Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

The demons of Dudleytown

There's a general rule that if you have to lie about the facts to support a claim, you might want to reconsider your stance.

That was my general response to a link sent to me by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia about the "Dudleytown Curse."  Dudleytown is an abandoned village in Litchfield County, Connecticut, which is a favorite of the "haunted places" crowd.  Here's the basic idea of the legend:

The area was first settled by people of European descent in the 1740s and 1750s, by Thomas Griffis and a cluster of either brothers or cousins (the records are uncertain on that count), Barzillai, Abiel, Martin, Obijah, and Gideon Dudley.  Presumably because of the strength-in-numbers principle, it was named Dudleytown even though Griffis had gotten there first.  Allegedly, the ancestor of the Dudleys was  disgraced English royal administrator Edmund Dudley, who had lost his head on Tower Hill in 1510, and the story goes that Edmund's kin had fled England because of some sort of curse the family was under.  (Which in itself is an odd claim.  The family certainly didn't suffer greatly from Edmund's disgrace; they remained wealthy and influential, and his grandson, Robert Dudley, First Earl of Leicester, was a great favorite of Queen Elizabeth I.)

Anyhow, the curse supposedly followed the Dudleys across the Atlantic, as curses are wont to do.  Abiel Dudley went mad and had to be confined to his home.  Gershon Hollister, who lived next door to Abiel in a home owned by William Tanner, was murdered.  Tanner himself also went insane, babbling about wild animals and demons attacking him.  After Abiel Dudley's death, his home belonged to Nathaniel Carter, who died along with his wife and three children when the settlement was attacked by Natives.  Heman Swift, a general in the American Revolution and a native of Dudleytown, lost his wife to a lightning strike and shortly afterward lost his mind as well.  The wife of Horace Greeley, unsuccessful candidate for president in 1872, was also a Dudleytown native -- when visiting her home town, she hanged herself for no apparent reason.

People started fleeing the area because of its bad reputation.  Soon there was hardly anyone left.  The place is so haunted even animals don't go there; visitors in the 1960s report not hearing so much as a single bird.  It is currently privately owned by a mysterious group called the Dark Entry Forest Association, and they're determined to stop anyone else from dying or going mad (or, if you'd like a more sinister version, to stop anyone from finding out what's really going on there).  They monitor the property and prosecute any trespassers to the fullest extent of the law.

The remnants of a railway station platform near Dudleytown

So, pretty creepy, right?

There's just one problem.

Almost none of the above is true.

So let's do this again, shall we?

There's no proof that the Connecticut Dudleys are descended from King Henry VIII's unfortunate counselor Edmund.  Abiel Dudley didn't go mad; he lived in relatively good health into his nineties.  Gershon Hollister wasn't murdered -- the records of the time show that he was participating in a barn raising and accidentally fell from the rafters, breaking his neck.  The Carter family massacre didn't happen in Dudleytown -- it happened along the Delaware River, and in fact all three of Nathaniel Carter's children survived (one became a State Supreme Court Justice).  Heman Swift did live in the nearby village of Cornwall, but didn't go mad and lived to be eighty-one.  Horace Greeley's wife, on the other hand, seems to have had nothing whatsoever to do with Dudleytown, and didn't commit suicide.  She died in New York City of lung disease.

Oh, and as far as the birds; the lack of birds in the 1960s had to do with the fact that all the farms in the area had been sprayed with DDT.  Northwestern Connecticut was hardly unusual in that regard (Cf. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.)  And like many areas, now that DDT is no longer used, the wildlife has rebounded nicely, and the area around Dudleytown is as birdy as anywhere else in the Berkshires.

As far as why people left the area, it seems to have had more to do with the fact that the rocky soil was terrible for farming.  Records show that most of the people who left Dudleytown relocated to the Midwest, where there was lots of good farmland for sale.  The Dark Entry Forest Association is hardly mysterious -- it was founded in 1924 by a New York City physician, Walter Clarke, who had bought the property and hoped to reforest it (it had been largely clearcut in a forlorn hope of turning it into farms), and use it both for recreation and for logging.  For a while it was successful -- there were skiing and hiking trails, and organized canoeing and rafting trips on the nearby Housatonic River.

But then in the 1970s a couple named Ed and Lorraine Warren (the ones who did the famous investigation of the Amityville Horror) created a documentary supposedly chronicling all the supernatural terrors of the Dudleytown region, inventing out of whole cloth the various lies and half-truths I've mentioned above.  They said it was "demonically possessed" and "controlled by something terrifying."  It attracted huge amounts of attention from ghost hunters and tourists who wanted to see such an evil region...

... and the visitors proceeded to trash the place.

The residents of the nearby town of Cornwall finally got fed up, and petitioned the Dark Entry Forest Association to do something.  So they did; in 2011, they closed the property to visitors permanently.  These days, even if you ask permission to go, the answer will be no.

Harriet Clark, former president of the Cornwall Historical Society, wrote in her book The True Facts of Dudleytown, "Today’s owners and taxpayers of Dudleytown are professional people who live there for privacy and seclusion.  They do not welcome tourists or those seeking tales of chilling or wild experiences.  Please do not come.  There are no ghosts, no spirits and no curse."

Which, of course, dissuaded absolutely no one.  People are still trying to get in and still getting arrested and fined for trespassing.  And even if there's a persuasive argument that the demons of Dudleytown are entirely of human manufacture, the dismissive words of Clark and others are looked upon as more indication that there is something sinister there that they're trying to cover up.

You can't win with these people.

But to go back to my original point -- you'd think if there was anything to this kind of claim, they wouldn't find the need to make shit up in order to support it.  As always, I'm open to being convinced about claims of all sorts -- but don't expect me to accept what you're saying if the only thing going for it is a boatload of fabrications.


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