Some Adirondack myths and rumors never die. Which ones stand up to expert scrutiny?
Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 2007, the editors of Adirondack Life dug up the truth behind some of the region’s most outlandish tales.
Certain stories, no matter how outlandish, acquire a patina of truth if repeated often enough. Urban legends cajole us into believing that six-foot alligators patrol the sewer pipes beneath Times Square (they don’t), and that “Mikey,” of Life cereal commercial fame, died after swilling Pop Rocks and soda pop (he didn’t).
The Adirondacks has its own set of lore, rumors and lies that persist no matter how they stretch the bounds of credibility. Likewise, there are improbable truths that nobody believes, despite a granitic foundation in fact.
Champ, the legendary sea monster of Lake Champlain, is the poster child of Adirondack mythology. Frankly, we have nothing to add—not even an opinion—to the dense body of evidence proving or refuting the beast’s very existence. Believe what you want—as they say in marketing, perception is reality.
But following are twenty lesser-known rural legends that are habitually passed around North Country barrooms, campfires, ski lifts and senior centers. We ran them by the experts and tried to track them back to their sources in working memory and recorded history. After all, there’s a rational explanation for everything, right? We report. You decide.
Claim: The chemistry of Mirror Lake changes during Lake Placid’s Ironman triathlon swim competition
Status: Probably true
Origins: With a couple thousand athletes in the water for an hour or more, people got to wondering if all that, ah-hem, yellow stuff doesn’t alter the lake’s chemistry. Bill Billerman, president of the Mirror Lake Watershed Association, says, “I’ve heard that as well, but we cannot substantiate it. It’s nothing that we have tested for.” The association samples the water approximately twice a week for eight weeks in the summer. “I’m sure there is a temporary spike in pH, but Mirror Lake has—no pun intended—a fast flush,” he says, meaning the water replenishes itself relatively quickly. And the swim leg of the race is based right next to the lake’s outlet. “We have seen no long-term effects,” Billerman stresses.
Claim: A boy gone missing in 1971 was abducted by hippies
Status: Still unknown
Origins: Eight-year-old Douglas Legg disappeared from Great Camp Santanoni, in Newcomb, when he ran a short distance to the house to change from shorts into pants for a hike with his uncle. Exasperated searchers tried bloodhounds, clairvoyants, a mountain search-and-rescue team imported from California—all purported to be the best in their fields—but no sign of the child ever turned up. One of many theories was that free-living young people squatting in nearby cabins absconded with Legg to New York City, and maybe he even lives there today as a forty-four-year-old. Richard DePuy, of Saranac Lake, who was a New York State Police captain at the time, holds to the more-credible hypothesis that the undergrowth was so thick searchers simply “walked on the wrong side of the bush.”
Claim: A Herkimer County woman carried a fifty-year-old rock fetus in her womb
Origins: Upon her death at age seventy-seven, in 1852, the widow of Amos Eddy was autopsied and found to be carrying a full-term, six-pound calcified fetus, or lithopedion, according to Barney Fowler’s first Adirondack Album. At eight and a half months along in a pregnancy, the woman had become ill and never delivered. Her abdomen remained large, but she regained health and lived a fairly normal life. After the post-mortem, the stone-child was donated to Albany Medical College, the school recently confirmed.
Lithopedia is now understood as a rare complication in which a fetus dies but is too large to be absorbed by the body, so it calcifies to protect the mother from becoming infected by decaying tissue. It is more readily detected with modern medical imaging.
Claim: The lady in the lake actually turned to soap
Origins: In 1963 a group of divers, exploring caves more than a hundred feet below the surface of Lake Placid, dis-covered the body of fifty-six-year-old Mabel Smith Douglass, founder and former dean of the New Jersey College for Women at New Brunswick. Douglass, who had disappeared from her Camp Onondoga on the west shore of the lake thirty years earlier for reasons that are still a mystery—though most sources allege she had committed suicide—was found remarkably intact.
According to George Christian Ortloff ’s 1985 book, A Lady in the Lake: The True Account of Death and Discovery on Lake Placid, the body, when pulled from the water, was so fragile “the left arm, part of the right hand and the woman’s head came loose and fell back into the lake.” And the skin, writes Ortloff, felt like cold wax and was hard as a rock. The corpse “looked yellow, and the skin looked strange; thick, yet still transparent, like paraffin or soap or tallow candles.” To this day, tour boat captains love telling passengers how Douglass turned, essentially, to Dove.
Following an examination, pathologist James Utterback determined that the depth and extreme coldness of Douglass’s resting place caused her body to undergo “a chemical transformation called adipocere formation” where “the fatty tissues of the human flesh mingling with chemical salts in the cold water would gradually become something very much like soap, only hard, like this was.” Like soap, but not soap.
Claim: A Lake Pleasant man got a pig for his wife—really
Origins: In the early 1900s, a man from Back Street, the poor part of town, asked the proprietor of the local general store for a bill of sale for his wife, according to Ted Aber and Stella King’s Tales from an Adirondack County. He wanted to sell his spouse to a neighbor for ten dollars and a pig, and, Aber and King wrote, “he wanted to make sure that the purchaser did not merely keep the woman during the summer while living was inexpensive, only to return her when the more costly winter season set in.” The bill of sale was typed at the county clerk’s office, and the new couple lived together until death, Tales reports.
Claim: The first settler of Hamilton County lived to 113
Status: Close enough
Origins: He certainly must’ve been old. Abenaki Indian Sabael Benedict was said to have been twelve when he participated in the Battle of Quebec, in 1759, according to History of Hamilton County. He was last seen in 1855 walking in the forest toward his hunting camp, which would have put him at 108. Despite his advanced years, foul play was suspected in his disappearance since he was reputed to have accumulated a nice sum of gold in his time on Earth. His body was never found.
Claim: A forty-two-point buck was shot in Franklin County
Status: Probably true
Origins: Around the turn of the last century a hunter bagged an impressive deer—twenty tines on one antler, twenty-two on the other—near Paul Smiths. According to Barney Fowler, in his 1974 second volume of Adirondack Album, the head was mounted and displayed “in a North Country hotel for many years, but was destroyed along with the hotel when fire registered as an unwelcome guest. . . . The name of the hunter remains unknown.” Also unknown is the authenticity of a grainy black-and-white photograph of the deer’s ample appointments that appears in Fowler’s book. Though this animal could be of the genus Jackalope—doctored, perhaps, by a prankster or glory-seeker—Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife biologist Ed Reed says chances are it’s simply a deer with a “nontypical rack.” These genetically unusual critters may be well-adorned, but that doesn’t mean they’re trophy winners with bodies of monstrous proportions. And forty-plus prongs is nothing: Reed adds that deer have been shot in these parts with hundreds of spikes.
BIG HAIRY DEAL
Claim: Bigfoot lives here
Status: Take it or leave it
Origins: People around Raquette Lake, Speculator, Lake George, Whitehall, North Hudson, Indian Lake, Oseetah Lake and just about everywhere in the Adirondack Park have seen, variously, a “huge black thing . . . covered with hair” that “couldn’t be a bear since it was on two legs and moved too fast” and left “nineteen-inch footprints.”
Call it bigfoot or Sasquatch, it’s one of the oldest North American legends. The Algonquins had a creature they called windingo, and Samuel de Champlain, the first European to set foot in the North Country, wrote about a giant hairy gougou the natives feared.
David Daegling, a professor of biological anthropology at the University of Florida (UF), argues there’s simply no proof. (A hunter once claimed to have shot a bigfoot, but as luck would have it the creature fell from the edge of a canyon, and the body was never found.) “When you look at the evidence scientifically, it’s far more likely that what’s behind bigfoot are people for whom the legend is meaningful and people who perpetuate the legend through hoaxes,” Daegling says on the UF Web site.
DEAL ME A HAND
Claim: Marjorie Merriweather Post kept playing cards made of human skin at Camp Topridge
Status: The trail has gone cold
Origins: Irene Haas, of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, was in her dentist’s office in 1966 reading a Life magazine article on the homes of Marjorie Merriweather Post when she was inspired to write the cereal heiress and ask if she could see her lavish woodland camp, Topridge, on Upper St. Regis Lake. Post graciously replied with a yes, and Haas took her husband and four children to visit the place in August (Post’s secretary’s assistant gave the private tour). Among the war bonnets of Geronimo and Sitting Bull, one item stood out in the memory of Haas and her eight-year-old son: playing cards made of human skin. The provenance was unclear, but Haas recalls them having something to do with General Custer.
The Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, confirms that two members of the museum’s staff visited Topridge in 1955 to examine Indian artifacts there, including “playing cards—Apache—2 decks (rawhide cards, one deck of 40 cards other deck of 39 cards).” The museum made no determination whether the cards are actually human skin, the Smithsonian reports, although Post told the appraisers they were.
The Smithsonian didn’t want them, though the museum says it added eight other artifacts to its collection. Bill Madden Jr., proprietor of Madden’s Transfer and Storage, in Saranac Lake, confirms that he stored these and other rare items for Post during the winters she owned Topridge. Following her death, in 1973, the camp was donated to New York State, and Madden shipped her belongings to several locations, but he’s not sure where the cards ended up.
Claim: An Adirondack lake has amazing therapeutic powers
Status: No proof
Origins: Thousands of gallons of clear blue Hinchings Pond, near Lowville, were shipped around the country in the early twentieth century, and hundreds of people attested to the water’s aid in treating lumbago, dropsy, piles, ulcers, arthritis, cataracts, skin conditions and cancers. Still, scientific tests have discovered nothing extraordinary about the spring-fed, naturally acidic pool. Perhaps the elixir really did help people, but perhaps it was just a placebo.
“It’s a mystery,” says Jim Somers, who owns Otter Creek Lodge on the shore of the pond. About a dozen people still stop by every year to fill bottles, he says.
THE BOY WHO CRIED WOLVERINE
Claim: Giant boreal weasels live here
Status: Improbable but not impossible
Origins: About five years ago, Dave Seguin, of Lake Placid, was hiking on Rocky Peak Ridge, near Elizabeth-town, with three friends when they saw a creature fifty yards off the trail. “It was big. It was weird,” he says. “It did not have the shape of a bear. It was longer. It was brown and had white on it. . . . We were all listing things you’d expect to see in the Adirondacks, and it wasn’t a beaver or fisher.” When they got home they jumped on the computer and saw pictures of a wolverine. “We were like, ‘That’s it!’ Who would’ve thought wolverine?” A biologist friend ridiculed them. “She just didn’t believe us. To this day she thinks we were wrong,” Seguin says.
But he swears wolverine, as do his companions, and as does another man who says he saw one near Cranberry Lake.
It’s a topic on www.adkforum.com, where this field-identification aid was posted: “Take a weasel, put some bulk on him, give him long claws, a silver coat with a stripe, and piss him off and you have a badger. Add a few pounds, really piss him off and give him a death wish and you have a wolverine.”
State zoologist James DeKay wrote that wolverines lived in the Adirondacks in the 1840s, but they were extirpated soon after white men arrived. D. Andrew Saunders, author of Adirondack Mammals and a faculty member at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, says “it’s very easy to make mistakes” identifying animals in the weasel family. Fishers, especially, are confused with other species. “But never say never,” he adds. A wolverine was confirmed in Michigan in 2004, two centuries after the carnivore’s last sighting there, and people have been known to release animals that make lousy pets.
While beavers and moose have been welcomed back, and you hear call for wolves and cougars, nobody talks about reintroducing the wolverine (just an observation).
NOTHING RUNS AWAY LIKE A DEER
Claim: Deer like snowmobilers better than hikers
Origins: In the debate over recreational access to the Forest Preserve, the pro-motorized-access lobby often argues that snowmobile trails actually improve wildlife habitat by providing travel corridors, and that the animals are less perturbed by noisy machines than by cross-country skiers. Indeed, “when cross-country skiers replaced snowmobiles on the test trail systems, the deer moved away from the trail more frequently,” concludes a three-year study by the University of Wisconsin in the 1970s, which is still quoted on several pro-snowmobile Web sites.
However, many, many studies have been done since then. A literature search by Wildlife Conservation Society finds that, in general, snowmobiles may be less startling to wildlife than people quietly skiing or snowshoeing, and deer sometimes do use the corridors. But the animals expend more energy avoiding snowmobiles than they might save by walking on a trail. It’s a straw-man argument; deer really don’t need any help moving quickly through the forest.
GOOD LORD, WHERE’S FORD?
Claim: U.S. president Gerald Ford’s son got lost in the High Peaks and had to be rescued
Origins: During Ford’s presidency, in the mid-’70s, one of his kids and a group of Secret Service agents set off to hike Street Mountain. According to retired forest ranger Gary Hodgson, only Environmental Conservation Officers (ECOs) were notified of the First Son’s plans. Which is why that morning Hodgson, who had just emerged from the woods, was at a loss to explain to a crowd of concerned hikers why they had heard gunshots. Hodgson immediately called ranger dispatch and was summoned to headquarters in Ray Brook, where he learned that the shots were fired by the lost Secret Servicemen. Hodgson, legendary for his ability to locate wayward hikers in the most remote Adirondack locales, was put on the phone with a man who, he assumes, was a Secret Service agent, sitting in a room at the Holiday Inn in Lake Placid. The agent was in radio contact with the hiking party on the mountain, but nobody else had direct communication. “I asked if [the party] had a compass and he said ‘yes,’” recalls Hodgson. “So I told him to go east, continue on a steep downhill, when you hit a large stream—Indian Pass Brook—cross it, go up the other bank, keep going uphill, keep watching and you’ll hit a wide trail, and turn left.”
Hodgson never did hear anything about Ford and his entourage after that, and the incident was kept out of the newspapers. Still, he says, if rangers had been involved instead of ECOs, “I could have helped them [in the woods]—this could have been done low-key.”
YOU GOTTA HAVE HEART
Claim: The Lost Dauphin lived at the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation
Status: DNA says nope
Origins: Hogansburg, like several parts of the country, made claim to the Lost Dauphin, son of French king and queen Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who were beheaded in 1793. The little prince was reported to have died in solitary confinement three years after his parents, but rumor was that sympathizers spirited the ten-year-old to the New World.
The Mohawk angle endures because of a 479-page 1854 book by the Rev. John H. Hanson, The Lost Prince, which held that the boy was turned over to the care of Christianized North Country Indians. Renamed Eleazar Williams, the heir grew up to become an Episcopal minister and an intelligence officer for the Americans in the War of 1812. There were extraordinary coincidences: supposedly in 1795 two Frenchmen appeared in Ticonderoga and persuaded Tehorakwaneken, a half-blood Caughnawaga Mohawk, to adopt “a sickly imbecile boy of apparent French ancestry,” according to Lake Ozonia: An Informal History by William G. McLoughlin. On a fur-trading expedition on Lake George three years later, the boy hit his head diving onto a submerged rock and “his imbecility gradually disappeared,” the book explains.
In 2000, however, the story became even less probable. A DNA comparison of a heart purportedly removed from young Louis XVII before he was buried in a mass grave (apparently it was customary to cut out and preserve royal hearts) and a hair belonging to Marie Antoinette affirmed a maternal genetic line.
Claim: Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother lived in the Adirondacks
Origins: Joseph Napoleon Bonaparte, short-time king of Naples and later a not-so-beloved king of Spain—appointments granted him by his little brother French Emperor Napoleon I—split for America in 1815.
Bonaparte is, perhaps, best remembered for building Breezy Point, his posh New Jersey palace, but the same year he crossed the high seas he pur-hased 26,840 acres of land in present-day Jefferson and St. Lawrence Counties for $120,000. Three years later, Joe—in the New World a.k.a. Count de Surveillers so he could legally own land in New York—inspected his North Country holdings, named the body of water on his property Lake Diana, in honor of the Roman goddess of the hunt, and built a hunting lodge on its shore, where he cruised the water in a gondola.
According to Town of Diana historian Ross Young, records indicate that Bonaparte spent just three or four summers in the North Country. He was officially authorized to hold land in 1825, so he assumed his true identity, and Lake Diana became Lake Bonaparte. Joe’s lodge burned down in 1833; he sold his property in the western Adirondacks soon after.
Claim: A swimmer was burned by acid rain
Origins: An Adirondack Park Agency (APA) official, talking to a Rotary club in Massena in 1978, told the group that a man was treated at Saranac Lake General Hospital for second-degree burns after swimming in a polluted Adirondack lake, according to Tony D’Elia’s anti-APA book, The Adirondack Rebellion. D’Elia cited articles in the Watertown Daily Times and Adirondack Daily Enterprise reporting on the remarks. This whopper was short-lived; reporters making follow-up inquiries with the hospital and APA were told that the burn story was “muddled” and that even the lowest pH found in North Country waters would be safe for swimming.
Claim: Presidential brother Jeb Bush owns land in the Champlain Valley
Status: No comment—and no truth
Origins: Real-estate rumors spread like milkweed fluff and have just about as much substance. A few years back, after filming What Lies Beneath, Harrison Ford was known to have visited a house in Westport with a for-sale sign in the yard. Within a day, the actor had purchased the place . . . in town gossip, anyway. Alas, Ford’s interest in Westport was fleeting.
After the late state senator Ron Stafford acquired a farm near Essex, Governor George Pataki bought one too, on a lovely hillside with views of Lake Champlain. Locals in the know wondered, “Who’s next? Jeb Bush?” which may have grown wings to flutter on the wind as a “fact.”
Claim: An abandoned mine swallowed a prison escapee
Origins: Just two months before he would have been eligible for parole, Victor Figueroa slipped the watch of his guards at the Moriah Shock Correction Facility in southern Essex County in February 1997. Figueroa, a twenty-one-year-old Utica resident convicted of drug possession, didn’t enjoy his freedom for long. Authorities followed his footprints in the snow to the mouth of an abandoned mine shaft in nearby Mineville. After three days of searching, all they’d found was one of Figueroa’s boots and his bloody hand-prints staining the passageway’s wooden beams.Investigators concluded Figueroa met his fate at the bottom of one of the mine’s deep, watery crevices.
“We believe he’s in there: his footprints led in, the blood inside was fresh, but we’ve done all we can,” a Department of Correctional Services spokesman told the Plattsburgh Press-Republican.
Weighing the risks, and despite the pleas of Figueroa’s family, authorities called off the search. The old iron mine, wrote the Press-Republican, would be considered Figueroa’s tomb.
Claim: There was a sea monster in Lake George
Status: True—sort of
Origins: George, a green-eyed snaggle-toothed monster made from a cedar log and attached to a rope-and-pulley system, was the invention of Harry Watrous, a Lake George summer resident and president of the National Academy of Design, in New York City. In 1904 Watrous, in an effort to retaliate against his friend and New York tattler Town Topics editor Colonel William Mann for cheating in a fishing contest, devised a sneaky plan. Watrous rigged George from his boathouse and maneuvered the sea serpent alongside Mann as he fished in Island Harbor Bay. Mann’s screams “could be heard in Vermont,” according to Lake George monster historian Walter Grishkot. For years after that, George was used in numerous pranks, terrifying locals and tourists alike, sealing his regional fame. He now lives on land, at the Hague Community Center.
LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW
Claim: Crusty woodsman lived inside a tree in Tupper Lake
Status: Probably true
Origins: State librarian Alfred Billings Street in his 1860 travelogue Woods and Waters quotes the guide Harvey Moody telling tales of a “cur’-ous old critter” called Old Ramrod who turned up in Tupper in the 1830s and holed up in an old tree on an oxbow of the Raquette River below what is now Sunmount. Moody recounted how the marksman won a turkey shoot in Saranac Lake and then pummeled Foxtail, the resident bully, before returning to his pine.“Old Ramrod may have existed only in Harvey Moody’s fertile imagination or may have been one of the woodsmen who wrested a living from this region in the early 1800s and drifted on or died here without leaving anything to mark their passing,” concludes Louis Simmons in his Tupper Lake history, Mostly Spruce and Hemlock.