GUEST WRITER | Planet Scumm Halloween Election Special! Of Terror!
October has two different spirits. One is the primeval, pagan spirit of Halloween. The other is the quintessentially American spirit of election season. Those who make a hobby or a living out of American political campaigning have a busy “Knocktober,” as the last voters are tracked down and harangued in advance of November general elections. At first blush, these two spirits would not appear to have any connection. Halloween–a ritualistic invocation of the supernatural–is an escape from everyday norms, while for many an impending election is an unpleasant reminder of them.
But in fact, the two share many similarities. Campaigns often rely on the the demonization of their opposition. . As Richard Nixon or Dick Tuck could tell you, election season has just as much mischief as a typical night of trick-or-treating. (What is political canvassing, if not trick-or-treating for votes?)
In New England, this conjunction between the political and supernatural realms was embodied by Robert Ellis Cahill, born November 25th, 1934. For many years, Cahill’s slim, home-published volumes were available at tourist traps and gift shops up and down the region’s coastline. New England’s Marvelous Monsters, New England’s Mad and Mysterious Men, New England’s Mountain Madness and others were written to be accessible to young adults (and priced similarly). My own dog-eared collection was assembled over many family vacations in my pre-teens.
However, Cahill wasn’t just an author. In the 1970s, he served as a State Representative in the Massachusetts legislature, and then for a term as Essex County Sheriff. Robert Cahill’s understanding of New England folklore was drawn from his knowledge of New England’s people, and their politics.
New England is the country’s most horror-rich region. Some of the country’s most important horror writers–Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, H.P. Lovecraft–were from the area. New England history itself is a horror story, with the Salem Witch Trials coming only seventy years after European Puritans settled the region. The scary and sinister has been reflected in the region’s art and culture ever since.
Salem itself, the Witch City, is where our story begins. Robert Ellis Cahill was elected to the State House of Representatives in 1970, from the 7th Essex District. This district was made up of all seven wards of Salem, as well as precincts 1, 2, and 5 of the town of Swampscott. In this era, the Massachusetts House of Representatives was comprised of 240 members, some sitting in multi-member districts. The 7th Essex district appears to have been one of these, as Cahill placed only second in the Democratic primary, but was able to proceed to the general election alongside the first-place finisher, Henry J. O’Donnell III. With both seats vacated that year (State Rep. Michael J. Harrington was elected to Congress in a 1969 special election to fill a vacancy, and the other State Representative, Sam Zoll, was elected Mayor of Salem in 1969), Cahill was able to ascend to the House. This initial Democratic primary was the only competitive race of Cahill’s legislative career.
(Occasionally, Cahill’s own numbers and dates don’t quite add up. In the first chapter of The Wayward Sheriffs of Witch County, his memoir of his time of Essex County Sheriff, he says that by the time he’s decided to run for sheriff in 1974, he has been a Representative for five years. However, a review of election results clearly indicates that he was first elected in 1970, not in 1968).
Prior to his election to the House, Cahill’s only political experience was a single term on the Salem City Council, serving from 1968 to 1969. Other career milestones include graduation from Boston University’s School of Public Communications (in 1957), work as a professional SCUBA diver from 1954 to 1961 and work as a PR specialist in Boston. He was also an Army Intelligence officer for two years, where he taught diving to Ethiopian commandos. This maritime background explains the nautical focus of several of his folklore books, such as Haunted Ships of the North Atlantic.
Cahill passed two uneventful terms as one of Salem’s State Representatives, mainly accumulating friends and contacts. In 1974 he was presented with an opportunity to advance to a higher office. Roger Wells, the Sheriff of Essex County for the past decade, chose not to run for another term. The Wells family had produced four Sheriffs, all Republicans, but Cahill theorized that Roger’s heart had never been in the family business. Wells had an uncle, Walter Brennan, a cowboy movie actor who came out every election to burnish his image as a frontier-style sheriff. When Uncle Walter died, Roger Wells decided to retire to New Hampshire. The most likely Republican candidate was special sheriff Charlie Reardon, but his candidacy was neutralized by Cahill by offering continued employment, and the waning Republican Party did not even field a candidate that year. Cahill chose to keep Reardon on to run one of the two jails, despite the dismay of the local Democratic patronage machine.
Across the aisle were five Democratic candidates. The introduction to Cahill’s memoir provides an outline of the race. The Democratic voting base was split between Lawrence in the northern part of the county and Lynn in the southern part, with Salem bordering Lynn (and having about a quarter as many voters). Cahill was opposed by deputy sheriff David Janes and corrections officer Robert McGhee, both of Lynn, retired FBI agent Harold Tobin of Salem, and former (appointed) sheriff William Casey of Lawrence.
The electorate was thus geographically split between four candidates from the southern population centers (including Cahill) and only one, Casey, from the northern. Cahill’s strategy was thus to go head-to-head against Casey, and win a portion of the northern voters to combine with his Salem base. He was supported in this by the employees of the Lawrence jail system, a valuable cadre of campaign volunteers.
This strategy and support appears to have worked very well, combined with an anemic campaign by the aging Casey. In raw vote terms, the results came out:
Cahill, the only candidate who had won an election and the only non-law enforcement candidate, won 27 out of the 34 municipalities in the district. He lost the Lynn area to Janes, a deputy, and the Lawrence area to former sheriff Casey. Many of the Cahill wins were blowouts, including his two-thirds share of the vote in Salem.￼
As the only non-correctional candidate, Cahill was the least informed about the operations of the Sheriff’s Office. The Office was responsible for the administration of the Salem Jail, the Lawrence Jail, the Newburyport Courthouse (all of which dated from the early 19th century), and other aspects of the local criminal justice system.Cahill’s main platform during the campaign was the modernization of these decrepit institutions. They lacked many key facilities (such as motor pools for prisoner transportation) and their infrastructure was decades out-of-date.
In The Wayward Sheriffs of Witch County, Cahill reminisces on his efforts to bring modern technology and provisions to the Salem jail and the entire Essex County corrections system. He details prisoner escapes minor and major (the jails mostly housed prisoners awaiting trial mid-level convicts); riots; funding battles; and standoffs with judges, the press, and labor unions. He attempted to create prisoner rehabilitation programs (including the formation of a farming unit to grow food), and expand into other law enforcement niches such as a shore patrol (successful) and a canine unit (less so). His political contacts came in handy as he waged a political battle to prove that facilities were so poor and outdated that upgrades were legally necessary. He welcomed corrective lawsuits by civil liberties organizations, and claimed that administration of the system turned him unwillingly from a conservative into a liberal. Massachusetts county government at that time was losing power to the centralizing influence of the state, so Cahill deftly played off these fears of usurpation to get the Essex county government to fund his necessary improvements. Ultimately, most county government would be abolished in Massachusetts in the 1990s. Cahill’s story of serving as sheriff of Essex County seems like a story he would tell over a beer: devoid of the righteous fires of reform conviction, but with an honest concern for the rascals he was responsible for. The corrections system in Essex County really was an anachronism, and though he never explicitly describes it as “cruel,” it was clearly inhumane for the incarcerated. His reform efforts likely improved conditions substantially for these wards of the state, and he relates their support of his reform efforts.
Cahill’s tenure as sheriff came to an end halfway through his term, and formed an appropriate segue into his next career, as an amateur folklorist. He was laid low by cardiac troubles in 1978, and decided to retire in his mid-40s. He would later attribute these troubles to the “Curse of Giles Corey,” perhaps his most substantive historical discovery. Giles Corey was an accused wizard who was executed by pressing during the Salem Witch Trials, and allegedly placed a curse upon the Sheriff as he died. Subsequently, many Sheriffs of Essex County were troubled by cardiac ailments, and died in office.
Cahill’s first book, New England’s Witches and Wizards (which discusses Corey and the curse) was published only five years after his retirement. His work would be published by two different small-press publishers, one of which he operated himself. Prior to his death in 2005, he would publish fourteen books in the New England Collectible Classics series from Chandler-Smith Publishing and over a dozen more (devoid of the New England’s title) from the Old Saltbox publishing house.
There are a few volumes that best embody the Halloween spirit. My own taste in scary stories runs more toward campfires and folklore than towards the Fortean Times, and so I have revisited New England’s Things That Go Bump in the Night, New England’s Visitors from Outer Space, and a couple of quick hits on books with “haunt” in the title.
Cahill’s stories are at their best when they are at their least earnest, and do not insist on the veracity of events that “can’t be explained” by science. Cahill’s best, in this regard, is his 16th book, New England’s Things That Go Bump in the Night, published in 1989. Things That Go Bump in the Night is a combination of researched folklore–tales of vampirism in colonial New England as well as first-generation urban legends, such as the Demon of Dover.
In this book, Cahill’s nautical side surfaces with tales of “Spooky Spirits of the Sea,” recounting eerie happenstance and bizarre coincidences in nautical history. Other chapters include “Haunted Islands of Boston Bay,” which includes the tale of vindictive soldiers walling up a despised officer (the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado), and a chapter on “Phantom Ships,” vessels that are are themselves ghosts. Some stories in the “Sea” chapter were related to Cahill personally by friends and acquaintances.
Next comes “Visiting Our Local Vampires,” which relates several tales of vampirism and the relating folklore. New England has several documented cases whereby a family that was suffering from tuberculosis (“consumption”) believed that it was being killed off by a deceased and malevolent family member. The cure in each case was to disinter the deceased, burn the heart, and consume the ashes. In most cases, the progress of the disease was not ended by this ritual.
Further chapters explore cryptids, both the native, independent variety and the franchised, brand-name entities. One of the latter is the famed Bigfoot/Sasquatch, more strongly identified with the Pacific Northwest than New England. Nevertheless, Cahill notes a number of Sasquatch sightings over the years, connecting them to Native American folklore. Unfortunately, he conflates the Sasquatch with the Yeti (a figure from Tibetan mythology) and the Wendigo (a figure from Algonquin mythology). The Sasquatch is actually non-mythological, though some identify it as having mythological precursors. Most of the sightings that Cahill relates come from remote regions of Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire.
Next comes the Dover Demon, or the “Delicate Demon of Dover,” as Cahill puts it This cryptid, somewhat well-known, is sourced to a sighting by a group of teenagers from spring of 1977. Writing in 1989, Cahill spoke to some of the teenagers, as well as to the credulous police chief of the town of Dover, Massachusetts. The Demon was a spindly, diminutive, humanoid creature with an enormous cranium, and was sighted (in two separate sightings) while the teens were driving in the woods. Beyond these sightings, the creature has not been glimpsed since. Literature on the subject shows how information passes through multiple generations of paranormal books; Cahill’s interview with the witnesses and the police chief are quoted by Joseph Citro in 2005’s Weird New England. Citro gives a brief coverage of possible explanations, taking Cahill’s interview commentary as evidence and referring to other “refuted” theories in a scholarly manner. However, 2010’s New England Grimpendium, by J. W. Ocker, adds the interesting detail that one of the witnesses had smoked marijuana prior to the sighting, and makes the trenchant observation that “it was hairless… the world really needs a photographic database of every furred mammal in a shaven state.” Despite this, the Demon has been embraced by the town’s boosters, and has become an unofficial local mascot.
Cahill brings an element of classism and municipal rivalry into the story of the “Boogeyman of Beggerly,” as he relates the animosity between the upscale Salem and the neighboring Beverly. The story in question is a fairly simple poltergeist tale taking place in the 1960s, and is noteworthy chiefly for being narrated by the son of the family that owned the haunted house.
New England’s Things That Go Bump in the Night concludes with a chapter on “Werewolves and Witches of Dogtown,” and is mainly the history of a geographic location. Dogtown is an abandoned settlement area now within the boundaries of modern-day Gloucester and Rockport. Ghost towns may be more commonly associated with the old west, but Massachusetts has its fair share, including those that were purposefully decommissioned to serve as protected reservoir land, such as in the Quabbin Reservoir or the Ware River Watershed. Dogtown, which depopulated in the first decades of the 19th century, was purportedly the haunt of several shape-shifting witches and other “unsavory characters” during its decline. e.
There are many other Cahill publications to choose from, but the one that I found most appropriate was New England’s Visitors from Outer Space. This book includes a recap of what is in fact one of the most important incidents in Ufology, the Hill Abduction. This was an incident in New Hampshire in 1961 where a married couple, Betty and Barney Hill, were allegedly abducted and experimented upon by aliens over the course of an evening. Cahill goes through a credible retelling of the incident, but wraps it in the tale of a visit he and some annoyed friends made to Betty Hill in the ‘80s, on an unsuccessful attempt to photograph some flying saucers. The Hill abduction is important to UFO believers, and has ascended to a high place in the canon. The other chapters of the book recount less foundational encounters, either historical examples or anecdotes from people Cahill has met. The latter small-fry stories can be frustrating to a reader who came to the book looking for something meatier, but they do lend the book an intimate and colloquial feel. The oldest of the historical anecdotes tracks back to the seventeenth century, covering sightings of strange flying vehicles and mysterious interlopers by the early colonists. Other sightings cover the Revolutionary and Victorian era, including some with mysterious-but-mundane artifacts recovered (but now lost). Overall, the book is useful as a brief review of incidents that could pass for UFO sightings.
Cahill had many good attributes as a writer, mainly his love of a good story and almost childlike enthusiasm for embarking on adventures. Some of his works occasionally cross the line into crankiness, such as time spent bitching at mainstream academic archaeologists in New England’s Ancient Mysteries, and some of his coverage of his time as Sheriff is made up of exactly the macho posturing that one would expect from a police officer in 1970s Massachusetts. However, I think that in both cases, these rough elements could have been much worse..
You don’t have to believe in the folklore that Robert Ellis Cahill and others wrote about. I don’t. However, successful suspension of disbelief can lead not only to a thrills-and-chills enjoyment, but to a greater appreciation for the landscape, history, and literature of New England. Many of the locations covered by Cahill can be the source of legend tripping, most often by local teens. However, his biography and works prove that spooky whimsy is available to all, regardless of age or of station in life. His combination of the political side of October with the Halloween side perfectly captures the spirit of the defining month of autumn, the most foreboding time of the year.