The Bennington Triangle may not be as well known as the Bermuda Triangle, but it has more verifiable mysteries within its three-pointed designation. Located in Southern Vermont, and including the ghost town of Glastenbury at the center of it, the Triangle is host to numerous macabre and mysterious events, including murder and monsters, following a tapestry of folklore claiming a dark reputation for the area.
The most cited mysteries are a series of disappearances — Middie Rivers, an elderly hunter, in 1945; Paula Weldon, an 18-year-old Bennington College student in 1946; war vet James E. Tetford in 1949; eight-year-old Paul Jepson in 1950; and 53-year-old Frieda Langer the same year, though her body was found in the Somerset Reservoir in 1951, so she’s not properly a missing person case. There are others sometimes cited in this list, as well.
But even with these documented vanishings, is there anything about the area that is anymore sinister than any other area in Vermont?
The triangle as a border for these mysteries was first suggested by folklorist and author Joseph Citro in 1992. Citro is pretty surprised that the name he gave the region and the phenomenon has endured so vividly in popular culture. He coined the phrase as part of a public radio commentary series about mysteries and historical oddities in Vermont, later examining it further in his 1994 book Green Mountain Ghosts, Ghouls, and Unsolved Mysteries. He was had been aware of the disappearances for years, and they had served as the inspiration for Citro’s first novel, Shadow Child.
One of the most astounding aspects of the legend to Citro isn’t the murders or the vanishings, though, it’s how the phrase has taken off as a way of capturing the macabre incidents that have happened there over a period of many decades.
“The viral nature of the story illustrates how the community grows,” he said. “Frankly, I was amazed at how it spread. As I said, I coined the term in 1992. At this point — today — ‘The Bennington Triangle’ has been featured in newspapers, magazines, radio programs, and TV shows all over the country and all over the world. I just read a piece about it from Australia. If you Google the term you will get thousands upon thousand of hits. The role I played in its creation is forgotten, but the story has taken on a life of its own. And it’s growing”
But at the beginning of the community are the incidents that inspired the interest — almost a century’s worth, and not all implying the paranormal.
There are the so-called monsters, born from unofficial legends of a monster roaming Glastenbury Mountain, including the claim of old Indian legends. The best known claim is from the early 1800s, when there were claims that a stage coach was attacked by a large, unidentified creature. More recently, in 2003, there were reports of a Bigfoot-like creature near Route 7.
There were a couple murders around the turn of the 20th Century. In 1892, Henry MacDowell murdered Jim Crowley in an argument, apparently over military service. After some time on the run, he ended up in Waterbury Asylum, claiming to hear voices. He later escaped by hiding in a train and disappeared forever. Five years later, John Harbour was shot and killed while hunting. No murderer was ever found, no motive ever discovered, and it is thought it could have been a hunting accident.
Then there is the wild man, but in many ways, calling him that would be a stretch. In 1867, the Bennington Banner reported sightings of a “wild man” chasing women in the night, committing indecent exposure upon them. The Banner claimed that he was “tinged with a species of lunacy.” A mentally ill rapist sounds more likely. It’s also uncertain that the attacks actually happened as near Bennington as is now often claimed.
There is also the reputation for being the site of “ghost towns.” That’s the case in historical terms and shouldn’t be used to imply that the area is haunted. The formerly vigorous logging towns of Glastenbury and Somerset were unincorporated in 1937 thanks to their dwindling population, which went down to the single digits. Nowadays, you can find cellar holes and other debris of civilization in the woods. Spooky? Sure. Haunted? Only if you want it to be.
This all begs the question of how easy it is to take any area of land , scan the last 100 years or so for a few strange occurrences, and then pronounce it an area “inclined” to weird happenings. I have a feeling this can be done almost anywhere — and by stating that, I’m not trying to imply that I see any real harm in it. Creating borders for the paranormal is at least good for upping the chills in a campfire tale.
It’s the non-supernatural side that Tyler Resch prefers to focus on. The author of Glastenbury: The History of a Vermont Ghost Town and research librarian at the Bennington Museum, he keeps a folder on the Bennington Triangle handy at the library for anyone who wants to do research, though Resch is a bit hesitant to encourage some of that interest.
“A lot of people get enamored by this supernatural stuff,” he told me. “I have to say to people that I’m in charge of a research library and we deal in documentation. When you get into the supernatural, there isn’t any documentation.”
“But nonetheless I realize that there’s a huge amount of interest in Glastenbury. I guess because of the word ghost, it is a ghost town. There were two villages that used to be there and they’re abandoned. Plus the fact that you have such a huge territory and it’s so uninhabited. It’s really a huge territory. It’s surprising to me that more people haven’t been lost than there have been.”
Resch disputes the claim of any rash of vanishings. His view is that you can create patterns out of any group of anything, and the ones in and near Glastenbury add up to campfire tale fodder pretty easily.
“I contend that there’s only been one disappearance in the town of Glastenbury, and that’s Middie Rivers,” Resch told me. “Then there’s Paula Weldon, who disappeared nearby, which is just an incredible story because there has been no evidence about her at all. I think you put all these pieces together – the Conroy murder, etc – and you can draw a picture of something creepy or supernatural if you want.”
On the other hand, a mysterious ambiance does not require a supernatural component, and, in this spirit, one of Resch’s favorite mysteries about the area are the stone cairns on top of Glastenbury Mountain. It’s been studied by archaeologists and, so far, no one has been able to discern its purpose, its age, or its origin.
“It’s apparently the only one on top of a mountain, so the question arises, how did those stones get up there? There aren’t any rocks up there. They had to be carried there.”
Folklorist and author Joe Durwin — he wrote a newspaper column called These Mysterious Hills that appeared in Berkshire county media outlets for years, to be collected in an upcoming book— points to the history of Glastenbury township and its demise as the center of the fascination with the area, with some macabre historical events igniting the legend, peppered by a few bits of folklore and true crime.
“There was a story about a stagecoach being overturned by a very large, indeterminate animal in the late 19th century,” Durwin told me. “There weren’t so many concrete news incidents about Glastenbury as much as informal, but there are references in newspapers. Part of it might be the rising of ideas of ghost towns, places where settlements fail and go back to nature.”
“But Glastenbury as a town, it’s an interesting town historically, an against the grain sort of place that had a lot of bad luck, a lot of misfortune that lead to the town wasting away, because even when there were attempts to revive it, like in the late 19th Century when they tried to turn it into a resort community, they just had a bad run of things. That contributed already by the early 20th Century, and then by the time it was being dis-incorporated, that was in the papers. Glastenbury was actually featured in a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in the early ‘30s. There was a growing awareness of it as a place that had a certain reputation.”
Durwin’s views about the Bennington Triangle have a lot to do with what he refers to as a “feedback loop” between entertainment, news, and folklore, and points to one of the earliest official fictional renderings as H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Whisperer In Darkness” that seems to pull from various sources, official and scuttlebutt, in its contribution to the loop. In the story, Lovecraft mentions a dark mountain in Southern Vermont, disappearances associated with the mountain, and creepy Indian legends about it from an earlier age, which are consistent with some current claims about Glastenbury’s history as a macabre site.
From there, Durwin traces other clear crossovers, among them a 1950s Disney comic book called The Ghost of Maneater Mountain and the 2000 film What Lies Beneath, starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, pulling heavily from one of the theories about the disappearance of Paula Weldon. But even those weren’t enough to cement an actual triangle — it took Citro to start the spark and a network of active imaginations to keep the fire burning.
“There were certain ideas about Glastenbury Mountain,” Durwin said, “but people hadn’t begun to tie together these apparently disparate events of some missing persons cases in the ‘40s and earlier, legends about monsters and things like that, that emerged hand in hand with what was evolving in cultural ideas in the whole area of paranormal, para-Fortean studies, and simultaneously in horror movies and literature. The two seem to overlap frequently.”
Adding to that fire were those reports in 2003 from the Bennington Banner about Bigfoot had been sighted on Glastenbury Mountain. Those newspaper reports read very tongue-in-cheek, but that hasn’t stopped some paranormal outlets from latching onto them as part of their proof about the area. The original Banner story offered three different people spotting some strange creature alongside the highway, including descriptions speculating that it was a guy in gorilla suit or a homeless person. The original article even suggests it was a practical joke, going so far as to name a possible perpetrator, who, of course, denies any knowledge.
The addition of Bigfoot to the mythos has a campfire quality to it, feeling like part of an effort to connect the dots over decades, mentioning older sightings in the region’s folklore, as well as the murders and disappearances as proof that this is a mysterious, paranormal area. As recently as 2011, the Bennington Banner also reported on a troupe of paranormal investigators heading up the mountain to uncover the fates of the vanished. I haven’t seen any follow up reports, though, which leads me to believe nothing of paranormal interest was discovered.
Practical jokes, though, seem to be at least part of the way the legend of the Triangle is perpetuated. Specifically, Durwin tells me there’s a bit of college hijinks at play here in keeping in doing so.
“I had a lot of friends that ended up going to colleges all around Vermont,” he told me, “and the legend that there’s a part of the campus that may or may not be haunted by a girl was having an affair with a professor who went missing or was murdered, it crops up in several different campuses around, claimed for that campus, but it’s clear that it went back to the Bennington story. Bennington College students know about the Paula Weldon case and even today, it’s campus lore, though it’s not encouraged.”
And Durwin also casts some doubt on the accuracy of what should be included in the legend. He’s only willing to confirm that four people actually went missing within a 10-mile radius of Glastenbury Mountain over a period of five years, but has found varying claims that go as high as 10 to 12 people, depending on who is putting the legend out there. It’s that dynamic — the wavy road from fact to legend — that Durwin tends to focus on when he looks at it.
“I really am interested in that process of how it intertwines and diverges with history we can actually establish,” he said. “I’m really interested in the social space and the narrative that happens to get from one to the other and all these little things play into it. You have Bennington College students passing down their versions of Paula Weldon’s story and how that ties back in with native, Bennington legends of large monsters that go back over 100 years. And sometimes I think local historians overlook things like that.”
Durwin’s contention is that with each era comes a different focus of paranormal interest, which defines the explanations for mysterious events in the past, and the Bennington Triangle is no different.
“The first time somebody ever said in a newspaper article that there might have been sinister Native legends and/or a burial ground on Glastenbury, it was 1981 in a Vermont newspaper, and that’s the same time period you’ve got Poltergeist and Amityville Horror. That was the du jour explanation for creepy stuff, that it used to be an Indian burial ground. It seems to change with the times. In the ‘90s, it becomes more like an X Files episode. It takes up the flavor of when it’s being treated, going from Lovecraft time to stuff that Joseph Citro has written on it.”
And there is no end to the flights of fancy that constitute what some people contend are very serious ideas about what might be happening within that triangle. Citro mentioned several that he has encountered that all sound less like real life incidents and more like plots out of particularly chilling monsters movies from decades past, as well as some of the grittier film noir.
“The theories are all over the board,” Citro told me. “When I started researching it I talked to older folks, many of whom were hunters and fishermen who were quite sure there was something intangibly weird about the mountain. Some theories include monsters, some of which have allegedly been seen quite recently. But just as many people opt for a natural, if coincidental cause for the cluster of vanishings: the people got lost, they fell down abandoned wells near some long-abandoned house or camp.”
“Foul-play, of course, plays a part, especially in the Paula Welden vanishing. I have talked with a few cold case investigators who are still trying to find her. One even says he knows where she is. And of course some of the theories are quite preposterous, like the man-eating boulder. I don’t believe it for a minute. But I like it.”
Durwin has encountered plenty of the same in his own investigations, and the sincerity of these strikes him.
“In the process of deconstructing the folklore narrative, you do hear these firsthand reports of things,” Durwin said. “I have had people talk to me about seeing really bizarre objects in the sky over Glastenbury Mountain or hiding out in a cellar hole all night because there was something big and shrieking coming through the bushes. There’s a personal resonance when people really sincerely come forward with these stories that contrast with secondhand friend of a friend folklore that is sometimes a little more comfortable to deal with.”
But does he believe these things when people make their claims?
“At the end of the day, I have an agnostic view of it all, because the interesting parts to me are the social aspects,” Durwin said. “But there are these chicken and egg questions that will always be with us, of whether or not there’s this seed of truth that these things start with, and if, in this case, that seed of truth might be enough to make you not want to camp out right in the heart of the ghost town at night.”
Durwin was trained as an archaeologist and that is where a lot of his interest springs from. The stories and their travels through the culture are the main points of his investigations, not to mention a sincere affection for the subject matter.
And Citro? He comes at it as a storyteller, whether the stories are fiction or not, with the belief there is something to be gleaned either way.
“I mean, what’s true?” he said. “To me the importance is that the stories inspire people to look more deeply into things. I never say the stories are true or untrue. I say they are stories. When I tell the Bennington Triangle story in a middle-school, for example, it will inspire some debate. I encourage the skepticism and can reinforce scientific thinking. The kids will dig in on their own. They’ll study the history of the place and ask questions. They’ll form their own conclusions. Plus, if the story of The Bennington Triangle were not told, it is likely all those people who vanished there would be forgotten, and that would be a shame.”
As for Resch, when I asked him if he felt these stories have any value at least as stories, he answered me with a question of his own.
“Is there any value to Halloween?”
The answer to that is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.