March 14, 2020

A Giant Woman and A Man-Faced Dog: Strange Encounters in The 19th Century

Today's post is about strange stories and how they don't always make sense. 

People report seeing a lot of weird things, but most of them can be placed into certain categories. Did you see a large hairy humanoid in the woods? We'll categorize that as Bigfoot. Did you see a glowing light in the sky? We'll call that one a UFO. You saw a semi-transparent person in an old house? That was a ghost.

You get the picture. As humans we like our world to be neat and orderly, and that includes even the weird things that are in it. Putting things in categories helps us make sense of the world. If something can be named it becomes less threatening. But not everything can be easily categorized or named. People sometimes report things that are unique, unusual and don't have an easy explanation. And they've done so for hundreds of years. 

I was recently reading John Greenleaf Whittier's 1847 book The Supernaturalism of New England. Whittier was a popular 19th century poet who was born in my hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts, and he had an abiding interest in New England folklore. Some of his most popular poems were based on old legends, but The Supernaturalism of New England is not a book of poetry. It's a collection of legends and what we modern folks would call "paranormal encounters."

Some of these stories are easily categorized: witchcraft tales, accounts of premonitory dreams, haunted houses. But some are much stranger and harder to categorize, including the following story which was told to Whittier by a neighbor who was walking near Haverhill's Kenoza Lake when she witnessed something otherworldly.

It was a warm summer evening, just at sunset. She was startled by the appearance of a horse and cart the kind used a century ago in New England... The driver sat sternly erect, with a fierce countenance; grasping the reins tightly, and looking neither to the right nor the left. Behind the cart, and apparently lashed to it, was a woman of gigantic size, her countenance convulsed with a blended expression of rage and agony, writhing and struggling... Her head, neck, feet and arms were naked; wild locks of grey hair streamed back from temples corrugated and darkened. The horrible cavalcade swept by across the street, and disappeared at the margin of the pond. (Whittier, The Supernaturalism of New England, edited and with an Introduction by Edward Wagenknecht, 1969, p.75)

Whittier notes that "I have heard many similar stories, but the foregoing may serve as a sample of all." Sadly, he doesn't tell any of the similar stories so it's hard to understand what is going on here. Although the cart is old-fashioned I don't think this is just a ghost story. Perhaps the woman is being taken to Hell by the Devil, which was a common theme in New England legends? But if that's the case, why is she gigantic and so enraged? And why is she being dragged into Kenoza Lake? It's a really puzzling story.

Image from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Whittier also includes this next story, which was told to him by a friend who was "a man of strong nerves, sound judgment in ordinary matters, and not particularly superstitious." Still, this unsuperstitious man also encountered something creepy in Haverhill:

... He was standing one moonlight evening, in a meditative mood, on the bridge which crosses Little River near its junction with the Merrimack. Suddenly he became sensible of a strange feeling, as if something terrible was near at hand; a vague terror crept over him. "I knew," said he, in relating the story, "that something bad and frightful was behind me - I felt it. And when I did look round, there on the bridge, within a few paces of me, a huge black dog was sitting, with the face of a man - a human face, if ever I saw one, turned full up to the moonlight. It remained just long enough to give me a clear view of it, and then vanished; and ever since, when I think of Satan, I call to mind the Dogman on the bridge. (Whittier, Supernaturalism, p. 53)

Aaah! That's an unnerving little story. It sounds more like the description of a nightmare than something encountered in waking life. Was this dog-creature the Devil, a vision, or something else? Whittier doesn't really say but he does include it with others about the Devil. Does the Devil normally appear as a human-faced dog? And if it was the Devil why didn't he say or do anything? Again, it's another puzzling story.  

Image from Cryptomundo
Interestingly, there are Japanese folktales about human-faced dogs called jinmenken. These creatures are said to be omens of ill-fortune but not particularly evil. When spoken to they usually say "Leave me alone." The dogman that Whittier describes sounds a little more sinister than that. 

I don't have any big conclusions to draw about these two stories. As I said earlier, sometimes people encounter weird things that don't fit into any clear categories. Giant women being dragged into lakes. Dogs with human faces. People saw weird things in the 19th century and people still see weird things today. And sometimes those things don't make sense. I guess it's just part of being human.


Rich Clabaugh said...

Love this one Peter! Always awesome to learn of a New England legend that doesn't fit into the usual categories.

Peter Muise said...

This one's like a disturbing hallucination...