February 21, 2017

The Truro Panther

This past weekend I was talking at a party to someone who lives in Provincetown. At some point in the conversation I mentioned that I write about local folklore. Eventually our conversation turned to the Truro Panther.

"I think I saw it once," he said. "It was late at night, and I was driving down Route Six past Pilgrim Lake into town."

That stretch of the road is really dark, I remarked. He agreed.

"I saw an animal run across the road in front of my car. I just caught a glimpse of it, almost like a shadow. Whatever it was, it had a long curving tail."

I asked him if maybe it had just been a coyote.

"No, definitely not. It had a long tail, just like a cat."

Had my friend seen the elusive Truro Panther? Maybe he had.


The Truro Panther is also known as the Pamet Panther and the Beast of Truro. If you've never been to the town of Truro on Cape Cod, you might not understand why people think a panther might be living there.

Located on the outer Cape, Truro is very busy on summer days. Route Six is filled with cars passing through to Provincetown, and Truro's beaches are bustling with families of tourists. But the summer hustle and bustle is deceptive. There isn't really much of a town center in Truro, and most of the houses are surrounded by a dense scrubby forest of wind-stunted pines and oaks. Much of the town's land is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore and can't be developed. There are deer and coyotes in the woods, and seals and sharks swim offshore. 

Last year in August we saw a school of bluefish feeding on a school of minnows in the shallows off Longnook Beach. Then a group of seals arrived and began to feed on the bluefish. There were big pools of blood in the water. Needless to say, I didn't go swimming. Truro can feel like the edge of the world, particularly to a city person like me.

In the mid-19th century people in Truro reported seeing a strange creature lurking around their farms and in the woods. They couldn't quite identify it. Was it a wolf? Was it some type of big cat? Apparently some locals thought it might have been a lioness that escaped from a ship en route from Africa. Whatever the creature was, people called it the the Truro Hyena because of the eerie sounds it made at night. Livestock went missing. Paw-prints were seen in the sand. Women and children refused to leave their homes after dark. 

Eventually a hunting party was formed. Boys and men armed with guns searched through the woods and along the beaches, and although they found paw-prints they never captured the animal. The whole incident was parodied by Thomas Stone, a physician who lived in nearby Wellfleet, in a poem called The Hyena Hunt:

Some vow it is a lioness, bore
By ships from Afric's sunny shore,
That paces now our Cape sands o'er;
Moaning for whelps, most piteously.

Some still, a hyena, whose fearful howl,
Had shook the woods of Tonegal,
In company with the fierce jackal,
Fighting the Fellah, hideously.

Some unbelievers, with taunting sneer,
Swore 'twas a goat, a dog, a deer,
Whose footsteps, magnified by fear,
Had seized the fearful hearted.

But there those fearful footsteps stand,
Imbedded on Atlantic's strand,
And the moaning cry runs through the land,
As if from loved ones parted.

It was easy for Stone to characterize those 19th century Truro citizens as yokels. After all, even back then people knew there were no giant cats living on Cape Cod.

Well, no one told the giant cat, because in 1981 it reappeared. The first signs appeared in September, when about a dozen house cats were found dead across town. Police believed the cats were probably the victims of feral dogs.

Later that fall, William and Marcia Medeiros of Truro were walking on a path through the woods near Head of the Meadow Beach when they saw a large cat-like animal. It was broad daylight, and they watched the animal for about five minutes before it disappeared into the woods. They said the animal had a long curving tail and probably weighed about 80 pounds.

On December 16, Truro police officer David Costa returned home from duck hunting when he noticed that one of his pigs had been attacked.

"He was just barely alive. The claw marks were long and almost looked like someone did it with a razor blade. The marks were horizontal," he said, not up and down the pig's body, an indication that the attacking animal had jumped on the hog's back. (The Boston Globe, January 4 1982, "Is A Mountain Lion Loose on Cape Dunes?", p.13)

Costa's pig was so grievously wounded it had to be slaughtered. On December 20, two other pigs in South Truro were also attacked, but their wounds were much less serious.

Animal tracks were found near the South Truro pig pen, and state wildllife officials thought a single dog had carried out the attack. However, the soil was too sandy to tell for sure what had made the tracks. Dogs tend to hunt in packs, so would just one dog attack two pigs?

A woman living in North Truro was awakened in the middle of the night by an animal shrieking loudly outside her home. When she and her husband investigated the next day they found animal tracks around their yard. Again, the soil was too sandy to determine with certainty what made them. Later, a tourist visiting from New York called town selectman Edward Oswalt to report seeing a large cat-like animal in North Truro.

Various theories were proposed. The official one was that the attacks had been carried out by wild dogs, but many people thought the creature was a mountain lion. This could be possible (there is enough open space and game in Truro), but it's unclear how a mountain lion would make it all the way to the Outer Cape. The animal would need to either swim across the Cape Cod canal or walk over all bridge, and then make its way down to Truro. It doesn't seem plausible. And besides, Massachusetts wildlife officials believe that mountain lions are extinct in the state.

Other locals thought that perhaps a camper had set loose a pet mountain lion, and a rumor spread that  someone had been seen in Provincetown walking a panther on a leash. Maybe that panther had escaped?

In the end there was no clear resolution. The sightings and livestock killings stopped, and the creature became part of Truro folklore. Is something still lurking out there in the scrubby forests of the Outer Cape? My fried saw something strange crossing the road, so maybe there is.

February 12, 2017

Pot Sasquatch, The Boston Yeti, and The Return of The Wildman

Before I delve into this week's topic, I wanted to let you know I will be speaking at Boskone, New England's longest running science fiction and fantasy convention. Boskone 54 takes place February 17 - 19 at the Westin Boston Waterfront at 245 Summer Street. On Saturday afternoon I'll be moderating a panel titled "New England: The Legend, The Lore, The Mystery," and on Sunday at noon I'll be participating in a panel on how fiction writers use mythology in their work. If you are attending Boskone be sure to say hello! I am sure it will be a great convention.

Now, onto this week's topic. The groundhog saw his shadow, predicting six more weeks of winter, and that certainly seems to be the case in New England. We just had a blizzard last week, and now another storm AND a blizzard are on track for today and tomorrow. Nature's fury has been unleashed, and along with ice and snow our region has been visited by some mysterious creatures.

On February 9, Channel 22 meteorologist Janille Paglie was reporting from Springfield about that day's blizzard when she and her crew noticed something odd behind her. Someone dressed in a Sasquatch costume covered in pot leaves was cavorting around in the snow. At first the "creature" played some hide and seek, and then frolicked openly in the street. Channel 22 dubbed it Pot Sasquatch, and it became an internet sensation.

Pot Sasquatch reminded me of the Boston Yeti, who roamed the deserted streets of Boston during the Snowmageddon blizzards of 2015. Like Pot Sasquatch, Boston Yeti was clearly a human in a cryptid costume who appeared during inclement winter weather. The yeti was eventually revealed to be Someville resident John Campopiano, who said in an interview with The Improper Bostonian that he was always fascinated with UFOs and Bigfoot as a child. The yeti outfit was an old Halloween costume he owned which he felt compelled to don during the 2015 snowstorms. There was very little snow here in 2016, but the Boston yeti did emerge from hibernation for the February 9 blizzard.

OK, so what's going on here? Why did Massachusetts see not one but two cryptid impersonators playing in the same blizzard? Some photos might help explain the situation a little bit.

Boston Yeti (Somerville, Massachusetts)
Pot Sasquatch (Springfield, Massachusetts)
Krampus (Ischgl, Austria)
European winter mummer, photo by Charles Freger
European winter mummer, photo by Charles Freger
Many regions of Europe have traditions of people in monstrous costumes parading at winter. Krampus is probably the one best known in the United States, but there are other similar traditions across Europe. The costumed celebrants in these processions often represent the cold dark forces of winter, although sometimes they instead represent the powers of spring that ultimately banish winter for another year. These mythical creatures are frightening, magical, and sometimes playful, and they are an important part of local seasonal celebrations.

We don't have those traditions in the United States. Some folklore-minded Americans are trying to create Krampus processions here in the States, but I am not sure if it will ever catch one. Most Americans associate spooky costumes with Halloween, not the winter. But when I see Pot Sasquatch and Boston Yeti, I can't help but wonder if our own indigenous version of these traditions might be forming spontaneously. Krampus needs a lot of explanation, but most Americans know what Sasquatch and the Yeti are.

Even if Sasquatch processions don't become a tradition, I think Pot Sasquatch and Boston Yeti show that some people yearn to dress up like monsters in the winter, and that other people repond to them. It just feels right somehow. Maybe the winter makes us wish we could sprout fur and run wild.

Humans have been dressing up as monsters for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks paraded around in satyr costumes, Medieval Europeans dressed like leaf-covered wildmen, and Austrians still disguise themselves as Krampus. Now someone in Springfield has dressed like Pot Sasquatch. He may just seem like a weirdo looking for attention, but he's really the latest incarnation of an ancient time-honored tradition.

February 05, 2017

An Old Haunted House in Cambridge

I am one of those people who actually likes winter. Once the grim darkness of early January is gone winter here in New England is actually pretty nice. There is a certain clarity to this time of year. The leaves are down and I can really see the landscape in all its contours. Rocks and boulders that are hidden most of the time are visible now, and its easier to see those hardy birds who haven't flown south.

It's also a good time to do stuff around the house. For some reason, when February comes I always like to make traditional New England recipes. Yesterday I made cranberry bread, and today I'm cooking pumpkin soup. There's just something homey about winter. The nesting impulse from autumn continues into these months, but without the pressure and commercialism of the holidays.

Of course, the spooky vibe from Halloween continues as well. It's still dark and dead outside, and it still seems like a good time for ghost stories. (Really, is any time not good for ghost stories?) Here's one from a friend who for many years lived in the Cooper Frost Austin House, which is the oldest house in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Cooper Frost Austin House

The Cooper Frost Austin House was built in 1681 by Samuel Cooper. Cooper and his family were prominent members of Cambridge society, with several of them serving as deacons in the Puritan church or in municipal leadership positions. The house remained in the same family for 250 years (!) until 1913, when it was given to the organization now called Historic New England. The house is open several times a year for tours, and is worth visiting if you enjoy early Colonial architecture.

My friend was one of several resident caretakers who have lived in the house since 1913. When he was moving in, he met with the previous caretaker to see if there were any tips he needed to know. She gave him an overview of the property and the grounds, and explained the multiple rules for living in a historic house. And then she said:

"Oh, and by the way, I think there's a ghost in the house."

"A ghost?" my friend said.

"Yes, a ghost. I've sensed a presence in the house, particularly in the east bedroom upstairs. It feels like a woman, and sometimes it feels like she's watching me when I sleep. But don't worry! I don't think she's malevolent."

And with that she left, and my friend was left alone in the house. Naturally, he had already selected the east bedroom as his new bedroom.

Months went by, and my friend didn't experience anything strange. He slept through the nights without feeling any unusual presences. However, something weird happened one day when he was at the Boston Public Library. He had gone to the library to research the history of the house, and he mentioned to a young man working at the reference desk that he was now living in the Cooper Frost Austin House.

"The Cooper Frost Austin House?" the young librarian said. "Ugh. I've been inside that house and I'll never go back there again."

"Why? What happened?" my friend said.

"I spent the night there one time. Never again! A friend of mine was living there and asked me to house sit while he was out of town. At first everything was fine. It's a great old house and I was happy to have it all to myself, if even just for a weekend."

"That night I went to bed, and fell fast asleep. I was sleeping deeply when I started to have this uneasy feeling. It felt like someone was ... watching me. When I opened my eyes I saw a woman standing at the foot of the bed, staring at me. She had on old-fashioned clothes, and she didn't look happy to see me. I screamed and she vanished into thin air. I sat downstairs wide awake for the rest of the night, and I've never gone back inside that house."

Of course, the librarian said he had been sleeping in the east bedroom when he had seen the ghost.

My friend ended up living there for many years, and said he never saw the ghost, but occasionally people who visited him said they sensed something in the house. Personally I've spent a lot of time in the Cooper Frost Austin House and never saw a ghost.

I did ask my friend who he thought the ghost might be. His only thought was that she might be Susan Austin, who was born in the house and lived there in the 19th century. Susan Austin was apparently very attached to the house.

Why is Susan Austin haunting the house? That is, if there is even a ghost and if she is actually it. There's no good answer to that question. Instead, all we have are some good spooky stories from an old New England house. But sometimes spooky stories are enough, particularly on a cold winter day.