The Shappel

Jordan Hofer pulls no punches in this unsettling story. It’s horrible, viscerally repulsive, and all too real. Enjoy!

Poverty was to blame. For it was only a child, lonesome and the victim of parental and societal neglect. Its parents were permanently unemployed and suffered from maladies psychological, purely physical, and self-inflicted. Its mother drank wood alcohol and the father huffed petrol.

A meager inheritance from the deceased Harold Shappel, entrepreneur of witch trial tourism, fed and housed his debased son and sole heir. Harold Junior and his wife Martha née Corey, clothed the Shappel boy in rags and smothered the rags in a lumpy gray overcoat to keep it warm, even in spring and summer months. The child seemed to produce very little heat of its own metabolism. It smelled of black mold and horridly sour body odor.

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Every weekday it rode its bike to school in the morning with a determined spasmodic ferocity that was pitiably comical and absurd to observe. At school it was mercilessly tormented by other children whose parents were more attentive, loving, healthier, and better off with money. Following their elders’ example, children become the cruelest of the animal species, driven by xenophobia and the innate desire to belong to the tribe, whilst the grownups watch on and resign without protest the unfortunate to its doom of banishment. So it was with the Shappel. Its full Christian name was Richard Blake Shappel. But everyone in Salem, Massachusetts who knew of it—not him—referred to the child as “the Shappel.”

The family had a daughter, or so it was rumored; no one had ever seen her, but neighbors and passersby would occasionally hear her bloodcurdling keening and the obscene incantations she yowled in a profane, chillingly mysterious foreign tongue: “Ya-nyth ron chtenff uln stell’bsna Cthulhu nog hai shugg geb uaaah y’hah!” Minister Horrace Gale of the First Baptist Church declared the girl possessed by demons and the family cursed descendants of witch ancestry and servants of the Dark One; and so it was with inestimable Christian charity that the Shappel was resolved irredeemable by Gale and his “judge ye not” flock.

In more recent times the Shappel would have been attended by State Child Services and allotted some decent attention demanded by enlightened social assistance. But these were the days of Charles Davenport’s Cold Spring Harbor Eugenics Record Office, circa 1925. The Shappel was examined by eugenicists, at the behest of the Saltenstall Elementary School principal after compiling an exhaustive list of minor transgressions in the classroom, including the disruptive rumbling of the child’s empty stomach. A lengthy inventory of genetic impurities was determined by the racial hygienists in an examination that lasted only twenty minutes in the school nurse’s office: albinism (jaundiced pallor), alkaptonuria (dark urine sample), asthma (wheeze from influenza), ataxia (shivering after removal of its overcoat), bluntness (forthright responses to examiners’ inquiries), color blindness (failure to discriminate between light gray and dark gray in the poorly lit room), criminality (hard candies were found in its coat pocket), dementia praecox (demonstrated capacity for imagination), disobedience (some questions took longer to answer), eczema (rash from poison ivy), feeblemindedness (failed to identify properly the theme in a poem by Emily Dickinson), hemophilia (thumb bled from the taking of a blood sample), manic depression (cried after its thumb was cut), nomadness (friendless), pauperism (parents were impoverished), polydactyly (ten fingers but was suspected of an eleventh), rebelliousness (grew restless during the examination), selfishness (referred to itself with the pronouns “I” and “me”), shiftlessness (did not provide responses quickly enough), sinisterity (was right-handed but used the left to pick its nose) and thalassophilia (admitted to enjoying the beach). The eugenicists were eager to condemn the Shappel, and proclaimed it in dangerous possession of degenerative traits that threatened American “racial hygiene.”

The Shappel’s fate was decided straightaway and an ambulance arrived at the school to transfer it to Salem Hospital, a converted brick mansion on Charter Street. It had passed the age of puberty and was to be sterilized immediately. Orderlies in white smocks were accompanied by two burly police officers and the Shappel was escorted into the ambulance.

Few reliable records exist chronicling the events that occurred after the Shappel was transported on its way to Salem Hospital, but local yore and printed press agree on several points. The sole dissenting voice of Agnes Withycombe, a social worker and Quaker, defended the Shappel boy with compassionate conviction.

The ambulance never arrived at the hospital. It was found abandoned at the shoreline of Palmer Cove near the Yacht Club, though none of the club’s exalted members saw or heard anything unusual at that hour of the afternoon. The murdered ambulance driver and two orderlies were discovered by police officers later that night. Their fatal wounds were “too gruesome for description,” claimed one of the officers, continuing, “The eyes were removed and cheeks sliced off to reveal the jaw and teeth. The lymph nodes were extracted in a manner inexplicable by the medical examiner. The genitals were cut off and the anus cored out. Somehow, the bodies were almost entirely exsanguinated. Further autopsy discovered that the brains had hemorrhaged, a vital reaction that indicated the victims had been conscious and in agony during their brutal mutilations.”

The Salem Evening News reported (with an appropriately sensationalist headline) that on the morn following the murders of the Salem Hospital ambulance personnel, the local police dispatched several officers to the decayed Shappel house on Hancock Street. The Shappel girl was heard loudly muttering as police broke through the fence line and into the front yard. They found a trail of thick black, tar-like ooze coating the path to the front porch. The odor was described as “not unlike rotten squid.” The Shappel girl’s murmur became a thunderous grumble as she shouted in an unnatural tongue: “Ya ch’hai ph’shugg wgah’n syha’h shogg y-nyth Cthulhu uaaah y’hah!” The police burst down the front door and entered the darkness of the sagging house. Here the stench was said to be unbearable, a fetid reek of death. But the police found no one in the tomblike abode. They had been certain to discover the deranged Shappel girl but neither she nor her parents or brother were on the premises.

Detectives soon arrived at the Shappel house and a thorough search was performed. A trapdoor in the cellar was discovered beneath a threadbare rug of woven dog fur. What was discovered in the secret chamber was described by Detective Fenrich in the following morning’s edition of The Salem Evening News:

“When we opened up that door an accursed aroma blasted out with a sickly warmth. It smelled like ammonia and sulfur mixed with the terrible odor of rotten fish. We—myself and Detectives Brunsen and Delmar—descended into the sub-cellar with our lanterns. What we discovered is not fit for print. But Minister Gale must surely have been correct when he accused the Shappel family of consorting with the Devil himself. We found gruesome offerings to Beelzebub in cups and bowls arranged around a central blasphemous shrine. Crude carvings from ebony stone clearly shewed the Devil in his many abominable forms. The two most prominent have imprinted themselves most firmly in my mind. The first was a creature with bat-like wings and a head sprouting innumerable tentacles. The second had a slender body and a large teardrop-shaped head with enormous lens-shaped eyes. Before these two idols we found the unspeakable offerings.”

The little sister was never discovered, if indeed she had ever existed. But the mother and father appeared two weeks later on the Winter Island side of Cat Cove. Again, Detective Fenrich was quoted in The Salem Evening News:

“Fisherman Bertrand Oxmell discovered the Shappel couple on the rocks of Winter Island northeast of Halftide Rock. The bodies appeared to have been in the water for at least a day. Not fit for print, but the bodies were bloated and white and without clothing. They also bore the signs of mutilation similar to those found on the Salem Hospital ambulance workers. I would be remiss to conjecture what ghastly force is at work here. I leave that for Minister Gale’s sermons. Though, personally, I believe the missing Shappel boy is to blame for all this horrible trouble.”

The Salem press reveals no further coverage of the bizarre Shappel case. But in the summer of 1932, when the Great Depression had reduced many more families in the town to the social condition of the Shappels before them, sightings of the boy in his large gray overcoat were numerous. He was seen standing in breadlines, sleeping under bridges, shambling along the deserted streets at three am, even bobbing in Juniper Cove with a wriggling fish clenched between his teeth.

Agnes Withycombe later published a book about the ten years between 1925 and 1935 in which the Shappel was spotted. Her short tome of local terror, entitled The Shappel (self-published in 1938), describes the many sightings and in the end defends the Shappel boy’s role in all that transpired in Salem:

“He was accused of the murders and the mutilations but it was not Richard Blake Shappel who forged a pact with the unmentionable forces of old. The sins of the father were not here the sins of the son. As the Great Depression pressed into poverty many families who had never gone without a meal, the Shappel appeared to remind them that they were not alone in their suffering. Minister Blake himself lost his church and was reduced to the existence of a rail-hopping hobo. We saw many lights in the waters of Cat Cove and Juniper Cove in those dreadful years. But they were not lights of hope and comfort. They shone disquietingly with a green glow to remind the unfortunate that we were constantly at the whim of forces greater than ourselves, be they demonic or financial—what truly can be said of the difference when a family is starving without consolation or even the slimmest glimmer of optimism in a crumb of hope? The Shappel never was a monster in our town. He was a victim, as we are all victims in this cruel Century.”

Now, the Shappel has returned to Salem after eighty years of absence. He has been spotted on his bicycle, pumping furiously at the pedals as if turning the earth beneath him to meet the morning sun.


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