The signs at the city limits read “Westbrook, Maine.” But at this point, they might as well say Castle Rock, the fictional Maine setting for many of Stephen King’s ghastly tales.
For the fourth time in five years, the Portland suburb has found itself in the spotlight for a strange — and hard to explain — occurrence.
First it was the giant, elusive snake rumored to live in the Presumpscot River, which in 2016 caused a sensation and drew curious crowds to the water’s edge in search of it. Later, a massive ice disk appeared in the same river, becoming a popular winter attraction and leading to jokes that it might be an alien landing pad. And last year, a curious landslide sent 2 acres of soil into the waterway.
The latest fascination came this week, when a 19th century gravestone was found in the middle of a winding, rural road, with little indication as to how it got there.
It’s enough to make even a skeptic wonder: Is Westbrook somehow a magnet for peculiar phenomena?
“There’s definitely been some strange things over the years in Westbrook. It’s kind of like the Bermuda Triangle up here in Maine,” said Police Chief Sean Lally, who has worked in the department for more than two decades. “I don’t know if they’ll do a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode here or what, but there are some odd things that go on. We’re going to rival Salem, Mass., with all the stuff going on here.”
On Sunday, police turned to the public to help determine how the headstone, which dates back to the 1800s, ended up in the middle of nowhere.
“Well this is a new one,” police wrote on Facebook. “This apparently legitimate gravestone was located in the middle of Methodist Road this morning and turned into us.”
The inscription on the unscathed headstone read: “Mrs. Mary, wife of David Pratt. Died Jan. 21, 1840. [Age] 59.”
“We would like to get this returned to its proper location / relatives, so if you have any information that would help, please contact us,” police wrote.
The post was shared 500 times, and Internet sleuths jumped into action. Using FindAGrave.com, which has millions of cemetery records, many tracked down a resting place for a David and Mary Pratt at the Old Baptist Cemetery in Yarmouth, Maine, about 15 miles away.
Although the marker pictured on the website was different than the one found in the road — it showed a single grave with both David and Mary’s names on it — Mary’s information matched up, giving police their “best lead.”
After speaking with the Yarmouth Historical Society and an engraving specialist, police by Wednesday had determined there was “no nefarious activity involved with its removal,” meaning it wasn’t a recent act of vandalism.
Police believe the headstone was likely removed from the Yarmouth cemetery when Mary Pratt’s husband died in 1861, 21 years after she died. It was then replaced with a new marker bearing both their names.
“We have a pretty good understanding of what happened,” said Officer Jeremy Smith, who worked on the investigation and noted that the gravestone was in unusually good condition for its age. “We are confident we know it came from [Yarmouth], and it was replaced with that new stone.”
Left unexplained, however, is where the original gravestone has been hiding for the last 160 years, and why it was found abandoned in Westbrook now.
“You can kind of draw your own conclusions,” Lally said. “Is it paranormal activity? Is it someone pulling a gag? Was it a Halloween prop? Who knows? Was it headed for a yard sale or flea market? I don’t know.”
So far, no one has stepped forward to claim the marker, which will be donated to the Yarmouth Historical Society.
Westbrook has gotten used to bizarre occurrences in recent years, and isn’t shy about letting people know about them.
In 2016, police turned to Facebook when they found the skin of an allegedly 10-foot-long (or even longer, depending on who you ask) snake by the Presumpscot, which runs through the city of roughly 18,000 people.
The news, which followed a pair of earlier sightings of a snake “as long as a truck,” sparked a flurry of interest. Others were quick to report that they had also seen what would be dubbed Wessie the Westbrook snake. Before long, fans of cryptozoology — the study of creatures like Bigfoot that are rumored to exist — flocked to the riverside to have a look.
The snake was never found. But its legacy was already secure, complete with a day-long festival, theme song, T-shirts, and even a namesake beer.
Three years later, in the dead of winter, the ice disk arrived, an enormous frozen crop circle that nearly spanned the rushing river. Of course, its naturally occurring presence was easily explained by science. But it didn’t stop people online from casting the 300-foot spiral, which got its own video livestream, as a sign that “the world is coming to an end.”
Then there was the landslide last September, which temporarily blocked off a section of the river, damaged property, and toppled trees and shrubs. A state of emergency was declared and a flash-flood watch was issued, according to the Portland Press Herald. Experts called it an “interesting” spot for a landslide at an “unusual” time of year.
Looking back, Mayor Michael Foley said he would add it to the list of anomalies.
“That was kind of unique as well,” he said. “It was a scientific phenomenon.”
Through it all, the city has taken the run of curiosities in stride, and in some ways embraced the unanticipated attention.
“It’s great we have these different things that put us on the map,” Foley said of the more light-hearted occurrences such as Wessie and the ice disk. “We call ourselves a small city with a big future.”
And maybe the inspiration for King’s next thriller.