Thrill-Seekers Go Home: Cornwall locals exhibit a palpable tension and animosity toward visitors that may be the only real manifestation of the Dudleytown curse.
As I drove north on Route 7 toward Dudleytown on a bright autumn afternoon last week, I could have sworn that massive words were cut into the blue sky above me. It almost looked like a skywriter’s work, but there was no plane in sight, the script was somehow more graceful, and, strangest of all, the letters came into sharper focus as I drove, rather than dissolving into wisps of illegible smoke. And though there are no signs to Dudleytown anymore, I knew I was on the right road when the words in the clouds finally locked into place: They said “Go Back.”
I didn’t, but later it would seem that everyone I’d meet would wish I did. You’re not supposed to go to Dudleytown anymore. It could be argued that this has been the case for hundreds of years.
Dudleytown is now little more than a few stone foundations, leftover root cellars from a colonial community in the dense woods of Cornwall, a town of about 1,400 in northwest Connecticut. According to the many–and often at-odds — legends about the place, the Dudleytown area was first settled in 1738, rose to a peak population of about 35 families in the 1820s, then slowly fell apart until, by the turn of the 20th century, it was entirely deserted. Just empty forest, except for a thriving horned owl population and the Dudleytown curse, which has seeped deep into the land and continues to haunt the community around it.
It started in the Old World, where the Dudleys were no lightweights in the political arena. Edmund Dudley was beheaded for attempting subterfuge against King Henry VII, but his son, John, the Duke of Northumberland, was essentially acting ruler of England from 1550-53 after locking the lord protector of 12-year-old King Edward VI in the Tower of London. Losing popularity and struggling to maintain power, the Duke convinced Edward to place his son, Lord Guilford Dudley, and his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, next in order of royal succession. After Edward died of tuberculosis at 15, Lady Jane was queen for nine days — then Mary I came into power, and Grey and both Dudleys were guillotined.
The remaining Dudleys laid low for a few generations, not getting into too much trouble other than bringing an unidentifiable strain of the plague to England from France (Lord Guilford’s brother’s little uh-oh) which killed thousands of troops and English peasants. Always extremely sensitive to knowing when they weren’t wanted, some Dudleys then jumped onto a ship which, oddly enough, actually made it to the colonies. William Dudley settled in Guilford. His great-grandsons, Abiel and Barzillai Dudley, moved to remote Cornwall in 1748 and were soon followed by other members of the clan and their collective curse.
“Dudleytown seemed destined to be a typical New England community,” says Fessenden S. Blanchard inGhost Towns of New England (1960). “But dark forces were at work, bringing to the inhabitants of Dudleytown more than their due share of misfortune.” Though located in a scenically beautiful part of the state, the land proved ill-suited for farming: thin, already damned rocky soil in the Litchfield hills, a location selected more for its vantage point against Cherokee attack than for its fertile virtues. Years of agricultural frustration ensued, and, as far as industry went, Dudleytown settled for chopping and preparing charcoal for the iron furnaces on nearby Riga Mountain (which is also supposed to be haunted). Abiel Dudley’s rapid mental deterioration is often cited as the first proof that the royal curse had made its way from London to the Connecticut hinterlands. He died mad in 1799, a 90-year-old homeless town charge.
In 1764, Dudleytown residents Nathaniel and Sarah Carter moved to Binghamton, N.Y., and were killed, along with their baby, by members of the Cherokee nation. An unknown epidemic killed off the remaining Dudleytown Carters in 1774. Scores more were reported dead after another epidemic in 1813. Gen. Herman Swift, an advisor to George Washington and a Dudleytown native, saw his wife killed there by a bolt of lightning; he went mad. Another Dudleytown celebrity, Mary T. Cheney, hanged herself the week before her husband, Horace Greeley, lost the 1872 presidential election to Ulysses S. Grant.
By this time, the populations of both Dudleytown and New England as a whole were rapidly shifting to the cities and the west: Cornwall’s population was more than 2,000 in 1850 but had dropped to less than 900 100 years later. By 1900, Dudleytown’s last permanent residents, the sheep-herding Brophy family, met their doom: The two sons skipped town after being caught stealing sleigh robes, Mrs. Brophy died of tuberculosis, and Mr. Brophy, all alone, lost his mind, his sheep, and, finally, his home to fire. He then disappeared without a trace.
Dudleytown remained empty for about 20 years, until New York City physician William C. Clark built a summer home there with his wife, who, due either to a gap in the record or to the swashbuckling style of the mostly pre-1960 writers who tell the tale, apparently had no name. Judging from the descriptions of David E. Philips inLegendary Connecticut, the Clarks’ house was a hand-made piece of paradise, connected to ice-cold, refreshing well water, and leading to a brook teeming with trout. The Clarks happily summered there for more than a decade, until the fateful night that Dr. Clark was called away to the city for an emergency. His beautiful wife begged him not to go, and stared longingly at his train as it pulled out of the station. When Dr. Clark returned the next evening, she wasn’t at the station to meet him. Distressed, he ran to their home on Dark Entry Road, the owls staring in silence. The house was dark, but the door was ajar. As he slowly opened it, its hinges squeaking, Philips writes, “he heard a sound that he would never forget. From an upstairs room came the maniacal, uncontrolled laughter of one who had taken leave of her senses. During his absence, his wife had gone quite mad.”
After that, nobody moved back to Dudleytown. But the stories will always be there: In the library, in a well-worn manila folder decorated with ink drawings of a full moon rising over a barren forest; in old books about ghost towns, occasionally turning up in the antique shops up and down Route 7; on the Internet, and from the mouths of area teenagers; and in the eyes of ordinary Cornwall citizens, who are just dreading that you might ask them about Dudleytown.
In the folder of articles at the library, I came upon a series of color copies, showing photographs apparently taken in the woods around Dudleytown. Some are just blurs. One shows an animal skeleton of uncertain identity, a woman in turquoise jewelry sadly examining the carcass. There’s a business card stapled to it: “For Dudleytown slide shows, call…” I called the number the next day and learned that the gentleman who took the pictures had passed away.
I was using a Connecticut guide book to find Dudleytown, which is situated in the Dark Entry Wildlife Preserve in the southern part of Cornwall. But all of the signs I was looking for seemed to have been removed, and it was only through accident that I eventually found myself at the gate to the preserve. I parked the car and walked to the entrance. It was festooned with “No Trespassing” signs. Like any blue-blooded American, I was ready to take such warnings more figuratively than literally. But as I dawdled, preparing myself mentally for the horrors that would greet me within, I heard the sound of a motor directly behind me. I turned to see a woman behind the wheel of a Jeep Cherokee, giving me that Cornwall stare, asking me if she could help me, but really meaning, “Get the hell out of here and never, ever, come back.”
So I left. And I can’t really blame her for feeling that way. Since last summer’s release of The Blair Witch Project, Dudleytown has gotten pretty trashed. It had always offered a certain lure to intrepid thrill-seekers, but that film’s lifelike depiction of a haunting in a remarkably similar natural environment led to a massive increase in late-night Dudleytown excursions. And that translates to traffic nuisances, noise problems, litter and graffiti in the woods, potential injuries, and, worst of all, fire. After a July 28 blaze destroyed four acres there, the fire department recommended that the Dark Entry Forest Association put up signs barring all public traffic. (The local papers said it was a lightning strike, recalling Herman Swift’s poor wife; the neighborhood isn’t so sure.) When the fire hazard was lifted, the signs stayed up. “After all that, there’d been quite a few campfires set in the woods in the middle of the night,” the association’s Jean Leich says. “And we thought, this is enough of that.” Now, the woods are under the eye of the state police, and being caught there means a $77 fine for simple trespass.
The Dark Entry Forest Association is the largest private landowner in Cornwall. It consists mostly of residents on Bald Mountain, Dark Entry and Dudleytown roads whose properties are contiguous with the 750-acre property, a parcel purchased in the 1920s by a temporary allegiance between a logging entrepreneur and a group of local bookish residents whose ranks included none other than the Dr. Clark of Dudleytown lore. The logger left and the land has remained untouched. The residents have stayed. And though the Dudleytown Curse is not something that they take seriously, to them, the curse of the Dudleytown Curse is no joke.
Despite its private-property status, the association allowed the land to be used by hikers, birders, historians and the carefully curious for more than 70 years. The Appalachian Trail actually ran through the Dudleytown site until the early 1980s, when it was rerouted to the other side of the Housatonic River. Now the blue-blazed Mohawk Trail is there instead. This complicates matters, since the trail remains open even when the land it’s on does not. But in general the problem hasn’t been hikers, who usually respect trail markings and litter laws. “If they’re going through hiking, we’re not bothering them, basically,” says Connecticut State Trooper Don Gelormino of Troop B in North Canaan, which serves the Cornwall area. “But if they’re going in just to see Dudleytown and the ghosts…they get a ticket for simple trespass.”
Though Gelormino can recall at least 15 trespass tickets on his shift alone, he still sympathizes. “They’re just kids looking for the adventure,” he says. “Standing there looking scared. They go in with all kinds of knives and stuff because they think the ghosts are going to get them–I’m serious. The last time we arrested somebody, we had to arrest a kid for carrying dangerous weapons. He had this big machete. That doesn’t work on ghosts.”
Anne Pener, a not-too-far-removed graduate of Housatonic High School in Falls Village, might be $77 poorer if she were just a few years younger. She hasn’t been up to Dudleytown in a few years, she says, but she represents group No. 1 of the Dark Entry Forest Association’s Top Two Most Wanted List. The association wants to stop tourists and people interested in black magic. But they’re not so crazy about local teenagers getting rowdy in their woods, either. “Kids from all over have heard of the place,” Pener says. “They come up and they’ll bring a group of people and they’ll walk around and try to scare each other. I guess it’s pretty well known.”
One question that arises, though, is whether shutting the woods down is the most effective way to curb the imaginations that blow a small string of unrelated events into a full-blown curse. The association folks do not want people messing up their woods, but they also don’t want to talk about it: Any attention is the wrong kind of attention. But if they were more forthcoming with their position that the Dudleytown curse is only a story, it might take some of the wind out of potential explorers’ sails. Forbidding access to the forest is like putting another curse on it. And even if that’s a stretch, it can’t be denied that the less people know, the more they make up.
“I’ve heard a bunch of stories,” Pener says. “You’re not supposed to take a piss up there. You’re supposed to piss in a bottle. And there’s some rock supposedly up there that cries. Like a baby was killed on a rock up there. It’s called the crying rock. And every night at 11 o’clock it’s supposed to wail or whatever, but I’ve been there at 11, and nothing happened.”
“What would have happened,” I ask, “if you pissed there?”
“I did that also. And nothing happened. You’re supposed to be cursed or something.”
“I get calls all the time,” says Michael Gannett, Cornwall’s town historian. “I remember one lady called up some years ago and complained bitterly that she had wasted a whole afternoon sitting on the Sharon side of the river, staring at where she thought Dudleytown was located, and didn’t get any vibes at all. She was looking for vibes. She was a believer in vibes. But she wasn’t getting any response.”
People come to expect vibes after hearing what Ed and Lorraine Warren, Connecticut’s foremost ghost hunters, have to say about Dudleytown. The Warrens’ web site presents a simplified — and fairly inaccurate, if one is prone to quibble — explanation of the Dudleytown history: “The Dudley family was besieged with horrible occurrences the minute they moved there because of an 18th century curse on their family.” The Warrens claim that Dudleytown gives off an unusually high amount of negative psychic energy. But that’s all they say. It’s all they need to say. Using vague language, they’ve planted a suggestion for their readers’ imaginations. Then they add a you-show-yours, I’ll-show-mine sucker punch. “Rather than tell you what to expect,” the web page reads, “I’d be curious to hear what you report when you get back. So, I’ll make you a deal — I’ll tell you about Dudleytown phenomena after you tell me what you experienced — OK? I don’t want to influence your experience.”
The fact is, they have told us what to expect. “Horrible occurrences.” “Your experience.” If not the occurrence or the experience itself, then vibes of it. And this is how a curse is created, from the Hope Diamond to the Red Sox (the Kennedys really are cursed). “If someone believes that they are cursed,” says Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society, “they may become so anxious and stressed…that they are more likely to become ill or have accidents.”
“It’s called confirmation bias,” says Stuart Vyse, associate professor of psychology at Connecticut College and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. “You have a tendency to give greater weight to events that confirm your prior beliefs and you give less weight to those that don’t.”
That might account for freak accidents happening there. But other Dudleytown visitors would gladly testify that their watch stopped there, or that they have tapes of eerie, originally unheard noises that their recorder somehow picked up. And you frequently hear that, immediately around the old foundations, there’s an eerie silence, as if the birds know to stay away. But scientists have offered possible explanations for these “phenomena” as well. The region is known to be iron-rich. That means there might be a mild, naturally occurring magnetic field there. Watches wouldn’t stand a chance. Tape recorders wouldn’t operate properly. And birds, who use magnetism to navigate, would head for fairer frequencies.
If the Dudleytown curse can be broken down into rational explanations, wrapped up like the very tightest Scooby-Doo episode, then why won’t its story die? There are two reasons, according to Novella. The first is that people don’t look at curses the way a scientist would look at a controlled experiment. The criteria for validation are open-ended. The definition of a bad, curse-worthy incident is fluid — 90-year-old Abiel Dudley’s “madness,” for instance, when he may only have been senile, or, in the words of Gannett, “probably a loser” — as is the time period in which the bad thing can happen. There are gaps of decades, even centuries in the Dudleytown chronicle, but there is no time limit: If something bad happens there 200 years from now, it unquestionably will be added to the saga.
The second reason we haven’t heard the last of Dudleytown: “People love good stories,” Novella says. “Humans are story-telling animals, and there is a well-documented tendency for stories to become more interesting, more meaningful, and more exciting with each re-telling. Stories, especially when given an enthusiastic audience, tend to take on a life of their own.”
A problem the Dark Entry Forest Association faces is that their current strategy is not as far from the Warrens’ methods as they might like. Despite the tacit encouragement they might give by printing directions to Dudleytown online, if you asked the Warrens if you should go up there, they’d say no. Emphatically. This is a strategy that’s worked for them, too. By “forbidding” a place, they heighten people’s interest in it; when people finally do break down and visit, they’ll have mulled over the Warrens’ warnings enough to have internalized them, to believe they’re in a cursed place, to see the things the Warrens suggest they might see. I do not claim to be resistant to this myself. The Warrens are hypnotic storytellers.
But at press time the association awaits an Oct. 22 town meeting, during which the town will undoubtedly pass an ordinance banning all parking on Bald Mountain and Dark Entry roads. Any car there will be towed, which should help control the number of people who, rather than hiking through Cornwall, elect to visit at three in the morning on a whim. After that, if all goes well, the preserve may open up during daylight hours again. “We’re going to see how that goes for a couple of months,” Leich says. “We hope eventually to work out some kind of system with some way of identifying bonafide walkers. We do all this with great regret, but this place is inhabited, and it’s very distressing and kind of scary.”
“It’s a dilemma,” Gannett says. “How to be a broad-minded citizen on the one hand, and how, on the other, to prevent yourself from being abused. I would encourage you not to spend any more time trying to suggest a truce in which the private owners, or the town, would do any more than they’re doing now.”
It seems like a fair compromise, but it’s not clear whether the association is convinced that everything will wrap up with a happy ending. Maybe happy endings don’t exist in Dudleytown, but the words “people like you” (be sure to emphasize that you) did get thrown around fairly often. The Dark Entry Forest Association does not want, in fact greatly resents, coverage of any kind. “People will read your article,” Leich says, “and come with a six-pack in one hand and a lighted cigarette in the other.” (She then asked for my editor’s name and address, and for a moment I thought she was going to call my mother, too.) It’s perfectly understandable for people to want to live quietly. But now there’s a palpable, if polite, tension about Dudleytown that a fantasy-prone person might confuse with a curse. A shame, considering that the woods have real historic value, not to mention natural beauty. But maybe they’re not so crazy about leaf-peepers, either.
Driving out of Cornwall, I passed Dark Entry Road and thought I’d check it out. I pulled into an empty parking lot, turned around, and faced the highway again. Just as I was pulling out, a pickup truck slowed near the driveway. The driver, big and mustached, leaned out, glared at me, and said, “Can I help you?” Before I could respond, he was rear-ended by another pick-up. Furious, he turned into the lot, blaming me for the entire incident. “If assholes like you didn’t get lost and make U-turns, this wouldn’t have happened!” he screamed, leaning out his window. “Go back to…etc.” I decided to leave. I decided to forego that final drive down Dark Entry. Summation of the Cornwall experience: At least one person there wants to kill me, and I never even made it to Dudleytown.