“Siberia in the Berkshires”: Monroe Forest Prison Camp

Sagas of the Shire, by Joe Durwin

Monroe Camp 2-

Hundreds of nearby residents filled the school auditorium, voicing fierce opposition to the project during a meeting that would several times descend into angry shouting and name calling.  Most agreed the proposal would be a blight upon the natural beauty of the forest, lower property values, hurt tourism and present a palpable danger to area residents.

“Siberia in the Berkshires,” one speaker dubbed it, furious at the state’s proposal to place a prison camp in one of the local forests.

Such was the reaction of townspeople from Becket and Washington in 1954 to the concept of a new prison camp to be set up in October Mountain Forest.

By that time, the Commonwealth itself was no stranger to the concept of woodland prison camps.  During World War II, the military had established a camp for prisoners of war amidst 1500 acres of forest outside Taunton. Following the war, some twenty five miles east of there, the state in 1952 established its first minimum security work camp in Myles Standish State Forest, which today still houses around 200 inmates as the Plymouth Massachusetts Correctional Institution.

This contentious July 1 meeting at the Becket Consolidated School was not the first or last hearing of its kind as state correctional officials sought a western Massachusetts site for another penal work camp, though it was the largest and most chaotic.

Initially, Monroe State Forest had been the forerunner choice advanced for the project, a suggestion that had drawn equal rancor from surrounding North County citizenry.  A petition was put forth by 175 signers in Florida voicing their resistance to the plan early that year.

“I don’t think the people who favor building a prison camp in the town of Florida area  realize what little police protection we have,” said Louis Canedy, one of the leaders of its opposition, said in March.

Savoy was also eyed as a possible location, but was ruled out early on in the process as non-ideal geographically for a work camp, and Savoy residents seemed no more welcome than had been those in other Berkshire towns. Pittsfield State Forest was another option under consideration, and began to look more preferable due to more proximal police presence in the event of a mishap, along with rising resistance in the hill towns.

Pittsfield state Representative Arthur Milne was a vocal proponent of the idea, extolling its potential benefit in the press and arranging to meet with correctional Commissioner Arthur Lyman shortly after the backlash erupted in Becket.

“If northern Berkshire is afraid of a proposed prison camp as reports indicate, then central and southern Berkshires should lose no time in notifying … [Lyman] that such a rehabilitation project would be welcome.”

How welcome it actually was quickly came into question as Pittsfielders heard attention was now turning to their forest for consideration, and a large protest meeting was held later that month.  While many local officials throughout the county had voiced favor for the project as they eyed potential savings on projects from the free labor, general public opinion was overwhelmingly to the contrary.  No one wanted it in their back yard.

image (73)By early August, Hancock’s citizenry had joined the growing number of opponents to siting the camp in the abutting Pittsfield State Forest.  Perhaps in desperation, various groups began suggesting other alternatives to the four forests already under consideration, including a proposition by members of the Flintstone Grange of Dalton to  put it on the slopes of Greylock.

Other organizations, such as the Berkshire Farm Bureau, voted in favor of resolutions to keep it out of the area entirely.  Commissioner Lyman continued to try to allay concerns about what a correctional camp would actually look like, touting the success of the Plymouth prototype, but remained carefully noncommittal about any particular preference among the Berkshire sites being considered.

“The effect of the human and material resources as accomplished by the member-inmates at the prison camp has been a true inspiration,” Lyman counseled concerned Berkshirites, adding that the rate of successful readjustment for paroled inmates from the existing camp was 95 percent, whereas 80 percent was considered very good for release from a normal prison.

By December, word came from Boston that the choices for a new camp in the western part of the state had been narrowed down to either October Mountain, or more probably further east in Hubbardston state forest, owing to the extent of Berkshire County opposition.  As subsequent announcement in February 1955 confirmed the latter as the preferred site.

“Maybe in the future, after the people in the western parts simmer down, we can convince them that a forest camp will not be a detriment to the district,” said corrections official E. Lawrence Spurr, though he acknowledged the Hubbardston site was not entirely definite.

In early June, however, Spurr returned with a surprise, announcing that Monroe Forest would be the site after all, with most of it in the town of Florida- despite what he called “almost fanatical opposition” from area residents. Spurr said this site offered the greatest “development opportunities” in forestry for putting the inmates to work.

Florida residents expressed shock and dismay at the announcement, but saw little way of stopping the project, as ultimate decision authority rested with the Commissioner of Corrections, and the public hearings required by law had already been held the previous summer.

Over the next few days, Florida selectmen registered objections, and even explored the possibility of obtaining an injunction against the project commencing.  By that time, however, work had already begun to prepare an old CCC camp to its new purpose.

The prison camp in Monroe forest was opened a few weeks later, when eight guards and 15 prisoners arrived to begin erecting buildings in mid July.  By the following summer, the camp had been built up to its full capacity of 50 inmates.

Also by the summer of 1956, planning had begun for the state’s 3rd camp, this one intended for October Mountain.  Aware of the fierce resistance encountered from Becket and Washington residents in recent years, corrections officials worked hard to publicize the success of the 2nd camp.  Forest work, hand crafts, and blood donations organized by these “model prisoners” were lauded, and a Christmas charity tradition of refurbishing used toys for needy youngsters in the area was added as another of their projects.

By late 1957, the state said it hoped to have the proposed October Mountain camp operational by 1958, though Brimfield State Forest was also in the running as an alternative.  Ultimately, budget cuts to the program in 1959 killed that project for good.

Meanwhile, despite early assurances that escapes would be unlikely from the lightly guarded internment camp because it would house only prisoners who had behaved well and were near the end of their sentence, this only lasted for the first two years.  After that, at least one or two escapes occurred virtually each year.

The first were Charles Kileen and Philip Purnell, who slipped the guards during a work detail in Clarksburg State Forest and made off in a local man’s car in August of 1957.  Six months later, Raymond Flemming broke free and skipped town in a vehicle misappropriated from a Florida resident.  Six weeks after that, Girard Alliette followed suit in a stolen state truck, but was apprehended in Winchenden four hours later.

More successful was Chester Sylvester in October of 1959, who evaded justice for a full three months before being caught in Providence, Rhode Island.

In 1961, Allen Clark and Robert Bastok stole the Florida Police Chief’s truck, abandoned it in Savoy, then continued on in another stolen car from there to New York City before hitchhiking on all the way to Oklahoma.  Two inmates in 1962 slipped out under cover of dark and made it as far as North Adams on foot, where they broke into a garage and tried to make their getaway in a tow truck before being stopped at a roadblock.  The following year, an armed robber by the name of Henry Frechette made his exit in one of the guard’s vehicles after tying him up, then led police on a heated chase across all of Pittsfield, first by authomobile and then across a string of backyards on foot after running the car off the road on West Housatonic Street.

Despite continued assurances of increased security, prisoners continued to fly the coop in ones and twos each year, until in the mid 1970s a series of incidents in rapid succession led to major community backlash.  In late 1976, several assaults and other misdeeds occurred in northern Berkshire County, both by escapees and prisoners on a work release program, leading to suspension of the work release program and a new local advisory committee to study the camp more closely.

Most chilling was the disappearance of Carol Ann Todd, a schoolteacher who went missing from the Sheraton Inn in North Adams on December 12.  Authorities immediately questioned Robert Nimblett, a Monroe inmate working at the hotel through the work release program, but as yet had no proof a crime had been committed.

image (71)

Proof came on May 29, when two local scouts came across her body wrapped in a sheet in Monroe forest, just outside the prison camp itself.  Nimblett was indicted within the week in the murder of the 28 year old teacher.

Following a deal to plea down to a charge of manslaughter, Nimblett, who said he’d killed the woman by accident with multiple stab wounds after she panicked while he was doing room checks, was sentenced to 18 to 20 years at Walpole.

image (72)Community outrage had reached a peak against the camp, which had also grown dilapidated due to years of underfunding.  Unwilling to pay for costly repairs, and overwhelmed by negative public pressure, state corrections officials finally threw in the towel on the Monroe State Prison Camp.  The last of its prisoners were transferred out in April, 1978.

Today, the Plymouth MCI remains as the first and last facility from the Commonwealth’s experimental foray into forest prison sites.

Nearly forty years after its abandonment, the Monroe camp is long since vanished virtually without a trace, save for a few bits of concrete and metal refuse in a clearing in the woods.

Only an overgrown dirt lane marked “Prison Camp Road” (off Main Road in Monroe State Forest) remains as tangible evidence of this once feared and controversial place.

Brewing Boomed In Pre-Prohibition Pittsfield

berkshire-brewing-assoc-c-1905 (1)
One can only wonder what John White and Jacob Gimlich would have thought as federal officers poured fifteen thousand gallons of locally crafted beer into the sewer on an early May morning in 1922.
Gimlich and his brother in law White had first purchased a small brewery on Columbus Street in 1868 from Michael Benson.  First called simply “Jacob Gimlich & John White,” the business began at an output of just six barrels a day, but would grow to be a major manufacturer in the west side Pittsfield neighborhood.
Both men had immigrated to the country from Germany in their youth, and both served tours in the Civil War.  Gimlich worked briefly for the Taconic Woolen Mills before going into the beer business with his sister Rachel’s husband.
brewing company (1)By 1880, operating as Gimlich, White & Co, the brewers erected a much larger facility in a five story brick building measuring 40 by 80 feet.  The expanded plant employed from 15 to 20 men and was shipping about 16,000 barrels a year.
Gimlich and White built houses directly across the road from their plant on John Street, and as their fortunes grew became increasingly prominent members of the community.  Gimlich in particular became enmeshed in a variety of financial and civic affairs.  From 1884-1885 he served as the city’s Representative in the legislature, and was one of the organizers of the City Savings Bank, where he served as a director.   Gimlich likewise served on the board of the Berkshire Loan and Trust Company and of the Co-Operative Bank, was a past chancellor of the local lodge, Knights of Pythias, and member of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts and of the local Sons of Veterans. 

1868_pittsfield_brewery (1)“Pittsfield has been pleased with the success of Gimlich & White and they are counted among the town’s leading, liberal, and most public spirited citizens,” states one Pittsfield Sun editorial of the time.

 By the early 1890s the torch was being passed to the next generation, with sons David Gimlich along with Fred and George White taking on more leadership of the company when it reincorporated as Berkshire Brewing Association in 1892.  An additional four story building was added, with the brewing complex now taking up the full block along Columbus Ave between Onota and John Street to Gilbert Avenue.
Among Berkshire Brewing’s most popular products were Mannheimer Lager Beer, Berkshire Pure Malt Extract, Lenox Half Stock Ale, and Berkshire Pale Ale, considered to be one of the finest India pale ales then on the market.  The plant also churned out bottled mineral waters, ginger ale and other soft drinks.
The elder Gimlich and White passed away in 1912 and 1916 respectively, but the enterprise they founded continued to see steady growth.  The only brewery of the kind within fifty miles of Pittsfield, Berkshire Brewing Association had something of a monopoly in the region, along with a thriving distribution throughout the east coast as far south as the Carolinas.  At its peak it employed 150 workers and put out 75,000- 100,000 barrels worth of beer annually. Records indicate between 1910 and 1920, Berkshire Brewing Association payed one million dollars in federal taxes, in addition to state and local taxes and fees, including twelve hundred a year for a brewer’s license and eight hundred for an annual bottling license.
berkshire brewers (1)
The company was not without its occasional hiccups, such as a lengthy strike in the fall of 1911 by the Pittsfield Brewers Union, culminating in the reinstatement of a dismissed employee.
Real crisis came at the end of the decade, as increasing restrictions on alcohol grew into total national prohibition.  They first ceased brewing beer temporarily in December 1918, after a directive from the National Food Administration following the passage of the the Wartime Prohibition Act.  Even after the passage of the Volstead Act the following fall, BBA voted to remain in business, focusing on bottled soft drinks while hoping the ban to be a brief legislative phase.
They also continued to brew beer, as did several major brewer’s throughout the country at first, seeing the government’s lack of resources tasked to enforce the rule.  Finally in the Spring of 1922 federal officers arrived to turn off the taps, disposing of fifteen thousand gallons worth and estimated $15,000- $20,000 at the time.
Ironically, the company waited it out until nearly the end of the failed domestic policy, their board of directors voting to close down in January, 1929.
The brewery building was dismantled soon after; for a time, the Siegel Furniture Company operated out of the former bottling building, which later became the Warehouse Furniture Company.  In 1975, this too was cleared as the land passed to the Pittsfield Housing Authority, which developed the Christopher Arms housing project that occupies the former site of Berkshire Brewing Association today.
Bottles, openers, and other memorabilia bearing the Berkshire Brewing Association or Gimlich & White labels are considered somewhat valuable among collectors of breweriana, though they are common enough that they do not command high prices compared to more rare items from smaller breweries.  Prices of some bottles and other ephemera currently listed online range from ten to a hundred dollars

King of the River People Meets The Queen of England

Mohican Nicholas (1)On the walls of the National Portrait Gallery of Canada hangs a 305 year old portrait of “Et Oh Koam”, one of the “Four Mohawk Kings” by Dutch painter John Verelst on display there.

Neither a Mohawk nor a king exactly, Etowaukaum was in fact an important sachem of the Muhheconnuck, or Mohican people, later consolidated and referred to as the “Stockbridge Indians.”  While little is recalled of his life, this former Berkshire resident had not only a key role in the history of his own people, but along with his three Mohawk companions had profound impacts on the literature, theatre, and social philosophy of England in the early 18th century
Though unlike most of his Mohican contemporaries his likeness has been preserved for posterity, only scant biographical details of Etowaukaum survive in historical record.  He is generally believed to have served as the chief sachem of the Mohicans in the early 18th century, between the death of Wattawit sometime in the 1690s and the ascendance of Ampamit as chief sachem by the 1730s.
His greatest fame came in 1710, when he along with several Mohawk sachems of the Iroquois traveled to London as the guests of Queen Anne.  Though only a little over two weeks in length, the trip was to have a demonstrable lasting impact on the British psyche.
Mohawk-kings (1)
Native Americans had been seen in the country before over the past fifty years, but under different circumstances.  Most were abducted by force, like Squanto, by explorers and early colonists who saw the indigenous Americans as a rare and valuable slave commodity.  Certainly, none had ever been feted as the guests of European royalty, and unprecedented excitement in London greeted the four visiting “Kings of America.”
The trip was organized by Colonel Peter Schuyler, who had served as Albany’s first mayor and twice became acting governor of the New York province.  In part, the sachems were there to request that England send Christian missionaries to their villages, but the diplomatic venture was also in the context of the broader saga of the ongoing contest with the French for dominion over North America.
Schuyler had strong ties among the Mohawk as well as the Mohican tribes, who the year prior had participated in the military campaign he’d commanded against Canada.
“This 1709 expedition against Canada had been abandoned without notice, leaving the colonies embarrassed and their Indian allies frustrated and annoyed,” according to historian Shirley Dunn.
So Schuyler’s Albany group had come, along with representatives of their Iroquois and Algonquin allies, to lobby Queen Anne and her advisers to resume support for resuming the assault.  Those chosen to travel to London came from among some of the native leadership Schuyler knew best.
Like his three companions, Etowaukaum had  at some point been baptized Christian, and had been given the name Nicholas.  His three Mohawk companions were Te Yee Neen Ho Ga Prow, or Hendrick;  Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, (Brant), Ho Nee Yeath Taw No Row (John).
Hendrick, the youngest, would become a figure on ongoing importance to the English and Iroquois alliance, and eventually die fighting the French at Lake George in 1755.  It was he who spoke for them in presenting their position in audience with Queen Anne on April 19, 1710.
Speaking in his own native tongue through translators, Te Yee Neen Ho Go Prow spoke of how in the recent conflict with the French his people had “put away the kettle and taken up the hatchet, and yet expected help from England had not come.”
Gently he reminded the Queen that they had been “a strong wall of security” for the English colonists, “even to the loss of our best men,” and suggested that the reclamation of Canadian territory from the French was vital to Mohawk hunting and trading with the English.  He warned, however, that if England did not resume support soon, they might be forced to stand neutral in future conflict.
They then presented wampum belts to the Queen, in the standard tradition of Iroquois diplomacy.  In retrospect, the entire audience had the result of introducing England to the format of the Iroquois treaty council, and a concept of autonomy and sovereignty of the natives which would more or less  continue to be honored by England and its colonists in negotiation until the late 1700s.
Four_Indian_Kings_of_Canada (1)Throughout the rest of their stay, the four continued to be treated as visiting royalty, and presented as the “Four Indian Kings,” or “Four Kings of Canada,” though none of them lived in Canada.  Each day they were spirited about in carriages to see sights, be banquets given for them by the nobility, to theaters and most especially to displays of the empire’s military might, from a review of British troops in Hyde Park to tours of some of the Royal Navy’s most powerful ships.
At each destination, crowds flocked to see them, the sensation around their visit rising to fever pitch.  At a performance of MacBeth at the Haymarket Theater advertised as “For the entertainment of the Four Indian Kings,” crowds became restless and finally stopped the show, clamoring that they had come to see the four kings.
“The kings we will have!” the crowd roared louder and louder, until the lead actor had to stop in the midst of his lines to assure them that the kings were there, enjoying the show from the front box.  This only excited the crowd more in its clamors to see them, until at last chairs were brought so the four could sit in full view on the stage throughout the rest of the performance.
Word spread of the turnout at the theatre, and throughout the next few days a barrage of plays, concerts, puppet shows, and even cockfights were advertised as being presented for the enjoyment of the Four Indian Kings, far more events than they could possibly have attended.
Verelst was commissioned for their portraits, whose trappings represent a mix of native concepts and English ones.  Etowaukaum, for instance, is shown with a large turtle at his feet, meant to illustrate that he was a member of the turtle clan.  His wardrobe is a mix of his own traditional garb with English garments; all four of are draped with red capes and posed in a manner meant to play to a European image of royal appearances.  Hendrick is shown almost entirely in black, because it was done while the Court was in mourning over the death of the queen’s consort.
What the visiting Americans thought of all this anyone’s guess, their thoughts on the journey were not recorded -or if they were, were not preserved.  What was lacking in first hand impressions, though, London scribes were happy to fill in for in fictionalized accounts.
In 1711, The Spectator, a widely circulated daily paper by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, published a series of writings purported to be drawn from papers left behind by the Mohawk Kings.  Despite the fact that they had no written language, the manuscript allegedly acquired by The Spectator proceeds to lay out a series of observations by the chieftains on facets of British society ranging from politics to fashion.
Various poets and playwrights followed suit, and the use of the Four Kings as literary characters and devices for social commentary continued over the next few decades. Even Jonathan Swift once complained, in a letter, that the Spectator had purloined his idea for part of a future novel he was contemplating, suggesting that the then-legendary visit of the Mohawk leaders had some influence on what would eventually become Gulliver’s Travels.
 They had become an important part of Europe’s increasing desire to view itself from an external perspective, especially that of the “primitive”  or “natural man.”  Ongoing tales of their exploits in England persistent throughout the 18th century helped cement a foundation for the growing concept of the Noble Savage, the romanticism of primal innocence in nonindustrial peoples that still holds so much sway in the modern imagination.
While their impact on the popular culture of England may have the most lasting legacy of their visit, it was not without some results for their own people.  Though Queen Anne made no promises regarding the support sought by Schuyler and his Albany companions, she did refer the request for missionaries to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who sped it along through the proper committee.  By 1711, authorization was given for the construction of a fort, a chapel, and missionary’s house at Fort Hunter, New York to serve the Mohawks there.  Missionaries were instructed to begin teaching English to the native children as well as instructing English youth in the Mohawk language.
Missionary outreach for Etowaukaum’s “People of the River” was much slower in coming.  It was not until 1734, after a gathering called by Mohican leaders Konkapot and Umpachanee ended with a renewed request,  that John Sergeant was sent to live with them at Stockbridge.
It’s unclear whether Sergeant met Etowaukaum, who died in 1736 at the Mohican settlement at Kanaumeek (New Lebanon), but knew members of his family well.  Umpachanee married Etowaukaum’s daughter, and later their son, Jonas Etowaukaum, accompanied Sergeant when he left for Yale for several months to be educated in English ways.
Jonas Etowaukaum died fighting the French on behalf of the British at Ticonderoga in 1759, one of hundreds of Mohican slain in battle over several decades of their alliance with the English colonists.
Images: Portraits by John Verelst 1710, engravings based on Velest’s portraits by printmaker John Simon 1750,

“To Counterfeit is Death”: Belcher’s Cave in the Berkshires

Belcher's Cave, Gt. Barrington, MA (1)

PHOTO: Berkshire County Illustrated, 1893

Joe Durwin
3/29/20

“To Counterfeit is Death,” read the inscription atop the currency of colonial New York, among a number of other British colonies in the 1760s and 70s.

This was no hyperbole nor idle threat, for to duplicate the money issued by the crown was considered far more than merely a form of robbery or embezzlement; it was high treason, a grave attack on the very sovereignty of the government.  Severity of penalty notwithstanding, such false duplication seems a historical inevitability for any society; fakes have been uncovered even among some of the earliest known coinage made by the ancient Lydians.

The psychological profile of the counterfeiter throughout history seems distinct from that of robbers and other felons, a more eccentric persona cut from a somewhat different cloth of criminality.

“Modern man, living in a mutually dependent, collective society, cannot become a counterfeiter,” writes Lynn Glaser, in Counterfeiting in America: The History Of An American Way to Wealth.  “A counterfeiter should be possessed of the qualities found only in a Nietzschean hero.”

Some of this larger-than-life characteristic can be found in the exploits of Gill Belcher of Great Barrington, who appears to be the only American counterfeiter to have had a part of town named after him.  For a time, Belcher’s story remained so enshrouded in mystery that in the first history of the town, author Charles Taylor dismissed it as a local myth, an assertion he recanted a decade later after some subsequent research by Franklin L. Pope.

The nefarious Gilbert Belcher migrated to the Berkshires from Hebron, Connecticut in 1765 with his wife and nine children, at which time he bought a rocky bit of property known as “Bung Hill,” from William King.  A silversmith by trade, Belcher was later recalled by locals as a relatively quiet man who kept a low profile.

Just up the side of the rocky hill behind his house, though, a secret lair on the property formed the workshop for a different type of business enterprise.

Set partway up the hillside lay a cavern mouth, whose narrowing passage opens up into a chamber about thirty feet deep, and eight to ten feet wide, with a peaked roof that slants up to about fifteen feet at its highest point.  In daylight, it is dimly lit by two openings to the sky, the smaller of which had at one time served as a chimney for fires that at one time burned there, as evidenced by blackened cave wall surrounding it.

Here Belcher and a group of accomplices plied some of the supplemental portion of his metalwork trade, forging silver coins for surreptitious circulation across the nearby border in New York state.  It’s believed that Belcher used copper to form the bulk of the coins, then hot-dipped them in silver, before engraving them in the likeness of New York currency.  He and his associates were also involved in the printing of counterfeit paper bills.

It is worth noting that local caves have on several occasions served as refuge for fugitives of all sorts, from British loyalists during the American Revolution, to early bank robbers, and even as recently as the past decade for one escaped psychiatric patient.  At least two other Berkshire caverns have served as dens for counterfeiting, the most obvious being the Lanesborough grotto sometimes known as Counterfeiters Cave (alternately known as Constitution Cave or Crevice Cave), along with another in The Hopper of Mount Greylock which has since disappeared, crumbled in and covered over by the constant shifting of rock there.  But the story of the bandits of Belcher’s Cave is by far the most dramatic, and best documented.

Precisely how Belcher’s gang was found out is a detail that appears lost to history, but on October 30, 1772, a force of militia men with muskets surrounded the cave.  Belcher and three others were captured there, while elsewhere other co-conspirators were also arrested, part of a coordinated colonial sting operation.

In total, thirteen men were locked up on related charges: Joseph Bill (often referred to as Dr. Bill), John Williamson, John Wall Lovey, Festus Drake, Silas Robinson, Wane Case, John Johnson, John Stannard, Simon Graviland, Humphrey Denning, John Smith, and William Hubbard.

Some of these confessed quickly, and gave testimony and other evidence to authorities on the rest; charges were dropped against a couple of others in the belief that they had been minor accomplices caught up in the conspiracy. Only half eventually stood trial, with a core group of four ultimately sentenced to hang: Belcher, Lovey, Bill, and Smith.  A fifth, Simon Graviland, had already died in jail from smallpox by December.

The ringleaders of the gang continued to profess their innocence, and Belcher, along with Dr. Bill and Lovey, made every effort to get out from under the seemingly inevitable noose that awaited them.

The first escape attempt came on December 9, two days before their trial in Albany.  The three prisoners managed to get their iron chains off, and pried out some of the stonework near the chimney making a hole large enough to crawl through.  Unbeknownst to them, however, an extra set of guards had been set on watch, and upon hearing their efforts caught them as they emerged.

For whatever reason, John Smith was sentenced to hang some three months before the other three, on January 5.  On the same day, Belcher penned an appeal to New York’s Governor, William Tryson.

In the letter, a mess of poor grammar and spelling, Belcher portrayed himself as an ignorant and pathetic tradesman mistakenly convicted, “now under the acusation of Countifiting Money, also enesent of Fact yet by the witnes the Jury brought me in Gilty, altho I never passed knowingly any Contifiet Money in my life of any sort… your Petitioner Humbly prays your Excellency to take pety on a poor helples Mortal who has no friends but a poor helpless famaly of a wife and Nine Small Childen…”

This document can still be found at the state archives in Albany, stamped “Not Acted Upon.”

Having failed in this tact, Belcher next appealed to Massachusetts, on the grounds that if any crime had been committed, it was within their borders and not in New York. This gained some attention, owing in part to the fact that some tension existed at the time over the exact border between the two and matters of jurisdiction arising from this question.

On February 20, the Governor’s Council in Massachusetts wrote to New York, asserting its authority in asking that the sentence of execution be stayed, “unless it should appear that they have been found guilty of crimes committed within the actual jurisdiction of the province of New York, and to the westward of the line which has been submitted to by both provinces for several years.”

In truth, there was still some contention on exactly where that line fell, though Belcher’s hub of operations would certainly still have been safely within the Massachusetts territory.  Perhaps believing that the gang had intentionally set up just over the border so as to escape retribution for coins and bills then passed over to the other side for circulation, New York ignored the communication.

Finally, as the date of execution neared, Belcher penned a lengthy and eloquent confession to the crime of counterfeiting.  Though apparently written by the same hand, the writing is strikingly different from that of his earlier letter of appeal.

This treatise, later reproduced in full in the Hartford Courant reads, in part:

“Public justice has laid her talons upon me, and I cannot complain of mal-treatment.
The most poignant grief I feel is, that by assiduous exertions to prolong my temporal existence, I have been to dilatory in searching after the things which concern eternal life.
My sun is setting: my days are elapsed.
The night appeareth to me, in which no man can work! O that beams of divine mercy may irradiate my darkened soul!”

Though his lengthy piece of writing vehemently proclaimed his penitence and acceptance of his fate, Belcher had not quite given up on eluding his sentence.

On April 1, 1773, the day before they were to be hanged, he, John Lovey, and Dr. Bill attempted another escape.  As night fell, the three managed to undo their shackles again, and nearly broke out of the jail, but were caught and even more closely confined.  Yet by morning, they had somehow rid themselves of chains yet again.

By the time they were discovered, they had made hasty barricades to the room, swearing defiance of the furious sheriff and his deputies and vowing death to any who attempted to take them by force.

A general alarm was sounded through Albany, at which time “the militia, and in fact the whole available population of the town were got under arms.”

Growing ever more desperate, the trio set fire to the jail, but the crowd of citizenry extinguished the flames.

Broadside-of-the-confession-of-John-Wall-Lovey-printed-in-1773In a last ditch attempt, Lovey- who by some means had managed to obtain a couple of pounds of gunpowder, which he’d placed in a large bottle- held a match up to the makeshift bomb in threat to anyone who attempted to open the door.

This kept the officers and militia at bay for some several hours, until finally a force of men attempted to storm them while they believed their guard to be down.  Lovey struck the match, and dropped it into the bottle.

But the gunpowder failed to fire.

After a frantic struggle, the three were subdued and dragged from the jail, and violently carried to the gallows, in final enactment of their sentence.

The events surrounding the adjudication of the Belcher had some resultant impact, providing renewed impetus to settle unresolved border jurisdictions between the two provinces, a matter that had provoked a certain amount of controversy- and even bloodshed- for the past century.  The month after Belcher and his associates were hanged, commissioners from Massachusetts and New York convened a meeting in Hartford, along with governors of both.  General congeniality at that conference seemed to indicate a definitive resolution was near,  but new pretexts for contention arose in the Fall.  After that the matter became subsumed by the more pressing issues of rebellion, and it was not until years later that it was ultimately resolved.

With regards to counterfeiting, this late colonial period has been called by some “the golden age” both for the frequency of dramatic tales such as Gill Belcher’s, and because the problem it posed occupied the attention of many notable minds, such as Benjamin Franklin, who attempted to find increasingly ingenious methods to thwart its practice.  The issue was far from limited to the colonial period, and continued to plague the fledgling nation of the United States.  A review later undertaken of Berkshire court records reveals at least 15 cases seen between 1810 and 1860, and remained an occasional recurring problem into modern times.

In 1996, the U.S. Treasury announced intentions to revise the security measures of some bills every seven to ten years in an attempt to stay ahead of currency falsifiers.  For even as the technologies involved in money production continue to advance, so too do the strategies of counterfeiters, forever spurred on by the allure of “free” money… particularly when to counterfeit no longer means death.

Sources:

Berkshire Courier, June 17, 1891
Berkshire Eagle, July 19, 1958
Perry, Clay.  Underground New England.  1946
Four Papers of the Berkshire Historical and Scientific Society, 1886

Gonzo-style or Drunk Writing? Eagle Op-Ed A Fetid Carcass of Fake News

Over the last decade or two, the Eagle’s editorial voice on local issues has been extremely hit or miss.  In most cases, this hinges on the old equation of “garbage in, garbage out.”  When the reporter whose coverage they are generating opinion from does a good job, they are often able to hit the nail on the head.  On perennial issues, the kind that only crop up perhaps once a year, or more sporadically, this is a problem, since for the most part the newsroom there has been a revolving door for day to day staff reporters.  Few reporters tasked to local government issues in Pittsfield in this era have not remained to see the two year mark.

That said, I  was genuinely shocked yesterday, upon reading the most ignorant, pompously oblivious, systematically false and error-ridden op ed I have seen in the Berkshire Eagle in a long, long time. It is hard to know where to even begin the dissection of this editorial trash sandwich, when virtually every line in this editorial contains false information on which all of it’s premises are constructed.   Nonetheless, I will hold my nose again to take a look at this gangrenous prose tumor, breaking it apart by each reeking, puerile sentence within.

5-Things-Startups-Think-About-Themselves-That-Are-Wrong-supercool-creative

“Monday, a group of about 35 local citizens made their displeasure with the city’s mosquito abatement practices known at a meeting of the Committee on Public Health and Safety . These were not a bunch of dyspeptic cranks, but residents legitimately concerned about the nature of the airborne poison being spread”

Setting the tone right there, why would ‘they’ feel the need to begin by clarifying that, out of nowhere? Is the Eagle’s assumption that public advocacy groups generally are “dyspeptic cranks,” that this need be dispelled up front?

” In response, five members of the Pittsfield City Council petitioned the committee to review the current agreement between the city and the countywide program”
No, that’s obviously backward chronology. The petition didn’t happen in response to the people at the meeting, the meeting itself happened in response to the petition. Try to keep up.

 “At the meeting, Public Health Director Gina Armstrong and mosquito program Superintendent Christopher Horton made assurances that all guidelines and strictures are being followed. That, of course, was not the answer sought by those who would have the program halted altogether”
It’s also not the answer of the Public Health Director who used to occupy Gina Armstrong’s position. It’s also not the answer you get when you objectively compare the information in BCMCP reports with DPH arbovirus recommendations.  It is a demonstrably inaccurate answer.

“There has always been tension between the public good and the rights of individuals, and finding a sweet spot between the two is a policy-making ideal that is almost never achieved.” 
Wrong again, complete misread of the issue. The question is clearly between public good vs public good- regardless of whose set of statements you are looking at or subscribe to, that much should be clear.
Our position is that this about taking a proportionate approach, between a locally prevalent public health threat and a public health threat that is virtually non existent in the region, and one of the rarest of all causes of death in the Commonwealth. 

“The mosquito controversy swirls in the same vortex as anti-vaccination adherents.”

OK, THAT’S JUST A FUCKING MORONIC THING TO SAY.

Only valid explanation for this comment is that Jay Hathaway broke into the building on a bender, and got behind a keyboard to mess with everybody.   

“The fact is that mosquitoes spread dangerous infectious diseases like the West Nile and Zika viruses…”

Zika, now? Who tf said anything about Zika?!?   Does he mean EEE? Man, you really have not followed this story at all.  There are no Zika-carrying mosquitoes in New England. Period.  The only possible way a Berkshirite could get Zika is to travel or to catch it from a human being who traveled and got it.  Is the Eagle suggesting we spray a lethal dose to kill any infected humans directly?  That’s about the only way pesticide here is going to fend of zika.  [Is it a network issue, that is preventing this paper from accessing Google?] 
As for the rest.. There’ve been zero recorded human cases of  EEE in the Berkshires, ever, and one solitary (non-fatal) case of WNV in the county in its entire history, 6 years ago. 

There is absolutely no intelligent comparison to be made between the risk of mosquito borne illness and the local risk of tick-borne illness, for which we have no program, or indeed, to the local rates of certain cancers and developmental problems increasingly linked to this kind of pesticide spraying.  

 “While the complaints of those who find spraying repugnant ought to be heard and respected, the prospect of an epidemic engulfing Western Massachusetts should nothing be done is unthinkable”

Curiously, at no time in the past decades has the BERKSHIRE Eagle expressed concern about epidemic in the 4/5 of Berkshire that does not spray, nor do they express such concerns now.  Only Pittsfield is unsafe without being napalmed by neuro-toxins? 

 “The answer that spraying would cause someone’s butterfly garden to be disappointing, or that it might increase the severity of a senior citizen’s cough might not be accepted as valid, with good reason.”

Wrong-landscape-528x276.jpg

Neither of these are among the numerous itemized concerns submitted to the Council and local media by Residents Against Poison Spraying.  At all.  SHAME ON YOU, BERKSHIRE EAGLE. 

Of all the factually twisted, patronizing and deeply misinformed sentences in this op-ed, this is perhaps the most diabolically false.  Unless… by “cough”, did you mean cancer and childhood brain damage?  By “disappointing butterfly garden”, did you perhaps mean “bee colony collapse” and “disaster for agriculture”??  IF these are clever over-my-head analogies for those things, I apologize.  

“In short, city staffers administering the mosquito program have a thankless job”

Nope.  The program isn’t administered by city staff, but by an outside provider, who is in no way employed by the City of Pittsfield.  Wait, you didn’t know that?

“Mosquitoes are a nuisance, and we rarely think about them unless they are bothering us. If we ever do notice a dearth of the pesky critters, we certainly never offer up a prayer of gratitude that the county mosquito abatement program is working.”  Yeah, no, there has been not a shred of evidence provided to date that mosquitoes are any less plentiful than in the majority of the county- or majority of American communities- who do not have a spray program.  

As Director Armstrong said, “The bottom line is this is a disease prevention program,” which is a clear declaration that she is not talking about convenience, comfort or even quality of life; mosquito abatement is about human survival.”

Nope.  Sorry.  Ol’ Snake-oil Horton of BCMCP and his fumbling apologist in the Health Department can say it over and over, but assertion doesn’t make a thing true.
As years of BCMCP Annual Reports and Horton’s own admission last night indicate, more spray missions have been conducted based on private request than in response to elevated risk criteria.  The Eagle’s parroting of this debunked sound bite only serves to underline one final time the uninformed thread of falsehoods, science illiteracy, and utter lack of research or in-house institutional knowledge evidenced in both their coverage and editorial take on the issue of mosquito control this week.  

It is clear that the editorial board not only did not grasp much of what transpired Monday night, but is shockingly uninformed on the whole history of the issue locally.

Sincerely,

Joe Durwin
Long Time Reader

PS- For some legitimate information on mosquito-borne illness, pesticides, and other aspects of this local issue, compiled by people with the ability to fact-check, see:  Adulticide Spraying for Mosquito Control in Pittsfield, Massachusetts: An independent review 

 

 

 

After years of complaints from hundreds of Pittsfield residents, 5 city councilors have advanced a petition to review its dealings with Berkshire County Mosquito Control Project.
The Councils’ Committee on Public Health and Safety will take up this review on Monday, 7pm, at the Ralph Froio Senior Center

Over 75 Pittsfielders have added their name to an open letter from Residents Against Poison Spraying asking (in light of a lack of effectiveness, lack of accountability, and growing evidence of serious human and environmental dangers) that the City act to suspend all toxic mosquito spraying operations in Pittsfield and withdraw from this vendor relationship as soon as possible.

Pittsfield Mosquito Control Data Review- 2018

 

 

10 Lies About Question 5 In The Pittsfield Gazette – Debunked!

The following is a point-by-point examination and debunking of false claims made by Pittsfield resident Florian Ptak in an editorial letter afforded a full page this week in the Right-leaning Pittsfield Gazette. It’s unclear why Mr. Ptak, a frequent and opinionated letter-writer to local papers, has decided to undertakimg_20161030_204243e such a vitriolic smear campaign against Question 5, which has otherwise been widely endorsed and universally unchallenged by the full spectrum of community leaders and trusted organizations, elected officials of all affiliations, and the local business community. What is clear is that his editorial in this week’s Gazette is riddled throughout with misinformation, inaccuracies, false statements, outright whoppers, and an overall tone of outright resentment and animosity toward civic improvements and the local volunteer community.

#1. From the first sentence, Florian Ptak’s assertions are blatantly false and completely mistaken. “Question 5 asks Pittsfield voters to voluntarily increase their property tax by one percent to support [CPA]” – This is a complete lie, unless perhaps you live in a culture where they do not believe in decimal points. Question 5 would not, I repeat, would not, increase property tax by 1%. Adoption of the CPA would impose a 1% surcharge on the total property bill after it’s assessed (NOT a 1% increase to the bill), exempting the first $100,000 of assessed property. That means a resident whose house is valued at $100,000 pays nothing; at $200,000 payment is $18.76 a year, or LESS THAN 0.1%

#2. Ptak in the next sentence then lies some more in saying that CPA funds “ill defined, unnecessary community projects,” a statement for which there is simply no basis. Hundreds of very important projects across 161 communities have been accomplished, many of which related to crucial city needs (e.g. the restoration of Gloucester’s city hall), and 100% of which were rigorously vetted by local CPCs and their respective City Councils or Select Boards. All of these are well documented and can be viewed online in the statewide project database on CommunityPreservation.org

#3. In the second paragraph’s ramblings, Florian Ptak states that “Businesses like Sabic and Nuclea are fleeing the city” due to taxation. Once again there is no real factual substance to his words, as neither company’s changes had anything to do with Pittsfield- Sabic’s local closure comes as part of a national restructuring that has nothing to do with anything local. Nuclea’s reputation as a crooked endeavor based on smoke and mirrors has been the subject of plenty of media exposure, and their bankruptcy and default (not departure) comes despite being gaudily coddled by previous administrations.

He then goes on to claim that “our seniors are being forced to sell their homes because they are unable to continue to pay the exorbitant residential property taxes.” Sure, that does pull the heart strings, but is there any evidence that this is the case? Does anyone have a single concrete example to offer for this common political ploy? The fact that there has been, to date, very few applications for the tax abatement credit available to fixed income seniors, seems to debunk this claim. Seniors give up their homes for a variety of reasons, and it’s somewhat shameful of Florian Ptak to exploit this complicated part of aging as a propaganda point.

#3.5 in paragraph three he simply rounds up the tax rate estimate by .3%, no real biggie.

#4. In paragraph 4, Ptak pontificates about dire findings on city buildings revealed by Buildings & Maintenance Director Denis Guyer recently, and then goes on to say that CPA is precluded from funding the sort of renovations referred to but he is once again mistaken. While CPA funds cannot be used for the basic, humdrum day to day maintenance work that needs to be kept up in order to avoid major overhauls and restorations of historic and necessary civic buildings, which needs to be properly funded in the regular annual budget- it very certainly CAN be used for many of restoration and major capital projects that will be facing Pittsfield over the next few years – without the benefit of state matching funds, if we fail to approve Question 5.

#5. In paragraph 7, we come to the overall philosophical fallacy of Florian Ptak’s presentation– the lie of omission that underpins his entire smear campaign. Ptak is careful to leave out 2 HUGE facts that have led to the Pittsfield community’s widespread embrace of the Community Preservation Act:

FACT: Pittsfield residents already pay into this, hundreds of thousands of dollars every year in local real estate fees which leave the city and are dispersed only to the 161 (soon to be 177) smarter cities that have adopted the Preservation Act.

FACT: The revenue raised locally by this (27 cents a week avg) surcharge GUARANTEES state matching funds. This averages around 30% on the dollar. There is no bank, no investment a municipality can make with its revenue that will guarantee such a matching return. Therefore CPA is superior and more efficient for a struggling community like Pittsfield than any form of traditional property tax. Additionally, CPA projects have a proven track record for leveraging extensive additional state & federal funding and private investment. In total, the amount that Pittsfield residents have saved by not paying for CPA is a tiny fraction of the amount we have lost out over the years by not adopting it.

#6. In paragraph 8, Florian Ptak again demonstrates that he has not familiarized himself at all with the details of the Community Preservation Act, or is willfully misrepresenting them. Ptak falsely states: “The CPA actually requires some of the funds to be spent on more open spaces.”

This is not true at all. The Act does require that funds (at least 10%) be spent on parks and open spaces in general, it is false that they must* be spent acquiring new acreage. This was once true, but CPA was modified and this has not been the case in years. Florian Ptak’s information is wildly out of date. He is also misguided in his hostile dismissiveness toward the very idea of acquiring undeveloped land, when there are all sorts of ways that preserving additional agricultural or watershed area could save the city money and increase prosperity and public health, Large populations of residents have clamored for years for a dog park and additional playing fields. His particular tone of scorn for this sort of thing suggests a person with a rather negative overall outlook on nature and outdoor recreation, something most Pittsfield residents do not share.

#7. Becoming more emotional in paragraph 9, Florian Ptak rails against what he calls “rabid preservationists” with the absurd assertion that preservation of historic buildings equates to “taking them off the tax rolls [spelling corrected]”. In fact, anyone who has paid any attention can attest that the overwhelming majority of obvious examples of historic building restoration projects supported by local “preservationists” have been private development projects (sometimes supported by historic tax credits). The Clocktower apartments, the Howard Building, the Onota Building, Hotel on North, Rice Silk Mill, Notre Dame Apartments, the Central Annex, Shire City Sanctuary are just a few examples of large private spending to preserve historic buildings by entities contributing enormous revenues to the city. The planned redevelopment of Holy Family Church or of White Terrace are additional current examples; St Mary’s campus is eyed for private preservationist redevelopment, as was the Plunkett Building. The Med Express on Dalton Ave that was single-handedly saved from the wrecking ball by Pittsfield Historical Commission is another. The list goes on and on; it’s truly unfortunate that Mr. Ptak knows so very little about the subject he is attempting to demonize.

#8. In paragraph 10, Ptak is once again just making things up. No CPA projects have been “proposed” for Pittsfield, this would take place well in the future, assuming the Act is adopted. What is true Preserve Pittsfield has provided a few purely hypothetical examples of projects- some already planned, some simply desired by residents. Many of these examples, such as redevelopment of Springside House or the Tyler St Fire Station, a dog park, Rail Trail extensions, etc etc- have been the subject of extensive research, planning and public input processes, vetted by local committees, state agencies and tens of thousands of dollars in private consultants over the years. So to classify these examples as “nothing but ill defined wish lists for special interests” … well, let’s just call this out for what it is: Florian Ptak is lying.

#9. The second to last paragraph just gets really bizarre and hard to understand, not specifically false because it’s not at all clear what he’s driving at here, other than to make vague assertions that the language of the Act is “disturbing” without really explaining how, other than to cherry-pick phrases like “eminent domain” out of context, and to label the CPA process of volunteer participation, public input, and required transparency as “another level of bureaucracy.” -It’s not so much that referring to public accountability and governmental checks and balances as “bureaucracy” is technically untrue, it’s just that it’s such an obvious propagandist ploy that it’s barely worth discussing.

#10… In his closing paragraph, Florian Ptak lies twice more, in ways that are absurdly easy to debunk. First, the CPA is not as Ptak states “a permanent surcharge” – it can eventually be repealed if a city chooses, through as simple a ballot vote as the one that adopted it. In Northampton Mass, CPA was initially adopted in 2005 by a narrow 1% margin of 175 votes A few years later, a question was put forth by a small faction of residents to repeal it. Having seen it in action, Northampton’s decision was overwhelming, and the repeal was defeated by over 4,000 votes, a 2/3 majority of Northampton voters enthusiastically voting to keep it!

In his last line, Florian Ptak refers to the CPA as both “unnecessary and unproductive.” Well, any reasonably intelligent person can see that “unnecessary” is a subjective judgment in this context, an opinion that can (and clearly does) differ from person to person. But since productivity is something that can very much can be measured in municipal terms, let’s look at what CPA has produced, in ways that have been concretely measured and proven:

CPA has enabled over 8,100 locally supported projects to go forward

10,000 high paying jobs have been generated in the rehabilitation of historic properties by CPA funding, preserving the beloved structures that help give a community its identity while retrofitting it to a landscape that’s competitively ready for commercial activity of all kinds.

-Quality housing initiatives supported by CPA have created over 5,000 construction related jobs directly, and through indirect impact added another 6,000 estimated jobs with over $150 Million dollars in new revenue for local governments.

-Over 23,000 acres of park land, farm land, forest land have been acquired or preserved. It’s enabled towns to build needed dog parks, skate parks, playgrounds, athletic fields. It’s lead to the creation of hundreds of new assets and programs for youth recreation. Thriving parks in turn supports another 8,000 jobs and 447 million dollars in wages in Massachusetts, generates TEN BILLION in consumer spending and another $739 million in public revenue annually.

Fortunately, Pittsfield voters are smart enough not to be misled by a poorly conceived propaganda effort by 3 Pittsfield residents (Ptak, Terry Kinnas, and Kermit Goodman) who are all best known for their desire to hear themselves talk, and who seem perpetually to have a bee in their bonnets about something- when the overwhelming support for Question 5 spans from the city’s largest business alliance (Downtown Pittsfield Inc) to the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, from major cultural institutions to grassroots volunteer groups, and from local Democrats such as Ben Downing and Tricia Farley Bouvier to Republican Governor Baker- in this instance, all united in the cause of common sense and clear community benefit.

YES on Question 5 is an obvious no brainer for Pittsfield, and it takes a pretty convoluted series of distortions and untruths to make it sound otherwise.