In 1999, forlorn paintings by the American Early Modernist painter Marsden Hartley led me to seek out Dogtown, an isolated colonial ruin on the island tip of Cape Ann, Massachusetts that is believed to be haunted. For over three hundred years Dogtown was a barren expanse whose giant boulders drew comparisons to Stonehenge and Easter Island. Today it is a 3,000-acre woodland, but the mystical, primordial character for which the area has long been known is still palpable.
When I started exploring Dogtown’s wilds, a spectral aura was inescapable. The area’s mystery deepened.
Investigating, I learned that Dogtown’s history abounds in tales of witches, supernatural sightings, pirates, former slaves, drifters, and the many dogs Revolutionary War widows kept for protection and for which the place was named.
When people on Cape Anne began mentioning Dogtown’s “dark time” to me I assumed that they were referring to the Revolutionary War when a group of widows who were later presumed to be witches were visited by a corposant, or glowing ball of light, believed to be the spirits of their husbands who had been lost at sea. But these contemporary Cape Anners were alluding to 1984 when a mentally disturbed local outcast crushed the skull of a beloved schoolteacher as she walked in Dogtown’s woods. Eventually, the story of this murder and Dogtown’s uncanny past started to come together.
Ultimately, what I discovered in Dogtown is one of those rare, enigmatic places where it feels as if history is still alive and casting an undeniably alluring, dark spell.
Elyssa East, author of Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town, received her B.A. in art history from Reed College and her M.F.A. in creative writing from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Dallas Morning News, and numerous New England regional magazines. She grew up in Georgia and lives in New York City. To read more about her latest book, click here.
IMAGE: An image of Dogtown’s witches from a 1919 Harper’s Monthly article called “The Broomstick Trail”.