October 26, 2014

The Pigman: Fact, Fiction, Freakishness

It was great to see people at the Tewksbury Library this past week and at the Boston Book Fair, where I was promoting my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore. At the book fair I also met Sam Baltrusis, author of Ghosts of Salem and Ghosts of Boston, and Dee Martin, author of Boston in the Golden Age of Spiritualism. If you get a chance please check out their books! They're full of the weird stories and interesting legends that I really love.

Speaking of weird legends, Halloween is this Friday, and when Halloween rolls around I think of my favorite New England monster, the Pigman. An overall creepy fellow, the Pigman haunts a woodsy area outside Northfield, Vermont called the Devil's Washbowl. Just who is the Pigman? Some stories say he's the half-human offspring of a local farmer and a friendly pig. Others say he's a local teenager who ran into the woods and became feral.

The most detailed story claims he's Sam Harris, a teenager who set out to cause some mischief on October 30, 1951. October 30 is called Picket Night up in Northfield, and it's the designated night for teenagers to make pre-Halloween trouble by throwing eggs, toilet papering houses, and probably at one time stealing pickets from fences. Sam set out on that chilly October night many years ago an innocent teen, but went missing. Three years later he briefly returned home for just one night. Now a squealing madman, he strewed pig innards on his parents' porch, only to disappear again. His mother was driven mad by even this brief glimpse of her now monstrous son, and committed suicide by throwing herself into a pen of hungry hogs. Locals whispered that Sam had sold his soul to Satan, and that he now lurks in the woods wearing the head of a pig to cover his own deranged visage.

I first read about the Pigman in Joseph Citro's Weird New England, but I've found other legends and rumors floating around on the web. Here's one that appeared last year. Dim the lights for maximum creepy effect. 

 Back in the 1980s a group of high school seniors decided to go camping overnight in the Devil's Washbowl. There were some caves in the area, and recently hunters had found pig bones (freshly gnawed) in some of them. Were they the remains of the Pigman's dinner? The seniors thought they were and hoped to get a glimpse of the town's resident monster. 

I think they were also hoping for some romantic action, since as the sun set they split up into couples, each taking a sleeping bag and flashlight and each settling into a different cave for the night...

I'll just interject here and say that anyone who has ever seen a horror movie knows this was a bad decision. Frisky teenagers. Dark woods. Separating the group. A hideous monster. I guess these were the rare teenagers who had never seen a scary movie. 

Back to the story. The teens were settling in for a night of snuggling when they heard screams coming from one cave. Grabbing their flashlights they all ran to see what had happened. Inside the cave they found one of the girls, screaming hysterically. Her boyfriend was nowhere to be seen.

When she calmed down enough to speak, the girl said that as soon as she and her boyfriend had settled down to sleep a large man wearing a pig's head came into their cave. They shouted at him to leave, but without even hesitating he grabbed a rock and clubbed the boyfriend on the head. The Pigman threw the unconscious boy over his shoulder and stalked off into the night.

The teens frantically drove back to town and told the police what happened. Search parties looked through the woods for days, and although heavy footprints were found leading away from the Devil's Washbowl the searchers lost the trail in the leaf-strewn forest. No sign could be found of the boy or his abductor.

Desperate for leads, the police put up posters with the boy's photo around around Northfield. Only one person came forward. A man said a few nights ago he had been in his kitchen when he heard something rummaging around outside in the trash. Thinking it was a racoon, he turned on the porch light and went to chase the animal away. But it wasn't a racoon digging through his trash, it was the missing boy. The man recognized him from the poster.

But the poster wasn't quite accurate, the man said. He had definitely seen the same boy, but his eyes were strangely hollow looking, and his body was covered in long white hair. 

Is this story true? It appears on a sight called Phantoms and Monsters, which is focused on UFOs, the paranormal, etc. It's written anonymously as a first-person account ("My sister and a couple of her friends went out to the Devil's Washbowl...") which would lead one to believe someone, somewhere said this all really happened.

However, a little poking around on the web showed that this version of the Pigman story was first posted on Reddit last year by  a user named William Dalphin. Dalphin writes horror fiction, so maybe this story isn't true. Or at least not entirely. It's in a section of Reddit for both true and fictional scary stories, so there's a little confusion. And the other Pigman stories are supposedly true, so I can understand why people think this one is.

The Pigman legend is relatively new, apparently first appearing in the 1970s. It's changing and growing over time, incorporating tropes and themes from popular horror movies and fiction. Will this story be passed on as true? For me, the Pigman stories are like good campfire tales told by someone who's seen a lot of horror movies. I'll be interested to see what new ones appear over time.

And the Pigman could be real, even if the stories about him change. Perhaps there really is some anomalous monster lurking around Northfield and people are just trying to describe him using the stories and themes that are familiar to them. Perhaps it's the only way the locals can wrap their heads around the hideous, porcine enigma. He's a monstrous blank slate for them to write their fears on.

I suppose the only way to settle the question of the Pigman's existence is for someone to spend the night in the Devil's Washbowl. I'll leave that to someone braver than myself.

My other Pigman posts are here and here, if you really want to stay awake all night. 

October 19, 2014

Fall Phenomena: Mountain Lions, Vampires, Evil Clowns, and More!

As we get closer to Halloween, it seems like more and more strange things have been happening locally.

For example, a 26-year old man from Beverly, Massachusetts was arrested for trying to dig up a grave in Salem's Old Burial Ground on Charter Street. The man apparently is mentally ill, which is sad and not really the strange thing. The strange thing is that a group of tourists gathered around and watched him unearth the tomb in broad daylight. Apparently they thought it was just a normal part of the Salem Halloween festivities!

In other odd news, buried deep inside the October 12 issue of the Boston Globe was a short note that a woman in Burlington, Massachusetts called the police to say she had seen a mountain lion walking near some power lines. As is often the case with these sightings, the police investigated but found nothing conclusive.

It seems like weird creatures are often seen near power lines. Is this because of electromagnetic something or other, or simply because the undergrowth is cut low allowing clearer sight lines? One of my favorite power line sightings was this strange creature seen by Bill Russo in 1990 in Raynham, Massachusetts. And by favorite, I mean creepiest!

"Ee wah chu..." Image from The Bridgewater Triangle documentary.

I first learned about Bill from the recently released Bridgewater Triangle documentary. Bill has just published a book evocatively titled Creature from the Bridgewater Triangle. It is available on Kindle. I haven't read it, but it definitely has a great title!

Speaking of great titles, I'll be doing some readings and signings for my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore next week.

  • Tuesday, October 21 at 7:00 pm: Tewksbury Library, Tewskbury, Massachusetts (reading and a talk)
  • Saturday, October 25 at 3:00 pm: Boston Book Festival, Copley Square, Boston (book signing). I'll be at the History Press booth.

If you're not in the mood for reading, you might want to check out this new documentary about the New England vampire phenomenon. The documentary is from Connecticut's Historical Haunts LLC, and features Rhode Island folklorist Michael Bell.

Rhode Island folklorist Michael Bell.

The vampires of old New England weren't the bloodsuckers we see in movies today, but instead were the hungry corpses of people who died from tuberculosis. It was believed that they fed from their graves on the health of their surviving family members. I haven't seen this film but it looks like good, spooky viewing!

Speaking of spooky viewing, the TV show American Horror Story: Freak Show features a particularly terrifying clown called Twisty.

 Late this summer, before the show started, a creepy clown was seen lurking around at night in southern California. The trend now appears to be spreading nationwide. These evil clowns are all late to the party. Everyone knows the original evil clown scare started here in Boston. Once again, New England is a trendsetter! I just wish this were a better trend.

Finally, if you want to escape the evil clowns, vampires, and mountain lions, you might want to purchase the sylvan yet abandoned village of Johnsonville in East Haddam, Connecticut. The village is spread over 62 acres and was a former resort. Of course, you may encounter some strange phenomena since East Haddam is well-known for its mysterious subterranean Moodus noises and for witchcraft activity. Johnsonville also apparently comes with a resident ghost, but he doesn't sound too malevolent. The village is being sold at auction with a starting bid of $800K, which seems reasonable to me given current Boston housing expenses.

October 13, 2014

Emmeline Bachelder, Fate, and the Fayette Factor

October is our national month of monsters, ghosts and witches. It's the time when America allows itself to be scared by horror movies and haunted houses, and even your nicest neighbor covers their house with giant spiders and puts skeletons on their front lawn.

Every month is a scary month on this blog - witches and monsters are de rigeur. So for this pre-Halloween post I am going to write about something really scary. It's so scary I'm not even sure what to call it.

Let's start with the story of Emmeline Bachelder. Emmeline was born in 1816 to a farm family living in the small town of Fayette, Maine. Life can still be difficult in rural Maine today, but in the early 19th century people endured a level of poverty we can't quite fathom. At the age of 13 Emmeline's parents sent her to Massachusetts to work in one of the mill towns. She was supposed to send home her pay to help support her parents.

It was Emmeline's first time in a large city. She found work in a mill, but was soon seduced by one of the foremen and became pregnant at the age of 14. One of her aunts lived nearby and helped Emmeline deliver the baby, which was sold to a well-off local couple. According to legend, the aunt never even showed Emmeline the baby or told her who it was sold to. Emmeline returned to Fayette. She never told anyone what happened.

When she was 28 she married a Maine man named George Chambers and had a son with him. But after 20 years he left her and she found herself single once again.

I imagine at this point Emmeline was resolved to being single for the rest of her life. She was middle-aged and Fayette was a small place. There just weren't that many eligible men in town. The years passed by and she remained alone. So I also imagine she was quite happy when Leonard Gurney moved to Fayette from southern New England. He was at least ten years younger than Emmeline and handsome. He was also instantly attracted to her, a feeling which was mutual.

You might see where this is going.

Emmeline and Leonard were married. Emmeline was 62; Leonard was 48. They lived happily together until her aunt, now quite elderly, came to visit. When she saw Leonard she was horrified. He was the baby that Emmeline had sold. Emmeline had unknowingly married her own son. She had broken one of society's biggest taboos.

When the truth was revealed Leonard immediately left Emmeline. Gossip spread through Fayette and Emmeline's reputation was ruined. She became a pariah - even her legitimate son abandoned here - and she died alone and penniless at the age of 81. It's believed that her body is buried outside the walls of the Moose Hill Cemetery in Sagamore Falls, Maine.

Is this story true? It seems too archetypal, just too "Oedipus in Maine" to be real. But apparently it is true. After doing extensive research the PBS show The American Experience produced a documentary about Emmeline in 1989 called "Sins of Our Mothers." Her life has also been the source of a novel (Emmeline by Judith Rossner) and an opera of the same name by Tobias Picker.

I think the sheer awfulness of Emmeline's situation makes people doubt the truth of her story. Was it just bad luck on her part? Maybe it was just her fate, the result of some random occurrences. But maybe she fell victim to something called the Fayette Factor.

Can one man's name cause a lot of problems? A portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette.
The Fayette Factor was first proposed (discovered? invented?) by paranormal investigator Jim Brandon in the 1970s. According to Brandon, and later writers like Loren Coleman, places in the United States that have the word "Fayette" in their name are more likely to experience strange phenomena.

For example:

  • People in Fayatteville, Arkansas have reported water monsters, UFOs, and assorted humanoid creatures.
  • In North Carolina, the town of Fayatteville has a haunted mansion, the Slocumb House, which is connected to the Cape Fear River Channel by a tunnel. The river has been the location of multiple Bigfoot sightings. 
  • Fayette County near Pittsburgh experienced a wave of Bigfoot sightings in the 1970s. Some of the creatures were seen in conjunction with UFOs. 
  • La Fayette County, Ohio was haunted by a mysterious, giant black cat, as was Lafayette, Wisconsin. 
  • Places with the word 'fayette' in their name appear in connection with many famous crimes, including the Son of Sam murders and JFK's assassination. 

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Emmeline's home town of Fayette, Maine was the sight of witchcraft in the 18th century (according to the journals of minister Paul Coffin) and was also home to the "Moving Arm Ghost" which haunted a nearby spring. The ghost would offer a copper pot of water to travelers, but when irritated would throw water at them. Loren Coleman also claims there is a cave called the Devil's Den located nearby.

Why would the name Fayette be linked to paranormal phenomena? Most American locations with Fayette in their name were named after the Marquis de Lafayette, the French military strategist who helped the colonists during the Revolutionary War. Perhaps the strange phenomena occur because the Marquis was involved with the Freemasons and other vaguely occultish groups. Or maybe it's not the Marquis himself but just his name, Lafayette, which may mean "little enchantment" or "small fairy." The related English word 'fey' can mean unlucky or doomed. Incorporating the word into your town's name might just be an invitation for those tricky fey forces to come pay a visit...

Logically, I don't think this makes any sense. There are many places in New England, like the Bridgewater Triangle or even Gloucester, with more paranormal phenomena than Fayette, Maine. How do you even decide what counts as strange phenomena? Some things are obviously unusual (Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts), but unfortunately murders are an everyday occurrence. Jim Brandon also includes strange weather events when discussing the Fayette Factor, but let's face it, strange weather occurs all across America and is only increasing.

Emotionally, though, the Fayette factor resonates with me. As an explanatory theory it is creepy and a little paranoid, but despite it's logical flaws at least it's an explanation of why things, particularly weird and scary things, happen. It's a paranormal form of theodicy, telling us why bad things happen to good people. It's reassuring to think we aren't just in the wrong place at the wrong time when something terrible occurs to us.

Maybe it would have comforted Emmeline Bachelder Gurney to know about the Fayette Factor. She would have had some reason for the strange turn her life took. Otherwise, Emmeline just encountered really bad luck. There was no reason for what happened to her, it was just a roll of the cosmic dice. Which is probably the scariest explanation there is.


Most of my information about Emmeline Bachelder is from this article in the New York Times. You can read more about the Fayette Factor in Loren Coleman's book Mysterious America, or Jim Brandon's book The Rebirth of Pan. Hidden Faces of the American Earth Spirit. The book's title indicates the wonderful depths of craziness inside its covers.

October 05, 2014

Halloween Magic from New Hampshire: A Grim Party Game

Before I turn to this week's lore, I want to thank everyone who came out to one of my readings or signings this week. It was great talking with people and fantastic to meet some readers of this blog in person!

Now, onto the lore. On Friday when I was traveling up to Haverhill for one of the readings it really hit me that fall is here. The leaves are turning color quickly and gloriously, particularly near rivers, ponds and swamps. The temperatures are falling and we've had some wonderfully gloomy days. Fall is here, and soon it will be Halloween, which is perhaps my favorite holiday.

As I've mentioned before, Halloween has only been celebrated in New England since the 19th century. Early New Englanders put on masks and caused trouble during other holidays like Guy Fawke's Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas - those traditions migrated easily to Halloween.

Halloween isn't only about costumes and trick-or-treating, though. It's also a celebration of the supernatural. Our early New England ancestors took the supernatural very seriously, and it was only during the 19th century that witchcraft and fortune-telling became something to be celebrated. Nature had been tamed (at least apparently) through industrialization, and science could explain occurrences once blamed on witches or their Master. It was finally safe to bring fortune-telling and divination into the front parlor as party games.

Here's a fortune-telling Halloween party game from early 20th century New Hampshire. It's from The Book of Hallowe'en (1919) by Ruth Edna Kelley, a writer who lived in Marblehead, Massachusetts.The game was played primarily girls, but I don't think there's any reason other people can't play. But be warned: this game is morbid.

The game goes something like this. Take three bowls and place them in a row on a table. Put a ring in bowl number one.

Put some water in bowl number two.

Finally, in bowl number three, put some dirt.

A party guest is blindfolded and led into the room. The guest reaches out and touches one of the bowls. Each bowl indicates a different future for the guest.

Touching the bowl with the ring means they'll marry soon.

Touching the one filled with water means they'll never marry.

Touching the dish with the dirt means they'll die shortly.  

That's right, this is a party game that tells your guests if they'll die soon. "Okay everyone, now that we've found out who's going to die let's get back to the party! Does anyone want some cake?" I don't think so. This game definitely seems like a mood-killer to me.

There have been divination methods like this going back to the 17th century. In the 1690s girls floated an egg white in a glass of water. The shapes it made indicated the career of their future husbands (a ship meant a sailor, a plow meant a farmer), but a coffin indicated death. I expect something like this from the 17th century, when life was grimmer. I don't expect it in a party book from 1919!

Needless to say, I won't be including this game in my Halloween plans, but let me know what happens if you do. I suspect your guests won't be rushing back for your next party.