August 27, 2010

A Scary Place with A Silly Name

If you knew a place haunted by supernatural terror, you'd probably give it a scary name. Think of some of the well-known scary New England place names: Purgatory Chasm, Dungeon Rock or Misery Island. You'd want a demonic ghost-haunted locale to have a name like that, wouldn't you?.

Unless, of course, you were from Medway, Massachusetts. The townspeople there knew a place where Satan would gather with his witches, but they gave it a very unscary name: Dinglehole. It sounds like an insult from a second grader!

Dinglehole, which was a large swampy depression filled with fetid water of an unknown depth, was feared for three reasons:

1. A ghostly bell could be heard ringing on dark nights and misty evenings. Locals called it the "spirit bell", and the dingling of the bell gave the hole its name. (I guess the word "dingle" has gone out of fashion. Contemporary people would probably name it Jinglehole, which doesn't sound much better.)

2. A headless ghost haunted Dinglehole, and would lead unwary travelers astray with strange glowing lights. Locals claimed saying a prayer would banish the ghost, his lights and the bell, but only temporarily.

3. Even worse than a headless ghost, the Devil and his local witches met by night at Dinglehole near a large twisted pine tree. The witches came not in human form, but as weasels, raccoons and "other little odiferous animals."

A skeptic might say "Of course you'll find weasels and raccoons in the woods. How did people know they were witches?" Well, Mr. Smarty-Pants (to use another second grade insult), because they were invulnerable to normal weapons, as the following Dinglehole story illustrates.

One evening, a Medway hunter was making his way home when he noticed a large raccoon watching him from a tree. Unable to resist such an easy target, the hunter shot the raccoon and hit it squarely in the chest. Nothing happened to the raccoon. It sat there unharmed, but perhaps with a slight smirk on its face. The hunter fired several more shots, each time hitting the raccoon, which continued to ignore the bullets.

Finally, it dawned on the hunter that this was no ordinary animal. He plucked a branch from a nearby witch hazel shrub, a plant known for its magical powers, and fired it from his rifle like a small harpoon. It hit the raccoon, which vanished. Several days later, the hunter learned that Murky Mullen, a local woman suspected of witchcraft, had an unexplained injury on her face. Clearly, she (or her spirit) had been wandering the woods in the shape of a raccoon.

The accounts of the Dinglehole horrors come from Ephraim Orcutt Jameson and George James La Croix's The History of Medway, Mass. 1713-1885 (1886). Dinglehole is now located somewhere in Millis, though, which separated from Medway in the late 1800s. The Federal Writers' Project book Massachusetts: A Guide to Its Places and People (1937) claims Dinglehole is located somewhere north of Union Street, but has been filled in. Perhaps it should be renamed Dinglefield? Does that sound scarier?

August 20, 2010

A Monster in the Barn!

When most people think of New England, they don't picture suburban sprawl, interstates or bustling metropolises. No, they think of woody hills, charming seaside fishing villages, and quaint white farmhouses with old stone walls in the fields out back.

However, there might be a sinister side to those New England farmhouses. Local fiction, like Thomas Tyron's Harvest Home (you don't want to be a single man when the corn's ripe) or H.P. Lovecraft's Dunwich Horror ("What's that noise up in the attic?"), certainly suggest there is. The spooky side of agriculture also shows up in local folklore, whether it's death by cider or cursed bloody apples.

Now I can hear you say "But modern agriculture is clean and mechanized! Maybe our witch-fearing ancestors were spooked by strange noises in the hayloft, but nothing weird happens on farms in the modern world."

Of course it doesn't...

Except on the night of August 23, 1982. That was the night John Fuller and David Buckley went out to check the cows at the farm where they worked in Ellington, Connecticut.

Sure it was late (after midnight), and it was rainy, but the two men weren't worried. After all, they had checked the cows a hundred times before and never encountered anything weird in the barn. And cows aren't scary, even after dark.

But that night, when they entered the barn, they encountered something different. Something strange and terrifying.

A huge humanoid was sitting near a feed bin, silently observing the cows. It was nearly seven feet tall, massively built, and covered in hair. When it saw John and David, it stood up and began to walk towards them.

The two farmhands, showing Yankee ingenuity, ran the hell away and called the police.

A Minnesota bigfoot from

The cops came, but by then the creature was gone and they couldn't find any tracks in the wet ground. The incident was later written up in the local newspaper. Maybe the publicity scared the creature away, because it has never been seen in Ellington again.

It might have shown up elsewhere in Connecticut, though. The Bigfoot Encounters Web site lists ten reports of large hairy humanoids in the state, the oldest going back to the 1890s.

Most people assume the monster was some kind of home grown Sasquatch. But if you look even further back, this story reminds me of old European folklore about creatures like the urisk, gruagach or brownie, hairy humanoid spirits that lived in barns and farm houses. Sometimes they were tiny, and sometimes they were large. Sometimes they helped out around the farm, and sometimes they caused a lot of trouble.

I found this story in Joseph Citro's excellent book, Passing Strange. True Tales of New England Hauntings and Horrors. He's a great storyteller, and has an entire chapter titled "Barnyard Tales and Terrors."

This week's post is also part of Loving Local, a blogathon to support Mass Farmers Markets, a non-profit that helps farmers markets. The blogathon was the idea of Tinky over at In Our Grandmothers' Kitchens. Be grateful for your local farmers - who knows what type of terrors they have to deal with!

August 12, 2010

A Hyena on Cape Cod?

A few years ago, Tony and I went with some friends to Great Island in Wellfleet. After parking our cars in the lot, we all headed out to the beach. It took us quite a while to walk there (about 45 minutes), and we didn't see any other people on the way. The beach itself was deserted except for us and one Swedish tourist. For such a popular destination, it's surprising how empty parts of the outer Cape still are.

This lesson was reinforced a couple weeks ago when Tony and I visited Truro, which is next to Wellfleet. One afternoon we walked around the woods in the National Seashore for two hours, and one again we didn't see any other people. None. Not even a Swedish tourist! Some of the beaches in Truro were also empty, and it was the middle of summer. Again, there are some very empty places on the outer Cape!

A view onto Longnook Beach in Truro. Where is everybody?

Given all this emptiness, it's not surprising that weird things happen out there. I've already mentioned the Black Flash who roamed around Provincetown in the mid-20th century, but he's not the only monster who's been seen in that part of the Cape.

In the mid-19th century, Wellfleet was supposedly terrorized by a hyena.

A hyena at night, from a travel blog.

It sounds odd, but here are the facts. A large hairy animal was glimpsed lurking in the woods. Strange pawprints were found in the sand. Domestic animals and chickens were killed at night. An eerie howling was heard echoing across the hills, and women and children were afraid to leave their homes.

Eventually, the Wellfleet men armed themselves and set off in pursuit of the creature. They were unsuccessful at capturing it, but apparently successful in driving it away. The howls grew more distant and infrequent, and finally they ceased completely. The creature never returned.

Was this mysterious animal really a hyena? People who glimpsed it thought it resembled one, but had they ever seen a live hyena or even a photo? Perhaps the whole affair was just hysteria. The only written record of the Wellfleet hyena is The Hyena Hunt, an 1869 poem by local physician Thomas Stone. Stone writes about the hyena hunt mockingly in faux epic language, so clearly he thought the whole thing was some kind of joke.

I'm tempted to say the creature was really just a coyote, which are now as common on the Cape as ticks. But sometimes strange animals show up in places where they're not supposed to. For example, there are plenty of people in Massachusetts who swear they've seen large cats (cougar sized!) on Cape Ann and in the Hockomock Swamp in the southeastern part of the state. In fact, according to Loren Coleman's book Mysterious America, in 1972 the Rehoboth police organized a lion hunt to catch a large animal terrorizing their town. But although tracks were found, the lion eluded the police. It's like the Wellfleet hyena hunt all over again.

Was the Wellfleet creature just a coyote? Was it really a hyena that somehow escaped from a zoo? Was it a mountain lion? Maybe, but maybe it was something conjured up in the empty spaces from the wind, the water and the woods.

August 08, 2010

Crazy Cranberry Cures

The Boston Globe ran an article this week about a worldwide cranberry surplus. Farmers are growing more berries than in the past, and prices are dropping! To help increase global demand, the Cranberry Marketing Committee has been touting the alleged anitbacterial and antiaging powers of this tart little berry.

Cranberries are indigenous to New England, and their health benefits been speculated about for centuries. For example, I recently purchased a copy of the Lydia Marie Child's 1828 book, The American Frugal Housewife, which contains home remedies as well as recipes and household tips. Are you suffering from a corn on your foot? Use a cranberry, Mrs. Child says!

A corn may be extracted from the foot by binding on half a raw cranberry, with the cut side of the fruit upon the foot. I have a known a very old and troublesome corn drawn out in this way, in the course of a few nights.

I suppose I can see how this might work. Cranberries are acidic, so maybe the acid helps to dissolve the corn? However, I don't think this next cure would work at all.

The Indians have great belief in the efficacy of poultices of stewed cranberrries, for the the relief of cancers. They apply them fresh and warm every ten or fifteen minutes, night and day. Whether this will effect a cure I know not; I simply know that the Indians strongly recommend it.

OK, not even the Cranberry Marketing Committee would say that's an effective cure for cancer. Part of me wants to laugh at how quaint this cure is, but it also makes me realize how primitive medicine was in the early 19th century. There was no chemo, radiation or surgery available for cancer, so why not apply a poultice of cranberries? It probably couldn't hurt, and there weren't any other effective options.

Although Mrs. Child's medical knowledge seems simple by today's standards, she was quite progressive for her day. Born in Medford, Massachusetts in 1802, she wrote a scandalous novel about a white woman who marries an Indian (Hobomok), was an advocate for women's rights and the abolition of slavery, and published the first monthly American magazine for children. She also wrote the Thanksgiving poem Over the River and Through the Woods, for which she is perhaps most famous.