The Black Flash of Provincetown, Massachusetts terrorized the seaside New England town in the early twentieth century. Was there something there, prowling the dunes and streets, or was it a mommy lie which got out of hand?
The Provincetown Advocate, October, 26, 1939: Fall Brings Out the Black Flash. Hard Winter Certain As Cabin Fever Stories Start.
It ain’t usually until “cabin fever” time that the balmy stories start. After folks have been penned up here for too long a time, in too little space, with just the same faces to look at every morning, afternoon and evening, then the crazy yarns begin circulating.
But winter seems to be shutting in early this year. Here it is only October and the “Black Flash” has been prowling, scaring kids so that they won’t go out nights and won’t go to bed, grabbing women, jumping over ten foot hedges with no trouble at all. “Chair springs on his feet” is the explanation.
The Provincetown Advocate, November 9, 1939: Chief Denies Current Rumors
Chief of Police Anthony P. Tarvers this morning absolutely denied the rumors current that the so-called “Black Flash” had been captured. “As far as I am concerned, the Black Flash is dead and gone,” said the chief.
That’s where the written history of the Black Flash of Provincetown begins and ends. The oral history went on quite a bit longer, into the 1940s. And then came the internet, and resurrected the Black Flash.
Was the Black Flash of Provincetown part of a common phenomenon … more mortal than supernatural?
I’m sitting in a bar in my hometown, here in the midwest, talking to a fellow a few years my senior. The subject of the Enfield monster comes up. Near where I live is a small town by the name of Enfield, Illinois.
According to The Reading Eagle, August 22, 1973, At about 9:30 on the night of April 25, 1973, Henry McDaniel heard a scratching sound at his front door. He looked out, and saw something that he thought might be a bear. Taking a gun and flashlight, he headed outside into a strong wind and saw a creature between two rosebushes. The paper writes “this good old boy Henry McDaniel heard this scratchin’ at his front door and saw – well he saw this … this critter. And it looked like nothin’ Henry had ever seen before.”
The offensive tone I’m used to. It’s not just people from big cities who make fun of us out here on the frontier. I remember the story, and remember those days well. McDaniel was mercilessly roasted for reporting what he saw, with most people putting it down to drink. People are cruel, that’s nothing new.
McDaniel described it as being four or five foot tall, covered in gray fur, with a good sized, wide head. He saw the creature on April 25, and again on May 6. According to the newspaper report nobody, or almost nobody believed him. The sheriff told McDaniel he better not be seeing any more monsters or he’d be shipped off to the funny farm. The Sheriff felt the need to put an end to the story, perhaps rightly so as people were starting to go on well armed monster hunts.
It turned into a phenomenon, with media outlets and universities sending people to gather information. It was thought to have been recorded on audio, with experts saying the recording could have been an ape like creature. UPI reported that an anthropology student claimed it might very well be an ape, as they had been reported in the region since 1941. Other sightings were reported. McDaniel became an unwitting celebrity. His wife just wished it was over.
As I sat drinking and reliving the time, some forty years later, my drinking partner laughed and told me the truth. It had been a classmate of his, wearing an ape suit, playing a prank.
My thoughts turned to McDaniel with sympathy. He did see something, something extraordinary, something that didn’t belong, and merely speaking the truth had him branded a madman and an alcoholic for the rest of his life.
Often the most terrifying tales aren’t supernatural, but what man does to man.
Why do we search out the unexplained?
Sitting there, nursing my beer I felt like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He’d lost a son in the first World War and wanted to believe that he could reach him from the great beyond. This led to a search for a spiritualist who could reach the other side, something which Doyle was interested in before his son’s death, that led to a career of debunking fake spiritualists, often in partnership with his friend, Harry Houdini.
Like Doyle, I wanted to believe. I was a child when McDaniel filed his report, and I heard the mocking and the laughter. But I still believed in such things. Hell, I still believe, but I learned then to keep my mouth shut. At least till I started writing what I believed on the internet. I have no doubt the same kind of stories that circulated about McDaniel occasionally pop up about myself. But I’ve reached the age where I no longer have to care what people think.
And like Doyle, I’ve found the truth behind many mysteries is nothing more than a person playing a prank, or trying to make a buck, or more often, mommy lies told long enough to take on a life of their own.
Mommy lies are what parents tell their children, to keep them away from harm. Where you find an old well, or a spring still used by predators, or anyplace dangerous you often find tales designed to instill fear into little children. But of course, curiosity killed the cat, and most of the time the tales serve the purpose of attracting interest to those places. Which is what drew me to Provincetown and the story of the Black Flash.
The oral history of the Black Flash of Provincetown
The Black Flash was first reported by some school kids on their way home, who said it jumped out from behind the dunes. It was tall, dressed all in black and incredibly fast. The kids ran, the figure’s maniacal laugh echoed after them.
Then it was an adult who claimed to have encountered it. Marie Costa was walking past the Provincetown town hall one October evening when it jumped out in front of her from behind some bushes. In addition to its black wardrobe, she claimed it had glowing blue eyes, silver ears and could jump impossibly high, which the newspaper account bore out. She ducked into a coffee shop, told what had happened and several men went to pursue it, with no luck. The police said it was a hoax, but Costa was genuinely frightened.
After Costa’s encounter, more reports filtered in. Some night had several reports, from different parts of town, sometimes simultaneously. Even the police started to admit that perhaps there was something to the report, something devilish. It was called many things in addition to the Black Flash … the Provincetown Phantom and the Devil of the Dunes.
Like the Enfield monster, it became something of a celebrity. War was brewing in Europe, Hitler’s dark star was rising, and people always on the look for distraction, were perhaps more hungry for it now than usual. As time went on the stories grew bolder. Not content to simply startle, the Black Flash now began to attack.
A teenager coming home from the library was accosted and claimed it spewed blue flames. Supposedly, the police had it cornered in a school playground with a high fence. Four officers entered the playground with guns drawn, telling the Black Flash of Provincetown to surrender or they’d fire. It laughed and leapt the ten foot fence. The officers shot but either missed or their bullets had no effect. One of the officers claimed the face was but a silver painted mask.
Even if it was a person in disguise, the locals believed it possessed superhuman powers. Bullets seemed to have no effect. It could jump amazing heights, move at incredibly speeds. Charles Farley saw it in his fenced in back yard and blasted it with a shotgun. But it just laughed and leapt the eight foot fence.
Provincetown, now a gay haven wasn’t quite so accepting of alternative lifestyles at the time. Some said it was a gay man intent on frightening children and the locals. One skeptic who put forth this view found himself face to face with the Black Flash, and said he was large, very tall and definitely human, wearing a cloak and hood, with silver eyes that glowed in the dark. He told the creature to get out of his way, only to have his face slapped so hard it knocked him to the ground. After that, he was a believer.
The last reported sighting of the Black Flash of Provincetown came from a group of kids who claimed to have spotted it coming toward them in the fog. After running home and finding the house empty, they locked the doors and listened in horror as it tried to make its way inside. One enterprising child put a kettle on, ran to the second floor and poured boiling water on its head and it ran away, never to be seen again.
Theories on Provincetown’s Black Flash
But these are oral traditions. There is no evidence for the Black Flash of Provincetown after November of 1939, though the tales circulated for another six years.
Some thought the Black Flash was a local athlete, who was strong enough and tall enough to fit the bill. Others said it was a gay tourist who had stayed past the high season and was living in a shack hidden in the dunes. A retired police chief of Provincetown said he was told it was four locals playing a hoax.
The police chief at the time, Anthony Tarvers claimed the Black Flash was simply four teens playing a trick on the town. One boy sat on the shoulders of another. They wore a long cape and a flour sifter over their face; the device’s handles were the large silver ears that victims reported.
On the internet, where everything you read is true, it’s often pointed out that the Black Flash of Provincetown bears a strong resemblance to a British legend, Spring-heeled Jack, which had been reported a century earlier all over Britain, and in particular, London, the Midlands and Scotland. He too wore a black cloak and had a silver face, with red eyes rather than blue like his new world equivalent. He could make amazing leaps and breathed out blue and white flames.
Spring Heeled Jack was never caught and today it’s cited as an example of mass hysteria. The hysteria never caught on here, likely due to the drubbing that McDaniel received over reporting his Enfield monster. The Black Flash of Provincetown also seemed to remain local, and maybe the case could be made that as we move into supposedly more rational, scientific and enlightened times, we grow more skeptical.
Or perhaps we grow less creative, less imaginative, and less afraid of things that prowl in the dark.