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Friday, January 12, 2007

Mystery, Murder, and Mayhem Surround Area's Oldest Inn
By Joe Durwin

New Boston Inn, at the junction of routes 8 and 57 West in Sandisfield, is the oldest and longest-running Inn in the Berkshires. The Inn’s history begins about 270 years ago, when Daniel Brown, one of Sandisfield’s first settlers, built his home there in 1737. In 1760 it became a functioning tavern and respite for travelers passing through western Massachusetts. A few years later, it served as a meeting place and hospice for soldiers during the Revolution.

In the twentieth century, it played host to a number of notables: Ann Lindbergh stayed there while writing her memoirs, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton were frequently spotted in the tavern, and Bing Crosby is known to have popped his head in on occasion. During the tenure of Russell and Rosalind Chapin, who owned the place from the mid 1940s to the late ‘50’s, New Boston gained a reputation for exquisite food. Rosalind’s recipes were frequently raved about in the nationally syndicated column by culinary writer Gaynor Maddox.

Several interesting architectural features were built into the inn. Walls within were built at such an angle that doors would close on their own, and a slanted wall leaning out from the floor of the dining room helped ensure that snow would not build up at the windows. The tavern is walled with twenty-two inch planks of Kings Wood, so named because the oak they were cut from was illegally retained by colonists after being marked by royal deputies for export to England. The upstairs ballroom, with its barrel-vaulted ceiling, was originally suspended from chains, so the floor would give when filled with dancers.

Perhaps the most frequently discussed bit of historical background, and certainly the most relevant for the purpose of this column, is an obscure but sensational event said to have taken place in the summer of 1805. A young woman named Harriet, so the story goes, was preparing for her wedding at the Inn when a jealous suitor burst in with a gun, fatally wounding her. Ever since, some believe, the inn has been haunted by the memory of that tragic event. It is said that the shade of young Harriet, dressed in the bridal black typical of the day, wanders the halls and rooms, and that it is she who is responsible for the many strange occurrences reported there.

Strange voices and the sounds of footsteps are frequently reported, along with doors that refuse to open and music boxes that begin playing on their own are among the many disturbances cited. An even stranger account was given to me by current owner Barbara Colorio. During the summer of 2005, two hundred years after Harriet’s dreadful demise, another wedding was being held at New Boston Inn. Suddenly, all the fire alarms began going off, and could not be stopped. Even after disconnecting the system from the power and back up batteries, the blaring continued.

Considering how well known the story of Harriet’s murder has become, it is curious that so little in the way of specific information about the incident can be found. Though mentioned in various local histories, no further details are offered than those given here; Harriet’s last name, the name of her killer, and the exact date of the slaying are all among the facts shrouded in the fog of historical obscurity. The inn even offers a free night in the haunted ballroom for anyone who can supply these particulars; according to Local History librarian Ann-Marie Harris, the Berkshire Athenaeum fields several inquiries a year about this tantalizing mystery.

As if to make up for the lack of historical data surrounding Harriet’s death, New Boston Inn is one of the most heavily investigated of any haunted place in the county. A plethora of prominent ghost-hunting groups and paranormal researchers have visited this Sandisfield landmark, hoping to shed light on its spooky enigmas.

In 2004, the Inn was investigated by the O.R.I.O.N. Paranormal group, headed by Michael Sinclair. The O.R.I.O.N. group’s website features photos they believe indicate paranormal phenomena in the Inn, and Sinclair was so intrigued by the amount of activity there that he organized a second investigation, this time with the help of the team from The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS), stars of the popular television show Ghost-Hunters.

This subsequent exploration appeared on an episode of the show which aired on the Sci-Fi channel in December 2004. In it, the investigation by the TAPS team comes up with mixed results. They conclude that most of the photos of “orbs” or “ectoplasm” taken by the O.R.I.O.N. group could be attributed to bits of particulate matter from insulation blowing out from the ceiling, but are unable to posit viable explanations for other occurrences reported by witnesses. As a test, they place a pen in a certain location in a room which is then shut and locked, only to find that it has moved slightly when they return to that room.
Paranormal investigator and author Jeff Messenger also shared with me his experiences doing research on the inn. Last January he explored the place with Phantasm Psychic Research group, headed by David Considine. They monitored the interior for several hours with high tech equipment, but captured only one brief anomaly on film, “a twisting line of light that floated to the back of the room and faded away.”

Trying a more low-key approach for a second investigation, Messenger returned to the Inn in May without the rest of the team. Keeping an all-night vigil from room 7, he found the building much more active this second time. Though it was not windy that night, he heard repeated knocking sounds on the walls and ceiling. He even tried a “white noise” experiment in an attempt to snare some samples of Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP). This is a method by which paranormal investigators attempt to make recordings of spectral voices not ordinarily audible by capturing them against a background of white noise, such as from a detuned radio receiver. At one point in the night, he got a recording of a very faint female voice coming through the static, whispering “…I’m here.”

“None of this was proof positive of a haunting,” Messenger remarks, “but it certainly piqued my interest even more in the New Boston Inn.”

With a murky past, any number of reports of strange activity, and an owner who is very approachable on the subject New Boston Inn is a fertile ground for research, both scientific and historical. It remains a cornucopia of tantalizing secrets, just waiting for the right combination of luck and persistence to uncover them. On top of the thrill of discovering those secrets, there’s still the standing offer of a free night in the haunted ballroom, for anyone who can supply any more information about the ill-fated Harriet, or her jealous suitor…