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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.