Shadows Over Waltham

I’ve always got my eyes open looking for interesting places to go urban exploring. I love abandoned, decaying places, as well as their history. So when I stumbled upon info about the Metropolitan State Hospital in Waltham, so close to where I live, I knew I had to go.

I took the journey with my usual spooky companions (my mother and my nana) and we headed to Waltham armed with comfy sneakers and cameras. As we drove past the gated entrance on Trapelo Rd. we realized we needed to find parking, and we happened to turn onto a road with several old buildings.

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“Is…this place abandoned too?” I raised an intrigued brow and looked to my mom, then hopped out of the car. We both walked around the building, casually trying doors and peering into windows. Then we saw the black SUV driving up…a State Police plate on the front.

We had only been exploring two minutes and already the cops had found us.

The officer stepped out, and we walked up, trying to seem nonchalant. “Oh hi! We were just driving by and saw this building…” My mother smiled sweetly. Luckily the officer seemed to be in a good mood.

“I don’t blame you.” He put his hands in his belt loops. “Do you know what this place is?”

“No.” We admitted. “Was it a school?”

“Sort of. It was called the Fernald School for the Feeble Minded. Lot of history here. You should look it up.” He shook his head gravely. “A disappearance of history…” He trailed off looking over at the brick building.

The name certainly sounded familiar. We nodded and replied “Thank you. We will”

“Alright, unfortunately this is state property and I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

We bashfully conceded and headed out, driving out of the lot as I furiously began to google.

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The Fernald School was built in 1888, and at its peak housed over 2000 young boys. Like most mental asylums of the early 20th century, it was overcrowded and underfunded, and reports of bad conditions and abuse of the children were frequent. Though the Fernald was supposed to be a care center, a large portion of its occupants were not disabled at all, but were instead orphans or the poor/homeless. The boys there had almost no rights, and were treated as “sub human” according to reports from former ‘patients’.

In the 20’s the school became best known for leading in Eugenics research and advocation. For those not in the know, eugenics is the attempt to genetically create more “perfect” people, and was a foundation of Adolph Hitler’s beliefs.

In the 40’s the school partnered with Harvard and MIT and was funded by none other than Quaker Oats to do more experiments on children, this time by feeding them doses of radiated cereal. The children who had parents got permission slips to join a “science club” and were bribed with trips and toys.

Despite all of the this, Fernald existed and continued to house patients all the way up until 2014, with most living there for their entire lives. According to most the conditions greatly improved after the 70’s. Part of the reason for this was because Judge Joseph Tauro heard reports of the conditions, and made an unannounced trip to the institution. He described the school as being the realization of ones “worst horrors”. He found a ‘hospital’ that reeked of urine and patients covered in bugbites.

After learning all of this we were rather amazed, and I’ll admit, REALLY wanted to go back and explore more. Unfortunately the grounds were heavily patrolled by police, and each subsequent time we passed the road we could see a patrol car stationed up the road, watching. Further exploration there was simply not possible. Instead we headed onward to Metropolitan state. We parked in an old ball field and walked to the gate, past several abandoned houses we assume were part of the staff housing of the facilities, and had been abandoned around the same time as the hospital.

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I was shocked to notice a familiar sight…the same small white figure I had seen painted on the Clinton Tunnel in Western Mass. The coincidence was eerie, but I had to assume now that it was some kind of tag, perhaps from a fellow lover of urban exploration but with a slightly more destructive tone. Nonetheless, something about the figure gave me a positive feeling, like it was some sort of guide.

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We weren’t sure where exactly the asylums buildings were located, or if any even still stood. As we walked up the cracked paved road we saw our little friends once again.

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Though tempted to veer down the path we wanted to check the paved road first, and it snaked up the hill and let off at several other dirt paths headed toward an old water tank.

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Though interesting, it wasn’t exactly what we were looking for. Our break came in the form of two dogs speeding past us after a rabbit, their owners coming up behind.

We made small talk, (easy to do as dog lovers) and then I probed. “Do you come here a lot?”

“Almost every day.”

“Do you know if any of the buildings are still here?”

The woman launched into explanation, a wealth of knowledge on the area and a goldmine for us. She told us that only one building still stood, and we would have to head down Metropolitan Parkway toward the Avalon condos. She also talked to us about the old incinerator, the secret tunnels, and more. I could tell immediately we would never find the mythical tunnels, but within reach was the cemetery. She told us it was down the path through the woods we had passed earlier.

We thanked her and said farewell to her dogs, then headed for the cemetery. It was down a steep hill in the woods, but the graves were in a small clearing surrounded by a stone wall.

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The graves were mostly stone blocks with numbers carved into them. The patients were from both Metropolitan and Fernald.

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According to our local guide, the cemetery had closer to 350 souls buried in it, and only a few with more dignified memorials.

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The graveyard was a humbling place, dotted with annual flowers that had been planted there in years past by loved ones of the deceased, or just those who pitied them.

On out way out we nearly stepped on one of the cemetery’s few living inhabitants; an extremely feisty snake who lunged at us.

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We headed back to our car and drove down the road to Metropolitan Parkway.  It wasn’t long before we found what we were looking for.

Metropolitan State Hospital was built around 1927, but the only building that we could still experience, the Administration Building, had it’s cornerstone laid in 1928. We were thrilled to see it, beautiful in its decay.

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Metropolitan State had once been a busy hospital for the mentally ill, housing thousands of patients. It was laid out like many asylums of the time using the Kirkbride  model, but it was comprised of many different buildings that gave it a colony effect.

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For some beautiful photos of the buildings pre-demolition click here

The conditions at the hospital slowly decreased as time progressed. In 1978, a patient named Anne Marie Davee went missing. Her disappearance wasn’t formally investigated until 19 negligence complaints against the hospital had been filed and two entire years had passed. It was then that they learned that another patient, Melvin Wilson, had murdered and dismembered Anne with a hatchet and buried her body on the grounds. He had kept some of her teeth as souvenirs.

The horrific crime was likely not the only dark event in Metropolitan’s past.

Other accusations included the attempt to ‘cure’ mentally ill children by adding chemicals to their milk, resulting in multiple deaths.

For 25 years Metropolitan State’s Admin building has stood, slowly crumbling. When I found it, boards firmly covered all the windows but one, where a hole had been dug out just big enough for a person to slip through. I strongly considered it, but my mother had some objections. As we drove away I felt both complete and yet hollow, not unlike the skeletal building I had left behind.

The Universe Next Door

When I woke up this morning, Gettysburg was in Virginia.

It sounds silly, of course, to people who have always known Gettysburg to be in Pennsylvania. But for me it was a shock to discover, like Ashton Kutcher stepping out of my closet to tell me I was on the longest running episode of Punk’d. Or maybe a better example, Morpheus giving me the red pill and pushing me down the rabbit hole. I was…am…confused…shaken to my core…and questioning everything I know to be true about my reality.

You see, I learned in High School (where I took multiple advanced US History courses) that the Battle of Gettysburg took place in Virginia. MAYBE it was West Virginia (I always confuse those two). But it sure as hell wasn’t in Pennsylvania. Throughout the years since then nothing has ever come to my attention to signify anything different, and I have watched plenty of shows about Gettysburg’s history (and its ghosts).

But as I sat with my family planning our next trip, I suggested Philly and my Nana suggested Gettysburg, adding “They’re both in Pennsylvania.”

I looked at her in confusion. “…Gettysburg is in Virginia.”

I had said it with such conviction that it gave her pause, and she questioned her own knowledge. We were all quiet and contemplative a moment, then we turned to google. Gettysburg, it turns out, is in Pennsylvania. At least, it is in this dimension.

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It seems to me like I have suffered from a very personal example of the “Mandela Effect”, a phenomenon coined several years back after a large number of people were shocked to discover that Nelson Mandela died in 2013, and not the 80’s or 90’s like they had apparently believed. Some even vividly remembered watching his televised funeral back in the day.

Personally I couldn’t remember him dying either time, so the effect went over my head…until another example went mainstream.

Starting in the 1960’s a series of children’s books about a family of bears learning lessons came onto the market, and made an impression that lasted long into my childhood and spawned several animated shows as well. While never a fan myself, everyone knew about “The Berenstein Bears”.

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The trouble was, that’s not what they are called. The eponymous family is called the BerenSTAIN’s. And supposedly they always have been.

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When the discussion first arose on Reddit, people lost their minds. Some Redditors literally clawed their way up into their attics in desperation to retrieve original copies of the books that would PROVE the spelling had been changed sometime between the late 90’s to early 2000’s, only to be horrified to discover that their entire lives were apparently a lie. When I first told my mom the “truth” about the bears, she looked like she had learned what they keep in the secret tunnels under the Vatican. Like most others, she refused to believe me at all until she had literally googled it herself. As far as I know, no one has ever uncovered an “original” copy of the books with the “correct” spelling, something that makes perfect sense to the Berenstain family, who wrote the books in question.

But why do so many people share the same false memory?

Some truly believe the name was changed in some sort of vast conspiracy to make the characters sound “less Jewish”. Others are content to believe most kids are just dumb and can’t read so good. I however, know for a fact that if there was a book about characters with the word “Stain” in their name, I would have found some way to turn it into a poop joke as a child.

An obvious explanation is a sort of “memory hysteria” in which word of mouth and assumptions cause the general population to believe in a falsehood that isn’t corrected in an obvious way until a long while later. People thought it was spelled that way and communicated it to others and then to others and so on like a massive game of telephone.

And the fact is, no one can prove that’s not what’s happening. You see, the only proof that it was ever spelled a different way lies in peoples memories, which have been proven time and again to be incredibly flawed and unsettlingly adept at completely fabricating “truths”.

But a more disturbing and interesting explanation ties the idea of the Mandela Effect to something that is being studied by some of the brightest minds on planet earth: Quantum Mechanics.

You see, there are real scientific geniuses out there right now who are studying, believe in, and are trying to prove the existence of other dimensions. And if they think it’s possible, why shouldn’t we?

The idea is called “Many World’s Theory” and it posits that there are an infinite number of parallel dimensions beside the one we reside in. In other words, for every different outcome to an event there is another dimension. So perhaps you reside currently in the dimension where you put on a blue shirt today, but there is another universe identical to this one in every way except that you chose to wear a red shirt instead. That example illustrates a small, nearly unnoticeable change. But what about events with higher stakes, ones with far more consequence?

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This is where the idea of Many Worlds intersects with another theory known as “Quantum Immortality“. Now I’m not a quantum physicist so theres plenty about all this I can’t explain, but the gist of it is this: If you die in one dimension, your consciousness will combine with an adjacent dimension. Basically, you won’t realize anything is different, but the dimension you just left will now be dealing with your death. The dimensions can have differences so minuscule you’d never notice, and because your life will be (nearly) exactly the same, you never will.

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But what if you DO notice?

Many Worlds and Quantum Immortality have been used to explain occurrences such as deja vu and the Mandela Effect. Perhaps instead of our memories being faulty, our worlds have actually changed subtly around us. Or…WE are the ones who changed. Because these theories would mean that in our current dimension, the Berenstain Bears have always been spelled as such. We just remember differently because we are remembering the dimension we used to reside in.

But how could such a vast number of people all have come from the same alternate universe into this one? The most obvious explanation would be a large scale disaster that killed most or all of the population of earth sometime in the late 90’s or early 2000’s. The residents of that dimension’s consciousness-es (or “Souls” if you prefer) would have then merged seamlessly with a parallel timeline where everything was exactly the same except the apocalypse did not happen…and one family of author’s names was spelled slightly different. 

It may seem fantastical or far fetched, but again I say, Quantum Mechanics is real and there are scientists working right now to prove that alternate dimensions are real, so it’s less crazy than it sounds.

So assuming all this is true, could there be a possible explanation to the Berenstain mystery? What catastrophic event could have happened that killed so many and fits the time frame?

On December 31st 1999, I was eight years old and at the annual New Years party at a family friends house. I was with my parents and my best friend (it was her family’s house) but even as an ignorant child, I was terrified. The rumor was, when the clock struck midnight, the world might end. The adults were laughing and drinking and pretending everything was fine, but the truth was, the world was caught in a sense of unease as the clock neared midnight and the new millennium approached.

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In retrospect it might seem silly, the fear that gripped the world. After all, what was the worst that could happen? Some ancient computers stop working because they aren’t programmed to handle the date? Well not exactly.

The fear was that some very important computers, namely the ones controlling the worlds nuclear weapons and those warning us of nuclear attacks, might fail and thus literally end the world. Politicians and scientist had been scrambling in panic trying to avert any chance of a crisis, but everyone held their breath the night that ball dropped.

But nothing happened. Or at least, nothing we remember. The next morning everyone had a good laugh at how foolish we had all been, to think that a simple change of a minute hand would be our great undoing. But I will never forget where I was when the year changed over. I was hiding under a blanket, trembling, praying that we wouldn’t die.

But what if we did?

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And what if I died again earlier today, and woke up in a dimension where my life was the exact same except here, Gettysburg was a town founded just a little further north? The strange thing is, on my way home from Boston, my mother and I were nearly in a car accident caused by a large chunk of ice falling off a truck in front of us on the highway and slamming into our windshield like a brick. Miraculously there wasn’t even a crack left behind. At least…not in this dimension.

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The Haunted Frequency

On February 25th 2016 I was awoken abruptly from my sleep at about 3am. I couldn’t identify at first what woke me, all I knew was that I had an overwhelmingly bad feeling. It didn’t take me long to realize that a thunderstorm was raging outside. It was quite loud, and the lightning lit up my entire room in a way I have never encountered before. Despite this, I felt very sure that it wasn’t the noise or light that had woken me. Instead I felt it was the sickening sense of dread that inexplicably hung over me. I have never been disturbed by thunderstorms before; on the contrary I have always found them exciting, sitting on my porch growing up and watching them roll in. But on this early morning something seemed very wrong. I got out of bed and stood in my room uncertainly, trying to decide what to do. Now on top of the unexplained fear other symptoms were emerging: nausea, heart palpitations. Soon the feeling of panic was smothering, and it seemed to be filling my room to the point that some part of my brain begged me to run away, to flee outside into the storm. Luckily I had an epiphany after remembering something I had recently learned, and I fought the urge. Then suddenly, the feeling was gone as abruptly as it had come. The storm quieted, the thunder became more distant. I slipped back into bed and fell asleep wondering what the hell had just happened to me.

The February 25th storm was pretty severe for the Boston area. It brought hurricane force winds recorded at up to 76mph, knocked power out for thousands, and downed many trees. But I think it also caused another phenomenon that few may be aware of.

Sound is measured in frequency of waves. This chart gives an idea of who can hear what.

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Humans have a mid range of audible hearing. But just because we can’t hear other frequencies doesn’t mean they aren’t there. And that means they can still effect us. Infrasound is a very low range of frequency, anything below 30 HZ. That means the waves are farther apart. Giant animals like elephants and blue whales use infrasound to communicate, possibly as more of a ‘feeling’ in their bodies than an actual sound. It’s hard of course for humans to try to imagine something they are literally incapable of experiencing. But some humans can experience infrasound in a different way.

Because of infrasound’s frequency it can effect our bodies. In the 1980s an engineer named Vic Tandy was working late at the Coventry University Laboratories, long rumored to be haunted. Suddenly he noticed a ghostly gray blob in his peripherals. He looked to it quickly, but it had vanished. Not one to be easily spooked, Vic set out to find a scientific explanation for the hauntings. He noticed that materials he was working with were vibrating, and he got the idea to look into the possibility of low frequency sound waves. Sure enough he found the culprit in the shape of an old fan in the lab, near his desk in the direction he had seen the blob. Though ‘silent’ to him, it was giving off 18.98 HZ sound waves. That frequency happens to be very close to the resonating frequency of the human eyeball, and explains the bizarre distortions in vision. The waves, which were almost exactly the length of the lab, also explained people who got uneasy feelings there in general. After turning off the fan, a weight seemed to be lifted from the space, and work could be continued as usual.

In 2003 Richard Lord, an acoustic scientist at the National Physical Laboratory in England, set out to further explore the effects of Infrasound. He and his colleagues used a concert hall of test subjects, and added occasional infrasound into the performances without informing the guests of when.  22% of concert goers identified an increase in negative emotions during the parts of the show where infrasound was present. Complaints included unease, nausea, sorrow and panic. It seemed to illustrate that not everyone is effected the same by infrasound, and some may feel it’s effects more strongly.

Many things both natural and man made can cause infrasound. Whales, elephants, volcanos, nuclear bombs, and yes, even intense thunderstorms, can cause infrasound. One of the big complaints against wind turbine construction argues that the massive structures can cause infrasound that will effect surrounding communities. Infrasound is even used by the government to monitor nuclear activity in other countries. It is possible that infrasound is what warns many animals of oncoming natural disasters such as earthquakes.

Author Donnie Eichar believes that infrasound caused by a Karman Vortex Street could have been the cause of the untimely deaths of the Dyatlov hikers of Russia. A Karman Vortex Street is a bizarre phenomenon in fluid dynamics in which air/water/etc moves around a rounded or even object in a way that causes swirling vortices.

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These vortices can gain incredible speed and power, and today engineers and architects design structures with this in mind, making sure to add spirals, fins, or uneven sides to structures to prevent a KVS.

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As for the Dyatlov hikers, the mountain they were camping at the base of had an evenly rounded top, and some believe that if wind hit the mountain just right, it could have created these tornado like vortices. Hearing a roaring tornado bearing down on you would surely terrify anyone, but would it be enough to terrify the hikers out of their tent into certain death toward the roaring itself? Possibly, if the vortices were creating infrasound. The panic caused by the infrasound could have made the hikers irrational enough to flee their tent, improperly clothed, into the subzero night. I can attest to encountering that same inexplicable urge, fought back only by my realization that I was likely experiencing an explainable natural phenomenon. The hikers would have had no knowledge of infrasound or Karman Vortex Streets. They had always survived based on their instincts, which were now screaming at them to evacuate their tent.

The theory makes a lot of sense, more than any other put forth. Though it would have had to have been a bizarre set of coincidences to lead to the final deadly outcome, sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.

But if all of this is true, then hasn’t it essentially been proven that ghosts aren’t real, just products of low frequency sound waves resonating the human body? Well not quite. Infrasound has been located in several ‘haunted’ sites, but certainly not all. I will always maintain that the paranormal aspects of our world are simply things that haven’t been identified yet by science. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in ghosts of course. But it does mean that I am also very excited by the idea of discovering a frequency that resonates eyeballs into seeing ghosts!

Have any of you possibly experienced Infrasound? Let me know in the comments!

 

The Sankebetsu Bear Attack

Growing up I loved the movie “Jaws”. For anyone out there who somehow hasn’t seen it, it is a fictionalized story of a shark that terrorizes a New England town. Few people are aware however that “Jaws” was actually inspired by a real life man-eating shark that terrorized the Jersey Shore long before Snooki ever got there.  In July of 1916 people started being attacked in the waters along New Jersey. The first had the flesh ripped from his leg and bled to death on the floor of his hotel. Five days later and 45 miles north, a second man was mutilated in a shark attack, his abdomen torn from his body. Six days after that an 11 year old boy was pulled beneath the water 30 miles north. When a man entered to water to search for him, he too was bitten severely and bled to death. The 11 year old boy’s body was recovered later. A half hour later and only a half mile away, a 14 year old boy was attacked, but he was saved and survived. The terror only ended after a Great White Shark was caught and killed in New York. The nearly 8 foot long shark capsized the man’s boat, and he fought it off and ultimately killed it with a broken oar in what must have been a scene eerily similar to Quint’s “Jaws” showdown. When opened up approximately 15 pounds of human remains were found in the animal’s stomach, and no further attacks were reported.

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What caused the rogue shark to begin targeting humans is a mystery. Much like it’s “Jaws” counterpart, the shark seemed to be unnaturally preoccupied with killing humans, arguably even supernaturally.

It’s a rare occurrence for a wild animal to become such a killer. Most often when a human is killed by an animal it is in self defense, or it is a standalone incident. Only a few times in history have there been animals that seem to specifically hunt humans. A current example in Gustave, the 18 foot African Crocodile that has terrorized villagers in Burundi for years. Another case is the story of the Tsavo Man-Eating Lions, popularized by the film “The Ghost and the Darkness”.

But few people have heard the unsettling tale of the Sankebetsu Bear Attack of Japan.

Less than one year before a shark terrorized America, a bear brought down a reign of terror on northern Japan. It was December of 1915, and bear sightings among the rural villages were common at the time. The Ussuri Brown Bear, cousin of the Grizzly, typically left humans alone, only occasionally breaking into village food stores.

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But something was different about this particular bear.

On the ninth, a bear attacked the Ōta farm. Abe Mayu, the farmer’s wife, was caring for a friend’s child at the time. The bear broke into the farmhouse and attacked the baby, as Mayu tried to fight it off with logs of firewood. The bear turned it’s attention on the woman, grabbing her in its jaws and dragging her away into the forest. When neighbors arrived they found the farmhouse in shambles, with puddles of blood on the floor.

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A search party mobilized to find and kill the bear, and recover any of Mayu’s remains. They soon found the massive animal, and though they shot it the bear managed to escape. Mayu’s remains with found cached in the snow nearby; all that remained was her head and legs.

Nearby, news of the attack reached the Miyouke family. There, the women and children of the Miyouke and Saito families had gathered, while the men hunted for the bear. Though the bear returned to the Ōta home in search of more prey, it was chased off by several of the hunting party. The bear turned it’s sights on the now unprotected Miyouke farm.

Yayo Miyouke was cooking dinner with her baby on her back when the large black bear broke through the farmhouse window. In the panic, the cooking pot overturned onto the fire, plunging the house into darkness. Yayo was tripped by one of her children clinging to her legs, and as she lay there the bear attacked the baby on her back. The bear then attacked three more of the children as they tried to hide, before turning on pregnant Take Saito. She begged the bear to spare her unborn child before it mauled her. Though her fetus was recovered alive from her body, it perished a short time later.

Yayo meanwhile had escaped into the night and ran to find help. The men made it back to the village and hurried to the home, where the bear was still on a rampage inside. Though they tried to corner and shoot it, once again the bear managed to escape.

Several men from the village found expert bear hunter Yamamoto Heikichi, who told them the bear’s name was “Kesagake” and that it had killed at least three other women in it’s life. Yamamoto refused to help them however, having sold his gun for alcohol.

News of the bear attacks reached the government, who sent reinforcements in to hunt down the rogue animal. Though the bear raided several more farms stealing winter stockpiles, it could not be tracked or hunted.  On the night of December 13th a sniper on guard at the village saw a shadow moving cautiously at the edge of the forest. He thought it was a person and called to it, but received no response. Realizing it was Kesagake he fired, and the bear bolted into the woods.

Having once again successfully shot the bear without killing it, the party followed the animals bloody tracks into the woods the following morning. This time they were accompanied by no-longer-retired-Yamamoto, who found the bear and finally shot it to death, once in the heart, once in the head. The bear was nearly 9 feet tall and 750 pounds, and the remains of its victims were found in its stomach.

It will never be clear why Kesagake decided to hunt humans, or why he did so with such brutality, rarely eating his victims only mauling them. Some believe the bear may have had a brain injury or defect; some wonder if it was rabid, others speculate that human encroachment woke the bear from hibernation and sent it on its rampage.

So was this just a case of a sick or starving bear trying to survive? Or was it a real life animal serial killer, hunting the most dangerous game?

Whatever the reason, Kesagake killed seven people that winter, mostly children. At the site of the attacks now sits a shrine, as well as a reconstruction of the Ōta house, and a statue overlooking it all.

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talk about awkward family photos

Much like the story of the Jersey Shark, Kesagake also has his own movie; Rimeinzu Utsukushiki Yūshatachi (“Yellow Fangs” in english) tells a fictionalized account of the bear attacks. And also similarly to the legacy of “Jaws” the attack left a lasting impression on Japan, and their opinions of bears.

When Humans Become Candles

**Warning for graphic images**

As a child I read about a “true” case of Spontaneous Human Combustion in one of those World Weekly News type prints that I had snagged from my parents. The article explained the bizarre condition in a manner which my young brain deemed reasonably scientific. It also posited some possible causes of SHC, including that it may be triggered by intense emotional outbursts or unrest, as many of the victims had been crotchety old people and drunks. Due to the fear the article triggered in me, that idea struck me with a terror that I had never known before. I became convinced that I would soon burst into flames. The more I feared my fate, the more likely it seemed to become, until soon I was sitting on my laundry room floor sobbing into a tabloid and my mother had to console and assure me that I was not in fact going to spontaneously combust.

But was that a promise she could really make? Am I REALLY safe from spontaneous human combustion? Are any of us?

Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) is the unexplained phenomenon of a human body bursting into flames without an apparent ignition source. According to proponents, there have been over 200 cases of SHC, dating back to (completely fabricated) reports of a 1400’s knight.

SHC has been widely considered an explainable phenomenon in the scientific community, and cases have been theorized to have been caused by such mundane occurrences as clandestine cigarette drops and clumsy fireplace keeping. It helps that a multitude of cases happened to women tending fires long ago and more modernly, elderly smokers.

Many ‘cases’ are of people literally found half inside a fireplace.

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(Note, I couldn’t even find a reliable source for this image so Im not even sure if its real.)

While proponents will quickly quip that another peculiarity of victims is that few things in the room around them are affected by the combustion, it becomes clear when reading up on cases and looking at more photos that this also isn’t true. The fire often scorches the walls and nearby furniture, and though it is unusual it doesn’t spread further, it is not scientifically impossible.

Skeptics claim SHC is caused by the something called the Wick Effect.

“The wick effect hypothesis suggests that a small external flame source, such as a burning cigarette, chars the clothing of the victim at a location, splitting the skin and releasing subcutaneous fat, which is in turn absorbed into the burned clothing, acting as a wick. This combustion can continue for as long as the fuel is available. This hypothesis has been successfully tested with animal tissue (pig) and is consistent with evidence recovered from cases of human combustion. The human body typically has enough stored energy in fat and other chemical stores to fully combust the body; even lean people have several pounds of fat in their tissues. This fat, once heated by the burning clothing, wicks into the clothing much as candle wax (which typically was originally made of animal fat) wicks into a lit candle wick to provide the fuel needed to keep the wick burning.

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In short, it is possible, under rare circumstances, for a person to become a very macabre human candle.

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Mary Reeser is known as the “Cinder Woman”. She was the first new age case of SHC which “reignited” public interest in the phenomenon. She went up in flames in Florida, 1951. All that remained of her was her left foot, still slippered, her backbone, and her skull which had inexplicably shrunk to nearly half its original size leaving scientists and doctors baffled. She was not the only one to be found this way either (see George Mott later in the post!). Reeser was an elderly woman and a known smoker, and her death could have feasibly been due to a heart attack or something akin, killing her and resulting in a dropped cigarette. The ignited cigarette would then cause the wick effect. The strange state of her remains however, particularly her skull, still defy explanation.

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Helen Conway died in 1964. She is the focus of a documentary purported to “dis-prove” the existence of SHC. The documentary (understandably) blames careless smoking and dropped matches. However it fails to explain the fact that Ms. Conway burst into flames and collapsed into ash in less than 20 minutes given the last time she was seen alive. The wick effect takes a slow burn over a long time, and though it can account for many instances of SHC, this one is still a mystery.

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Dr. John Bentley seemed to have combusted quite suddenly while in his bathroom in 1966. He was 92, and though a known smoker, his pipe was still on his bed nightstand. His body burned through his linoleum floor, leaving a pile of his ashes in the basement below. The only suggestion put forth to his cause of death was that the man had dropped cinders on his robe and had gone to the bathroom to douse them, where he slipped and fell. Once incapacitated, the wick effect did the rest. It is a lot of speculation, but like with many SHC cases it is all we have,

In 1982 61 year old Jeannie Saffin sat with her elderly father in the kitchen. Her father had looked away for a moment, and looked back to find Jeannie engulfed in flames, but sitting unmoving still in her chair. Jeannie, who was mentally handicapped and had the capacity of a 6 year old, later died from her severe injuries. Theories abound as to what caused the woman to be consumed by flames so abruptly, and to this day the only real theory is a stray ember caught her flammable nylon dress. However her father was adamant that besides the distant pilot light of the stove, the kitchen was free of flames. His own pipe had not yet been lit.

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58 year old George Mott, ironically a retired firefighter, was found as nothing but a pile of ashes in his bed in 1986. Mott’s skull was also recovered, mysteriously shrunken. A multitude of plastic items around Mott’s house had melted. He was a smoker, but the true cause of his death was never actually determined.

In my opinion, many cases can be attributed to the Wick Effect. The wick effect explanation is satisfying to me not only because of its plausibility, but because it is still really freaking creepy. Though not “spontaneous” it is more or less “Human Combustion” regardless, just the explainable kind.

However, the fact is that not all cases can be attributed solely to this, and even the harshest skeptics such as Joe Nickell admit this. The truth is still unknown, but its possible there are multiple rare contributing factors that can cause these mysterious deaths.

I highly recommend browsing this sites pages on SHC, as they seem to be well documented and sourced.

Anomalies: Spontaneous Human Combustion

 

>>>Special thanks to Val for inspiring this post :3

Ebola; Its better to be prepared for a disaster that never happens than to be unprepared for one that does.

Today my manager and I were discussing the current hot topic of Ebola when one of our regulars walked up to get her coffee and overheard.
“Oh Ebola? Are you worried about that?” She asked skeptically.
Knowing this woman worked for a health sciences college I was more than a little surprise that she didnt seem to be worried at all. But like many individuals I can only assume that she fell prey to the “cry wolf” trap of media coverage. The more the media babbles about something, the less we really listen.

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I have noticed spikes in worry over Ebola, especially when the doctor was transported back to the US for treatment. But the consensus mostly seems to be that Ebola is really only in Africa, and thus, not our problem.
The trouble arises in the lack of understanding that if we wait for it to become our problem it could already be too late.
The reasons for getting worked up about Ebola are numerous; I have been keeping a weary eye on it since I first learned about it around 8 years ago. I watched the movie ‘Outbreak’ and was immediately intrigued, then wrote a 20 page report on the bug for my ninth grade science teacher. Though ‘Outbreak’ is a fictional tale, the startling truth is that its not out of the realm of possibility.
Ebola is an incredibly versatile disease with many different strains. In fact a new strain, Bundibugyo, was just discovered a few years ago. Each strain has different abilities and mortality rates. When it first struck in 1976, the Zaire strain had a shocking death rate of 90% while less deadly strains like Sudan were at about 50%. For comparison, Smallpox only has a death rate of about 30%.
The current outbreak is hovering at the 55% mortality rate, and apparently the verdict is still out on the strain. For some time it was being called the Zaire strain, but there are now conflicting reports and it could be a new strain altogether.
There are currently five known types of Ebola; Zaire, Sudan, Bundibugyo, Ivory Coast, and Reston. Each are named after the place they were discovered, including our very own Reston Virginia Ebola. Reston Ebola is the only one apparently not transmittable to humans*, while Ivory Coast (typically found in chimps) has only jumped to humans in one case, and the scientist lived to tell the tale.
(*Pigs are capable of getting Reston and a pig farmer caught what may have been Reston from a pig, indicating the transmission may be possible.)

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These various forms and constant new strains of Ebola show that its an unpredictable virus. Currently the CDC/media/ect has gone blue in the face telling people Ebola is only transmittable through direct contact of bodily fluids. However in labs Ebola has been successfully transmitted through minuscule water droplets in the air. It is considered a Category A Bioterrorism Threat, and the WHO classifies it as a Level 4 bio safety containment pathogen, the highest level possible.
In fact the only reason Ebola hasn’t caused the apocalypse yet may be in part due to its lethality. It is hard to spread, and patients get too sick too fast and cant physically move to spread it further.
Rumor has it* that during the Cold War, Soviet scientists were working to engineer a chimera virus by splicing together Ebola and Smallpox. The result would have Ebola’s gruesome lethality and Smallpoxes hardy transmit ability to create a “blackpox” or hemmorhagic smallpox. It was likely the Soviets would have realized unleashing such a perfect killing machine would only come back to bite them in the end, so developing a cure alongside it would be a must. However the Soviet Union fell and the labs were ransacked before anything came of it. If the virus was created, it could be anywhere now. If nothing else Ebola alone was certainly in that lab. One can only hope it doesnt fall into the wrong hands.
(*As recalled by former USSR scientist Ken Alibek)
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The odds of a wide-scale Ebola pandemic, at least from the current strain, are unlikely. But a mutation of the strain into an airborne pathogen could mean an unstoppable virus. There are also upsettingly few ways to protect oneself against such a scenario short of locking yourself in a remote cabin. But the worst thing we can do is ignore or downplay this looming threat.

Starling or Grackle? Beginners Guide to Backyard Birds

First off let me preface this by saying that birding is one of the many areas that I have passable knowledge in; in other words, I could probably impress the average non birding shmoe with my knowledge, but would just embarrass myself in the presence of a master. That said, I apologize for any regional disparities between images here. I chose basically the first decent one that popped up on google images and looked like those I have seen in my yard.

Now to the good stuff. Most folks probably see some birds from time to time. I’m pretty sure they live on every continent because even Antarctica has penguins. But have you ever seen a bird and just not know what the heck it is? If you live in New England, I’m here to help! (this doesn’t really work for penguins sorry). Lots of people have a base knowledge of birds which they then apply to every bird they see after, and if that works for you and you could care less thats totally fine. But if you have a bird feeder and keep wondering about that one little dude you keep seeing but only know that he is NOT a sparrow, here’s how to tell some of New England’s most common birds apart. Lets start off easy:

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You have likely seen these guys around. Pigeons are considered by many to be sky-rats of cities, but they have a much pleasanter cousin who prefers the quieter suburbs and countryside. Mourning Doves are most recognizable for their coo-cooooo call (a ‘mournful’ sound I guess). They love to hang out on telephone wires, and fly very gracefully. Usually you will see them alone or in pairs.

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Most people know what a Blue Jay is, even if you haven’t seen many. They are known for being very rowdy and obnoxious, basically shoving any other birds out to feed when they alight on a feeder. The Blue Bird in comparison is a shy guy with a pleasant chirp. Now here’s something fun, that guy on the end? NOT A BLUE BIRD. I know, I know, you would assume that if someone named something the Blue Bird they would name the BLUEST bird around that, but a true Blue Bird is the middle guy. The last guy is an Indigo Bunting. They are REALLY blue and seem to be rare around here. I have only ever seen a few.

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Both of these types of birds are considered pests most of the time, but I haven’t had an issue with either myself. Crows can get a little rowdy and disturb nesting birds, but they are also a great warning for approaching Hawks and typically stay high in the trees so don’t cause too much trouble. Also they make great sounds. Most bigger black birds you see will be crows, I’m not sure I have EVER seen a Raven around here, and they are significantly bigger and poofier whereas the Crow is sleeker. Starlings can appear almost black, and like Crows usually travel in groups, though typically larger ones. They too can be noisy and have been known to ravage feeders, but like I said, I haven’t had many issues. They are not native to America and are considered an invasive species. The females are  browner in color.

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Most people couldn’t tell a Starling and a Grackle apart in a lineup which is where the Starling’s bad name may come from because Grackles are AWFUL. They are very loud (they sound like pterodactyls or something), travel in groups, and will eat just about anything. So that nice suet you have been using to try to tempt a cute Downy Woodpecker? FORGET IT. GONZO.

Mind you, they are pretty. Their feathers kind of look like oil, black with a rainbow sheen. But they are the pest bird that I think of first. Seeing the Grackle, many would probably call it a Blackbird on instinct, and the two are similar especially if the grackle isn’t super shiny. But Blackirds have smaller beaks and are ‘true black’. Not to mention less annoying. Here we have a Red Wing Blackbird, and the ones near me usually fly solo. At a quick glance their size and color can be confused with an Oriole. Orioles love to feed from blossoming apple trees and the like, so if you want to attract them get some flowering trees.

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If you want a cool sounding bird you can’t go wrong with a Cat Bird. They literally sound like cats, that is unless they are copying other birds, which they also do. I even heard one make car sounds once. Cat Birds are a beautiful smokey grey color. If you are interested in hearing side by sides of some of the sounds Cat Birds can make check this out:

 

Cow Birds typically hang in farming areas, and like fields of tall grass. Though they don’t look all that interesting their nesting behavior is incredible. Like Cuckoos they are parasitic nesters, meaning they lay their eggs in other birds nests (and have even been known to try with hummingbirds and raptors like hawks!). Ironically enough they fail at this 95% when they try to pull it on the Cat Bird, who ain’t no fool. I highly recommend reading up on them because they are really interesting:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown-headed_Cowbird

Robins also like fields but prefer short grass, and their favorite prey is the worm (they are the literal morning bird) and when you stay up way too late until you hear birds start chirping it’s usually the Robin you will hear. They are easy to identify thanks to their red breasts.

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Another fella known for sporting red is the Downy Woodpecker. They are small woodpeckers, but when they decide to knock on the side of your house for food they can cause a BIG racket. Annoyances aside, Downy’s are very cute, inquisitive birds who love suet and creeping up along the trunks of trees searching for bugs. However they don’t creep as much as the Creeper! The Creeper is not creepy at all, but you will know one when you see it by the way it scuttles up the sides of trees like a feathery crab. The Creeper eats insects too, but rather than pecking into the bark it  just goes for the ones hanging around on the outside of the tree. Another tree climber is the Nuthatch. Nuthatches are interesting in that some look like Creepers and some look like Chickadees, but body and beak shape can help separate them all. Never rely only on color or habitat! The Chickadee is a very pleasant little bird, sort of the darling of New England I think. They are common feeder birds and have a nice voice with many different recognizable calls.

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Other common feeder birds are sparrows and finches. Brown Finches and Sparrows can be VERY hard to tell apart but your best bet is beak shape. If your bird has a think triangle shaped beak for cracking open shells, finch. If its a smaller thinner beak, Sparrow. Goldfinches however are very recognizable and very popular and sought after feeder birds. Sparrows calls are that incessant chattering chirping you hear from many birds at once in the trees.

Oddly enough I had a pet Sparrow for a brief time many years ago, after a neighbor brought a naked newborn chick to my families door and we took it in and raised it. It wasn’t easy and my mom realized how tough being a mom bird was considering babies have to be fed damn near constantly to survive, but I have to admit, having a bird learn how to fly in your bedroom and landing on your head is pretty sweet. It was like being in a Disney movie. One of the most magical parts was a mated pair of Cardinals who took an interest to young Petey when they heard him crying though the window for food. For the heck of it my mother opened the window and they came right inside and fed him from the sill like he was their own!

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Though male Cardinals are pretty obvious I included a female here to show the difference. Next to her is another crowned bird, the Tufted Titmouse. Titmice (humorous name aside) a tiny little things and super cute. They are also feeder birds, but are a little shyer than Finches, Sparrows and Chickadees.

So thats about it for Backyard Birds! I hope you learned a little something and enjoyed this (my first blog post). It certainly isn’t all there is to know, but its a good base. I might do another edition with other kinds of birds (Sea Birds, Predatory Birds, who knows!) so if you enjoyed this blog post let me know! Also feel free to send me idea or requests about any topics you would be interested in hearing about on here, I’m pretty open to everything. Thank you, and stay curious!