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Thursday, May 31, 2007

"The Fosburgh Murder Mansion"

Back in 2005, I wrote about Greenwood, known more commonly as “the Old Britton Place,” one of Pittsfield’s most haunted houses of the 19th century. Greenwood burned down in 1890, but floating apparitions have been reported for more than 100 years all around the area of West Housatonic Street where it used to be. The Britton Place is not the only local haunted house to have slipped into the mists of local memory; a number of the old, empty structures that gave many of our forbearers restless chills as they passed by simply do not exist in the present day. Buildings burn, crumble into dereliction, or are demolished to make way for the more desired accommodations of the moment.

A local business stands on the spot where the Fosburgh house, one of Pittsfield’s most illustrious hauntings, once stood. Long before the old frame house on Tyler Street fell into abandonment and disrepair, becoming the subject of the muttered trepidation and the dares of neighborhood children, it was the site of one of the city’s most sensational murders. Indeed, the history of the entire house is wrapped up in one single mysterious night.

It was after two a.m., August 20, 1900, when the fire alarm rang out from the direction box 41 in front of the old Baptist church. The sound could be heard as far away as Dalton and Lenox. From all directions, men came spilling out of nearby houses, some of them still pulling on shoes and shirts.

As veteran Pittsfield journalist Haydn Mason recalled:

“By the time I got organized and on the scene, a strange sight greeted eyes expecting to see the center of the city in flames. Horses hitched to the exercise wagons the Fire department used in those days, were chomping at their bits. Men were excitedly muttering to each other in low voices. Firearms were being hurried over from the Pierson Hardware Store and handed out to men crowding into the wagon. From somebody I heard the word ‘murder’ and I learned that men were going out to guard the roads leading from town.”

Word spread quickly from there: the beautiful young May Fosburgh, 19, had been shot in the heart. As her hysterical family told those who rushed to help, three men with masks over their heads had broken in, firing on May when she blocked their path. Police Chief John Nicholson ordered every man in the department into duty, and a steady stream of volunteers were outfitted with shotguns in front of the hardware store. Nicholson declared the city surrounded, and the following evening was still taking on volunteers for what was called the most sensational manhunt in Pittsfield’s history, which included more than five hundred armed men.

The Fosburghs were a wealthy socialite family from Buffalo, New York, having only arrived a few months previously. R.L. Fosburgh & Son were contractors working on the construction of new buildings for the rapidly expanding General Electric Company. They had taken up residence in the house on the northwest corner of Tyler and Woodlawn Streets in order to be close to their work.

On the night of May’s death, there were several people in the house: her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Robert L. Fosburgh, her brothers Robert S. and James Fosburgh, along with Robert’s wife, Amy, 13- year old Beatrice Fosburgh, and 16-year-old Bertha Sheldon, a house guest. As Robert Sr. later told police, around one o’clock in the morning he was woken by his wife, who asked him to investigate a noise. At this point, he saw two masked burglars, and while he grappled with one, the other knocked him unconscious. When he awoke, he found his wife in the hall bent over May’s body.

Robert Jr. reported being woken by the sound of a struggle and following it to the room shared by Beatrice and May, only to see one of the masked men fire on May in the hallway. After lowering her to the floor, he pursued the man into an unoccupied room where he saw three men in masks, who he failed to stop from escaping down from the second story window.

Chief Nicholson was unhappy with the discrepancy between the number of burglars in the accounts of Robert Sr. and Jr. Then again, this could be written off to the darkness or all three men not being in the room when the father was attacked. But there were other oddities, as well.

Robert Jr. had said that the man had shot May from several feet away, but the gunpowder burns on her nightgown seemed to indicate a discharge closer to one foot away. Also, there were signs of a struggle in Robert Jr.’s room (where they found a nightgown of Amy’s ripped to shreds) of which neither men had said anything. Meanwhile, Beatrice said that she had not seen the burglars, or her brother laying down May, but Bertha Sheldon’s account began with Beatrice exclaiming to her, “Burglars have been here and shot May!”

Finally, James recalled hearing nothing until he’d heard Amy come into his room screaming, “Jim! Jim! Your father’s gone crazy!”

A significant amount of cash and several prominently displayed items of jewelry remained untouched throughout parts of the house where the burglars were said to have been. A .44 revolver was found under Robert Sr.’s bed, but no sign of the murder weapon, a .22, was ever found.

Nonetheless, weeks after May’s death her brother, Robert S. Fosburgh, was indicted for manslaughter. During the trial the following July, the prosecution advanced the theory that he had come home drunk, fought with his father, and ultimately drawn a gun. May, attempting to intervene, was fatally shot.

The trial was widely depicted as a circus. Even before it began, the city received more than 500 letters requesting seating at the proceedings. Local feeling highly favored the possibility that the family had covered up the circumstances of May’s death to avoid scandal. Throughout the rest of the country, however, where the case was a major news story, the trial is depicted as a farce orchestrated against an innocent man by incompetent police unable to find the culprits and prosecutors desperate to close the case. The Daily People, a paper of the Socialist Labor Party, expressed their opinion candidly: “From beginning to end, the testimony was an insult to understanding: it was contradictory, it was flimsy, it was irrelevant.”

After eight days, Judge William B. Stevens ended the proceedings, instructing the jury to acquit Fosburgh. The family finished its work in Pittsfield and departed, never to return.

The house itself seems to have had a strange lingering effect on the minds of some Pittsfielders. No one lived long in the place after that, it would seem. Following the murder and indictment, it was briefly inhabited by owner Mrs. Castle, who put it on the market within months of the end of the trial.

Within its walls, it was rumored, May’s ghost wandered endlessly. Some said they felt a horrid presence just walking past. In its last occupation, it served as apartment housing. When Sun Oil proposed to demolish it in 1950 to put up a gas station, not a single voice objected. Indeed, the memory of the Fosburgh murder was still vivid fifty years after, and there was great enthusiasm for the proposal.

“I certainly am not one to vote in new gasoline stations,” said city councilman Leland C. Talbot, but I’ll certainly go along with this one if it means the city can get rid of that awful place.” The others unanimously echoed this sentiment.

So the run-down house was razed, a filling station put in its place, adjacent to what was then the Church of the Gospel (itself demolished in recent years). Today, the spot belongs to a chain windshield repair company.

As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, there have been no particular incidents of strangeness on the property in a half century or more. Unlike Greenwood, any ghosts that may have inhabited the “Fosburgh Murder Mansion” seem not to have outlived their original dwelling. For all the anxiety that the Fosburgh house may once have engendered, the corner is remarkably mundane today.

Except, of course, for the human mayhem spilling out from the bar across the street. But that’s another story entirely.

Joe Durwin is a Pittsfield native currently on sabbatical in the desert. Send unexplained sightings, ghost stories, crackpot theories, bizarre gossip and accounts of the strange to