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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...


Vermont Deadline said...

This was a fabulous story, which I thoroughly enjoyed! Well researched and beautifully written.

J said...

Awesome work, Joe. Love it.

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Ray McHatton said...

Fantastic reading Joe. Thank you for this ! I was just in the beginnings of some writing and research about the Tower family when I ran across your blog. Any chance we could touch base and communicate a bit ? I have a camper at a campground in Plainfield. I met Roger at his house a few times some years back. Thanks.

Anonymous said...


Wendy LaRocque said...

Really enjoyed the history and would like to read the rest when it comes out.

THE BIG E said...


J McMahon said...

How do I find part 2??

Unknown said...

Borden Mt. is indeed an eerie and interesting place..