Vanishing point: Mysteries converge in the 'Bennington Triangle'

BENNINGTON -- Is the Bennington Triangle really an area plagued by murder and mystery -- or has its reputation for mystery grown larger than the actual events that took place there?

Over the decades, an area that includes the ghost town of Glastenbury, on top of Glastenbury Mountain, has seen two murders in the 19th century, an alleged wild-man sighting in 1867, and several unsolved disappearances from 1945 to 1950, including the famous Paula Weldon case, which lead to the creation of the Vermont State Police, as well as incidents passed down by word of mouth, but with no official records.

Vermont folklorist and author Joseph Citro coined the term "Bennington Triangle" in 1992 on public radio and has since used it as inspiration for a novel, as well in his books on folklore. Citro's astounded at how quickly the term has grown in 20 years.

"The viral nature of the story illustrates how the community grows," he said. "If you Google the term, you will get thousands upon thousand of hits. The role I played in its creation is forgotten, but the story has taken on a life of its own."

Citro's research into the disappearances led him to speak to plenty of local people, particularly older hunters and fishermen, who had their own ideas about what happened.

"The theories are all over the board," Citro said. "Some include monsters, some of which have allegedly been seen quite recently. But, just as many people opt for a natural, if coincidental cause for the cluster of vanishings: The people got lost, they fell down abandoned wells near some long-abandoned house or camp."

He found claims of foul play as well. He has even talked to cold-case investigators who are still searching for Paula Weldon, and one who claims he knows where she is.

"Some of the theories are preposterous, like a man-eating boulder," Citro said. "I don't believe it for a minute. But I like it."

An area doesn't have to be haunted to be mysterious, a view that has fueled Tyler Resch in his studies of Glastenbury. Just the idea a small community existed in the middle of the vast wilderness and then was abandoned has fascinated him for years.

"It's really a huge territory," Resch said. "It's surprising to me that more people haven't been lost than there have been."

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His favorite mystery involves the stone cairns on top of the mountain. Archaeologists have been unable to date them or even devise how they were built. As research librarian at the Bennington Museum, Resch keeps a folder of clippings on the area for anyone interested. Glastenbury talks in the library are the most popular ones, he said, bringing standing-room-only crowds.

As for the mysteries themselves, Resch believes they are in the eye of the beholder.

"I think you put all these pieces together, you can draw a picture of something creepy or supernatural if you want," he said.

Writer Joe Durwin, who has covered strange folklore in his "These Mysterious Hills" column, views the Triangle as expanding its boundaries, with viral folklore that evolves, depending on when its being told.

"The first time somebody ever said in a newspaper article that there might have been sinister Native American legends and / or a burial ground on Glastenbury was 1981, in a Vermont newspaper, and that's the same time period you've got ‘Poltergeist' and ‘Amityville Horror,'" he said. "That was the du jour explanation for creepy stuff. It seems to change with the times. In the ‘90s, it becomes more like an ‘X Files' episode."

Durwin suggests a feedback loop between legend and fiction, and even journalism, going back to the H.P. Lovecraft story, "The Whisperer in Darkness," as Glastenbury-inspired and more recently the movie, "What Lies Beneath," based on a theory of Paula Weldon's demise. The Bennington Banner has played an important part in connecting these dots, he said, right up to stories from 2004 about Bigfoot sightings.

"It's that loop where there's an oral tradition," Durwin said. "Every couple generations, it pops up into a mass-media form, which feeds back more into the oral tradition. Then you add the fictional and it becomes a triad of oral representation, media representation and fictional representation. It keeps crystallizing it into something that fits the time."

Durwin thinks the stories themselves are more important than whether they are true or not. Citro agrees and believes telling the stories as stories is an imperative activity.

"To me, the importance is the stories inspire people to look more deeply into things," Citro said. "I never say the stories are true or untrue. I say they are stories. When I tell the Bennington Triangle story in a middle-school, for example, it will inspire some debate. I encourage the skepticism and can reinforce scientific thinking. The kids will dig in on their own. They'll study the history of the place and ask questions. They'll form their own conclusions. If the story of the Bennington Triangle were not told, it is likely all those people who vanished there would be forgotten, and that would be a shame."