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The Mysterious Case of the Devil Soldiers of Gloucester

Throughout history there have been myriad tales of strange ghostly phenomena, involving ghosts, specters, and demonic forces from beyond our understanding. Some of these have been lost or muted in the mists of time, leaving us to wonder and speculate on just what is going on, banishing them to the limbo between real history and myth and legend. One such tale comes to us from 17th century America, where a humble community in Massachusetts was supposedly held under siege by a legion of demonic warriors that could not be killed or injured.

The setting for this strange tale is the city of Gloucester, in Essex County, Massachusetts, in the United States. In 1692 this was place was little more than a sparsely populated fishing settlement eking out an existence on fishing, subsistence farming, and logging, the years when which it would grow into the thriving city it is today still a long way off. It was in this era that superstitions still pervaded the local populace, when witches and devils were believed to prowl the wilderness to send people cowering in their homes in fear, the idea of magic and witchcraft very much alive. Indeed, the new governor, Sir William Phips, had a Court of Oyer and Terminer to deal with the increasing number of witchcraft accusations, and this atmosphere of myth and magic would birth a legend that is still talked about to this day, that of a ghostly regiment of demon soldiers.

Gloucester in modern times

In the summer of 1692, some strange reports began to come out of Gloucester. Townsfolk began coming forth with accounts of the sounds of the disembodied marching of men through the streets, complete with the clomping of horse hooves and sometimes even the sounds of canon fire and the roll of drums, but there was never any sign of an actual source for these anomalous sounds. After this, there began reports of the apparitions of mysterious figures that would appear to raid the settlement which appeared as Indians and French troops, but which seemed impervious to being captured or injured. This was happening at a tense time for the region, with raids by Indians and French forces during King William’s War, the first of the bloody colonial French and Indian Wars, which was being fought between New France and New England at the time, with Massachusetts Bay contributing men and materials to the English side. It was at first thought that these mysterious figures were merely these raiding parties, but it soon was being rumored that they could not be killed and could vanish at will. It was even reported that soldiers would battle with these forces, only for the figures to melt away and leave no bodies or blood behind. Thomas Franklin Waters would write of it in his 1905 Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony: Part I. Historical, Part II. Houses and Lands with Seven Appendices, saying:

In the midst of witchcraft accusations in 1692, a new and unique outburst of Satanic rage revealed itself. Gloucester was invaded by a spectral company of Indians and French. Coming out of the swamps, or cornfields, sometimes singly, again in a group, they approached the garrison. Usually the guns of the soldiers missed fire, but when the guns were discharged the bullets had no effect. Their speech was in an unknown tongue. They carried guns and real bullets shot from them were dug out of the trees. The alarm became so great that Major Samuel Appleton of Ipswich sent about sixty men on the 18th of July for the Townes Assistance under these inexplicable Alarms, which they had suffered night and day for about a Fortnight together.

There were soon rumors going around that these were not real men at all, but rather devils or demons taking the form of men to work towards some nefarious means to sow chaos in the colonies. Others believed it to be some sort of omen of impending doom, and a Rev. John Emerson would write in 1702:

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. I know the most considerate Gentlemen in the Neighborhood, unto this Day believe this whole matter to have been a Prodigious Piece of the Strange Descent from the Invisible World, then made upon other Parts of the Country.

One intriguing story from this time comes from a man by the name of Ebenezer Bapson, who began to see mysterious shadowy trespassers on his property, beginning with him chasing two figures from his yard, who disappeared into the night while audibly saying to each other “The master of the house is now come, else we might have taken the house.” He immediately called his family and they took up arms to go to the defense positions around the property, where they saw the figures furtively circling in the gloom of the trees but never fully showing themselves. After this they began to frequently hear the sound of disembodied footsteps running through their home, although no one was there, as well as the sound of muffled talking. As this was going on, figures were still circling the property, which Bapson would claim seemed to look like French soldiers.

After this, Bapson would call upon some armed friends, and for several nights they would hold positions outside, thinking that they were under siege by a French raiding party. However, whenever these figures would appear, they mysteriously were able to evade being hit by bullets, and had the unsettling ability to just melt away into shadow. They would also often hear the heavy stomping of what sounded like marching men passing through, only there was nothing there to be seen. On several occasions they gave chase to these mysterious intruders, only to have them vanish into thin air, yet at this point they still believed it to be an especially crafty raiding party, even as the strangers continued to prove to be impossible to hit with their rifles. On one occasion, Bapson took aim and managed to actually hit three of the trespassers, who all fell to the ground as if dead, but as they approached, they swiftly got back to their feet and fled, with one of them even firing back. On several other occasions they claimed to have shot dead one or more of the mystery figures, only to see them hop back up to their feet without injury to run off, or in some cases just mysteriously vanish altogether. It was becoming more and more obvious to them that this was no normal raiding party. Rev. John Emerson would write of some of these bizarre incidents:

On July 14, Bapson and Brown, with the rest of the men in the Garrison, saw, within Gun-shot, half a dozen men; whereupon all the men, but one, made haste out of the Garrison, marching towards them. Bapson presently overtook two of them, which run out of the Bushes, and coming close to them, he presented his Gun at them, and his Gun missing fire, the two men Returned into the Bushes. Bapson then called unto the other persons, which were on the other side of the Swamp, and upon his call, they made Answer, “Here they are! Here they are!” Bapson then running to meet them, Saw Three men walk softly out of the Swamp by each other’s Side; the middlemost having on a white Waistcoat. So being within Two or Three Rod of them, he Shot, and as soon as his Gun was off, they all fell down. Bapson then running to his supposed prey, cried out unto his Companions, whom he heard on the other side of the Swamp, and said, he had kill’d Three! he had kill’d Three! But coming almost unto them, they all rose up, and one of them Shot at him, and hearing the Bullet whiss by him, he ran behind a Tree, and Loaded his Gun, and seeing them lye behind a Log, he crept toward them again, telling his Companions, they were here! So, his Companions came up to him, and they all Ran directly to the Log, with all speed; but before they got thither, they saw them start up, and run every man his way; One of them run into the Corn, whom they pursued, and hemm’d in; and Bapson seeing him coming toward himself, Shot at him, as he was getting over the Fence, and saw him fall off the Fence on the Ground, but when he came to the Spot, he could not find him. So they all searched the Corn; and as they were searching, they heard a great Discoursing in the Swamp, but could not understand what they said; for they spoke in an unknown Tongue.

 

After a fruitless hunt, during which the stout-hearted Colonists heard a loud talking going on in the swamp, in some outlandish jargon they could not understand a word of, they returned, crestfallen and half dead with fatigue, to the garrison, in order to report their ill success. But no sooner were they back there, than they saw more men skulking among the bushes, who prudently kept out of gunshot. What could it all mean? In the course of a few days more, two of the garrison went out upon a scout, who saw several men come out of an orchard, in which they seemed to be performing some strange incantations. They counted eleven of them. Richard Dolliver raised his gun and fired into the midst of them, where they stood the thickest, but of course without other effect than to make them scatter as before. It now being clear that the strange visitors bore a charmed life, and that the Cape was in great peril from this diabolical invasion, the end of which no man could foresee, the aid of the surrounding towns was invoked in this truly alarming crisis.

Even when they called in reinforcements in the form of a troop of 60 well-armed men, this did little good, as all of their firing and fighting had no effect, those mysterious figures still circling about and taunting them. Charles M. Skinner would write in his book, Myths and Legends of our own Land:

A reinforcement of sixty men from Ipswich, led by Captain Appleton, coming promptly to the rescue, gave the garrison much encouragement, beleaguered round as they were by the Powers of Darkness, against which lead and steel were of no more effect than snowballs or rushes would have been. For a fortnight they had been kept in continual alarm, night and day. The infernal visitants showed themselves first in one place and then in another, to draw out and harass them, until a foeman seemed lurking in every bush. Though repeatedly shot at, none could be killed. They threw stones, beat upon barns with clubs, and otherwise acted more in the spirit of diabolical revelry than as if actuated by any deadlier purpose. They moved about the swamps without leaving any tracks, like ordinary beings. In short, it was evident that such adversaries as these were, must be fought with other weapons besides matchlocks and broadswords; consequently, a strange fear fell upon the Cape. Stones were thrown, barns were beaten with clubs, the marching of unseen hosts was heard after dark, and the mockers grew so bold that they ventured close to the redoubtable Ebenezer Babson, who gazed scornfully down the barrel of his gun, and laid a charm on the weapon, so that, no matter how often he snapped it at them, it flashed in the pan. Neighboring garrisons were summoned, but, all battling with goblins was fruitless.

This sinister siege continued for a fortnight, with none of the intruders ever able to be killed or even hurt, continuing their strange rituals and jabbering away in their alien language. Then, after an escalation in activity from these demonic forces, it would suddenly come to an end. Skinner would write:

Finally they became still more insolently bold, and so far from showing the same cowardly disposition to take to their heels whenever they were chased, they now treated their pursuers with open contempt. For instance, seeing three of the unknown approaching him one morning, walking slowly and apparently unmindful of any danger, Babson ensconced himself behind some bushes to lie in wait for them. He held his fire until they were come within a stone’s throw before he pulled the trigger. But to his unspeakable dismay his gun flashed in the pan, though he repeatedly snapped it at the phantoms, who took no other notice of him than to give him a disdainful look as they walked by. It being settled that these insults proceeded from spectres, and not from beings who were vulnerable to weapons of mortal make, the unequal contest was abandoned.

 

One night, a dark and hostile throng emerged from the wood and moved toward the blockhouse, where 20 musketeers were keeping guard. “If you be ghosts or devils I will foil you,” cried the captain, and tearing a silver button from his doublet he rammed it into his gun and fired on the advancing host. Even as the smoke of his musket was blown on the wind, so did the beleaguering army vanish, the silver bullet proving that they were not of humankind.” The night was wearing on when a cry went out that the devils were coming again. Arms were laid aside this time, and the watchers sank to their knees in prayer. Directly after the name of God was uttered, the marching ceased and heaven rang with the howls of the angry fiends. Never again were leaguers seen in Gloucester.

After this, the phenomenon completely stopped, and we are left to wonder why it went away or if any of it ever was real at all. Although it all has the ring of urban legend, at least Bapson swore under oath that it was all true, never deviating from his story.  What was going on here, and what were these ghostly forces that descended upon this rural hamlet at the time? Were they ghosts, demons, or merely pure myth and legend? There is no way to really know for sure, and it remains just one more bizarre and compelling historical case that seems to defy easy classification.