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.

Living With Ghosts: My Time At the Butler Goodrich House

Exterior frontPittsfield’s second oldest house, located just north of downtown on Route 7, was built by one of the city’s most prominent early citizens and has since accrued a curious history over the centuries.

It is also, according to some, quite haunted … a reputation which prompted me, in early 2014, to jump at the chance to temporarily take up residence in the storied house.

Historic Home

goodrich houseTechnically, only half of the “Goodrich House” qualifies as the second oldest construction in Pittsfield (after the Brattle Farm on Williams Street), as its rear portion is 20 years older than the main wing of the house facing North Street, just slightly south of and across the street from the historic entrance to Springside Park’s Elmhurst mansion.

The architecturally interesting homestead, once used as a model example and historic museum by the Berkshire Historical Society, was owned by the Goodrich family and its descendants for more than 150 years before becoming the historical society’s property in 1963.

Its first owner was Maj. Butler Goodrich, whose father Caleb Goodrich came to Pittsfield from Wethersfield just prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution, in which he served as lieutenant under Capt. John Strong, leading a company of 54 Pittsfield men against Gen. Burgoyne and ultimately participating in the British commander’s surrender at Saratoga.

Butler was born in 1768, and later served in the local militia, where he acquired his own title rank.

In the late 1700s, he married the wealthy widow Lydia White, and with her went on to have 11 children. Goodrich owned a medium size farm property, 163 acres (of which 60 acres was woodland), but his primary profession was as a skilled carpenter. He gained a reputation for being the go-to craftsman for difficult and somewhat dangerous projects. He was instrumental in the construction of the Bullfinch Church that preceded the current First Church on Park Square, and also in making improvements to that park. A friend and confidante of early local politicians, Butler was also an active member of the Washington Benevolent Society as well as serving on the town’s Cemetery Commission, from which he railed against the then-common problem of local grave robbing.

IMG_20150115_162143The house that he constructed had its origins slightly farther up North Street, where what is now the rear wing was first built in 1792 on a hilly area of his property, on what is now Montgomery Avenue. Family tradition indicates that Lydia prevailed upon her husband to relocate the place closer to the center of town, and certainly their rapidly growing family had need of more space.

The larger front portion of the house Butler built in 1812, in the Federal style, with woodwork considered of very high quality. It included eight more rooms, of spacious size for the period, five fireplaces, and a broad entry hall with a handsome L-shaped staircase.

“Few Federal houses with pilasters and pedimented front doorways remain in Pittsfield, so the architectural design of this house has considerable importance,” according to a historical “Form B” inventory prepared by Elizabeth Fitzsimmons for the Massachusetts Historical Commission.Upstairs front alcove

Hence it was understandable that the Berkshire Historical Society would take interest in such a building, and in summer 1963 it purchased the house from Joseph Knight Jr., a Goodrich relative who’d inherited the property from his father in 1942.

BHS President Margaret Hall said she was “delighted to find much of the original building in good condition,” and the society began work to restore it to a state of greater period authenticity almost immediately (this was a time of much less laborious permitting processes, remember.)

Architect Terry Hallock of Richmond worked from old drawings and photographs provided by the Goodrich family to generate renderings recreating its original appearance as much as possible. In particular, the removal of a Victorian porch added in the 1890s to restore the entryway to its original look posed a challenge.

Ironically, this goal was accomplished with the help of a ghost — in the sense of a term used for a particular architectural phenomenon. While Hallock had been busily redrawing what the original door pediment might have looked like from images of other homes from the period, the contractor working on removal of the porch discovered the “ghost” of its real pediment on the underlying clapboard planks, a shadowy outline it had left on the wood from being there for so many years prior to its removal.

Besides demolishing the porch to restore the door, other renovations included removal of asbestos siding, installation of new window sashes, and repainting of the house to a more authentic color (which has since been replaced with a bright red exterior). Some of the building materials used were obtained from a demolished 18th-century house in Hinsdale, formerly known as High Point Farm.

The interior of the house was furnished with painstaking care using an array of period antiques, a majority of them made locally, and most purchased from the closed down former Barn Restaurant at Pleasant Valley Sanctuary. Some particular gems displayed in the house included an 1837 portrait of Elder John Leland, who commissioned Cheshire’s famed Mammoth Cheese for President Jefferson, along with the writing desk on which the Rev. David Dudley Field composed his sermons, and Norman Rockwell’s original oil sketch for the Berkshire Life Insurance mural of North Street. Another artifact included a rare early map of Vermont the society discovered in Goodrich House upon moving in.

On June 5, 1965, 230 people attended the opening of the new museum, which later that month opened daily throughout the rest of the summer season.

“Visitors expressed as much interest in the restoration of the building, which is one of the oldest in Pittsfield, as they did in the historic objects on display,” according to The Berkshire Eagle.

For the next decade, the house was open to visitors six days a week from mid-June through Labor Day, and then weekends through mid October, with special events and school field trips sporadically throughout the rest of the year.

Ten years after it opened, however, the museum at Goodrich House was closed. The year 1975 marked a major change in the mission of the historical society, as it got out of the financially cumbersome business of acquiring historic houses to save them, and narrowed its mission to one focused on education and tourism. That year, it sold the three properties it then owned — Goodrich, Interlaken’s Citizen’s Hall, and its headquarters at 113 East Housatonic St. — in order to make the $100,000 purchase of Herman Melville’s Arrowhead home, which while architecturally less interesting than the others, had a more clearly widespread historic appeal.

Goodrich House was sold for $32,500 to Anthony and Marianne Rud, owners of the Berkshire Learning Center previously operating on East Housatonic Street — amidst some amount of outcry in protest from residents concerned about the lost asset to historic education, as well as the loss of an active preservation organization in the county; an issue that continues to provoke concern, as evidenced by Pittsfield’s recent Preservation Summit.

A quarter century later, the Ruds sold the North Street building in 1999 for $86,000 to Mayer Kirkpatrick, and its purpose changed again. Kirkpatrick reopened the house as Spanda Holistic Center, a private practice for acupuncture and other alternative modalities such as herbalism and Chi Quong.

In 2006, Kirkpatrick leased the house to Raynee Bird and it became Spa Med and Laser Clinic, until the property was foreclosed upon in 2009. In 2011, it was purchased at auction for $76,500 (about half its current assessed tax value) by Upstairs fireplaceShane and Molly Hunter, who returned it to residential usage for the first time in half a century.

It is currently operated as a boarding house of rooms rented on a month to month basis. When I first went inside in the fall of 2011, a few months after purchase by the current owners, it was inhabited by a half-dozen 20-somethings, and had taken on a kind of frat-house environment, an empty sign post outside and a glass enclosed bulletin board in the main hall the only traces left to suggest it had once been a historic educational site.

As it stands today, the house has seen better days. A noticeable lack of upkeep and proper maintenance has seen it languish with broken doors, decaying bathrooms, and walls left only partially painted. Pittsfield Health Department records indicate the building was cited for a number of code violations during a 2013 inspection.

Haunted Habitat
Beyond its noteworthy history, I had become intrigued with the Goodrich House on other levels since I first read an old reference many years ago, just the briefest 1920s footnote in a local paper to its “reputed” haunted-ness.

It was in 2007 that this possibility re-emerged to public attention when, according to the personnel of the Spa Med clinic, things began to get weird.

It started with a contractor who was doing some work on the house. According to owner Raynee Bird, the man was shocked one day when suddenly, he looked up from his work to see a woman in a long dress “float” up the stairs.

A few months later, a customer reported also seeing an unknown woman in the house. She told staff that she had become upset, assuming the woman was an employee, and while she stood at the door knocking, no one let her in. The only problem was, no one from Spa Med had been there at the time.

Strange banging sounds, unexplained feelings of fear, and other sightings of “mysterious figures” were also among the occurrences witnesses reported. One employee claimed to have looked through the window and seen a man standing on the front stoop, “dressed out of place, with a large brimmed hat.” At first she had taken him to be the mailman, but then realized it was a holiday. Whether the curious man was some stranger looking in, or something more strange, was never established.

Other accounts involved the sound of something slamming on the second floor when no one was upstairs, and a cabinet door next to the upstairs fireplace opening and closing on its own.

“One of the weirdest things that has happened to me personally was I received a phone call on my cell phone from the spa when I was the only one there,” Bird told Advocate Weekly reporter Nichole Davis.

On another occasion, she said, she was walking into the kitchen, located on the second floor, when suddenly “a wine glass flew off the table, hit a sugar bowl and broke it.”

As odd occurrences began to pile up, proprietor Raynee Bird put in a call to the Berkshire Paranormal Group, which had formed three years earlier in North Adams. In September 2007, BPG conducted a lengthy evening investigation of the house, armed with an array of popular modern ghost hunting equipment.

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In his writeup of the case, team leader Josh Mantello reported that they encountered several curious occurrences, including sightings of a what appeared to be a shadowy figure.

“While performing an initial sweep of the building,” Mantello stated, “in the area of the Salon and hair washing room I saw a shadow walk across this very small room. This shadow was pronounced enough to startle me, and I asked if any one was inside.”

Upon entering that room to investigate, Mantello said he then saw another shadow move across the hallway outside it.

In another instance, a piece of equipment allegedly went “flying off a table and crashing to the floor — completely on it’s own.”

They had been recording with audio devices at the time, and a short sound clip archived on the group’s website captures a crashing sound of the alleged incident, complete with the shocked, profanity-laced reaction of team members

According to their report, a majority of the electronic activity they found most interesting occurred around the main staircase, where the apparition of the woman had reportedly been seen.

“Being a group who likes to show solid presentable evidence after a case to prove a haunting, we were unable to do so in this case and this was somewhat disappointing after the experience we had in the building,” Mantello concluded. “But, I did walk out of the building with a strong sense of another presence inside after performing the EMF Experiment on the stairs. I do feel that some sort of paranormal activity is taking place inside this building and further investigations are needed to either prove me wrong or to gather that solid presentable evidence we seek.”

Legend Tripping

On a personal level, the decision to actually move into the former master bedroom of a house said to have exhibited its fair share of inexplicable activity also represented an interesting intellectual challenge. Over the years, I have often preferred to conduct my work in this area from the “armchair” analyst’s position, safely cloaked in the role of amateur folklorist and historian, charting the anthropology of paranormal allegations.

I have never entirely shied away from active field work, however; logging plenty of all-nighters quietly tip-toeing behind ghost-hunting clubs, staking out sites of alleged repeat UFO sightings, and camping forests areas where people have gone missing or suffered unsolved demise.

Still, the prospect of vacating an apartment I’d become rather comfortable in to take up an extended residence in a boarding house full of both practical and esoteric uncertainties was a bit daunting, and I would come to berate myself as a darned fool more than once over the coming months.

Master BedroomI also wondered (mostly jokingly I think) if there was going to be any, well, awkwardness, in my taking up quarters in the bedroom of a man who’d once publicly threatened to burn down the facilities of the early Berkshire Medical Society, an institution in which one of my own Durwin relatives had been a part of the early founding membership.

Though feeling a bit silly as I did so, I even made a point to verbalize aloud upon my arrival that there were certainly no hard feelings about this on my part, even going so far as to point out that Butler Goodrich and Ephraim Durwin had been parishioners of the same church, and emerged on the same side of the schism in said church, when a portion of the congregation fled William Allen’s aggressive political preaching at First Congregational to form the Union Parish.

My own amateur examinations of the property, like those of Berkshire Paranormal six years earlier, also yielded little in the way of evidentiary results.

As I have stated repeatedly in articles on this subject matter, I am not, nor have I ever considered myself to be, a “ghost hunter,” an undertaking I generally consider to be more or less an example of the social activity folklorists refer to as “legend ostension” or more simply “legend tripping,” than the scientific discipline it’s sometimes portrayed as. Nonetheless, as I’d moved into the house primarily for the experience of the thing, I was committed to giving it the old college try, and getting my feet thoroughly wet in the legend tripping of my residency.

Over several months, I took hundreds of photographs within the house, made extensive use of a simple EMF detector (which measures electro-magnetic fluctuation), and set up an audio recorder randomly for periods of time in different locations. I also employed a few old-fashioned tricks no longer in fashion (including some picked up from former MCLA professor and parapsychologist Ali Allmaker), things like laying very simple machines — old windable alarm clocks, piles of coins, and a handbuzzer — around in different locations.

Theoretically, when placed somewhere unlikely to be upset by natural forces (breezes, vibrations) any upset to these sort of objects could be a sign of more subtle, psychic/ghostly activity.

Only once did I find one of the coin piles disturbed, and no surprising noises came from the other objects. I did occasionally encounter fluctuations in employing the EMF detector, sometimes in areas where ghostly activity had been previously reported, sometimes in other places. Skeptically speaking, it’s always worth bearing in mind that any number of factors can generate such fluctuations, and I had no way of knowing the layout of the house’s wiring or when various electronics might have been in use by other tenants.

Upstairs rear wingAs for photographs, three different cameras employed never produced a visual record of anything that could be called truly anomalous … other than perhaps their sheer poor quality. As the editor of this publication could no doubt attest, I have never been a particularly exceptional photographer. Still, the fact that such an overwhelming majority of photos, even taken under what would normally be considered very good lighting conditions, turned out so deplorably bad, was perplexing to me. I emerged from my stint there with but a scant handful of pictures that could even be considered “functional” for ordinary purposes.

For what it’s worth, of the small number of visitors who I showed around the place, two remarked on feeling something strange as they walked up the main staircase. In one case, I suppose the individual could have done a little research in advance and read up on BPG’s investigation, had he been so inclined, though he said nothing to indicate he’d had any such foreknowledge. The other, an elderly friend who abhors most modern technology, I am quite certain has never used a search engine in her life.

Another visitor, who quite a number of people have attested to being quite sensitive, in the psychic sense, reported some very potent feelings about the upstairs portion in the rear wing of the house, the earliest part of the structure that dates back to 1792.

“It was as though I’d stepped into the mind of an agitated, mentally disturbed person,” she told me.

Personally, during my stay, I never saw an apparition, heard any disembodied voices, or felt particularly disturbed or spooked in any part of the house. By far the most overtly creepy things I endured there involved a couple of the other tenants that cycled through the premises.

While I never did encounter any clear, full-blown manifestation of the unexplained in my time at Goodrich House, I did experience something more ambiguous, on a personal level, that in some ways I find even more interesting.

Beginning very soon after I moved in, I embarked on a period of what, for lack of a better term, I would term incredibly bad luck. This extended from a dramatic increase in simple occurrences, like broken objects, phone and computer malfucntions, along with stubbed toes, cuts, and other minor injuries … to much more significant grievous financial problems, and some major hiccups in both my personal and professional life.

I also experienced an extremely high level of negative emotion, with persistent bouts of anxiety and depression. To be candid, such feelings are in no way unknown to me, but the intensity and frequency of these emotional states gradually rose to a level I’d not known in years. While I don’t want to be accused of seeking patterns where perhaps none exist … I cannot help but wonder.

More than any other work I have undertaken in this area, my residency at the Goodrich House led me to reflect deeply on the work of scientist George P. Hansen, whose mammoth and rigorously researched book “The Trickster and The Paranormal” is by far the most fascinating work on parapsychology and related fields I’ve read.

One of the many carefully interrelated subjects Hansen explores in this tome is the social history of different fields of para-research, making a formidable case that those researchers who most directly confront the subject matter of their discipline tend to have a high incidence of trouble in their personal lives. Some of these maladies, such as an increased rate of divorce or financial turmoil, could be explained by skeptics simply by the repeated mantra of belief that “they’re all crazy,” but on the more extreme end of the spectrum, these scholars also seem to exhibit a higher than average incidence of lives ending in murder or accidental death (parapsychologist D. Scott Rogo and Harvard UFO-logist John Mack being just two of the most famous examples).

By comparison, researchers who study psi phenomenon from a more remote, arms-length capacity seem to fare better and experience less of such tragedy in their lives. While the intricacies of Hansen’s voluminous book are far too extensive to get into here, essentially he argues that elements of liminality, destabilizing and destructuring attributes long associated in cultural studies with the archetype of The Trickster (whose close identification with things considered supernatural is taken as a given in many world cultures), are at play in such situations.

Whatever the case may be, all I can attest to myself is that the more time passed after my departure from the Goodrich House, the more improved my life circumstances became. Whether I am perhaps reading a correlation into pure coincidence, or some more complicated psychosocial or inexplicable element factored into this, I have no set conviction, and will leave up to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions based on their own beliefs.

While I am comfortable with this sense of ambiguity about my time at Goodrich House, I can say it will at least give me pause, the next time the opportunity arises to go live in some “haunted house.”