When researching legends of Massachusetts, one will eventually come across the “Angel of Hadley”. The legend endures as part of our history, often quoted as fact, and has been used as the inspiration for stories by James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Walter Scott and Nathaniel Hawthorn. Maybe it is because it links our present to the cold autumns and winters we spent struggling to establish a new colony. Maybe it is because it attacks our old enemies the Native Americans and speaks to our glorious triumph over them. Most likely it prevails because, like all good legends, it has all the elements of great fiction but claims to be true, and although it has been proven to be false by historical records and historians, it continues to show up in articles and published collections as being true.
The legend takes place on September 1, 1675 during King Phillip’s War. Most of the town of Hadley, at the time a little more than an outpost in the wilderness, was at church. The Wampanoag Indians attacked the town, catching them by surprise. They were disorganized and no match for the well prepared Natives until a stranger stepped forward and organized the troops. We was tall with a gray beard and hair and his military skills and paranormal appearance drove the natives back into the woods and turned the tide of the war. When the troops returned to the town, the stranger was gone, never to be seen again.
This story draws us in for different reasons. It informs us of our past and how we came to be a nation. There is also the draw of war and battlefield ghosts, and this helps justify the truth of the story. Battlefields are places of death and great sorrow, and if there was ever a place where the paranormal could happen, where ghosts could walk and remind us of the dead who gave their lives to the greater good, that would be it. Just look at the documentaries on television and the amount of literature this subject takes up.
More importantly, it reinforces our conflict and superiority over the Native Americans. Even though we were unprepared we prevailed. The appearance of the spectral general, godlike in features and voice and coming from nowhere, is like God himself tipping his cap to the settlers, a sort of divine intervention for his chosen people.
But there might be a supreme reason the tale prevails, which might be the best reason to excuse it as being false, more myth than history. Tracing back the legend one finds the very people from who’s lips and hands it came from being the same people who felt the strong pull to create local history to prove our independence from Britain. If you want to create national pride, create a rich history for oneself.
The legend goes deeper, however, and this is where the records conflict about the general’s appearance as well as the possible human who inspired it. One source says another source is wrong, while another reinforces the idea.
Erza Stiles wrote in 1794 of a man, very much human, who saved the town of Hadley. She claimed the man who led the troops that day was William Goff, a fugitive staying in the town with military skills and the kind of personality to assemble a army out of confusion. In 1648 Goff was a jurist in the trial of Charles I of England. Charles was overthrown and the Parliament accused him of crimes against the people. Goff was one of the people who signed his death warrant and the king was beheaded. Oliver Cromwell took over the country, but after his death Charles II came into power and sought revenge on those who had killed his father. Goff and another man hid out in England before sailing to the New World and hiding in parts of Massachusetts and Connecticut. One place he was rumored to stay was in John Russell’s house in Hadley.
Indeed, Russell had a hidden room in his house that could have been used to hide the outcast, but there is no report from either the town’s people or the local law of any such person being seen at all around town. It would have been almost impossible to hide the two men and there are conflicting reports. Some say that Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts at the time was the first to write of the story in his journal and then publish it and that other people picked up the story and continued to retell it until it became truth. It is said that Hutchinson, who allowed Goff to hide in Boston for a time, got the information directly from another source, but that source has never been found. Goff’s journal of his time has no reference to his helping the people, staying with Russell or a battle in Hadley.
In fact, there is no record of a battle even taking place.
The legend endures though, being published in Fate Magazine and in their collection of stories entitled Visions of Ghost Armies. There are other references to it in the official history of Hadley and Massachusetts as well as segments in television shows such as Sightings. The truth may never be fully known about what did or did not happen in Hadley in 1675, but over 225 years later its goal is still felt. It has become part of our collective history and part of the mystic of Massachusetts.
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