The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 27, 2004


Carlisle Comments Tophet Swamp — whence the name?

My Golden Retriever was black with sticky mud the afternoon my granddaughter's husband, Paul, returned from one of the long walks he and the dogs always love. She was so dirty even the full-force hose was ineffective in removing the muck that clung to her coat. Serious washing in the laundry tub was the only answer. I took a guess as to where Paul had been — and I was right —Tophet Swamp, that large untraveled area northeast of Carlisle center .

Memories surfaced as I recalled my mother's warnings, decades earlier, about the dangers of this swamp because of the deep heavy mud and sinkholes. She and my father, both learned botanists and writers, used to drive up from our home in Lexington to study the rare plants, algae and ferns indigenous to the area. As a young girl I would occasionally go with them to gather partridgeberries for winding the bright little table wreaths that cheered friends through Christmas and snowy winter's snowy weeks.

Years later, when my husband and I settled in Carlisle at the close of World War II, I loved exploring the town's many trails on horseback. I was soon reminded, however, by longtime residents (Dr. George Towle for one) of the importance in not letting my horse diverge from the narrow trail when riding through Tophet Swamp. There had been occasions, Dr. Towle said, when horses had become mired and had to be rescued only by the help of townspeople — and no doubt a heavy draft horse or two to do the pulling.

Incidences of cows, too, being mired were related by an elderly friend whose 1699 family farm in southern Chelmsford used to summer-pasture some of their cattle close to the Carlisle line. My friend remembered a few expressions of the time that seemed to be reinforced by inclusion of the word "Tophet." Viz: "What in Tophet is the matter with you?;" "He can go to Tophet!;" "Hotter than Tophet." The latter expression usually refers to weather or anything too hot to touch — and is now and then heard today.

I treasure Don Lapham's book Carlisle Composite Community, in which he cites a crisis about a young member of the Adams clan who in the late 1700s became trapped in the swamp. "The story goes that a daughter, Joanna, sank in Tophet Swamp up to her armpits while picking blueberries but after much screaming she was rescued." (pp. 21-22)

Why, so long ago, did the early settlers refer to this area as Tophet Swamp! No one I consulted seemed to know the answer. My curiosity was heightened and I turned without much hope to the dictionary. And there, quite briefly, was an answer. "Tophet, or Topheth 1. Bible, a place near Jerusalem where human sacrifices were made to Molech; 2. Kings 23.10 hell, or hellish place" Who was Molech? Same dictionary: "Molech, an ancient Phoenician Ammonite god, to whom children were sacrificed by burning — anything demanding terrible sacrifice." One reference led to another as I searched large unabridged dictionaries, an 1897 encyclopedia (in Dottie Clark's library) and different editions of the Bible. All referred to Tophet as a place in the Valley of Hinnon, south of Jerusalem, associated with the worship of Molech, a place where human sacrifices were made.

It takes no imagination to see the connection and understand why our early settlers (who no doubt were better versed in the Old Testament than many of us today) referred to this hazardous area in Carlisle as Tophet Swamp.

For all who are interested, Sydney Bull's History of Carlisle offers an interesting topographical description. The trails are inviting, laced with surface beauty and botanical interest; but hikers should be aware of the hazards to man or beast, for the mud is deep and there are possible sinkholes.

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito