Mae Clair’s Cabinet of Curiosities: Phantom Settlements

Stack of books with round eyeglasses on top, brass vintage candle, and carnivale mask in background

Recently, while reading a novel, I happened upon a curiosity I was unfamiliar with—phantom settlements. No, these aren’t communities where ghosts hang out, or locations that disappear (though the latter might be closer to the truth). Also known as paper towns, these are spots that don’t actually exist, but appear on maps. Cartographers included them as copyright traps in order to point to plagiarism if their work was stolen.

One of the most famous phantom settlements is Agloe, New York.

The tale starts in the 1930s when Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers of the General Drafting Company—a small mapmaking firm—came up with the idea of creating foldable maps for motorists. These were sold at gas stations, and could be conveniently stored in the glovebox. Prior to that, most maps were bound in large heavy books, and weren’t easily transportable. Rand McNally was the industry giant; Lindberg and Alpers, small fish.

But these guys had vision! With more people taking to the roadways, and recreational driving becoming popular, they saw a bright future in foldable maps. They’d also invested a lot of research and time into creating their map of New York State. The last thing they wanted was for a competitor to come along and copy their work, but what to do?

The two men put their heads together and hit upon the idea of creating a fictitious town using letters from their names and scrambling them. They dropped “Agloe” onto a dirt road intersection in the Catskill Mountains—trap set. Years later, Rand McNally produced a map that included Agloe—bait taken. Or so, Lindeberg thought.

He cried foul, citing the phantom settlement, but Rand McNally protested it had gotten the coordinates for Agloe from county records. Those records indicated the Agloe General Store occupied the spot on the map.

How is such a thing possible? Turns out someone had spied the name Agloe on a GDC map, decided to build a store there, and named it after the “town.” The store eventually went out of business in 2008, but if you Google Agloe General Store, you’ll find a Facebook page devoted to it, along with numerous references.

In the case of Agloe, Lindberg and Alpers created a phantom settlement that became an actual place, then later vanished once again. While you can’t step foot in the General Store anymore, you can still visit the area where it stood.

Should you decide to take a drive, you can always use your GPS, but you may want to get there the old-fashioned way and use a paper map. After all—that’s how Agloe was born. 🙂

Mae Clair’s Cabinet of Curiosities: Corpse Roads

Stack of books with round eyeglasses on top, brass vintage candle, and carnivale mask in background

Imagine a craggy footpath etched into a rugged landscape which ultimately ends at a lonely cemetery or church with ancient burial grounds. In medieval times such “corpse roads” were commonplace—established routes used to transport the dead to their final resting place. Because bodies could only be buried at designated mother churches or minsters, mourners were often forced to transport their loved ones across long distances, usually by foot.

These paths, rugged and uninhabited, became known as corpse roads, church-ways, burial roads, and bier roads. Their topography was frequently dotted with crosses and coffin stones—large, flat stones where a procession set a casket when pausing to rest—and usually crossed a bridge or marsh. Most of our ancestors believed the spirits of the departed could not cross water, hence corpse roads incorporated a path that spanned a ford or lake, preventing the deceased from returning to haunt the living. Bodies were carried with their feet facing away from home, another superstition to keep restless ghosts from returning.

Stream crossing a Corpse Road. This is the old drovers track between Eskdale & Wasdale. It is also the old corpse road from Wasdale to the church at Boot in Eskdale. Photo courtey Nigel Chadwick [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Spirits, wraiths, and even nature beings such as faeries, were believed to move along special routes like burial roads, flying close to the ground on a straight line. For this reason, any direct path connecting two places was kept clear of obstructing fences, walls, and buildings, so as not to impede the flight of the phantoms. As a result, locals knew to avoid such byways after dark. Labyrinths and mazes had the opposite effect, hindering the movement of spirits.

Flickers of flame called “corpse candles” were often seen traveling just above the ground on the path between a dying person’s house, the cemetery and back again. A phenomenon reported mostly in Wales, it’s also believed corpse candles materialized in churchyards preceding someone’s death.

In some parts of the UK and Europe those endowed with supernatural abilities would watch coffin paths on auspicious dates. These “lych watches” were conducted to receive premonitions of who might perish in the coming year.

There are numerous beliefs and legends tied to corpse roads. Some country folk believe that if a body is carried across a field the ground will thereafter fail to produce a good harvest. Others, that coffin stones were sanctified and placed on church-ways to allow the body a place to rest on its journey without defiling the ground beneath it.

Coffin Stone at Town End. This stone is beside a ‘corpse road’ along which coffins had to be carried from Ambleside for burial at St Oswald’s Church, Grasmere. This stone, along with others along the way, was used to support the coffin while the bearers rested. Photo courtesy of Gordon Brown [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

One particular legend involves a funeral procession that bore the body of a man who had done great evil in his life. When the procession paused to rest, they set the casket on a coffin stone for a brief time. Almost at once, the casket was struck by lightning, shattering it to bits, reducing its contents to ash, and splitting the stone in two. The procession determined God did not want such a vile soul buried in the cemetery and took actions to prevent the mans interment.

Like so many of our forgotten customs and folklore, corpse roads harken to a time when superstition ruled both day and night and simple folk placed their faith in good over evil. The echo of those beliefs and quiet voices still linger today, buried in the dusty remnants of legend. As long as we keep memory alive, old traditions will always find a place at the campfire. Do you find these old stories as interesting as I do?

Mae Clair’s Cabinet of Curiosities: The Banshee

stack of book with round wire-frame eyeglasses on top, beside lighted vintage brass candle, carnivale mask in background

Weeds and thistles are woven into portents,
a funeral of the fallen is a soul to collect,
bound to the river by a fragile, pale vision,
are the shards of a life fate failed to protect.
*

The keening wail of a banshee is said to herald death. The name comes from the Irish “bean sidhe” (or Scottish Gaelic “bean sith”) which relates to a woman of faerie blood. She is “the woman of the fairy mound.”

Blessed with foresight, the banshee knows of a loved one’s demise prior to their passage, and loudly lamented their departure with sorrowful weeping and moaning.

She often appears in the guise of an old crone on the side of a stream or river, washing the blood-drenched clothing of the one doomed to die. Other times, she may be young and beautiful, or appear in the form of a hooded crow, hare or weasel. Sometimes she is not seen, only heard, her eerie wailing enough to make those who catch it on the night air, cower in terror. 

Traditional folklore paints the banshee as an ancestral spirit attached to the five great families of Irish heritage—the Kavanghs, O’Briens, O’Gradys, O’Connors, and the O’Neills. She would only wail for members of these families, with some believing each had its own banshee. Likely more curse than blessing.

woman dressed in black wailing on bank of stream, among tangled trees and briars

As with most legends, myth is contorted and changed over time as it passes from generation to generation.  I don’t recall my first exposure to the banshee myth but whenever I hear the name, I picture a woman with unkempt red hair, keening as she washes bloody clothes on the bank of a rock-strewn stream or river.

Why red hair? I’m not sure. Maybe it meshes with the idea of blood-soaked garments. Maybe I associate her with battle, as attributed in some ancient myths. There are other folktales that depict the banshee as a young woman who uses a silver comb to attend to her flowing white hair as she weeps. Certainly, the more poetic of the two versions. Somewhere among my many years of reading fantasy and myth, the weeping washer-woman must have ingrained her image into my subconscious.

I’m a visual person whether I’m reading, writing or having a discussion. What about you? What do you see when you hear the word banshee?


*Verse taken from the poem, Funeral for the Fallen
Copyright Mae Clair


Mae Clair’s Cabinet of Curiosities: From Wonder Room to Cabinets

Stack of books with round eyeglasses on top, brass vintage candle, and carnivale mask in background

Today’s Cabinet of Curiosities is a look at… well, cabinet of curiosities! 

I have a curio cabinet in my home that’s filled with all manner of odd collectibles—an antique teacup, a crystal lion, a hand-painted wine glass, a beautiful carousel horse, a kachina doll I picked up in Arizona, an antique stein and shaving cup that belonged to my grandfather—you get the idea. It’s an assortment of items that mean something to me, many of them gifted or dating back generations in my family. 

The modern curio cabinet has a history that begins in the sixteenth century, a time when a “cabinet of curiosities” was the be-all/end-all of after dinner entertainment. With little to do for amusement, aristocrats began collecting oddities which they displayed in a “wonder room.” This became a place of diversion, alleviating boredom, while astounding guests.

The German name for these rooms was wunderkammers. Collectible objects were tucked wherever they might fit and be displayed—walls, floor, even ceilings. Imagine walking through a room where most every surface is covered with peculiar and eclectic oddities. Can you hear the oohs and aahs from awestruck visitors?

A forerunner to museums, wonder rooms usually focused on science and/or history, often including a slant toward the bizarre. This was especially true as centuries progressed. You might find the skeletal remains of a mythical creature, or perhaps a unicorn horn, side by side with experimental medical instruments, dried insects, fossils, and shells. Eventually, rooms became smaller cabinets ideal for displaying curiosities. Taxidermy animals, feathers, and “monsters” including animals with multiple heads were a particular favorite. The same with quirky science devices. 

Vintage photo of young Myrtle Corbin, known as the four legged girl, seated in a chair
Myrtle Corbin. Image in public domain, courtesy Wikimedia commons*
Vintage photo of Issac W. Sprague, the human skeleton taken in 1867
Isaac W. Sprague. Image in Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons**

P.T. Barnum took that interest in the bizarre and unusual and expanded it with sideshow attractions like Myrtle Corbin, the Four-Legged GirlJosephine Clofullia, the Bearded Lady, and Isaac W. Sprague, the Human Skeleton, to name a few. 

Robert Ripley followed with his “Believe it or Not” museums which showcased the weird and wonderful. Who hasn’t been in a Ripley’s museum? Still popular today, they’re a staple at many beach towns in the U.S., with twenty-nine locations (including Ripley aquariums) around the world. 

Our passion for the strange and the unusual has carried from the sixteenth century to modern day and shows no sign of abating. Maybe we don’t gather in “wonder rooms,” strolling among exotic plants, dried fish heads and dragon scales, but we easily reach for Google, books, or TV, to feed our interest in the peculiar.

To me, it says we’ve never lost our sense of wonder. Moving forward, I’ll be diving back into specific curiosities again, but I thought a tip of the hat to the cabinet of curiosities in general was due. We owe a lot to those bored aristocrats of the sixteenth century who had no idea how to pass the time after a dinner party. And to Mr. Barnum and Mr. Ripley.

What are your thoughts on curiosities?


*Photo of Myrtle Corbin: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Myrtle_Corbin_by_JR_Applegate_c1880.JPG

**Photo of Isaac W. Sprague:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Isaac_W_Sprague,_living_skeleton,_1867.jpg

Mae Clair’s Cabinet of Curiosities: Myths of the Ebb Tide

Art concept. Vintage still life with old book near lighting candle

Happy Tuesday! Today’s Cabinet of Curiosities post is short, but one that speaks to my heart for many years of acquaintance with the subject.

If you’re like most people, the thought of an ebb tide brings a feeling of tranquility. Who doesn’t love to walk along a barren stretch of beach with the glittering hem of the ocean gently receding from shore?

The eastern seaboard has been my second home through countless springs, summers, autumns and even winters. I know areas of it as intimately as my own backyard. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve walked on sunbaked beaches or sand cooled by twilight after the sun was swallowed by the vulture-beaked rim of the Atlantic.

Sunset over the ocean with waves rolling into shore

I’ve picked up shells, stones, and pieces of driftwood, scattered souvenirs left by the lap and kiss of the receding tide. Although I find those strolls on the beach rejuvenating, the myths of yesteryear would have me believe differently.

In days of yore, people thought an ebb tide capable of draining someone’s spirit. Anyone who dwelled by the sea knew the receding tide would steal the spirit from the body. New ventures were best embraced when the tide was high. By the same token should someone fall ill, their soul was likely to depart with the ebb tide. Plantings of any kind were done when the waters were high so that their essence was not whittled away and carried off by the vanishing waters.

Old wives’ tales aside, there is something magical about an ebb tide. To this day, it’s one of the visual images I embrace during nightly meditation. Superstitions about the give and take of the ocean may have changed over time, but the music is much the same.

Are you a fan of seaside strolls and ocean folklore?

Mae Clair’s Cabinet of Curiosities: The Green Man, Charlie No-Face

Art concept. Vintage still life with old books stacked ear near lighted brass candle, carnivale mask in background, eyeglasses on top of books

Hello, friends! Sorry I disappeared last week. I had a birthday celebration that lasted for several days (yes, it was a milestone), then upon returning to work, found myself hammered with a backlog. I just didn’t have the energy to log onto the computer outside of work hours, but I am now getting back to my regular routine.

Today, I’m sharing an old Mythical Monday post from the days when I didn’t have many blog followers. Now, that I’ve connected with so many great friends in the blogosphere, I thought I’d trot my earlier posts out again as part of my Cabinet of Curiosities.

The tale of Charlie No-Face (also known as the Green Man) comes from Western Pennsylvania. As is often the case with urban legends, portions of the story have a basis in fact. Sad and tragic, but true nonetheless.

According to legend, the Green Man was an electrician who almost met his end when was he was electrocuted on the job. Another version claims he was struck by lightning. In both cases, his face was horribly disfigured and his skin was imbued with an eerie greenish cast. Shunned by those around him, he retreated to an abandoned railway tunnel which became his home. By night, he roamed the roadways and countryside, often creeping upon unsuspecting teens who favored secluded areas. Over the years as the legend grew, the Green Man—or Charlie No-Face—became a tale to frighten children and share by campfires on dark summer nights.

But the reality is much different, the story of a compassionate man who suffered a horrific accident as a child. Ray Robinson was only eight years old when he and some friends were walking past the Morado Railway Bridge in 1919. Egged on by his buddies, Ray climbed the bridge (which held the power lines for a trolley) hoping for a better glimpse of a bird’s nest they’d spied from the ground. At some point he came in contact with a high voltage wire and was severely electrocuted.

He suffered burns from the waist up, and for a time it was not certain if he would live or die. His face was mutilated—both eyes burned away, his nose reduced to a hole, one ear mangled as well as his mouth. Yet despite his appalling injuries, this young boy found the will to survive. After numerous surgeries he remained in good humor, adapting to a life that included Braille and small pleasures like listening to the radio.

Photography of Raymond Robinson, also known as Charlie No-Face or the Green Man
Raymond Robinson also known as the Green Man, (Fair use)*

Horribly scarred and blind, he would become a recluse over time, rarely venturing out at day because of his appearance. He never had more than a first grade education but kept busy at home learning puzzles and dabbling in small crafts. Those who knew him claimed he was one of the nicest souls they’d ever met.

Sometime in the 1940s when he was an adult, Ray began taking nightly walks using a walking stick to guide him, following a course along a section of road known as Route 351. He enjoyed the routine which gave him the freedom to venture outside under the cover of darkness away from prying eyes. But word eventually leaked about “the green man” who roamed the road at night. The green man nickname probably came from the green sweater he often wore for his excursions. Soon curiosity-seekers began looking for him. Most were friendly, some even sharing beer and cigarettes with him, but a few were demeaning and cruel.

Ray remained undaunted and continued his nightly walks, gaining popularity in the 1950s and 60s when many people sought him out to chat. By the 1980s he’d finally reached an age where he couldn’t continue the habit any longer, taking up residence in a nursing home. Ray passed away at age seventy-four on June 11, 1985, leaving two legends behind: that of a supernatural bogey-main who prowled the night-blacked roads in search of unsuspecting teens, and the reality of a kind-hearted man who lived an amazing life.

Although the urban legend of the Green Man is perhaps the more widely-circulated, thankfully, it’s rarely mentioned without tribute to the courageous man who inspired it. Rest in peace, Ray.


*Photo of Raymond Robinson (fair use) Copied from http://www.ncnewsmedia.com/archive/tim_galleries/SPECIAL_PROJECTS_07/
OCTOBER/Green_Man/image1.htm

Mae Clair’s Cabinet of Curiosities: The Nine Lives of Cats #felinefolkore #catlegends

Art concept. Vintage still life with old books stacked near lighted old-fashioned candle, carnivale mask in background

Hello and Happy Tuesday! Today I’m discussing one of my favorite subjects—cats!

I love all animals, but cats are my favorite. As a kid I grew up with cats, dogs, goldfish, hamsters, gerbils, a parakeet, tropical fish, even a chinchilla. As an adult, I bonded with cats and never looked back. These animals have alternately been revered and feared throughout time. From the ancient Egyptians who worshiped them as demi-gods, to the people of Medieval England who believed they were the accomplices of witches, felines have known extreme highs and lows. Maybe the reason they’re said to have nine lives.

Arafel, my first cat came from a litter of farm kittens. I always told her she looked like a little woodland creature from myth.

Hmm.

McDoogal was a rescue who entered our lives a year after Arafel. If his name sounds familiar, you may be thinking of my novella, In Search of McDoogal. I always joke with my husband that McDoogal worshiped me because he was so attached.

More likely, the cat’s agility and its uncanny self-righting mechanism, allowing it to survive falls from great heights, is where the myth originated. Felines are extremely graceful, swift, and able to squeeze into small spaces—traits that add to its undeniable mystique.

Of all domesticated animals, the cat is the least tame. Like its wild kin, it is most active during early morning hours and at night, the best times for hunting prey. The nocturnal aspect of the cat and its ability to see in the dark also support the nine lives belief. Blessed with enhanced senses and fluid agility, this clever and crafty animal could easily live nine lifetimes.

When superstition was rampant, many believed a witch could take the form of her cat familiar nine times, thus giving the cat nine lives.  Another tale involves a cat entering a home where nine hungry children resided. Nine fish had been set out for the children to eat, but the cat devoured them all. The poor children died of starvation while the cat met an untimely end from gluttony. When the feline arrived in Heaven, God was so angered by its selfishness he made it fall to the earth for nine days. The nine lives of the children reside in the cat’s belly, which is why it must die nine times before finally being able to rest.

Sometimes those nine lives came in handy. Seafarers knew cats were able to predict storms, which is why they considered a cat onboard ship good luck. It wasn’t simply a matter of running roughshod over vermin.

Onyx, my last lovely boy. Everyone said he was so handsome with his silky black coat he could have been a show cat.

That was something Noah knew about. When the ark set sail, there were no cats onboard. Rats and mice multiplied and soon overran the boat.

 In desperation, Noah asked the lion for help. The great beast sneezed and two cats were born, the only animal not originally created by God.

Raven, my current lovely girl. I fell in love with black felines after owning Onyx, and even wrote a novella called Food for Poe that addresses the issues they sometimes have getting adopted. As the “child of my later years” she is spoiled beyond belief!

Whatever you believe, there’s no denying these frisky and entertaining animals have found a place in our hearts, whether for a single lifetime or nine. Disney gave us The Three Lives of Thomasina while Stephen King terrified us with Pet Sematary.

I prefer my cats cuddly and affectionate over Mr. King’s variety which is why I’m dedicating this post to the lovely felines who graced my life with companionship–Arafel, McDoogal, Onyx, and Raven. I wish the first three would have been able to hang around for eight more lifetimes!

To close, I leave you with my favorite cat quote. Nothing against dogs, (I love them too), but I think this quote speaks volumes about the mind of a cat:

A dog looks at you and says, “You take care of me. You must be a god.” 
A cat looks at you and says, “You give me food and shelter. I must be a god.”

Mae Clair’s Cabinet of Curiosities: Robert Johnson and the Crossroads

Vintage still life with old books stacked near brass candle, with carnival mask hanging on wall, blurred in background.

Hello, and welcome to my first Cabinet of Curiosities post. Legends and folklore have held a fascination for me since I was a child. As an adult, I’ve been privileged to give presentations on the subject, and have woven bits of legend into most of my published novels and short stories.

Today, I’d like to step back into the dusty days of the Mississippi Delta when folklore and music intertwined in the life of legendary blues guitarist, Robert Johnson. When a hardscrabble existence and a hunger for fame, led a young man to bargain his soul for the trappings of success.

According to legend, Robert Johnson was already a moderately successful blues guitarist when he walked down to the crossroads on a moonless night. At the stroke of midnight he recited an incantation to summon the devil (or Legba, depending on the version of the tale). In exchange for his soul, the devil tuned Johnson’s guitar.  From then on Johnson played with amazing skill no other musician could match. When Son House, a friend and mentor to Johnson, was overheard saying “He sold his soul to play like that,” it only served to stoke the fire of superstition.

vintage acoustic blues guitar with old battered suitcase, vintage tint on image

There was no question Johnson had peculiarities. He lived the life of a nomad, roaming from town to town peddling his music. He had an uncanny ability to pick up tunes at first hearing, and was once taught by a man rumored to have learned music in a church graveyard. He often turned his back to the crowd while playing, but could easily engage a group of listeners. Outgoing in public, he was reserved in private, well-mannered and soft spoken.

Having lost his sixteen-year-old bride and unborn child years before, he became a bit of a womanizer which may have led to his downfall. Legend has it Robert met his end when he drank from an open bottle of whiskey in a juke joint where he’d been playing. Some say a jealous husband poisoned the whiskey with strychnine, others that it was an ex-girlfriend. He suffered convulsions and died three days later. Still others whisper he was shot or stabbed. Whatever the cause, the man who sang “Hellhounds on My Trail” had nowhere left to flee.

Robert Johnson died at the age of twenty-seven on August 16, 1938 not far from a country crossroads in Greenwood, Mississippi.

Among his songs, six mention the devil or something supernatural. “Crossroad Blues” which has been recorded by a number of other musicians is also rumored to carry a curse. Several of those who have recorded, or played it frequently, experienced tragic circumstances–Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers Band, Lynryd Skynrd, Led Zepplin and Kurt Corbain. I think it speaks volumes that all of these musicians and many others, kept Johnson’s song alive long after his demise.

In 1980 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Perhaps most telling of all, on September 17, 1994, the U.S. Post Office issued a Robert Johnson 29-cent commemorative postage stamp.

For Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues, his legend along with all of its inherent mystery, lives on.