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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Second Sight in the Berkshires


According to polls over the last few years, about three quarters of Americans believe in some form of paranormal experience, with more than half of all surveyed adults reporting having had at least one truly paranormal experience in their life.

Some advocates of the reality of Psi (psychic phenomenon) believe that it may be even more common in everyday life than many people have even considered. British biologist Rupert Sheldrake has attempted to muster evidence that such experiences as the sense of being stared at, or thinking of someone who just then telephones, are often examples of extra-sensory faculties complimenting the ordinary senses.

This all made this article difficult to write. I have wanted for some time to put together some verbiage summarizing some of the more colorful incidents in the Berkshires' "psychic" history, but the question of what to include hung over the enterprise. For reasons made obvious above, it would be impossible to give a true overview of every premonition, dream or divinatory luck any Berkshire resident may have ever had, and to relay every such story that has ever been related to me by someone locally would certainly put me over my allotted words. It would also probably be dull - often as not, one person's oracular epiphany is another's yawning cue to leave. I will therefore keep this history confined to a brief sketch of some of the more novel local occurrences drawn from newspapers and from the annals of psychical research.

People have always been interested in prophecies, predictions and all manner of mental mysteries for all of human history, but it was not until the second half of the 19th century that Americans en masse began expressing great interest in the psychic world. Following the table-rapping shenanigans of the Fox sisters in Hydesville, N.Y., in 1848, the spiritualism craze spread through the country like wildfire. In its wake came the very first efforts to study psychic happenings in an organized, scholarly way.

In 1880, a student at Williams College reported a "most singular dream." He had been recovering from an illness just a week before commencement, and while sleeping in the early evening on June 28, he had a feverishly vivid dream that he was on a steamer off of Long Island, watching another steamer burning. Its starboard wheelhouse was ablaze and all that could be made out of the name of the boat were the last three letters "AKA." The craft ran aground and people were leaping off, some drowning. A friend who'd come to check on him woke him, and he relayed the dream to him. The following evening, the friend returned, excited, and began quizzing him about his dream. He then took out a newspaper account of the disaster that had befallen the steamer Seawanhaka. Seawanhaka caught fire at about the same time as the dreamer been asleep - between 5 and 6:30 p.m. the previous day - while passing the "Hell Gate" of the East River, site of many lost boats. The steamer had run aground while burning up, and passengers had leapt off in panicked swarms, with nearly 50 drowning.

In 1914, psychic investigators Richard Hodgson and James Hyslop compared his written testimony about the dream with subsequent newspaper accounts offering more information on the Seawanhaka tragedy and identified many additional similarities of which the Williams College man and his friend were apparently not aware.

By the turn of the century, the Berkshires had become a favored spot for traveling mediums. North Adams in particular seems to have provided fertile ground for fortune telling. More than two dozen professional clairvoyants were advertising in the Transcript between 1895 and 1901. Some of the most colorful included M.Leo Balzac ("All diseases, mysterious feelings, habits, lost physical power etc. positively cured without medicine or the knife OR NO PAY!"), Madame Bartell ("tells the past, present and reveals the future"), Madame Drusilla ("63 Center St., Ladies fifty cents. Gent $1"), Karl von Roth-Hamong ("famous Palmist, Clairvoyant, Astrologist and Author"), and Ora the Mystic ("The Greatest Living Clairvoyant"). My personal favorite, Professor Delano (World's Greatest Life Reader, Clairvoyant and Palmist)," purchased large, lavishly

drawn advertisements - Marvelous Revelations! Magnificent Achievements! People are astonished - throughout the summer of 1899.

But not all would-be seers fared as well. The Eagle reports that in April of 1897, A.R. Devlin, medium and clairvoyant, left Dalton with a light purse, "as business was anything but rushing."

In the '30s and '40s, the most prominent psychic in the area was Clara Jepson of Pownal, whom I already profiled in The Advocate in November 2004. At the time of her reign, her closest competition was Mrs. Elmas Dicranian of Pittsfield. Whereas Clara was known mainly for her success in locating lost valuables, using a handkerchief to divine their whereabouts, Mrs. Dicranian was known primarily for her ability to locate water with a dowsing rod. On occasion, though, she also had visions, which she believed to be of a psychic nature, akin to what some scientists call "remote viewing." Three days after the Eagle interviewed Mrs. Jepson on her feeling on the Lindbergh kidnapping (she suggested that the boy was safe and that he was near his Hopewell, N.J., home - tragically, only the second part proved correct), Mrs. Dicranian told them her view, that he had been kidnapped by "a jealous flier friend of his father."

Likewise, shortly after Jepson was consulted on the disappearance of Paula Welden, Elmas took a bus to Bennington, where she attempted, unsuccessfully,

to lead a detective to the location of the missing girl's body. Meanwhile, in Lenox, psychic reader Mademoiselle Bathsheba Askowith was handling private consultations, dinner parties and lectures.

A number of other miscellaneous occurrences have made their way into paranormal literature. In October and November of 1920, Monterey was the site of two of a series of tests known as the Joan Dale Psychometry Experiments, conducted by Dr. Walter Franklin Prince. In these experiments, the subject Joan Dale (pseudonym) was able to divulge large amounts of previously unknown but verifiable details about a particular person by touching a sealed, shielded envelope.

In 1967, Francis Sibolski of Pittsfield wrote an article for Fate magazine detailing a recurrent vision he'd had over the years of two apparitional men fighting on his street corner alongside a vintage 1937 Plymouth taxicab. He later discovered later that there had been a nasty brawl identical to his vision at the spot between two men in 1938, one of whom died soon after. Some theorists call this type of experience retrocognition.

Many parapsychologists and other scientists at universities around the world maintain that various modern scientific research efforts - such as experiments at Princeton with the effect of the mind on random number generating machines, the remote viewing project run by the U.S. military and experiments with what is known as the Ganzfeld technique, which involves subjects in a state of slight sensory deprivation - offer sufficient evidence for the existence of some forms of Psi, though the mechanism by which it operates remains a matter of speculation. Skeptics, most notably psychologists Susan Blackmore and Ray Hyman, contend that is has not been proven, because many of the individual experiments which make up the available sample of evidence collected over the decades may have been flawed, leaving room for error, cheating and faulty analysis.

Some say that you have to witness a real psychic occurrence to believe it. Others find relevance in the old saying: "For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not, no explanation is sufficient." Maybe, but I've always preferred Thomas Huxley's suggestion that a "wise man apportions his belief to the evidence." In this case, that might mean that you can believe that psychic experiences are possible without necessarily buying into every carpetbagger who rides through town, or believing that any combination of psychic happenings could tell you all you need to know about your life.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Devil at Wizard’s Glen

The considerable body of local legend attributed to the area’s pre-colonial native inhabitants presents an interesting puzzle for any Berkshire folklorist to ponder. Early European settlers had some contact with so-called “Stockbridge Indians” – Mohican (sometimes called Mahican) combined with sundry remnants of related tribes- continuously for more than sixty years, and certainly there was a great interchange of stories and cultural ideas. Unfortunately, the majority of the staple Native legends recycled in Berkshire histories and travelogues were not recorded in print until nearly a century after the last of the Stockbridge Mohicans had migrated out of the area. One of the results of this is that much of the existing body of native lore sounds… rather white.

One legend in particular strikes me as a particularly illuminating example of a nucleus of information about indigenous life, embellished by a thick layer of old-fashioned Yankee Puritan storytelling. I am referring to an old tradition surrounding the spot known as Wizard’s Glen, off Gulf Road in Dalton. This gorge, with its rugged jumbling of heaped rock was described by Godfrey Greylock in 1879 as being “as though and angry Jove had here thrown down some impious wall of Heaven-defying Titans. Block lies heaped upon block; squared and bedeviled, as if by more than mortal art…”

Wizard’s Glen draws its name from the belief that this place was a sacred haunt for generations of local Indian shamans, a place of power where they conducted rituals and communed with their spirits. In particular, it was said that they were working incantations to Hobbomocco, the “spirit of Evil.” One broad, square rock with crimson became known as Devil’s Altar, and it was here, rumor had it, that the tribal sorcerers offered up human sacrifices. The crimson stains in the stone were said by early townspeople to be bloodstains, from the many victims ritually slaughtered there.

Several sources from the late 19th and early 20th centuries relay a story attributed to a Dalton man named John Chamberlain. Chamberlain, as sources have him, was “no lover of the Indian race,” which may help to explain some of the content of this legend. The tale itself, as Chamberlain is said to have related it personally, is as follows. Sometime around 1770, he had been hunting and after chasing a deer a great distance, finally slew it around dusk, within the area of the Glen. As he was tending to his kill, a heavy thunderstorm came suddenly, complete with driving rain and hail. He stashed the deer under one boulder and slunk himself into the recess under another. There he tried to catch a little rest while he waited out the storm. He had a clear view of the Devil’s Altar, and as he dozed he tried to put out of his mind the stories he’d heard of the terrible rites that were sometimes conducted here.

The storm was getting progressively worse, with huge claps of thunder blasting overhead. It grew louder and louder until one enormous explosion of lightning lit up the entire night. At that moment, Chamberlain saw the Devil appear right in front of his eyes. The Evil One was sitting on a broken crag directly ahead, looking accommodatingly Western European in his chosen form, replete with wings and horns and hooves- though Chamberlain later opined that the devil had very Indian-like facial features. Around his head a wreath of lightning gleamed, illuminating the scene around him. He was attended by various hideous wraiths, ghosts, imps of hell, etc, in a myriad of grotesque shapes.

A young, nude native girl was brought forth. Shrieking and fighting, she was slowly edged closer to the stone altar, upon which she was hurled viciously. The wizard danced around her for several minutes, finally raising his ceremonial axe for the ritual’s culmination. As the maiden looked away, her eyes locked with Chamberlain’s, who was so moved that he felt he had to intervene. Climbing up from his hiding place, he raised his Bible- which he happened to have one him- into the air, and in Biblically dramatic fashion, spake the great Name of God. A deafening boom of thunder sounded, lightning split the sky a thousand ways, and when it died off the whole mob had gone and he was alone in the darkness. When morning came, he was prepared to chalk up the experience to dreaming, if it were not for the disappearance of his deer.

Obviously, the story is not to be taken as a literal version of a real event. Even as an item of mythology, it lacks great dimension or meaning. The whole narrative is a bit too simple and convenient, the forces in conflict too black and white and the action slightly too camp; stylistically, it seems reminiscent of certain Bible stories, or of Lovecraft, as cranked out by Roger Corman.

Though my prevailing suspicion is that this incident is a fabrication, the more general rumors about the spot may reveal some actual truth about the culture of the Indians who lived here in the 17th and 18th centuries. Though the “crimson stains” in the Devil’s Altar are in fact iron ore deposits, and there is no evidence that any Native American group in this part of North America ever conducted any form of human sacrifice, it is likely that Wizard’s Glen was of some kind of ritual importance to the area’s natives. Hobbomocco, too, is a real Algonquin deity- and it seems to me that it is a clash between two different ways of looking at this figure that is behind the flavor and longevity of this local myth. In the basic Algonquin view of the cosmos, Hobbomocco (also known as Hobbamock, or Abbomacho) was associated with darkness and with night. His name is related to all Algonquin words for death and the dead. He is not directly analogous to the Christian Satan- God’s Accuser. In their worldview, Hobbomocco is not representative of any conflict with the god of nature and creation; rather, he is one side of nature, a sometimes dangerous source of visions and power, which shamans, or powwows, can gain through communing with.

The story of Wizard’s Glen that emerged as the final product of the friction between these two cultural ideas is one in which only a fractional nod to the subjective reality of the civilization on which it is based; emblematic of a social process in which the sensational aspect of the legend are promoted, while the context is devalued and discarded. That is one interpretation. The reader inclined to make a special trip to the Glen, surrounded by echoes while looking up at the spread of mystical rubble, is bound to come up with his or her own interpretation.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Goshen Tunnel Enigma

The Advocate Weekly
Thursday, December 29
By Joe Durwin

As may be apparent, I like mysteries. Many of the local enigmas I've covered in this column offer little hope for ultimate resolution; often it is a question of belief - you believe in ghosts, and that a particular house is haunted, or you don't and it ain't. Some can't be scrutinized closely enough from afar: for instance, when some strange object whizzes across the sky, unless you're there to see it, who knows?

Some local mysteries are a little more accessible, built into the landscape itself. Their existence is plain as day, their idiosyncrasy unimpeachable. This is especially true in the case of the stone tunnels dug into the earth in Goshen.

The casual observer, coming across the simple stone shaft not far from the cemetery might not think too much of it at first. One might easily surmise that this hole, 15 feet deep and about 3 1/2 feet in diameter, once served as a well. However, near the bottom, this "well" opens onto two more stone-lined shafts protruding out in each direction. The lower tunnel runs west and is narrower and appears to have been meant as a drain to keep the main shaft from filling up with water. It is capped off by flagstones about 70 feet from its mouth. Above it, a slightly wider tunnel measuring 2 by 2 1/2 feet - just large enough to accommodate a crawling adult - runs east about 15 feet toward the cemetery. It is believed that this upper shaft once opened onto a chamber of about 10 square feet, but this caved in long ago.

People have been wondering about these stone tunnels for a long time. Tradition has it that the tunnels were discovered in the early 1800s by two boys who chased a rabbit into its burrow, and in the process of trying to dig it out, they dislodged the flagstone covering the main shaft, which had been buried under sod and bushes. The construction is sometimes called the "Counterfeiter's Den," in keeping with a local legend that they are part of a vast network of tunnels that ran to a hideout under the cemetery used by a savage gang. Some say that the hideout was dynamited and that the ghosts of the gang still haunt the cemetery. Another variation of the legend has it that they were really grave-robbers, not counterfeiters. The truth is, there's really no evidence to connect any criminal gang with the Goshen tunnels, and their discovery took place before the cemetery was laid.

The "Hampshire History" speculates that the structure might have been a shelter from Indian raids. The only problem with that theory is that Goshen, first settled in 1761, was never in any danger of having to worry about such raids.

The sheer time and effort required to quarry and place the flagstones with which the entire complex is lined more-or-less precludes the possibility that anyone could have constructed it in the last two centuries without some historical record existing to describe who built it or why. The very fact that there is no definitive answer to these questions argues strongly for a pre-colonial origin.

It may be that the structure was built by some Native American culture that moved on from these parts long before any white people arrived. If so, it must have served some important function, for so much work to have been put into something so difficult to traverse. It is also likely that that it was not a solitary effort. Archaeologist Salvatore Trento suggests that the tunnels "in all probability, are part of a larger complex of underground constructions yet to be found in the meadows surrounding the Mill River."

Some scholars see similarities between Goshen's underground lair and a stone tunnel in Upton, and with hundreds of other ancient sites around New England - such as Salem, N.H.'s "Mystery Hill," a.k.a. "America's Stonehenge." Many of these sites have been put forth as possible examples of exploration by Vikings, Celts or other visiting cultures that left no other record of their stay. Signs of human presence at Mystery Hill date back possibly as far as 2000 B.C., and at least one source has stated that the samples of soil from around the tunnel indicated that it too might have been dug thousands of years ago. I haven't been able to substantiate this last, so at the present time the age and purpose of the complex remains as much an enigma as ever.

I find myself very curious about the ancient people who might have been here. Were they building a hideout from enemies? A place to store precious treasures? Did it have some ritual significance, as with certain similar prehistoric tunnels found in Scotland and elsewhere? I can't help but wonder what went through their minds as they dug holes into these hills, unaware of the tantalizing mystery they were leaving behind for later inhabitants.

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Joe Durwin is a Pittsfield native on extended sabbatical in the desert. Send him accounts of unexplained experiences, strange tales or haunted places at joe@durwin.net.