Tales from the swamp
From ape-like creatures to glowing lights, Hockomock has kept its secrets for centuries
As is fitting this time of year, one of the most popular portals on the Web recently included a link to a list of ''The World's Creepiest Places." Among the famous and usual suspects are the Bermuda Triangle, Roswell, N.M., the Gettysburg battlefield, the Tower of London, the Paris Catacombs, and, in our own neck of the woods, bewitched Salem, and the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast, the Fall River home in which Lizzie's parents were brutally murdered in 1892 by someone wielding an axe.
Missing from the list, but well known to students of the strange and paranormal, is a large swamp in Southeastern Massachusetts not far from the Borden place where many believe -- even if she was never convicted -- young Lizzie did the hack job on her folks.
For hundreds of years, the Hockomock and surrounding areas have been a hotbed of reported supernatural events and strange sightings and experiences. Loren Coleman, something of a celebrity in the field of cryptozoology, or the study of ''hidden animals" like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and Mothman, discussed the area in his 1983 book, ''Mysterious America."
The Wampanoag people gave the swamp its name, with Hockomock meaning ''place where spirits dwell."
''Devil's Swamp" is what English settlers of Colonial times named it.
The Hockomock Swamp, contained within parts of Bridgewater, Easton, Norton, Raynham, Taunton, and West Bridgewater, and crossed by a number of roads (including Route 24 and Route 138) and an old railroad bed, is 6,000 acres of black rivers, marshes and ponds, thickets of cedar and maple trees, beds of brush, twisting vines, sinkholes, and quicksand, with some of it miles removed from human habitat.
It is rich in animal, plant, and geologic diversity. The swamp itself and the 17,000-acre ''Area of Critical Environmental Concern" (a designation granted by the state in 1990) in which the swamp sits, serve as a sponge and release valve for rain water and melting snow, thus protecting the area from flooding. The swamp and its environs represent the largest freshwater vegetated wetland system in Massachusetts.
Human artifacts discovered in the swamp have been dated at some 9,000 years old.
In his book ''History of the Hockomock," local wildlife and conservation journalist Ted Williams wrote that, during the Ceramic (or Woodland) Period from about 300 AD to Colonial times, Native Americans depended on the swamp as an abundant source of game, and also worshiped it. ''Hockomock" referred ''not only to the evil spirits that struck terror" into the hearts of the colonists, Williams wrote, but also the ''good spirits that led Indian to moose and deer."
Over generations, many have believed the Hockomock is home to spirits, strange animals, and more. Stories abound: There are the vicious, giant dogs with red eyes seen ravenously sinking their fangs into the throats of ponies; a flying creature that resembled a pterodactyl, the dinosaur that could fly; Native-American ghosts paddling canoes; and glowing somethings hovering above the trees. There's also talk of a shaggy half-man, half-ape seen shuffling through the woods.
Students of the paranormal have speculated that negative and disruptive energy was created when the Native Americans of the region were so horribly persecuted, and that that energy continues to circulate in the Hockomock. There have been reports of cult and satanic rituals conducted in the swamp.
Some believe the Hockomock Swamp is cursed.
Joe DeAndrade thinks the swamp may be the habitat of a creature yet to be identified. In 1978, DeAndrade, then 24, was standing on the shore of Clay Banks, a pond in Bridgewater near the swamp. His back was to the water.
''I was standing there, and for some reason I had to turn around," DeAndrade says. ''It was a chill or something inside me.
''And I turned around, and there, off to the right, maybe 200 yards away, there was this -- well, I don't know what it was. It was a creature that was all brown and hairy, like a big apish-and-man thing. It was making its way for the woods, but I didn't stick around to watch where it was going. I ran for the street."
He has never figured out what it was he saw. Not long after his encounter, the Bridgewater resident organized expeditions in search of the Bigfoot-like creature. Equipped with cameras and rifles, the searchers trekked deep into the Hockomock Swamp two or three times. They found not a trace of the beast.
About five years after DeAndrade saw his creature, another local resident reported seeing something similar.
John Baker, a veteran fur trapper, was about a mile from his West Bridgewater home, on a canoe in a river in the swamp, laying muskrat lines on a winter night. Paddling along in the quiet, Baker heard a loud crash and rumble of an animal in the nearby woods. Frozen with fear, he saw a large hairy beast slog into the river and pass within a few yards.
''I knew it wasn't a human because when it passed by me I could smell it," Baker said in an interview in 1998. ''It smelled like a skunk: musty and dirty."
Baker, who died in 2001, always maintained that he could not identify what he saw, but that in his more than 30 years of trapping in the swamp, he never saw such a thing before or since.
Is there a natural explanation for the unnatural or supernatural in the Hockomock Swamp?
Chris Pittman, a student of the paranormal who has focused on the Hockomock for a decade, says the way the swamp evolved -- from glacial activity to the mounting of alluvium deposits to the death and decay of plants that created the swamp's thick peat bedding -- may have resulted in a gravitational anomaly that allows for the weird and unexplained.
''Throughout the world, there are areas that have vortexes, or windows, in which the laws of gravity seem not to operate in the way as understood in the natural world," says Pittman, who lives in Franklin. ''And while not all these places are rife with the paranormal, I am fairly confident that almost any place you find the paranormal humming, there is also a vortex where gravity and energy aren't behaving normally.
Pittman says he hasn't experienced anything supernatural on his own trips into the swamp. But, he adds, he is a ''100 percent" convinced that others have.
Going back to the early 1900s, there have been several reported sightings of UFOs in the vicinity of the swamp. On Halloween night in 1908, two undertakers on their way from West Bridgewater to Bridgewater said they saw in the sky what looked like a giant lantern, and they watched it hover for nearly 40 minutes. Swirling lights have also been seen above the swamp near the Raynham-Taunton Greyhound Park.
Area resident Courtney Cullen says she saw what she believes was a UFO in the summer of 1999 while at a cookout in Bridgewater near Lake Nippenicket, a good portion of which is in the Hockomock Swamp.
''Suddenly there was noise, wicked loud," Cullen recalls. ''And next there were lights in the sky; no color but just bright lights. They were descending fast, like coming straight at the house behind where we were at the cookout. And just as it seemed that the lights were going to crash into the house, they darted sideways at this unbelievable speed and soon they just disappeared.
''But what I also remembered is that soon after we saw the lights, more than one helicopter appeared in the sky, in the area of where the lights were."
Christopher Balzano, who runs Massachusetts Paranormal Crossroads, an online archive and compendium of stories and research on the paranormal that he launched three years ago, says he thinks he might know what is going on in the Hockomock Swamp.
''So much of King Philip's War [1675-1676], a terrible and bloody conflict between English settlers and the natives of the region, took place near the swamp," says Balzano, 30, of Woburn. ''Both sides committed crimes against women and children, and the swamp saw some of the bloodiest massacres ever to happen in America. Even after the war, there was betrayal and killing. Might won -- the Wampanoag found their land taken away and most of their tribe was killed. Their traditional enemies had sided with the settlers and had gained power over them as well.
''Some say that the wounded and pained spirits of the Wampanoag are the reason for the paranormal in the swamp. That is part of the explanation, but I would go further. I think the vortex was in place in the swamp before the settlers, and before the Native Americans. That vortex contributed to the inhumanity of the war between the Wampanoag and the English, and it fosters pain and evil in that area to this day."
Easton resident Ross A. Muscato, coauthor of ''Street Soldier: My Life as an Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Boston Irish Mob," can be reached at rossmuscato@ hotmail.com.