August 09, 2017

Vikings in Boston? Norumbega Rises Again!


"I have to-day the honor of announcing to the discovery of Vinland, including the Landfall of Leif Erickson and the Site of his Houses. I have also to announce to you the discovery of the site of the Ancient City of Norumbega." (Eben Norton Horsford and Edward Henry Clement, The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, A Communication to the President and Council of the American Geographical Society their Special Session in Watertown, November 21, 1889)


"If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.” (Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz)

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If you've ever been to Kenmore Square in Boston you might have noticed a statue of famed Viking Leif Erikson in the middle of Commonwealth Avenue. I bet Leif wasn't as youthful and perky as this statue portrays him, but I'm willing to acknowledge artistic license. But more importantly: why is this statue here?
The author and Leif Erikson

Eben Norton Horsford helped put it there.

Near Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge stands a plaque that claims: "On this spot in the year 1000 Leif Erikson built his house in Vineland." What? Leif Erikson lived in Cambridge? That'sjust  not true. The plaque is also the work of Eben Norton Horsford.

Further down the Charles River, in Weston, stands an anomalous stone tower. A plaque at its base claims the tower marks the site of the ancient city of Norumbega, which was a Viking settlement. Eben Norton Horsford strikes again.

Eben Norton Horsford
Horsford was born in 1818 in upstate New York. He trained as a civil engineer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and had a successful career as an academic, eventually teaching at Harvard for 16 years. According to Wikipedia, he specialized in topics like "phosphates, condensed milk, fermentation, and emergency rations."

Horsford is most famous for his reformulation of baking powder. He replaced the traditional cream of tartar with calcium biphosphate, which made it more reliable and effective. With this new formula he founded the Rumford Chemical Works and became a very wealthy man. You can still buy Rumford Baking Powder even oday.

Horsford made his money in the physical sciences, but his real passion was not baking powder or fermentation. It was proving the Vikings visited America before Columbus did. Horsford was not alone in his passion. The theory that Norsemen had been the first Europeans in America had initially been popularized by a Danish scholar named Carl Christian Rafn in 1837, and it found a lot of support in late 19th century America. At that time many Catholics from Southern Europe were immigrating into the United States, and the more established Anglo-Saxon Protestants (like Horsford) didn't like it. They also didn't like the fact that Christopher Columbus was a Catholic from Southern Europe. It just felt unseemly somehow!

A youthful and fresh-faced Leif Erikson

We now know that Norse explorers did reach the America's first, thanks to the discovery in the 1960s of a Viking settlement in L'Anse au Meadows, Newfoundland. Archeologists say the settlement was established around 1,000 AD and probably supported a maximum of 130 people. They did not stay long or make a lasting impact. So no, Columbus was not the first European to reach North America, but he was the first to make any real impact.

Horsford had no archaeological training, but he did have a lot of money to promote his theory that Vikings had not only come to North America, but they had come to Massachusetts. Conveniently, he found proof right in his own backyard.
The amateur archeologist claimed to have unearthed that proof — rocks that he said were the foundation stones of Erikson’s house — around the corner from his Cambridge home along the banks of the Charles River. “Horsford basically walked from his house, went to the riverbank, found rocks, and said, ‘Aha! This is a house,’ ” says William R. Short, an author and independent scholar specializing in Viking-age topics. “But they don’t look like the foundation stones of typical Viking-age houses. They look like the rocks of Cambridge.” ("Uncovering New England's Viking Connections," The Boston Globe, November 23, 2013.)
Horsford theorized, in his 1890 book The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, that the Norsemen had come to the Charles River basin in search of oak burrs (those large lumps that grow on the side of oak trees) which they used to make drinking cups and other items. They were so valuable that the Norse created a vast series of dams and canals across Massachusetts to transport them to the ocean:
At first the maser wood (oak burrs) would be gathered near the settlement, as we have seen; but the supply would soon be exhausted. The choppers must go farther. There were no horses, no roads. The obvious method of transportation was by water, - at first from the immediate wooded shores of the Charles, then from the shores of its tributaries, and the along artificial canals, conducting to these tributaries and the river. (The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, 1890, p. 29)
Horsford claimed to have found Viking-built canals in Newton, Weston, Cambridge, Woburn, Dedham, Brighton, and many other towns in Massachusetts. Skeptics argued that these canals and other stone structures had obviously been built by English colonial settlers, but Horsford said they had simply repaired pre-existing Viking canals. Again, he had no evidence to support his theory.

Oak burr!

How many Norsemen would it take to build all this? Horsford estimated about 10,000 of them lived in Massachusetts.


As I wrote two weeks ago, the name Norumbega probably comes from a mistranslation of the Italian phrase "non oro bega," meaning "no gold to quarrel about." Italian cartographers had put it on maps of New England to indicate there was no gold here. Horsford claimed the word Norumbega was an Algonquin interpretation of the word Norvege, meaning "Norway," and was the name of the Viking settlement. Needless to say, the local Indians have no memory or records of Vikings settling the Charles River.

Even during his lifetime Horsford's theories faced opposition from historians. For example, the Massachusetts Historcial Society opposed the effort to erect the statue of Leif Erikson, and one National Geographic Society publication even stated the following:

"The most incautious linguistic inferences, and the most uncritical, cartographical perversions, are presented in Eben Norton Horsford's 'Discovery of America by Northmen." (quoted in Horsford's The Problem of the Northmen,1889)

"Cartographical perversions" is a pretty strong condemnation. After his death Horsford's works fell into relative obscurity. I'm sure the changing demographics of Massachusetts's population probably had a role to play, as the state became increasingly Catholic. The particular anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiments that helped fuel his efforts died out.

 

Horsford's thriving Viking city may have been a delusion, but the monuments he erected remain to remind us of the mythical Norumbega and the real-life dreamers and eccentrics who make our region's history so rich. Even though Leif Erikson never sailed up the Charles River New England is still a strange and wonderful place.

August 02, 2017

Dublin Lake: Horrifying Monsters That Induce Madness

This week I was going to write another post about Norumbega, the Atlantis of Maine, but I'm putting that topic on hold for now. Something more interesting has come up: lake monsters so terrifying they drive people insane. Who can resist a story like this?

The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript recently ran an article about monsters that supposedly lurk at the bottom of a lake in Dublin, New Hampshire:

At its surface, Dublin Lake may be a family-friendly body of water – offering the region a place to fish, swim, and recreate – but dive deeper and you might not like what you find.

Legend has it that a yet-to-be-classified form of sea monster dwells in caverns at the deepest point of the lake, which is 100-feet according to New Hampshire Fish and Game.

While those who have allegedly seen the monster have been driven mad, that doesn’t stop some lake-goers from hoping they find Dublin’s underwater cryptid. ("The Search for the Dublin Lake Monster," The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, July 26, 2017)
Accounts of the Dublin Lake monster date back to the 1980s. According to one story, the monster was first encountered when a scuba diver became separated from his group and did not return to the surface. Several days later a group of teenagers encountered him in the woods, naked and raving about hideous creatures he had encountered in a cavern at the bottom of the lake. He was unable to describe them because their terrifying appearance had driven him completely insane.

It does look like monsters could be in here... (photo from Wikipedia)

I love it! That's a really fantastic legend and there is another version as well. In the alternate version, a group of scuba divers were using a diving bell to try to reach the lake's bottom. The tether was not long enough, so one of the divers swam down to the murky bottom. He did not return and his companions assumed he was dead. Several days later, hikers encountered a naked madman in the woods near Lake Dublin. It was of course the missing diver, who had been driven totally insane by the hideous creatures he saw. Due to his fragile mental state he was unable to tell anyone what the creatures looked like.

Most lake monsters are describable, and usually look like giant snakes or extinct plesiousaurs. They may be strange or unusual, but aren't ugly to a madness-inducing degree. That really makes the Dublin Lake monsters stand out. Some sources say the diver referred to something vaguely eel-like, but others are totally silent on what the creatures look like. Isn't it better to let the imagination run wild?

Another distinctive feature of this legend is that some accounts claim air-filled caverns exist at the bottom of the lake. This is where the creatures live, which seems to imply they aren't your average giant eel or aquatic dinosaur. Who knows what they are?

Some of you may have a prurient curiosity about why the diver is found naked. What happened to his diving gear and scuba suit? Well, your curiosity will not be satisfied. No one knows, which makes this whole thing even creepier.

To sum up: the Dublin Lake monsters are so hideous they drive grown men insane, they might dwell in air-filled caverns, and for some reason they want to take your clothes off. All of this combines to make a really great legend.

Although a lot of local residents weren't familiar with the story they became enthusiastic when they learned about it:

“I haven’t heard of the legend but I love it and hope it’s true,” said Augusta Petrone, of Dublin, who said that as a child, she heard a rumor that the lake didn’t have a bottom. “I’m 80 years old and I used to not believe a lot of things. I’m hoping they find Atlantis..."

I think that's a great attitude to have about your local monster. Scuba diver Maurica Smith was also excited about the legend:

“I would definitely love to go out to Dublin Lake again, to explore a little deeper,” said Smith. “I’ve also heard that there is a space ship down there, which would be cool.”

It sounds like there are several legends circulating about the lake, perhaps inspired by its great depth. If anyone knows anything else about Dublin Lake please leave a message in the comments.

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You can read more about the Dublin Lake monsters at Cryptopia. Hopefully it won't drive you insane!