Down East 2013 ©
A good mystery, like a Jeopardy answer, should be presented in the form of a question. For instance . . .
Did ball lightning bombard Bar Harbor?
The mystery man claimed that he had once out-ridden a prairie fire on horseback. And that he had narrowly escaped from a burning railroad car. “But,” he told the New York Times, “I look back at neither of these terrible situations with a sensation of having been so near to the borders of the other world as I felt that I was on the night of that frightful winter thunderstorm at Bar Harbor.” The man, identified only as “a gentleman of [New York],” spoke to the Times in 1884. The storm that he remembered happened in 1853.
“The lightning became a deep purple or violet color, and took the form of balls of fire,” the mystery man claimed. “That purple ball lightning flashed about and obtruded itself everywhere.” He said it destroyed a clock inside the house where he was staying, and left “scores of people” temporarily paralyzed. It also caused a violent explosion that sent chunks of frozen ground flying like shrapnel and uprooted many trees.
An Ellsworth Herald report from March 4, 1853, corroborates some of the details of the storm. The paper said that “a great many people were slightly injured” by the unusual lightning, which “resembled a volume of fire, whirling around and producing a cracking noise.”
Based on those accounts, can Bar Harbor claim to have endured history’s most extreme outbreak of “ball lightning”? John Jensenius of the National Weather Service office in Gray, a nationally recognized expert on lightning, doesn’t rule the possibility out. But he needs something more than a couple of nineteenth-century newspaper reports to rule it in.
Ball lightning, which can loosely be described as lightning that occurs not in a flash but as a lingering sphere, is a controversial phenomenon. Even contemporary accounts, with supporting video, are subject to interpretation. Some scientists question whether ball lightning exists at all.
Jensenius isn’t among them. “I have no doubt that it occurs,” he says. “I just don’t know what it is.”
In addition, Jensenius says, “Lightning is one of those things where the stories do tend to get embellished quite a bit.”
After reading both accounts of the 1853 storm, Jensenius says that some of the “otherworldly” aspects that the mystery man reported could have reasonable explanations. Winter lightning is often purple, for example, because it reflects off ice crystals. “And sometimes when lightning strikes something that’s metal, the metal may vaporize,” Jensenius says. “That could give the impression of a ball exploding.”
His conclusion: “I’m assuming that this storm was rather spectacular.”
But as for the mystery man’s apocalyptic vision of balls of purple fire raining down upon the snowy streets of Bar Harbor, Jensenius is diplomatic. “The person seems to have a somewhat vivid memory of the event,” he says.
What was the “Turner Beast”?
A dog. Period. End of story — or it should have been, anyway. But unlike the poor dog, speculation refuses to die. Because, says Loren Coleman, director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, “The media loves stories like that.”
Coleman is a world-renowned expert on “cryptids,” animals whose existence is a matter of conjecture, such as the Loch Ness Monster. Since 1991 stories had circulated throughout Androscoggin County of a hyenalike creature that had allegedly attacked large dogs and even livestock. So when the “Turner Beast” turned up dead in 2006, some people concluded that it was the “mutant” animal of local legend. But not Coleman. “I said, ‘Yup, that’s a dead dog,’ ” he says. Nevertheless, “by the end of the week it was a worldwide phenomenon. I was being interviewed by South African radio, and there were T-shirts being made in California.”
Two independent DNA tests confirmed that the animal was a dog. And still some media types refused to take yes for an answer — including producers of the TV show MonsterQuest, who came to Turner to do a story. “I said, ‘Why would you want to do a show on that? It’s a dog,’ ” says Coleman, a MonsterQuest consultant. “What people forget is that I’m open-minded, but I’m also extremely skeptical.”
As he probes reports of cryptids ranging from Bigfoot to Down East black panthers, Coleman treads the neutral ground between extremists. “You have the debunkers, who don’t even have an open mind,” he says. “Then you have the true believers. You could show them a YouTube video of Bigfoot walking a black panther and they’d say, ‘See? There’s the evidence.’ ”
For the record: Yes, there have been Bigfoot sightings reported in Maine. But Coleman finds those less compelling than accounts of what he calls “the two kinds of mystery cats.”
“I can’t give a talk in the state of Maine without somebody coming up to me afterward and saying, ‘My grandmother saw a mountain lion,’ ” Coleman says. “Or, ‘I saw a black panther.’ ”
Mountain lions (also known as cougars) were once common in Maine, but none has been positively identified in the state since 1938. “The black panthers are more of the ghost cats,” Coleman says. “We don’t have any zoological prece-dent for black panthers in the eastern United States, so that sort of notches that up to a different level of mystery.”
But what about sea monsters?
As far as Coleman is concerned, Maine’s most prized cryptid lurks not in the woods but in the water. “From the 1700s to the 1900s there was definitely a population of sea serpents that were regularly being seen off the coast,” he says.
Understand: He’s not talking about sci-fi monsters that attack ships and devour sailors. He’s simply saying that there may be some sort of large, unidentified creature in the Gulf of Maine. “ ‘Sea serpent’ is probably a misnomer,” Coleman says. It’s derived from the snakelike way the creature swims — or appears to swim. “The way they move in the water, up and down, gives an illusion of coils.”
Before you scoff at the notion of a “Casco Bay Sea Serpent,” as it’s commonly known, consider the oarfish. An eel-like creature that can grow up to thirty-six feet long, the oarfish is the likely source of “sea serpent” reports in other parts of the world. It’s fairly common in warmer oceans, but rarely seen because it swims in deep water. For years, oarfish photos were limited to dead or dying specimens at the surface. Only in the last decade, in the age of ubiquitous cameras, has anyone captured healthy specimens on video.
But if a cold-water equivalent of an oarfish — or a new species of whale or giant seal — lived in the Gulf of Maine, wouldn’t someone have come across a dead one by now? Not necessarily.
“The big change that has happened off the coast of Maine is that there are actually highways in the ocean now,” Coleman says. “Sea serpents seem to be steering away from those highways. So if they’re still out there, the population is probably pretty low, and they’re avoiding humans.”
Still, Coleman holds out hope that one may yet turn up. And no one would be more delighted. “To have a new animal identified in the Gulf of Maine would be just wonderful.”
Did the legendary White Bird crash in Washington County?
L’Oiseau Blanc — the White Bird — was a French biplane that disappeared en route from Paris to New York in 1927. Less than two weeks later, Charles Lindbergh stole the headlines by flying in the other direction aboard the Spirit of St. Louis.
Initially, the White Bird and its two-man crew, pilot Charles Nungesser and navigator François Coli, were presumed lost in the Atlantic. But soon reports came from Newfoundland of people who claimed to have seen a plane, or heard one droning in the overcast, along a line that roughly corresponded to the White Bird’s presumed flight path. A search of the area revealed nothing, however.
More than fifty years passed before anyone thought to look farther along the coast, in Maine. A 1980 Yankee magazine article by Gunnar Hansen was the trigger. The article was prompted by a Washington County legend that a fisherman on Round Lake, near Machias, had heard a plane pass overhead on the afternoon of May 9, 1927 — the correct date and approximate time that the White Bird would have crossed the area.
Moreover, the fisherman said he then heard the plane crash.
A spate of corroborating, if purely anecdotal, accounts followed. Several hunters claimed to have seen what could have been a large engine in the vicinity. It all added up to a tantalizing possibility. So tantalizing that Ric Gillespie, an aviation expert from Delaware, led twenty expeditions near Round Lake over eight years, starting in 1984. “Ultimately we never found anything except a lot of great stories,” Gillespie says. “Everybody [knew about] an engine in the woods. And they could always take us right to it. But they never could.” He laughs. “We talked about publishing a Field Guide to the Engines of Washington County.”
Gillespie thinks what most hunters likely saw was old logging equipment. “It’s only later when they read something in the paper about people who were looking for this famous French plane that they say, ‘Wait a minute, I saw an engine . . . ’ And their memory fills in the gaps so it looks like what it’s supposed to look like.”
Despite the futility of his quest, Gillespie developed a fondness for Washington County. And his experiences led him to found the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has since searched the world over for other vanished planes, including Amelia Earhart’s Electra. TIGHAR has made ten trips to the Pacific and believes it is close to locating the world’s best-known missing aircraft. “The work we did in Maine taught us our trade,” Gillespie says. “We learned a lot of hard lessons.”
Finding Earhart’s plane would likely make Gillespie famous. But if he could find just one missing aircraft, it would be the White Bird. “It’s a great mystery — the mystery that launched my whole career,” Gillespie says. “But we now believe it’s a mystery of Newfoundland rather than a mystery of Maine.”
TIGHAR has concentrated its most recent efforts on the Cape Shore peninsula in Newfoundland, where the body of evidence — including eyewitness affidavits filed in 1927 — is compelling. Still, Gillespie concedes, “Because we haven’t found the wreckage yet, that leaves a possibility that [the White Bird] got to Maine.”
Is there really buried treasure in Maine?
Yes. Any twenty-first-century dowser with a metal detector knows there is. Republic Jewelry & Collectibles in Auburn reports that a beachcomber recently uncovered a five thousand-dollar ring at Old Orchard. Another Republic client researched an old dump site, where he unearthed a button from George Washington’s inauguration. But storybook buried treasure? Pirates’ booty? Pieces of eight, gold doubloons, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum?
Not likely. Not that that’s never discouraged people from looking.
Most buried-treasure folklore dates not from the Golden Age of Piracy but from the Golden Age of Gullibility, which started about a century later. “Much of the northeastern U.S. was afflicted with a peculiar treasure fever in the late eighteenth century, and throughout the nineteenth,” says Colin Woodard, a Down East contributing editor and author of The Republic of Pirates.
Treasure hunters, or “diggers,” descended on Maine in astounding numbers. “They were out on Maine islands, in people’s fields, on mountainsides, creating enormous holes and pits,” Woodard says. “They undertook their projects with elaborate folk magic rituals.”
Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island, published in 1883, probably drew from digger mythology, and certainly perpetuated it. Most lingering tales of buried treasure in Maine — such as Captain Kidd’s alleged stash on Monhegan Island — owe more to Stevenson’s imagination than to any credible historical accounts.
With one exception. As Woodard wrote in “Black Flags Down East” (Down East, August 2007), the longstanding legend that pirates once sailed up the Machias River has some documentation to support it. But Woodard stresses that while there may have been a pirate expedition up the Machias, it was not led by Sam Bellamy, as legend holds. Nor would pirates have had good reason to leave any valuables behind.
Still, the mere knowledge that pirates once sailed in Maine waters — and dropped by Damariscove and Monhegan — is all some fortune seekers need. Because it leaves room for the possibility that treasure may indeed be out there somewhere.
Just don’t expect to find it buried on an island, in a sea chest, with the spot marked by an X on some tattered old map. “The best place to look,” Woodard says, “is the seafloor, where treasure-bearing pirate vessels may have sunk.”
Who was the lady in black who died near Hendricks Head?
The solution to this mystery seems simple. Her name was Louise G. Meade, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At least that’s the name she used when she signed in at the Hotel Fullerton after arriving by bus in Boothbay Harbor on the afternoon of December 1, 1931. But after her body was retrieved from the surf and brought ashore at North Beach five days later, investigators were unable to confirm her identity. “No such person was reported missing,” a United Press International (UPI) wire-service story said.
The circumstances of the woman’s death inspired fanciful speculation. This was the lead of that UPI account: “Investigators believed yesterday a cryptogram found in her purse might aid in identifying an attractive woman in black whose weighted body was taken from the sea near lonely Hendricks Head lighthouse Sunday.”
The woman, whom witnesses estimated was in her forties, had left the Fullerton a few minutes after checking in. She asked where she could find “a sweeping ocean view.” Although it was late on a cold, windy day, she set off on foot for Hendricks Head, some five miles away.
The woman’s wrists were bound with a leather belt — “a man’s belt,” the UPI account said — when her body was found. The belt was attached to a flatiron on one side and her purse on the other. This was the alleged cryptogram, which was reportedly found inside a “waterproof packet” in the purse: 3-7, G-00011897, 11-20, N-1194667, R-3126238, 9, 40, 135, 1775, 439. Labels on a bag and on a pair of eyeglasses in the woman’s room indicated that those items had come from stores in New York.
None of those clues led anywhere. When no one claimed the body, the townspeople buried the mystery woman in an unmarked grave. But local legend has it that her spirit remains afoot.
When the Lewiston Sun Journal reported on the woman’s disappearance twenty-five years later, the story began with this: “These years she is seen mostly at twilight and so she has become known as the Lady of the Dusk. Sometimes she is seen in the very bright moonlight and there are those who swear they have seen her when the fog comes rolling in, picking her steps lightly and easily over the rocky coast, a creature more shadow than substance as befits a ghost.”
So who was here first?
Pre-Columbian scholars will throw down over this one. Celts, Vikings, Venetians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans — at some point pretty much everyone from across the pond has claimed to have been the first to reach the Maine coast.
All of these claims are based on debatable evidence. Harvard professor Barry Fell cited strange markings found on a rock near Monhegan Island as evidence that Phoenicians had visited North America before the birth of Christ. Others look at those same marks and see evidence of nothing more than erosion.
And then there was the “Maine penny,” a Norse coin found in Brooklin in 1957. How the coin, which was almost one thousand years old, ended up in Brooklin is a matter of considerable conjecture. The American Numismatic Society has concluded that “the Norse coin from Maine should probably be considered a hoax.” Among the suspicious aspects of the Maine penny is that it was the only Norse artifact at the Brooklin site, which also yielded some thirty thousand Native American artifacts.
That illustrates the absurdity of all “We discovered Maine” claims. Regardless of which Europeans visited Maine first, they were just that: visitors. Unless you are of Wabanaki descent, you’re from away — no matter how long your family has lived in Maine.
That’s the thread of enlightened thought that Skip Brack followed in developing the Davistown Museum. Brack, of Hulls Cove, originally conceived the museum as a way of documenting the history of the Davistown Plantation, a sixteenth-century settlement near present day Liberty. His research led him to an extensive extrapolation of Maine’s history dating back to “Norumbega,” an ambiguous catch-all term often used to describe Maine in the days before European settlement.
Brack is among the scholars who believe that Native Americans have lived in Maine for at least 12,000 years. That predates even the most farfetched claims of European visitors.
But even if that time frame is accurate, it still doesn’t solve the mystery. Native Americans are no more homogenous than Europeans. So the ultimate question is: Which of Maine’s Native American peoples was truly native to what is now Maine?
There’s simply no way to know. You might think that that would be a source of great frustration to a historian as passionate as Brack. But you would be wrong. As Brack writes in Norumbega Reconsidered, one of the many publications on Maine history available on the Davistown Museum Web site: “How boring would a definitive study of 12,000 years of Native Americans in Maine be if there were not at least one controversial question to prompt a reconsideration of Maine’s fascinating ethnohistoric past?”
Has Maine been visited by beings from away?
Reports of UFOs in Maine date back more than two hundred years. Witnesses claim to have seen everything from classic flying saucers to crop circles.
The most famous episode is the alleged Allagash Wilderness Waterway abduction of 1976, one of the world’s most widely circulated accounts of a “close encounter.” Four college students from Massachusetts claimed to have seen a large glowing object over their canoe while they were fishing at night on Eagle Lake. After being enveloped in a beam of light, the four experienced a block of missing time and ended up back at their campsite on the shore. Years later, under hypnosis, all four recounted being stripped naked and “examined” aboard the glowing UFO. (Their story was dramatized — and popularized — via the TV show Unsolved Mysteries. The segment is posted on YouTube.)
Whether you believe the Allagash Abduction really happened comes down to just that: a matter of belief. The four men can’t prove that their story is true. Disbelievers can’t prove that it’s not. So it goes with most accounts of UFOs and extraterrestrials. One way or the other, the truth is still out there.
Otherworldly spirits seem to feel at home in Maine
The Webisode has a style like The Blair Witch Project. No special effects, no spooky music, just some shaky camera work and a regular-looking guy providing narration as he investigates a local legend.
Internet rumor has it that five ancient stone markers along River Road in Brunswick possess mysterious powers. (“On full moons strange things happen near those stones,” one site claims. “You can hear old voices and singing.”) One theory is that the stones are remnants of a Native American burial ground.
It takes the narrator less than thirty seconds to debunk that notion. He points out that the first mystery stone has evidence of machining along the edges. “That’s from drilling,” he says. “To me, that completely dispels the rumor of some Native American stone.”
His conclusion: The stones are old land markers, with “no paranormal significance whatsoever.”
The narrator, Tony Lewis of Bowdoinham, made the video not because he doesn’t believe in ghosts but because he does. “We’re trying to increase public awareness of paranormal activity that’s real,” says Lewis, a cofounder of Maine Ghost Hunters (MGH). “So when we see those rumors, it’s a little irritating. That’s why we started doing investigations of some of the public places listed on these Web sites. Unless we can come up with evidence that there is paranormal activity, we have to assume that there isn’t.”
As Lewis suggests, most Internet ghost stories are dubious. One site claims that a certain Maine high school is haunted by the ghosts of five students “murdered mysteriously” in the 1950s. And yet somehow this mass murder never made the papers.
Other accounts are harder to dismiss out of hand. “On my desk is a five-page list of locations throughout the state where people have recorded evidence of paranormal activity,” Lewis says. “They range from old medical facilities to farmhouses to taverns and inns, bed-and-breakfasts, all the way from Kennebunk up through Bangor and beyond.”
Lewis’s wife, MGH cofounder Kat McKechnie, grew up in one such place. “She lived in one of oldest houses in Augusta — it was a tavern in the 1700s,” Lewis says. “She awoke during the night on several occasions with the feeling of an ice-cold hand going down her back. That would startle her and wake her up, and in the doorway she would see a figure.”
Although he’s long believed that “there’s something else out there; it’s not just us and our physical bodies,” Lewis never had a firsthand paranormal experience until he started his investigative work with MGH. His most profound experiences have occurred at Boothbay’s Kenniston Hill Inn Bed and Breakfast, a mansion built in 1786 by shipbuilder David Kenniston.
The inn’s claim to paranormal fame starts with a documented event: David Kenniston’s son, William Kenniston, was murdered there on May 9, 1888, at age eighty-one. A troubled youth with the Dickensian name Llewellyn Quimby confessed to the crime. Quimby “had worked for Mr. Kenniston,” according to the Bath Independent of May 12, 1888, “and . . . bore a bad reputation,” including a stint in the State Reform School.
Kenniston’s wife, Octavia, was also attacked but survived. The Independent’s account included this detail, presumably supplied by Octavia, that’s ready-made for an enduring ghost story: “The assassin lighted matches in the house to see his way, and in the light . . . his face was seen to be covered with a white cloth.”
MGH has reported multiple “cross-over” experiences with spirits at the inn. (You can see videos on their Web site, maineghosthunters.org.) Far from shying away from this notoriety, owner Dianne Ward actually embraces it. In advertising a recent MGH weekend, the inn’s Web site promised “a haunting experience on the Maine coast.”
That acceptance is consistent with Lewis’ experience since MGH began. “Based on the people that we’ve interacted with, I would say that Maine, as a collective, is pretty open to the concept that there is paranormal activity out there,” he says. “And they’re curious about it.”
Lewis discovered this when colleagues and clients in his professional life — he’s a software design engineer who once worked for Microsoft — learned of his unusual hobby. “At first I was concerned that they might think, ‘That’s kinda weird. Do we really want this guy in our building, working on our equipment?’ ” Lewis says. “But because of the awareness that’s been created by TV shows like Ghost Hunters, they’re intrigued. And some have invited us to come and do investigations of their residences or places of business.”