The photo here, below, is of just an old English church, right? Well, yes it is. But this one is a bit different. Like so many other villages in the ancient county of Devon, England, Widecombe-in-the-Moor has a curious history attached to it. On October 21, 1638, the village church, St. Pancras, was badly damaged by a lightning strike that killed four people and injured sixty-two. It transpires that there is far more than initially meets the eye with respect to this particular lightning strike. At the time of its occurrence, the clergyman was one George Lyde, who was born at Berry Pomeroy in 1601, and who was standing in the pulpit when the lightning struck. Fortunately, he narrowly avoided serious injury – if not death, even. Interestingly, although at the time the event was seen as the work of the Devil, there's a school of thought that suggests the event was caused by that rare aerial phenomenon known as ball-lightning. Indeed, the phenomenon that led to both death and severe injury in the church was said to have been provoked by nothing less than a "great ball of fire."
Strangely enough, this event had eerie parallels with a very similar incident at St. Mary's Church, Bungay, Suffolk, England, on Sunday 4 August 1577, when an immense, spectral, fiery-eyed black hound materialized within the church during a powerful thunderstorm and mercilessly tore into the terrified congregation with its huge fangs and claws. So powerful was the storm that it reportedly killed two men in the belfry as the church tower received an immense lightning bolt that tore through it and shook the building to its very foundations. According to an old, local verse: "All down the church in midst of fire, the hellish monster flew. And, passing onward to the quire, he many people slew."
Then as suddenly as it had appeared, the beast bounded out of St. Mary’s and was reported shortly thereafter at Blythburgh Church, about twelve miles away, where it killed and mauled even more people with its immense and bone-crushing jaws – and where, it is said, the scorch marks of the beast’s claws can still be seen imprinted on the ancient door of the church. Ball-lightning, churches, storms, ghostly black-dogs, deaths, injuries - what was going on? I have no idea, but I do have one other thing to add: the absolute weirdness of the Phantom Black Dogs of the U.K. When I took the photo above (in the early summer of 2001), I was actually in the village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor for an entirely different (but equally odd) reason, namely to arrange an interview with an elderly doctor who claimed knowledge of a so-called "hairy wildman" seen roaming around the county back in the 1940s! Now, let's look further at the Phantom Black Dog mystery.
Accounts of glowing-eyed, huge black hounds of an ominous and sometimes deadly kind – and which can take on multiple forms – are significant parts of the story this article tells. They are among the most feared of all shapeshifters, primarily because they are linked to the realm of the dead and the afterlife. If you think it’s tough to serve a life-long jail sentence today, you may want to take a look at life in England’s Newgate Prison, circa the latter part of the 1500s. To say that existence was grim for those destined to die within the infamous prison would be an understatement of epic proportions. And particularly so when you’re also faced with fighting off a marauding entity that is part-human and part-monstrous hound. But, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. A bit of background on Newgate Prison is first required. The origins of this particularly notorious jail date back to 1188, which was the year in which its huge, creaking doors were first opened. Such was the level of violence that existed in lawless England at the time, the facility was constantly being added to, specifically to cope with the ever-growing band of murderers, rapists, and thieves that came its way. In other words, business was not just good: it was positively blooming. Things remained that way until its doors were finally shut, in 1902.
It was, however, in the 1500s that Newgate Prison earned its reputation as a definitive hellhole. During this period food for the people of London was at its lowest. Malnutrition, starvation, and death were very much the order of the day. Behind the walls of Newgate, however, things were even worse. If such a thing was possible. Yes, unfortunately, it was. Old texts and manuscripts tell of nightmarish scenarios in which the starving, desperate prisoners turned upon one another, literally eating each other alive in cramped, filthy cells and amid a sickening and ever-growing stench of rotting, human flesh. One of those manuscripts, written by Samuel Rowlands, has proven to be a very curious one. Its title, in quaint, old-English style, was The Discovery of a London Monster, called The Blacke Dogg of Newgate: Profitable for all Readers to Take Heed by. Rowlands said that at the very height of the terrible, cannibalistic activity – which even the guards were fearful of trying to stop, lest they, too, became food for the prisoners – a huge black dog suddenly manifested in one of the larger cells, a cell that held more than a dozen criminals.
Rowlands continued that panic-filled mayhem erupted as the red-eyed, canine fiend rampaged around the room, tearing into the bodies of the emaciated prisoners, and ripping away skin, and crunching down on weakened bones. With the cell turned into what looked like some ghoulish slaughterhouse, and the prisoners all quickly and violently dead, the monstrous hound suddenly vanished – as if into thin air itself. Word quickly got around that the supernatural, killer dog was the shape-shifted form of one of the prisoners. He was a man who had been devoured by his fellow prisoners several days earlier, and who had returned in the form of a diabolical hound to take out his very own, unique form of lethal justice.
In 1902, one of the most famous, and still very much loved, novels of all time was published. We are talking about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, which had previously been serialized in the pages of The Strand Magazine, from 1901 to 1902. The book, which has been turned into numerous hit movies and television dramas, tells an adventurous and eerie story. Namely, that of Sherlock Holmes’ and Dr. Watson’s investigation of a murderous, supernatural black dog that haunts the perilous, foggy landscape of Dartmoor, Devon, England. The blazing-eyed beast tasks the intrepid pair to their absolute limits, before finally being defeated in a dramatic, late-night confrontation on the treacherous, foggy moor.
It is, however, a little known fact that Conan Doyle’s story was directly inspired by certain real-life events and characters. The creator of Holmes and Watson was, for example, very aware that, for centuries, reports of such huge, red-eyed hounds had widely been in circulation. And wildly, too. Numerous little villages throughout the U.K. spoke of the deadly, paranormal dogs in their very midst. They were almost always described as shapeshifters. Perhaps the most famous of all of the phantom hounds of old Britain are those that are said to have frequented – and that, in some cases, still frequent - the ancient roads and pathways of the English counties of Norfolk, Essex, Suffolk, and Sussex. Their names include Black Shuck, the Shug Monkey, and the Shock. The Shuck and the Shock are classic black dogs; whereas, interestingly enough, the Shug Monkey is described as a creature which can change from hound to monkey and back again. Even their very names have intriguing origins: while some researchers consider the possibility that all of the appellations had their origins in the word Shucky – a centuries-old word which means shaggy – others, such as monster-hunter Jonathan Downes, of the Center for Fortean Zoology, offers a far more sinister theory. In his book, Monster Hunter, Downes suggests that Shock, Shuck, and Shug are all based upon the Anglo-Saxon scucca, meaning "demon;" a most apt description, to be sure.