July 27, 2017

The Lost City of Norumbega: David Ingram's Journey


"Everything about Norumbega is in dispute." 

Kirsten Seaver, "Norumbega and 'Harmonia Mundi" in Sixteenth-Century Cartography,"
Imago Mundi, Vol. 50, 1998

*****
In 1568, a young Englishman named David Ingram joined Captain John Hawkins as a crew member on one of his ships. Ingram was from the small town of Barking in Essex, and apparently he was looking for adventure - and was willing to overlook the nasty fact that Hawkins was a slave trader whose coat of arm was emblazoned with the image of an African child in chains.

Ingram set sail with Hawkins for the Caribbean with six vessels, but when they reached the coast of Mexico the fleet was attacked by Spanish pirates. Four of Hawkins's ships were captured by the Spaniards, and more than two hundred of his men (including Ingram) were forced onto the remaining two ships. There was not enough food or water for so many men and survival seemed grim. Captain Hawkins was not a compassionate man, so he put ninety-six men ashore near the Tampico River in Mexico. He gave them money and bolts of cloth, keeping the food and weapons for himself, and then sailed off.

The money was useless - there was nowhere to spend it and nothing to buy - but I suppose they could have traded the cloth with the local Native Americans. They didn't get a chance, though, because shortly after being put ashore a band of Native Americans captured the sailors, robbing them and killing those who resisted. They then told the survivors to head west to a nearby Spanish settlement.

Many of the crew headed west, but David Ingram had other ideas. Maybe he was afraid of the Spaniards, maybe he didn't trust the Native Americans, but he and several others decided to go north. They were aiming for the North Atlantic Coast, where Ingram knew English fishing boats visited the region's teeming fisheries. It was more than a thousand miles away.

For months Ingram trekked across North America, getting food, shelter and directions from various tribes along the way. By 1569 he made it to the coast of Maine with at least two other English companions.

Ingram's story sounds pretty incredible, doesn't it? Was it really possible for someone to walk from Mexico to Maine in one year in the 1500s? His journey seems almost unbelievable, but once he reached Maine things got really bizarre. Ingram claimed that he discovered a vast Native American kingdom filled with gold and silver in Maine. It was called Norumbega.

An early map showing Norumbega's location in Maine

According to Ingram, the people of Norumbega dressed in the softest animal pelts and decorated their bodies with gold and pearls.
"All the people generally wear bracelets as big as a man's finger upon each of their arms, and the like on each of their ankles, whereof one commonly is gold and two silver and many of the women also do wear great plates of gold covering their bodies and many bracelets and chains of great pearls." (Emmie Bailey Whitney, Maine, My State, 1919)
Gold and pearls were outrageously plentiful in the kingdom. The rivers were filled with pieces of gold as large as a man's hand, while pearls could be gathered by the fistful. Ingram himself collected large amounts of pearls upon first arriving but threw them away because he got tired of carrying them. It didn't really matter because he could always just pick up more.

The Norumbegans were friendly and led Ingram to their leader, a king named the Bathshaba who lived in the city of Arembec. Ingram claimed that Arambec was about half a mile across, and its buildings were roofed with precious metals. The Bathsheba received Ingram in a hall whose roof was supported by twelve pillars of polished crystal, whose walls were lined with gold, and whose ceiling was made of silver. In other words, it was really nice. 

The Bathshaba took pity on Ingram and gave him furs to wear, a house to live in, and a wife to cook for him. It sounds like a good deal, but Ingram was still eager to return home to England. He eventually found a French ship bound for Europe and returned made his way to London.

Francis Walsingham
Back in England Ingram became something of a celebrity. He told his story to eager audiences in pubs, and discussed Norumbega with leading intellectuals like Dr. John Dee, who was Queen Elizabeth's astrologer and Shakespeare's inspiration for Prospero in The Tempest. Ingram also told his story to Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's secretary and spymaster, who in turn told it to Richard Hakluyt, a clergyman and author who was promoting English exploration. Hakluyt published an account of Ingram's journey called The Relations of David Ingram in 1582, and also included it in his influential 1589 book The Principall Navigations Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation.

Several expeditions tried to reach Norumbega, but none were successful. In fact, no one ever found the city, even when Maine was successfully colonized by the English.

I suppose this is not surprising to you. We all know, from our vantage point in the 21st century, that there was no city of precious metals in Maine. It never existed. Even Hakluyt grew suspicious of Ingram's story, and removed it from later editions of The Prinicipall Navigations. It's not even entirely clear if Ingram was ever even in North America (which he claimed was full of elephants).

Why did people believe him? Well, the Spanish had actually discovered large cities in Mexico, and they were indeed filled with gold, so it seemed plausible these cities might exist elsewhere. A place named Norumbega, or something similar, had appeared on a Portuguese map of North America in 1548. The French explorer Jean Alfonce de Saintonge claimed he visited Norumbega in the 1540s, and found a city "with clever inhabitants and peltries of all kinds of beasts." Saintonge doesn't mention gold, but animal pelts were very valuable, so wouldn't gold be found there as well?

In short, Ingram didn't make up Norumbega out of thin air. Europeans already believed it was an actual place. He was building on some preexisting stories and some of his details do seem plausible. For example, he claims the Norumbegans ate a lot of quahogs and piled up their shells on the shore. It is true that Maine's coastal tribes ate a lot of shellfish, and those piles of shells (called middens) can still be seen today.

Ironically, the name Norumbega may come from a misunderstanding of an archaic Italian phrase "non oro bega," which means "no quarrel about gold." The historian Kirsten Seaver claims that early Italian explorers noted this on a map as a way of telling others there was no gold in the region (and therefore no reason for colonizing countries to quarrel). "Non oro bega" was then written by later mapmakers as "aranbega," and finally as Norumbega. A note indicating a lack of gold finally became a mythical city full of it.

As I mentioned above, many of Ingram's contemporaries came to doubt his story, and English colonists in the region found no trace of Norumbega. The Native American groups in Maine also have no traditions or history regarding a city of gold. You would think that it would recede forever into the realm of myth, but that isn't the case. As I'll discuss in my next post, Norumbega rose again in the 19th century.

July 19, 2017

Spend Your Summer Vacation With Sasquatch and H.P. Lovecraft

Do elementary school students still need to write essays about what they did on their summer vacation? I seem to remember this was a common practice when I was a child, but honestly I'm not sure if it's a real memory or just something that I saw on TV a lot.

Either way, I usually spent my summer vacations swimming in a nearby pond, playing Dungeons and Dragons, riding my bike, and doing children's theater. These activities were supplemented by long periods of reading musty paperbacks, mostly science fiction, fantasy and horror, but also paranormal and occult books too. Erich Von Daniken, Charles Fort, John Keel, Charles Berlitz - I was an indiscriminate reader of weird stuff. These authors confirmed my suspicions that the Bermuda Triangle was a gateway to Atlantis guarded by UFOs flown by Sasquatches from the hollow Earth.

Of course I'm kidding about those UFOs (well, mostly), but I suspect a lot of my readers had similarly strange summers. Unfortunately that sense of untrammeled possibility tends to shrink as you get older, as does the amount of vacation time you get. It's hard to focus on Sasquatch when you've got bills to pay and a family to care for.

If you want to immerse yourself in high weirdness this summer but have limited time, you might want to try one of these short but intense experiences: NecronomiCon Providence, and the International Cryptozoology Conference 2017. Spend a weekend experiencing strange New England at its best! It's almost as good as spending the whole summer reading musty old paperbacks.

Author H.P. Lovecraft

NecronomiCon Providence takes place August 17 - 20 at Providence's Biltmore and Omni hotels. This multi-day convention celebrates the life and work of H.P. Lovecraft, Rhode Island's master of horror and weird fiction. Lovecraft included a lot of authentic local lore into his stories so folklore buffs should find plenty to enjoy. NecronomiCon is a mix of popular culture programming and academic lectures so really there's something for everyone.

For example, if you're in an intellectual mood you can attend a lecture on non-Euclidean geometry (one of Lovecraft's favorite tropes) or one titled "The Madness of Minds: Consciousness and Materialism in Lovecraft’s Fiction." Heady stuff! Other sessions feature panelists discussing Lovecraft's well-documented and unfortunate racism. If you're in a pop culture mood, you can watch a Lovecraftian film, play a role-playing game, or take a virtual walking tour of Providence. And you won't want to miss the tongue-in-cheek Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast. It's a weekend of fun and unspeakable chaos for the whole family! I've attended NecronomiCon in the past, and when I left my mind was overflowing with strange and uncanny knowledge.
  
If you'd rather head up north, you can attend the International Cryptozoology Conference 2017, which will be held on Labor Day weekend at the Clarion Hotel on September 3. This looks like it will be a fantastic conference. It features well-known speakers like Linda Godfrey, who investigates werewolf and dogman sightings, Loren Coleman (one of the leading figures in American cryptozoology) and Joseph Citro, one of my favorite New England folklore writers. I am sure that spooky stories will abound.

A new documentary about the Mothman of Pleasant Point will also be shown at the conference. I love the Mothman stories, so I was excited to hear about this. Attendees will also have the opportunity to learn about sea serpents, Sasquatch, and even hear from an expert on how to carve Bigfoot sculptures with a chainsaw. Again, fun for the whole family, but you may want to keep the chainsaw away from the kids. 

When you go back to school (or work) you'll definitely have something to talk about. If other people say things like "I went fishing and camped in the White Mountains this summer," you can smile the confident and knowing smile of one who has experienced strange things before you share your bizarre summer adventures.

July 10, 2017

Vermont's Giant Prehistoric Frog

Have you ever seen the movie Trog (1970)? It's a British horror film and was the last movie that Joan Crawford made before she died. It's not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is one of my favorites.


The basic premise is this: some handsome young spelunkers are exploring a cave when they encounter something terrifying. The surviving spelunker is driven insane by what he saw, but anthropologist Dr. Brockton (Joan Crawford) believes he has seen a prehistoric hominid. She manages to capture the creature, names him Trog, and tries to teach him to be human. Of course it doesn't go well and by the end of the movie Trog is ripping off people's arms, setting fires, and terrorizing small children.


There are many things to like about Trog: Joan Crawford, stop-motion animated dinosaurs, bad dialogue, and a gory ending. But I really like the idea that lurking underneath our mundane landscape are ancient, prehistoric beings frozen in time waiting to emerge and amaze us. It's been the premise of a lot of horror movies, but none are quite as good as Trog.


I don't think anyone now really believes that there are prehistoric monsters sleeping in suspended animation below our feet, but in 1865 some miners in Vermont discovered something deep under the Green Mountain State. It was not Trog, but was instead a frog. The New York Herald ran the following article on October 20, 1922:

Vermont's Monster Frog

Unearthed 114 Feet Underground by Workmen In a Mine Shaft
To The New York Herald : In the summer of 1865 workmen while digging in a new shaft at an ochre mine at Forestdale, Vt., unearthed a huge bullfrog at a vertical depth of 114 feet underground. The frog lay dormant in a sort of pocket or miry hole, and aside from the fact of its being found at so great a depth its large size and its excellent state of preservation attracted attention.

The frog was 14 inches long from the tip of its head to the end of its spine, which is really big, but otherwise resembled an ordinary bullfrog. At first the miners just thought it was dead, but it soon began to twitch and eventually revivified. After showing it to several townspeople the miners brought it to a pond, where it lived and croaked loudly for many years.

The reporter goes on to speculate that the giant frog had been hibernating for thousands of years, and had been frozen underground during an ice age. (This is almost exactly the same plot as Trog!) The frog story was told to the Herald reporter by one Frank Rogers of Brandon, Vermont, who claims to have seen the frog emerge from the mine when he was 15 years old.


Sadly, I think this story is probably a hoax, and it was not the only story of its kind. Joseph Citro cites several similar ones, some dating back to the 1700s, in his book Weird New England. This 1922 story may just have been the latest version of a long folklore tradition. Giant frogs also figure in some Native American myths from New England, like this one about how the hero Glooskap defeats a giant frog, so the local obsession with monstrous frogs could be something that predates English settlement.

I recently read Alan Moore's Lovecraftian comic series Providence. One character proposes the following interesting idea: the subterranean, the past, and our subconscious are all the same thing. According to this character, when we dig underground we are digging into our past, and also digging into our subconscious dreamworld. So perhaps those Vermont miners found something subconscious that wanted to see the light of day. Hopefully it was happy croaking in that pond.

July 04, 2017

New England Folklore In The News: UFOs, Sasquatch Graffiti, Monomoy and Witch Talk!

There has been a surprising amount of strange New England folklore in the news this week. Summer is usually a slow time for news, but I guess that doesn't hold true if it's really weird and unusual.

UFOs in New Hampshire

First up, someone in Merrimack, New Hampshire took a photo of an unidentified thing in the sky on June 26. What is it? An alien craft? A giant space jellyfish?

Something strange seen over Merrimack, New Hampshire
The photographer sent the photo to NH1 News and several other websites. A NH1 meteorologist thought it might be the sun refracting off some clouds, while the people at UFO Sightings Hotspot thought it was probably just a lens flare.

The photographer didn't actually see the object/flare with their naked eye, only through their camera. They wrote the following on UFOStalker.com:

I took my kids to the park, clouds came in and it got dark, the sun was shining threw the clouds on the right so I started taking photos as it was beautiful as I was looking at the pictures I captured I noticed it away from the sun under the clouds not with my eyes with my photo.  so here it is no idea what it is but it's interesting

New Hampshire has a long and venerable history with UFO sightings. And as many people know, one of the most famous UFO abductions allegedly occurred in the Granite State when Betty and Barney Hill had an unusual encounter on a lonely road in 1961. Were they really abducted by aliens, or is there another explanation? Their niece Kathleen Marden recently spoke at a UFO convention in Roswell, New Mexico. You can read her thoughts on the case here

Bigfoot Graffiti in Kennebunk, Maine

Meanwhile, people up in Kennebunk, Maine were disturbed by strange activity of another kind. Not alien abductions, but rather someone defacing property with spray-painted images of Sasquatch. CBS News reports that Kennebunk police arrested a 36-year old man they say is responsible and charged him with criminal mischief and possession of drugs. There's no word on what motivated him to paint images of Sasquatch around town. 


Weird Tales from Monomoy Island

The Boston Globe recently ran an article about Cape Cod's Monomoy Island. Currently uninhabited, Monomoy once was home to a small village of fishermen and their families. The Globe notes that the islanders also had the reputation for being shipwreckers:

On stormy nights, Monomoyers would walk a limping old horse down the beach with two lanterns hanging from a pole mounted on his saddle. Mariners trying to get around the Cape would mistake the lanterns for the lighthouse, turn too soon, and wreck on the bars. The most sinister version of this story has the villagers murdering the ship’s crew. Wrecking continued until as recently as 1909, with the wreck of the Horatio Hall. Today, many homes in Chatham have china and silverware from the Hall and other wrecks.

Someone in the comments posted a link to an article in Cape Cod Life that downplays the shipwrecking and argues instead that most of the Monomoyers actually tried to save people from shipwrecks. That same article also notes that the island was haunted by a ghost called Old Yo-Ho who stalked Monomoy's shore at night, carrying a lantern and endlessly calling out his own name. 

Image from Cape Cod Life. 

Let's Talk About Witches!

Do you want to hear me talk about witchcraft? If you said yes, this is your lucky day. WAMC, an NPR affiliate from New York, interviewed me for their podcast "Listen With The Lights On." I talk about an early witchcraft trial from Springfield, Massachusetts, a young lady who was tormented by a spectral witch in the 1840s, and some teenage boys who encountered something witchy in the Freetown State Forest. 

That's it for this week. Who knows what weird stories will show up next? I'm hoping they're as good as these were!

June 27, 2017

Did H.P. Lovecraft Believe In Witches?

New England produced three of the world’s most famous horror authors: Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, and H.P. Lovecraft. They are all great in their own ways, but I find myself re-reading Lovecraft’s stories more than anything the other two wrote. Maybe it’s his overwrought prose, maybe it’s all those hideous tentacled monsters, or maybe it’s because he used a lot of authentic New England lore in his writings. Folk beliefs, legendary places and bizarre history all show up in Lovecraft’s work.

He also incorporated New England’s witchy history into several of his stories. In “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” a wealthy young Providence scholar learns that one of his ancestors was an evil alchemist who fled Salem to escape the 1692 witchcraft trials, while in “The Shunned House” a man in Colonial Providence is suspected of witchcraft:
“Etienne’s son Paul, a surly fellow whose erratic conduct had probably provoked the riot which wiped out the family, was particularly a source of speculation; and though Providence never shared the witchcraft panics of her Puritan neighbours, it was freely intimated by old wives that his prayers were neither uttered at the proper time nor directed toward the proper object.”
And of course, “Dreams in the Witch House” is full of witchcraft, as you might guess from the title. The story tells how college student Walter Gilman rents a room in an old house once inhabited by a witch named Keziah Mason. Mason escaped the Salem trials in 1692 by drawing strange diagrams on the wall of her jail cell; legends say she and her ratlike familiar spirit now haunt the house where Gilman is staying.

Still from the 2005 film Dreams In The Witch House.
 It turns out the legend is true, and soon she tries to get Gilman to become a witch:

“The expression on her face was one of hideous malevolence and exultation, and when he awaked he could recall a croaking voice that persuaded and threatened. He must meet the Black Man, and go with them all to the throne of Azathoth at the centre of ultimate Chaos. That was what she said. He must sign in his own blood the book of Azathoth and take a new secret name…”

Much of this is classic New England witchcraft lore (although the name Azathoth is Lovecraft’s own creation). Lovecraft incorporated other types of New England lore into his stories so it’s not really surprising.

H.P. Lovecraft

What is surprising is that Lovecraft believed that witches were real – at least to some extent. Lovecraft was a materialist and didn’t believe in magic or the supernatural, but he did think there was something real behind the legends.
“Something actual was going on under the surface, so that people really stumbled on concrete experiences from time to time which confirmed all they had ever heard of the witch species. In brief, scholars now recognize that all through history a secret cult of degenerate nature-worshipers, furtively recruited from the peasantry and sometimes from decadent characters of more select origin, has existed throughout northwestern Europe…” (H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters, 1929 – 1931, 1971, p. 178, edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei)
According to Lovecraft, this cult was once the dominant religion in Europe but was forced underground by the “more refined, evolved and poetic polytheism” practiced by groups like the Druids, the Romans and the Norse. In retaliation to attacks by these dominant groups the cult turned to malevolent magic and became identified as witches.

Lovecraft didn’t think many of these real witches came to New England as settlers, but he suspected that a few of them did make their way to Salem.
“For my part – I doubt if a compact coven existed, but certainly think that people had come to Salem who had a direct personal knowledge of the cult, and who were perhaps initiated members of it. I think that some of the rites and formulae of the cult must have been talked about secretly among certain elements, and perhaps furtively practiced by the few degenerates involved… Most of the people hanged were probably innocent, yet I do think there was a concrete, sordid background not present in any other New England witch case.” (H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters, 1929 – 1931, 1971, p. 181, edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei)
Although this theory may seem strange now, Lovecraft wasn’t the only person who thought this way. It was widely accepted in the early 20th century. In the letter laying out his theory Lovecraft acknowledges Margaret Murray’s influential 1921 book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Murray was a prominent British Egyptologist with an interest in folklore and witchcraft. The Witch-Cult claimed that people accused of witchcraft in Europe were actually members of a pagan religion that secretly survived the Christianization of Europe.

Margaret Murray

Murray’s book received a mixed response when it was released. Critics felt she took the alleged witches’ confessions too literally and distorted the historic record to fit her theory, but the general reading public was more appreciative and Encyclopedia Brittanica even asked her to author their entry on witchcraft. Lovecraft was just reiterating an accepted theory of his day. Current historians discount Murray’s hypothesis and don’t think there was a secret witch cult in Europe or Salem. 

So even though there wasn’t really a secret witch cult in Salem, H.P. Lovecraft thought there might be. It just adds to the strange mix of folklore that makes New England such an interesting place.