Joe Durwin: These Mysterious Hills

Berkshire County may not have an actual office of the X-Files, but if it did it would be run by local writer Joe Durwin, whose ongoing project, “These Mysterious Hills,” is about to enter a new stage as a book.

“These Mysterious Hills” began in the pages of the now-defunct weekly newspaper The Advocate, first as a Halloween special in 2005 and shortly afterward as a regular feature. It ran for nearly six years, blossoming into a blog, a podcast, television segments, radio specials and, most recently, a series of walking tours called “Ghosts & Legends of Upstreet Pittsfield.”

Durwin’s new book collects many of the original columns, updates them, puts them into a more cohesive historical sequence, and adds some previously unpublished material from his long-running effort to document the history of the weird in the Berkshires.

His newspaper column, he recalled, started as a Halloween feature that wound up running year-round.

“I had been collecting odder notes of local history from my own research for a number of years and been writing in related fields — to folklore and ghost stories, weird tales, things like that,” Durwin explained. “I was just looking at some of the local stuff I had that was just a side glance and wanted to do a one-off article. I figured Halloween was probably the tie-in.”

It turns out that history itself was the tie-in, with the folklore and weird tales just being part of the flavor of the Berkshires.

It’s a flavor that Durwin has been aware of his whole life. He was born and raised in Pittsfield, “one of the Durwins that goes back a good couple hundred years in town,” he said.

At some point he began taking note of the strange atmosphere of the Berkshires, partly through the tales of old-timers and partly through his childhood experiences.

“I had a lot of elders in my family who were great repositories of local knowledge and history, with a slant towards the odd and the speculative,” he said. “And there was just my own personal experience growing up in Pittsfield.”

Not a safe place?
“I never really felt like the Berkshires were a particularly safe place,” Durwin said. “From the time I was 10: A woman was murdered the next house over from me, and that was an unsolved case for a little while. Then a friend of some of my friends went missing, and that later turned out to be a serial killer who had been literally the creepy janitor that I saw every Saturday going to the theater for years.”

The serial killer was Lewis Lent, who worked at the Pittsfield Cinema Center and lived in North Adams. Lent was arrested in January 1994 after a failed attempt to abduct a 12-year-old girl in Pittsfield. He later pleaded guilty to the kidnapping and murder of Jimmy Bernardo, 12, who disappeared from Pittsfield in 1990, and the murder of Sara Anne Wood, a 12-year-old girl who vanished while riding her bike in rural Herkimer County, N.Y., in 1993. He is suspected in the disappearances of several other children in Massachusetts and New York.

Lent’s crimes were particularly chilling, but he’s far from the only killer who has called the Berkshires home.

“It all made an impression that there is this other side to the Berkshires,” Durwin said.
He added that what fascinates him is the sense that even sinister crimes fade quickly in most people’s memories.

“It’s in the news when it’s contemporary, but we forget about it really quickly,” Durwin said. “It definitely made me curious about specifically the unanswered questions and the things that had been left with too little journalism and too little research. And the more I looked at it, the more of those things there seemed to be.”

His research brought up incidents dating back to 1753, with the murder of a Mahican tribesman by two men in Stockbridge.

Another historical example was the 1882 case of Oscar Beckwith of Alford, who chopped up his business partner. The partner’s remains were found in a wood stove and a brine barrel, and Beckwith was suspected of cannibalism.

Finding facts behind the folklore
Berkshire County isn’t necessarily cursed, but Durwin said it can be creepy — especially for a kid who finds out too much.

“I grew up around Springside Park, so there were a lot of stories about Springside,” Durwin said. “There was a lot of stuff we talked about as kids. That park has a lot of lore, some of it sweet, some of it kind of scary.”

No doubt the spree of killings of animals in the park’s petting zoo, over a number of years in the 1970s and early 1980s, fueled the late-night conversations of Pittsfield kids trying to creep each other out.

In Durwin’s experience, there was often something else lurking behind the mythology of his childhood and, as he says, stories would “circle back to many years” once he started to dig into the history.

It turned out that Springside Park was also the scene of a gruesome crime in the 19th century, a mutilation that is connected with ghostly tales of a head that reportedly floats on North Street.

Durwin said he is fascinated by the way current folklore is born from all-but-forgotten tales — and the way these are transferred through the ages and across contemporary networks of young people. It’s more of that “circling back,” such as with the whispers he heard in childhood about a floating silhouette in Clapp Park in Pittsfield. In going through old newspapers, Durwin discovered this was a fairly common site for mill workers on their way home down North Housatonic Street 100 years earlier. The story had been out of the newspapers for a good 90 years, but the kids kept it alive as an oral tradition for Durwin to hear a century later.

“That kind of thing intrigues me — going back and finding out the history of the people who actually lived in this long-gone house and the stories that lived on after that,” he explained. “Sometimes it’s very hard to find the continuity of the transmission. That’s the sort of thing that different spectrums of skeptics will be arguing about for the rest of humanity. It’s interesting when you can pin down the folklore process and point to a place where this story turned into this story. Most of the time, it’s hard to do.’

Magnet for reports of the strange
Crime and the paranormal are among Durwin’s obvious interests, but he also loves stories about colorful characters, such as 19th century scoundrel Gen. William Martin Lutz, the silk-robed proprietor of a Pittsfield opium den who, among other things, was an early officer in the Salvation Army.

Then there was Prophet Levi Beebee, a 19th century eccentric who lived on Beartown Mountain, specialized in weather predictions and proclaimed, “Greylock is my barometer!”

“The stories about people are much more interesting to me” than the claims of supernatural phenomena or haunted houses, Durwin said.

“I’m not very interested in houses, but I’m really interested in the people that lived in them,” he said.

Even after many years spent digging through old newspapers, Durwin said he’s still surprised by the new stories he finds. And every week, someone contacts him with either some lore he may or may not know about, or even to report a sighting of something unusual. Durwin, who has a background in journalism, says getting people to talk about UFOs is a lot easier than getting them to talk about politics.

“It’s become a lightning rod to the point that even people at various state agencies and police departments and things like that will hit me up if there are things that they’re getting reports on,” Durwin said. “I’ve stayed in the loop and developed a lot of contacts. There’s a pretty steady flow of information coming in, and frankly it’s a lot to sort through, because there’s a fair amount of nonsense.”

As Durwin winds down work on the book in preparation for its release this month, he said he doesn’t discount the idea of future editions that might cover some topics in more depth. Readers have an appetite for this sort of lore, and he’s happy to continue offering it to those interested — and appreciative that his passion has found such an eager audience. It wasn’t always that way, he added.

“I just always assumed I was into weird stuff because I came from Pittsfield, where everything seems weird — from the crime to the public art to the politics,” Durwin said. “It has almost unbelievable aspects. I’m surprised that I’m in a minority of people who are into this stuff in such an area.”

Then again, maybe he’s not in the minority.

Originally appeared in the Hill Country Observer.

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