In the late 1930s, a frightening and phantomlike creature plagued Provincetown, Massachusetts. One October evening in 1938, so tradition speaks, a bizarre entity emerged from the dunes, "dressed in black – all in black..." The visitations of the phantom were to last seven years. Then, in 1945, its activity stopped abruptly and the entity disappeared without a trace, never to be seen again. It was named ‘The Black Flash’ because of its supernatural agility. Today, the legend of ‘The Black Flash’ that terrorized Provincetown in the 1930’s is remembered as a haunting tale of the bizarre. Several websites mention it, and they are more or less consistent in their summaries. Perhaps not surprising, as there are so few sources and with anecdotes sensational enough, that there is no room nor need for distortion or embellishment.
The tale of The Black Flash can be traced back to a small publication by Robert Ellis Cahill, folklorist and untiring Massachusetts collector of oddities. Cahill gave the Black Flash a second life with his retelling of the events that so plagued Provincetown in the 1930’s in his New England’s Mad and Mysterious Men, that was published in 1984. Vermont writer Joe Citro masterfully retold the strange affair in his Passing Strange: True Tales of New England Hauntings and Horrors (1996), thus keeping the tale of The Black Flash alive. In fact, were it not for Cahill and Citro, we would probably have never learnt of the capers of that strange phantom that in behaviour, as well as outfit, so echoed another dark phantom from our past: Spring-heeled Jack. Famous author of anomalies John Keel stayed in Provincetown in 1963; yet he did not come to learn of that local legend.
But that’s how I came to know of it’s existence; by reading Mike Dash’s paper on Spring-heeled Jack that initially appeared in Fortean Studies no. 3, published in 1996, and who based his account on Cahill. I was so intrigued by this story that some years ago I decided to bite my teeth into this case and engage in some serious research concerning what had happened in Provincetown in the late 1930’s. I wanted to get a clearer picture of that series of weird events that, according to Cahill, lasted until 1945. My first step was to acquire both the Cahill and the Citro publications. Citro, with whom I corresponded in the course of my research, is an excellent writer and one who is well versed in Fortean events. To Cahill goes the honour of having written about the case first – and what a tale it is!
"black, all black, with eyes like balls of flame, and he was big, real big... maybe eight feet tall. He made a sound, a loud buzzing sound, like a June bug on a hot day, only louder... he disappeared like a flash."
Other encounters would follow. Writes Cahill:
"Within the next three weeks, four other people had similar experiences in downtown Provincetown. The Black Flash either jumped out at them from behind a tree, or dropped down before them from a rooftop. Two of his victims were husky men, and although one man reported that he chased him, he said he was no match for the speed and agility of the Black Flash."
Those who had had their luckless encounters with the elusive phantom agreed on its height, black cape, almost superhuman agility, and (sometimes) silver ears. In one instant, when it was cornered by the Provincetown police in a schoolyard surrounded by a ten foot fence, a flashlight shining on its face revealed "a mask, which looked like an old flour-screen without its handle, painted silver and strapped to the phantom’s head." The Black Flash then escaped over a fence. During another encounter one teenager alleged that the phantom had spit blue flames into his face. Then there is the farmer who allegedly emptied his rifle at The Black Flash, whereupon the phantom merely laughed and leaped over an eight-foot hedge.
My second attempt at getting to the bottom of this incredible tale, was to learn about the sources that Cahill and Citro had used. Citro had used Cahill, as it quickly turned out, and Cahill had used the retellings by several people living in Provincetown at the time of the events. As such, Cahill is an important, if not the sole source for the local oral tradition involving The Black Flash. But as I became none the wiser in regards to any sources that went before Cahill, the next logical step was to search for a local newspaper. To my joy I found one actually online: the Provincetown Advocate.
In its October 26, 1939 issue I found the first reference on The Black Flash. So Ellis had been right, after all, although his retelling marked more the recording of the next stage, that of an unusual event having entered local folklore with all its embellishments and distortions. Something strange had indeed visited Provincetown, but not from 1938 till 1945. The weirdness began in 1939 and lasted only a few weeks. The Provincetown Advocate was unusually reticient in reporting about the weird occurrences. So much so, that none of Cahill’s sensational anecdotes are to be found in that paper. Which, of course, may not say anything. There is always the possibility that the local newspaper did not record, for a variety of reasons, all the tales spun by its local inhabitants. That would include any possible, actual encounter. But judging from the newspaper, and this is the closest source in regards to the unusual occurrences that we can get, there was something going on and the name ‘Black Flash’ was already in use from the start. Aside from that there are other small but problematic oddities that I noted and were included in my essay on The Black Flash that was published in 2007, in Anomalist 13.
Having developed a keen interest by now into the development of Spring-heeled Jack-like activities in the United States, in the course of extensive researches I was able to compile a list of thirteen cases of incidents ranging from 1885 to 1927 that I included as an appendix.
Suffice to say that in the 1930’s a strange phantom had actually plagued Provincetown. During my researches I discovered that the neighbouring village of Wellfleet encountered a similarly strange and brief visitation by a howling something around the same time. So I not only found that Cahill’s tales had a basis in fact, but also that another weird entity or pranxter had displayed some activities nearby. A conclusion is that it is always necessary to revisit these old – but not entirely cold – cases, with sometimes surprising results.
As to the Black Flash, who was he? Was he, as Cahill learned, an invention of some bored Provincetown men? Cahill was told by Francis Marshall, who became Provincetown’s Police Chief in 1959, that he knew who The Black Flash was, but he refused to identify the culprit:
"I will tell you this though... The Black Flash wasn’t just one person. He was four men, who sometimes played the part alone, and sometimes together. Two are dead now, but the others have a hell of a time when they get together, reminiscing about the times they scared the hell out of their friends and neighbors in Provincetown."
Be that as it may, but the original source in the Provincetown Advocate already mentions the uncanny agility of the Black Flash:
"...grabbing women, jumping over ten foot hedges with no trouble at all. "Chair springs on his feet" is the explanation."
A description that coincides with the behaviour of that other bizarre prowler of the dark, Spring-heeled Jack. Did something entirely different emerge from the dunes one night, to begin its reign of fear? This question I am sure would have amused Robert Ellis Cahill. As for myself, I am deeply puzzled as to how an England bogyeman of a distant past would become a kind of template for whatever haunted a little town in Massachusetts, hundreds of miles away and a century later.