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A LOOK BACK: The Peddler’s Curse

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By Derek M. Otto

The leaves are falling off the trees and the Columbus Day weekend has passed us by.  Many are planning for the next holiday— Halloween.  When this time of year comes, I like to share ghostly and unusual tales about Springville and nearby neighbors to get us in the right mood.   The story of the Peddler’s Curse fits into this category nicely.

There are several versions of the story and I will be more historically minded by telling you more about the history of the tale. In the early 1800s, when Springville and other areas of the Holland Land Company were being settled, the easiest and earliest route before Genesee Road was cut through Zoar Valley down Cattaraugus Creek banks.  As we know, even today, that route is treacherous and many lives have been lost in the valley.  Erasmus Briggs tells the story of Samuel Cochran, the first permanent settler of Concord, and his family traveling Zoar to go see neighbors from New England, the Watermans.

It is important to note that many of the families settling in our region came from the same towns in Vermont and likely were relatives.   Zoar Valley was a difficult route; it took two days travel time to go the 10 miles and back to Springville for the Cochrans.  It was a long journey for even that time period. Zoar Valley and its terrain isolated itself.

By the 1830s, several families had settled in Zoar Valley; it is known that all came from the same area in Vermont. Within a generation or two, weird things happened to these settlers.  They all developed claw hands and feet.  The lobster people of Zoar would live a very isolated life, letting few people see them.  And when neighbors from Gowanda, Springville, and Collins Center saw them, they would talk of what caused the horrible infliction. It was the great folklore of our region for many years.

The most common story that circulated and began a national sensation was published in 1892, and was the story of the Peddler’s Curse.  The Buffalo correspondent of the Philadelphia Press visited the family inflicted by the disease with a school teacher. He noted that there were about 30 people from three generations inflicted. When asked what caused all the parents and children to have the claw feet and hands he told him this story:

“In the early part of this century [19th] a pioneer family had set up a homestead and a pack peddler came by to sell his wares.  The peddler made the mistake of or accidentally revealed he had some gold.  The poor family quickly became hospitable and offered the peddler lodging for the night.  Well, the family actually locked him in the cellar.”

The writer in 1892 went on to describe the graphic scenes in which the family tortured the poor soul. Stephen King’s Misery comes to mind. I do not write gore, so I will leave to your imagination.

The teacher continued the story, recounting that “his dying words the peddler cursed the family for thirteen generations with claw hands and feet.”

Another local version from a 1959 Zoar Valley history by Bertha Ferrin, noted that only three generations would be cursed.  Sadly, all versions describe that the peddler had as little as three gold coins or trinkets, not the huge fortune the Zoar Valley family hoped for; soon after that, descendants were being born with claw feet and hands.

The story resurfaced again in the national media when the National Inquirer published a story about the town that killed itself about 30 years ago.  In that version, the cause of the claw hands and feet was the fact that all residents of the area were descendants of the same English prostitute and syphilis caused the claw hands. The tabloid version listed as many as 200 afflicted! The published story went on to say that to keep the affliction from happening to future generations, all the residents of Zoar Valley took an oath not too marry or have kids. You can still find that version online with Weird NY.

So basically, the town would die out. In that article, the disease only affected males and not females , which differs from the 1892 article that said that mothers and daughters both had the claw feet.   The National Inquirer truly sensationalized the curse by saying that one man did not have the claw feet and hands and went to be married and have children.  At the hospital, his wife went to see the baby and when she saw it had claws, she fled the hospital.  (Now this was 1900, there wasn’t a hospital in Springville or Gowanda; at the time, midwifery was champion.)   It was this instance in which the pact was made, they all agreed  not to marry or have children.  According to this version, Zoar Valley as a community and small town went extinct. Of course, the National Inquirer had to mention that one of the family joined the circus as Lobster Man. (I am sure Elvis and aliens were part of the show!)

Another article by Bob Buyer of the Buffalo News written in the 1950s interviewed Mrs. Bylbie of Zoar Valley; the matriarch of the valley brought some rationality to it.  She noted that at its peak, Zoar Valley had two school houses, a store and about 60 residents. “When planning started for the dam at Zoar Valley, the families moved away.”  In that article, she mentioned the curse and noted that only a few people in the valley had claw hands.  She noted that the small community died because they were going to be flooded out by the government.  The Zoar Valley dam never happened. People from Gowanda and Versailles prevented the dam, but also mother nature, and according to Bylbie,  “The instability of the shale wouldn’t support it.”    

Whether you want to believe the story of the curse, that’s up to you.  Medical science has developed enough that claw feet can be fixed surgically. Mrs. Byblie advocated that Zoar Valley schools be part of S-GI during centralization.

I’ve never seen a claw foot. I am ninth generation Concord, so if it’s 13 generations, I probably would have seen one by now, and I have yet to!  Though based on the 1892 article and Mrs. Ferrin’s report, I  lean toward maybe three generations were cursed. Who knows.

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