J.W. Ocker, is the author of a brand new book called The New England Grimpendium- A Guide to Macabre and Ghastly Sites His book project took him on road trips to all sorts of odd places on the East Coast, many of which he has also added to the Atlas, and he has graciously offered to share some of his stories with us here on the blog.
Vermont, with its beautiful scenery, and Massachusetts, with its history, are probably the most iconic of the New England states. I’m guessing this great reputation is probably due to hardworking public relations agents intent on hiding all the skeletons in the closets of these two states, though.
A Mummy’s Tomb
There are mummies all over New England, mostly in museums—although I have seen one in the incongruous location of a major hospital in Boston—but only in one place in the region has one of these ancient dead been given a Christian burial. Back in the late 1800s in the town of Middlebury, Harry Sheldon was a serious collector of oddities. Of course, to be officially acknowledged as such in those days, you needed a genuine Egyptian mummy in your collection. So he ordered one. The good news? It was a prince. The ambivalent news? It was a two-year-old infant. The bad news? It had decayed so badly during transit that he promptly stuffed it into an attic and forgot about it. After his death, the collection was adapted into a local history museum. One of the curators, George Mead, eventually found the remains, cremated them, and buried them in his own family plot less than a mile away in tiny West Cemetery. The simple gravestone gives the name of the mummy prince as Amum-Her-Khepesh-Ef, its age as approximately 4,000 years old, and includes a pair of Egyptian symbols flanking a Christian cross. There’s probably never been a stranger cultural exchange program.
Monkeys are funny little things…until you stick wings on them and subject them to the bidding of a wicked witch. Then they get terrifying. You know that story, though. What you might not know is that the town of Burlington is infested with flying monkeys. Two of its central waterfront buildings, the One Main building and the Lake and College building, have a total of six sculptures of the strange beasts adorning their roofs. The two original monkeys, which you can tell by their dark oxidized metal and jagged appearance, were originally commissioned for an Oz-themed waterbed store back in the 1970s. A few decades later, they ended up on One Main, where they became so popular, the local artist that created them made four more to add to the roofs. No word yet on which nightmares he plans on incarnating next to creepify other pleasant public spaces.
By this point in pop culture, you know the story of every lake monster ever, so I’ll skip the details of sightings going back hundreds of years, the blurry photographs, the admitted hoaxes, the plesiosaur theories, the towns turning them into lucrative tourist attractions, and go right to the unique features of Burlington’s Lake Champlain monster—dubbed Champ, of course. Champ has both his own baseball team and his own tombstone-shaped granite marker dedicated to him, complete with a cartoony image and Latin name. The former, a Minor League affiliate of the Washington Nationals, is called the Vermont Lake Monsters and you can see them play at Centennial Field downtown. The latter is located on Perkins Pier, right on the water. If you actually see Champ while you’re there, make sure your photographs are blurry. No reason to relegate his story to the mundanely real.
Massachusetts is full of uber-historic cities and towns, and, honestly, the term historic is often synonymous with macabre. History is full of dead men, gruesome wars, horrible tragedies, bloody uprisings. Basically, what I’m saying is that Massachusetts has tons of cool stuff to see.
Made of People
I never thought growing up that I’d one day be sitting at a desk in the highly secure Rare Books section of a 200-year-old library staring at a book bound in human skin. The vision I had of my future was never that imaginative. This particular ghoulish treasure is the autobiography of the criminal James Allen, among other aliases, and the library was the Boston Atheneaum. After a life of thievery and violence, Allen found himself dying of tuberculosis at the age of 27 in the state prison at Charlestown. At the urging of the warden there, Allen dictated his life story to him, and then, at Allen’s own request, arranged to have the skin removed from his back after death to bind two copies of it, one of which ended up at the Boston Atheneaum just off the Common in Boston and close to where his first crime was committed. It’s oddly fitting, if you think (grotesquely) about it. We live our entire lives in our own skins. It’s not so weird to record those lives within them. Okay, yes it is.
Treasures in the Castle
The fact that Hammond Castle in Gloucester is an actual medieval-looking castle is reason enough to visit. However, set right on the ocean and built by a wealthy eccentric inventor who spent his time dressed in black robes and experimenting with psychics in Farraday cages, the towering edifice is also filled with a range of intriguing items. Such treasures include medieval weaponry and armor, a large great room, an 8,000-pipe organ, an interior courtyard with a pool surrounded by the façades of actual imported medieval buildings, ancient Roman tombstones, and the proposed skull of one of the crewmen of Christopher Columbus. I’m frequently jealous of the rich almost to the point of hatred… unless they’re spending their wealth on cool stuff like this.
The Lady in Black
Speaking of hate, I have a love-hate relationship with ghost stories. I love ghost stories, but hate most “real-life” ghost stories. So if I’m going to track down a “real-life” ghost story it’s got to be at a place that’s interesting to visit intrinsically. Such is the case with Fort Warren. Fort Warren is a Civil War-era fort built in 1850 that takes up all of Georges Island in Boston Harbor. Accessible by ferry, the fort is a tourist attraction mostly for history buffs, but it also attracts ghost aficionados. The island is supposedly haunted by an apparition known as the Lady in Black. The story goes that she was the wife of one of the Confederate soldiers imprisoned there. She dressed up like a man, snuck onto the island, and attempted to free him, accidentally killing him in the process. She was caught and prepped for execution, but her last wish was to die dressed like a woman. The closest thing they had to a dress at the fort was some black curtains, so that’s what went around her body as the noose went around her neck. Now she’s trapped on the island for eternity…or until she figures out the ferry schedule.
Tomorrow: Grim New England, Part III: Rhode Island and Connecticut