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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

General Lutz’s Palace of Dreams

There has always been a sort of unique duality in the theory and practice of vice in so-called Puritan Massachusetts.

Let’s have that suffice as the opinion based portion of this report; however tempting it might be, this is not to become a sardonic editorial on public policy. This is simply a charming story about how a nefarious evangelist brought the Berkshires the most opulent Opium den it ever had.

The year is 1889, the place, downtown Pittsfield. In a private house “not a thousand feet from North Street,” and “right under the shadow of one of our great churches,” men would gather to while away the hours with the “dream stick,” taking in their “hop,” or “Chinese tobacco.” This was not a place to purchase opium, its genteel proprietor was quick to warn the curious, but a place for its consumers to come and relax in a plush environment of the most lavish furnishings and refreshment; a place to pass the time chatting aimlessly with other poppy enthusiasts while enjoying the occasional glass of fine wine or Havanna cigar.

Said proprietor was a man calling himself General William Martin Lutz, who, when interviewed by a reporter from Pittsfield’s Sunday Morning Call, appeared in ornate silk robes, Turkish slippers, and rings set with giant gemstones upon every finger.

A bit of research into the background of this “General Lutz” revealed a very colorful character.

In Philadelphia he was known as “Doc Lutz,” or “Elder Lutz,” where he owned another even more lucrative opium-smoking club, opened in 1884. Farther abroad, in the Midwest, he had operated under the name “Professor Williams,” and was rumored to have another dozen names and aliases under which he had assumed numerous occupations in other parts of the country. By his own admission, he had served several stints in Sing Sing and other prisons, for crimes as a confidence man, abortionist, and trafficker in various kinds of contraband.

During the summers, he would occupy himself as a preacher and evangelist, traveling and ministering in tent revivals around the east coast. When the season ended, he would focus on other business, such as his well-appointed opium parlors.

Perhaps his greatest notoriety came as an influential officer within the early American branches of the Salvation Army. When that rambunctious organization first began proselytizing in the U.S., it began its operations in Philadelphia, which is where Lutz became involved. From participation in this that he gained, or assumed, the title of General. Traveling from town to town with other Salvationists, he would preach sermons based on his past as a hardened criminal, telling impassioned tales of his conversion and redemption.
Soon, however, his questionable personal habits became apparent, and the evangelist Army cut their ties to him. For some time after, other SA organizers made a specific point to dissociate themselves from General Lutz, though records suggest Lutz continued for several years to pose with others as Salvation Army organizers in towns from New Hampshire to Texas.

It was during his travels as a Salvationist that Lutz arrived in Pittsfield, where he is said to have met and married a wealthy widow, who is never specifically named.

As for his Pittsfield “opium palace,” its exterior was plain enough, barely betraying its semi-secret whereabouts… but within, every square foot of space had been layered in extravagance. Expensive imported tapestries hung everywhere, surrounded by sprawling furniture covered liberally in velvet, upon which the establishment’s drowsy patrons lounged. This was luxury with an eye toward maximum comfort and sensuality, d├ęcor chosen not to please the society pages but the wandering eye of businessmen and day-laborers escaping the harsher realities in a soft narcotic haze.

As it turned out, the Morning Call’s expose on the General’s operation was the first many had heard of the place, and Chief Nicholson of the Pittsfield Police was having none of it. A warrant was issued and Lutz was arrested in a raid, along with the only customer present at the time, a young dentist named Hammond Mallory.

According to a later item in the New Haven Register, Lutz fled Pittsfield in mid February prior to the date his trial was to begin. After this, I can find no more mention of the colorful General William Marvin Lutz in print, and it may be that he dropped the name permanently following his forced flight from Pittsfield, becoming lost to authorities as well as to history. Though his scandalous involvement with the SA made frequent headlines at the time, all mention of him has been omitted from all the major histories of the organization.

As for the opium parlor itself, its exact location is a bit of a mystery today, though the small hints recorded such as its proximity to North Street and “one of our greater churches” suggests possible locales in the vicinity of Melville and North Pearl Street, or perhaps around Fenn and its nearby side streets. A cursory check of the Registry of Deeds turned up nothing in Lutz’s name, though it may have been rented, or owned under the name of the unknown wealthy widow he took up with. Further research is needed, and suggestions or clues are welcome.

If you have any information that might lead to establishing the whereabouts of General Lutz’s opium den, feel free to email

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Melville and the Mystery of October Mountain

October Mountain is a place of no little fascination to me. It has frequently made its way into the pages of These Mysterious Hills in a variety of different contexts, associated with UFOs, ghosts, unidentified animal sightings. Even more chilling, in some cases, are the rumors and sightings not put into publication.

The name given to that densely wooded spike of the Hoosac range has traditionally been attributed to local literary luminary Herman Melville. How it came from him to be accepted as the given name, though, has been stated variously, and is a subject of some debate.

Noted early Pittsfield historian and Melville biographer J.E.A, Smith, in discussing the works penned by the author while at Arrowhead, makes mention of an essay by that name. “October Mountain” he describes as “a sketch of mingled philosophy and word-painted landscape, which found its inspiration in the massy and brilliant autumnal tints presented by a prominent and thickly wooded spur of the Hoosac Mountains, as seen from the southeastern windows, at Arrow-Head, on a fine day after the early frosts.”

Smith repeated this description, nearly verbatim, in his classic Taghonic: the Romance and Beauty of the Hills, as well as in a biographical series on Melville he published in the Pittsfield Evening Journal following his death in 1891. Since then, the mention of this brief essay has been repeated in various other literary and historic sources.

Unfortunately, there is some considerable doubt that such a piece ever existed.

For one thing, though his wife Elizabeth very carefully preserved all of his manuscripts and other papers, no copy of anything like “October Mountain” is to be found among them. Nor is it included in any of her various listings of his works.

In an introduction to a new edition of Typee in 1892, Arthur Stedman, Melville’s literary executor, makes allusion to the pieces “I and My Chimney and “October Mountain” being published in Putnam’s Monthly. However, no trace of the latter is to be found in any issue of that publication. Perhaps more damning to the case for this essay is that among several hand-written edits in Elizabeth Melville’s personal copy of the 1892 Typee (currently in the Harvard library), this mention of “October Mountain,” is crossed out entirely, without comment.

Over the past century, numerous literary scholars and Melville biographers have scoured 19th century newspapers and magazines for this “October Mountain,” without result. Given this glaring absence, and the fact that all mentions of it seem to derive from Smith’s initial inclusion of such a piece, it seems likely that this is mere legend. Smith is known to have made frequent errors of this sort, and in fact, the very passage mentioning “October Mountain” begins with the false assertion that Melville purchased his Berkshire farm in 1852, rather than 1850.

The true origins of the mountain’s name, and likely of Smith’s confusion on this matter, can be found in another short piece, “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo,” published in 1853. In it, the author briefly mentions “a densely wooded hill… which I call October Mountain, on account of its bannered aspect in that month.”

This, then, is indeed the first use of the name, and perhaps Melville’s only mention of it in print. While the latter is difficult to determine with certainty, we can at least still trace the name itself to Pittsfield’s beloved author.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what such an essay might say, should it exist (and, with Melville manuscripts being uncovered as recently as 1988, there’s always a chance). Did he simply admire the scenery, or might he even then have known or intuited some mystery around the richly storied hill as he gazed out at it from the southeastern windows of Arrowhead?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Phantom of Lafayette Battelle: Murder leads to Madness in the Bizarre Berkshires

It’s a misconception that all the best ghostly folklore and gory history surrounds famed homesteads and Gilded Age mansions… even in the Berkshires, this is simply not the case.

Take, for example, an unassuming little house on Monterey Road, near the intersection of Routes 23 & 57. Thousands drive by it every week, probably without much notice, as it is not particularly remarkable… save for being the scene of one of the more bizarre murder cases in the history of southern Berkshire County.

In 1915, the house was occupied by an 87 year old Civil War hero named Lafayette Battelle, who lived alone save for his champion race horse, Sheridan II (named for the general) and his 29 prize winning Rhode Island hens. Though in many ways a virtual hermit, Battelle was well regarded in state fair circles, widely recognized by his long mane of silky white hair and large gold horseshoe earrings, usually seen atop his impressive steed.

Battelle’s main friend and visitor seemed to have been a 12 year old boy named Fred Turner Jr., who would visit the hermit veteran almost daily to hear his vivid tales of Civil War.

So it was that when the boy came to visit the colorful hermit one Sunday morning in December, he was surprised to hear an unknown voice coming from within the house as he approached. Out of natural curiosity, the boy came closer until he could see Battelle inside, speaking with another man he didn’t recognize. Seeing that the two men were in conversation, and having been raised not to interrupt adults (this was 1915, remember), Turner turned and left.

The following day saw a blizzard hit the northeast, making the roads there impassable, and so the boy did not return until Wednesday, this time with his younger brother, William. As they came up close on the house, they sensed something amiss immediately. The curtains were drawn and the door was locked. More significantly, they could see no tracks around the house from the past two days. Checking the barn, they found all 29 hens frozen to death, and the horse hungry and without water.

Fearing the worst, the boys managed to find their way in the house, where they were confronted with a grisly scene: Battelle, tied to his bed with rope, sheet white, his head lying in a ring of dried blood. He had been dead for some time.

The boys ran home, where they called Great Barrington police. Chief William Oschman (a character in many interesting local stories) and medical examiner Joseph Beebe hurried to the scene to investigate. Battelle, they surmised, had been struck with a heavy object, then tied to the bed, where he eventually bled to death. The condition of the house indicated that the elderly veteran had struggled ferociously with his attacker in multiple rooms before succumbing.

Only one item appeared to be missing: an old key-winder gold watch, which Battelle had carried throughout the war for good luck. Meanwhile, another item was found that didn’t belong there… a pair of old felt boots with leather straps, which they determined did not belong to the murdered hermit.

In the ensuing investigation, young Fred Turner’s memory proved invaluable. His very detailed description immediately rang a bell with Chief Oschman, who suspected that it might match a farm hand by the name of Mike Ryan, who had used to work in Sandisfield.

Corroboration for this theory came quickly. After circulating the man’s description, Anna Sawtelle of New Marlboro contacted authorities to say that a man fitting it had stopped at her home for a meal a few nights before the murder. Taking pity on him after seeing the condition of his shoes, she gave him an old pair of felt boots with leather straps.

Another tip came in just on the heels of that one: another Sandisfield man told Oschman that “Mike Ryan” was in fact actually named Michael Glasheen, and that he frequently spent his time hanging around the Bank Street of Waterbury, Connecticut. Later, the gold watch turned up at a pawn shop thereabouts.

A warrant was issued and Glasheen was quickly apprehended by Waterbury police. He confessed quickly, claiming self defense. Glasheen alleged that he had struck Battelle only after the older man attacked him.

The jury found him guilty in a few hours, and he was sentenced to life at Charlestown State Prison. There, he made an intriguing further admission to the guards. He had, he now admitted, slain Lafayette Battelle in cold blood. After he struck him and tied him to the bed, Glasheen said, the imposing old man had looked at him, and groaned out a threat that he would “haunt him for the rest of his life.”

Over the following two years, Michael Glasheen became “violently mad,” as accounts have it, raving and howling incessantly. He was transferred to Bridgewater State Prison, where he died a few years later in 1926, still tortured by visions of the man with the long white hair and gold horshoe earrings.

One is left to wonder whether the ghost of Lafayette Battelle is literal phantasm, or Gestalt effect? The intricacies of the psychological consequences of committing murder are still murky and under-examined. In many ways, the shadows and spectral apparitions of a wounded mind turned upon itself seem more frightening than any visitation from the spirit of the departed.

Either way, one can hardly say the slaying of Lafayette Battelle went unavenged.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Prophet from Pittsfield

In a previous column installment, I discussed the curious Hebrew phylactery found in Pittsfield in 1815, and its role as a possible influence on Joseph Smith and the origins of the Book of Mormon. It is perhaps doubly curious then, that Pittsfield also has a major tie to the murky origins of the other major homegrown American religious movement of the 19th Century: Adventism

It used to be remarked that one couldn’t walk far in Pittsfield without seeing a Revolutionary War vet or a clergyman’s daughter (dead cat swinging was not yet a common practice, so there’s no real way of gauging the proportion). Suitably, William Miller was born in Pittsfield, in 1782, to a retired Continental Army captain of the same name and the former Paulina Phelps (daughter of Elnathan Smith, who was instrumental in forming the First Congregational and First Baptist church of Pittsfield, along with a number of other churches in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New York).

His mother’s upbringing was a major influence on William, and his childhood diaries are full of references to Biblical passages and theological writings. While serving as an officer in the War of 1812, William became even more devout in his study of the Bible, becoming particularly absorbed with the Old Testament prophets, especially Daniel, and the book of Revelation. Over the following years, Miller came to the conclusion that coded references in the Bible foretold the timing of Christ’s Second Coming. Using his own interpretive system, he believed he could even narrow it down to an exact year: 1843.

Millers logic rested on the assumption that the 2300 days before the cleansing of the sanctuary, referred to in Daniel 8:14, could be taken to mean the world would end in 2300 years. A vague passage in Ezekiel [Chapter 4, verse 6] shored up his belief that in prophecy, one day was equal to one year. Of course, there’s also the equation of a day to a thousand years in Gods time [2 Peter 3:8], but I suppose the Seeker finds what the Seeker is aiming to find. In any case, if one begins counting, as Miller did, from 457 B.C., the ostensible date of Artaxerxes’ decree to rebuild Jerusalem, one gets 1843.

Beginning in 1831, Miller took to the road, traveling from pulpit to pulpit and tent to tent to spread the word of Jesus impending Advent, gaining large numbers of converts throughout the country, primarily in highly rural areas. Every storm, mishap and tragedy was said to be a sign of the impending end of the world. Millerites, as they became called, began going up on hilltops and buildings in white ascension robes to look for signs in the sky. One large faction of Millerites caused a stir when they were believed lost on West Stockbridge Mountain during a bad storm.

With their heretical beliefs and peculiar white robes, Millerites quickly became not only objects of derision, but also suspicion. Rumors of sex orgies, insanity, murder and suicide among the white-robed Millerites became prevalent. On top of this hysteria, there existed the very real problems arising from many followers quitting their jobs, removing their children from school, and generally removing themselves from worldly functioning, in preparation for the imminent apocalypse. In Shaftsbury, a Millerite meeting was raided on suspicion that the group was subsisting on vegetables stolen from nearby farms.

As 1843 neared a close, with no sign of the predicted parousia, Miller announced that he had made a small error in his calculations, and set the new date for October 22, 1844.

When this new anticipated day arrived, Millerites everywhere donned their white robes, clustering in homes and churches to pray and wait. Many climbed hilltops or trees to be closer to Heaven when it opened to them. In Rutland, one man constructed wings and attempted to fly up it from the top of his barn, and in another Vermont town the smiling corpse of Mrs. Young, a devout Millerite who had died on the 15th, was left in her bed assuming she would be raised from death.

When night fell on October 22, 1844, and the dawn followed, thousands of lives were destroyed.

A large number of followers -how many is unclear- committed suicide. Miller retired to Low Hampton, NY, where he went blind, senile, and died five years later, still genuinely believing that there was merely some small error in the historical dating and the End was still near. The remaining Millerites went on to form various other Adventist sects, of which the Seventh Day Adventist Church, formed in 1863, is the largest today,with more than 15 million members in 203 countries.

Most modern Adventist movements decline to set any specific dates for the end of the world.

Joe Durwin is a Pittsfield native who sometimes suspects the world did end already, and the apparently real world is just syndicated television. Send strange stories and eschatological forecasts to, or write to him care of the Advocate.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Spirit of the Thunderbolt

Originally in the North Adams Transcript, Nov. 3, 2009, as: "The Old Coot Continues to Captivate"
by Joe Durwin

He wanders the lower reaches of Greylock, this shadowy vestige of a grizzled man from another era. He comes out in the winter months to haunt the Bellows Pipe trail, and he has even been photographed... not once, but twice.

Or so the story goes.

This is the so-called “Old Coot,” the legendary ghost sometimes referred to as “the Enoch Arden of the Berkshires,” after Tennyson’s beloved poem. According to local lore, the Old Coot is the shade of a man named William Saunders.

Saunders was a North Adams farmer who left the Berkshires in 1861 to serve in the Civil War. A year or so after the war began, his wife, Belle, received word he had been badly wounded. No further word came, and eventually she assumed him dead. Belle remarried, to a man named Milton Cliffords. Some time after the war ended, Saunders returned, a bedraggled stranger recognized by none. When he reached his home, he saw his wife and two children happily re-settled, and was heartbroken.
He retreated to the woods, where he built his small ramshackle cabin, off to the side of where the final bend of the Thunderbolt trail passes. There he lived for many years, occasionally taking work on nearby farms. It was said that on occasion he even worked for Cliffords, going unrecognized by his former family. William Saunders had become the Old Coot.

One day, as the story goes, a group of hunters stopped at his shabby cabin, finding him dead inside. It was only then, looking through his papers, that his identity was established. Suddenly, they saw a moving shadow in the door, which then darted into the woods.

Ever since, his ghost was said to have been seen wandering near the base of the trail, near his old abode. This is especially common around late January, legend has it, the time of year he died.

Perhaps more interesting than the tale itself is the story of its telling.

The first mention of the Old Coot was in 1939, in a mid-January Transcript story headlined “Ghost on the Thunderbolt.” It outlined the legend above, specifically in reference to the upcoming Massachusetts Downhill championship ski competition. Jokingly, it was suggested that the skiers just might catch a glimpse of Saunders’ ghost.

A little closer to the championship, this paper ran another item on the Coot… this time, with a purported photo of the somber spook. The story had struck a chord, apparently, with long-time Transcript photographer Randy Trabold. Leading a small group of ghost seekers, Trabold allegedly camped out for three nights by the place the cabin was supposed to have been. Finally, when their food had run out and they were getting ready to depart, they saw a toothless, bearded ghost of a man. Trabold snapped a shot as it faded into a shadow. The photo appeared the following day, along with an editor’s note in which it was claimed that Trabold stopped on his way back in Richmond Cave, where he quickly developed the image.
Decades passed, the Old Coot saga winding its way into local oral tradition. 31 years later, the story was resurrected in the Transcript, again by Trabold. The Old Coot had been seen out and about around Bellows Pipe again, this time a little late, in March. Trabold said he’d been up looking for the ghost, which “wouldn’t stand still for his camera.”

A few years later, on Halloween, 1979, Transcript photographer Richard Lodge ventured out that way, following an “overwhelming feeling” calling him to the mountain. Camera at the ready, he waited throughout the afternoon. As it grew dark, he suddenly saw it, a slumped, shadowy outline of a man moving through the trees. He snapped a shot, and on November 1, the Transcript ran its second photograph of Saunders’ ghost. Like the Trabold photo, it showed a half-transparent blur in the shape of a hunched man.

This too was accompanied with a tongue-in-cheek editorial note, pointing out that Lodge was “a bit of a legend himself for his darkroom legerdemain.”

Thirty years later, the legend of the Old Coot has spread far beyond northern Berkshire county, appearing in books and internet sites and growing ever spookier in the transmission. Going back to these original sources, though, it becomes clear that the whole story was intended to be a bit of fun. It seems to have started out as a kind of early viral marketing for the 1939 ski championship, and kept in circulation by various Transcript veterans with a good sense of humor.

As for the photos, they are both pretty clearly doctored, with another negative laid over shots of woodland background. In this age of digital imaging, it is hard to see them as anything other than quaintly amusing bits of primitive photo alteration.

The story of Saunders himself, however, is open to debate. While there seems to be no record of a William Saunders in North Adams just prior to the Civil War, there is one around the right age appearing in the 1860 Williamstown census. The name of his wife given there is Helen, though, not Belle as in the later Transcript stories.

It may be that there is some kernel of real life drama forming the background of the tale, later moved for dramatic effect. Perhaps there really was a man they called the Old Coot, a true “Enoch Arden of the Berkshires.”

Then again, perhaps I’m wrong about the whole thing, and soon, over thirty years since the last known “sighting,” some intrepid local photographer will capture for us yet another proof of Greylock’s shadowy wanderer.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Recalling Perry, explorer of the Berkshire underworld

By Joe Durwin
Originally in The Advocate Weekly, Nov. 11, 2005

When my father added spelunking to his laundry list of hobbies a few years ago, I rolled my eyes.

Though I've had little compunction about navigating through knee-deep stacks of periodicals and papers in my home office or straining my eyes on old newsprint in a slew of libraries, something about crawling around crevices deep in the ground with a tiny light simply doesn't appeal to me.

It certainly held a great deal of excitement for past Berkshire writer and journalist Clay Perry. Perry spent many years exploring the many caverns and recesses of the earth throughout New England, bringing his passion of dark spaces and love of local ecology to us in books and articles throughout his life.

Born Clair Willard Perry in Wisconsin in 1887, he came east in 1911 and began working for the Springfield Union. The following year he married E. Christine Shankland and moved to Pittsfield. For nine years he worked as Pittsfield correspondent to the Union, and from 1913-14 he served as managing editor of the Pittsfield Sunday Call. He also wrote a column for the Eagle entitled "Outdoors in the Berkshires." Beginning in the 1920s, he focused more on fiction, penning dozens of stories for magazines like Thrilling Adventures and the Saturday Evening Post, as well as several novels. For all his literary and journalistic accomplishments, though, it is his works on the caves of the northeast for which he is best remembered.

Perry crawled around in nearly every New England cave capable of being traversed by the human body, and described his journeys with vivid enthusiasm in three books on the subject: "Underground New England," "New England's Buried Treasure" and "Underground Empire." He coined the term spelunker, from the Greek word for caves "spelaion," to which he appended the "unker" suffix "because it reminded me of a man dunking himself in a cave." The word caught on quickly and soon found its way into dictionaries as the official term for the pastime.

When it comes to his spelunking books, Perry is my favorite kind of author, in that he takes a subject in which I have little or no fundamental stake or interest, and makes it incredibly engaging. The core of his exposition is reminiscent of Jacques Cousteau writing on marine life or Margaret Mead on indigenous cultures, educating in clear, comprehensible prose that is permeated throughout with an unmistakable sensitivity and affection for his subject matter. To this he adds a layer of pure adventurousness and another of playful wit. He not only describes the process of his journeys and the geological features of the caves he has explored, but fleshes out these locations with the history and folklore that surrounds them, until they seem as exotic as anything found in an Indiana Jones film.

In my favorite of his tomes, "New England's Buried Treasure," he dotes lovingly and at length on the Berkshire hills, which he says have more true or "live" caves than any comparable area in New England, boasting more than 40 such grottos. Here he delves deeply into the stories surrounding these cavities in the earth. He examines at length how Elsie Venner's Cave on South Mountain came to draw its name from the anti-heroine of Holmes' novel, and how a legend of an Indian coal mine started out set in Mount Washington but over time came to be attached to Monument Mountain. There is also the story of "Witches' Cave" in North Adams (the origin of whose name is unknown, according to Perry, but I cannot help but wonder if this may have been the sometime abode of the shaman blamed for the disappearance of the Cheshire Cheese) and its reputed "bottomless pool," which upon investigation turned out to be only six inches deep!

Perry points out that before becoming a source of sport for those of his bent, many local caves served as hideouts for those run awry of the law. Besides October Mountain's Tory Glen, which I've touched upon in past Advocate articles, several other caves offered refuge to supporters of George III during the Revolution, including Baker's Cave in New Ashford and Barrit's Cave on Perry Peak (also known as Scalped Woman's Cave, after an old story claiming that a colonial woman was scalped there by some angry Mohawks). Another cave on Perry's Peak is believed to have offered sanctuary to a Hessian soldier having fled Burgoyne's forces after the Battle of Bennington, while Peter's Cave in Lenox made a useful cover for Peter Wilcox, one of Shay's rebels. Finally, there is the tale of a cave, now collapsed, under Money Brook Falls in Greylock's Hopper that sheltered a gang of counterfeiters led by Caleb Gardner, who was hung in Albany for the crime.

A particular treat for those of my father's ilk is Eldon's Cave, first explored by Eldon French in the 19th century using only a candle and a rope. It is the longest cave in the state, and the second longest in New England, running for 450 feet under Tom Ball Mountain. After an approximately three hour wiggle down a "narrow, torturous, wet passage" one comes out into a large chamber full of tiny waterfalls and other smaller chambers off it. This cave offers beautiful views of multi-colored, water-worn marble and the company of such local fauna as bats, grey spiders, transparent white worms and white moths. Perry opines that the "beauty and mystery make up for the discomfort" involved in traversing Eldon's Cave. I will take his word for it.

After a long and fruitful life of writing and exploring, Clay Perry passed away in 1961. He left behind five children and 13 grandchildren. He is buried in Cheshire Cemetery.

Perhaps someday, if I should become bored with all above-ground diversions, I will gear up and make a trip into Eldon's Cave, or into Hancock's intriguingly-named Cave of the Lost Cow. In the meantime, I will simply tip my hat to Mr. Perry, burrow into his books and let the vivid images of dark spaces, full of mystery, history and lore, work their way like stalagmites into the imagination.

Joe Durwin is a local historian-folklorist and mystery monger who recently discovered that Clay Perry lived the last three years of his life in the Wendell Avenue house he currently resides in.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Mad Miner of Austerlitz

When I lived in Arizona, where dozens of little mining ghost towns dot the foothills just off the major highways, I was awash in the lore of the gold strike. The Lost Dutchman mine, in nearby Apache Junction, has become so surrounded in legend that the range of hills surrounding it became known as the Superstition Mountains. Such stories are typically tragic, even grisly, but end on a note of nebulous optimism: the presumed gold left to be found.

New England has its equivalents, of course; every North Shore town has their own pirate treasure tales, and there are troves of Tory gold and other Revolutionary era spoils said to be dotting the landscape of the Northeast. In the Berkshires, gold has been an occasional obsession; in the early 1800s, a North Adams clockmaker prospected in the Hoosac Range for 20 years, finally producing some nuggets at the end of his life. Even earlier, the Mohican chief Konkapot was reputed to have a secret gold mine that only a few had ever seen.

Even classic gold mine scare stories, though less common, exist around here. Take for example the case of Oscar Beckwith, a Berkshire man whose heinous crimes became a national sensation over a century ago. Beckwith was born in North Egremont around 1810, later moving west to seek his fortunes. He reappeared in 1881, and took up residence in a cabin he built at the foot of Harvey Mountain, just a short distance west of the state line in Austerlitz, New York.

Described as a narrow-eyed, wizened man in his 70s, he said little, though he sometimes complained bitterly about his persecution by the “Jack Masons,” who he claimed had pursued him back and forth across the country, for reasons unknown. He had a wife in Egremont, Marietta, who he’d abandoned long ago, and did not visit her upon his return.

Beckwith soon came forth with the claim that he’d struck gold on the mountain, and convinced a man named Simon Vandercook to raise some money to become his partner in a proposed mining venture. Vandercook, at the time, was living and working at the home of Harry Calkins, next door in Alford. Simon was by all accounts a good, reliable man, but when he heard Oscar talk, he got the gold bug. He sent some of Beckwith’s samples to the state assayer, and sure enough, there was some gold contained in them.

On January 10, 1882, we know that Simon Vandercook left the Calkins homestead after dinner to walk to Beckwith’s shack. When he didn’t return that evening, Harry Calkins rode up to the cabin to look for him. As he reached it, he observed a dark smoke pouring from the chimney, and a nauseating smell in the air. He demanded to know what was burning, and Beckwith told him it was just some old ham rinds and bones.

He said that Vandercook had gone off to Green River with another man, and would not be back until March. Feeling a bit like Jody Foster near the end of Silence of the Lambs, one imagines, Calkins asked no more questions. He hurried down the mountain, returning with a hastily gathered posse to find the cabin empty.

Within, they found the mangled remains of a human body pickling in a brine barrel. In the stove, they discovered a charred skull, teeth and the half-burned bones of a foot and a hand. Early press accounts strongly imply evidence of cannibalism.

The posse followed Beckwith’s tracks to the caves around nearby No Bottom Pond, but lost him in an ensuing snowstorm. An inquest was held at a tavern in town, and a warrant issued for Beckwith’s arrest. A drawing that survives depicts two local reporters, W.J. Oatman for the Springfield Republican, and James Harding for the Eagle, discussing the gory murder. Oatman later became editor of the Pittsfield Morning Call, Harding of the Pittsfield Sun.

Beckwith stayed at large for three years. Eventually, the case became a passionate interest for Great Barrington’s Deputy Sheriff Humphrey, who had already collared another notorious murderer of the day, Fred Webster. Humphrey tracked him to Ontario, then, distrusting New York authorities, went to Washington to obtain extradition papers directly from President Arthur.

Beckwith was arrested and brought to Hudson, where he at first denied the charge, ranting constantly about “Jack Masons” and “Free Mason skulls” and their attempt to frame him. He was tried and convicted in November, 1885. He was sentenced six more times as appeals, petitions, and “lunacy commissions” were held. At the end of his life, he spoke at length about a second mine, farther up Harvey Mountain on a ledge only he knew about, much richer in gold than the first.

He was hung in Hudson on March 1, 1888. Only days later, the Great Blizzard of ’88 (See Advocate 12/3/09) finally finished off Beckwith’s abandoned cabin on Harvey Mountain. No trace of it or of any mine, even the one he had worked with Vandercook, have been reported since.

Over the years, occasional gold-seekers and other curious parties have investigated the area a bit. In the 1950s, a couple named the Hancocks prospected an area of stream nearby every weekend. A couple of decades later, Joseph Elliot of Egremont uncovered chopped up bones in a shallow grave near the supposed site of the cabin, and some speculated that Vandercook may not have been the only victim of “the Mad Miner.”

The area of Harvey Mountain forest in Austerlitz, with the appropriately named Fog Hill and the murky, cave dotted woods around No Bottom Pond, always seemed a fairly spooky area to me to begin with. Now even more so, knowing there just might still be an undiscovered mine or two out there somewhere… and perhaps other things, better left buried.

Joe Durwin is a local mystery monger and folklore fanatic. Send tips on buried treasure, bizarre crimes and other accounts of the strange to

Monday, January 11, 2010

Local Witch Trials Represent Perennial Impulse

Joe Durwin
Advocate Weekly Oct. 20, 2005

By virtue of timing, this area was, for the most part, free of the witchcraft hysteria that once swept New England.

The history of formal court proceedings was already winding down when the notorious affair at Salem took place in 1692. That same year saw the first settlement in what is now Berkshire County by Dutch farmers in Mount Washington, and the settling of neighboring southwest Vermont did not begin until the late 18th century.

Just because all official witch trials ended in the 1690s, though, does not mean that everyone suddenly altogether stopped being afraid of witches. As John Putnam Demos notes in his classic study, Entertaining Satan, “As a matter of individual preoccupation, and even of informal action, witchcraft was part of New England life well into the 19th century.”

It is in this later category that the witch “incidents” of this region fit. My friend Joe Citro, an inveterate digger into New England lore, came across an example of one such incident in the early days of Pownal, Vermont, recorded by lawyer/historian T.E. Brownell.

A Dutch woman identified only as “Mrs Krieger” (records indicate that there were several Kriegers among the town’s early settlers) was accused of certain diabolical acts. What specifically these acts were was not recorded, but they appear to have been taken very seriously- she was subjected to a testing system developed centuries before in Europe, the “water trial.” Stemming from a pre-Christian belief that water was sacred, it involved tying up the accused witch and casting her into water. If she sank, it indicated her innocence. If she floated, it meant that the water had rejected her because she was in league with Evil.

It was decided that the Mrs. Krieger would be pushed through a hole in the ice on the Hoosick River. Not surprisingly, she sank, demonstrating her virtue… and gravity. Luckier than most, Krieger even survived the ordeal. She emerged a bit downstream, was plucked from the icy water and revived.

The conversation that followed must have been extremely awkward.

Another legend dating back to the 18th century depicts an even more extreme confrontation in southern Berkshire County. The story speaks of a dilapidated old house in Guilder Hollow in Egremont, which had come to be thought of as haunted. The house had been the property of a man named Lloyd, who kept company with the Mohican of the Housatonic area and was believed to have been taught “the bloodcurdling magic arts of the Indian medicine man.”

When he was very old, the man disappeared, and was thought to have died. The house fell into disrepair. A few years later a woman known as Maria Lloyd, thought to be his daughter, took up residence there.

Soon after, the usual complaints associated with witchcraft begin: dogs died mysteriously, birds dropped dead in great numbers close to the house, children complained of being pinched by unseen hands. Strange lights were seen in the house by people passing on the road, and the sound of bells from a phantom sleigh were reportedly coming and going from the old house. Rumors began circulating that the Lloyd woman was consorting with spirits there.

These ill occurrences gradually escalated, according to the legend. A man named Job Hollenbeck lost a horse, and his neighbor Seth Porter’s chicken coop burned down for no apparent reason. Finally, it was decided that no further proof of sorcery was needed, and that the mysterious Maria Lloyd must be driven away for the safety of the community.

A large party of villagers, lead by Hollenbeck, set out for the house one night. Many of them armed with muskets, the mob surrounded the Lloyd house and called out to her gather her things and leave the premises. Maria mocked them from an upstairs window, threatening all manner of magical retribution. At this point, the tale continues, the mob was split on how to proceed. The timid were already backing away from the place, while a few of the more intrepid uneasily circled the door.

Suddenly, someone cried out that the house had caught on fire. A great explosion was heard inside, and soon the entire place was ablaze.

“Come and join me in the witches’ fire dance!” Maria Lloyd is supposed to have shouted from the window as the flames rose around her. At the last moment, say some, she seemed to repent, calling out to be saved from Satan’s hand… but by this time, the inferno had conveniently grown too wild for anyone to enter the house.

Later, some would claim that they had seen the form of a woman rise above the burning house and vanish into the night. As the tale has it, no remains were found in the ruins the next day.

Whether or not there is any nucleus of historical truth underlying this story is unclear. There is a record of one “Jan Hollenbeck” Egrement around the 1750s, but whether this is the Hollenbeck from the story is anyone’s guess. I cannot help but wonder if there perhaps was some poor woman living out in a shack in Guilder Hollow, arousing suspicion. Did some hysterical group of individuals set the place on fire, and in a subsequent guilty revision blame it on the devil?

Real or not, the existence of these narratives themselves suggest that while legal witch proceedings had ceased, the fear of witchcraft still thrived. In some ways, such superstitions have never faded. A cursory glance at the “ritual abuse” scares of the 1980s and 90s (from which one Pittsfield man, a victim of this hysteria, languished in jail nearly 20 years) shows that the sort of impulse which drove the atrocities in Salem and throughout New England is never far beneath the surface.
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