The Haunting of Lindenwald

Originally published in the Advocate Weekly, November 9, 2006

The subject of this week’s installment-in Kinderhook, NY- is a tad outside the geographical range to which I ordinarily confine this column… but this site is quite simply far too deliciously drenched in weirdness to ignore.   

Lindenwald, a national historic site, has been rumored at one time or another to be haunted by the ghosts of at least half a dozen different people, including an ex-President and an (arguably more famous) ex-Vice President, as well as having a hand in the creation of one of the country’s most famous and beloved literary ghost tales. 

Lindenwald started out as a relatively simple, though elegant, two story Federal style house built by Judge William Peter Van Ness in 1797.  It was here that Washington Irving came to stay in 1809, while coming to terms with the death of his beloved fiancée, Matilda Hoffman.  While staying here, Irving drew much of the inspiration for his “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” from his surroundings.  Irving’s description of the Van Tassel home matches precisely the Van Alen house, a mile east of Kinderhook, and the character Ichabod Crane found its basis in the teacher at the nearby schoolhouse (also reputed to be haunted).  Likewise, it was while staying in the Van Ness house that Irving heard the local legend of a ghostly headless rider, which he relocated to the Sleepy Hollow region he had known in his childhood.

 Another occasional guest at the house was America’s third vice-president, Aaron Burr, a close friend of Judge Van Ness.  According to some, he never stopped putting in appearances there.  Van Ness seconded Burr in the duel against Alexander Hamilton, and one legend has it that Burr hid out in the Kinderhook home after Hamilton’s death.  The historical record, however, does not support this- in actual fact, Burr first left New York for a quick stop in Philadelphia, then onto St. Simons Island, off the coast of Georgia, to nurse designs on the territory of Florida.   

Nonetheless, over the years both servants and neighboring farmers claimed to have seen Burr strolling the orchard, replete in lace cuffs and wine colored coat. Sounds of pensive pacing made by unknown feet in the upper rooms of the house have also been attributed to him.

 Lindenwald got its name, along with its modern day appearance, from a Kinderhook native with close ties to Burr, Irving, and the Van Ness family: Martin Van Buren.  Van Buren bought the property in 1839, moving in when he vacated the White House in 1840 to make way for William Henry Harrison’s brief tenancy.  

He secured the services of architect Richard Upjohn, best known for the Trinity Church in New York City, and set about transforming the ‘old-fashioned’ Federal home into an extravagant Italian gothic estate house.  He added a steep front gable, rococo porch, scalloped cornice work, and other flourishes to the front; within, the central staircase was removed to make way for a large banquet space, and the walls redone with expensive imported wallpapers. 

Most dramatically, a one and a half story wing was added to the west side of the house, culminating in a four story loggia tower rising asymmetrically from the south side of the house.  As Van Buren biographer Ted Widmer observes aptly: “While it was not quite the worst building of the 19th century, it demonstrated one of our most impressive traits as a people- the ability to disregard all rules of architectural propriety and build McMonuments to ourselves.  Lindenwald fit squarely in the long continuum joining Monticello and Graceland.” 

  From Lindenwald, the widower ex-president ran two unsuccessful campaigns for the presidency, in ’44 and ’48.  He died there in 1862, a lonely man made irrelevant by a changing country and the viciousness of bitter political enemies.  He is the most frequently sighted specter at Lindenwald; perhaps fittingly, his apparition has been reported from virtually every part of the house and grounds.  

 Van Buren’s son John has also been rumored to haunt the Kinderhook mansion.  Martin originally redid the house to attract his son and daughter-in-law to come live with him, which they eventually did.  In his will, he stipulated that the estate should never leave the family, but a year later John lost the house in a gambling match with Leonard Jerome, maternal grandfather of Winston Churchill.  

 The conjunction of Burr and Van Buren in the lore of Lindenwald is interesting, as during his life Van Buren was widely rumored to be Burr’s illegitimate son, an idea re-popularized by the Gore Vidal novel Burr.  While there is no definitive evidence to confirm this, there is indeed an interesting resemblance between the two, which makes me wonder whether witnesses could be expected to differentiate between them on a briefly glimpsed, vaporous apparition.  If the various legends are to be believed, though, it would make Lindenwald unique, as the only location I’m aware of reputed to be haunted by three generations of the same family.  

 Aside from these luminaries, a host of ‘minor’ ghosts are said to pervade the environs.  Van Buren’s butler had a reputation as a drunkard, known to slip away into the orchard for frequent liquid lunches.  One day, following an argument, he headed down there for a quite different purpose, and was found later, having hung himself from a tree branch.  The spirit of an anonymous woman, said to have murdered near the gatehouse, has also been reported walking amongst the apple trees.  

“Aunt Sarah,” the household cook in Van Buren’s time, is said to haunt the cellar kitchen that in life she ruled with a heavy hand.  A servant named Tom claimed to have seen her phantom descend from the chimney, covered in soot, eyes blazing.  Finally, the wife of Kenneth Campbell, the last private owner of the estate, died in a horrible car accident in front of Lindenwald in 1972, adding to the list of potential lingering spectral residents.

In 1977, prior to restoration

 Lindenwald’s haunted history is not an advertised part of its profile as a local tourist attraction, and it has never been formally investigated by any serious ghost-hunters, so it is hard to confirm whether the estate is truly haunted by more than Van Buren’s questionable tastes.  It is a site with an enormous amount of history, though, much of it tragic.   

The grounds are open to the public year round, and the house is available for tours from Memorial Day weekend through the end of October, so I recommend it as an excellent field trip for the curious.  Who knows what you might see?  

Sources: Things That Go Bump in the Night, by Louis C. Jones

The Haunting of the Presidents: A Paranormal History of the U.S. Presidency, by Joel Martin & William J. Birnes

Martin Van Buren, by Ted Widmer

The Heart That Would Not Hold: a Biography of Washington Irving, by Johanna JohnstonThe Life of Washington Irving, Vols. I & II, by Stanley W. Williams

Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason, by Buckner F. Melton Jr.

Aaron Burr: The Conspiracy and Years of Exile, by Milton Lomask

“Presidential Homestead is Dusted off for Posterity” The Bennington Banner, July 22, 1977  

Lethal Revelations: Ashfield, Mass., 1829

“Weep not for the babe thou couldst not save/oh give it joy to the God who first gave/for firm is the promise our Savior has given/ who said that of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

This near-ilegible inscription lies on the broken stone of Timothy Catlin, Jr., 1828-1829, one of many fading markers in Baptists Corner Cemetery.

The area of Baptist’s Corners in northeast part of Ashfield was, unsurprisingly, named such because it was settled by Baptists, as was much of the early town. It was a tumultuous time for them in the early years. Their first church split up within the first few years, caught between the fiery tempers of the Smith family- one group left with Elder Chileab Smith and his son Enos, the other remaining in the original church building with his other son, Elder Ebenezer Smith.

Baptist’s Corner c. 1855

“Mr Smith was a man with a tremendous disposition to have his own way. He had not the slightest doubt that his own opinion on any subject was right, and he would fight for his convictions with the courage of a lion,” Charles Hall is quoted as saying in Frederick Howe’s 1910 History of Ashfield. His sons, it is said, did not far differ from their father.

Not long after reuniting from the first schism (1786-1798), a second separate Baptist church was built in the south part of town in 1814. More members left in 1828 and 1830, and by the time of Elder Enos Smith’s death in 1836 the congregation was scarce, and the dilapidated old church was moved.

One remaining member in those latter days of Elder Enos was Alfred Elmer. Born in 1805, the young man was the son of Samuel Elmer and Chloe Chapin (Elmer), part of a large family that runs throughout Ashfield history. In 1828, he married Mary Alden. If there were anything appearing to be amiss in his behavior at that time, it was not recorded, by the town, or in the church’s stern records of misconduct among its parishioners.

Everything would change for the residents of Baptist’s Corner on July 7, 1829. Acting as though possessed, 24 year old Alfred entered the house of his nearby neighbors, Timothy and Electa Catlin. In his hand was a razor.

Electa was milking out back at the time, and came running when told Elmer had entered the house with a razor in hand.

Tragically, she was too late.

Alfred had entered the room where her sleeping toddler, 17 month old Timothy Jr, was sleeping. As if entranced, he slit the child’s throat.

He then rushed from the house, where he soon encountered his maternal grandfather, Nathan Chapin. Grabbing an axe, he attacked the older man as well. An article in the Greenfield Recorder says he would have killed him, if not for the intervention of two unnamed women who wrestled him off the elderly man. (Nathan initially survived the grievous injury, but died 6 months later.

In the horrified aftermath, everyone wondered what had caused this seemingly normal young man to go berserk?

Alfred said he had been “commissioned” by God to do this. An experience of God’s voice had instructed him to offer up three lives, and he would have claimed a third victim as well, if he had not been subdued. In his confession, he referenced Revelations 11 as being part of his inspiration.

The story swept the region, with the same scarce explanation reprinted in dozens of papers, but little else was written of it after. Even Howes’ fairly comprehensive History of Ashfield affords it only one sentence, omitting all references to its alleged “divine” inspiration.

From other records, we can ascertain that Alfred Elmer was sent to the insane asylum in Northampton, where it was said he was a “harmless and peaceful” inmate, who expressed remorse for what he had done.

Mary remarried, to Archibald Thatcher, two years later. Alfred died of dysentery in the asylum in 1868. He is buried, in an unmarked grave, not far from little Timothy Electa in the Baptist Corner Cemetery.

The house where the tragic murder happened stands to this day, on Baptists Corner Road.

Poltergeist, 1895: The Coach House at Curtis Woods

I grew up on the edge of the old Curtis Woods. The actual woods were long gone by that time; though you can see vague remnants of it in small groves on the few undeveloped lots in the Morningside Heights neighborhood, and a handful of ancient oaks, maples and beeches at the edges of properties.

It was “Dickinson’s Woods” once, after Israel Dickinson, who purchased much of what would become Pittsfield’s Morningside neighborhood from Jacob Wendell in 1759. The woods became a popular place to walk and picnic throughout the 1800s. In the 1850s, the land was all sold to Benjamin R. Curtis, a U.S. Supreme Court justice who quit the court following the Dred Scott decision, and became a farm owner in Pittsfield. He built a large estate house, later expanded and dubbed “Morningside.” In Curtis’ day, the woods extended north from the point of modern-day Kellogg Street to around what is now Broadview Terrace, east from what is now Brown Street to about Woodlawn /Norman Avenue.

“Morningside”, as show in 1855

There- on what’s now Norman Ave- was the old coach barn for the mansion, later expanded into a larger “coachman’s lodge.” In the mid 1890s, the premises were occupied by Frank Farnum and his family, who experienced a variety of scary occurrences there.

“...nobody claims to have caught a glimpse of the ghost or whatever it may be that makes strange noises in the Farnum house, move things about in most unexplainable way and smashes crockery right before the astonished eyes of people in broad daylight,” wrote the Berkshire Record in October of 1895.

1904- Morningside shown on the right, with (haunted?) coachman’s lodge on the left

“One of the members of the household may leave a room for a minute or two and, returning, find several things moved about from where they left a moment before,” the Record claimed, and was re-printed in the Pittsfield Sun and Springfield Republican. In addition to members of the Farnum household, other neighbors were said to have seen the inexplicable events. Arthur Benedict, of Benedict Road, is mentioned by name.

“Some of the more superstitious among them believe that the Farnum’s house is haunted by a ghost. Whether or not they are right nobody ventures to say, but the Farnum, who aren’t scary about ghosts and such things as a rule, confess to being completely puzzled over the mysterious occurrences of recent weeks.”

Despite no one being seen, others ascribed it to the work of “tramps” drifting in from the woods. Much like the adjacent land of Springside Park in recent decades, Curtis Woods served not only as recreational area but also shelter for those without other housing, among other uses. As the Pittsfield Sun remarked, “Curtis Woods have long been ‘haunted’…especially when young couples went botanizing or on other errands in this popular resort and strolling place. Sighings, murmurings, exclamations, glimpses of lightly clad figures gliding among the shrubbery… these are not infrequent sights and sounds in the Curtis Woods.”

As for the coach house, it is not recorded whether these inexplicable events continued or were ever solved. I can find no further mention of haunting phenomena at the building, which still exists today on Norman Avenue.

Pittsfield assessors records list the construction date for this structure as 1900, but like most local assessors dates, this is woefully inaccurate (give me a holler if you’d like to find out when your house was actually built). The barn and coach house date back to the early 1850s, but have been extensively remodeled inside. The old Curtis estate had already been pared down as Ensign Kellogg began to develop and sell off its outlying areas, residential development that would continue under the Morningside Land Improvement Company in 1897. In 1909, the last 20 acres- including the former Morningside mansion, coachman’s lodge, and a caretaker’s house (which also still stands on Dickinson Ave)- were sold by Mrs F.A.C. Perrine to R.H. Jackson & Co, who developed the rest of the Morningside Heights neighborhood, laying new roads around these existing structures.

After the Farnums, the coachman’s lodge was occupied by William J. Henderson, who was associated with the Stanley company and G.E. His daughter was married there in 1903 (to John Snell, who would later purchase my childhood home down the street) with over 200 guests on the grounds. He remained there after the building was subdivided in 1910 to create a 10 room multi-family home. After him, Carlo Diglina operated a business selling bird baths and flower pots there in the 1920s. No mention was made of haunting under subsequent occupants, that I am aware of– and no particularly strange occurrences. A fire caused by a child playing with matches engulfed one of the upstairs apartments in 1962, but the parents were able to extract their two children without injury.

What caused the strange occurrences and broken crockery reported in 1895- Was it pranks? Hysteria? Some brief poltergeist activity? Feel free to leave a comment with your opinion.

Massacre in Otis, Mass: Sep 7, 1862

“The murder,” said the Berkshire County Eagle, “was one of the most fiendish and brutal ever committed.”

It was a warm end of summer day on Sep 7, 182,, when Emily Jones left their house in the small town of Otis.  Her husband George was headed to church, but she had decided to take their two children- 2 year old Sarah and 4 year old George Jr- to go berry picking that warm morning.  As they bid their father goodbye for a few hours, young George asked if he could go with him to church.  “Next time,” his father assured him.  It was a conversation that would later come to haunt him.

When he returned from church they were still out, but as evening approached he wondered if they had gone to her father’s, a couple miles down the road, and set out to see.  When he did not find them there, neighbors were alerted and a search organized that night. 

Searching continued the following morning, and into the afternoon, until a terrible discovery was made.

Emily’s body was found covered in leaves between roots of two large trees off the road, the children a few yards away. 

The medical examiner’s investigation was chilling.  All three had died of extensive head trauma, skulls crushed by some blunt force.  Bruising on Emily’s body showed that she had been raped, and with particularly brutal ferocity. 

“There is but little clue to the perpetrators of this horrible crime, although suspicion takes the direction of certain negro settlements which are situated in that vicinity, and which like too many others scattered throughout the state, need missionary effort,” said the Eagle a few days after. The racial nature of initial suspicions surrounded the investigation, which may have been influenced by an unsolved rape in nearby Monterey the previous year, in which the assailant was said to have been black.  So strong were these inclinations that some 80 miles away in Montville, Connecticut, Sheriff Welsey Langdon arrested four men of color that week in connection with the case, though all four had verifiable alibis at the time.  More arrests were made closer to the scene, almost all of them African Ameican,and it was intimated that some barely escaped lynching by angry locals as they were detained and questioned.  In particular, local law enforcement strongly suspected Thomas Callender and his son, James, who had been seen in the vicinity, and had previous bad blood with George Jones.  The Callenders were arrested for the crime and released for lack of evidence at least twice each.  Finally, after a stint of several weeks in jail, on January 1, James gave a confession.     

According to the younger Callender’s account, which remained consistent in many subsequent interviews, he had met up with his father that morning, headed for Belden’s Hill.  The elder Callender had brought a bottle of whiskey, which they passed back and forth a couple of times along the way.  James said that when they saw the Mrs Jones and her children berrying up ahead, his father suggested they take “revenge” on George Jones, over falsely accusing them of milking his cows and berating them for drinking, when they had lived by them.  James asked what he meant.

“Let’s kill them,” his father replied.

James suggested that it “seems a shame to kill those two innocent children for such a small thing as that was,” he states in his confession.  But his father persisted, and ultimately James agreed to kill the mother if Thomas would kill the children.

They crept up silently on Emily and her children, who were stooped over picking berries with their backs turned.  James grabbed her and threw her to the ground, kneeling on her chest, pulling her skirt up over her head so she could not see.  The children began screaming and crying.  Emily was only able to cry out, “Oh, no!” before the younger Callender choked her to cut off her words. 

Thomas killed George Jr with two blows to the front of his head with a large rock, Sara with one blow to the back of her head.  Then he came over and took hold of Emily, who they then raped in turns. 

Finally, James picked up a rock and brought it down on her head, still covered by her clothing, several times.

After hiding their bodies, the two parted ways and went to their homes, saying nothing further of what had happened.

James knew this confession could mean his death, but expressed hope that he might get a pardon after conveying that it had been his father’s idea all along.  For his part, Thomas Callender denied the whole story, and since the state’s case depended almost entirely on the confession, only James was tried on the homicide of Emily Jones.  No charges were ever filed for the murder of Sara and George. 

Even after he was tried and sentenced to death, the younger Callender continued to believe that an 11th hour confession by his father might save him from the gallows.  Beyond that, they said he expressed little emotion, stating the sequence of the attack matter-of-factly at his trial and in several interviews with the press.  In the process, he also confessed to assisting John Henry Guilder in the rape of Mrs Peasley the year before, leading to Guilder’s arrest.

James Callender was hung in front of the Lenox jail on November 6, 1863.  His father had recently been arrested for beating James’ mother, and his cell was situated in such a way that he could see the hanging.  Jailers said he showed little emotion at the sight.

“James, how can you die with such a falsehood in your mouth?” Thomas, who was shot dead by police while wielding a hatchet some years later, is said to have shouted.

Emily, Sarah and George Jr are interred near the side of Route 23,  in Otis Center Cemetery. James’ body, unclaimed, was donated to the local medical college in Pittsfield. George Sr. moved to Springfield, where he eventually remarried. He died in 1921, and his buried with his 2nd wife in West Springfield.

Unsolved in the Berkshires: The Skull in Pittsfield State Forest

Howard Boland was hunting deer on West Mountain one December (1943) morning, along the old road leading from West Street to Lebanon Springs when he made a disturbing discovery. In the crook of a tree, seemingly staring out at him, sat a human skull.

“I was so startled that for a few minutes I stood petrified,” Boland said later.

He called out to the others in his party, and together they unearthed more human bones slightly covered by the base of the tree. Immediately they contacted the police.

To State Trooper John Horgan the skull, which was identified as that of a young female, instantly brought to mind a missing persons case from 7 years earlier.

Katherine Hull, a 22 year old stenographer from Syracuse, had been visiting her grandmother for the summer in Lebanon Springs. She had just arrived with her father, on April 2, 1936, and left to take a walk up the old road toward Pittsfield. Appearing “lighthearted,” Hull said she would return in time for supper.

When she failed to arrive by dark, her father contacted New York police and a search began that night. It would continue, for weeks, as hundreds of volunteers canvassed the woods. No trace of Katherine was discovered. In August, her parents upped a reward for information to $1,000, with posters that indicating a belief that Katherine may have suffered amnesia and now be living another life.

It appears from other news materials that memory loss issues would not have been a new occurrence for Katherine, who is elsewhere described as having “bouts of melancholy.” A description from the 1936 circular describes her as follows:

“Very quiet, seldom smiles, concentrates deeply, religious, cannot be drawn out in conversation, not apt to talk about herself of confide in anyone, very polite and well-mannered, quite attractive, but sober-faced, very neat in her dress and appearance. Any peculiar traits are not objectionable and is a girl who could not be disliked. If seen on the street she walks quite fast with peculiar up-and-down motion. Walks with eyes straight ahead, as if sighting something in the distance and hurrying to get there.”

With the discovery of the skull in ’43, the case was recalled. Based on the location, Lieutenant Horgan began contacting Syracuse authorities that day to seek verification that this was Katherine Hull.

This proved more complicated than originally thought, as identification was seriously hampered by difficulties in obtaining dental records. It was learned that of 3 dentists who had worked on Katherine’s teeth, one had retired and moved, one had died, and one had been murdered.

Nonetheless, with what limited dental charts they were able to obtain, by May state pathologist Dr Alan Moritz had found enough similarity that it “almost removed all doubt that the skeletal remains found on the mountain are those of Katherine Hull.” It was supposed that Katherine wandered off the road at some point, became disoriented during one of her “spells” of amnesia (?), and died of exposure.

The case is closed, officially, though decades later Richard Happel would write in the Berkshire Eagle (2/22/1972) “to this day it’s not known definitely who died in the mountain forest long ago.”

If the skeletal remains were those of Katherine Hull, her body must have evaded the extensive searches that scoured the woods along that road for several weeks, and become so badly lost that it was not spotted again for years. The cause of her death also remains unknown, save for speculation.

At least one person finds the official theory for Hull’s death questionable. Michael Dooling, the news librarian son of a state police detective in Connecticut, sees similarities between the 1946 disappearance of Paula Welden 40 miles north in Bennington, and that of Connie Smith, who went missing in 1952 between Salisbury and Lakeville in Connecticut. In his 2016 book, Clueless in New England, Dooling contends that similarities in the disappearances of all three women point to the possibility of a serial killer being responsible. Those interested in more information about these cases and Dooling’s theory may seek the book via the author’s website.

Without new evidence manifesting at this late date, it’s likely some mystery will always linger around exactly what happened to Katherine Hull after she set out up the mountain. As seems ever the case in these matters, we can’t shed new light on the last moments of this young woman who vanished from our midst, we can only memorialize.

Katherine Hull. Born 1914. “A girl who could not be disliked… Walks with eyes straight ahead, as if sighting something in the distance and hurrying to get there.”

“Daughter of the 34th Regiment”: Jessie Rupert and the 2nd Battle of New Market

Jessie Hainning Rupert was a remarkable individual. A Scottish-born New England immigrant, she was orphaned when a bout of typhoid took her parents and all seven siblings. She was taken in by a friend of the family, and attended Reverend Spear’s Maplewood Institute in Pittsfield in the 1850s.

As an adult she moved to Virginia, where she became principal of a girls school. A fervent abolitionist, she taught classes to African American children when it was illegal to do so, burned Confederate flags, and drew angry mobs flying the union flag throughout the Civil War. There she married Solomon Rupert.

In May, 1864, the war reached her town of New Market, Virginia. Union forces included 34th infantry from western Massachusetts, with Colonel A. Potter bearing an American flag given them by the poetess Sarah Morewood, of Pittsfield. As the story goes, the flag was nearly lost that day, as Confederate forces forced them back and inflicted heavy casualties. But Potter gathered it up and kept it in his shirt, though wounded, made it to Rupert’s house.

Jessie and Solomon cared for the many of the wounded- at significant risk- in their home and other buildings they had organized as makeshift hospitals. They treated the wounds of Confederates as well, and it was one of these that alerted the Ruperts that another local soldier- Ensign Marshall Smith, of Dalton, Mass- was left clinging to life in a ravine. The Ruperts found Smith and managed to stabilize the young Dalton man, who at first had not been expected to survive the night (it would take 2 more months to recover from his chest wound). Indeed, he had already been recorded in the regiment’s dead, and back in Dalton a funeral had been held before word arrived to them from Mrs Rupert.

Years after the war, Colonel Potter of the 34th sent the weathered flag to her, that it might once again “unfurl its silken folds to the breezes of the beautiful valley of the Shenandoah,” according to his letter.

Jessie, by then widowed and the founder of a new school for the recently freed children of the area, had already had brushes with the emerging KKK in her area, and no misconceptions about the tone of feelings in her town in 1871. In a letter to Pittsfield, she writes:

“Its triumph was so complete that a woman’s strength could bear it among a host of its enemies, so on Washington’s Birthday I hung it out of an upper window in my house. I trembled somewhat when I did it, for no one else loves it here, and I did not know what violence might be done to my home or myself because of its display.”

Within the first day she got a rock through her window, and passersby hissed warnings that the Klan would be along soon to take it down.

“So I borrowed from a friend a revolver and learned to use it, and when the day was ended I took in the flag and waited alone for the horrible klan,” Jessie explained.

They didn’t come the first night, but the following night there came a knock.

“From the window I saw the ‘Ku Klux,’ and with a strength not my own I opened the door with a smiling face, though the pistol was in my hand. …The moment’s suspense was terrible; there were six men before me, with hideous faces and outlandish dress.”

Keep in mind that in the earliest practices of the KKK, they did not wear uniform white robes, but rather a variety of frightening masks, which does tend to make this encounter seem even more frightening.

Jessie pointed the revolver at the one closest to her, and told them she would shoot the first one who dared cross the doorway.

He broke into a run, and the rest followed.

Jessie Rupert died in 1909; the home where she defended the 34th Regiment’s flag still stands on Congress Street in New Market.

At her funeral, the minister eulogized:

“Here lies one, who famishing fed the hungry; though herself suffering,
gave aid to the distressed; though surrounded by enemies, loved all, and who
lived to hear her former enemies call her The Angel of the Shenandoah.”


Feb, 1871 letter from Jessie Rupert, “Daughter of the 34th Regiment,” to the children of South Congregational Church in Pittsfield. Reprinted in The Berkshire County Eagle, April 20, 1871

Jessie Rupert: “Though Surrounded By Her Enemies”

Murder in Morningside Heights: Louise Wright (1990)

Among the dozens of homicides that I’ve researched and written about over the years, there is a Berkshire murder that has haunted me in a particularly proximal way. It’s not the most shocking, or the most gory. There was no great mystery or sensationalist trial associated with it. It wasn’t even the most famous murder in town that year.

The 1990 slaying of Louise Wright stands out to me because it was the first time that someone I actually knew was murdered. And because it all took place barely 200 feet from me, as I slept in my childhood bedroom in an adjacent house.

I didn’t know Mrs Wright well. I’m not sure I even knew her name, until after her death. I knew her face. I had interacted with her in about the same way I interacted with any neighbors that would come upon me skulking and hiding in the wooded perimeter around my parent’s fencing- a smile and half-wave friendly enough to allay any suspicions about my meanderings, but not so friendly as to invite conversation. She had a kindly face, but that’s all I knew of her.

At 75 (I learned later), Louise was a widow living alone, after retiring from a long career working at the Elmvale Worsted Company. She was very active in the Methodist church, and a prolific poet in the local Senior Citizens Poetry Club.

Last known photo of Louise Wright (1914- 1990), smiling at the Easter bunny while waiting for a bus at Park Square, 6 months prior to her death. Berkshire Eagle, April 13, 1990

Around dinner time on a warm Friday evening in September, the avenue stretch just behind the backyard where I was lurking about began to fill up with police and emergency vehicles. More and more vehicles arrived, as uniformed officers taped off the Wright house. I first assumed some sort of accident, and even my 6th grade mind was able to process that the number of people encircling the property meant it had probably been a fatal one. Nothing more extreme ever occurred to me, on its own. The reality of homicide was not entirely abstract to me by then, but it certainly inconceivable to me there, in that seemingly safe and quiet neighborhood above Springside Avenue that I had lived in for nearly 11 years.

But life is sprinkled with such transitions in what is conceivable to us, and childhood doubly so. While it would not become public until the 11 o’clock news aired, already by twilight there was an ambient buzzing of rumor in the surrounding houses and streets, a detail-fuzzy murmur with only one clear thread: Mrs Wright had been murdered.

Thanks to prompt tips from multiple sources, including his own brother, 20 year old Mark Banister was taken into custody less than 24 hours after her body was discovered. As news and photos hit the front page of the Eagle over the coming days, it turned out to be a face that was by no means unknown among Wright’s neighbors. Mark Banister had been coming and going from the house for years in the company of Wright’s grandson, Gerald.

At Banister’s trial the following year, Gerald would testify that during that time the duo had repeatedly stolen cash, checks and jewelry from his grandmother to purchase beer, cocaine and marijuana. Banister was found with blank checks from Wright and with two of her rings on his person when he was picked up.

The trial ran for two weeks in May 1991, during which D.A. Gerard Downing and first assistant David Capeless presented mountains of damning evidence, from his blood, fingerprints and shoeprints at the scene to supporting testimony from multiple friends and associates. They maintained that Banister had methodically planned the nighttime break-in, during which he tied Wright to a chair, stabbed and then strangled her with an electrical cord. It was countered only by Banister’s dubious testimony blaming his brother and a friend, and an attempted motion by his public defender to block testing of Mark’s blood.

On May 24, the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and Judge Daniel Ford sentenced Banister to life in prison without parole.

On October 6, 1998, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts rejected an appeal by Banister for a new trial.

For me personally, it was upsetting, but not what I would call a life changing event. In itself it was not a major emotional trauma (I think?), and I went on with life more or less as I had before. Three decades later, what most stands out to me is that it was simply the first time I can remember really sitting down to read about such a thing in a local newspaper… and clipping it out.

The horrible fate of poor Mrs Wright made me perk up my ears and pay attention to local news, at a strange time when violent crime was spiking again in the region. 1990 – 1992 would see 12 people murdered in Berkshire County within a 3 year period, two thirds of them in my own town of Pittsfield. Just weeks after Louise Wright’s slaying made me pay attention, a boy my own age with whom I shared various mutual friends, vanished from another pleasant residential neighborhood across town. Only years later would we learn, in heart-breaking detail, how he had become the first known victim of a serial killer living quietly among us for years. By that time, my youthful perception of small quiet rural neighborhoods had changed considerably- and in some ways, permanently.

“Friday the 13th Curse” : Smith College Disappearances Haunted Popular Imagination (1920s)

Tragedy came to Smith College on Friday, November 13, 1925, when 20 year old Jean Robeson was found dead in her dormitory kitchenette. Her death was accidental, attributed to asphyxiation from a gas leak in her room’s lighting. This sad incident would likely have been lost in the folds of history altogether, if it had been the only trauma to strike the elite Northampton college that day.

By Saturday, though, news had broken of a search under way for another Smith student, Alice Corbett. Corbett, a friend of Robeson’s, had left her room at 8AM the morning of her death, and was not seen again. An unsealed letter found in her room addressed to her mother was never released in its entirety, but indicated “a confused state of mind” according to investigators. “Mother, I am coming home,” read its final line.

Alice Corbett, b.1906- d. __ ?

Friends of Alice said in retrospect that she had seemed in poor spirits the week leading up to her sudden departure, but not to an extent that had alarmed anyone. Widespread searches were made, particularly of the Mount Tom woods, where a girl fitting her description had been seen. Her father immediately posted a $500 reward for information.

On November 20, some telephone lineman reported that a girl resembling Corbett’s photo had held them up at gunpoint on nearby Mount Whiting, demanding food before disappearing into the woods. A deluge of less reliable tips and outright hoaxes came in, as well, as they do in any well publicized missing persons case. In April, a middle-aged woman “of at least 45 years” went about some stores in Cheshire, Mass, claiming to be the missing student; she was interviewed by state police, who ended up giving her trolley fare and sending her back to her home in Adams.

Active searches of woodlands and waterways throughout western Massachusetts and neighboring states continued for nearly 2 years. Despite an increased reward of $1000, no worthwhile information about Alice ever surfaced.

Barely more than 2 years after her disappearance, another Smith student went missing. On Friday, January 13, 18 year old Frances Smith was reported missing from her dormitory, by a friend who said she had not been in her room all day. From the very first day of the investigation, suspicions percolated about a connection between her disappearance and that of Alice Corbett from the same campus 26 months ago. Lead Detective Joseph Daley of the state police -“although not superstitious,” according to Boston police commissioner Alfred Foote, who wrote of the case 2 years later- certainly felt the Friday the 13th timing gave the two cases an ominous connection. Only the lack of a note seemed to differentiate the circumstances.

Certainly, such disappearances were not a common occurrence; prior to Alice Corbett, the last case of a student going missing anyone could recall in the area was Bertha Lane Mellish, who vanished from Mt Holyoke College in 1897.

Publicity was even greater for this disappearance, as Frances was well known in society as the heiress daughter of a millionaire family. Coincidentally, she was also a somewhat close friend of Anne Morrow, who shortly would become Anne Lindbergh, and whose child would 5 years later become one of the most famous disappearances of the 20th century. As with the Lindbergh disappearance, and Alice Corbett earlier, dubious tips and unhelpful leads poured in and were systematically investigated, to no avail. Frances was “sighted” in Westfield, in Boston, in the Berkshires; in Connecticut and Maine, in New York, and more. By the following year, Frances St John Smith had been seen in almost every corner of the U.S., and in Europe.

The search for Frances was the most extensive ever conducted in Massachusetts at that time. After two weeks of failed searching, Commissioner Foote called a “secret conference” at the Lee barracks, with Frances’ father, uncle, top police officials from around the region, and the president of Smith College. Over two straight days, “the life of Miss Smith was discussed and considered from every angle since childhood.”

By 1928, Daly, Foote and other police investigators had become convinced Frances must be dead. Proof of their suspicions came on March 29, 1929, from two men dragging the Connecticut River 20 miles from Northampton in Longmeadow, for a coworker who had drowned the previous day. Instead, they found the partially nude body of young woman, who was later identified by clothing and dental records as Frances. An autopsy by Dr. Frederick D. Jones listed her cause of death as “drowning, sustained under circumstances undetermined.”

Associated Press, March 29, 1929

National coverage of her body’s discovery didn’t stop people from “seeing” the famous missing heiress, and tips continued to come in from around the country over the next couple years.

Frances St John Smith, b.1909- d.1928

The strangest reference to Frances came in 1933, where she is alluded to in one of the many bizarre anonymous letters received early in the search for her friend Anne’s infant son Charles. In the ransom message, which investigators at one point considered one of the only credible letters, the anonymous author writes, “You know the fate of the Smith girl, who received a similar letter and did contrary to our instructions by making it known… she was dropped out of the picture, and so will you if you tell anybody about the contents of this letter.”

There’s no indication Frances ever received any such letter, though a $50,000 ransom letter had been received by her father in 1928, dismissed at the time as a malicious prank. Charles Lindbergh Jr, meanwhile, was ultimately found dead in May 1933. Richard Hauptman was convicted and executed for the crime, though there’s at least half a dozen books questioning that conclusion.

The murky, unresolved nature of Frances death, and the overall loss of three students from the 2500 student population of the private Northampton college in a 26 month period- all on Fridays that fell on the 13th- led to considerable rumor and speculation for years to come. Some inevitably spoke of a “curse” over the college related to Friday the 13th, though this idea was diluted away as decades passed without related incident.

The intuitive magic marker in the human brain cannot help but try to draw lines between some dots; it’s this mental capacity that most muddies unsolved mysteries. Conversely, this intuitive dot-connector is also the thing that most often solves cold cases, when they do get solved. Double-edged tools should be used with great care. With that said, I will relay just one more coincidence (it cannot be more than that, can it?) in this legend built on coincidence. About 20 years after Frances St John Smith’s disappearance, another Smith student, Anne Straw, went missing. This July 1947 disappearance took place nowhere near the college, but at her parent’s summer house in Squam Lake, New Hampshire. When a thorough search of the area and dredge of the lake was made without sign of her, investigation did circle back to the Northampton area, but without any credible leads.

After more than a year, the search for Anne Straw ended when two boys fishing on the other side of Squam Lake caught a piece of clothing still attached to her remains on one of their hooks. The date was August 13, 1948; a Friday.

Anne Straw b. 1926 d. 1947

Boston Globe, Nov 16-21, 1925; July 31, 1930
Brooklyn Daily Eagle,March 31/1929
Foote, Alfred; Norris, Lowell. “The Strange Case of Frances St. John Smith”, True Detective Mysteries, November 1929.
“Smith Students are Still Missing,” Nov. 13, 1928, North Adams Transcript
“Scores of Clues Scoured in Vain Search for Lindbergh Baby.” Philadelphia Enquirer, March 4, 1932
“Body is Found” St Louis Star and Times, Aug 14, 1948

Snapshots of a Hilltown Treasure: Dream Away Lodge

Maria Frasca and her husband Vincenzo came to the U.S. from Italy in 1932 with their three daughters; in the mid 1940s they purchased a County Road farm property in Becket, Mass. In 1948 they opened as the “Dream Away Lodge” – a unique dining, bar and entertainment venue in an unlikely rural neighborhood.

The Frascas purchased the property from the Crochiere family, previously the Chaffee farm.

Mama Frasca looks back in a 1978 North Adams Transcript interview.
Mama Frasca, a devout Catholic, was principally responsible for the restoration of her hometown church in a small town back in Calabria in 1964. Some of the proceeds came from an album of songs she had written over the years.

Maria and Vincenzo Frasca passed the torch to their daughter Theresa, who operated Dream Away until the late 90s, when it was sold to Daniel Osman.

Legends of a speak-easy and brothel at the Crochiere farm, which predated Dream Away Lodge at that property… are probably just that. However, the parcel was not entirely devoid of historical color- such as a 1932 incident involving an older neighboring farmer who dropped dead on the property while chasing his cattle.