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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.