The Curse of Dark Swamp, Part 1: Howard’s Hike

GLOCESTER, Rhode Island — Most swamps around here don’t have names. But in this old farm town, there’s one they call Dark Swamp. It’s official—you can see it in 12-point italic on the earliest U.S. Geological Survey maps.

The name is appropriate. It’s dark there, especially when the leaves are fully grown and the water-bound trees block out the sun. The dark that gave this place its name, though, is a more sinister kind.

“Men would go in there hunting,” Ruth E. Scott told me in 1996, “and you’d never see them again.”

Ruth, 80 when I spoke with her, said Dark Swamp had a frightful reputation ever since anyone could remember. Accidents happen, of course, and most folks would say it was a fellow’s own damn-fool fault if he went walking in the swamp and fell into a hole and drowned. But others whispered that a creature, or maybe an evil spirit, inhabited the murky depths and, Grendel-like, banqueted on souls unfortunate enough to pass its way.

Few people gave the story credence, of course, but it did reach the ears of a little-known magazine writer in Providence.

Lovecraft

On November 4, 1923, when Ruth was seven, a pair of weary hikers arrived at her grandfather’s farmhouse. She told me she was too young to remember the visit. Besides, in those days, not many people would have recognized Howard Phillips Lovecraft or his friend and fellow horror fiction writer, Clifford Eddy.

Lovecraft, at 33, had been writing for pay for just a few years. Fame didn’t really come to him until long after his death fourteen years later. In 1923, he was nothing more than a lantern-jawed city slicker chasing after a fairy tale.

Dark Swamp was the object of his search. As it worked out, he and Eddy never got there. After walking seven miles from Chepachet (Lovecraft estimated eight and a half), they reached the home of Ernest Law, Ruth’s grandfather, and turned around. This is roughly the route they followed:

The pair’s native haunts were the pedigreed, starch-collar neighborhoods of Providence. Their trips to the wilds of Chepachet must have been an adventure. It cost them each 35 cents to ride there on the trolley. Their ticket would have looked something like this:

Many of the places where Lovecraft and Eddy stopped can still be seen. There’s Henry Sayles’ place in Chepachet, for example. Sayles was the town clerk Lovecraft first thought to question about the swamp.

House of Glocester Town Clerk Henry Sayles

The house of Fred Barnes still stands at the corner of Putnam Pike (Route 44) and Sprague Hill Road. Barnes, unable to help with Lovecraft’s mission, advised him to seek out James Reynolds, who dwelt a few miles further on.

House of Fred Barnes

Lovecraft wrote that he and Eddy stopped for a late lunch at Cody’s Tavern. Obviously he meant Cady’s, which still serves food and drink—or, more accurately, drink and food—just as its owners had done since the very early 1800s in the very same building. (Lovecraft claimed the tavern dated back to 1683, but he was a century too early.) Two hundred years ago, under the management of Hezekiah Cady, the tavern was pegged a haven of loose morals and no destination for church-goin’ folk. Today the place is much different, I’ve been assured, but I’ll frankly admit my research was limited to a bottle of Sam Adams Boston Lager.

After lunch, Lovecraft and Eddy turned left up Reynolds Road (Route 94), shortly reaching James Reynolds’ place:

House of James Reynolds

Reynolds told them to take the right fork just up the hill from his house. If the pair had gone left, following what is now Willie Woodhead Road, they would have reached Dark Swamp in less than two miles.

But Reynolds was doing the proper thing sending them to the right, toward Ernest Law’s house. Law owned the land that included Dark Swamp. It was his right to deny them access, for the sake of their own safety if nothing else. As it was, Lovecraft got inspiration a-plenty from Law himself. As Lovecraft relates in a letter he wrote a few days later, the genial Law offered what lore he knew, and his land offered “the most gorgeous and spectacular agrestic panorama that either of us had beheld or indeed conceiv’d to exist.”

Mr. Law “inform’d us, that Dark Swamp lyes in the distant bowl betwixt two of the hills we saw.”

All that’s left of an outbuilding behind Law’s “antient” house

Some confusion lingers about which house Lovecraft stopped at last. Glocester Heritage Society President Edna Kent, widely considered the final word on town history, tells me it was a house on the hill across from the state deer-weighing station on Route 94. This house was only recently demolished, including much of its foundation. Half of an outbuilding still stands behind the house site, its old, rotting timbers turning into soil at the edge of a weed-choked clearing.

Unless this was the site of Law’s house

There’s another foundation a short distance south of this site, closer to Route 94, that others have told me is Law’s home. The Beers state atlas of 1870 sheds no light on the discrepancy, showing Laws living at both spots. I didn’t think to ask Ruth Scott when I talked to her in 1996. So if the upper photo doesn’t show Lovecraft’s last stop, the lower one surely does.

Lovecraft enjoys—as well as a dead man can—a large following today. Fans regularly go on pilgrimages to the places he lived in and visited. Dark Swamp is always high on the list, even though Lovecraft never actually laid eyes on the place.

How to get to Dark Swamp. From Route 94 in western Glocester, take Old Snake Hill Road east toward Ponaganset Reservoir. Just before the reservoir, turn left onto George Allen Road heading north. Bear right onto Willie Woodhead Road, still heading north, and park on the left of a cul de sac after the last mailbox. Continue on foot a hundred yards or two until you reach a sandy circle off to the left. Cross the sandy spot, staying on the left, then enter the pine woods and head downhill. The instant you see water, you’ve reached Dark Swamp.

And if you fall into a hole or get eaten by a monster, it’s your own damn-fool fault.

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3 comments

  1. […] Wings blog has this summer walked and traced the route of the Lovecraft/Eddy Sunday 4th November 1923 expedition to find the notorious Dark Swamp in western Rhode Island, and reports with fine photographs. Dark Swamp was never actually reached […]

  2. This is my family history and lore! The Law family has lived in this area for many generations and hopefully many more to come! Ruth Scott was my Grampa’s eldest sister and my brother was named for our Great Uncle Randall (we each have a son who carries Randall as his middle name). I have been to the old farmhouse as a young child, now torn down, taken my kids to visit the small family cemetery just outside the swamp but on the original property, and currently live just up the street, up the hill from Dark Swamp.

  3. mary Feuti · · Reply

    I have just finished a book that was dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft. In the last chapter it Chepachet, Pascoag and Sayles Ave. were mentioned.
    Now I’ve just read that Ruth Scott. Had been interviewed and when she was 7, two hikers inquiring about the Dark Swamp.
    There seems to be a lot of connections here. Ruth Scott is the mother of a former boyfriend.

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