A Brief History Of Edward Gorey’s Creepy Cape Cod

by David Silon

Cape Cod has a history going back four hundred years, that is, if you’re not counting the unwritten history of the Native Americans. In this time, Cape Cod has accumulated more than its fair share of tales and folklore, stories of death and roaming spirits and strange beings lurking in the marshlands. This area was a perfect match for author and illustrator Edward Gorey, whose wickedly macabre sense of humor found a ready home in the local community of Yarmouth Port. It was here, on the Northern shore of the Cape, that Gorey lived the last years of his life.

Just like any other child growing up in Chicago in the 20s and 30s, Gorey was a fun-loving and sociable kid. He was also curious and well-read. While still a toddler, he taught himself to read, and by the age of five, he had read Dracula and Alice in Wonderland, which were to have a lasting influence on him. After studying for a semester at Chicago’s School of Art Institute, he relocated to New York, a move that launched his career as an internationally-acclaimed illustrator in the gothic/Victorian style. But it was in Massachusetts, and Cape Cod in particular, where Gorey had the greatest impact.

Beginning in 1980, he worked as the illustrator for the opening sequence of the TV show Mystery! at WGBH in Boston, a few miles north of the Cape and across Cape Cod Bay. He lived in Boston for a few years after his graduation from Harvard but in 1986, he decided to move to into the quietness, quaintness, and (shall we say) other-worldliness, of the Cape, where strange things have always seemed disproportionately common.

In 1881, this area, and indeed all of the New England states, experienced a phenomenon that produced a reddish, then yellowish, tint in the sky. With the fantastic colors came intensely hot and humid conditions. A similar occurrence had taken place 100 years before. By the time dusk set in, suddenly and without warning, the tint and humidity lifted and all was normal again. To this day, no one has been able to explain this phenomenon.

But more often than these strange occurrences of nature were the strange occurrences of illusions and mirages experienced in various locations on the Cape. Looking out on Cape Cod Bay, one can see shrubs elongated into trees, sand dunes suspended in midair, entire towns as well as ships and boats hanging upside down. Then, suddenly, these images vanish.

The marshlands have also had their share of strange occurrences. Duck hunters outside of Barnstable claim they saw human-like creatures roaming the area. To this day, no one knows if they were human survivors of long ago who adapted themselves to the marshlands, or simply nonhuman marsh-dwelling creatures. Some reports claim that people have disappeared while crossing the area. Scientifically speaking, this could be explained by the tide or an encounter with a sinkhole. Then again, maybe we should blame one of those mysterious creatures.

Taking into account the Cape’s long and dark history, occurrences of the paranormal are especially common. And this dark history knows no beginning. Even before the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower at the furthest tip of the Cape in 1620, European explorers, traders, and fishermen, often visited the area bringing with them not only opportunities in trade, but also diseases for which the native peoples had no immunity.

In the epidemic of 1617-19, an estimated 90% of the natives along the Massachusetts coast were wiped out. Some blame small pox, but a recent study concluded that it originated from a little known disease known as Leptospirosis, a condition that causes flu-like symptoms, nausea, and jaundice among other things, causing a slow and agonizing death.

When the Pilgrims arrived the following year, they were nice enough to bring more diseases to the area, including small pox, measles, and influenza, which killed off most (but by no means all) of the surviving natives. After the Pilgrims’ initial landing at Provincetown, a party of explorers led by Captain Myles Standish set out to survey the area, robbing the native Wampanoag graves all the while. Soon however, the Mayflower set sail again, this time arriving at what is now Plymouth, about midway between Boston and the Cape, where they began to build their settlement. During their first winter there, a slight majority succumbed from the ravages of scurvy as well as from the harsh elements.

Macabre happenings such as these have occurred on the Cape every now and then to the present day. If death didn’t visit the local residents by way of nature, then it would visit them by way of man. Beginning in 1895, Jane Toppan, a registered nurse, murdered 31 people throughout Massachusetts, including the entire Davis family in the town of Cataumet. This murder spree continued until her arrest in 1901. The courts found her not guilty by reason of insanity. She was confined to the Taunton Insane Asylum just a few miles outside of the Cape, dying in 1938 at the age of 84.

Today, locals and tourists still swear on seeing ghostly images of the murdered (and otherwise recently deceased) at some of the approximately 75 cemeteries that dot the Cape area. One of these graveyards was reserved for only those who died of smallpox. At the Sagamore cemetery, local residents have spotted an image of an 11-year-old girl hovering over her tombstone. According to one theory, the ghostly girl entered into an arranged marriage with a 20-year-old man sometime in the 1850s. Later, she killed him before committing suicide, and she and her husband have been haunting the cemetery ever since. At the same cemetery, one can find the tombstone of one Eliza Howe tipped over onto the stone of her husband, Captain William Burgess. William Burgess was a heavy cigar smoker, which might explain the lingering scent of cigar smoke that permeates the graves.

But the weirdness is not limited just to cemeteries. The Barnstable House, located in a town of the same name, is said to be the most haunted house on the Cape. It was built in 1716 by James Paine, whose young daughter drowned in an underground river that passed beneath the house. Many years later, another owner hanged himself from a tree on the premises. Yet another owner was rumored to have practiced black magic. Reportedly, all their spirits still roam the premises. Nowadays, tourists often refer to this place as the House of Eleven Ghosts.

Yarmouth Port, a town founded by English settlers in 1639 and Edward Gorey’s last place of residence, also boasts its own collection of haunted houses, among them, that of the Colonial House Inn. Soon after the construction of this building in the 18th century, it became the home of Captain Joseph Eldridge. It has remained in the Eldridge family for about a century or so. His picture still graces the bar area on the main level. Every now and again, employees at the Inn would notice the image of Captain Eldridge, roaming the hallways. Such paranormal activity has also been rumored to have taken place even in Gorey’s house. Built some 200 years ago, Gorey’s former home is now a haunted museum, though there have been no recorded sightings recently.

During Gorey’s residency at Yarmouth Port, he scribed creepy tales. In the course of his lifetime, he wrote more than 100 books, all of them short and hard to find today. However, some of his collections have been salvaged and collected in four volumes of works. The first volume entitled Amphigorey, contains the children’s storybook “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” (1963), in which each ghoulishly-illustrated child represents a letter of the alphabet and ends in their untimely deaths, all told in rhyme.

This same volume also contains such works as “The Fatal Lozenge,” “The Hapless Child,” and “The Wuggly Ump.” His last work, “The Headless Bust: A Melancholy Meditation on the False Millennium” (1999) was also written in rhyme and is now part of the collection entitled Amphigorey Again, which includes “The Deadly Blotter,” “The Haunted Tea-Cosy,” and “Neglected Murderesses.” “The Bust” describes the human condition, but leaves the reader somewhat bewildered. It is an appropriate last work to end a long career at the end of a long century at the end of a long millennium.

As the final act of someone with a weird sense of humor, Edward Gorey died in the first year of the new millennium on Tax Day.  Perhaps the eeriness of Cape Cod rubbed off on him after all.

Originally Published in 2010

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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