August 28, 2018

A Mountain Lion in Brookline Massachusetts?

If you ever want to read strange things you should look through your town's police blotter. Many unusual occurrences happen every day and most people don't even notice - except for the police. For example, here are a few interesting things reported in the August 16, 2018 edition of The Brookline Tab, the local newspaper for Brookline, Massachusetts.
"Tuesday, Aug. 7 - Suspicious person on Harvard Street: At 7:28 p.m. a caller reported that a man wearing mask, aviator glasses, a skull head necklace and an American flag pin was harassing the caller's girlfriend.  
Wednesday, Aug. 8 - Assault and Battery on Beacon Street: At 5:31 a.m. a caller reported that at midnight  his roommate threw a jar of mayonnaise at the back of his head."
Those aren't the worst of it. Next to the list of police incidents is an article titled "Police: Man wearing nightgown and garter gropes woman." It describes how a "stocky man in his 20s wearing a black dress or nightgown with a lace garter belt" grabbed and groped a woman at the intersection of Washington Street and Salisbury Road early on the morning of August 6. Yikes!

Perhaps the summer heat is driving people to commit weird crimes. But I'm not sure what to make of this report:
"Wednesday, Aug. 8... Strange looking animal on Addington Road: At 10:01 p.m. a caller reported a strange looking animal walking back and forth in the area. The caller thought it might be a mountain lion as it was too big for a fox or coyote."
Brookline has a lot of wildlife (rabbits, geese, turkeys, coyotes) but as far as I know there aren't any large carnivorous cats roaming around. And to make things stranger, Addington Road is in the densely settled Aspinwall Hill area. It's only a few blocks away from the Green Line. It is definitely not a rural area. Could there really be a mountain lion in Brookline?

There are a few possible answers:

1. The caller was mistaken.
If you're a natural skeptic you'll find this the most appealing explanation. Ordinary things often look very different in the dark, and the caller probably really saw some other animal (a dog or coyote). Maybe they just saw a raccoon or skunk which looked bigger in the dark, or misperceived the shadows thrown by leaves and streetlights. 

Addington Road in Brookline
Humans have an innate tendency to see living beings in inanimate phenomena. For example, have you ever seen a stick in the grass and thought it was a snake? This psychological trait is called pareidolia and it seems to be an evolutionary survival from a time when humans always had to be on the lookout for predators. It's safer to think something is a mountain lion rather than assume it is just a shadow. You wouldn't want to blunder into a large hungry cougar!

2. It really was a mountain lion. 
Mountain lions were once common in New England but were exterminated by the European settlers. There are still mountain lions in the western parts of the country and in Florida, but none around here. Despite this New Englanders report seeing mountain lions to the present day. For example, in 2014 citizens of Winchester, Massachusetts reported seeing a large feline creature in town, as did people in Rhode Island, while in the 1980s a mountain lion reportedly terrorized parts of Cape Cod. There's even a bulletin board for New England mountain lion sightings.

However, local wildlife authorities claim there are no mountain lions in New England. Well, to clarify, they say there is "no evidence of a reproducing mountain lion population." To quote this official Commonwealth of Massachusetts site:
Mountain Lions became scarce in the East after a bounty system wiped out most predatory animals. Today, Mountain Lions are found in the mountainous regions of the West. There is also a small population in southern Florida. 
Despite this fact, Massachusetts residents continue to report Mountain Lion sightings. It is difficult to know if someone saw a Mountain Lion without any tangible evidence. 
Nowadays, many reports include photographic evidence, thanks to camera phones and trail cameras. There have been only two cases where evidence supports the presence of a Mountain Lion in Massachusetts. All other reports of Mountain Lions in Massachusetts have turned out to be other animals.
In April 199, a hunter found unusual animal scat near the Quabbin Reservoir; lab tests confirmed it came from a mountain lion. In March 2011, a forester photographed animal tracks in the snow near the Quabbin, which were again confirmed to be from a mountain lion. Those are the only two cases of authenticated mountain lion evidence in modern Massachusetts.

Totally excited for monster-hunting - just as long as I never find one!
However, in June 2011, a male mountain lion was struck by an SUV and killed in Milford, Connecticut. DNA testing showed that the animal had traveled all the way from South Dakota to Connecticut, a distance of 1,800 miles. Most mountain lions don't roam that far. Still, I suppose there is a very, very slim chance that a mountain lion made its way from a western state to New England and came into Brookline. 

3. Manitous, witches, phantom animals.
Maybe it was really a mountain lion. Or maybe the caller was totally wrong and mistook something ordinary for a large predator. It was either real or it was not. The answer is either yes or no, right?

I think there is a third possibility, though, somewhere in that weird realm where myth, folklore and psychology collide. People in New England have been seeing unusual (dare I say unnatural?) animals for centuries. For example, the Algonquins believed the forests were haunted by a black fox. The fox was often glimpsed by could never be captured or killed, even by the most skilled hunter. It was a manitou, or spirit-being. 

The Puritans saw equally strange creatures. Puritans didn't believe in manitous, so they associated these strange animals with witches and the Devil. Witches and their familiar spirits were said to assume the shapes of cats, pigs, birds and strange bestial hybrids. For example, on February 27, 1692 Elizabeth Hubbard was walking home from her uncle's house in Salem Village when she realized a large animal was stalking her. She thought it might be a wolf, although wolves were rare even in the 1690s. There was something unnatural about the creature and although it didn't harm her she thought it might be a witch in animal form.

On April 19 of that year, Abigail Hobbs mentioned unusual animals in her testimony before the Court of Oyer and Terminer:
"I will speak the truth," she said. "I have seen sights and been scared. I have been very wicked. I shall be better, if God will help me." 
"What sights did you see?" asked Hathorne.  
"I have seen dogs and many creatures." 
"What dogs do you mean? Ordinary dogs?" 
"I mean the Devil." 
(quoted in Marilynne Roach, The Salem Witch Trials. A Day-By-Day Chronicle of A Community Under Siege, 2002)
Even in our modern, post-Puritan world people continue to see animals. Cryptozoologists and paranormal researchers often call them phantoms since they leave little evidence behind. For example, in 1976 a large black dog terrorized the town of Abington near Massachusetts's infamous Hockomock Swamp. A police officer shot at the beast after it killed two ponies but it ignored the bullets and walked off into the swamp. 

I didn't see a mountain lion, but there were a lot of wild turkeys down this path. I turned back!
Perhaps more relevant to the Brookline sighting, phantom animals of the feline variety have also terrorized towns near the Hockomock Swamp:
In 1972, in Rehoboth, Mass., a "lion hunt" was organized by local police. Residents of the area had been terrorized by what they said was a large cat or mountain lion. Cattle and sheep n the area had been mysteriously killed and carcasses were discovered raked with claw marks. Police took casts of the animal's tracks and used dog and helicopter in an attempt to track it down. Nothing was caught. But similar incidents involving phantom cats have occurred in other places throughout the Bridgewater Triangle and across the nation. None of these mysterious felines has yet been captured. (Loren Coleman, Mysterious America, 2007)
Spirits, witches, phantom cats - I don't know what these strange animals are, but New Englanders have seen them for a long, long time. I think they'll continue to see them in the future. Perhaps the caller who reported seeing the mountain lion on Addington Street was just part of this long tradition. Weird things happen in New England all the time, even close to the MBTA.

Animal graffito in Brookline

August 20, 2018

Something Grisly From Cape Cod: The Forgotten Bonnet

I was on Cape Cod recently and had dinner with friends who live in Wellfleet. I really recommend visiting Wellfleet if you can. It has beautiful old buildings from the 18th and 19th century, a bustling little harbor, and lots of green space. Wellfleet has everything you could want in a small New England coastal town, even a pretty white wooden church. But as readers of this blog know, quaint old towns often are the scene of gruesome stories, and sometimes bad things even happen in pretty churches. 

I've mentioned a few spooky Wellfleet stories on this blog before, like those about the witch Maria Hallett (who is still remembered in Wellfleet to this day) or accounts of the mysterious Tarzan of the 1930s (who seems to have been forgotten). But while we were in Wellfleet my friend David told me a story I had never heard before. And it's not just spooky, it's downright gruesome. Hearing a new story always makes me happy, and David swears this one is true. He works at the Wellfleet Historical Society and has written a book about town history so I believe him.

The story is about the Gross family, a large and prominent clan in Wellfleet's past. Many of the Gross men were famous sailors, and one of them even married a Hawaiian princess in 1789. But the family members best remembered today are the ten Gross sisters who posed for this photo in 1850 or 1851:

Photo of the Gross sisters from Wellfleet Historical Society
The sisters were  famous on Cape Cod because there were ten of them and they all lived long healthy lives, which was quite rare at the time. Tbe oldest sister, Lurania, was born in 1767. The youngest, Maria, was born in 1794. Photography was relatively new when this photo was taken, and the sisters had to travel all the way to Boston to pose for it. Clearly they were an important family if they could afford to have their picture taken and travel to do it. 

In addition to being numerous the Grosses were also devout. They belonged to Wellfleet's Methodist church where all the sisters were members of the choir. The Methodist church still exists in town, although the current building is of a more recent date. 

Wellfleet Methodist Church
The sisters faithfully attended choir practices, which were held in the church in the evening. This is where the gruesome story begins. One evening one of the Gross sisters walked all the way home after choir practice when she suddenly realized she had forgotten her bonnet at the church. (I wasn't told which sister it was, so let's just call her Ms. Gross.) Ms. Gross remembered that she had left her bonnet in one of the pews. How embarrassing! No proper woman would dream of being seen without a bonnet. She turned and began the long trek back to church.

She lived quite a distance from the church, and in the time it took her to walk back the sun had set. Everyone else had already left the church, and its windows were dark. Unfortunately Ms. Gross had not brought a lantern, but she bravely opened the door to the church and stepped inside anyway. She spent a lot time inside the building and thought she was familiar with every inch of it. What could possibly go wrong?

The church was pitch black. Ms. Gross walked cautiously down the aisle, guiding herself by holding onto the backs of the pews. She remembered which pew she had left her bonnet in and when she reached it she began to feel along the seat. But much to her surprise she didn't find her bonnet. Instead she found the face of a man who was lying in the pew. His face was cold, and it was wet.

Ms. Gross screamed in surprise and horror. She backed out of the pew in a panic, but then tripped and fell into another pew across the aisle. As she fell she steadied herself with her hands - which came to rest on another man. She felt his wet, soggy clothes and his cold, inert body. She smelled the ocean.

Sobbing, Ms. Gross stumbled down the aisle, feeling her way along in the darkness. She tried to keep her hands on the backs of the pews, but occasionally she slipped, and each time she did she felt another corpse, touching here a cold face, there a wet foot or a clammy hand.

When she finally escaped the church she ran to the nearest house and pounded hysterically on the door. The family inside took her in and listened to her tale. When Ms. Gross had calmed down they explained to her what why the church was full of corpses. 

After choir practice had ended, a wagon had come up to the church from the harbor. It had been filled with dead bodies. Apparently a ship had sunk of the coast of Wellfleet and the crew's bodies had washed ashore in the harbor. The Methodist minister agreed to store them overnight in the church while the townspeople decided where to bury them. The minister certainly didn't think anyone would come stumbling in to find them. After all, everyone had left after choir practice. 

That's the end of the story, but I wonder how Ms. Gross felt. Was she relieved to know there was a logical explanation for all the corpses which suddenly appeared in the church? Or was she saddened and horrified to realize she really had been touching the dead bodies of men who drowned at sea? I also wonder how she felt about her bonnet. Did she vow to never forget her bonnet again, or did she instead vow to never wear one again? Significantly, in the photo of the ten sisters the youngest one, Maria, is not wearing a bonnet... 

This story reminds me of that old Halloween game for kids, the one where you are blindfolded and touch various things that are supposed to be body parts. You touch cold grapes and someone tells you they are eyeballs, you touch spaghetti and someone tells you it is intestines, etc. In Ms. Gross's case, though, she actually did touch dead bodies. If there's any lesson to be learned it might this: gruesome things can happen anytime of the year, and they even happen in small towns with pretty white churches.

August 12, 2018

On The Road: Troll Legends in Iceland

Last week I went beyond my usual New England focus to write about elf-lore in Iceland, which I had recently visited. Please indulge me one more time, as I discuss Icelandic trolls. Next week I'm back to my usual Yankee stomping grounds. 

As we drove around Iceland our tour guides mentioned trolls several times. Although they never really described what a troll looked like, they did tell us that they are quite large and like to eat human flesh. How large? Well, a hundred feet tall in some cases. For example, this rock formation on the Snaefellsnes peninsula was said to be formed when two trolls were fishing in their boat late at night. 

Icelandic trolls come in two varieties: day trolls (who are active when the sun is up), and night trolls, who are active only after sunset. The winter nights are very, very long in Iceland so I am sure the night trolls appreciate all that darkness. According to legend, two night trolls set out in their ship to go fishing off the Snaefellsnes peninsula. They were so engrossed in their work that they didn't realize how long they had been out to sea. As the sun started to rise they raced back to shore, hoping to reach the shelter of their cave before the sun's rays hit them. Unfortunately they were not fast enough. When the sun rose the two trolls (and their boat) were turned into stone. 

This rock formation does look like two people in a boat so I can understand how the legend arose. But what is also interesting is that these rocks are really, really big. That means that trolls are really, really big. Scarily big. 

Elsewhere in Iceland I also heard the legend about the fishing trolls used to explain a different coastal rock formation near Vik. Perhaps being caught by the sun was a common problem for trolls who went out fishing. I have also read that the Snaefellsnes rock formation was not fishermen, but were actually two troll lovers who stayed out too late canoodling and were petrified at sunrise. 

Three trolls from The Hobbit (1977)
J.R.R Tolkien was fascinated by Icelandic folklore and he used quite a bit of it in his novels. When I heard these troll stories I was of course reminded of the three trolls that Bilbo and the dwarves encounter in The Hobbit. Although not as large as the trolls of Iceland, they are indeed turned to stone when they are caught outside at sunrise. 

Gryla (2009) by Icelandic painter Thrandur Thoraarinnson
Many troll stories are closely tied to rock formations in the Icelandic landscape. But not all the trolls have been turned to stone. Some are still active, including a particularly dangerous troll named Gryla. Gryla has a fondness for the flesh of human children, particularly those who disobey their parents. Perhaps disobedient flesh tastes sweeter than obedient flesh? Gryla is particularly active around Christmas, when she roams Iceland with a sack to put all the naughty children in. Gryla does not seem to be as large as some trolls and can easily sneak into the average home to grab a child. 

Yule Lad figurines I saw in a gift shop.
Gryla has thirteen sons, who are known as the Yule Lads. They are active during the thirteen days leading up to Christmas, when they take turns visiting homes by night to cause trouble. Each Yule Lad takes one night, and their names indicate the mischief that can be anticipated on particular nights. Door-Slammer slams doors to wake people up, Sausage-Swiper steals sausages, Window-Peeper looks in windows, and Meat-Hook steals meat using a hook (and also has the most terrifying name). The Yule Lads have been somewhat rehabilitated these days, and are said to bring gifts to good children. They leave rotten potatoes for those who are bad. In essence, Gryla and her sons fill the same role that Santa Claus fills here in the United States: rewarding good children and punishing those who are naughty (although Santa doesn't eat anyone).

The path into Dimmuborgir.
The Yule Lads' cave.
Although the Yule Lads are not petrified in stone, they are still associated with a specific rock formation in Iceland. The Yule Lads make their home at Dimmuborgir, an ancient collapsed lava tube in northern Iceland near Lake Myvatn. The name Dimmuborgir means "dark castles," which I think does an accurate job describing these weird black lava formations. It is a labyrinthine place and would be easy to get lost in were it not for the helpful trails that have been laid down. It is a very popular tourist attraction, but apparently the Yule Lads don't mind the company. One particular cave is even identified as the Yule Lads' home, but when I visited they were not in. Perhaps this was for the best. I wouldn't want to be punished with a rotten potato!

Next week I'm back to writing about New England, but it was interesting to visit another country and compare folklore. Although elves and trolls don't figure prominently in New England folklore, I could see similarities. Geologically New England is much older than Iceland, but we still have lots of legends explaining our strange random rock formations. Our legends usually feature the Devil, or witches, but that's to be expected given this region's history. It's good to go away, but it's also good to come back to weird creepy stuff I know and love.