April 18, 2017

Is It Really A Ghost? Debunking Stories From New England Foklore

Here is a story sent by my friend Simon Young, which he found in the December 28, 1892 issue of The Shields Daily Gazette. This is a British newspaper, but for some reason they ran the following:

A "Ghost" In A Graveyard.

For some time past a "ghost" had taken up its abode in the graveyard at South Newburg, Maine, where it appeared at night, moving round among the graves, bearing a phosphoric light. The other evening a party of seven men and women went out to investigate, and found that the the apparition that was frightening the people was the reflection of a light from a neighbouring house, thrown back from a new and highly-polished marble headstone.

That's the end of the article. You don't see such short newspaper stories today, but the really interesting thing it was written just to debunk a ghost story. I do question whether the ghost is really debunked, though. After all, how could people see a light moving around the graveyard if it was just the light from a house reflecting off a gravestone? Gravestones don't move. Houses don't move. How did the light move?

Anyway, this story is a classic New England debunking story, and debunking stories form their own subset of folk tales. In general, a debunking story starts with a supernatural situation that foolish people believe to be true. It ends with the revelation that the strange phenomena were really caused by something natural. The foolish people just didn't realize what they were observing.

I've found debunking stories in all sorts of places, like folklore collections and town histories. Eva Speare includes several of them in her book New Hampshire Folk Tales, and prefaces them with this statement:

Psychologists often discuss the causes of the innate fear complex which exists in the subconscious mental states of sensible men and women even in this scientific twentieth century.

The following stories are printed because they demonstrate how easily this natural inheritance overcomes the common sense of normal human beings when suddenly confronted by mysterious events. 

According to one story, a house in Franconia was reputedly haunted. Everyone who tried to live in it was scared off by eerie noises that had no discernible cause. Word spread that a ghost inhabited the building and eventually the landlord, Simeon Spooner, could not find anyone to rent it. It sat empty.

A young widow named Priscilla Quimby arrived in Franconia with two small children. Money was tight for Quimby, and she needed someplace cheap to live. Spooner told her she could live in the haunted house rent free - if she dared. Having no other alternative, she accepted his offer and moved in.

At first things were quiet and peaceful in the house, but one night after the children had fallen asleep Quimby started to hear noises. They grew louder and louder, until the house was filled with horrible whining and screeching sounds. The widow grew frightened, but was determined to find the source of the noise, even if it meant confronting a ghost. She was going to fight to stay in her home! Her search for the sounds eventually led her up to the top floor, where in an unlit room she discovered ... a tree branch scraping against a window. The next day she cut the branch off and lived peacefully in the house for many years.

In another story, from 1820, Speare tells of a boy named Nat Huntoon who lived in Epping, New Hampshire. One day two of Huntoon's friends said they had heard the local Baptist church was haunted by ghosts. After school the three boys went to the church to investigate. As they stood on the front steps they heard horrible noises emerging from inside. Uncanny moans, heavy footsteps, and unearthly yells filled the air. The boys fled in panic.

Huntoon did chores for Esquire Daniel Ladd, and when he told Ladd what he had experienced Ladd set off for the church. En route Ladd met one of his friends, General Joseph Towle, who decided to accompany him. When they reached the church they paused outside. From within they heard strange noises, just like Huntoon described. Steeling themselves, they pulled open the church doors, but instead of ghosts or demons they saw that the church was instead filled with cows. The explanation? Apparently someone had left his cows in the middle of the road, and an annoyed neighbor decided to hide them in the church to get back at him.

Debunking stories sound plausible until you start to think about them closely. For example, the first story seems to make sense. There used to be a tree branch that scraped against a window at my office, and the sound was weird and annoying. We all knew it was a tree branch, though, and didn't think it was a ghost. But wouldn't the people in Franconia know what a tree branch sounded like? Couldn't they just see the tree branch when they stood outside the house? Also, you'd think Simeon Spooner would thoroughly investigate his property before letting someone stay there for free.

The second story seems even less plausible to me. The boys just happened to go to the church on the same day that someone happened to hide cows inside? But why did they think the church was haunted to begin with? And isn't hiding cows in a church some kind of criminal offense? The explanation raises more questions than it answers.

There are lots of other debunking stories out there. For example, an infamous fiery ghost ship called the Palatine was often seen off the coast of Rhode Island's Block Island in the 18th and 19th century. Reverend S.T. Livermore, in his book Block Island (1882), suggests that the fiery apparition was actually caused by gas rising up from the water. However, he also admits that no one has ever given a truly satisfactory explanation for the ghost ship. (Livermore is quoted in R. A. Botkin's A Treasury of New England Folklore.) Fiery gas does not rise up from the ocean waters at regular intervals off the coast of Rhode Island, though. The natural explanation doesn't make any sense.

Old debunking stories don't just apply to ghosts. A demon two girls accidentally summoned was explained away as a neighbor pulling a prank. That sounds like a good explanation, but only if you ignore another story about a similar demon where it clearly wasn't a prank. The hairy humanoid known as the Winsted Wildman was explained as an ape that had escaped from a circus - even though none had gone missing and apes can't survive a Connecticut winter. The "escaped wild animal" explanation continues to pop up even today. For example, the Truro panther was said to possibly be a domesticated panther that had escaped from its Provincetown owner. The only problem is that no one in Provincetown owned such an animal.

To be clear, I don't think every ghost or monster is real. It's important to be skeptical about supernatural phenomena. Otherwise we'd still be hanging our neighbors as witches, which no one wants. But arguing that supernatural phenomena
are just the result of people misinterpreting the natural world is too simple. It leaves out all the psychological, historical, and spiritual aspects that make folklore and the paranormal so interesting.

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