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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.