February 23, 2014

The Telltale Seaweed

Once again I find myself in the mood for a ghost story. Here's a classic from Cape Cod that you may be familiar with.


One October day many years ago two sisters drove down from Boston to enjoy a day on Cape Cod. They spent the day touring quaint towns and visiting friends, and did not begin the drive back home until just before midnight.

As they were driving along a particularly dark country road their car broke down. This was in the days before cell phones, so after trying to fix the car themselves the two women set out on foot to find assistance.

The dark country road was quite dark indeed, but they made their way along it using a flashlight they had brought with them for just such an emergency. After walking for quite a while they glimpsed an old house by the side of the road.

There were no lights on in any of the windows, but they ran up to the front door and pulled the bell rope. They heard only a faint tinkling. They next pounded on the front door, but didn't hear anyone stir inside. Finally one of the sisters shined her flashlight into one of the windows.

Through the window they could see that the house was deserted. There was no furniture inside, and the floor was covered with dust. An old brick fireplace stood cold and empty. The front door was unlocked, so the sisters decided to spend the night inside and find an auto mechanic in the morning.

They stretched out on the floor and fell into a fitful sleep.

In the darkest part of the night they both suddenly woke up. Standing by the fireplace was  a man in a sailor's uniform, dripping wet. He held his hands out as if he were trying to warm himself at a non-existent fire.

"Who are you? What do you want?" one of the women said.

At the sound of her voice the sailor groaned and disappeared, leaving behind only a puddle of water. The sisters were amazed at this apparition, but both fell almost instantly back asleep, each thinking they had been dreaming.

When they arose in the morning they realized their dream had been real. There really was a puddle of water in front of the fireplace, and a long piece of green seaweed sat in it. As they left the house one sister took the seaweed and put it in her purse. They made their way to a small restaurant where the waitress not only procured a mechanic, but also told them that the old house was rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a sailor who had drowned at sea.

About a year later they were telling their story at a dinner party. One of the guests was a marine biologist who said, "I wish I could see that seaweed." The sister still had it in her purse and produced it for him. He studied it intently for a few moments and then turned to her. His face was pale.

"Madame," he said, "this is a very rare type of seaweed. It only grows on the corpses of people who drown at sea."


This story appears in B.A.Botkin's A Treasury of New England Folklore, and first appeared in a book by the literary critic Alexander Woolcott, who was a member of the Algonquin Round Table and a friend of Dorothy Parker's. Woolcott claimed the story happened in a house in Woods Hole, and that he had the telltale seaweed himself. It had been given to him by the marine biologist, and Woolcott kept it pressed in a book at home.

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I like a ghost story where there is some proof at the end that the ghost is real. This story must be doubly true. The sisters find the seaweed which is identified by the marine biologist, AND Alexander Woolcott had the seaweed himself.

February 17, 2014

A Triangular UFO Seen in Bethlehem, New Hampshire

This week I'm posting about something a little more contemporary: a UFO that was seen recently in Bethlehem, New Hampshire.

On February 6, several motorists on Bethlehem's Main Street stopped their cars to watch an object in the sky:

While driving home around dusk we observed odd white lights hovering in the sky at a low altitude maybe 500- 1000 feet. Several other drivers noticed and pulled over/slammed on their breaks, we continued driving however to try to get to a better spot. Upon getting closer to the object, you could see three distinct white lights forming a triangle shape, with a faint triangular outline that blended in with the sky but you could tell there was something there. (from the MUFON report)
If you've ever been to the White Mountains in the winter you know that it's really, really dark up there. Even though Bethlehem is relatively lively it's still pretty dark and quiet.

A photo of a triangular UFO seen in Belgium from the UFO Casebook.

People have been seeing weird things in New England's skies for centuries. In 1638 some Boston men saw what is probably North America's first documented UFO. While rowing on the Muddy River, James Everell and two companions saw a strange light in the sky. It first took the shape of a pig, then an arrow. The men watched the light fly back and forth between Charlestown and Boston for a while before it disappeared. After the light vanished the men realized they were now several miles up the river from where they started, a location that would have required them to row hard against the current, which they hadn't done.

In the early 1900s, thousands of people across New England saw a mysterious airship, similar to a zeppelin, flying through the night skies. One of the biggest sightings happened on the evening of December 23, 1909 when an estimated two thousand people gathered on Worcester's Main Street to watch a mysterious lighted object fly across the city and circle city hall before disappearing. The public believed it was an airship created by a local inventor named Wallace Tillinghast, but no hard evidence ever was found to support this theory.

There are lots of theories about what UFOs really are: alien visitors, pranksters from another dimension, secret government spy missions, etc. UFO stands for "Unidentified Flying Object," and I think the key word there is "unidentified." By their very nature UFOs can't ever really be known. They will always remain ambiguous and open to different interpretations dictated by culture and history.

Carl Jung was captivated by the round shape of the flying saucers which were seen in the twentieth century. For Jung the vehicles' circular shape was reminiscent of a mandala, a symbol of completion and wholeness. Perhaps, he suggested, they were images emerging from mankind's collective unconscious in a time of crisis.

It's an interesting theory, but UFOs are now seen in a variety of shapes, including the triangular one seen in Bethlehem. Another triangular UFO was seen in Amherst, Massachusetts on February 3, 2013, almost exactly one year ago to the date that this most recent triangular UFO was seen. What do triangular UFOs in early February signify to New England? Maybe the message will become clearer if one appears in 2015.

February 08, 2014

A Ghost Story from Spook Hill, Maine: No One's Home After School

Traditionally winter is the time when ghosts are most frequently seen. I haven't seen a ghost this season (that I know of), but I thought I'd post a ghost story today. Here's a nice one I just recently read in Marcus LiBrizzis' Ghosts of Acadia.


A few years ago there was a little boy who lived with his parents in the town of Tremont, Maine, which is located on Mt. Desert Island.

Sometimes if the boy's mother had to work or run errands he would go after school and stay with a baby sitter. The baby sitter's house was on Spook Hill. As befits its name, Spook Hill is supposed to be haunted. Its most prominent ghosts are a procession of shadowy, lantern-bearing figures who can be seen at night processing from Goose Cove to the top of the hill. No one is sure who they are, but local legends connect them to buried pirate treasure. Several other ghosts have also been encountered there. What do you expect? It's called Spook Hill!

One day after school the little boy walked to his baby sitter's house. He knocked on the door, but no one answered. He didn't know it, but his mother had forgotten to tell the woman who babysat that he would be coming over that day. The babysitter wasn't home. 

The boy knocked again, and this time he saw an old man peering out from the window. He didn't know who the old man was, but he waved anyway. The old man left the window and the boy could hear him slowly (very slowly) unlocking the door.

The door swung open and the boy stepped into the living room. He couldn't see the old man but he could hear him slowly moving around in the kitchen. The boy stood there for a while in the living room, waiting for his babysitter or the old man to come in, but no one did. After a while he began to feel very tired, so he went upstairs and and fell asleep with his coat on.

A few hours later the babysitter came home. After she let herself in she went upstairs and saw the boy sleeping on her bed. Needless to say, she was very surprised.

When the boy told her an old man had let him in she was skeptical. "No one like that has lived in this house since I've been here," she said to him. Clearly, she thought, he was lying and had somehow broken into her house.

The room had some old metal coat hooks mounted on the wall, and she reached up to take down the boy's coat so she could drive him home. But when she did she paused.

The coat hooks were high up on the wall. She was a grown woman and even she had to stretch to reach them. The boy was very small.

There was no way he could have hung up his coat on his own.


I think that's a great story. To me, the best ghost stories always end by introducing that little piece of evidence to prove the ghost was real. Would the phantom hitchhiker stories be any good without the old woman who appears at the end to say, "That was my daughter and she died twenty years ago tonight?" No. This story doesn't have an old woman, but it does have a coathook that serves the same basic function. The coathook says: the old man really was here.

I also like that this story doesn't have a complicated explanation behind it. It doesn't particularly matter who the old man was, just that he exists. The point of the story is that the dead are not gone and still interact with us. However, if I lived in that house I'd definitely want to know who he was...

Marcus LiBrizzi notes in his book that he heard a similar story from someone else who lives in that area. LiBrizzi calls these ghostly guardians "creepy" but for me it's nice to think there might be someone (or something) watching over us even when the babysitter isn't home.

February 02, 2014

Witchcraft, Poltergeists and Animal Magnetism

Absolom Lawrence of Pepperell, Massachusetts had a pretty good life. He had a loving wife, he had land to farm, and he had healthy children.

Well, most of them were healthy. At some point in her thirteenth year, one of his daughters had begun to act strangely and suffer from painful fits. At random times she would curl into a fetal position with her head contorted head backwards. When this happened her jaws would clamp shut and she could only ingest liquids when a damp cloth was stuck into her mouth.

At first Absolom thought his daughter had an illness, but he changed his mind when some other strange things began happening around the house. No matter how much Mrs. Lawrence churned the butter it wouldn't come together. The pots and pans hanging in the kitchen would rattle and bang when no one was in the room. Uncanny groans emanated from thin air. It seemed as though something supernatural was assaulting their home. Were they being attacked by a witch?

If the Lawrences had lived in the 1600s they would have thrown their daughter's urine into the fire to break the witch's hold on her, but this happened in 1843. Science and industry were changing America, so the Lawrences looked through their local newspaper to find professional help. They decided to hire Dr. J.M. Nevens.

Dr. Nevens was a wandering magnetist. This doesn't mean that he worked with magnets, but rather he was versed in "animal magnetism", or hypnosis. Nevens traveled with a female colleague whom he put into a trance so she could cure "cure all complaints the human frame is subject to."

Nevens claimed to be skeptical about witchcraft, but he took the job anyway. When he and his co-worker arrived at the Lawrence's house he hypnotized her so she could diagnose the young girl. After she went into the trance she saw something uncanny.

An unknown woman was riding towards the Lawrence's house on a white horse which had no horseshoes. When it reached the front yard the woman dismounted and walked to the front door, which was closed. She squeezed herself under the door and entered the house through a tiny crack.

The woman, who was apparently a witch, clearly intended to once again torment the Lawrence's daughter but this time she was unable to reach her. The mangetic power that surrounded Dr. Nevens repelled her from the house, and she fled through a cellar door. As she did her groans and footsteps could be heard.

After being treated by Dr. Nevens things got better for the Lawrence's daughter, but only improved completely once the family moved to another farm.


What a great account! It's from Owen Davies' new book America Bewitched, and originally appeared in the Nashua Gazette in 1843. I'd love to get my hands on the original newspaper to see if there are any more details.

In a lot of witchcraft stories there is a certain person, usually a jealous or angry neighbor, who is suspected of being the witch. But there's no mention of a neighborly feud in this story. Instead we get the cryptic woman on a white horse. Is she even a real woman? Maybe she's a purely spiritual or psychological being. She's like a bad fairy come to cause trouble. It's significant that her horse has no shoes, because of course horseshoes repel witches. White horses are also associated with magic in a lot of New England folklore. Dreaming of a white horse meant trouble was on the way.

The mysterious groans and banging pots remind me of stories about poltergeists. Poltergeists are often associated with troubled adolescents, and in the past they were also associated with witches. Poltergeists (and troubled adolescents) are still encountered today but usually without the witchcraft. They're now attributed to demonic activity or the latent psychic powers of repressed teens.

I think what I find most interesting about this story is the tension between the old, supernatural, witch-haunted view of the world and the newer, scientific worldview.  Young farm-girls have been afflicted by witches for centuries, but in 1843 you could consult your local newspaper and hire a scientific professional to help out. Well, maybe Dr. Nevens was really pseudo-scientific but it seemed to work.

If the Lawrences were alive today and had these problems they'd probably consult Google to find the nearest ghost-hunters or paranormal investigators. The same phenomena keep popping up but we just deal with them in new ways. The more things change...