Power of place

Exploring a New England ghost town in person, and on the page
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  January 29, 2010

AN EXHORTATION FROM THE LAND Roger Babson's boulders, carved with moral messages.

Two days before Christmas, I got lost in Dogtown, a 3000-acre wooded expanse in Gloucester, Massachusetts. It was one of those scary types of not being able to find your way — the sun is sinking, the snow is halfway up your shins, the map is apparently useless, and every turn looks the same as the one before. I tried to stay upbeat for the sake of my companion's morale. But the truth tumbled out later, over beers and sandwiches at a North Shore bar: We'd both been terrified. And that was before we even knew the whole story.

I'd arranged the trip (Dogtown is about an hour and a half south of Portland) because I was planning to write about Elyssa East's new book, Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town. The book tells three interwoven stories: the first, a journalistic exposition about the 1984 murder of Anne Natti, a young schoolteacher, and the trial of her accused murderer, a local recluse named Peter Hodgkins; the second, straight-up historical non-fiction about Dogtown itself, a former colonial settlement that was all but abandoned by the mid-1800s and has developed in fits and starts over the years; and the third, an exploration of the creative minds (including East's) that this landscape has inspired.

Although it centers on a town in Massachusetts, the book feels intimately tied to Maine; East lived here briefly (and returns to read at Borders in South Portland on February 3, and at the Salt Institute on February 12), and her own Dogtown quest was inspired by a Marsden Hartley painting (Hartley was one of Maine's most famous sons, who was himself artistically moved by Dogtown). Beyond these superficial connections, Dogtown and Gloucester are so imbued with a sense of hardscrabble New England Americana that their legends and lore could easily have been plucked from our coastal cities and towns.

Thank goodness, though, that on December 23, I hadn't yet read Dogtown (I was saving it for my holiday vacation). Had I already absorbed East's tome, with its combination of true-crime intrigue and moody story-telling, its tales of murders and witches and demons (both real and imagined), I might not have been able to keep up the cheerful charade. I might have succumbed to my fears, to my sense that someone was watching, to my irrational dread of lurking madmen in the woods.

And I wouldn't have been alone. The characters in East's book, including herself, all acknowledge that there's something different about Dogtown — not least the fact that the landscape is littered by enormous glacial boulders, which Bible-thumper Roger Babson in the early 1900s had inscribed with mottoes to encourage the sober, industrious life (such as KEEP OUT OF DEBT, STUDY, INTEGRITY, INTELLIGENCE, IDEAS, INDUSTRY, KINDNESS, and IDEALS), hoping to "turn the area's eerie boulders into principled counterforces against society's ills."

East wonders: "Was Dogtown some woodland Bermuda Triangle or something altogether different? The area seemed to exist according to its own set of principles, as if the most likely thing one would ever meet here was the mesmerizing experience of the place itself. This was no distant wilderness, but there were times when it felt like one."

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Related: Book Review: The Tin Drum, 2009: The year in books, Interview: Raj Patel, More more >
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