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Friday, June 03, 2005

The Old Britton Place

Clapp Park, circa 1945

I've been collecting and tracking down strange tales and bits of lore long enough to have noticed that in searching for reputedly haunted places and spooky stories, one tends to find great laundry lists of the former, accompanied by a significantly shorter quantity of the latter. A great many of the places pointed out to me as being tinged with the mystical are joined by such vague references as "people have seen stuff there" (my subsequent "which people?" "what sort of stuff?" typically being countered with a shrug) or "strange things have gone on there" ("such as?" again, the shrug). Subsequent prodding and research without any more elucidation have lead me conclude that frequently these reputations are built on vapors, and not the ectoplasmic sort, either.

Some of the houses are haunted only by rotting wood and negligible real-estate values, while many demon-infested woods have more to do with Boy Scout campers hopped up on sugar and high school students hopped up on, well, hops- both groups managing to spook themselves silly with joggling flashlights and snapping twigs, than with preternatural manifestations. On occasion, however, these vague allusions are rooted in much older, more complete narratives that may be buried in the cracks of recorded history, virtually forgotten by even the most elder members of a community. Such seems to be the case with the area surrounding Pittsfield's Clapp Park. Some time ago I found, on a list of haunted places provided by the website , a brief fragment sentence describing paranormal activity around the train tracks by Clapp Park. It mentioned that "large white silhouettes have been spotted", and furthermore that "mysterious footsteps and blood-stained, almost ape-like fingerprints frequently occur."

As all of the entries on that particular website are submitted by random internet users, and a great many apparently by adolescents with little or no aptitude at spelling, it would be easy for me to dismiss this, if there did not happen to be a history of reported ghost sightings in that very same location dating back more than a century. In fact, the "large white silhouettes" sound a great deal like those that used to be reported being seen all over this section of West Housatonic Street. According to an 1897 article I found in Pittsfield's Sunday Morning Call, a floating white silhouette was routinely seen by employees returning home at night from the Tillotson mill, which stood around where Osceola Street now runs. This apparition was often seen "dancing in the wind, teetering on the limb of some tree, or retreating mysteriously into the woods."

This ghost was apparently a refugee from what was once Pittsfield's most famous haunted house, Greenwood, or "the old Britton Place." While sources vary on the exact placement, it seems that the house probably stood on the hill on the south side of West Housatonic between Barker Road and what is now Britton Street. It was built shortly before 1850 by Thomas Britton, a retired sea captain, who moved there with his wife Elizabeth and his daughter Martha. Captain Britton named the house "Greenwood," his wife's maiden name. Their occupancy was marked by many festive parties, but was to prove short-lived. One later source mentions the story that a robbery took place there at some point, and some shots were fired, but it is not clear whether or not anyone was killed during this incident. What is clear from census records is that by 1860 Captain Britton was deceased, and his wife had gone on to live a few remaining years with another family. Their daughter may have married and left the state, though it is possible she too may have died before 1860.

In the decades that followed, the house became commonly known as the local haunted house, and according to one source, "hosts of interesting stories" were told about it. After the Brittons, there were no permanent residents in the house. Sometime in the 1880's, it was purchased by Thaddeus Clapp, who owned the Pontoosuc woolen mill. Clapp had the place renovated and occasionally spent summers there with his family. Finally, on April 12, 1890, the house burned to the ground, while the local fire department, unable to secure enough water, tried in vain to check the flames. According to the Pittsfield Sun, the cause of the fire was "a mystery," as the house was unoccupied at the time.

As near as I can tell, no photographs of Greenwood survive, but a partial description may be found in a historic piece of New England literature. A few sources have expressed the opinion that Oliver Wendell Holmes incorporated Greenwood into his description of Hyacinth Cottage in his novel Elsie Venner, a study of a girl whose sociopathic nature is caused by her mother having been bitten by a rattlesnake while she was in the womb. This seems a reasonable claim, as it is commonly thought that nearby South Mountain served as an inspiration for "The Mountain" in Holmes's novel, along with a story about rattlesnakes passed on to him by Professor Alonzo Clark while at Williams College. Certainly Holmes would have known of the Britton house, which was built and occupied during his time in Pittsfield; he may even have attended parties there. In the novel, Hyacinth Cottage was built by one "Major Rowena," recently deceased, as Captain Britton would have been at the time the novel was penned. Holmes describes it as "a pretty place enough, a little too much choked round with bushes, and too much overrun with climbing-roses, which, in the season of slugs and rose-bugs, were apt to show so brown about the leaves and so coleopterous about the flowers, that it might be questioned whether their buds and blossoms made up for these unpleasant animal combinations."

After the house was destroyed, ghostly encounters along West Housatonic Street became even more common. Many a night, it was said, its vaporous silhouette could be seen hovering over the bridge, racing along the train tracks, and finally retreating up to the top of the hill where the house had been. Once on the spot of its former residence, the ghost would set about "teetering up and down silently and uncannily, as if beckoning someone to come that way." Sometimes the manifestations proved so frightening that workers walking down that road at night would be overwhelmed, and run all the way back to the mill.

But what to make of the mention of "blood stained, almost ape-like fingerprints"? This does not appear to be the M.O. of the Britton place ghost at all. This bit of lore may in fact be a fragmented recollection of the dragon "Pitt". Pitt was a float created by General Electric for the 1950 Halloween Parade. As part of a publicity campaign, it was decided to slowly reveal hints of its existence, a press release was sent out claiming that huge claw tracks had been spotted in Clapp Park. This proved unnerving to many, and rather than risk a War of the Worlds -style panic, this approach was abandoned. It seems very possible to me that in the intervening half century, these alleged claw tracks may well have become rumors of bloody, "ape-like" prints.

As for the rest, who knows? Perhaps the same apparition that was seen so frequently a century ago continues to make occasional forays to its favorite spot. Is it Captain Britton, unable to let go of the place he chose to make his retirement home? Or perhaps his widow, returned after death to the place where a pleasant life of social affairs was cut short too soon? Impossible to say for sure, but I would counsel anyone walking down West Housatonic Street at night to keep half an eye out for a glimpse of the ghost of the "old Britton place."


The Pittsfield Sun April 17, 1890

The Sunday Morning Call, November 28, 1897

Holmes, Oliver Wendell. Elsie Venner, 1861

Abbot, Katharine M. Old Paths and Legends of the New England Border Knickerbocker Press, 1907

The Berkshire Eagle, December 10, 1935

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