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Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Fernbrook Phantom

Fernbrook- early 20th century (courtesy of Gray Locke>

Lenox, Massachusetts is well known for the many mansions built there by wealthy citizens during the Gilded Age. Given their history and square footage, it is perhaps not surprising that there are stories of ghostly residents attached to several of them.

One such residence is to be found in the building now known as High Point on West Mountain Road, currently in use as one of the Hillcrest Educational Center sites. Though much smaller than many of the Gilded Age "cottages," it has nonetheless afforded plenty of space for mysterious happenings.

Originally known as Fernbrook, this house was constructed between 1901 and 1902, as a residence and studio for Thomas Shields Clarke. Clarke was an aristocrat, and a painter and sculptor of some considerable renown, who had exhibited and won awards in Berlin, Paris, London and Madrid. His work was much in demand at that time, and some of his larger bronze and marble works adorn public places in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and other cities.

The cottage itself was designed by Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre, in the style of a Tyrolean Gothic villa. It was built to contain a spacious studio, modeled after the refectory of a monastery in Sicily, as well as an elaborate library, 13 bedrooms, three baths and six fireplaces. After Clarke died in 1920, the estate was sold to Dr. Robert Metz, who later passed it on to Paul Schmidinger.

Fernbrook has been mentioned for years in a number of "Haunted Places" reference books, accompanied by extremely brief entries. I have never seen more than a sentence or two devoted to it in print, typically just some vague mention of strange noises heard in the house. Fortunately, Robert Gorden of Becket, who worked there for a number of years, was able to shed a great deal more light on its ghoulish history for me.

Fernbrook circa 1920 rear of house.

Gorden revealed that talk of a ghost went back several decades, to around the time Dr. Metz acquired the property, and perhaps even earlier. Over the years, quite a few people had discussed hearing and seeing strange things around the house. Most of the strangest, according to Gorden, seemed to be localized around the area of the basement. Doors that had been left firmly shut would spring open, and from his workshop there he could hear a sound like someone moaning or crying.

"Sometimes I would come around a corner and have the sense that someone or something had just turned the corner ahead of me, or gone through the door," he said. "I don't think I actually 'saw' anything but I often felt that I did, or had just missed someone."

Another employee, a housekeeper there, also had a variety of strange experiences. Her room was also in the basement, beside what had been the original laundry area, and from there she could plainly hear a woman's cries. Doors would slam suddenly and cold drafts would rise up, apparently out of nowhere. On one particularly frightening occasion, she said, she had even seen an apparition of woman pass by, covered all in white.

Curious about the phenomenon, Gorden mentioned it to Paul Schmidinger, who had first come there to work for Dr. Metz in 1937. Metz had said that he'd been told by past servants at the house that Clarke had had an affair with a Welsh girl named Anghorad, who served as the under-house parlor maid. At some point, the girl became pregnant and months later she died. Her body was found in the laundry room, having perished either from a miscarriage or botched abortion attempt, according to rumor.

This story intrigued me, and I wondered whether there might be any historical documentation that might help confirm this sequence of events. There is not a huge amount of information available about Clarke's time in Lenox. What is known is that he stayed at Fernbrook, from May to October, every year from 1904 to 1920. As for the girl, a check of the town's death records for those years failed to turn up mention of anyone listed by that name. The historical record is incomplete, and it is probably safe to say that this was the sort of thing the aristocratic Clarke would not have wanted widely known.

In the end, though, it's pure speculation, and hardly the sort of thing to hang a man's reputation on. Maybe there was no Anghorad; maybe something completely different happened. It could be that the story simply grew more sordid as it was passed around by the house staff. In any case, it makes a compelling narrative, which, as far it goes, helps to explain reports of unusual experiences there over the years.

High Point circa 1990 (courtesy of Gray Locke)

The house changed hands more rapidly after Metz died in the late '40s. Schmidinger sold it in 1956 to Florence Davis, who resold it soon after. Doris Barden turned it into "High Point Art Gallery and Inn," which operated for a few years, before the cottage came to its current use in the 1970s. I've been unable to obtain any information from anyone at Hillcrest regarding the house or its reputation, so I've no idea whether or not any strange occurrences ever come up. Perhaps whatever unpleasantness hung over the place has faded away - or perhaps doors still open, unseen, in the basement.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Curious Canine Encounters

Last week I wrote on the subject of "The Thing," a generic label given to describe any of a number of elusive and unidentified panther-like cats seen popping up sporadically hereabouts.

To be fair, I feel I should mention that dogs, as well as cats, have rained across the scope of my mystery radar. In the interest of equality between these two four-legged mammal families that have ever-vied for the top spots in humankind's affection, I shall take this opportunity to follow-up with a summary of some curious canine encounters.

Like the cougar, the continued existence of the wolf in this area has occasionally been a matter of contention. Like other large fauna, their numbers were not very great in the Berkshires during the early years of European settlement. As Williams College professor Chester Dewey pointed out in an 1829 tract, wolves - like deer and bears - had essentially disappeared from the area by that time. These other two groups have, of course, bounced back since then - the latter even becoming a little too ubiquitous for the taste of some in recent years. By contrast, the last verified wolf kill in this county took place in 1827, but there is some reason to speculate that this may not have been the final chapter in the story. In 1903, for instance, a Hancock man named William Hatch claimed to have shot a 100-pound timber wolf on Potter Mountain, and a similar assertion was made by a man in New Marlboro in 1918. In 1923, an entire pack of wolves was seen repeatedly along the southern rim of the county, in Mount Washington, Sheffield, New Marlborough and Otis. These sightings made headlines as far away as Iowa. Some suggested that they might have made their way down from Canada, driven south by the particularly bad winter that year. Others dismissed it as some kind of mass hysteria - the same explanation offered by skeptics of "The Thing" 20 years later.

Then there were the "mystery dogs" that plagued Stockbridge and the surrounding area in the spring of 1950. This pair of wild canines menaced the countryside for several weeks, killing at least one sheep, a dog and a score of poultry. Positive identification was never made, and it remains a mystery whether these were wolves, so-called "coy-dogs" (coy-wolves being a more accurate label for this hybrid) or some other kind of creature entirely.

The strangest encounter with a crypto-canine that I have come across, though, dates back to just a few years ago, to the 1990s. A former Pittsfield man who wishes to remain anonymous relays the following (excerpted) story:

"It was sometime around near the end of my senior year [of high school] and my friend Kevin [real name omitted] and I were driving around in his car one night. We were bored and driving around like, random places, random roads and whatnot, just for something to do..

"I'm not exactly sure where we were when this happened. somewhere off around the north side of Kirchner Road as you head to Washington [from Pittsfield] and we were driving down this dirt back road way out there and we came to a place where the road became really narrow, like hardly even a road.. And we kinda slowed all the way down, debating whether we should turn around or whatever. and all of sudden this huge black dog comes running at us out of nowhere howling and barking and freaking out.. It scared the *#@! out of us, and Kevin hit the gas and we started hauling down the road, going really fast.

"The dog just started running alongside the car right next to my window. it just stayed right next to us howling and barking.. We were going really fast by this, like 35 or 40 and it stayed right there, right alongside us.. I was too freaked out to look at it, just this big black thing.really dark black. next to the car. It kept on us for like a really long-time - then it was just gone. One second it was right outside my passenger side window and then it was just nowhere around. It was just so weird."

To my folklore-jaded ears, the animal described in this account sounds like no ordinary black dog, but a bona fide "Black Dog." The Black Dog, like the panther discussed in last week's column, is a creature whose purported attributes place it more in the speculative world of the paranormal than in the context of a purely biological animal not yet acknowledged by science. It is fundamentally nocturnal, and more apparitional in nature than a flesh-and-blood creature. It tends to be seen in certain locations repeatedly, and its behavior suggests an aura of premeditation, even foreboding. According to George Eberhart's two-volume encyclopedia "Mysterious Creatures," it is usually seen on rural back roads and "country lanes," and it is frequently described as being able to appear and disappear at will.

The earliest print reference to this creature is in a French manuscript dating back to 856 A.D. Accounts of Black Dogs are especially common in Britain, where it has been sporadically seen for centuries and helped to inspire the Sherlock Holmes classic "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Reports have also come in from various spots around North America; however, the only other description of a (possible) Black Dog in the Berkshires was in 1944, when the Eagle reported on what it called a "disappearing dog mystery."

For several weeks, Pittsfield residents along upper North Street reported nightly barking, always around midnight, from an unseen dog. House-to-house checks were made and a systematic search of the woods was conducted, but no sign of the culprit was ever found.

It may be that this area receives occasional visits from Black Dogs wandering up from Connecticut, where such lore has existed for more than a century. In particular, one such ghoulish hound is said to chronically haunt West Peak. In this area, tradition says that "if a man shall meet the Black Dog once it shall be for joy; and if twice it shall be for sorrow; and the third time, he shall die."

A 1938 history of Connecticut reinforces this tradition, pointing out six mysterious deaths where, in each case, the victim had previously claimed to have seen the Black Dog twice. The Meriden Historical Society has records of other deaths attributed to this hellhound. Now surely West Peak is a safe enough distance to shelter us from the marauding of such doom-harbingers, but reports have also cropped up on occasion in Hartford and Litchfield counties, enough to raise the eyebrow of this semi-superstitious chronicler. So with regards to my informant, and to any other area residents who should happen upon such a mysterious whelp on some back road, I sincerely hope it just the once.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Mystery Cats Keep on Prowling

Local papers called it “The Thing” – but this was no science fiction monster out of a John Carpenter remake. It was a flesh-and-blood animal, and frequent sightings of it roaming the woods caused quite a stir here in the 1940’s. People began talking about it in the fall of 1945, when a Pittsfield woman walking her dogs on Holmes Road, near the Country Club, spotted a creature she couldn’t identify. It frightened her and her dogs, and she later remarked on the incident to someone at the Berkshire Museum.

The Thing reappeared in early January, when Mr. and Mrs. Holden observed it for about a half hour as it prowled the edge of a piece of woodland adjacent to their Holmes Road property. Their description, of a fawn-colored animal about five feet long, with a long tail, matched that of a panther. Their account piqued the curiosity of Berkshire Museum curator Bartlett Hendricks. No arm-chair analyst, Hendricks headed out to the Holden property the day after their story appeared in the Eagle to investigate some tracks left in the snow. The tracks had been obscured by a light drifting of snow the night before, and definite identification was not possible, though they seemed to be of feline origin. Hendricks said that based on the Holdens’ description, the animal could not have been a bobcat because of its long tail, but that it might have been a small panther.

The panther, also known by the names cougar, puma, painter, mountain lion, or catamount (Puma concolor, in current scientific parlance) has long presented a conundrum for naturalists in the Northeast. These felines were hunted aggressively in the first centuries of European settlement, and were considered to be officially extinct in the eastern United States and Canada as of the late 1800s. However, it seems that the cougars themselves may have missed the memo, as they have continued to be spotted in this region on a more-or-less regular basis since then. For instance, though the last Vermont catamount was supposedly bagged in Barnard in 1881 (its stuffed corpse is still on display at the Historical Society in Montpelier), at least a dozen people reported spotting one on Glastenbury Mountain throughout the summer of 1901. One spooked a man in Williamstown in 1899, and yet another was pursued by a hunter in North Pownal in 1926. These are just a smattering of such examples.

For whatever reason, 1946 saw the beginning of a major wave of interest in such encounters locally. A month or so after a series of sightings on Holmes Road, another man spotted The Thing in a tree on lower South Street. In Williamstown, a pair of childhood sweethearts was chased by another cougar- and it must have been one hell of a chase, for they decided to get married promptly after. The Museum sent sketches of the tracks that had been seen, along with samples of hair believed to belong to the mystery animal, to the Museum of Natural History in New York. The zoologist who answered said that the tracks drawn were indeed consistent with those of a mountain lion, but the hair could not be identified with the limited technology of the day.

Interest in The Thing waned slightly for a year or so after that, until it popped up in Dalton in the summer of 1948. The Mather family twice saw it cross their garden on North Street, and Mrs. Harold Olds saw it behind her barn a little ways down the same street. She described it as a “black beast” that frightened her so badly that she could not remember much else about it. This new version of The Thing was seen several times thereafter in Hinsdale, skulking about in the vicinity of Plunkett Lake, and it was blamed for the slaying of a cow in Peru. These 1948 sightings tended to reiterate Mrs. Olds’ description of a “black beast,” which is quite curious.

While the presence of surviving panther populations in the east is still debated, everyone at least acknowledges that such animals did exist -and still do in the west, as well as a few left in Florida. A black panther, on the other hand, has never been proven to exist. What are usually thought of generically as a “black panther” are in fact certain melanistic leopards, native to Africa and Asia. The incidence of melanism in the puma species has never been demonstrated scientifically. A specimen of one such black panther was said to have been killed in Brazil in 1843, but this report was not confirmed, and this may actually have been a jaguar. The trait of melanism tends to run highest among wild felines living in the tropics or sub-tropics, so the presence of such a creature in North America would be remarkable. Nonetheless, sightings of black panthers have occurred, in fairly high numbers, throughout the U.S. and Canada.

New Brunswick biologist Bruce S. Wright looked at reports of black panthers in the 1950s, in the most in-depth study of the Eastern Panther done to date. He first attempted to explain away the impression of their dark coloration in a number of novel ways, but eventually came to conclude that some melanistic individuals do exist, albeit in small numbers. Making matters even more complicated, though, is the fact that black panther reports often are decidedly weirder than those of their tawny brethren, featuring unusual attributes such as highly aggressive behavior and a fascination with automobiles (some have even attacked cars, if the reports in question are reliable). This, in addition to the fact that such sightings come not only from the western hemisphere, but from such places as the U.K. and Australia, where panthers have never been native, has conferred a certain legendary, even paranormal, connotation to these elusive creatures. They have been referred to on occasion as “the UFOs of the cat world.”

Sightings of panthers, of both the standard and black varieties, have continued sporadically in this area ever since. Encounters throughout New England have increased dramatically over the last couple of decades, to the point where there can’t be very much doubt that there are some cougars lurking in the Northeastern forests. Whether they are groups which have migrated back from the West, descendants of escaped or released “pets,” or, perhaps most logically, representatives of an eastern subspecies declared extinct far too prematurely, is a question which remains to be kicked around. One thing seems certain: these “Things” seem to like it here tolerably well, and I for one hope that they keep making appearances.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Weirdest Week Ever

We all have weird days. Sometimes - perhaps more often than not - these days cluster together and we find ourselves looking back at a whole week that just seems odd. In the final few days of October 1908, this whole region had a week like that. It was, in fact, possibly the strangest week ever seen in these parts. Mind you, no one event that week was, in and of itself, too completely bizarre or unheard of. It was rather a combination of more-or-less unrelated curiosities, grouped so closely together in time as to raise an eyebrow - namely my own. Piecing the events of that week together from newspapers, it isn't apparent whether or not anyone at the time noticed or remarked on this convergence of odd and interesting happenings, but looking back it in hindsight, it certainly seems to me that there was something strange in the air that week.

To start things off, October 20, 1908, was being called "the day of the big smoke" by newspapers all over Massachusetts, as a string of disastrous fires raged across the Berkshires and southern Vermont. A thick pall hung over the area, blotting out the sun. Fires on Bald Mountain and Mount Anthony charred hundreds of acres of forest, while blazes around Lee damaged large tracts of land and threatened to engulf what is now October Mountain State Forest. The peak of Hoosac Mountain was described as nothing but a "mass of flames." These and other spontaneous fires, igniting in brush and dry leaves and spreading quickly, would continue for days to come, and would serve as a dramatic backdrop for the curious incidents that followed.

While firefighters and volunteer workers were busy combating constant fires, the police were also very busy. On the 21st, an unidentified body was discovered by two men on a farm in New Ashford. The badly decomposed body was found under a pile of leaves, along with an overcoat. Authorities were at a loss to explain it, as no one in the vicinity was thought to be missing.

The following day, William Van Sleet and Dr. Sidney Stowell braved the still somewhat smoky skies, setting out in "Heart of the Berkshires," the record-setting balloon of the Pittsfield Aero Club. Their flight took them west to New York, where they were at first mistaken for the "man in the moon" by a Cohoes man who heard them shouting down to him. According to one long-time UFO researcher, Van Sleet's balloon may actually have been sharing the sky with a real space man. Joseph Trainor, editor of UFO Roundup, believes that another object, a "mystery" balloon may have followed a similar route and been witnessed by Luke Minihan and other members of the Aero Club who were attempting to keep tabs on the balloon. The case he makes is flimsy, however, and based primarily on the fact that, unbeknownst to them, the Van Sleet flight got off to a slow start and would not have caught up with the departed automobile. But the front page Eagle story on their flight does not state what time Minihan and his group first spotted the balloon overhead, and furthermore it is unlikely that they would mistake some other "mystery airship" with their own balloon, hazy skies or no.

Meanwhile, Pittsfield police apprehended "a very queer stranger," as the Eagle put it. The man, who was picked up while attempting to sell a bicycle that the arresting officer believed to be stolen, gave his name as William Allen. He had an inch-deep dent in the side of his head, where he said he had been kicked by a horse. He appeared to have amnesia and could not tell the police much of anything else about himself. When asked where he was from, he gestured vaguely, saying "up there." The last thing he remembered, he said, was riding his bicycle in Schenectady the previous Sunday, and everything after that was a blank. This was no returned abductee from Trainor's supposed spaceship - though the truth, when it finally came out two days later, was nearly as sensational. The mysterious "William Allen" was in fact Elroy Kent, a fearsome lunatic who had escaped from Waterbury Asylum in Vermont the previous summer, and soon after had murdered a woman in Wallingford. His arrest made headlines throughout the northeast.

Fires continued to be fought throughout the area: two in Becket were put out just as one broke out in Washington. Blazes also popped up at Greylock, at Florida Mountain, and in North Adams. On the 23rd, a barn burned down in West Pittsfield, and another wreaked havoc on a number of buildings on the north side of Columbus Ave. - my great-grand uncle, William Durwin, helped extinguish the blazes, managing to save all the horses in a barn there. The situation was even worse in Vermont, where continued flames threatened to destroy much of Woodford and Glastenbury. The Bennington Banner stated that the prevailing opinion there was that the fires were being set intentionally.

These ubiquitous conflagrations seemed to have the effect of smoking out curious characters. On the 24th, two different vagrants, both of whom were blind, were picked up in Pittsfield. Not only did they share a disability, but they apparently shared the same name. Though held and questioned separately, they both gave their identity as Charles Wilson. Three days later, a mysterious hermit was stopped near the Congregational Church on South Street. The man said that he this was the first time he had been out Hinsdale in more than 40 years and was wandering around lost. He did not give his name, and after being given directions to a place on North Street, took off and was not seen again.

Certain criminal tendencies were also brought out in the chaotic mix. The Dalton home of U.S. Senator W. Murray Crane was robbed of over $800 in silver. On the 26th, a West Pittsfield man who had just returned from three weeks in Springfield, shot at an unidentified man on West Street, then took his own life, managing to fire two shots into his own head. That same day saw a record crowd in the Pittsfield courthouse, with 24 defendants arraigned on criminal charges.

Then rain came, as it always does in the end, and the infernal flames that swept the hillsides died away. Elroy Kent was extradited to Vermont to stand trial for his crimes (the Elroy family, it is worth mentioning, was full of bad apples - the following summer, Elroy's brother Fred was arrested for the murder of their father), and while it doesn't appear that the issue of the body found in New Ashford was ever fully resolved, things seemed to return to normality. Or, at least, to a state as approximate to normal as things ever do get.

Friday, November 04, 2005

When Wild Men Roamed the Woods

In the news-speak of earlier days, the term "wild man" was used fairly frequently, and often quite vaguely. I come across it regularly in my perusal of American newspapers from the 18th and 19th centuries, and I have been surprised and perplexed by the variety of categories it is used to cover.

In earlier and less sensitive eras, the term was used more or less interchangeably to refer to any two-legged being that presented any connotation of mystery to the average citizen. On some occasions, the "wild man" label is applied to sightings of hairy, ape-like forest denizens - such as one reported near Williamstown in 1879 - who sound suspiciously like what we now think of collectively as "Bigfoot." Sometimes it was simply an ethnocentric way of referring to anyone of Native American origin. It was also used as a blanket brand applied to any kind of hermit or forest-dwelling man about whom little was known. It is on cases of this final type that I will focus my attention this week.

This type of "wild man" included men from a variety of different backgrounds. Some were destitute and unable to find work, mentally ill, heartbroken or criminals on the lamb. Some were simply taciturn old men who preferred the seclusion of caves and wooded hill-country to the company of others and the trappings of society. All were wanderers and loners who lived outside both the tangible and abstract boundaries of civilization, and as such they were figures of mystery and intrigue.

The first recorded "wild man" in this area of which I am aware is a curious character who roamed the woods around Bennington, Vt., in the spring of 1867. For several weeks he was reported seen often around the outskirts of town, usually up to no good. It was said that during the day he holed up in a lair he had staked out in the forest, roaming around only at night. He had a nasty habit of following women walking around town, and of peeking in the windows of houses. He had also, it was rumored, exposed himself on the few occasions when someone accidentally came across his wooded hiding place. It was thought that he was some kind of escaped lunatic, and the entire town appeared to be terrified of him. The wild man kept three pistols in his belt and carried with him a menacing looking dagger, and he was described as being very ugly to look at. The Bennington Banner spoke of the situation in a very dramatic way, saying that "a reign of terror has been inaugurated among our female population," and that "authorities should at once take measures to hunt out the fellow." Hunt him out they did. A posse confronted him at his "lair," and sent him packing.

If an old article in the Fitchburg Daily Sentinel is to be believed, an even stranger character took up residence in the Berkshires in 1899. Squire N.L. Harris discovered the bizarre stranger living in a hillside cave at Mount Washington, after noticing smoke pouring out from it. The Sentinel called him "the strangest bit of humanity seen hereabouts," describing a withered man no more than 4 feet tall, covered in hair and dressed in rags. He had apparently been living on the flesh of birds, lizards and whatever else he could catch manually; the mouth of the cave was littered with small bones and feathers. When Harris finally confronted the man to find out who he was, it became apparent that the man spoke only in some unfamiliar language. Nonetheless, the Squire managed to deduce, by some means not explained, that the "cave man" hailed from somewhere in South America.

The most famous wild man to ever traverse the wilder portions of the Berkshires was the "Old Leather Man." Old Leather Man was a wandering recluse who for more than 20 years walked a circuitous route from western Connecticut to eastern New York with forays into Berkshire County, and possibly even as far north as Canada on occasion. A quiet man of obvious French origins, he wore an outfit comprised completely of roughly-sewn leather patches. In the first few years after he appeared in Connecticut in the early 1860s, he was an object of fear and suspicion. Mothers would even discipline their unruly children with the threat that "old Leathery" would come for them if they did not behave. As time passed, though, he became a celebrated eccentric. People would run to the road when he was making his way through town to get a glimpse of him, or to bring him food or tobacco. His passage and the mystery of his identity were subjects of intrigue and debate, and over the years he became a legend throughout the northeast, occasionally making headlines in newspapers as far away as California.

Some believe his name was Jules Bourglay, a Frenchman who came to the United States after losing his fortune in the leather business, and along with it his chances to marry the woman he loved. This back-story, however, has been exposed as a newspaper hoax. According to Connecticut historian and Leather Man researcher Dan W. Deluca, this fictional account of his origins was first presented in the Waterbury Daily American, a few years before his death. The story was later retracted, but by then the yarn had been picked up by so many other papers that it was difficult to dislodge. His true identity remains a mystery to this day. What is known for sure is that he passed away in Mount Pleasant, N.Y., in 1889, where his headstone bears the fictional moniker. His story - both the real and fictional parts - have inspired a number of depictions since, such as the song "Leatherman" by the rock band Pearl Jam.

The last reported "wild man" in these parts seems to have been in 1942, when Pittsfield residents began complaining of a strange man living in the woods near Pontoosuc Lake. Rumors of a man dressed only in a blanket and carrying a knife circulated throughout the fall. There were reports of houses broken into, and theft of food and various other items. The mystery was laid bare in late November when a state police officer spotted the man, and, after a brief scuffle, arrested him. Upon examination, it became clear that the "wild man" was a young Pittsfield man who had gone AWOL from the army base in Falmouth.

So ended the age of the "wild man," at least in this region. These men, and the reactions they drew from those living in the "civilized" world which they skirted, are an interesting slice of history. They were characters whose lives were shrouded in mystery; because of that, most elicited fear, especially in small communities where people knew a lot about their neighbors. Some, like Old Leather Man, became local legends. Today we would most likely say that such people had "slipped through the cracks" - and, while such cracks still exist, perhaps the fact that we at least acknowledge the presence of cracks in society is progress, of a sort.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Delving into the Hoosac Tunnel Part II

Advocate Weekly
Thursday, October 27
By Joe Durwin

In last week's column, I explored some of the early history of the Hoosac Tunnel, including the tragic deaths involved in its construction and the first rumors of ghostly encounters in this massive five-mile mountain passage. After all the blood, tears and virtual mountains of money, the tunnel was finally completed in the mid-1870s. It became an important part of railroad travel in the region, but it also continued to be a place of tragedy, where mysteries abounded like cloistered smoke in the dark hole in the hills.

In 1874, three months before the first train passed through, a local hunter named Frank Webster went missing in the vicinity the dark passageway. When searchers found him three days later, he was in a traumatized condition and said that voices had ordered him into the tunnel. While wandering inside, he was accosted by horrible apparitions who ripped his rifle from his hands and beat him over the head with it, after which he could remember nothing more. The following fall, a fire-tender named Harlan Mulvaney was delivering a wagon load of firewood into the tunnel when he went missing. The horses and wagon were found in the woods soon after, but Mulvaney was never located. I have not yet been able to find any contemporary documentation of these two incidents, so I must admit I do not know how much of the story surrounding these disappearances can be chalked up to legend.

I do know that the chain of brutal fatalities taking place in the tunnel continued for decades after. Most researchers have focused on the nearly two hundred killed during the construction, but I personally have collected records of more than three dozen deadly incidents after 1875, and this seems to be only the tip of the iceberg. In 1876, a worker named William Richards fell while working at the ill-omened central shaft. A few years later, a circus tent man named Sam Caesar was killed when he fell from the top of a train and slipped between the cars, being crushed instantly.

Many of the accidents were caused by the low visibility in the tunnel. Prior to the line being changed over to electric, poor ventilation caused the tunnel to fill up with smoke, making it almost impossible to see clearly. This led many railroad workers being struck by oncoming trains, as well as frequent collisions of trains with one another. These disastrous crashes included one in 1894, in which two men lost their lives, and one in 1912, where four men lost their lives. This latter was so bad that the wreckage burned unchecked for many hours and the tunnel remained blocked for several days. A particularly bad weekend came in November of 1901, which saw three incidents in rapid succession. During the afternoon of November 23, a passenger train collided with a freight train that had been stopped on the east-bound track. Several cars were destroyed but no one was seriously injured. Four hours later, a worker was struck and killed while heading back from the wreckage on the east track. Because of the noise involved in the clean up there, he did not hear the train that came barreling down the west-bound track. The following day, a worker by the name of Michael Powers died when he was overcome by the acrid coal gas that, while a constant problem, had been worse that day because of malfunctions in the fan system of the central shaft.

Not all of the causes of death in the tunnel were as cut-and-dry. In 1912, a section foreman named Andrew Cullen killed himself in the tunnel after "suddenly becoming insane" and killing two of his crew. There had been no quarrel between the men and no reason for his rampage was ever proffered. Another suicide had been attempted there by a woman 17 years earlier. The attempt failed, but no reason was identified for that act either.

Another death shrouded in mystery was the 1935 electrocution of a young man while riding a freight train through the dark passage. The body was identified as Albert Debruycker by his mother, and was buried in North Adams. Matters were complicated 12 years later, however, when Debruycker turned out to be alive and well, living in California. To this day the identity of the body buried under his name in Southview Cemetery remains unknown.

Given the legacy of tragedy and mystery surrounding the tunnel, its reputation as one of the most haunted places in New England should come as no surprise. There are numerous first-hand accounts of inexplicable occurrences witnessed there, stretching back for well over a century. One of the first documented complaints of this kind can be found in letters written by Paul Travers, a mechanical engineer, and Dr. Clifford Owens, a friend of one of the tunnel foreman. In September of 1868, Travers reported that he and another worker had heard "what truly sounded like a man groaning out in pain. Yet, when we turned up the wicks on our lamps, there were no other human beings in the shaft." Four years later, Owens reported hearing a similar moaning sound. This was followed by a blue light, which, as it approached them, appeared to be the form of a headless human being.

Then there is an account from Joseph Impoco, who worked in the tunnel in the 1920s. Impoco claimed that ghosts had saved his life on two occasions by shouting warnings to him: when a train was about to mow him down and when he was nearly electrocuted. In 1984, Ali Allmaker wrote an account of the tunnel's eerie atmosphere. Mistakenly referred to as female in all recent accounts, Mr. Allmaker was a philosophy professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts with a part-time interest in hunting ghosts. He described how he accompanied a railroad employee on a tour of the Hoosac and throughout felt the sensation that someone was following close behind him. He also mentioned that some North Adams students had left a tape recorder in the tunnel overnight, and when they retrieved it strange, muffled voices could be heard. Some sources also cite the 1976 report from an Agawam parapsychologist, of seeing the clear form of a ghost in old-fashioned clothing eating his lunch in front of her, but this account originated with a tabloid story by The Star and appears to have been fabricated.

Stories of phantom workers, floating blue lights and strange voices in the long dark abyss of the tunnel continue to this day. There are even wild accounts of a bricked-up room where "unspeakable horrors" are hidden. Though it is still actively used by freight trains, a handful of people every year brave the dark, unpleasant and potentially dangerous 5-mile hike. Anyone endeavoring to attempt this trip, though, should first have a good long think on the fate that has befallen many others while passing through Berkshire County's "Forbidden Mountain."

Happy Halloween.

Primary Sources:

Berkshire Evening Eagle: Aug 9, 1943; Aug 14, 1943; Jan 14, 1946; Apr 2, 1947; June 27, 1959; Sep. 2, 1959;

North Adams Transcript: June 7, 1895; July 14, 1898; Sep. 24, 1900; Jan 11, 1901; Nov. 25, 1901; Nov. 11, 1902

Fitchburg Daily Sentinel: Feb 16, 1873; May 22, 1906; Oct 4, 1935; March 17, 1942;

NY Times: Oct 21-22, 1867; July 1, 1879;

Arizona Republican: Aug 6, 1893
Daily Democrat (MO): Oct 6, 1873,
Indianapolis Star: Feb 21, 1912
Daily Kennebec Journal: Feb 5, 1912
Davenport Daily Leader Sep. 10, 1894

Kuperschmid, Eileen. “Do 192 ghosts walk these tracks?” Berkshire Sampler, Oct 30, 1977

Byron, Carl. (1974) A Pinprick of light: The Troy & Greenfield Railroad and Its Hoosac Tunnel
Norman, Michael; Scott, Beth. (1995) Historic Haunted America

On the web:

Friday, October 21, 2005

Exploring the Hoosac Tunel - PART I

Advocate Weekly

In an honor of the approaching Halloween holiday, I have decided to dedicate two installments of "These Mysterious Hills" to what is surely the most thoroughly haunted location in all the Berkshires: the Hoosac Tunnel.

The second longest railroad tunnel in North America, the Hoosac has a long history about which much has been written. This history is a saga of will and human engineering - it is also the tale of politics, economics and terrible tragedy. From among these historical threads arises an additional narrative, that of supernatural occurrence and ghostly goings-on, and it is in this area that my own expertise lies.

To understand the tunnel's dark reputation, it is crucial that the history of its construction be examined. Hoosac Mountain, the imposing mass of rock through which the tunnel cuts a path, was formed along with the rest of the Berkshire Hills hundreds of millions of years ago, through a series of geological processes known as the Taconic Orogeny. Five miles wide at its base, the mountain is composed mainly of limestone, slate and mica, with tough gneiss throughout its center. Many sources maintain that Native Americans referred to it as Forbidden Mountain, implying that the land was already regarded as cursed long before the tunnel. In actuality, the Mahican words from which "Hoosac" is derived translate to something like "Mountain Rock." The label "forbidden" was placed on it by early colonial settlers, possibly because of the obstacle it posed to travel. Removing this obstacle proved to be no mean feat.

The creation of a tunnel through the mountain was first proposed in 1819, but the task seemed too daunting at a time when railroads were still fairly new to the country. The plan was later resurrected as part of the Troy and Greenfield Railroad, and construction began in 1851. It was first thought that the project could be completed in as little as five years, but, as with the estimates of its cost, this proved hopelessly optimistic. An expensive, 70-ton boring machine was brought in to begin cutting through the mountain, but the machine quit after only 10 feet. A 1906 article in the "Fitchburg Daily Sentinel" tells of a legend that the inventor of this machine went insane because of its failure, and that his ghost went on to haunt the cave where this false start was made. However, its inventor, John Wilkinson (given as Wilson in some sources) died decades before the tunnel was begun. While it is therefore doubtful that his ghost is to be found among the revenants reported in the tunnel, the failure of another of his machines in 1857 helped to bankrupt Chief Engineer Herman Haupt, so it is always possible his ghost may have been holding a grudge.

While the financial burden of the project was extreme, exceeding $20 million by the time of completion, it pales beside the immense cost in human terms. Between 192 and 195 lives were lost in the process of cutting the nearly 5-mile hole through the Earth, and the manner of these deaths was usually quite horrific. Causes included suffocation by toxic gas, being crushed by falling rock or blown apart by explosions. This latter was particularly common, owing to the introduction of nitroglycerine as the preferred explosive in 1867. While its safety was championed by George Mowbray, who manufactured it at a factory built near the tunnel's western portal in North Adams, the statistics belied this. In fact, Mowbray's own foreman, John Velsor, was "blown to atoms" - as newspapers at the time put it - when at least 800 pounds of the deadly soup went off in December 1870. Not a single trace of the man's body could be recovered from the site of the blast.

Even before nitroglycerine entered the picture, there were a number of casualties from explosive charges. One infamous occasion was in March of 1865. Two workers, Ned Brinkman and Billy Nash, were killed when a black powder charge was exploded prematurely by a third worker named Ringo Kelley. Kelley disappeared soon after and there were whispers that Nash and Brinkman's deaths may not have been accidental. Then, a little over a year later, Kelley's body was found in the tunnel, apparently strangled. No culprit was found and some workers came to believe that the ghosts of the men he had killed were responsible. Some even refused to return to work at the site.

Meanwhile, the litany of death continued. Many of the worst incidents took place in or around the central shaft - which ran 1,028 feet deep, used for ventilation and to speed up the tunneling - and it is believed by some to be the most haunted part of the tunnel. A Welsh worker named Griffin Jones took a wrong turn and fell the entire length of the shaft. When his body was found, it had been flattened so badly that it was "rolled up like a side of leather" to be taken to the funeral home. Another worker was killed when a drill fell over 300 feet, impaling him. But the worst accident there took place in October 1867. A candle ignited volatile naptha gas in the hoist-house at the top of the shaft, sending the burning building crashing down on 13 men who were working below. The pumps were also destroyed and water flooded the shaft. A brave miner named Mallery volunteered to be lowered down on a rope to look for survivors, but saw only water and burnt timber. Overcome by fumes, he was hauled up, whereupon he gasped, "No hope."

Following that tragedy, ghost stories proliferated, with frequent accounts from workers of apparitions and disembodied voices around the area of the shaft. A year after the disaster, the remaining bodies were reached, and the sickeningly realization came that not all the men had died right away. Some of them had apparently managed to stay afloat on a makeshift raft, finally suffocating in the buried enclosure. When the bodies were finally interred, the tales of ghostly encounters subsided somewhat.

The tunnel was finally completed, and the first train passed through it in 1875. But the story of the tunnel's haunting was far from over. In next week's installment, I will explore the continued legacy of death, mayhem and mystery in northern Berkshire's "bloody pit."

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Saucer Fever in the Berkshires

The three week period that began on June 24, 1947 was a curious time in the history of our country. Whether literal or metaphoric, there was definitely something strange in the air. On the 24th, a pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine disk-shaped objects flying across the sky near Mt. Rainier, Washington. At least twenty other persons across the Pacific Northwest reported seeing the same that day, but it was Arnold’s soberly told account and detailed description that drew the most attention, launching the term ‘flying saucer’ into its place in the American lexicon. Over the following days, as media spread discussion of Arnold’s story, others began coming forward all over the country, saying that they too had spotted similar objects. The trickle became a deluge on July 4, as many of the millions of people celebrating Independence Day outside looked up toward the sky and saw something they couldn’t account for.

That day marked the first mention of disks seen east of the Mississippi, as claims of sightings poured in from 28 states. Newspapers across the country had a field day, and the Berkshires were no exception. The Eagle interviewed Dr. John Lynn, a behavioral scientist from Valhalla, N.Y., who attributed the phenomenon to anxieties about atomic weapons. He also compared them to the scare brought on by Orson Welles’ War of the World broadcast nearly a decade earlier- a particularly interesting statement, considering the fact that no one had yet suggested any connection between the saucers and anything extraterrestrial.

Meanwhile, some area residents had already spotted what they believed to be examples of the bizarre objects. A group of four Pittsfield residents, while watching the parade (described as the longest and best to date at that time) observed a disk overhead around 10:45. One of the witnesses, Mrs. Sidney Smith of Pomeroy Avenue, described it as “round, colorless, luminous object with a peculiar rolling motion.” The saucer sped off south, gaining altitude as it went. Reaction among residents who had not seen anything was mixed, as far as can be judged by a random survey of people on North Street on July 7. “I certainly don’t think it’s imagination, not with so many people seeing them,” said a Pittsfield photographer, “It’s either what some foreign government is sending over, or an experiment of our own army.” John Foley of Foley’s Restaurant had a simpler explanation: “Somebody’s got the DT’s.”

By that time, “saucer fever” was reaching fever pitch across the country, with sightings having been reported in 38 states and parts of Canada. By the 8th, similar reports were coming in from Europe, Australia and Africa. That same day also saw national reporting of an Air Force official’s announcement that a crashed saucer had been recovered by the military near Roswell, New Mexico. Though retracted the following day, this press release had already given birth to a controversy that would last more than half a century.

Sightings continued in Berkshire County as well. Mrs. Fairfield Osborne spotted one while staying as a guest at the Stockbridge home of Margaret Cresson, the daughter of famed sculptor Daniel Chester French. Mrs. Osborne said that prior to this she had never heard of the flying saucer phenomenon, but after viewing the strange aerial shape she consulted some recent newspapers and found that the descriptions there matched what she had seen exactly. She told reporters that what she had seen had been a brilliantly illuminated round object “like an automobile headlight in the sky.” The bright object appeared to hover around the top of Mount Everett, about 25 miles away. A few seconds later, it vanished entirely from view. Two similar bright objects were seen by architect Charles Masterson of Crane Avenue in Pittsfield, though Masterson admitted they may have been planes.

Over the following days the wave of interest in the new saucer phenomenon lessened in intensity as reports of sightings began to drop off. Whether this was because the sightings themselves had ebbed, or because by then an organized campaign of derision had been brought to bear in combating what some officials considered a dangerous panic (i.e., one that might interfere with public recognition and interest in more “real” national security threats) and people stopped coming forward so readily, is a debatable point. Various kinds of experts continued to attribute the wave to fears about nuclear warfare, or alternately, as Orville Wright, among others, believed, to government seeded fear-mongering. Most predicted that it would soon pass and be largely forgotten. This was not an unreasonable assumption on their part. Prior waves of unidentified flying objects, like the “mystery airships” widely reported in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, or the “foo fighters” of World War II, though never completely explained, had been filed away in a dusty backroom of the national consciousness. But for whatever reason, this was not the case this time. “Saucer culture,” as one commentator called it, was here to stay, and the UFO phenomenon- whether physical, metaphysical, or sociological- has gone through cycles of greater and lesser interest, but never faded completely.

So, while this was certainly not the last time that a UFO sighting has been reported in the region (nor the first, according to some sources), it is worth noting that the seeds for this as a staple of American subject matter were sown in a space of a couple of weeks- and the Berkshires were very much a part of it, getting in on the ground floor of a most curious chapter of history.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Ace Pilot lost over southern Berkshire

There is something about the concept of humans flying through the air that we as a species seem to have a built-in incredulity about. Long before flight was even a remote possibility, various cultures the world over had stories outlining its seemingly inevitable failure. Icarus’ plunge into the sea is a well-worn favorite from classical mythology – though many overlook the fact that Daedalus survived the flight from Crete just fine, and one out of two really ain’t so bad, when you’re dealing with wax-based aerial technology. Those folks in Genesis also got themselves in quite a mess just for trying to take the long route to the upper atmosphere with the Tower of Babel. Even after the reality of human flight had been repeatedly demonstrated, some folks just couldn’t bring themselves to accept it. For example, in January 1906, more than two years after the Wright Brothers first successful flights at Kitty Hawk, a no less respected publication than Scientific American was denouncing the Wright flights as a fable for the gullible.

Though most people have, I presume, by now accepted the fact of air travel, there may always be a lingering undercurrent of skepticism about its safety and efficacy- a primordial instinct that tends to bubble closer to the surface following any publicized plane crash. It is reflected even more keenly, though, in the fascination we have with aircraft that go permanently missing. The name Amelia Earhart, for instance, is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon. Likewise, the alleged “Bermuda Triangle” has, since it was first hypothesized 55 years ago, provoked endless debate, innumerable (and for the most part thoroughly unwatchable) television movies, and even board games. All of which is but elaborate preface to this week’s meditation on a case that has long interested me: the ill-fated flight of Captain Mansell R. James, believed to have gone missing over the hills of southern Berkshire in the summer of 1919.

It should be mentioned at the outset that James was no novice when it came to piloting an airplane. He was a decorated veteran of the Royal Air Force, an ace who had brought down no less than ten enemy planes. Just prior to his final, fateful flight, he had just collected a $1,000 prize for a competitive flight from Atlantic City to Boston. While returning from Boston to New Jersey on May 28, he ran into trouble and had to make a forced landing in Lee. The following day, he took off from there around 11:00 a.m., headed for Mitchel Field in Long Island, where he intended to refuel for the next leg of his flight. This was the last time anyone ever saw him.

When he never arrived in Atlantic City, they assumed that he may have changed his mind and started out for Toronto, where another major aerial contest was taking place. When word came that this was not so, and that he had never even arrived at Long Island, a search began on June 2 in the area south of where he had taken off. By June 4, five planes were searching full time, spread out across southern Berkshire County and northwestern Connecticut. Search parties grew in manpower and planes over the following days, U.S., Canadian, and British Air Forces pitching in to help locate the missing ace. A considerable fleet of planes conducted fly-overs of western Massachusetts, Connecticut, the Hudson River and the Long Island Sound, but not a trace of Captain James or his Sopwith scout plane could be spied. Numerous theories and ideas were kicked around, but none led to locating the (presumably) downed aircraft.

Over time, many people saw what they believed to have been the crash site of the famous flyer. Early in August, wreckage was reported from a gull at Connecticut’s Mt. Riga, but this turned out not to be his plane. A week or so later, three men fishing near Branford saw what they thought was the wing of the missing craft, but this too proved to be a false lead. Finally, more than six years later, in December, 1925, the best lead to date manifested. While hunting in “a remote section of Tyringham,” one Warren Campbell became separated from his companions, and subsequently stumbled onto the wreckage of a small plane half-buried in brush. As it appeared to have been there for several years, Campbell assumed that others had come across the overgrown debris in the past, so did not bother to mark the spot. Only when he finally found his way out of the woods and told the others about it was it suggested that this could have been the craft of the lost British ace. Unfortunately Campbell, a Brooklyn native, was unable to guide them back to the spot where he had seen the wreck. Several days of extensive searching ensued, covering miles of forest and swamp without success. To the best of my knowledge, the location of Captain James’ crash site remains a mystery.

The fact that James failed to reach his destination is in itself not resoundingly mysterious. He had after all just made a forced landing in Lee the day before, after unspecified difficulties. Furthermore, when he left Lee that day, it was without a compass. The mystery is in the total failure to find any trace of the plane, despite extensive searches of the region, in which the Air Forces of three different nations all became involved at one point or another.

More than eighty years later, a number of questions remain. What precisely was the cause of the talented pilot’s failure to reach Long Island? Was the debris spotted in the woods of Tyringham the remnant of James’ missing plane- and if not, whose was it? Has anyone since stumbled onto the wreckage and, like Campbell, made little note of it, assuming it had been discovered long before? Perhaps someday answers to these questions will come to light, but at this time, it remains one of many aviation mysteries, a local chapter in the sometimes tragic history of humankind’s precarious mastery of the sky.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Do hardy monkeys still thrive in the Berkshires?

The folkloric record of Western Civilization is full of stories of animals popping up where they ought not to be.

The literature on unexplained phenomenon is replete not only with controversial creatures, such as Bigfoot, Nessie and El Chupacabras, but with animals whose existence no one disputes, but who seem to be flouting all zoological convention in their choice of habitat. Hundreds of reports of such appearances have been recorded: alligators turning up randomly in major cities, kangaroos hopping about the Midwest, panthers skulking about the Australian bush or the English countryside - these are but a few examples. These kinds of stories greatly appeal to me, perhaps because they depict a kind of renegade spirit in the animal kingdom, a certain pluckiness in nature that defies our attempts to neatly order and catalogue it.

I discovered a story of this sort in the November 8, 1908 edition of the Berkshire Evening Eagle. Anthony and Louis Spiewak, two brothers who lived on Broadview Terrace in Pittsfield, had been hunting for grouse in Lanesboro four days earlier when they had a most uncommon encounter. They heard a rustling in some nearby trees and went to check it out. They were shocked to find out that the source of the rustling had not been birds, as they expected, but instead two monkeys scampering about. It's not every day that monkeys can be seen roaming wild in the Berkshires, and the Spiewak brothers were understandably perplexed. Where could they have come from?

An explanation, of sorts, was not long in coming. Oliver Pillizzaro, proprietor of Red's Dairy Bar on Cheshire Road, said that he believed that the pair had to have been ones who escaped from his care back in June. For several years, a group of monkeys he owned had served as an attraction to draw customers to his business. In June, three of them had broken loose and taken off into the woods. One of them returned on its own soon after, but after a three-day search no sign of the other two could be found, and they were given up for lost.

Now, as any school child knows, monkeys thrive in locales throughout the southern hemisphere, and are hardly accustomed to the kind of weather conditions that autumn in the Berkshires entails. Nonetheless, the Spiewaks told reporters that the fugitive simians seemed utterly unperturbed, and even appeared quite healthy and happy in their surroundings. As for Pillizzaro, he was surprised to hear that they were alive at all, given the freezing temperatures that they had been faced with that fall.

The befuddled owner said that he intended to organize a search party to scour the area where they had been seen, in the hopes of recovering his pets. I have not been able to find out whether or not any such mission was undertaken successfully, or if the monkeys were ever spotted again by anyone else in the region.

Personally, I like to imagine that the pair never was apprehended. Perhaps, I muse, they somehow found it possible to adapt to the chilly Northeastern winter, as some of their distant primate cousins did in the past, and lived out the remainder of their natural lives in this new environment, snacking on a range of exotic herbivorous cuisine as they frolicked merrily through the forest. Perhaps they mated the following spring, and a few of their descendants still reside in isolate pockets of forest, a safe distance from their noisy cousins. On the other hand, maybe they migrated that very winter, striking out for warmer regions, as certain other area residents have been known to do. I realize, of course, that these are all pretty whimsical speculations on my part, and not terribly plausible.

Then again, they're not that much less plausible than the story was to begin with - or than most of what I read in the papers any other day, for that matter. These hills are alive with the song of unlikely scenarios, and there certainly seems to be far more to primate behavior than is dreamt of in my philosophy.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Vermonters go vampire slaying in Manchester

The Advocate-08/18/2005

Down through the ages, the figure of the vampire has exercised a great power over the human imagination. Whether this figure takes the form of the Greek lamia, the Malaysian langsuyar, the Serbian vukodlak or Bram Stoker's iconic Transylvanian count, people from all different cultural backgrounds have found themselves simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by this mythos.

Fascinated, in part, because in the vampire we see an individual who does not lie at rest at death, as we ourselves must, but goes forth from the grave, straddling the world of the living and that of the dead - meanwhile repulsed because this creature lives like a parasite off our most precious bodily commodity, spreading its own brand of damnation through our ranks as it does.

It was mainly this latter factor that concerned the people of Manchester, Vt., in the year 1793, according to an incident recorded in John S. Pettibone's Early History of Manchester." Three years earlier, Captain Isaac Burton lost his wife, Rachel, to consumption, or "the White Death," as it was sometimes known. A year or so later, Burton married again, to a girl by the name of Hulda Powel. Not long after, Hulda also began showing telltale signs of the same decline: an unnatural pallor, loss of vitality and a bloody cough. By February 1793, the girl was in the late stages of the disease. It was at this point that a number of Manchesterites reached a conclusion that to our modern minds must come across as nothing short of preposterous.

The wasting away of Burton's wives, they concluded, was due to the sinister agency of a "demon vampire." To save Hulda, it was thought, the vampirism had to be stopped - and this would require a most odious procedure. The body of Burton's deceased wife, Rachel, was disinterred, and what remained of her heart, liver and lungs were removed. They were taken to Jacob Mead's blacksmith forge, where they were burned until nothing but ash remained. Sadly, despite this grisly attempt at a cure, Hulda continued to weaken, passing away the following September.

Macabre and mystifying as such a scenario may seem to us, there is a great deal of evidence that this was not a wholly uncommon practice in early New England. In his book Food for the Dead, Rhode Island folklorist Michael Bell lists the approximately 20 such incidents in New England he has uncovered from the late 18th through to the late 19th century. Many others may have gone unrecorded. With close examination of the historic and folkloric record, it becomes clear that this practice was looked upon by its participants as being less like a supernatural exorcism than as simply a loosely accepted form of folk medicine (and in some cases, this method was recommended and even overseen by trained physicians).

Keep in mind that these New Englanders were battling a scourge they could not have hoped to comprehend, and one that was increasingly prevalent. Tuberculosis had been on the rise in North America since around 1730, and by 1800 accounted for 25 percent of all deaths. It remained the leading cause of death throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. For most of that time, its precise cause remained unknown. All that was known was what could be readily observed: that this was a kind of contagion that moved unseen from victim to victim, often within families and close-knit groups, draining away the vitality of a person - just like a vampire. The fact that upon exhumation, many bodies were found to display features of decomposition which had not yet been explained by science, such as posthumous hair and nail growth and blood coagulated in the heart and around the mouth, tended to lend credence to the vampire theory.

These were not people who were particularly morbid, sadistic or amoral, as some later commentators opined; just decent communities willing to pursue any option, unpleasant and grotesque though it might have been, to save the lives of their loved ones and neighbors. In the context of their own era, their actions were not all that irrational. Given the significant limitations that still exist in today's medicine, I cannot help but wonder: How many of our own disease-fighting methods will be looked upon by future historians as little more than well-intentioned barbarism?

Friday, July 29, 2005

A Poltergeist in Pownal?

There was a time, less than two centuries ago, when if you claimed that a stone fell from the sky, you could expect that at some point someone would say you were deluded, or a liar, or worse. Certainly, any well-educated, rational person would scoff at you. Why? Well, because, there are no stones in the sky, silly. Therefore stones cannot fall from the sky.

Today, of course, in our infinitely more knowledgeable times, they’d just call that meteor activity. Now if you were to say that you saw many stones fall, for a prolonged period of time (like weeks, or months), from several different directions at once- up and sideways as well as down- well, then you might once again be in line for some ridicule. At the very minimum, a condescendingly patient explanation about how what it seemed like you saw wasn’t actually what you saw, because, silly, stones don’t just up and act like that. When they move at all, it is in chartable, predictable ways, dictated by known physical processes. Of course, at some point, someone might drop the word ‘poltergeist’ into the conversation- a tricky word, which in German means something along the lines of “noisy or mischievous spirit,” and in English tends to mean something roughly equivalent to “I don’t know, leave me alone.”

It was in the fall of 1874 that a farmer from North Pownal found himself in a predicament along these lines. Sometime in October, Thomas Paddock- described as “a respectable farmer, of excellent character” by the Burlington Free Press and Times- found his house and barns under a brutal bombardment from reoccurring showers of stones. Fearing precisely the kind of derision referred to above, Paddock and his family tried to keep the occurrences a secret. Word got out, however, as always it does in such bizarre matters. Witnesses described rocky showers that ensued intermittently, apparently out of the clear sky. They were said to fall randomly at all hours of the day and night, and varied in size from tiny pebbles to five inches in diameter. At one point, one fell that weighed more than twenty pounds, and left a three-inch crater in solidly frozen ground. A number of people tried to duplicate this incident by hurling similar boulders, but made scarcely any impression at all.

Nor was this the strangest aspect of it all. The stones did not behave at all as falling stones ought. When they hit the ground, they did not bounce or skip; instead, they just rolled calmly along the ground. They also tended to be warm to the touch. Worst of all, witnesses reported that on occasion they would make contact on the roof near the eaves, then, as if possessed, roll slowly up the roof and back down the other side.

Can this possibly true? Stones that fall from the sky? Stones that roll up? Admittedly, there are probably gaping holes in my meteorological knowledge, but this does not seem at all like any meteorites I have ever heard of. Certainly not meteorites with any sense of propriety.

Still, these happenings are not without precedent. Dedicated Advocate readers will recall a similar case from Sheffield that I wrote about in October, and there are a number of others in New England history. The earliest of these seems to be from New Hampshire, where the home of George Walton was barraged for months by similarly cantankerous stones. The occurrences were witnessed by the Secretary of the Colony, Richard Chamberlain, who coined the term “Lithobolia” to describe it, intertwining the Greek word “Lithos” with the Latin “diabolis,” or devil- a “stone-throwing devil.”

According to the late D. Scott Rogo, noted parapsychologist, stone-throwing is one of the most commonly reported kinds of poltergeist phenomenon. “Sometimes rocks will bombard the outside of a house,” he writes, “or sometimes…the inside… the rocks themselves are sometimes found to be warm to the touch… and will often follow odd trajectories.” These kind of poltergeists also seem to have a long history worldwide. The Annales Fuldenses chronicles a case of apparently supernatural stone-throwing in 858 A.D. in the small town of Bingen on the Rhine, where Roman forces were fighting the gauls. Other historical records expose a case even farther back, in 530 A.D., that afflicted the home of the chief physician to the Ostrogoth King Theodoric.

In the case of the stonings in Pownal, a variety of potential explanations were offered. One medium from Hoosac Falls claimed that the spirit of a local woman was responsible, and would not stop until the stones were removed from the coffin in which her body lay. Perhaps the most outlandish theory was presented by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (a paper with a reputation for whimsical and sardonic editorializing) who speculated that a man with “a new style of catapult with which fortifications can be stormed at a distance, has been practicing with it on a mountain nearby.”

Reporters who covered the story claimed that his house was situated that no human prankster could have possibly thrown the stones without being seen. Nevertheless, this was the suspicion of a group of “investigators” from North Adams (who, curiously, are not referred to by name in any of the newspaper accounts) who ventured up to Pownal that December. According to their account of the inquiries they made, their suspicion from the outset was that a hired boy by the name of Jerry was the culprit. They told reporters later that one of them remarked to Jerry how interested he was in Spiritualism, and wished that he could witness the extraordinary phenomenon himself. Later, while Jerry was off doing his chores, a stone came tumbling over the roof of the house. At this point, according to the Hoosac Valley News, “Not wishing to wound the feelings of Mr. Paddock, who firmly believes the imposition so long practiced upon him to be the work of spirits; and not caring to have any trouble with Jerry, the visitors departed, convinced that they had solved the mystery.”

There are problems with the account given by the North Adams skeptics, however. According to their report, “No one but Jerry had ever seen the stones fall.” Yet this does not agree at all with earlier reports published in the Troy Press, the Rutland Herald, and the Burlington Free Press, who state unequivocally that the bombardments had been witnessed by many dozens of people, several of whom are quoted by name. Furthermore, Jerry himself was present and accounted for among the crowd of onlookers during most of these incidents. Their assertion that Paddock believed the stones to be the work of spirits was also patently false, as he had stated repeatedly in earlier interviews that he did not believe spirits were to blame. Finally, their explanation failed to account for the extreme behavior of many of the flying stones.

The pattern of this case has more than a passing resemblance to many of the other New England “lithobolia” incidents I have looked at. In most of these cases, and adolescent is present at the time of most of the stone hurling, and at some point or another someone suggests a connection between the two. Usually though, the child is in plain view when the stones come flying, apparently out of nowhere. Perhaps more importantly, common sense suggests to most that while young boys (or girls) are certainly capable of a wide variety of mischief, the idea of one having the attention span for such ongoing, elaborately systematic pranks, stretching out over weeks or months in most cases, is harder to take seriously than a stone-throwing demon. An alternative interpretation is offered by parapsychologist William Roll, who has spent decades studying alleged poltergeist cases. He calls this phenomenon Recurrent Spontaneous Psycho-Kinesis, the idea that that a high level of emotional tension, if repressed, can produce outward physical effects which are consistent with poltergeist reports. This, he predicts, would no doubt be particularly seen in young persons, who do not usually have the power to redress their grievances by conventional and socially acceptable means.

Of course, this should not be taken to suggest that you should refrain from grounding your preteen son or daughter when circumstances merit- just don’t be too terribly surprised if you should hear a pebble or two come rolling across the roof of your home.

Selected Sources:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle Dec. 9, 1874

Troy Press, Oct.-Dec., 1874

Hoosac Valley News, Dec. 10, Dec. 17, 1874

Citro, Joseph A. Green Mountain, Dark Tales, 1999

Friday, July 22, 2005

October Mountain Forest Death

On Sunday evening I emailed this week’s installment of my new column for The Advocate Weekly, a print companion to this blog, a piece on odd encounters in October Mountain State Forest. The following morning news broke that a body had been found in the forest, which was later identified as that of 20-year-old Anthony Colucci, missing since July 4. The cause of death has not been determined. The piece itself appeared in print yesterday. I want to take this opportunity to make it known that this is a morbid coincidence, and totally unintentional on my part. Had I found out about the discovery of the body one day earlier, I would have supplied a different column piece for this week. I have no desire to exploit or sensationalize this tragic event, and my heart goes out to Mr. Colucci’s family.

More information on this tragedy:

Capital News 9

North Adams Transcript

Berkshire Eagle

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Disappearing Drunkard

The roads which criss-cross southern Vermont and eastern New York are replete with stories of strange encounters. Tunic Road has its accounts of phantom soldiers; UFOs have been sighted by drivers along Route 7 and also White Creek Road; Route 7 has also been the sight of alleged Bigfoot sightings, as has Prospect Mountain.

One day in the 1970’s, author David J. Pitkin reports, he had a strange roadside encounter of his own while driving to and from Bennington. On his way there from his home in Troy, New York, he happened to spot a man hitchhiking in the distance. As he grew closer, the man’s ragged attire and unkempt hair became apparent, and his weaving back and forth made it quite apparent that the man was blind drunk. Finding in favor of prudence, Pitkin sped by without stopping.

On his return trip, he saw that the man had changed lanes and was now hitchhiking in the opposite direction, toward Troy. Pitkin had intended to keep driving and pass the dubious looking man once more, but just then it began to pour rain. Taking pity, he pulled over and let the man in. The reeking, obviously intoxicated man got into the car. He was nearly incomprehensible, and it was not clear where he was going. They drove in silence, until they reached the outskirts of Troy and stopped at a red light, the man mumbled “This is good enough.” They pulled over and the man stumbled out of the car without closing the door. Pitkin leaned over to close it, and when he looked up, the man was gone. “I scanned the full 360 degrees around my car, for at least a hundred yards in every direction, for at least a hundred yards in every direction. He was nowhere to be seen. Where could he have gone? There were no nearby doorways where he could hide. He had just vanished into thin air.”

Stories of this sort are not rare. Folklorists recognize this as a variant of the “Vanishing Hitchhiker,” a class of urban legend, though the term contemporary legend is gaining ground as the preferred classifier. Modern folklore expert Jan Brunvand calls the Vanishing Hitchhiker narrative “the classic automobile legend.”

“This returning ghost tale,” Brunvand states, “was known by the turn of the century both in the United States and abroad. It acquired the newer automobile motif by the period of the Great Depression, and thereafter spawned a number of subtypes with greatly varied and oddly interlocking details, some of which themselves stemmed from earlier folk legends.”

In one of the most common types, the story centers on a young girl asking for a ride home. Before the driver and passenger reach her house, however, the girl has vanished into thin air. The driver proceeds on to the house anyway, typically because she has left something behind in the car. When he knocks on the door, the person who answers (usually her father) tells the driver that his daughter died on this very day, X amount of years ago. In other versions, the hitchhiker may be a man or an elderly woman dressed in black, who deliver some sort of prophetic message.

In most cases, these stories, like others classed as contemporary legend, are FOAF (friend-of-a-friend) tales, passed on from person to person as a morphing, undocumented narrative, typically introduced with a statement like “this happened to someone my sister’s friend knows,” or “someone who went to my co-worker’s college said…” Therefore, folklorists tend to treat these stories as fictional- socially meaningful, perhaps, but without root in an event taking place in real space time. This becomes problematic, however, when one is confronting a first hand account. It is certainly more awkward to declare something a legend when the something is a specific person coming forward with what they maintain is a personal experience they had in a real place and time. Pitkin’s experience is not a unique occurrence, either; a number of other first hand accounts of vanishing hitchhikers exist. The most well known of these is probably that of a man named Anton Lagrange, from Durban, South Africa, which was documented in an article in FATE by Cynthia Hind.

What are we to make then, of these stories? Are they all lies concocted by a few individuals, inspired by FOAF tales, or do certain concepts taken for granted in the study of folklore beg reexamination? Perhaps the quandary is best stated by University of Pennsylvania folklorist Bill Ellis when he says, “…The major limitation of the folklorist’s perspective is that it presumes that if a story is found in variant form attached to many places and times, then that is proof presumptive that it never happened at any place or time… granted, the vanishing hitchhiker circulates widely and usually in anonymous of friend-of-a-friend form. But does that in itself impugn every firsthand account?”

It does not, I would venture. Too many examples exist to negate the idea that all, or even most, types of FOAF tales arise out of the ether of human imagination without some analogue or antecedent in actual incidents and experiences. Ellis cites the work of Gary Alan Fine, who in researching urban legends of mice in Coca-Cola bottles, found numerous documented cases in which various rodents had been found in different kind of soda containers. Similarly, the immensely popular “alligators in the sewer” tales seem to be rooted in verifiable incidents. Documentation of an apparently quite real problem with alligators in the Manhattan sewer system in the 1930’s has been found in the NY Times and in records of the office of the New York City Commissioner of Sewers.

Folklore is a kind of running social narrative that explores the boundaries of what we know or believe to be real. Perhaps the survival and popularity of many of FOAF tales and contemporary legends, and the reason that they are often believed, is based on an instinctive sense on the part of the population at large that the world really is stranger than we ever give it full credit for, and sometimes, just sometimes, the weirdest things anyone can think up really do happen.


Pitkin, David J. Ghosts of the Northeast, 2002

Brunvand, J.H. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends & their Meanings, 1981

Ellis, Bill. Aliens, Ghosts & Cults: Legends We Live, 2003

Hind, Cynthia. “Girl Ghost Hitches Ride.” FATE July 1979

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Spirits of ’76: Revolutionary Ghosts in the Berkshires

The history of Berkshire County’s involvement in the Revolutionary War is a rich one, full of noteworthy participation in some of the most important actions of the war (the taking of Fort Ticonderoga, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Battle of Bennington, etc) and exotic characters (General John Patterson, James Easton, the “Fighting Parson” Thomas Allen, etc). Given this, it should not be surprising that legends of lingering ghosts from this period abound in the area. As a special Fourth of July installment of These Mysterious Hills, I will present two of my favorite such tales.

The first concerns Franz Wagner, a Hessian soldier attached to General Burgoyne’s forces. Wagner was wounded at the Battle of Saratoga, and died while making his way south after his company was scattered. Some men from North Egremont buried him in the old burial yard there, but it soon became clear that he refused to rest in peace. Within a few days of his burial, rumors began to spread that the Hessian had been seen wandering about at night. He had been seen, with his full uniform glistening in the darkness, wandering around the cemetery, and floating along the banks of the Green River. As whispers of encounters with this formidable specter multiplied, some village men decided to investigate. Two men, Joe Tanner and Tom Hendricks, bolder than the rest, went ahead while the rest of the group trailed a safe distance behind. They advanced slowly to the place where the Hessian had been interred, seeing nothing and beginning to feel slightly silly. When they were nearly upon the grave itself, however, a diaphanous form leaped up from out of the ground. The two men stood there silently, paralyzed with fear and awe, watching it as it slowly drew closer. Wagner’s ghostly form appeared to be moving its mouth, as if trying to speak to them, but no words were heard. This was too much for them, and they turned and ran, the other men fleeing in front of them.

As news of their encounter made its way around town, the level of slight unease in Egremont grew to a state almost akin to a panic. People stopped going out after dark altogether, even for prayer meetings. They even began blocking up their doors. Joe Tanner, convinced that there must be a way to rid the town of the ghost, got together some of the heartier of the men in town to discuss the matter. Tanner suggested that perhaps, if they moved the Hessian’s grave to some other location, he would move on with it and leave them alone. There was some uneasiness about the idea of disinterring a corpse, and some concern that they might get in a bit of trouble with the authorities. In the end, though, they decided that is was the best plan anyone could come up with, and preparations for the task were made.

When the night to enact the gruesome bit of business came, the men assembled, and Tanner brought his wagon along to carry the soldier’s coffin. Sentries were posted at both sides of the cemetery to keep an eye out while this secret project was conducted. Wagner had been a rather large man, and so all the remaining men were required to help haul his coffin up from the grave and move it into the wagon. Once completed, they started out in the darkness heading northeast, Joe Tanner and two others in the wagon with the Hessian and the rest on horseback. When they reached the eastern side of Tom Ball Mountain they found they could take the wagon no farther, and Tanner and the other two men left the others with the coffin while they went ahead into the forest to look for a good burial spot.

They didn’t get far before they heard clamorous screaming behind them. Running back to the wagon, they saw a horrible sight: the vapory Hessian was sitting atop his coffin in the back of the wagon. Once again, he appeared to be trying to talk, but no sound came out. The men all around the wagon scrambled down from their horses and took cover, fearing some sort of violent reprisal from the ghost. When they looked over again, he was gone. They leapt to their feet and grabbed the coffin up, heading into the woods with it as quickly as possible. They went a little ways up the eastern base of the mountain to a natural hollow, at which point they grabbed their spades and began digging as fast as their arms would work. When they dug a suitably deep hole, they deposited the coffin inside (carefully, lest they arouse the Hessian’s anger any further). They rode out of there that night, and did not speak of the incident again until sometime after, when the threat of getting into trouble had subsided, and the whole story came out publicly.

In later years it was said that the Hessian had been seen, from time to time, wandering the woods on the side of Tom Ball, and around West Stockbridge, but he was never again seen in Egremont.


Another tale of spectral soldiers dates back to the spring of 1977. Caleb Hudson, who deserted from the Continental Army at the Battle of Breed’s Hill, was on his way to a meeting of Tories at the home of Jared Musgrove in east Lee. Word had it that General Washington was on route to meet up with the colonial troops positioned in Connecticut and eastern New York, where they intended to stop the advance of British troops under General Tyron.

The Berkshire area Tories new that many attempts had been made to kidnap Washington, but none so far had succeeded. Now, another such plot was being hatched. It was decided that to avert suspicion falling on the Connecticut Loyalists nearest to the area, the plan should be handled by Berkshire men, who could slip into the Patriot encampment unrecognized under the auspices of joining up. They could then get close enough to steal away with the Continental commander in the night. Six men were selected from their midst to undertake the operation. Caleb Hudson was among them, much to his chagrin. Caleb, apparently, did not have much of a stomach for real war action on either side, though he was not above joining in on the looting of Patriot farms when the risk of being caught was minimal.

It was decided that each of the six men should ride south separately, so as not to be noticed, and meet up in Ridgefield, Connecticut, from whence they would proceed with their devious mission. So Caleb set out on horseback, and began making his way south. He never made it very far. As he reached south Lee and prepared to cross the Housatonic River, he saw a regiment of continental soldiers on the march. Fearing that they might be looking for recruits and that he might be conscripted into service, he hung back in the brush while they passed by. The troops marched by, hundreds of them, eight abreast, and slowly it dawned upon Caleb that there was something not right. They were making no noise at all. Not a single sound was coming up from any of them.

His horse began rearing and snorting, clearly disturbed. Hudson tried to calm the mare but she was becoming increasingly upset and would not be still. He feared the soldiers would take note, but they never looked up, just proceeded to ford the river silently. Caleb looked on in horror as dozens or rows of pale, deathly still soldiers entered into the river. Not a single soldier came out the other side. They simply vanished.

At this point his horse took off, with him holding on for dear life, and sped off. He rode and rode and did not stop or slow until he reached the South Lee Inn, where, pale-faced and trembling, he told his tale (minus the nature of his journey south) to the bemused bartender there. That was the end of Caleb Hudson’s involvement in the Tory cause.


Coxey, Willard Douglas. Ghosts of Old Berkshire, 1934

Belland, Debra & Frederick Talarico. There's no place like home: a journey through the rich legacy of the Berkshires, 2000


Berkshire Patriots

Berkshire Tories

Monday, June 20, 2005

Over the Edge: Lover's Leap Legends in the Berkshires

Bash Bish Falls

According to legend, Bash Bish Falls, in the extreme southwest corner of Berkshire County, draws its name from the Indian woman Bash-Bish, who lived in a village near the falls. She was well liked because of her good-looks and equally pleasant nature, but her beauty did occasionally provoke jealously from the other squaws. Eventually, this led one of her friends to accuse her of adultery against her husband. Though she protested her innocence, the village elders sentenced her to death. She was strapped to a canoe and set adrift atop the falls. The moment before she tumbled down, a halo appeared around her head, and a ring of butterflies encircled her. Frightened, some of the men went below, where they found pieces of her canoe, but no sign of Bash Bish. They concluded that she must have been a witch.

Years passed, and though stories of the incident were told, it lapsed into the background. Meanwhile, Bash Bish had left a daughter, White Swan, too young to truly remember her mother. As the years passed, White Swan grew even more beautiful than her mother, and became the wife of the chief's son, Wey-au-wey-ya (Whirling Wind). However, despite their best efforts, she remained unable to conceive, and some of the older men whispered among themselves that perhaps this was the gods' punishment to the tribe for their execution of Bash Bish. Perhaps, they thought, it might even be her own witchcraft that cursed her daughter. Reluctantly, Whirling Wind took a second wife, for it was imperative that the chief's son have a son of his own. White Swan grew increasingly despondent at her failure to bear children, eventually ceasing to leave the wigwam at all. One day, Whirling Wind returned to the wigwam to learn from his second wife that White Swan had run off toward the falls. By the time he reached the base of the falls, he saw her standing on the protruding rock platform above.

"Mother, mother," she cried out over the falls, "Mother, take me into your arms." Whirling Wind was then shocked to see the glowing, ethereal figure of a white-robed woman step out of the water beneath, stretching out her arms to White Swan. Panicked, he began clambering up the rocks to the platform. She turned to look at him.

"Wey-au-wey-ya, my brave, my chief," she whispered, and then turned back to the rushing waters. "Mother," she cried, and dropped forward into the waterfall. Crying her name, the brave leaped after her into the water, and was lost. Later, the chief and his men found his son's body, but not White Swan's. Some say that her face, and that of her mother, can sometimes still be seen in the pool below. *

Monument Mountain, standing between Stockbridge and Great Barrington, is best remembered as being the site of the first meeting between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, in 1850. The former, who was then struggling through Moby Dick, and the latter, who had just completed the Scarlet Letter, were accompanied by Oliver Wendell Holmes, who carried along ice and a bottle of champagne in his emptied doctor's bag. Melville later dedicated his masterpiece to his new friend.

Long before that meeting, Monument Mountain was known as the site of yet another native girl's sorrowful leap. A beautiful maiden from the Mahican settlement in Stockbridge fell in love with her warrior cousin, who was forbidden to her by tribal law. She tried in vain to rid herself of these feelings, but they persisted, and she grew more and more unhappy. She began to wither away. The poet William Cullen Bryant**, who based a poem on the legend, describes her spiral:

"She went to weep where no eye saw, and was not found
When all the merry girls were met to dance,
And all the hunters of the tribe were out;
Nor when they gathered from the rustling husk
The shining ear; nor when, by the river's side,
They pulled the grape and startled the wild shades
With sounds of mirth."

Eventually, she could bear no more torment. She dressed herself in her finest jewelry and ornamentation, wove flowers into her hair, and made her way up the mountain, where she climbed up the face of the pillar known as Devil's Pulpit. She waited there until dusk, and then threw herself down the face of the cliff. It is said that her tribe buried her body on the slope of the mountain and marked it with a pile of stones (thus accounting for the cairn which can still be seen there to this day).

At least one version of the story of the native girl Wahconah, from whom the waterfall in Dalton gets its name, ends in a similar manner. Wahconah was a Pequot, part of a group of them who had been driven up from Connecticut. As the story goes, she was at the waterfall when she encountered a Wampanoag named Nessacus, who had made his way west after the death of his chief, Metacomet (this places the story in a more concrete historical context than the previous ones, sometime in 1676). Wahconah gave him lodging with her tribe on behalf of her father Miacomo, the chief, who was off negotiating with the Mohawks on the other side of the Taconic Mountains. Over the course of the next few days, Nessacus and Wahconah became enamored with one another. However, when her father returned, he brought with him the much older Mohawk warrior Yonnongah, to whom he had promised his daughter as wife. Nessacus challenged Yonnongah to a dual to decide who would marry the girl, but Tashmu, the scheming village shaman who favored the Mohawks, argued against this. Tashmu said that he would go that night to Wizard's Glen (an array of rocks with a somewhat dark and mysterious body of lore of its own) with the Mohawk, to ask the spirits which of the suitors they favored. Instead, he went to the brook and with Yonnongah's help dug out one side so that it was much deeper than the other.

In the morning, Tashmu told the tribe that the spirits had said for them to place the girl in a canoe and float it down the river to where the rock divides it. Nessacus and Yonnongah would each stand on one side, and whichever side she passed the rock on would indicate who she should marry. The canoe was then let go a good distance upstream from the rock. Tashmu, of course, had placed the Mohawk on the deeper side. He was therefore shocked to see that the canoe drifted over to the other side, grounding by the feet of Nessacus.*** Enraged that he had been foiled, Tashmu left the tribe and went east, where he betrayed them by guiding Major John Talcott to the valley (-here history once more pokes its head into the legend narrative, for Talcott is known to have pursued a band of Wampanoag into the Berkshires as part of the last major skirmish of King Phillip's War, becoming the first known white man to enter the area).

In most versions, Tashmu was slain, either by Nessacus or by one of the other Pequot warriors, and the tribe moved on west. In one version, however, Nessacus himself was slain in battle. Stricken with grief, Wahconah leaped to her death from the top of the falls.


What lies behind all these legends of love gone wrong, ending in a suicidal lead from a high precipice?

Stories of "Lover's Leaps" are to be found throughout history. The first recorded location of such incidents appears to be a cliff on the southwest side of the Greek island of Leucadia. It was here, some classical sources tell us, that the poet Sappho of Lesbos, and Queen Artemisia of Caria, ended the sorrow of their impossible love by plunging into the sea.

It is a common motif in American Indian lore. Folklorist Jan Brunvand, in his American Folklore: An Encyclopedia defines the Lover's Leap motif: "Typically, two Indian lovers, often from different tribes, are prevented from marrying because of tribal enmity or taboo; in despair or defiance, one or both commit suicide by jumping off a precipice."
In a paper on lover's leap legends, philosophy professor Phil Hoebing points out that there is no single explanation for the existence of such legends. He voices the opinion that many may be products of the western imagination, and that the proximity of high ledges may be one factor, adding in that tourism may help perpetuate the legend, as it makes a romantic addition to tours of scenic sites.

How do we explain the existence of so many such legends concentrated in one small regional area, though? Can we posit that these stories fulfilled some social function, either for the natives who lived there first, or for later European communities? Or do some real events underlie these occurrences, as the historical details in the case of the Wahconah story, and the physical existence of the rock pile at Monument Mountain, might suggest?

In his book Suicide Clusters, Loren Coleman demonstrates how accounts of a suicide, when spread (today by modern media forms, in earlier times by oral tradition), can shape the method by which other suicidal individuals, especially in the same community or neighboring communities, decide to take their lives. Perhaps something of this nature took place in the Berkshire Hills, at some point in the distant past. Perhaps there was a spate of such suicides by jumping, egged on by the contagion effect that seems to be at work in cycles of suicide behavior. It may have had nothing to do with doomed or unrequited love, but with unbearable pressures brought on by the incursion of colonial settlers in the late 17th and early 18th century, and only later been remembered in a few romanticized stories.

We cannot know for sure. All we can do is look up at these lofty places, marveling at the way the hills stand sentinel over the horizon, silently holding on to the secrets of their history.


*There have been a number of accidental deaths at Bash Bish Falls over the years as well. During the 1960's, climbers and swimmers died there at a rate of two or three a year. Swimming is now prohibited, and climbing is allowed only by special permit from the parks department.

** According to yet another local legend, Bryant himself eventually returned to the Berkshires as a ghost.

*** In my favorite twist on this legend, one version claims that after the canoe contest, one of the braves from the tribe found a large twig jutting out of the brook. It occurred to him that it by using such a twig against the mud at the bottom of the brook, it would have been possible for Wahconah to have steered the canoe in whichever direction she chose. He told Miacomo of his suspicions, but the old chief only nodded, smiling.

Selected Sources:

Belland, Debra & Frederick Talarico. There's no place like home: a journey through the rich legacy of the Berkshires, 2000

Brunvand, Jan. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, 1998

Coleman, Loren. Suicide Clusters, 1987

Coxey, Willard Douglas. Ghosts of Old Berkshire, 1934

Hoebing, Phil. Legends of Lover's Leaps, 2001

Bryant, William Cullen, 1794-1878: Poems

-Various other oral and written versions of these three legends.