William “Bill” Bartlett is a successful artist, living in Needham with his family. Every October, he begins getting emails from people — podcasters, various websites and sometimes even high school students — who want to talk to him — but not about art.
No, they want to quiz the 61-year-old Bartlett about what he said he saw on April 21, 1977 in Dover: a strange unidentified creature that has been dubbed “the Dover Demon.”
“What I saw, it did happen,” said Bartlett. “I don’t know what it is, but I still saw it. It wasn’t a hoax. It was 10 seconds while driving a car and I still remember it. To this day, it’s still perplexing. Whatever it was, it was strange looking.”
Four teens say they saw the creature
Bartlett was the first of four teens who, over a two-night period, in three separate incidents, said they saw what they described as an unusual creature. They described it as being bi-pedal, about 3½ to 4 feet tall, with long, thin limbs and long, thin digits. Two witnesses said it had glowing green eyes while another said it had glowing orange eyes.
The sightings became a phenomena still talked about today. The initial reports of the Dover Demon brought reporters from all of the Boston television news stations and newspapers to Dover, as well as The Associated Press, UPI and magazines from around the world.
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Even today, the Dover Demon is remembered. A Japanese company manufactured a Dover Demon figurine. The Dover Demon is a character in the comic book “Proof,” by Image. Author Hunter Shea wrote a fictionalized novel, “The Dover Demon.” It is still featured on many online podcasts and YouTube channels as a well-known creature sighting.
On that night in 1977, Bartlett and two friends were driving home when Bartlett said he saw something on a broken stone wall on Farm Road. Frightened by what he saw, Bartlett high-tailed it away, but his friends — upset that they didn’t see it — convinced him to go back.
“We were dumb teenagers and we drove back and we’re yelling, ‘Hey creature, hey creature,’ but we didn’t see it,” Bartlett said.
Not long after, John Baxter, 15, reportedly saw the same creature on Miller Hill Road as he walked home from his girlfriend’s house near midnight, according to “Monsters of Massachusetts: Mysterious Creatures in the Bay State,” by Loren Coleman. Baxter turned and fled.
The following night, Abby Brabham 15, was being driven home by her boyfriend, Will Taintor, when she reported seeing the same creature, except with orange eyes rather than the green eyes that both Bartlett and Baxter reported, according to “Monsters of Massachusetts.”
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Bartlett drew a sketch of what he said he saw, and included on the sketch, “I swear on a stack of Bibles I saw this creature.”
“At the time, I come home and I did a drawing of it and showed it to my parents,” said Bartlett. “Somehow, word got around and someone told Loren Coleman, the cryptozoologist. It wasn’t even that good of a sketch.”
What is cryptozoology?
Cryptozoology is the study of creatures that have not been proven to exist, such as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster or the Jersey Devil, which are referred to as cryptids.
Coleman is founder and director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine. But in 1977 he was working at the Walker School for Boys in Needham as he was earning a degree in psychiatric social work at Simmons College, while being a cryptozoologist on the side.
Coleman said he found out about the sightings while on a visit to the Dover General Store, which he frequented. Someone had put a sketch up of the creature, and Coleman said it caught his attention. The clerk gave him Bartlett’s contact information.
“I interviewed him and quickly found out there were three others who had similar incidents,” said Coleman. “I tracked them down and interviewed them, too. It was very interesting. I was the one who named it the ‘Dover Demon.’ As an investigator, I would always label something with a name, and it just stuck.”
A team investigated the sightings
Coleman took the teens’ stories seriously enough that he put together a team to investigate the sightings. He also wanted to see whether there was any history of other sightings, or whether they could identify it as a known creature.
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But not everyone took the sightings seriously. The Dover Police Department thought it was a prank, according to retired Sgt. Jeff Farrell, who was a police officer in Dover from 1970 through 2012.
“I was the one who broke the news,” he said. “There was a local FM station back then, and they would do a question or comment of the day and the DJ called the (police) station and said he was desperate for something. I asked the chief if I could tell him about ‘the orange man,’ because that’s what we called it then.”
Thinking he was just telling the DJ a joke, the local host mentioned it on the radio. An hour later, WBZ radio called seeking comment. The next day, things got crazy.
“The next day, there were news vans in the parking lot, the phone was ringing off the hook, people were prank-calling us,” said Farrell. “We didn’t put any credence in it.”
Even when the media gave up, the Dover Demon was still attracting people to town.
“It just had a life of its own” said Farrell. “It went on for weeks. After a week, 10 days, the crazies started showing up. I remember two guys in suits came in and went to speak to the chief. When he came out of his office, he was chuckling, and he said these two guys said they were tracking it across the country and they were close to catching it.”
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Farrell still thinks it was a high school prank, but said if the teens really did see something, it could have been a raccoon with mange.
No new sightings
Current Police Chief Peter McGowan said there have been no Dover Demon sightings in the 10 years he’s been in town, although the department has had some related calls.
“We have to remove some people from private property who are searching for it, on occasion,” he said.
The Dover Historical Society sells Dover Demon T-shirts, but Historical Society President Elisha Lee said he’s not a big fan.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” he said. “It’s been taken over by the crypto crazies. Every nutjob on the face of the Earth put in an appearance. Is it a space alien or was it a sick animal? For a lot of people, finding out what it was is not that important.”
Coleman, though, is a believer. He said all of the witnesses were believable. The most popular theory used to explain the sighting is that it was a young moose, but Coleman said that theory does not make sense. Yearling moose aren’t usually forced from their mothers by April, and would weigh 500-600 pounds — much larger than the creature any of the witnesses described, not to mention the fact that it was walking on two feet, he said.
“We came out of these investigations and it was one of the few cases that I feel was very comfortable at the end to say, ‘I don’t know,’” said Coleman. “The eyewitnesses were credible, the incidents flowed naturally. All of the sightings were 1.1 miles away from each other in a straight line. That’s less than random.
Indian lore about ‘little people’
“It seems extremely unique,” he continued. “No one has seen anything like it. The closest I could find is in Algonquin Indian folklore that had these little people and they would be near the rocks and be near the streams. If you take the plot of the three sightings, and you map it across of Dover, they follow a meandering stream.”
As for Bartlett, it’s a part of his life he sometimes wishes never happened. He has a box full of Dover Demon memorabilia and magazine articles people have sent him, including some of the Dover Historical Society T-shirts that his daughters wore when they were children.
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But, Bartlett said, he still talks about it to people who ask because he said he wants people to know he was never lying. Over the years, he has passed up several opportunities to profit off his story, he said.
“If it was meant to be something, if I was coming up with something as a joke, I could have made money from it,” said Bartlett. “I don’t want to be commercial with and make money off it. I don’t want that to take away from the validity of it by profiting from it. It’s not about that. I just want the truth to come out and for people to know that I was telling the truth.”
Norman Miller can be reached at 508-626-3823 or email@example.com. For up-to-date public safety news, follow Norman Miller on Twitter @Norman_MillerMW or on Facebook at facebook.com/NormanMillerCrime.