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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Ghost-Hunters of the Berkshires, Past and Present

After writing on the subject for The Advocate for just about two years now, it occurs to me that there are a lot of ghosts in the Berkshires. At least, there are a lot of stories about ghosts. I can't actually confirm the precise number of actual ghosts in the area, even if I could give you an exact definition of a ghost, or say honestly that I even have any kind of integrated belief system on the whole matter.

But there are all those stories - a long tradition of them, reaching back to the earliest years of local history. Accordingly, there is also a long tradition of investigation and research into this rich lore by interested local residents. This seemed like a good time to take a look at some of the individuals, past and present, who have made it their business to chronicle the area's haunted atmosphere.

The first really notable attempt to record information about the mysteries in these hills was undertaken by Willard Douglas Coxey, a circus man turned writer, who penned two tomes on the history and folklore of the area. His 1931 "Ghosts of Old Berkshire" is a classic collection of some of the most early and pervasive stories, mostly limited to tales from the colonial era and "Indian legends" - ostensibly stories of the Mahican people who once inhabited the southern and central parts of Berkshire County, filtered through generations of retelling and restructuring by early white Americans. He was working on another book on early Dutch settlers when he died in 1943.

Perhaps the most nationally famous local ghost-purveyor, Arthur Myers, passed away just this past April at the age of 88. Born in Buffalo, Myers was the author of 21 published books; he also wrote for dozens of newspapers and magazines, winning three Associated Press awards for investigative reporting. Myers worked as a reporter and feature writer for the Berkshire Eagle from 1957 to 1964 and as editor of the Berkshire Sampler from '71-77.

Myers wrote five books on ghosts and the occult, including "The Ghostly Register" (1986), "Ghostly American Places" (1990) and "A Ghost-Hunter's Guide" (1993), all of which are still in print and popular sellers. He conducted detailed investigations of The Mount in Lenox, the Ashley House in West Springfield, the cursed ghost town of Dudleytown, Conn., and dozens of other sites throughout New England and the rest of the country.

In some of his final interviews and conversations, Myers expressed a sense of optimism and curiosity about death. "I'm just anxious to see what the next dimension will be," he told one family member.

While Myers was writing about local hauntings, in North Adams Ali Allmaker was studying the problem from an academic vantage point. Born in Germany in 1921, Allmaker had a background in electrical engineering and worked at Sprague Electric Company before joining the faculty of North Adams State College in 1961. He worked in the physics department until 1968, when he transferred to the philosophy department. While there, he taught courses and workshops covering ESP, hauntings and other "supra-normal" topics, and was invited to give frequent talks on the subject throughout the region.

He also did some fairly extensive ghost-hunting of his own. Thirty years before there were TV shows about it on every network, this mild-mannered philosophy professor was investigating reports of hauntings throughout the area, and with methods more advanced than those use in many cases today.

He investigated places like the Park McCullough mansion in Bennington, Vt., and the famous Porter-Phelps house in Hadley, as well as more obscure locations in Savoy, Hancock and elsewhere. His research at different sites included a broad range of tools, such as thermometers, compasses, Geiger counters and devices to measure fluctuations in electromagnetic fields. At times, even more unorthodox equipment like security alarms, Ouija boards and joy buzzers, came into play. In one house, something appeared to communicate with him through a series of knocks, and in another, he thought he once may have seen the apparition of a woman, but admitted that it might have been his sense of heightened expectation.

"I take a very dim view of people who just go out and see ghosts time after time," Allmaker once cautioned in an interview, but concluded that ultimately too many cases he had examined could not simply be explained away: "There's just no satisfying hypothesis or theory about what these things are."

This tradition of high-tech local ghost-hunting is being carried on into the 21st century by the Berkshire Paranormal Group. Based out of the North Adams Masonic Temple, the BPG has conducted investigations throughout the area using state of the art technology: infrared thermometers, EMF detectors, wireless motion detectors, digital voice recorders and extensive video and photographic equipment. Attempting to cover all the bases, the group also approaches their research with more esoteric methods like seances and psychic communication.

The group was started by three members of the Lafayette Graylock Masonic lodge, Josh Mantello and his father Nick Mantello, along with Greg Onorato, when they became intrigued by the history of the building they were currently occupying. The former Houghton Mansion has long been believed to be haunted by several ghosts, including that of North Adams' first mayor, Albert C. Houghton. After observing an investigation of the mansion by the New England Ghost Project, based out of Dracut, Mass., they became actively interested in the subject. There are now eight members affiliated with the group.

In addition to doing investigations, the group conducts tours and sleepovers in the mansion, and an annual "Contact" convention, bringing together speakers from around the country for three days of haunted happenings. As Josh Mantello told me, "This helps educate the public about the paranormal and help them maybe understand what has puzzled them from their past or the house they live in. It also helps educate future investigators because the more people that investigate, the more chances there will be to find proof."

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