Many places on earth regularly seem to experience mysterious booming noises. Most often, these noises occur near water (lakes or the ocean, called “water guns”) or in areas where shallow earthquakes occur. A famous American location for noises is Moodus, Connecticut. More precisely, they are ascribed to a place called Machimoodus in East Haddam, which is now a state park. Machimoodus is historically well-known as the literal “place of bad noises” based on native legends that were subsequently both promoted and twisted by colonists in New England. Today, the Moodus noises are still a popular tale as people interested in natural anomalies hope to hear them when they visit. Several people still enjoy the belief that a Native American god or even Satan himself causes the noises. Here is yet another example of Spooky Geology…
The noises are said to sound like thunder, roaring in the sky, thumps, and pistol or cannon fire. Sometimes they are described as cracking, popping, or breaking rock. They come in clusters, occasionally in succession, often over an active period of days or months.
According to Charles Skinner, who documented the legends in his 1896 book Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, a person on Mt. Tom, historically mentioned as the point from which the sounds emanated, described the noises as sounding like rocks falling into a cavern under his feet. On occasion, the sound is accompanied by shaking that is felt in a localized area.
White settlers came to the area in 1685 and noticed the noises. In 1729, the local reverend, Stephen Hosmer, described the noises to a correspondent as ‘fearful and dreadful’ sounds that scared the local residents. He said:
“I have myself heard eight or ten sounds successively, and imitating small arms, in the space of five minutes. […] I have, I suppose, heard several hundreds of them within twenty years; some more, some less terrible. Sometimes we have heard them almost every day, and great numbers of them in the space of a year. Oftentimes I have observed them coming down from the north, imitating slow thunder, which shakes the houses and all that is in them.”
Every popular article about the Moodus noises mentions that the legend of the sounds was related by the Algonquian tribes to the curious colonists as resulting from one of their gods who communicated through the noises. The giant stone spirit (also referred to as a god of the dead) called Hobomock (aka Hobbomock, Hobomoko, Hobomok, and Hobbomocko) was said to be angry with the coming of the strangers and their Christian God. Hobomock was present at this place they called Machit-moodus (some cite it as “Machetmadosett”).
As is typical with folklore, the stories vary.
Stephen Gencarella, a folklorist who lives near Machimoodus and has extensively researched the historical accounts, asserts that the tale of the noises at Moodus may be the most important piece of folklore in all of New England. He says the most popular sources get the story wrong. The legend took weird twists and turns, resurfacing in cycles as did the noises themselves. The subject of the noises had a long, complicated history, changing with the context in which they are delivered. The key to really understanding how the legend evolved begins with recognizing that the white settlers were speaking to their like audiences about the beliefs of the indigenous people as if they themselves were directly told the story. Instead, personal agendas and biases played a major role.
In 1702, Rev. Jeremiah Hobart had complained to the Connecticut General Assembly that the noises were a reminder of God’s power. When some residents of East Haddam wanted their own parish, he cited the noises as a reminder to be humble. Throughout history, Christian colonists labeled the indigenous beliefs as being of the devil in order to more easily justify taking their land and killing them when needed. The previously mentioned Rev. Hosmer explicitly demonized the natives and their customs to fit into a Christian worldview. Hosmer’s packaging of the noises as the story of an evil pagan god angry at the “true” God was effective and was repeated. In reality, the settlers accepted the noises as the work of their God.
Hobomock was a manitou, a spirit and life force of the Algonquian peoples, however, it was described as controlling darkness, disease, and bad weather. It appeared commonly in the form of a snake. Therefore, along the way, the colonists equated Hobomock with the Christian devil and, thus, the noisemaker procured a name. Some later sources say the Natives worshipped Hobomock to gain his favor. It’s not clear if this is true. Also questionable are mentions that the shamans listened to the noises made by Hobomock and could translate this into how to appease the spirit. Even historians of the early 20th century described the indigenous people as savage, highly superstitious, and fearful of the noises. The history was not factual and objective but deeply colored by the attitudes of the times when it was written.
Gencarella provided insight into the following turns of the legend. The next cycle introduces a colorful alchemist/wizard into the mix and produces a fanciful cause for the trembles and thunder. In 1790, a letter to the Connecticut Gazette introduces a foreigner by the name of Dr. Steal, a learned man who has come to the continent. Later called Dr. Steele (or Steel), this figure became associated with the Moodus noises in several variations, all of which are fictional tales. The story goes that Dr. Steele, who may have been sent by King George around 1760, holed up in a cabin or blacksmith shop and worked his science or magic on the problem. Steele supposedly extracted one or more large glowing white or deep red carbuncles (magic gems or stones) from a cave or from the shallows of the river. He said that these stones were the source of the trouble but, smaller stones would grow, and, in time, the noises would return. Building on this nebulous tall tale, clearly derived from European tales of a special visitor stealing a magical treasure, Steele supposedly stole away with the stone(s) on a ship that later sank – stones, Steal, and all.
In the late 1800s, corresponding with the popularity of “witch lore”, the noises are said to be coming from inside Mt. Tom, a 300 ft tall hill of schist and granite at Machimoodus. The “mountain” is said to be hollow and an abode of a demon/god/spirit and his witches. The entity sits on a jeweled throne in a cavern lighted by the great carbuncle. Black and white witches fought and their battles made the noises. Or, the great one got tired of the fighting and blew the witches out causing the noises. The version of this tale published by the New York Sun in 1887 replaces Hobomock with “Machimoodi” – the lord of the witches.
You can find bits and pieces of these versions mashed up in various media and nonfiction works regarding Moodus and its noises. It’s difficult to definitively connect the separate bits together or to disentangle the whole knotty thing, but that’s often how folklore works. It’s not possible to settle on what actually happened.
Finally, with the rise of Satanic ideas and media in the 1960s, all the various evil indigenous beings are simplified into Satan himself, so the “Some people say…” stories now give the devil credit for the noises.
H.P. Lovecraft seems to have read Charles Skinner’s account of noises from Moodus and the folklore of the nearby Devil’s Hopyard. The latter is mentioned by name, and strange earth noises feature in this story.
“I my self did not more than a Fortnight ago catch a very plain Discourse of evill Powers in the Hill behind my House; wherein there were a Rattling and Rolling, Groaning, Screeching, and Hissing, such as no Things of this Earth cou’d raise up, and which must needs have come from those Caves that only black Magick can discover, and only the Divell unlock.”
Mr. Hoadley disappeared soon after delivering this sermon; but the text, printed in Springfield, is still extant. Noises in the hills continued to be reported from year to year, and still form a puzzle to geologists and physiographers.The Dunwich Horror, H.P. Lovecraft
Moodus Cave of the Winds
The proximity of a cave to Machimoodus provides an interesting spooky geology sidebar to the Moodus noises. An opening in the hillside at Cave Hill, called the Cave of the Winds or the Moodus Cave, was said to be where the noises were most strongly heard. This association with the noises appears to have begun only in the 20th century. The cave is created due to a space between the large boulders. It is more accurately called a void rather than a cave as it is not created by dissolution but by juxtaposition of rock slabs and boulders as a result of glacial activity. Located on private land (to which I was graciously allowed access for this research by Cave Hill Resort), the opening would have been highly visible on the high ground above timbered land centuries ago. Stories are told that the sachems would meet in the cave. Exaggerated tales say that the cave does not end at about 50 feet in where it narrows and closes, but that in the past a small opening led to a bigger cavern beyond with a flowing river below. The New England Historical Society mentions that one idea about the noises was that the tunnel carried wind and sea sounds. I suspect it was this cave that supposedly served as the conduit of this tunnel. John Ebel, a geologist from Boston College who studied New England seismicity, noted that some may have thought the cave was filled with explosive gases or minerals to create the noises. In these ways, the cave became associated with the cause of the noises but it more likely has nothing to do with them.
It is possible that the noises would be even more dramatic if one was in the cave because the enclosure dampens all outside sounds and may amplify low-frequency sound from the ground. Yet, there is no report of anyone being in the cave when the noises were heard. There is also no indication that this is anything more spectacular than a fortuitous space between rocks. It most certainly does not extend past the approximately 1’ wide rear closure.
The idea of a cavern under Mt. Tom is almost certainly conflated with the actual Moodus cave. Notice the common ideas of “wind” carrying away the fighting witches and transmitting the noise. Steve Gencarella notes that many people insist that another cave opening (uncovered by the legendary Dr. Steele) still exists along Mt. Tom. Badly-researched sensationalist tourism sites (like Roadtrippers) erroneously promote “Hobomocken Cave” as a real thing in the Machimoodus State Park. It isn’t.
While people didn’t know what caused earthquakes, the association between the Moodus noises and earth tremors was made early. Even the Puritans thought that the occasional quakes they felt in their new land were just another trial from God in this new land.
The events ranged from just the noises to frightening shaking. In 1968, a 3.5 magnitude event occurred. Scientific confirmation of a seismic connection did not come until the 1980s after the Weston Observatory of Boston College set up 6 seismic stations to record even the tiniest of earth tremors. Several years went by without any activity. But in August of 1981 and for four months, the machines recorded 177 events and about 400 more even smaller disturbances (into the negative magnitudes). The largest event was only about a magnitude 2. But people reported the noises in association with the seismograph results. In June of 1982, a second swarm occurred with 120 events and a top magnitude of 2.9. Reports of noises correlated exactly with the recorded events, confirming that the noises came from the seismic activity.
Only events above magnitude -1.0 were heard (though there were seismometer recordings of events at magnitude -2.0). Magnitude 0 events were often felt and heard, but only in a very local area (sometimes only about a 500-yard distance). Even the researchers heard the noises. Cathy Wilson, a local who kept careful records since 1981, recorded the noises with a tape recorder in association with a magnitude 2.3 event. She heard additional details that were not captured on tape as her home was near the assumed epicenter of the noises. The noises were just as described in the old records. Wilson didn’t know of the legend of the noises when she moved there in 1969 but became accustomed to them. Wilson cooperated with the Weston Observatory who put seismometers in her home.
Other swarms occurred from February to June 1986 and September 1987 to April 1988. The seismic readings showed that the quakes were very shallow at 0.5 to 0.8 miles under Mt. Tom. The shallowness of the quakes means that some of the energy can reach the surface and convert into low-frequency sound waves that can be heard. The bedrock, very hard granite and metamorphic rock, is solid and does not give to the mild movement. But it does transmit moderate shaking (magnitude above 3) very far distances.
Years go by in silence. After a long stretch of quiet, Moodus residents were startled in 1940 when one night just before midnight, they were awakened by a loud boom that caused them to check that the furnace hadn’t exploded. Again, in March 2011, a large “boom” jolted residents. The fire department was mobilized to check out a possible gas explosion. It was a shallow quake measured at magnitude 1.3 and 3 miles deep. Another swarm of microquakes occurred in January 2015. Sadly, there were none on the few days that I visited. (I was listening carefully.)
There are some larger earthquakes that have occurred in New England. The colonists wrote of one in 1638 that was accompanied by a rumbling noise. More small events occurred for 20 days after, reported naturalist and politician John Winthrop, Jr. Preachers often paid attention to the quakes to use them as reminders in their sermons. A quake in Newbury, Massachusetts was felt in Moodus in 1727, prompting the warnings that came from the aforementioned Rev. Hosmer: “God almighty is to be seen and trembled at, in what has been often heard among us.” In May of 1791, the largest historical earthquake in Connecticut damaged stone walls and chimneys, caused visible ground fissures, and even a report by a ship’s Captain of fish jumping out of the water in the harbor. The epicenter was likely very near Moodus and was preceded by noises. Scientists now estimate the magnitude of that quake was 4.5 to 5 as it was felt in Boston and New York City. Dozens of small events reportedly followed in succession.
Obviously, New England is not an active plate boundary. Why is there regular seismic activity noted here? The formation of Pangaea during the Paleozoic (450 to 250 million years ago) strongly deformed the area that is now Connecticut. The crunching of the land masses formed the schists, gneisses, and granites that are now the exposed bedrock. Pangaea then split apart forming the Atlantic Ocean. Evidence of a failed rift zone from this split is west of East Haddam. There are many faults, measured in miles down to centimeters, that exist in the rock here. Some clearly still are stressed. Their small movements to release this stress causes the quakes and the noises. It is currently thought that the Eastford Fault is responsible for the Moodus noises; it is mapped just north of Machimoodus State Park. But other unmapped faults, obscured by the glacial till, that communicate with each other may also play a role. For many reasons, the faulting and seismicity here, in an intraplate area, is not similar to that which is common on the West Coast at plate margins. It is not altogether clear what causes the very localized, shallow swarms of seismicity that also produce the Moodus noises. The current idea is that ancient zones of weakness are periodically reactivated; it is difficult to map and predict when the activity will once again emerge.
Weston Observatory produced a poster on the Moodus events. One conclusion on it is that the quick thumps are likely the result of short, quick movements of the hidden faults. Check out the poster here.
Visiting Moodus today
The town of East Haddam, the village of Moodus, Machimoodus State Park, and the Cave Hill Resort are lovely places to visit. Everyone was incredibly friendly and open to discussing the area’s famous legend. Once a booming (oops, pun) tourist location called the “Catskills of Connecticut”, the land around the Salmon and Moodus rivers is now peaceful, with winding, spooky roads and dark skies at night. If you visit Machimoodus, prepare for a moderate hike with the slopes of Mt. Tom being the trickiest part. And be sure to sit in the glorious quiet and listen for the noises.
I am very grateful to Dr. Stephen Gencarella for providing a personal tour through Machimoodus – guiding us to the top of Mt. Tom, and also climbing into the cave – to help me explore and understand this complex history far better than any of the following sources could do. This piece would have been super-short without his input. Visit The Tales they Tell for more.
Also, thanks to Veselina Topalova for putting up with a lot of standing around talking about the legend when she would rather have been walking.
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