Bizarre Berkshires: tales spooky and otherwise
By Joe Durwin
The Advocate Weekly- October, 27 2004
Most residents of Berkshire County know that nestled in the scenic wooded hills of Western Massachusetts is an area heavily steeped in history and culture.
But it should also perhaps not come as too much of a surprise that a place that has been host to such wild imaginations as those of Herman Melville, Edith Wharton and even Nathaniel Hawthorne should also be quite rich in odd stories, anomalies, and downright bizarre lore. Some of it goes back centuries; other tales have surfaced quite recently.
In the early days of our nation, the town of Cheshire was well known for its delicious cheese. So when Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800, Elder John Leland, pastor of Cheshire’s Baptist Church and a passionate supporter of Jefferson’s anti-Federalist politics, proposed to the people of Cheshire that a massive wheel of cheese be made to send to the new president as a gift. Leland found considerable local support for this idea, and farmers donated an impressive yield to the effort, resulting finally in a wheel estimated to be roughly 900 pounds.
The cheese was stored at the cider mill of one Captain Brown, in preparation for shipping. Now, at the same time, according to legend, there lived on Mount Greylock an old Indian medicine man by the name of Hokaposset. This old shaman was viewed with much trepidation by locals, who attributed vast powers to him, including the power to kill a stag merely by pointing a rifle at it and to cause mysterious deaths to befall his enemies. The old native sorcerer, as the story goes, had but one living relative, his granddaughter, Shonoma, also known as “Humming Bird.” Humming Bird was much in love with, and loved by, a local boy by the name of Ichabod Rannolds. But Pastor Leland advised the boy’s mother to forbid the match.
When Ichabod, a dutiful son, broke the bad news to Humming Bird, she became furious. She warned him of her grandfather’s powers and that he would cause suffering to those who caused pain to his only granddaughter. Ichabod did not relent, and the next day, Pastor Leland was shocked when one of his deacons brought him some bad news from Captain Brown — the entire cheese wheel had disappeared! Ichabod, suspecting the culprit to be the old shaman, went with some other men to the mountain to confront him, but when they arrived, Humming Bird said her grandfather was very ill and was indeed near death. She begged him to leave and let him die in peace. Hokaposset, who was indeed quite sick, died that very night. That morning, when Captain Brown opened the door of his cider mill, he was shocked to see that the cheese wheel, completely intact, had mysteriously reappeared!
While that story is more than a little amusing, more sinister “vanishings” have occasionally been known to happen in the area. In fact, Charles Fort, perhaps the most famous of all chroniclers of strange happenings, makes note of one such strange disappearance in, or over, the Berkshire Hills. According to a story in The New York Times, a pilot by the name of Captain Mansell R. James, took off from Lee on May 29, on route to Mitchel Field in Long Island, and was not seen again. Search parties scoured the area, and later, on the 4th of June, Army planes arrived to continue the search. Despite these and other efforts, not to mention much media attention, no trace was ever found of Captain James.
But the Berkshires have not only been the scene of strange disappearances; occasionally, things appear that ought not. A notable example is Pittsfield’s “ghost train,” which was seen by a number of persons at the Bridge Lunch diner, including its owner, John Quirk, one afternoon in February 1958. The train, as described by every person present that day, consisted of a steam locomotive and half a dozen cars, speeding down the tracks under North Street Bridge toward Boston. A month later, the train was seen again by every customer during a busy breakfast at the Bridge Lunch. Again the description was consistent from all witnesses: a steam engine with several cars, which appeared solid and clear as day. Railway officials maintained that no steam train had traveled those tracks in years, and when the train was sighted yet again, the railroad firmly stated that no train whatsoever was using those tracks at the time.
Another example of objects appearing apparently “out of nowhere,” can be found in reports of strange goings-on in the vicinity of Sage’s Ravine in Sheffield. At the time, Simeon Sage owned a garment manufacturing shop on his property, and it was here that, according to historical accounts, a series of bombardments that might today be called a “poltergeist,” occurred.
On the night of Nov. 8, 1802, as the accounts have it, an old man and two boys were in the shop. Shortly after 10 p.m., with the boys already in bed and the old man himself preparing to retire for the night, they were suddenly all given a jolt as a large chunk of wood crashed through the window. Pieces of mortar followed it. Terrified, they ran to get Mr. Sage. When he arrived on the scene, various objects continued to crash against the building. Sage could see the windows breaking, but try as he might, he could not discern where the objects were coming from. Then suddenly, the hail of miscellaneous missiles ceased. But about 8 the next night, it promptly started up again and continued on until midnight, when it again stopped abruptly. This strange bombardment occurred again the next night. While all three nights the torrent of objects occurred after dark, on the fourth day it began an hour before sunset. It continued for an hour in broad daylight, but even as those present searched the area around the building, they still could not find the source. Then, after an hour, it stopped once again — but this time it began again, almost immediately, at the Landon house, a quarter of a mile away on the Sheffield-Washington line. Rocks pelted the house for hours before abating, only to begin again around breakfast time the next morning.
By this time, word had spread of these events, and a steady stream of onlookers began showing up, including clergymen. None could discern the source of the mischief. Though many witnesses were themselves pelted with objects, some in broad daylight, all swore that they could not see the objects or their trajectory until after they struck. The possibility of a single assailant handy with a slingshot seemed to be eliminated, since the shower of refuse sometimes struck the buildings from several directions at once. The Sage place was hit with a variety of ammunition, including pieces of wood, stones, charcoal and a strange kind of mortar that did not resemble any to be found in the neighborhood. The Landon house was bombarded only by stones.
The phenomenon continued through the night of November 13, then ended for good. In total, 38 panes of glass were destroyed at the Sage’s and 13 at the Landon’s. No culprit was ever determined.
Those are not the only mysterious objects that have been reported whizzing through the Berkshire skies. I have collected no less than 10 reports of UFOs sighted throughout the county, over a period that spans from 1908 to 2003. In the interest of brevity, I will only share a couple: In 1981, a Pittsfield man was walking his dog when he suddenly felt a strange sensation pass over him. Looking up at the night sky, he saw the stars blacked out by a very large triangular object. Orange light glowed from beneath it. He described this sighting as having a strange effect on him. Rather than panicking or even thinking of it as odd, he felt very calm and simply pulled his dog’s leash and continued walking. Only later did the strange nature of the experience occur to him.
In another, more recent case, four witnesses in Becket reported seeing three disc-shaped objects with flashing white and red lights over Greenwater Pond. They were hovering and chasing each other across the pond and continued doing so for nearly 45 minutes before disappearing.
For some reason, sightings such as this frequently take place on or around mountains. Both Mount Greylock and October Mountain have yielded reports of strange aerial objects, but I will save those for another time, for both of these mountains have also been the scene of even more interesting sightings of the bizarre. In August 1983, The Berkshire Eagle reported on such a case. Two Pittsfield men, Eric Durant, and Frederick Parody, told reporters they had been recreating near Camp Eagle, a former Boy Scout retreat, when they saw a strange creature in the woods. The two men first spotted it in the moonlight when they heard noises not far from their campsite and went to investigate. Later, as they were leaving, they caught a glimpse of it in their headlights, lurking behind some bushes. What they described was a dark brown, hairy creature, which stood erect about 6 or 7 feet tall. They also claimed it had glowing red eyes, but this could have been due to the reflection of the headlights. What the Eagle did not know, however, was that an adult leader of a local Boy Scout troop told me that he and one of the Scouts also caught a brief glimpse of a similar creature while hiking on October Mountain that same weekend. He remembered that it was the same weekend because of the media attention brought on by the other two men’s sighting. Another person made a report of a similar hairy biped seen near the top of this same mountain to the Bigfoot Field Research Organization. This creature, which the informant claimed to have seen in the summer of 1989, appeared to be carrying and stacking stones in the brush.
I have heard more than half a dozen reputable verbal accounts of similar sightings from wooded areas all over the Berkshires — and, if that doesn’t satisfy you that an unknown creature haunts our forests, I’ve heard dozens more dis-reputable accounts! Nor is this a recent development. In fact, a piece in the New York Times dated Oct. 18, 1879, reported a “Wild Man” about 5 feet tall, covered in hair, seen by two young Vermont men hunting “in the mountains south of Williamstown.” The men were so frightened, the Times reported, that they dropped their guns and ammunition in their hasty retreat and never dared to go back for them.
Mount Greylock, it seems, may be home to an even more esoteric entity. He is known as the “Old Coot,” and is sometimes seen wandering up the mountain near the trail that runs through the Bellows Pipe area. As the story goes, the ‘Coot’ is the astral remnant (or should I say revenant?) of a man named Bill Saunders, who lived in Adams nearly a century and a half ago. Saunders left his wife and child to fight in the Union Army. A year later, his wife received word that he had been badly wounded and was in a field hospital. When, after many months passed, she heard nothing more of him, she assumed him to be lost. She hired a local man to help work the farm. Eventually they married. Then, after the war had ended, Saunders returned, only to find another man had taken his place. Devastated, he spent the rest of his life living as a hermit in a small shack in Bellows Pipe. Many years later, hunters discovered him dead in his cabin but were mystified to see a strange man-shaped shadow dart out of the shack and into the woods, heading up the mountain. Ever since, hunters and hikers have reported seeing a shadowy, bedraggled form walking through the woods up Mount Greylock.
Twice, the North Adams Transcript has published photographs alleged to be of the “Coot,” one by Randy Trabold, in 1939, the second by Richard Lodge in 1979. The Lodge photograph seems to depict a tall, dark, man-like form walking through the woods with his head hung low. Was this the ghost of Bill Saunders?
The Berkshires can also boast a few more high-profile manifestations. Indeed, specters are said to haunt two of the county’s most prominent cultural tourist locations. In Lenox, it is said that Edith Wharton still inhabits the The Mount, the beautiful Estate she had built in 1902. Visitors sometimes tell of strange noises, including the laughter of a woman, thought to be Wharton herself. Shakespeare & Company, the esteemed theater troupe for whom The Mount is home, frequently reports footsteps made by invisible feet and the appearance of various apparitions, including Henry James, who is thought to keep his friend Wharton company there. Elsewhere in Lenox, a ghostly occupant is said to inhabit the Highwood Manor House on the scenic grounds of Tanglewood. It is thought that this spirit may be the shade of Oreb Andrews, who died on the grounds in 1822 and was awakened in 1986, when workmen disturbed a memorial marker. Doors opening and closing and water faucets turning themselves on and off are among the unexplained activities attributed to this restless soul. Some have speculated that it was perhaps this being that appeared in front of Leonard Bernstein, prompting him to leap from a window seat in shock. John Williams even joined a band of ghost hunters to pursue this personage, if such a word applies, but they were unable to catch a glimpse of their quarry. Odd occurrences, though infrequent, continue to this day.
Perhaps most disturbing are the reports that have reached this writer regarding Springside Park and the surrounding area. Many Pittsfield locals will recall the grisly rashes of “vandalism” — as the Eagle euphemistically put it — which took place at the petting zoo in the ’70s and ’80s, in which a number of animals were mutilated and killed, finally leading to its closing in 1984. But few recall that, in the late 19th century, the dismembered torso of a human corpse was found not far from the Springside House, then called the Elmhurst House. The body was never identified and the killer never apprehended, but the crime may have left some lasting residue on the area. A local woman of exceedingly solid character shared with me the story of how, some decades ago, she and her boyfriend were walking down the circular drive of Springside House when what they then thought to be an uprooted tree stump suddenly began lumbering toward them. Later, when they heard of the murder, they speculated that it might actually have been the hands and feet of the unfortunate victim. And reports have continued to trickle in over the years of a horrific floating head, which has been seen by many residents of the west side of North Street, across the street from the Springside house. “The Head,” as it is often called, is usually described as a ghastly skull with bits of decomposed skin still clinging to it. It is interesting to note that these houses stand on land that was once a landfill.
These are but a smattering of some of my favorite tales of the bizarre originating in the Berkshires. There are many more, including the oft-repeated story of Hoosac Tunnel’s “Bloody Pit,” the tragic Indian lovers who are sometime seen canoeing across Pontoosuck Lake, the menacing apparition said to inhabit the Eagle building, the grim Chauffeur who haunts the old Houghton Mansion in North Adams, a spectral woman who wanders Hinsdale’s Walsh Camp, Egremont’s undead Hessian soldier, bizarre happenings in Lenox’s High Point and many, many others. It is said that some areas produce more than their fair share of paranormal encounters, and Berkshire County certainly seems to be one such place. Whether it is due to some kind of eldritch magic, misunderstood electromagnetic phenomena or simply a kind of geographical favoritism on the part of supernatural creatures, these legends, like the beings they portray, are likely to live on evermore — in our hearts and in our cultural heritage.