Anyone who has read the books of Edward Rowe Snow knows that New England has had a wealth of historical characters, eccentrics and bizarre happenings. Vermont is no exception to this, as Joseph A. Citro, a worthy successor to Snow, demonstrates in his Green Mountains, Dark Tales, among others. The story that, for me, really stood out from among the ghost stories and assorted folklore was that of Charles Mudgett.
Apparently not much is known of Mudgett’s life. He was supposedly the black sheep of his family who left at an early age, possibly to work on a ranch in Montana. The mystery cmes after his death. Maybe. Not even that much is certain. It starts with a train pulling into Cambridge, Vermont, Mudgett’s hometown, in July 1890 and disgorging a coffin accompanied by four armed and masked men. They arranged to have the coffin buried in the local cemetery, paying for a hole two feet deeper than usual, as well as having it covered with a thick concrete slab. After arranging for an elaborately carved gravestone larger than any other in the cemetery, as well as stone curbing for the oversized plot, the masked men left. What local law enforcement (if any) thought about all these shenanigans has not come down to us (or, at least, Citro doesn’t say).
All this set tongues wagging, of course, and canards began flying about murder, buried treasure and stolen identities. The four masked men allowed no one but themselves to touch the coffin which, observers agreed, seemed heavier than usual. Was it some sort of treasure instead of a body? It was soon noticed that two names were on the marker (Mudgett, of course, but also Milton E. Milner) even though only one person was buried there. Had Mudgett killed another man and stolen his identity? That would account for the masks. The stone also has a strange, cryptic poem as well as symbols not always associated with tombstone markings. Some sort of cypher? Citro postulates the symbols may be brands associated with the ranch in Montana where Mudgett might have worked, but one, a backwards L, could also represent a mason’s square. Were the symbols Masonic?
It’s one of those delightful minor mysteries of history that has no answer, short of disinterring Charlie Mudgett (or, as some claim, his treasure). I have a feeling that, even then, we’d only wind up with more questions.