(HOST) Legends and folktales often contain important bits of truth, as commentator Joe Citro illustrates, with a story he’s collected about a Vermont family and a terrifying monster.
(CITRO) I recently reread The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of my all time favorite novels. At its core is a family curse: generation after generation threatened by a supernatural beast.
I wondered: Do we have any similar stories here in Vermont?
We do – a tale told to me by my friend Ina Isham, president of The Green Mountain Folklore Society. In fact, her family was the target of the monster!
As a youngster, Ina’s home was in St. George, not far from Shelburne Pond. Nearby was a vast boggy area known as Isham’s Swamp. A fence separated Ina’s dooryard from the inhospitable wetland.
In the early 1940s, when she very young, her father told her the family legend: A horrible Swamp Monster lived somewhere out there among the trees. It was green like a frog, black spotted, with long mud-colored hair. And it was huge! Big as two plow horses! If Ina wasn’t careful, her father warned, the horrifying creature might dart out of the swamp and carry her away.
When Ina was six years old, her daily one-mile walk to school was a terrifying ordeal. Family members cautioned her to hurry, and go quietly, so she wouldn’t attract the monster’s attention. But sometimes she became curious and wandered a little too close to the fence. From there she often saw the submerged monster moving under dry clumps of grass protruding from the smelly marshland. The threat of monster attacks seemed to diminish in winter. Before the swamp froze over, her father explained, the Green Swamp Monster made its way from their swamp to the larger swamps near Shelburne Pond. There it passed the winter with Swamp Monsters from all around.
When Ina was older the true secret of the swamp monster was finally revealed. Her father confessed that the whole story was concocted to keep the children out of the dangerous swamp. He said it was better they be scared to death, than actually dead. Ina told me, "[Father] had been scared just like me, by his father Irving Isham, who in turn had been scared by his father, Gilbert Isham, who was scared by his father, Amasa Isham, who was scared by his father, who [apparently] started the Swamp Monster story in 1784 when he moved to St George, Vermont, from Connecticut."
"It’s possible," Ina says, that "the tale goes all the way back to England."
Yes, possible, but let’s not forget that the original Vermonters, the Abenaki, had a similar tale. They told of an evil swamp monster who’d call from the depths of the swamp, trying to lure children into the wet darkness where they would drown.
So the story is essentially true: Swamps are dangerous. And monsters are very, very old.