The Six-toed Man

American Cryptic- BOOGEYMEN section illustration

I was in Boy Scouts for several years, but I was never anything close to resembling a poster boy for Scouting- I had long hair, listened to heavy metal, and fooled around quite a bit with girls. I remember part of the Scout Oath had to do with being physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight. At least I got the mental part right.
But I really enjoyed the outdoors part of Scouting. My troop would camp out one weekend almost every month (even in winter), and that’s what I was there for: hiking, making fires, and spending time in the quiet and simple remoteness of nature. We’d travel all around Western PA and Maryland to camp in State Forests and local campgrounds- and once a year we’d spend a week at Heritage Reservation, a Scout camp about two hours south of Pittsburgh.

From Heritage Reservation’s official website:
First opened in 1980, Heritage Reservation has been the premier destination for Scouts and Scouters of Laurel Highlands Council and beyond. The Reservation is home to Eagle Base and Camps Independence, Liberty, and Freedom, as well as a year-round conference center available for all to use. Main attractions for campers include 270 acre Lake Courage with over six miles of shoreline, excellent shooting facilities, and nearly 2,000 acres of beautiful mountain woodlands.

Heritage really was beautiful. The lake was big enough to canoe, row and even sail on. There were merit badge classes on everything from basket weaving to pioneering to model rocket launching. Several troops would camp there at a time, so it was an opportunity to meet kids from other parts of the region. But arguably, everyone’s favorite activity happened one night each year. It was called Outpost. Outpost was when select (usually older) members of the troop would canoe across the lake to stay on the uninhabited side for a night. It took at least a half-hour to an hour to make the trip. You were allowed to bring a sleeping bag, food to cook, and knives, saws and axes for cutting wood- but there were no tents allowed. You had to build your own shelter for the night and sleep in it. It was a test to prove you could make it a night in the wild- even if that wild was only a mile away from camp.
It wasn’t that rough. Once landing on shore, there was a rush to get a lean-to built or at least string a tarp up overhead in case of rain, but once that was accomplished, Outpost was a lot of fun- again it was mostly the older teenage kids and some adults, and for me at least, it was a night away from the more martial side of Scouting: a night to build a roaring fire and huddle around with friends and make Mountain Pies, to tell bad jokes and sing tasteless songs- and, of course, to share spooky stories.

I first remember hearing about the Six-toed Man from the older boys when I was still too young to go out on Outpost, and while I don’t think I fully grasped what it was those guys were talking about, I was aware that this person they were speaking about was some kind of boogeyman- someone out in the woods whom one needed to watch for if they were spending the night away from the safety of the camp. On my first Outpost, however, the real terror the Six-toed Man embodied became evident, as after the fire burned low and we were all settled into our crude makeshift shelters, shivering a bit even in the summer night, we all started hearing things: a rustle in the grass nearby; the sudden pop of a log on the fire; or a twig snapping somewhere beyond the edge of the treeline; or a canoe suddenly shifting down by the shore, its bottom keel making a harsh scrape on the stones. Panic is contagious, and each unidentifiable sound elicited a chorus of teenage exclamations that fed back into a widening loop of fear. I feel bad for the adults amongst us who had to deal with a dozen thoroughly freaked out adolescents that night, all of them sure that at any moment the Six-toed Man was going to emerge out of the darkness and snatch them away.
Huddled inside my sleeping bag and listening for any sound of approaching (possibly misshapen) footsteps, it never occurred to me to wonder how anyone in our troop had learned about the existence of this Six-toed Man character. I didn’t think to question if he was some kind of regional legend, or possibly a creature conjured up solely out of the culture of the camp. In the intervening years, I’d begun to suspect that he might have been just a creation of one of the Troop’s leaders or members’ imaginations, or that maybe the Six-toed Man had some kind of place in real history, and was something one of them had heard about once. It turns out that last hunch was probably correct:
What follows is based on the account of a Mrs. Ruth Canfield, a member of the Historical Society of Venango County, which is north of Pittsburgh (in the opposite direction from Heritage Reservation, for anyone wishing to keep track). This narrative is taken from what seems to be a local hand-printed periodical called the Keystone Folklore Quarterly. For the purposes of its inclusion here, I’ve taken the liberty of rewriting some parts of Ms. Canfield’s original text, as it was written in the 1960s and contains outdated racial and social references: rest assured the below text maintains all of the original narrative details:

During the American Civil War, there were a string of farms in Western Pennsylvania that served as stops on the Underground Railroad, helping liberated enslaved persons on their trip towards freedom in Canada. Amongst these way stations was a farm in Rockland Township that was owned and operated by a well-to-do gentleman named Elihu Chadwick Jr., who was “very dedicated to the cause of Freedom and to the freeing of the […] slaves in the South.”

Two other way stations… one in Butler County across the Allegheny [River] from Emlenton to the west of the one in Rockland Township was the stop before coming to Rockland. The escapees coming from other stations would travel by night and with the aid of local people, cross the river and make the Rockland stop by daybreak, remain over the day in hiding, or for several days until they were rested and fed…

Elihu Chadwick Jr. and his wife Isabel Jolly Chadwick were in their mature years during this time, and amongst their seven children was one boy (James) who’d enlisted in the Union Army in 1861, and one daughter who was developmentally disabled.

The legend goes that among the African American fugitives who came to the Chadwick place was a young man who had six toes on each foot- a condition now referred to as polydactyly or polydactylism. For one reason or another, the elder Chadwick decided to keep this young man as a houseboy.

After a time it seems he (the boy) made improper advances to the girl, and one of the brothers promptly shot him and the family disposed of his body in an old water well in the stock barn that supplied the animals with water, and filled it up with stones.

Ms. Canfield’s narrative states that the freed youth made advances on the daughter. If the story is indeed factual, the truth of what their interaction was might prove forever elusive – the salient detail is that something happened between the polydactyl boy and the girl that caused the boy to be murdered, and his body discarded.

It would seem the community knew about the incident but was either unconcerned or didn’t want to make any trouble for the “great man” in their midst. But the tale was told and retold by the oldsters when I was but a small child…

This is how legends begin: both the mythic stories of heroes, and also folk takes about boogeymen. A larger-than-life figure falls, tragically, and then rises again. The nature of the story – if it’s to be a myth or a fable or a ghost story- depends mainly on what happens next:

…and in the telling and retelling no doubt much was added to the story and later the ghost of the six-toed [man] wandered around the vicinity of the Chadwick Farm and wailed at the old well filled with stones.

In these types of colloquial narratives, tragic characters have a tendency to become ghosts, destined to re-enact their unfair deaths over and over throughout years and decades and centuries, seemingly out of a compulsion to remind the living of their tragedy. But boogeyman stories like this one are used for something else, as well: and have been since our species told oral histories in front of sputtering fires, listening for the sounds of predators lurking just beyond the flickering light. Boogeyman stories are used as teaching tools, a kind of social propaganda employed to scare and intimidate people (especially youngsters) into doing what is desired of them- arguably for their own good:

…the legend of the six-toed man served as a strong weapon in the hands of mothers and father- as a deterrent to keep their small ones from wandering from the home domicile. I well remember our families warning us if we strayed far in the woods or away from home we would no doubt meet up with the “colored ghost” which would be the end- so needless to say, we heeded the warning.

The next morning of Outpost, we were all present- no one had become the Six-toed Man’s latest victim. If this particular legend is indeed based on historical fact, then to me it has two very sad overtones: the first of course being the senseless waste of a young man’s life, someone who’d successfully escaped enslavement in the South, only to die at the hands of the very same ignorance and racism still extant in the North.
The second crime committed against this poor soul was the appropriation of his tragic story into a campfire tale used to scare youngsters- one that trivializes his death but ignores and forgets the unjust manner in which it occurred, and which uses as its main identifier a congenital anomaly this young man likely dealt with his entire short life. But for that physical oddity, Old Man Chadwick would likely have ushered him on to Canada and his story might have been different – if not so notorious and legendary. If nothing else in life, we can all hope that we don’t become little more than a cautionary tale.
Legends about polydactyl peoples have been around almost as long as civilization: a Giant of Gath with four extra digits is mentioned in the Book of Samuel. A people referred to as the Melungeons – thought to be stranded Sixteenth Century Portuguese explorers who migrated inland to the Tennessee Valley- were said to have extra fingers and toes. And in 1895 the remains of what was supposedly a twelve-foot giant were unearthed in County Antrim, Ireland- complete with extra toes. For one reason or another, polydactylism has, for much of history, forced many of those encumbered with it into a separate class: in some eras they have been regarded to be noble or sacred, a conduit to higher powers; but often people with this condition have been considered simply the other. This ‘otherness’ phenomenon seems endemic to our species. It crosses cultures and continents and centuries.
So what is it in our human brain that has so often inclined us to treat anyone possessed of such a small physical difference with such awe, or with such fear? Is it jealousy, that these people were seen as having something extra- something regular twenty-digit people would never be able to understand? There’s obviously some deep-seeded psychological trigger there, which has caused polydactylites across human history to be relegated into one of these two categories: more than human, or less. There were no accompanying details to the Six-toed Man legend we were told – no stories of what he did or why he was something to be frightened by. The simple idea of a person possessing this unusual trait was enough to terrify us as we slept in our makeshift shelters that night: one salient detail which by itself should not have been frightening, but which made this character we’d been warned about a thing apart- and something to be feared. A fresh tragedy piled atop another, older tragedy.

A final paragraph in the Ruth Canfield story swerves abruptly into an entirely different local story with little connection to the legend of the Six-toed Man, but it serves to set up an upcoming chapter, so I include it here:

It was thought by many people in olden times that the Chadwick place had been either a popular hunting or battle ground of Indians. What tribes I do not know, perhaps the Senecas or the Cornplanters- for to the present day arrowheads are often found by farmers on the old Chadwick place and adjoining properties. Several miles away there are evidences of “mounds”. A neighbor told me he had opened one or two of the mounds but had found nothing of any consequence.

3 responses to “The Six-toed Man”

  1. […] The released chapter is called The Six-Toed Man, and it sounds like a compelling blend of local history and a traditional campfire boogeyman. From Towns: “The Six-toed Man was a ghost story my friends and I were told as kids, that would scare us out of our wits on campouts. But the real story behind the legend is far more horrifying. It’s a story of racism, emancipation, betrayal and murder. It’s also about the bias with which we view those born different from us, and our culture’s pernicious habit of dehumanizing those who don’t fit in.” The author’s dissection of the paranormal seems timely and deeply analytical. If a deep dive into what makes supernatural storytelling tick and why it fascinates us suits you, why not take a few minutes and read the released sample here? […]

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