How do we treat stories told by people who are socially considered less than respectable?
With stories like the black eyed children, there are witnesses on record who have the social capital to carry weight. In the case of the black eyed children, the first on-record report and sighting was linked to a reporter; in other words, an individual whose reputation is linked to his ability to tell an unbiased story. It’s interesting to note that in that case, the reporter is apparently now unhappy that he told the story because it has come to overshadow the rest of his work.
What happens when the majority of the witnesses are of a much less socially powerful group? What happens when the people who are claiming the encounter are, say, teenagers?
In April 1977, three teenagers reported seeing a creature on the side of the road in Dover, Massachusetts. Eventually dubbed the Dover Demon, the creature was described as large eyed and having long fingers. Local investigations would eventually assume that the teens were seeing an animal like a moose-or that they made it up entirely.
I’ve seen moose. They don’t have fingers. I don’t actually intend to make claims about the authenticity of the stories that I retell in this column, but I think that calling a sighting a moose is probably a hand wave unless there happened to be moose tracks in the area or other physical signs of moose in the region. Likewise, I don’t want to claim that the teens made up the sightings, but compared to a moose, it does sound like the more likely answer.
However, now that the teens are no longer teens, at least one of them is holding to his story. Now 46, Bill Bartlett still maintains that he saw ‘something’ in 1977. That’s a long time to maintain a story-much longer than one would think for a legend of this size. There have been hoaxes that have lasted as long or longer-but in the case of Dover, there are also legends of similar encounters going back to the founding of the town.
Could a preexisting history of local legends be influencing a sighting? It would not be the first the first time that people have been convinced that they saw something that they most definitely did not see. Eye witness testimony is notoriously flawed. Or did these teens actually see the Dover Demon? Was this the same thing that’s been seen for hundreds of years? The reality of it is that we’re probably never going to find out.