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.
Our final stops on this macabre tour from my travels are the two southernmost states in the region, Rhode Island and Connecticut—the exit, if you will, at the bottom of the theater… and the best place to run screaming if the spirit moves you.
Rhode Island has historically had a problem with its dead. Whether they’re turning into vampires or being eaten by trees, the forefather citizens of the smallest and most mis-named state in the Union have had their hands full keeping their graves full.
Vampires of New England
Rhode Island seems to be second only to Transylvania for its vampire lore. At least half a dozen graveyards in Rhode Island were the scene of similar events: A family disinters a loved one from the grave, mutilates the corpse to keep it from rising, and then leaves looking extremely relieved. The most famous incident among these is the case of Mercy Brown. You see, back in the colonial days of this country, tuberculosis was regularly diagnosed as vampirism. In 1892, after the death of 17-year-old Mercy Brown, the Brown family continued to mysteriously waste away and die. Because she missed the meeting, the family unanimously blamed her. So they dug up Mercy, cut out her heart, burned it to ashes and then had the most recently afflicted family member drink those ashes. Her tombstone still stands in a small graveyard in the town of Exeter. It’s the one with the garlic lei hanging off it.
The founders of most cities are honored in various over-the-top ways when they die. Roger Williams, the founder of Providence, RI, rotted away in an anonymous grave until he was eaten by the roots of an apple tree. At least, that’s what the citizens found when they dug him up to solve the original indignity. All that was left of Williams was some bone fragments and the aforementioned apple tree root…which had adopted a (roughly) human shape in making its way through, well, a human shape. These days, the remains of Williams’ remains are sealed in a large statue of Williams in Prospect Terrace Park overlooking the city. The root with the taste for human flesh couldn’t be allowed to stay in the wild and ended up in the historic John Brown House tacked to a coffin-shaped board and semi-ignored unless you force the topic with your tour guide.
It’s no surprise that with such a history of necromania the state would give birth to one of the giants of the horror genre. In fact, since his death in 1937, H.P. Lovecraft has risen in posterity to be second in the horror literature hierarchy only to fellow native-born New Englander Edgar Allan Poe (whose life is also traced in The New England Grimpendium). Lovecraft lived most of his life in Providence, and it is in that city that one can find the inspirations for his stories, his grave and locations from his life, his monument, and his manuscript collection, the latter two being located at the John Hay Library at Brown University.
Connecticut enjoys somewhat of a dual citizenship as both a New England state and a New York suburb, making the area a bit Jekyll and Hyde as a result. We’ve come to see the Hyde part, of course.
Few things are more fun than a circus, and few things more un-fun than a circus on fire. In the summer of 1944, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus was in the capital city of Hartford, performing under a giant tent for an audience of 7,000. The tent caught fire—no one’s exactly sure why—but since the canvas was covered in a highly flammable substance to waterproof it, the whole thing incinerated in less than ten minutes, killing 168 people in that short time. The story is more complicated than that, of course, but that’s the gist. A lot of people died horribly during an innocent afternoon at the circus. Now, where the central tent post was once anchored is a circular bulge of a monument that depicts the names of all the victims and a schematic of the tent. Trees outline where the edges of the tent were, giving visitors a sense of scale, and stone markers tell the story minute-by-terrible-minute. Six of the victims went unidentified that day, and they share a grave in nearby Northwood Cemetery. One has since been moved, but that’s a whole different macabre story.
There is a church in the city of New Haven whose basement is rarely used for community socials and fundraisers. That’s because of all the gravestones. Center Church is located on New Haven Green, the ground level of which was at one time many feet lower than it is currently. Oh, and it was a cemetery. Eventually, the real estate became too valuable, so the headstones were removed (although the dead stayed) and placed in another cemetery. Afterward, the land was leveled, leaving a nice, smooth, grassy area on which to picnic (over the dead), leaving only the small bit of cemetery over which Center Church had been built preserved. Now known as the Center Church crypt, the stones range in age from 1687 to 1812, but they all look relatively fresh what with being sheltered from the elements and having a church staff to tend them. However, I can only imagine that attending church there must seem like always being on the verge of a 1970s Italian horror movie.
Possessed by Demons
One of my stranger afternoons in traveling to all these grim obscura was the one I spent in the town of Stratford at the house of a demonologist, which apparently can be defined as someone who runs around pissing off dark spirits. His name was John Zaffis, and I was there to peruse the collection of haunted/possessed artifacts in his Museum of the Paranormal that he had amassed over the course of his career. Zaffis, I should mention, is most famous for being involved in a case that ended up as the basis for the 2009 film The Haunting in Connecticut. The collection includes such strange items as a black skull and a series of African masks to more mundane fare, including musical instruments and under-ordinary-circumstances innocent-looking dolls. Demons seem to have a preference for dolls. He even showed me a piece from the abovementioned Connecticut case, a small statue of the Virgin Mary with her hands melted off. “From the exorcism,” he said. It’s a terrifying thought. If every inanimate object can be a demon portal, then we’re all pretty much doomed. We’re way outnumbered by the inanimate.
So that’s it for our little taste of New England, dark side up. Its shadows run much deeper, of course. Still, even though I was only able to give the topic a flesh wound in such a short space, I hope you enjoyed/were mildly disturbed. Much thanks to the Atlas Obscura for having me.