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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Mystery Cats Keep on Prowling

Local papers called it “The Thing” – but this was no science fiction monster out of a John Carpenter remake. It was a flesh-and-blood animal, and frequent sightings of it roaming the woods caused quite a stir here in the 1940’s. People began talking about it in the fall of 1945, when a Pittsfield woman walking her dogs on Holmes Road, near the Country Club, spotted a creature she couldn’t identify. It frightened her and her dogs, and she later remarked on the incident to someone at the Berkshire Museum.

The Thing reappeared in early January, when Mr. and Mrs. Holden observed it for about a half hour as it prowled the edge of a piece of woodland adjacent to their Holmes Road property. Their description, of a fawn-colored animal about five feet long, with a long tail, matched that of a panther. Their account piqued the curiosity of Berkshire Museum curator Bartlett Hendricks. No arm-chair analyst, Hendricks headed out to the Holden property the day after their story appeared in the Eagle to investigate some tracks left in the snow. The tracks had been obscured by a light drifting of snow the night before, and definite identification was not possible, though they seemed to be of feline origin. Hendricks said that based on the Holdens’ description, the animal could not have been a bobcat because of its long tail, but that it might have been a small panther.

The panther, also known by the names cougar, puma, painter, mountain lion, or catamount (Puma concolor, in current scientific parlance) has long presented a conundrum for naturalists in the Northeast. These felines were hunted aggressively in the first centuries of European settlement, and were considered to be officially extinct in the eastern United States and Canada as of the late 1800s. However, it seems that the cougars themselves may have missed the memo, as they have continued to be spotted in this region on a more-or-less regular basis since then. For instance, though the last Vermont catamount was supposedly bagged in Barnard in 1881 (its stuffed corpse is still on display at the Historical Society in Montpelier), at least a dozen people reported spotting one on Glastenbury Mountain throughout the summer of 1901. One spooked a man in Williamstown in 1899, and yet another was pursued by a hunter in North Pownal in 1926. These are just a smattering of such examples.

For whatever reason, 1946 saw the beginning of a major wave of interest in such encounters locally. A month or so after a series of sightings on Holmes Road, another man spotted The Thing in a tree on lower South Street. In Williamstown, a pair of childhood sweethearts was chased by another cougar- and it must have been one hell of a chase, for they decided to get married promptly after. The Museum sent sketches of the tracks that had been seen, along with samples of hair believed to belong to the mystery animal, to the Museum of Natural History in New York. The zoologist who answered said that the tracks drawn were indeed consistent with those of a mountain lion, but the hair could not be identified with the limited technology of the day.

Interest in The Thing waned slightly for a year or so after that, until it popped up in Dalton in the summer of 1948. The Mather family twice saw it cross their garden on North Street, and Mrs. Harold Olds saw it behind her barn a little ways down the same street. She described it as a “black beast” that frightened her so badly that she could not remember much else about it. This new version of The Thing was seen several times thereafter in Hinsdale, skulking about in the vicinity of Plunkett Lake, and it was blamed for the slaying of a cow in Peru. These 1948 sightings tended to reiterate Mrs. Olds’ description of a “black beast,” which is quite curious.

While the presence of surviving panther populations in the east is still debated, everyone at least acknowledges that such animals did exist -and still do in the west, as well as a few left in Florida. A black panther, on the other hand, has never been proven to exist. What are usually thought of generically as a “black panther” are in fact certain melanistic leopards, native to Africa and Asia. The incidence of melanism in the puma species has never been demonstrated scientifically. A specimen of one such black panther was said to have been killed in Brazil in 1843, but this report was not confirmed, and this may actually have been a jaguar. The trait of melanism tends to run highest among wild felines living in the tropics or sub-tropics, so the presence of such a creature in North America would be remarkable. Nonetheless, sightings of black panthers have occurred, in fairly high numbers, throughout the U.S. and Canada.

New Brunswick biologist Bruce S. Wright looked at reports of black panthers in the 1950s, in the most in-depth study of the Eastern Panther done to date. He first attempted to explain away the impression of their dark coloration in a number of novel ways, but eventually came to conclude that some melanistic individuals do exist, albeit in small numbers. Making matters even more complicated, though, is the fact that black panther reports often are decidedly weirder than those of their tawny brethren, featuring unusual attributes such as highly aggressive behavior and a fascination with automobiles (some have even attacked cars, if the reports in question are reliable). This, in addition to the fact that such sightings come not only from the western hemisphere, but from such places as the U.K. and Australia, where panthers have never been native, has conferred a certain legendary, even paranormal, connotation to these elusive creatures. They have been referred to on occasion as “the UFOs of the cat world.”

Sightings of panthers, of both the standard and black varieties, have continued sporadically in this area ever since. Encounters throughout New England have increased dramatically over the last couple of decades, to the point where there can’t be very much doubt that there are some cougars lurking in the Northeastern forests. Whether they are groups which have migrated back from the West, descendants of escaped or released “pets,” or, perhaps most logically, representatives of an eastern subspecies declared extinct far too prematurely, is a question which remains to be kicked around. One thing seems certain: these “Things” seem to like it here tolerably well, and I for one hope that they keep making appearances.

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.

Friday, November 04, 2005

When Wild Men Roamed the Woods

In the news-speak of earlier days, the term "wild man" was used fairly frequently, and often quite vaguely. I come across it regularly in my perusal of American newspapers from the 18th and 19th centuries, and I have been surprised and perplexed by the variety of categories it is used to cover.

In earlier and less sensitive eras, the term was used more or less interchangeably to refer to any two-legged being that presented any connotation of mystery to the average citizen. On some occasions, the "wild man" label is applied to sightings of hairy, ape-like forest denizens - such as one reported near Williamstown in 1879 - who sound suspiciously like what we now think of collectively as "Bigfoot." Sometimes it was simply an ethnocentric way of referring to anyone of Native American origin. It was also used as a blanket brand applied to any kind of hermit or forest-dwelling man about whom little was known. It is on cases of this final type that I will focus my attention this week.

This type of "wild man" included men from a variety of different backgrounds. Some were destitute and unable to find work, mentally ill, heartbroken or criminals on the lamb. Some were simply taciturn old men who preferred the seclusion of caves and wooded hill-country to the company of others and the trappings of society. All were wanderers and loners who lived outside both the tangible and abstract boundaries of civilization, and as such they were figures of mystery and intrigue.

The first recorded "wild man" in this area of which I am aware is a curious character who roamed the woods around Bennington, Vt., in the spring of 1867. For several weeks he was reported seen often around the outskirts of town, usually up to no good. It was said that during the day he holed up in a lair he had staked out in the forest, roaming around only at night. He had a nasty habit of following women walking around town, and of peeking in the windows of houses. He had also, it was rumored, exposed himself on the few occasions when someone accidentally came across his wooded hiding place. It was thought that he was some kind of escaped lunatic, and the entire town appeared to be terrified of him. The wild man kept three pistols in his belt and carried with him a menacing looking dagger, and he was described as being very ugly to look at. The Bennington Banner spoke of the situation in a very dramatic way, saying that "a reign of terror has been inaugurated among our female population," and that "authorities should at once take measures to hunt out the fellow." Hunt him out they did. A posse confronted him at his "lair," and sent him packing.

If an old article in the Fitchburg Daily Sentinel is to be believed, an even stranger character took up residence in the Berkshires in 1899. Squire N.L. Harris discovered the bizarre stranger living in a hillside cave at Mount Washington, after noticing smoke pouring out from it. The Sentinel called him "the strangest bit of humanity seen hereabouts," describing a withered man no more than 4 feet tall, covered in hair and dressed in rags. He had apparently been living on the flesh of birds, lizards and whatever else he could catch manually; the mouth of the cave was littered with small bones and feathers. When Harris finally confronted the man to find out who he was, it became apparent that the man spoke only in some unfamiliar language. Nonetheless, the Squire managed to deduce, by some means not explained, that the "cave man" hailed from somewhere in South America.

The most famous wild man to ever traverse the wilder portions of the Berkshires was the "Old Leather Man." Old Leather Man was a wandering recluse who for more than 20 years walked a circuitous route from western Connecticut to eastern New York with forays into Berkshire County, and possibly even as far north as Canada on occasion. A quiet man of obvious French origins, he wore an outfit comprised completely of roughly-sewn leather patches. In the first few years after he appeared in Connecticut in the early 1860s, he was an object of fear and suspicion. Mothers would even discipline their unruly children with the threat that "old Leathery" would come for them if they did not behave. As time passed, though, he became a celebrated eccentric. People would run to the road when he was making his way through town to get a glimpse of him, or to bring him food or tobacco. His passage and the mystery of his identity were subjects of intrigue and debate, and over the years he became a legend throughout the northeast, occasionally making headlines in newspapers as far away as California.

Some believe his name was Jules Bourglay, a Frenchman who came to the United States after losing his fortune in the leather business, and along with it his chances to marry the woman he loved. This back-story, however, has been exposed as a newspaper hoax. According to Connecticut historian and Leather Man researcher Dan W. Deluca, this fictional account of his origins was first presented in the Waterbury Daily American, a few years before his death. The story was later retracted, but by then the yarn had been picked up by so many other papers that it was difficult to dislodge. His true identity remains a mystery to this day. What is known for sure is that he passed away in Mount Pleasant, N.Y., in 1889, where his headstone bears the fictional moniker. His story - both the real and fictional parts - have inspired a number of depictions since, such as the song "Leatherman" by the rock band Pearl Jam.

The last reported "wild man" in these parts seems to have been in 1942, when Pittsfield residents began complaining of a strange man living in the woods near Pontoosuc Lake. Rumors of a man dressed only in a blanket and carrying a knife circulated throughout the fall. There were reports of houses broken into, and theft of food and various other items. The mystery was laid bare in late November when a state police officer spotted the man, and, after a brief scuffle, arrested him. Upon examination, it became clear that the "wild man" was a young Pittsfield man who had gone AWOL from the army base in Falmouth.

So ended the age of the "wild man," at least in this region. These men, and the reactions they drew from those living in the "civilized" world which they skirted, are an interesting slice of history. They were characters whose lives were shrouded in mystery; because of that, most elicited fear, especially in small communities where people knew a lot about their neighbors. Some, like Old Leather Man, became local legends. Today we would most likely say that such people had "slipped through the cracks" - and, while such cracks still exist, perhaps the fact that we at least acknowledge the presence of cracks in society is progress, of a sort.