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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Savoy's murdered traveler: Another historical 'X-File'

Right on the side of Route 116 as it winds through the town of Savoy, there is a tiny cemetery rising up around a tomb built into the hillside. The plot itself is actually called Tomb Cemetery, and it holds a couple of dozen stones marking burials from the mid 1800s into the early 20th century.

The tomb itself is empty. It was built by a prominent early settler of the town, but he is not interred there. Unbeknownst even to many Savoy residents, the mystery surrounding this empty tomb is closely tied to the town's favorite legend.

It's a story that's been around since the 19th century, in print since at least the 1930s and still very much in circulation. In fact, I heard a version of it within a couple of minutes of asking about town history on a recent visit to the general store.

Recorded many times, the basic legend goes as follows: One dark and stormy night, a wealthy traveler arrived on horseback to put up at the old tavern. When morning came, he was nowhere to be seen, and his bed had not been slept in. His horse was found the next day in a nearby field with a terrible gash in its neck.

Townspeople suspected the innkeeper of foul play. Without a

body or any other proof, though, no charges were brought. Soon after, bloodstains began to appear on the stairs leading to the second floor, and they could not be removed. Strange lights were seen in the window of the room the stranger was said to be slain in, and sometimes even a gory apparition with hollow eyes was spotted.

The tale is most often attributed to the 1830s and set in the original Bowker Tavern, also known as the Bowker Hotel. Liberty Bowker began leasing a tavern along what is now Main Street in 1823, and it grew increasingly prosperous until he sold it to his son Calvin in 1841. The original structure burned down sometime after that, and it was rebuilt bigger and grander, with many rooms and famous trout dinners drawing crowds from North

Adams and Williamstown nightly. This second Bowker Hotel burned down in 1894. Savoy's current general store is built over the foundation, and charred stone can still be seen in the cellar, according to Gail Carlow, who runs the store with her husband.

In recent decades, some versions of the tale place it next door to the store, in what was once the Mason Hotel. The Mason Hotel ran on and off from 1833 until the 1920s; it is now a private residence.

A closer examination of Savoy history is illuminating. The first town history, written by H.E. Miller in 1879, makes a brief reference to the "ruins of the famous haunted house." Neither the Bowker nor Mason buildings would have been in ruins at the time his history was written, but an earlier establishment, called the Williams Tavern, fits the legend perfectly. In fact, the history surrounding this, Savoy's first inn facility, suggests that the long-running town legend may have a basis in very real events.

The story of the tavern begins with Joseph Williams, who arrived from Taunton with his three sons in 1780. One of those sons, William, built the inn on his father's property and opened for business around 1794. Four years later, he relinquished the business to his father.

Joseph Williams, along with his partner Jacob Blake, was involved in a wide variety of business dealings, including half the real estate sales in town. Not all of these transactions appear to have been legitimate; at least one unhappy associate had to set the authorities on Williams for money owed him.

Around 1815, Jacob Blake died, but Williams remained close with his widow, Olive. Three years later, Joseph inexplicably began selling off his many land holdings, all except the lot where he had built the tomb in question. This he reserved for himself and the widow Blake, according to a notation in the deed. Virtually everything else he sold, sometimes at an apparent loss, up until 1823, after which there is no more mention of him in records.

Olive Blake, meanwhile, was swept up in the Shaker missionary zeal that gripped the town during those years. She eventually relocated, along with her daughter Rhoda, to the Shaker community in Mount Lebanon, along with dozens of other Savoy residents. Her daughter Rhoda became a prominent Shaker sister, holding many important offices in the community and eventually penning an autobiography profiling her life and experiences. It is in this document that we find an account of Joseph Williams that may shed a great deal of light on the oft-told haunted tavern tale.

Rhoda refers to a man arriving on horseback to the tavern one evening. He checked in, but before going to his room demanded to see Williams and was taken to his nearby home. Soon, angry voices could be heard coming from the house. Then there was silence. In the morning, Rhoda says, it was found that the man's room had not been slept in, and no sign of him could be found save his horse, which remained in the stable for days unclaimed.

After this, many people noticed a decline in Williams' health, and he seemed always distracted, even depressed. It was during this period that he sold off nearly all of his land. Finally, according to Blake's account, he was standing by his fire one night, when he fell and was "consumed by the flames." He ran from his house to the nearby river, extinguishing himself, but died shortly after.

Curiously, no one seems to know where his body is buried. The tomb, if it was ever used, is currently empty, and inscriptions from Savoy's 21 small cemeteries show no sign of Joseph Williams. Olive Blake moved to Mount Lebanon and is no doubt interred in the Shaker burial ground there.

What really happened to the unnamed traveler that came to Savoy that fateful night? Where is Joseph Williams, and why does his elaborate tomb remain empty to this day? We may never know more about these questions than we do now. As for Williams Tavern, the property was bought in 1824 by Liberty Bowker, whose grave can be found there in Tomb Cemetery. Today, Route 116 passes right through where the building stood. Only the empty tomb remains to tantalize us with its enigmas.

That and the legend of the murdered traveler, which is as alive today as it ever was.

Joe Durwin is a longtime local mystery monger. Send tips on haunted places, unexplained occurrences, rumors and other accounts of the strange to

Related Anecdotes:

-The same sort of “lights” that legend describes being seen in the Williams Tavern after the suspected murder were also reported by Shakers in their documents, in particular at the nearby widow Olive Blake’s house. The tavern incident took place at the peak of Shaker revivalism in Savoy, and the lights were seen by them as a sign of faith and devotion.

-In 1878, Tomb Cemetery was desecrated by a very eloquent vandal. Thirty nine headstones were broken or tipped, and across the ground, a very large sheet of brown paper had been laid. On it was an original nine stanza poem entitled “The Red Dragon,” which predicted a second Civil War, to which the one just passed was “only a sample.” It was signed The Tramp. Text of the poem has not survived, but it was described as being written in excellent penmanship and grammar, written by someone "well educated in history." The mystery was never solved.