Monday, November 29, 2010
Exploring the Bridgewater Triangle and the Hockomock Swamp: Was Bigfoot a Bull Moose?
By Douglas Watts
Since around 1970 a number of authors, bored newspaper reporters, amateur attention seekers, the easily befuddled, the benignly mentally unstable and the slightly or highly inebriated have combined efforts to weave a rich tapestry which persists today under the name, "The Bridgewater Triangle."
Why a Triangle and not a Trapezoid?
As the character Eb in Neil Stephenson's novel Cryptonomicon points out, any three points form a triangle. If you add one more point, you get a trapezoid, or a rhombus, or a rectangle or a square.
Author Loren Coleman takes credit for naming the Bridgewater Triangle around 1970. His choice of polygons was not coincidental, since at the time much hay was made about the presence of the "Bermuda Triangle" aka "The Devil's Triangle" in the mid-Atlantic.
Whether fuelled by sincere belief, hope of fame or a bit of both, Coleman was astute enough at marketing to realize that glomming onto a then-in-vogue phrase associated with the supernatural would give "The Bridgewater Triangle" media traction not available if he had named it "The Taunton Trapezoid" or the "Hockomock Hexagon" or the "Raynham Rhombus."
Once Coleman had selected this admittedly catchy name, he had to explain why he selected the specific vertices of his triangle; why he did not choose others; and why he ignored 'supernatural' events that were reported near but outside the strict perimeter of the triangle he drew in pencil on a AAA road map of Massachusetts.
Coleman's choice of a highly specific shape, the triangle, and a highly defined bounds for that triangle, should have been derived from a scatter plot of reports and sightings that were constrained to within that triangle at a rate greater than would be expected by chance.
But once Coleman published his chosen shape (a triangle) and selected its vertices and bounds, any subsequent reports and memories of weird phenomena would tend to be those occuring within the bounds of the arbitrary lines that Coleman first drew.
This creates a self-reinforcing dynamic, called bootstrapping, wherein people who had 'weird' experiences within the Triangle feel encouraged to report them, while those who had 'weird' experiences outside the bounds of the triangle feel proportionately less encouraged to report them, lest their reports disturb the pre-set bounds of the Triangle. And then, voila, subsequent reportings tend to support the validity of the original, arbitrary bounds and shape of the 'triangle.'
Medical researchers have long been aware of this psychological effect on both subject/informant and researcher, which is why drug evaluations are done "double blind" wherein neither the test subject or the researcher knows who got the drug and who got a placebo. This all derives from the placebo effect, wherein patients given a pill they are told might cure their ailment sometimes respond positively even though they were given a sugar pill. And doctors, with lots of time and effort on the line working to devise a new cure, will often subconsciously interpret study results to show the drug has a productive effect, simply because they know which patients received the 'real' drug and which received a sugar pill. Hence the need for double blind studies.
The research collected by 'paranormal' researchers about the Bridgewater Triangle is a textbook example of all the key flaws of non-double-blind research. The researcher is clearly biased: he wants to find positive evidence to support his pre-determined conclusion. The 'subjects' are entirely self-selected in the sense that they will only make 'reports' if they fit and support the conclusions the researcher has already told them. Not surprisingly, folks like Loren Coleman only get emails and letters from people who basically want to tell Coleman something that supports, rather than detracts from, what he has already said. Nobody takes the time to write to Coleman to say they have never seen UFOs or Bigfoot in the Hockomock. Self-selection bias is deadly and is well known to pollsters, psychologists and medical researchers.
As Kevin Spacey said to Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross about Helen and Bruce Nyborg: "They're insane, Shelley. They just happen to like talking to salesmen."
A Long Tradition of Scary Spooky Stories -- Now Updated !!!
The legend of the Bridgewater Triangle has all the characteristics of a meme: a story or belief that propagates itself regardless of its truth. "Urban myths" form an entire class of this psychological phenomena. We all know this phenomena from parties and jobs, where we tend to agree with somebody we wish to impress even if they say something we don't actually agree with. It's all a risk/benefit calculation.
If you're in a job interview or talking to your boss and they say something kooky, and you want to get the job or keep your job or get promoted, the risk of agreeing with them is minimal and the benefits are tangible. But the risk of disagreeing with them are real, ie. not getting the job, not keeping the job, or not getting promoted. So in a calculation that often occurs at the subconscious level, the risk/benefits are strongly weighted on telling your boss you agree with them, and if you want extra brownie points, providing them with an anecdote or argument that strengthens their position. Thus the origin of the "Yes Man."
This is the departure point between science and pseudoscience. Pseudoscientists seek information that confirms or supports their initial hypothesis. Scientists seek information that disproves their hypothesis; not because they want their hypothesis disproven, but because they know the only way for a scientific hypothesis to have an integrity is if it has been subjected to the most strenuous falsification tests possible. This is why car makers run their cars headlong into cement walls rather than into giant soft pillows to test the durability of their chassis when striking cement walls.
The Good Done by Bridgewater Triangle Enthusiasts
Once you take into account all of the psychological effects described above, the many and various 'reports' supplied by ordinary folk to 'paranormal' researchers about the Hockomock Swamp and the surrounding environs provide a great deal of value. Why do people take time to supply this information?
The first reason is simple: people like to be listened to.
The second is deeper: for many people who grew up around the Hockomock, the place does exert a sense of awe and mystery. I believe this emotional response is a good thing that should be encouraged. It's a child-like awe that, when removed, results in strip-malls, apathy, and obsessive television viewing.
Ultimately, the Bridgewater Triangle boils down to two questions that young kids always ask, "Why?" and "What if?" Our society seems determined to stamp out those questions. It is not a good thing, especially for the advancement of science.
The Hockomock has always been a cipher. This is a good thing. It would be a terrible loss if every square inch of it could be studied and analyzed to squeeze out, capture and contain for analysis every unknown which it holds. It would be a very wet, but very dry husk. Sort of like if a neuroscientist could exactly explain why Pablo Picasso or Louis Armstrong made every brush stroke and every trumpet note they ever made just by putting their preserved brains under a super high power scanning electron microscope.
From this perspective the reports of 'odd' phenomena around the Hockomock are of great value. Many appear to be honest and vivid sightings of wildlife. I do not doubt these folks saw 'something,' I only differ in my assumption of what they saw or thought they saw.
A classic observation, during the last 30 years, is of very large animals crossing small roads near and through the Hockomock. These are all very brief sightings (usually in cars) and in difficult lighting conditions (dusk, dawn).
Assuming these sightings of large animals are not hallucinatory, not highly exaggerated, and not just plain falsified, it is not too hard to come up with a short list of animals that would fit the provided descriptions. The animals are moose, black bear and large (200+) white tailed deer.
The problem with both the eyewitness reporters of these animals and their interpreters ('paranormal' researchers) is they have no clue as to the native historic animal life of the Hockomock and southeastern Mass. in general. This is not their fault. They just haven't done the historical research.
It shocks many people that moose and black bear were very common in southeastern Massachusetts prior to the late 1700s. Moose were common all the way down to the Elizabeth Islands and Cuttyhunk on the southernmost extremity of Cape Cod. There is a "Moose Hill" in Sharon, Mass. a few miles from the "Bridgewater Triangle" that is now a wildlife refuge and education center.
Due to the relentless (I would say insane) obsession of our 18th and 19th century forbears with exterminating every bit of wildlife from New England larger than a chickadee from their sight, virtually every large mammal native to eastern Massachusetts was extirpated by about 1900, except for tiny remnant fragments. Beaver, bobcat, mountain lion, moose, wolves, wild turkey, passenger pigeon and (nearly) white tailed deer were all made extinct in eastern Massachusetts by 1900 and many well before that day. This deliberate extirpation (by directed hunting) was abetted by the relentless, insane obsession of 18th and 19th century settlers to cut down every tree in Massachusetts.
Unlike the claims of 'paranormal' researchers, the above is all thoroughly and exhaustively documented in various laws passed by the Massachusetts Legislature from 1650 to present and is available for the looking in the Massachusetts Archives. But that takes work. And 'paranormal' researchers are not wont to spend much time examining historical archives which might produce 1700s or 1800s documents that provide a more mundane and prosaic explanation for alleged "Bigfoot" sightings near the Hockomock.
And, you can't sell a book or free-lance newspaper story based on evidence which shows a "Bigfoot" or "pterodactyl" sighting in the Hockomock was most likely a great blue heron or a big white-tailed deer. Once the fable has been established, the only money trail is to feed the fable to feed the table. As a freelancer myself, I understand this financial impulse, but the product sold is still fraudulent.
Moose and Bear in the Hockomock?
Moose have been gradually filtering back into Massachusetts for the past 40 years. However because they entered northern and western Massachusetts first, coming down the spine of the Berkshires, southeastern Massachusetts is sort of the station at the very end of the train line.
It is at least possible that a few adventurous moose from time to time have passed into and through the environs of the Hockomock in the past several decades. The Brockton Enterprise carried a story in the late fall several years ago of a deer hunter in Taunton claiming to have seen a moose, albeit briefly, in a dense wooded area near the swamp. To my knowledge there have not been any confirmed or repeated sightings.
Despite their size, moose can be extremely difficult to observe even in places where they are fairly common. Where I live in Augusta, Maine moose tracks are not uncommon along the banks of the Kennebec River. However in 20 years of living in Augusta and roaming the Kennebec River and adjacent woods I have never seen one, even though they are there.
In a woodland as thick and expansive and as lightly travelled as the Hockomock, a small group of moose, or an itinerant migrant passing through, could easily go completely unobserved and undetected.
The same can be said for black bear, although indications are the rate of black bear in-migration to Massachusetts is occurring much more slowly than with moose. However, black bear are notoriously reclusive animals and take great care to stay as far from people as possible. An itinerant bear in the Hockomock would be exceedingly hard to document except by sheer luck on the scale of winning Powerball.
As with moose, the most likely way that one would make 'first contact' with a moose or bear in the Hockomock would be to observe tracks or scat and this requires someone who knows exactly what to look for and to actually be looking for it. Complicating this is that today, most of the people who actually go into the Swamp do so with ATVs and dirtbikes along the powerlines and the old railroad bed behind the Raynham Dog Track. The noise created by these machines practically guarantees that if there were any large mammals around they would be long out of sight before you would have a chance to seem them.
A fairly typical 'sighting' was told to Easton writer Ross Muscato in 2005:
"Joe DeAndrade thinks the swamp may be the habitat of a creature yet to be identified. In 1978, DeAndrade, then 24, was standing on the shore of Clay Banks, a pond in Bridgewater near the swamp. His back was to the water.
''I was standing there, and for some reason I had to turn around," DeAndrade says. ''It was a chill or something inside me. And I turned around, and there, off to the right, maybe 200 yards away, there was this -- well, I don't know what it was. It was a creature that was all brown and hairy, like a big apish-and-man thing. It was making its way for the woods, but I didn't stick around to watch where it was going. I ran for the street."
Mr. DeAndrade's recreation of his 1978 encounter, at the site where it occurred, can be seen here.
This 'sighting' -- if it actually occurred -- has all the hallmarks of a moose sighting. Like most quoted by paranormalists, the anecdote ends just as it gets interesting. Two hundred yards is a long way away -- it's the length of two football fields -- and it's impossible to know how well Mr. DeAndrade is at calculating distances in just a few seconds. Even a bull moose at 200 yards would not be easy to identify to species especially if it was already moving into the woods. That Mr. DeAndrade says he immediately "ran for the street" instead of staying and trying to get a better glimpse of the animal says something.
This anecdote, from an unnamed informant, was given to paranormalist Chris Pittman of Franklin, Mass. in 2008:
"When I went to the building across the street from the Raynham Dog Track it was about 8 and just starting to get dark, we went to the back of the building. There are some trailers there that weren't there about a month ago, and some old cars. We went towards the woods to park our dirtbikes and there was a nasty smell so we looked around and in a trailer that was open there was a tarp down and there were 3 or 4 dead deer- I think that's what they were, couldn't really tell. They were all ripped open, with all the guts all over the place. It was nasty. There was evidence that someone was there, we saw footprints and some soda that wasn't open and we noticed that the building is more closed up that it was before. We also heard some noise coming from the tower part, it sounded like someone was slamming metal around. I have been in the building and walked around but didn't go in some of the back rooms because it was really dark and I didn't have a light... I have also seen dead animals like that before out on the powerlines, there was at least six stacked up, all ripped apart, and I have come across some hanging in trees."
While cited as a 'paranormal' observation, this anecdote has a mundane and grisly explanation. The informant happened upon a deer poaching operation. Deer hunting is common in the Hockomock and deer stands are found all over the swamp, usually on small islands of high ground or along its edges. Deer poaching is unfortunately commonplace in part because the chances of getting caught doing it in the swamp are slim to none. Poaching also helps explain the lack of any recorded kills of moose or bear in the swamp. It is illegal to hunt moose or bear in southeastern Massachusetts so even if someone did see one and take a potshot at one they would have to keep it a secret.
The next anecdote, again from 2008, is also easily explainable:
"My daughter and I were driving down Administration Road in the Bridgewater Correctional Complex... We saw a pine tree bent (not snapped but curved) in half with something standing on the tip of the tree, holding it down to the ground in the middle of the street. This was about 2:15 in the afternoon, on a Saturday. I was fixated on the fact that a tree could bend like that without breaking, but my daughter saw the "thing" right away and she was fixated on that. We had to stop because it was in the middle of the street. We looked at it and we just didn't know what to say. It looked like a tall man, hunched down a bit, in a skin tight black suit with large, almost bat type wings. He was a matte, not shiny black color, head to foot. He was standing, but hunched down, on the pine tree, his weight was holding down the top. he saw us and we looked at each other for just a few minutes then he straightened, leaped and flew over the top of the trees on the other side of the road. The pine tree he had been standing on, bounced back up slowly, and rocked back and forth a few times before stopping in it's normal standing position. That was all we saw. We were both awake, fully rested, lucid, drug and alcohol free and it was during daylight hours: 2:15 in the afternoon."
The description given is very close to a large wild turkey or more likely, a turkey vulture. The problem with a story like this is that we don't know whether the informants have any familiarity with local wildlife. Turkey vultures are enormous, strange-looking birds that are rarely observed up close and near the ground (usually you only see them flying in the air a considerable distance overhead). After a long absence from southeastern Mass., they are now making a comeback.
This anecdote, from 1975 but reported in 2007, is another that, if not completely fabricated, suggests a moose sighting.
"In 1975 I was driving my girlfriend home to Brockton. I don't remeber the name of the street, but traveling there from E.B. you start on Pleasant, take the fork to the left, it goes down a slight slope a few houses on either side, then there's (or was) a clearing where the power lines went through.
Anyhow, it's some time between 11 and midnight, and I'm driving along while my girlfriend was sound asleep. Up ahead I noticed a very large black mass in the middle of the road (just before the power lines). I can't tell what it is and while I'm still 30 -50 feet away I slow way down and put on my brights. I still can't see what it is but it's really large and it's absorbing the light from my headlights so I really have to stare at it. I'm thinking it's some huge trash bag or something and I'll need to pull it out of the road. I'm getting really close, 10 - 20 feet and I'm just rolling the car along, and I can't see what it is. But it's big, I had a 67 Plymouth Fury III 4 door, and this mass was well above my hood line.
So I'm going so slow I'm almost at a stop and I can't be more than 5 - 10 feet away, and it's taking in all of the light, I still can't see what it is. Then really slowly this thing lifts it's head and stares right at me!! It's face was bone white, no hair, mostly apelike, thick brow, wide jaw, no eyebrows. And still no body, but because of the size of the black mass it had to be at least 7 feet tall, maybe even 8.
It actually gave me a heart attack. I felt my heart stop for three full beats. Then I recovered, pulled around it and stepped on the gas. I shook from head to toe for hours, and for years after when I thought about it."
Again, the pattern is the same. Except for people who have travelled to northern Maine and are savvy about wildlife, the chance observation of an adult moose at night would be a truly bizarre occurrence in southeastern Massachusetts. Moose are extremely odd-looking creatures in part because their bodies rest on very long legs and they have, in some ways, very 'human-like' faces. The described height (7-8 feet) is identical to an adult moose.
Like all of these anecdotes, this one ends just as it gets interesting. The informant describes the "animal" as standing 5-10 feet in front of his car and towering over it. At such a close distance, even with high beams on the car headlights would not illuminate much of a 7 foot tall animal. But most telling is the informant fails to note how many legs it has. This would be fairly easy to discern by counting. Does it have arms? Is it standing on two legs? Given the length of time of the observation and the proximity to the animal, it would seem the informant could have at least counted and recollected how many legs it had and if it had arms or not. Lastly, the informant never tells us whether the animal walked past them to the other side of the road. It would seem the animal would have to get out of the middle of the road in order for the driver to continue down the road. But no, the 'story' ends abruptly with the animal in the middle of the road blocking the driver's car.
I like this anecdote because it neatly illustrates a consistent pattern in the type of observations submitted to and collected by 'paranormal' researchers regarding the Hockomock and the Bridgewater Triangle. On one hand you have vivid, up-close sensory descriptions of certain elements; but a complete absence of other sensory descriptions that should have, and could have, been made.
Then there's one of my favorites: "we didn't have a flashcube during the day" anecdote:
“My cousin lives in Raynham along the old Conrail tracks that run behind the Raynham Dog Track. He moved there in about 1988 and we were recently recalling a strange incident that happened about that time. I was around 12 or 13 and it had snowed an inch or two that night before. We were out in his back yard when we noticed some strange footprints in the snow. The footprints were not of an animal, but of a human being or so we believed. The prints were spread out showing very large strides and the prints were not extremely large and could easily pass for an adult size 13 or so. Here is what we found to be very weird at the time: the footprints ran straight through some very thick briars, shrubs and small trees. We attempted to take photos of the prints but were unsuccessful because we did not have a flashcube. Of course our parents all thought we were just kids being stupid and naive… As I remember his next-door neighbor had a chicken coop in his back yard, the direction from which the tracks originated. His neighbor had quite a problem with losing his chickens, as he thought to coyotes, which there are a number of out in that area, but I am becoming more convinced that coyotes were not his problem.”
Aside from all the other problems with this tale, the "tell" is that the photos didn't come out because they didn't have a flashcube. It is hard to understand why you would need a flashcube to take a picture of a large animal track in bright white snow during the day. That said, the usable portion of the description fits well with a moose track.
This anecdote, from 2004, again near the Hockomock, is suggestive of a moose:
"Another odd happening if you are interested, I was on Scotland Street in West Bridgwater which turns into a Bridgewater Street about halfway through and has fields on either side with dirt paths going into them for a large portion of the street. For fun a friend and I drove down one and parked to try and lose another car full of friends. He looked out the window and called my attention to a very large person who stood up in the middle of the field and then moved towards us. Needless to say we drove away very fast. I still have yet to meet anyone that large."
And some anecdotes, when examined textually, just make no sense. This is from 2005.
"I have a alien story that is all true and happened to me and my son. My son won't comment on it, but I was eye to eye with one of these beings. Here goes....One night, or I should say one morning, early in the morning around one or two I guess, my son and I were riding around after work trying to unwind before going home. Now this was in the late 90s that this happened. We were somewhere on Route 24 going toward Brockton, I was near the swamp area near Bridgewater. I'm driving down the road and I see this thing come out of the woods on the other side running right across the road. Thank God, there wasn't any traffic. I yelled to my son and asked what the hell was that, he said he didn't know. By my rate of speed and his rate of speed he was in a route for a collison with my drivers door, if he kept running across the highway. He kept running across, now I was almost up to him, I yelled to my son to hold on this was something big and it was going to crash into the car. I grabbed the wheel tightly, turned and looked out the drivers window and I was eye to eye with this being. He stood like a man, with big big black eyes, no pupils, just solid black, his body looked like it was all one piece. Nothing with joints. Then I closed my eyes for a second to wait for the impact, none came. I opened my eyes and pulled over immediately, hoping someone behind me saw what I saw, and there were no other cars near me, they were too far behind me to see. I was shaking like a leaf. I can't believe it didn't cause an impact. I couldn't believe what I saw. My son was shaking too, I asked him what he saw and he said he saw something but didn't know what it was. I could see he was shaken just like me. To this day he wont admit he saw what I did. I am telling the absolute truth about everything, and I would face God right now and swear in front of him that this actually happened. I never knew what the poor thing was running from. I do consider myself quite lucky though to be priviliged to have seen this being... I also have walked through the swamp area, and it has one of the most awful feelings to it. I just wanted out of there."
The "tell" here is that the driver did not even apply the brakes to avoid hitting the 'man-thing' running across Route 24 right in front of him; and that according to the man's own story he 'hoped' the man-thing would get out of his path before he struck it. Why not apply the brakes, especially if it might be a person? Another 'tell' is that cars on Route 24 travel at a speed of 60-70 mph which would make it impossible to get a 'good look' at a 'man-thing' right next to your driver's side window, unless you actually stopped the vehicle, which according to the driver's own story, he did not. Instead he says did not pull over until after the 'man-thing' apparently passed right through the body of his vehicle. None of this makes any sense.
I put this anecdote in a separate category called "Total Bullshit."
Analyzing the Anecdotes
I do not doubt the honesty of these personal anecdotes. Well, a little bit. Viewing them in succession allows you to discern repeating patterns. The most obvious is that a lot of people are scared stiff of the Hockomock Swamp; and that the mental stability of at least some of these folks is questionable, at least at the time of their observations.
An axiom of science is that you can't prove a negative. So, keeping to this rule, we can never completely dismiss everything these folks reported seeing and hearing since we didn't see and hear it at the same time and place as they. So we have to rely upon a preponderance of evidence approach, ie. why is it only people who are totally befuddled and scared the ones who saw strange things in the Hockomock? And why do these strange creatures hide from people who might approach an anomalous sighting more rationally?
I like these anecdotes because, unlike dry scientific reports and maps, they encapsulate a much broader and richer emotional depth of what it is like to live alongside the Hockomock. They don't tell us much about the swamp itself; but they tell us much about peoples' relation to the Swamp.
And the most common note is fear. Nearly every anecdote ends with the informant running or driving away from the Swamp in total fear and not coming back. The Hock is prickly in this sense; it does not suffer fools gladly but at the right time of year and place it rolls out the welcome mat and lets you in and become part of it, even if just for a few hours. The Hockomock is truly a scary place, in the sense that if you go into it you can die. But you can also just as easily die painting the side of your house, but still people paint the sides of their houses.
I like the mystery and intrigue the Hockomock evokes in people. It is good. We should be challenged by places so near and so full of questions that nobody can answer. It keeps us wondering and not so falsely self-assured.
UPDATE: To offer a partial concurrence with the commenter below, there is no question the Hockomock has long evoked a wide variety of emotional responses in people, especially in those like myself who grew up around it. My break with 'triangle enthusiasts' is whether these emotional responses, which are undoubtedly real, have any causal connection to phenomena outside the realm of science.
1. As an unwitting confirmation of this essay's theme, the Wikipedia entry for the Bridgewater Triangle is a stale rehash/plagiarism of all of the unattributed and undocumented crazy tales repeated over and over again in newspaper articles dating back to the early 1970s, none of which provide any factual substantiation.
2. To his credit, Chris Pittman of Franklin admits in his website that a piece of scat (ie. poop) he had initially attributed to a "Bigfoot" from the Hockomock is actually coyote poop from the coyote eating a deer carcass, including the skin and fur.