Thursday, November 3, 2011
QUESTION 4:IS THERE A REALLY A GHOST TOWN IN GLOUCESTER
Q: IN BURNING QUESTIONS YOU DESCRIBE A GHOST TOWN IN CAPE ANN, MASSACHUSETTS CALLED DOGTOWN. IS THERE A REALLY A GHOST TOWN THERE CALLED DOGTOWN?
A. When most of us think ghost town, it’s probably a place out in the west that once was a booming mining town. Places looking like the photo on the left, that were completely abandoned after the Mother Lode played out. All that is left are dilapidated, slumped-over wooden structures with faded signs revealing that they were once saloons or hotels, or maybe a “sporting house.” But that’s not what you get on the east coast, where only one or two places can legitimately answer to the name “ghost town.”
One such place is Dogtown. Sitting smack in the middle of Cape Ann (the ‘other” cape) in Massachusetts, its 3600 acres appear today much as they did two centuries ago --a jumble of deciduous trees, brush, blueberry patches, bog and granite boulders. Only a few stone foundations remain to mark the location of what were, in the mid-1700s, perhaps as many as one hundred homes.
Dogtown has been a ghost town now since the 1830s when its last resident, a freed slave named Cornelius Finson, who the locals called Black Neil, was found with his feet frozen and was carted off to the poorhouse. But for many years before that the place was literally “going to the dogs” its last handful of residents abandoning the hounds that they kept for safety before heading for the now, post-Revolutionary War secure harbor area of Gloucester.
Fear of pirates and storms led the early settlers to homestead the high ground in around 1650. Over the ensuing one hundred and eighty years, Dogtown was home to Revolutionary War heroes including a genuine Minuteman who after raising hue and cry that the British were coming died in the ensuing battle and a seaman who after escaping British impressment fought several battles and was seriously wounded at Yorktown. It was also the hood for a couple of witches with reputations: Judith Rhines, seductress of a preacher, and the anointed “Queen of Witches” Tammy Younger. Years later it was the site of the goring unto death by a bull of a blowhard, braggart, and drunkard with the inapt name of James Merry.
If the pirates, war heroes, witches, freed slaves and gored dead weren’t enough, the whole kit and caboodle of the place was bought by a rich guy who ran for president on the National Prohibition Party ticket in 1940. If elected, he promised that, in addition to bringing back prohibition, he'd outlaw gambling, drugs, “indecent” books, magazines and films. Sex was too difficult to talk about altogether for this bunch. This Roger Babson, who founded several colleges, had a penchant for hiring the unemployed to carve Calvinist creed into Dogtown’s boulders. Soon enough he had 24 big rocks, now “Babson’s Boulders” looking much like gravestones, bearing such homilies as “never try never win,” “help mother”, “be on time”, “keep out of debt” and “save’. Then he gave the land to the City of Gloucester to be preserved.
My mystery-suspense novel, Burning Questions, has many prominent Dogtown scenes. Tammy Younger, the witch and James Merry, the gored one, crop up. There’s a chase scene. The dogs make a howling appearance. And there’s no getting around the fact that, due to its remoteness, size and cover, it’s a very convenient place to dump a body, if that’s what you have to do.
Fiction using Dogtown as a location for the action includes Percy MacKaye, Dogtown Common (MacMillan, 1921) Francis Blessington, The Last Witch of Dogtown (Curious Traveler Press, 2001) and Anita Diamant, ''The Last Days of Dogtown," (Simon & Schuster, 2005). But Burning Questions is the only one that takes the reader to the contemporary ghost town.