If you’re in the San Jose area looking for famous haunted places, then the Toys R Us in Sunnyvale may be second in reputation only to the Winchester House. The recent announcement that Toys R Us will be closing all of its stores nationwide, having succumbed to bankruptcy, has inspired me to revisit this alleged haunting which was popularized on the 1980s variety show That’s Incredible. For decades, there have been rumors of customers and staff members having strange experiences inside the store. Overnight, toys are moved from shelves and piled on the floor in bizarre configurations. There’s often the sensation of being watched by invisible eyes. In the women’s restroom, the water taps may turn on spontaneously or ghostly hands might stroke your hair.
These strange occurrences were investigated starting as far back as 1978. The most best known inquiries were done by the late Sylvia Browne, a professional psychic as famous for self-promotion as she was for being a dubious prognosticator. You might remember that Browne completely immolated her reputation over the 2002 Shawn Hornbeck abduction case. Shawn was an 11-year-old victim of a stranger abduction in Missouri. Hornbeck was missing for four years when he was miraculously recovered by police looking for a separate kidnapped boy. Browne, who was a regular guest on the Montel Williams Show, did a “reading” about the Hornbeck case four months after the boy vanished and was wrong on almost every detail. More heartbreaking, Browne stated on the show that Hornbeck was dead. That must’ve been horrifying for his parents to hear. When your child’s missing like that, all you have to cling to is hope. Certainly the Hornbecks must’ve thought about their son’s fate all the time, but for anyone to state it as fact in such a public forum... terrible!
In hindsight, Browne’s excursions to the Toys R Us were just as much bullshit. Perhaps to silence her detractors, Browne produced a now infamous photo of a tall, thin man leaning against a wall behind the seance members. The man was not part of the seance party, Browne insisted, his form only showing up in one photo taken with an infrared camera. During this same seance, Browne claimed that she identified the thin man with the less-than-inventive name “Johnny Johnson.” Johnny was a suitably tragic figure right out of the professional psychic’s handbook. A poor immigrant farmhand, he was heart-broken when the beautiful rich girl he loved chose to marry a man most suitable to her station. Shortly thereafter, Johnson hurt himself with an axe while working in the orchards that once stood where the Toys R Us now resides and died from resulting the infection.
While the details of Johnny’s life sound a lot like the plot from a bad romance novel, what about that famous photograph? Again, we’re reliant only on Browne’s word about how the photo was taken and there are some obvious problems, including that the man appears to be wearing modern dress (not that of a 19th century farmhand) and is throwing a shadow on the floor (something a ghost would be unlikely to do). I am not posting the photos here since I do not own the rights to them, but you can easily find them online by searching for “Johnny Johnson ghost photos.”
Despite the Johnny Johnston story, it’s entirely possible that strange things have occurred in the Sunnyvale Toys R Us over the past four decades. At the very least, it wouldn’t be the first toy store that boasted of a ghost. The juxtaposition of such a mundane and comforting place having a spooky supernatural side is tremendously alluring for us human beings. It’s why so many similar venues, be they bookstores, theaters, amusement parks etc., are also thought to be haunted. Let’s face it, shopping for toys becomes even more fun if you think you’re being watched by the spirit of a lovesick farmhand, trapped forever among its plastic, neon-colored plastic merchandise.
Now doesn’t it?
If you grew up in Tucson, Arizona, during the 1970s and 80s, and were inclined to play miniature golf, Magic Carpet Golf was really your best choice. Located on Speedway Boulevard near Wilmot, it was not the city's only course, but it was the most authentic.
Designed in 1968 by Lee Koplin, the crazy artistic genius who built all kinds of miniature golf courses and roadside attractions starting just after World War II, the grounds were what I imagine the inside of Tim Burton's head must look like. Magic Carpet was an over-sized repository of kitschy Americana, right up there with roadside dinosaurs and cigar store Indians. The place teemed with strange concrete decorations — including a giant monkey with a swinging tail; a rampant bull with bulging eyes and lethal-looking horns; and an Easter Island mo'ai so large you could climb up its innards for a nighttime view of the surrounding city. And whether you considered these strange edifices to be art, architecture or just crap, they were a uniquely American invention which provided a uniquely entertaining mini golf experience.
During my childhood and teen years, I visited Magic Carpet regularly without ever knowing its pedigree. By the time I had kids of my own, age and lack of maintenance meant the two courses were an often dangerous thicket where masses of cactus overgrew the pathways and low-hanging tree branches tore at you from above. The strange menagerie which lived there had also lost much of its sheen. Concrete skins had begun to chip away, revealing the rebar and chicken wire skeletons beneath. Nothing had been repainted in years, unless you counted the several layers of graffiti. As the place continued to deteriorate, it became both sad and fascinating. Suddenly, you weren't just playing miniature golf — you were an urban explorer unlocking the mysteries of mid-twentieth century "roadside art."
Clearly, most Tucsonans didn't share my fascination because the last few times I went we had the place to ourselves save for the aging owner and a teenage employee who did everything from run the concession stand to repair the video game consoles. When the owner passed away in 2008, the era of Magic Carpet golf ended with him. A group of dedicated citizens rallied to save as many of the concrete statues as they could. The aforementioned mo'ai ended up on Fourth Avenue as the gateway to a popular nightclub. Others were sold to private residences or found an equally weird home at another local oddity, The Valley of the Moon.
Years after the golf course was demolished and turned into a parking lot for a local car dealership, my sister told me she had found the bug-eyed bull in her neighborhood. By that time I was living in Oregon however and quickly forgot about him. This past Christmas however, I went looking.
Hidden on a side street behind a Brake Masters and a massage parlor, there he was! He emerged from the trees like the minotaur bearing down on Theseus. (Wait, does that make me Theseus in this scenario? Never mind.) Honestly, I didn't even see him until I was practically on top of him. The Irish steakhouse whose parking lot he festoons is now closed and abandoned, so once again the bull is an orphan to time. The irony of this was not lost on me but it was still good seeing him. He looks well and he gave me a few gentle moments to remember all the fun I'd had at his former home. I don't know where he'll go from here. Hopefully there's a kind, nostalgic heart out there who's willing to give him another shot.
It’s been my tradition to share ghost stories and spooky legends on my blog for the Halloween season. Now that October is officially upon us, I’m decided to look at stories which originated in my own back yard — on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis, Oregon.
American universities are rife with ghost stories, many of them remarkably similar in their details. Usually these are tragic tales of aggrieved or grieving coeds who are either brutally slain, die in freak accidents, or take their own lives in particularly horrible ways. Some are thinly veiled morality tales about how sex, drugs, alcohol and even poor grades will lead to suffering and death.
The two OSU ghost stories which intrigued me centered around Sackett Hall, a sprawling dormitory located near the campus’s epicenter. Both of the ghosts in question were of murdered women. One was allegedly butchered by an infamous serial killer in the dorm basement; the other by a fellow student in her own bed. At first blush, both stories seemed to be simple retellings of common urban legends, but I wanted to know if there was any truth behind them.
I found much more than I expected
The Serial Killer
Of the Sackett Hall legends, the one about the basement was easier to research and document, although details have become skewed over the years. The legend claims that Ted Bundy, a murderer, cannibal and necrophiliac who stalked college campuses in the early 1970s, had lured a girl into the catacombs below the dorm. The story was partially true, as a Sackett Hall resident named Roberta “Kathy” Parks was abducted by Bundy outside the building on May 6, 1974.
Ann Rule's famous biography about Bundy, THE STRANGER BESIDE ME, provides an intriguing account of Kathy's last day on Earth:
The next girl to walk away forever lived in Oregon. Nineteen days after Susan Rancourt vanished — on May 6th — Roberta Kathleen (Kathy) Parks had spent an unhappy and guilt-ridden day in her room in Sackett Hall on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis, 250 miles south of Seattle. I knew Sackett Hall; I'd lived there myself when I attended one term at O.S.U. back in the 1950s, a huge, modern dormitory complex on a campus that was then considered a ‘cow college.’ Even then, when the world didn’t seem to be so fraught with danger, none of us would ever go to the snack machines in the cavernous basement corridors alone at night.
Kathy Parks wasn't very happy at Oregon State. She was homesick for Lafayette, California, and she’d broken up with her boyfriend who'd left for Louisiana. On May 4th, Kathy had argued in a phone call with her father, and, on May 6th, she learned that he'd suffered a massive heart attack. Her sister had called her from Spokane, Washington, with the news of their father's coronary, and then called back some hours later to say that it looked as though he would survive.
Kathy, whose major was world religions, felt a little better after the second call, and she agreed to join some of the other residents of Sackett Hall in an exercise session in the dorm lounge.
Shortly before eleven, the tall slender girl with long ash-blond hair left Sackett Hall to meet some friends for coffee in the Student Union Building. She promised her roommate she would be back within the hour. Wearing blue slacks, a navy blue top, a light green jacket, and platform sandals, she left Sackett for the last time.
Kathy never made the Student Union Building. Like the others, all of her possessions were left behind: her bike, clothing, cosmetics. [pp, 67-68]
So although Parks was abducted outside Sackett and probably killed at an entirely different location altogether, the history behind the haunting legend still had a firm basis in fact. But what about the girl murdered in her bed? Was this also based on a real incident?
On the discussion page for my novel The Men in the Trees, I have a variety of photos from an Arizona ghost town called Vulture City. Over the years, visitors have asked about the town and its mine so I've created this synopis of the area's history, legends and what you can expect when visiting one of the best preserved frontier communities in Arizona. It should be noted that the images and experiences shared here are from 2009, when my son Myles and I spent the better part of a day exploring the townsite.
The Beginning of Vulture City
Like many of the state's mining towns, the story behind Vulture City is an amalgam of fact, fiction and falsities. According to legend, the town's origins began in 1862 when a prosector named Henry Wickenburg shot a vulture while out hunting. Where the bird dropped to the ground, Wickenburg discovered some spectacular quartz formations infused with gold and promptly established a claim to the area. Although the dead vulture part of this story is most likely an affectation, Wickenburg's instincts about the quartz were spot on and the mine eventually became the most profitable gold producer in Arizona.
Wickenburg sold his controlling interest in the mine to Benjamin Phelps and a group of investors in 1866. Under Phelp's supervision, it is estimated that the Vulture produced $2.5 million in gold (or roughly $60 million in today’s dollars), with almost as much being snuck out by the miners and their corrupt foremen. The theft of raw gold was mentioned in The Men in the Trees in a conversation between Meryl and Rose (pp. 86-87):
Meryl exhaled slowly. “Okay, then. Let’s say you actually find the mine, which would be like finding a needle in a haystack I think, but let’s say you do it. Then what? I doubt if the U.S. government is going to let you go in there and dig out any gold. It’s a national forest, after all.”
“What if they don’t know about it?”
“Well, this mine is in the middle of nowhere. Who’s going to notice some old coot like me carrying out some ore in my backpack? It happened all the time during the frontier days. Miners would stuff a nugget or two into their boot and walk out with it. It was called ‘high-grading the gold.’”
“And if they caught you, they’d hang you?”
“And what would they do to you today?”
“Prison, I imagine,” Rose said with a casual shrug.
“High-grading” was such a persistent problem at the Vulture mine that there was actually a "hanging tree" on site for those who were caught. The tree was still around when Myles and I visited the site.
The mine changed hands again in 1878, being sold to a man named James Seymour who quickly identified another gold-rich vein and further increased profits. During this same era, Vulture became an important rest-stop in an otherwise unbroken stretch of desert. By the 1890s, the site included many houses, dormitories, an assayer's office, a general store, a post office and a school. At its height, the town was home to 5,000 people.
I recently just wrote a review of the movie Mr. Holmes and it's had me thinking about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Not the great author who created Sherlock and his world... but the fragile and highly superstitious man in search of comfort. For this blog I will discuss his tour of the United States in the early 1920s and how his obsession with understanding the metaphysical world began with great loss and ended with a tarnished reputation.
During his lifetime, Conan Doyle was known as much for his interest in Spiritiualism as for his literary works. His fascination with ghosts and spirits was not unusual for his time, when Spiritualism was at its height and professional mediums could enjoy the patronage of the rich and famous throughout North America and Europe. Spiritualism was often seen as a diversion for Victorian society’s elite, and certainly Conan Doyle was proof of this.
At a very young age, Conan Doyle was sent to Hodder Place, a preparatory school run by the strict Roman Catholic Jesuits. The experience was apparently a bad one for him and he emerged from his schooling agnostic. Later in his life, however, his religious views began to change drastically. Many sources link this transformation to the death of his son, Kingsley, who was serving with the British forces during World War I and was wounded during the disastrous Allied offensive known as the Battle of the Somme. While recuperating for his injuries, Kingsley developed pneumonia and died in a field hospital. His passing was certainly crushing to his father, but it was only one in a series of deaths that Conan Doyle had to endure. Eleven years earlier, his wife had succumbed to tuberculosis and Kingsley’s death was followed by that of Arthur’s brother, his brothers-in-law and two nephews. By all accounts, so much loss in such a short period of time sent Conan Doyle into a depressive tailspin and he turned to Spiritualism for solace.
By the time he reached California in 1922 as part of his tour of the United States, Conan Doyle’s reputation as a devout defender of Spiritualism was well established. And largely ridiculed.
One of the most sensational causes he championed would become known as the case of the Cottingley Fairies. In 1918, two English girls claimed to have taken photos of themselves interacting with several diminutive sprites in the Yorkshire woods. Conan Doyle was assigned by Strand Magazine to investigate. He consulted several experts in the field of photography. The results were mixed. The Kodak corporation acknowledged that the negatives were not tampered with, but also stated that such photos could be easily staged and duplicated. A second expert named Harold Snelling declared the photos genuine and it was Snelling who Conan Doyle chose to believe. Convinced of their legitimacy, Conan Doyle provided the girls with a new camera and over the next few years they were able to produce several more photos. The fact that the girls were allowed to use the camera without any witnesses didn’t seem to bother Conan Doyle; and his sense of Victorian honor compelled him to believe that no girl would be deceitful enough to perpetrate such a hoax or fool a man such as himself. Ergo, the fairies had to be real.
(The girls admitted in 1981 that the photos had been faked, but that their embarrassment at fooling Arthur Conan Doyle kept them from confessing earlier.)
Conan Doyle’s absolute belief in the Cottingley Fairies, and his subsequent publishing of a book on the subject, did little to shore up his credibility. The public seemed to expect a more impartial reaction from the father of Sherlock Holmes, a medical doctor and a renowned man of letters. Skepticism and ridicule continued to follow Conan Doyle as he began his tour of America. Read one U.S. newspaper editorial:
“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and author of a number of other stories which have captured the imagination of tens of thousands of readers, is one person. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, making himself ridiculous with his profession of faith in pictures of fairies and other spiritualistic flapadoodle, is another. Of the two, the first is an admirable figure, but the latter has made of itself a fit mark for the mocking laughter of the world...”
Conan Doyle did not seem deterred by his detractors and continued to lecture publicly and give interviews to the press about spiritual matters. In June 1923, the Oakland Tribute provided Conan Doyle with the opportunity to defend himself in an article entitled “‘Sherlock Holmes’ Creator Tells Of His Bridge to Land of Hereafter: Doyle Admits He Met Spirits Via Medium Route.” Conan Doyle wrote:
“I was a confirmed materialist and fought against their facts [of spiritualism] until they were too much for me and I could not help realizing their truth. This process took many years of reading and experiment as detailed in my books. What nonsense it is therefore to say that I had a ‘great consuming desire to believe... etc.’ It was not so...”
Despite his assertions, Conan Doyle’s method for examining psychic phenomenon and the legitimacy of mediums was suspect even in his day. One author, in an exposé of the parlor tricks used by mediums to dupe their clients, wrote: “Doyle admits that the medium’s throat and lips showed movement during this singing, but he swallows the whole thing when, as he says, the ‘intelligence’ glibly explained that the medium’s throat and organs are used by the spooks.” The author asked, “In Doyle’s case is the wish father to the thought?”
As the author toured California, he met with a variety of mediums and visited many venues thought to be haunted, including the Whaley House in San Diego. He also continued to speak out on some of the most famous paranormal events of the day, including the rumored “Curse of King Tutankhamun.”
In November 1922, the western world was left stunned after archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of an obscure pharaoh and in the process the greatest treasure trove in history. Shortly after the tomb’s excavation, Carter’s patron and friend, Lord Carnarvon, died suddenly in Cairo. Rumors began almost immediately that the Lord’s demise was the result of ancient curses placed on Tutankhamun’s remains by Egyptian priests. Conan Doyle openly supported this notion, and even offered other example’s of the so-called “Curse of the Pharaohs.”
“...The son of Sir William Ingram, London publisher, met the fate prescribed by a mummy he discovered and brought to London. On the mummy was found the following inscription:
‘May the life of the one who disturbs me end rapidly and may his bones never be buried.’
Shortly afterward the son was killed in a hunting expedition in Somaliland. The body was placed in a dry bed of a stream, pending removal. When the party returned, the dry bed had been turned into a raging torrent and the body had disappeared...” [“Spirits On Guard At Tombs, Says A. Conan Doyle,” The Oakland Tribune, Tuesday, April 5, 1923.]
Ironically, it was during this same period that Conan Doyle met and befriended Spiritualism’s greatest critic — Harry Houdini. (The two men are pictured together below.) The renowned magician had developed an interest in Spiritualism following the death of his mother. In this respect, both men were united in their search for answers by the deaths of loved ones. But for Houdini, Spiritualism was a profound disappointment. His expert eye quickly identified the illusions and sleights of hand used by mediums during séances, and he became convinced that the entire movement was fraudulent. Conan Doyle hoped to change Houdini’s mind and eventually became convinced that the magician possessed supernatural powers of which he was either unaware or unwilling to acknowledge.
During the final part of his American lecture tour, Conan Doyle and his wife invited Houdini and his wife to a séance. Lady Conan Doyle had recently discovered her ability to produce “automatic writing” and she was anxious to help contact Houdini’s deceased mother. During the séance, she produced six pages of handwritten notes for Houdini which she claimed were created by his mother’s spirit. Houdini was far from convinced. Lady Conan Doyle’s notes were in English, a language his mother didn’t understand and the ritual had taken place on his mother’s birthday, although her spirit did not seem to acknowledge that fact. Concerned of offending Conan Doyle, whom Houdini believed was sincerely trying to help him, he said nothing about these discrepancies for months. When he finally broached his concerns to Arthur Conan Doyle, the man of letters had his usual convenient answers, claiming that the spirit world did not worry about things as trivial as language or dates on a calendar. Their friendship never recovered from this disagreement.
Conan Doyle continued to unflinchingly defend Spiritualism through the remaining years of his life, even publishing an impressive two volume tome called The History of Spiritualism in 1926. On July 8, 1930, he died of a heart attack while strolling through his garden but even death did not seem to sever his connection to Spiritualism. For years afterward, Lady Conan Doyle claimed to be in regular contact with her husband and came to rely on his advice for many everyday concerns. The Conan Doyle family also credited Arthur’s spirit with diagnosing his wife’s tuberculosis from beyond the grave, a feat that he had not been able to perform in life despite his medical training. Likewise, the mediums he had championed so ferociously seemed reluctant to give up his patronage after his death. Suddenly, Conan Doyle’s vaporous image began to appear in many “spirit photos” produced by various professional psychics. (See the photo of Conan Doyle at the top of the page for an example of this hoax.) But even this development could not delay the inevitable.
“...Many of the mediums whom Conan Doyle had supported were falling from grace,” wrote author Daniel Stashower in his biography entitled Teller of Tales. “Nino Pecararo, whose powers Conan Doyle had defended against the criticisms of Houdini, was soon hounded out of business by the magician Joseph Dunninger. “Spirit of Doyle’s Son Merely Nino’s Trick,” reported the New York Evening Journal; “Nino Pecararo, Who Helped Conan Doyle’s Faith in Mystic World, Admits Deceit,” announced the Herald Tribune. For the next ten years, similar headlines would appear at regular intervals as one “reformed medium” after another attempted to convert exposure into financial gain.
“Conan Doyle’s own messages from the spirit world were also held up to criticism. “Now the late Sir Arthur was an admirable writer of English,” noted one journalist. “If the post-death messages are exact copies of those messages, his knowledge of even the elementary rules of grammar must have suffered woefully since his death.”
In the end, Conan Doyle’s literary brilliance may have been overshadowed by his preoccupation with the supernatural and his Victorian conceit. However, we must be charitable in knowing that whatever folly he championed, he did so only as a reaction to his own great sense of love and loss.
The photos shown above are in the public domain.
Similar Posts: The World's Most Famous Ghost Photo | The Queen's Own Ghost
If you grew up during the 80s and 90s, chance are shopping malls played a pivotal role in your adolescence. Regardless of whether you were actually shopping (honestly, I and my teenage brethren did very little of that), malls were an important gathering place akin to medieval Europe’s village square or the agora during Classical times. They were a place to see and be seen; to catch up on news both vital and mundane; or enjoy a good meal or some form of entertainment. They were a place where you could feel included in a group — even when you were surrounded by strangers. They became such an intrinsic part of our consumer society that they had a regular place in popular culture, whether as a haven from zombie hoards, the site of a zany family comedy, or the glittering backdrop for teenage love. Not only did I spend a great deal of my teens and early 20s hanging out in malls, I even worked in one for two years, as did my sister and most of my friends.
The malls in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona, have gone through their share of ups and downs. Some are posh, others more blue collar. Some are so choked with people you can barely manuever through their walkways; others have such a small clientele you wonder how they even stay in business. Regardless of what kind of mall it is or who they cater to, there’s a truth looming over them all — their days are numbered.
A good example is the El Con Mall in Tucson. When I returned home this past December, I was stunned to find the city’s first and once most prominent mall had been replaced by a collection of free-standing big box stores. All traces of the indoor passageways which once connected businesses — and people — had been completely eradicated. Ironically, this is close to how the El Con area appeared before the mall was erected in 1965. In that year, enclosed and air-cooled avenues were constructed between the pre-existing buildings and dozens more businesses were added. Even the names of many of those businesses harken back to the Golden Age of Malls: Orange Julius, Walden Books, Chess King, Things Remembered...
El Con reigned supreme for years until newer malls siphoned off its customer base. There was an attempt to revive El Con in the early 2000s. Many of the 60’s-era structures were bulldozed and replaced with a state-of-the-art theater, a Home Depot and a circular food court which never served a single meal because it never had a single tenant. By 2012, this empty food court was being destroyed to make room for more big box stores and the rest of the mall would soon follow. (To read more about El Con's history, click here.)
So why does any of this matter? It's just a mall, after all. Well, in the larger scheme of things it doesn't. It is just a mall, but it's demise / transformation says a few things about our larger society, I think.
I’ve written other blogs about the changing buying habits of the American consumer, particularly as it relates to books. (See Haunted By Bookshops... Everywhere!) But the gradual extinction of malls isn't just about how we're shopping, it's about how we're socializing.
After all, malls may have only been a fixture in American society for the past thirty or forty years — but they played a huge role in the early lives of Gen Xers and Millennials, or those of us born between the years of 1965 and 1992. Today however, they do not appear to play any significant role in the social lives of teens. Or at least not of any of the teens I know. Most young people I'm friends with prefer to do their shopping online if at all possible — and that's how they prefer to socialize too. A trip to the mall is no longer an anticipated weekend outing with friends or family. If anything it's considered drudgery.
But in exchanging physical gathering places for virtual ones, we’ve also deprived ourselves of the simple human pleasure of seeing and interacting with each other face-to-face in large numbers. In doing so, we’re inadvertently put an end to a tradition which goes back a lot further than just a generation or two.
Related Feature: Abandoned Malls and the Urban Explorer
In the past few years, there have been numerous articles written about the deaths of malls, and how these abandoned structures have become popular haunts for photographers and urban explorers alike.
This past December, as I wandered through the vacant space between Super Target and Burlington Coat Factory which was once the El Con Mall in Tucson, Arizona, I did feel a little sad. Malls had played a pretty important role in my young adult years (see my blog Farewell to the Mall for more), and it seemed somehow inappropriate that Tucson's first such venue was now define by an empty space. Even more disappointing for the urban explorer in me was that I'd missed the opportunity to photograph El Con as an abandoned place before it met its doom beneath the tracks of a bulldozer.
Fortunately, the photo documentation of abandoned shopping malls is a popular pasttime now and there are numerous online features which offer haunting and nostalgic looks back at what was a centerpiece of American culture during the 1980s and 90s particularly. Toward that end, I'm listing a few of the best photo essays I could find below:
If you've crept through the empty hulk of a shopping mall and would like to share any of your images here for others to enjoy, please email them here. You must be the copyright owner of the photograph(s) and give me written permission to use it in this blog. Thanks.
Here be spoilers...
Although my new novel, The Men in the Trees, isn't officially about Sasquatch (aka Bigfoot), it seemed only fitting that I cap off my Halloween spooky stories with this tales of large, furry forest creatures of unknown origin. In fact, elements of this real-life event found their way into my book, particularly as it relates to construction workers and old logging roads. If you've read the book, you'll probably see the bits I'm referring to as you read on through this blog.
The story began on September 19, 1958, the Eureka, California, newspapers printed a letter to the editor penned by a local woman named Mrs. Jess Bemis. Mrs. Bemis wrote that her husband, who worked on a construction crew in the deep woods of northern California, had been confounded by large human-like footprints he would find around his worksite each morning.
"On their way to the job," Mrs. Bemis wrote, "tracks were seen going down the road. The tracks measured 14 to 16 inches in length. The toes were very short, but were five to each foot. The ground was soft and the prints were clear."
Mrs. Bemis's letter would start a sensation as other construction crews began to report similar strange events, most of it centered around areas where logging roads were encroaching on what had otherwise been untouched wilderness. Was some forest resident investigating the work sites after the work crews had departed for the day? The hundreds of immense footprints found at these locations would seem to suggest a nocturnal visitor of mammoth proportions and unknown origin.
By far the most sensational series of events — in fact the one that popularized the term "Bigfoot" – took place in Humboldt County, California, in September and October 1958 as crews were constructing a logging access road in the Bluff Creek area.
"'Bigfoot' made his latest appearance sometime Wednesday night," reported an extensive article appearing in the October 6, 1958, edition of the Eureka Humboldt Standard. "Workmen reporting for work found the tracks in almost the same area as those seen about a week ago... Hundreds of these marks have been seen through the summer by the construction workers..."
Witnesses interviewed for the article seemed to be taking the footprints seriously, and some even remembered other strange occurrences from their years on these isolated construction projects. For example, Gerald Crew, an employee of the Granite Logging and Wallace Brothers companies, remembered an incident two years prior where something had tossed around "filled 50-gallon gasoline drums" on a timber access road just twenty miles from the current site where the footprints were being reported. Other workers reported large footprints they discovered around their heavy equipment in the Mad River area, approximately 30 miles from Bluff Creek. Was it the same animal?
But the hundreds of strange footprints were not the end of bizarre incidents reported by multiple witnesses. Workers recalled the eerie sense of being watched from the treeline or would notice that fruit had be stolen from the worksites. Many of the men employed to construct the Bluff Creek road began to quit and the tractors stopped working. The Humboldt County Sheriff's Office intimated that it was an elaborate hoax.
"Who knows anybody foolish enough to ruin his own business, man?" Ray Wallace, one of the construction company owners was quoted as saying. "The men say they quit because it’s too far to drive, but I think most of them are just plain scared!"
Then, on October 15, the Eureka Humboldt Standard's front page was emblazoned with the headline: EYEWITNESSES SEE BIGFOOT!
Two men, Ray Kerr and Leslie Breazeale, both of whom were employed on the Bluff Creek project, spotted an "apelike" creature vault across the road in front of their car. The sighting took place in the early morning hours and only half a mile from where most of the strange footprints were being discovered. Both men described the animal as walking upright with broad but stooped shoulders and low swinging arms. They estimated that the creature was at least eight feet tall and covered dark fur. Once the animal vanished into the trees, the men cautiously left the car and inspected the dirt road with a flashlight. The large footprints left in the soft dirt were virtually identical to those documented at the construction site. But this chance encounter on the road wasn't the only eyewitness encounter with the giant beast.
Wallace confessed that a different employee had also spotted the creature on a previous occasion.
"This sighting took place in the early morning hours when the bulldozer operator had just reached his tractor. Bigfoot apparently was drinking from Bluff Creek when spotted, then bounded up a steep incline into the brush," reported the Standard. The animal's description was very similar to that given by Kerr and Breazeale: a stooped posture with long dangling arms and measuring approximately four feet across at the shoulders. The bulldozer operator quit after this encounter and never returned to the job site.
While the local sheriff continued to imply that it was a hoax, possibly perpetrated by Wallace himself for reasons unknown, the construction workers and residents in the area began to tell their own tales about mysterious footprints and sightings of large, shaggy creatures which went back decades. The line between fact and fable began to blur, but the Bluff Creek construction site encounters do seem to be the starting point for a lot of incidental stories now commonly associated with Bigfoot. One example is the alleged Native American stories about a race of hairy giants who shared the woods with the various tribes. Anthropologists still argue about the veracity of this Native American "Bigfoot tales," some noting that myths about ancient giants are a common fixture in cultures all over the world but don't necessarily constitute proof of Bigfoot's existence. Conversely, enthusiasts point to the same stories and imagine that the tales may recall a time when early Homo sapiens shared the world with other human-like races, such as the Neanderthals. In an attempt to get to the bottom of the sightings, the popular television show "Truth or Consequences" offered $1000 to anyone who could either confirm the creature's existence or reveal the hoax. The money was never claimed.
Regardless of the truth behind the incidents of 1958, they would ultimately be eclipsed by what happened in the same area nine years later. On October 20, 1967, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin would capture 24-feet of silent film of a large, hair-covered creature lumbering across a dry streambed. The film, simultaneously hailed as an important scientific discovery and history's most brilliant hoax, has been scrutinized for nearly fifty years. Recent high-tech analysis of the footage by popular cable television shows seemed to reinforce its authenticity, with a variety of experts claiming that the gait and musculature could not be faked even in the modern day. Skeptics point out the astronomical odds of Patterson and Gimlin actually stumbling upon a Bigfoot and being able to capture it on film. The filmmakers, however, openly acknowledged that they chose the Bluff Creek area due to the stories from 1958 that demonstrated it to be an active Bigfoot area.
Although the Patterson-Gimlin film sensation eclipsed the events of 1958, the controversy around the "Bigfoot invasion" refused to die. There were rumors over the years that Wallace had a much larger role in the footprints than he ever acknowledged, and was even accused of complicity with Patterson and Gimlin in the creation of their film. Wallace's alleged confessions to this were never confirmed and he never admitted to anything publicly. After his death in 2002, however, his family revealed a pair of large wooden feet that they claimed were hidden among his belongings.
Scrutiny quickly fell on the surviving Wallace family members who, it seemed, were perpetrating their own hoax by implicating the dead man. The family was unable to duplicate the footprints found at Bluff Creek using the wooden models, although they attempted to do so for the television cameras. Additionally, many of the family's claims seemed to contradict the news reports of 1958, including Wallace’s threats to sue the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department for slandering him as the hoaxter and offering "a reward of unspecified amount for information on how his name was pushed into the picture as perpetrator of the incident." Certainly the hoax – if it was one – cost Wallace a fortune as his workmen fled the site and his tractors sat idle. Additionally, men who worked the Bluff Creek site in 1958 stated that "Ray Wallace has not been on the job in over a month." Did he drive out to Bluff Creek in the middle of the night and leap around the treacherous terrain in a pair of wooden feet? It seems dubious that a businessman would destroy his own livelihood to perpetrate a hoax that brought him no financial gain.
In the end, the footprints at the Bluff Creek construction site remain an intriguing mystery... and possibly some of the best proof that an unknown primate lurks through the forests of the Northwest.
Major Jessie Marcel was dispatched from the nearby Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF) as lead investigator. He accompanied Brazel, the sheriff and another man (assumed to be a counter-intelligence officer) to the desert area and collected some of the debris. Marcel was apparently so intrigued by the fragments, he took a box of it home to show his wife and son. Some of the items included I-beam shaped fragments with a purple writing on them (which none of the witnesses could identify); and a foil-like material which would immediately resume its shape after being crumpled up. Major Marcel's son would later go on to be one of the primary eyewitnesses for UFO investigators on the case.
On July 8, 1947, the Army issued a press release confirming their capture of a "flying disk" which prompted a media sensation. But then something happened. By the end of the day, the Army was reversing it position and claimed the shattered object was actually a crashed observation balloon. Major Marcel even famously posed with some of the "balloon debris" for reporters' cameras. At the time, the public accepted the Army's explanation and the story disappeared from sight for the next thirty years. It wasn't until 1978, when physicist and UFO investigator Stanton Freedman interviewed Jessie Marcel — who refuted this official version of the crash — that Roswell became synonymous with UFOs, extraterrestrials and government coverups.
As time went on, new and more elaborate aspects of the crash emerged. A larger debris field was apparently discovered by a team of archaeologists in the Corona area — a debris field which contained multiple dead alien bodies. A smaller object (considered by some to be an escape pod) was also found closer to Roswell, partially embedded in a canyon wall on a local ranch. This "pod" was said to contain several dead and dying alien beings. The bodies of these creatures were allegedly sent to the funeral home in Roswell, where they were viewed by local mortician Glenn Dennis. Eventually, the remains were moved to Edwards Air Force Base and vanished. Presumably, they're still there somewhere. Maybe locked up next to the Ark of the Covenant?
As a change of pace, I've decided that this Favorite Spooky Story won't have a thing to do with ghosts, as ghosts are not particularly required to make something spooky. Instead, I'm going to take a look at the famous Roswell UFO crash of 1947 and my family's unusual but distant connection to what's certainly the most famous legend about extraterrestrials in American history.
In case you live under a rock, here's a brief summation of the incident:
In either late June or early July 1947, during a violent thunderstorm, a large object crashed in a remote desert area of central New Mexico. In the days that followed, a local sheep rancher named Mac Brazel discovered some strange debris on his ranch just north of Roswell and mentioned it to the sheriff.