In another case, the police got a call one night that the Black Flash was in a school playground, which was surrounded by a tall fence. Four police officers entered the yard with flashlights and pistols drawn. They got a good look at the Black Flash, and one officer swore his face was really just a silver painted mask. They told the Flash to surrender or they’d fire, but the Flash just laughed and jumped over the 10-foot fence that surrounded the school. Then he once again disappeared.

According to Citro, the Black Flash terrorized Provincetown for about seven years. The last time the Flash appeared was in December of 1945. Four children from the Janard family were playing in their yard on Standish Street when they saw the Flash creeping toward them through the fog. They ran into their house, terrified. Their parents weren’t home and they didn’t know what to do.

They could hear the Flash turning the doorknobs of the house, trying to get in. The youngest children hid behind chairs, but the oldest boy, Allen, filled a bucket with hot water and ran up to the second floor. He could see the Flash outside right below him. He opened the window and dumped the bucket of water on the Flash’s head. The Flash let out a startled gasp, and then slunk off like a wet cat.

And that was the last time the Black Flash was ever seen in Provincetown.

All this may sound like an urban legend, but there is evidence that something really occurred. On October, 26, 1939, The Provincetown Advocate printed a front-page article titled "Fall Brings Out the Black Flash. Hard Winter Certain As Cabin Fever Stories Start." To quote from the article:

It ain’t usually until “cabin fever” time that the balmy stories start. After folks have been penned up here for too long a time, in too little space, with just the same faces to look at every morning, afternoon and evening, then the crazy yarns begin circulating.

But winter seems to be shutting in early this year. Here it is only October and the “Black Flash” has been prowling, scaring kids so that they won’t go out nights and won't go to bed, grabbing women, jumping over ten foot hedges with no trouble at all. “Chair springs on his feet” is the explanation.

On November 9, the paper ran a short follow up piece titled “Chief Denies Current Rumors.”

Chief of Police Anthony P. Tarvers this morning absolutely denied the rumors current that the so-called “Black Flash” had been captured. “As far as I am concerned, the Black Flash is dead and gone,” said the chief.

Those are the only newspaper accounts of the Black Flash that can be found. You might notice that according to The Provincetown Advocate, the Flash was only active for a few weeks, not several years. The more extended and elaborate stories that Citro cites didn't appear in the papers, but were collected by the writer Robert Ellis Cahill for his book New England's Mad and Mysterious Men, which was probably first published in the 1980s. (My copy doesn't have a publication date in it.)

Cahill went to Provincetown and interviewed many locals about the Black Flash. He includes their stories in his book, and has a few accounts that Citro didn't include in Passing Strange. For example, Cahill writes how a pool shark named Eight Ball Eddie was convinced the Black Flash was really a gay man in drag who got his thrills by scaring people. Note: Eight Ball Eddie said all this in much blunter and homophobic language than I'm using.

After sharing his theory with friends, the pool shark finally encountered the Flash on his way home late one night. Eight Ball Eddie described him as large tall man, but definitely a human in a costume, not a monster. He wore a black hood, and had silver eyes that glowed in the dark. Eddie told him to get out of his way, but the Flash didn't. Instead, he lunged at Eddie and slapped him on the face so hard Eddie fell over. The pool shark ran home in panic, pursued by the Flash until he reached his door. The next morning Eddie's face still bore a red handprint.He was less dismissive of the Flash after that!

There were several theories about who (or what) the phantom was. As mentioned above, a few locals thought the Black Flash was a gay tourist who had stayed past the summer season and was terrorizing the town from a shack hidden in the dunes. Others thought he might be teenager John Williams, who was quite fast and a weightlifter. But although Williams was athletic enough to be the Black Flash he was a sailor and often at sea when the Flash appeared.

Francis Marshall, a retired Provincetown police chief, told Cahill that the Black Flash was actually four men who terrorized the town as a hoax. Marshall refused to divulge their names, but said that two of them were already deceased by the time he spoke to Cahill.

Spring-heeled Jack (from Wikipedia)
So perhaps the Black Flash was really just a short-lived hoax whose legend grew in the telling, but there are interesting parallels between the Flash and Spring-heeled Jack, a legendary monster from England. Spring-heeled Jack was first seen in London in 1837; the last sighting was in 1904. Like the Black Flash, Spring-heeled Jack was described as tall human-figure dressed in black, often with a black hood on his head. Some witnesses said he had fiery red eyes, and others said he could spit out blue fire. He was called Spring-heeled Jack because he could jump so high people thought he had springs in his shoes.

All of this is very, very similar to the Black Flash. If you believe in the supernatural, were they the same entity? Or were people just telling similar stories?

I also see some similarities between the Black Flash and the scary clown hysteria that the US experienced last year. In both cases, people reported entities whose sole purpose was just to scare people. They both seem to be people in costumes, but there also seem to be some supernatural elements to the stories as well as human pranksters.

When I go to the Cape this summer I'll keep my eyes peeled for the Black Flash, but hopefully he won't slap me if I see him!

*****

In addition to the sources I cite, you can read more about the Flash in Provincetown Magazine, and in this great blog post by Theo Paijmans. I first wrote about the Black Flash several years ago but wanted to revisit this fascinating story now that I had more information.

June 13, 2017

UFO Hunters Rescued By Police

Being a paranormal researcher probably has a lot of risks associated with it. You might get kidnapped by Bigfoot, for example, or maybe abducted by aliens. Ghost hunters even occasionally bring home a spirit with them, which isn't usually a good thing.

Happily, I think most of those risks are pretty rare. Has anyone been kidnapped by Bigfoot in living memory? This doesn't mean monster- and ghost-hunting are risk free, but the risks are usually just those associated with being outdoors in isolated areas. You know, things like catching Lyme disease, falling and breaking a leg, or stumbling upon a group of drug-using teenagers.

On Thursday, June 8, three young UFO hunters had to be rescued from the Blue Hills, which are located just south of Boston. The three teenagers had come from the Plymouth area to watch the skies for strange objects. For those of you not familiar with them, the Blue Hills are the highest hills in the Boston area so they afford a good view the night sky.

Unfortunately the trio was a little unprepared for their excursion. It took them longer to climb to the top of Buck's Hill than they thought, they hadn't brought any flashlights, and one of them was only wearing slippers. To make things worse, the terrain was wet and extremely rocky. They didn't have any trouble getting to the top of the hill, but rather than risk descending in the dark they called for help.

The State Police arrived on the scene with several patrols, police dogs, and even a helicopter. They eventually found the teens and led them down the hill along a less treacherous path. So, although they probably should have been better prepared at least the trio was wise enough to know when they needed help.
 
The story has a happy ending, but it's made even happier by this: the UFO hunters found what they were looking for. One of the teens who is a self-described "UFO magnet" told WHDH-TV the following:

"We saw a couple we had never seen before... We saw these two ships that had like these bright spotlights and then we saw this weird orb thing that was like a spotlight..."

She also told The Boston Globe that,

“We should’ve brought flashlights and charged our phones and maybe brought better hiking gear,” she said. “But it was overall very worthwhile because it was a beautiful hike.”

As far as seeing the UFOs, she said: “It was very interesting, but also pretty creepy.”
Better creepy than dangerous. If you're going to explore lonely places at night please be careful out there. I don't think the aliens will get you but the ticks, rabid raccoons and slippery rocks just might.

June 04, 2017

The Nantucket Merman

I've always liked monsters. Well, at least I like reading about them. I've never met one face-to-face but plenty of New Englanders have. People see all sorts of things around here: Bigfoot, extraterrestrial creatures, pukwudgies, and even the occasional lake monster.

What people don't see much of these days is mer-people. Mermaids and mermen don't seem to be very common around here now, but in the past they were apparently more plentiful. For example, an aggressive triton was seen off the coast of Maine in the early 1600s, while a sailor named Captain Dodge exhibited a mermaid's corpse in a Boston museum in the 1820s.

A merman was even seen off the coast of Nantucket. The year was 1714, and a minister named Valentyn was sailing past Nantucket's Great Point when it happened. Here is a quote from the good reverend's journal:

“It appeared like a sailor, or a man sitting on something; and more like a sailor, as on its head there appeared to be something like an English cap of the same color.

We all agreed he must be some shipwrecked person. After some time I begged the captain to steer the ship more directly toward it. … We had got within a ship’s length of him, when the people on the forecastle mad such a noise that he plunged down, head foremost, and got presently out of sight.

The man who was on watch at the masthead delared that he had… a monstrous long tail.” 

There's something a little creepy about that account. I can imagine the ship's crew going from "Oh, look there's a sailor in the water" to "Oh crap, that guy's got a giant fish tail!" in just a few panicky moments. I know I would.

That may not have been the only sighting of a mer-person near Nantucket. According to folklorist Edward Rowe Snow, the keeper of Great Point's lighthouse claimed to have seen something humanoid crawl out of the ocean and head into nearby Coskata Woods in the early 1900s. Some other locals claimed to have seen signs of something living in the same forest.

Great Point Light from Wikipedia.
The Coskata Woods are very old and have not been logged since 1711. It makes sense that an ancient primal sea being would want to visit an ancient forest.

Perhaps memaids and mermen are still swimming in the waters off our coast. I hope so, because I do like monsters. And make no mistake, mer-people do have a monstrous side. Folklore tells of mermaids who sink ships by raising storms or abduct handsome sailors to be their lovers, while mermen and tritons sometimes attack young women walking alone on the beach. So though I hope there are still some mer-people out there, I don't want to meet one face-to-face, and hope you don't meet one either.
 *****

Most of the information about the Natucket merman can be found in Edward Rowe Snow's book Legends of the New England Coast