|Engaging With The Dead: Berkshirites & the Spectral World. Part 1: 1781-1900|
|By Joe Durwin, Special to iBerkshires|
07:21AM / Sunday, October 31, 2021
|Foundations at the Osborn farm in Mount Washington where Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, stayed as she spread a spiritualism that came to be known as the Era of Manifestations.|
What is a ghost? What is an apparition? What is the nature of the dead, and can they ever still keep company with the living? These are questions that have occupied human minds for thousands of years. On a more recent local level, they're questions that have been kicked around since the 1700s, in a variety of contexts, and through some very different lenses.
Some of the very first local "ghost stories" were firsthand accounts from settlers living in what were still wild frontier towns poking through wilderness. Some of these had the character of bizarre, menacing encounters with unseen forces and unknown beings that threatened them in their slight footholds on the edge of the forests.
Elder John Leland, best known locally for delivering the Mammoth Cheese to President Jefferson, wrote about mysterious and frightening noises at his home.
One such account comes from the area of Sage's Ravine in Sheffield in 1802, when Simeon Sage and numerous other witnesses endured a bombardment by invisible attackers that trashed at least two buildings over almost a week. It started after dusk at a small garment-making shop Sage operated.
Two boys and an unnamed man who worked there were retiring for bed, when a huge block of wood came crashing through a window. That was followed by more bits of wood, rocks, mortar. They went outside but couldn't see anyone in the direction the objects were coming from. They went to the main house and woke Sage, who was helpless to do anything but watch as window after window shattered from flying debris. They searched the grounds, the woods. They never saw a soul. This went on til almost dawn, then abruptly stopped.
The next night it started up again, and went on for about four hours; then the next night. The fourth day, it started earlier, and went on for an hour or so in broad daylight. Still they couldn't see anyone or find anyone. Then it suddenly stopped, and almost immediately, started a quarter-mile away, at Ezekiel Landon's house. The Landon family was terrified, crouching under their dinner table. It stopped, but then started up again at breakfast, and went on for two more hours.
Fifty-six panes of glass were destroyed in the attacks between the two properties and they caused various other damage
People came from miles around to see what was happening at Sage's Ravine. No one could find the cause of the attacks — but everybody had a theory. Some said it was witchcraft, others were more skeptical, and said it had to be pranksters — more than one — because the missiles would hit from different sides at once. Perhaps some kind of elaborate new slingshot weapon. But no one could catch the culprit. After the fifth night, the bombardments stopped completely, and never resumed.
Further north, a few years later, Elder John Leland of Cheshire was plagued by another kind of mysterious visit in the night — not as damaging, but still loud and disturbing. A firsthand account of it exists in the vault of the Berkshire Athenaeum.
One night he and his family began to hear a loud whirring sound, like an unseen wheel turning. It started by his kitchen window, and then came further and further into the house. It stopped, and then started again the next day. The sound would follow him through the house.
Over and over this happened. The noise would follow them inside and outside the house.
He took apart the window. He looked in other places for the source of the sound. Finally he removed the door off every cupboard in the place. He could not explain the noise. They were getting more and more scared.
One night in bed it was so loud it shook the house. Elder Leland put his face in his pillow and prayed. The sound grew louder then, and nearer, approaching his room. He leaped to his feet. "In the name of God, depart!"
The noise grew to its loudest and most terrible ... and then ceased. He never heard it again.
When he wrote it down in the 1830s, Leland was curiously agnostic about the matter. "These are the facts, that you may form your own opinion. I have none," he wrote.
As an interesting aside, the protege who succeeded him at the Baptist Church in Cheshire, Elder Billy Sweet, also had a strange encounter. Many times he told a story of walking past the old Cheshire graveyard and seeing a phantom white horse emerge from the ground and paw at the stars with its hoof.
Visions or miraculous sightings among clergy were not an uncommon or undesirable thing at this time. This was more than a century after the end of witch trials in New England, and the landscape of beliefs had shifted a great deal. Now, to experience the supernatural was more a sign of how devout you were than of diabolism.
In the 1800s this tremendous diversification of Christian denominations and mystical sects had begun. Some of that was due to the arrival of Mother Ann and the Shakers. And it was really Ann Lee who gave the first local accounts of encountering ghosts. In 1781 she came to the Osborn farm in Mount Washington to spread her ways and doctrines, and dozens flocked to see her. Ann Lee was always talking to angels, to the apostles, to ghosts of the departed.
The Fox sisters of Hydesville, N.Y., claimed to be able speak to the dead and held seances often attended by celebrities. They later confessed it was all fake.
She died only three years later but her work went on for decades, especially on the three major Shaker communities that were built up locally in Hancock, New Lebanon and Tyringham. Then there was the lesser known commune of Shaker converts that sprung up in Savoy in a revival around 1815, and they told all sorts of stories of floating lights and apparitions. Some of it even got tied in with the early Savoy legend of a haunted tavern and a murdered traveler tale ... that's a whole other saga, in its own right.
But the real peak was what they called the Era of Manifestations, or "Mother Ann's Work," from around 1837 to 1845. Now, everyone around here knows the Shakers shook, they danced themselves into ecstatic trances. But they didn't just dance, they rolled and writhed on the floor. They spoke in foreign languages. They became drunk from gifts of alcohol and native tobacco that were given them by the spirits that were visiting them in the room. Whole groups would see the apparitions, many of them famous historical figures, like Washington and Napoleon. These figures had become posthumous converts, honorary Shakers, they said.
They also had a legend that they battled and defeated the devil, in person. Each of the three local communities had a version of this legend, each set at their particular holy mountain. The story went that they surrounded the devil in a circle, singing and slowly narrowing the circle until he was cornered. They killed him and buried with clamshells in his hands, face down so that if he came to and dug, he would just dig lower. In one version, the ghosts of Washington and Lafayette guarded the hill on spectral horses.
The Shakers seem to have had a profound impact on the explosion of mystical sects and practices in 19th-century America that was overlooked by scholars at first, but that's something that's changed in the last few decades. Part of that influence was geographic — most of the Shakers were located right along Route 20, a very important route. Route 20 would eventually become the longest highway in America, and in an era before telegraphs that made it an important pathway not just for people but for the transmission of ideas.
Historian Carl Carmer calls Route 20 "the psychic highway" and a "thoroughfare of the occult" and new revelations and traditions like those of the Shakers and the Seventh-Day Adventists — whose founder came from Pittsfield — spread west liberally over the so-called "Burned Over District" of New York. Hill Cumorrah where the Mormon faith was born is just 10 miles from Route 20, and just 5 or 10 miles north of that was Hydesville, N.Y., where the Fox sisters gave birth to the spiritualism movement.
There's little question that the extensive talk of Shakers summoning spirits of the dead to the east had some influence not only on the Fox sisters and their "messages from beyond" in the form of knocks and rapping on tables, but also on the large population of believers who flocked to such performances.
The spiritualist movement expanded dramatically over the next few decades. It was embraced by a slew of celebrities from Queen Victoria and Mary Todd Lincoln to scientists like Thomas Edison, and a ton of literary figures. We know local poet William Cullen Bryant attended at least one seance with the Fox sisters at the P.T. Barnum Hotel in New York, and was generally friendly to the subject. Decades of traveling mediums and clairvoyants followed, selling these ideas which had largely begun with the Shakers back to the Berkshires in glossier forms.
Well over a hundred mediums and psychics of different styles visited the Berkshires between 1850 and 1900. Most rented small spaces in North Adams or Pittsfield, occasionally there were larger performances in theaters. They found plentiful audiences and clients, but they also encountered a steady stream of skeptics keen to debunk them. There's accounts of local hecklers tricking and exposing mediums as early as 1859, making up fake dead people for them to contact, pointing out discrepancies and slight-of-hand tricks.
One of my favorite instances involves the Eddys, a family of mediums who'd become quite famous in the 1870s. They visited the Berkshires repeatedly, staying several times with the Shaker community in Hancock, where they became good friends of Elder Evans.
The Eddys had an elaborate stage show: they'd bring in this full-length cabinet with partitions, and one of them would sit inside one section and summon spirits, who would come out of the other section of the box. The spirits would be one of the other siblings in a costume. Native American apparitions were a particular favorite.
One of the Eddy brothers traveling medium shows ended in a fistfight in North Adams.
In 1879, things got ugly for the Eddys at one of their North Adams appearances when A.C. Whipple, the local Baptist minister, showed up and confronted them. When an Iroquois ghost named "Honto" manifested from the cabinet, Whipple grabbed hold of the spirit, who turned out to be the Eddys brothers' sister, Mrs. Huntoon. William Eddy ran over to tussle with the minister, and then a newspaper reporter from the Transcript got involved, and all four of them ended up rolling around on the floor and throwing punches.
As the Pittsfield Sun put it, "the performance was fully exposed — as was Mrs Huntoon, whose garments ended up around her head."
Despite these kinds of incidents, despite even the 1888 confessions by the Fox sisters that they'd made up all the antics that had started the whole thing, spiritualism and psychic performance kept on getting more popular toward the end of the century. Especially in North Adams, which saw at least two dozen traveling mediums and clairvoyants advertising within the last five years of the 19th century.
By then the Berkshires were half way into the Gilded Age, too, and with it a new kind of encounter with spirits was emerging — the "haunting." These were ghosts that didn't need to be summoned, or part of any revelation from God or the Devil. They had an overwhelming tendency to cling to finer houses, particularly after they became vacant, or sometimes just after they stopped entertaining guests and fell off the grid of high society.