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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.

1 comment:

Matty said...

Insanity!! What a week!!! Good article