July 21, 2010

THOSE PUCKIN' PUKWUDJEES

I keep getting radio & TV inquiries about Puk-wudjees. I wrote about them in 1997, so producers seem to think I'm some kind of "expert". Apparently "Puks" are the newest "paranormal phenomenon" that "investigators" are glomming on to. I guess they're getting bored with ghosts and demons .

I first met the pesky little critters when I was researching my book Passing Strange.
I had found them mentioned in Thomas Weston's History of Middleborough
MA (1906). As I recall he doesn't specifically state that they are supernatural or especially malevolent. They certainly were not portrayed as demonic.


My friend Robert Schneck (author of The President's Vampire) tells me "The name appears in some Hiawatha-influenced poetry, but I think 'In the Fairyland of America' by Herbert Quick is the first book to take a longer look at the stories."

That moves their print debut back to 1901.

Although the little Puckers are usually portrayed as New Englanders, there is reason to believe that "Puk-wudjee" or "Pukwudjee" or "Puk-wud-jee" was a co-opted Ojibwa term.

Why?

Who knows. Maybe because "Pukwudgie" is easier to pronounce than "Muhkeaweesug" which, I think, was the local Native American designation for our resident little people.

Harder to explain why they've turned evil and suddenly raised their ugly heads among "Paranormal Groups". Just recently I received two calls from two different producers of the same "Reality show" asking me to talk about them.
Supposedly the Puckers are are attacking some family from CT or RI or something.

I said no, of course. At this point the only thing that interests me about them is the similarity of names -- "Puk" and "Puck" -- but otherwise I tend to toss them off as one variant of multiple Native American little people.

I'd love to broaden my horizons. Anyone want to comment on Puk-wudjees or have anything to add?

July 15, 2010

WEIRD WOODSTOCK: The Final Verdict*

What do Melvin Douglas, Fred Astaire, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. have in common?

That's right, they all appeared in Ghost Story, a horror movie filmed partly in
Woodstock, Vermont.

But, I got to wondering, does Woodstock have any real ghosts?

Well, if you can believe the stories, it has as many ghosts as tourists.

In 1970 Polly Billings bought F.H Gillingham & Sons general store. She often worked alone. After hours. In the oldest part of the building. "I never felt as if I was by myself," she told me. "It was as if F.H. was... with me. When I couldn’t get an idea for the advertising copy, he would often help me out."

Thing is, her "helper" died in 1918.

At The Dana House, headquarters of the Woodstock Historical Society,
people have seen a transparent woman wearing a long, brown, satin dress. Sometimes, while completely invisible, she plays the piano.

Former director Corwin Sharp recalls comforting a terrified volunteer who’d encountered the Victorian specter. "She wasn’t making it up," he told me. "She was shaken, white as a ghost herself."

And there’s a little ghost-boy on the stairs. He is presumed to be the ectoplasmic residue of Mary and Charles Dana’s first born - who died at the age of two.

Both Dana House ghosts are easily recognized because of their anachronistic attire. And because they vanish before your eyes.
A beautiful brick colonial house near The Green - and not far from the covered bridge - has tenants who move in... and quickly leave.

Maybe it’s the heating bills. One former renter told me no matter how much fuel they burned they could never get the place above 65 degrees.

The doorknob in the master bedroom sometimes turned of its own accord. Or the door would open and close, though no one was there.

Occasionally they’d find pictures smashed. After hearing a loud crash, the couple ran upstairs, to find a precious Civil War engraving smashed on the floor.

After they’d moved out they heard that their former residence had once been a school in which the lovely young teacher had been murdered by a pale, thin, blond-headed soldier.

Well... maybe. Or maybe not.

Perhaps we can learn the truth in court.

The Windsor County Court House is an psychic battery, highly charged with emotion since 1855. Custodial staff working alone in the building report footsteps, unfathomable utterances, and awful noises. Sometimes, while court is in session, the door to the Judge’s Room will open and close. Moments later, the Witness Room door on the far side of the room will rattle. It’s as if something invisible is crossing the courtroom from one door to another.

A judge who witnessed this phenomenon from the bench looked over at the sheriff and said, "Ghosts."

And I guess that is the final verdict.
THE END (or is it...?)

*For a spoken version of this commentary
please go to:
http://www.vpr.net/episode/49035/

July 3, 2010

HIS SNAKESHIP

What follows in my June, 2010
public radio commentary about
BIG SNAKES.

If you'd rather hear me read it, please go to www.vpr.net/episode/48716/


Oversized oddities are at the core of many monster stories. Take a mouse; it’s not too menacing. But imagine polliwog the size of "Champ"!

Interestingly, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, newspapers routinely ran accounts of giant snakes. Editors seemed to compete to see who could report the biggest, especially in places like Vermont, where no such thing should exist. Giant snake stories were so common that their protagonists took on exalted titles, like "Boss Snake" or "His Snakeship."

In the 19th century, one was spotted in the Taconic Mountains of southern Vermont. Mr. T. Owsley reported that it was - and I quote - "as large as a common stove-pipe and about 12 feet long." The Troy [NY] Post pro claimed it was, "The largest snake ever heard of in this part of the world..."
But there’d be more contenders.

On July 22, 1878, The New York Times that William Fields of Richmond saw, "two large snakes the color of boa-constrictors." He said they were at least six feet long and as thick as his arm. They raised their heads, opened their mouths, and darted their tongues at him. The newspaper concludes, "Mr. Fields did not stop to interview them."

In that same area, a Dr. Bromley was making his rounds when he saw what appeared to be a rail across the road. But then it moved! The snake, Dr. Bromley estimated, was a good 10 feet long.

Flash forward to the 20th century. Around 1940, Betty Paige of Woodstock was driving home at night. The snake she saw in her headlights extended completely across the road and into the underbrush. She watched it until it got out of the way. Then she did the same thing.

A more recent sighting comes from Bethel, circa 1953. The pseudonymous Lori Kearns was walking along a wagon path near her home. She says, "I saw something up in front of me stretched along the pathway, laying in some sunlight coming through a break in the big maple trees." At first she thought it was an oddly colorful garden hose. But it was way too big and too active! She thought, Glory Be, it’s a huge snake!
A multi-generational Vermonter, Lori had never seen anything like it. Its color was a swirling blend of browns, reds, yellows, and blacks. Greatly puzzled, she tried to compute its size. The snake stretched across the path - a width of at least 5-feet - with perhaps another foot on either side vanishing into the goldenrods. That would make it at least 7 feet long! She says it was as big around as her lower leg, making its girth between five and seven inches. She says, "I have tried looking up photos of the snake... but never found one which looked exactly the same."
But hey, that was way back in the 20th century. Can such serpentine specters be slithering through the Green Mountains today? Who knows? I guess we've got other things to worry about.

The following excerpt is allegedly from the US Government Peace Corps Manual for volunteers working in the Amazon Jungle. It details what to do if an anaconda attacks you.

Related to the boa constrictor, the anaconda is the largest snake species in the world. It grows to thirty-five feet in length and weighs 300 to 400 pounds. There are none in Vermont. Supposedly.

1. If you are attacked by an anaconda, do not run. The snake is faster than you are.
2. Lie flat on the ground. Put your arms tight against your sides, your legs tight against one another.
3. Tuck your chin in.
4. The snake will begin to nudge and climb over your body.
5. Do not panic.
6. After the snake has examined you, it will begin to swallow you from the feet end - always from the feet end. Permit the snake to swallow your feet and ankles. Do not panic!
7. The snake will now begin to suck your legs into its body. You must lie perfectly still. This will take a long time.
8. When the snake has reached your knees slowly and with as little movement as possible, reach down, take your knife and very gently slide it into the side of the snake's mouth between the edge of its mouth and your leg, then suddenly rip upwards, severing the snake's head.
9. Be sure you have your knife.
10. Be sure your knife is sharp.

*These illustrations are by Stephen R. Bissette, used with permission, from THE VERMONT MONSTER GUIDE by Joseph A. Citro and Stephen R. Bissette.