Knocking at the Tomb: a Legend of Lanesborough

“Knock, knock, knock! The bell has just gone twelve, and there is the clang again upon the iron door of the tomb. The few people of Lanesboro who are paying the penance of misdeeds or late suppers, by lying awake at that dread hour, gather their blankets around their shoulders and mutter a word of prayer for deliverance against unwholesome visitors of the night. “

So opens this cryptic local legend as written down by Charles M. Skinner, one of America’s earliest collectors of folklore. His 1896 tome Myths and Legends of Our Own Land contains several short tales from the Berkshires, such as the Wahconah Falls legend. This one involves a tomb in the town of Lanesborough.

“Who is it that lies buried in that tomb, with its ornament of Masonic symbols?” asks Skinner. ” Why was the heavy iron knocker placed on the door? The question is asked, but no one will answer it, nor will any say who the woman is that so often visits the cemetery at the stroke of midnight and sounds the call into the chamber of the dead.”

As Skinner tells it, a black-clad woman (whether living or ghost is left ambiguous) comes to the town’s burial ground late at night. As the hour chimes midnight, she proceeds to clang the heavy iron door knocker that’s been set on the door of a tomb there.

“Some say that she is crazy, and it is her freak to do this thing,” Skinner ponders in conclusion. “Is she calling on the corpses to rise and have a dance among the graves? or has she been asked to call the occupant of that house at a given hour? Perhaps, weary of life, she is asking for admittance to the rest and silence of the tomb. She has long been beneath the sod, this troubler of dreams. Who knows her secret?”

This story long perplexed me, for no amount of scouring in Lanesborough’s four cemeteries revealed any tomb as described in Skinner’s tale. No door showed any sign of a knocker, or any Masonic symbols.

An 1888 entry in the Pittsfield Sun finally clarified more about this cryptic story, which may well be based on actual occurrences.

The tomb in question, it seems, was that of Betsey Eddy Powell (1765-1827), the somewhat eccentric wife of Captain David Powell, who had an iron door-knocker installed in the door of her small hillside tomb in Lanesborough’s Center Cemetery. The knocker (and perhaps any masonic decoration present) was later removed when the tomb had to be rebuilt some time in the 1870s or early 80s.

The midnight knocking by a woman clad in black was no ghost, but the Berkshires own “Susan Dunham.” Often referred to as “Crazy Sue,” Dunham was a legendary local character who I’ve written on elsewhere, well known for frequenting the local burying grounds, where she sometimes would nap among the graves.

According to “an overwhelming amount of the most irrefragable testimony” from townspeople, according to The Sun, it was she who would enter the yard around midnight. There, “seizing the knocker, rang a peal that startled the whole neighborhood.

“Think what must have haunted her soul to provoke an act like that!” concluded the Pittsfield paper.

I’m sure she had her reasons.

Author: Joe Durwin

Berkshire-based writer Joe Durwin's "These Mysterious Hills" has run on a semi-regular basis for over than a decade, first in the former Advocate Weekly (2004-2009) and iBerkshires.com (2010-2015), along with his local history column Sagas of the Shire. His work on lore and mysteries of the region has also been featured in Fate Magazine, Haunted Times, the North Adams Transcript, as well as William Shatner’s “Weird or What” on the SyFy Channel, Jeff Belanger's "New England Legends," MSG Films’ “Bennington Triangle,” and numerous other programs for public television and radio.

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