The Curious Case of Capt. William Turner’s Bones

There is but one published account documenting for posterity the tease that human bones unearthed by Judge Francis M. Thompson in the Greenfield Meadows could have been those of “Falls Fight” commander Capt. William Turner.

Lucy Cutler Kellogg, on page 1,400 of her three-volume History of Greenfield, 1900-1929 (1931), wrote of her fellow historian and friend Thompson, who himself had published a two-volume History in 1904:

It seems to be an unwritten law that a writer should place on record as little as possible about himself and his work. Hence it is assumed that therein lay the reason for the following not having appeared in Thompson’s Greenfield history.

About 1874 on the Lucius Nims farm near the Meadow road and just south of the road to Nash’s Mills, Judge Thompson uncovered human bones which he thinks were doubtless those of Captain Turner who was killed in 1676 just after the famous Turners Falls fight by Indians while following the trail near what is now Nash’s Mills. The bones were found at an elevated spot near the present road which was the old Indian trail. On account of the low character of the ground Judge Thompson thought that the body would not have been buried at the spot where it fell, but would have been carried to some higher ground such as the spot where the bones were found.

At the time of his discovery Judge Thompson was not so much interested in historical matters as in later years, but kept these bones in a box with some other relics, in an old mill that was burned at the Nash’s Mills neighborhood, so that the bones were consumed at that time. Both George Sheldon and Mrs. Mary P. Wells Smith were inclined to strongly support Judge Thompson in his theory as to the bones being those of Captain Turner.

This story has gained traction over the years, with a recent surge related to the ongoing federal “Battlefield Grant” study of the Falls Fight. Of a vernacular nature, it is not generally known outside of Franklin County.

Now, new information has for the first time come to light. But first, please read Ms. Kellogg’s narrative carefully, study it, and be honest. Does it satisfy your curiosity? Or are you left wondering why it’s so vague and lacking in key details?

Count me among the latter.

Two weeks ago, after rereading Kellogg’s account for the first time in about 20 years – and understanding far more about the history of Nash’s Mills and the Meadows than I did on my first read – I found it sorely lacking. Inadequate, in fact. I wanted more. Much more.

Plus, it drew my suspicions. Why so vague? And why couldn’t Ms. Kellogg and her elder friend Thompson at least name the mill in which the bones had vanished? Hmmm? Something strange there.

The first problem that had confronted me on this fact-checking mission was the realization that I had accepted the wrong site for the supposed Turner burial discovery. When I was a Greenfield historical commissioner during the early years of this millennium, a go-to source for Greenfield historical data told me in casual discussion that the bones were not found along the terrace edge where the Nims home stands today, at the intersection of Colrain and Plain roads. Instead, they were unearthed on an elevated escarpment point overlooking the west bank of the Green River, closer to the site where Turner’s body was recovered by a search party a couple of days after the Falls Fight attack. This elevated shelf is located across Nash’s Mill Road from the so-called Greenfield Swimming Pool and Turner Monument, just south of the bike-path bridge crossing Green River.

Given the source, a Greenfield native and longtime resident, I didn’t question the location until my recent review of Kellogg, who clearly identified a different site along Colrain Road a short distance south of the Nash’s Mill Road outflow.

Perplexed, I phoned a 72-year-old friend, neighbor, and local-history buff who grew up in the Meadows. I wanted his opinion. He knew the tale, concurred with Kellogg: the bones had been found somewhere off the east side of Colrain Road between Butynski Farm and Harper’s Store. With piqued curiosity, I fired up my truck and drove a mile down the road to investigate.

Sure enough, right there in plain view, across from Harper’s Creemee stand and an underhanded stone’s throw from Nash’s Mill Road, stood a site that securely fit Kellogg’s description – a small, peaceful, wooded, gumdrop knoll rising some five feet above the road.

According to my Terrain Navigator Pro measurements, the distance west from where Turner fell to the knoll off Colrain Road is 2,033 feet, and the change in elevation 21 feet. The site favored by my go-to Greenfield historian is 1,046 feet south of where Turner died, with an elevation change of 25 feet.

I wondered: why would a search party sent out to recover war dead have carried Turner’s decomposing corpse more than 2,000 feet for proper interment? Not impossible, but still it will never be proven that the bones were Turner’s. In fact, the probability that they were the Baptist captain’s is slim indeed. And guess what? Judge Thompson knew it.

Location, however, was only one of several questions that arose in my mind from Ms. Kellogg’s description. Thank the starlit heavens that I reviewed her book before publishing inaccurate information that would require a correction.

You see, I was prepared in my last column to include Thompson’s incinerated box of bones as one of many evidentiary items pointing to a curse hovering over the Nash’s Mills neighborhood ever since May 19, 1676 – the day irate Indians slayed Turner crossing the Green River below the Mill Brook falls on his troop’s retreat from their slaughter of an unsuspecting, non-combative, sleeping fishing village of Natives along the north shore of Peskeomskut Falls.

This curse brought no less than nine devastating factory fires and a destructive flood, not to mention the obliteration of a quaint country neighborhood, its placid millpond, and a handsome brick church during Interstate 91 construction. And who knows what carnage has unfolded on that “haunted’ highway corridor since it opened more than a half-century ago?

In the process of dissecting the story about the bones vanishing in a factory fire, I had first suspected the building must have been Thompson’s own chisel factory at Nash’s Mills. Not the case: the F.M. Thompson Chisel Shop burned in 1871, three years before Kellogg says the bones were found.

Maybe she had the date wrong. But, I surmised, if so and the bones had vanished in his factory fire, wouldn’t Thompson have named the site? And wouldn’t he have been capable of pinpointing an accurate date of discovery?

That question begged for a little research and, sure enough, there were four pre-1874 Nash’s Mills factory fires – in 1866, 1868, 1870 and 1871 – but only one after 1874, a blaze that burned Warner Manufacturing to the ground on Nov. 20, 1897.

My suspicions grew. Something didn’t add up. Why the mystery?

Before I threw the destruction of Thompson’s bone collection into the mix of Nash’s Mills catastrophes, I wanted to check Kellogg’s reference one more time. I went to my study and chased it down in the third book I pulled from the bookcase.

The more I studied Kellogg’s retelling of Thompson’s tale, the more questions arose. Something just wasn’t adding up. Why so vague? And why didn’t Thompson include some mention of the bones in his detailed narrative of the Falls Fight and Turner’s death in his own History of Greenfield? That I found most puzzling.

So, it was off to the Internet for an online search of the published Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA) Proceedings. Maybe Thompson had addressed the bones in that publication. Nope. Not the case. Why?

And something else that didn’t bear out was Kellogg’s excuse that, at the time of his discovery, Thompson was not as interested in local history as in later life. While it’s true that his membership did not date back to PVMA’s inaugural year of 1870, he did become a member in 1877, was granted life membership in 1882, and was elected vice president in 1886. Could it be possible that he had not been interested in local history three years before he joined the group, upon finding the skeleton around 1874? Seems unlikely. Maybe even preposterous.

Considering how active Thompson had been in PVMA research between 1877 and his 1916 death, I speculated that perhaps there existed some sort of Francis M. Thompson Papers in Historic Deerfield’s Memorial Libraries collections. So, I took the short ride to Deerfield and was quickly able to engage librarian David Bosse in my pursuit.

His curiosity stirred, he soon produced an enticing lead: an obscure two-folder collection of correspondence from Thompson to Deerfield historian George Sheldon. Did I want to explore the letters? Yes, indeed.

Bosse went upstairs to retrieve the box of data, which included one folder of correspondence between 1896 and 1904, another from 1905 to 1915. In the latter, I struck long-hidden gold in Thompson’s own handwriting.

There, three or four letters into the pile, on personalized Franklin County Probate Court stationary dated a week apart, May 1 and May 8, 1905, Thompson addressed the looming placement and dedication of the Turner Monument at Nash’s Mills. By then, the granite boulder selected for the monument had likely been retrieved from Leyden by George Wright and delivered to Greenfield Granite and Marble Works on Miles Street, where it was to be faced and inscribed as it stands today.

Greenfield politician Frank Gerrett – an Upper Meadows resident residing on the farm I today call home – was chairman of the Greenfield Old Home Week Association committee charged with selecting a site and planning the July 26, 1905 dedication ceremony. The committee eventually chose to place the monument on the triangular North Parish Church common overlooking Nash’s Mills Pond, just south of Leyden Road’s Cutlery Bridge that spanned the dam and waterfall. In the event of wet weather, Gerrett was confident his church could accommodate the 400 or 500 spectators expected.

As it turned out, weather was not a problem, and the “Turner Square” dedication drew a thousand spectators. The event is chronicled in Kellogg’s Hearth Stone Tales, published five years after her History of Greenfield. With a chance to add credence to Thompson’s discovery of bones that may have belonged to Turner himself, she mentioned not a word about them in a two-page narrative. Curious indeed! But why? By then, Thompson wasn’t around to dissuade her – he had been dead 20 years. The tale was surely often told back then, as it is today. Still, no mention.

Maybe she was aware that Thompson knew, in the days before radio-carbon dating and DNA analysis, that there was no way prove the bones were Turner’s. His first mention of the bones in his letters to Sheldon appears on May 1, in the context of choosing a site for the Turner monument. He admits:

I don’t dare go much on the bones found, and think we better put the Monument about 40 feet west of the end of the bridge, and on the south side of the road – a rod or so away…

Then, in the May 8 follow-up letter to his friend and PVMA colleague, he goes a step further by casting doubt on his discovery, and confessing:

It doesn’t seem to me that we could hardly honor those bones as the body of Capt. Turner on what information we now have.

In the next paragraph, Thompson drops the bombshell, entrusting Sheldon with a sacred family secret that solves a 150-year-old mystery:

By the way, I find that Mrs. Nims, who always thought the bones ought not to have been disturbed, had one of the men put them in a box and bury them near the place where they were found and say nothing to anybody.

So, there you have it: the real story, straight from the horse’s mouth, debunking a clever ruse of bones consumed in an unnamed Nash’s Mills factory fire. Hey, he could have said his dog ate them.

But let us briefly digress to identify Mrs. Nims. She was Thompson’s mother-in-law, Susan (Cordelia Amadon) Nims, wife of farmer Lucius Nims, who owned the middle of three contiguous Nims farms that ran from today’s Hatch greenhouse on Plain Road to Four Rivers Charter School a little less than a mile south on Colrain Road.

Now owned by the Butynski family, who still farms the acreage, the middle farm was the original Nims farm in the Meadows, with the first dwelling built by Thomas Nims in the mid-18th century. The farm was passed to son Hull Nims and grandson Lucius Nims. According to private family papers compiled by descendants of the Meadows Nims line, the 18th century homestead burned sometime before 1810, when Hull Nims’ built a new Federal home. The prosperous Meadows farmer and Revolutionary War veteran then proceeded to build bookend farmsteads for sons Thomas to the north (1824) and Albert to the south (1839). The Hull Nims home was torn down in the 1960s and replaced by the ranch where Anna Butynski now lives.

Although “Mrs. Nims” lived until 1890, she must have ordered the reburial of the bones before 1880. The farm was sold out of the family after her husband’s 1879 death.

We now know that, thanks to Mrs. Nims, a Brookfield woman of conscience, those mysterious Greenfield Meadows bones didn’t disappear in any industrial fire. That tale was a clever cover, pure subterfuge. On orders from Thompson’s mother-in-law, those bones – which were likely stored on some spooky, out-of-the-way shelf in a Nims barn or shed – were respectfully boxed and reburied near where eldest child Mary’s husband had dug them. Exactly where is anyone’s guess, but traces probably still exist.

Provincial George Sheldon cannot be overappreciated. Due to his commitment to preservation, the well-concealed cat’s finally out of the bag. Had not the determined Deerfield antiquarian saved those Thompson letters, the truth would never have surfaced.

Did Lucy Cutler Kellogg know the real story? Unlikely. Nims, a woman of proud Protestant tradition, wouldn’t hear of it. She believed secrets should be kept and the interred should rest in peace.

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