Wednesday May 2, 2012

STOCKBRIDGE

The headline read: "Murder in Massachusetts; A Stockbridge Crime." The sub-head screamed "Bold Noonday Murder." The indictment was brutal. "That on September 18, 1885, Henry Guy Carlton of Stockbridge Massachusetts did feloniously, deliberately, unlawfully and with malice aforethought entice, lure, and lay violent hands, causing the death of the same against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the statutes thereof."

News traveled through Stockbridge "on the wings of the wind and before nightfall the murder was the universal topic of conversation in Stockbridge." The body was laid out in Stockbridge House (the Red Lion Inn) and many came to view it. Under Sheriff Humphrey tracked the culprit through the Berkshire woods to Stockbridge House and arrested him; the brave sheriff was alone, but well-armed.

Humphrey could not lock Carlton in the Stockbridge jail, because the last inmate, in a fit of rage or a cloud of alcohol, had kicked the window out and the door down. It had not yet been repaired as there had been no new inmates. So Carlton slept peacefully in a room at Stockbridge House.

The trial was short and in the end Carlton was released on a technicality. The judge threw the case out because the victim could not be identified in the first place, and in the second place, someone ate it.

Well, OK, it was a fish. Carlton "did go to a lake in Stockbridge [Stockbridge Bowl] and there did affix a grasshopper, toad, bullfrog, shiner, sucker or worm to a line, rod and reel, and did there and then cast in the waters of said lake and did lay violent hands on a trout, causing its death." Why was it a crime? Trout was out-of-season.

One may ask why the newspapers in 1885 called killing a fish, not a person, murder. In fact the 19th century newspapers were just having a bit of fun with Stockbridge, that quirky, quiet, little village, just as newspapers do to this day. Many did and still do poke fun because Stockbridge is a statistical anomaly. Stockbridge is an American town that has had just five murders within its boundaries since its inception in 1739, 273 years ago. I am not counting the trout.

That is one murder every 54.6 years. Murder is so rare an occurrence in Stockbridge that researching newspapers from 1739 to 2004, the only time murder and Stockbridge appeared together in any news article was when Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge advertised a play with murder in the title.

However, Rick Wilcox, Stockbridge police chief and an historian, and I researched further and found the following: there were two murders in 1755 on what is now Prospect Hill Road. The culprits were Indians incited by the French against English settlements during the French Indian War. For another murder to be committed, one had to wait 150 years until the 20th century.

It was Halloween, 1905, a large group of boys were out near the cemetery pelting passersby with apples. Eighteen-year-old William Jones was in a truck. He ignored the boys until one apple struck the girl riding with him.

He then took out a handgun and shot to scare and disperse the crowd. The shot killed 18-year-old Albert Webster. When arrested, Jones said he had not intended to hurt anyone.

In 1969 outside the Glen Pine Tavern (later Mundy's) there was a beating that re sulted in death. The proprietor, John Winn was convicted but not of murder, of manslaughter in the death of 41-year-old Edward Boutin.

The charge was reduced when it was found that Winn believed Boutin had molested his five-year-old daughter, and had left Boutin alive outside the tavern. Boutin later died of his injuries complicated by his inebriated state.

Finally there was the tragic death of Jan Stackhouse killed in Stockbridge on May 1, 2005. That murder remains unsolved.

Imagine, in America, four murders and one manslaughter conviction in almost 300 years. Here is a final statistic: since Winn was convicted of manslaughter, the murders of Prospect Hill were during war and committed by Indians from outside, not Stockbridge Indians, and the murder of Jan Stackhouse remains unsolved, no resident of Stockbridge has been convicted of a murder ever in almost 300 years.

What is Stockbridge's secret? I guess, in this village, we like each other a lot. Or perhaps, a creed adopted at the founding of Stockbridge seeped permanently into our village DNA. Recorded by Electa Jones in Stockbridge Now and Then, 1853, it is many pages long but includes the following: be honest in all your ways; invite any to your fire even the stranger; if you see any in distress, rush to help them, remember you will also be in distress one time or another; love all men and be kind.

Stockbridge was settled by missionaries, but the creed quoted was not given by the Christian missionaries to the Indians; it was given by the Indians to the missionaries.

Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.