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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


Catherine said...

Ooh....creepy! I love it!!! North Carolina is rich with hauntings. Hope your travels will bring you south to visit some of our famous haunts!

オテモヤン said...
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priya said...
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priya said...
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Anonymous said...

Well, there is a cvave in No Bottom Pond itself, and when the water is low enough one can enter said cave. And there are other caves, both in Harvey Mountain State Forest and the Beebe Hill State Forest. The area supprts caves of the Stockbridge marble, much like that of Eldon French cave on adjacent TYom Ball Mountain in Alford, not 4 miles east as the crooked crows fly.

Anonymous said...

Oscar was also a horse thief who used to hide the items he would steal in caves I have seen. One is just off route 203. He evaded a posse by running backward in the snow. It had been told to me, by an old timer named Harvey Wilber whom had a saw mill and used to log "The Big Woods", that Oscar was captured in Canada, with the heart and liver of an indian squa in the oven and her hand in a frying pan, ready to eat. Those hills have more backwoods history than most would ever imagine.