Tales of olde Woodstock are awash with witches. Interference from these quarters were more vexing than life-threatening, making the earliest and most infamous of horrors reported locally that of a notorious wife-beating. The victim, a very young, beautiful and faultless bride carrying child, made a last dying wish: That she be buried along with her still-born babe and the elm switch, instrument of both their deaths. Fame surrounding the horrendous event was assured when the shoot of an elm tree grew from the grave of the martyr with such tenacity as to topple her stone which read: “In memory of CATHERINE wife of John Van Debogert (also her Infant child) who died Aug. 2nd 1821 Aged 18 yrs 7 mo & 13 days.” The “Elm Tree Grave” finds mention in several books of local interest, as well as in Ripley’s famous Believe It Or Not. Attempting to squelch this source of embarrassment, the family cut down the offending Elm in 1934. It grew back. The tree was again cut around 2000, recalls a cemetery worker named Shea, “but something always grows from that grave,” he comments ruefully.
Darkness doesn’t die.
Celts all over Europe once believed that upon the feast of Sanhain souls of the recently diseased mingled with those of the living as, surrounding this harvest celebration, the dead migrated to the Underworld. Attempting to uproot the heathen festival, an ascendant Catholic Church met stiff resistance, eventually changing its tactics. In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory I charged his priests to honor the entrenched Celtic holiday while shifting its focus, declaring “All Saints Day” be celebrated on November 1. Such was the first of several attempts to supplant Sanhain, all of which failed. Noting that commoners stubbornly clung to a morbid frivolity in this pre-winter bacchanal, Rome next decreed “All Souls Day” would honor the souls of all Christian dead, especially its martyrs, with feasts on November 2. But revelers costumed as ghouls, demons, and devils stubbornly ruled the night, their evil intentions barely thwarted with generous food and drink. “All Hallow’s Eve” (or “Eve of All Holy,”) as All Souls Day was later called, fared no better. Celebrants continued to masquerade as the Dispossessed, wallowing in a wildness borrowed from Mardis Gras and Hispanic culture’s “Day of the Dead.” Clearly, commoners were not content to cower behind the cross of the parish priest on “Halloween,” as All Hallow’s Eve came to be known. Instead, otherwise obedient worshippers, steadily younger in age, insisted on mocking evil in ever more gruesome detail. Even conservative “stay at homes” became conspirators, as these stolid citizens bribed hell’s minions with candies or party favors, providing “a trick or treat” to escape a charade of dark retribution. Obviously, something in the human psyche demanded a burlesque of evil wherein its temptations were playfully sampled, its horrors ridiculed, its powers borrowed if belittled except…in those instances theatrics spilled over into reality.
Over the centuries Halloween has become the year’s most notorious night all across America and beyond. Throughout my childhood “razor-bladed candied apples” and other evil pranks made “Fright Night” truly terrifying, even as its charms remained irresistible. Today, an ever more frightened and frightening nation celebrates Vampirism, zombies, and gothic horror with quasi-religious fervor. This summer an actual mass-murderer opened fire at the premiere of the most recent of the hugely successful “Batman” films, movies which invariably feature a brilliantly demonic prankster doling out death wholesale. Even as the line between fake blood and real blood blurs, the importance of Sanhain remains unimpeachable, and an orgy of horror, be it playful or sincere, reaches its zenith on Halloween.
As one more than aware of malevolence manifest throughout a town renowned for “Peace & Love” — and being, myself, ever more cognizant of dark shadows lengthening over my own interior world, I am never easy on All Hallow’s Eve. Truthfully, I am seldom comfortable surveying “the battle of good versus evil,” as I find it an invitation to hypocrisy. Even so, I’ve taken on the task of presenting Woodstock with a brief portrait of its own darkness. So I now make customary warning, that my reader might pass over the remainder of this offering — turning instead to this week’s Letters to the Editor or harmless local news, listings of art and musical events; such mundane fare as will surely stave off undue familiarity with my grim remembrances…
In the last century suicide became and remains a most prevalent evil here. As romantic as “the artist’s life” may sound in the spring of youth — disillusionment, debt, failure, madness, addiction, lost love, illness, the gnawing of hunger and cold, and the tireless predator of humiliation — these are but a few of the occupational hazards connected with art’s “most dangerous game.” Not that successful men and women are not also at risk of self destruction — of course, they are. The long list of those who’ve taken their own lives here would include many famous individuals, as well as those who unluckily sought fame, together with some whose deaths seem ask their lives be forgotten, indeed, expunged.
Until a recent infestation of diseased parasites, recreational gunfire was more than common in these parts, heavy drinking too, which in conjunction with the aforementioned can bring deadly results. But most fatal hunting accidents in these parts involved out-of-towners, and while most would agree these to be tragic, few would consider them “evil.” Woodstock’s wild party, on the other hand, was not without its crimes of passion.
Marriage here, since art colony days, can seem a particularly porous institution. And while many adulteries were tolerated without violence, some — clearly — were not. Most famous in my youth, near a rude cabin off Cooper Lake Road…was the jealous shooting of Sam Shirah — a throwback whose coonskin hat, corn-cob pipe, and countrified speech resembled that of Daniel Boone. Shot through the heart with a rifle at close range — horrific death though it was — it does not detract from that backwoods comparison. We also have the case of a local pistol owner who stored this weapon in an unlocked desk. His sister was married to an adulterer whose life she ended — where I do not recall, when borrowing the pistol, she stepped up behind husband, aimed and fired.
Growing up here in the sixties I encountered the tail end of local xenophobia when Woodstock kids — usually high or drunk, would break into city folks’ summer homes and have some fun. The worst of these vandalisms was perpetrated by a recluse who never got over a bad trip named Peter Sorenson. Together with a local farmer’s boy they all but wrecked an extensive estate on Hutchin Hill. Some of today’s local hard-working businessmen participated in such wild rampages…Don’t press me for names. Sadly, the most damaging of these angry escapades manifested in a notorious string of barn-burnings. And would that I could blame such misguided judgment on youth.