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Legends & Lore of Cape Cod: An Interview with author Robin Smith-Johnson
Cape Cod has a rich tradition of local lore, stretching back to a time before the Pilgrims arrived. Ancient Wampanoag legends like Granny Squannit and Princess Scargo are as familiar as tales of pirates and explorers, including "Black Sam" Bellamy and Donald Baxter Macmillan. Felines often blocked "Cat's Alley" in pursuit of food from fishermen's boats. The remnants of Billingsgate Island can be seen at low tide, and visits from Jenny Lind and Helen Keller contrast with the mysterious stories of the "Lady of the Dunes" and New England's Dark Day. Author Robin Smith-Johnson shares historic tales of shipwrecks, murders, hauntings and more from the Cape.
Robin Smith-Johnson works as the newsroom librarian at the Cape Cod Times and teaches in the English department at Cape Cod Community College. She holds English degrees from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and she is the author of a book of poetry titled Dream of the Antique Dealer's Daughter (Word Poetry, 2013).
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Robin. Welcome to crime Capsule. We are so delighted to have you join us.
[00:00:59.010] - Robin
Oh, thank you so much, Benjamin. It's nice to be here.
[00:01:03.140] - Ben
So you are a native of Massachusetts, and you are a longtime resident of Cape Cod. Based on your previous books, I'm not sure anyone knows more about the area than you do. Would you tell us a little bit about some of your previous work?
[00:01:25.910] - Robin
Yes. Well, I'm actually a poet, and I've published two books of poetry. But I worked as the newsroom librarian at The Cape Cod Times for almost 20 years. And in 2009, I started a blog called Cape Rewind, meaning going back into the Cape Cod history. And where I worked had a wonderful array of old clip files and books and manuscripts. And so I was happy when I started my blog that I was able to collect these stories. And in 2015, a history press rep contacted me about doing a book. So that really is where it all started.
[00:02:11.020] - Ben
Were you publishing these stories in the Times as sort of an occasional column or a piece or sort of retrospective from time to time?
[00:02:19.610] - Robin
That's interesting. A few of them did make the paper the print edition, but mostly they were online so that people could click on the Cape Rewind link and listen to it or read it.
[00:02:32.590] - Ben
What drew you, Robin, to the region's history? Sometimes we can live in a place and be sort of surrounded by it, but be unaffected by it or not compelled. But in this particular case, you really took to it, didn't you?
[00:02:45.810] - Robin
Yes. And I would say part of that was because of my dad, who loved everything Cape Cod, and he was especially interested in the outermost house. We lived in Orleans and Brewster, and he used to go walking the dunes to try to find it, and I think he never did find it. And unfortunately, it blew away in the blizzard of 78. But that was sort of my introduction to wanting to know more about Cape Cod history.
[00:03:13.760] - Ben
Now, is there a particular legend associated with the outermost house?
[00:03:19.690] - Robin
No, the writer Henry Beston bought it back in the 30s or forty s and lived there and chronicled a year of living on the dunes. So it wasn't a legend. It was more historical fact that he lived there and wrote about it.
[00:03:37.380] - Ben
It's an amazing region and has drawn people from so many different walks of life over the years. When I was an undergraduate, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I got to study the life and work and paintings of Edward hopper. And I was always so taken by Hopper's work in that area and the lighthouses that he painted. He took trips all the time up there and came back with just these amazing images. They're so stark and they're so moving, and just the quality of the light is really something, isn't it?
certainly are many legends and lores that I found in my historical research, and that is sort of the genesis of my first book, legends and Lore of Cape Cod. Yeah.
[00:04:29.570] - Ben
I wanted to ask you how these books came about. Legends and Lore was your first. And then Cape Cod Curiosities came out in 2018, just a little bit before the pandemic. What was the genesis of these?
[00:04:43.590] - Robin
Well, as I had said, I was approached by History Press to do the first book, and my first response was, oh, I don't know, but I decided to go for it, and I'm so glad that I did. And I used a lot of the blog material, but it was in my contract. I couldn't use I had to have at least 30% new material. So then I spent a lot of time digging through the archives and coming up with some new stories. And then after that book was published, I did a series of talks and lectures, and one day I thought, I really have enough material for another book. And I kind of like the idea that Legends and Lore wouldn't hang out on the bookshelves by itself, so I decided to do another one.
[00:05:33.380] - Ben
Now, were you continually finding sort of new little snippets and nuggets in these archives and you were thinking, this is just too good to pass up and had to go from there?
[00:05:45.390] - Robin
Yes. Well, for example, there was a big interest in Tony Costa, who was the murder p town murder and dismembered several young women in Turo. And so for my second book, I thought, well, I have all the files right here. I should be using that as well. So that was one particular story that I didn't blog about, but that did find its way into my second book.
[00:06:16.150] - Ben
No, it's interesting because these two volumes, they are they're kind of like compendia, aren't they? I mean, they're not sort of straightforward narratives where you have one story that you're telling from beginning to end. You actually have dozens and dozens and dozens of these stories. And I was curious, what kind of system did you use to keep track of everything? You're a librarian. You know how to keep things organized. How did you do that?
[00:06:42.780] - Robin
Yeah, I really did it by subject, actually. This will sound amazing, but when I got the go ahead from History Press, I sat down and wrote out a list of chapter headings, and it literally took me about five minutes. Pirates, sea captains, ghosts, UFOs I mean, whatever the subject was. And then once I had that list, I just started putting in the different stories that went with each. But what would happen is at the paper I did a lot of research for the editors and reporters. So often if I was researching a subject, I might find a story or a clip that was sort of in the same little packet, and I'd love to go through them. And that's how I came across some of the more unusual stories that I publish.
[00:07:41.270] - Ben
Now, when folks think Cape Cod, they think Nor Easters, but do they commonly think pirates, sea captains, ghosts and UFOs? Because that doesn't immediately come to mind for me.
[00:07:53.590] - Robin
Yeah, I see what you're saying. You know what? Those are some of my interests. I think that's why I mean, obviously no one thinks of Cape Cod is a UFO mecca, but like Roswell, New Mexico. But there have been some sightings.
[00:08:07.910] - Ben
All it takes is one. So let's talk about Edward Snow. Down here in Louisiana, we have a very prized category of individual, whether it's a politician or a business leader or what have you, whom we call the colorful character, right? And anybody who's ever followed Southern politics knows probably a little bit about Edwin Edwards as a colorful character and Huey P. Long and the rest. But every state has their own colorful characters, and you have a whole chapter of them in Cape Cod. Curiosities I was delighted to see Edward Gorey. That was a great addition to the list. There's a local win for you guys, but boy, do you have one in Edward Snow. What a guy. Now, what is his story and where did he come from and how did he end up doing what he did as a flying Santa Claus?
[00:09:05.870] - Robin
Well, he grew up in New England and he was drawn to the sea. And in fact, after he graduated from Harvard, he went he for about nine years, went on different seaboats and voyages, and he decided to do it when he was young enough to enjoy it. So he started writing about the harbors of New England and ghost stories, and that's really sort of the genesis. And then he later became a columnist for the Patriot Ledger. And so he was not only writing but also giving talks. He traveled all around New England, but he loved to sail and he was very athletic. He was also a photographer. He loved to photograph lighthouses. And that's really how he started. He became the Flying Santa because a friend of his was already doing this, where they would every Christmas they would go to rural areas of New England, particularly lighthouses, and drop Christmas packages. And these packages had toys and suites, but also things like packs of cigarettes and his latest copy of his books.
[00:10:34.730] - Ben
Well, that's one way to get them to your audience, I suppose, if you don't give them anything else to read.
[00:10:42.730] - Robin
But it's interesting because sometimes the packages went astray. And I found one cute story on the Cape Cove Times website that a lighthouse keeper and his family were waiting for their drop at Christmas and they couldn't find it. They found it in March, but they had a lot of fun looking for it all through those months.
[00:11:06.560] - Ben
Those strong tides, I guess. Can carry a package anywhere it wants to go. Now, Snow was we'll come back to Santa in a minute, but you write that he was a historian, that he was we were talking about expertise in historical research, and this guy is the experts expert. You right that he was the author of something like 95 books on the region's history.
[00:11:32.810] - Robin
Yes, he was widely published, and I think he was really beloved. People took to his writing, and I think that he wasn't perhaps an academic, but that he was able to weave tales that really spoke to people. And as I said, too, he would travel all over New England giving talks. So I think that was one thing that endeared him to people, even beyond the Flying Santa legend that built up around him.
[00:12:07.030] - Ben
I was struck by your description of these talks because they sounded so much like and I'm going to forget the exact phrase that you used here, but that they sounded so much like the Antiquarians of the 17th and 18th century, traveling around Europe with the cabinets of Curiosities, the Vondercomaran. Right? I mean, this is basically what he had, wasn't it was sort of a modern day Vundercommer, right?
[00:12:34.240] - Robin
Well, for example, he would carry with him a book that was bound in human skin. He had a pair of baby booties, and also it said that he took some souvenirs from the Widow, which had shipwrecked off of Wellfleet in 1717 and was later discovered by Barry Clifford. But supposedly in 1947, he was he and another person were able to retrieve some items from that shipwreck. So that was also something that he showed to people when he went on his talks.
[00:13:09.370] - Ben
You know, I have to say, when I first started reading about him, I did not expect to encounter the job description of pirate ship salvager among his many credentials. It's pretty impressive. Now, what were the rules surrounding that in those days? This was in the 40s or 50s that he was sort of looking at the wreck. Could anyone just sort of if they could get down there and get a piece, they could just have it? Or were there more sort of formal regulations surrounding this sort of thing?
[00:13:41.910] - Robin
I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing there weren't probably many regulations regarding shipwreck salvage, but it would be interesting to do a little more research on that.
[00:13:53.690] - Ben
Well, let me ask you this. He becomes the Flying Santa, but when had he actually become a pilot?
[00:14:03.770] - Robin
You know what? That's an interesting question because I'm not really sure. In my reading, he actually accompanied the former Flying Santa because he was a photographer. But at some point, yes, he must have gotten his pilot's license and he traveled with on these holiday junkets. He traveled with his wife and daughter, and I guess it was the daughter later described it as being scary because they would be flying so low and also making adjustments in order to make the drop and then also to kind of swing back around to make sure that the packages arrived where they were supposed to. And probably nowadays all of those maneuvers.
[00:14:49.830] - Ben
Would be illegal at the very, very least. Or of course, now we're in the days of sort of drone delivery, aren't we? And I'm always charmed when I hear of good old boys in rural Arkansas shooting the drones out of the sky with a shotgun because who knows what it's bringing right now? I did want to ask you, Robin, because the mechanism of this is kind of interesting. When he was delivering a package to a lighthouse, when he was dropping one off, how would they actually get it? Would he drop it on land and then somebody would have to sort of run out and go for it? Or if there was a lighthouse that was actually in the sea, would he drop it at sea or was there a platform he would aim for? I mean, how does it work?
[00:15:39.210] - Robin
I doubt they would drop it into the ocean. And most of the lighthouses were on land, of course, either on an island or a promontory. I don't think they really had much control over where the packages went. But I do have a cute story. I gave a talk a few years ago, and this man said that when he was very young, he lived on Nantucket. And he remembered every year it was a big day, the kids would get dressed up and they would all go out and wait for the Flying Santa to come. But there are accounts that often the packages didn't go where they were supposed to and sometimes were discovered six months to a year later. So it was kind of wasn't a science.
[00:16:33.890] - Ben
No, of course. And I assure you, you that I am not here to offer any kind of oh, I could have done that better. I mean, I've never conducted a Christmas bombing run on the New England coach, so I have no expertise to bring to the table. I'm just so curious about it. It is such a lovely story in such generosity. Do you know, did he purchase all of these items himself? Was this sort of just a donation on his part to these lighthouse keepers?
[00:17:05.120] - Robin
Yeah, well, in one article I read, which was actually published in Harvard Magazine, I guess that he and his wife collected items all through the year and, yeah, he financed all of it. So they often lived on kind of a shoestring budget so they could afford it, which I think it makes him an even more honorable character. Really?
[00:17:30.340] - Ben
That really is something. Yeah. No, absolutely. And you can just imagine the joy it must have brought so many families in the area, just to hear the plane engine coming right. You know, to just sort of like you can hear it before you see it, you know, sort of thing. I mean, that's just about as as miraculous as you can possibly get, that kind of that kind of generosity. Now, you write that he undertook this mission, if I may phrase it in such a way, for 44 years. So he was born in the early 19 hundreds. He died in the early he had served in World War II sort of for a minute, appropriately, on a bombers crew, you know.
[00:18:17.150] - Robin
Right. Well, he was wounded. Yeah, he was wounded and then sent back home.
[00:18:20.740] - Ben
Right. And then it was sometime around then that he began this annual visit. I mean, 44 years. That is really something. Are there any memorials to him? Are there any sort of, like, observances? Does there anyone carried on the tradition of being the flying Santa after he passed?
[00:18:44.150] - Robin
Yes, I believe there is still a flying Santa. I don't know the person's name, but I believe it's a tradition that has carried on. there's a memorial plaque on George's Island in Boston Harbor, and he was instrumental in saving I believe it's Fort Wayne that was there, and another fort had been destroyed when Logan Airport was built. So he was instrumental in saving the surviving fort that was there. And I'm sure that there are other memorials to him. That's the one I know about.
[00:19:34.100] - Ben
Well, that is extraordinary. You know, as they say, not all heroes wear capes, and not all Santas. Not all Santas ride slaves. Right.
[00:19:47.130] - Robin
Oh, Benjamin, can I tell you a cute story? When I was sent my cover for my book, I noticed that on the COVID of Cape Cog Curiosities, underneath Jeremiah's gutter and above pukwaji's is a picture of the plane that Snow piloted, and the caption read, the historian who flew with Santa. And I thought, no. So I wrote back, I said, no, it's got to be the historian who flew as Santa.
[00:20:23.490] - Ben
Right. There is a difference. There's a major difference there.
[00:20:29.830] - Robin
So thankfully, I caught that, and they were able to fix that copy on.
[00:20:35.150] - Ben
The COVID Yeah, it would be a little bit different of A Christmas story if somebody was driving Santa himself and sort of throwing copies of their PhD dissertation out the side. Hopefully, we can spare our children that ignominy. Now, there are a number of wonderful stories in your book, Robin. You really run the gamut of all different kinds of tales of local legends, local lore, local colorful characters. You've got wartime stories. You've got sort of Victorian era stories. You've got storm stories, you have so many stories in your book. And I absolutely encourage our listeners, if they love New England history and Cape Cod history, they have to go and check it out. But of course, the last question that I have for you is really kind of a surprise question, which is we have just finished a series on the paranormal, and we spent eight weeks traveling coast to coast looking at all sorts of different haunted sites and abandoned mines and sort of spectral hotels and all sorts of things. And I was delighted to see that you have a chapter on ghosts and the paranormal in Cape Cod. And not only do you have a chapter on ghosts and the paranormal in Cape Cod, but you have a ghost story of your very own.
[00:22:08.200] - Ben
So as a Christmas gift to our listeners, would you tell us a little fireside ghost story just to ring out the old year and to ring in the new?
[00:22:19.450] - Robin
Oh, sure. Well, when I was ten years old, my parents moved were about to move us into an old house in East Orleans and it was a big house with a breezeway and a barn attached, and my parents ultimately opened an antique shop there and it was a wonderful place to grow up. However, before we moved in, my grandparents were scheduled to stay there for a week to kind of open it up. They were there one night. It was so noisy with footsteps and rustlings. So when we moved in, there wasn't a lot of ghostly activity. But often my bedroom was on the second floor. Often at night, it felt like somebody was sitting on the edge of my bed. And there was also a lot of rapping and sounds that seemed odd. And then in the few weeks before we moved out, when I was 20, a series of things happened. One day we were sitting in the living room and all of a sudden all the windows shut simultaneously.
[00:23:27.640] - Ben
And that's weird.
[00:23:28.520] - Robin
It was very scary. And then another day I was looking out the window and we I have two sisters and a brother, so we had a fleet of bicycles that were waiting for us and as I watched, they all fell over at the same time. So there were lots of little poltergeist type activity. Also, one day my mother walked into the kitchen and the kitchen had low ceilings and the whole place always felt a little haunted. And as she was looking out the window, she saw a face hovering there and she was very frightened. And it's interesting because we lived there for ten years and afterwards I have met people who have lived there since and they always ask about the ghost. So I don't think it was just in our imagination.
[00:24:18.570] - Ben
Yeah. Did your mother recognize this face that she saw?
[00:24:24.470] - Robin
No, but it's interesting because at the Orleans Snow Library, there are photos of our house back in like, 1895. And at one time, the local undertaker lived in that house with his family. And supposedly when the I think it's the Portland Steamer went to sea in 1898, a lot of the bodies were brought to our house and stored in the barn because there wasn't room for all of them in the funeral home in town. And supposedly there was even a bloodstain. But my dad was a big kidter, so I don't know how much of that was his imagination.
[00:25:08.030] - Ben
Okay. I had promised everybody that there was going to be no crime in this episode, that this is going to be our first ever crime free episode of crime capsule. And I'm genuinely worried, Robin, that I'm going to have to take that promise back. Are you saying the undertaker brought his work home and maybe there was some sort of nefarious going on?
[00:25:32.550] - Robin
No, it wasn't nefarious. I think it's just there wasn't room for all the bodies from the shipwreck because there were like 200 people who drowned. Okay, so the funeral home couldn't hold them all. So he the legend was that he brought some of them and stored them in the second floor of the building. It wasn't nefarious.
[00:25:55.060] - Ben
This was above board, so to speak, I guess figuratively and literally. Okay, I got you. Even so, to have grown up in a house like that, I was struck by the notion that you write that you think these ghosts were upset at your leaving the house. How interesting.
[00:26:16.340] - Robin
Yeah, I think we all thought that they had kind of gotten used to us and didn't want us to leave. And also, if there's time, the people who owned the house before us, who we knew my parents were friendly with, there was the kitchen and then there was like a little hallway and the door that went into the dining room. And the door was hard to open. I don't know whether it was spring mechanism, but it was hard to open. But when she would read at night in the dining room, the door would swing open and continually swing back and forth. So that was considered one of the ghost activities before we moved in.
[00:27:02.470] - Ben
I tell you what. For any visitors to Cape Cod, it sounds like whether they are going to be watching out for suspicious activity in their houses with doors and windows and spectral faces or whether they are going to be looking up into the sky hearing the sounds of engines approaching and Christmas presents sort of raining down upon them. I have to say it sounds like there is a lot to watch out for out on the peninsula. So thank you so much for joining us. You have really brought some Christmas cheer, you and Edward Snow, both to our hearts. So we really appreciate it.
If folks want to find out more about your particular work, Robin, where can they go to do so?
[00:28:08.650] - Robin
Well, they can go to Amazon. The books are on Amazon and also Arcadia Publishing. Or you can Google Legends and Lore of Cape Cod. Or Cape Cod curiosities.
[00:28:25.570] - Ben
All right, sounds good. Well, thank you again so much for joining us. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you.