A look at the elements of high strangeness in the 1893 story of a strange, acrobatic ghost in Woodside, Queens.
This episode delves into the Snake Woods and Rattlesnake Spring, the now-vanished wilderness of the New York City neighborhood of Woodside, and looks at the odd parts of the news reports of a ghostly figure. Though it’s possible that the entity was just an unhomed person wandering the dangerous, snake-infested woods, there are enough unusual elements in the story to bear looking at from a perspective of high strangeness.
• Women in White
• Creepy reptiles
Episode Script for An Acrobatic Ghost in Woodside: Part 2
DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product.
- I left off last time talking about St. Sebastian’s Church, the catholic church in Woodside that was located nean of this weird ghost story.
- As a refresher, this was a story from July 1893, about an acrobatic ghost, or maybe an unhomed person, dressed in white and/or wearing a sheet. I’m really torn about whether I think this entity is a ghost or not, and I’m not totally convinced that it was, but I want to explore this topic some more and also go down a bit of a wormhole in terms of whether this ghost fits into the wild man archetype, etc.
- As a reminder, here’s the description of the ghost from The evening world (New York, N.Y.), July 28, 1893:
- “our ghost turns handsprings and cart-wheels, and it is very long and slender and white, and it makes no noise among the brittle sticks in the woods, except that it screeches with a blood-chilling unearthly, piercing yell that makes our knees shake and our hair to stand up”
- The article also talks about the ghost running around on all fours.
- Another reminder from last time is that there were some more recent ghost stories online about the same area where this ghost had been sighted back in the 19th century, and one of which was right near St. Sebastian’s Rectory. The recent sighting (when I say recent, I mean in the last decade or so), described seeing a girl in the empty field near the rectory: “She had a blank stare on her face; she was really pale with long black hair, and her dress looked like it was from the 1800s.” There was also someone online who encountered a UFO type sighting, also possibly in the same area, though it’s a little harder for me to pinpoint that location. St. Sebastian’s Church was founded the year after the ghost was sighted, in 1894, right around where the ghost was seen as well.
- I was reading about the history of St. Sebastian’s Church on their website, and it mentioned that in the early days of colonial Woodside, there was a location called “Rattlesnake Spring” near 58th Street in Woodside, which was located either in or near “Snake Woods”.
- Obviously I found that interesting, since the article about the Woodside ghost mentioned that “this old spring dates back beyond the recollection of the oldest inhabitants.”
- So I searched Rattlesnake Spring Woodside and it turns out the Wikipedia page for Woodside mentions this place, so I wanted to read a paragraph from wikipedia about the early years of Woodside:
- “”For two centuries following the arrival of settlers from England and the Netherlands, the area where the village of Woodside would be established was sparsely populated. The land was fertile, but also wet. Its Native American inhabitants called it a place of “bad waters” and it was known to early European settlers as a place of “marshes, muddy flats and bogs,” where “wooded swamps” and “flaggy pools” were fed by flowing springs.” Until drained in the nineteenth century, one of these wet woodlands was called Wolf Swamp after the predators that infested it. This swamp was not the only place where settlers might fear for the safety of their livestock, and even themselves. One of the oldest recorded locations in Woodside was called Rattlesnake Spring on the property of a Captain Bryan Newton. The vicinity came to be called Snake Woods and one source maintains that “during New York’s colonial period, the area was known as ‘suicide’s paradise,’ as it was largely snake-infested swamps and wolf-ridden woodlands.”””
- More info in another book: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Historical_Guide_to_the_City_of_New_York/v4cGmMe6_okC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Captain+Bryan+Newton+woodside&pg=PA292&printsec=frontcover
- So . . . Sounds like snake woods is not really somewhere you’d want to be hanging out, and it makes sense that the townspeople of Woodside only resorted to returning to the spring during a drought. Also, one thing worth mentioning: I’ve never seen a snake in NYC, but just the other day I was at Mt. Zion Cemetery in Maspeth, which is close to Woodside, and I encountered a family of lizards that lived in a grave and were slithering in and out. So the snakes may be gone, but there are still reptiles around there.
- Alright, so I’ve managed to say a lot of weird stuff about this possible haunting, and now I want to stretch your credulity a little further. So, first, I feel like it’s not too much of a stretch to say that this ghost, entity, or person in the woods fits into the wild man archetype.
- From wikipedia, here’s the definition of a wild man:
- “The wild man or wild man of the woods is a mythical figure that appears in the artwork and literature of medieval Europe, comparable to the satyr or faun type in classical mythology and to Silvanus, the Roman god of the woodlands.”
- There’s also a link between the wild man archetype and bigfoot. So, I’ve mentioned Timothy Renner’s work on this podcast before, but it’s been a while. He’s the host of the podcast Strange Familiars, which if you’re listening to this, you probably already listen to, and he’s also the author of a number of really great books, some of which are about bigfoot.
- I’m going to be honest, bigfoot and cryptids in general aren’t my favorite topic–I’m much more interested in ghosts, for example–but the way Timothy Renner talks about bigfoot is really fascinating. There’re several schools of thought when it comes to bigfoot, and the dominant one, for a long time, was the “flesh and blood” bigfoot hypothesis, basically the idea that there’s an animal living out in the woods, and that animal is what people are seeing during bigfoot encounters. However, there’s also a school of thought that ties bigfoot into high strangeness and that links it to all sorts of paranormal phenomena, including poltergeists, fairies, ghosts, magic, witches, women in white, etc. And Timothy Renner’s work is focused in that second school, and boy does he have some interesting stuff to say about all of that.
- He cowrote two books about this with Joshua Cutchin, called Where the Footprints End: High Strangeness and the Bigfoot Phenomenon, Volumes I and II, and if any of this sounds even remotely to you, you should buy them and read them, they’re great.
- But when I was thinking about this ghost story, something sort of rang a bell for me, and I thought it was making me think of some anecdotes from these books.
- First, there’s a term that Joshua Cutchin has coined called the wildnesgeist, or basically a wilderness poltergeist, so poltergeist activity out in the woods. In his chapter about the wildnesgeist in Volume I, he quotes a definition of poltergeist activity that paranormal investigator and author once wrote: “rock-and-dirt throwing, flying objects, loud noises, strange lights, and other apparitions, terrible smells, rapping, physical and sexual assaults, and shrieks.”
- I think it’s worth nothing that the Woodside entity shrieked (and his shrieks maybe had an affect on people’s ability to run away or run after him), and, interestingly, years later in the 2010s, we have that random account of the UFO type lights seen somewhere nearby, as well as some other haunting stories, one of which sounds poltergeist-y. I’m not really trying to make a solid connection between these things, they could just be coincidence and mean nothing. But they’re interesting b/c they fit into a possible pattern and make me wonder if there’s something odd over in that part of Woodside.
- The chapter also talks about how poltergeist “infestations typically begin and end abruptly, rarely exceeding a few months.”
- We don’t know for sure when the interactions with the entity ended, but they certainly started suddenly, and had only been going on for a few days at the time that they were reported.
- Also, I think most people know that poltergeists are often associated with adolescent girls, or kids going through puberty in general. To read from the wildnesgeist chapter: “Typical poltergeist agents” (people who poltergeists are attracted to) “are young and female, a data point resonant with bigfoot lore. Legends universally describe the creature’s keen interest in young women and children. . . . Poltergeists attach to female youths; youth and females attract bigfoot.”
- One thing worth noting is that our Woodside wild man attacked children and women, but ran from men. In particular, we know that two 14-year-old girls, Annie Robinson, the daughter of a grocer, and her friend Josie Canton, were chased by the ghost. It seemed like a lot of the kids who the entity scared were around that age or a little younger.
- Volume I has a whole chapter on women and white and white bigfoot sightings, so kinda an intersection between the woman and white and wild man archetypes. So I reread the chapter and wanted to share a few passages. This story about two brothers who’d experienced bigfoot sightings was first recounted on the podcast Sasquatch Chronicles , so to read from the book (258-259):
- “The brothers lived near each other, in a wooded section of Tennessee. . . . Mick and Matt believed the bigfoot inhabited a wooded ridge line behind their homes. . . .”
- One thing worth noting: a lot of bigfoot sightings happen in kinda small woods near where people live, so not necessarily in the deep darkness away from civilization. That made me think of Snake Woods in Woodside.
- To continue reading:
“‘the two brothers’. . . Had been seeing an old woman in the neighborhood who they thought to be homeless. The brothers described this woman as appearing to be in her 60s, very tall, about 6’5″, and dressed in ragged, dirty white clothes that appeared too small for her frame; and old white shoes that appeared much too big . . . On one particular evening the brothers could hear the bigfoot creatures screaming on the ridge and they saw the old woman crossing their property, heading in the direction of the screaming sasquatches. They assumed the woman was insane and would be killed or injured by the creatures. In the morning, however, they saw the old woman heading back from the ridge. One of the brothers approached her, curiously, and asked her to stop. He wanted to ask her some questions and see if she needed help. The woman ignored him, so he asked again, but she still did not respond. He repeated his request multiple times, raising his voice: ‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’ but the old woman walked on as if he was not there. Finally, the brother said ‘I command you to stop!” At this, the old woman stopped, turned to the brother, cracked a sinister, evil grin, and disappeared into thin air. Both brothers witnessed the old woman vanish. The brothers consulted a medium and asked about the old woman. The medium said that the woman was not human, but an entity that appears human. The medium said that the bigfoot creatures were coming out of the earth and that this entity, which appears as an old woman, has control over the bigfoot creatures.”
- So, I’m not saying that this man in white is exactly like the archetypal woman in white, or like the archetypal wild man.
- There are a lot of standard bigfoot things, like wood knocks, or wild man things, like someone being really hairy and dirty, that just don’t seem to appear in the two articles I was able to find about the topic. And at least for me, the acrobatics that this person did don’t seem to ring a bell for something bigfoot, wild man, or woman and white related to me–the acrobatics stuff seems weird and unlikely, but not definitively paranormal. But I wanted to go into all of this because for whatever reason, I couldn’t stop thinking of some of the stuff I’d read or heard about these other archetypes (even the idea of him being near a spring made me think of bigfoot sightings near running water, for example.)
- So maybe this entity was just an ordinary unhomed person, maybe a circus or vaudeville performer who knew acrobatics. Or maybe he was something more paranormal, and had some connection to all the stuff I’ve been talking about. Like most mysteries in both history and the paranormal, I don’t really have a satisfying answer for you.
- But I hope you enjoyed hearing about this weird ghost story as much as I enjoyed researching it. I’d thought that I’d end up talking about several different ghost stories in the area of western queens today, but I got so into this one that it became the whole episode.
Sources consulted RE: An Acrobatic Ghost in Woodside
Books consulted RE: An Acrobatic Ghost in Woodside
- Where the Footprints End: High Strangeness and the Bigfoot Phenomenon, Volumes I and II by Joshua Cutchin and Timothy Renner
- Historical Guide to the City of New York by City History Club of New York, Frank Bergen Kelly (1909)
Articles RE: An Acrobatic Ghost in Woodside
- Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, The Evening News (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania) · Fri, Jul 28, 1893 · Page 4
- Image 6 of The evening world (New York, N.Y.), July 28, 1893, (LAST EDITION)
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