Monday, June 6, 2011

Phizzel Goblin

Make sure to read the commentary after you read the story...

The Phissel family originated in Germany, and were caught up in the religious wars that caused chaos in Europe during the 17th century. It is said that, at some point, the family became cursed because of their involvement in the religious wars. The family was forced to leave Germany, and moved to Ireland, but the women of the family died during the journey. The men established themselves in Ireland, and eventually re-married and produced a few new generations of Phissels. By the 19th century, the spelling of the family's name had changed to Phizzel, and they found themselves in the midst of the potato famine. What remained of the Phizzel family, one man, his wife, and his son and daughter, headed for the Americas. The curse struck again, and the wife and daughter died during transit.

Settling initially in New York, the Phizzel men eventually headed to Missouri, finding a home in Cape Girardeau. Eventually, the elder Phizzel died, and the younger Phizzel, Jeremy, maried and had two children of his own: a son and a daughter. The family moved into a house near the river (which some stories say that Jeremy Phizzel won in a card game during which he might have shot one of the other players dead).

One night, Jeremy's son ran from the house, terrified. He had just witnessed his father killing his sister and mother, and had barely escaped himself. Jeremy ran after his son, shouting "come and join your sister!" The son led Jeremy on a chase to the edge of the river, where, thinking quickly, the boy through a branch in, making it look as if he had jumped into the water. His father dove in afterwards, surfaceing a moment later, still shouting "come and join your sister!" The river's strong currents quickly overcame the man, though, and he began to sink. The last sound that the boy heard his father make was a gurgling noise as he drowned, that sounded something like the word "goblin."

The boy, scarred from this experience, began wandering the river banks, subsisting on whatever food he could find. Although generally reclusive, he would sometimes jump out at people walking by on the river and shout "Come oand join your sister! Goblin, Goblin" and thus became known as the Phizzel Goblin. Though he must have died long ago, his father having chased him to the river's edge over a century ago, people still claim to encounter his spirit on the riverbank.

Commentary: The Phizzel Goblin is an April Fools Day joke concocted by Gene Fitzpatrick and Bryan Minogue of the excellent Hometown Tales podcast. Absolutely nothing in the story above is true, it was written for the April 1, 2006 episode of the podcast. However, if you didn't look at the date that the episode dropped, there is nothing in the podcast that would tip you off immediately. The story is a bit sillier than normal, admittedly, but it makes use of tropes from well-known urban legends and ghost stories: a family that has been cursed (a'la Dudleytown), a child with developmental disabilities (in this case probably purely psychological in nature, due to emotional trauma) growing up without parents (similar to a story known as "The Retarded Farmer"), and a location where one is likely to see a creature that wishes to get you (similar to La Llarona). Although someone listening to the episode may think that Gene and Bryan are "winking" at the audience, and they may very well have been trying to, the show is similar enough to their usual episodes, in which they discuss actual urban legends, bits of local history, ghost stories, etc., that it's not at all clear that they aren't simply recounting an actual urban legend in their usual delightfully goofy style. Even a few things that should be tip-offs (such as the fact that, despite settling in an area and presumably producing several generations, there was always just on Phizzel nuclear family) are common enough to ghost stories and urban legends that they didn't stand out as cues that the story was a joke.

In other words, if you were going to try to design an urban legend, you wouldn't be able to do much better.

And so, if one types "Phizzel Goblin" into Google, you will find message boards, urban legend sites, and Q&A forums where people are trying to find more information about the Phizzel Goblin. Enough people figured out that it was a joke that there aren't too many people who believe otherwise, but there are still occasional people who go looking for more information on this "legend" of the Mississippi River. In other words, the Phizzel Goblin is the funny cousin of the Blair Witch.

Mr. Fitzpatrick, Mr. Minogue...well played, sirs.

Sources: Hometown Tales Podcast...and as evidence that some people bought it, look here, here, and here

The Blue Lady of the Moss Beach Distillery

In 1927, a restaraunt called "Frank's Place", named for it's owner Frank Torres, opened in Moss Beach, California. By all accounts a glamorous place with great food, a wonderful atmosphere, and a steady supply of prohibition-era liquor, Frank's Place attracted the hoi polloi of the Bay Area.

One of the regulars, a young woman, found herself attracted to the piano player, who returned her affections. It wasn't long before the two were making time to see each other. As one might expect, the young woman's husband did not take this situation well. One night, as the pianist and the young woman were walking on the beach together, they were attacked. Nobody ever reported quite what happened, and the management's connections to local law enforcement kept the story from being looked into, but what is known is that the pianist was injured, but returned to play the piano the next night, the husband vanished and was never heard from again, and the young woman was dead from knife wounds, the blue dress that she had been wearing now soaked in her blood.

Since that time, numerous strange events have been associated with the locale, now known as the Moss Beach Distillery. The young woman is said to be routinely sighted, usually wearing a cut, torn, and bloody blue dress, but occasionally said to be seen looking healthy and with her dress intact. In the women's restroom, people have reported hearing laughter and a woman speaking when nobody was present. Guests sometimes report seeing the face of the woman appear in a mirror, also in the women's restroom. Throughout the establishment, lamps are said to swing or otherwise move on their own, it has been claimed that objects have been seen levitating, and furniture has been reported to move. Women have reported losing ear rings only to have them to be found stashed together in various parts of the building. Phones have rung, but when answered nobody was on the other line. People report having been touched by an unseen force, sometimes lightly, sometimes more forcefully, and often playfully. And rooms have been locked from the inside without anybody within them who could have locked them.

Commentary: Shortly after I graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 1998, I obtained a car and began routinely driving up Highway 1 to San Francisco - the long-way to get there, but the most scenic route. On these trips, I passed through Moss Beach and always saw the signs for the distillery, several of which advertised the presence of the Blue Lady. Naturally, I was curious, but being as how I was always making the trip on my own, and I have never been particularly comfortable eating at a nice resturaunt by myself, I never did stop in to see what was up.

I never did forget the place, though, and have been intending to look into the ghost story for some time. Two years back, my girlfriend ended up looking into it for me, rather accidentally. I had been working on a very stressful project for several months, being out of town for ten days, home for four, and then out again for another ten. My client was hostile, the working conditions were physically tough, and the job itself was extremely boring*. She felt that I needed to relax, and thought that I would enjoy going up to the distillery for a nice dinner out and a bit of time in an allegedly haunted building. We ended up not going because, after having driven five hours to get home, I didn't want to drive another four-hour round trip to go to dinner. After we had decided not to go, Kay told me that she had gathered some information about the place from people who had lived in the area, and that these folks all claimed that the distillery made the story up in order to attract more customers, especially tourists driving up California's portion of the Pacific Coast Highway (AKA Highway 1).

I didn't know how true this was. While there was no doubt that the distillery was playing up the "haunted house" angle to draw customers, it is also not uncommon for an establishment to do this with existing ghost legends. So, the fact that the distillery was going out of its way to make people think that it was haunted did not necessarilly mean that there wasn't an existing ghost story prior to the current advertising campaign.

Since then, I have found out a bit more. When a group of people from the show Ghost Hunters arrived to do an episode, they found speakersm trick mirrors, and lamps with motors that were made to move seemingly on their own. Considering that the Ghost Hunters folks have been known to engage in their trickery and showmanship to make their television show more exciting (and to make mundane evenings look like exciting "ghost investigations"), I was rather surprised that they, of all people, were the ones uncovering this (I also have wondered if the distillery management might have had something to do with the stuff beign uncovered as part of a publicity stunt, but I really have no idea). Still, there you go.

So, was there truly a legend of the Blue Lady, prior to the distillery getting into gadgetry and showmanship? Perhaps, I don't know. However, there can be little doubt that they have done a good deal to provide the experiences via technology that people were wanting through supernatural activity.

Alot of people, I have noticed, are bitter about this sort of thing, viewing the distillery owners as frauds. I don't agree. I view this as being something akin to telling a story around a camp fire, but on a grand scale. If someone experienced these weird haunting symptoms and decided to look into it, the trickery would eventually come out. Speakers, trick mirrors, and motors all have tell-tale elements that would eventually be revealed to a real investigator. People coming to the distillery were either coming for a good meal, or a good scare, and the distillery clearly treated this as entertainment and not a serious matter to be dealt with. I have a hard time seeing this as being anything but a good business person providing some fun to people who desire to play out a ghost story.

*I've noted before that I am a professional archaeologist. Basically, when someone is doing environmental review to get permits or government money, they hire me to help keep them in compliance with federal and state historic preservation laws. In this particular case, we were dealing with hundreds of historic-era archaeological sites that consisted entirely of broken glass and early 20th-century cans. It was amazingly boring. Oh, and the tempuratures were usually well over 100 degrees fahrenheit before noon.

Sources: Wikipedia, Wikipedia, again, Moss Beach Distillery Website,