Monday, April 30, 2007

Out Of Place Alligators

On April 22, 2007, the New York Times reported a fascinating news story, namely that a two-foot long alligator had been found sunbathing by a small lake in Huntigton, N.Y., and had been captured by county police. At the time of the article's publication, the police were still looking for the owner of the animal, presumebly to press charges against the person for illegally owning an alligator. To the uninitiated, this would just seem to be a simple case of an escaped pet, but those of us who tend to look at the world through "Fortean-tinted glasses" (to borrow a phrase from Scott Maruna) will immediately think of the "crazy croc" phenomenon, which has been extensively documented by researchers such as Loren Coleman, who discussed it in his classic book Mysterious America.

Out of place animals are nothing new to the American landscape, and alligators in particular have popped up everywhere, making appearances in environments far outside their native territories. With this in mind, it is no surprise that even Long Island has had encounters with runaway alligators, although as in other cases they were always placed into the "escaped pet" context. Take for example, an article from the June 4th, 1896 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

In this case, as is noted in the article, the feral alligator seen around Woodsburgh was said to be the escaped pet of a Mr. Reiner, sh0wcasing an early example of this explanation that has since been regularly used by police and the media to account for "crazy croc" reports. There are no known followups in the local media on this report, so the outcome remains sadly unknown(if anyone has any extra information related to this case, please email me).

Manhattan has also had its fair shares of OOP (out of place) alligator reports, which may have subsequently given rise to the urban legend of alligators that live in the sewers of New York City (again, as discussed in Loren Coleman's book Mysterious America). Most of the reports have already been uncovered and examined by Coleman and other researchers, but there may still be reports out there that have yet to see the light of day, such as one from Sept. 22, 1899, once again from the BDE:

Back in September of 1899, some boys witnessed something peculiar at 175 McKibbin street, located in the Eastern District. As the author of the article notes:

All those who came to see the animal at the Bock residence were puzzled over how it had come to wind up in a puddle in the Eastern District of Manhattan, with the boys even declaring that they had seen another alligator of similar size that they had been unable to capture. It was even speculated that there may have been more alligators lurking in the cellar, but whether this was ever proven to be true sadly remains unknown at the moment. As with most other cases of this type, the alligators were explained as being escapees:

Forget about drugs, the number one trade of illegal goods in this country must apparently be in alligators..

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Mapleton Phantom

As mentioned in my last post, in 1894 the town of Mapleton, Long Island experienced a ghost scare that would excite the imaginations of the town's residents and remain forever unequaled in the history of the island. The Mapleton Phantom received quite a bit of fame in its day and seems to have had even the scientific community curious about its identity. The apparition had several ghost-hunting expedtions after it in search of proof of its existence, and so this particular case is an oddity in the history of ghostly encounters and hauntings. Never again would a ghost create such excitement as to have scientific expeditions put together to track it down, and Long Island wouldn't again become famous for ghosts until the Amityville Horror hoax almost one hundred years later..

*NOTE* All articles taken (as always) from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

1) Mapleton Slights Its Ghost (Aug. 11, 1894)

This tongue-in-cheek article, the first known mention of the Mapleton Phantom, laments that the residents of Mapleton seem to have been ignoring their resident apparition, despite a spectactular multiple-witness sighting from a train that had taken place the prior morning. Indeed, to quote a recounting of the event by Richard Larke, superintendent of the road, who was a passenger on the train at the time,

"We had just passed Woodlawn, the only station between Coney Island and Mapleton, without stopping, and had rounded the curve, when Fireman Van Pelt pulled my coat sleeve and pointed ahead, over to the left of the track. I saw what seemed to be a tall white figure. It seemed motionless at first, and you may believe me or not, but I'll take my oath that it was standing, or appeared to be standing, just where last Sunday's suicide occurred. It was tall and shadowylike. It had the appearance of a substance gradually melting into a filmy white nothing, and seemed to be covered with a long white, filmy vail. Two seconds after I saw it it began moving over toward the railroad track. It moved slowly at first, waving its long draped arms. I could see distinctly, as we approached nearer, that it motioned to us, gesticulating as one would do trying to stop a train. Engineer Mailon then saw it. He began to blow his whistle with a sucession of sharp toots and put on brakes. The thing didn't get out of the way, though it was careful to avoid the light of the head lamp, and the train was brought to a standstill. Just as the train stopped the thing glided off the track and skimmed along toward the woods, all the time gesticulating as if motioning someone to follow. It disappeared in the woods."

While the appearance of the Phantom in this particular instance was rather indistinct, the article provides a more detailed description of the apparition, presumeably based on (as of yet undiscovered by this author) prior encounters:

"It is tall and shadowylike. It melts into filmy white nothing. It has a white, filmy vail. Its arms are draped, or else it has puffed sleeves. It is about the size of a woman. It crouches. It has eyes of fire and is as big as a tree, but gets smaller when you look at it. It may have geunine feet, but perhaps they are imitation, for what use would feet be to a ghost? It can wail in a lonesome and despairing manner. Of course, it can glide. The most ordinary kind of a ghost can glide."

Scores of people riding the train claimed to have seen the ghost, but residents of Mapleton were skeptical of any claims of the paranormal, namely due to the fact that none of them had seen the phantom. Indeed, according to the Eagle article, the universal sentiment in Mapleton was that any claims of a ghost were "ridiculous". Hence, this explained why the author of the piece had lamented at its beginning that Mapleton was apathetic towards its resident ghost and its residents displayed no interest or curiousity.

Interestingly enough, as is noted above in the first quotation, the phantom had been seen right where a Margaret Barning had recently killed herself, providing a possible identity for the mysterious entity that would eventually become the hot topic of Mapleton.

2) The Ghost Bobs Up Again (Aug. 13, 1894)

Two days later the Phantom made news again, terrifying a work crew that had gone out after midnight on the Sea Beach railway, which was near the spot where the ghost had appeared to the train full of people two days prior, on August 11th. This new incident can be summarized as follows, in a direct quote from the article:

"Saturday night the Sea Beach railway had a work train out in charge of Conductor Hilger and Engineer Kirk. A gang of laborers was along. This train was on a side track just below Mapleton, near Woodlawn, waiting for the 1 o' clock train from Coney Island to pass. The latteh (sic?) train was running in two sections to accommodate the crowd. After the first section of twelve cars had gone by, Mike Clooch, one of the laborers on the work train, emitted a blood curdling yell, pointed toward the woods, where the ghost had been seen to retreat, and made for the locomotive. Everyone divined at once the cause of his fright. The other employes caught the alarm and a general panic ensued."

There was another witness to the appearance of the Phantom:

"Hilger, the conductor of the work train, declares that he saw the specter start up out of its favorite field and fly across the railroad track. This was after the first section of the 1 o'clock train had passed. It seems to indicate that the ghost had made a mistake as to the hour, and set out a little ahead of time. None of the employes on the second section of the train saw the ghost, so it seems not to have reappeared from the woods at once. So far as reported, the people on the work train were the only ones who saw it Saturday night."

In addition, other residents of Mapleton claimed to have encountered the apparition, with a Mr. Jere Lott and his coachman being among the first to run across the shadowy specter. John Hennessey, the coachman, had a particularly interesting experience with what he thought to be the Phantom, as he himself related:

"I'm the first man, I believe, who ran against that ghost. Thursday morning, about 12:30 o'clock - and that was a whole twenty-four hours before the train stopped out here to let the thing get out of the way - I was awakened by hearing a tapping at my window pane. It was gentle at first. Then it got louder and oftener. I woke up with a kind of a start, but lay right still. I thought it was birds at first, but soon found it was no bird's sound. Then I began to get up, and, as I stirred about, the tapping stopped, and I heard a brushing sound against the window and then all was still. Next morning, when I had the ghost had been seen by the train folks I knew that's what I'd heard."

Other witnesses included two servant girls working at a house near the Mapleton station who claimed to have seen the Phantom the same night of the mass sighting from the Sea Beach train, describing it as a "tall white figure skimming along over the ground". A flagman named George Washington Mills claimed to have heard a "low, despairing wail", and was indignant that his neighbors believed him to have heard nothing more supernatural than the wail of a neighborhood cat.

Just as in modern times, skeptics and debunkers put forth "explanations" to try and debunk the entire mystery, including that it was all in the minds of the witnesses or even that the ghost was nothing more than a stray pig! The Mapleton residents who claimed to have seen the specter were understandably resentful of being told that they were so ignorant or mistaken as to mistake a pig for a ghost.

3) Scientists Look For A Ghost (Aug. 22, 1894)

By now, almost ten days after the last article, a scientific expedition led by a Professor Edward Drinker Cope of the University of Penn. was put together in order to track down the mysterious Phantom. Oddly enough, the expedition was split between the scientific end and a military end, led by a Colonel John L. Burleigh. According to the article in the Eagle, the expedition met with failure as it failed to spot anything despite being camped out by the spot where Margaret Barning had shot herself, since general consensus in Mapleton by this date was that the ghost was of Margaret Barning, who was haunting the site of her suicide. However, the expedition did manage to find many more witnesses who claimed to have sighted the bizarre entity, bringing the number of people who allegedly claimed to have seen the Phantom well into the hundreds.

Although there are some elements of the different newspaper articles that are questionable, if all the accounts are to be believed, there was a genuine mystery in the town of Mapleton in 1894 that still remains unsolved over one hundred years later. My research into the case is still ongoing, but the Mapleton Phantom can safely join the ranks of strange and mysterious beings that invade our reality for a brief time only to eventually vanish back into the night.