Author: Alice Bennett
Each year on Oct. 31, children dressed as witches and vampires go house-to-house, collecting tricks and treats from porches adorned with paper ghosts and jack-o-lanterns. Such traditions define the distinctly American holiday, yet we often forget about the supernatural legends that lie at the heart of Halloween. Telling the tales of ghosts and demons is a dying practice that one Vermonter is seeking to revive. At Vergennes Bixby Memorial Library's Third Annual Spook Night, Joe Citro shared local legends with a diverse audience, helping to perpetuate an oral tradition which has all but disappeared. Citro, an author from Chester, Vt., has compiled several collections of New England ghost stories that were once considered common folklore.
"A hundred years ago we would make a point of telling each other these stories. Now they are kind of lost," said Citro.
Citro began compiling these legends while doing research for a novel. In the process, Citro discovered that such tales were largely uncollected and missing from popular culture. Since this realization, Citro has written many anthologies of ghost stories, including "Green Mountains,""Dark Tales," "Passing Strange" and "Weird New England," all of which feature collections of tales gathered from the New England area.
Through performing public readings of his written work, Citro has found that the sharing of local legends has the ability to connect a room full of people. After telling a series of ghost stories, Citro often asks his audience to share their own experiences with the unexplainable and invites them to ask questions.
At Spook Night, when asked whether he himself believes in the legends he shares, Citro replied, "Belief is a weird thing ... I don't know that it is important that we believe these stories … Ghosts and monsters are not really part of my belief system at all, but stories as themselves and the adrenaline rush they give us are real." For this reason, Citro shares with Vermonters stories of the spirits that have plagued their communities in the past, reviving an important Halloween tradition by scaring new generations with old legends like the ones summarized in this section.
BURIED WITH A BELL
When he lived, Timothy Clark Smith was a member of the Foreign Service. In his various travels around the world he developed an all-consuming fear of being buried alive. In 1856 he returned to Vermont to visit his relatives and rented a room in the Middlebury Inn. On that fateful trip, Smith died in his hotel room and his family, seeking to act in accordance with his phobia, hoped to leave his body untouched to ensure he was truly dead. They behaved as if Timothy still lived, continuing to rent the room to house the now-decaying corpse of Timothy Smith. This arrangement persisted for some time until the rank odor of rotting flesh prompted local authorities to intercede, and the Smiths were forced to remove Smith from his room. Still conscious of their loved one's fear and acting out of their own fears that he might one day awake from a premature burial, the Smith family constructed a unique grave in the Evergreen Cemetery of New Haven, Vt. Thus, while the tombstone of Timothy Clark Smith stands among the graves of the family plot, his body does not lay beneath it. Instead, his corpse can be found beneath a mound of earth adjacent to the cluster of gravestones: a grassy hill that contains at its summit a window that looks into the ground. The glass is now covered with a film of grime and bacteria, but if one's gaze could penetrate the coating of filth, one would see the decaying corpse of Timothy and a rusted bell which his family had placed in his decomposing hand just in case he awoke. As far as it is known, the bell has yet to sound and the corpse of Timothy Clark Smith continues to lay in silence as it has since he died on the night of Halloween in 1856.
GUN IN THE BASEMENT
In 1982, Tony Basiliere purchased a home in Milton, Vt. from a woman who had recently lost her husband. After moving into the house with his wife and young son, Basiliere went about inspecting the house, making sure it provided a safe environment for his child. Although he worked hard to make his new household secure, he and his wife began to be plagued by feelings of unease. Moreover, strange things began to occur around the property. The cupboards, for instance, refused to remain closed even after Basiliere worked diligently to make them level. The Basiliere family often felt as though they were accompanied by an invisible presence. One day, when Basiliere was looking out onto the yard, a transparent image of an elderly man appeared. The old man stood motionless, giving Basiliere a chance to recognize him as the ghost of the previous owner who had recently died. Soon after, a puddle of water materialized on the basement floor. Although the leak seemed to come from the upper levels of the house, Basiliere was unable to discover the source of the mysterious puddle. In order to better examine the pipes, Basiliere removed a wooden panel in the basement. There, hidden in a space behind the panel, easily within reach of his young son, Basiliere found a German semiautomatic - a gun that could only have belonged to the previous owner. Following Basiliere's discovery, the old ghost seemed to desert the household. He had succeeded in preventing Basiliere's child from ever happening upon the gun that he had ostensibly left behind.
It was common knowledge in Corinth, Vt. that the elderly Sarah Bowen had a treasure of gold coins stored somewhere within her farmhouse. One night the Bowen household was set aflame. When citizens of the town reached the property to help put out the fire, they were shocked to discover Sarah dead with an axe in her head. The public was sure that she had been murdered in a robbery attempt - a guess that was all but made certain when no gold was recovered in the house. Although Sarah's neighbors arrived too late to prevent her death, they succeeded in dousing the flames that ravaged her property. Consequently, new owners soon moved into the old farmhouse. Male residents and visitors alike often experienced a peculiar sight. They would hear three sharp thuds in succession and then see the image of an elderly woman in old-fashioned garb appear suddenly only to glide off through the walls of the house. The woman was the ghost of the murdered Sarah Bowen and the thuds that announced her arrival simulated the striking of an axe into her head.
Marie Blais worked for the Queen City Cotton Mill in Burlington until a tragic accident cut her life short. One day, Marie was returning to work with her sister and a close friend after having taken a short break. At the railroad tracks, the girls decided to make a dash for the other side, despite the fast-approaching train just ahead. Two of the girls made it across unscathed, but Marie, unable to move quickly enough, was thrown 75 feet in the air, her body landing in a mangled heap by the tracks. After she died, Marie's ghost refused to desert the Burlington area and she haunted the railroad that claimed her life. Large objects would materialize on the train tracks just as a train was approaching, only to vanish after the train had either slowed down or stopped in order to avoid hitting them. The lights at the front of trains flickered eerily whenever they reached the location where Marie had been struck. Citizens of the Burlington area repeatedly reported hearing screams emitted from the very same spot along the tracks. There was no doubt as to whose spirit was causing such unnatural events after one engineer reported seeing Marie standing beside the rails on each trip he made from Burlington to Rutland. Traumatized by Marie's presence, the engineer ultimately left his job. In recent years, Marie Blais, publicly recognized as the Cotton Mill ghost, has been gradually forgotten, but the tracks upon which she was brutally killed
Are you afraid of Vermont? Rediscovering local legends of ghosts and gore
Author: Alice Bennett