[A version of this article appeared in The Advocate Weekly]
In the past I have penned pieces on ghosts, psychics, and strange happenings in Berkshire County's history. Now I have the opportunity to announce a local event in the near future which comprises all of these elements: the Berkshire Paranormal Conference. The first of its kind, this conference and seminar is set to take place in North Adams at the Lafayette Greylock Masonic Lodge- also known as the Houghton Mansion- on July 15, 16 & 17.
Organized by the New England Ghost Project, based in Dracut, the conference promises to be quite an interesting affair including an array of lectures and activities. Speakers will include Rhode Island folklorist Michael Bell, whose book Food for the Dead, a study of New England vampire traditions, is one of my personal favorites; Jeff Belanger, author of The World's Most Haunted Places; and Karen Mossey, whose work in the area of Electronic Voice Phenomenon was featured in the recent film White Noise- just to name a couple. Conference attendees will also view a screening of the film The Bell Witch Haunting, based on one of the most famous American hauntings ever recorded. Activities will also deal directly with the strange goings on reported in the mansion itself, with tours of the facility and even a midnight seance conducted by Sean Portier of The Salem Witches. Two meals, a buffet at Steeples restaurant and a Sunday brunch at the mansion, are also included in the conference fees.
A bit of background is probably in order here. The Houghton Mansion was once the home of North Adam's first mayor, Albert C. Houston, and his family. Their life there was marred by tragedy early on, when Laura, one of their five daughters, died of a childhood illness. Then, on August 1, 1911, Albert Houghton and his daughter Mary, along with Mary's friend Sybil Hutton (a niece of North Adam's second mayor, H. Torrey Cady), set out to spend the day in Bennington. They were driven by John Widders, a servant who had been with the family since the 1870's. While climbing Pownal Center Hill, Widders had to pull around a stone sled being pulled by a team of horses. As he did so, the shoulder of the road gave out, and the car tumbled down the hill. Mary Houghton and Sybil Hutton were killed. Albert Houghton was brought home and treated for what were thought to be minor injuries, but passed on a few days late, on August 11. John Widders was unhurt but extremely emotional. The night Albert died, Widders excused himself, saying he was going to tend to the horses. He never returned. He was found in the cellar of the barn, having shot himself in the head with a horse pistol. Albert Houghton's widow lived out seven more sad and lonely years in the house, perishing in 1918.
It is thought by some that when events of sufficient tragedy occur, something may be left behind to linger around the place where such suffering took place. Whether this something is in fact some part of the spiritual essence of the deceased parties or some sort of "place memory" not yet explained by science, if such a thing is possible then the Houghton Mansion must surely be a candidate. Ever since the Masons acquired the property in 1920, there have been rumors of strange happenings in the building. According to David J. Pitkin's Ghosts of the Northeast, in 1993 three maintenance workers were taking a lunch break on the second floor when they heard heavy footsteps on the stairs. When they went to see who it was, there was no one there. They searched downstairs but there was no one else in the building. Apparently, this is not a unique occurrence, but has been reported a number of times over the years. Another strange event was reported by an accountant named Robin in 1994, who was working late in the building after a Masonic carnival fundraiser. A blast of icy air hit him and at that moment he felt someone pass behind him; but there was no one there.
Others have told of a range of unexplained phenomena, including loud banging on doors and walls, inexplicable cold spots in certain rooms, and intermittent problems using cell phones. The basement and the third floor seem to be particular trouble spots; strange voices have been heard in both areas. Some have reported seeing a light on from outside in an area on the third floor which has no working light, and of seeing someone through the window there when no one was in the building. The third floor, it should be noted, is where the servant's bedrooms were once located, and where John Widders would have slept throughout his time there.
I personally had an experience in the Houghton Mansion some years back which, while not supernatural, was utterly chilling, if only for the briefest of moments. After a rehearsal dinner there for my brother's wedding, myself and a couple of my brothers went to get a look at the rest of the building. Being seventeen at the time, with my head full of absurd anti-Masonic notions gleaned from dubious conspiracy theory books, my nerves were already slightly excited. Upon opening up one door, I let out a little gasp as my eyes beheld a variety of horrors, including what appeared to be an electric chair and assorted human body parts. After only a second or so my eyes focused properly and I realized I was looking at plastic props from some sort of Halloween party or "Haunted House" event.
In 2004, investigations of a less comic sort than mine were undertaken both by the New England Ghost Project and by Isis Paranormal Investigations, based in upstate New York. During the first investigation, wild temperature variations from within and without a perceived "cold spot", and unusual readings on a device for gauging electro-magnetic fluctuations were observed. As I have no real experience with this type of "ghost-hunting", and having not been present, I cannot comment on the reliability of these findings, but pass them along for what they are worth.
I can say that the Houghton Mansion, which has been called one of the Berkshire's "five most haunted places", seems a very appropriate venue for an event like this conference. Those interested should act quickly; conference registration is still open at this time, but is expected to fill up rapidly as July approaches.
For rates, and more information about planned speakers and activities, go to: www.neghostproject.nstemp.com/catalog.html
Ghosts of the Northeast, by David J. Pitkin