In Episode 152, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger take a stroll down a road to nowhere in search of ghosts and a monster. The abandoned section of Downs Road in Bethany, Connecticut, is home to a host of legends whose roots date back more than a century-and-a-half and include ties to a strange New Haven cult whose leader claimed to have the ability to raise the dead.
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[DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD]
RAY: Where are we going?
JEFF: We know where we’re going, but we don’t know where we’ve been.
RAY: Yes we do. We left Massachusetts a little while ago heading south into Connecticut. In fact, we just entered Bethany, just north of New Haven.
JEFF: We know what we’re knowing, but we can’t say what we’ve seen.
RAY: What are you talking about, Jeff?!
JEFF: And we’re not little children, and we know what we want.
RAY: Okay, okay, I get it. We’re in a Talking Heads song from the mid-80s!
JEFF: Ray, we’re in Bethany, Connecticut, looking for a road to nowhere, in search of the Downs Road Monster.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 152 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, thank you for riding along with us on our mission to document every single legend in New England one story at a time. We’re a community; a network of folks who are passionate about the odd history, ghosts, aliens, and monsters of our region. We love when you get involved! You can check out our web site which includes photos and archives from every episode, plus video clips from the New England Legends television series that you can watch right now on Amazon Prime. You can also join our super secret Facebook group, or call or text our legend line anytime at 617-444-9683. You can even leave our show closing on there for us.
JEFF: Our episode this week is sponsored by our patreon patrons! Thank you to the people who kick in just $3 bucks per month to get early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. Just head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up. We’d appreciate your support.
RAY: Okay, Jeff, so we’re in the middle of some Talking Heads song?
JEFF: Sort of. We are looking for a road to nowhere. Though, ironically, this road has a name, or at least part of it does. It’s called Downs Road.
JEFF: So we’ll pull onto Downs Road right off of Rt. 69 here, and head to the end.
RAY: This is a quiet, wooded street. I can see by our GPS that we’re passing Lake Watrous on our right. It’s not a very big lake. There’s a few houses here and there, but it’s definitely not a busy street. Oh, I love this! Check out the name of this hill coming up on our right.
JEFF: Nice! It’s called Mad Mare Ridge.
RAY: Ominous, don’t you think?
RAY: This road runs along the eastern edge of Bethany and the western edge of Hamden, Connecticut. It’s named after Samuel Downs who settled the area just south of Mad Mare’s Hill in the year 1717. I can see up ahead that this is the end of the road.
JEFF: Note quite the end. Take a look.
RAY: Oh yeah! There’s a gate, and two stop signs. It turns into a blocked off dirt road.
[CAR STOPS, CAR DOORS SHUT]
RAY: It looks like we’re walking it from here.
JEFF: This is the part of Downs Road that we’re here to see, Ray. This is the section of road that’s closed on both ends—a road to nowhere. And if we’re to believe the stories, here there be ghosts and monsters!
RAY: I’m ready! Do we know why it’s haunted?
JEFF: On my Ghostvillage.com Web site, someone submitted an encounter about Downs Road back in 2006 where the witness described seeing the apparition of a small boy riding a bike.
RAY: That’s creepy.
JEFF: The legend is that he was killed along this road and now haunts it. The other story the witness mentioned was hearing about how a couple were out here parking and were killed by the Downs Road Monster.
RAY: Oh man, this road sounds dangerous! To figure out how so many legends can haunt one road, let’s head back to 1856.
JEFF: It’s New Year’s Day of 1856 and there’s something foul in the air around this region because there’s a madman on the loose.
RAY: 26 year-old Charles Sanford from nearby Hamden, has been in and out of mental institutions, and he’s prone to violence. Still, no one takes notice New Year’s morning when he’s seen sharpening an axe and whistling a happy tune.
[AXE ON A GRINDING WHEEL]
RAY: With his axe sharp, Sanford sets off. He’s walking along near an area known as Sperry Falls, at the eastern end of Downs Road. That’s when 70-year-old local farmer Enoch Sperry approaches in his horse-drawn sleigh.
RAY: Enoch slows down near Sanford, and then… for reasons we’ll never know, Sanford leaps onto the sleigh and attacks the old man.
RAY: Sanford drags Sperry from his sleigh after hitting him twice in the head with his axe, he then practically decapitates the old man, before rolling his body in a ditch.
JEFF: Still breathing heavy from the kill, Charles Sanford makes his way down the hill to the nearest house. It’s the home of Ichabod Umberfield. Ichabod is also 70 years old. He’s outside chopping wood, and doesn’t notice the deranged axe-wielding Sanford enter his home.
[DOOR OPEN AND SHUTS]
JEFF: Once in the home, Sanford attacks a woman living there, who flees to a room with her young child, and locks the door. She yells out the window for help, and that sends Ichabod running inside.
JEFF: Once inside, Ichabod finds Sanford sitting in a chair by the fireplace. Ichabod takes a seat at the chair across from him and calmly asks what’s the meaning of his visit? That’s when Sanford leaps from the chair and attacks Ichabod with an axe.
JEFF: And now two men are dead.
RAY: Sanford flees the home, but is found later that day by locals who subdue him and arrest him. Guilty of both murders, he’s going to face the gallows. Still, people wonder what made him snap and kill two random men. As best folks can figure, the event that broke Sanford occurred a little over a week ago, and involves a strange cult from New Haven.
JEFF: This is where it gets weirder, Ray. According to the newspapers, Sanford’s uncle, Justus Mathews, had been brutally murdered by order of a cult leader named Rhoda Wakeman and her group of Wakemanites.
RAY: 69-year-old Rhoda Wakeman is a fascinating character. She claims thirty years ago that her husband beat her to death. But two angels then touched her with bright swords and she ascended to heaven where she saw Jesus and all of the angels. After several hours she came back to her body, rose from the dead, and was now tasked with preparing the world for the second coming. And now she claims to have powers to raise the dead.
JEFF: Oh good! So she’s not only a prophet, but she has god-like powers.
RAY: There’s only about a dozen Wakemanites in her cult, but they’re a devoted group.
JEFF: It’s December of 1855 when Rhoda begins suffering from body pains all over. But no, she doesn’t need a doctor to know what’s wrong with her. She’s sure the problem is a man named Justus Mathews. He used to be a devoted Wakemanite, but he recently stopped coming to meetings. Rhoda is sure he’s bewitching her.
RAY: The thing is, Justus Mathews is convinced he’s bewitched by the dark one and his supernatural attacks on Wakeman are out of his control. So on December 23rd, at the urging of some of the other members, Mathews returns to a Wakemanite meeting to ask for help. Mathews is blindfolded, and his hands are tied behind his back. Two other members of the group beat him with a stick. They explain that it’s better he should die, than Mrs. Wakeman should suffer and possibly die herself, which would no doubt bring on the end of the world.
JEFF: Mathews doesn’t come home again, and two members of the group are eventually brought up on murder charges.
RAY: This is some dark stuff. The kind of events that can stain a community forever.
JEFF: Some claim Charles Sanford never recovered from not only the loss of his uncle, but the way he was killed. And that’s what made him snap about a week later. (PAUSE) From here we’re going to jump ahead a little over a century to the early 1970s.
JEFF: As we walk along Downs Road, you can see old foundations and cellar holes from houses now long gone. And this stretch of road isn’t paved. It’s just a long, wooded road with very few cars. It’s remote. A good place to not be seen.
RAY: It’s a good place for a good-ole high school beer bust!
[CAR DRIVING ON DIRT ROAD]
JEFF: Yeah it is. This stretch of road has become a place for parking with your sweetie, for drinking beers out of the trunk of your car, and for sharing stories.
RAY: The thing is, people do have some strange experiences in the woods around Downs Road. Some folks see glowing balls of light darting through the forest. Others see apparitions floating by, and then vanishing.
JEFF: But the strangest report of all is the monster. Some say it’s a large beast, white as a sheet, and it sprints through the forest.
RAY: Skeptics are quick to point out that this is just an albino horse that got loose from a nearby farm…
JEFF: But, that doesn’t convince everyone. Plus, there’s that nearby hill called Mad Mare Ridge.
RAY: Ahhh, so this horse could be the mad, or crazy, mare.
JEFF: And suddenly, all of these legends swirl together in an old dirt road. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: Back in 2011, this section of Downs Road was gated shut at this end, and the northern end about a mile away in Hamden. Though it’s closed to cars, the Quinipiac Trail runs along the old road, so you’re still allowed to walk it.
JEFF: The double stop signs really add to the stories. Imagine you’ve heard some of these tales, then you see not one, but two stop signs. And suddenly, a spooky place becomes even more ominous.
RAY: Local news have done Halloween segments on this road, and that helps keep the legend alive.
JEFF: And here’s the New England Legends podcast adding our two cents. I can’t help but think about those stories I heard back in 2006. The legend of the boy riding his bike because he was no doubt killed along this road.
RAY: Could you find a record of that?
JEFF: I could not. But, back in June of 1986, a driver was killed when his car ran off the road and into the lake we passed on our way here.
RAY: So there was an accident, just not quite the one from the folklore.
JEFF: The other story the witness mentioned was hearing about how a couple were killed by the Downs Road Monster. Because they were out here parking.
RAY: But two people were killed near here! But they weren’t a couple.
JEFF: There’s always some truth in these legends. And if we trace them back far enough, we can learn quite a lot. Maybe the monster is some albino horse that reminds us of Mad Mare Ridge. Or maybe the real Downs Road Monster is axe murderer Charles Sanford.
RAY: Whatever happened to him?
JEFF: Sanford was sentenced to hang for his double murder. But the gallows were cheated, because he died from smallpox while in prison. So justice was never quite served. Maybe that’s one small part of what still haunts Downs Road today.
RAY: It’s funny how pieces of a story turn out to be actually true.
JEFF: It’s why we still share the stories, Ray.
RAY: And we love it when you share our stories. Please post your favorite episodes to your social media, or just tell a friend or two about our podcast. Because that’s how our community grows.
JEFF: It grows to the point where we were name Number Two on this month’s Podcast Magazine Hot 50 Podcast List! So thanks for that.
RAY: And thank you legendary listeners for all of your support. And our theme music is by John Judd.
VOICEMAIL: Hi this is Kathleen from Pure, Michigan. Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.