During the winter of 1927-28 officials of the Federal
government made a strange and secret investigation of certain conditions
in the ancient Massachusetts seaport of Innsmouth. The public first
learned of it in February, when a vast series of raids and arrests occurred,
followed by the deliberate burning and dynamiting - under suitable precautions
- of an enormous number of crumbling, worm-eaten, and supposedly empty
houses along the abandoned waterfront. Uninquiring souls let this
occurrence pass as one of the major clashes in a spasmodic war on liquor.
Keener news-followers, however, wondered at the prodigious
number of arrests, the abnormally large force of men used in making them,
and the secrecy surrounding the disposal of the prisoners. No trials,
or even definite charges were reported; nor were any of the captives seen
thereafter in the regular gaols of the nation. There were vague statements
about disease and
concentration camps, and later about dispersal in various
naval and military prisons, but nothing positive ever developed.
Innsmouth itself was left almost depopulated, and it is even now only beginning
to show signs of a sluggishly revived existence.
Complaints from many liberal organizations were met with
long confidential discussions, and representatives were taken on trips
to certain camps and prisons. As a result, these societies became
surprisingly passive and reticent. Newspaper men were harder to manage,
but seemed largely to cooperate with the government in the end. Only
one paper - a tabloid always discounted
because of its wild policy - mentioned the deep diving
submarine that discharged torpedoes downward in the marine abyss just beyond
Devil Reef. That item, gathered by chance in a haunt of sailors,
seemed indeed rather far-fetched; since the low, black reef lay a full
mile and a half out from Innsmouth Harbour.
People around the country and in the nearby towns muttered
a great deal among themselves, but said very little to the outer world.
They had talked about dying and half-deserted Innsmouth for nearly a century,
and nothing new could be wilder or more hideous than what they had whispered
and hinted at years before. Many things had taught them secretiveness,
and there was no
need to exert pressure on them. Besides, they really
knew little; for wide salt marshes, desolate and unpeopled, kept neighbors
off from Innsmouth on the landward side.
But at last I am going to defy the ban on speech about
this thing. Results, I am certain, are so thorough that no public
harm save a shock of repulsion could ever accrue from a hinting of what
was found by those horrified men at Innsmouth. Besides, what was
found might possibly have more than one explanation. I do not know
just how much of the whole tale has been told even
to me, and I have many reasons for not wishing to probe
deeper. For my contact with this affair has been closer than that
of any other layman, and I have carried away impressions which are yet
to drive me to drastic measures.
It was I who fled frantically out of Innsmouth in the
early morning hours of July 16, 1927, and whose frightened appeals for
government inquiry and action brought on the whole reported episode.
I was willing enough to stay mute while the affair was fresh and uncertain;
but now that it is an old story, with public interest and curiosity gone,
I have an odd craving to whisper about
those few frightful hours in that ill-rumored and evilly-shadowed
seaport of death and blasphemous abnormality. The mere telling helps
me to restore confidence in my own faculties; to reassure myself that I
was not the first to succumb to a contagious nightmare hallucination.
It helps me, too, in making up my mind regarding a certain terrible step
which lies ahead of me.
I never heard of Innsmouth till the day before I saw it
for the first and - so far - last time. I was celebrating my coming
of age by a tour of New England - sightseeing, antiquarian, and genealogical
- and had planned to go directly from ancient Newburyport to Arkham, whence
my mother's family was derived. I had no car, but was travelling
by train, trolley and motor-coach, always
seeking the cheapest possible route. In Newburyport
they told me that the steam train was the thing to take to Arkham; and
it was only at the station ticket-office, when I demurred at the high fare,
that I learned about Innsmouth. The stout, shrewd-faced agent, whose
speech shewed him to be no local man, seemed sympathetic toward my efforts
at economy, and made a
suggestion that none of my other informants had offered.
"You could take that old bus, I suppose," he said with
a certain hesitation, "but it ain't thought much of hereabouts. It
goes through Innsmouth - you may have heard about that - and so the people
don't like it. Run by an Innsmouth fellow - Joe Sargent - but never
gets any custom from here, or Arkham either, I guess. Wonder it keeps
running at all. I s'pose it's cheap enough, but
I never see mor'n two or three people in it - nobody
but those Innsmouth folk. Leaves the square - front of Hammond's
Drug Store - at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. unless they've changed lately.
Looks like a terrible rattletrap - I've never been on it."
That was the first I ever heard of shadowed Innsmouth.
Any reference to a town not shown on common maps or listed in recent guidebooks
would have interested me, and the agent's odd manner of allusion roused
something like real curiosity. A town able to inspire such dislike
in it its neighbors, I thought, must be at least rather unusual, and worthy
of a tourist's attention. If it
came before Arkham I would stop off there and so I asked
the agent to tell me something about it. He was very deliberate,
and spoke with an air of feeling slightly superior to what he said.
"Innsmouth? Well, it's a queer kind of a town down at
the mouth of the Manuxet. Used to be almost a city - quite a port
before the War of 1812 - but all gone to pieces in the last hundred years
or so. No railroad now - B. and M. never went through,
and the branch line from Rowley was given up years ago.
"More empty houses than there are people, I guess, and
no business to speak of except fishing and lobstering. Everybody
trades mostly either here or in Arkham or Ipswich. Once they had
quite a few mills, but nothing's left now except one gold refinery running
on the leanest kind of part time.
"That refinery, though, used to he a big thing, and old
man Marsh, who owns it, must be richer'n Croesus. Queer old duck,
though, and sticks mighty close in his home. He's supposed to have
developed some skin disease or deformity late in life that makes him keep
out of sight. Grandson of Captain Obed Marsh, who founded the business.
His mother seems to've been some kind
of foreigner - they say a South Sea islander - so everybody
raised Cain when he married an Ipswich girl fifty years ago. They
always do that about Innsmouth people, and folks here and hereabouts always
try to cover up any Innsmouth blood they have in 'em. But Marsh's
children and grandchildren look just like anyone else far's I can see.
I've had 'em pointed out to me here -
though, come to think of it, the elder children don't
seem to be around lately. Never saw the old man.
"And why is everybody so down on Innsmouth? Well, young
fellow, you mustn't take too much stock in what people here say.
They're hard to get started, but once they do get started they never let
up. They've been telling things about Innsmouth - whispering 'em,
mostly - for the last hundred years, I guess, and I gather they're more
scared than anything else. Some of the stories
would make you laugh - about old Captain Marsh driving
bargains with the devil and bringing imps out of hell to live in Innsmouth,
or about some kind of devil-worship and awful sacrifices in some place
near the wharves that people stumbled on around 1845 or thereabouts - but
I come from Panton, Vermont, and that kind of story don't go down with
"You ought to hear, though, what some of the old-timers
tell about the black reef off the coast - Devil Reef, they call it.
It's well above water a good part of the time, and never much below it,
but at that you could hardly call it an island. The story is that
there's a whole legion of devils seen sometimes on that reef - sprawled
about, or darting in and out of some kind of caves near
the top. It's a rugged, uneven thing, a good bit
over a mile out, and toward the end of shipping days sailors used to make
big detours just to avoid it.
"That is, sailors that didn't hail from Innsmouth.
One of the things they had against old Captain Marsh was that he was supposed
to land on it sometimes at night when the tide was right. Maybe he
did, for I dare say the rock formation was interesting, and it's just barely
possible he was looking for pirate loot and maybe finding it; but there
was talk of his dealing with demons there.
Fact is, I guess on the whole it was really the Captain
that gave the bad reputation to the reef.
"That was before the big epidemic of 1846, when over half
the folks in Innsmouth was carried off. They never did quite figure
out what the trouble was, but it was probably some foreign kind of disease
brought from China or somewhere by the shipping. It surely was bad
enough - there was riots over it, and all sorts of ghastly doings that
I don't believe ever got outside of town -
and it left the place in awful shape. Never came
back - there can't be more'n 300 or 400 people living there now.
"But the real thing behind the way folks feel is simply
race prejudice - and I don't say I'm blaming those that hold it.
I hate those Innsmouth folks myself, and I wouldn't care to go to their
town. I s'pose you know - though I can see you're a Westerner by
your talk - what a lot our New England ships - used to have to do with
queer ports in Africa, Asia, the South Seas, and
everywhere else, and what queer kinds of people they
sometimes brought back with 'em. You've probably heard about the
Salem man that came home with a Chinese wife, and maybe you know there's
still a bunch of Fiji Islanders somewhere around Cape Cod.
"Well, there must be something like that back of the Innsmouth
people. The place always was badly cut off from the rest of the country
by marshes and creeks and we can't be sure about the ins and outs of the
matter; but it's pretty clear that old Captain Marsh must have brought
home some odd specimens when he had all three of his ships in commission
back in the twenties and
thirties. There certainly is a strange kind of
streak in the Innsmouth folks today - I don't know how to explain it but
it sort of makes you crawl. You'll notice a little in Sargent if
you take his bus. Some of 'em have queer narrow heads with flat noses
and bulgy, starry eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain't quite
right. Rough and scabby, and the sides of the necks are all
shriveled or creased up. Get bald, too, very young.
The older fellows look the worst - fact is, I don't believe I've ever seen
a very old chap of that kind. Guess they must die of looking in the
glass! Animals hate 'em - they used to have lots of horse trouble before
the autos came in.
"Nobody around here or in Arkham or Ipswich will have
anything to do with 'em, and they act kind of offish themselves when they
come to town or when anyone tries to fish on their grounds. Queer
how fish are always thick off Innsmouth Harbour when there ain't any anywhere
else around - but just try to fish there yourself and see how the folks
chase you off! Those people used
to come here on the railroad - walking and taking the
train at Rowley after the branch was dropped - but now they use that bus.
"Yes, there's a hotel in Innsmouth - called the Gilman
House - but I don't believe it can amount to much. I wouldn't advise
you to try it. Better stay over here and take the ten o'clock bus
tomorrow morning; then you can get an evening bus there for Arkham at eight
o'clock. There was a factory inspector who stopped at the Gilman
a couple of years ago and he had a lot of
unpleasant hints about the place. Seems they get
a queer crowd there, for this fellow heard voices in other rooms - though
most of 'em was empty - that gave him the shivers. It was foreign
talk he thought, but he said the bad thing about it was the kind of voice
that sometimes spoke. It sounded so unnatural - slopping like, he
said - that he didn't dare undress and go to sleep. Just
waited up and lit out the first thing in the morning.
The talk went on most all night.
"This fellow - Casey, his name was - had a lot to say
about how the Innsmouth folk, watched him and seemed kind of on guard.
He found the Marsh refinery a queer place - it's in an old mill on the
lower falls of the Manuxet. What he said tallied up with what I'd
heard. Books in bad shape, and no clear account of any kind of dealings.
You know it's always been a kind of mystery
where the Marshes get the gold they refine. They've
never seemed to do much buying in that line, but years ago they shipped
out an enormous lot of ingots.
"Used to be talk of a queer foreign kind of jewelry that
the sailors and refinery men sometimes sold on the sly, or that was seen
once or twice on some of the Marsh women-folks. People allowed maybe
old Captain Obed traded for it in some heathen port, especially since he
always ordered stacks of glass beads and trinkets such as seafaring men
used to get for native trade. Others
thought and still think he'd found an old pirate cache
out on Devil Reef. But here's a funny thing. The old Captain's
been dead these sixty years, and there's ain't been a good-sized ship out
of the place since the Civil War; but just the same the Marshes still keep
on buying a few of those native trade things - mostly glass and rubber
gewgaws, they tell me. Maybe the Innsmouth folks
like 'em to look at themselves - Gawd knows they've gotten
to be about as bad as South Sea cannibals and Guinea savages.
"That plague of '46 must have taken off the best blood
in the place. Anyway, they're a doubtful lot now, and the Marshes
and other rich folks are as bad as any. As I told you, there probably
ain't more'n 400 people in the whole town in spite of all the streets they
say there are. I guess they're what they call 'white trash' down
South - lawless and sly, and full of secret things. They
get a lot of fish and lobsters and do exporting by truck.
Queer how the fish swarm right there and nowhere else.
"Nobody can ever keep track of these people, and state
school officials and census men have a devil of a time. You can bet
that prying strangers ain't welcome around Innsmouth. I've heard
personally of more'n one business or government man that's disappeared
there, and there's loose talk of one who went crazy and is out at Danvers
now. They must have fixed up some awful
scare for that fellow.
"That's why I wouldn't go at night if I was you.
I've never been there and have no wish to go, but I guess a daytime trip
couldn't hurt you - even though the people hereabouts will advise you not
to make it. If you're just sightseeing, and looking for old-time
stuff, Innsmouth ought to be quite a place for you."
And so I spent part of that evening at the Newburyport
Public Library looking up data about Innsmouth. When I had tried
to question the natives in the shops, the lunchroom, the garages, and the
fire station, I had found them even harder to get started than the ticket
agent had predicted; and realized that I could not spare the time to overcome
their first instinctive reticence. They
had a kind of obscure suspiciousness, as if there were
something amiss with anyone too much interested in Innsmouth. At
the Y. M. C. A., where I was stopping, the clerk merely
discouraged my going to such a dismal, decadent place; and the people at
the library shewed much the same attitude. Clearly, in the eyes of
the educated, Innsmouth was merely an exaggerated case of
The Essex County histories on the library shelves had
very little to say, except that the town was founded in 1643, noted for
shipbuilding before the Revolution, a seat of great marine prosperity in
the early 19th century, and later a minor factory center using the Manuxet
as power. The epidemic and riots of 1846 were very sparsely treated,
as if they formed a discredit to the
References to decline were few, though the significance
of the later record was unmistakable. After the Civil War all industrial
life was confined to the Marsh Refining Company, and the marketing of gold
ingots formed the only remaining bit of major commerce aside from the eternal
fishing. That fishing paid less and less as the price of the commodity
fell and large-scale
corporations offered competition, but there was never
a dearth of fish around Innsmouth Harbour. Foreigners seldom settled
there, and there was some discreetly veiled evidence that a number of Poles
and Portuguese who had tried it had been scattered in a peculiarly drastic
Most interesting of all was a glancing reference to the
strange jewelry vaguely associated with Innsmouth. It had evidently
impressed the whole countryside more than a little, for mention was made
of specimens in the museum of Miskatonic University at Arkham, and in the
display room of the Newburyport Historical Society. The fragmentary
descriptions of these things were
bald and prosaic, but they hinted to me an undercurrent
of persistent strangeness. Something about them seemed so odd and
provocative that I could not put them out of my mind, and despite the relative
lateness of the hour I resolved to see the local sample - said to be a
large, queerly-proportioned thing evidently meant for a tiara - if it could
possibly be arranged.
The librarian gave me a note of introduction to the curator
of the Society, a Miss Anna Tilton, who lived nearby, and after a brief
explanation that ancient gentlewoman was kind enough to pilot me into the
closed building, since the hour was not outrageously late. The collection
was a notable one indeed, but in my present mood I had eyes for nothing
but the bizarre object which
glistened in a corner cupboard under the electric lights.
It took no excessive sensitiveness to beauty to make me
literally gasp at the strange, unearthly splendour of the alien, opulent
phantasy that rested there on a purple velvet cushion. Even now I
can hardly describe what I saw, though it was clearly enough a sort of
tiara, as the description had said. It was tall in front, and with
a very large and curiously irregular periphery, as if
designed for a head of almost freakishly elliptical outline.
The material seemed to be predominantly gold, though a weird lighter lustrousness
hinted at some strange alloy with an equally beautiful and scarcely identifiable
metal. Its condition was almost perfect, and one could have spent
hours in studying the striking and puzzlingly untraditional designs - some
and some plainly marine - chased or moulded in high relief
on its surface with a craftsmanship of incredible skill and grace.
The longer I looked, the more the thing fascinated me;
and in this fascination there was a curiously disturbing element hardly
to be classified or accounted for. At first I decided that it was
the queer other-worldly quality of the art which made me uneasy.
All other art objects I had ever seen either belonged to some known racial
or national stream, or else were consciously
modernistic defiances of every recognized stream.
This tiara was neither. It clearly belonged to some settled technique
of infinite maturity and perfection, yet that technique was utterly remote
from any - Eastern or Western, ancient or modern - which I had ever heard
of or seen exemplified. It was as if the workmanship were that of
However, I soon saw that my uneasiness had a second and
perhaps equally potent source residing in the pictorial and mathematical
suggestion of the strange designs. The patterns all hinted of remote
secrets and unimaginable abysses in time and space, and the monotonously
aquatic nature of the reliefs became almost sinister. Among these
reliefs were fabulous monsters of
abhorrent grotesqueness and malignity - half ichthyic
and half batrachian in suggestion - which one could not dissociate from
a certain haunting and uncomfortable sense of pseudomemory, as if they
called up some image from deep cells and tissues whose retentive functions
are wholly primal and awesomely ancestral. At times I fancied that
every contour of these blasphemous
fish-frogs was over-flowing with the ultimate quintessence
of unknown and inhuman evil.
In odd contrast to the tiara's aspect was its brief and
prosy history as related by Miss Tilton. It had been pawned for a
ridiculous sum at a shop in State Street in 1873, by a drunken Innsmouth
man shortly afterward killed in a brawl. The Society had acquired
it directly from the pawnbroker, at once giving it a display worthy of
its quality. It was labeled as of probable East-Indian
or Indochinese provenance, though the attribution was
Miss Tilton, comparing all possible hypotheses regarding
its origin and its presence in New England, was inclined to believe that
it formed part of some exotic pirate hoard discovered by old Captain Obed
Marsh. This view was surely not weakened by the insistent offers
of purchase at a high price which the Marshes began to make as soon as
they knew of its presence, and which
they repeated to this day despite the Society's unvarying
determination not to sell.
As the good lady shewed me out of the building she made
it clear that the pirate theory of the Marsh fortune was a popular one
among the intelligent people of the region. Her own attitude toward
shadowed Innsmouth - which she never seen - was one of disgust at a community
slipping far down the cultural scale, and she assured me that the rumours
of devil-worship were partly
justified by a peculiar secret cult which had gained
force there and engulfed all the orthodox churches.
It was called, she said, "The Esoteric Order of Dagon",
and was undoubtedly a debased, quasi-pagan thing imported from the East
a century before, at a time when the Innsmouth fisheries seemed to be going
barren. Its persistence among a simple people was quite natural in
view of the sudden and permanent return of abundantly fine fishing, and
it soon came to be the greatest
influence in the town, replacing Freemasonry altogether
and taking up headquarters in the old Masonic Hall on New Church Green.
All this, to the pious Miss Tilton, formed an excellent
reason for shunning the ancient town of decay and desolation; but to me
it was merely a fresh incentive. To my architectural and historical
anticipations was now added an acute anthropological zeal, and I could
scarcely sleep in my small room at the "Y" as the night wore away.