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Thursday, December 27, 2012

The First Witch of Savoy, and the Tragedy of Tower Cemetery

How short the race our children ran
Cut down in all their bloom
The course but yesterday began
Now finished in the tomb.”
-Inscription at Tower Cemetery

Transactions with the 'shining ones,' since they are not always benign, require a certain skill or things might take an odd turn.” - Roger Davis

In the hills of Savoy, on a discontinued stretch of Bannis Road a mile south of Adams Road, at the edge of a rocky wind that's now more hiking trail than avenue, lies a little stone walled graveyard.

One of more than twenty small burial grounds speckled throughout the town, at first glance Tower Cemetery appears remarkable only as yet another reminder of the earlier people whose homes once dotted these lanes in the more densely populated days of the 19th century, when Savoy was a booming stagecoach stop boasting as many as three inns on its main drag.

A closer look at the ten stones that make up this one family plot suggests its more sorrowful history, the tale of one family that fared far worse than the average of their era. On a hushed winter day, the contemplative visitor may intuit much of the story of Orrin Tower and Florinda Granger and their vanquished line, a narrative whispered in etched stones and broken metal, an echo of long ago sadness that has given rise to a rich lore of prophetic visions and dark deeds.

For They Say that Florinda Granger was more than merely an unfortunate mother whose brood was cut down by illnesses and accidents; in the hands of Legend, she is the first witch of Savoy, whose forecasts of future events came at a terrible price.

Our most forthcoming source on this lore is none other than Roger Davis, himself the self-proclaimed “Witch of Savoy” these last decades, holding court at his Dragon House until his death two winters ago. Those unfamiliar with this intriguing local may consult my tribute to his life here, along with an investigation into the murky events surrounding his death and the hushed over arson at the Dragon House last year.

“From an early age she predicted future happenings,” Davis said of Granger in one of his rare surviving writings, “Her presence was all that was necessary to heal the sick. When she met Orrin, somehow, she caused him to believe that she was the most desirable woman he ever met.”

Granger married Tower in 1844, and they settled on land given by her father, Levi Granger, and Orrin ran a grain mill on the property.

It was said that she was born weak and consumptive, to a family thought to have long been secretly "of the craft."

According to the story, some of Florinda's visions and healings over the years were closely followed by tragedies within her own family.

From the headstones on Bannis Road, we know that the summer of 1851 was one of great strife, during which the Tower family lost first 3 year old daughter on July 28, and four year old twins Almina and Minerva on August 10, deaths that vital records of the time attribute to dysentery.

Three years later, on June 6, 1954, their two sons, 9 year old Elansford and 11 year old Wareham both drowned in their father's mill pond.

“It is supposed that he and his brother went in to bathe...” reads an inscription in the little cemetery.

Other oddities seem to have befallen the Tower family during their years on this Savoy hillside.  According to an item in a local paper from 1859, their home was struck by a bolt of lightning during a summer storm.  It reportedly rattled down the stove pipe and right into bed with another of the Tower's small children, setting the bed on fire, though no one was hurt.

Sinister rumors came to surround the misfortunes of the Tower children. Legend is rife with varied innuendo, some suggesting they were victims of some malevolent side effect of Florinda's powers, others implying a more direct villainy on the part of the father.

This was the version favored by Davis, whose account claims that in 1863, Florinda intercepted an attempt by Orrin and an anonymous drinking buddy to 'spirit away' then 13 year old daughter Lucy, after which things became eerily quiet in the Tower home. The latter day Witch of Savoy recalls:

“The waning moon that year coincided with Samhain, the end of the pagan year, Halloween. Both aspects aligning made it the optimum timing for endings of all things. All that day, Florinda was humming something under her breath, off and on. And that night she dropped a folded paper into the fire. As the flames consumed the paper, sending it up the chimney and its dancing sparks to the night above, a message was delivered.”

The next morning, the tale continues, the bodies of Orrin and his nameless cohort were found floating in the pond, fatalities written up to a drunken accident, though some suspected other forces at play.

According to local records, however, Orrin Tower passed on March 11, 1867. Tower appears to have served in the Civil War following a stint as one of the town's selectman. After his return, seven year old daughter Harriet succumbed to consumption in 1866, which is said to have struck both her parents the following year.  Florinda was declared dead two weeks after her husband, on March 24. She and Orrin were both 47 at the time of their death.

Two remaining scions of the Tower family survived a few years longer. Eldest daughter Lucy married Alfred Burnett, then fell to dysentery in 1871 at the age of 21; a final daughter Eunice died in 1875 at age 19, giving birth to a child who also died in the delivery.

Burnett, Lucy's husband, inherited the Tower house, which burned to the ground in 1915, leaving only the scant remains of a cellar hole just opposite the tiny cemetery.

A metal monument now stands in the center of the tiny burial plot, added sometime later than the graves, some of which have broken and otherwise become difficult to read. Where the names and vital dates of family members have been preserved on the hollow headstone-like structure, the plate containing the name of Orrin Tower has been conspicuously smashed out. It has been in this condition for at least twenty years.

In the etchings of stones slowly receding into nature is scattered sundry verses of poetic lament, such as this:

“Sweet children adieu a long adieu
Till we shall meet above
Then may we join the song with you
And sing redeeming love.”

A curious place, this quiet and secluded lot nestled in the trees, just down the road from the pond where the two boys met their doom, and less than a half mile from the hill where the town's more well known, modern witch set his humble and mysterious woodland cabin. Sheltered in forest shadows on this lower ridge of Borden Mountain, this cluster of artifacts mutters an underlying story of private suffering and unanswered questions... the sum tale of a family come and entirely gone from the world in less than 25 years.


Davis, Roger.  "Legends and Tales of the Berkshire Hills." Hoosac Trails V. 6, #4 [Dec.1993]
Miller, H. Elmer.  History of the Town of Savoy [1879]
Phinney, Jane B. Taking the High Road: Two Hundred Year History of a Hilltown [1997]
Sample, Stephen.  Berkshire Burial Grounds Within the State Forests. [1995]
Town of Savoy, Vital Records.  1840-1870
Berkshire County Eagle, July 15, 1859

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Crime Free Golden Age in the Berkshires

D.A. Capeless at arraignment for triple
homicice- photo J.Durwin iBerskhires
Perhaps the local legend I have heard told most often is that times have surely changed, that things are quite different now from a previous, more peaceful golden era where folks brought up their kids right and crime was less an issue- at least serious, ghastly crimes such as those in recent years. Despite years of historical research, I have been unable to locate precisely when this harmonic time period occurred, but I have managed to eliminate some time frames from the search. The following is a sliver sampling of the dates I have been able to eliminate as I continue to search for exactly when this epoch took place.

May 11, 1753- Two men shot and chopped up a Mahican native at Stockbridge following an argument.

April 15, 1755- Multiple men shot and stabbed William Race to death in his Sheffield home.

Feb 20, 1806- Ephraim Wheeler is hanged in Lenox for the rape of his 13 year old daughter. Prior to this, rape of one's own child was typically handled locally as a misdemeanor, and cases can be found in local court records on a monthly basis.

Nov 22, 1826- Samuel Charles becomes the fifth man hung in Lenox in the early1800s, for the murder of a man in Richmond.

July 29, 1861- Henry Pratt cuts the throat of his 17 year old wife/niece and then his own at New Ashford. [Full story]

Sep 7, 1862- Mrs. Emily Jones and her two children brutally murdered while picking berries one day in Otis, by Thomas and James Callendar.  Their bodies were concealed and only located after an extensive search.

July 29, 1877- Herbert Blanchard shoots two Savoy men in the middle of church on Sunday after being confronted about attempting to seduce a preteen girl.

Jan 10, 1882- Oscar Beckwith kills his business partner Simon Vandercook at Alford. Vandercook's remains are found chopped up, some burned in the woodstove while others were found in a brine barrel. Beckwith was suspected by some of cannibalism, and eventually hung at Hudson 6 years later.

August 6, 1897- Henry and Blanche Reed are bludgeoned to death in their North Adams home. While listed as unsolved, over the next 3 years, 3 individuals involved in the case, including two investigating officers, commit suicide. The case remains shrouded in mystery.

Aug 8, 1898- Fred Webster, who had recently been paroled from a murder in Egremont 20 years earlier, shot his brother and himself at the dinner table. The N.A. Transcript called it “yet another murder to the long list of crimes in Berkshire County” at that time.

Aug 20, 1900- May Fosburgh is shot dead in the middle of the night in her Tyler Street, Pittsfield home, either by her brother (tried & acquitted) or by alleged robbers (never identified). [Full story]

Oct 26, 1908- 24 defendants arraigned in Pittsfield for crimes over the weekend, and the extradition of serial killer Elroy Kent from Pittsfield to Vermont, while fire fighters were meanwhile battling acts of arson that had set the hills ablaze across the Berkshires for the past week. [More info]

Dec 12, 1915- beloved Civil War vet Lafayette Battelle is robbed and bludgeoned to death in his Monterey home [Full story]

Dec 17 1943- A skull found on West Mountain is believed to be from an abducted 22 year old schoolteacher; meanwhile, an armed robber nabs $190 from Pedercini Restaurant in North Adams.

May 9, 1945- Pittsfield's Willie Wynn is arrested for killing his 26 year old girlfriend. The following month, James Noxon is convicted of intentionally electrocuting his 6 month old son to death.

May 22, 1959 – News of the day: manhunt for two missing North Adams girls, corpse found floating in Silver Lake, woman robbed while in a North St. Shop.

October 7, 1976- Cynthia Krizack becomes the second unsolved murder of a teenage girl in less than two years; two out of at least a dozen murders within the county in a 3 year period.

July 9, 1981- Seven Lenox youths indicted for manslaughter in the drowning deaths of two Lee High students.

June, 1984 – The Springside Park zoo is finally closed after years of persistent vandalism. At least six animals had been butchered there since 1972, among dozens of malicious acts of destruction at that park since the 1960s.

Jan 7, 1994- Lewis Lent is arrested in Lanesboro and confesses to the murders of Jimmy Bernardo and Sara Anne Wood. Some investigators believe he may have been responsible for the murders of as many as 10 children.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"Stone Throwing Devils" A Problem in Early Berkshires

We've all become accustomed to some hectic weather in the Berkshires, from early blizzards to sudden micro-bursts to hail stones on a sunny day, but in a few instances the meteorological conditions have become downright peculiar.

In August of 1892, a crowd of Pittsfield residents was baffled by a strange cloud formation that came up suddenly out of a thunderstorm, splitting apart violently over a group of poplar trees, the tops of which, they said, were cleanly cut off, as though by a giant razor.

On March 27, 1960, Mrs. Roche of Dalton heard what sounded like an explosion in her front yard. Running out to see about the commotion, she found a large hole containing three pieces of what had been a chunk of ice weighing over 30 pounds. Subsequent inquiries could find no record of any airplanes over the area at the time, and the ice bomb appeared to have fallen riout of a cloudless sky.

An occasional hard object raining down is jarring enough, but what to do when such bombardment is ongoing, for days or even months?  This was the predicament of local residents at two different ends of the county during the 19th century. 

According to records of the time, from November 8 to November 14 of 1802, hundreds of pieces of stone, mortar and wood pelted at least two buildings along the ravine area that straddles the border between Salisbury, Connecticut and Sheffield, Mass.  

The trouble began one night when a clothier's shop at the spot called Sage's Ravine was peppered with a rain of these little missiles, shattering windows and badly frightening the owner and two apprentices.  They called on their esteemed neighbor, Simeon Sage, but neither they nor he could determine the source of the objects.  Over the following days, this and the nearby home of Ezekiel Landon underwent recurring periods of bombardment, where stones and other such bits of shrapnel would rain down constantly for a period of hours throughout the day and night.  

Hundreds of onlookers, neighbors, clergyman and learned men,  came to see this bizarre attack, but none could determine from whence the stones were thrown... if thrown they were.  Curiously, witnesses spoke of never seeing the rocks in flight, until they struck.  Stones would strike from multiple directions at once, ruling out the possibility of a single perpetrator, and some would drop neatly on the sill within the window, as though set gingerly there by unseen hands. 

Three persons were struck by the flying debris, and 56 panes of glass were broken before the assault ended forever, as mysteriously as it began.  Some blamed witchcraft, while others maintained that it must be the work of vandals, though none was ever revealed.

72 years later, just over the northern county border in Pownal, similar strife befell a farmer named Thomas Paddock.  Paddock, described by newspapermen as "a respectable farmer, of excellent character," found his house at the center of a sporadic stoning that lasted more than two months.

Witnesses described rocky showers that ensued intermittently, apparently out of the clear sky. They were said to fall randomly at all hours of the day and night, and varied in size from tiny pebbles to five inches in diameter. At one point, one fell that weighed more than twenty pounds, and left a three-inch crater in solidly frozen ground. A number of people tried to duplicate this incident by hurling similar boulders, but made scarcely any impression at all.

Nor was this the strangest aspect of it all. The stones did not behave at all as falling stones ought. When they hit the ground, they did not bounce or skip; instead, they just rolled calmly along the ground. They also tended to be warm to the touch. Worst of all, witnesses reported that on occasion they would make contact on the roof near the eaves, then, as if possessed, roll slowly up the roof and back down the other side.

Reporters from the many newspapers who covered the story claimed that  Paddock's house was situated that no human prankster could have possibly thrown the stones without being seen.  One medium from Hoosac Falls claimed that the spirit of a local woman was responsible, and would not stop until the stones were removed from the coffin in which her body lay. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle half-jokingly hypothesized that perhaps a new style of catapult had been invented, and was being tested on a nearby mountain.  A group of anonymous investigators from North Adams blamed the farmer's hired servant boy, despite the fact that he had been accounted for during many of the stone hurlings.  

Descriptions of such stonings are not confined to the region- similar incidents have been investigated throughout history, from a case in 1980s Tucson to an account by the Chief Physician to the Ostrogoth King Theodoric in 540 A.D.  Lithobolia, or "stone-throwing devil," was the name given to them by royal Secretary of the Colony Richard Chamberlain, who documented a case he observed in New Castle, New Hampshire in 1682.

Some parapsychologists believe that incidents of this type are poltergeists, and may be caused by natural telekinetic operations not yet understood by science, unknown facets of the mind acting upon matter through some complex subatomic process.  For the die-hard skeptic, there will always be some hypothetical rebellious youth on which to pin the blame, if nothing else will do.  Whatever the nature of these stone throwing devils, most would prefer they stay in the realm of Berkshire history, or at least well clear of our own neighborhood.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Changing Face of Exorcism in Local X-Files

Floating lights.  Levitating furniture.  Police from the Town of Lee responded to reports of refrigerator-flinging, bookcases torn asunder, decapitated religious statues, and a family's terrified accounts of a scratching, growling, black robed being they claimed had terrorized them throughout the summer of 1981.  

If you were intrigued by mention of this 31 year old local haunting story in Adam Poulisse's excellent new feature on exorcisms in the Berkshire Eagle, and are interested in knowing more about this case- which made headlines around the country from the AP to Geraldo- I have made available for the first time online this 2006 feature from the magazine Haunted Times, Horror in the Berkshires. With it, I have also uploaded an accompanying sidebar article from the same issue, which takes a closer look at the fatal casualties of a ritual gone wrong: When Faith Turns Deadly.

Long before the incident in Lee, an old Shaker legend tells us of the possession of Sister Martha Tomlinson, climaxing in an epic Final Battle with the Evil One.  Their community having fallen into sinful ways, an Elder leads a faithful posse up Mt. Sinai, advancing upon the devil, singing hymns and encircling him until he burned out with a shriek and a puff of sulphur.   It is worth noting that since I first wrote on this, I have come across this legend in circulation already by the 19th century not only in Hancock, but the colonies at New Lebanon and Tyringham, each attributed to their own respective holy mount.

Going further back, there's a tale from the Cotton Mather colonial era  regarding Dalton's Wizard's Glen that represents an earlier style of exorcism lore, where a hunter named John Chamberlain is said to have aborted some Native American ritual with the "demonic" Hobbomocko, by holding his Bible in the air and speaking his Lord's name.

Nowadays in the Berkshires, one is more likely to encounter the practice of a softer kind of exorcism, less connotated with satanic evil.  Various modern spiritualist, pagan, new age, shamanic practices on the rise are more apt to speak of "depollution" of "manifestations" that can cause strife, emotional upset and illness.

Savoy's recently departed Witch Vortex was known to perform such activities, from the secluded retreat of his Dragon House.  In downtown Pittsfield, popular psychic medium Vicki Baird also provides this service, though if you need any of her services you'd best not put off getting in touch- at the time of this writing, she is booked up with appointments into January.  Baird, who has appeared at times on the stage of the Colonial Theatre, is said on good authority to have de-polluted that historic site of a certain lingering spirit.

Even in this context, the practice is not without its disturbing anecdotes.  In the spring of last year, a local individual who practices as a professional shaman and healer performed such a ritual on a local child, at the behest of the child's parent.  Less than forty eight hours later, the apartment building where the child and parent lived was destroyed by a massive fire.  The following night, a truck went off the road in what local media referred to as a "bizarre crash," completely destroying a house.  That house, as it happens, was the home of the shaman who performed the rite on said child.

It's a fairly diverse list, and with the exception of the incident in Lee, not much conforming to the standard image people have of exorcism- which is essentially that of Catholic doctrine as adapted by Hollywood.  Ultimately exorcism is a diverse span of practices, which vary considerably in style, method, and terminology between different denominations and belief systems and also over time, from one era to another.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

These Mysterious Hills October Extravaganza

UPDATED 10/14/12
These Mysterious Hills' Joe Durwin, w/ family

Exorcism in the Berkshire Eagle- Sunday, Oct. 14:  With a little help from These Mysterious Hills, Adam Poulisse of the Berkshire Eagle has been investigating the phenomenon of modern exorcisms, and revisiting the curious case of an alleged demonic entity which one family claimed plagued their Lee, Massachusetts home in 1981.  As a complimentary extra, I will be uploading a (never-before-online) article I penned on the case for Haunted Times in 2006, along with a supplemental piece on the disturbing problem of accidental deaths by exorcism in modern history.

Blog Extras- In addition to the exorcisms items, throughout the next couple weeks I'll be adding numerous photos from mysterious sites around the region, and some other articles from my research that have never been made available online, such as Science & Ghost-Hunting (Haunted Times) and The Hauntings Behind the Haunting of Hill House (Fate Magazine), featuring the Bennington area houses that helped inspire the classic Shirley Jackson novel.

Historic Hauntings for Halloween- Berkshire Family Focus October 16: These Mysterious Hills profiles some family friendly thrills and chills around the Berkshires, including a variety of tours which combine historic and cultural value with a touch of the spooky.  See also this special report: Pittsfield to Host Zombie Hordes at Downtown Festival 

These Mysterious Hills in each weekend from now until the end of the month, there will be a brand new installment of traditional These Mysterious Hills, with topics ranging over a variety of items from my local X-Files that I haven't previously touched on.
Installment #1: Pontoosuc's Lost Lovers Legend is Classic Local Lore
Installment #2 Historic Cheshire Resident Tangled With the Mysterious

5 Days of Halloween on Live 95.9 : October 25 through October 31, at 7:50AM Live 95.9 FM will present five days of five minute These Mysterious Hills vignettes on local legends, ghost stories and mysteries in the Berkshires.

A Haunted Halloween on Berkshire Viewpoint-WBRK: Special two hour broadcast covering tons of local folklore and forteana, w/ special guests Nick Mantello and Tony Dunne, and a chance to call in with your own strange experience or local ghost story.  10-Noon, October 31 1340am /

The lore of October Mountain on WGBY's Connecting Point: 7:30PM, Oct. 31- PBS's western Massachusetts station will air a ten minute segment we filmed last month on the colorful history and trail of strange sightings surrounding Massachusetts' largest state forest.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mountain Lions More Debatable Than Mythological

Letter to the Editor, Berkshire Eagle (published July 16, 2012)

Regarding the article on local legends in Sunday's Berkshire Eagle, I must say I found the brief discussion of the issue of mountain lions (aka cougars, puma, or catamounts) a little

disappointing. The subject of the existence of this species in the northeast is a complex and actively debated one among scientists, and I would urge care about lumping it into the category of myth and legend. To say that scientists agree that these animals were "last here in the 1850s"
is both vague and factually inaccurate, as there has been a diversity of positions expressed about this in the scientific community, though virtually all agree that cougars were certainly present in New England states long after that date, continued local sightings, and confirmed samples in neighboring counties. There is definitive documentation of members of the species killed in New England well into the 1930s, and there has never really been a lull in sightings since. While wildlife researchers associated with
universities and private foundations are much more receptive to the idea that there may remain breeding populations in remote pockets of the northeast, even state and federal wildlife officials who've been more opposed to this concept freely admit that many examples of individual mountain lions have been confirmed in recent years -more than 110, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's chief researcher. While these public officials may be more likely than their non-governmental counterparts in the scientific community to attribute all such cases to escaped pets and miscellaneous migration from the western U.S., to my knowledge no one is denying that they are occasionally spotted in the wilds all over the region.

On a more local level, I would refer interested readers to extensive newspaper coverage of sightings around this county throughout the past century. From the panther reported in Williamstown in September of 1899, one spotted in North Pownal in 1926, dozens of sightings from Pittsfield and the surrounding area in the mid 1940s, Great Barrington in 1966, and deluges of reports in 2000 and 2008, the Eagle, North Adams Transcript and other local media have frequently reported on reliable accounts of these elusive tawny creatures in our midst. In addition to eyewitness testimony, the last decade and a half has yielded more definitive evidence of their presence all around us, from DNA confirmation of a scat sample found at the Quabbin Reservoir to a verified wild cougar struck by a car last summer in Greenwich, Connecticut last
While debate about whether all these proven occurences of mountain lions represent descendants of the original cats that prowled the east coast or some combination of escaped pets and redistribution from west coast distribution areas is likely to continue between researchers for years to come, it is folly to imply that the many Berkshire residents who've encountered them are all seeing things or telling tall tales.

Joe Durwin

These Mysterious Hills
July 8, 2012

Images: Historic hoto of what was believed to be the last cougar shot in Vermont 1881; cougar hit by car in Greenwich, CT June 2011

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Legend of Camp Windigo

By Joe Durwin
These Mysterious Hills

Camp Windigo, Main House
Within the wooded expanse of the Windsor State Forest, a short hike from the pleasant cascading waterfall of Windsor Jambs, a decaying nest of old buildings slipping back into nature has long fascinated lore seekers from around western Massachusetts.  Once a beloved summer camp, over the past couple of decades the camp has taken on a more sinister reputation- a site of grisly legends, alleged ghost sightings and spooky explorations.

Alumni remember Camp Windigo, as it was known and operated until the 1980s, as a place of warm childhood memories.  In the nearly three decades it has stood abandoned, however, a darker story of tragedy has emerged.

These days, the yarn one is most likely to hear if you ask around the Berkshires is some variation of the following, culled from an internet posting made a few years back:

"This is a camp that may have been up in the 1980's and is haunted by 6 little girls and a crazy woman.  The story is that a camp couselor went crazy and hung 3 girls in a barn on the property and drowned 3 more in a tub then she went and killed herself."

Occasional more recent tellings set the time of the murdered campers in the 1800s.  This is problematic, since this property was a farm then, and would not become a camp until the mid 20th century.  A trail of internet mentions over the years suggests that this change of era may have originally stemmed from a combination of typos and misinterpretations of vague mentions of "80s."

Otherwise, this a fairly consistent version of the story as it tends to be told in the region- seven deaths, including a camp counselor and six young campers she murdered.  Typical tellings usually but not always conform to the notion that three were hung, and three drowned.

This is a story that seems to have been around for well over a decade, and I have received a steady trickle of comments about it since I first began publishing These Mysterious Hills in the Advocate more than seven years ago.  Several teams of amateur ghost investigators have tromped around the property, and tell of orbs and "mysterious shadows" in their photos, child-size hand prints appearing inexplicably on windows, or the disembodied voices of children crying.  At least one purported psychic has claimed to have "made contact" with the spirits of the six murdered girls.

Fortunately for nostaligic former Windigo campers, there's no compelling reason to think these murders ever took place there.

An exhaustive check of records over the years has uncovered not a single shred of evidence to support the claim that six campers were murdered here, or anywhere else in the vicinity.  Vital records, local law enforcement files, and media sources for the area are consistently devoid of any reference to such an occurrence, which, if true, would no doubt have made lurid headlines around the region and nationally.

Is it possible that such an atrocity might still have taken place, and somehow become lost or obscured in the folds of history?

While I will allow for this truly remote possibility, I would direct the reader to a few relevant points of reference.  During the late 1970s through early 80s, at least three young girls from northern Berkshire County were abducted and murdered: Kim Benoit, of North Adams, Cynthia Krizack, of Williamstown (whose body was found not too far from Windigo, down an embankment in Windsor), and Lynn Burdick, from the town of Florida.  There are many in the area that remember these vividly.  The slightly more recent murder of Jimmy Bernardo by Lewis Lent in 1990 remains hauntingly vivid to Berkshire residents more than two decades later. Scads of material on all of these can be found around the internet.

Yet no one over the age of forty has any recollection of this rumored murder of six children in the tiny town of Windsor.  When I first heard these rumors years ago, one of the first people I asked about it was veteran Berkshire newsman Glenn Drohan, who edited or worked at every major paper in the county since long before the camp slaughter was said to have occcured.  He had no idea what I was talking about, and that clinched it for me right there.

Still, as belief in this legend grows- mostly among those born after the supposed event- and recent years have seen a great growing fascination with the site, a bit of historical background on Camp Windigo might be of interest.

History of Camp Windigo
The camp was founded in 1942, by Florence Ryder and Muriel Logan, both Physical Education professors at Smith College, on 75 acres of what had been the farm of John Decelles.  The farm house itself dates to 1790, as evidenced by signage on the edge of the house.

About 30 boys and girls would spend July and August at Windigo each year, where they tried their hand at farming with various educational tasks.

"The daily activities which were of the most importance were tending to the animals," said Karen Sawyer, attended there in the early 60s, "Every week there was an animal rotation so a camper got to experience feeding and cleaning up after each type of creature which included bantams, goats, sheep, pig, horses and Eeyore the donkey."

There were six horses in total, and also ducks, laying hens, rabbits, dogs and cats around the little farming camp.  The grounds also included a pond, blueberry field, and apple orchard.

"Miss Ryder and Miss Logan also knew all the areas around camp and at least three days a week we took hikes to various areas around the camp," according to Abby Zanger, who was also a camper there during the 60s.

At some point in the 1970s, it was purchased by the Latter Day Saints and became a camp for young Mormons children, with a similar agricultural bent.  Neither campers from the first era nor those during its Mormon period have any recollection of any stories about murdered campers ever being told there.

The camp closed in the early to mid 1980s. It was later deeded to the state and became part of Windsor State Forest.  In 2010, the Department of Conservation and Recreation were considering tearing down the structure, but at the time of this writing it still stands.

One of the enduring curiosities of the camp is it's name.  To the Algonquin people, the word Windigo (also known as Wendigo, Witiko, Weetigo, and other variations) refers to a cannibalistic supernatural creature, a source of fear and dark tales.

Assuming for a moment that the founders of the camp, of whom alumni glowingly, did not intend to evoke such dark associations, I at first wondered if they simply had heard the word without context.  Perhaps they simply applied it as a neat sounding native word, in the politically incorrect manner of many camps of the era.  This was before the age of serious Native American scholarship and long before the renaissance of cryptozoology and para-creature interest of recent decades.  Unless they were aware of an obscure psychological disorder or Algernon Blackwood's classic 1910 horror story of the same name, they might simply not have known.

The bicentennial History of the Town of Windsor offers an alternative explanation, however.  According to its brief entry, the camp was dubbed Windigo "because it is in the town of Windsor, the wind often blows there, and the place was originally known as the Windlow place, which is an Indian name."

So is the camp name derived ultimately from another Native American word besides the fabled Wendigo? I have not been able to find the word "Windlow" in what has been preserved of the Mahican language, that of the people encountered by first colonial settlers of the area- or in cursory checks of other Algonquin dialects.  This does not rule out the possibility it could have been a word among one of these long dead languages.

Meanwhile, there are ample numbers of Winslows in the Windsor Bush Cemetery right next to the old camp

Even if the name is nothing more than a striking coincidence, modern awareness of the violent connotations of the Windigo may well have helped inspire the gory myths of the camp.  Then again, a look at the larger lore of murdered campers in our culture, perhaps such a story was inevitable.

Murdered Campers: The Not-So Urban Legend

The subject of murdered campers is fairly well-worn folkloric territory, intimately connected to the very nature of the oral tradition of ghost stories, which we so often associate with camping that the term 'campfire tales' is one of its most common synonyms.  For the camper around the fire, the danger to oneself is the clincher which drives home the classic scare story, the whole ominious nature of "and some say he stalks the woods to this very day."  The historic threat and its proximal location is the underlying peril intended to give such tellings their "jump" factor.

Folklorists believe these kinds of stories have a greater impact on the psyche and imagination because of the inherent vulnerability of the setting in which they're told, and take place.  In the woods, in the dark, far from the familiarity of their own beds and the supposed safety of populated areas, such narratives take on a slight degree more plausibility to the listener.  Thus, "camp" becomes a more inherently perilous place, and we are quicker to believe in gruesome tragedy befalling the faceless unnamed campers that went before.  The camp boogeyman known as Cropsey is at least a century old, and tales of "Boyscout Betty" and the murdered youths of "Boy Scout Lane" are classics of the scouting community.  I still have fond/traumatized memories of the animal-killing psychopath our scout masters convinced us was stalking Camp Chesterfield during the summer of '91.

The 1980s saw this theme explode into a profusion of gory franchises, from Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp to Harvey Weinstein's "The Burning."  Counselors and campers by the dozens were stalked to their demise around the cabins and shores of places like Crystal Lake; the theme was virtually continuous on the silver screen during the decade Camp Windigo first closed.  The meteoric rise of such legends coincides so neatly with the time period during which this little Windsor sleepaway camp fell into unsettling decrepitude that it is hard to believe that these developments are unrelated.

In the realm of urban legend, this story of Camp Windigo bears a striking resemblance to that of Camp Lulu, in Brownsville, Texas.  There, it is said, a camp counselor went mad and attacked and killed several campers in his charge.  As with Windigo, the victims were all said to be girls, and in most versions the deranged counselor takes his own life, and the camp is closed down in the wake of the tragedy.

Another tale with passing familiarity comes from a closer abandoned camp, that of Camp Connecticut in Colchester.  There, the insane counselor is said to have perhaps killed as many as 60 campers!

Though no records of any such happenings support the ghostly legends of these three camps, they may be partly inspired by a very real horror that took place in Oklahoma in 1977.  On the first late spring night of Girl Scout camp at Camp Scott, near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, three young Girl Scouts, Doris Denis Milner, Lori Lee Farmer, and Michele Guse, were taken from their shared tent and brutally murdered in the woods.  An escaped convict was arrested, but later acquitted of the deaths, and the case remains open.  Camp Scott was closed down and abandoned after 50 years of operation.  The horrific crime occupied national news for weeks and months- as the supposed murders at Camp Windigo no doubt would have, had they actually occurred.

Whatever Walks There, Walks Alone

If the legendary murders at Camp Windigo most probably never took place, does that mean it's not haunted? Such proclamations are not for me to make.

There is, however, the following anecdote from one Deborah Phillips, whose husband lived in the old house for a time in the 1980s, after it was closed as a camp...

"During one visit I did see (don't laugh) some 'ghosts' old man in overalls and a young girl in a dress, out of the corner of my eyes when I entered the living room."

As one internet tipster maintained, "There is something down in the basement that has a very strong presence."

I must admit that I did feel a second or two of anxiety on my last visit to Camp Windigo, and it was just as I was entering the basement.  Then again, it might have been because the top three stairs were missing.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Photo Courtesy
-Reposting this TMH editorial from '06 in light of recent local discussion of the film Freeing Bernie Baran and because where it is currently online is difficult to find. This summarizes the case up to the point at which Baran was granted a new trial in June of 2006. The DA ultimately elected not to pursue retrial and Bernard was finally released a few months later.

Following Bernard Baran's Long Road to Justice
The Advocate Weekly- June 29, 2006
  (Editor's note: In a departure this week from his usual explorations of eerie or unexpected phenomena, Advocate columnist Joe Durwin chose to write an opinion piece on Bernard Baran, whose controversial case has, to many, been a strange and inexplicable part of These Mysterious Hills -Glenn Drohan) 

Last week, Superior Court Judge Francis R. Fecteau ordered a new trial for Bernard Baran, a Pittsfield man who was convicted on child- molestation charges more than 20 years ago, opining that his original trial "cannot be relied on as having produced a just result," and that a "substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice" exists. Based on more than two years' research on the disturbing specifics of this case, there is little question in my mind that said miscarriage of justice does exist, and that if anyone in the long and often convoluted history of American jurisprudence ever deserved a retrial, Bernard Baran does.

 In the days following Fecteau's decision, much attention has been focused on the failings and shortcomings of Baran's defense attorney. Comparatively little consideration has been given to the seedy origins of the charges for which Baran was initially arrested and to the investigation that followed. This is an unfortunate oversight on the part of the local media, as this is where the real story is to be found. In 1984, Baran was 19 and employed by Pittsfield's Early Childhood Development Center. He was also openly gay - a point which seems to have enraged the parents of one of the boys in his care at ECDC. Early in the fall of 1984, Lisa Hanes [pseudonym] contacted the day care to demand that Bernard be terminated, stating that no homosexual should be put in a position of proximity to children. In a later deposition, Hanes described her views on homosexuality at that time: ".I had a feeling that if they're gay, they shouldn't be with kids. They shouldn't get married. They shouldn't be allowed out in public." ECDC rightly informed her that Bernard's sexual orientation was none of its business but that she was free to remove her son if she felt uncomfortable.
She did not do so.

Meanwhile, a climate of hysteria had been building across the country. For the past year, the nationally famous McMartin preschool "ritual abuse" trial had dragged on (as it would for years, though no convictions ever resulted and most analysts have dismissed the incident as hysteria). Closer to home, the arrest of day-care worker Gerald Amirault on eerily similar charges took place in Malden, in September 1984. About a month later, Hanes and her husband accused Baran of molesting their son Peter [pseudonym]. Some background on this first accuser's family and home environment is worth exploring. Both the boy's mother and stepfather admitted to being addicted to drugs, consuming a steady diet of opiates and barbiturates.

Both the stepfather, an ex-felon, and one of the mother's previous boyfriends had been treated at Berkshire Medical Center for allegedly self-inflicted stab wounds to the chest following domestic disputes. The boy often came to school sporting bruises and had several times been placed in foster care due to the climate of violence and rampant drug abuse at home. At one such foster home, according to a state Department of Social Services report, Peter stated (unprompted) that he had been sexually abused by one of his mother's prior boyfriends some time before the Baran trial. The DSS investigated and substantiated the claim, though for some incomprehensible reason waited (quite illegally) until AFTER Baran was convicted before notifying the district attorney's office.

The boy also tested positive for gonorrhea immediately prior to the accusations of abuse at ECDC, a major piece of evidence used in the prosecution against Baran - despite the fact that he himself tested negative, and that no record exists of his ever having been treated for the disease. Immediately following the first accusation, another came from the mother of a girl who also attended ECDC. This parent, a friend of Hanes, was a known prostitute with similar drug problems. Months later, the girl confided to a therapist that Baran had never molested her and that her mother had convinced her to lie "so that they could get a lot of money." She, with Hanes, later sued ECDC for millions, losing after their credibility was destroyed in an investigation by the day-care facility's insurance company. As with other evidence in favor of Baran's innocence, this received little or no attention from the Berkshire district attorney's office, then or now.

The investigation and prosecution that followed played out similarly to other, more famously acknowledged, day-care-abuse witch hunts. Nearly all of the 160 children attending ECDC were interrogated at length, though a few parents found the accusations so absurd that they refused to allow their children to participate. Then-common methods such as "child-abuse puppet shows" and suggestive questioning techniques were employed, eventually producing accusations from three additional children. These techniques have since been discredited by scientific research showing that such methods lead mainly to false testimony and the implantation of false memories in children, who are particularly susceptible to suggestion. Videotapes of these interrogations reveal a pattern of badgering and bullying to produce the desired responses, even when these responses were inconsistent and internally contradictory.

Meanwhile, prosecutor Daniel A. Ford made no real effort to obscure his clear distaste for homosexuality. Despite the fact that not one adult witness or shred of physical evidence was ever produced, that no other ECDC employee ever witnessed anything they considered suspicious, or that, given the nature of Baran's contact with the children there, many of the specific details of the allegations were physically impossible, the jury ultimately found Baran guilty. From the trial transcript, it would appear their decision was based more on the evidence withheld by the DA's office than the evidence it produced, in combination with the emotional arguments of Ford and the overall circus atmosphere of the trial created by the prosecution. Since then, at least one juror has denounced the trial as unfair, and three of the five accusers have since denied that Baran ever molested them. Over the years, a huge amount of opposition to the conviction has amassed, and through the efforts of Bob Chatelle, founder of the Bernard Baran Justice committee, a vast network of supporters have rallied around him. Meanwhile, virtually every similar conviction from the 1980s wave of day-care abuse scandals has been overturned.

All of which makes it hard to understand how present District Attorney David Capeless can be so adamantly against the move to grant Baran a new trial, one several recent decisions by Capeless that have provoked concern and consternation from some Berkshire County residents. It is the job of any commentator, when faced with an overwhelming preponderance of factual evidence on a particular conclusion, to acknowledge that conclusion rather than remain in a precarious fence-sitting position of merely providing a showcase for sound bites from both camps. With that in mind, I anxiously await the day when Bernard Baran receives the fair trial he should have had 22 years ago - the kind we were told as schoolchildren that all Americans are entitled to. As it stands, his continued imprisonment remains a huge black mark on our entire region and a serious strike against the very notion of reason, justice or decency in our community.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Area Artist Presents "Ghost Radio"

Info on a great project from artist Ven Voisey

"Ghost Radio is an ongoing audio collage/fm transmission project by Ven Voisey to included in the 2012 deCordova Biennial.

True ghost stories and paranormal experiences are gathered through individual conversations, spirit communication attempts, telephone messages, radio technology experiments, found audio clips, social media sound fragments... What I have discovered is that ghosts are everywhere, and disembodied individuals and energies seem to be present in increasing numbers. Belief systems and skepticism varies as widely as the personalities I encounter.
The material collected is recomposed into an audio installation that drifts between music composition, cut up audio docudrama, and ghost hunt: a mashup of spirituality, mythology, history, technology and a coping with imminent mortality. Seven low-wattage fm transmitters are currently installed throughout the deCordova Museum. Visitors to the museum are able to pick up a radio from the front desk & use it to seek out the transmissions throughout the building. The stories become ghosts themselves, and by physically searching through space, invisible fragments are revealed."

To contribute your story, call the Ghost Radio hotline:

(aka 213.444.6785)