Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Weekly Dose of Weird: Doc Benton

For this week we’ll be flipping back the pages of the calendar to the 18th and 19th centuries in the chill of the New Hampshire mountains.  The town of Coventry, NH needed a doctor, and they had a brilliant young man named Thomas Benton.  Together the townsfolk raised enough money to send young Thomas to the best medical school in the world in Heidelberg, Germany.  While there he connected with a professor, Dr. Stockmeyer, who willed everything to Benton when he died.  After finishing his education, Benton practiced abroad for a few years before returning home to Coventry to repay his debts to the people of his home town.  
At first, everything went well.  Doc Benton loved medicine, he was a brilliant doctor, and he truly cared for the townspeople who had financed his education.  For quite a few years Benton and the people of Coventry had a great relationship.  Then, in 1816, tragedy struck.  Different versions of the story have different tragedies at their core, but generally the consensus is on one of two: either Benton’s wife died, or he was jilted by a fiancee.  Whatever the tragedy, Benton spiraled into a deep depression and became a hermit.  He stopped working on patients in Coventry, he withdrew from his fine house in town to a small shack on a nearby mountain, and he opened the trunk left to him by Professor Stockmeyer.  
Before his death, Professor Stockmeyer was ridiculed by his colleagues for his main interest: immortality.  Legend has it that Stockmeyer had experimented in Germany, trying to find the secret to eternal life.  When Doc Benton’s own life had descended into despair, he turned to the research of his mentor to find a new purpose.  And he found it.  
Doc Benton had no more contact with the town of Coventry, except to come down and buy food supplies, for years.  If anyone fought their way through the snow and the forest to his ramshackle home on the mountain, in dire need of medical care, they were turned away.  Then animals started turning up dead, supposedly with a red swelling behind their left ear and a white pinprick in the center of it.  At first it was just a cow, horse, or sheep every now and then.  People whispered that perhaps the good doctor was experimenting.  Next a pair of corpses turned up the same way - at least one had disappeared from an undertaker’s wagon.  After that people began to disappear alive, and turn up dead - with that strange swollen pinprick behind their left ears.  
A few years earlier some young pranksters had decided that it would be a good idea to try to spook the good doctor.  When they peeked in his window, they saw a madman.  His long white hair was wild, he was thin, barely more than skin and bones, and he was working away at a laboratory set up in his house.  The sight was enough to scare the kids into running away.  
When people turned up dead with the strange swelling behind their ears, someone realized that Doc Benton hadn’t been into town for supplies in a while, so they went to check his cabin.  When they arrived, the door was open, and there was no one inside.  Doc Benton’s lab was gone, and his belongings were all packed away.  He had disappeared.  Some thought he had been a victim of the same person who was killing others, but the more cynical assumed Doc Benton had been killing their neighbors.  

Everything was quiet for a while after that, until one day in 1825 a little girl was taken from her home.  The child’s scream split the quiet New Hampshire night.  Her father and several neighbors ran after her and the black-cloaked figure that had snatched her.  They followed the figure through the woods until they reached a cliff.  To the horror of those watching, the cloaked figure tossed the young girl off the cliff, and she hurtled to her death, screaming.  Her small body cracked against the ground, and the screams stopped.  The cloaked figure turned to where the would-be rescuers were, and they all drew back in horror.  It was Doc Benton, the man who had cared for so many of the townsfolk.  
After the death of the young girl, Doc Benton once again disappeared into the mountains.  In the years since, he’s been sighted many times.  In 1860 two men working on a new building on the mountain disappeared.  One vanished completely, the other was found with the telltale red swelling and white pinprick behind his left ear.  Forty years later a rail conductor was found beside the track bearing the same odd wound and no other marks.  Sightings in the twentieth century were mostly limited to quick glimpses of a wrinkled hand or pant leg darting away, until the 1970s.  
A Dartmouth student had gone rock climbing alone in Doc Benton’s woods.  Friends noticed he’d been gone longer than usual, and went out searching.  They found him crumpled on the ground in Jobidunk Ravine, unconscious.  Later, he said that he hadn’t fallen by accident, that he had been pushed from the rocks by a cloaked figure - perhaps Doc Benton.  
In 2003 Dartmouth student Evan Skow was hiking in the mountains, when he crossed his own trail.  An area near where he had passed a mere quarter hour earlier, and had been unblemished snow, was now marred by bootprints.  The prints were of an old-fashioned men’s boot.  Skow says they were Benton’s bootprints.  

Since the 1901 death of the rail conductor, I haven’t found any reports of deaths associated with Doc Benton or his woods.  
Did Dr. Thomas Benton live at all?  Probably, every legend has its grain of truth.  Did he really withdraw from his neighbors and try to find the key to eternal life?  Maybe, people do strange things every day; if they didn’t what would I write about?  But did he find the secret to eternal life and become immortal himself?  Did he have to kill in order to continue his own life?  If he did, did he eventually come to regret his decisions?  Is that why the Dartmouth student wasn’t killed and no one else has apparently been targeted since?  Perhaps Doc Benton’s conscience got to him in the end, perhaps it was that first line of the physician's’ oath: first do no harm.  Everyone he’s ever known and loved is long since dead.  Children he delivered, whom he cared for in their childhood, whose children he delivered, have long since withered away and faded into history, as have their children and their children’s children.  Maybe, just maybe, he’s flitting through the New England mountains now, searching for a way to end his lonely life.  Just do me a favor, don’t go looking for him up there.


Stay Tuned.

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