September 21, 2023

The Haunted Charlesgate: Ghosts, College Students, and Weird Engimas

Living someplace old and historic, like the Boston area, brings both perils and joys. Among its current perils is the decaying subway system, which has been well-documented elsewhere. To avoid the most hellish parts of the MBTA, lately my commute home from work has involved more walking. Which brings me to one of the joys of living in the Boston area: beautiful old architecture. 

Most nights, I walk through parts of Back Bay on my way home. Among all the beautiful old brownstones and apartment buildings, one in particular stands out: the former Charlesgate Hotel, located at the corner of Beacon Street and Charlesgate East. The hotel was designed by John Pickering Putnam, a prominent local architect, and completed in the 1890s. Putnam apparently loved the building he created, and took up residence there with his own family. 

He died there on February 23, 1917 at the age of sixty. A legend claims it was suicide, but he really died of natural causes. Still, esotericists of a certain bent will notice he died on the 23rd, making his death an example of the 23 enigma, the idea that the number 23 is considered strange, somewhat sinister, and connected to unusual phenomena. So maybe Putnam's death date was a precursor of the weirdness that was to come...

The Charlesgate operated as a hotel until 1947, when it was sold to Boston University as a dorm. In 1981, it was sold to Emerson College, which also used it as a dorm until 1995. It was during those 14 years that the Charlesgate acquired its reputation as one of the most haunted buildings in Boston. Here are a few of the ghostly legends from that time..

The building was said to be haunted by the ghost of Elsa Putnam, John Pickering Putnam's daughter, who died as a little girl when she was playing with a ball on an upper floor. The ball rolled into an open elevator shaft, and Elsa ran after it and fell to her doom. This story is not true - Elsa Putnam lived until the 1970s and had several children of her own - but many Emerson students still reported seeing her ghost. 

Another legend claims that mobsters owned the building in the 1930s and murdered three people in the elevator. The ghosts of these gangland slaying victims were often seen wandering in the dormitory. Emerson students also claimed they saw the restless spirits of young women who had committed suicide in the building back when it housed female Boston University students. 

A phantom "Man in Black" was also seen lurking around the elevator. No one was quite sure who he was, but students were afraid to encounter this black-clad ghost, particularly late at night. 

Even when ghosts were not seen, Emerson students living in the Charlesgate experienced a variety of strange phenomena including unexplained cold spots, toilets flushing by themselves, and doors slamming shut. Some students also claimed the hotel had once been the headquarters for a demonic cult. According to an article in a 1990 issue of Fate magazine:

"Also at one point, a good part of Charlesgate Hall's residents allegedly belonged to a demonic cult. 

When Emerson College bought Charlesgate Hall as a dormitory in 1980, it was not completely filled by students. It was claimed that some members of the cult still lived there, and it was not unusual for students to walk by the open door of a room belonging to a cult member and find a group of them chanting."

Well, college is supposed to expose you to new experiences, isn't it? The same Fate article also claims that Emerson forbid students from using Ouija boards in the Charlesgate - and then goes on to describe a group of them using one to contact spirits in the dorm. I guess college is also about defying authority.

The Charlesgate's ghosts have been written about in many places: The Berkeley Beacon (Emerson's student paper), The Boston Phoenix, Emerson's official newsite, and various books about haunted locations in Boston. The building also appears in Scott Von Doviak's 2018 novel, Charlesgate Confidential, as do some of the ghost stories. The combination of a creepy old hotel, ghosts, and college students makes the Charlesgate an appealing subject for writers.

The Charlesgate is no longer a dormitory, but instead is filled with condos and apartments. I haven't heard of any ghosts appearing in the building since it became condos. Are any ghosts even there now? Maybe the ghosts were chased away during the renovations, or maybe they were conjured up by the Emerson students who lived there. College students tend to like ghost stories, and many local New England colleges are said to have haunted dormitories. 

I mentioned the 23 enigma at the start of this post. Although the concept first appeared in works by William S. Burroughs, it was popularized by the author Robert Anton Wilson. Wilson didn't necessarily believe the 23 enigma was real, but rather that it showed how people have the ability to find patterns in random occurrences. Some people starting seeing the number 23 in all kinds of unexpected places once they learn about the enigma. The number is only meaningful, though, because they think it is significant. They are creating a pattern out of random data.

Perhaps the ghost stories at the Charlesgate are something similar. Students heard rumors the dorm is haunted, and then noticed lights flickering, strange cold spots, and weird noises at night. These all could have perfectly rational explanations - old buildings often have bad fuses, drafty windows, and frisky rodents - but students interpreted them as ghostly phenomena because they had heard the rumors. 

This is, of course, all speculation on my part. The only way for me to know for certain would be to rent an apartment at the Charlesgate and see what happens. A one bedroom starts at $2,400/month, which is more than I have budgeted for ghost-hunting. Or then again, maybe I'm just scared that the legends are true? I don't want to encounter the Man in Black late at night, no matter what he is. 

August 20, 2023

Beyond Skinwalker Ranch: Orbs, Pukwudgies, and Sacred Chants

I don't watch a lot of paranormal TV shows, but I felt compelled to watch Beyond Skinwalker Ranch when I heard they filmed an episode here in Massachusetts. Pukwudgies, glowing orbs, and people wandering around a bleak wintry New England swamp? Count me in.

First, a little background. Skinwalker Ranch is a ranch in Utah where people have supposedly witnessed many strange phenomena over the years, like UFOs, Bigfoot, cattle mutilations, glowing orbs, and electromagnetic disturbances. The ranch is named after a type of legendary shape-shifting Navaho shaman, the skinwalker. Skinwalker Ranch has been the subject of books, movies and TV shows, including the History Channel's Secrets of Skinwalker Ranch. Beyond Skinwalker Ranch is a spin-off of that show, where paranormal investigators visit places that are not Skinwalker Ranch.

An illustration of a pukwudgie from Beyond Skinwalker Ranch

On July 18, Beyond Skinwalker Ranch aired an episode where two investigators, Andy Bustamente and Paul Beban, visit the Bridgewater Triangle in Massachusetts to find similarities between the weird phenomena there and what goes on at Skinwalker Ranch. The Bridgewater Triangle is an area in southeastern Massachusetts where a lot of strange phenomena have been reported, and was given its name by cryptozoologist Loren Coleman in the 1970s. I'm not sure when they filmed the episode, but Bustamente and Beban wear winter coats and you can see their breath, so I'm guessing sometime last winter or fall? I'm a sucker for anything filmed in the New England woods, particularly when the leaves are down, so I was hooked. 

Bustamente and Beban first visit three locations in the Triangle. The first is Skim Milk Bridge, an old Colonial-era stone bridge in West Bridgewater. The bridge was once part of a busy commercial route, but roads were rerouted and now it's part of a hiking trail in the woods. In 1916, a young woman went missing while canoeing, and her body was found under the bridge. There have been rumors since that time that the bridge may be haunted, but blogger Kristen Evans contacted me after reading this post and said the body may have actually been discovered at another bridge. 

Location number two is Anawan Rock, a large rock where Chief Anawan was captured by English colonists in 1676 during King Philip's War. Anawan was executed shortly thereafter. Much like Skim Milk Bridge, Anawan Rock is also said to be haunted. 

Finally, Bustamente and Beban wander into the Hockomock Swamp looking for pukwudgies, the small, hairy, magical humanoids that are said to lurk in the swamps and woods of New England. But before they head into the swamp, they talk with Raynham resident Bill Russo about his famous 1990 encounter with a pukwudgie. This is one of my favorite pukwudgie stories and is very creepy to hear. 

Andy Bustamente in Beyond Skinwalker Ranch

Do the Beyond Skinwalker crew actually find anything? They don't find a pukwudgie, but while walking around the swamp at night they do find an animal den which their infrared equipment shows to be very warm. They also hear something walking around and snapping branches. The investigators say this is strange, but maybe it was just a fox or a raccoon walking back to its cozy den? All of Bustamente and Beban's equipment also malfunctions at one point, leaving them with no recorded data. "No data is data," someone says at the end of the show. 

At another point, their equipment shows high levels of background radiation and their compasses all indicate that north is in different directions. I thought this was interesting, but a local resident who is with the two investigators expresses some concern about the high radiation. He raises a good point. Should people who live nearby be worried about radiation? No one answers the question, so I'm assuming they don't? 

The highlight of the episode is that they see two glowing objects in the sky. UFOs? UAPs? Call them what you will. They see the first one at Anawan Rock. Bustamente and Beban discuss playing some kind of Algonquin chant to summon the spirits haunting the rock, but since they don't have one handy they instead play a recording of a Hebrew religious chant that was used in an earlier episode. As the chant plays, a glowing object flies above them through the night sky. They insist it is not a plane, and although I suppose it could be a drone I was willing to suspend my disbelief. The weirdness of the situation was very appealing to me. Playing a Hebrew chant at a rock haunted by Algonquin ghosts to summon a UFO? It doesn't quite make any sense but seems very appropriate somehow for 21st century America. 

They see the other glowing object when they're out looking for pukwudgies. Again, it flies above them through the night sky, and this time one of the Beyond Skinwalker crew says the FAA shows no planes flying near them. This glowing object appears spontaneously without any Hebrew chanting. The crew doesn't get a pukwudgie, but does get another UFO, which is a good consolation prize. 

Overall, I enjoyed the episode. It was great to see some local people and locations on the show, and I liked seeing the UFOs, whatever they were. Did Beyond Skinwalker Ranch find any definite evidence of weird paranormal phenomena? Not really, and I doubt anyone ever will. By it's very nature, the paranormal can't be pinned down, categorized, or satisfactorily explained. That would just make it normal, not paranormal. It's the little hints at an answer, and the mystery itself, that keeps us watching these shows, and lures us into the New England swamps and woods.

August 08, 2023

A Nantucket Ghost Story: The Man with the Long Chin

Nantucket is a playground for the very wealthy these days, but that has not always been the case. In the past, the island has been home to Native Americans, Puritans, Quakers, whalers, and an assortment of artists and eccentrics. Nantucket has a very long history, and a long history usually means ghost stories. 

After the whaling industry collapsed in the mid-19th century, Nantucket became sparsely populated. There wasn't a lot of economic development on the island, which meant that very few of the old historic houses were torn down to make room for new ones. Those old houses are now mostly vacation homes for the wealthy, but there may be some unexpected guests stopping by to visit, as the following story indicates. 

The oldest house in Nantucket. 

It comes from Blue Balliett's 1984 book, The Ghosts of Nantucket: 23 True Accounts. I bought this at a used bookstore a few years ago, and really enjoy it. It's full of old-fashioned ghost stories, and also has some charming line drawings of old Nantucket houses. 

Back in July of 1981, a seven-year old girl named Jesse and her parents were invited to a dinner party at an old house on India Street in Nantucket. The adults were having a great time at the party, but Jesse was the only child there and quickly became bored. To keep her entertained, one of the hosts suggested she take a tally of interesting items in the house: candlesticks, mirrors, brass doorknobs, etc. 

The adults could hear her counting in a nearby room counting as they talked and ate dinner. But their dinner conversation was suddenly interrupted when Jesse ran into the dining room, terrified and exclaiming that she had seen a strange man in the house. Her parents and the hosts followed the frightened child into the room where she said she had seen the man, but there was no one there. 

Jesse said the man had a very large chin and was wearing a strange, dark blue suit. He had tipped his hat to her and then vanished into thin air. Although she had been scared, Jesse said he seemed friendly. She emphasized repeatedly that he had a long face and very large chin. Since Jesse was safe and unhurt, the adults at the party didn't take her story very seriously. After all, children do have active imaginations. 

Vintage photo from Ebay

A few weeks went by, and Jesse and her parents had mostly forgotten about her strange experience. One afternoon they were invited back to the old house on India Street, and the owners showed them something they had found in the attic. It was a line drawing that showed people attending a garden party at the house, probably from the 1940s or 1950s. 

When Jesse saw the drawing she said, "That's him! The man with the long chin." One of the people in the drawing was indeed a man with an unusually long chin. Some text on the back of the drawing identified everyone in it. The long-chinned man was William Hunt, a previous owner of the old house. 

After doing a little research, the current owners of the house learned that William Hunt had committed suicide in 1961, twenty years before he tipped his hat to Jesse. 


This is a very satisfying ghost story to me. It has an old house, someone encountering the supernatural, and proof at the end that the encounter was real. That proof is often a major aspect of classic ghost stories. For example, think of phantom hitchhiker stories. Someone always has to independently verify and identify the hitch-hiking ghost. "That girl hitchhiking was my daughter, and she died on this night twenty years ago on the way to her prom. You saw her ghost!" Or this story, from Cape Cod: "That seaweed you found only grows on the bodies of people who drowned. You saw the sailor's ghost!" 

In these older, classic ghost stories, someone who did not witness the paranormal encounter has to confirm it was authentic, or someone finds a piece of outside evidence (a piece of seaweed, a drawing, etc.) that confirms the encounter. It's what makes these stories satisfying. If this story just ended with Jesse telling everyone she had seen a long-chinned man it wouldn't quite feel the same. 

July 09, 2023

The Glocester Ghoul: A Monster and A Pirate in Rhode Island

A while ago I was poking around on the Internet and saw articles about a monster called the Glocester Ghoul. I had never heard of this terrifying creature before, and of course wanted to find out more. This is what I learned...

The monster supposedly lurks in the woods and swamps of Glocester, Rhode Island, a small town in the northwestern part of the state. Here's a fun fact about Glocester. Its name used to be spelled "Gloucester," like the town in Massachusetts, but in 1806 its citizens decided to change the spelling to "Glocester" to avoid confusion with the Massachusetts port. The two towns are different in other ways, as well. Gloucester, MA is haunted by witches and sea-serpents. Glocester, RI, is haunted by a large scaly monster that roams through the woods: the Glocester Ghoul. 

Image from TeePublic 

One of the earliest accounts of the monster was an article that appeared in various newspapers (including The Boston Globe) in January and February of 1896. Titled "Monster, Cow, or Ghost?," the article claims a Glocester man named Neil Hopkins encountered a monster while walking home from work one night:

"It seemed to be all a-fire; it had a hot breath," Hopkins told his neighbors. "There was a metallic sound, like the clanking of steel against steel... I could hear the dead branches and twigs crackling under the heavy tramp."

Unfortunately Hopkins only caught a brief glimpse of the creature before it ran off into the woods, but he said "it was as big as an elephant, and that he is certain it had no tail." 

The article goes on to suggest the creature may have been the same one seen seen in 1839 by Albert Hicks and three other local men. They believed Captain Kidd had buried some of his treasure on a Glocester farm and were digging to find it, but their efforts were interrupted by the appearance of a monster. Hicks described the following:

"It was a large animal, with staring eyes as big as pewter bowls. The eyes looked like balls of fire. When it breathed as it went by flames came out of its mouth and nostrils... It was as big as a cow, with dark wings on each side like a bat's. It had spiral horns like a ram's, as big around as a stovepipe. Its feet were formed like a duck's... The body was covered with scales as big as clam shells, which made a rattling noise as the beast moved along..."

That's an impressive monster, even if it's only as big as a cow, and not an elephant, like Neil Hopkins said. It sounds like some kind of dragon, doesn't it? 

Beyond the scaly monster, there are a few other interesting things about this story:

1. Treasure-digging was a common activity in the 18th and 19th centuries. People thought New England was full of buried treasure, and would get together with friends to try to find it. They never seemed to succeed, though, often saying they had been on the verge of finding the gold only to be scared off by a monstrous guardian of some kind, like demonic dogs, sinister black cats, and maybe even the Devil himself. Digging for Captain Kidd's treasure and encountering a monster would have been a familiar theme to a 19th century newspaper's readers.

2. Albert Hicks, who was digging with his friends for pirate treasure, ironically later became one of the last people in the United States to be executed as a pirate. Hicks was born in 1820 in Foster, Rhode Island, and was executed in New York in 1860 after killing three men on a small boat to steal their money. He dictated a confessional biography before his execution. In it, he claimed to have killed dozens (if not hundreds) of people as a pirate and highway robber. Hicks had a reputation as a teller of tall tales, so he may have exaggerated his victim count. 

Drawing of Albert Hicks from an 1860 newspaper (via Wikipedia).

3. Despite being fond of tall tales, there's one thing not found in Hicks's biography, The Life, Trial, Confession and Execution of Albert Hicks, and that's a large scaly monster. Hicks does mention digging for treasure when he was young, but says nothing about encountering a monster. If he had encountered a monster I'm sure it would have been in there. So perhaps this story was created by someone else?

According to folklorist Stephen Olbrys Gencarella, the story was written by a reporter for a New York newspaper, The New York World, where it was published on January 12, 1896. That reporter based their story on an earlier one that had appeared in The Providence Journal on May 5, 1889, which was titled "Glocester Gold Digging." The Journal article contains various Glocester legends, including one about six men who went digging for Captain Kidd's treasure on November 13, 1833. One of the men was indeed Albert Hicks, and the six men saw a creature that looked exactly like the one in The New York World article. The big difference between the two articles are that the men also see a meteor strike the earth before they see the monster, and it is other men who describe the monster, not Albert Hicks. Hicks only played a minor role, but The New York World reporter probably played it up to capitalize on Hick's notoriety. 

One note about that meteor: the six men took the meteor as a good omen, and didn't seem to connect it with the appearance of the monster. 

The story about the Glocester monster appeared in various newspapers in 1896, but then more or less disappeared for over a century. The story reappeared on the blog Strange New England in 2019, where the monster was given the catchy name "The Glocester Ghoul." The name seems to have stuck, and I've seen the Glocester Ghoul mentioned a few places online. You can now even buy a Glocester Ghoul tee-shirt online:

From TeePublic

I feel like every state deserves a good monster, so hopefully knowledge of the Glocester Ghoul will spread. Is there really a large, scaly creature lurking in the woods and swamps of Glocester? Probably not, but I write that from the safety of my home on a sunny summer day. I might have a different opinion if I were out in the woods at night. I don't think anyone's allegedly seen the creature since the 1800s, but if you have drop a note in the comments. I'd be curious - and a little scared - to know more...


I got a lot of my information from Stephen Olbrys Gencarella's article "Lovecraft and the Folklore of Glocester's Dark Swamp," which appeared in Lovecraft Annual, No. 16 (2022), pp. 90 -127. 

June 11, 2023

Strange and Stranger: Some American Fairy Encounters

I had the day off today, and spent some time organizing my books. As I was moving my musty tomes around I picked up Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People by Janet Bord, something I haven't looked at in a few years. Published in 1997, Fairies gives a nice overview of fairy lore and encounters from around the world. 

Although much of the book deals with the Ireland and Great Britain, Bord does devote a chapter to fairies from other places. The chapter is evocatively titled "Dwarfs, mummies, and little green men: Little People around the world." Bord discusses some interesting fairy encounters from the United States in the chapter. Here are a few of my favorites, in increasing order of strangeness.  

STRANGE: In the 19th century, a young man in Snowhill, Maryland, was wooing a young woman who lived in the nearby town of Pocomoke. One night he discussed marriage with her, but they argued because she was not really keen on the idea. As he rode away from her house in his wagon, the man noticed something strange. A little man wearing a green plaid jacket and yellow necktie stood near the woods. The little man smiled but didn't speak, even when the young man tried to start a conversation. Unnerved, the young man whipped his horses and rode off. Even though the horses were galloping at a good speed, the little man in green ran after the wagon and caught up to it. He ran next to the wagon, smiling maniacally at the young man. The little man disappeared once the wagon left Pocomoke. The young man believed the strange occurrence was an omen, warning him away from the young woman. He stopped seeing her and eventually married someone else. 

STRANGER: In an undated encounter from the Morongo Valley of California, a man was driving his truck when a little green man ran into the road. He braked and came to a sudden stop. As he sat in the truck, trying to figure out what he had just seen, he heard a noise coming from underneath his truck. He got out and saw that the little green man was trying to remove a protective metal plate near the radiator. The man got back in his car, drove to a nearby friend's house, and wired the plate back in place. The next day he found the screws lying in the road where the little green man had removed them. 

STRANGEST: The weirdest story comes from Farmersville, Texas. In 1913, a boy named Silbie Latham and his two brothers were out cutting cotton when their dogs started barking wildly. The boys ran to see what was upsetting the dogs.

What they found was a little man about eighteen inches tall, and dark green in colour. He wasn't wearing any clothes, but his body looked like a rubber suit, including a hat that looked like a 'Mexican hat.' As the boys looked on, the dogs jumped on the little man and tore him to pieces. The boys saw that he had human-looking internal organs, and red blood. Afterwards, the dogs avoided the spot where the remains lay rotting in the sun, and they seemed frightened. Next day, when the boys went to the place again, there was nothing to be found, not even a bloodstain (Janet Bord, Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People (1997), p.71)

Many years later, in 1978, Silbie Latham told his story to a staff person at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. The staff person said that Latham clearly believed the story to be true, and rejected the staff person's suggestion that the little green man had just been a large frog. 

That's really an insane story, right? Things must be bigger and weirder down in Texas, because Bord does include a few stories from Massachusetts in the book, but they're not nearly as crazy as that one. For example, she discusses the Dover Demon, the infamous humanoid cryptid seen in Dover, Massachusetts on April 21 and April 22, 1977 by several teenagers. The first person to see the creature was Bill Baxter, age 17, who was driving down a wooded road with two friends. He saw a creature that looked like this:

That drawing is the actual one Bill made that night. He claimed he saw a creature about the size of a baby, with long spindly limbs and fingers that wrapped round the rocks. Its eyes glowed bright orange in the car headlights. His two friends did not see the creature, but three other teenagers did, including John Baxter, age 15, who was walking home from his girlfriend's house. Baxter drew the following picture:

The creature was dubbed "The Dover Demon" by cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, and the name stuck. The Dover Demon has become pretty famous, and is one of those creatures that has never really been pigeon-holed or satisfactorily categorized. Was it one of the Little People, as Janet Bord suggests? Was it an extraterrestrial creature of some kind? Or was it all just a hoax? There's no clear answer, and no one saw the Dover Demon again. 

Janet Bord includes a couple other encounters from Massachusetts, and unlike the Dover Demon they involve beings that are more obviously fairies. In the spring of 1974, teenaged Jane Woodruff was walking to high school in Lexington with a friend when they saw something - or rather someone - sitting in patch of weeds on the side of the road. It was a leprechaun.

'Did you see that?' we exclaimed in unison. Surprisingly enough, we both described the leprechaun the same way: green clothes, a long thin curved golden pipe between his lips and a flopped-over conical cap (Janet Bord, Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People (1997), p.73) 

A year later, Woodruff and a friend named Orin saw hundreds of small fairies dancing in a field of blue wildflowers in the town of Ashby. The fairies were only around 5 inches tall. Although the thought of encountering hundreds of fairies is a little unnerving - what if they swarm you? - Woodruff's stories are very gentle compared to the others.

In Fairies, Bord evaluates the many possible theories about what fairies might be. For example, some people think they are really extraterrestrials, some think they are the remnants of an earlier and smaller human race, and others theorize they could perhaps be the spirits of the dead. Bord reviews all the different theories, and concludes that there's really no strong evidence for any of them. And yet people still continue to encounter them, in stranger and stranger ways.