August 09, 2017

Vikings in Boston? Norumbega Rises Again!


"I have to-day the honor of announcing to the discovery of Vinland, including the Landfall of Leif Erickson and the Site of his Houses. I have also to announce to you the discovery of the site of the Ancient City of Norumbega." (Eben Norton Horsford and Edward Henry Clement, The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, A Communication to the President and Council of the American Geographical Society their Special Session in Watertown, November 21, 1889)


"If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.” (Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz)

*****

If you've ever been to Kenmore Square in Boston you might have noticed a statue of famed Viking Leif Erikson in the middle of Commonwealth Avenue. I bet Leif wasn't as youthful and perky as this statue portrays him, but I'm willing to acknowledge artistic license. But more importantly: why is this statue here?
The author and Leif Erikson

Eben Norton Horsford helped put it there.

Near Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge stands a plaque that claims: "On this spot in the year 1000 Leif Erikson built his house in Vineland." What? Leif Erikson lived in Cambridge? That'sjust  not true. The plaque is also the work of Eben Norton Horsford.

Further down the Charles River, in Weston, stands an anomalous stone tower. A plaque at its base claims the tower marks the site of the ancient city of Norumbega, which was a Viking settlement. Eben Norton Horsford strikes again.

Eben Norton Horsford
Horsford was born in 1818 in upstate New York. He trained as a civil engineer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and had a successful career as an academic, eventually teaching at Harvard for 16 years. According to Wikipedia, he specialized in topics like "phosphates, condensed milk, fermentation, and emergency rations."

Horsford is most famous for his reformulation of baking powder. He replaced the traditional cream of tartar with calcium biphosphate, which made it more reliable and effective. With this new formula he founded the Rumford Chemical Works and became a very wealthy man. You can still buy Rumford Baking Powder even oday.

Horsford made his money in the physical sciences, but his real passion was not baking powder or fermentation. It was proving the Vikings visited America before Columbus did. Horsford was not alone in his passion. The theory that Norsemen had been the first Europeans in America had initially been popularized by a Danish scholar named Carl Christian Rafn in 1837, and it found a lot of support in late 19th century America. At that time many Catholics from Southern Europe were immigrating into the United States, and the more established Anglo-Saxon Protestants (like Horsford) didn't like it. They also didn't like the fact that Christopher Columbus was a Catholic from Southern Europe. It just felt unseemly somehow!

A youthful and fresh-faced Leif Erikson

We now know that Norse explorers did reach the America's first, thanks to the discovery in the 1960s of a Viking settlement in L'Anse au Meadows, Newfoundland. Archeologists say the settlement was established around 1,000 AD and probably supported a maximum of 130 people. They did not stay long or make a lasting impact. So no, Columbus was not the first European to reach North America, but he was the first to make any real impact.

Horsford had no archaeological training, but he did have a lot of money to promote his theory that Vikings had not only come to North America, but they had come to Massachusetts. Conveniently, he found proof right in his own backyard.
The amateur archeologist claimed to have unearthed that proof — rocks that he said were the foundation stones of Erikson’s house — around the corner from his Cambridge home along the banks of the Charles River. “Horsford basically walked from his house, went to the riverbank, found rocks, and said, ‘Aha! This is a house,’ ” says William R. Short, an author and independent scholar specializing in Viking-age topics. “But they don’t look like the foundation stones of typical Viking-age houses. They look like the rocks of Cambridge.” ("Uncovering New England's Viking Connections," The Boston Globe, November 23, 2013.)
Horsford theorized, in his 1890 book The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, that the Norsemen had come to the Charles River basin in search of oak burrs (those large lumps that grow on the side of oak trees) which they used to make drinking cups and other items. They were so valuable that the Norse created a vast series of dams and canals across Massachusetts to transport them to the ocean:
At first the maser wood (oak burrs) would be gathered near the settlement, as we have seen; but the supply would soon be exhausted. The choppers must go farther. There were no horses, no roads. The obvious method of transportation was by water, - at first from the immediate wooded shores of the Charles, then from the shores of its tributaries, and the along artificial canals, conducting to these tributaries and the river. (The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, 1890, p. 29)
Horsford claimed to have found Viking-built canals in Newton, Weston, Cambridge, Woburn, Dedham, Brighton, and many other towns in Massachusetts. Skeptics argued that these canals and other stone structures had obviously been built by English colonial settlers, but Horsford said they had simply repaired pre-existing Viking canals. Again, he had no evidence to support his theory.

Oak burr!

How many Norsemen would it take to build all this? Horsford estimated about 10,000 of them lived in Massachusetts.


As I wrote two weeks ago, the name Norumbega probably comes from a mistranslation of the Italian phrase "non oro bega," meaning "no gold to quarrel about." Italian cartographers had put it on maps of New England to indicate there was no gold here. Horsford claimed the word Norumbega was an Algonquin interpretation of the word Norvege, meaning "Norway," and was the name of the Viking settlement. Needless to say, the local Indians have no memory or records of Vikings settling the Charles River.

Even during his lifetime Horsford's theories faced opposition from historians. For example, the Massachusetts Historcial Society opposed the effort to erect the statue of Leif Erikson, and one National Geographic Society publication even stated the following:

"The most incautious linguistic inferences, and the most uncritical, cartographical perversions, are presented in Eben Norton Horsford's 'Discovery of America by Northmen." (quoted in Horsford's The Problem of the Northmen,1889)

"Cartographical perversions" is a pretty strong condemnation. After his death Horsford's works fell into relative obscurity. I'm sure the changing demographics of Massachusetts's population probably had a role to play, as the state became increasingly Catholic. The particular anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiments that helped fuel his efforts died out.

 

Horsford's thriving Viking city may have been a delusion, but the monuments he erected remain to remind us of the mythical Norumbega and the real-life dreamers and eccentrics who make our region's history so rich. Even though Leif Erikson never sailed up the Charles River New England is still a strange and wonderful place.

August 02, 2017

Dublin Lake: Horrifying Monsters That Induce Madness

This week I was going to write another post about Norumbega, the Atlantis of Maine, but I'm putting that topic on hold for now. Something more interesting has come up: lake monsters so terrifying they drive people insane. Who can resist a story like this?

The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript recently ran an article about monsters that supposedly lurk at the bottom of a lake in Dublin, New Hampshire:

At its surface, Dublin Lake may be a family-friendly body of water – offering the region a place to fish, swim, and recreate – but dive deeper and you might not like what you find.

Legend has it that a yet-to-be-classified form of sea monster dwells in caverns at the deepest point of the lake, which is 100-feet according to New Hampshire Fish and Game.

While those who have allegedly seen the monster have been driven mad, that doesn’t stop some lake-goers from hoping they find Dublin’s underwater cryptid. ("The Search for the Dublin Lake Monster," The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, July 26, 2017)
Accounts of the Dublin Lake monster date back to the 1980s. According to one story, the monster was first encountered when a scuba diver became separated from his group and did not return to the surface. Several days later a group of teenagers encountered him in the woods, naked and raving about hideous creatures he had encountered in a cavern at the bottom of the lake. He was unable to describe them because their terrifying appearance had driven him completely insane.

It does look like monsters could be in here... (photo from Wikipedia)

I love it! That's a really fantastic legend and there is another version as well. In the alternate version, a group of scuba divers were using a diving bell to try to reach the lake's bottom. The tether was not long enough, so one of the divers swam down to the murky bottom. He did not return and his companions assumed he was dead. Several days later, hikers encountered a naked madman in the woods near Lake Dublin. It was of course the missing diver, who had been driven totally insane by the hideous creatures he saw. Due to his fragile mental state he was unable to tell anyone what the creatures looked like.

Most lake monsters are describable, and usually look like giant snakes or extinct plesiousaurs. They may be strange or unusual, but aren't ugly to a madness-inducing degree. That really makes the Dublin Lake monsters stand out. Some sources say the diver referred to something vaguely eel-like, but others are totally silent on what the creatures look like. Isn't it better to let the imagination run wild?

Another distinctive feature of this legend is that some accounts claim air-filled caverns exist at the bottom of the lake. This is where the creatures live, which seems to imply they aren't your average giant eel or aquatic dinosaur. Who knows what they are?

Some of you may have a prurient curiosity about why the diver is found naked. What happened to his diving gear and scuba suit? Well, your curiosity will not be satisfied. No one knows, which makes this whole thing even creepier.

To sum up: the Dublin Lake monsters are so hideous they drive grown men insane, they might dwell in air-filled caverns, and for some reason they want to take your clothes off. All of this combines to make a really great legend.

Although a lot of local residents weren't familiar with the story they became enthusiastic when they learned about it:

“I haven’t heard of the legend but I love it and hope it’s true,” said Augusta Petrone, of Dublin, who said that as a child, she heard a rumor that the lake didn’t have a bottom. “I’m 80 years old and I used to not believe a lot of things. I’m hoping they find Atlantis..."

I think that's a great attitude to have about your local monster. Scuba diver Maurica Smith was also excited about the legend:

“I would definitely love to go out to Dublin Lake again, to explore a little deeper,” said Smith. “I’ve also heard that there is a space ship down there, which would be cool.”

It sounds like there are several legends circulating about the lake, perhaps inspired by its great depth. If anyone knows anything else about Dublin Lake please leave a message in the comments.

*****
You can read more about the Dublin Lake monsters at Cryptopia. Hopefully it won't drive you insane!


July 27, 2017

The Lost City of Norumbega: David Ingram's Journey


"Everything about Norumbega is in dispute." 

Kirsten Seaver, "Norumbega and 'Harmonia Mundi" in Sixteenth-Century Cartography,"
Imago Mundi, Vol. 50, 1998

*****
In 1568, a young Englishman named David Ingram joined Captain John Hawkins as a crew member on one of his ships. Ingram was from the small town of Barking in Essex, and apparently he was looking for adventure - and was willing to overlook the nasty fact that Hawkins was a slave trader whose coat of arm was emblazoned with the image of an African child in chains.

Ingram set sail with Hawkins for the Caribbean with six vessels, but when they reached the coast of Mexico the fleet was attacked by Spanish pirates. Four of Hawkins's ships were captured by the Spaniards, and more than two hundred of his men (including Ingram) were forced onto the remaining two ships. There was not enough food or water for so many men and survival seemed grim. Captain Hawkins was not a compassionate man, so he put ninety-six men ashore near the Tampico River in Mexico. He gave them money and bolts of cloth, keeping the food and weapons for himself, and then sailed off.

The money was useless - there was nowhere to spend it and nothing to buy - but I suppose they could have traded the cloth with the local Native Americans. They didn't get a chance, though, because shortly after being put ashore a band of Native Americans captured the sailors, robbing them and killing those who resisted. They then told the survivors to head west to a nearby Spanish settlement.

Many of the crew headed west, but David Ingram had other ideas. Maybe he was afraid of the Spaniards, maybe he didn't trust the Native Americans, but he and several others decided to go north. They were aiming for the North Atlantic Coast, where Ingram knew English fishing boats visited the region's teeming fisheries. It was more than a thousand miles away.

For months Ingram trekked across North America, getting food, shelter and directions from various tribes along the way. By 1569 he made it to the coast of Maine with at least two other English companions.

Ingram's story sounds pretty incredible, doesn't it? Was it really possible for someone to walk from Mexico to Maine in one year in the 1500s? His journey seems almost unbelievable, but once he reached Maine things got really bizarre. Ingram claimed that he discovered a vast Native American kingdom filled with gold and silver in Maine. It was called Norumbega.

An early map showing Norumbega's location in Maine

According to Ingram, the people of Norumbega dressed in the softest animal pelts and decorated their bodies with gold and pearls.
"All the people generally wear bracelets as big as a man's finger upon each of their arms, and the like on each of their ankles, whereof one commonly is gold and two silver and many of the women also do wear great plates of gold covering their bodies and many bracelets and chains of great pearls." (Emmie Bailey Whitney, Maine, My State, 1919)
Gold and pearls were outrageously plentiful in the kingdom. The rivers were filled with pieces of gold as large as a man's hand, while pearls could be gathered by the fistful. Ingram himself collected large amounts of pearls upon first arriving but threw them away because he got tired of carrying them. It didn't really matter because he could always just pick up more.

The Norumbegans were friendly and led Ingram to their leader, a king named the Bathshaba who lived in the city of Arembec. Ingram claimed that Arambec was about half a mile across, and its buildings were roofed with precious metals. The Bathsheba received Ingram in a hall whose roof was supported by twelve pillars of polished crystal, whose walls were lined with gold, and whose ceiling was made of silver. In other words, it was really nice. 

The Bathshaba took pity on Ingram and gave him furs to wear, a house to live in, and a wife to cook for him. It sounds like a good deal, but Ingram was still eager to return home to England. He eventually found a French ship bound for Europe and returned made his way to London.

Francis Walsingham
Back in England Ingram became something of a celebrity. He told his story to eager audiences in pubs, and discussed Norumbega with leading intellectuals like Dr. John Dee, who was Queen Elizabeth's astrologer and Shakespeare's inspiration for Prospero in The Tempest. Ingram also told his story to Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's secretary and spymaster, who in turn told it to Richard Hakluyt, a clergyman and author who was promoting English exploration. Hakluyt published an account of Ingram's journey called The Relations of David Ingram in 1582, and also included it in his influential 1589 book The Principall Navigations Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation.

Several expeditions tried to reach Norumbega, but none were successful. In fact, no one ever found the city, even when Maine was successfully colonized by the English.

I suppose this is not surprising to you. We all know, from our vantage point in the 21st century, that there was no city of precious metals in Maine. It never existed. Even Hakluyt grew suspicious of Ingram's story, and removed it from later editions of The Prinicipall Navigations. It's not even entirely clear if Ingram was ever even in North America (which he claimed was full of elephants).

Why did people believe him? Well, the Spanish had actually discovered large cities in Mexico, and they were indeed filled with gold, so it seemed plausible these cities might exist elsewhere. A place named Norumbega, or something similar, had appeared on a Portuguese map of North America in 1548. The French explorer Jean Alfonce de Saintonge claimed he visited Norumbega in the 1540s, and found a city "with clever inhabitants and peltries of all kinds of beasts." Saintonge doesn't mention gold, but animal pelts were very valuable, so wouldn't gold be found there as well?

In short, Ingram didn't make up Norumbega out of thin air. Europeans already believed it was an actual place. He was building on some preexisting stories and some of his details do seem plausible. For example, he claims the Norumbegans ate a lot of quahogs and piled up their shells on the shore. It is true that Maine's coastal tribes ate a lot of shellfish, and those piles of shells (called middens) can still be seen today.

Ironically, the name Norumbega may come from a misunderstanding of an archaic Italian phrase "non oro bega," which means "no quarrel about gold." The historian Kirsten Seaver claims that early Italian explorers noted this on a map as a way of telling others there was no gold in the region (and therefore no reason for colonizing countries to quarrel). "Non oro bega" was then written by later mapmakers as "aranbega," and finally as Norumbega. A note indicating a lack of gold finally became a mythical city full of it.

As I mentioned above, many of Ingram's contemporaries came to doubt his story, and English colonists in the region found no trace of Norumbega. The Native American groups in Maine also have no traditions or history regarding a city of gold. You would think that it would recede forever into the realm of myth, but that isn't the case. As I'll discuss in my next post, Norumbega rose again in the 19th century.

July 19, 2017

Spend Your Summer Vacation With Sasquatch and H.P. Lovecraft

Do elementary school students still need to write essays about what they did on their summer vacation? I seem to remember this was a common practice when I was a child, but honestly I'm not sure if it's a real memory or just something that I saw on TV a lot.

Either way, I usually spent my summer vacations swimming in a nearby pond, playing Dungeons and Dragons, riding my bike, and doing children's theater. These activities were supplemented by long periods of reading musty paperbacks, mostly science fiction, fantasy and horror, but also paranormal and occult books too. Erich Von Daniken, Charles Fort, John Keel, Charles Berlitz - I was an indiscriminate reader of weird stuff. These authors confirmed my suspicions that the Bermuda Triangle was a gateway to Atlantis guarded by UFOs flown by Sasquatches from the hollow Earth.

Of course I'm kidding about those UFOs (well, mostly), but I suspect a lot of my readers had similarly strange summers. Unfortunately that sense of untrammeled possibility tends to shrink as you get older, as does the amount of vacation time you get. It's hard to focus on Sasquatch when you've got bills to pay and a family to care for.

If you want to immerse yourself in high weirdness this summer but have limited time, you might want to try one of these short but intense experiences: NecronomiCon Providence, and the International Cryptozoology Conference 2017. Spend a weekend experiencing strange New England at its best! It's almost as good as spending the whole summer reading musty old paperbacks.

Author H.P. Lovecraft

NecronomiCon Providence takes place August 17 - 20 at Providence's Biltmore and Omni hotels. This multi-day convention celebrates the life and work of H.P. Lovecraft, Rhode Island's master of horror and weird fiction. Lovecraft included a lot of authentic local lore into his stories so folklore buffs should find plenty to enjoy. NecronomiCon is a mix of popular culture programming and academic lectures so really there's something for everyone.

For example, if you're in an intellectual mood you can attend a lecture on non-Euclidean geometry (one of Lovecraft's favorite tropes) or one titled "The Madness of Minds: Consciousness and Materialism in Lovecraft’s Fiction." Heady stuff! Other sessions feature panelists discussing Lovecraft's well-documented and unfortunate racism. If you're in a pop culture mood, you can watch a Lovecraftian film, play a role-playing game, or take a virtual walking tour of Providence. And you won't want to miss the tongue-in-cheek Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast. It's a weekend of fun and unspeakable chaos for the whole family! I've attended NecronomiCon in the past, and when I left my mind was overflowing with strange and uncanny knowledge.
  
If you'd rather head up north, you can attend the International Cryptozoology Conference 2017, which will be held on Labor Day weekend at the Clarion Hotel on September 3. This looks like it will be a fantastic conference. It features well-known speakers like Linda Godfrey, who investigates werewolf and dogman sightings, Loren Coleman (one of the leading figures in American cryptozoology) and Joseph Citro, one of my favorite New England folklore writers. I am sure that spooky stories will abound.

A new documentary about the Mothman of Pleasant Point will also be shown at the conference. I love the Mothman stories, so I was excited to hear about this. Attendees will also have the opportunity to learn about sea serpents, Sasquatch, and even hear from an expert on how to carve Bigfoot sculptures with a chainsaw. Again, fun for the whole family, but you may want to keep the chainsaw away from the kids. 

When you go back to school (or work) you'll definitely have something to talk about. If other people say things like "I went fishing and camped in the White Mountains this summer," you can smile the confident and knowing smile of one who has experienced strange things before you share your bizarre summer adventures.

July 10, 2017

Vermont's Giant Prehistoric Frog

Have you ever seen the movie Trog (1970)? It's a British horror film and was the last movie that Joan Crawford made before she died. It's not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is one of my favorites.


The basic premise is this: some handsome young spelunkers are exploring a cave when they encounter something terrifying. The surviving spelunker is driven insane by what he saw, but anthropologist Dr. Brockton (Joan Crawford) believes he has seen a prehistoric hominid. She manages to capture the creature, names him Trog, and tries to teach him to be human. Of course it doesn't go well and by the end of the movie Trog is ripping off people's arms, setting fires, and terrorizing small children.


There are many things to like about Trog: Joan Crawford, stop-motion animated dinosaurs, bad dialogue, and a gory ending. But I really like the idea that lurking underneath our mundane landscape are ancient, prehistoric beings frozen in time waiting to emerge and amaze us. It's been the premise of a lot of horror movies, but none are quite as good as Trog.


I don't think anyone now really believes that there are prehistoric monsters sleeping in suspended animation below our feet, but in 1865 some miners in Vermont discovered something deep under the Green Mountain State. It was not Trog, but was instead a frog. The New York Herald ran the following article on October 20, 1922:

Vermont's Monster Frog

Unearthed 114 Feet Underground by Workmen In a Mine Shaft
To The New York Herald : In the summer of 1865 workmen while digging in a new shaft at an ochre mine at Forestdale, Vt., unearthed a huge bullfrog at a vertical depth of 114 feet underground. The frog lay dormant in a sort of pocket or miry hole, and aside from the fact of its being found at so great a depth its large size and its excellent state of preservation attracted attention.

The frog was 14 inches long from the tip of its head to the end of its spine, which is really big, but otherwise resembled an ordinary bullfrog. At first the miners just thought it was dead, but it soon began to twitch and eventually revivified. After showing it to several townspeople the miners brought it to a pond, where it lived and croaked loudly for many years.

The reporter goes on to speculate that the giant frog had been hibernating for thousands of years, and had been frozen underground during an ice age. (This is almost exactly the same plot as Trog!) The frog story was told to the Herald reporter by one Frank Rogers of Brandon, Vermont, who claims to have seen the frog emerge from the mine when he was 15 years old.


Sadly, I think this story is probably a hoax, and it was not the only story of its kind. Joseph Citro cites several similar ones, some dating back to the 1700s, in his book Weird New England. This 1922 story may just have been the latest version of a long folklore tradition. Giant frogs also figure in some Native American myths from New England, like this one about how the hero Glooskap defeats a giant frog, so the local obsession with monstrous frogs could be something that predates English settlement.

I recently read Alan Moore's Lovecraftian comic series Providence. One character proposes the following interesting idea: the subterranean, the past, and our subconscious are all the same thing. According to this character, when we dig underground we are digging into our past, and also digging into our subconscious dreamworld. So perhaps those Vermont miners found something subconscious that wanted to see the light of day. Hopefully it was happy croaking in that pond.