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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.