Essays

American Monsters

(Adapted from my June 12, 2015 radio program)
Folklore and urban legends tell us important things about the human mind and psyche. It’s impressive that monsters from all parts of the world tend to share common traits which showcase what we really fear. What we really think might be out there in the shadows and just beyond the limit of civilization. It’s also a great way to talk about early explanations of natural phenomena. Whether it be a blizzard or a plague, monsters can be used to explain why people have died in ways that would otherwise seem mysterious. Now when I talk about American monsters, I want to talk about some of the, perhaps, more obscure but also about the famous. Tales about the Wendigo, Sasquatch or Bigfoot, the Puckwudgy, The Jersey Devil, Champ (The Lake Champlain monster), and colonial vampires. These are almost exclusively American born tales (with the obvious exception of colonial vampires but it’s a really interesting story that I wanted to share). In them you’ll see elements very like those of European tales of monsters and those from other cultures around the world. Ghosts, Goblins, and Monsters are a very ancient way of explaining what is otherwise unexplainable. They filled in the gaps in our knowledge that science seeks to now fill with facts. But that doesn’t make them any less appealing. I’ll even admit that though I am a dyed in the wool skeptic, I enjoy watching both ghost hunter and monster hunter shows. I’ll even watch the Bigfoot hunters if I’m visiting my parents and have access to cable television. I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying such things as entertainment. It is only when you believe these shows to be non-fiction, to be actually finding evidence of the paranormal or cryptozoological that I take issue. One of my go to sayings is that for most people, I’m much more concerned, in the case of critical thinking skills, whether or not they believe in Ouija boards than god. And I mean it. If you believe that you can contact spirits using a board that’s sold by Parker Brothers, then I worry about your ability to discern fact from fiction much more than based on your particular religion. Many scientists believe in a god or gods but few believe in Ouija boards. Okay! On to our tales. Just a note, much of this information has been gathered in a great book called Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors by David D. Gilmore. I highly recommend it as it describes monsters from around the world.

We’ll start with the Wendigo which might be new to you if you’ve never watcher either the X-Files or Supernatural. The Wendigo is the star of many northern bestiaries in both America and Canada. Many tribes including the Algonquin, Ojibwa, and Anishinabe speak of the Wendigo in various forms. The Wendigo is at heart a cannibal and there are two forms it can take, the giant monster and the human turned Wendigo. The giant version of the Wendigo is not only a cannibal but is also associated with natural weather events including ice storms, gales, and tornadoes. Outbreaks of mass hysteria occurred when a Wendigo was thought to be near. Usually male, the monster is said to have a heart of ice, with a huge mouth, foot long claws, and large yellow eyes like that of an owl. Usually the monster is described as extremely noisy. When queries are made of the origin of the Wendigo, it is said that the creature has always existed, like the sky or the water, it is timeless and everlasting. A very part of the fabric of the world. And as such it is treated as a universal answer to mysterious questions. When someone wanders off never to be seen again-they were eaten by a Wendigo. If someone has a mental health issue or begins to lose their faculties-a Wendigo has touched them. Famine, cold snaps, lack of game animals, all blamed on the Wendigo. It is a true boogeyman. Responsible for all the things that happen outside of the norm. Moving into the realm of humans, a person can also be said to be ‘going Wendigo’. This version of the legend parallels more closely stories of demon possession. It is said that if caught early, a person may be cured. But if not, or the treatment fails, then the person must be killed to prevent them from crossing over to cannibalism, an extreme taboo in these cultures. Various causes are attributed to the change. One can be bewitched or can succumb to a gnawing hunger, or one can commit a crime considered comparable to cannibalism such as murder, or even the very thought, on a cold winter night when the stores are depleted, of cannibalism can cause a person to turn into a Wendigo. In fact even having a vision of a Wendigo during a vision quest-without having ever committed even a thought crime, can lead to becoming a monster. Many tribes believe that the giant monsters are in fact doomed human souls who have left their body. Importantly, there is a connection between monster and man that links both to the evil inherent in the act of cannibalism. The Wendigo is not a scapegoat for human wrongs, but rather a reflection of them. Tellingly, Wendigo transformations are most common during famines or in the cold winter months where starvation can set in. In a paper by folklorist Robert Preston this story is quoted:

He [the unlucky hunter] goes out every day, trying to feed his starving family and himself. Their plight becomes desperate. A time comes when one of the party begins to look longingly though slyly at another. This person is tempted to kill, so as to eat. It becomes an obsession with him or her. At last-chance offering, it happens. The person kills and soon he (or she) is eating. He has passed from being a human to beastliness. The rest of the family realizes that they have a Wetikoo to cope with. All they have heard about such monsters comes into their minds. A great dread overwhelms them, the marrow in their bones seems to melt and they have no power to move or fight. (Preston, 1980 via Gilmore, pg 84)

Howard Norman interviewed hundreds of Cree Indians in the early 1980s. All of the older members of the tribe agreed that one could go Wendigo very easily. “Isaac Greys, a Cree elder,” he writes, told how a man going “began asking his own brother how it was in a nearby beaver lodge’…in the lodge! Because he saw his brother as a fat beaver and he wanted to eat him!” (Norman, 1982 via ibid)

So prominent was this folktale that Wendigo Psychosis was, and may yet be, a viable psychiatric diagnosis. And in researching the topic I found an article from the 1970 American Anthropologist titled “A Nutritional Factor in Windigo Psychosis” the article discusses the fact that nutritional deficits may be the cause of the psychosis and note that the traditional treatment is to give the patient bear or other animal fat. Interestingly there is a related condition among the Inuit called pibloqtoq which bears a striking resemblance to wendigo and is also cured with the consumption of animal fat. It may be that there are vitamins stored in the fat such as Thiamine and Vitamin C which help the body to overcome the sickness and heal. So the Wendigo is definitely a great introduction to the subject of monsters and their roles in both folklore and in pre-scientific ways of explaining the world.

Of course the most famous monster in America is probably the Sasquatch, or Bigfoot. I don’t want to spend too much time talking about Bigfoot because you’re probably rather familiar with this particular tale. I’ll simply restate my position on the existence of the creature. I think it would be extremely amazing to find that there is an extant species of great ape, possibly even one with an advanced intelligence, which has continued to inhabit the wilderness undetected. Great effort and expense have been devoted to finding evidence of this animal and as of yet, unfortunately, no credible evidence has surfaced. Every supposed sighting can be explained by bear or other woodland creature known to exist. Distances can be hard to detect in the woods or at night and something you think is 10 feet tall may only be 5 feet tall. Every picture is either too grainy or blurry to authenticate or else has been debunked. I watched a documentary recently where a print of the famous Patterson movie was enhanced and the creature’s walk isolated from the background. While the ‘bigfoot experts’ on the program felt it made the gait seem even more like an ape or other animal, to me it confirmed the fact that it was clearly a human in a suit. A very well done suit, but a suit nonetheless. Bigfoot is in some ways the holy grail of cryptids. Even people like Jane Goodall hold out hope that it will be discovered. And indeed there is a huge amount of undeveloped wilderness still out there, but until real proof is gathered, until a body or skeleton is recovered and authenticated by neutral researchers, I will continue to file Bigfoot under folklore and not fact.

Another creature, one found right here in Massachusetts, is the Pukwudgee. These creatures are described as small humanlike figures who have their origin in Wampanoag and Algonquin folktales. Pukwudgee are the American equivalent of trolls or pixies. They are said to be able to shapeshift into animal form and to appear and disappear at will. They can be nice or naughty. Most tales favor the latter with stories of Pukwudgees pushing people off cliffs or using poison darts. They are associated with Freetown State Forest and Cape Cod. Apparently if you want to try and spot something paranormal on this side of the Connecticut your best bet is October Mountain near Lee. Apparently there have been sightings of Bigfoot, UFO’s and ghosts on the mountain! 

Let’s press ahead though and talk about the Jersey Devil. This is one of my particular favorites because it’s just so weird! One of the more famous versions of the story begins in 1735 with a woman living in the small town of Leeds Point, New Jersey. Leeds Point is in the center of the state in an area referred to as the Pine Barrens. According to this legend, Mrs. Leeds had twelve children and was ready to give birth to the thirteenth. Various versions of the tale are told but in all the results are that this baby turned into a devil with cloven hoofs, a horse’s head, bat’s wings and a serpent’s tail. It’s quite possible that this was a baby born to a real woman which was deformed in some way. It’s also quite possible that the tale is entirely made up. There are multiple versions of the origin story including some that name the woman Mrs. Shrouds instead of Leeds. Several different towns claim to be the birthplace of the Jersey Devil. Interestingly, there are documents which point to the existence of both a Mrs. Leeds and a Mrs. Shrouds who lived in the general area during this time period. The devil was seen (supposedly), in the early 19th century, by some rather famous people. It was spotted by Commodore Stephen Decatur, of navel fame, when he was testing cannon balls. Apparently he fired at the beast but did not fell it. It was also witnessed by Joseph Bonaparte, former king of Spain and brother of Napoleon who witnessed it while hunting. During the week of January 16-23, 1909 the devil was spotted by hundreds if not thousands of people. Prominent among them were Councilman E.P. Weeden of Trenton who claimed to have been awoken by flapping wings outside his bedroom window. Sightings continue into modern times and livestock deaths, often chickens, are regularly attributed to the Jersey Devil. 

Early sightings may have been of sand hill cranes which can weigh around 12 lbs, reach 4 feet in height, and have a wingspan of 80 inches. Cranes would also explain the howling or whooping noise associated with the Jersey Devil. Interestingly the Jersey Devil shares some of the lore associated with Mothman. Mothman is described rather similarly and is also known to be a ‘harbinger’. Both creatures are said to make appearances before tragic events. Mothman was said to have predicted the collapse of the Silver Bridge whereas The Jersey Devil is said to make appearances before the outbreak of war. The Jersey Devil seems to be another creature that lurks around the edges of civilization. It is found in an area notorious for mist shrouded swamps and forest. Being a local legend, people attribute whatever strange or unexplained phenomena that occur to the Devil. If something walks across the roof of a house, it must be the Devil. Cries in the night, the Devil. Killed chickens, the Devil. What many fail to realize in this day and age is that many creatures, once banished from the eastern seaboard, such as black bear, coyote, and cougar have returned. These *real* animals most likely account for some of the supposed evidence and I would not doubt that there is a fair amount of teenage hijinks and hoaxes that help keep the tale alive. Another thing to remember is that having a local monster is good for business. Tourists will come from far and wide to catch a glimpse of your monster. I even attended the first annual Jersey Devil Con, a sci-fi and fantasy convention many years ago where I was able to meet the amazing Sir Terry Pratchett. 

One cannot forget that monsters are not only found on land. Champ or the monster of Lake Champlain is often referred to as North America’s Lock Ness Monster. Champ even has a P.T. Barnum connection with the famous showman offering huge rewards for its capture between 1873 and 1887. “Few cryptozoologists deny the possibility of Champ’s existence,” states W. Haden Blackman in his The Field Guide to North American Monsters (1998), “and many openly accept the creature,” believing it to be a plesiosaur, zeuglodon, or other unknown or erstwhile extinct creature. Champ seeker Joseph Zarzynski has even given it a name: Belua aquatica champlainiensis (“huge water creature of Lake Champlain”). Champ is a great example of a monster that has been manufactured into a phenomena. The area around Lake Champlain abounds with examples of Champ related shops and restaurants. A signboard in Bulwagga Bay lists six columns of names and dates of sightings! However when pressed, locals will say they weren’t sure exactly what they saw and that it might, just, have been a large sturgeon. Pieces of driftwood have also been located that bared a striking resemblance to the supposed monster. The ‘monster’ was first described by Samuel de Champlain in his journal:

“ . . . [T]here is also a great abundance of many species of fish. Amongst others there is one called by the natives Chaousarou, which is of various lengths; but the largest of them, as these tribes have told me, are from eight to ten feet long. I have seen some five feet long, which were as big as my thigh, and had a head as large as my two fists, with a snout two feet and a half long, and a double row of very sharp, dangerous teeth. Its body has a good deal the shape of the pike; but it is protected by scales of a silvery gray colour and so strong that a dagger could not pierce them.

Champlain’s description is certainly that of a large fish and not some sort of giant sea serpent.

Joe Nickell, the professional skeptic has written at length about Champ. He notes that according to the various modern reports “Champ is between ten and 187 feet long, has one to four or more humps or up to five arching coils, and is black, or has a dark head and white body, or is gray, or black and gray, or brown, moss green, reddish bronze, or other colors, possibly being drab or shiny, scaly or smooth—even “slimy.” Moreover, it possesses fins, or a pair of horns, or “moose-like antlers,” or “elephant ears,” or a tan or red mane, or glowing eyes, or “jaws like an alligator”—or again had none of these. Overall it looked like a great snake, “a large Newfoundland dog,” “a steam yacht” (although traveling too fast to be one), a horse, a Florida manatee, a submarine periscope, a whale, etc., etc.” Champ is, one must conclude, entirely fictional. Much like the famed Loch Ness Monster, Lake Champlain is just not big enough to sustain a breeding population of some sort of descendent of an ancient plesiosaur which is what proponents usually cite as the origin of the creature. In addition, the lake is relatively shallow in large areas which would make hiding enormous sea serpents relatively impossible. Champ, again like the Loch Ness Monster must be concluded to be no more than a tourist attraction.

It seems the fate of many modern monsters is to be reduced to tourist attractions. We are closing doors on the unknown and pushing these fables further and further into the realm of fiction. Despite this, there is still a wonderful world of myth and legend that bears reading about and studying. It can tell us much of human nature and the human experience. 

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Histories of the Forgotten: Whaling

One of the things that I strive to do is to tell the stories of the women and minorities who are often overlooked in textbook accounts of history and science. You’ve probably heard of Rosalind Franklin, whose work was “borrowed” by Watson and Crick, allowing them to go on to discover the structure of DNA, while she became, for many years, an afterthought in Watson’s seminal book on the discovery-DNA: The Secret of Life. Watson couldn’t even be bothered to remember her name correctly instead referring to her dismissively as “Rosy” a name she never used for herself. Crick, however, would go on to admit that she had been “only two steps away” from the solution herself. She, somewhat luckily, has become a sort of model for the forgotten or ignored in the history of science. We now celebrate her contribution and repudiate the sort of boys will be boys attitude that led her to be left out of the story for so many years. Or at least many of us strive to do that now.

But there are so many other women and minorities who have been all but forgotten in both history broadly and the history of science more specifically. I think that there is a lot to be found in the history of those who have been left in the margins of the history books-if they’re found at all. I’ll try to use the stories of the forgotten as a sort of entry to larger tales. This one will begin with a particular tragedy and move out from there to discuss the history of that quintessential New England trade of yesteryear-whaling.

When the Black Lives Matter movement began, one of the first thing I did was find some websites that told the news from an African-American centered perspective and added them to my Facebook feed, which I use as a kind of RSS feed. One of those is The Root. I’ve always favored non-American sources for the news, such as the BBC, The Economist, and Al Jazeera English but I thought it would be good to expand to outlets that take the perspective of those whose experiences are beyond my direct knowledge.

Anyways, a while back I was interested to read a headline concerning the latest Ron Howard film In the Heart of the Sea. Despite my rather lackluster feelings for Ron Howard fare-I’d actually considered seeing the movie. I was interested in the fact that this story served as the basis for Melville’s novel Moby Dick. Now, here is where I must confess I haven’t read Melville’s novel, but being born and bred in New England, I do love a good sailor’s yarn about how the sea and its inhabitants are a fickle and dangerous force. And Melville’s tale has been the basis for books that I have read and enjoyed. So it came to me as a surprise to read that there was another, deeper, and infinitely more interesting story beneath this already classic tale of man vs. the sea which had been possibly suppressed. Little was made of the fact that seven African American men had set sail from Nantucket on the whaler Essex and none had survived. Now the fact that this story was left out of the movie, is no surprise at all, Amistad being the exception that proves the rule-Hollywood is not too interested in the African American experience on the high seas. Especially during this era of pre-civil war New England where the realities of the black experience were often much too complicated and subtle to make for good storytelling in the straightforward good vs. evil way favored in film.

In 1819, The Essex set sail from Nantucket to the whaling grounds of the South Pacific. While in the midst of their voyage, in November of 1820, the ship was rammed by a sperm whale over 80 feet long which caused irreparable damage to the hull. The crew scrambled into four small whaleboats and drifted at sea for more than 90 days before the last two remaining crew members were rescued by The Dauphin, another Nantucket whaleship, on February 23, 1821. A few days earlier three other survivors had been rescued by The Indian from London. In all eight would survive the ordeal-these five and three others who had opted to stay on a small island they had discovered earlier on in the voyage. Interestingly, it was the three white men who were not from Nantucket, often referred to as coffs, who had opted to stay on Henderson Island. Coffs were often green and had little onboard experience. They could be from mainland Massachusetts or from New York. The packet ships that brought them to the island were often referred to as “slavers”. These men, as can be imagined, were generally given the lowest jobs and looked down upon by the close-knit Nantucketers who commanded these whalers. In addition, whalers were considered the hardest kind of ship, if merchant ships couldn’t be found, it was only then that one would consider a whaler.

So what happened that led to fact that six African-American men were on the The Essex when it was rammed and that none of them returned? Samuel Reed, Richard Peterson, Lawson Thomas, Charles Shorter, Isaiah Shepherd, and William Bond all perished. The reason? Well that’s a complicated matter of speculation but one worth speculating about nonetheless. Just a quick note, a seventh African-American crew member, Henry De Witt, was on The Essex when it left port. However, for reasons lost to history, he deserted from the crew before they left South America headed for the whaling grounds. This was not an uncommon occurrence for whalemen at the lowest rungs of the ship’s hierarchy who realized how little they were making for risking their lives in the open sea. The fact that he was African-American may have been completely incidental to his desertion.

As the sailors started their ordeal, adrift in the ocean, they first ate what little stores of food they were able to salvage from the wreck. According to a letter written by Aaron Paddack, Captain of the Diana, a whaleship from New York who boarded the Dauphin shortly after it had rescued Captain George Pollard, Jr and Charles Ramsdell; the crew had rescued 600 lbs of bread (in the form of hard tack), a few tools and nails, and as much water as the boats could hold. Most of the bread, however, was contaminated with seawater and they quickly began to die of thirst. Eventually the men turned to cannibalism. The first four to be eaten were all African American members of the crew. In an ironic twist of fate, the crew had voted to avoid setting out for the Marquesas or Society Islands which they might have reached within a month. The reason for this? They had heard rumors that the inhabitants of these islands were cannibals. This was despite the fact that it was known by this time that the inhabitants of the Marquesas were friendly and traders had landed there without incident. Although the wreck of The Essex was considered the Titanic of its day, little was written about the peculiar conditions that led to the procession of events which would end with all African American members of the crew failing to return to home port. Unfortunately, this is not a completely unexpected turn of events. Cannibalism was an unfortunate reality of the sea and most shipwrecked sailors were assumed to have resorted to it if their stores had run out. It was considered a matter of survival and therefore a pardonable sin. In addition, Nantucket had a reputation to maintain and any kind of exposé of conditions on board would be detrimental to the fleet. It was also known that, despite the fact that they could find a sort of equality onboard ship, Nantucketers were not known for their gentle treatment of African American members of the crew. Despite the Quaker nature of most Nantucketers and their abolitionist leanings, they were far from supporters of an equality between the races.

History does not tell us whether or not there was a conscious decision by the men to short the rations of these six men. It does not tell us if it was circumstance or murder that led to these men not returning. But in the very fact that none lived to tell their version of events-one finds the seeds of the idea. Speculation on this front, is simply that, speculation but the fact that little has been made of their deaths is a tragedy that continues to be perpetrated. For me it’s the conscious silence which bothers me. Clearly it’s easier to stick to the facts that are known. However, the African American members of the crew are given less than a minute’s time in Howard’s treatment of the story. A treatment which mirrors the traditional history of the wreck but perpetrates the injustice of not including those six men’s fate in the reckoning of the full story.

This, despite the fact that one of those African American casualties, Steward William Bond, had the presence of mind to salvage two compasses, two copies of Bowditch’s New American Practical Navigator, and two quadrants. Owen Chase, the first mate, would later recall that this equipment was ‘the probably instruments of our salvation.” Bond’s ultimate fate is actually lost to us. His boat was separated from the other two early, and it’s possible survivors never found. One can only hope he avoided the indignity of having been eaten by his fellow crew members. It was Chase, and second mate Matthew Joy, who persuaded Captain George Pollard Jr. to set out for the South American coast-a decision that would cost many lives. In fact, they came within sighting distance of the Society Islands and might have reached Tahiti in a manner of weeks according to the account of Thomas Nickerson, a cabin boy whose notebook of the account, written in 1876, was discovered only in 1960 and not published until 1984. The account had been given to a professional writer, Leon Lewis, a New Yorker who had stayed at Nickerson’s boarding house which he ran later in life. For some reason Lewis never published the manuscript and instead gave it to a neighbor. It was in this neighbor’s attic in Penn Yan, New York, sometime after his death that the manuscript was discovered. It then languished for another twenty years until it made it into the hands of Edouard Stackpole, a scholar of the period and of The Essex who realized what it was. It was published as a limited monograph in 1984 by the Nantucket Historical Society.  It is this account which breathes new life into the narrative and which Nathaniel Philbrick used to break new ground in his book, published in 2000, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex from which much of this information is taken and upon which Ron Howard’s film is based. I’d definitely recommend Philbrick’s book. He explores the issues as much as possible given what is known and the book is, with the addition of Nickerson’s manuscript, the most complete treatment to date.

Next I’ll talk about whaling in general. It’s hard to underestimate the importance of whaling in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its decline was only due to the fact that methods of converting crude oil were discovered. The whale was used to create the petroleum products of its day-oil, ‘plastic’ and other products that we now use crude oil to produce, once came from whales.

Do you have a blog?

I was asked the other day, “Do you have a blog?” It reminded me that I needed to do that, to set this up so that people who listen to my radio program can come and get show notes and references. But I also needed a place to write. My questioner was correct in her assessment of me. I have so many thoughts swirling in my head that to get them out, to share them, would do me a world of good. I hope you’ll stay and maybe learn about something you didn’t know before or get to know a little more about something you thought you knew about. I’ll be posting two types of things here-essays and show notes for my radio program-Evidence Based Radio on Valley Free Radio. My main interests are Science, History, and specifically Archaeology. I read voraciously, both on and off line, listen to podcasts, watch silly movies and a wide variety of YouTube content. I am a bit of a walking Atlas Obscura-though sadly not as widely traveled. I am also an avid amateur photographer and may share some of my photos here from time to time. But that’s enough about me…I’ll need to earn your interest, I know that.