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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?