woensdag 6 maart 2019

The black robed entity from the murder house

Twelve years ago The Anomalist issue 13 published my story about the Black Flash that haunted Provincetown in the 1930's. I added an appendix of similar horrors. 

One never left my mind: what emerged from the house where 15-year old Mabel Mayer was murdered in 1927, a crime that after decades is still unsolved? Let's see what stories began to circulate at the time. Under the heading of 'The Horrible Experience Of Mr. John Smith", a California newspaper reported: "The people of Oakland are pretty well convinced that a house where a murder was committed last week is haunted. The experience of a certain electrician as recounted by the worthy A.P. was terrifying enough. John Smith, electrician, said he passed the murder house recently and a tall, heavy set man, garbed in a gown like a black kimono and wearing a 'strange looking thing on his head', walking out and started after him. Smith said he ran as fast as he could."[1]

Who wouldn't? But there's more. Who was the mysterious, distraught and mentally unhinged woman who appeared out of nowhere, approached two families that stood in the front of their homes talking and that knew nothing of the murder at the time? She could not remember where she lived but muttered that 'May' lived across the street from her, saying: "Oh why did they do it? I told them not to". When questioned what she meant, she abruptly left.[2]

And what exactly was that 'strange looking thing' on the head of the black garbed, heavy set man? Another newspaper from Nevada, admittedly far away from the crime scene, described the strange looking thing as being 'about his head'. At least here we learn more from Smith: "He declared that a few days before the murder a hold-up was staged in front of the house." But the weirdness didn't stop there. Something seemed to be not quite right with the murder mansion the newspapers noted, and it became branded as a 'spook house'. "The house seemed to fall into the depths of disrepute today. Mrs. Ruby Swain, clerk, declared she was the last tenant of the place and moved out recently because she could not stand the strain of wierd (sic) noises and the oppressiveness of the place..."[3]

1. Modesto News-Herald, 7 July 1927.
2. Modesto News-Herald, 6 July 1927.
3. Reno Gazette-Journal, 5 July 1927; Modesto News-Herald, 6 July 1927.

maandag 14 oktober 2013

The Black Flash of Cape Cod

In the late 1930s, a frightening and phantomlike creature plagued Provincetown, Massachusetts. One October evening in 1938, so tradition speaks, a bizarre entity emerged from the dunes, "dressed in black – all in black..." The visitations of the phantom were to last seven years. Then, in 1945, its activity stopped abruptly and the entity disappeared without a trace, never to be seen again. It was named ‘The Black Flash’ because of its supernatural agility. Today, the legend of ‘The Black Flash’ that terrorized Provincetown in the 1930’s is remembered as a haunting tale of the bizarre. Several websites mention it, and they are more or less consistent in their summaries. Perhaps not surprising, as there are so few sources and with anecdotes sensational enough, that there is no room nor need for distortion or embellishment.

The tale of The Black Flash can be traced back to a small publication by Robert Ellis Cahill, folklorist and untiring Massachusetts collector of oddities. Cahill gave the Black Flash a second life with his retelling of the events that so plagued Provincetown in the 1930’s in his New England’s Mad and Mysterious Men, that was published in 1984. Vermont writer Joe Citro masterfully retold the strange affair in his Passing Strange: True Tales of New England Hauntings and Horrors (1996), thus keeping the tale of The Black Flash alive. In fact, were it not for Cahill and Citro, we would probably have never learnt of the capers of that strange phantom that in behaviour, as well as outfit, so echoed another dark phantom from our past: Spring-heeled Jack. Famous author of anomalies John Keel stayed in Provincetown in 1963; yet he did not come to learn of that local legend.

But that’s how I came to know of it’s existence; by reading Mike Dash’s paper on Spring-heeled Jack that initially appeared in Fortean Studies no. 3, published in 1996, and who based his account on Cahill. I was so intrigued by this story that some years ago I decided to bite my teeth into this case and engage in some serious research concerning what had happened in Provincetown in the late 1930’s. I wanted to get a clearer picture of that series of weird events that, according to Cahill, lasted until 1945. My first step was to acquire both the Cahill and the Citro publications. Citro, with whom I corresponded in the course of my research, is an excellent writer and one who is well versed in Fortean events. To Cahill goes the honour of having written about the case first – and what a tale it is!

From Cahill we learn that The Black Flash was a 'a giant monster,' a phantomlike creature dressed in black, 'black hood, black cape, black face but his fierce eyes and long pointed ears were a glowing silver.' A woman had a frightful evening encounter in Provincetown in the second week of November 1938. Afterwards she described the Black Flash as: 

"black, all black, with eyes like balls of flame, and he was big, real big... maybe eight feet tall. He made a sound, a loud buzzing sound, like a June bug on a hot day, only louder... he disappeared like a flash."

Other encounters would follow. Writes Cahill:
"Within the next three weeks, four other people had similar experiences in downtown Provincetown. The Black Flash either jumped out at them from behind a tree, or dropped down before them from a rooftop. Two of his victims were husky men, and although one man reported that he chased him, he said he was no match for the speed and agility of the Black Flash."
Those who had had their luckless encounters with the elusive phantom agreed on its height, black cape, almost superhuman agility, and (sometimes) silver ears. In one instant, when it was cornered by the Provincetown police in a schoolyard surrounded by a ten foot fence, a flashlight shining on its face revealed "a mask, which looked like an old flour-screen without its handle, painted silver and strapped to the phantom’s head." The Black Flash then escaped over a fence. During another encounter one teenager alleged that the phantom had spit blue flames into his face. Then there is the farmer who allegedly emptied his rifle at The Black Flash, whereupon the phantom merely laughed and leaped over an eight-foot hedge.

My second attempt at getting to the bottom of this incredible tale, was to learn about the sources that Cahill and Citro had used. Citro had used Cahill, as it quickly turned out, and Cahill had used the retellings by several people living in Provincetown at the time of the events. As such, Cahill is an important, if not the sole source for the local oral tradition involving The Black Flash. But as I became none the wiser in regards to any sources that went before Cahill, the next logical step was to search for a local newspaper. To my joy I found one actually online: the Provincetown Advocate.

In its October 26, 1939 issue I found the first reference on The Black Flash. So Ellis had been right, after all, although his retelling marked more the recording of the next stage, that of an unusual event having entered local folklore with all its embellishments and distortions. Something strange had indeed visited Provincetown, but not from 1938 till 1945. The weirdness began in 1939 and lasted only a few weeks. The Provincetown Advocate was unusually reticient in reporting about the weird occurrences. So much so, that none of Cahill’s sensational anecdotes are to be found in that paper. Which, of course, may not say anything. There is always the possibility that the local newspaper did not record, for a variety of reasons, all the tales spun by its local inhabitants. That would include any possible, actual encounter. But judging from the newspaper, and this is the closest source in regards to the unusual occurrences that we can get, there was something going on and the name ‘Black Flash’ was already in use from the start. Aside from that there are other small but problematic oddities that I noted and were included in my essay on The Black Flash that was published in 2007, in Anomalist 13.

Having developed a keen interest by now into the development of Spring-heeled Jack-like activities in the United States, in the course of extensive researches I was able to compile a list of thirteen cases of incidents ranging from 1885 to 1927 that I included as an appendix.

Suffice to say that in the 1930’s a strange phantom had actually plagued Provincetown. During my researches I discovered that the neighbouring village of Wellfleet encountered a similarly strange and brief visitation by a howling something around the same time. So I not only found that Cahill’s tales had a basis in fact, but also that another weird entity or pranxter had displayed some activities nearby. A conclusion is that it is always necessary to revisit these old – but not entirely cold – cases, with sometimes surprising results.

As to the Black Flash, who was he? Was he, as Cahill learned, an invention of some bored Provincetown men? Cahill was told by Francis Marshall, who became Provincetown’s Police Chief in 1959, that he knew who The Black Flash was, but he refused to identify the culprit:

"I will tell you this though... The Black Flash wasn’t just one person. He was four men, who sometimes played the part alone, and sometimes together. Two are dead now, but the others have a hell of a time when they get together, reminiscing about the times they scared the hell out of their friends and neighbors in Provincetown."

Be that as it may, but the original source in the Provincetown Advocate already mentions the uncanny agility of the Black Flash:
"...grabbing women, jumping over ten foot hedges with no trouble at all. "Chair springs on his feet" is the explanation."
A description that coincides with the behaviour of that other bizarre prowler of the dark, Spring-heeled Jack. Did something entirely different emerge from the dunes one night, to begin its reign of fear? This question I am sure would have amused Robert Ellis Cahill. As for myself, I am deeply puzzled as to how an England bogyeman of a distant past would become a kind of template for whatever haunted a little town in Massachusetts, hundreds of miles away and a century later.

dinsdag 8 oktober 2013

The Petrified Cornfield

One of the interesting problems in assessing how far back in time the crop circle phenomenon stretches is to find old tales suggestive of the phenomenon.
America has produced such crop-related folklore. In 1885 a newspaper in Georgia printed this intriguing anecdote:
“I heard a truthful, religious old lady say, that when she was a little girl she was sent to pick up corn stalks with the child of a reputed witch. Growing weary of the work, the child of the witch mother proposed to collect the stalks without further labour. A few minutes later, the wind began to rise, furious whirlwinds made their appearance in different parts of the field, the stalks were lifted in the air, but my informant, becoming frightened, begged that it might be stopped. The witch child waved her arms, the wind subsided and the stalks fell back in their places. These stories might be multiplied by scores; they were sufficiently well authenticated and corro­borated to produce conviction of their truth, if only within the bounds of reason and common experience.” [1] 

While the above points to a widespread belief linking crop and field anomalies to the work of the Devil and his minions, that fascinating detail of 'furious whirlwinds' in the American tale connects to a brief letter to the editor of Nature. It was published in 1880, and it is often cited as a precursor to the crop circle phenomenon. Entitled 'Storm Effects', the letter describes how violent storms rocked parts of Surrey, England, producing effects considered as: 
“in some instances curious. Visiting a neighbour’s farm… we found a field of standing wheat considerably knocked about, not as an entirety, but in patches forming, as viewed from a distance, circular spots. 

“Examined more closely, these all presented much the same character, viz., a few standing stalks as a centre, some prostrate stalks with their heads arranged pretty evenly in a direction forming a circle round the centre, and outside these a circular wall of stalks which had not suffered.” [2] 

But just how unusual is it to find stalks flattened or bent in various figures after a severe storm? Two years before the letter in Nature was published, a Wisconsin newspaper remarked on how an “unusually severe wind and rain storm, coming up from the southwest… flattened the grain and twisted it into all conceivable directions and shapes. The grain was very tall and heavy, and the damage of having it completely flattened can well be appreciated by all who have harvested lodged grain.” [3] 

Are there then no genuinely weird tales involving crops and anomalous impressions or phenomena? I’ve been scouring digitized newspaper archives for almost a decade now, and, apart from the examples cited here there seems to be a dearth of tales possessing motifs truly similar to the current crop circle phenomenon. Surprising, when we know that those 19th- and early 20th-century newspaper had no qualms in publishing even the most outlandish yarns. 

During my searches I did, though, find one very curious story that might rank with that of the Mowing Devil. It has all the hallmarks of a tall tale (and was generally referred to as 'the yarn of the season', and 'a marvellous story' in those American newspapers that published it), but is laudable in its invent­iveness. It offers us a strange aerial phenomenon manifesting itself as a green cloud, a radical temperature drop and some fireballs – and this weird atmo­spheric manifest­ation has, in turn, a decidedly strange influence on a field of corn. The tale was published between August and October 1890, and so far I have located it in four different American newspapers: 

The people in the eastern port­ion of Claiborne County, Tenn., are excited over a remarkable occurr­ence which took place there not long ago. It is one of the most marvell­ous occurrences ever heard of, and it will prove to be a problem over which scientific minds may wrestle for some time to come. 

Edgar Ramsey is a farmer who lives five miles from Lick Skillet. He arrived in Middlesboro recently. The story he told would not find believers at first, but since then it has been proven that he has told nothing but the truth. His statement is thus reported by a correspondent of the St Louis Globe-Democrat: “Last Sunday afternoon I noticed what appeared to be a large green-looking cloud coming from a westerly direction toward my house. It was a long distance off, and the rain was falling heavily. Shortly afterward It became very cold, in fact so cold that I went indoors, lit a big fire and put on a big heavy coat. When I came out again, the big green cloud was almost over the house, and the air was as cold as on a winter day. The wind howled and the hail fell in stones as big as eggs. All this lasted 20 minutes, and then the sky cleared up and I felt more like myself again. 

“An hour after, I was sitting with my wife near the fire when I heard a horse galloping at full speed, and when I went out to see who it was there stood Jake Warren, a neighbour farmer who lives about a mile and a quarter from me. He was as pale as a ghost and was trembling all over. It took him over 10 minutes to commence to tell me what he had to say, and as he was talking I thought he was crazy. 

“He stated that a big green cloud had come over his place, and that something which looked like balls of fire had fallen all around his house. He had five acres of corn growing in a field next to the house. After the storm had cleared away, he went to see what damage had been done. He saw that some corn had been blown down, and, entering the field, he found every stalk turned to stone. There were two fine hogs in the field, and they, too, were petrified and standing there as if cut out of solid rock. Myself and wife thought the man was raving mad, but induced him to remain over till morning, when we promised to visit his place with him. That we did, and what we saw will be remembered so long as we both live. There was the corn blown down, but every stalk of it was petri­fied. It was not as hard as granite, but it appeared to be more like soft stone. I took my knife and cut it, and it became powder. The ears were very hard, and they could not be broken with the hand. The leaves were brittle, and if you struck them they would break like glass. The hogs were there, too, looking natural enough, but they were as hard as stone.” 

George E. Henry, of this city, John Rogers, Captain John B. Hull, ex-deputy marshal, and several others rode over the mountains into Tennessee to see for themselves if the things were really there as represented. Captain Hull, ex-United States deputy marshal, makes the following statement: 

“We went over this morning. I doubted the story on starting, but thought I’d try it, anyhow. We found Warren’s farm about seven miles from the Gap, and there, sure enough, was the cornfield completely petrified. The stalks were somewhat blown down, but they seemed completely turned to stone. The two hogs were there also, and they looked like they were carved out of rock. It was the strangest sight I ever saw and I can’t begin to describe the thing. There were a number of men guarding the field with Winchester rifles and they wouldn’t let us go into it. They only let us go to the fence. We could touch some of the corn stalks and could see the hogs, but the men refused posit­ively to let us go any further than the fence. The women wouldn’t say why they would not let people go into the field, but I presume they were afraid people would break the corn stalks to pieces. There was quite a crowd there looking at the thing, and every one was thoroughly dumbfounded with what they saw.” 

This statement is vouched for by a number of others, and naturally there is considerable excitement. [4] 

Part of a longer article originally published in Fortean Times 264, July 2010 


1 “The Obedient Whirlwind”, Telegraph and Mess­enger, Macon, Georgia, 29 Jan 1885.
2 “Letters To The Editor, Storm Effects”, Nature, 29 July 1880. 

3 “Wind And Rain. Severe Wind and Rain Storm West of Here. Fields of High Waving Grain Lodged Flat to the Earth. Effects of the Recent Hot Spell. General Influence of the Weather on the Crops.”, Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 18 July 1878. 

4 “Turned To Stone. A Strange Story from Claiborne County, Tennessee. A Big Green Cloud Passes Over the Lick Skillet Country and Petrifies Hogs as Well as a Field of Corn – The Yarn of the Season”, Reno Evening Gazette, Reno, Nevada, 4 Oct 1890. I also located the story in the Daily Journal and Journal and Tribune, Tennessee, 16 Aug 1890; Bradford Era, Bradford, Pennsylvania, 26 Aug 1890 and Syracuse Standard, Syracuse, New York, 7 Sept 1890.

Sentient Fireballs and Biting Lights

At the fringes of luminous phenomena ranging from spook lights to freak lightning, there are strange accounts for which there is no ready explanation. These involve lights that show a particular interest in human beings – and not always to their benefit. 

Take what befell 12-year-old George Campbell and his father, E.W. Campbell. They were riding along the ‘Eighty-foot Road’, north of the city of Sherman, Texas, on the night of 4 October 1898. Somewhat after nine o’clock that evening, the boy was witness to a startling phenomenon: 

He is a bright, intelligent little fellow, who said he didn’t believe in ghosts; that his parents had never scared him with spook stories, and he is one of the best- behaved scholars in the fourth grade at the Franklin school building. His story as told to a News reporter to-day is as follows: “Last night papa and I were riding along the ‘Eighty-foot Road’, about two and a half miles [4km] north of town, when all at once everything got very bright. We saw a great ball of fire coming down toward the ground. It got within about three feet [90cm] of the ground and seemed to rest for a while and then it went back up until it got clear out of sight. There was a buzzing sound all the time.” George describes it as being about 10 feet [3m] in diameter and that it hurt one’s eyes to look at it. Although they were very close to it, he says that he did not feel any heat. [1]
It’s a puzzling tale, one which nowadays might be interpreted as a UFO account.
Another encounter with a mysterious fireball did not have such a fortunate outcome. Twenty-two years previously, also in Texas, near the town of Palestine, another “intelligent boy” appeared, out of breath and “as pale as he could be”. His story was that he’d been trudging along a highway at night. 

There was a negro woman riding a horse in the direction the little coloured boy was going. The boy appeared that night in Palestine… He said he saw a ball of fire come out of the sky and strike the woman and set her ablaze. The horse ran away with the woman afire on his back, and he ran to town to tell the people what had happened. The people went to look after further particulars concerning this curious incident, and they found the woman lying on the ground, her clothing burned off, but enough of life in her to tell that she had been struck in the breast by a ball of fire. She died the next day. The horse was afterwards found with his mane singed. People here think that she was struck by a meteor. [2]

In contrast, there are also numerous instances of death from above by freak lightning manifesting as balls of fire. These incidents are no less outré, but in such cases we might console ourselves with a natural explanation. In 1866, Miss Addie Murray, a schoolteacher in Ross township, Vermillion county, Illinois, met her untimely end in this way: “She was sitting in the schoolhouse with two pupils, when the house was struck, and she was found sitting in the chair dead, with her clothing nearly burned off, and the children severely stunned. The children describe the scene as a ball of fire falling into the room.” [3] Something similar struck John Whitton, a driver for a telegraph construction train in Leavenworth that same year. “He had occasion to lift the tele­graph line off the ground, when a flash of lightning struck the line at that point, tearing it into small pieces, and instantly killing him. The men who saw the accident state that they saw a ball of fire as large as a man’s fist issue from Whitton’s breast.” [4]
An unfortunate death by a fireball in 1933 was accompanied by a curious premonition on the part of the unfortunate victim. “In San Rocco, during a thunderstorm, a cleric was killed by lightning. The priest was involved in a discussion with several of his congregation in the village street, when quite slowly a one metre [40in] big, orange-coloured fireball came floating through the air straight towards the priest, which then erupted in his vicinity. The incid­ent made quite an impression on the superstitious farmers, more so, as the day before the priest had presaged his own demise that was soon to come.” [5] 

A different kind of strange light, again attracted by the presence of a human being, was experienced by Alec Campbell, working as a game warden in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). One night, Campbell was walking by an old burial ground when suddenly a bright light appeared beside him. “The light turned into a ball of fire about the size of a softball and moved along at Campbell’s speed, he said… he turned and stared at the mysterious light. Immediately, the ball started advancing on him.” Campbell remembered the tales that said that if one encountered such a light, the best thing to do was to close one’s eyes, which would cause the light to disappear. He did so, and the light vanished. [6] 

Could there be lights not only possessed of some sort of intelli­gence but which are capable of forming a unique rapport with a person and even delivering painful stings when they so choose? 

This seems to have been the case in Richmond, Indiana, in 1978. The bizarre incident involved local resident Martha Grieswell, 46 at the time, whose house had been plagued by “flashing pinpoints of light” ever since one had come into her bedroom one night in early January that year. Grieswell described how it appeared to her that she and the light were watching each other. The little light approached her: “I said ‘No,’ and it stopped about one and half feet [45cm] away. Then I held out my hand and it came right over and sat in my hand and turned my whole hand a psychedelic purple. It glowed for a while, then shut down to a point of light, then rose from my hand – then the others started to come in…” 

Over the following nights, dozens of the “floating, flashing lights”, mostly white and pinhead-sized, entered her bedroom through the closed window; after that, they became her constant companions as soon as evening fell. Grieswell also began to note some of these lights during the daytime, although then they seemed less active. She moved out of the upstairs bedroom, where the lights continued to manifest, and began conducting experiments to try to ascertain what the lights might be. She captured several in containers, including an aluminium cigar­ette case, and saw them shining through the container walls. Grieswell also immersed the lights in water, keeping them submerged for two days: “The lights were observed to ‘swim’ freely, and when released, to ‘fly’ free, their lights undimmed.” She got the same results when she locked them up in a freezer. She was only able to conduct these experiments when the lights were willing participants, since at other times they simply escaped through the walls of the containers. Radiation tests and an attempted chemical analysis turned up nothing. She did find out, though, that one thing had an effect on the lights. When she touched one with a burning cigarette, the light made “a crackling sound, as if you had wadded up cellophane very rapidly in your hand”. She was unable to replicate that experiment: “You can’t burn them any more. They move away too fast,” she explained. It dawned upon Mrs Grieswell that the lights might learn from experience and therefore might possess some kind of intelligence. When asked why she wanted to get rid of them, she gave the unnerving answer: “Because they bite.” At times, when the lights became more bright, they would sting or bite, giving off a sensation like “the sting of a sweat bee”, and leaving a very small welt. “They go through a tapping motion… When they land, they raise up, then light again… they feel like bugs when they sit on you and that’s when they burn.” 

One night, a light got in her eye, which was a painful experience. The next day, she noticed that the eye was bloodshot and the corner crusted. When the lights were not stinging her, they had a tendency to land and crawl over her during the night. They also stung her husband, who wasn’t able to see them. This might be a significant detail; some of the many curious people who visited her house were able to see the lights, yet others were not. 

Trying to escape the lights for a while, Mrs Grieswell went to her mother in Decatur, but on the third night after her arrival the lights came in through the window and were also seen by her mother. Perhaps, she reasoned, they had been able to follow her or had hidden themselves in her clothing or luggage. She got the impression that the lights meant to say that she could not flee from them. She sought help, and consulted scientists, ufologists and psychic researchers, but to little avail. As she said to the reporter who visited her (he wasn’t able to see the lights): “I’ve just made up my mind that I’m not going to get rid of them.” [7] 

One of the psychic researchers whom Grieswell contacted offered as explanation that she might be “experiencing a stage of consciousness preliminary to becoming a psychic medium”. A plausible suggestion, coming from a psychic researcher, as puzzling luminous phenomena manifest themselves often around mediums, and are well known in the field of parapsychology. It is said that Helène Smith experienced the manifestation of mysterious globes or lights in her studio where she had taken up painting, long after her association and ensuing break-up with Theodore Flournoy: “The visions were accompanied by luminous phenomena. They began with a ball of light which expanded and filled the room. This was not a subjective phenomenon. Helène Smith exposed photographic plates which indeed registered strong luminous effects.” [8] 

Then there is the case of Ada Bessinet, a Toledo medium of the 1920s. Denounced as a subconscious fraud by Professor Hyslop, who had investigated her during 70 sittings between 1909 and 1910, she clearly made more of an impression on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He wrote, describing a séance with her: “Brilliant lights are part of the medium’s power, and even before she had sunk into a trance, they were flying up in graceful curves as high as the ceiling and circling back on us. One nearly rested on my hand. It seems to be a cold light, and its nature has never been determined, but perhaps the cold, vital light of the firefly may be an analogy.” [9] Hereward Carrington was another who was not impressed, but he did state that he observed some very curious lights at a 1922 séance which, “on request, hovered for a few moments over exposed photographic plates and that the plates, when developed, showed unusual markings which he failed to obtain by artificial means”. [10]
Originally published in Fortean Times 266, September 2010

1 “Aerial Phenomena in Texas”, Dallas Morning News, Texas, 5 Oct 1898; “Aerial Phenomena In Texas”, Galveston Daily News, Texas, 6 Oct 1898.

2 “Burned To Death By A Meteor”, Burlington Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, 23 Mar 1876; “Burned To Death By A Meteor”, Ohio Democrat, New Philadelphia, Ohio, 30 Mar 1876; “Burned To Death By A Meteor”, Decatur Daily Repub­lican, Decatur, Illinois, 11 April 1876.

3 The North-West, Free­port, Illinois, 23 Aug 1866. 

4 Bangor Daily Whig And Courier, Bangor, Maine, 26 June 1866. 

5  “Vuurbol Doodt Een Priester”, De Gelderlander, ed. Nijmegen, Netherlands, 18 Aug 1933. 

6 Sanford Spillman: “Strange To Relate”, Winnipeg Free Press, Canada, 2 Aug 1969. 

7 Barry Wood: “What Lights Through Yonder Window Broke?” and Barry Wood: “Others Say They’ve Seen The Lights At Mrs Grieswell’s House”, both in the Pallad­ium-Item, Richmond, Indiana, 20 Aug 1978; also summar­ised in the Logansport Pharos-Tribune, Logansport, Indiana, 28 Aug 1978. An account of Martha Grieswell’s ordeal was also published in Wonders, Dec 1995, as “Life As We Know It Not”, by Mark A Hall, pp109–118. 

8 Nandor Fodor: Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, University Books, 1966, 3rd printing 1969, p350. 

9 Walter B. Gibson: “Human Enigmas That Still keep the World Guessing, No. 14 – Ada Besinnet”, Lethbridge Daily Herald, Lethbridge, Canada, 13 Jan 1925. 

10 Fodor: Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, p30.

The Devil of Bracken County

For the greater part of 1866, various American newspapers[1] printed a letter written by one Nathaniel G Squires and dated 17 February, chronicling the terror the inhabitants of Bracken county, Kentucky, found themselves in. It had all begun on the Monday night previous to his writing the letter. As Squires told it: 

… after myself and family had retired to rest, we were suddenly aroused by a great outcry from the negro quarters – which are immediately to the rear of the house – in which prayers vied for supremacy with blasphemies, men, women and children screaming “fire!” and “murder!” at the top of their voices, all conspiring to create a scene worthy of a pandemonium. Terribly startled, my wife and I sprang from our bed. The room was illuminated as brightly as by a flood of sunlight, though the light was of a bluish cast. Our first and most reasonable conclusion was that the negro cabins were being consumed by fire. We rushed to the windows and beheld a sight that fairly curdled the blood in our veins with horror, and filled our hearts with the utmost terror. My daughter, shrieking loudly, came running into my room, hysterical with fear. This is what we beheld: 
Standing to the right of the upper cabin, near the fence that separates the negroes’ garden from the house yard, was a creature of gigantic stature, and the most horrifying appearance. It was nearly as high as the comb of the cabin, and had a monstrous head not dissimilar in shape to that of an ape; two short very white horns appeared above each eye; its arms were long, covered with shaggy hair of an ashy hue, and terminated with huge paws, not unlike those of a cat, and armed with long and hooked claws. Its breast was as broad as that of a large sized ox. Its legs resembled the front legs of a horse, only the hoofs were cloven. It had a long tail, armed with a dart-shaped horn, which it was continually switching about. Its eyes glowed like two living coals of fire, while from its nostrils were emitted sheets of bluish coloured flame, with a hissing sound, like the hissing of a serpent, only a thousand times louder. Its general colour, save its arms, was a dull, dingy brown. The air was powerfully impregnated with a smell of burning sulphur… I do not know how long this monster, demon or devil, was visible after we reached the window – possibly some three seconds. When it vanished, it was enveloped in a spiral column of flame that reached nearly to the tops of the locust trees adjacent, and which hid his horrid form completely from view. The extinct­ion of the flame was instantaneous, and with its disappearance we were relieved of the presence of this remarkable visitor. 

Squires would have been willing to believe that he and his family had experienced a horrible nightmare, but for the fact that all were awake at the time. Even so, he claimed, he might still have convinced himself that it had been some kind of hallucination – and wouldn’t have written the letter – save that the creat­ure was sighted at other places and by other witnesses: 

… precisely the same apparition made its appearance at my neighbour’s, Mrs Wm. Dole, appearing there in precisely the same shape in which it presented itself to us, save the head, which appeared to those who witnessed it at Mrs D.’s to resemble that of a horse. At Mr. Adam Fuqua’s, another neighbour, its head was that of a vulture. On Tuesday night it appeared at Mr Jesse Bond’s, there wearing the head of an elephant. At all these places it made the same appearance as at my house – excepting only the changing of the head – and disappeared in the same manner.[2] 

The letter vouched for the reliability of the witnesses. As a postscript, a declaration drawn up by John G Finley, Justice of the Peace, was added, in which all the witnesses declared that the contents of Squires’s letter were true and the persons involved certified by Finley as credible and reliable persons “and their statements entitled to full faith and credit”. Every fortean, though, knows that these declarations are often found attached to all kinds of weird stories found in 19th-century newspapers and cannot be taken as any guarantee of the truthfulness of the tale. 

The Devil of Bracken County, however, was just the start of a minor flap of similar devil sightings across the United States. Some two months after the events in Kentucky, something not unlike the Bracken County demon appeared in Brighton, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois: 

It will doubtless be recollected that a veritable devil, with cloven hoofs, tail, flaming nostrils, and all the other traditional appurt­enances of his Sable Majesty was produced a few weeks since in Kentucky, where he was ‘seen of many men’. Our Chicago friends, not to be outdone in any other part of the globe, have secured the services of a first-class devil, who, if the following account, from the Post, is to be credited, first appeared in the suburb of Brighton: 
“The demon was sitting on a fence by the roadside, not far from the Brighton race course, smoking a short clay pipe – at least, he saw smoke issuing from his mouth and nostrils, and is disposed to believe it was tobacco smoke, although there was cert­ainly a faint smell of brimstone in the air, and every whiff of smoke seemed to be accompan­ied by a little tongue of bluish flame.” The creature was further described as “extremely hid­eous; his body, of Titanic size was covered with mail like the hide of a rhinoceros, full of great seams and scoriated like a field of lava, which it resembled in colour.” No feet or hoofs were seen, but, as the horse shied away from the creature and nearly overturned the buggy, the rider did not have time to take a close look. When he did look back, the thing had vanished. “If it was not Satan, our friend is at a loss to imagine what it was.” That the description did not exactly match that of what was seen at Bracken county, was explained as follows: “it is known – if it is not known it is believed – that the demon has power to assume a variety of shapes, or, as he seems to have done at Brighton, to divest himself of any shape or substance. We do not choose to vouch, however, for the verity of the Brighton devil, whose actuality rests upon the testimony of a single witness.[3] 

I found a brief mention of something similar seen at Missouri during this time, and a larger account of the appearance of a devil-monster in Middle­town, New York State:

… It appears that he has gone to Middletown, New York. He is a terrible monster. A contemporary says: “Amid electric, phosphoric and other red and blue lights, he suddenly appeared, entered the house, the doors and windows of which were quickly and violently thrown open, and presented to the affrighted natives a form which was ‘neither man nor beast, but bearing, in huge, and distorted proportions, the shape and form of the upper extremities of the one, and the lower parts terribly elongated, and reeking with mire and filth and emitting a smell of phosphorous of the other.’ He lifted his scaly wings, brushed them in the faces of the terrified mortals, and with a yell left through the back door and disappeared in the woods. – His course was tracked next day by the sulphur that he shook from his horrid hair. Doubtless he will [turn] up in jail one of these days.”[4] 

As can be seen from the last remarks cited above, we leave the realm of the unexplained with the suggestion that a human agent was involved, and this seems to have been the case in regards to the devil of Bracken county. In April, several newspapers reported more news from Kentucky: 

… the old-fashioned Satan with horns and tail is no longer at large… The ‘Squier’s family’ and Mrs. Dole, and the rest of the Bracken county people, who were scared out of their wits and their moveable effects by this monst­rous visitor, may rest in peace. The luminous eyes, the gnashing teeth, the scaly hide, the cloven feet, the horrid horns, the terrific tail, will trouble them no more forever. Satan is bound, and his name is Oden. 

A man bearing the name of Oden, a resident of Carlisle, Nicholas County, Kentucky, procured a horsehide, with which he clothed himself, and having furnished himself with a phosphorous substance, to imitate the devil’s eyes of fire, started forth to alarm the timid. He would approach a dwelling, making a strange noise, causing the inmates to leave hurriedly. He would then enter the house and appropriate what valuables he could find. He was shot at repeatedly, but being protected by a coat of mail the shots failed to take effect. Finally, a number of persons surrounded and succeeded in lassoing him and he is now confined in the narrow walls of Carlisle jail, to answer to numerous charges for theft, which will be arrayed against him.[5]

Imaginative as Oden’s ruse was, he certainly was not the first to hatch such an elaborate scheme. Mike Dash has noted in his study of Spring-heeled Jack that in the 1840s a Georgia man had disguised himself as the Devil in order to rob a wealthy woman, but paid for it with his life,[6] and I have found several other cases. There was the ‘demon’ captured in Moscow in the 1800s who wore “horns, tail, fiery eyes and all” but turned out to be a rather creative thief.[7] There was the similarly dressed burglar in Maple Grove, Wisconsin, who was fatally shot in 1877 by the boy in the house he intended to rob.[8] And there was the thief dressed as the Devil who was again fatally shot by two boys in Huntsburg, Germany, in 1897.[9] 

All of which explains nothing about some of the other sightings. Middletown, especially the Mount Hope area, was plagued by unusual occurrences the year before.[10] In 1868, Prince Will­iam county in Virginia suff­ered an outbreak of nightly visit­ations of what was described as “an immense figure… with large horns and terrible claws, which it contracts to a sort of hoof” that was estimated as “three times as large as a man”. It was of a “pale bluish colour when first seen, but upon being irritated by the near approach of any person becomes a deadly white, and issues from its surface a small volume of smoke, accompanied by a sickening smell”.[11] And in 1876 Douglas County, Missouri, was visited by “a real devil… a horrible monster – a creature beyond human ingenuity to describe; he was girdled about with chains, and his breath when exhaled, was a blaze of ignited brimstone; he was of immense size and seemed to travel with perfect ease and without noise, save the rattling of his chains.”[12] 

I have many more accounts of sightings of horned, fire-spitting demonic creatures on file, but cannot list them all here. It’s unlikely that even a very enterprising guild of thieves would have wholeheartedly embraced this particular disguise. If not embellishment, yarn or hoax, some of these devil sightings may indeed have been cases of something very odd indeed.  

Originally published in Fortean Times 276, 2011

1 I collected 34 reports, all with the same wording, in newspapers from various states. 

2 “Extraordinary Excitement in Bracken County, Kentucky”, Republican Compiler, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 19 Mar 1866. 

3 “The Devil In Chicago”, Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 23 Apr 1866; Racine Journal, Racine, Wisconsin, 25 Apr 1866. 

4 “The Devil Again”, Macon Telegraph, Macon, Georgia, 14 May 1866; Little Rock Daily Gazette, Little Rock, Arkansas, 18 May 1866. 

5 “The Devil Caught And Caged”, Macon Daily Telegraph, Macon, Georgia, 4 Apr 1866; Georgia Weekly Tele­graph, Macon, Georgia, 9 Apr 1866. 

6 Mike Dash: “Spring-heeled Jack: To Victorian Bugaboo from Suburban Ghost”, Fortean Studies, vol. 3, 1996, p117. Aside from Dash’s source, I found the account in all instances headed “The Devil Killed”, in: Cleveland Daily Herald, Cleveland, Ohio, 20 Nov 1841; Indiana Journal, Indianapolis, Indiana, 26 Nov 1841; Pensacola Gazette, Pensacola, Florida, 4 Dec 1841; Wabash Courier, Terre-Haute, Indiana, 4 Dec 1841. 

7 “Arresting A Ghost. A Spook That Set A Whole City Wild. Captured And Unmasked By A Brave Policeman”, Laredo Times, Laredo, Texas, 27 Nov 1891. 

8 “Killed The Devil”, Galveston Daily News, Galveston, Texas, 3 June 1877. 

9 All accounts headed “Killed The Devil”, in: Waterloo Daily Courier, Waterloo, Iowa, 11 Mar 1897; Atchison Daily Globe, Atchison, Kansas, 4 Feb 1897; Hornellsville Weekly Tribune, Hornellsville, New York, 12 Feb 1897; Edwardsville Intelligencer, Edwardsville, Illinois, 19 Mar 1897; Cambridge City Tribune, Cambridge City, Indiana, 8 Apr 1897; Daily Nevada State Journal, Reno, Nevada, 18 Apr 1897. 

10 “Diabolism – Satan on the Rampage”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Brooklyn, New York, 4 May 1866. 

11 “A Ghost – or Something – in Prince William County, Va.”, Petersburg Index, Petersburg, Virginia, 18 Dec 1868. 

12 “Douglas County Devil”, The Phelps County New Era, City of Rolla, Missouri, 1 July 1876.