February 24, 2013

Cavemen Living on the Connecticut River?

I do love a strange story, and here is one of the stranger ones I've read in a while. Any concern about the truth of the story pales in comparison to how good it is.

According to Betty Hill, the famous UFO abductee, at one point in the 20th century an island in the Connecticut River was inhabited by a tribe of small primitive people.

For the space of about three years, people who lived near the river reported seeing prehistoric-looking people on an island that was supposed to be uninhabited. Whenever anyone (including the police) ventured out to the island to investigate the cavemen disappeared.

Betty wrote,

"It was as though somebody had picked up a group of early cavemen and had set them down on the island in a New England countryside. Planes and helicopters had flown over the area, hoping to get pictures, but these little people - they're not really tiny people, but maybe four feet tall or so - would just take off running at such speeds that no one could even get pictures of them. These prehistoric people would be there one instant, they would start running, and in the next instant, they would just disappear."

Like a lot of classic folklore the particulars of the story are vague. Where did it happen, and when? It's not clear. Betty claims she was told about the cave people by someone else, and didn't remember exactly where the island was, but thought maybe it was someplace near Springfield, Massachusetts. 

I'm grateful to Joseph Citro for including this story in his fantastic book Weird New England. Apparently Betty Hill first wrote about the cave people in an article called "Bigfoot in New England." Bigfoot researcher Jack Kewaunee Lapseritis also interviews Betty on this topic in his book The Psychic Sasquatch and Their UFO Connection. That's an amazing title for a book, but it looks like it is out of print. Some copies on Amazon are selling for hundreds of dollars! I guess everyone wants it as much as I do.

To me little cavemen sound suspiciously like faeries or trolls, and those creatures are notoriously hard to pin down. Maybe they were just paying a brief visit from the mythic world to remind us they're still lurking around, even if we can't prove they're really there.

February 16, 2013

Finding Water with a Whalebone

As a modern American I'm really spoiled. I have heat when it's cold, light when it's dark, and water when I'm thirsty. Of course I need to pay for all these things, but they're still available almost instantly.

Heat and electric light are generally accepted as modern conveniences, but it wasn't even easy for to get water for past generations of New Englanders, many of whom had to haul buckets of water from streams or rivers. Some lucky people had wells on their property, but getting a well was no simple task. It was difficult and potentially dangerous, so people didn't want to waste time digging where there wasn't any water underground. How then to make the important decision of where to put your well?

Many farmers and property owners consulted a dowser, someone who would use divination to find objects hidden below the earth. Dowsing has been documented back to Germany in the Renaissance, and can be used to find buried treasure, precious metals, petroleum and water. Dowsers carry an object in their hands that points mysteriously downwards when they are standing over the buried item.

Although some modern dowsers use a metal rod or pendulum, dowsers in North America have traditionally used a forked witch-hazel branch to find buried water. I'm not sure why this particular shrub is supposed to be better at finding water than other types. Perhaps it's because it has the word "witch" in its name, connoting magical power?

Frank Smith describes a traditional New England dowser in his 1914 book Dover Farms. In Which Is Traced the Development of the Territory from the First Settlement in 1640 to 1900. The dowser, named Joseph A. Smith, lived in Dover in the 1800s.

He often cut a fresh witch-hazel rod, but sometimes employed split whalebone. In using the divining-rod the legs were held in the hands, and when a spring or vein of water was crossed, the point would turn down; the power was often shown in the cracked bark of the stick when resistance was offered. 

Frank Smith writes that Smith the dowser was sought out by local farmers when sinking wells, and that he could "unerringly locate springs of water" and even estimate the number of feet that would have to be dug before water was hit. He also writes that dowsing probably operates on the same principals as magnetism or electricity.

I think it's interesting that Smith sometimes used a whalebone instead of a y-shaped branch. At first I pictured him dowsing with a giant whale rib, but realized he was probably using a smaller piece of whalebone from a women's corset. 

I think modern science is a little skeptical of dowsing, but there is a society for modern dowsers in Rhode Island.

Interestingly, a groups of dowsers in Vermont founded an apocalyptic church in the 1700s. Their rods foretold earthquakes, avenging angels, and naked young ladies. At least two of their predictions didn't come true.

February 09, 2013

Black Agnes, the Statue That Kills

I love exploring cemeteries. They're peaceful, full of beautiful sculpture, rich in history, and sometimes just a little bit creepy. Legends about ghosts and other supernatural happenings are also attached to a lot of cemeteries.

For example, consider the Green Mount cemetery in Montpelier, Vermont. The ghost of a small girl is rumored to haunt the walkways of this burying ground, searching for the gravesite of her mother. Green Mount is also home to Black Agnes, a funerary monument with an unsavory reputation.

Black Agnes is actually a large statue titled Thanatos (which means "death" in Greek). Sculpted by Karl Bitter, Black Agnes/Thanatos marks the grave of John Erastus Hubbard (1847 - 1899), a wealthy Montpelier businessman.

According to the legend bad things will happen to anyone who sits in Black Agnes's lap. Depending on who tells the story, the unlucky person will:

Encounter three strokes of bad luck

Have an uncountable amount of bad luck

Die within seven days

There are some variations of the story. Some say that sitting in Agnes's lap will just bring bad luck, but actually lying down on the statue will bring certain death. Others say that death will only come if you sit on Agnes during the full moon. Hmm. I say just avoid the statue altogether.

One story claims that three teenagers sat on Black Agnes during the full moon, trying to show how brave they were. They all drove home safely that night and thought they had escaped the curse. But within a week one was in a serious car accident, one fell and broke his leg, and the third drowned when his canoe capsized in the Winooski River. Just coincidence or the malevolent power of Black Agnes?

Black Agnes photo from T.M. Gray's More New England Graveside Tales.

I first read about Black Agnes in T.M. Gray's More New England Graveside Tales. Ms. Gray says locals claim John Hubbard was murdered, which is why his monument is charged with supernatural evil. She also says this story isn't true - records indicate he died of liver cancer.

Gray's book and these two websites also note that the Black Agnes statue actually represents a man, not a woman. I suppose Agnes could be his nickname or drag persona, but I think something else is going on here.

According to Snopes.com the Black Agnes story is actually found in many different parts of the country, including the Washington, DC area and in the Midwest. Snopes claims the original Black Agnes statue was in a cemetery in Baltimore, but was ultimately moved to the Dolly Madison House in DC because too many frat boys and sorority sisters were breaking into the cemetery for terrifying late-night initiations on Agnes's lap.

The Black Agnes statue in DC is of indeterminate gender but gets its name because it marked the grave of Civil War soldier Felix Agnus (1839 - 1925). Over time Agnus became Agnes, and in some places the statue is now simply called Black Aggie.

I'm not sure how the legend moved from Baltimore to Montpelier, but even if the Snopes explanation is true I don't think it lessens the power of this legend. Looming behind the narrative details of foolish teens and murderous statues is the very ancient idea that the dead have power and shouldn't be mocked. Sitting on a gravestone or a funeral monument is disrespectful to the dead - should we be surprised that they retaliate?

Like Midnight Mary, Black Agnes is another of those spirits who instructs us in how to show proper etiquette towards the dead. After all, when we've joined them on the other side we won't want obnoxious teens sitting on top of us either.

February 03, 2013

Media Mayhem: Bridgewater Triangle, UFOs in Amherst, and a Sugar Boycott

It's not often that folkloric things appear in the media, but several interesting articles recently appeared so I thought I'd devote a blog post to them.

My friend Ed told me about the first: the Taunton Gazette ran an article this week about a new documentary on the Bridgewater Triangle, a large area in Southeastern Massachusetts well-known for supernatural and paranormal phenomena. Ghosts? Bigfoot? UFOs? Mysterious animals? They can all be found in the Triangle.

At the heart of the area is the Hockomock Swamp, whose name means "place of spirits*" in Algonquin. Forty-seven percent of respondents to a poll run by the Taunton Gazette said they felt something supernatural was behind all the occurrences in the Bridgewater Triangle - and that they wouldn't step foot in the Hockomock Swamp. Ed told me his parents forbid him to pick berries in the swamp, but they never told him why. Cue the eerie music...

Here is the trailer for the documentary:

You don't need to travel to Bridgewater to see a UFO, however.  Dozens of people in Amherst, Massachusetts reported seeing a strange, low-flying object in early January. Described as triangular, illuminated with dim white lights, and the size of three cars, the object was seen at night flying about 100 feet above the ground. It moved slowly and quietly.

Officials at Westover Air Reserve Base initially said that no aircraft had appeared on their radar on the night in question. However, the FAA later released a report saying a C5 cargo plan was flying over the area at the time. This was intended to explain away the UFO, but it didn't. The C5 is larger and noisier than the object reported, and isn't triangular. If it wasn't a C5 what was it? I guess this UFO will stay truly unidentified. You can see a news clip here:

Last week I posted about rum, molasses and sugar, and their connection to slavery. Interestingly, the online magazine Slate ran an article about an 18th century merchant from my hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts who told his customers he would no longer sell sugar because of it was produced by slaves. This was clearly centuries before the concept of "fair trade" caught on. New England was once again ahead of the curve.

*A lot of people think Hockomock means "place of evil spirits", but I think it more accurately means just "place of spirits." The morality of the spirits there is left ambiguous.