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The Black Flash

The Black Flash (also known as the Provincetown Phantom or the Devil of the Dunes) is a ghost monster that terrorized the area of Provincetown in 1939.


He was called Black Flash, both because of his long, hooded black cape and his super human ability to run away before anyone could get a good look at the fiend. Parallels can be drawn with Spring Heeled Jack, a similar phantom from Victorian England who wore a black cape, had glowing blue eyes, spit fire, and could leap great heights.


It started with the children. Coming home in tears and shaking, the children of Provincetown told of a monster that frightened them on the way home from school. Something big. Something that growled. Something all in black. Something that appeared from nowhere and then took off in a flash. Their parents smiled, gave them hugs and maybe a cookie to calm them down. But it did little to appease the children’s fears of this ghoulish phantom they knew was lurking somewhere in Provincetown. No matter how hard they insisted that what they saw was not a figment of their imagination, the adults would not believe them. That is until Maria Costa was walking home by herself one night. Then, some of the townspeople began to believe that maybe the devil had come to Provincetown.

By October in 1939 the summer crowds were long gone. The tourist season ended sharply on Labor Day in those days. By mid-October the town was pretty much only the 4,500 year-rounders and a few stragglers who had not yet returned home after a summer of painting or partying, or both. That’s why no one was around one October night as Miss Costa walked by Town Hall and from out of the bushes an inhumanly tall figure dressed all in black jumped out in front of her. He had glowing blues eyes, big silver ears, and the ability to jump like a gazelle. Costa ran into a coffee shop screaming and several men inside ran down Commercial Street looking for the apparition, but found nothing. The police apparently chuckled after taking a statement from the visibly shaken Costa. But over the next week, several more residents reported being scared to death when this tall, beastly banshee appeared out of nowhere right in front of them as they walked through town.

The reports grew so rapidly of townspeople being terrified by the Black Flash that the police began to investigate. Not only were sightings increasing, but also calls to the police department gave credence to the idea that perhaps this was some sort of paranormal being. A call would come in from the West End that the Black Flash ran through someone’s yard on Tremont Street, and then just a minute later, a call would be placed from a home on Howland Street begging the police to come quickly as now the demon was in the East End. Clearly no human could move that fast!

The Black Flash seemed quite at home in 1939, as it had been a very weird and anxious year for Provincetown. In January, a “sea monster” washed ashore near Wood End. Newspaper reports from around the country carried the story that this hideous sea beast, which was 35 feet long, might just be the same creature that town crier George Washington Reedy reported seeing in 1886. However, once a Harvard University zoologist took a look at the carcass, he quickly identified it as a decomposing basking shark. According to a year-end police report, dog bites and stray cats reached an all time high that year.

A move to repeal a local bylaw preventing the killing of seagulls set off a firestorm of controversy and met firm resistance led by resident Martha Atkins who said that slaughtering animals was the kind of violence that eventually leads to war. And then in September, an arsonist appeared on the scene setting fires around town until the police arrested 40-year-old Joseph Viera, who a jury convicted of his crimes early in the new year.

Chief of Police Anthony Tarvers was quoted in the paper that as far as he was concerned, “the Black Flash is dead and buried.” He meant that figuratively, of course, as he reported that the Black Flash was actually four local teenagers playing a Halloween prank on the town. One boy would get on the shoulders of another, covering themselves in a long black cape with a flour sifter over his face, thus the silver ears, which were the kitchen device’s handles. According to Tarvers, he’d spoken with the boys and their families, and this Black Flash nonsense was over. Nevertheless, the children were too afraid to go out trick-or-treating that Halloween, so the town threw a big costume party at Town Hall with games, plays, and a costume contest. The winner of the one-dollar grand prize was three-year-old Manuel Jason, Jr., who came to the party dressed as the Black Flash.

The legend of the Black Flash stayed largely a local oral tradition, until 1984 when Robert Ellis Cahill wrote a book titled New England’s Mad and Mysterious Men, which included a chapter on the Black Flash and also claimed the beast terrorized the town for years. Other ghost story anthologies have since picked up the tale, which many paranormal researchers say is greatly embellished. The story was once again passing on its way to obscurity until the Internet age arrived, giving access to a new generation of ghost story enthusiasts all over the world.


Theo Paijmans, a researcher and writer from the Netherlands who specializes in anomalous phenomena and who has studied the stories of Spring Heeled Jack and the Black Flash for years wrote an essay in 2007 in the anomaly research journal Intermediate States where he details the findings of his research. “I found the original accounts in the Provincetown Advocate and with the help of these accounts I was able to reconstruct a clear timeline and to throw out a lot of the stuff that had grown onto the Black Flash over the years, but was clearly fabrication,” says Paijmans via e-mail from his home in Holland. “One of these inaccuracies was the timeline; the Black Flash did not strike between 1938 and 1945 as is often alleged, but only for a few weeks in 1939. Since the publication of my article on the Black Flash in 2007 no new, important materials came to light, hence my article has become the point of reference for those interested in the capers of the Black Flash. This is not to say that everything is told: there still is one mystery to be cleared up after all these years: who was (or were) behind the Black Flash?”

Alas, as he promised, Police Chief Tarvers took that secret to his grave as he said this town is “too small” and he didn’t want to embarrass the families of those involved. Theories abound, but no one ever stepped forward claiming responsibility nor has any evidence surfaced that clearly points to the identities of those that pulled off this massive Halloween prank that became the stuff of legend. It may always remain a mystery.


Provincetown Magazine