January 28, 2010

BIGFOOT IN VERMONT ?

In my last post I told the story of Old Slipperyskin, who MAY have been Vermont's first documented Bigfoot. But call them what you will -- Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yeti, Woods Walker, whatever -- these big, hairy strangers have been with us for a long time. Even Rogers' Rangers had a run-in with one (October 1759).

They have been seen all over the world, with sightings in every New England state. But we're just here to talk about Vermont.

In my next series of entries I'll consider the possibility that we have a resident. . .

BIGFOOT IN VERMONT !


Stay tuned . . .

January 22, 2010

OLD SLIPPERYSKIN: Vermont's First Horror

Vermont town histories are full of run-ins with some very odd critters. The story I’m about to share comes from up around Morgan, Maidstone, Lemington, and Victory -- the Northeast Kingdom before it was called "The Northeast Kingdom". This story begins in the late 1700s and early 1800s. . .


The antagonist is a fearsome animal oddity then known as "Old Slipperyskin." The creature was said to resemble a huge bear, but -- unlike any known bear -- it always walked upright, like a man. It was said to have a mean dis­position, and sometimes sought revenge against individuals who had offended it. For example, it might fill their sap buckets with stones, trip their traps, or jump out and scare their children.


Sometimes, just for fun, it destroyed fences, tore up gardens, frightened livestock, or flattened cornfields.


Then it had a way of disappearing, some guessed by carefully backtracking in its own prints, leaving a trail that ended abruptly and mysteriously.


In her History of Lemington, Vermont, Marion M. Daley writes: "The settlers came to refer to the bear as 'Slippery-skin' for the reason that he managed to elude every trap that was set for him... Before a hunter could lay his gunsights on him, the old bear would vanish into the woods silent and swift as a drift of smoke.... For maliciousness and cunning, it was claimed he could never be compared, except to humans. He seemed to enjoy himself immensely, frightening people and live­stock, kicking over manure piles and throwing stones into machinery left in fields. Where the old bear came from -- and why he eventually disappeared entirely -- is a mystery."



Around 1815, Vermont Governor Jonas Galusha promised to get rid of Old Slipperyskin once and for all. Known as an excellent hunter, the governor entered the Maidstone woods where the beast had last been seen.


Exactly how he had obtained it is a mystery in itself, but the Governor is said to have covered himself with the scent of female bear. Then, rifle in hand, he stalked the pesky critter alone.


Shortly -- with Old Slipperyskin in hot pursuit -- the governor came whooping and bellowing back into camp screaming, "Outta my way boys, I'm bringin' him back alive!"


The hunters scattered and no one thought to shoot.


Some people may think of Governor Galusha as Vermont's very first "Spin Doctor."

Anyway, this story -- hovering between tall tale and historical hyperbole -- has enormous charm, so it's easy to overlook the fact that today we have no idea what Old Slipperyskin actually was.


The core facts seem to be these: it resembled a bear but walked like a man; it was apparently miffed because people were starting to intrude on what for centuries had been its own private domain; it was vindictive, occasionally hostile and -- so it would seem -- highly intelli­gent.


But the real identity of Old Slipperyskin may not be lost in leg­end because... sightings of this hairy enigma continue to this very day. Not long ago people were seeing him as far south as Bennington.


On Friday, September 26, 2003, the Bennington Banner reported that a 45 year old Winooski man named Ray Dufresne dropped his daughter off at Southern Vermont College in Bennington and headed home.



On route 7, in the area near Glastonbury Mountain, he saw a giant, a “big, black thing” walking near the road. He said, "It was hairy from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet."


He said the creature had very long arms covered with long black hair.


His first reaction was that it was a joke – someone dressed in a gorilla suit. But there were no cars or houses in that remote location, and anyone playing such a joke would be taking a big chance: lots of people in that rural area carry guns.


Mr. Dufresne is a life-long hunter and says he knows a black bear or a moose when he sees one. This “creature” – he says -- was something else.


A descendent of Old Slipperyskin, perhaps?


Today we have another name for Old Slipperyskin. We call him Bigfoot. Two other people reported seeing him near the spot where Mr. Dufresne had his sighting.


And over the years this classic “monster” has been seen many times in the woods and wilds of Weird, Vermont .


And this is where I'll stop.


Please keep in mind that just by listening to these stories you are helping to keep them alive. The ones I’ve read you tonight have all become classics. Each is a fragment of Vermont’s ongoing character and spirit.


Should you believe them?




Well, I’d like to close with a quote from Charles Fort, one of the first and most influential collectors of anomalous phenomena. He said, “I cannot say that truth is stranger than fiction because I have never had acquaintance with either.”



So in conclusion, what are we to make of all this? Apparently Old Slipperyskin was either this. . .


...or possibly THIS!
. . .or maybe somehing else. . .
YOU DECIDE !


NOTE: The final two illustrations are by Stephen R/Bissette, used with permission. They are from our book, The Vermont Monster Guide.

January 11, 2010

PART 3: MYSTERIOUS MEMPHRE

In the interest of kicking the New Year off right, I presented a few of Vermont's venerable weird tales to the Burlington First Night audience. I'm repeating the whole rant here on my blog. In part 3 I consider the Creepy Crypto-creature in Lake Memphremagog. . .

MYSTERIOUS MEMPHRE

To me – and to most people who think about such things – the true granddaddy of all Vermont monster stories is the saga of Champ, the mysterious creature said to live in Lake Champlain.

But here’s the thing. Champ gets a lot of publicity. More than I do. So it’s pretty easy to overlook the fact that we have a second water monster who has been known just as long and who, in some ways, is vastly more mysterious.

Memphre, the so-called “water monster” of Lake Memphremagog, is not BIG NEWS to any of you. But here’s something you may not have considered. Memphre has an odd quality not shared by its cryptid cousins in other lakes. It’s a quality that makes Memphre seem almost... supernatural.

That is, different witnesses describe it in remarkably different ways. We wonder if Memphre is (1.) a “shape-shifter; or maybe it’s an outsized amphibian glimpsed in different stages of its life cycle in somewhat the same way a tadpole look very different than a frog. Or could it possibly be that there are many different species of monster swimming around in the Northeast Kingdom’s great lake?

A few typical sightings – beginning around 1816 -- will illustrate:

In the mid-1800s, Uriah Jewett, Memphremagog's first monster hunter, frequently saw a beast that became known as "Uriah's Alligator." Its name clearly suggests the animal's appearance. In 1935 Dr. Curtis Classen confirmed this diagnosis when an unfamiliar reptile crawled out of the lake looking very much like an alligator. It was 18 inches wide and about 10 feet long.

In August of 1850 David Beebe, while fishing off Magoon Point, was "astonished to behold the head and six feet of body of a huge monster. . . ." Mr. Beebe’s conclusion: it was a giant snake.

In the 1940s, witness Hector Guyon reckoned the “snake” that he saw was 150 feet long! For a while this snakelike version of Memphre was referred to locally as “The Anaconda”.

In 1972, Helen Hicks of Newport saw, "A creature which had… a face somewhat like a horse, with two very red eyes and a body... 75 to 100 feet long…." And in July of 1976, a local fisherman saw what he described as "a seal with a long neck....”

Are you beginning to see the pattern?

No?

Well, there isn’t one, and that's what’s especially vexing about Memphremagog's Mystery Monster. Unlike Champ, who is consistency described more or less as a "water horse," Memphremagog's beast is seen in wildly different ways.

This “Multiple Memphre” phenomenon was first noted over a century ago by an anonymous local poet who composed the following lines:

"Eyes saw the monster, but none saw alike,
He was half serpent, half horse, some said,
While others formed him like a huge long pike
With thick, bright scales and round, not flattened head."

It’s easy to see why the monster became famous and the poet didn’t.

Anyway, recent sightings of the critter only contribute to the confusion.

Bottom line: Descriptions of Memphre are so diverse that at least six distinct categories have been identified: the long-necked seal; the water-horse; the alligator; the "giant fish;" the "living log;" and finally, the snake or serpent.

So what are we to believe? Is Lake Memphremagog the most monster-crowded water in Vermont? Or is there just one Memphre, with a monstrous case of multiple personality disorder?


Oh, and here’s another interesting tidbit:


Memphre is the only Vermont Water Monster ever described as dangerous. Supposedly it frightened the Native Americans in pre-colonial times, then went on to terrorize early settlers. Even today certain senior citizens remember their parents using monster tales to scare children away from the shore.

Legend recalls an Indian who was devoured, canoe and all.

In 1935 Newport mayor Frank Burns disappeared in the lake. Some people insist he was another victim of the monster’s appetite.

In the mid-1960s, some huge, snake-like critter surfaced near Hank Dewey's boat, then chased it all the way to shore!

More dramatically, in 1972, Red Cross director Helen Hicks was relaxing with some friends on a boat. At around 10:00 p.m. she saw, "A creature which had...a face somewhat like a horse, with two very red eyes and a body...75 to 100 feet long...."

Wow!

Then the demonic intruder pursued their boat! For some reason the motor shorted out. And just then, when all seemed lost, the creature submerged, leaving everyone terrified but unhurt.

Happy ending. But stay tuned for the next blog entry: More of Vermont's weird tales....

January 7, 2010

PART 2 -- Weird Vermont Stories

Here is Part 2 of my First Night presentation. Another venerable Vermont Weird Tale. This continues from my January 4, 2010 post

2. THE WOODSTOCK VAMPIRE

In October 1890 the most famous - or at least the most long-lived and universally publicized - case of Vermont vampirism was reported in The Boston Transcript and later as a page-one story in Woodstock's own newspaper, The Vermont Standard.

Imagine sipping your morning coffee while reading the following headline:

“VAMPIRISM IN WOODSTOCK

The story told how, around 1830, a local man named Corwin died of consumption (what today we call tuberculosis). After his body was buried, his brother – also presumably named Corwin -- started wasting away. Common wisdom was that the first consumptive in a family to die was likely to come back as a vampire. His spirit would rise from the cold earth each night to feed upon the life-essence of still-living relatives.

To determine whether the dead Mr. Corwin had returned as a vampire, town fathers ordered his body disinterred. Dr. Joseph Gallup, then Woodstock’s leading physician and head of Vermont Medical College, observed that – and I quote -- "the vampire's heart contained its victim's blood" (though exactly how he was able to determine that with any degree of forensic certainty remains a bit of a medical mystery).

Anyway, there was only one way to stop the spread of evil: an exorcism!

Predictably, most of the town's population and many curiosity–seekers turned out for the event. Some accounts say crowds totaled in the thousands. No surprise there; Woodstock has always been a tourist town.

It is important to note that the stake-through-the-heart approach to dispatching vampires was a European tradition, not practiced by New Englanders.

Here, our methods were different.

Dr. Gallup and his associates built a fire on the village green, heated up an iron pot, and cooked the corpse’s undecayed heart, eventually reducing it to ashes.

Then they buried the pot and ashes in a hole fifteen feet deep. Then, taking no chances, they covered it with a seven-ton slab of granite. Before refilling the hole, they sprinkled everything with bull's blood, which they believed had purifying properties.

Finally, they forced the dying Mr. Corwin to swallow a ghastly homeopathic medicine concocted from some of the bull's blood mixed with some of his brother's ashes.

Unfortunately, we never learn if Brother Corwin survived the disease, let alone the medicine, but after that the town fathers were convinced they had rid Woodstock of vampirism forever.

Although, personally, I wouldn’t bet on it.

#

I guess that’s not really a monster story either. It’s more of an anecdote about the history of medicine, I guess.

But our monster-hunt is not yet over . . .

Stay tuned for Part 3.


January 4, 2010

FIRST NIGHT. Part 1

What follows, in 4 parts, is the presentation I gave at Burlington’s First Night celebration. The theater was full and it was great to see so many of the actual 3-dimensional faces of the people who read my books and listen to my public radio commentaries.

FIRST NIGHT 2010
PART I

Thank you for joining me on this very busy evening. The end of another year. . . can you believe it?

I realize that lately I’ve been getting something of a reputation in this state. People are starting to refer to me as “Joe Citro, The Ghost Guy.” While I’ve been called worse things, I have to admit I have written a lot about ghosts.

But “The Ghost Guy”? Jeez, I’ll be a ghost soon enough!

To tell you the truth, I’m getting a little sick of ghosts. Last year, as some of you know, I tried to become “Joe Citro, The Monster Guy.” I collected a bunch of Vermont monster stories and published them in a book – beautifully illustrated by my friend Steve Bissette – called The Vermont Monster Guide.


I was surprised to discover that our old pal Champ is not alone. Our seemingly safe little state contains a whole zoo-full of monsters. (You might keep that in mind as you head home tonight.)

While ghost stories display an almost infinite variety, they are truly stories. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Monster stories are often a bit more simple. In fact, they are generally limited to two basic scenarios:

I saw a monster and I ran away. Or. . .

I saw a monster and it ran away.

I surprised even myself that I was able to collect over 60 Vermont monster stories, most of them with a bit more complexity.

Anyway, now that I’m “Joe Citro, the Monster Guy,” I’m going to ignore ghosts altogether. This will be a ghost free evening. Spirit free. And, as my contract says, alcohol free.

What I want to do is read you a couple of Vermont stories that are the undisputed classics of Vermont weirdness. These are the venerable tales that have been told since our granddaddy’s days, and even before. They have been told over and over and over again.

1. THE HIBERNATING HILL FOLK

In recognition of this time of year, and the arctic temperatures we’ve been enduring lately, I give you this first little chiller.

Long before they began enjoying the luxuries of Caribbean vacations and second homes in Florida, certain Vermonters discovered a novel method of passing the long, grueling winter months -- they slept through them.

For over a century, whispered tales of the “hibernating hill folk” have echoed through the Green Mountains. The specifics of this peculiar practice were first publicly revealed in December, 1887 on the front page of the state’s largest newspaper, “The Montpelier Argus and Patriot”.

The reporter’s apparently self-protective byline was simply “A.M.”. His article made public certain “information” from his deceased uncle’s diary. This “Information” -- then as now – seems unbelievable, even. . . horrifying.

Uncle William, “A.M.” wrote, had witnessed the techniques used by a wretchedly poor family of hill farmers to get their elderly and infirm relatives through the winter without putting a drain on the family’s meager food supply.

Their system was a hybrid of Yankee ingenuity, old-time folk medicine, and sheer gothic horror. Somehow, they had developed a procedure to literally freeze people alive. Like hibernating bears, they’d sleep the winter away.

“A.M.” verified his uncle’s bizarre claims. “I have been to the place,” he wrote, “and seen the old log house where the events . . . took place, and . . . talked with an old man [whose] father was one of the parties operated on.”

Although the chemical concoction’s specific ingredients were not recorded, the process was thoroughly described. It began by drugging four men and two women, "one of the men," Uncle William wrote, "a cripple about 36 years old, the other five past the age of usefulness…."
The unconscious family members were then stripped naked.

Under the frosty glow of the winter moon they were carried outdoors and packed side by side on straw beds encased within a ten-by-six foot wooden box.

Uncle William watched in horror as their noses, ears, and fingers slowly turned white. He saw their ghastly upturned faces assume a tallowy pallor.

When the overseer judged them "ready," helpers placed cloth over their heads and packed more protective straw around them. Then they sealed the box to guard against predators.

Shivering from the cold and quaking from the horrid sight before him, Uncle William ran into the cabin, no longer able to endure the nightmare.

In the weeks that followed, twenty-foot snow drifts buried the sleepers for a quarter of the year.

What Uncle William had witnessed turned out to be more than a crude, perhaps merciful, form of euthanasia. Because -- four months later -- his May 10th diary entry revealed an unexpected outcome.

Just as the Green Mountains were beginning to warm up, Uncle William returned to the cabin to watch the sleepers' liberation from their icy crypt. Able-bodied men lifted their stone-stiff relatives into log troughs. Women poured hot water and a hemlock-based potion over them, creating a fragrant, steaming bath.

Slowly, pallid faces began to brighten. Muscles twitched. Fingers flexed. Vitality returned. Carefully helped from their baths, the six were carried inside.

Warmed by blankets, fire, and a hardy meal, the sleepers slowly revived after their long winter's nap.

The printed version of this remarkable story hibernated for almost half a century. Then, in 1939, Elbert S. Stevens of Bridgewater, Vermont brought the original clipping to the attention of Bob Wilson of The Rutland Herald. The story was soon picked up by The Boston Globe, Yankee magazine, The Old Farmer's Almanac, and numerous books, periodicals, and newspapers from all around the world.

It was a sensation. By the early 1950s Vermont was big news. Vermonters, on the other hand, were portrayed as having a dark secret. The primitive ritual, and the “operator’s” apparent indifference to human life, cast the state in an unsavory light.

Yet, because the story's grim details seemed like the product of a horror writer's imagination, many dismissed it as an especially grisly mountain myth. At the same time, earnest individuals -- including some scientists -- believed it. After all, it was. . . possible.

Researchers like Doctor Temple S. Fay of Philadelphia suggested this arcane Vermont "folk medicine" might someday be used to treat cancer and heart disease. Experiments at the University of Toronto buttressed the story when researchers demonstrated that a dog could be kept alive after freezing. The American Medical Association disclosed recent experiments in which humans were frozen, suspending all bodily functions for hours. An Illinois newspaper reported, "A man was restored to life after having been frozen in an unconscious sleep for five days and nights...."

Even today the University of Vermont receives occasional inquiries from cryogenics researchers about the techniques used by our primitive practitioners.

So the question remains: Had a semi-literate Vermont hill family stumbled on a stupendous medical discovery? Or, as the story jumped from publication to publication, had there been some misinterpretation, misquotation, or just plain mischief?

The original article and subsequent retellings describe Vermont's cryogenic events so vividly and convincingly that the story has taken root in our folk memory where it is frequently accepted as fact.

Having grown up in southern Vermont, I recall talking with old-timers who swore the tale was true.

In his book Inside New England, “Yankee Magazine” editor Judson Hale relates an anecdote that perfectly illustrates this strange tale's unique position between fact and fantasy. He writes, "I once asked an old Vermont farm couple in the Montpelier area if either one of them truly believed the 'Frozen Death' story.

"'Certainly do, the husband answered emphatically, without hesitation.

"Then the wife added, 'The only part I doubt is the thawing out.'"
#
Well, no monster there, but the events described are truly monstrous.

Maybe this next one will bring us a little closer to what we’re looking for. I give you another “Vermont Classic.”

…To Be Continued. . .

January 2, 2010

Or whatever we're going to call it...

Happy Twenty-ten, or two thousand ten, or whatever we're going to call it.

2010 ! WOW!

I admit I've been a terrible failure as a blogger. So terrible, in fact, that I can't make a reliable New Year's resolution to do better over the next twelve months.

However, I gave a reading on New Years Eve at Burlington, Vermont's annual First Night celebration, and later today or tomorrow I'm going to post it here. It's a brief collection of Vermont's venerable weird tales.

Also, while I was NOT working on my blog, I did manage to get two books published in 2009: The Vermont Monster Guide (wonderfully illustrated by my pal Steve Bissette), and NOT YET DEAD, a long overdue collection of my short fiction. They are published by University Press of New England (UPNE) and Bat Books, respectively.



You can see a lot about the Monster Guide at Steve's blog;
just go there ( http://srbissette.com/) and click on the book cover.


Stay tuned. . .