October 03, 2016

A Terrible Critter with Eyes Like Fire Coals: Revisiting the Dogtown Werewolf

A few years ago I blogged about the Dogtown werewolf, but it seems like a good time to revisit this topic. I was just recently researching this topic for my friend Sam Baltrusis's upcoming book about haunted crime scenes, and a producer from a paranormal show had also asked me what I knew about the topic. But most importantly, I really like werewolves!

New England folklore is filled with stories about witches, ghosts and the Devil himself, but there aren't very many about werewolves. Although the French Canadians of Vermont and Maine tell some tales about the loup-garou you don't find many werewolf stories in southern New England. One of the few comes from Dogtown on Massachusetts's Cape Ann.

Dogtown Common is a large park situated between the cities of Gloucester and Rockport. Once a thriving Colonial village, today Dogtown is 3,000 acres of forest, swamps and boulders. The ruins of the old village can be still be seen among the trees, along with boulders that wealthy Gloucester financier Roger Babson carved with motivational slogans. It's a weird landscape that has inspired artists and poets, and is haunted by legends of witches and strange disappearances.

Dogtown may also be home to a werewolf, at least according to the late author Robert Ellis Cahill (b.1934 - d. 2005). Cahill is an interesting figure in New England folklore. Before becoming a writer Cahill had worked as a Massachusetts politician and spent four years as Essex County sheriff, operating out of nearby Salem in that latter job until he suffered a major cardiac arrest in 1978. Heart attacks had long been a professional hazard of Salem's sheriffs, a problem supposedly dating back to the witch trials of 1692. During those trials accused wizard Giles Corey supposedly cursed Sheriff George Corwin, who died of a painful heart attack at a young age. Many of his successors suffered from heart attacks as well. The curse only ended after the sheriff's office was moved from Salem to nearby Middleton.

Robert Ellis Cahill (from Wikipedia).
Perhaps his encounter with a folkloric curse led Cahill to the next phase of his career, which was writing books about New England's weird and spooky history. He published more than thirty short books which had titles like New England's Cruel and Unusual Punishments, New England's Mountain Madness, and Haunted Ships of the North Atlantic. It was in one of these books (New England's Things That Go Bump in The Night) that he discussed the Dogtown werewolf.

On the evening of March 17, 1984 a Boston man named David Myska saw a large, mysterious animal loping along the cliffs near Crane Beach in Ipswich. Myska thought it might be a mountain lion, but those felines have been extinct in Massachusetts for centuries. Myksa claimed it was too large to be a coyote. So what was it? The creature was also seen in nearby Rowley, and four days later a dead deer was found near Crane Beach. Its throat had been slashed and large tooth marks were found around its neck and chest. Oddly, none of the deer's flesh had been eaten.

Ipswich and Rowley are not Dogtown, but they are located just a few miles away across the Annisquam River. Could the animal seen in those towns been the same one sighted a few days later by two teens running down Raynard Street in Gloucester? They described it as “gray monstrous dog-like animal… It had big teeth and was foaming at the mouth.” Yikes. Raynard Steet leads directly into Dogtown.

According to Cahill, the history of Dogtown is littered with hints about werewolves. For example, he claims that the Indians who originally inhabited Cape Ann said they were descended from a race of dog-headed men. He claims they also believed that anyone who ate the wolfbane plant would revert to their ancestral form: hairy, fanged, clawed, and lupine. I haven't seen this folklore anywhere except in Cahill's book, so take it with a grain of salt. And whatever you do, don't eat wolfbane, which is highly poisonous, with or without salt.

Dogtown is famous for the witches who lived there in the 18th and early 19th century, and Cahill notes that one of these witches, Daffy Archer, wore a wolf's tooth around her neck as a pendant. Witches are famous shape-shifters, so I suppose it's not much of a leap to connect witches with werewolves. If Peg Wesson, an infamous Gloucester witch, could send out her soul in the shape of a crow perhaps some other witch could transform into a wolf.

Me in Dogtown. I didn't see a werewolf that day (that I know...)

Cahill also interprets a famous incident from Dogtown's history as a possible werewolf attack. On September 10, 1892, a Gloucester sailor named James Merry drunkenly decided to wrestle a bull pastured in Dogtown. The previous year Merry, inspired by toreadors he had seen in Spain, had successfully wrestled the same bull to the ground, so why not try it again? In his drunken stupor Merry forgot that bulls grow quickly, and the bull was much, much larger than it had been twelve months earlier. It won the rematch and gored Merry to death. The sailor's lifeless body was found the next morning in the pasture.

That's the official story, but Cahill claims that the moon was full the night of September 10, and that Merry was found with his throat torn out, something no bull would do. Cahill asks: could Merry have been killed by a werewolf?

I would say this is all pretty slender evidence for a werewolf, but Cahill does cite one story that makes me hesitate in saying he concocted the whole thing. In her 1879 book Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian, Sarah Emery tells the following tale about Amos Pillsbury, a man who lived in Dogtown and worked for her Emery's father as a laborer. One night Pillsbury was walking home from work, a route that took him through thick woods. As he traveled this dark road he encountered a "terrible critter":

"A terrible critter? What was it like Pillsbury?" father inquired.

"Oh, Mr. Smith, it was a terrible big critter, as big as Brindle's calf; its eyes were like fire coals, and it ran past me through the bushes, about a rod from the road, with every hair whistling like a bell. It must have been the wolverine."

"The what, Pillsbury?"

"The wolverine. My old granny used to keep us young 'uns quiet with stories about the wolverine out beyond in the woods. I used to be afeared to stir ten yards from the door o' nights; but, as I had never seen the critter afore, I had begun to think it was one of granny's stories, but I seed him last night, sartin sure ; and his eyes were like fire coals, and every hair whistled like a bell." 

Pillsbury here is using the word wolverine to refer to a wolfish creature, not to the Hugh Jackman character from the X-men movies or the large burrowing animal found in Alaska. It was something his grandmother had told him about since childhood, and he was so obviously scared by seeing it that local men hunted for the creature for two days. They didn't find any sign of it.

So does this all add up to a bona fide werewolf? I'd like to think so, but it might just be wishful thinking on my part. If it is, I'm not the only one who feels that way. A couple years ago we went to a performance/haunted house in Salem called Gallow's Hill, which re-enacts legends from the North Shore's past. According to the performers at Gallow's Hill, the Dogtown witches used werewolves to guard their houses. So, whether it's true or not, the legend of the Dogtown werewolf lives on.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Wouldn't it be simpler to just get a dog to guard your house than to talk someone into transforming into wolf shape? :) I can see it now: "I'm going to the pub! My mates are waiting. Guard your own house." "Even if I bring you a big bowl of beer?" "No! Get a dog!"

Poor Giles Corey, bad enough what happened to him, being pressed to death, without having people still thinking he was a wizard centuries later!

Sue Bursztynski said...

PS I do like werewolves, I've even written a YA novel with werewolves in it, only they're mostly the good guys.