Ghosts of the Prairie: Behind the Legends

The Story Behind one of the Most Infamous Lost Towns in American History
by Troy Taylor

For many years, ghost hunters have been fascinated by tales of the lost village of Dudleytown --- a vanished Connecticut village that was apparently plagued by ghosts, demons and residents who vanished without a trace. These grave events were said to be caused by a curse, brought by the Dudley family to the New World. But how real was this curse?

As the reader will soon find, this so-called "curse" was nothing more than the product of active imaginations but as you will also discover, there was something very strange occurring in Dudleytown ---- whether cursed or not!

In the far reaches of northwestern Connecticut, in the shadows of the mountains and lost in the pages of time, rests the remains of a small village called Dudleytown. The homes of this once thriving community are long gone, but the land where the town once stood is far from empty. Amidst the forest and rocks are tales of ghosts, demons, unexplained mysteries, curses and a rich history that dates back to the very beginnings of America.

Today, only the cellar holes and a few stone foundations remain. The roads that once traversed to this place are now little more than narrow trails where only a few adventurous hikers, and the occasional ghost hunter, dare to wander. Although it is forbidden, the most hardened curiosity-seekers still dare to venture down Dark Entry Road and into these shadowy woods at night.

Dudleytown, or at least the area where it was located, was first owned by a man named Thomas Griffis, one of the first to settle in this region, in the early 1740’s. There are no records to say that he ever lived where Dudleytown later stood but he did own half of the land in 1741. A few years later, with the arrival of Gideon Dudley in 1747, the village would be named. Gideon was followed to the region by two brothers and Dudley’s have become known over the years as the men who brought a curse to this small town – a curse that has allegedly plagued the region ever since.

According to what have turned out to be both recent and fanciful accounts, the "curse" had its beginnings in England in 1510. At that time, Edmund Dudley was beheaded for being involved in a plot to overthrow King Henry VIII. Supposedly, a curse was placed on the family at this time, which stated that all of the Dudley descendants would be surrounded by horror and death. Proponents of the curse claim that the Dudley’s then began to experience a rather disquieting run of bad luck.

Edmund’s son, John Dudley, also attempted to control the British throne by arranging for his son, Guilford, to marry Lady Jane Grey, next in line for the crown. After Edward VI died, Lady Jane became the queen for a short time before the plan failed, ending with the execution of Lady Jane and the two Dudley’s. To make matters worse, Guilford’s brother returned from France, and being a military officer, brought home a plague that he spread to his officers and troops. The sickness wiped out massive numbers of British soldiers and eventually spread throughout the country, killing thousands.

John Dudley’s third son, Robert, Earl of Leicester, a favorite of Elizabeth I, wisely decided to leave England and travel to the New World. It would be his somewhat luckier descendant, William, who would settle in Guilford, Connecticut. Three of William’s descendants, Abiel, Barzallai and Gideon, would later buy a plot of land in Cornwall township.

While there are undoubtedly some grim events that surrounded the Dudley family in England and France, questions have been raised as whether or not any "curse" really followed them to America. The question has been raised because in order for the curse to have been passed along to account for the haunting of Dudleytown, then William Dudley would have had to have been the son of Robert, Earl of Leicester – but he wasn’t. Robert Dudley had only two sons and one of them died while still a child. The other went to Italy and while he had children, all of them remained in that country. This means that there was no link between William, his sons who founded Dudleytown, and any so-called "curse".

But while we may have established the fact that Dudleytown was never "cursed", this does not mean that it was not "tainted" in some other way. There are many places across the country where odd things happen and where the land does not seem quite right. Records indicate that the land around Dudleytown was once Mohawk Indian tribal grounds but tell us little else before the coming of the first settlers. This region has gained a chilling reputation over the years. Could the weird stories and strange disappearances here be connected to the past in some way – or are they nothing more than just coincidence and imagination?

In the early 1740’s, the mentioned Thomas Griffis bought a parcel of land that would later be considered the first lot in Dudleytown. The land today looks much as it did when Griffis first came here. It is covered in thick forest and the ground is strewn with rocks. The nearby mountains also heavily shadow the area, so it receives little sunlight. The woods were later dubbed with the rather ominous name of "Dark Entry Forest".

In 1747, Gideon Dudley bought some land from Griffis to start a small farm. By 1753, Gideon's two brothers, Barzallai and Abiel Dudley, from Guilford, Connecticut, also purchased land nearby. A few years later, a Martin Dudley from Massachusetts also moved to the area but was from a different line of the family. He later married Gideon’s daughter.

One thing that should be mentioned was that Dudleytown was never an actual town. It was a more isolated part of Cornwall. The village rested in the middle of three large hills, which accounts for the recollections of it being nearly dark at noon time. The Cornwall township was never a good area for farming, as is apparent by the rocks that were used to build the foundations and stone walls that still stand today. In spite of this though, settlers began to trickle into the area. The Tanner family, the Jones’, the Patterson’s, the Dibble’s and the Porter’s all took up residence here. The community grew even larger after iron ore was discovered nearby and farming became a secondary concern. However, there were never any stores, shops , schools or churches in Dudleytown. Provisions had to be purchased in nearby towns and when one died, a trip to Cornwall was necessary because, in addition to there being no church in town, there was no cemetery either. The population of Dudleytown was never large and according to an 1854 map, the peak number of families who lived here only reached 26.

In spite of all of these things, the town did thrive for a time. Dudleytown was noted for its timber, which was burned and used to make wood coal for the nearby Litchfield County Iron Furnaces in Cornwall and other towns. The furnaces later moved closer to the railroads and the more industrial towns though and the lumber was no longer needed. Iron ore was used from the area for a time and there were three water-powered mills in Dudleytown as well. Most of the mills eventually closed because of the long trip down the mountain to deliver their goods.

Despite the outward signs of prosperity though, there were strange deaths and bizarre occurrences at Dudleytown from the start. Some historians have attempted to downplay the unusual events in recent years. They will debunk the legends of the town by first stating how few people there ever were who lived here and then will try and downplay the disappearances, cases of insanity and weird deaths, as if such things happen all of the time. And perhaps they do – but why so many unusual happenings in such an isolated area with so few people living in it? The number of deaths that have occurred here would not be such a high number in a larger town but in this small community, one can’t help but wonder what exactly was taking place. There are also, I believe, an inordinate number of people who went insane in this area, as well as people who simply vanished that are in addition to those who are documented here. It’s no wonder – bogus or not – that a story started about a Dudleytown "curse".

Three of the Dudley’s moved out of the region and lived long and full lives, dying of natural causes and forever diminishing any possibilities of a curse. Only Abiel Dudley remained in town and after a series of reverses, lost his entire fortune – and his mind. Abiel died in 1799 at the age of 90 and when he was no longer able to pay his debts, the town took his property, sold it and then made him a ward of the town. Toward the end, Abiel was senile and insane and would not be the last to suffer from this affliction.

In 1792, seven years before Abiel Dudley passed away, his good friend and neighbor, Gershon Hollister, was killed while building a barn at the home of William Tanner, Abiel’s closest neighbor. Tanner was also said to have gone insane, although likely from old age and senility rather than from supernatural influences. He lived to the age of 104 and according to records was "slightly demented" at the time of his death. There have been stories that have circulated claiming that Tanner told other villages of "strange creatures" that came out of the woods at night. If this is true, there is no way for us to know if these "creatures" were products of the unexplained or products of Tanner’s feeble mind.

The Nathaniel Carter family moved to Dudleytown in 1759 and lived in a house once owned by Abiel Dudley before he was made a ward of the town. A mysterious plague swept through Dudleytown and Cornwall and took the lives of the Adoniram Carter family, relatives of Nathaniel, and saddened by the loss, they moved to Binghampton, New York from Dudleytown in 1763. Those who believe in the "curse" say that the taint of Dudleytown followed after them but their tragic fate was actually far too common during the early days of the frontier. The Carter’s moved to the "Delaware wilderness", in the heart of Indian territory, and during an attack, Indians slaughtered Nathaniel, his wife and an infant child. The Carter’s other three children were abducted and taken to Canada, where two daughters were ransomed. The son, David Carter, remained with his captors, married an Indian girl and later returned to the United States for his education. He went on to edit a newspaper and became a justice on the Supreme Court.

Another bizarre tragedy affected one of the most famous residents of the region, General Herman Swift, who had served in the Revolutionary War under George Washington. In 1804, his wife, Sarah Faye, was struck by lightning while standing on the front porch of their home near Dudleytown. She was killed instantly. The General went insane and died soon after. Many have dismissed this incident as not being connected to the other unusual events, saying that Swift did not actually live in Dudleytown but on Bald Mountain Road (where his house remains today) and that he only went insane when he became old and senile. But in an area this sparsely populated, the records indicated three people to have gone insane in the space of less than a half century – could this be mere coincidence? And does a person being struck by lightning while standing on their front porch qualify as being "unusual"? I would say that it does and our story is not yet complete.

Another famous personage allegedly connected to Dudleytown was Horace Greeley, the editor and founder of the New York Tribune – or so the stories of the "curse" go. In this case, the story deserves to be debunked. Greeley married a young woman named Mary Young Cheney, who the stories of the "curse" say was born in Dudleytown. In truth, Mary was born and raised in nearby Litchfield and never lived in Dudleytown. She left the area as early as 1833 and went to live in a vegetarian boarding house that was owned by Dr. Graham (of "Graham Cracker" fame) and became involved in the popular "wellness" movement of the time. While there, she met and later married Horace Greeley. In 1872, Greeley ran for president against Ulysses S. Grant and lost the election. A short time before it, Mary suffered from an attack of "lung disease" and died. Her death occurred in New York City with her husband and two daughters, Ida and Gabrielle, in attendance. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery. The legends claim that she committed suicide but this was not the case. Greeley himself died one month later and the electoral votes that he received in the election were distributed to minor candidates.

After the Civil War, Dudleytown began to die and many of the villagers simply packed up and moved away. The demise of the town itself is hardly surprising, whether you believe in the so-called "curse" or not. Its geographical location was foolhardy at best. Surrounded by hills and at elevations of more than 1500 feet, there was little chance that a good crop would ever grow and sustain life in the village. The winters were harsh here and even the hardy apple trees were stunted from months of cold. As mentioned already, the soil was rocky and the area was plagued by almost too much water. It pooled into tepid swamps and seeped into the earth, creating a damp morass.

But even if you overlook the idea of an actual "curse" and admit that the location of the town must have had a hand in its undoing, the sheer number of unusual deaths (leaving out that of Mary Greeley) and mental conditions in such an isolated area more than suggests that something out of the ordinary was occurring in the little town. And no matter how hard the debunkers try to disregard the next mysterious event to occur in Dudleytown, their efforts fall short.

This event occurred in 1901, at a time when the population of Dudleytown had dwindled away to almost nothing. One of the last residents of the town was a man named John Patrick Brophy. Tragedy visited swiftly and in several blows. First, his wife died of consumption, which was not uncommon in those days and there was nothing strange about her ailment, as she had been suffering from it for years. This did not lessen Brophy’s grief however, but he was soon further stricken when his two children vanished into the forest just a short time after the funeral. And while their disappearance could have been voluntary (they had been accused of stealing sleigh blankets, a minor offense), there is nothing to indicate that it was. They vanished and were never found. Shortly after, the Brophy’s house burned to the ground in an unexplained fire and not long after, Brophy himself vanished into the forest. He was never seen again.

By the early 1900’s, Dudleytown was completely deserted. The remaining homes began to fall into disrepair and ruin, and soon, the forest began to reclaim the village that had been carved out of it. But there was still one other death that proponents of the "curse" have connected to Dudleytown and while the curse may be unlikely, it does mark one additional case of insanity for an isolated region that was already riddled with them.

Around 1900, Dr. William Clarke came to Cornwall and fell in love with the forest and the quiet country life. Clarke had been born in 1877 and grew up on a farm in Tenafly, New Jersey. He later became a professor of surgery and taught at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, as well as earning a reputation as the leading cancer specialist in New York. He purchased 1,000 acres of land in the wilds of Connecticut, which included Dudleytown, and began construction of a summer and vacation home here. Over the next number of years, he and his wife, Harriet Bank Clarke, visited the house on weekends and during the summer until it was completed. After that, it became mostly a holiday house for short trips in the summer and for Thanksgiving. Together, they maintained an idyllic second life near Dudleytown until 1918.

One summer weekend, Dr. Clarke was called away to New York on an emergency. His wife stayed behind and according to the story, he returned 36 hours later to find that she had gone insane, just as a number of previous residents of the village had done. The story also claims that she told of strange creatures that came out of the forest and attacked her. She committed suicide soon after. But how much truth is there to this tale? Perhaps more than some would like you to believe. It has been recorded that for several years before her suicide, Mrs. Clarke suffered from a "chronic illness". There is nothing to indicate what this ailment might have been or whether it was a physical or mental one. I think that it is safe to say though that mentally stable individuals do not ordinarily take their own lives. As far as whether or not she saw "strange creatures in the woods" – well, we will never really know for sure but even if we disregard this, we still have one more suicide that occurred to a resident of the nearly nonexistent village of Dudleytown.

While undoubtedly shattered by his wife’s suicide, Dr. Clarke continued to maintain his house in Dudleytown and continued to visit. A number of years later, he remarried and returned to stay at his summer house until a larger home was completed nearby in 1930. In 1924, he and his wife, Carita, as well as other doctors, friends and interested landowners formed the "Dark Entry Forest Association". It was designed to act as forest preserve so that the land around Dudleytown would remain "forever wild". They held their first meeting in 1926 with 41 members. Dr. Clarke died in Cornwall Bridge in February 1943 and Carita passed away five years later. A number of their children and family members still reside in the area.

Today, Dudleytown is mostly deserted, except for the curiosity-seekers and tourists, who come looking for thrills. The Dark Forest Entry Association still owns most of the land the village once stood on. There are a group of homes on Bald Mountain Road that are very secluded from the main roads and they belong to the closest residents. These locals maintain that nothing supernatural takes place in this region and perhaps they are right. It seems unlikely that the "curse" on Dudleytown ever really existed but on the other hand, there is something strange about such a small area with so many disappearances, unusual deaths, suicides and cases of insanity. The stories of a "curse" had to have gotten started for some reason and perhaps this was why.

As far as we know, the ghostly tales began to surface in the 1940’s. It was at this time that visitors to the ruins of the village began to speak of strange incidents and wispy apparitions in the woods. Even today, those who have visited the place boast of paranormal photographs, overwhelming feelings of terror, mysterious lights, sights and sounds and even of being touched, pushed and scratched by unseen hands. Some researchers refer to the area as a "negative power spot", or a place where entities enter this world from the other side. They say this may explain the strange events in Dudleytown’s history, like the eerie reports, the strange creatures and perhaps even the outbreaks of insanity and madness. The place is often thought of as "tainted" in some way, as if the ground has somehow spoiled here, or perhaps was sour all along.

Some historians and debunkers dismiss such reports and theories and maintain that just because the so-called "Curse of Dudleytown" doesn’t exist, then nothing strange has ever occurred here either. However, an open-minded look at some of the things that have happened do seem to show this is a strange place and one that has been an enigma from the earliest days of its history. Whether or not there is any truth to the accounts of people who have come here since the days when the village was abandoned is up to the reader to decide.

I should warn you though that trying to visit Dudleytown today can be hazardous – and not because of ghosts. It should be noted that the planners for the Dark Forest Entry Association have forbidden trespassing on their property. In 1999, they announced that they would no longer allow hikers on the land. In spite of this, many still go – now daring not only the spirits, but the authorities as well. Unfortunately, the ruins of Dudleytown have been vandalized in recent years and the constant streams of trespassers have had a negative effect on the ecology of the area. Just as unfortunate is the fact that the forbidden quality of Dudleytown is what brings so many curiosity-seekers to the vicinity. However, this author advises readers to refrain from visiting this area until methods can be devised to better preserve the wilderness here and until this unsettled corner of New England has been opened to the public again.


© Copyright 2004 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.

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References and Sources
Taylor, Troy - Haunting of America (2001)
Belanger, Jeff - Dudleytown (1999 / 2001) Ghost Village
Chamberlain Jr., Paul Hilliard - Dudleytown, Connecticut (1964)
Citro, Joseph - Passing Strange (1996)
Dudley, Gary P. - Legend of Dudleytown
Jarvis, Sharon - Dark Zones (1992)
Jarvis, Sharon - Dead Zones (1992)
Owens, Joseph A. - Dudleytown Never Had a Chance (Yankee Magazine 1971)
Phillips, David - Legendary Connecticut (1992)
Sterry, Iveagh & William Garages - They Found A Way (1938)
Personal Interviews & Correspondence