Tag Archives: local legend

The Whaley House

Context: Z is a 21 year old Filipino American man. Growing up with a close community of Filipino friends and family. Z went to an elementary school within California. This story was collected over a Discord audio call.

Z: “The one that I thought of the other day, which is ‘spooky’ but not really, is The Whaley House. Which is like the only ghost house I know of, like, a unified school district takes everyone in the school district out of class to go visit it for like a week. There’s like a bunch of weird stories, and I don’t know a lot of the history off of the top of my head, but I know there was a family that lived there in the 1800s, and they all had some untimely deaths. Then there was some guy who was hanged who got buried in the graveyard adjacent to it.” 

Intv: “So there were just a ton of stories surrounding the place?”

Z: “Oh yeah, and you know one thing that I think really contributed to that, were the people who would always be walking around in period dress, like era accurate garb to the 1800s and you’d wonder if you saw a ghost. You know, it’s supposedly one of the most haunted houses in America, but I’ve never seen a ghost there, and I don’t know if I really believe in all of it. I think it’s probably just an old house, but it at least made an old house fun.” 

Analysis: I find it very interesting that the Unified School District of San Diego actually pulls  children out of class for a week to go and study the myths of The Whaley House. While some historical activities are present (like children learning how early settlers panned for gold) it really is a week that glorifies to the children of San Diego just how important culturally folklore can be. As Old Town and The Whaley House are two major tourist attractions within an already tourist heavy city. 

Bigfoot the Friendly Creature

Main Piece: 

Collector (me): How were you introduced to Bigfoot when you were little? 

Informant: Um… I’m trying to think. I think my parents told me about him… um, and he was probably in various picture books as well that I saw. So in downtown Seattle we have the Space Needle as an iconic landmark of Seattle. And there’s a picture book that my dad had when he was younger, and it was the thing in the early 70’s— they were trying to make a thing that Seattle had a mascot called the Wheedle. And it was like the Lorax, except huge, and orange and yellow, and there was a picture book called the Wheedle on the Needle, and it was this friendly monster dude that hung out near the Space Needle. And my dad tried to like get me into the Wheedle. And it was not a thing. It was like 35 years later, and I was kind of scared of him because he looked scary, the Wheedle, and my dad basically told me, “He’s not crazy, he’s a friendly dude, he’s like Bigfoot. He’s just like a friendly person,” and then I asked, “What’s Bigfoot?” And then he explained he was a creature that lived in the woods, and that he’s not hurting anybody, he just wants to be left alone. He doesn’t want to be bothered so everyone gives him his space and he’s a nice nice person. If you run into Bigfoot you’ll be fine, don’t be scared.

Background: 

My informant is a 20-year-old student from Washington state, where the legend of Bigfoot is incredibly popular— to the point of airports selling Bigfoot merchandise such as hats and shot glasses. As my informant said, “he’s kind of a state treasure, like everyone loves him. In other places it’s more like a creepy legend, but around here Bigfoot’s a friendly guy.” Whether one actually believes in him or not, it’s part of Washington state culture to acknowledge Bigfoot’s existence. 

Context:

When my informant was providing me with some Washington folklore for a separate post, I asked if she happened to know any lore about Bigfoot, since most of the legends I’ve heard about him take place there. She did, and I asked how she first learned about him, which she stated in the above piece.

Thoughts: 

This is the first version I’ve heard about Bigfoot where he’s been portrayed not as a monster, but a friendly creature. It’s very endearing, actually, and I think it’s a good representation of how attached a group can get to their legend. Even if Bigfoot is a well known legend across the U.S., this iteration of him could be considered a local legend because of how different he’s described as compared to the other versions where he’s shown as a creature out to cause harm. Since legends are just beliefs in narrative form, it also says a lot about how Washington people would rather view Bigfoot as kindly— as an icon of their state and culture. Furthermore, my informant’s point about Bigfoot’s popularity in Washington state indicates the notion that in order to become part of the surrounding folk group, there has to be an acceptance of this creature, or at least an acknowledgement. What’s also interesting to examine about this piece is how Bigfoot’s popularity has led to the development of a myriad of merchandise for locals and tourists alike, and could be seen as an example of cultural intimacy.

Beliefs About Robert Wadlow

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Interviewer: Can you tell me what you know about Robert Wadlo? I know he’s a real person but he’s also in some ways a local legend in Alton.

Informant: Umm. Tallest person…umm… that’s ever lived so far. As far as I know. Eiiuhh… eight foot… ten and a half or something like that. You could probably figure -you could probably google it and find out how tall he was. Umm. He uhh, uh. He went to Alton High school. Seen pictures of him with his classmates and they’re about hip height and he’s that much over the top of them. Uhm. Big man. Uhh, not very uhh, coordinated, but it’s because he was so big. He had to have help and stuff to get around. He was in a – a umm, a sideshow for a while as a – as a freak, for being so tall. Which was not a fun time. He uh… had to take – if he was going to go someplace in a car – they had a special  – they took the front seat out, um uh on one side so he could uhh, sit in the back. And uhh, put his feet up into the front – of – of the car. Reach the pedals from there. He umm. He became a master mason. At Franklin Lodge. There’s a chair there that I can sit in and my feet aren’t even close to the ground. And they had his rings – I could put about three of my fingers inside of his ring. It was that big.

Interviewer: Geez.

Informant: He umm. He had braces on his legs, in order he could stand. He was umm – the braces were the cause – what caused his uhh, his death. He got infections in his legs – and umm, the infection killed him. Umm. Buried in the Oakwood Cemetery. I can’t remember how old he was. 26 I think? Not too old. Everyone in Alton knows stories about him. Or some people whose parents knew him- grandparents knew him.

Background: My informant lived most of his younger life in Alton, Illinois. Robert Wadlow’s legacy is one large source of pride for the city of Alton. Though he is a real person, his status in Alton is quite like that of a legend.

Context: The informant is my Grandpa, and this piece was collected after I asked him if he knew any ‘folklore’ and gave him a day to think about it, on his request. He is certainly getting old, but he’s still rather sharp for his age.

Thoughts: Robert Wadlow is certainly real, and much of his life is factually documented. However, the thing that makes me feel he has a folkloric presence is the awe of having the tallest man to ever live born, raised, and honored in your hometown. Especially as a child, and so I’d imagine for other children, he felt quite surreal, and stories of his life – though factual – felt like tall tales (pun intended). That’s why I was interested in speaking to my Grandpa about him, since he is person in my life closest to knowing him, having gone to the same masonic temple and lived nearest to the same time. Bits of the story, like about how many fingers you can fit in his ring, are the parts that can be expounded upon and exaggerated out of pride for his legacy and which turn his life into something of a legend.

Escape From Alcatraz

Text: JC: So there’s an ongoing FBI investigation into the escape of these three guys even though it happened years ago. And there’s never been conclusive proof found about anything like how they escaped, did they escape, or did they die in the water of the bay. Because people have tried to study what the tides may have been like that night, and have said they they could have been swept out into the ocean. Or, that the tide could have taken them to Angel Island, which is this island in the middle of the bay. And so people wonder if they could have escaped by making it to that island, and then somehow survived, and then gotten back onto the mainland. I don’t know there’s a lot of speculation surrounding Alcatraz in particular and I think because it’s part of the history of our region and a really famous mystery, coupled with the fact that the FBI has spent decades investigating in it and has never found anything else out.

AT: How many versions have you heard of what happened

JC: I’ve heard that they died in the water and got swept out to see, I’ve heard that they have escaped onto an island, I’ve heard that they swam to San Francisco and escaped there…

AT: Have you ever heard that they have been sending postcards to their families from other places?

JC: No, I’ve never heard that.

AT: Oh really, that’s the version that I heard. Anyways, what do you personally think happened?

JC: I think they escaped.

Context: JC is a 19 year old history major at the University of Southern California. A resident of Walnut Creek, California near San Francisco and an adamant history buff, JC is well versed in a lot of local legend surrounding his famous and historically colorful place of origin. The exchange above took place over coffee when I asked JC if he knew and slang from the Bay Area. He gave me legends instead.

Interpretation: I like the exchange above because it not only discussed the various folklore surrounding the three escaped inmates from Alcatraz without bias, but it even contained an additional folkloric exchange in which JC and I swapped stories. Alcatraz is interesting because, due to the amount of press coverage and movies made based off of the famous escape, people often forget that nobody is actually sure of anything that took place of the night of the alleged escape other than the fact that there was an escape attempt. Any other information about the escape treated as fact is not fact at all, rather folklore that speculates what could have happened.

This legend is another example of a local legend, for it is tied to Alcatraz itself. It also fits the spirit of a legend extremely well due to the fact that various versions of what actually happened all have a questionable truth value, one of a combination of the possibilities has a strong chance of being proven valid is the FBI investigation continues. Additionally, it is easy to see how the legend of the escape from Alcatraz has taken on a mind of its own, for people often hold a strong opinion of what happened to the prisoners without any evidence to back it up. This is another example of the way that folklore works, often selecting the value of a particular story based off of factors such as order of hearing the specific recounting or who specifically told them about which recounting and choosing based off their relationships to the people.

Mount Diablo

Text: JC: The there’s a mountain near where I live called Mount Diablo, and there’s a story surrounding the mountain regarding how it got its name. Back in 1805, Spanish conquistadores were pursuing the Volvon tribe, or anybody who was resisting missionization. So the tribe entered a thicket, and they the spaniards cornered them. And the Spanish word for thicket is “monte.”

AT: Wait, what’s a thicket?

JC: A thicket is, I don’t know, trees and bushes and stuff, right?

AT: Ah, okay.

JC: And so the Spanish thought that they cornered the Volvon there, and that they were gonna capture them, but the tribe escaped in the middle of the night. So the story is that the spaniards named the it “monte del diablo,” or “thicket of the devil”, because of the native people escaping them. But then, the word “monte” got mistranslated by Americans into “mount diablo,” instead of thicket, because they did not know what “monte” meant. And so the name still lasts today. Even after that, people continued to make up stories about how the mountain got its name, because if you look at a picture of it, people are like, “Oh its peaks are devil horns,” or, “That’s where native people did Satanic rituals.” But none of that is true. And in the 1900s there were all of these newspaper articles speculating how the mountain got its name, but it’s really just because of that original event.

AT: Well is it possible that even that could have been made up?

JC: Totally, because the thing is, there is no primary documentation of it, so most of the information has been orally transferred. The reason I know about it is cause it’s right by my house.

Context: JC is a 19 year old history major at the University of Southern California. A resident of Walnut Creek, California near San Francisco and an adamant history buff, JC is well versed in a lot of local legend surrounding his famous and historically colorful place of origin. The exchange above took place over coffee when I asked JC if he knew and slang from the Bay Area. He gave me legends instead.

Interpretation: I think that this legend is significant due to the fact that it not only engages with the situations regarding the name of a place, but also the translation of a words across three different languages. Firstly, the fuzzy origin of the name of the actual place shows how easily different influences such as topographical features (devil horns), convincing oral tradition (the thicket story), and possibly even predisposed racists views (satanic rituals) can have on the understanding and belief of a place and its history. Additionally, this is a local legend tied to this one specific mountain. So, I find it even more interesting that part of the legend holds this mountain and the confusion around it solely responsible for the supposed mistranslation of monte into mountain instead of thicket. In this way, the “name origin” nature of the folklore surrounding the mountain provided a nexus for other “language folklore” of a similar topic.

Also, I like how at the beginning of this exchange, JC presented his version of the legend as the sole story associated with Mount Diablo that held any validity, only later admitting that other stories surrounding the site existed. Even so, he quickly dismissed them as rubbish. Only when I asked for proof that he had as to why his version was the most valid did he admit that there was no way to actually know for sure due to the lack of evidence. This folkloric exchange therefore provided an example of the way that people treat the folklore that they receive, and though the medium exists in multiplicity and variation, this demonstrated how people tend to hold the version that they heard first as the absolute truth.

For another version of this legend, please see p. 457-470 of Bev Ortiz’s “Mount Diablo as Myth and Reality: An Indian History Convoluted.” American Indian Quarterly Vol. 13 (1989)