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Monday, March 27, 2006

Armageddon Wraps up Early at the Hancock Shaker Village




This region is full of biblically epic sounding sites, many of which don't appear on any standard map. Spots like Devil's Pulpit, North Adam's Witch's Cave, New Marlboro's Gomorrah and its companion Sodom just over in Connecticut (as well as a separate 'Sodom' in Tyringham).

Most of these places have their own little bit of lore attached to them, but perhaps none are the focus of a yarn as epically Biblical as that surrounding Mount Sinai, on the grounds of the Hancock Shaker Village. Named for the mountain where Moses laid down the law(s) for the Israelites, later the site of a monastery built where the remains of St. Catherine of Alexandria were said to have been miraculously transported, this Berkshire hill was alleged to be the site of a grand, apocalyptic confrontation between religious fervor and preternatural evil.

As the story goes, it was a time of distress and difficulty for the Shakers; sin and the temptations of a lustful world had severely tested the devout people of the community. Some local boys had recently been caught playing with the "Devil's cards" [likely regular playing cards]. From other sister communities came news of affairs and elopements between formerly devout Sisters and the most degenerate unbelievers. In the Hancock village meetinghouse, Elder Gabriel Patton harangued the community, bellowing fire and brimstone, with constant, thunderous warnings to be vigil against the influence of the Devil, who seemed to be encroaching on all sides.


Now, there was among them one Sister Martha Tomlinson, a young woman who had come to the community from the eastern part of the state, who had previously lost both her husband and young child to disease. When she had first accepted the Shaker life, she had seemed contented enough, but now a dark state of depression overtook her frequently, often keeping her weeping throughout the night. In the daylight hours, Sister Martha had become increasingly aloof, and apparently ambivalent to the Shaker beliefs. This had come to the attention of some of the other Sisters, and to a lesser extent the Elders as well. Meanwhile, however, Elder Patton had become convinced of the presence of Satan concentrating atop the hill they called Mount Sinai - and, more importantly, convinced of his vulnerability. Sinai, Patton told the others, would be the site where the faithful of the community would defeat the Evil One once and for all; he implored them to steel themselves for the Final Battle.



When the day that had been set for the campaign arrived, Sister Tomlinson became violently ill, and remained in her bed, weak and feverish. All the others gathered, though, every able-bodied man and woman in the community. They rallied in the meetinghouse, where the Elders fitted each of them with a suit of invisible armor, describing its virtues and its powers to shield the faithful from Satan's power. Thus befitted with breastplates of righteousness and the helmets of salvation, they prepared to make war, Ephesians 6:10-17 style. They set out in the early morning darkness, each carrying a Bible in their hands. They advanced on the enemy on the hill in a wide ring, singing hymns and holding out their invisible swords of the Spirit. They advanced nearly shoulder to shoulder; there was not single weak point in their line, and they swiftly began narrowing the circle around the Unspeakable One. He remained invisible, but as they drew the noose tighter and tighter, a malodorous stench filled the air. The Believers recognized the stink: it was the smell of sulfur, of brimstone. Finally the ring of the fellowship became so taut that they were looking into each other's eyes across its center, a massive racket was ensuing in between, sounds of choking growls, rasping curses and a hissing like that of a thousand writhing snakes. Patton roared out to them to advance still further, to leave no escape for suffocated demon. Then, with "one long cry of hatred and baffled anger," the Lord of Darkness expired.

There are a variety of epilogues appended to various versions of this legend. In several tellings, the successful Shakers return to find that Martha Tomlinson has ended her own life, apparently as a last victim of the Devil's wily and desperate tempting. In one version, the flock repairs to the meetinghouse for an ecstatic bout of dancing worship, in which the apparition of John the Baptist comes among them as a blessing. Of course, I prefer the versions that end with a warning: for even though, allegedly, the Prince of Lies himself was vanquished, many of his demonic imps lurk the world still. Furthermore, on some dark and foreboding nights, they may appear at Mount Sinai to pay their respects, and perhaps wreak some bit of vengeful mischief.




As for its historical basis, well. there were Shakers at Shaker Village, but that may be about the extent of the corroboration possible. Frequently, a legend with so many named persons, consistent in version after version, offers some promise for further research but in this case proved a dead end. According to Jerry Grant, Director of Research at the Shaker Museum and Library in Chatham, N.Y., neither Tomlinson nor Patton appears in the list of known Shakers.

"The Sister it may have been possible to miss by the record keepers, but I don't think they would have missed an Elder in the records," Grant explained.
It is quite probable the story may not even have originated with the Shakers, but with neighboring tale-tellers in the area. It was fairly well-traveled by the late-19th century, and may have first appeared in a mid-century newspaper article. Its ultimate origin is murky, but it smacks of fireside fiction. Which is fine by me, I'd rather not contemplate the literal reality of wandering demons in Hancock, especially considering the fact the Imps of Hell rarely turn out to be the sort of eloquent, irreproachably fashion-savvy types seen in the "Hellraiser" movies. Still, it's an irresistible yarn, as far as I'm concerned, and there's plenty more meat to the story, too ponderous to include here. I recommend the interested reader to my favorite treatment, in Willard Douglas Coxey's 1936 "Ghosts of Old Berkshire." The true underlying sweep of the story may be that of a young woman's struggle with depression and loss and her gradual embitterment against the Shaker way of life, with its repression of all passion, all intimacy, all form of personal existence. I picture a period piece boasting Charlize Theron opposite Anthony Hopkins' Elder Patton, all on location, with more exotic dance sequences than "Moulin Rouge" - real Oscar vehicular momentum. But that's another story altogether.


Sources:

Coxey, Willard Douglas. Ghosts of Old Berkshire, 1936

Skinner, Charles M. Myths and Legends of our own Land, 1898

“Our Berkshires: Calling all ghosts.” Berkshire Evening Eagle Oct 27, 1944

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