Thursday, May 25
BENNINGTON, Vt. - Southern Vermont College is perhaps the most populously haunted spot in southern Vermont.
If even half the accounts that have trickled out of that place are true, at times it almost seems that spectral wanderers on the Bennington campus must be just about tripping over one another, playing out their ancient, eerie pursuits in the aetherial background behind the bustling campus of the living.
The college is housed on what was originally the estate of Edward Hamlin Everett, who purchased 500 acres from the John Holden estate in 1910. Everett lived in Bennington for most of his youth, leaving in 1869 to pursue wealth farther west. He was not disappointed. He gradually purchased up all of the American Bottle Co. - and in the process of trying to cut costs on the glass fires, prospected and became the first person to strike oil in Ohio. In '86 he married Amy King, the daughter of a Newark aristocrat whose glassworks factory Everett had just acquired.
Along with homes in Newark and Washington (not to forget the chateau in Vevy, Switzerland - times were good for Edward), he built himself a marvelous summer mansion in Bennington.
Legend has it that, not long after, Amy drowned there while swimming, quite unexpectedly - some say freak accident, some suicide, some murder. According to her obituary, however, Amy King Everett died at their Washington home, in March of 1917. She had suffered from a prolonged, unnamed illness and died following a "severe operation."
In 1920, Edward remarried, this time to Grace Burnap, originally from Hopkinton, Mass. Tradition has it that the three daughters he had with Amy never cared for their father's second wife. Two of them had already married and moved before their mother's death, the third not long after - and it's believed they resented the way Everett went on to sire two more children with this new, much younger wife. When Edward died in 1929, the stage was set for a venomous and quite public legal battle.
When the will was unveiled, it bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to Grace, leaving only about one tenth of the family's enormous wealth to his three daughters from his first marriage. The daughters sued, arguing that their father had not been in his right mind when the will was signed and that his second wife, who after all was not much older than the oldest of them, had exercised undue influence on him.
What became dubbed "The Battle of Bennington Millions," or "The Second Battle of Bennington," began. It was the largest and most talked about court case in the state, launching to fame the lawyer Warren Austin, who went on to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (and they didn't give that job to just any old nut with a moustache, back then). Witnesses included Sen. Arthur Capper of Kansas and Laura Harlan, daughter of former Chief Justice John Harlan. Grace Everett herself was subjected to three continuous days of relentless grilling on the witness stand. As Joseph Citro, Vermont's most esteemed gothic author, put it, the proceedings "left the magnificent Glass and Bottle Baron of the American Industrial Revolution looking like a pitiable weakling, utterly dominated by his Lady Macbeth of a wife." The court sided with Everett's first daughters, awarding them each about a third of the fortune, with the remaining amount going to Grace and her two daughters.
Some say that great dramas and great sorrows of this sort leave a mark behind in certain places - perhaps a kind of shadow radiating in the poorly understood fabric of the physical universe, a wisp of smoke: In short, they are haunted.
Since the college first took up residence on the Everett estate in the mid 1970s, a steady stream of unexplained disturbances and mysterious figures have been sighted. Security guards whisper about doorknobs turning in empty rooms and doors that close by themselves. According to a college administrator, on one occasion in 1982, a security guard called him when he could not identify the source of some strange noises. When they finally tracked the sounds to an office on the third floor, they found that the door, which was locked from the outside and had no other entrance, had somehow been blocked from the inside by a heavy desk. In what was once the old carriage house, there've been numerous reports of doors and windows locking and unlocking by themselves and computers that snap on and off suddenly.
One of the most frequently reported phenomena is the appearance of a woman in white, roaming the main house and grounds, thought by some to be the ghost of Edward's first wife.
There might be other candidates for ghostly representation wandering the environs. In 1956, Bennington witnessed the mysterious double suicide of the Lundoffs, a reclusive older couple living right beside the former Everett estate. Clemons W. Lundoff, and his wife, Hilda, were found sitting in their parked car in the garage, having died of carbon monoxide poisoning only shortly before. Although they'd lived there for a number of years, the Lundoffs had kept to themselves and had no known friends in the area, nor relatives. The city sold their property at auction, and the motive for their suicide pact remained a mystery. However, in 1922, I discovered, he was indicted, along with six others, for war fraud, including some 500 Army contracts. This mark may go some way toward explaining the couple's reclusively - and perhaps their violent end.
There are also rumors of shadowy figures in dark hooded robes lurking around the edges of the campus at night, and students sometimes speak matter-of-factly about the Black Hooded Monk. This has become associated with the fact that before SVC, the estate was the site of St. Joseph's School, a Catholic seminary. But it reminds me of various rumors I've heard of people in hooded black robes in other locations around Bennington County.
Writer Hal Crowther gave an account of a bizarre incident he witnessed 1962, while he was attending Williams College. While in Bennington one night, he and his roommate were approached by some girls who invited them to a spot where they were blindfolded and led into a wooded area. When the blindfolds were taken off, they found themselves near a pond abutting a stone wall, surrounded by dark robed women.
As Crowther described it, "There was some chanting, not in any language I knew - and I had studied Latin. Then one woman got up on the wall, took off her robe and dived into the pond. As if it was very deep. And here's the strangest part: She didn't come up." Crowther later saw the girl alive in Bennington and was never sure what to make of the experience. Some Bennington College girls having a prank at the expense of some buttoned-down Williams boys, perhaps? Such a thing wouldn't exactly have been an historical anomaly. Nonetheless, there are a couple of local informants who've insisted to me that some sort of CULT did or does exist in the Green Mountains, conducting strange rituals in the night. My Wiccan friends don't seem to know anything about it, but who knows?
All in all, the estate is ensconced in history and mystery, a great combination for a full-flavored college experience or a gripping horror novel. Appropriately, some that believes that the Everett Mansion, along with a few other locations around the area, served to inspire Shirley Jackson's nightmarish Hill House, but that is a whole other story, for another week.