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Folklore is packed with omens of coming disaster. Across the West, the black cat is a harbinger of doom: if one crosses your path, it is believed to be an omen of bad luck and misfortune. In China, the number four is considered extremely unlucky, due to it sounding similar to the word for death. In Mexico, it is thought that sighting a mariposa de muerte (butterfly of death) in one’s home warns that someone who is ill is about to pass away. 1 With that in mind, here are five cases of paranormal entities which have supposedly foreshadowed the coming of disaster.
5 – Austin Dam Flood and the Man in Black, 1911
On 30th September, 1911, the Austin dam in Potter County, Pennsylvania failed. The tragedy caused mass destruction in the valley below, and cost the lives of at least seventy-eight people.
Yet, there have been suggestions that such a high death toll could have been prevented. The solution, it was claimed, lay with a mysterious figure who stalked the town’s railroad yard months before the September disaster.
This “spook” was described one year later in a local newspaper.
The newspaper stated that it was around the time of this minor flood that the citizenry of Austin had another scare. Rumours circulated the town that a “ghost” had appeared in the days before, seemingly acting as an omen of the coming flood.
“In the railroad and on and off the cars were the places the ghost haunted and frightened the railroaders with its queer and spooky actions. It was a very tall man ghost, dressed in black that would appear and disappear mysteriously, and no questions asked, for those who saw it did not care to ask questions or its business. The railroad men naturally felt uneasy or scared with a ghost riding their cars and none of them attempted to put it off when they saw it crawling between and running over the cars.” 2
After the flood in January, the “giant dressed in black” 3 disappeared, causing many to suspect that he was somehow connected with the flood.
Who was the “very tall man […] dressed in black” who visited Pennsylvania in 1910? Was he a spirit of the dead, there to warn others lest they meet the same fate as him? Or, was he some other paranormal entity, with an unnatural knowledge of the coming disaster?
4 – The Nain Rouge of Detroit
In Detroit there is said to exist a creature which presages misfortune. This harbinger of doom is known as the Nain Rouge – the red dwarf.
A book published in 1883 described the creature as being “very red in the face, with a bright, glistening eye”, as well as “a grinning mouth displaying sharp, pointed teeth”.4
Whilst various origin stories of the Nain Rouge exist, the most commonly told dates back to 1701, when Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac founded Detroit.
According to the tale, the Frenchman was a warned by a fortune-teller to be more careful with his money and, when the time came, to “appease the ‘Nain Rouge’” – or face ruin. Sometime later, whilst walking home from a May Day celebration with his wife, Cadillac encountered the foretold dwarf. Arrogant and full of anger, he smacked the Nain Rouge with his cane, and shouted: “Get out of my way, you red imp!” The Nain’s response was to laugh and curse the hot-tempered Frenchman, and the city which he had founded. After that, Cadillac’s reputation collapsed and the city of Detroit was forever under the shadow of the red dwarf.
According to legend, the sharp-toothed creature was sighted right before 1763’s Battle of Bloody Run, where many soldiers were killed in a thwarted surprise attack against Chief Pontiac. The Nain was also said to have manifest before the Great Fire of 1805, a blaze which saw all 200 structures in the city, except a stone warehouse, burned to the ground.5
3 – The Flying Dutchman
There is an old maritime legend that tells of a ghost ship, that is said to be cursed to sail the seas forever, never to make port again. An omen of doom, it foreshadows disaster for any and all who see it. This legendary vessel is called the Flying Dutchman.
The oldest known print reference to the phantom ship can be found in Travels in Various Parts of Europe, Asia and Africa, which was published in 1790 by John MacDonald. Literary references to the notorious ship continued throughout the end of the 1700s, and into the 19th and 20th centuries. An otherworldly glowing light was said to accompany the vessel. Yet, above all, it was said that the ship’s appearance predicted disasters. The worst omen of all for a sailor, it is said that those who see the Flying Dutchman are doomed to meet a terrible fate.
On 11th July 1881 at 4 a.m., off the coast of Australia, Prince George of Wales, the future King George V of the United Kingdom reported encountering the ship.
As well as the prince, thirteen crew members on board HMS Inconstant attested to witnessing a “strange red light” come out of the pre-dawn darkness. The prince’s log described how a great ship suddenly “came up on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her”. After it passed, no “sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm.”
Later that day, at 10.45 a.m., the seaman who first reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast to his death. As in all reported cases, sighting the Flying Dutchman foreshadowed catastrophe. 6
2 – Mothman
America has a long history of sightings of winged humanoid creatures. However, on 15th November 1966, what had been curious phenomena took a sinister turn.
On that night, two young couples from Point Pleasant, West Virginia, were driving around the so-called TNT area, thus named due to the area having served to manufacture arms in World War Two. They had parked near an old generator plant when they alleged to have witnessed a huge “flying man” that was approximately seven feet tall, with large “ten-foot” wings on its back, and two enormous red eyes, that had a reflective quality to them. The four stated that they were pursued by what they originally thought was an animal, which managed to keep pace with them even as their car speed away at 100 miles per hour.
Later, when they reported this to the police, an officer accompanied them to investigate the location. The officer did not find any creature or winged man, but his police radio did receive a strange transmission at the location, which, in his testimony was described as sounding like a “tape recording being played at very high speed”. The next morning, the police relayed the incident to the newspapers, who in turn dubbed the creature the “Moth-man”. 7
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Within three days of this sightings, eight people came forward reporting various similar creatures.
Over the next year, this grew to hundreds, with local reports claiming that the Mothman would occasionally screech as it flew overhead. A local news reporter stated that they had received over 500 phone calls relating to the Mothman between 1966 and December 1967. In particular, many witnesses attested to seeing the Mothman on the Silver Bridge, which connected Point Pleasant to the state of Ohio. Reported in December 1967, the sightings lasted for many days. No one knew why it had chosen that particular spot, but when the bridge collapsed only a few days later, on 15th December, the Mothman was declared an omen of the deaths of those forty-six who had died in the accident.
Writing in 1975, John Keel describes interviewing over one hundred witnesses of the Mothman. Many of these people told of experiencing vivid nightmares, as well as strange telephonic disturbances, leading up to the collapse of the bridge.
One person who suffered from terrible bad dreams was a Mrs. Thomas. She described to Keel how, in her nightmare: “There were a lot of people drowning in the river and Christmas packages were floating everywhere in the water.”8
Mothman sightings greatly decreased after the disaster. This only cemented the belief that the strange winged creature was somehow connected with the tragedy. 9
1 – The Morfa Colliery Explosion, 1890
The Morfa Colliery at Port Talbot in South Wales was operational from the mid-1800s until 1913, eventually closing after a long history of accidents. In 1863, thirty workers died there in an explosion. In 1870, another thirty-eight lost their lives. 10 Yet, it was the disaster of Monday 10th March 1890 which haunted the minds of the local community for many years to come.
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It was rumoured that the mine was haunted.
One tale told by those who worked at the mine was “of a man who jumped on a journey of trams underground, and, after riding some distance, jumped off and melted away in the darkness of the mine.” The man was recognised as one who died long ago. He was said to be a ghost. 11
Philip Williams, a survivor of the accident, described to the local newspaper a couple of days after the explosion how he had encountered another ghost dressed in “oilskin” in the mine. Extraordinarily, it had accompanied him as he was coming up in the cage. 12
Other stories included reports of a red “ghostly dog”, who appeared in the mine in the days before the explosion and was considered “an omen of evil”. 13 Strange noises were also common in the colliery, leaving some of the workers so shaken that they refused to come to work, fearing that a catastrophe was imminent.14
Inquiries into the accident struggled to decide on an explanation as to what had caused the explosion. Eventually, it was concluded that it was most likely shot-firing, carried out in accordance with current regulations, that had been responsible for the explosion. 15
Tales told by survivors, and those who had left the mine, argued that, whatever the cause, the explosion had been presaged, with warnings sent by unseen, paranormal forces.
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