In Episode 255, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger head to the woods of Gloucester, Massachusetts, to search for some ghostly soldiers and scouts who plagued the town for weeks back in July of 1692. With the Salem Witch trials happening just a few towns away, and King William’s War raging to the north, everyone is on edge. Pretty soon, the people of Gloucester think these aren’t soldiers at all, but minions of the devil who can’t be shot or scared.
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[NIGHT SOUNDS / CRICKETS]
RAY: It’s pretty dark out here in the woods of Gloucester, Jeff.
JEFF: It IS dark. So in the military, when soldiers need to perform guard and watch duty, especially at night, it’s critical to relieve them every few hours.
RAY: That makes sense. There’s a lot of pressure and concentration on duties like the night watch.
JEFF: For sure. Soldiers take it seriously because they know if they’re the ones sleeping, they want their fellow soldiers to take these duties just as seriously.
RAY: There’s an expression: Not on my watch. They mean it, too!
JEFF: That’s right! My dad served in the military in Vietnam, you and I both have friends who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve heard stories from all of them of how sometimes when you’re on watch a night… if you stare long enough, the trees start to move.
RAY: Sure. You’re concentrating. There’s low light, you may start to see things that aren’t really there.
JEFF: Which is what brings us to the woods of Gloucester. There was a time long ago, during a time of conflict and tension, that many locals were seeing soldiers who may or may not have actually been there. We’re in Gloucester, Massachusetts, hunting for the Spectre Leaguers.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 255 of the New England Legends podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We’re a community of legend seekers who love exploring ghosts, monsters, UFOs, eccentrics, roadside oddities, and weird history from our region. And most of our story leads come from you! Like this one. Thanks to Scott Andruk and his daughter, Raylee for sending this one in.
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RAY: Before we go looking for some ghostly soldiers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our patreon patrons!
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JEFF: So we’re here in Gloucester on Boston’s north shore. So much maritime history here, so much New England history. There was a time, centuries ago, when this was still a frontier. When we were still England, not NEW England. When there was talk of witches, ghosts, devils, and demons… and people believed it. They had the proof of their own eyes.
RAY: Those were dangerous times for everyone.
JEFF: Let’s head back to 1692 and look for these ghostly soldiers.
RAY: It’s July of 1692 here in Gloucester in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and everyone is on edge. The witch trials in nearby Salem, began back in February, and only seem to be gaining in intensity.
JEFF: Plus, King William’s War is now in its fourth year. New France to the north is trying to push south to capture more land for their new colony, and of course Britain is pushing back to the north. New France and their Wabanaki Confederacy allies are taking on the British. The fighting is sending many war refugees south, closer to Boston. Into the north shore region. Caring for these refugees is stressing out the local farmers and communities who want to help, but who also want to survive.
RAY: Preachers from the pulpit tell their congregations that these native heathens are in league with the devil. Between the witch trials and the battles just to the north, many people are worried that the Devil and his minions are on the loose, and lurking behind every tree. Like I said… they’re on edge.
JEFF: Here in Gloucester, there have been strange reports of seeing Indians and French soldiers lurking in the trees. Even breaking into houses. But when they’re chased off, they disappear. There have been so many sightings that on the 16th of July, Major Samuel Appleton of Ipswich, ordered 60 men to assist the residents of Gloucester in their efforts to defend themselves.
RAY: But defend themselves from what? I mean, sure, people are seeing things. But no one has been shot or captured to prove it’s a real person.
JEFF: Then there’s what happened a few weeks ago to Ebenezer Babson of Cape Ann.
RAY: That’s right!
JEFF: Babson is well-known and well-respected around these parts. For almost two weeks, Babson and his family were hearing strange noises, like people walking or running throughout the house. He would get up to investigate, but find no one.
RAY: But then last night he got home late and saw two men leaving his house just as he was arriving home. When they spotted Babson, they dashed off the side of the house and into his cornfield. So Babson runs into his house to ask his family who those men were, but no one saw anything. They said no one had been inside since he left! So Babson grabbed his gun, and ran outside after the intruders.
RAY: He got close to the two men, but then they slipped into a swamp area, and he lost them.
JEFF: Now on high alert, the Babson family raced to the nearest garrison to alert the militia, they announced that perhaps the French and their allies are close! These men may have been scouts. Just as the Babsons entered the garrison…
[MULTIPLE RUNNING FEET]
JEFF: Everyone heard the feet outside. The militia raced outside to see two men dash off into the swamp.
RAY: Now there’s no question that these men must be scouts… An attack could come any day.
JEFF: Babson is NOT the only person spotting these scouts, either. Others in and around Gloucester are also hearing running feet in their homes, and spotting people darting among the trees. How they’re breaking in or getting out of occupied homes is a mystery.
[NIGHT / CRICKETS]
RAY: It’s July 14th. It’s night. And everyone is scanning the roads, the woods. Everywhere. Babson is out with the garrison hunting for the scouts. When suddenly…
RAY: They spot six men skulking through the trees. All of them within gunshot range. Babson leads the charge toward the men.
RAY: He raises his gun and…
RAY: It misfires!
JEFF: The six strangers are aware there’s a garrison closing in. Babson has already called out to the others that he’s spotted them. Babson chases them into the swamp. He’s got three of them just ahead. Again he raises his gun.
JEFF: And all three men drop to the ground. Babson yells to the others that he’s just fired an incredible shot and killed three of them. But as Babson approaches the bodies… the three mean leap to their feet, and race off.
JEFF: Just as they sprint ahead, one of the men raises his pistol back at Babson…
JEFF: And fires a shot that zips past Babson’s head and lodges in a nearby tree.
RAY: The six scouts are gone. There’s no sign anyone was wounded or hurt in any way. Babson can’t figure out how his shot missed. Still, he digs that bullet out of the tree. It’s almost like he needs it for proof that these soldiers are real. The garrison regroups and reloads. The six scouts couldn’t have gone far.
JEFF: The garrison tracks the direction of the scouting party and soon discovers where they’ve regrouped. The garrison surrounds the position of one of the scouts.
RAY: Just as the unknown man stands up, Babson takes careful aim.
RAY: And watched the man drop to the ground dead. There can be no question his bullet hit its mark this time.
JEFF: Now concerned with the five other scouts in the party, the garrison searches, but comes up empty. When they go back to retrieve the body of the man Babson shot, there’s nothing there.
RAY: Now everyone is confused. Babson is certain his bullet struck the scout dead. But there’s no sign of the body.
JEFF: When the garrison returns to their base, they once again see some men lurking out near the tree line, but beyond range of their guns.
RAY: It’s July 16th. There are now regular patrols throughout Gloucester. Two men from the garrison are walking along when they get close to some of these strange scouts in a nearby orchard. So close that they can hear them talking. The only problem is, these men are speaking a language they can’t recognize. It’s not French. It’s not any native language they’ve heard before.
JEFF: Still, seeing an opportunity, the men raise their rifles….
[TWO RIFLE SHOTS]
JEFF: And fire at the scouts.
RAY: The scouts scatter, and soon are gone. It seems unlikely either bullet found its mark.
JEFF: Combine the strange language, the fact that either bullets don’t affect these strange visitors, or they’re protected by some unnatural force, and now everyone is thinking there’s true evil afoot here.
RAY: Night after night there are more sightings of these strange visitors around Gloucester. Sometimes they’re spotted far in the distance, other times up close. Sometimes some armed local takes a shot at them, but no one seems to hit them. The sound of gunfire makes these scouts scatter, but that’s it.
JEFF: Folks in Gloucester are sure these are not just French scouts, but agents of the devil. Demonic forces sent here for the most diabolical of purposed.
RAY: Of course they’d reach that conclusion! If there was an attack coming, wouldn’t it have started by now?! It does an enemy no good to keep spooking the locals and keeping them on high alert all of the time.
JEFF: Days go by, and more of these specters are showing up around town. But now they’re tormenting people.
[ROCKS HITTING ROOFS / THUMPING OF WOOD]
JEFF: These specters are throwing rocks at homes and hitting the roof. They’re thumping logs against barns. The only purpose of this seems to be to torment the people of Gloucester and keep them scared.
RAY: By now, everyone knows about these specters, and everyone is on the lookout. Family rifles are kept at the ready. People are keeping watch in their homes. When someone gets a clear look at one of these strange invaders…
RAY: They take a shot, and send the specters scattering. But no one seems to be able to hit one of them.
JEFF: For two weeks this continues. One day, Ebenezer Babson is walking along the road near his house, when he spots three of these specters casually walking toward him in the distance, as if they were out for some Sunday stroll.
JEFF: Babson quickly hides in some bushes by the side of the road and draws his pistol. The three specters continue their stroll, seemingly unaware that Babson is lying in wait. (PAUSE) Just as the three specters get close to Babson’s position… Babson takes aim… and….
JEFF: Again his gun misfires!
RAY: And look at that. The three men walking by are looking directly at Babson in the bushes with a scoff. They don’t seem scared at all! They just keep walking.
JEFF: Babson, and others are convinced that these specter leaguers, as they’ve come to be called, are bewitched people in league with the devil. Or perhaps they’re demons in human form.
RAY: It’s late July when these strange Gloucester events reach a climax.
RAY: It’s night at the blockhouse building where the garrison is keeping watch. There’s 20 musketeers inside when someone spots something moving by the trees.
RAY: Within moments, a group of these specter soldiers emerge in front of the blockhouse. The commander doesn’t hesitate.
[MANY MUSKETS FIRING]
RAY: Shot after shot leaves the blockhouse, but has no effect. That’s when the commander pulls a silver bullet from his pocket. He loads the shot…
RAY: And suddenly… the entire group of specter leaguers vanish in the musket smoke.
JEFF: The garrison lays down their arms, and each man kneels to pray together. From that night forward, the spectre leaguers are not seen again in Gloucester.
RAY: A year goes by, as the legend of these events grows to the point where Cotton Mather himself asks for a report of what happened. So Reverend John Emerson writes a letter to Mather offering his account of these appearances. Emerson writes…
EMERSON: I hope the Substance of what is Written will be enough to satisfy all Rational Persons, that Gloucester was not Alarmed last Summer for above a Fortnight together by real French and Indians, but that the Devil and his Agents were the cause of all the Molestation which at this time befell the Town; in the name of whose Inhabitants I would take upon me to Entreat your Earnest Prayers to the Father of Mercies, that those Apparitions may not prove the sad Omens of some future and more horrible Molestations to them.
RAY: And that brings us back to today…
JEFF: This account first makes it into print in 1702 in Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana. Mather used this story as further evidence that the devil is truly in these lands, but so too is the hand of God.
RAY: Add to the fact that this took place in 1692, at the same time as the Salem witch trials, and you’ve got a region completely spooked.
JEFF: Plus the King William’s War raging to the north. This was a very tense time.
RAY: It’s interesting to me that the way these spectre leaguers were described, it sounds like seemingly normal soldiers or scouts.
RAY: The only thing unusual was the language they spoke.
JEFF: And if they were part of some Native group, you’d think the people of Gloucester would know what that looks like and identified them as such. But they didn’t.
RAY: The only OTHER thing that’s unexplained is how bullets didn’t seem to affect them.
JEFF: Which means either the men of Gloucester are bad shots, unlucky, or….
RAY: Or… we’re back to the demon and devil explanation.
JEFF: Right. The legend of the Spectre Leaguers spread so quickly that they go from being prowlers, to military scouts, to demons in human form in a matter of weeks.
RAY: Plus, we have to put this into the context of the times. News of the Salem witch trials would have been spread all throughout this region. When people are scared all the time, it’s easy to get spooked.
JEFF: And if you stare long enough into the abyss, the abyss gazes back.
RAY: Most of what we know about this story was taken from Cotton Mather’s 1702 book, but then recapped in much more modern terms in Samuel Drake’s 1883 book titled: A Book of New England Legends and Folk Lore.
JEFF: And that brings us to After the Legend! Where we take a deeper dive and sometimes get sidetracked.
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We’d like to thank our patreon patrons, thank you to Michael Legge for lending his voice acting talents this week, and our theme music is by John Judd.
Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.