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Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Mount's Literary Phantasmagoria

Advocate Weekly
Thursday, April 20

"Sources," Edith Wharton once wrote, ".are not one what one needs in judging a ghost story. The good ones bring their own internal proof of their own ghostliness; and no other evidence is needed."

A troublesome remark for me, certainly, as a significant amount of my time is spent seeking out the sources of ghost stories, and judging them thereby. In her own case, however, her observation proves apt enough: the stories of paranormal events coming out of her Lenox home the last few decades do have a sort of inarguable internal logic.

The Mount was built between 1900 and 1902, on a 130 acre tract of Lenox land Wharton purchased for just over $40,000. She based the mansion in large part on Belton House, in Lincolnshire, England, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. The architecture was handled by the firm Hoppin & Koen (not, as is frequently stated, her friend and literary collaborator Ogden Codman, whom she replaced after initial planning for being too expensive), but the lion's share of the credit goes to Wharton herself, whose instructions the architects merely followed to the letter. The house she outlined reflected the sensibilities she had put forth in her own book on the subject, "The Decoration of Houses." She could be said to be an advocate of minimalism - at least by the "never-say-when" standards of the Gilded Age - nonetheless, the expense of the project was extreme. Despite Wharton's substantial wealth, the final touches had to wait until 1905 brought a much needed injection of cash, in the form of "House of Mirth" royalties.

Wharton called The Mount her "first real home," and considered it an ideal environment for writing, which she worked on each morning sitting up in bed, saying that she preferred to keep the practice of her craft from interfering with her other obligations. In the decade that she kept residence at her sprawling estate along Laurel Lake, Wharton completed some of her finest work. In particular, a fair majority of the events and characters in "Ethan Frome," including Frome himself, were directly drawn from local inspiration. While living there with her husband, Edward (Teddy) Wharton - a wealthy socialite born into the same circles as Edith (maiden name Jones, the family referred to in the once popular catch-phrase "keeping up with the Joneses") - she frequently entertained as guests many luminaries of the literary and intellectual world, including Richard Watson Gilder, Howard Sturgis, Clyde Fitch and Henry James.

Wharton sold the property in 1912, as her marriage to Teddy (described by some contemporaries as "charming but dim"), was dissolving. She never returned. It was remarked that in the end Wharton found Paris to be her true "spiritual home." While this may be true, it was The Mount, above and beyond any other location, which in later years would come to be thought of as her spectral home. The property has changed hands half a dozen times since then, but Wharton's presence, both historical and otherwise, has left a palpable and seemingly unshakable mark on the estate.

The Mount came for a time under the ownership of Carr van Anda, managing editor of the New York Times, who in 1943 sold it to Foxhollow School, which had purchased the former Vanderbilt estate adjacent to it a few years earlier. For about 30 years, The Mount served as a dormitory for the girls' preparatory school, and it is during this period that the first rumors of a ghostly presence began circulating. "There were lots of stories," said one former student. " Of course, girls' boarding schools will be girls boarding schools."

Dorothy Carpenter, another alumna of Foxhollow, reported the following: "People use to talk about it all the time.... Every time we'd hear a creak, we'd say it was Edith Wharton's ghost, but nobody really thought it was." Carpenter's perspective on the stories changed, however, when she returned to the house in the early '70s. The house had fallen into disuse by then, and Carpenter spent two months living there alone while she worked on restoration of the ballroom ceiling. One day, she was staring off absently out the window, when she saw a woman in period clothing walking across the terrace. She recognized her instantly from pictures she'd seen, but the version she was looking at now seemed far more vivid, more "alive" than any representation. "At the time, I thought maybe I'd been inhaling too much plaster dust."

As most locals know, in the late '70s The Mount was acquired by the legendary theatre troupe Shakespeare & Company, who occupied the site for more than 20 years. During this period, apparitions and spectral tableaus were reportedly witnessed by some of the brightest luminaries of the regional theater world. Dennis Krausnick, a former Jesuit priest turned actor and director, was one of the first people to enter the building. He reported that while he was working alone in the house, he heard footsteps constantly, but could find no one in the house upon searching. Josephine Abady, former head of the Hampshire College theater department and artistic director for Berkshire Theater Festival, described to one writer how she saw an apparition of Wharton several times while on the premises, and was haunted constantly by a rustling sound not unlike the swishing of a someone in a long dress walking by. On at least one occasion, she saw the Wharton figure in the company of a man who looked very much like Henry James, not knowing at the time that James had been a favorite house guest there.

This same male ghost was reported by none other than Shakespeare & Company founder Tina Packer, perhaps tellingly in the "Henry James Bedroom." Another actress, Andrea Haring, described a supernatural scene of both the Whartons, as well as James, all apparently engaged in conversation. The sheer appropriateness of the idea of The Mount being haunted by both Wharton and James cannot be overstated. Among her other literary accomplishments, Wharton is generally held in high regard as one of the finest American purveyors of the ghost story, who cared passionately about the subject and brought many novel touches to the genre. As for Henry James, well, I won't gush, but "Turn of the Screw" is quite simply, in my opinion, among only two or three other pieces of writing committed to paper contending for the title of greatest horror story ever.

With such a foundation - combined with the building's reincarnations as first a prep school, then theatrical mecca, both highly charged, creative environments - perhaps ghostly sightings were inevitable. Maybe Wharton really was right about ghost stories, after all.


Berkshire Evening Eagle, May 20, 1943

Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise May 30, 2002

Myers, Arthur. The Ghostly Register (Contemporary, 1986)

Ogden, Tom. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Ghosts & Hauntings (Alpha Books, 2004)

Owens, Carole. The Berkshire Cottages: A Vanishing Era (Cottage Press, 1994)

Joe Durwin is a freelance writer and one possible answer to the question "Who ya gonna call?" Send comments or reports of the strange to

Saturday, April 15, 2006

MCLA course project has students researching unexplained phenomena

By Jennifer Huberdeau, North Adams Transcript
April 14, 2006

MCLA junior George Inman delved into the subculture phenomenon of vampirism — both the psychic- and blood-feeding kind. Photo by Paul Guillotte/North Adams Transcript

NORTH ADAMS — Floating lanterns, wandering lights, strange winds and eerie voices calling from within the Hoosac Tunnel are staple legends surrounding the infamous portal. The validity of claims about the haunting of the tunnel was one of many subjects explored in a "Skeptic Fair" at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
"I'm still 50/50 on my findings. It think part of it is fabricated because of the history of the tunnel. There are things I can't explain, but I believe a large part of it is psychological. You get an eerie feeling at the tunnel, but it is dark, damp and cold inside the tunnel," said Julia Kowalski, a senior from South Bridge.

Students in psychology professor Thomas Byrne's class, the "Psychology of Superstition and the Unexplained," presented their findings on topics ranging from alien abductions and crop circles to the practices of Reiki and chiropracty.

"The basic idea was for my students to examine why or why not people believe these things and to examine their own belief systems. They were given a lot of leeway to choose their topic, I only asked they go into the project with an open mind — without preconceived opinions," Byrnes said. "They were asked to investigate their topic, find evidence and decide if the claims were true or false."

Kowalski said her initial idea was to investigate the infamous crop circles, but on a suggestion of a friend, decided to look at the Hoosac Tunnel because of her ability to gain "hands-on" evidence.

"I actually brought a tape recorder into the tunnel. I went into the tunnel about 2,500 feet," she said. Kowalski was trying to recreate a similar experiment done by college students during the early 1980s. That experiment captured what some people would call electronic voice phenomena or "muffled voices."

"I didn't have any muffled voices, just those of my friends and myself. I think one explanation for the muffled voices could be contributed to echoes in the tunnel," Kowalski said. She said other things like wandering lights could possibly be train lights.

"Your head plays tricks on you especially when you're in a place that's underground and is dark, damp and cold. The temperature is about 15 degrees colder in the tunnel, so any burst of air from the tunnel is cold and could contribute for the strange winds people encounter," she said.

One tale she found was about a hunter, Frank Webster, who disappeared near the tunnel in 1874. Webster was found days later, beaten and without his rifle. He claimed strange voices called him into the tunnel, where a ghost took his gun and then beat him.


"There's nothing to prove some person didn't do it. I think a lot of stories are fabricated. I think this is where a lot of stories come into play," she said.

She said the tunnel's history has taken on its own life, with varying versions of the circumstances of the tunnel workers deaths and even discrepancies of what the term 'hoosac' actually means.

"In my research I found many people wrote the American Indian word 'hoosac' was supposed to mean forbidden. It actually means "stone place" in Mohican," Kowalski said.

George Inman, a junior, studied the underground subculture of vampyrism and the characteristics of the movements followers.

"There are two kinds of vampires, those who believe they are psychic vampires and that they feed off of other people's minds and those who are more traditional and feed off of blood. They cut themselves and feed off of each other," he said.

Inman said a lot of the subculture is influenced by the original inspiration for Dracula, Vlad the Impaler. He said the followers dress in black and claim they are sensitive to light, such as Vlad did.

"They also all seem to play Vampire: The Masquerade. It's huge around the world and they claim that it allows them social acceptance. The popularity is unbelievable," Inman said.

He said the followers of vampyrism seem to have similar characteristics: emotional irritability and instability, depression, belief in psychic powers, a strong sex drive and a "thirst" best described as comparable to a migraine headache.

"They seem to have a seclusionary lifestyle, but coming together gives them a sense of community and a release of romanticism," Inman said.

Senior Jodi Browning of Plaistow, N.H., focused on the phenomenon of alien abduction claims. In her research, she found over 6,000 Americans have claimed to be abducted since 1960.

"There is no documentation of abductions before the 1960s," she said. "Another odd thing is that a very large percentage of abductees claim to have telepathically communicated with the aliens, but the conversations take place in English."

While Browning did not discredit the possibility of aliens existing, she did say she leaned toward believing the empirical studies done by psychologists which seem to link many abduction stories with traumatic events, including sexual abuse.

"The empirical studies are more objective. I tend to believe that for some people it is easier for them to believe they were abused by aliens. I also think there is a large connection between media influence and hallucinations with the claims," she said.

Another student's study showed that there is no solid link between healing and the practice of Reiki, while an investigation into chiropractic services found that autistic children receiving the therapy had positive results including increased speech and vocalization, better bladder control and an evening of leg lengths.


Jennifer Huberdeau can be reached at

Monday, April 10, 2006

The mystery of the Monument Mountain stone heap

guest story borrowed from The Advocate Weekly, April 06, 2006

The mystery of the Monument Mountain stone heap

Thursday, April 06

In 1882, Charles J. Taylor published his "History of Great Barrington," a generally well-researched account that still is the standard chronicle of the early days of that town.

As accurate as Taylor tried to be, some serious historical errors inevitably found their way into his book. On pages 60-62, he inserted the text of a letter that appears authentic but is actually a put-up job, if not an outright forgery. It contains information that has been accepted over the years, things like the word "Mahaiwe" and the size of the famous Indian stone heap that gives Monument Mountain its name, but recent research in primary manuscript sources tells a different story.

Taylor found the letter in a rather dubious source, The Berkshire Courier of November 15, 1866. It immediately becomes suspicious because neither the writer nor the recipient are identified. The dateline of "Indian Town" in November 1735 is anachronistic because there was no Indian town at that time, the Mohicans not receiving their grant at Stockbridge until the next year. In the letter's description of the Rev. John Sergeant's baptism of Chief Konkapot, it borrows word for word the profession of faith delivered by another Indian (Ebenezer) in 1734, the text of which is found in Rev. Sergeant's journal. In fact, there is little information in the letter that could not have been found in Sergeant's journal or other printed sources. The main exception is the name "Mahaiwe," which is not found elsewhere to my knowledge. Taylor said it is the Mohican word for "place down stream" but admitted it should be spelled "Neh-hai-we." While that may be true (the related Delaware tribe used the word "Nahiwi" for "down the river"), the confusion added to the suspicious nature of the letter.

Another anomaly in the letter is the statement that the "Great Wigwam" of Chief Umpachene was "at the ford a mile or two south [of Monument Mountain]." Presumably this is the spot now commemorated by a marker at the "Old Indian Fordway" on Bridge Street. The marker claims that there was a battle with the Indians there in 1676, but it is documented that the fight occurred further to the south, probably in Sheffield. The other error is in the location of the "Great Wigwam," which was on the Green River two miles to the south. Sergeant's journal clearly shows that the two groups of Indians lived 8 to 10 miles apart, Konkapot in the meadow at Wnahktukook (Stockbridge) and Lieutenant Umpachene at Scatekook (Green River). When Sergeant first arrived at Great Barrington in 1734, he wrote that "I board at Mr. Ingersol's; and teach the Children at the Lieutnts. Wigwam." For the first six months of his mission Sergeant, lived with David Ingersoll at his house near the present site of the Mason Library and taught the Indians two miles south at Scatekook.

The greatest fallacy in Taylor's letter relates to the stone heap at Monument Mountain. It is described as "a pile of stones some six or eight feet in diameter, circular at its base and raised in the form of an obtuse cone. It is raised over the grave of the first Sachem who died after they came into this region. Each Indian, as he goes by, adds a stone to the pile." This wording is so close to that in the 1829 "History of Berkshire County" that it suggests copying, but the text is different enough to indicate some alteration: "The pile was six or eight feet in diameter, circular at its base and raised in the form of an obtuse cone ... over the grave of one of the Aborigines. ... Every Indian who passed the place, threw a stone upon the tomb of his countryman." No source is given for the 1829 version, but it is possible that it was the creation of the Rev. David Dudley Field, who had collected the materials for the history. Curiously, it was his son, Jonathan Edwards Field, who had provided the Taylor letter to the Berkshire Courier in 1866.

Further evidence for the falsity of the Taylor letter is found in Timothy Dwight's "Travels in New England and New York" (published in 1821 but written in the 1790s), which states that the name of Monument Mountain "is derived from a pile of stones about six or eight feet in diameter, circular at its base, and raised in the form of an obtuse cone over the grave of one of the Aborigines," etc. Certainly this is the source of the quote in Taylor's book, a secondary account first written in 1798 and not an eyewitness report of 1735. Dwight did not see the stone pile himself and was relying on hearsay.

Until now, we have had only three published eyewitness accounts of the monument, none of which give specific details of its size or location. Sergeant wrote in his journal on November 3, 1734: "There is a LARGE Heap of Stones, I suppose TEN CART LOADS, in the Way to Wnahktukook, which the Indians have thrown together, as they pass'd by the Place; for it us'd to be their Custom, every Time any one pass'd by, to throw a Stone to it; But what was the End of it they cannot tell" (Emphasis is mine). The Rev. Gideon Hawley wrote an account of a journey he made in 1753. Upon observing an Indian stone heap in New York State, he wrote: "The LARGEST heap I ever observed, is that LARGE collection of small stones on the mountain between Stockbridge and Great-Barrington." In 1761 David Ingersoll stated that "he saw a LARGE heap of stones on the east side of Westenhook or Housatonnock River so called on the southerly end of the Mountain called Monument Mountain."

I emphasize the use of the adjective LARGE to describe the monument. It seems unlikely that a stone pile of only six or eight feet in diameter would be sufficient to fill the ten cart loads mentioned by Sergeant. The truth is that the stone heap was quite large and obvious. In the fall of 1761, Colonel John Van Rensselaer of Claverack, N.Y., employed a surveying party to establish the boundary line between the Van Rensselaer and Livingston Manors of Columbia County. He claimed ownership to the Housatonic River and charged his surveyors to run the line 24 miles east of the Hudson River, bringing it into the present bounds of Great Barrington. On November 25, 1761, Jacob Philip, one of his chain men, deposed in Albany County court and declared: "they Run about half a Mile west of a Heap of Stones Standing on the Southerly End of a Mountain near the Road from Sheffield to Stockbridge - that he and the Rest of the Chainbearers by the Surveyors Directions Measured the said Heap and found it Eighty two Links about the Bottom and seventeen Links high along the Slant of the Said Heap." A link of the chain equaled 7.92 inches so the monument in Great Barrington measured slightly more than 54 feet at the base and stood over 11 feet high, the size of a small house.

Other residents of Berkshire and Albany Counties testified to having seen the large pile and that the bottom stones were sunk deep into the ground, suggesting great antiquity. There was no evidence of a burial beneath the monument although the results of the survey did show two heaps of stones along the line in Columbia County "Erected by the Indians in Memory of two of their Sachems buried in that place." The English settlers at this time were dismantling the numerous stone heaps to obtain building materials, especially for chimneys, and the Great Barrington heap suffered the same fate. It was "all removed" by August 1762 and there has been no trace of it since, despite the many later efforts to find it.

Most contemporary accounts state that the monument was "near" the road (not "on" it) at the southern end of Monument Mountain, and none indicates that it was visible from the road. The earliest map of Stockbridge is a surveyor's plat dated October 15, 1736. On it at the northwest corner of Sheffield (now Great Barrington) is written the bearing of east nine degrees south, 932 perch (rods), "to the monument of stones," and another notation that the monument was north of Moses King's property, 60 perch. This stone heap was located on top of the mountain at the midpoint of the boundary between Great Barrington and Stockbridge and served as a marker between the two towns. It was not the large monument erected by the Indians.

The best evidence for the location of the Indian stone heap comes from the court depositions of those settlers who actually saw it before it was removed. Captain Johannis Hogeboom of Claverack testified in 1762 that it stood "some rod[s] over the Westenhook [Housatonic] River under a Mountain." The half-blood Indian, Joseph Van Gelder, testified in 1768 that it was "on the East side of Westenhook River has been close to it often it is about a Mile from the River." Timothy Woodbridge of Stockbridge deposed that it was "in the Monument Mountain Made of Wood and Stones ... It lies in Great [Barrington] 3 Miles south of Stockbridge." John Philip, the chain man, ran his survey line along the Housatonic "about half a Mile west" of the heap. These distances give us an approximate location for the monument somewhere east of the river at the foot of the mountain and south of Risingdale, far from the traditionally-accepted spot but close to the site of the Indian hunting camp excavated in 1991.

By all accounts, the stone heap bore the Mohican name "Wawanaquasick," a lovely word that might have graced the new schools at Monument Mountain instead of the unimaginative names selected last year. It meant "offering place" and was applied to other Indian stone heaps in our area. Jehoiakim Van Valkenburgh, a Dutch settler who spoke the Mohican language, declared in 1768 that the Indians "added Stones to it and when they did so they said Grand father I recover you." The monument had a practical function as well. Chief Yocum explained in 1754 that there were two such heaps in Great Barrington, the one we are discussing here and the other where the Green River meets the Housatonic. They served as boundary markers between Stockbridge Indian chieftaincies and the Weatogue Indians of Salisbury, Conn.

Taylor wrote an essential history of Great Barrington, but the inclusion of a doctored letter has contributed to a number of misconceptions. The name "Mahaiwe" is possibly a made-up word, the location of the "Great Wigwam" is off by at least two miles and the great Indian stone heap at Monument Mountain was not only quite large but located "under the mountain" near Risingdale instead of on the mountain itself. Though it has been gone for 244 years, it remains in our imaginations as an enduring symbol of Berkshire County's first inhabitants.

Historian Lion G. Miles of Stockbridge specializes in 18th century Berkshire County history.