Some time back, I developed an interest in discovering what weirdness might lurk in my own backyard. Bigfoot might not be too popular hereabouts, but what else was out there? This was back before the internet, and it was slow going, until I discovered a few books on the subject.
Now, of course, anyone can do a tremendous amount of research online, and you’ll find details, photos, maps, and a discussion forum on the particular enigma. Really, it’s paradise for a researcher-of-the-weird.
Here then are five bizarre and enigmatic things about the Bay State. This is my entry, perhaps, for Terrible Frights in 50 States: Massachusetts.
A Unique Cryptid
In 1977, for 25 hours, the town of Dover, MA was home to a bizarre cryptid that has become known as the Dover Demon. The noted cryptozoologist Loren Coleman investigated, along with other luminaries, including Walter Webb, who was then assistant director of the Hayden Planetarium.
This spindly, large-headed creature with glowing orange eyes was seen primarily by younger people over the period of April 21-22. Descriptions of it stayed pretty consistent over the reported sightings, and the young people who saw it have not wavered in claiming to have experienced this strange phenomena.
I first heard this story from a friend of mine who lived in Dover. She never saw the Demon herself, but she liked to imagine that she would, someday. That’s the power of knowing that something may just lurk in your back yard.
A Viking Tower
When Steve and I lived in Waltham, MA, we used to pass a road called Norumbega. We never thought much of it…until the day we drove down it and discovered Norumbega’s odd little secret: a tower that was built to “commemorate” Vikings having once built a city in the area.
At this point, a lot of evidence seems to suggest that New England may be the Vinland of Leif Erikson’s stories. I don’t think anyone can claim to know conclusively what they might have seen of our country, but try telling that to Eben Norton Horsefield, Harvard Professor and amateur archaeologist. In 1889, he paid to have the tower built, but he was convinced this marked an ancient Viking settlement. He claimed that Norumbega was the Indian pronunciation of Norvega, an ancient word for Noway…that no one else seems to know.
Well, I don’t pretend to know the truth, but it’s pretty entertaining stuff.
A Haunted Civil War Fort
Fort Warren is a Civil War-era fort built on Georges’ Island in Boston Harbor. This area is great. You can take a ferry boat out with a picnic lunch, explore the island and the fort, fly kites, dip your toes in the water, and so on.
You can also look for the ghost!
According to tradition, the ghost of a Confederate Prisoner’s wife haunts Fort Warren. She had disguised herself as a man and was trying to help her husband escape when she was captured and sentenced to death. She had a last request: to be executed in women’s clothing. Not having a lot of women’s clothing at hand (at least not that anyone would admit), they dressed her in a black robe and hung her. Now, her ghost, known as the Lady in Black, is said to wander the fort’s corridors.
I have never personally seen the Dighton Rock, but I’ve been aware of it for some time. The rock is a 40 ton boulder that was discovered in the Taunton River at Berkley, MA, which was formerly part of Dighton, MA. The rock is covered in petrogylphs – carvings of what seem to be words and images that don’t correspond to any known language.
A modern-day hoax? Not at all. Cotton Mather wrote about the Rock in 1690, so there’s nothing new about it. It’s currently found in the Dighton Rock Museum in Dighton Rock State Park, and it may be high time for this old researcher into oddness to go check it out.
(It’s worth mentioning that Dighton is within the Bridgewater Triangle, an area of about 200 square miles in southeastern MA that’s known for all the strange stuff that happens there! Spend about five minutes looking up all the weirdness of the Bridgewater Triangle.
A National Tragedy
This is by no means a hidden secret of Massachusetts, but the town of Salem has pretty much taken a terrible injustice of our society’s past and turned it into a booming tourist trade. If you’ve never been to the Salem, MA area during Halloween, let me tell you, the place pretty much becomes Halloweentown.
Let me dismiss a myth or two. Contrary to popular belief, no witches were actually burned during the Salem Witch Hysteria. Nineteen people were hanged, and one person was pressed to death with stones while trying to coax a confession from him. All in all, it was a terrible situation, and one which is nothing to be proud of. Instead, the various museums of Salem are primarily devoted to educating people about the happenings of the famous trials.
Although witch-related paraphernalia was sold in Salem as early as the beginning of the 20th century, Salem fully embraced its role as “the Witch City” as early as the 1970s, when Laurie Cabot was named as the official witch of Salem by Governor Michael Dukakis because of her work with special needs children and the show Bewitched filmed several episodes on location. The movie Hocus Pocus in the 90s expanded things even further, and now Salem’s “Haunted Happenings” celebration is a mainstay of Halloween in New England.
I didn’t even have to dig terribly hard to think of these elements of weirdness in my own backyard. There’s so much strangeness out there that there are a series of books celebrating “Weird U.S.”, “Weird New England”, “Weird Massachusetts” and so on. I challenge everyone to look for the weird in your own backyard. I’m sure that, wherever you are, you can find the eerie and the terrifying. What’s scary about your home state? Let us all know.