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.

3 comments:

Charles Crowley said...

I always figured Cahill had the straight dope on the Black Flash until I read John Keel, who wrote that there was a 2nd wave of sightings in the 1970s. Do you know if this is documented anywhere else? Because if the later sightings can be confirmed, than this story ends up getting filed in the high strangeness section!

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the comment Charles, and sorry for the delayed reply. Could you share the name of Keel's book where he wrote about the Black Flash? I'd love to know more!

Charles Crowley said...

Certainly! The book is Strange Creatures from Time and Space, which was released in a revised and expanded edition titled The Complete Guide to Mysterious Beings. He mentions the Black Flash of Provincetown briefly in a chapter on a being he called the Grinning Man and claimed there was a flap of sightings and encounters in the early 70s.