From pirate ships to alien sightings, folklore is part of life on the Outer Cape. The tales have long traveled from person to person, and it’s a tradition to bring them up, especially at gatherings around a bonfire on a dark beach, when the otherworldly events and the existence of ghosts don’t seem so far-fetched. But are they based in truth, or purely fictional, made up to keep people entertained and interested in local history?
A story does not have to be old to constitute folklore. Among three of the most frequently told stories, two date back hundreds of years, and one is more modern.
A supposed alien sighting at what was, in 1966, Dutra’s Market in North Truro, is possibly the local legend that’s most popular beyond Cape Cod. The shop is now known as Salty Market. Robert Matthews, age 19, got off a bus next to the market and called the North Truro Air Force Station, where he was headed. They said they would send a truck to pick him up shortly.
But things began to get very odd, very quickly. Matthews claimed that while he was waiting, he saw lights “moving from side to side across the sky.” He began to worry, and again called the base. The strange part was, they told him that they had sent the truck five minutes after his first call, and that Matthews had been nowhere in sight. It was an hour later when they received his second call. It seemed to Matthews that only four minutes had gone by.
For a long time, Matthews thought he had simply imagined the odd jump in time. But much later, he decided to undergo hypnosis in an attempt to discover what had happened. Under hypnosis, he explained that he went up a ramp, towards the lights he saw, and into a room that looked like a doctor’s office. The next thing he remembered, he said, he was standing at Dutra’s making his second call to the base.
The story, recounted in seasons one and five of Unsolved Mysteries and on unsolved.com and many other websites, seems, at the very least, exaggerated to most listeners. But some people think they have experienced similar, if not identical, instances of “missing time.” The late abstract expressionist Budd Hopkins, who said he saw a U.F.O. in Truro in 1964, famously collected stories like Matthews’s. They became a genre with its own peculiar motifs.
Another well-known story on the Cape is that of the Whydah. The Whydah Gally was a trading and slave ship launched from London in 1716 and attacked by pirates led by Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy the next year. Bellamy took on the Whydah and several members of the original crew, who became pirates as well. But soon they encountered the horrible storm that brought the ship down to what is now Marconi Beach, in Wellfleet. The rumor is that gold and silver have continued to wash onto its shores from that shipwreck, even today, according to many locals’ stories.
There is historical and archaeological evidence to back up of many elements of this story. But though Barry Clifford, the explorer who found the shipwreck, believes he saw flecks of gold in the water near the site, the ship’s treasure has never been found. Expedition Whydah in Provincetown shows off artifacts and keeps the search alive.
Ghosts are said to have appeared at the Duck Creeke Inn in Wellfleet as recently as 1980, when Bob Morrill and Judy Pihl purchased the property now called the Wagner. But the ghosts themselves represent the deeper past.
Ghosts aren’t considered out of the ordinary here. “Almost everyone around here has a ghost story to tell and they are seldom about random ghosts,” said Dwight Estey, president of the Wellfleet Historical Society. “These sightings generally lead back to a person or specific event.” Of the ghosts, Morrill and Pihl were known to say, “Our ghosts are very comfortable here, and we are comfortable with them.”
Anna Neilsen, the Wellfleet youth services librarian, has heard the stories. “They say she’s a small woman in white, and the old owners used to see her.” Word is, guests have been scared off the property by a woman telling them to “sleep well” or other comforting things.
According to the former owners, the house belonged to a sea captain and the story goes that the woman in white is the captain’s wife. Their two daughters, whose ghosts can be heard walking around on the upper floors, died of smallpox. But not to worry — these ghosts have only been kind.
The Outer Cape is full of stories whose truth may never be known. For those who love stories, that’s not what matters. These kinds of tales are part of what makes this place magical.
Asked about Cape Cod’s folklore culture, Irene Paine, author of the historical novel Eva and Henry: A Cape Cod Marriage, replied, “We love our Goody Hallett, our ghost ships, our foggy bogs and resident ghosts. If you are up for a little prickle in your spine, leave your cell phone at home and walk the sandy back roads of Wellfleet and Truro in the moonlight. Take only a lantern and walk between ocean beaches at one in the morning, low tide. Or, enter an ancient cemetery to commune with the spirits of the ancestors. If you really want to feel the legendary vibe, get out there. It buzzes.”