Haunted locales you can visit in the Berkshires and Southern Vermont
By Jennifer Huberdeau
Do you believe in ghosts?
If you answered yes, you’re not alone. According to the Paranormal America 2018 study, part of the Chapman University Survey of American Fears, 57.7 percent of the U.S. population believes that places can be haunted by spirits, while only 21 percent believes in Bigfoot, and even less, a mere 17 percent, believes in psychics.
Those numbers are on the rise since 2016, when only 46.6 percent of the population believed in hauntings.
“Interest in fringe topics is forever cyclical. It has been for the last 150 years,” said Jeff Belanger, host of the “New England Legends” television series and co-host of the podcast of the same name. “The Spiritualist movement of the 1840s got a shot in the arm during the U.S. Civil War, then died down a bit until World War I, then rose again during World War II. Whenever there’s great turmoil in the world, and people don’t find answers in their religious institutions, they’ll look elsewhere.”
Interest in the paranormal kicked up in the early 2000s, as ghost hunting and paranormal shows flooded the airwaves and similar books crowded bookstore shelves. Restaurants, hotels and inns invited the public in to explore their haunted halls.
But in recent years, local locales that once boasted about being haunted have stopped “proactively promoting” those claims.
“It could be that the U.S. economy is doing very well right now and hotel rooms are filling up. So, hotels and inns don’t want to seem desperate to try and attract attention. (Or maybe the ghosts leave during good economic times?),” Belanger said. “Not to worry, when the pendulum swings back toward more difficult financial times, the ghosts and ghost tours will return to all of those hotels. I guarantee it.”
That pendulum might well be swinging back into the realm of belief, if 2019’s fall lineup is any indicator. “Ghost Hunters,” which ended its run on the SYFY channel after 11 seasons, is now being revived by A&E, with former TAPS member Grant Wilson at the helm. It’s one of five paranormal shows on the channel’s fall slate. Meanwhile, former TAPS members Jason Hawes, Steve Gonsalves and Dave Tango will reunite on the Travel Channel this fall in a new show, “Ghost Nation.”
It was in the early 2000s, when Belanger and Tony Dunne, director of the “New England Legends” television series, met and began collaborating. Dunne, at the time, was filming his documentary, “Things That Go Bump in the Night: Tales of Haunted New England,” and interviewed Belanger, an expert in the field.
“We discovered we were born in the same small-town hospital in Southbridge, Mass., and also agreed that there are enough strange stories in New England to warrant not just a documentary, but a series that could potentially go on forever,” Belanger said. (A new episode is due out in October on Amazon Prime.)
A weekly podcast, hosted by Belanger and producer Ray Auger, was a natural progression.
Both the podcast and television show focus on finding the real story behind local legends and lore. When chasing down the legend of a little girl’s ghost haunting the top of October Mountain in the episode “Spooky Berkshires,” the crew was able to do just that.
“We were able to place a name with the story of a little girl’s ghost haunting the top of the mountain: that of young Anna Pease, whose lost grave we discovered,” Dunne said. “In chasing a ghost, we found a very real person who lived and died on the mountain generations ago. That’s the power of a legend, it can bring history alive for us.”
Sam Baltrusis, producer of MassParacon, a paranormal conference, was chasing down a different type of ghost story when he came to the Berkshires. Baltrusis was researching his latest book, “Ghost Writers,” a book about those who write about ghosts or write ghost stories. Author Edith Wharton, who summered in Leonx, Mass., at The Mount, was one such author.
It was earlier this year that he decided to bring Mass- Paracon, now in its third year, to the Berkshires. This year, he said, the conference is author-centric and will feature paranormal authors. Among those appearing are John Zaffis, demonologist and star of “The Haunted Collector,” and author Andrea Perron, whose family’s story inspired the movie “The Conjuring.”
“When I asked John Zaffis about hosting the conference in the Berkshires this year, he gave me the thumbs-up. He loves the Berkshires and thought it was a great idea,” Baltrusis said of the conference, which will be held Sept. 27 to Sept. 29 at the Seven Hills Inn in Lenox, Mass. The weekend includes opportunities to participate in a ghost tour at The Mount or a paranormal investigation at Ventfort Hall Mansion and Museum of the Gilded Age.
For those wanting to explore on their own, we checked out a few haunted locales in the Berkshires and Southern Vermont.
A historic inn with a few longterm residents
Barbara Colorio isn’t afraid of the spirits who occupy her historic inn in Sandisfield, Mass. In fact, she thinks they make the New Boston Inn all the more fun.
“I clean those rooms up there, I tell you, sometimes, they lock me out of the room and I have to come down and get the key. Sometimes, I’m all done cleaning the rooms, go in there, check them to make sure everything is set and you can see [an impression] where someone laid perfectly on the bed,” she said during a recent visit to the inn.
Most of the time, the ghostly activity is limited to doors that open and close on their own, footsteps heard in empty hallways, objects that move locations and the occasional apparition.
Overnight guests of the inn have reported latched and locked doors opening on their own, footsteps in the hallway, shades snapping open and items moving. Some even write about their experiences in the individual guest books kept in each of the inn’s seven guest rooms.
“As I was leaving, the door unlatched and opened wide for me …,” a guest of Room No. 4 wrote.
The most common “proof ” guests have of their ghostly encounters are photographs that have unexplained orbs of light in them.
Creaky floors and doors opening on their own aren’t unusual in an inn as old as this one. The main building dates to 1737, with the last portions being added on around 1760. But Colorio says it isn’t the age of the buildings, it’s the events that took place on the property that keep some guests coming back.
“There was a Revolutionary War training camp on the grounds and a medical hospital,” she said. “This was also a stagecoach stop on the Red Bird Line from Hartford to Albany. And then there was a murder in 1805. There’s a woman who shot and killed here. She walks around and sings sometimes.”
Colorio is referring to “Harriet,” the resident ghost of the second floor and perhaps the inn’s most famous inhabitant.
According to local lore, Harriet’s family summered at the inn around the turn of the 19th century. During those summers, Harriet fell in love with a farmhand. The pair planned to marry, but Harriet’s family didn’t approve of her marrying someone below her station. At some point, the story goes, the boy went off to war. When he returned, Harriet was set to be married to another man — in the ballroom of the New Boston Inn. But he had arrived too late, as Harriet’s wedding ceremony already had taken place.
“Supposedly, he said, ‘If I can’t have you, no one will,’ and pulled out a gun and shot her. She fell down the two steps that take you into the ballroom and died in the room next door. They say there were bloodstains on the floorboards for 100 years,” Colorio said. “The farmhand was hanged.”
Stories of Harriet’s tragic demise appeared in Yankee Magazine in 1931 and 1958 and more recently in books about haunted inns and locations in Massachusetts. Her story also earned the inn a guest spot on the first season of “Ghost Hunters.”
“That first year, after the episode aired on the SyFy channel, a few religious groups that scheduled Christmas parties here pulled out,” Colorio said. “But now, it’s readily known for being haunted. I have a wedding party that is coming here in October because it’s haunted.”
And it also makes the inn’s annual Halloween party all the more fun — there’s always a few partygoers dressed as Harriet each year.
“I’m having too much fun with this place. I’ve owned it for 15 years and I don’t ever see myself selling it. I like it.”
Ghostly encounters at Edith Wharton’s summer home
Not looking to spend the night in a haunted hotel or inn? How about taking a “ghost tour” of author Edith Wharton’s summer estate, The Mount, in Lenox, Mass.?
The Mount has been offering “Ghost Tours” since 2009, after the estate appeared on “Ghost Hunters” for the first time. Since then, the tours have been popular enough to draw audiences during the summer months, as well as during September and October.
“It’s really been wonderful and there’s a continuing interest,” said tour guide Robert Oakes. “There’s a continuing interest, so much, that the past few [fall] seasons, we’ve sold out.”
Stories of shadow figures, ghostly apparitions, the smell of cigar smoke and people being touched by unseen forces go back to the 1940s, when the estate was used as a dormitory by the Foxhollow boarding school.
“Every tour is unique,” Oakes said. “There are many stories, and we learn of more all the time. We try to change the stories we tell, so the tour is constantly evolving.”
And many guests come back for another tour, he said. “You never have the same experience twice. The time of day really changes things, and as we get closer to Halloween, it gets darker earlier. Even the chemistry of the tour group that night makes it unique.”
During the two-hour talk and walk, the tour takes the curious through the stable, where one of the most common sightings, according to Oakes, is the hulking shadowy figure of Wharton’s driver, Charles Cook. The figure often is accompanied by the smell of cigar smoke. The tour also stops by a pet cemetery and ends in the house, where numerous tales are told, including one about a shadow figure, believed to be Wharton’s husband, Teddy.
Searching for spirits at Ventfort Hall
For those wanting a more hands-on approach when seeking out the spirit world, Ventfort Hall in Lenox, Mass., offers several opportunities to take part in a paranormal investigation during the year.
The mansion, built as a summer home by Sarah Morgan, sister of J.P. Morgan, and her husband, George Hale Morgan, is said to still be inhabited by members of the Morgan family.
Still, others say they’ve encountered the ghost of Annie Haggerty Shaw, whose family owned the land before the Morgans. And then there’s a theory that some of the paranormal presence might be attached to antique items in the building.
Paranormal investigator and author David Raby, who hosts the events, said in a recent interview that he has had many experiences with guests while exploring the former mansion.
Experiences, he said, range from smelling lavender perfume in Sarah’s room and individuals being touched by unseen hands to “ghost hunting equipment” failing and lights going out for no reason.
“We have seen a freestanding light, during daylight, whip over our heads. We heard a sigh coming from a corner of the room in which there was no guests,” Raby said.
And the reason for so much activity? There isn’t just one reason, he said.
“There is such a diverse history at Ventfort. It went from a private residence of the Morgans, then Margaret Vanderbilt and the Bonsal family, then it was a dorm, the Festival House, a ballet camp and a religious community,” Raby said.
“I think Sarah Morgan is there because she died so soon after building her dream summer cottage. She has seen many changes to her home, some of which I think she would not have approved of. Then she saw it abandoned and almost destroyed. Now, she is overseeing its rebirth and seeing a group of hardworking volunteers and staff members who work tirelessly to see it rise again.”
Author Shirley Jackson, a onetime resident of North Bennington, Vt., is known for her haughtingly brilliant writing. Her first commercially successful work, “The Haunting of Hill House,” has mesmerized audiences for decades and left fans wondering what house inspired the hell that was Hill House.
Many have speculated that Jennings Hall at Bennington College, where her husband was a professor, was her inspiration. And while the mansion wasn’t too far from her home, biographer Ruth Franklin says in “Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life,” that if any local mansion was an inspiration, it was most likely The Orchards, the estate of Bennington millionaire Edward H. Everett. The mansion, then being used as a novitiate by the Holy Cross Congregation, bears a strong resemblance to Jackson’s sketches of the outside of her fictional house.
The Everett Mansion, now for sale along with the other buildings and land that make up the former Southern Vermont College campus, reportedly is haunted by Everett’s first wife.
Vampires in Vermont
Although we now know that deaths attributed to vampirism or witchcraft really were caused by consumption, also known as tuberculosis or “wasting disease,” New Englanders were convinced that a supernatural force was at work in the late 1700s.
And who can blame them? In some cases, entire families were wiped out, over a period of years, by an invisible airborne disease that consumed its victims slowly.
More disturbing was how suspected vampires were dealt with. The deceased, now thought to be one of the undead as well, typically were disentered and the vital organs removed.
In some cases, the organs were burned and buried, but in the case of Rachel Burton, of Manchester, Vt., her victim, her husband’s second wife, Hulda, was forced to drink the ashes. The cure failed, as Hulda died in 1793.
A similar remedy was tried in Dummerston, Vt., with a slightly more successful outcome.
This case involves the family of Lt. Leonard Spaulding, a celebrated Revolutionary War hero whose headstone can be found in Bennet Cemetery in Dummerston. Consumption would claim the lives of eight of the 11 Spaulding children.
In 1782, the first of the Spaulding daughters was taken by consumption. First, Mary, 20, died in May, followed by Sarah, 19, in October. Sixteenyear-old Esther followed in 1783, then a son, Timothy in 1785. Lt. Spaulding succumbed to the illness in 1788, followed by Betsy in 1790, Leonard Jr. in 1792, John in 1793 and Reuben in 1794.
The family, save for Mary, Sarah, Esther and Lt. Spaulding, were buried side by side in a cemetery in the town’s center. When another Spaulding daughter was struck with the disease, the siblings were allegedly dug up, had their vital organs removed and burned, and her illness subsided.
The staircase to nowhere
Whether Madame Sherri’s Castle Ruins are haunted or not seems to be up for debate. But a trip to the ruins in the forest named after Madame Antoinette Sherri is worth the trip just to learn about the woman who has become a local legend.
While the ruins are all that remain of a once gorgeous summer home in Chesterfield, N.H., stories of its eccentric owner, a former Parisian actress turned Broadway costumer, are legendary. She held lavish parties at the “castle” where she held court in a cobra-backed chair she called the “The Queen’s Throne,” but she lived in a small, run-down farmhouse on the property.
She also reportedly loved to travel to nearby Brattleboro, Vt., wearing nothing under her fur coat.
The castle burned down in October 1962, leaving only a foundation, chimneys and a grand staircase for modern-day visitors. •
More about …
“New England Legends”
A podcast, website and Emmynominated television series airing on PBS and Amazon Prime.
“New England Legends” TV series: New episode
In the new episode of the “New England Legends” TV series, host Jeff Belanger, director Tony Dunne and photography director Nate Buynicki hit the road and take you on a “Legendary Road Trip” through New England. They’ll explore legends in Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire – including the first documented ghost sighting in American history, the UFO abduction case of Betty and Barney Hill, and they’ll even go searching for New England’s own Loch Ness Monster: Lake Champlain’s infamous “Champ.” Look for it in October on Amazon Prime.
Sept. 27-29 Seven Hills Inn, Lenox, Mass. Tickets range from $25 to $225. Lodging is not included.
More info: massparacon.com
Jennifer Huberdeau is editor of UpCountry magazine. She also pens the column “Mysteries from the Morgue” for The Berkshire Eagle.