In Episode 213, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger explore the woods around School House Pond in Charlestown, Rhode Island, searching for the place where a Narragansett boy named John Onion challenged the devil, and the dark rock formation where horrible acts still haunt the woods.
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[WALKING THROUGH WOODS]
RAY: I’ve got an eerie feeling out here, Jeff.
JEFF: Yeah, I get that too. Walking in the woods of Charlestown, Rhode Island, will do that to you. Getting out here away from the houses and civilization… you can feel kind of alone.
RAY: Yeah, but it’s more than the isolation… Some places just give off a bad vibe.
JEFF: That makes sense too.
RAY: That looks like a pond over there.
JEFF: That’s School House Pond. That’s one of the two destinations we’re here to see. The other is a small outcropping of rocks just a short walk north of here.
RAY: Though it looks like a pretty normal pond, I still have a strange feeling.
JEFF: Maybe it’s because they say the devil once visited this pond, and there’s a dark and deadly reason those nearby stones are called The Crying Rocks.
JEFF: Hi, I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to Episode 213 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
JEFF: Thank you for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We appreciate you being here. We’re a community of legend seekers who love sharing our history and lore. We do it through this podcast, through the New England Legends television series that you can watch right now on Amazon Prime, through our web site, and through the free New England Legends app that you can download for your smart phone right now.
RAY: And please, share our podcast with a friend or two. And post a review for us on Apple Podcasts. It helps others find our show.
JEFF: Before we go searching for the devil and the crying rocks, we want to take a minute to thank our mighty Patreon Patrons! Our patrons are the backbone of everything we do. They help us with all of the costs associated with bringing you this show each week. They keep us going and growing. It’s just $3 bucks per month, and you get early access to all of the new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. Just head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
[WALKING IN WOODS]
RAY: Okay, Jeff… we’re on the trail of the devil in Charlestown, Rhode Island.
JEFF: We are.
RAY: So we parked our car right near the Narragansett Indian Church.
JEFF: We did. That church is kind of central to this story. A story, we should point out, that might be highly disturbing to some of our listeners. For those sensitive, you might want to skip this one.
RAY: The Narragansett Indian Church has been here since 1750. Originally a wooden structure, this was a Baptist congregation founded by Reverend Samuel Niles. Niles was an Indian preacher who was on a mission to convert the native people of the region to Christianity. The wooden structure was replaced by the granite stone building we see today back in 1859. Nearby is a small graveyard, and just a bit north is a larger cemetery with close to 700 burials, but most of them are unmarked.
JEFF: Pinning an exact date on this legend is difficult. It’s a time when there are still some Narragansett people around, yet the Colonial influence is significant. So let’s head back to 1760 and explore the nearby woods.
JEFF: It’s the late fall of 1760 and we’re standing here by the relatively new Narragansett Indian Church. Reverend Samuel Niles is doing his level best to make this a spiritual center of activity for the locals. But it turns out this place has had a spiritual energy to it for many many years. A dark spiritual energy. Ray, let’s head into the woods here behind the church.
[WALKING IN WOODS]
JEFF: We’re heading maybe a quarter mile or so toward cedar swamp.
RAY: Okay… Hey, look at these old cedar trees. They look so gnarled and twisted. And the bark is curling up on itself. That’s really strange.
JEFF: The Narragansett legends says that this place is so dark and evil that nature herself recoils in fear. I think we’re getting close.
RAY: I can see we’re approaching an outcropping of rocks up ahead. They look like stone pillars.
JEFF: This is our first destination.
RAY: There’s that uneasy feeling again.
JEFF: I get it. Of all the woods we’ve ever explored, this one may be the most sinister haunt.
[GHOSTLY BABY CRY IN DISTANCE]
RAY: What was that?! It sounds like a baby crying.
JEFF: The Narragansett call this place the Crying Rocks.
[WIND THROUGH THE TREES]
RAY: I don’t like this place at all.
JEFF: There was a time when people couldn’t risk caring for children who might have been born with severe health problems or birth defects. When you’re hunting, gathering, and even when you’re farming, there’s no room for error. Every hand is needed or the entire group can suffer.
RAY: Oh no… don’t tell me.
JEFF: The legend goes that those babies who didn’t look like they could make it, were brought here to this stone pillar to die.
RAY: That’s horrible!
JEFF: It is. Those were different times. Yet people pass this story around, and sometimes those who wander out here by these rocks either by accident or to test the legend… they sometimes feel uneasy… or hear things in the woods.
[GHOSTLY BABY CRY IN DISTANCE]
RAY: Yeah… I think we should get out of here. This place doesn’t feel right at all.
JEFF: I agree. Let’s head south back toward the pond.
[WALKING IN WOODS]
JEFF: School House Pond is a little less than half a mile from Crying Rocks, but this place has its own evil tale to tell.
RAY: It’s winter here by the pond, in the late afternoon, and though it’s cold and the pond is frozen, it’s busy with activity.
[SOUNDS OF ICE SKATING AND CHILDREN PLAYING]
RAY: There’s a few school kids sliding on the ice, and some of them even have ice skates. It’s one of those crisp winter days. A little overcast, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to snow. Still, it’s going to be dark soon.
JEFF: That’s when a boy named John Onion approaches the frozen pond. John is a Narragansett Indian who lives close by. He’s tall and strong. A natural athlete. And the thing about John Onion… he loves ice skating!
[ICE SKATING SOUNDS]
RAY: Wow, look at him go! I can see some of the other kids are trying to race John… but they’re not even getting close!
JEFF: John Onion is good at ice skating. Really good! Pretty soon the other kids give up the race, and head to the banks of the pond to take off their skates and head home. After all, it’s getting dark.
RAY: The darkness doesn’t seem to matter to John. He intends to keep skating. He’s so confident he announces that he could outskate the devil!
JOHN ONION: I could outskate the devil!
RAY: It’s dark now, and all the other kids have gone home except John Onion. He’s still skating on the pond. But suddenly, he hears the sounds of someone else skating just behind him.
RAY: John turns to look, but sees no one. Yet he can hear another set of skates. And the faster and fancier John skates… the closer the sound of that second set of skates gets to him.
JEFF: John is nervous. Now he sees this dark, shadowy figure close behind him… his own words echo in his head.
[I COULD OUTSKATE THE DEVIL]
JEFF: Now John is petrified. He skates toward the shore as fast as he can… all the while this specter is close behind… John reaches the shore, but he doesn’t stop to take off his skates, he runs right into the woods…
[RUNNING IN WOODS]
JEFF: And hobbles all the way home on skates…. That was the last time John Onion tried to challenge the devil. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: Man, the devil shows up a lot in New England.
JEFF: He does. Those Puritan roots run deep. For them, the devil isn’t a concept or a metaphor, he’s a literal being hiding behind the next tree, or under your floorboards, or just over that next hill.
RAY: This story kind of reminds me of a song.
JEFF: Which song?
RAY: Come on… Devil went Down to Georgia?
JEFF: Ha! Of course!
RAY: Anytime you say you’re better than the devil at something, Old Scratch seems to show up to accept the challenge. Maybe Charlie Daniels heard this story while passing through Rhode Island way back when, and got inspired?
JEFF: Charlie Daniels wrote more than one song about a legend. There’s also his song: “Legend of Wooley Swamp.”
RAY: That’s right!
JEFF: This isn’t our first devil-in-Rhode Island story. Way back in Podcast 48 we explored the devil’s footprints in North Kingstown.
RAY: There’s a rock by the train tracks with these strange holes that look almost like hoof prints.
JEFF: A place where they say the devil abducted a woman then jumped across the harbor to the other side.
RAY: We’ve talked before about how devil-named places, and devil stories kind of serve our moral compass. When you hear about the devil, it’s a reminder to keep yourself in check.
JEFF: Right, pride is of course one of the seven deadly sins. If you think you’re the greatest at something… like ice skating, then the devil is ready to take you down a peg or two.
RAY: Maybe all the way down if you know what I mean…
JEFF: I do know what you mean.
RAY: The other story we covered this week is so disturbing.
JEFF: It is.
RAY: Do we know if it’s true?
JEFF: We know the story comes up enough that the rocks are officially called Crying Rocks, and sometimes referred to as Baby Crying Rocks. These rocks show up in maps and trail guides, and the story of the babies being left or killed here show up in multiple places include an interview with a Narragansett chief that I read in Rhode Island monthly magazine.
RAY: Which doesn’t mean it’s absolutely true, but it does mean the story has been passed around for a long time.
JEFF: It’s easy to put our modern-day judgement on the past. Our medical care has come a long way, especially with infants. There was a time when people didn’t even name newborn babies for a while because they knew they could die, and giving a child a name would make it all the more heartbreaking if they were lost. Long ago, infant mortality was really high. If there’s a health problem with the baby, it’s even higher. There’s no question people in every culture have had to make some gut-wrenching decisions with babies. It’s also worth noting the Crying Rocks story sits in close proximity to a pond where they say the devil once ice skated, and near a church where a preacher tried to convert the indigenous people to Christianity.
RAY: No doubt that preacher told the locals about God and the devil, and made it clear those battles of good and evil took place as close as their own backyard.
JEFF: The bizarre really IS closer than you think.
RAY: Hey! We can’t say that yet…
JEFF: Sorry, I jumped the gun.
RAY: We love hearing from you. If you’ve got a strange story for your home town, please tell us about it! And please consider telling a friend or two about our show. We’re part of a community of people who love getting together over weird stories.
JEFF: We appreciate you being with us each week. Be sure to subscribe and you won’t miss a thing.
RAY: Of course our theme music is by John Judd.
JEFF: Can I say it now?
RAY: Go ahead.
JEFF: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.