The Island has more than its fair share of ghost stories — tales of haunted swamps, buried treasures, spiteful spectres and benevolent phantoms.
Perhaps it’s just history that accounts for the long roll of ghastly Vineyard tales — whaling widows, shipwrecked mariners and the lost secrets of decedent estates. Some surmise it’s caused by the Island’s isolation, believing the ocean creates a sort of holding cell for spirits before they cross over to the next world. Others cite energy lines running under the Island that change the earth’s electro-magnetic vibrational field, so increasing the psychic potential for ghost sighting.
Whatever the reason, ghost stories are as common here around this time of the year as Black Dog T-shirts in the middle of August. And while many swear they have seen a Vineyard ghost, all the tales cannot be true. Someone by now would have filmed the ghostly horseman of Black Brook or dug up the treasure buried in the Great Plains which is allegedly responsible for the phenomenon known as the Katama Money Light.
So in an attempt to separate the spectral from the spectacularly imagined, this reporter set out to hunt first-hand for evidence that ghosts — in some form or another — do exist on the Vineyard. The initial plan — to spend a night in a haunted house — was scrapped due to issues of ownership and liability. So the spook search turned to some of the more provincial and public locales around the Island rumored to be haunted.
My first foray into ghost hunting was, as if by design, on a dark and stormy night last Friday. Armed with nothing but a flashlight, a clove of garlic in my pocket and a Swiss army knife (for protection and/or grooming), I spent approximately an hour wandering Edgartown’s North Water street, arguably the most haunted boulevard on the Island.
The darkened windows of the old whaling captains’ manses stared out at me like lifeless eyes, but in not one did I catch a glimpse of anything remotely ghostly. Down on the docks, the sounds of straining ropes and boat bells cast a spooky spell over the harbor. If you listened hard enough, and let your imagination go, you could make out what sounded like a woman’s cry, or the falsetto of a Wayne Newton ballad. But I knew I was reaching.
Then, as I turned to leave, out of the corner of my eye I spotted a man wearing what looked like a hood standing under a street light across the harbor over on Chappaquiddick. I had seen him through the window of a boat in the harbor, but when I looked a second time he was gone. I realized the person I saw might have been myself reflected in the window (although I was not wearing a hood), yet I could not find the right angle to make the image appear again.
Three nights later, I made my way to the Gay Head Cliffs, a place steeped in both Indian folklore and colonial ghost stories. Years ago locals spoke of a special spot within the cliffs called Devil’s Den, a spot supposedly inhabited by the great Wamponoag leader Moshup. Legend has it that Moshup lived in this spot with his wife and sons, who fed on the sea creatures which they caught in the shoals near shore. Some say Moshup’s campfire never extinguished; for years visitors to the cliffs would report steam and smoke coming out of the cliffs’ fissures.
This is also the site of one of the worse accidents in Vineyard maritime history: in January of 1884 the S.S. City of Columbus ran up on a ridge of the rock bottom known as Devil’s Bridge and sank, killing as many as 200 people.
With all this in mind, I ventured to the cliffs around midnight and arrived at a spot suitably like the edge of the world. The cliffs are inherently eerie around midnight in late October, a feeling enhanced by the intermittent glare of Gay Head Light; the glow of soda machines and ATM machines atop the cliffs seems out of place in what feels like a long-abandoned outpost.
Walking to the Aquinnah Cultural Center, I got my first creepy sensation, which registered somewhere between fright and dread. I can’t explain it, but I had the distinct sinking feeling that someone, or something, did not want me there.
When I reached the center — formerly the Vanderhoop Homestead and long rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a girl who drowned in a well there in the 1800s — I saw something that truly put a charge into my mortal heart. Coming at me at measured yet terrifying gait was a pair of oblivious skunks who were not fazed in the slightest by the beam of my flashlight. I cautiously side-stepped the oncoming menace, only to come across a third, then a fourth skunk coming up on the flank. They were everywhere.
Thankfully most skunks on the Vineyard — even those who work as sentinels for haunted houses — are devout pacifists; none showed even a passing interest in dousing me with stink. The house itself sat peacefully, and I saw no faces in the windows, heard no shrieks in the wind.
So I took the trail down towards the beach, and about halfway down I experienced my biggest and admittedly dumbest fright of the night. After hearing a twig break behind me, I turned and spotted what looked like a glowing blue orb hovering about five feet off the ground.
The fact that I was staring at something very real and very strange paralyzed me. For a full five minutes I stood, debating whether to shine my flashlight in the orb’s direction. I had the distinct feeling that if I did, I would find something I didn’t want to see. When I finally overcame my fear and turned my flashlight on the blue orb, I found it was a balloon, made of foil, reflecting the glare of Gay Head Light.
Finally on the beach I headed for the cliffs, and again got the creeping sensation that I was not welcome. Moshup Beach at night by yourself is spooky. The rocks sticking out of the sand look like people from a distance. The red clay in the cliffs forms the silhouettes of great hunters and warriors.
The howling wind and crash of waves also confuse the senses. No matter how many times I looked behind me I always had a sense that someone was following me. I also found strange items on the beach: a discarded lobster trap, an old glove, the skeleton of a large fish picked apart by birds, a rusty rudder sticking out of the sand. When I passed a sign warning that I was about to enter into land owned by the tribe, it was more than enough to send me home.
So I never actually saw a ghost down by the cliffs. But for me, there is no denying some type of cosmic energy engulfs the entire area — whether it be friendly or hostile.
The next haunted locale on my itinerary was the West Tisbury cemetery, source of many a ghostly tale over the centuries. The most famous made it all the way to the front page of the Dec. 31, 1939 edition of the Boston Globe in a story that recounted ghosts had “broken the winter quiet that usually prevails over Middletown, the small hamlet on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard.” The story states that two women spotted a light floating in the cemetery so bright they could see the letters on the tombstones.
Other tales center on the grave of the enigmatic Nancy Luce, the so-called chicken lady of the Vineyard, who largely shunned humankind in favor of her beloved chickens.
Among the headstones bearing surnames of familiar Island families — Manter, Mayhew, Vincent, Athearn — Ms. Luce’s modest marker stands out for the flock of plastic chickens that stand guard. Many town residents will attest that the plastic chickens never move or topple, even during the most severe storms, and at least one person has reported hearing the cluck of chicks emanating from just under the ground near Ms. Luce’s plot.
I stood around Ms. Luce’s grave for almost an hour, like some stalker of the deceased, straining my senses for any sign from the other world. I wish I could say some ghoulish piece of poultry appeared and pecked me unmercifully, but the only thing I saw was another skunk. All I heard was the distant moan of a sea duck. As for ghostly orbs, the lonely lights I saw were attached to the passing cars along State Road.
The final visit of the night was to the Crying Swamp of North Tisbury, an isolated spot off the Cedar Tree Neck sanctuary. The area once was a swamp with hanging vegetation and black, swampy soil. It has since evolved into Ames Pond.
Numerous articles published in the early 1900s chronicle weird occurrences in the area, including that of Capt. Roland Luce, who resided nearby, was strolling through the swamplands one day when he head a ghostly baby wailing in the wind, deep in the marsh. He later learned that others had heard the same sounds; people avoided going out at night in the area.
Let me start by noting that any patch of woods gets scary when you are alone at night, and this Crying Swamp is no different. The sound of the wind cutting through tree branches sounded like a shriek, blurred only by a chorus of crickets and rustling dead leaves.
I wish I could say I boldly made my way around the trails. But when I got deep enough into the forest that I couldn’t see my car, my curiosity turned to terror. On my left side a tree limb creaked — like a skeleton’s teeth, I thought — while on my right a series of twigs snapped underneath some unseen hand, likely belonging to a headless pirate ghost with a bloodlust for revenge and a penchant for theatrics.
The canopy of trees above swayed in the breeze and seemed to whisper, ‘turn back, before it’s too late.’ Ahead of me a figure seemed to cross the path, and I quickly appraised it to be a ghoulish bride searching the afterlife for her husband who went to sea and never came back.
Sure, it is impossible for all Vineyard ghost stories to be true, but with so many making the rounds of dinner parties, ghost walks, and campfire chats, chances are some of them are true. And as my mind tried to convince my beating heart that the rustle in the brush was a raccoon and not the Scrubby Neck Witch, I felt the odds were stacked against me.
So I ran back to the parking lot, and prayed that a wandering spirit of the forest hadn’t found my car and taken residence in the back seat.