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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.

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