Grim New England, Part I: Maine and New Hampshire - Atlas Obscura
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Grim New England, Part I: Maine and New Hampshire

In the little over a year since we started Atlas Obscura, we have met many curiously like-minded people in our community, online and off. One of those people is the awesome J.W. Ocker, Twitter friend of Atlas Obscura, and the author of a brand new book called The New England Grimpendium- A Guide to Macabre and Ghastly Sites, which we like very much. He also maintains a pretty great blog.

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.

Geographically speaking, New England’s no older than any other part of the U.S. Civically, though, it’s arguably the oldest area in the country, yielding gravestones, architecture, and stories that date back to the early 1600s…a laughable amount of time to such places as Europe and the Far East, which have restaurants and parades older than the entire U.S., but almost Lovecraftianingly ancient compared to other parts of the country. Still, four hundred years is plenty of time to accumulate an impressive amount of skeletons in its closet, bats in its belfry, and rats in its walls. Despite being lumped together under a single moniker, each of the six states of New England is unique and offers a variety of the wondrous, the weird…and the macabre. Which is where I come in. For the next three blog posts, I’ll take you top to bottom through just a tiny fraction of the more grim obscura of the area that I’ve witnessed and experienced firsthand in writing my book.

Maine

If there was one state in the union that wouldn’t seem like the type to be hiding a gruesome underbelly, it would be Maine. Simply named and full of straightforward folk who live in one of the more beautiful areas of the country, surely the terminator line that separates the ghastly from the pleasant must be the border of Maine. However, that wilderness vacationland of the most northernmost East Coast state can sometimes be a dark and foreboding place.

Bigfoot, Beasts, and Cryptids

Bigfoot at the International Cryptozoology Museum - Atlas Obscura

For instance, here there be monsters. A whole museum of them, in fact. Well, a whole museum of cryptids, to be pseudo-scientifically precise. The International Cryptozoology Museum (ICM) in Portland, ME, is dedicated to all those beasties that we have yet to officially discover and which currently only live in legend, stories, dubitable eyewitness reports, and pop culture. Located at the back of the Green Hand Bookshop, the ICM is the personal project of Loren Coleman, one of the world’s foremost cryptozoologists, judging by the number of times I see him on television documentaries. In this small room, you’ll find everything from toys to movie props to Bigfoot footprint casts to cryptid reproductions. The ICM was also one of the locations involved in Atlas Obscura’s inaugural Obscura Day earlier this year. It’s a collection of a lifetime that’s worth spending a few minutes of your own to peruse.

The Hudson Museum

West Mexican funerary figures at the Hudson Museum - Atlas Obscura Blog

Farther north, at the University of Maine in Orono, is the Hudson Museum, a free institution of anthropological artifacts exquisitely arranged in display cases the size of city aquarium tanks. Among the demon masks, tooth necklaces, and statues of demi-gods, one will find the largest collection of Western Mexican funerary figures in the country. About the size of garden gnomes, these clay figures come in a variety of animal, human, and abstract shapes, each one specially made for the dead and intended to spend eternity in the dark underground shaft tombs of the Colima, Jalisco, and Nayarit cultures of Western Mexico. After millennia of sitting in a hole overseeing the decomposition of a body, they’re living a much nicer life these days in the Collins Center for the Arts building that houses the museum.

Witchey Stockings

Close-up of the witch's foot - Atlas Obscura - JW Ocker

Whereas these past two oddities are worth every bit of setting up stakes and studying, some oddities are worth maybe a camera flash, if that. Such is the case with the Colonel Jonathan Buck Memorial, with the effect of a witch’s curse in plain view on its surface for all to see. The story goes that the founder of Bucksport, ME, once had a witch’s curse placed upon him, from the witch whom he had burned at the stake, naturally. There are many variations to the story, including illicit love affairs, deformed children, and severed legs, but the end result is that 75 years after his death, the supernaturally irremovable stain of a witch’s leg appeared on the monument that the people erected in his honor. Take that, Colonel Buck. The town loves its legend, though, and includes a nearby helpful placard that tells the story in situ, but, like I said, maybe a camera flash.

New Hampshire

New Hampshire, as the Granite State, is known for its rocks. After all, this is the land of America’s Stonehenge, the Old Man of the Mountain (R.I.P.), the Madison Boulder glacial erratic, and the Mystery Stone of Lake Winnipesaukee. However, if you lift up those rocks you’ll find all manner of creepiness squirming underneath in the darkness.

Grim Memorial

Josie Langmaid Memorial - Atlas Obscura - JW Ocker Grimpendium Book

For instance, take the Josie Langmaid monument in the town of Pembroke. In 1875, a young girl named Josie was murdered on her way to school by a woodcutter named Joseph LaPage. The gruesome crime shook up the townfolk who, after the arrest and execution of her murderer, erected a tall granite pillar to her memory near the spot where she died. At least that’s what they tried to do. However, with its grim epitaph that tells the story of her murder in detail and then gives directions to the nearby woods-entangled spots that her body and head were found, respectively (both of which are also marked with granite markers), they seemed to have ended up with a memorial to her murder, not her person.

Here Be Aliens

Here be Aliens - Grimpendium New England - JW Ocker for Atlas Obscura

In addition, New Hampshire just happens to be Roswell East. Its impact on extraterrestrial lore occurred in September 1961, with the most famous case of alien abduction in popular culture. Husband and wife Betty and Barney Hill were traveling home from a vacation in Canada down Route 3, which runs the length of New Hampshire, when they were followed, accosted, abducted, examined, and released by what they claimed to be aliens after a few hypnosis sessions. Since that time, just about all alien abductee claims have followed the exact same template, but none has been more famous than the Hills. You can still follow their original route, visit a nearby gas station with art and exhibits dedicated to the event, see their graves (which emphasize their intergalactic celebrity), and check out the Betty and Barney Hill archives, a collection of artifacts from that night and documents from their life at the Milne Special Collection and Archives Department in the library of the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Home of the first serial killer

Birthplace of Herman Mudgett, a.k.a. H.H. Holmes, America's first serial killer

New Hampshire is also the home state of America’s first and perhaps most prolific serial killer. Herman Webster Mudgett, who went by the name H.H. Holmes, was born in the town of Gilmanton, the same town used by Grace Metalious for her famous novel Peyton Place. After becoming a doctor he moved to Chicago in the 1890s for the World’s Fair. There, he built his infamous murder castle, a hotel filled with death rooms and traps for the constant flow of victims that a hotel during an internationally famous tourist attraction can pull in. He was eventually caught, executed, and buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia, and his murder castle was burned and eventually replaced with a post office. However, the sad-looking white house in the center of Gilmanton, across the street from a church and the old school building where he attended, still seems to remember. So when they say people like this are hell-spawn, now you can think of idyllic New Hampshire. Of course, it’s not all murder and abduction in the Granite State, but man, do they have some extreme examples of it.

Tomorrow: Grim New England, Part II: Vermont and Massachusetts

J.W. Ocker is the author of The New England Grimpendium and the creator and curator of OddThingsIveSeen.com. We really enjoy following him on Twitter at @JWOcker

The New England Grimpendium