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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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