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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

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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...

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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.

Sources:

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