September 28, 2020

Pale, Ghastly, Deadly: An Old Boston Ghost Story and The Politics Behind It

On May 2, 1687, Joseph Beacon was sound asleep in his Boston, Massachusetts home when suddenly someone appeared in his bedroom. It was 5:00 a.m. in the morning.

It was Joseph's brother. Joseph, who couldn't tell if he was asleep or awake, was puzzled by this since his brother was thousands of miles away in London, England. He was also concerned since his brother's "countenance was very pale, ghastly, deadly and he had a bloody wound one side of his forehead."

"Brother!" says the affrighted Joseph.

"Brother!" answered the apparition. 

Said Joseph, "What the matter brother? How came you here."

The apparition replied, "Brother, I have been most barbarously and injuriously butchered, by a debauched and drunken fellow, to whom I never did any wrong in my life."

The bloody apparition went on to say that his murderer was trying to flee London and would sail to New England on one of two ships, either the Foy or the Wild. The apparition urged Joseph to get an order from the governor if either ship arrived and have the murderer arrested. "I'll stand by you and prove the indictment," the apparition said. Then it vanished.  

At the end of June, Joseph Beacon received word from London that his brother was dead. While trying to hail a coach he had been attacked by a drunk stranger. The drunkard hit him on the head with a fire iron, and Joseph's brother lay unconscious until he died on May 2nd. The murderer was arrested and brought to trial but managed to escape execution. 

Cotton Mather, 1663 - 1728

That story appears in Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), which was written by the Reverend Cotton Mather of Boston, one of the most prominent Puritan clergymen in New England. Wonders is mainly concerned with defending the legitimacy of the Salem witch trials, which had just occurred the previous year. Many people questioned the trials even when they were happening, and after they ended public opinion began turning against everyone involved. Mather was trying to counteract that:

We cannot but with all thankfulness, acknowledge the success which the Merciful God has given unto the sedulous and assiduous endeavors of our honorable rulers, to detect the abominable witchcrafts which have been committed in the country... If in the midst of the many dissatisfactions among us, the publication of these trials, may promote such a pious thankfulness unto God for justice being so far executed among us, I shall rejoice that God is glorified...

It might seem weird to include a ghost story in a book defending the Salem witch trials, but I think it was part of Mather's strategy for the book. "See? There are ghosts, so therefore there must be witches too..."

Or, to break it down step by step, his strategy might look like this: 

A. Do you believe in ghosts? If yes, then...

B. You have to believe in witches. And if you believe in witches, then...

C. You have to believe the Salem trials were legitimate and not a tragedy.

I don't think it's the best argument. Believing in ghosts doesn't necessarily mean you have to believe in witches. And even if you do believe in witches, it doesn't mean the Salem trials were legitimate. For example, Reverend John Hale, another Puritan clergyman, argued in his 1697 book A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft that it's impossible to prove witchcraft in a trial. Hale believed that witches might exist but argued that the the Devil can take the form of an innocent person. That time you saw your neighbor tormenting you with witchcraft? It may really have been the Devil in disguise. 

Ultimately Cotton Mather lost the argument and his reputation was ruined for defending something indefensible. He was on the wrong side of history. The lesson of the Salem trials was pretty clear: don't accuse your neighbors of being part of a supernatural conspiracy. 

Sadly, the lesson didn't really stick. In the 1980s hundreds of people were accused of being part of a child-abusing Satanic conspiracy. The Satanic Panic, as it was called, destroyed families and led to prison terms for many innocent people. It was all based on sham psychology but no one stopped the Satanic Panic until it was too late. 

Now we have the Q Anon conspiracy theory, which has been spreading online for several years. Basically, this theory claims that a cabal of wealthy and powerful Satanists are abducting children for nefarious purposes and that Donal Trump will defeat them with mass arrests of his political opponents and journalists. It's obviously a fake rumor designed to rile up sentiment against the Democrats, but many people still believe it. 

Folks, you can put on the brakes. Liking or believing in one weird thing doesn't mean you have to believe all of them. Just because you like crystals doesn't mean you have to be an anti-vaxer. Just because you believe in UFOs doesn't mean you have to buy into Q Anon or any other conspiracy that is going to harm actual, living humans. The paranormal should be something fun to explore. It shouldn't be a slippery slope leading to mob violence and witch trials. 

September 14, 2020

A Lizard Man in Norton, Massachusetts

It happened on a warm night in the summer of 2001. A young man was working late at a store in his hometown of Norton, Massachusetts. At 11:30 pm he locked up and started to walk home.

He lived just a mile away, so even though it was quite dark he took a shortcut through the woods. It was a route he had taken many times before without incident. But tonight would be different. 

The path through the woods was dimly lit by distant streetlights. Partway down the path the man yawned, and was terrified to hear something roaring as if in response. It sounded like a large animal. He froze. In the dim light he saw someone, or rather something, emerge from behind a tree. The creature was nearly 8 feet tall and reptilian in nature, resembling a lizard with a man's face. It was powerfully built and looked like it could "have ripped the witness limb from limb if it wanted to." 

Photo from Spawn of the Slithis (1978)
This is all pretty weird, but here's where it gets weirder. As the young man stood there, terrified, he suddenly saw a flash of bright light in the sky. When he looked back at the tree the lizard creature was gone. Stranger still, the young man's watch said it was 1:45 a.m. More than an hour had passed and he didn't know what had occurred in that missing time. 


That's the end of the story. It appears in Albert Rosales's book Humanoid Encounters: 2000 - 2009, and Rosales found the story online on a site called "Your True Tales." There are lots of interesting things about this story.

First of all, it's about a lizard man, which is pretty amazing. Lizard men do pop up in North American folklore and cryptozoology now and then; the most famous is the Lizard Man of Bishopville, North Carolina who was seen in that town for several years beginning in 1986. There aren't many stories from New England about lizard men, though. This one's kind of an anomaly.

The Lizard Man of Bishopville appeared in swampy areas. So did this one. Norton, Massachusetts has lots of swamps within its boundaries, including parts of the infamous 16,000 acre Hockomock Swamp. The Hockomock Swamp is the center of an area called the Bridgewater Triangle, which is famous for its paranormal activity. Norton sits squarely inside that triangle, so perhaps its not totally surprising a reptilian humanoid would appear in a giant swamp also known for its ghosts, UFO sightings, and Sasquatch encounters. 

So are there lizard monsters hibernating in the muddy swamps of Norton? Maybe, but maybe not. The strange flash of light and the missing time at the end of the story seem to indicate the creature is not really of this world. After all, strange lights and missing time are often associated with UFOs, not animals that live in the woods. If the Norton lizard man was just a physical creature he would have trudged off, not disappeared in a flash of light. 

Personally, I'd call the police or at least Animal Control if I encountered a large lizard creature. This person didn't, which is perhaps why this story is not that well known. Also, lots of weird things are said to happen in the Bridgewater Triangle. Giant snakes, phantom panthers, strange lights, Bigfoot, pukwudgies. If it's paranormal it's probably happened there. In another place or another time a lizard man would probably stand out. In the Bridgewater Triangle he's just another guest at the party. 

September 01, 2020

Chicken Blood and Steel Rods: Magic and Treasure in 18th Century Vermont

In the 18th and early 19th centuries many New Englanders believed the area was riddled with buried treasure. I've written about this a few times before, but basically people thought pirates, or sometimes Spanish explorers, had buried gold and silver all over New England. It was in fact a very common pastime for people to dig for treasure. All you needed was spare time and a shovel - and some magic.

Before you could dig for treasure you had to find it. Sometimes local legends provided the location where the treasure was buried. For example, that's the case with Dungeon Rock in Lynn, Massachusetts, which according to legend collapsed onto a pirate and his treasure during an earthquake and was subsequently the site of a famous attempt to unearth the buried booty. The treasure was never found.

However, if local legends were no help you'd need some magic to locate the treasure. Many people turned to dowsing rods for assistance. Traditionally dowsing rods were made from forked witch hazel branches, but in some cases they were made of various metals, sometimes expensively. They were most often used to find water but in theory could also find buried gold. Well, at least in theory.

If the dowsing rod wasn't working out you could always try following your dreams, and I mean that literally. There are many accounts of New Englanders dreaming about the location of buried treasure. For example, Silas Hamilton (1736 - 1816) of Whitingham, Vermont, kept a notebook where he recorded dozens of tips and stories he'd heard about buried treasure across New England. Many of them involved dreams:

... Mrs. Woodbury and her daughters have dreamed sundry times in a remarkable manner of money or  hid (sic) treasure in Brookfield on her husband's farm in Brookfield in the Bay State. 
Ebenezer Felton of New Salem dreamed of money hid.  
Mr. Lamb informs that Bezalel Pierce informs that his brother of South Hadley dreamed of a large quantity of money hid near Mount Tom on the West Side of the Connecticut River.  
Also Capt. Doneson dreamed of hid money on Fisher's Island on Mount Prospect near a rock not the bigness of a haycock. Said Prospect is on on the west end of the island. 

You get the idea. But still, learning where the treasure was hidden (or "hid" as Hamilton would say) was really just the start of the process. You still had to dig it up, which sounds easier than it was. Yes, New England soil is stony, but that's not why it was hard to get the treasure. It was hard because the treasure was almost always protected by supernatural guardians and magic spells.

Various legends tell of the eerie guardians that watch over the hidden gold. Giant ghosts on horseback, armies of black cats, devilish hounds, and undead pirates - these were just a sample of the demonic beings a treasure-digger might encounter. Certain magical precautions had to be taken to ward them off. Treasure-digging should only take place at midnight, for example, and strict silence must be observed by all participants. Some stories also claim the digging had to be doe within a protective circle drawn on the ground.

Breaking any of these rules would allow the demonic guardians to attack, but even worse it would make the treasure move. That's right - even after you found the treasure, it could still move to a new location. Many treasure-diggers claimed they had the hidden gold within reach, just a single shovelful of dirt away, only to see it disappear or sink deeper into the earth when someone spoke or made too much noise. Imagine their frustration. It's like being one number away from winning PowerBall. The whole process of finding the treasure had to begin all over again.

Silas Hamilton believed that he had a solution to this problem. It involved animal blood:

Take nine steel rods about ten or twelve inches in length, sharp or piked to pierce into the earth, and let them be besmeared with blood from a fresh hen mixed with hogging. The make two circles around  the hid (sic) treasure. One of the said circles a little larger in circumference than the hid treasure lays in the earth, the other circle some larger still, and as the hid treasure is wont to move to North or South or East or West place your rods as described on the other side of this leaf (page).

Silas Hamilton's illustration from Green Leaves from Whitingham

In essence, the rods created a cage around the treasure which prevented it from moving away. The circular formation is reminiscent of the magical circles that have been cast by ceremonial magicians for centuries.

Just a few words about Silas Hamilton. He was a wealthy landowner, and helped found Whitingham in the 1770s. He was an important and reputable person, yet he was writing about smearing steel rods with chicken blood to prevent buried treasure from moving around in the ground. I think it shows how prevalent and normal magic was in New England at  the time.

I don't think Silas Hamilton ever found any pirate gold, and I don't think many people ever did. That didn't stop them from trying, though. Treasure digging sounds like a fun activity to me. You got to run around late at night in the woods with your friends, hoping to get rich while simultaneously scared of encountering a ghost or some demonic animal. It sounds like a lot of the paranormal shows that are on TV right now, or even some weird legend trips I've been on myself. Perhaps finding the treasure wasn't really the point. No one ever got rich, but I'm sure people kept doing it because they wanted to hang out with their friends and have some spooky fun.

One closing thought. Whitingham, Vermont is a small town on the Massachusetts border, and one of its most famous residents was Brigham Young, the second leader of the Mormon Church. The Mormon Church was founded by Joseph Smith, who was also born in Vermont and later said he was led by an angel to unearth a book written on golden plates buried in a hill.


I got the information about Silas Hamilton from Clark Jillson's 1894 book Green Leaves from Whitingham, Vermont: A History of the Town.