May 26, 2024

Rutland's Abandoned Prison Camp: Ruins, Graffiti, and Maybe A Ghost or Two?

Back in March, Tony and I took a road trip to Rutland, Massachusetts to visit an abandoned prison camp located in Rutland State Park. Rutland is located west of Worcester, and we had never been there before. It's a very beautiful part of the state and I recommend visiting. 

One small caveat, though. I don't recommend visiting when there's been a huge ice storm, like we did! A big nor'easter had hit the state the day before our trip, and while it brought only rain to Boston, Rutland had been hit with ice, which we didn't realize until after we were beyond Worcester. All the trees in Rutland were covered with glittering ice, making them very sparkly and captivating, but the two mile walk from the Rutland State Park parking lot to the prison camp was treacherously slippery. It took us a lot longer than we anticipated to walk to the camp. I have learned my lesson to check the local weather forecast before heading on a road trip! 

Solitary confinement cells. 

According to the signs in the park, the prison was conceived in 1898 as a "temporary industrial camp for prisoners... to rehabilitate them for their return to society while reclaiming wasteland and abandoned property..." Four years later, a Rutland farm from the 1700s was repurposed and used as a kitchen, dining area, and housing for the camp. The inmates also built additional structures, and an abandoned schoolhouse was incorporated into the prison as well. 

In 1905, a tuberculosis outbreak necessitated the construction of a hospital, which remained in use throughout the prison's history. The park's signage notes the following: "While most of the prisoners of the camp were minor offenders, some patient prisoners in later years were 'lifers' and murderers, so the hospital was a secure facility." The camp also had 150 acres of farmland which were used to raise livestock (including prize winning horses) and grow enough fruits and vegetables to feed the inmates. They even produced excess to sell locally. The fruits and vegetables were stored in an enormous underground root cellar, which still exists. 

The entrance to the root cellar.

Inside the root cellar.

Sometimes in old movies, prisoners are shown breaking big rocks into little rocks. There is some truth to that, at least at the Rutland prison, which had a rock crushing plant that made concrete, gravel, and sand for road repairs. It sounds a little grim. The solitary confinement cells, the ruins of which are still standing, are also very small and grim. They're covered with colorful graffiti and don't have any bars on them now, but it was easy to imagine how dark and confining they would have been in the prison's heyday. We didn't visit the nearby cemetery of unmarked prisoner graves, but I think that sounds grim as well. 

The prison camp was closed in 1934 because the land it stood on was part of the watershed of the newly created Quabbin Reservoir. There certainly is a lot of fresh water in Rutland State Park, including a giant beaver pond that we walked past on the way to the prison's ruins. We didn't see a beaver, but we did see some of their lodges. 

Beaver pond with a beaver lodge. 

Just in case you don't know where you're going...

I couldn't easily find any spooky legends associated with the prison camp. The blog Haunted New England mentions a legend that the ghost of the warden's wife still haunts the prison, but they couldn't find many other details. And in the comments on Abandoned Wonders, I found the following comment from 2019:

This place is incredibly haunted. Within the last 10 years, a group opened something in the tunnel area and called a non-human entity into the camp. Be advised! It followed me home and stuck around for about 3 months. Not fun.

Those were the only legends I could find about the camp. Overall, I found the prison camp interesting but not really spooky. We were the only people there for most of our visit, which was great, but also be aware that the area is isolated. As always, travel with a friend if you're wandering out in the woods, particularly to the ruins of an abandoned prison. 

A view inside the root cellar.

March 28, 2024

Walnut Cemetery: A Ghost, A Crossroads, and A Poetic Tragedy

I was chatting with someone a while ago, and they asked if I had ever visited Walnut Cemetery in Haverhill, Massachusetts. I was born and raised in Haverhill, but had surprisingly never been to this particular cemetery. After they told me it was haunted, I decided it was finally time to pay a visit. It's an interesting place, and I have lots of thoughts. 

Walnut Cemetery is located in one of the more rural areas of Haverhill. I couldn't find what year the cemetery was started, but it's quite old, with a few gravestones dating back to the 1700s. It's still active today, with newer burials and monuments being added. The newer section is well-maintained, but the older section is a little rough looking. It looks, in fact, like a haunted cemetery. There are a lot of tall weeds. Tree branches have fallen on the graves. Some of the oldest monuments are covered in lichen. We went in the winter, so it may just have been between scheduled maintenance. The older section of the cemetery is also on a rocky hill, so perhaps it is harder to cut the grass there. But whatever the reason, the old part of Walnut Cemetery looks a little spooky. I can understand why someone might think it's haunted. 

The cemetery is said to be haunted by a ghost known as the Woman in White, who roams through it at night. You don't even need to go inside the cemetery to see her - the Woman in White has also been seen by motorists just driving by. Some people say she's terrifying, but others say she is simply eerie and mysterious. As with so many things, I think your mindset might influence what you see. If you go expecting something scary, that's what you'll probably encounter. 

When we visited, I noticed that Walnut Cemetery is located within a triangular crossroads. There's a lot of interesting folklore associated with crossroads, so perhaps it's not surprising there are legends associated with this particular cemetery. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that crossroads were sacred to Hecate, the goddess of witches, and to Hermes, the divine messenger who guided the dead to the underworld. In England, Scotland and Ireland, people who died by suicide were buried at crossroads, often with stake in their heart. Something similar happened more locally in 1680 in Hampton, New Hampshire, when the citizens of that town buried accused witch Eunice Cole at a crossroads with a stake in her heart. For good measure, they placed a horseshoe on her chest to keep her in her unhallowed grave. And in the American south, legends say that if you want to sell your soul to the Devil, you can find him at a crossroads at midnight. 

Speaking of triangular shapes, paranormal investigator Fiona Broome thinks Walnut Cemetery could be linked to a ley line triangle connecting several weird, legendary places in New England. Ley lines are straight lines that connect important locations on a map, and some people believe these lines conduct mystical energy across the landscape. I can't say if that's true or not, but it's another interesting idea to consider when thinking about Walnut Cemetery. Ghosts plus a  crossroads plus ley lines must all add up to something, right? Well, it may not, but it's still fun to think about. 

Broome and several other ghost hunters investigated Walnut Cemetery back in 2009. They perceived several spirits, including a woman in black, an undefined male spirit, and possibly the restless spirit of a small child. They did not encounter the Woman in White, however. 

Who exactly is the Woman in White? Some people think she is the ghost of Lydia Ayer, the most famous person buried in the cemetery. Ayer was immortalized by the Haverhill poet John Greenleaf Whittier in his 1868 poem "In School-days." In this autobiographical poem, Whittier recalls an incident from his childhood, when he lost a spelling bee to a girl in his class. The girl was Lydia Ayer. Rather than revel in her victory, Ayer instead felt sorry for Whittier.

'I'm sorry that I spelt the word: 

I hate to go above you, 

Because,’ - the brown eyes lower fell, - 

'Because, you see, I love you! ' 

Still memory to a gray-haired man 

That sweet child-face is showing. 

Dear girl! the grasses on her grave 

Have forty years been growing!

He lives to learn, in life's hard school,
How few who pass above him
Lament their triumph and his loss,
Like her, - because they love him.

It's a melancholy poem, and justifiably so, because Ayer died in 1827 when she was just fourteen years old. It's clear that her death made a big impact on Whittier. The poem itself also made a big impact. "In School-days" was one of Whittier's most popular poems, and is often still taught to students today. 

Death is the great equalizer, but Lydia Ayer is the star attraction for living visitors to Walnut Cemetery. A wooden sign points towards her grave, which is marked with a large, handsome memorial that was put up in 1937 by a local civic organization. But is her spirit the Woman in White? 

I'm not sure. Ayer died when she was just a young teenager, and the Woman in White is usually described as a woman, not a young girl. Maybe people only see that the ghost is female, and can't really discern her age, and think she is a full-grown woman. Or maybe Ayer's ghost actually looks older than fourteen. After all, she's over two-hundred years old. Or maybe it's not her ghost at all. And of course, this could all just be a legend. There may not be a ghost at all. 

Women in white are a classic form that ghosts appear in, and stories about them can be found all over the world. In a sense, a Woman in White transcends the story of an individual and partakes in a greater, archetypal identity. In his book Daimonic Reality (2003), Patrick Harpur says the following about "white ladies":

"A ghost? Possibly. But it is a distinguishing characteristic of white lady apparitions they are not individually identifiable. They have deeper resonances than the shade of a historical personage. The time and location are suggestive... an hour and place of transition, of in-between. "

He goes on to say: 
"... white ladies do not speak. But their silence is eloquent. Their appearance itself is the message: enigmatic, often sinister, pointing towards the unknown."


February 29, 2024

Cotton Mather and the Connecticut Triton

Many of you are probably familiar with Cotton Mather, the 17th century Puritan minister. Mather was born in Boston in 1663, and was the son of Increase Mather, the city’s leading minister. Cotton attended Harvard, entering at age eleven and a half, making him the youngest person to attend the university. (Thanks for that tidbit, Wikipedia!) Clearly, he was a smart person. After graduating, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a minister, serving with him as co-pastor of Boston’s most prominent church. 

During the 1692 Salem witch trials, the colony’s political leaders asked Cotton Mather for his opinion on witchcraft. They wanted some guidance on what types of evidence were acceptable, and to know if witchcraft was even real. Mather replied that witchcraft was indeed real, and that execution was an appropriate punishment for the most dangerous witches. He did tell the judges to proceed with caution and be careful with the types of evidence they accepted, but he otherwise said the Salem trials were valid. He maintained this position even after most other people in Massachusetts realized no witches were being executed, just innocent people. 

Ultimately, nineteen people were executed during the Salem trials, one man was crushed to death during questioning, and several people died in jail. Some, or maybe many, of those deaths might have been avoided if Cotton Mather had given the magistrates a different opinion.

Cotton Mather was twenty-nine in 1692. I had a lot to learn about life when I was twenty-nine, and it's pretty obvious that Cotton Mather did too. Luckily, no one was asking me to make life-or-death decisions, or maybe I would have screwed up like he did. Mather's misjudgment about the Salem trials tainted his reputation for the rest of his life. He expected to become president of Harvard, like his father was, but that didn't happen. A shadow hung over him until he died, and still hangs over our memory of him today. 

Despite Mather’s superstitious and ignorant beliefs about witches, he was also one of the best-educated people in Massachusetts and was very interested in science. In 1721, he even helped to start an inoculation campaign in Boston against smallpox, one of the first in the Western world. Most of Boston's physicians violently opposed the campaign, but it turned out to be a resounding success. It's odd to think of Mather as the voice of scientific reason, but in that situation he was.

Mather also wrote dozens of letters to the Royal Society, England’s national academy of sciences, describing interesting phenomena in New England. Some of his letters discussed topics that today we might think of as appropriately scientific, like local New England wildlife (snakes, muskrats, moose), people suffering from unusual medical conditions, and earthquakes. Other letters covered somewhat stranger topics, such as prophetic dreams, ghosts, and a calf born with a human face. The boundaries between science, religion, and magic were poorly delineated at the time, and Cotton Mather was not alone in mixing these topics together. 

One letter, which he wrote in July of 1716, describes a triton, or what we might call a merman. In the letter, Mather writes that he doubted the existence of merfolks until learning about three men who had seen a triton off the coast of Connecticut. On February 22, 1716, the men had been sailing from Milford to Branford when they saw a “creature that seemed a man, lying on the top of a rock” close to the Branford shore. 

“… his head, and face, and neck, and shoulders, and arms, and elbows, and breast and back, all of a human shape, only his arms were little more than half the length of a man’s. He wanted not for hair, which was of a grayish color. However – desinit in piscem (Latin – “it ends in a fish”); his lower parts were those of a fish, and colored like a mackerel. His tail was forked, and he had two fins about a half foot above the tail. The whole animal was about five or six feet in length.” 

That's a very vivid and specific description. Was this a hoax played on Cotton Mather, or did the men actually see something strange on that rock? Or maybe they misidentified a large seal or some other creature? My mind tries to find a rational explanation, but here in the 21st century we're more skeptical about the existence of mermen and mermaids. People were still learning how the physical world worked back in the 17th century and were more willing to believe strange, half-human creatures lurked in the ocean.

It’s interesting that Cotton Mather considered the triton an animal, rather than a mythical being, a monster, or some kind of sea-demon. I suppose he was trying to be scientific, and not superstitious. I’m sure he would have liked to study the triton, but he did not get the opportunity. The men who saw the triton attempted to capture it, but it jumped off the rock and quickly swam away. 

The truth about the Connecticut triton will never be known. Was there a scientific explanation, or a supernatural one? It's fun to speculate there might supernatural creatures like tritons. That type of speculation is less fun when those "supernatural" creatures are innocent people being accused of witchcraft. 

January 23, 2024

Tales of A Tentacled Lake Monster: Fact or Fiction?

Does a tentacled, horned, snake-like monster haunt Nagog Pond in Littleton, Massachusetts? There aren't a lot of legends about lake monsters here in the Bay State, so I was excited when I first stumbled upon the possible Littleton lake monster a few years ago. It has been lurking in the back of my mind since then, and I finally decided to do a little more research. 

Nagog Pond is on the border of Littleton and Acton, and was formerly called Nagog Lake. It's a kettle hole pond, meaning it was formed thousands of years ago when the glaciers melted at the end of the last ice ice. Kettle hole ponds are so-called because they hold water just like a tea kettle. 

I've seen a few explanations for the name "Nagog," which is apparently derived from a word in one of the local Algonquin dialects. Some people say nagog means "corner," since the lake is in one corner of Littleton, and other say it is derived from "magog," which means water. As an FYI, Nagog is pronounced NAY-gog. Nagog Pond was used for fishing and recreational sailing in the past, and it now supplies drinking water to the nearby town of Concord. 

Illustration from Uriah Jewett and the Sea Serpent of Lake Mephemgagog (1917)

To understand the monster, you first need to know a little local history. Littleton was originally established in 1645 as Nashoba Plantation, a village for local Nipmuc and Pennacook Indians who had converted to Christianity. It was one of six so-called Praying Indian Villages that were created in Massachusetts by the Puritan minister John Eliot. The term "plantation" here does not refer to a large farm based on slave labor like you would find in the old American south, but instead to a farming settlement. The Praying Indians from Nashoba and the other villages were forcibly moved to Deer Island in Boston Harbor during King Philip's war by their English neighbors who thought they would join Philip (Metacomet) in his rebellion. Many of the Indians died from starvation and exposure on Deer Island, and the rest intermarried with English settlers or gradually joined other Indian groups after the war ended. All the Praying Indian villages eventually became English towns. 

The last Indian to live in Nashoba was Wunnuhhew, also known as Sarah Doublet, who returned to the village after King Phillip's War. Doublet sold the remaining 500 acres of Nashoba in 1734 to cover the cost of her care when she was elderly. She died two years later. 

Sarah Doublet is one of the topics in John Hanson Mitchell's 1998 non-fiction book Trespassing: An Inquiry into the Private Ownership of Land. This is where the monster comes in. Mitchell's book is the only place I've found reference to the Nagog Pond monster. According to Mitchell, Sarah Doublet and the other Indians at Nashoba believed the pond was home to a large monster named Ap'cinic. Ap'cinic was a horned water-serpent, and also had tentacles that it used to probe the shoreline for prey. The creature seemed to have a particular appetite for human intestines. 

"She knew the terror that flies by night, the fiery worm, the gnashing devils, and the legends of the tentacled, horned monster who would reach up out of the dark waters of Nagog at certain times and draw the entrails of passing villagers down into the depths." (Mitchell, Trespassing, p. 23)

Mitchell talks about Ap'cinic's tentacles a few other times. An earthquake struck the area in the 1600s, and he describes the monster reacting to it: "... the waters of Nagog churned and roiled and swelled, and the horned water beast who lived most of his time unseen beneath the surface rose up and spirited his vicious hunting tentacles through the drying air." (Mitchell, Trespassing, p. 65) 

At one point in the book, Mitchell encounters some teenagers illegally swimming in Nagog Pond. He tries to warn them away by telling them about Ap'cinic:

"It had these long tentacles, they say, and a huge gnashing beak and horns on its head. At night it would reach up and feel along the shore for people, fishermen, swimmers, things like that. If it caught you, it would either drag you down into the waters, or worse, slice you open and suck out your intestines."

The teenagers were quiet for a minute.

"You mean it would like eat you alive?" Tracy asked. 

"Yeah, suck out your inner body parts while you clung to a tree."

"Cool," she said. (Mitchell, Trespassing, p. 154)

The teenagers are intrigued, but not too worried. After all, is the story about Ap'cinic even true? Was there ever a monster lurking in the pond? You may wonder the same thing yourself. 

To be clear, Trespassing is marketed as a non-fiction book. It is about the history of Littleton, Massachusetts, about people who actually lived, and even about the dry business of town governance. Town hearings about zoning are a key part of the book. Ap'cininc is only a very small part of Trespassing

From Native People of Southern New England, 1500 - 1650.

Sarah Doublet (Wunnuhhew) really lived in Nashoba, but we don't know much about her life, and sadly Mitchell doesn't cite any sources for the legend of Ap'cinic. It's possible he made the story up. On the other hand, it's entirely possible that the Indians at Nashoba did believe a horned serpent lived in the pond. Horned serpents were part of the Alonquin cosmology. The anthropologist Kathleen Brandon writes:

"Among the manitou known to the Ninnimissinuok (i.e. New England Indians) was the giant horned or antlered, under (water) world serpent, a being familiar to other Algonquian-speaking people as well. Images of this fearsome underwater dweller sometimes decorated amulets, bowls, and other objects." (Kathleen Bragdon, Native People of Southern New England, 1500 - 1650, 1996, p.187)

So perhaps the Indians at Nashoba did believe a horned serpent lived in this particular pond, but John Hanson Mitchell doesn't present any concrete evidence they did. He doesn't explain where he found the name Ap'cinic, or why he thinks Ap'cinic had tentacles. 

I think the word "manitou" is key to understanding what's happening with Ap'cinic. Manitou means spiritual power, or anything that has a lot of spiritual power. My hunch is that Mitchell is responding to the spiritual power he feels around Nagog Pond, and he's trying to tell the reader what it feels like for him, and what he thought it felt like for the Indians who lived there hundreds of years ago. Mitchell has written several books about the history of Littleton, and has a deep awareness of its history and geology. Ap'cinic is the sensation Mitchell feels when he is near the pond. Ap'cinic is how Mitchell experiences the spirit of the place:

"Back at the car I stood on the road for a while looking up at the hill, simply feeling the sensation. Nothing happened, nothing seized me by the throat and dragged me back into the swamps to draw me, struggling, into the murky depths. And below me at the pond, I could not see the slimy gleam of the blind, searching tentacles of the Ap'cinic, feeling along the shores for victims." (Mitchell, Trespassing, p. 109)

If you were to probe the depths of Nagog Pond with a camera, I don't think you would find any trace of a giant monster. But perhaps, if you were sitting in the woods by the lake on a still autumn night, with your phone silenced and your mind cleared from worries, you might catch a glimpse of Ap'cinic. Maybe it would look differently to you, and instead of a horned serpent you'd see a hairy humanoid wading along the shore, or a giant black bird flying overhead, or a strange glowing orb hovering above the water. Or maybe you'd just get the feeling of a sentient presence surrounding you. 

The ancient Romans had a term for the spirit of a place: genius loci, or local spirit. Your belief in spirits as actual autonomous beings, or as a psychological metaphor, will depend on your intellectual temperament. But Ap'cinic may still hold a strange power, even if you think of him simply as a psychological experience:

"...a lake provides a ready-made metaphor for the Soul of the World, a symbol of the collective unconscious, an imaginative nexus where individual perception (or "misperception") and collective myth meet. Regardless of the actual characteristics of the lake, it is transformed by the Imagination into a reflection of the unconscious itself, becoming a dark, impenetrable, bottomless kingdom which does not yield up its dead. (Patrick Harpur, Daimonic Reality. A Field Guide to the Otherworld. 2003, p. 129)

That sounds intimidating, doesn't it? But perhaps less intimidating than a tentacled monster that wants to eat your intestines. 

December 17, 2023

Spooky Holiday Reading: Merry Christmas, or Scary Christmas?

I'm sure you've heard the 1963 song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Andy Williams croons in his soothing voice,"...there'll be scary ghost stories, and tales of the glory of Christmases long, long ago." Although modern Americans tend to associate ghosts with Halloween, in Victorian England ghosts were associated with Christmas. I suppose this makes sense in some ways. After all, Christmas occurs at the darkest point of the year, which seems like a good time for ghosts to be out haunting. 

In the spirit of a spooky Christmas, here are four things you can read to get you in the holiday spirit. Two of them are even available free online, if you're feeling cash-strapped after holiday shopping. 

1. The Fright Before Christmas: Surviving Krampus and Other Yuletide Monsters by Jeff Belanger

This is the latest book by Jeff Belanger, a local author, paranormal investigator, and host of the New England Legends podcast and TV show on PBS and Amazon Prime. Full confession: the publisher sent me a copy of this book to review, and I've appeared on Jeff's podcast in the past. This is a great book for anyone interested in learning about the spooky folklore of Christmas. 

Me holding my copy of Fright Before Christmas!

I think by now most people are familiar with Krampus, the horned Austrian monster who terrorizes folks at this time of year, but Jeff also writes about many other strange Christmas creatures that are less well-known. For example, have you heard of Hans Von Trapp, the Cannibal Christmas Scarecrow of Alsace, France? Merry Christmas - but sleep with the lights on.

2. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

The protagonist of this novel by Joe Hill (Stephen King's son) is Vic McQueen, a psychic, ass-kicking, biker mama who grows up in Haverhill, Massachusetts (my hometown). The villain is a creepy vampire named Charles Talent Manx III. Imbecilic yet cunning, child-like yet predatory, Manx travels around the country in an old Rolls Royce. 

Armed with gingerbread-scented laughing gas, Manx abducts small children and brings them to Christmasland, a creepy holiday-themed amusement park that exists just beyond the border of our reality. He and Vic battle it out in this book that will make you gasp out "Merry Christmas..." as you slip into a vampiric, gingerbread slumber.

3."The Festival" by H.P. Lovecraft (free online)

One of my favorite stories by this Rhode Island master of weird horror.  A young man visits his family's ancestral Massachusetts hometown to participate in its traditional winter solstice celebration for the first time. Although he's charmed by the town's Colonial-era architecture, he's unnerved by its residents' silent, expressionless demeanors. 

He's even more unnerved when he follows a crowd of celebrants into a church, then into its crypt, then down ancient stone steps deep into the earth... Is he really entering a subterranean realm, or just his own fetid subconscious? Either way, he discovers a fungus-filled, maggoty hellscape. You'll scream "Merry Christmas!" before losing your sanity. 

4. The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James by M.R. James (free online)

If "The Festival" sounds too lurid for you, may I suggest the ghost stories of M.R. James? James was an Englishman and Anglican priest who wrote ghost stories every Christmas to entertain his friends. His stories often feature bookish academics or lonely clergymen visiting old historic sites and encountering supernatural evil. 

It's all very proper and British. But while his stories are subtle and heavy on the atmosphere, they often end with shocking violence and death. Nothing says "Merry Christmas!" like an undead Satanic nobleman devouring your face. 

Enjoy your holidays, and I hope all your horrors are confined to the printed page this December.