Otis Ax Murder: Charles Wood on Trial, 1877

It’ll probably never be clear exactly why Charles Wood attacked the older couple who let him get out of the rain for a spell in their Otis home, one September afternoon in 1876. Robbery, misunderstanding, or a sudden psychotic break were all possibilities, and Wood’s own accounts of the chaos made it sound like even he may not have known the reason.

What is agreed upon by all witnesses to the fray is that Wood (who the papers refer to as a ‘tramp’) was walking through Otis on his way to Lee, when he stopped at the home of Joseph and Hannah Hazard and asked if he might come in out of the rain.

Suddenly, Wood rose from his chair. At his trial, he would say that he began feeling very sick; he was convinced the Hazards had dosed him with some kind of “medicine.” He became angry, and as he spotted a walking stick leaning next to the dooor. He said he had only meant to give Mr Hazard a single whack, to teach him a lesson.

Hazard’s story was parallel, but without the provocation Wood cited; he said the man rose abruptly and strode for the door, turned and swung the stick at his head. Mr. Hazard ducked and it hit his shoulder, at which time he dodged past Woods and ran next door to fetch his next door neighbor, George Tillotson. By the time they reentered, Woods had struck Mrs Hazard several times in the head with their ax, killing her.

At his trial in February, Woods testified that after he struck Mr. Hazard with the club and he fled, he had reached down to pick up his hat. Mrs. Hazard charged at him with another stick, and that was when he grabbed the ax. They struggled, but she kept held of the ax, so he grabbed a hammer he found and struck her several times. He did not in any way deny killing her, but the murder weapon in his account varied from witnesses to the scene, and definitive testimony from the medical examiner that it was done with the ax.

“The medicine made me sick and crazy and I didn’t know much about anything for three or four weeks after I was in jail,” Woods told the court.

Hazard denied any medicine was given to Woods, only that he suddenly became violent.

After closing arguments were made, the case was given to the jury. On the first ballot, 8 voted for a verdict of 2nd degree murder, 4 for 1st degree murder (and with it, death by hanging). After 2 more hours discussion, and four more ballots, the jury returned with a verdict of guilty of murder in the 2nd degree.

Woods was said to have expressed no emotion as he was given a life sentence at Charlestown State Prison.

Hannah Hazard is buried in Otis Center Cemetery

This is an old case, from a particularly busy year for Berkshire homicides, and until recently hadn’t piqued my interest to do more with than add to the files. Then, while in search of something else, I came across a blip of a death notice for Charles Woods which prompted me to retrieve this case out of my files with new interest.

Woods, it says, died in prison just 10 months after his trial, “from a softening of the brain.”

Encephalomalacia, a softening of the cerebral tissues, is rare, and doubly so in adults; most cases described in medical literature occurred in infants and children, the result of neurological disorders. An interesting 2018 paper in the Industrial Psychiatry Journal, though, analyzed rare instances in adults, accompanied by psychiatric symptoms. Paranoid delusions and auditory delusions were the predominant symptoms, and instances of violent psychosis have been documented.

Could symptoms brought on by encephalomalacia explain Wood’s sudden paranoia, and violent outburst? It would appear there are medical precedents that could support that notion. Little is known about Charles Woods, who said he was born in France somewhere between 25 and 30 years earlier (he was unsure), and had been in this country 10 years at the time of killing. This armchair forensic speculation is probably all we’ll ever have in trying to unravel this murky case.

David Colvin Murder Trial, 1979

David Colvin had been expecting trouble. Earlier that night, the 32 year old Hungerford Street man had called his neighbor and asked them to let him know if they saw any strange people lurking around the street.

When the neighbor saw an unfamiliar station wagon parked in the driveway, he took a closer look. Two gunshots rang out from within. He quickly his car across the driveway blocking them in, then went inside to call 911. Two men exited the house and sped away anyway, pushing his car aside. They made as far as Cheshire before State Police caught them.

Colvin was brought to BMC with 2 gunshot wounds. As he struggled in the hospital, Brian Matchett (a former marine who had worked security for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) and Arthur Sampson (who went by “Lucky”), both from the Boston area, were arraigned for attempted murder.

The charge was upgraded to murder when Colvin died 2 days later from his wounds.

Investigators believed Colvin was shot in a dispute arising from a $1,500 gambling debt the two eastern Mass. men had come to collect. State troopers found 4 unregistered firearms (including 2 sawed off shotguns) in the car when they were apprehended.

At the September trial, DA Anthony Ruberto marshalled 35 witnesses and copious forensic evidence. Jurors were also taken to visit the house as part of the prosecution’s case.

Matchett’s defense attorney maintained that Colvin shot himself while they were struggling.

Arthur “Lucky” Sampson was acquitted of the death; Brian Matchett was found guilty of 2nd degree murder, and sentenced to life at Walpole. In 1982, the state supreme court overturned the conviction, finding Judge John Moriarty had not correctly instructed the jury. In 1983, Matchett was convicted again in a new trial, and returned to Walpole.

It was not the first time a local homicide had been connected to gambling debts; with the significant presence of organized crime in Pittsfield at the time, it had become a recurring theme (see: A History of Organized Crime in the Berkshires). By coincidence, it was also not the first time in these parts that a man named Colvin had been allegedly killed by two other men following an argument (see: Russell Colvin case, Manchester, 1819).

Another point of historical interest surrounding this case is that at the time of his death, David Colvin was considered to have key information about a Stockbridge theft of more than a million dollars in art, including Cezanne’s Bouilloire et Fruits and six less famous pieces by Soutine, Vlaminck, Jansem, and Utrillo.

“Authorities say any hope they had of solving the theft died on February 13, 1979, when Colvin was shot to death,” wrote Stephen Kurkjian of the missing art. The Cezanne was eventually recovered, 2 decades later. The other 6 paintings remain unaccounted for to this day.

Bootlegger Wars in Chester

It was a cold, still February night in 1854 when an explosion rocked the village center of the growing township of Chester Factories (Chester, Massachusetts). Its small Methodist Church was immediately engulfed in flames, razing it almost completely before the fire could be subdued.

The exact perpetrators who exploded a keg of gunpowder in the young church building, then barely 7 years old, were never identified… but the general direction of the attack was never in much question. Massachusetts had been under total alcohol prohibition since 1852, and the radical local chapter of Carson League temperance activists, mostly methodists under the leadership of Reverend Edward Best, had gone out that day serving notice to all known liquor sellers to desist their activities or face swift consequences.

This was their answer.

It would become a point of major escalation in an ongoing conflict between the local Carson League and alcohol sellers and their customers, with increasing vigilante action on both sides.

Reverend Best and his parishioners vowed to rebuild, and the sympathies of a town majority in the wake of the bombing yielded the donations to have it rebuilt by August. It also yielded the political will to launch an immediate crackdown on liquor sellers, as the local constable backed by a contingent of Carson League volunteers raided multiple establishments and seized over 40 gallons of rum. Alcohol enthusiasts then turned to the Spring town election to combat the situation, hoping to stock the select board with members who would look the other way on the regulations.

“Every toper, young and old, within the township, was crowded to the polls,” wrote Rev. Best. “Who can describe such a motley crew? Tattered garments, shapeless hates, bloated forms, blotched faces, and crimson complexions.

The Carson League had worked hard to turn out voters too, though, and pro-temperance candidates swept the election in a landslide. Emboldened and zealous to stamp out the scourge of alcohol, the League continued raising funds after the church was rebuilt, which they used to hire a former policeman from Albany named Benjamin Chamberlain. They paid Chamberlain to go undercover in the town and gain the confidence of the rum sellers.

This was not an instance isolated to Chester; in his address to the Massachusetts Temperance Society annual meeting in 1855, Reverend Thomas Wiggins defined the Carson League chapters as a “voluntary police” force, who employed such “agents” as were deemed necessary to the task.

It was six months before Chamberlain produced important intel. At the last moment, he learned of a plot to blow up a grist mill owned by Carson League member Dwight Wilcox. He rushed to the Methodist church to inform the league, and a band of them set out. They found the grist mill in flames and the arsonists fled into the night.

A few were recognized, and eight men were arrested by the constable over the following days. The anti-temperance forces didn’t take it laying down, instead filing a flurry of criminal charges against Chamberlain and other League members for conspiracy and entrapment, marshalling 20 witnesses willing to swear that it was Chamberlain’s idea to burn the mill. The county sheriff was forced to arrest some of the church’s most prominent members.

After multiple postponements, the trials were not mentioned again, and it has been surmised that charges were ultimately dropped on both sides. In his opening address the following year, the new Methodist minister suggested that the members should perhaps focus more on their own spiritual salvation, and later records indicate more peaceful years after the events of the mid 1850s. Massachusetts repealed its state prohibition a few years later, and like many temperance towns Chester authorities instituted a process of required liquor licenses, then never issued any licenses. In 1892, a new pastor in Chester railed against the lack of enforcement of the licensing… but townspeople by then seemed to have lost the appetite for the crusades of earlier decades.

The church eventually merged with the Congregational church in Chester, and the building was bought by the Samoset Lodge, then became a Masonic lodge until 1995. It is now part of the Chester historical society.

Sources:

Donovan, Mike. “A Grab For Power.” Country Journal, July 1, 2004
“The Chester Methodist Church. ” Chester Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 2, Issue 2 April 2003
“Strange Developments in Massachusetts.” Vermont Journal, Sep 22, 1854
Untitled, Hartford Courant, February 25, 1854

Dedicated to my grandmother, Doris B. Olds (1917-2008), who grew up in Chester and was my original source for this saga… and a powerful and lasting influence on These Mysterious Hills, always.