MCNS Articles
Friday, October 31, 2003
  The Boston Globe

October 29, 2000, Sunday ,THIRD EDITION


LENGTH: 1654 words


BYLINE: By Mark Sullivan, Globe Correspondent

LITTLETON - The spirits that walk the woods behind John Hanson Mitchell's home in Littleton are as tangible a part of the historical landscape, he says, as the ancient stone walls that wind through the oak and hickory trees.

There's the "Gallant Ghost," the specter of a Minuteman killed in battle who pledged to return to his betrothed "in body or spirit" - and who kept his promise.

There's the "Bear-Man" spirit - half bear, half man - that may still roam an area where American Indians lived for millennia.

And there's the curse pronounced by a 17th-century Indian medicine man who is said to lie on nearby land where the high-tech giant Cisco Systems plans a new office park.

"The spirits are closer to the veil here," said Mitchell, a naturalist and author, guiding a visitor through a hemlock grove behind his house on Beaver Brook Road.

"There is a spiritual dimension to landscape that you don't see," he said, "an overlay of spiritual history that contains within it all the stories and legends and myths that have gone into the creation of a place."

The ghosts of legend figure prominently in the writings of Mitchell, editor of the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Sanctuary magazine and author of five books on the natural and human history of the woods and ponds around his Littleton home.

His latest, "The Wildest Place on Earth," is due out next year.

His most celebrated work, "Ceremonial Time," released in 1984, traces life in the square-mile Scratch Flat area of Littleton more than 15,000 years, from the Ice Age to the present day, and has become an environmentalists' favorite.

The title of that book, he said, was drawn from an American Indian ritual of conjuring simultaneously the past, the future, and the spirit world.

The past, and the attendant spirits, seem close in the woods behind the gingerbread house that the 60-year-old writer shares with his wife, Jill Brown.

Scratch Flat is part of an expanse from Turtle Rock in Carlisle to Mount Wachusett in Princeton that is held by native spiritualists to contain powerful natural forces, Mitchell said.

Nearby Nagog Pond was a sacred place to Native Americans, while Nashoba Hill, known for its mighty rumblings, was said by the Indians to hold the four winds and by English settlers to have army cannons trapped inside it.

The vicinity of Bumblebee Park in town is noted as a center of seismic activity, and stone mounds found in the area are believed by some researchers to date to Indian days.

The tales Mitchell tells of the woods behind his home evoke Washington Irving's stories of the enchanted Catskills, where Rip Van Winkle happened upon the bowling party of Henry Hudson's phantom Dutchmen.

"People who claim to be in touch with the spirit world have come back here and said there are powerful presences here," he said.

Now and again, "the veil parts that separates what we call reality from the spirit world," he said, "and for a brief second we see into the past, into the spirit world."

More than once, the ghost of a lovelorn Minuteman is said to have made his presence felt.

According to local legend, the spirit of a Revolutionary War soldier, Enoch Dole, felled by a cannonball at the Battle of Dorchester Heights, wanders fields and orchards searching for his lost love, Eve Cogswell, who in the 18th century lived on the farm next to Mitchell's home on Beaver Brook Road.

The story goes that Dole pledged to return to his beloved Eve "in body or in spirit," and kept his word, his ghost startling the young woman as she milked the cows.

Reports of a phantom presence in the barnyard continued in the 19th century. The most recent sighting of the so-called "Gallant Ghost" was in 1975, according to Mitchell, when a local handyman walking in the fields at night "felt a chill wind" and turned to behold, at forest's edge, a man in 18th-century garb with a tarred pigtail.

Enoch Dole's headstone, detailing his battlefield demise, may be seen in the old burying ground on Littleton Common.

Littleton had its own "White Witch," Mary Louisa Dudley, who in the aftermath of Salem, in 1720, was accused by three girls of having bewitched them and having appeared in the shape of a bird. Hounded by accusations, Dudley, fair young wife of the town clerk, died shortly thereafter, probably of a miscarriage, according to Mitchell. "It's a sad story," he said.

A bear sachem, part man, part animal, revered in Indian lore, may have figured in an eerie account of the 1812 death of the last black bear on Scratch Flat, Mitchell said.

Mitchell took a visitor through the grove of gnarled hemlock where the bear had been tracked and shot and where, according to a historical account given by Johnny Putnam, an African-American freeman who was there, the seemingly dead beast had roared frighteningly to life before breathing his last.

Years later, before he died, Putnam said to an interviewer: "Wasn't no bear died that day. Was a man."

"Shape-shifters" of this sort appear regularly in Native American legend, Mitchell said, recalling one local Indian who told English settlers his grandfather had been a bear. "This idea of bears being Indians is not uncommon," he said. "Who knows but that the spirit of the bear was here?"

An Indian spirit of another sort may hang over the 90 acres along Routes 495 and 119 where Cisco Systems plans a major new office park, according to Mitchell.

Perhaps 200 yards from the site of the proposed development, on Beaver Brook, was the site of a 17th-century fishing weir built by a member of the local Nashoba settlement of Christian "Praying Indians," Tom Dublet.

After acting as a translator for the English in hostage negotiations with Indians during the King Philip's War of 1675, Dublet sued the Massachusetts General Court when payment was not forthcoming. The Indian prevailed in his suit after 15 years, but his compensation amounted to nothing more than a red vest with shiny brass buttons.

"The legend is he was offended by his treatment by the English, and cursed the land," said Mitchell, citing tales he has heard at local Indian tribal gatherings.

Two previous commercial development projects planned on the site, now owned by Cisco Systems, were scratched in the 1980s, Mitchell observed, as were plans for a shopping center on a nearby site, across Great Road, where houses have now been built.

The idea of a ghost hostile to office plazas drew a guffaw from Nancy Bradbury, curator of the Littleton Historical Society. "I suppose there's a possibility we have ghosts who are anti-commercial development," she said, laughing.

A Cisco spokeswoman, Mojgan Khalili, reacted with bemusement to a question on the reports of a curse. "Our normal policy is we don't comment on rumors or speculation," she said. "We don't have a policy regarding predictions from medicine men."

A sad legacy remains from Littleton's Indian past, when peaceful Praying Indians were rounded up during King Philip's War and marched for internment on Deer Island in Boston Harbor, Bradbury said.

That colorful and tragic history, combined with tales of Nashoba's rumblings and the remaining presence of once-sacred Indian lands that have gone as yet undeveloped, she said, lend to a sense of Littleton as a place where ghosts walk.

"I'm sure there are other places that have more," she said, "but it's a special place."

Bradbury has heard her share of ghost stories in the 50 years she has lived in town.

One involves the "Littleton Giant," Henry Dix Kimball, a gentle and unassuming seven-footer of the mid-1800s whose stature was noted in Thoreau's journals and whose outsized shoe is displayed in the Historical Society quarters.

A family who lived in the late giant's house on King Street told Bradbury of a night, about 30 years ago, when a light in an upstairs room inexplicably turned on of its own accord. This occurred on the exact date that Henry Dix Kimball had died in the house years before. "He might very well have come back for a visit," Bradbury said.

A barn in the Pingryville area on the Litteton-Ayer line was the site of an "exorcism" about a dozen years ago, when a medium was summoned to rid the structure of an unwanted spirit that was bothering the horses, according to Bradbury, who said she was told of the incident by the property owner.

Bradbury, who declined to reveal the exact locations of the alleged hauntings, or of the names of the residents who had reported them, told of another old home in town where repeated sightings have been made of a Colonial-era ghost in tricorn hat and waistcoat. The phantom, described as a small man in period dress, is said to have appeared once in the basement while the homeowner was canning preserves and again in an upstairs hall, where he disappeared into a doorway.

"What John is saying about the land - who's to say with structures there isn't this crossover?" Bradbury said. "I'm not discounting it. Makes a great story!"

Mitchell said he has had only one experience in the woods behind his house that might be deemed a brush with the supernatural.

In the '70s his old dog disappeared one autumn night, never to return, and which by mid-winter was presumed dead. Months later, walking behind his house one night during a light spring snowfall, Mitchell heard a crunching noise behind him, and turning, saw what appeared to be his old dog - only much younger - atop a stone wall. The dog moved in concert for a time, running ahead, stopping atop the wall as if waiting, then running, until he disappeared into the woods.

A Wampanoag medicine woman friend of Mitchell's, upon hearing the story, asked if he'd seen any prints in the snow. "I'd wager you that dog left no tracks," he recalled her saying.

"For me," the place "has got some elements at night that suggest the spirit world is a little closer to the surface," he said. "But that's true of any place - something lurks."

Articles too lengthy to fit on the Irish Elk blog.

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