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Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday the 13th Copycat Killing in Western Mass

Almost everyone in the western world takes notice, at least in passing, when the thirteenth of a month falls on a Friday. Many people are blatantly superstitious about such a day- some considering it lucky, some unlucky- but widely associated with luck in some fashion. In fact, considering that the belief in the significance of the day is only about a century old, it is maybe even a little surprising how nearly universal it is in the English-speaking world, and beyond.

Individually, though, superstitions about the number thirteen (the most popular superstition in the world, according to author Nathaniel Lachenmeyer) and Fridays in general have existed for a great deal longer. Both have roots in the Christian gospels- the old “thirteen at a table” rule (which appears to be the oldest superstition about the number), after that fiasco at the Last Supper, and the universal agreement in scripture that Christ’s execution took place on a Friday. Until recent decades, executions in general were typically carried out on Friday, contributing to its somewhat grim reputation.

Since the 1980 debut of Shaun Cunningham’s film of that title and its subsequent franchise, Friday the 13th has taken on a somewhat ‘spookier’ connotation in, and when it takes place in October some even take it as cue to start getting in Halloween mode early. For some though, it can be a cause of serious anxiety. There is even a name for this: triskaidekaphobia, an overwhelming and irrational fear of Friday the 13th (as opposed to jasospacephobia, which is merely an extreme repulsion to Friday the 13th Part X).

Some people have even more convoluted ways of relating to the pop culture of the day. This is the story of how Friday the 13th came to life and terrorized the town of Greenfield Massachusetts through Halloween, 1988. That is, at least as much of it as ever leaked out to the press.


Mark Branch
Mark Branch was an 18 year old grocery store clerk with an avid interest in slasher films. As the clerk at Video Expo 1 in Greenfield put it later: “He rented strictly gore, period. The gorier, the better.” He was particularly entranced with the Friday the 13th series, and its machete-wielding protagonist, Jason Vorhees. Some might have called it an obsession.

Perhaps that’s the way it might have been described by Sharon Gregory, a freshman psychology major at Greenfield Community College. Sharon was apparently intrigued enough by Branch to do some sort of psychological profile on him. Curiously, police were later unable to confirm that this was done as part of her course work. Just how well acquainted the two were is opaque, but what is known is that Mark knew that Sharon had written up a psychological profile of him, and that he wanted it.

On the night of October 24, Mark donned Jason’s trademark hockey mask and big black boots, and headed for Sharon’s apartment. What exactly transpired will never be known. Her twin sister found her mutilated body in the bathroom, having been stabbed repeatedly in the head, chest, and abdomen.

Police honed in on Branch as a suspect immediately, and suspicion of his guilt became a growing certainty when they found his bloodstained car abandoned near the woods in nearby Buckland. A massive manhunt ensued, but the Jason copycat remained undiscovered. As Halloween approached and more and more sensational media coverage came out about Branch’s obsession with Friday the 13th, area residents became increasingly frightened. Greenfield cancelled its Halloween parade and downtown activities, and confined trick-or-treat to afternoon hours. The local movie theater even agreed to postpone the release of Halloween IV- though how exactly that helped is somewhat unclear. Perhaps they feared that Branch would show up to attend the film- after all, Jason is, to a large extent, just a rip-off of Michael Myers.

Everyone seemed convinced that Branch would show up around Halloween for some kind of climactic slaughter, demonstrating that perhaps he was not the only one who’d seen one too many slasher movies. In fact, Halloween passed without incident, and also without new breaks in the search for Branch, despite the involvement of reputed psychic John Monti. There were no new developments in the case until late November, when a hunter discovered Branch’s body hanging from a tree in the woods of Buckland. The coroner determined that Branch’s suicide took place shortly after the slaying of Sharon Gregory.

Attempts to draw out more sensational details of the case, particularly those surrounding Branch’s obsession with Friday the 13th, were made by local newspapers, who petitioned the courts to release documents pertaining to the murder and to evidence confiscated from Mark’s home. The motions were successfully blocked by an attorney for his family, and the story essentially ground to a close, wrapping up with a quote from Greenfield police chief David McCarthy:

“He was so entrenched with Jason that he had to have the Final Chapter in his own feelings. He wanted to know what it felt like to live out the part of Jason,'' McCarthy said.


United Press International: Oct. 29, Nov. 1, Nov. 5, Dec. 1, 1988
Associated Press: Oct. 29, Nov. 1, 1988
Syracuse Daily Herald Oct 30, 1988
Boston Globe Nov. 30, 1988

Friday, November 01, 2013

Folkore & the 1st Amendment: The Halloween Story That Almost Wasn't

These Mysterious Hills celebrated its 9th birthday yesterday by weathering the first major challenge to publication of its content in the history of its run.

TMH began Halloween 2004, in the pages of the Advocate Weekly newspaper, where it ran first as a weekly, then a sporadic column from 2004-2009.  As a body of folklore research and fortean journalism, it has spanned also the pages of Haunted Times, Fate Magazine, the North Adams Transcript, iBerkshires, multiple radio networks, internet sites, and television networks from the regional to the international.  Over a decade, I've written on dozens and dozens of legended landmarks and sites of curiosity, from New England to Arizona... not all of them are always thrilled to have persistent rumors of spooky goings on repeated and reported, but though many have opted not to comment on inquiries about their possible para-scare status, none has ever demanded a retraction.

Until now.
Yesterday, within an hour or so of my Halloween special installment for, an annual tradition since 2011, the site was contacted asking that the article be removed.  The complaint came from an owner of one of the three haunted hotels featured in the piece.  The reason given is that one of the proprietors is from an ethnic culture in which discussion of ghosts is sometimes considered taboo.

It's perfectly fine to have a cultural taboo about something.  I have no problem respecting that.  In over a decade of swimming in uncomfortable, taboo topics of study, I have never pushed anyone to talk to me about something they don't want to talk about.

Any time I've profiled the folklore surrounding a place that was an institution or business, I have offered the opportunity for those involved to weigh in.  Many venues have had ample chances, over months or even years, to talk about the lore and ideas that may be floating around about said site, and have declined.  Of the three hotels profiled in yesterday's temporarily banished article, all three have had such opportunities.  One has been overwhelmingly forthcoming, and a pleasure to work with in the past.

To be clear, non-comment in no way makes a story go away, and in folklore this is doubly true.  In an ostensibly free, constitutionally protected country, you cannot expect that your reservations or even disagreement, however strong, are going to be sufficient to suppress the wider dialogue of others in the world.  You are under no obligation to discuss or read information that bothers you, but you are also in no position to halt the flow of that information by others.

It is, perhaps, naive to conclude that just because someone comes to an area and purchases a piece of property, that they will suddenly be able to somehow control or manage the whole social dialogue and body of folklore about a historic local landmark that was part of a community long before said owners arrived, and will remain so long after they have moved on to other adventures.  Not only did these legends existed about this inn before its most recent purchase, but I had already written about them in a different local newspaper long before.  They will linger long after its next purchase. Campfire stories belong to none, and they belong to all.  They are a part of our broader culture, even if some choose not to partake.

It seems almost silly to quibble about a challenge (which nearly succeeded, though the article has been put back up, albeit with some small edits*) to a Halloween day piece about ghost stories.  But in this region I have chosen to call home, we have been in the past couple years weathering quite a few attacks to the free use of speech and the ability of journalists to engage on any topics they wish, and that is a thing more scary than any story I've heard of ghostly shenanigans.

We all have things that we'd rather not hear, read, or see.  We all come across stories and statements that make our blood boil.  We all have something we'd maybe like to see censored or suppressed.

Yet we all want this right to be there for us, we need to know that we can still own our voice and let loose ideas and let them rise or fall in the fray.  It's a relative world, where one chap's sacred is another's silly, but this tenet has proven itself in fire enough to be held true, enough that by now we really should all be championing it, even when it allows for information we don't care for.  It doesn't work applied selectively. It has to stand, for all things and all people, or it will stand for none.

*In case you're curious what was removed from the final version, it was just a longer, wordier of the following warning:  if you're an expecting mother, think twice about booking a room in the main Manor House, particularly #5, the master bedroom.  Word has it that whatever may linger of Dame Spencer is hell on pregnant women.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Darkness Over Savoy: Fervor, Murder, and Madness in a Rural New England Town (Part 1)

It's first school was known as Tomb School. It has had a Police Chief named Norman Bates, and a weekly paper called The Crow. Historically, it is a revivalist-friendly hill town sprinkled with witches and haunted inns; riddled with mysterious burial grounds, where lie far too many who died violently for such a tiny, stunningly scenic mountain town in the romantic Berkshires of Massachusetts.

If Stephen King made up Savoy, Massachusetts it would seem desperate at this stage in his career.

Savoy recently topped a Boston Globe list of best places to live in the state, based on its apparently low recorded crime rates. Beneath the statistically clean surface of its scant face to the world along a nondescript stretch of Route 116, however, lies a labyrinth of winding old forest roads, pseudo-roads and trails whose history of dark deeds and weird rumors is far beyond that of comparable nearby towns the likes of Windsor, Florida or Peru.

In a 1938 article, local historian William Browne spoke of the “difference between the type of people who settled Savoy” and the settlers of nearby sister towns, pointing out that unlike many of those towns, the original settlers of Savoy hailed from the low coastal plains of Massachusetts, places like Plymouth and Cape Cod, Taunton, Rehoboth, and Middleboro.

“They left a region that had been well settled for a long period and where they had become accustomed to every comfort and where life was easy. What could have tempted them to leave such a favorable spot and begin pioneer life of a very arduous kind, in the mountains of the Berkshires, is one of the mysteries.”

Earlier town historian H.E. Miller depicts a similarly harsh wilderness “surrounded by wolves, bears, and other animals.”

“There is a tradition that one lady stayed many nights with nothing but blankets to keep the wolves from her window,” writes Miller, who also recounts another account in which a man walking back from Adams was followed some distance by a large bear on his hind legs. “Many of the settlers passed their first night under an upturned hogshead, to protect themselves from wild beasts. All the houses were built of logs, and people who kept sheep or swine, made pens for them beneath some window, that they might be easily reached in time of danger.”

Nonetheless, settlement in Savoy did grow from its rocky 18th century start, and even come to flourish for a time in the early decades of the 19th. For a period it enjoyed some success by default of its location, offering a key stop for stage coaches traveling from east to west over the northern Berkshire hills. Along what is now Route 116 there have flourished several inns, all of which at one time or another have been alleged to have been the site of the town's most commonly known legend, a chilling “murdered traveler” tale from before the days of William Cullen Bryant's famed poem.

The broad but unimpressive house where the Mason Hotel thrived from the 1820s to 1930s can today be seen next to the Savoy Hollow General Store, whose width sits atop the slightly charred foundation that held the Bowker Tavern in two different forms over seventy-one years, before fire finally claimed it for good in 1894.  Both have had claim to the town's murdered traveler story over time, but a closer look at Savoy history points to it's earliest lodging, the Williams Inn. The bizarre historical accounts of Joseph Williams, his missing visitor, and the mystery surrounding his demise and the empty tomb in Tomb Cemetery, are an entire saga in their own right. (See: Savoy's Murdered Traveler -Advocate Weekly, Oct 22,2009)

But the stories surrounding Williams share aspects with other threads of Savoy's thick religious history, intersecting as they do with Savoy's Shaker revival, through the life of the widow Olive Blake and the “strange lights” reported among the newly converted Shakers there in the same years as his descent and murky end.

Savoy was a place of wild revivalism in the 1810s, and Shaker missionaries in the middle part of the decade found receptive ears, and a community of 80 converts grew over a five year period, controlling about 1500 acres primarily in the area called New State.  These hill town Shakers lived mostly in their own homes though they began housing their youth communally, built a grist mill and began the early makings of their own Shaker village. They folded into the larger communities at New Lebanon and Watervliet, New York in 1821, leaving only a thicket of cellar holes that can still be seen throughout land that is now mostly within Savoy State Forest.

This was in the Burned Over days, when wandering prophets, fervent revivals, and complex new denominations were cropping out across the northeast, and Savoy proved ripe for new churches from its earliest days.

Some of the first followers to the Shaker missionaries dispatched there by Elder Calvin Green came from among those swept up by an earlier traveling clergyman who arrived from Vermont in 1810. His name was Joseph Smith, and histories have often confused him with the more well known founder of Mormonism, who would at that time have been five, an error borne partly out of confusion at the curious parallels in their story.

This earlier Smith was a charismatic Baptist preacher whose colorful sermons evoked dancing, whirling and tongue-speaking among a quickly growing congregation in the New State sector of town. New State, which by 1810 numbered at least 150 souls, were of the more radical “New Light” Baptist tradition and differed from their neighbors to the southeast worshiping at the First Baptist Church down in Savoy Hollow. Historian David Newell says over three fourths of these “New Light” settlers were connected by birth or marriage to one of three prominent early families: Cornells, the Shermans, and the Lewises. Smith promptly married Hepsibah Lewis, daughter of early convert Nathaniel Lewis.

Elsewhere Baptists leaders were busily warning nearby towns about the itinerant Smith, an imposter posing as ordained clergy, who had already left in his wake one wife who shortly thereafter arrived to confront him in Savoy. The scandalized Smith left Savoy hurriedly with both wives in tow (or in pursuit, history is unclear on this point).

A bulk of Smith's disillusioned parishioners joined the Shakers, while 
others may have eventually gravitated to the later Second Baptist Church. Nathaniel Lewis and his family, minus the daughter who left with “Pastor” Smith, joined the Shaker community early on. A couple of years later, around the time they built the grist mill, his son Nathaniel Jr. “went insane,” according to records. He was considered so violent and destructive that the town had him kept in chains until his death in the 1820s. His brother Amos also “fell victim to madness” and died a hermit on the Lewis farm after the rest of the family had left with the Shakers. The brothers are in unmarked graves in Dunham Burial Ground for local Shakers, one of more than 20 grave yards in the small town.

Savoy also boasted a Congregational church from 1811 to 1840, along with a Methodist house of worship beginning in 1834. 1840 meanwhile saw the formation of the Adventist (Millerite) sect under William Miller, a Pittsfield native with relatives in Savoy, where the faith blossomed from that time until near the end of the century. The Millerites began at the Union church in New State first built by the Second Baptists, then in 1863 constructed a small Adventist chapel, which still stands in the Brier area of Savoy.

Some in Savoy said that violence and turmoil in town first began when the Adventist church was put in, or so a local farmer told a New York Sun reporter in 1877, when frequent “quarreling” turned into murder. It was here that Herbert Blanchard, son of an Adventist preacher there, shot Francis and Albert Starks with a revolver one Sunday following services, after they tried to warn him away from Albert's underage daughter.

The nature of the crime attracted reporters from major cities, who were shocked to find a town they described as “unsavory” and heavily armed.

“The people are ignorant, odd and bigoted,” said one Boston Globe correspondent. “They talk of shooting one another as they would of butchering an ox.”

“Savoy has an unsavory reputation for harboring roughs, and though one of the smallest of the mountain villages, is kept before the public eye by the frequency with which its citizens get into the courts,” read another Globe story, noting that at Blanchard's trial it was revealed that “men of the village habitually carry revolvers,” all twenty men at the church at the time of the shooting being armed to the teeth.

Tomb Cemetery
Savoy was in the news abroad again the following year, both for a horrific rape case and for a bizarre incident of cemetery desecration by an unknown vandal-poet. On June 9, 1878, 39 headstones within the town's curious Tomb Cemetery were broken, an act that was accompanied by an epic poem entitled “Red Dragon,” written on large sheets of brown wrapping paper. In the verse, which was signed “The Tramp,” the author predicted the coming of a second, more terrible Civil War, and death and destruction for all of the people of Savoy.

There were other abberations and tragedies, too, as the town of Savoy waned both economically and in morale over the latter half of the 19th century. Sometimes whole families seemed blighted by this trend. Wehave delved elsewhere into the dark history of the Tower family, all of whom fell to drownings and disease in the 1850s and 60s... or, depending on your source, as the result of psychic dealings by Florinda Tower, who some say was the first Witch of Savoy. The Tower's lie buried just north from the burned out ruins of the house of Savoy's more recent and well known witch, in yet another small plot on a road gone back to nature in the sprawling hillside.

Then there was the Ingraham family, whose lineage was checkered with suicides in the late 1800s. Bill Ingraham hung himself in 1880, according to family records, though the whereabouts of his burial is unclear. In 1900 Savoy native Ella Ingraham very publicly attempted suicide in Boston by drinking acid which while not taking her life, left permanent burns on her chin, mouth and neck. Though she spent time at a Northampton sanitarium and was declared cured, Ella succeeded in suicide by poison on April 29, 1905. Her half brother Frank also died in Savoy by drinking poison two years later in March 1907.

In the next installment, we will continue the tale into the 20th century, as this curiously molded hill town sees the inns, stores and churches close up, despite a brief attempt at reinvention as a tourist destination; chronicling continued high rates of murder and mayhem into a wild modern era when Police Chief Norman Bates presided over a town terrorized by two maniac brothers, where periodically teenagers just died in their car for no apparent reason, and off in the shadow of Borden Mountain Witch Vortex would begin building hismythic Dragon House in the woods...

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Asylums of Massachusetts

I get a lot of questions about the old abandoned asylums in Massachusetts, those lovely brick ones with the 'batwing' shaped floor plans that have been mostly torn down by developers over the last decade or so.
Most of these buildings, such as the ones that were in Northampton, Danvers, Taunton, Worcester, etc, were inspired by the work of Thomas Story Kirkbridge, a pioneering 19th century psychiatrist who first developed theories of the role of architecture in treating mental illness. With the advent of neurology, the ever fickle, trendy discipline of psychiatry largely threw out the baby with the bathwater and Kirkbride's theories were mostly forgotten. More recent research has supported the importance of architectural features in mental health, and this concept has once again begun to inform facility design, such as the new Worcester Recovery Center opened this past summer.
Kirkbride's book (available used on Amazon: is very much worth a read, for its overall insights and deeper glimpse into these stunning structures slowly disappearing across America. Full texts copies can also be found online.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Weird in Williamstown Part 2

continued from Weird in Williamstown: Part 1

Despite its comparative size, the pages of Williamstown history present to our browsing thumbs a bit less blood stained than those of some neighbors.  Today, the town of around 7,700 people ranks far below state averages for violent crime overall, plagued by some dozen or so assault and rape cases a year (a feat not to be too quickly glazed over when measured against national averages for college towns).  While truly accurate, apples to apples comparisons of records become increasingly impossible the further back one goes, no one period in its story appears to have been considered particularly rough and rowdy, in deep contrast to many Berkshire villages.  Far more of the tenor of social distress from this part of the map expressed via media of the past two centuries has concerned... well, noise complaints.  

Nonetheless, we have evidence enough- from the alleged peddler disappearance in earliest days, to the slayings of 19 year old Bonnie Pearson or 43 year old Reginald Rockwell in the 60s and 70s, and on to more recent incidents- that the concept of being murdered in Williamstown has never been completely alien.  Out of this history, one troubling unsolved case stands out in particular.

On Oct. 7, 1976, Cynthia Krizack, a 17-year-old student at Mt. Greylock High School, left her home en route to the Williams College library to study. When she had not returned by noon the following day, her parents reported her missing. An extensive search ensued, involving more than 200 volunteers and covering an area of 16 square miles around the Krizack home and the college campus. Two Williamstown residents reported that they believed they had heard a scream that night in the vicinity of the college, but the Williamstown Police Chief countered that it was "not unusual to hear screams in the neighborhood of the campus."

Finally, on Oct. 31, Krizack's body was discovered by a hunter, near the bottom of a rocky gorge off route 9 in Windsor.  An autopsy determined the cause of her death to be strangulation, and her body showed signs of blows to the head by a blunt instrument.  This condition was just the same as that of Kim Benoit, an 18 year old North Adams girl abducted under similar circumstances two years earlier.

 While the two cases seemed almost staggeringly similar, local authorities at the time dismissed a connection between the two murders.

As with Benoit, Cynthia Krizack's murder was never solved, and while cold case enthusiasts  have speculated connections to several potential suspects over the years, one subsequent incident reported in nearby Bennington is rarely if ever considered.

In the early morning of Nov. 2, 1976, less than four weeks after Krizack's murder, 21-year-old Cheryl Mull of Bennington was found unconscious in her car, with battery cables wrapped around her neck. She had left her job at Price Chopper shortly after midnight, only to find a mysterious man hiding in the backseat of her car. When she got in, he promptly attempted to strangle her with the cables, but was scared off when a local police officer drove by and, seeing what appeared to be an empty car with its headlights on, turned back to investigate. He quickly switched off the headlights and fled on foot. After she was taken to the hospital, six local and state officers searched the nearby woods but failed to find anyone.   The mysterious assailant was never caught.

Five years later in northern Berkshires, 18 year old shop clerk Lynn Burdick vanished from behind the register of a Route 2 convenience store, and no trace of her has ever been found... which may or may not be a completely different story


More typically, a variety of less sinister occurrences have occasionally disturbed the town's latent desire for quiet.

 In 1879, a pair of Pownal men hunting in the south of Williamstown came upon a frightful sight, one which was taken seriously enough it made the New York Times soon after.

 The “wild man” encountered they described as “being about five feet high, resembling a man in form and movement, but covered all over with bright red hair, and having a long straggling beard, and with very wild eyes.”

The "thing" was first seen as it sprung from a rocky cliff and darted for the woods nearby.  Unable to catch a good glimpse of it at first, one of them fired and was believed to have wounded it.  Enraged, it turned and charged at the men at a high speed.  In panic, the hunters lost their guns and ammunition as they ran, and "dared not return for fear of encountering the strange being."

This, the correspondent noted, was reminiscent of tales already old by that time of a strange, hairy man-like creature said to be seen in the forests of the southern Green Mountains.  This "wild man" - which years later would come to be called "the Bennington Monster" or the "Bennington Bigfoot"- had at that time not been seen in many years, though the two men's account reinvigorated interest in surrounding towns.  There was talk of assembling a party to go look for it, but it is unclear whether this was undertaken.

While other hairy hominid reports have continued to come in from about the Berkshires, this appears to have been the last from this vicinity.  Almost 70 years after the incident with the wild man, a young Williamstown couple was similarly chased, this time by a cougar.  That of course, is only weird on account of all those fine folks from wildlife agencies that keep telling us those big cats went extinct here long before...


Folks around the area have also been perturbed by the periodic unusual aerial activity. On November 10, 1958, a number of Williamstown residents reported three large lights hovering in the sky in the direction of Bennington, one with a reddish glow and two much brighter ones.  An hour and a half later some teachers from Drury reported seeing a strange searchlight from the southwest.  All observers felt certain they were not viewing airplanes or meteor activity.  Closer to the ground, a series of small unexplained lights in the Spring Street vicinity in August 1970 were reported by a group of young people, who said the lights disappeared when approached.

In November of 1984, 7 people allegedly witnessed a "enormous sized triangular craft" moving south over the town.  In September of 1996, another object appearing to be three points of light slowly trolling the sky caught the attention of another witness.  On November 11, 2003, some Williams College students viewed another large, strangely moving triangle.  "We believe that it was a UFO because of its flying nature and odd shape that didn't look like a plane," said one. "It had a definite haze around it, but one could make out three standout areas that were more luminous."

A subsequent report from August '07 of two lights racing across the sky was later determined by investigators to have been related to a shuttle launch on the night in question.  Then just last may,  three red lights, again in a triangular formation, were seen moving slowly over the town by another witness wishing to remain anonymous.

These two articles, while not exactly comprehensive of the files of Weird-comma-WilliamstownMass (I didn't mention the bizarre 70 year old insect, did I?), offer a fair exhibit from the cabinet of its curiosities, a primer of things you won't find in the regular brochure. Perfect for that wild eyed Williams bound student or morbidly curious visiting Hollywood VIP in your life. I hope too that it suffices to address earlier admonitions of folkloric discrimination on my part, complaints not without merit; back to the armchair for now, then, to wait in eager anticipation for notifications of omissions...

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Weird in Williamstown: Part 1

Recently it has come to my attention that there is a sentiment on the part of more than one reader that I may have been a tad remiss in my coverage of the bizarre and bedeviled among the fair hills of northern Berkshires, most emphatically that charmingly historic college burg named for Colonel Ephraim Williams.

Snubbed, yes, snubbed was a word used... an observation that leans heavy on the borderline of irony when I recall one or two of my less favorite visits to the land once called West Hoosac.  Nonetheless- bruised ego, collaborative disconnects and the occasional fancy pants actor not withstanding- I do hold great fondness for Williamstown, and I had to acknowledge that these gentle but earnest criticisms had a point.  How is it that in   more than eight years of chronicling local folklore and forteana I have touched so little on this town? Could it be that this 260+ year old township, home to near 8,000 people, brimming in the warm woods and cold stone of a pedigreed heritage, and bubbling with hordes of insane students, has not that much wealth in legendry? Is it in some way deficient in that mix of mystery, murder, madness and misunderstanding that best congeals into the type of fare served up around this particular campfire?

Certainly not. While this northern border village may lack some of the tradition of cultish fervor and half hidden horrors of Savoy, or the parade of hangings, unhappy eccentrics and upper class villainy that has so informed the history of Lenox and other gilded southern hamlets, it is assuredly not without incident in the annals of the macabre and mysterious.

For beginnings, claims of a ghostly horse plodding about inside an old house along Blair Road date back to some of the town's earliest history, and serve to remind us that life in Williamstown may not have always been peaceful and bucolic.
Josiah Wright moved his family to Williamstown in 1764 from Wethersfield, Connecticut, a witch-trial steeped village that is now part of Glastonbury.  He and his wife Abigail eventually moved on to Arlington, Vermont, but a formidable brick house was built by his son, Josiah Jr sometime around the Revolutionary War.  This Wright clan appears to have been quite ill-regarded by his contemporaries among the other early settlers, as evidenced by a dark tale about the family that historian Arthur Latham Perry records as being quite well established a century later, in 1894:

"The Wrights had become considerably indebted to a certain pedlar driving one horse who frequented those parts in quest of the usual driblets of gain. The neighbors has seen him drive up to the brick house, had watched for his return, and had not discovered it. In the mean time, mysterious movements were observed in and around the house. Lights were seen at unusual times, and in usually unfrequented parts of the house. The suspicions of the neighbors, that something wrong was going on in and around the Wright house, were thoroughly aroused, and these suspicions were mutually inflamed by communicating them. In a day or two, all was still and apparently abandoned at the brick house. Neighbors combined in fear and dread, but with all due resolution, to search for the body of the pedlar and for his various effects. 

"Possible places of interment or hiding away were scrutinized, sheds and barn and cellar were examined, and nothing was found anywhere of a questionable character, until at last the pedlar's horse was discovered in the best room of the brick house, with cloths wrapped round his hoofs, apparently so that his stampings on the floor might not be heard by the neighbors, before the inmates (inhabitants) had gotten a good ways off from the premises. No stampings or neighings from the real horse had then been heard by anybody; but years and years afterwards, and to many successive occupants of the house, mysterious sounds issued from that room, slight but distinct, treadings on that floor, deadened as if falling on cloths, and neighings, not equine and earthly, but stifled and supernatural, as if the ghost of the pedlar had come back to seek for his horse, and the horse had greeted his old master with at least the distant echoes of accustomed sounds."

While this story shares considerable structure to that of other Murdered Traveler stories in the area, which can be found in the folkways of both Savoy and West Stockbridge, there is also some degree of circumstantial evidence that both of those incidents may have basis in fact, so it may be that the Berkshire frontier was just a really rough place to do business.

In 1900, some unexplained incidents at the rail yard lead to a bit of a ghost scare, raising an eyebrow as the witnesses involved were all sturdy railroad workers not generally thought to be prone to flights of fancy.  Some saw the floating apparition of a man while others told of hearing someone ring the shrill whistles of the engines in the round house, only to find no one around.

"The parties who tell this thrilling story each state that they were not frightened but that the parties with them were scared out of their wits," reported the North Adams Evening Transcript. "If this sort of thing continues the Boston and Maine railroad will be short of help in the yard."

Another "ghost" also made news in the Transcript that year, when some neighbors on Southworth Avenue went to investigate noises coming from a nearby cornfield late one night.  They were startled when a "figure clothed in white glided from the field, ran across the road and disappeared behind the schoolhouse."

In the morning, several ears of corn were found on the ground, apparently dropped by the "ghost" as it made its getaway.

Perhaps more worthy of our attention is an item in my files from 2006, a sincere account of odd occurrence at Williams College that comes to us from a maintenance professional working in Thompson Hall.  Though reticent to jump to conclusions about the cause, he experienced a series of curious problems while working alone in the locked building late one night.  First he put a box in the attic, only to find it in the middle of a hallway.  Later, the elevator begin as though someone was using it, though he had it locked off on a particular floor. Finally, he went outside for a moment, only to hear two women's voices through from right inside one of the building's open windows.  Heading back in to investigate, he found no one.

This constitutes just what bits of ghostly lore have come to my attention, and I would not doubt that there are more reports of the curious to be found, past and contemporary.  Nor does this conclude our probe of Williamstown X-files... accounts of unknown beasts in the woods, persistent sightings of flying triangles, and lurid headlines of unsolved horrors await when next we reconvene at this fireside.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Grave Robbery at the Pittsfield Common

This summer construction will again begin at the Common, as it undergoes an 0.08 million dollar renovation, the second of four planned stages in an ongoing redesign overhaul.  While there have been a few stray qualms here and there with design elements and other issues, dissent has paled drastically compared to some of the brouhahas that have embroiled this central Pittsfield yard throughout its distinguished history.

By far the incidents of greatest controversy occurred during the 19th century, at which time this First Street lot served as one of the city's primary burying grounds.  As with most early New England towns, in its infancy Pittsfield buried its dead in the central part of town near its church, and so the first cemetery was near the site of present day Park Square.  As with other small towns that grew to become cities, it later faced some difficult landscaping decisions; these first bodies were relocated to the Common, though this would not be their final resting place.

While the majority of the bodies from the Common were relocated en masse to Wahconah Street's more spacious 95 acres in 1870, a few cadavers left their burial spot sooner than planned.

In the 18th and early 19th century, rapidly growing medical schools throughout the east found themselves constantly desperate for proper anatomical learning materials: namely, dead humans.  The only real legitimate source of bodies at this time was those executed for crimes, and this provided nowhere near enough to accommodate generations of doctors in training.  In her book Body Snatching, Suzanne Schultz notes that less than forty persons received capital punishment in Massachusetts between 1800 and 1830, scarcely enough to supply even one college for a year. However, no specific law then existed for the protection of corpses, and any physician could possess one for dissection without question as to its origin.

"There are many thrilling traditions originating in the popular excitement upon this subject, which in the cities and larger towns often led to fearful riots," says local historian J.E.A. Smith, "In Berkshire there was hardly a village in which one or more graves had not been robbed."

Thomas Melvill(e)
On September 20, 1813, a British soldier's body was taken from the Pittsfield Cantonment [much of what is now the Upstreet Cultural District was part of the largest POW camp in the country during the War of 1812], and though the culprit was found out, no charge could be filed.  Not long after, it happened again, and the Cantonment commander, Thomas Melville (grandfather of author Herman) had the military dead moved from the town cemetery to a more secure location.

There were no discovered thefts again for six years, until a popular young man named George Butler, Jr was interred there in November of 1819, and his body promptly removed.  All winter, George's mother spoke of macabre dreams of her son's grave being empty, and of shadowy figures working over it. That Spring, she had one of her surviving sons open it, only to find the coffin was indeed empty.

"Almost every person in Pittsfield- men, women, and children- as well as from neighboring towns, went to gaze, shuddering, into the gaping grave," recalls Smith, "Which was purposely left open all summer, exposing its shattered and tenantless coffin, to remind the spectator of the most shocking circumstances of the desecration."

A special town meeting was held, and Pittsfield recommended that the legislature enact a law forbidding such nighttime seizures of the dearly departed.  Such legislation was eleven years in coming.

With this grisly memory still fresh, it was with great trepidation and even some outrage that Pittsfield residents viewed a proposal in 1822 for the fledgling Berkshire Medical College to establish itself right beside the site of these recent offenses.  Faculty went to great lengths to assure the citizenry that while questionable occurrences had taken place in the past, the school intended to maintain strict policies to prevent this in the future.

This, however, ultimately meant that the mining for involuntary dissection subjects was simply driven further afield, with students and freelance "Resurrectionists" nabbing corpses from more distant yards, and even still stories of other morbid incidents close to home continued. A mill worker was found missing from his coffin in the northeast corner of the Common by his mourning friends, whose own reasons for digging up the grave were opaque; another time, a search of the college failed to uncover the remains of a small girl who'd perished from a wasting disease, as it was hidden all the while in the cape of a tall student.  Finally, a party from Pittsfield was followed and caught body snatching in eastern Hampden county, and around the time of the first law in 1830 a pair of Berkshire students were linked to the disappearance of two newly deceased in Franklin County.

People of Pittsfield had had enough, and were prepared for mob justice.  Town father Major Butler Goodrich threatened to lead a band of men to demolish the college buildings if the bodies were not returned.

They were returned unmarred, and restored to their burial places, and the thieves this time were prosecuted.  Another town meeting was held, wherein the public expressed "sentiments of unmingled indignation and horror," and along with trustees of the college set forth stricter, more unforgiving resolutions against the use of any unauthorized cadavers.

This more or less ended the era of grave robbery at the Common, though it was not soon forgotten. Forty years later, during a debate over the removal of Pittsfield's dead to the large new cemetery, James Butler spoke emotionally of the pain his family had endured over the desecration of George Jr's body half a century before.  Today the graves of Butler and the rest of those laid to rest beside the old school reside at Pittsfield Cemetery on Wahconah Street... all, save for a small percentage of remains  that were never located, inadvertent contributors to the science of medicine.


Happel, Richard. Notes and Footnotes. Berkshire Eagle November 8, 1973

Shulz, Suzanne. Body Snatching: The Robbing of Graves for the Education of Physicians in Early Nineteenth Century America. 1992

Smith, Joseph E.A. The History of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Volume 2.  1876

Taylor, Alan. The War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels & Indian Allies. 2010

Monday, January 21, 2013

Shaker Past Dots the Trails of Savoy's 'New State' Region

Continuing a series of scenic and historic hikes in Savoy Forest throughout the past year, I embarked Sunday on an exploration of a few miles of obscure ridgeline in the northwest corner of town by the border with Florida, in the area called New State.  Now virtually abandoned, this cluster of rocky hills is littered with artifacts of a more thickly settled time when New State was actually a thriving hub of Shaker activity.

Traveling north on New State Road from Adams Road, I proceeded past the discontinued Tannery and Burnett Roads, another 3/4 of a mile to Sherman Road, a handsome trail that in winter does not even attempt the pretense of being a driveable avenue.  A small summer home boarded up for the season lies opposite its mouth.

About a quarter mile down the unmaintained road lies New State Cemetery, one of the largest of 20 or so burying grounds in town, most in the process of reclamation by the forest.  About 130 graves thick with the names of some of the key settling families, the same monikers seen on the roads hereabouts: Sherman, Haskins, Burnett.  

 Sherman Road boasts many excellent stone walls, which were prominent even in a generous covering of snow.  Several cellar holes can be found right along the road, square and rectangular flag stone foundations of varying sizes; more lurk farther back in the woods.

Much of this land was at one time Shaker land, purchased by Proctor Sampson, a New Lebanon elder who came to Savoy during the mass conversion in New State to help the new followers establish their own community.

Savoy was a place of wild revivalism in the 1810s, and Shaker missionaries in the middle part of the decade found receptive ears, and a community of 80 converts grew over a five year period, controlling about 1500 acres land.  These hill town shakers lived mostly in their own homes, though some of the younger members were grouped in community housing on a farm here, along with some elsewhere on the farm of James Cornell, where the sect held their meetings.

Sherman Road becomes more winding and narrow as the ridge rises up above Gulf Brook below, the rows of wiry brown growth becoming a thicker green with younger Norway and Blue Spruce planted during the 1930s.  Icy ravines criss cross underneath the road, and deer, rabbit and raccon tracks dot the surface of a brand new layer of snow in this busy wildlife corridor.

At about two miles in from New State Road, the "road" ends in an opening rimmed by more stone walls, where the ruins of a larger house and some smaller outlying buildings can still be clearly made out even in wintry conditions.

It is believed the group meant to create a more communal center on this land at the very end of Sherman Road.  The community constructed a dam and grist mill downstream on Gulf Brook, near the mouth of "Shaker Trail" which runs southwest from the Sherman road property. Times seemed promising until drought struck in 1820 and 1821, followed by a plague of locusts, which devastated farms here and left the Savoy shakers dependent on other communities.  The decision was made to relocate their numbers and resettle at communities in New Lebanon and Watervilet, New York.  Most remained, but some returned to the town, and a half dozen shakers are buried in a plot a mile or so south, on the Lewis Hill Trail off Tannery Road.

The shakers continued to use some of their land here well into the mid nineteenth century for summer crops, but by the 1880s all the property had been sold back to the town.  The last remaining home of one of the shaker families still stands today on Barnard Road. It is that of Nathaniel Haskins, whose son Orren went on to some fame as a shaker woodworker, whose furniture figures prominently in Shaker museums.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

These Mysterious Mesas: the Folklorist in Arizona

A little departure from the parade of distinctly New England weirdness featured throughout this blog, I decided to resurrect some samplings from my times studying local lore and fortean phenomena across the desert of the Grand Canyon State.  These three items appeared in the book Weird Arizona [Sterling Publishing, 2007], exploring legends of giants, of indigenous southwestern fairie folk, and of the bloodcurdling Navajo skinwalkers.
If you have issues using the zoom and full screen controls under each embed, I recommend following the link to read them on

Legends of Mammoth Men Linger in the Desert