April 05, 2017

Captain Snaggs and the Devil: Hell Comes to Cape Cod

Many years ago a sea captain named Jeremiah Snaggs lived on Cape Cod. Captain Snaggs was quite wealthy, but he didn't owe his success to hard work or even good luck. He owed it to the Devil.

When he was just a young seaman Snaggs had sold his soul to the Devil in return for money and success. The Devil kept his end of the bargain, and Snaggs became a rich man. For most of his life he didn't worry about keeping his end of the bargain. After all, it was many years away. Who had time to worry about Hell when there was so much money to make and spend?

But time goes by quickly, and eventually Snaggs was an old, sick man. As he lay in his bed, breathing what was probably his last breath, he could hear the Devil's heavy footsteps coming up the stairs to his bedroom. He was filled with fear and regret. He didn't want to go to Hell.

His fear filled him with the energy of a young man. He jumped out of bed, climbed out the window and ran like ... well, he ran like hell! First he ran to Barnstable, but as stopped to catch his breath he could hear the Devil coming up behind him. Oh no! He started running again, even faster, and made his way to Orleans, where he hid in a hollow tree.

As Snaggs hid in the tree he heard the Devil sniffing around nearby. The Evil One knew his quarry was nearby somewhere. While the Devil was poking around in the underbrush Snaggs crept out of the tree and set off again, running faster than he ever had in his whole life. He made it all the way to a cemetery in Wellfleet before he stopped.

He knew the Devil would catch up to him again, so he grabbed a pumpkin from a nearby field and carved a face into it. Then he covered a gravestone with his cloak, balanced the jack-o-lantern on top, and stuck a candle in it. As he climbed over the cemetery wall he glanced over his shoulder and saw the Devil run up to the jack-o-lantern. "I've got you now!' he heard the Devil say. Snaggs didn't wait to hear the rest of it. He just started running.

Snaggs ran for many miles until he reached Provincetown. Then he stopped. He had hit the end of Cape Cod. There was no place left to run.

A few minutes later the Devil came running up after him. "Ha! You can't escape me now!" the Devil said. He glowered evilly at Snaggs. Then he glowered some more.

Snaggs just stood there, waiting for the Devil to grab him. But the Devil didn't. Finally Snagg said, "Well, you caught me. Ain't you going to drag me to Hell?"

The Devil laughed with surprise. "What do you mean? We're already there. We're in Provincetown, aren't we?"


Elizabeth Renard comments on this story in her book The Narrow Land: Folk Chronicles of Old Cape Cod (1934). She notes, "Many variants. Always the flight ends in Provincetown, and the conclusion is the same; but different captains and different towns are used for the starting point." The names may change but the point of this story doesn't: Provincetown and Hell are the same place. 

Why would this be? These days Provincetown is a very expensive (and primarily gay) resort town. Well, I suppose to some religious fundamentalists that sounds like Hell, but this story is older than Provincetown's gay history. 

I found an interesting explanation on the home page of Provincetown's Masonic Lodge. According to their history of the town, the area was first settled in 1680 by a ragtag group of fishermen, smugglers, and escaped indentured servants. Some of these outlaws made their living as "mooncussers." That's a quaint word for shipwreckers. They would place lanterns on the beach which passing ships would misinterpret as indicating a safe channel. When the ships sailed towards the lights they would wreck on the shore, allowing the mooncussers to pillage their cargo. 

Provincetown maintained its bad reputation even when the British stopped this deadly practice. Unlike it's stricter Puritan neighbors, Provincetown encouraged a freer practice of religion and allowed sects like Methodism to flourish. That doesn't sound like much now, but it was a much bigger deal in the past. In the early 20th century Provincetown became a popular spot for artists and playwrights, which I suppose also did nothing to help its reputation with its more conservative neighbors.

Although New England has a reputation for historically being uptight (perhaps deservedly), some towns were known to be a little wild. For example, Marblehead, Massachusetts was originally a lawless place, as was its neighbor Dogtown Common. We can safely add Provincetown to that list, whether or not Captain Snaggs really did make a deal with the Devil. But one man's Hell is another man's Heaven...


Sue Bursztynski said...

It sounds to me like a simple in-joke with shaggy dog story elements, from a time when Provincetown was, perhaps, a place where you wouldn't want to go. Just a thought.

I remember a Disney film with a song that went, "The mooncussers cussed the moon/When it was shining bright/For the mooncussers' dirty work/Could only be done/On a black and moonless night!"

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Groll Technology said...

You missed perhaps the most relevant part of this story. Fast forward to the 1880's just south of Race Point and Hatches' Harbor, and Provincetown was indeed home to a settlement that was then-called Helltown. See Building Provincetown: Helltown for more info.