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.

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.