April 16, 2018

Controversy Over UFO Memorial in Massachusetts Town

I stumbled upon the following Associated Press item the other day. It's dated April 14, 2018:

SHEFFIELD, Mass. (AP) — A memorial in a remote corner of Massachusetts that marks a 1969 UFO sighting has been ordered moved, but one man who experienced a close encounter is objecting. 
The 5,000-pound (2,300-kilogram) memorial in Sheffield was installed in 2015, but was moved about 30 feet (9 meters) a few weeks later when it was discovered it was on town land. 
Now, Town Administrator Rhonda LaBombard tells The Berkshire Eagle it has to be moved again because it's on a town right-of-way easement. 
That's not sitting well with Thom Reed. He was 9 when he, his mother, grandmother and brother saw what he described as a "self-contained glow" that flooded their car with an amber light. About 40 people in several surrounding towns reported the strange light.
Reed is threatening legal action.

More information on the controversy can be found on Newser:

"This isn't fair to the community," says Reed. "It's not right having nothing there." Reed is also perplexed because he and town officials joined forces to give the memorial its current position. "She chose the spot herself," he says about LaBombard. Now Reed is threatening legal action. "This has come up more than once," he says. "We're not done with the monument." He was 9 when he, his mother, grandmother, and brother saw what he described as a "self-contained glow" that flooded their car with an amber light. About 40 people in several surrounding towns reported the strange light.

Thom Reed's encounter encounter with a UFO is one of the better-documented cases in recent history. I suppose I should say "encounters" plural, and not just singular. Reed had his first encounter in 1966 when he was just six years old. Reed awoke in the middle of the night to see small glowing orbs floating through the bedroom he shared with his younger brother Matthew in an old Sheffield farm house.

Photo of Sheffield UFO monument from Mass Live
Those orbs disappeared after a while, but several days later something even stranger occurred: small humanoid beings appeared in the boys' room. The small humanoids brought Tom and Matthew outside into the woods and led them into a metal craft. Inside the boys were shown images on a screen, including space ships and a willow tree. 

The humanoid visitations continued after this, and eventually they got so bad the family moved to nearby Great Barrington in an effort to end them. A large willow tree stood in front of their new home, indicating that the family wouldn't easily avoid the visitors who regularly invaded their home.

The Sheffield monument commemorates a very specific encounter the Reed family had with a UFO in 1969. Reed, his brother, mother and grandmother all saw a UFO while driving near Sheffield's covered bridge. All four members of the family were taken from the car and examined by aliens in a "warehouse like facility" before being returned to the car. Many other local residents called a local radio station to report strange lights in thy sky that night, lending some additional credence to Reed's tale. (I should note that the monument was paid for by private citizens, including Reed himself.)

A drawing by Thomas Reed of what he was shown on the screen.

Reed now lives in Kentucky and most recently ran a modeling agency in Miami, but he seems keen on proving to his hometown that his UFO experience was true. In 2015 the Great Barrington Historical Society voted to include information about Reed's extraterrestrial encounters in the town museum. Historical Society director Debbie Oppermann told The Boston Globe:

“I know we’re going to get a lot of backlash. We’re going to get hammered,” she said. “But we have given it an awful lot of thought, and, based on the evidence we’ve been given, we believe this is a significant and true event.” 
The historical society believes it is the first time a “mainstream” historical society or museum in the United States has declared a UFO encounter to be historical fact. But the decision was far from unanimous; of the nine members of the historical society’s board, three were “strongly opposed” to the decision, Oppermann said, but “it passed with consensus.”

It's interesting that the society claimed it was "a significant and true event." I don't doubt that these UFO encounters were significant for the Reed family and the people of Sheffield and Great Barrington. But were these events true in a verifiable, historical way? No hard physical evidence was found that an alien craft had visited Western Massachusetts. We just have the testimony of the Reeds and of their neighbors who saw some lights in the sky. 

Thom Reed's encounter with the strange humanoids reminds me of a visionary or religious experience. It also reminds me of classic haunted house stories, where the family relocates to escaped supernatural hauntings - only to have them follow. Or maybe his story is similar to European stories about fairies, where small beings invade the home to cause mischief. Or even, since this is New England, classic witchcraft stories of hags and demons tormenting sleeping victims. 

I think those types of stories are all significant, but are they true enough to merit a large stone monument? Is Thom Reed's story true enough to merit one? I suppose ultimately the people of Sheffield will have to decide.

April 08, 2018

Campus Ghosts at the University of Vermont

One thing I've learned from writing this blog is that you can usually find ghost stories on college campuses. Ivy League schools, state schools, old campuses or new ones - they generally have ghost stories attached to them. Is this because young people are more attuned to the spirit world, or is it just because they more likely to tell each other ghost stories?

This fall I was in Burlington, Vermont and visited the University of Vermont campus with my Vermonter friend Brian. The University of Vermont was founded in 1791 and is often referred to simply as UVM. This nickname comes from the school's Latin name Universitas Viridis Montis, or University of the Green Mountains. I feel like I'm back in school because I'm translating Latin!

UVM's campus sits high up on a hill outside of downtown Burlington and is filled with a mix of beautiful old buildings and newer more modern structures. On the chilly November day I visited it seemed like a great place to encounter a ghost.

One of the most haunted buildings on campus is Converse Hall, a large grey granite dormitory in the center of campus. When I visited Converse Hall was under construction and no students were living there. But perhaps the ghosts were still inside...


According to various online sources, Converse Hall is haunted by the ghost of a student who hanged himself in the attic in the 1920s. The stress of academia was more than he could endure, but even death has given him no escape since his spirit still lingers in the dorm. Some sources say the ghost's name is Henry.

Henry has been accused of causing various spooky phenomena in the dorm, like knocking mirrors off of walls, tearing down posters, slamming doors shut, and rearranging furniture in student's rooms. Despite dying almost 100 years ago it doesn't sound like Henry has matured much in the past century. Those all sound like typical freshman year pranks to me.


I've also read that the ghost haunting Converse Hall may instead be an engineering student who accidentally electrocuted himself in the 1980s. So which is it, Henry from the 1920s or a more recent ghost? There's no answer, and this type of ambiguity is very common in ghost stories. People encounter strange phenomena and then try to explain them by referring to events that happened in the past. Usually there are multiple explanatory stories. Sometimes not knowing is spookier than knowing.

The identity of the ghost haunting the Center for Counseling and Testing on South Williams Street is known, though. It is the spirit of a nineteenth century sea captain who once lived in the house. The building is called the Jacobs House (after the UVM professor whose widow donated it to the school in 1959), so many people assume the ghost is someone named Captain Jacobs. If the building is haunted it is more likely that the ghost is that of one Captain Nabb, a retired seaman who lived there until his death in 1877.


Staff working in the Jacobs House have reported a variety of poltergeist activity, and some claim to have even seen the captain himself. One counselor who worked there reported that one night he saw an elderly man with a large bulbous nose walking down the stairs. As he walked he shimmered "like a jellyfish" before he disappeared. That's kind of freaky. A janitor in building also reported seeing the same elderly man, and that he knocked over a bucket of water and flicked the lights before vanishing. I guess old sea captains can be kind of cranky.

Students and staff aren't the only ones who can partake in the ghostly antics. Even alumni might get a chance to see a restless spirit, since UVM's Alumni Association offices are housed in the beautiful and historic Grasse Mount building. Formally known was the Thaddeus Tuttle house, Grasse Mount dates to 1804 by and was originally named for the wealthy Burlington merchant who built it. Unfortunately Tuttle didn't remain wealthy for long and had to sell off his luxurious home. The house was later re-named to honor a French admiral.


UVM purchased the building in 1895 and used it as a women's dormitory until 1977. The women who lived there apparently loved Grasse Mount and one resident, Pearl Randall Wasson, even composed a song in its honor. Here are some topically appropriate lyrics:

Spirit of Grasse Mount, come to us we pray
Roll back the curtain from the dusty past...

I think the curtain from the dusty past has definitely been rolled back. Strange voices have been heard in empty rooms, and doors have been slammed shut by invisible hands. Is it the ghost of Thaddeus Tuttle, trying to reclaim in death what he lost in life? I haven't read any theories explaining Grasse Mount's supernatural shenanigans. But as I said, sometimes not knowing is spookier than knowing.

March 31, 2018

Uncategorizable Weirdness: Aliens, Mummies, Fairies, and Dark Swamps

When I write this blog I always enjoy categorizing the stories I tell. That one's a Bigfoot encounter, that one's a ghost story, that one's a witch story. Humans like to categorize our experiences, and those of us who write about legends and the paranormal are no different. We want to put things into neat little buckets.

However, reality doesn't always fit into neat little categories. We try to impose order, but strange phenomena are much less orderly than we want. They can be downright slippery. Here are a couple stories that illustrate this.

STORY ONE: LITTLE MUMMIES IN THE WOODS

The year was 1974. It was the night of August 20. Around 9:30 pm a man was driving near Derry, New Hampshire on Route 42. We'll call him Joe R., since his real last name isn't known.

As Joe R. was driving down the wooded road he saw a large object ("as big as a house," he later swore) flying across sky ahead of him. It flew from east to west. It was bright like the sun, white, and somehow blurry. It went down behind the trees between Exit 4 and Exit 5. Several similar smaller objects flew down after it.


Curious about what he had just seen, Joe R. pulled over and walked into the woods. He didn't find the shiny object, but he saw something even stranger: two small "mummy-like" humanoids walking in the woods. They were about 40 yards away from him. When he saw them Joe R. became scared and ran back to his car.

Joe later told his story to two UFO investigators, and their account was later found by Albert Rosales, the great collector of humanoid encounters. I found the story on a UFO site, and it is truly a UFO sighting in the literal sense of the term "unidentified." What was the bright shiny object? When I read the story my first assumption was that it was some kind of extraterrestrial craft, but that isn't really specified. Joe never saw a spaceship for flying saucer, but simply a glowing white light that flew across the sky and disappeared into the woods. There is no indication of where it came from.

And what of the two little mummy creatures? I suppose if the light were spaceship they might be aliens that came out of it, but again it's not clear if that's what happened. Joe R. saw a light go down behind some trees, then he saw two little creatures walking in the woods. The two phenomena seem connected but it's not clear how.


I am particularly hesitant to label this as an alien encounter because of the location. Derry has a long history of strange humanoid creatures. For example, folklore from the 19th and early 20th century claimed the area was the home of a fairy named Tsienneto. Derry was settled by Scotch Irish immigrants and they clearly brought some of their fairy lore with them. Tsienneto was supposed to be a beautiful fairy queen, but in 1956 a man named Alfred Horne saw a small green humanoid while cutting Christmas trees in the woods. The creature had floppy ears like a dog, eyes with a reptilian nictitating membrane, and stumpy toeless legs. Horne tried to capture the creature but fled when it let out an earth-piercing shriek.

The story of Joe R.'s encounter fits into Derry's weird history of weird humanoids. I have no idea what these creatures are (if the stories are true). Are they fairies? Are they aliens? Are they renegade Christmas elves? Are they all different beings that just happened to find their way to Derry? They don't seem to fit into any clear category.

STORY TWO: A DRIVE THROUGH A DARK SWAMP

Here's another case of a strange, unidentifiable humanoid sighting, this time from 1990. Two residents of Bridgewater, Massachusetts were driving down Route 138 en route to a dog track in Raynham. As they drove down the road they saw a strange man standing next to the guardrail:

His clothes were old-looking, dirty and dusty, his skin was pale gray and the detail that stood out most was his hair, very dry looking, thin and brittle, sticking off from the sides of his head in a strange manner. 

The two Bridgewater residents went past him to the track, but when they reached their destination they realized it was not open that night. They turned around and drove back the way they came. They  were surprised to see the man was no longer by the guardrail. They had only been gone a few minutes, and Route 138 at that area goes through a very dense swamp. There was no place for the strange man to go, unless he went into the dark, night-time swamp.


I found that story on the same UFO site where I found Joe R.'s story, so someone thought there was something weird about the man near the swamp, but what? He could have just been a homeless person living in the swamp. But once again the location is important.

Route 138 goes right through the infamous Hockocmock Swamp, which is a hotspot for paranormal encounters and is itself smack in the middle of the even more infamous Bridgewater Triangle. Given the location, this story's inclusion on a UFO site makes a little more sense. UFOs are often seen in the Bridgewater Triangle, although there wasn't one in connection with this story. The human mind wants to make connections. There must be something strange about a strange man in strange location. Maybe he was a ghost? A swamp spirit of some kind? A fairy there to lure people away from the road and into the darkness?

I don't think we'll ever know the answers to these questions. We have an urge to give order to our world, but sometimes the world has other, weirder plans.

March 22, 2018

I Was A Teenage Witch: Stories from the Salem Witch Trials

When most people think of a witch, they picture an elderly, disheveled woman wearing rags. This is the archetypal witch in Western culture, but when you read through witch trial accounts you'll see that all kinds of people were accused of being witches. For example, while many people accused in the Salem witch trials were indeed elderly women, many others didn't fit that profile. Women of all ages were accused, as were men. In fact, even teenagers and children were accused of and confessed to being witches.

For example, fourteen-year old Will Barker Jr. told the judges that one night while he was bringing the cows home from grazing the Devil appeared in the form of a dog. Barker ignored the Devil's enticements, but after a sleepless night the Devil appeared to him again in the form of a "black man." This is an ambiguous term that has several meanings in the witch trials. In some cases it means a man in black clothing, sometimes it means a man with dark skin, and in other cases it means a man with coal black skin. It's not entirely clear which Barker intended, but apparently he found the Devil more persuasive as a human than as a canine. Baker agreed to serve the Devil and flew with him on a pole to Five Mile Pond in Andover where he was baptized as a witch. In return for his services Barker was promised a new set of clothes, but he told the judges the Devil never honored his end of the bargain.


From Wikipedia
Stephen Johnson, also age 14, was out planting corn at midsummer when the Devil came to him in the shape of a small talking “speckled bird.” The next day he came again as a black cat. Johnson ignored the Devil those first two times. It was only when he came in the shape of a man that Johnson put his fingerprint on a sheet of paper and promised to serve the Devil. (In return for selling his soul he was supposed to receive some new boots, but he never got them.) Shortly afterwards, while swimming alone in the Shawsheen River, the Devil appeared with two men and two women and baptized him by tossing him in the water.

Can you see the pattern here?

Mercy Wardwell, age 15, said the Devil came to her first in the shape of a dog, but later looking like a man whose romantic attentions she had rejected. Wardwell did not get the luxury of a baptism in a pond or river. Instead, the Devil simply dunked her head into a bucket of water. On the other hand, Betty Johnson, who was 21 but described by her parents as "simplish at best," confessed that the Devil first came to her in the shape of a man, but then later appeared as two cats. She was baptized as a witch in a neighbor's well. The Devil said he'd give her a shilling but never did.


From the Public Domain Review
Richard Carrier, age 18 and son of accused witch Martha Carrier, told the judges that one night while walking home he encountered a well-dressed man with a high-crowned hat. The man claimed he was Jesus Christ, so the teen signed his name in the man's book. Big mistake. The man in the hat was of course really the Devil, who promised he'd give Carrier a horse and some new clothes. As you can guess, neither one ever materialized. The Devil later appeared to him as a little yellow bird.

Mary Lacy Jr., age 15, confessed that the Devil initially appeared to her as a horse, but later looked like a "round gray thing." She refused his offer of baptism and didn't sign his book, but still agreed to serve him. The Devil told her she would want for nothing in the world. He encouraged Lacy to misbehave and run away from home, which she did.

The repetitive elements are pretty apparent in these accounts. The Devil approaches the potential witch several times in different forms. Sometime he is an animal, sometimes he is a man. The Devil makes a deal with the witch, but ultimately never keeps his side of the bargain. The witch signs a document and agrees to serve the Devil. The Devil baptizes the witch.

Of course, not all these stories are exactly the same. Mary Lacy didn't agree to baptism or make a bargain, or specifically mention the Devil appearing as a man. Mercy Wardwell saw the Devil first as a man, and then as two cats; the others said they saw the Devil in a different order, first as an animal and then as a human.

These teenagers were all from Andover, Massachusetts, and were all interrogated in Salem on July 21, 1692. On the one hand, they probably all were imitating each other when they made their confessions. By July it had become widely known that no one who confessed had been executed, so many defendants from Andover were told by their relatives to confess to save their lives. Richard Carrier was at first hesitant to confess, but after the judges tortured him by tying his neck to ankles (!) he told them what they wanted to hear. These stories of the Devil in many shapes were told to avoid torture and death.

On the other hand, the judges and spectators that were present found these stories convincing. They didn't think of them as lies told by scared young adults but as true accounts of how the Devil operates in the world. The Andover teens created these stories using elements from their culture's view of the spiritual world. These stories give us insight into the older mental world that used to be prevalent in New England. It's terrifying to think they were elicited by threat or application of torture but still fascinating to learn how our local ancestors thought people became witches.


*****
There are lots of sources for information about the Salem trials, but one of my favorites is Marilynne Roach's The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of A Community Under Siege. It's very thorough!

March 13, 2018

UFOS Old and New, from Vermont and Massachusetts

I'm taking a break from witches and "Olde Tymey" folklore this week to post about more recent folklore, namely UFOs. Strange stories aren't just a thing from from the past; people also encounter strange phenomena today.

Up first: was a giant UFO hovering over a lake on the Vermont border? The answer is yes, according to UFO Sightings Daily. A blogger named Scott Waring posted the following image to that site after he found it on Google Earth street view:




You can check out the image yourself on Google here. The UFO is allegedly hovering over Lake George, which is on the border of Vermont and New York. I think it is on the New York side in this photo, but maybe it floated over to Vermont as well.

Here how the news was reported by the U.K.'s Daily Express:

UFO-SPOTTERS were sent into a frenzy when an unexplained silver-grey sphere was captured on a Google Earth camera as it hovered in the skies above the USA. The orb was seen floating above trees on the border between Vermont and New York State. 
UFO enthusiasts were quick to declare a finding although many viewers thought the mystery object was actually a drop of water on the camera lens.

It looks more like a motorcycle helmet than a water drop to me. It also reminds me of this smiley face spaceship from the 1980s movie Heavy Metal


Check out this Youtube video if you want to read more suggestions about what the Lake George UFO might be. Some viewers think if might just be the Google Photo sphere icon, which unfortunately seems likely (see below). I'd rather think it was a giant smiley face UFO than a corporate logo. 

The Google photo sphere icon. 
But still, whether or not the Lake George UFO is real, what remains interesting is that people continue to see UFOs. As I've mentioned on this blog before, I saw a UFO in Haverhill, Massachusetts in the 1970s when I was a small child. One summer evening I was outside in my family's back yard with my brother and a boy who lived nearby. As we played in the dusk we saw a bright light descend from the sky and go down behind a hill. We were terrified and all ran into my parents' house. Our neighbor was so scared he refused to go home until his parents came back from the meeting they had gone to. 

This happened a long time ago but the memory and the fear we felt still remain vivid. We were all very young, so who knows what we really saw. Was it a helicopter? A falling star? Fireworks? They are all possibilities, but since it was the 1970s we fervently believed that flying saucers lurked in the night sky. We all knew that strange light was really a craft piloted by alien creatures. 

The UFO we saw probably had a mundane explanation, but apparently we weren't the only children who saw strange things in Haverhill. My brother recently found record of a UFO sighting that also occurred in our hometown, but many years earlier:

Ufologist Loren Gross reported that in Haverhill, Massachusetts, USA, on December 17, 1959, at 08:00 a.m., four children on a school bus saw a flash in the sky, then watched a silver, domed disc land in a field. 
A door on the craft opened and a humanoid occupant exited. (from URECAT - UFO Related Entities Catalog, an online resource of extraterrestrial sightings)

The original source is a self-published booklet by Loren Gross called "The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse: UFOs A History. 1959: October-December." I found a PDF copy online, which contains this detailed account:
...Darcelle Nolan, 8, a second grader at St. Joseph School, told of seeing something even more startling yesterday morning on Broadway in Ayers Village while enroute to school on the school bus. 
Darcelle, along with nine-year-old Diane Pearson of 1320 Broadway, reported that they saw a bright flash in a field nearby, and 'we saw something round, silvery colored land in the field and it had a dome on top. A door opened and something in light colored clothes got out.'
She reports that four children on the bus saw the object. Her mother, Mrs. Richard Nolan of 16 South Crystal St., said this morning, 'At first I didn't believe it, but after she told me the story, I believed her. She's not the type to make up stories.' 
Gross also notes that a child at Haverhill's Tilton School saw something strange in the sky a few days earlier. Perhaps Haverhill was having a pre-Christmas UFO scare? Gross writes that he found these accounts in press reports.

Is there any connection between what the kids saw in 1959 and what we saw in the 1970s? Maybe the only connection is that we were all young. I don't have a nice summary statement to wrap this post up, but I think that's probably appropriate when writing about UFOs. They're just weird and hard to categorize. Whether they are corporate logos or spaceships from another planet I think we'll be hearing about them for as long as we live.