I wrote the first, initial version of this article, “Devil Names and Fortean Places,” in Fortean Times, no. 29, Summer 1979. It has morphed through the years.
It has been updated and enhanced. Most recently, the chapter was included in the newly revised Mysterious America (Simon & Schuster, 2006).
My book has a variety of cryptozoology, other name game, and Forteana chapters too.
New attention, tweets, and Facebook comments were directed at this classic chapter, due to the recent blog posting of Ohio author Chris Woodyard,
entitled “The Road to Perition: Hell Located.”
I felt it might be worthwhile to share a version of that chapter here, today, for your reading curiosity and enjoyment.
Devil Names and Fortean Places
When Western Europeans landed in the New World and began spreading across what was later to become America, they discovered what the Amerindians already knew…there were some strange places in this new land. Certain locations were “strange” because the early explorers and settlers would see, hear, smell or feel strange things-weird globes of light, eerie screechings, sickening sweet odors, cold drafts of air as well as unknown aerial phenomena, mystery animals and other “inexplicables.” The interface between these newcomers and the decidedly unexplainable phenomena produced place-names that attempted to reflect the notion that the locales were special, different and, indeed, strange. The names can take many forms, but I have long noticed an American historical acknowledgement of Forteana-ridden places by the use of the work “devil” in the naming of these locations. A few examples will illustrate this point.
Some of the more frequent sightings of California’s phantom black panthers occur in the Diablo (Spanish for “devil”) Valley east of San Francisco. The Las Trampas Regional Park booklet notes the black cat is referred to as “The Black Mountain Lion of Devil’s Hole” because it is frequently seen on the slopes of Mt. Diablo and in the Devil’s Hole area of the park. Mystery lights also turn up in the Mt. Diablo-Diablo Valley area frequently.
In 1873, a live frog was found in a slab of limestone in a mine on Mt. Diablo, and in 1806, Spanish General Vallejo encountered a man-like apparition (which had exotic plumage and made “diving movements”) while battling the Bolgones Indians. Monte del Diablo is a very strange place.
The territory known as Devil’s Kitchen in southern Illinois was avoided by the region’s Amerindians because of their awareness of its sinister nature. Southern Illinois, in general, is a frequent host to mystery animals and UFOs as well as the site of pre-Columbian stone walls which form a rough alignment between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
Near Grand Tower, also in southern Illinois, is a small rocky hill known as the Devil’s Bake Oven. South of that prominence is a longer hill known as the Devil’s Backbone. Speaking of the Devil’s Bake Oven, folklorist John W. Allen observes: “On those nights when the hill was flooded with gentle moonlight, visitors would report that they had seen a weird and mistlike creature…floating silently across their pathway to disappear among the rocks or in the dense bushes on the hillside. This disappearance was often followed by moans, wails and shrieks such as only a ghost can make.”
Devil’s Lake of Wisconsin has its share of geological oddities such as glacier scratches on unusual rock formations and petrified sand waves of an ancient sea, but it is the Amerindian mounds that are especially interesting. Three major effigy mounds are located in Devil’s Lake State Park. One in the shape of a bear and another, which resembles a lynx, are at the north end of the lake. A bird-shaped mound is at the southern end. Did the moundbuilders wish to acknowledge real animals or phantom creature forms that haunted the shores of Devil’s Lake?
From nearby Baraboo (a mere three miles north of Devil’s Lake on Wisconsin 123), stories were circulating in the seventies of giant ghost elephants. Or were they mastodons? August Derleth, author and follower of H. P. Lovecraft, likes this area of southcentral Wisconsin because he felt it contains “Cthulhu power zones.”
During the summer of 1970, campers at Devil’s Lake complained of shadowy “somethings” prowling around their tents. Department of Natural Resources personnel stated that no bears are found in the area. However, Bigfoot accounts are well known from Wisconsin. Devil’s Lake is also the location of an 1889 lake monster report. Additionally, the surface of the lake is broken with the ghostly wake of a phantom canoe seen in the mists of cold, still nights. The place does have an aura about it. Folklore tells of an Indian maiden and her lover leaping to their deaths. In general, the site is said to be a “place of many dead.”
Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, is a spooky spot.
One of my favorite examples of the reflection of Fortean phenomena via a “devil name” comes from one corner of the inland town of Chester, New Hampshire, on Rattlesnake Hill. A cavern there of “great notoriety in all the country round” bears the name Devil’s Den. According to local legends, the path leading to the cave “was always kept open, in summer and winter, by the passing to and fro of the evil spirits who frequented the place, though themselves invisible to the eyes of mortal men.”
The poet J. G. Whittier put the Devil’s Den traditions into verse, and the following two stanzas from his poem “Devil’s Den” give deep insight into bedeviled places in general:
‘Tis said that this cave is an evil place
Simply stated, the strange events of the past are often remembered in the geographical names of the area. Place names can be a Fortean’s clue to the “haunted vale.” By 1983, I had found one hundred and twenty-five places with “devil names” in the United States, and I am finding more correlations with this list and Forteana every day. (See Appendix V.) I suspect many more etymological connections exit. My list of “devil names” is just the tip of the pitchfork. Indeed, Henry Franzoni, a researcher living in the Pacific Northwest with a remarkable names database, told me that as of 1998, he had found 2,635 places named (or which were named) Devil, Diablo, or Diabla in the United States.
In a related vein is the native Algonquian word for the Devil-”Hockomock”-which I have written more about in Curious Encounters. Franzoni has found a total of ten places in the US named “Hockomock,” six in Maine, where I now live, two in Massachusetts, one in New Jersey (Hockamik), and one in Minnesota (Hockamin Creek). One of these, the Hockomock Swamp in the Bridgewater (Massachusetts) Triangle, is discussed in the next chapter. It is a place where people vanish and creatures like giant snakes, Bigfoot, Thunderbirds, and phantom panthers are seen. I first talked to Hockomock-area residents and Native Americans about the meaning of the name “Hockomock” to discover its link to the word “Devil.” Then I looked in a Depression-era Writers Project Administration (WPA) guide, the one on Massachusetts, and found it defined the variant name for the swamp, “Hoccomocco,” as “evil spirit.”
By the way, the WPA guides are wonderful books for tracking down the origins of place names. One of my favorites is the story behind Lake Manitou, Indiana. “Manitou” is an Indian word demonstrating some power and connection to the unknown-”The Great Spirit,” similar in a fashion to what we are talking about here regarding “devil.” According the WPA guide for Indiana (page 436), Lake Manitou was inhabited by three “monster devilfish” that began destroying all the fish there after arriving from Lake Michigan. “They even drove the wild game away, for when the buffalo, elk, deer, and other animals came to the lake to drink, fearsome serpentine tentacles shot out and dragged them beneath the surface of the murky water.” The prayers of the Natives exterminated the monsters and out of gratitude, they named the lake after the Great Spirit. While the exact details of the encounters may be shrouded in folkloric overtones, the underlying nature of such stories are an intriguing bit of evidence for some historical links to real events, as we have seen over and over again. The land reveals its secrets for those who wish to look.
The United Kingdom, likewise, abounds with fertile devil sites for the curious researcher. Evan Hadingham in Circles and Standing Stones writes: “There are countless names and stories connecting ancient sites with giants and devils, such as the Devil’s Arrows alignments at Boroughbridge, Yorkshire, or the name Devil’s Quoits associated with Stanton Drew.”
Geographical “devil names” worldwide may indicate, as they seem to in America, locales high in Fortean energy and strangeness. These places deserve some extra attention, for from the stray sod to the fairy ring, from the haunted glen to the Devil’s Den, there lies many a riddle to unfold.
Copyright © Loren Coleman. For more,
see Mysterious America (Simon & Schuster, 2006)