Friday, October 30, 2020

In My Footsteps: The History of the Video Game Arcade

    Although they still exist today the video arcade's heyday was the 1980's. The soundtrack of many an 80's child's life was the buzz of countless video games being played all at once. In the days before the home consoles like PlayStation and Xbox made arcades less appealing the best way to play your favorite game was to fill your pockets with quarters, get on your bike and ride to the nearest arcade.

    What we think of as an arcade in the last few decades is an offshoot of what was originally called a 'penny arcade.' These were actually the evolution of what was called an amusement parlor. These first came about in the 1880's and 1890's and were quite popular. They featured photos, and later motion pictures, some appropriate for all ages, and some risque ones. However as with most things the novelty wore off and by the turn of the 20th century they were revamped as penny arcades.

The Pac-Man arcade game. (Peter Handke/Wikimedia)

    A typical penny arcade had non-electric pinball machines, fortune teller machines, love testers, strength machines, slot machines, and coin-operated Amberolas which were very old school phonographs. The term itself came into the American lexicon around 1905 and centered around the cost to operate any of the machines.

    What Gen-X kids think of as arcades had their start in the early-1970's. In the summer of 1971 Nutting Industries, based out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, created the first commercially sold coin-operated video game. Designed by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney the game called Computer Space pitted a player-controlled rocket ship against two computer-controlled flying saucers. For old school gamers it was essentially Asteroids without the titular asteroids. Initially 1,500 of the games were assembled and it became a success on college campuses. However it was not a hit anywhere else and the sales slowed with less than 1,000 being sold and no further units being built. Though not a resounding success it did allow Bushnell and Dabney to start their own video game company the following year: Atari. The arcade as a concept though was about to get going when Pong was invented in 1972 and eventually sold 19,000 units.

A vintage Computer Space game. (Carlo Nardone/Wikimedia)

    The 1970's saw classic video games like Space Invaders, Asteroids, Galaxian, Tank, and others lay the groundwork for the new arcade phenomenon. In the mid to late-1970's bans on pinball machines were lifted (yes they were banned in some states in the 1940's being seen as units of gambling) and the original arcade amusement game was back in action. As the 70's turned into the 80's arcades became the place to hangout on weekends and after school, as long as you had enough quarters though.

    1982 was the peak year for the video arcade in America with around 13,000 locations. Icons like Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Centipede, and Mario Bros burst onto the scene in the early-1980's. Some of the most popular machines in arcades could pull in $400 ($1,078 in 2020) in quarters a week at the time. At this point the stand-up video game consoles began appearing elsewhere like grocery stores, restaurants, and shopping malls.

    Above all others Pac-Man became the giant of arcade games. Developed by Japanese company Namco in 1980 it was a nonviolent alternative to most games of the day which made it appealing to women. Namco sold 400,000 units of Pac-Man to arcades around the globe making the company $3.5 billion in sales by 1990. In the peak year of 1982 estimates had Americans spending $8 million ($21.5 million in 2020) a week playing Pac-Man in arcades. The game spawned tons of merchandise, a cartoon show, a Ms. Pac-Man game, and even a parody song 'Pac-Man Fever' in 1982 by Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia that reached #9 on the Billboard Top 100 Chart.

Some of the classic 1980's arcade game logos. (Video

    For as high as the highs were in the early-to-mid-1980's the video game arcade began to decline as the decade moved along. The release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985 kept some kids at home to play a lot of the popular arcade games. The other main cause of the decline of the arcade ended up being its own success. Many arcade owners were making lots of money and thought more machines meant more money. They were ordering more games than their clientele could support. This was coupled with the underlying fear of arcades and video games in genera being a bad influence on the youth of America. That feeling had been there festering just below the surface for decades and had been a part of the aforementioned pinball machine ban.

    The final factor was the Video Game Crash of 1983. This was essentially an over-saturation of the market, specifically by Atari, and an influx of low quality games like the infamous E.T. debacle. It led to a recession in the video game market that did not end until Nintendo released the NES in late-1985. The video game industry as a whole saw its revenue drop from over $12 billion at the peak to $100 million in 1985.

    A renaissance occurred in 1991 with the release of Street Fighter II. Selling more than 60,000 machines it was seen as a game that needed to be played in an arcade rather than home console. Mortal Kombat came in 1992 and the arcades drew new customers to their locations. These games though came with the stigma of being too violent and did not make a total resurgence of the industry possible. Plus the advent of higher quality consoles like PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo 64 in the mid-1990's made staying home to play preferable.

    Today video arcades do still exist. Most of these though are as a part of a larger entertainment complex like Dave and Buster's, Ryan Family Amusement, Chuck E Cheese, and others. Stand alone arcades are harder to find. In 2017 it was listed by Arcade that there were 2,500 such arcades in America, though it is unknown what the 2020 number is.

A typical Dave and Buster's arcade. (Dustin M. Ramsey/Wikimedia)

    The increase in online gaming and high quality home consoles likely means that a huge upswing in arcades won't happen anytime soon. However the stand-up machines have become something of a collector's item and people have taken to buying their favorite game and having it in their own home. It likely brings back fond childhood memories without the worry of running out of quarters.

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Coming November 5, 2020 the debut episode of the In My Footsteps Podcast wherever you get your podcasts!  

Monday, October 26, 2020

In Their Footsteps: New England History - Lizzie Borden

 *Warning - Graphic Photos Below*

    Her name is infamous despite actually being acquitted of the crime she was accused of. A creepy poem was introduced into the American lexicon based around said crimes. It was the crime of the century and she was front and center. The city was Fall River, the year was 1892, and the accused murderer was young Lizzie Borden. This is the story of her life before, the crimes she was put on trial for, and the aftermath.

    Lizbeth Andrew Borden was born in Fall River, Massachusetts on July 19, 1860. Her parents were Andrew and Sarah Borden. The family was wealthy thanks to Andrew's success in manufacturing and real estate. Lizzie had a sister Emma who was 9 years older than her. Prior to her birth a second daughter had been born to Andrew and Sarah named Alice, but she died at only 2 years old in 1858 due to hydrocephalus (water on the brain). Lizzie's birth was sure to have been seen as a blessing to Sarah and Emma alike and she was showered with love.

The Borden family home at 230 Second St., Fall River

    Lizzie led a normal life only for a few years. On March 26, 1863 her mother Sarah died of uterine congestion and spinal disease at the age of 39. This left a toddler Lizzie without a mother, a role that Emma gladly stepped into. The sisters bond was very tight. It became tested though when their father remarried. On June 6, 1865 Andrew married Abby Durfee Gray when Emma was 14 and Lizzie was almost 5. Emma immediately resented Abby becoming a mother-figure to Lizzie since the youngest Borden had no memory of her real mother.

    Emma went away to Wheaton Female Seminary (Wheaton College) in Norton, Massachusetts for a year and a half between 1867-1868. Abby had a chance to bond with Lizzie unopposed. It is purported that Emma didn't finish her studies at Wheaton simply because she lacked the charm and experience of her classmates and felt out of place. However one could point to her potentially growing anxious of her beloved sister growing closer to their stepmother. Whatever the reason Emma returned home to Fall River and the tensions only increased between her and Abby.

Lizzie Borden (public domain)

    The relationship between Abby and the Borden sisters grew more distant. The girls addressed her as 'Mrs. Borden.' As Lizzie grew up her resentment toward Abby intensified likely with help from Emma. As early as grammar school Lizzie spoke badly of her stepmother. She also was odd and did not make friends easily. She carried herself with an air of haughtiness likely from knowing her family was wealthy.

    Andrew was a workaholic, usually putting in 14-hour days, and saving as much money as he could. He tried to cultivate a family dynamic moving into a different home at 92 Second Street in 1874.  As they grew older Lizzie and Emma helped to manage the rental properties he had accumulated. His greatest accomplishment was the building he erected on South Main Street in 1889. The 3-story commercial brick building cost $35,000 ($990,000 in 2020) was a symbol of Borden's success as well as the growth of Fall River into a respected industrial city. By 1892 his net worth was close to $7 million when adjusted to 2020.

    The family fortune may have become a constant source of contention between Abby and the Borden sisters in the years leading up to the murders. Lizzie and Emma remained under the same roof as Andrew and Abby into their 30's and were seen as spinsters by the community. Lizzie for her part wished the family could move up to the hills into a much more fitting home as she saw her family as above the middle-class living around them. On the outside the Bordens were living a charmed life, but behind the doors of the home on Second Street it was a bubbling cauldron of frustration.

    Then came August 4, 1892. One of the most infamous crimes not only in Massachusetts but in the United States as well. Now in the days leading up to the crimes themselves other suspicious events occurred concerning the Borden family. Two days earlier on August 2nd Andrew and Abby Borden awaken claiming stomach sickness. Abby went to Dr. Seabury Bowen suggesting they may have been poisoned although he was skeptical.

    On the morning of August 3rd Lizzie Borden purportedly attempted, unsuccessfully, to purchase prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) at D.R. Smith's drug store. That evening Lizzie spoke forebodingly about things potentially happening to her father. She spoke of him having enemies and mentioned poisoning specifically and worried someone would do something.

    August 4th began with Abby, Andrew, and friend John Morse having breakfast at 7am. Morse left at 8:45 and Andrew went out to mail some letters while Abby went upstairs to do some cleaning. Before Andrew returned Abby was brutally murdered by 19 hatchet blows to the back of her head. She was left laying beside a bed partially concealed.

Andrew Borden's slain body and the replica sofa at the Lizzie Borden B&B.

    Andrew returned, gave a package to housekeeper Bridget Sullivan. Lizzie tells her father Abby was not home. Bridget went upstairs to her attic room not seeing Abby's body and Andrew lay down on the sofa in the sitting room. Shortly thereafter he is also murdered with 10 savage hatchet blows to his face.

    Lizzie called to Bridget that her father was murdered while also establishing an alibi of being in the barn while the murders happened. At 11:15am the police are called. Dozens of officers descended on the Borden home and conducted postmortems on Abby and Andrew. They also interviewed Lizzie noting that she had no blood on her although immediately naming her a suspect. Although fingerprint technology was available it was relatively new and the police were wary of its accuracy. A hatchet in the basement of the home was therefore never tested for prints.

Abby Borden's slain body and the bedroom at the Lizzie Borden B&B.  

    Emma, who had been in New Bedford for the last few weeks, returned to Fall River. Upon her return August 7th she purportedly witness Lizzie burning a blue corduroy dress in a fireplace. Lizzie was formally arrested August 11th after a closed door inquest by police about the Borden murders. She pleads not guilty and is sent to prison in Taunton until her trial began in New Bedford Superior Court which was June 5, 1893.

    Even before the trial began the story of the horrific murders possibly by Lizzie Borden made the story a nationwide phenomenon. Despite seeming emotionally detached from the gravity of what had happened there was doubt whether Lizzie could have committed such a crime due to her standing in Fall River as a churchgoer and member of an upper-class family. Plus the sheer brutality of the murders led many to believe a woman was incapable of such atrocities. Her story was filled with inconsistencies and even though Emma staunchly defended her in court all signs pointed to Lizzie Borden being convicted of double-murder. In the end though the prosecution could not produce a murder weapon, bloody clothes, and even chalked up the attempted purchased of the prussic acid to mistaken identity.

Andrew(left) and Abby(right) postmortem.  

    On June 20, 1893 Lizzie Borden was found not guilty. She inherited a sizable chunk of money from her father's estate and in a not-so-subtle piece of irony Lizzie and Emma moved into a large house up in the hills as they had desired years prior. It was a 14-room home at 306 French Street bought by Lizzie and named Maplecroft. Despite being acquitted in court it was not the same in the court of public opinion. Lizzie Borden was shunned by the community and her former friends. She was ridiculed and pranked by kids. She took to traveling to Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. to live the lavish lifestyle without the scrutiny of her past.

    In 1897 Lizzie, now going by Lizbeth, was accused of shoplifting in Providence. She was not arrested and apparently restitution was made. Outside of her traveling Lizzie stayed close to her Maplecroft home even developing a close relationship with actress Nance O'Neill in 1904. This new relationship led to Emma moving out of the home in 1905. Sadly the two sisters remained estranged for the rest of their lives.

Lizzie Borden's Maplecroft (Mott & Chace Sotheby's International Realty)

    Outside of an appearance in probate court in May 1923 to obtain equal distribution of the Andrew Borden Building in Fall River, Lizzie remained out of the spotlight. She had gone in for an operation in 1926 to remove her gallbladder and her health never recovered. Lizzie Borden died of pneumonia on June 1, 1927 at the age of 66. In her will she left several sizable charitable donations. Her estranged sister Emma died a little more than a week later.

    Nobody was ever charged for the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden after Lizzie's acquittal. The home at 92 (now 230) Second St. is a popular museum and Bed & Breakfast. People can get the tour of the home complete with crime scene photos and also spend the night where the murders took place. Lizzie's Maplecroft home in Fall River still stands and as of September 2020 was actually for sale. She is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Fall River in the family plot, alongside her sisters Emma and Alice, mother Sarah, father Andrew and stepmother Abby. Even nearly 130 years later it remains one of the most fascinating and shocking cases in history, sparking countless theories, books, films, and one very famous rhyme. 

    Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.


Coming November 5, 2020 the debut episode of the In My Footsteps Podcast wherever you get your podcasts!  

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

In Their Footsteps: New England History - Medfield State Hospital


    The town of Medfield is home to 12,904 people (as of 2018), and sits 17-miles southwest of Boston. It contains several beautiful hiking areas, shops and restaurants mixing a touch of city with the layout of a mid-sized town. Medfield is also home to what might be the creepiest place on all of Massachusetts. For a century a campus existed in town but this was no college. A hospital existed in town but it was not purely medical. It was the Medfield State Hospital. It was a spot that became inspiration for film and television and this is its story.

The Medfield State Hospital grounds in 2019.

    Facilities to help treat the mentally ill have been around in America for centuries. The first such operation opened in 1752 in Philadelphia. It was part of the Pennsylvania Hospital. The basement of the hospital provided beds with shackles attached to the wall to house a small number of the mentally ill. In Massachusetts the first facility helped give the future ones their name. In 1818 McLean Hospital opened. It was first called the 'Asylum for the Insane' and was a division of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The hospital was renamed McLean Asylum for the Insane in 1825. Most of the similar hospitals in the future would be often referred to as 'insane asylums' or 'mental hospitals' even if it wasn't directly in their name.

    The Medfield Insane Asylum became the third such facility in Massachusetts when work began on it in early 1891. The initial plans were to have 25 buildings, 18 of them housing 1,000 patients, in a self-contained cottage style campus. It was to be the first asylum strictly for the long-term care of high-need chronic patients. The money appropriated for the project, $500,000 ($14.3 million in 2020), was not seen to be enough. The Massachusetts State Inspector feared the buildings would be built on the cheap and could be fire traps. In February 1893 the asylum in Dover, New Hampshire burned to the ground killing 44 of 48 patients which only exacerbated fears. The project was temporarily put on hold to further iron out the plans. 

The Chapel in 2011 vs. 1903 (Asylum

    The buildings of the Medfield asylum were of red brick with walls 12-inches thick. In addition to the dormitories for the patients there was an administration building, laundry, kitchen, dining room, and more making the 425-acre property more like a small village than a mental hospital. After a long legal wrangling over the trustees of the property and securing that the buildings would indeed be safe for the patients the Medfield Insane Asylum opened in May 1896. There were initially about 600 patients at the asylum including 178 immediately transferred there from the Danvers asylum upon Medfield's grand opening. In the beginning Medfield would be used to help ease the overcrowding in other nearby facilities.

    By the time the property had its first name change to the Medfield State Asylum in 1905 there were a total of 1,554 patients living there. The staff of the asylum initially lived on the property as well, often sleeping in the attics of the buildings which housed patients. In 1914 the property underwent a second name change to the Medfield State Hospital. The property's Superintendent Edward French said at the time that a name change was necessary as any intelligent patient there might feel hopeless living in an asylum. Name changes aside there was a problem that needed correction and that was lack of restraints on some violent patients. In 1912 alone several nurses on staff were injured via attacks from violent patients not properly restrained.

Vines engulfing one of the former dormitories. 

    Not all of the people living at the Medfield hospital were dangerous though. In fact many would only be there for a respite and be released and even find jobs in the private sector. Despite that positive news the small town of Medfield was continuously at odds with the facility. A suspicious fire that burned the laundry building in June 1924 got the town's attention as though the fire was controlled it theoretically could have put the town in danger.

    Patient on staff crime, vice versa, and patient on patient incidents were frequent. The first incident to make the news was the September 1916 beating death of patient Camillo Strazullo by attendant Wesley Linton. Linton would be found guilty and spend 3 years in prison in Dedham. As incidents increased over the rest of the decade staff encouraged swift prosecution for violence against patients. At the end of the 1910's the property expanded to a total of 609 acres of land abutting the Charles River. On the west end of the property a cemetery was built to accommodate the remains of the many inmates who died during the 1918 Flu Pandemic. That cemetery still exists today. Eventually the campus swelled to 58 buildings including a chapel.

    The incidents of violence inside the Medfield State Hospital were exacerbated during the 1930's and 1940's when the facility's population was at its highest. It became a problem of overcrowding as the number of patients topped 2,300. Incidents of murder increased as did the escaping of patients. This included 3 men stealing a car in November 1935 and making it to Dedham before being apprehended. Otherwise it became routine for patients to wander off and into town as the hospital was basically an open campus with no outer walls and no guards.

    Shock therapy came into use in 1938 initially killing 2 test patients. World War II strained the staffing at the hospital leading to the more competent patients helping out to care for the less inclined people and the property itself. Major changes for the Medfield State Hospital began in the 1950's.

    The reintroduction of lithium as a psychiatric medication in 1949 led to a revolution in terms of medications and treatments of those suffering from mental illness. Lithium, used for mania, got the ball rolling but it was chlorpromazine (brand name thorazine) which came along in 1949 that changed the game. It was popularized in the early 1950's. Other new drugs like imipramine, one of the first antidepressants, came along shortly thereafter. These medications then allowed more patients living at asylums to be sent home. Those that did stay in the facilities were far calmer and the campus at Medfield began to resemble a college rather than a busy subway station.

    Medfield garnered praise for its rehabilitation program under the leadership of Dr. Harold Lee during the later 50's and early 60's. Change continued as Congress in the early 60's passed a law stating that asylum patients needed to be kept under as little restraint as possible. Changes in policies coupled with more patients being allowed to lead relatively normal lives outside of the walls of an asylum eventually led to the closure of some such facilities.

    During the 1970's some asylums began seeing a little use as correctional facilities. Some feared Medfield might follow suit. However it was a far worse fate that began being discussed. The choice was being bandied about of either closing Medfield or the Westborough hospital. The population dropped at Medfield and some of the buildings on the campus closed. Calls for reform of policies at Medfield had begun in 1966 and came to a head in 1984 from the Massachusetts Mental Health Department. The population continued dropping until it was at 200 in 1989. It was at this point the property finally became fenced in. A major reason was due to an influx of patients from the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane to Medfield which worried the town's residents.

    During the 1990's the campus was deteriorating. The property's wells were taken out of service and the town supplied it with water. Also mothballs were used in some of the buildings to try to stem the deterioration. The writing was on the wall though. Slowly parcels of land were donated to the state for conservation. Talks of closing Medfield State Hospital had been ongoing for years, long before word officially came down in 2002. April 13, 2003 saw the hospital close and the remaining patients transferred to Westborough. For the first time in 107 years the campus and its red brick buildings stood silent.

Remember us, for we too have lived, loved, and laughed.  

    The former Medfield State Hospital sat in limbo for 11 years though it was used for scenes in the 2009 movie The Box and the 2010 movie Shutter Island. The town officially bought it in December 2014. A total of 127 acres was purchased for $3.1 million. As of March 2020 plans were being brought forward as to how to repurpose the former hospital property.

    Though it might end up as subsidized housing, retail space, or something else in the not too distant future, currently it is possible to walk the grounds among the creepy yet beautiful old buildings of Medfield State Hospital. There have been numerous accounts of paranormal activity on the grounds and the property as a whole lends itself to something out of a horror movie. While it is still standing it is recommended to take a walk on the grounds. It can be at midday with your dog to minimize the eeriness but those who love the Halloween season need to see this spot with their own eyes.


Coming November 5, 2020 the debut episode of the In My Footsteps Podcast wherever you get your podcasts!  

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Sunday, October 18, 2020

In My Footsteps: The Scariest Places I've Ever Been


    Halloween season is upon us. It is the time of the year to scare and be scared. Scary movies, haunted house attractions, ghost stories, these and more are all traditions of October. I have been sharing some terrifying true crime stories this month and thought I'd go one better. I wanted to share my picks for the creepiest places I have been myself. Most of these are able to be visited even now, though it's not recommended after dark.

North Truro Air Force Base, Old Dewline Rd., Truro

    Okay so I'll start with one you likely don't want to try to go into because it's off limits. Several years ago I ventured inside the long abandoned North Truro Air Force Base. Located a stone's throw from Highland Lighthouse the base was in operation from 1951-1985 and encompasses 110 acres of land abutting the high cliffs of Truro. It has been a part of the Cape Cod National Seashore since 1994 and has been renamed the Highlands Center. However despite the improvements to infrastructure and money spent on demolishing some buildings the area remains dotted with decaying and overgrown structures. The only thing creepier than the outside is the inside.

Inside the North Truro AFB

    This is NOT recommended. As I said before several years ago while taking some photos at the deserted former base I wandered around and saw a body-sized hole in a door and gathered the guts enough to slip inside. It was lit only by light coming in through cracks between boarded up windows. Machinery and furniture remained but was badly decayed and dirty. Dark hallways and staircases coupled with miscellaneous creaks and echoes cut my time in there short.

Pine Grove Cemetery, Old County Rd., Truro

The infamous Pine Grove Cemetery crypt.

    Graves and cemeteries are a staple of spooky Halloween outings. Cape Cod has its share of creepy cemeteries with graves dating back to the 17th century. Perhaps no proper cemetery is creepier than the Pine Grove Cemetery in Truro. More than just being in the middle of nowhere this cemetery is creepy for the true crime story that happened within its borders. In 1969 Tony Costa murdered and mutilated four women. At least one of the victims was mutilated in a small brick crypt near the back corner of the cemetery. Three of the bodies were found in an area near the cemetery. It makes for a scary hike to wander the old fire roads trying to imagine where Costa buried the victims.

The Grave of Thomas Ridley, Truro

    There are a pair of gravesites not connected to a cemetery but that are connected to each other through the terrible disease known as smallpox. The solo grave of Thomas Ridley, located more than a half-mile deep in the woods behind Montano's Restaurant in Truro, is one of the hardest spots to find on Cape Cod. Ridley died of smallpox in 1776 and was buried far removed from the rest of the village for fear of exposure to the deadly illness. Few have laid eyes on his simple solitary gravestone in its more than 240 years of residency in the Truro woods.

Provincetown Smallpox Cemetery

Gravestone #5 at the hidden smallpox cemetery.

    In Provincetown only a few miles down Rt. 6 from Montano's is another hidden smallpox cemetery. Though closer to the main road it is no less difficult to find. Thickly overgrown brush hides the route to a series of foot-tall graves marked only by numbers. Though they lay in a line in a relative clearing it is the getting there that is the hardest. These graves are remnants of a smallpox treatment facility. It was first constructed in 1848. It was called a pestilence house, or Pest House, and the tiny 8x10 building was used to keep those ill from the rest of the town. Today all that remains is a hole in the ground where the building stood until 1873, and the solemn graves of fourteen people who died of smallpox at the Pest House. Of the fourteen only four remain in good condition after more than 140 years in the elements.

West Barnstable Brick Factory, Rt. 6A, West Barnstable

Part of the old West Barnstable Brick Factory.

    A spot very much out of the way is the former West Barnstable Brick Factory site. Just off of the railroad tracks in West Barnstable a century ago this was a thriving business creating popular bricks from the clay deposits underground. In the 1920's at its peak the factory was making 100,000 bricks per day and upwards of 30 million per year. In 1932 a test hole was dug into the clay to estimate how many years of brick making remained. Sadly the hole created an artesian well which flooded the clay pits and sent the company out of business.

    Today bits and pieces of the factory remain secluded behind thick brush and thorns. The artesian well remains in the area as do thousands of broken bricks. Though not creepy in the same way as a cemetery is the West Barnstable Brick Factory remains are a stoic and sad reminder of a once thriving industry and the one fatal mistake that ended it. Be aware for those trying to find this, it is buried so deep behind thorns and brush and there is no real pathway to get to it. Be prepared to bushwhack and possibly ruin your clothes. I did both when I visited.

Medfield State Hospital, 28 Hospital Rd., Medfield, Ma.

On the grounds of Medfield State Hospital

    Creepier than a cemetery might be an abandoned mental institution. The Medfield State Hospital is easily one of the creepiest places I've been. At its peak it had 58 buildings on its nearly 900 acre campus. Open from 1896-2003 it held as many as 2,300 patients at its peak. During the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 the staff created their own cemetery which still exists. Problems arose as it became commonplace for patients to simply leave the grounds and roam into town. The buildings began to deteriorate even before its closing in 2003.

    In the years since the buildings remained as a reminder of what once was. They stand as an abandoned neighborhood of sorts, each building blood red in color with white paint of the window shutters running alongside making it appear that the windows are crying.  The first time I visited I remember there being almost no sound, no wind, no animals, only a single beige sedan slowly driving the property. Straight out of a nightmare.  The second time I heard what sounded like a drill or electric saw inside the old vocational rehab building. I asked the town if anyone was working inside there on that day but got no reply.

    In 2014 the Town of Medfield bought the property and have been working on repurposing it as a piece of living history. It is possible to walk the grounds and experience a truly eerie sight, try it earlier or later in the day for maximum effect.  

Lizzie Borden House, 230 2nd St., Fall River, Ma.

An exact replica of the sofa where Andrew Borden was murdered. 

    Perhaps the creepiest spot in Massachusetts is the site of its most infamous crime. The Lizzie Borden House in Fall River is a must-see. To sum it up Lizzie Borden was arrested in 1892 for the ax murders of her father Andrew Borden and stepmother Abby, although she was acquitted in 1893. The brutality of the murders shocked the nation. Lizzie ended up spending her remaining years in Fall River despite being ostracized by the community.

    The house doubles as a museum attraction and a Bed & Breakfast. There are regularly scheduled tours of the home complete with gruesome photos of the crime scene including the bodies. I have taken the tour and standing in the spots where Andrew and Abby Borden were axed to death is truly creepy. However I can only imagine spending the night in the home. Laying awake at night wondering if the sound you heard was the spirit of Andrew or Abby wandering the halls. Or having to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and walking around in the dark in the home. I would definitely recommend the tour and if you're feeling daring spending a night there.

Gettysburg Battlefield, 1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, Pa.

The battlefield at Gettysburg

    The final spot I am including is far outside of New England yet needs to be experienced at least once. One of the most haunted spots in all of America, if not the world, is the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. One can either drive the route to the battlefield from the museum or you can walk. I chose to walk the half-mile trail through the woods to get to the actual battlefield. It is creepy as you walk out and see the large black and white photo posters of soldiers from the Afghanistan War hanging from the trees.

    The battlefield itself has been home to untold numbers of paranormal activity. More than 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing in total on both sides of the Civil War battle. With so many lives ended suddenly in one area it is natural that the field is full of spirits. The battlefield is decorated with many monuments and an overwhelming feeling of sadness thinking of the loss of life there. In order to truly get the creepy experience at Gettysburg stay until after dark and see if any apparitions appear or sounds fill the air. I stayed until a little after dark visiting the neighboring Gettysburg cemetery and then had to make the rather unsettling walk back a half-mile to the museum parking lot. All the while walking through the woods I had to remind myself it was only deer I heard roaming around in the brush.

    These are my favorite scary places I've been. Are there others on the Cape or New England that I missed? Have a happy and spooky Halloween!


My first eBook in 10 years, In Their Footsteps, featuring the interesting stories of Cape Cod's history, is on sale at

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

In Their Footsteps: New England History - The Smuttynose Island Ax Murders

    On a cold night, on an island isolated by miles of ocean, a pair of gruesome murders took place. Two women lost their lives at the end of an ax while a third survived to finger the perpetrator. The culprit was caught, tried, convicted and put to death. Case closed. Or was it? What really happened on the tiny island of Smuttynose off the New Hampshire coast nearly 150 years ago? Here is the story, as it is known, of one of New England's creepiest unsolved mysteries.

    Fishing and New England go together like peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. Though not as thriving of an industry today it was the life-blood of the New England coast for centuries. Men flocked to such fishing areas with their families in tow hoping to create a better life. Though whaling had died down by the latter half of the 19th century fishing still was prosperous. The fishing industry played a large part in the crime that occurred.

    In 1868 a young couple, John and Maren Hontvet arrived in America from Norway. They found their way to the tiny island of Smuttynose located seven miles off of the coast of Rye, New Hampshire.  Part of the Isle of Shoals technically the island is considered part of York County, Maine. The couple rented a red, two-story duplex on the island and were the only year-round inhabitants of Smuttynose. John captained a schooner, the Clara Bella, and eventually brought his brother Matthew in to help him with the fishing. In 1871 Maren's sister Karen arrived from Norway and took up a job at the nearby Appledore Hotel on the neighboring Appledore Island.

    Needing another hand to help with the business John brought in a down on his luck young Prussian fisherman Louis Wagner into the fold in early 1872. Though he became very close to John and Maren others were distrustful of Wagner. He seemingly always fished alone and his past remained shrouded in secrecy. Nevertheless John Hontvet considered Wagner like family and invited him to stay on the other side of the red duplex in April 1872. Wagner's tenure in the Hontvet home ended shortly after the arrival of Maren's brother Ivan Christensen and his wife Anethe.

Louis Wagner (Edmund Pearson, Public Domain)

    John Hontvet now had more than enough help on the Clara Bella and so it was decided that Louis Wagner would take a job on another schooner, the Addison Gilbert. He departed Smuttynose in November 1872 with seemingly no ill will toward his friend and former employer. However that was not the case. Wagner had been forced to move from the relative comfort of the Hontvet's home to a flop house in a seedy part of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. His fortunes only worsened when the Addison Gilbert sunk with all of Wagner's belongings on board. This left Wagner desperate for money. An unfortunate series of events led to one of the most horrific crimes of the 19th century.

    Wagner was at the docks when John Hontvet and his crew came ashore on the Clara Bella on March 5, 1873. They were waiting for a train carrying a shipment of bait from Boston. The train was running late forcing John, Matthew, and Ivan to wait on the docks rather than return to their significant others on Smuttynose. Wagner made it a point to ask John if the women would be along on the island. When he was told yes it gave Wagner an idea to row his way out to the island. He figured in the dark of night the three women would all be asleep and Wagner could sneak in and steal all he could to recoup his losses from the sinking of the Addison Gilbert.

    Wagner stole a dory and slipped away toward Smuttynose around 9pm. He rowed a considerably longer route south around a pair of the Isles of Shoals islands to avoid detection. Around midnight Wagner came ashore at Smuttynose and all was dark and quiet. However upon entering through the kitchen he was startled by the family dog as well as Maren's sister Karen who had been sleeping on a cot.

    As Wagner struggled with Karen, Maren and Anethe, who had been sleeping in a nearby bedroom, came to investigate. Maren was able to get Karen away and locked in the bedroom which left Anethe at the mercy of Wagner. She ran outside into the cold night air as Wagner grabbed an ax and pursued her. Anethe was able to identify Louis Wagner by name just moments before he killed her with an ax blow to the head. He then turned his attention back to the bedroom with the two other women.

The purported murder weapon now on display at the Portsmouth Athenaeum (

    Wagner battered his way inside. Maren tried to get the barely conscious Karen to flee with her. Unable to rouse her she jumped out of the window and into the night. Wagner's blow with his ax did not kill Karen and he decided to finish her off by strangling Karen to death. Maren hid with the family dog in the rocks while Louis made himself a quick meal in the kitchen. After eating he resumed his search outside for Maren. Unable to find her he decided to leave the island and assume the cold would kill her. The island of Smuttynose was dark and quiet again as Wagner returned to Portsmouth.

    Louis fled Portsmouth via train to Boston. Maren survived the night and was taken to safety at Appledore Island to be treated for frostbite. The Clara Bella made it to Smuttynose at 10am on March 6th and the lives of the men aboard were changed forever. Wagner was identified as the murderer. His assumption that Maren had died from exposure proved to be his undoing. He returned to his old boarding house in Boston and his other old haunts. Wagner was quickly arrested by police without incident.

    Louis Wagner was sent to Saco, Maine for trial. Maren's first-hand testimony was so overwhelming that he was convicted and sent to prison in Thomaston, Maine to await execution. He escaped at one point yet was recaptured in three days as he made it a point to tell people he was a famous killer. Wagner was executed by hanging on June 25, 1875 all while proclaiming his innocence. In the aftermath of the murders John and Maren moved to Portsmouth, Ivan returned to Norway while Matthew's fate is unknown. Karen and Anethe Christensen were buried in Portsmouth's South Cemetery. The red duplex on Smuttynose was ransacked by ghoulish tourists taking pieces of blood spattered wood and other trinkets before the home ultimately burned in 1885.

Smuttynose Island in 2006 (Shoaler at English Wikipedia

    Despite the seemingly air-tight case against Louis Wagner of robbery and revenge against John Hontvet there is still a shred of doubt as to his guilt. Questions arose of how Maren could survive the cold night in night clothes, how Louis could row those many miles out to and back from Smuttynose, and how he was convicted purely on circumstantial evidence. The police were so sure they had found their man that the case was closed after Wagner's capture. There may be small seeds of doubt however it seems overwhelmingly likely that Karen and Anethe Christensen met their demise on Smuttynose at the hands of Louis Wagner.

    Today Smuttynose Island is privately owned though people are allowed to walk the grounds during the day. There is a marker and some rocks denoting where the red duplex once stood. There is nothing else on the tiny island left as a reminder of that terrifying March night nearly 150 years ago. Though for those looking for a chance to get up close to the Smuttynose murders the ax purportedly used by Wagner is on display at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

For more on the Smuttynose Murders: Smuttynose

My first eBook in 10 years, In Their Footsteps, featuring the interesting stories of Cape Cod's history, is on sale at

Thursday, October 8, 2020

In My Footsteps: 4K Cape Cod - Sandy Neck Lighthouse and Colony

In Their Footsteps: New England History - Bathsheba Spooner's 18th Century Murder for Hire


    It is October, Halloween time. It is the time of year for scary stories. Sometimes the scariest stories come from reality. Over the decades New England has seen more than its share of scary stories. Cape Cod alone has seen The Lady of the Dunes murder, Tony Costa and his killing spree, Nurse Jane Toppan and her rash of poisonings, not to mention countless stories of paranormal activities in the old homes of the Cape.

    When looking back in time though there has to be a first. A first true crime story that rocked this area. This story could have been ripped straight from tabloid headlines of the 21st century. However it happened in the infancy of the United States. During the American Revolution a wild and unbelievable crime happened. This is the story of the murder perpetrated by Bathsheba Spooner. It made her the first woman to be executed in America after the Declaration of Independence.

    Bathsheba Spooner was born Bathsheba Ruggles on February 15, 1746 in Sandwich. She was the daughter of General Timothy Ruggles and his wife also named Bathsheba. She was the sixth of seven children the couple had. Timothy was a well respected man in town, practicing law while also helping his wife run the Newcomb Tavern she inherited upon her first husband's death. However the Cape did not feel big enough for Ruggles and he moved his family to the town of Hardwick, Massachusetts, twenty miles west of Worcester, in 1753.

    Ruggles eventually became a judge in Worcester County and a representative to the General Court. Things changed though as the American Revolution drew near. Timothy was fiercely loyal to the British and even took a position in the Governor's Council opposing his former Colonial allies. In 1776 he left for New York and was eventually relocated to Canada by the British after the Revolutionary War ended.

    Despite his later efforts, Ruggles was well off. His daughter Bathsheba grew up wealthy and her attitude reflected this. She was beautiful and knew it, and developed much of her personality traits from her early years around the Newcomb Tavern. Bathsheba was married at 21 to a man more than twice her age. Joshua Spooner, a retired trader, was by all accounts a feeble man not capable of handling a far younger uninhibited wife. The union was not a happy one.

    Living in Brookfield, near Worcester, during their 12 years of marriage Bathsheba grew weary of her older husband and developed a wandering eye. She particularly liked the young soldiers. The first such interest occurred in 1775. 16-year-old Ezra Ross from Ipswich had joined the Continental Army. He was returning home on foot and ended up getting sick. Ross wound up spending some time convalescing at the Spooner home. Bathsheba treated the sick young man well and they began a secret affair.

Brookfield, Mass where the murder took place. (John Phelan)

    Young Ross returned home to Ipswich yet continued to pay visits to the Spooners. Joshua seemed blissfully ignorant of the situation though Bathsheba began to realize that would not remain the case forever. Already the mother to two daughters with Joshua Bathsheba became pregnant with a third child. However this child did not share the same father. She knew that Ezra Ross would eventually be revealed to be the father and the fallout would be massive.

    In January 1778 rather than risk losing everything, especially her wealth, should her husband find out of her affair a plan was hatched. Joshua Spooner needed to go. The first plan failed at the start as Bathsheba tried to persuade Ezra to poison Joshua. He lost his nerve. Bathsheba then knew she needed more than Ezra Ross to help her get rid of Joshua. She brazenly ordered her house servant Alex Cummings to invite inside any British soldier that might be passing by.

    Two soldiers, James Buchanan and William Brooks, were lured into the plan with a little alcohol and promises of sexual favors and money. Joshua returned from being out of town and found the British soldiers in his house and justifiably ejected them. Rather than the young men leaving they ended up stowing away in the barn for three days with Bathsheba secretly bringing them food. With three soldiers in tow, Bathsheba decided it was time to proceed with her murder-for-hire plot.

    Joshua returned home on the evening of March 1, 1778 from a night of drinking at Cooley's Tavern between 8-9pm. Buchanan and Brooks were essentially ordered to dispatch of Spooner by any means necessary quickly. The men bludgeoned Joshua to death with clubs in his own front yard. The body was tossed down a well on the property and the deed was done. Bathsheba's plan had seemingly gone off without a hitch and the hindrance to her happiness was gone. Within 24 hours though the tide shifted.

The marker for the Spooner Well (Odd Things I've

    The murder of Joshua Spooner was discovered quickly by police with Bathsheba and her three co-conspirators being arrested. Although initially pleading not guilt Ross, Buchanan, and Brooks eventually all pointed the finger at Bathsheba for the plot and begged for mercy. The trial was set to commence on April 21, 1778.

    Of the four on trial the only one with even a shred of a chance of mercy was Ezra Ross whose involvement in the actual murder was unknown. The testimony of servant Alex Cummings though put the nail in the coffin of all of them. He had heard them talking openly of the plot to kill Spooner. Immediately after the murder Cummings saw the soldiers burning bloody clothes and Bathsheba paying them off. Several other witnesses, including other house servants, testified. In the end all four were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.

    This was not the end of this story. After the sentence Ezra Ross' parents sent a letter of appeal to the court. It stated that Ross was young and had been seduced by an older woman. The appeal was rejected. A larger story developed when a plea was raised by Bathsheba that she was pregnant. She wanted a stay of execution at least long enough to deliver her baby. A jury of 12 nurses, 10 women and 2 men, was appointed to examine her. After examination it was a vote of 9-3 that Bathsheba was not pregnant.

Bathsheba Spooner waiting at the gallows. (Historic

    All of the appeals exhausted the quadruple hanging took place on July 2, 1778. The three young men went first with Bathsheba's finals moments saved for last. She calmly met her end waving gentle goodbyes to friends among the hundreds in the audience. The last shock of this shocking case came moments after Bathsheba Spooner's lifeless body was lowered from the gallows. Upon a further, more in depth evaluation, it was revealed that she in fact pregnant like she had said. Her son was delivered right there under the gallows mere moments after his mother's death.

    Bathsheba Spooner grew up wealthy, shaped by her time around strong-willed parents and a thriving tavern scene. She married young, to a man twice her age. A man she seemingly did not respect and had nothing in common with. She got involved with a younger man. To the untrained eye it appears as though the end was inevitable for Bathsheba. She became the first woman to be executed after the Declaration of Independence and the sensational details of the murder for hire plot of her husband gripped the region.

    For those looking to add to the creepiness of this legendary murder story the well where Joshua Spooner's body was dumped still exists. In Brookfield, Massachusetts it is marked with a stone denoting the fate of the former property owner at the hand of his wife and her three accomplices.


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