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Monday, 11 February 2019

Ron Quinn and the Little People of New York State

     In 1936 a certain Miss Lampeter wrote to John O'London's Weekly asking, in effect, whether anyone had seen fairies, because his area of Wales a number of people had claimed to have done so. Funny about that! For the next few months the magazine found itself publishing letters from people who claimed the experience. If you are interested, you can read them here (PDF 158 KB). Similarly, in 1989 Ron Quinn wrote in a weekly paper in upstate New York about his encounter with a little man in 1942, and gave them his name and address. He asked if anybody had had a similar experience. Funny about that! As you have probably guessed by now, over the coming weeks, dozens of letters arrived in his box.
      This, then is a review of Ron Quinn's book, Little People.
       First of all, his own experience. It happened in August 1942, when he was ten years old, and holidaying in the Mongaup Valley of upper New York State. Having broken some minor infraction, he had been sent back to the cabin for an hour while the other children played. Just then he heard a tapping on the window. There, standing on the ledge outside, tapping the glass with his walking stick, was a little man of the apparent age of 50, but only a foot high.
     "The odd little guy wore a small, crumpled hat, dark in color. A short, gray beard covered the lower part of his face. From beneath his hat, silky hair cascaded down to his narrow shoulders, covering his ears. His shirt was gray and somewhat tightfitting around his upper body. The sleeves were very baggy, and his trousers ended near his knees. Something resembling a belt encircled his wide waist. His boots, also gray, were soft in appearance, ending near the knees."
     He was smiling, and his eyes were full of friendship. Although only ten, Quinn knew this was theoretically impossible, but the little man had all the characteristics of a living being, right down to a shadow. He beckoned to the boy, who opened the window and slowly reached his hand towards him. The little man stepped back, looked him over and, still smiling, jumped down and scampered into the trees. Of course, the other children laughed at him when he told the story, but he knew it had really happened. The little man had left a tiny footprint in the moist ground.
     The remainder of the book consists of 30 stories, in no particular order, of brief encounters related by his correspondents.
     The first one, Ch. 2, had clearly passed through many hands before it reached him, because it was set in the 1830s and concerned a trapper, a gentle giant called Big Bob McCain. Having been known as a teller of tall tales, and an exaggerator of the truth, he was naturally disbelieved when he insisted this experience was absolutely true. He found a little man no more than two feet high caught by the leg in one of his traps. He was screaming in pain and fear but, to Big Bob's amazement, when he set him free, his leg was undamaged, and he was essentially weightless in the big man's hands. On running away, the little fellow allegedly left his hat behind, which Bob kept as proof of the event. The author commented - and I concur - that he had never ever heard of another case of one of these little men being touched by a human, or of being weightless.
     Ch. 19 is set in the early 1800s, and concerns a frontiersman called Patrick who entered deep into a cave and came across a great throng of little people dancing. This, of course, is simply a modern take on a traditional legend about a visit to fairyland, and no credence should be given to it.
     Indeed, my major criticism of the author is that he rarely identifies the informant. If the old man who witnessed three little men arguing in a foreign language in 1976 told the author himself, he must have been 89 years old when he did so. Perhaps he was. One story was told by the witness's daughter, and another by the niece who was present at the time, but did not witness the encounter. Chapter 25 is definitely hearsay. On the other hand, in one case it was specifically stated that the witness told it to Quinn face to face. All in all, I suspect the witnesses were the informants unless stated otherwise.

    Typical Encounters
    Since 30 accounts are involved, it is best to start with the typical features before we go on to the more unusual cases. Typically, the account involves a brief, but nevertheless unambiguous encounter decades - often the better part of a lifetime - ago. This is itself rather strange. Wouldn't you expect a more even spread across the decades? If people were making it up, wouldn't you expect many of them to place their story in the recent past?
     With one or two exceptions, the beings ranged from one to two feet in height, and nearly all were male. The author indeed commented on this: where are all the little women? They appeared to be Caucasian, and their clothing certainly was, albeit somewhat unusual. None of them, for instance, were described as tiny Amerindians. Apart from one who was described as extremely ugly, they were all essentially human in shape, only tiny. They appeared solid; there was no transparency, and none - repeat none - possessed wings. The wide variety of shapes and sizes reported in the first and second fairy census were missing. Interestingly, nos. 330 to 341 of the second census came from New York State, and they did provide more variety.

     Flesh and Blood?
     Of course, these beings cannot be flesh and blood. I've explained elsewhere why a breeding population of tiny intelligent beings of the same proportions as human beings would be biologically impossible. And even if they were possible, they would still require a visible community providing food and making clothing. Nevertheless, there were a number of cases which definitely sounded like solid biological entities. In one case, a little man three feet high fell onto the roof of a couple's car, and was taken for a wild ride. I am not sure, however, that this was not a genuine human dwarf. Much smaller was the little blighter who stole fruit from a picnic, and another who purloined eggs from a henhouse. Such actions are not unknown in the fairy tradition, but seem to be absent from what might be called the "census" encounters. One witness watched a little man save another one from drowning. Another witness saw a tiny man exit a derelict house, under the floor of which he discovered a cubby hole which the mannikin had apparently converted into a home. Another found a little man using his barn as a home, with some fruit and a small mustard jar filled with water. Yet another witness claimed to have surprised a little man fishing and, when the latter ran away, took the miniature rod and line as evidence. The author was shown a photograph of it. And, of course, there was the little weightless wonder caught in Big Bob's trap.

     High Strangeness
     Most of the encounters were rather banal - well, once you accept the premise of people one or two foot high. However, some of them were decidedly weird.
     Take, for instance, chapter 6, in which a little girl of five, lost in the woods, met two small "dolls" with shiny green clothing, small hats, and wavy silver hair down to their shoulders. She asked them if they knew where her aunt's house was, and they motioned her to follow them. The interesting thing was, as dusk approached, little balls of blinking coloured lights appeared around them. Even more amazing, the three of them inexplicably went faster. In later years, she would described it as similar to the way a movie is speeded up. What strange things for a five year old to report!
     Ch. 7 tells of an experience in 1933, when the witness was boy of ten. (If he reported it in 1989, he would have been 66 at the time, which is not so old.) In the Catskills, he saw a bird he could not identify: about 18 inches high, black, with a long beak. Then he noticed a string in its beak, like reins on a horse. It went into the bush, and came out with a little man on its back, and as it flew away he saw how the mannikin's weight made it difficult for it to gain height. (Big Bob would have been surprised.)
    The story in Ch. 16 may well be second hand, for it happened to an adult in 1929. Walking home at night, he saw a light in the undergrowth. There was a dome shaped, yellow-green, translucent light measuring four feet across and 18 inches high. Just then, two little men a foot high slowly materialised out of the light. When they saw him, they jumped back into it, and the light disappeared. The man marked the spot with several rocks, and a week later he found the grass slowly dying. Quinn wondered whether this was how "they" enter our reality.
     Ch. 13: In 1939 a teenaged boy found a perfectly formed wooden door about a foot wide and 18 inches high in the face of a rock. He knocked, and a little man peaked out. Needless to say, he returned to the same rock many times, but the door was absent. This sort of story, of course, is not unknown in fairy folklore.
     But in the whole catalogue of weirdness, nothing beats the stories of the phantom zones in Chapters 14 and 17. The first happened on 29 June 1977. Ned was a bushwalker well familiar with this part of the Catskills. This time, however, he felt a strange tingling sensation as he walked past a rock formation, and he gradually found himself in a landscape quite different from how he remembered it. By a strange waterfall were four little people playing haunting music on flutes, so he took photos. He walked back for about an hour, felt the tingling sensation, and the mysterious landscape vanished. Although he felt he had been gone for three hours, his watch showed only 30 minutes. This, I might add, is the reverse of the time compression in the fairy folklore, where a short period in fairyland equals a long time on earth. And the photos? They came out, except the ones of the little people appeared only as greenish, out-of-focus shadows.
     Then there was Dave's experience in Washington State in the 1950s. Strolling around the familiar Neversink Reservoir, he noticed a fog bank hanging over the water. He came to an ornate bridge he's never seen before, about three foot wide, and crossed it to a 6-acre island which had never been there before. In the fog he saw strange animals and trees, plus three bearded men with long silky hair and long white robes, who were only three feet high. When he recrossed the bridge, both the mist and the bridge disappeared. Between two familiar mountains rose a third mountain, which had never been there before. Then both mountain and island vanished. A doctor was also said to have had a similar experience at Lake Washington. Quinn ends the chapter with a pertinent question:
What if Dave hadn't made it off the island before it vanished? Would he have been listed as just another missing person? If so, where would Dave be today?
      Of course, you will no doubt be aware that visits to a parallel reality have been a common theme in science fiction/fantasy since the days of H. G. Wells. Just the same, isn't it strange that stories of two such visits were recorded by a single researcher? Not only that, but in Chapter 7 of her 1997 book, Fairies, real encounters with little people, Janet Bord recorded two instances of visits to such phantom zones, although no fairies were involved. Both were published in Fate magazine, but appear to have been independent, because one was told in 1956 and the other in 1982. I don't know what to make of these strange stories, except that it reinforces my opinion that we should never throw out any report, no matter how weird. You never know if a similar one will come along to join it in the file.
     See another such story recorded by Prof. Michael Swords. The witness's brother recounted the event in more detail here.

     Irrelevant Stories
     As I've said before, people who have a strange experience are likely to tell it to anyone who will take it seriously, even if it is irrelevant to the matter at hand. Chapters 27 to 29 have nothing to do with little people. In the first one, a woman sent a letter anonymously telling how twice the key to a heavy trunk disappeared, only to be discovered years later right under the trunk, even though not even a sheet of paper could be forced beneath it. The next chapter tells of a boy who walked out of the house one winter and saw the giant disembodied head of a bearded man floating above the trees nearby. Finally, the events in Ch. 29 sound like urban folklore; they concern people who just vanished very close to their companions. But for the last one, where a boy was approaching his parents' truck was visible one second and missing the next, the author claims to have be personally acquainted with the stepfather. These are all very strange, but no little people were involved.

     Faulty Memories?
     Haven't we all had the experience of seeing a picture or a scene, or listening to a song, after a long interval, and finding it was somewhat different from how we remembered it? Some events are so dramatic they stick permanently in our memory. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that your memory is not a DVD player. Every time you access it, you have to reassemble it, with the possibility that it will lose or gain something in the process. Often, our memories adjust to how we would have preferred the event to have occurred - particularly when it involves conflict with other people.
     The stories in this book are generally decades old. One must assume that some of the details have become scrambled. But what about the core experience?
      Suppose you briefly notice something big in the forest. Was it a bigfoot? Or something strange in the sky: a flying saucer, perhaps? If your mind is that way inclined, your memory can focus, and perhaps elaborate, on those features which would tend to support the hypothesis, while forgetting those which did not. Eventually you will be able to convince yourself you really saw a bigfoot or flying saucer, but your memory is really "fake news". A more banal solution may have been available.
     Now let's look at the simple experience in Chapter 3. It happened in the evening 41 years before the story was told. A family noticed rustling in the underbush and shadows, and then a boy saw a little man a foot high. He described the clothing. His mother saw it too. An easy case of faulty memory, you might say.
     But stop and think: the reason a person might imagine he had seen a bigfoot or flying saucer is that these are, so to speak, respectable things to see, even if he did not believe in them at first. But little men are not. Nobody's supposed to see such things. If one were seen, the tendency would be to rationalise it as something else. In fact, in one case the witnesses initially thought they were looking at a doll - until it moved. And most of the encounters took place in daylight, reasonably close up. What could possibly be mistaken for a little man tapping at a window?

     Well, they must be, mustn't they? if you regard little people as impossible. Just the same, a theory - such as the non-existence of something - is not very strong if it relies on labeling as a liar anyone who provides contrary evidence. Of course, there are some people who will do anything for their 15 minutes of fame, even if it makes them look silly. However, the most common motives for hoaxes are fun and profit. As far as I am aware, none of the alleged witnesses were paid for their stories, so we can scratch the second motive. As for fun, the whole idea is to make the tale outrageous enough for a lot of people to see it is a joke, and you and your friends can chuckle among yourselves about how you got a lot of gulls to take you seriously.
     Naturally, this works best if your story sees the light in a magazine or newspaper. When gulling a stranger, it is best to do it face to face, so that you can see him nodding affirmatively as you feed him baloney. You don't get the same kick out of writing to a stranger, whose reaction you cannot gauge - especially if you write anonymously, or with just your first name, as some of them did. Also, it's not much fun writing to a stranger and telling him, in effect, I had an experience similar to yours. You have to ham it up.
     I myself have had experiences with false stories in the cryptozoology field. In 1960 a Brisbane newspaper asked if anyone had seen "monsters", and the next thing you knew they were inundated with outrageous, over-the-top, tall-as-a-pinnacle tall tales. But when I wrote Bunyips and Bigfoots, and later set up my cryptozoology blog, I received lots of reports to the effect: I had an experience just like the ones you described; not a single over-the-top story among them. Some of them were even disappointed when I suggested a mundane explanation. To be fair, though, I think a few of the accounts other investigators have collected bear the ring of untruth.
     Moral of the story: you can't catch every hoax, but most of them are pretty obvious. Also, as the author twice put it: some of them may be bogus, but if only one is genuine, then something strange in going on.
     There is, of course, a final possibility, which I don't consider very likely, but is nevertheless theoretically possible. Perhaps the whole book is fiction, the output of Mr Quinn's own imagination. If so, he didn't do a good job. As I said before, the stories are related in no particular order, and do not lead anywhere. Also, there are those three irrelevant chapters. Besides, if you want to make money, it would be better to invent stories about bigfoot or flying saucers. More people would be likely to buy it.

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