Podcast 204 – The Enfield Shakers Murder

In 1863, Thomas Weir murdered shaker elder Caleb Dyer in Enfield, New Hampshire, in an attempt to get his daughters back. The event still haunts the village.


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In Episode 204, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger stroll the haunted grounds of the Enfield, New Hampshire, Shaker Village. In July of 1863, Civil War veteran Thomas Weir returned to Enfield to try and retrieve his daughters who were indentured servants to the Shakers. For over a year, Weir tried to reason, beg, and even threaten the Shakers to get his daughters back. When they refused, Weir pulled out a pistol and murdered Caleb Dyer, and set a tragic haunting in motion that can still be felt today.

Read the episode transcript.

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Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Theme Music by: John Judd

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Historic photo of the haunted Shaker Village in Enfield, New Hampshire.

Historic photo of the haunted Shaker Village in Enfield, New Hampshire, circa 1860s.

The Enfield, New Hampshire, Shaker Village circa 1860s.

The Enfield, New Hampshire, Shaker Village.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

[BIRDS / OUTDOOR]

RAY: The Shaker Village in Enfield, New Hampshire, looks like it’s pulled right out of an old movie set!

JEFF: The museum here has done an amazing job preserving this old Shaker village that dates all the way back to 1793.

RAY: There are a bunch of structures in this little town. There’s the big stone house that’s six stories tall, there’s a chapel, some other buildings, gardens, a cemetery over there, some of the old tool making shops in the distance. It’s really quaint and peaceful.

JEFF: That was the point of any Shaker village. They were trying to create heaven on Earth. A utopia. But don’t let this peaceful atmosphere fool you, Ray. Because this village is haunted because of a brutal murder.

[INTRO]

JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger.

RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to Episode 204 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about 15 minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.

JEFF: Thank you for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. Did you know so many of our story leads come from you legendary people? Like this one! Thanks to Peter Parent for sending us an email about this story.

RAY: We’re also thrilled to announce this week that the nominations are in and it’s time to start voting for this year’s BoNEy Awards – the Best of New England. Head to our Web site and cast your vote for the best cemetery, pizza, beer, cryptid, haunt, and more!

JEFF: Before we explore this haunted Shaker Village, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!

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RAY: Okay, Jeff, so we’re exploring a haunted Shaker village in Enfield, New Hampshire.

JEFF: We are. When I say Shakers, what’s the first thing you think of?

RAY: Probably Shaker furniture.

JEFF: Sure.

RAY: Well built, beautiful, they’re sought after antiques even today.

JEFF: I think that’s what most people think about. A little background on the Shakers. The group got its start in England way back in 1747. Originally called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, they were more commonly known as Shaking Quakers because of the way they would dance and gyrate during religious circles. Though they started in England, the group really took off in America in the 1780s.

RAY: These folks had some radical ideas for the time. They were trying to create communal utopias, where the sexes were considered equal, where they communally owned the land and shared the work, they lived clean and simple lives, and were pacifists, so you won’t find them serving in the military.

JEFF: And you also might notice that the group is pretty much gone today.

RAY: Yeah, they didn’t last. I wonder why?

JEFF: One of the biggest reasons is that you can’t be born a Shaker. You have to choose the path as an adult. Also, once you’re in the Shaker community, not only are the men and women kept separate, but there’s no sex allowed. If you want to grow a religion, one of the best ways is for your members to have babies.

RAY: So no Shaker babies. Got it.

JEFF: Plus, the Shakers took in just about anybody who asked. There was a phenomenon that occurred in these Shaker villages. Some people would come through and join the community for the winter, then leave in the spring.

RAY: Why’s that?

JEFF: Because they knew they’d have food, clothing, and shelter provided for them all winter. In the Spring they could go on their way.

RAY: I bet that was frustrating for the Shakers – to get used like that.

JEFF: They took it in stride. It’s their way. They have different notions of family and social responsibility. These are peace-loving pacifists who were trying to create heaven on earth… which is why this story of this murder is so perplexing.

RAY: To figure out what happened, let’s head back to 1861.

[TRANSITION]

RAY: It’s the Spring of 1861, and things aren’t going well for Thomas Weir of nearby Canaan, New Hampshire.

JEFF: No, they’re not.

RAY: Thomas, who is NOT a Shaker, is married to his wife, Mahala. The couple have five children together, but he’ struggling to find work. Living in poverty, two of his children get sick, and die within days of each other.

JEFF: Now considered a pauper, Weir is forced to move his family in with his widowed sister. And to make matters worse, Mahala is now sick. Thomas Weir is desperate.

RAY: But around this time, something big is happening in the United States. Namely… Civil War.

[CANNONS AND MUSKETS]

JEFF: It’s odd how a horrible thing for many people can turn into a good thing for a few. With no job prospects in sight, Thomas Weir enlists in the Union Army. It means a steady paycheck for his family, and a pension. Right now, the Army is his only option.

RAY: But Weir is concerned about his wife. She’s not doing well, and while he’s gone, who will take care of their children? And what if he dies in the war?

JEFF: With few options left, Weir turns to the Shaker Village of Enfield. The Shakers are known for taking people in to their communities. Especially children. So Weir comes calling to the village.

[KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK]

JEFF: Weir figures his oldest daughter will be okay, but he asks the Shakers to take in his two youngest, nine-year-old Ellen, and 10-year-old Sarah.

RAY: This isn’t like some babysitting service. Shaker elder Caleb Dyer asks Weir to sign a contract. Sarah and Ellen will be considered indentured servants to the Shaker village until they reach adulthood. In exchange, the girls will have food, clothing, shelter, they’ll be provided an education, and will learn a trade. Faced with no other options, Weir signs over his daughters, and leaves to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War.

[CANNONS AND MUSKETS]

JEFF: Thomas Weir has it rough in the war. He’s not only going through the normal struggles of battle, weather, and bad food, but he’s plagued by chronic diarrhea, a condition that can be fatal, but somehow he pulls through. For more than a year, Thomas survives his health issues and the toils of war. It’s now the summer of 1862, when he returns home to Enfield.

RAY: And more good news, Thomas’s wife, Mahala, has also recovered from her illness while he was away. With a little money in his pocket, Thomas is eager to reunite his entire family. So he heads back to the Shaker Village in Enfield…

[KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK]

RAY: And asks Caleb Dyer for his children back.

[DOOR SLAMS]

RAY: Weir is shocked when Caleb Dyer refuses to return his daughters.

JEFF: They DID have a contract, and it’s only been a little over a year.

RAY: It’s important to note that Caleb Dyer isn’t some grumpy Shaker who is being a jerk. He’s a leader in this Shaker Community. He oversaw the planning and construction of the giant six-story stone house. He helped bring the railroad to Enfield, he constructed mills, he built a bridge over Mascoma Lake. This man is so influential that some people in town have suggested renaming Enfield Dyersville.

JEFF: So this is a prominent guy. A respected man. And a deal is a deal. The Shakers are within their legal right to refuse.

RAY: Still… Thomas Weir is NOT giving up on getting his children back. It’s late October of 1862, and Thomas sends his wife, Mahala to the Shaker Village under the pretense of visiting her children. But the plan is to abduct them, and take Sarah and Ellen home.

JEFF: The visit is going pretty normal, but as soon as Mahala grabs Ellen’s arm and tries to run, the young girl screams!

SARAH: [SCREAMS FOR HELP]

JEFF: Some nearby Shakers take notice, and come running, breaking up the kidnapping. The raid has failed.

RAY: Thomas Weir tries pleading with Caleb Dyer.

JEFF: It doesn’t work.

RAY: He tries begging Dyer.

JEFF: Caleb won’t listen.

RAY: Thomas even tries threatening the Shaker trustee.

JEFF: But Dyer simply walks away.

[DOOR SLAMS]

RAY: Thomas consults with local lawyers to see what legal recourse he has in the matter. The attorneys tell him there’s no legal recourse. They have a contract. But still, they offer to try and talk to Caleb Dyer and the Shakers to see if they can help. To the surprise of no one… the conversation goes nowhere.

JEFF: Another year passes. It’s July 18th, 1863. Late afternoon. Thomas approaches the Enfield Shaker village eager to try and see his daughters. But also hell-bent on getting them back.

[KNOCL KNOCK KNOCK]

JEFF: Caleb Dyer answers the door. When he sees Thomas wants a visit, he announces it’s too late in the day for that, he’ll have to come back another time. And that’s it. Thomas Weir snaps.

[PISTOL SHOT]

JEFF: He fires his pistol into Caleb Dyer…

[RUNNING FOOTSTEPS]

JEFF: And runs off.

RAY: Caleb is bleeding. He’s hurt badly, but still able to limp into the next room for help. Brother Shaker John Bradford races into town to fetch the doctor. He then runs to the telegraph offices…

[MORSE CODE CLICKING]

RAY: And wires doctors from two neighboring towns.

JEFF: Dyer’s wound is bad. And the surgery to remove the bullet takes hours. But they DO remove the bullet. There’s hope for a full recovery… but as the hours pass, it’s clear Dyer is only getting worse.

[BREATHING LABORED AND THEN LAST GASP]

JEFF: Caleb Dyer spends his last breath in the early morning hours of July 20th. His funeral is the following day. More than 500 people attend.

RAY: Thomas Weir is quickly arrested for the murder of Caleb Dyer.

[JUDGE GAVEL ON BENCH]

RAY: This case is open and shut… under normal circumstances.

JEFF: What do you mean?

RAY: There’s no doubt Caleb Dyer was shot and killed.

JEFF: Right.

RAY: And there’s no question Thomas Weir did it.

JEFF: I get that.

RAY: And everyone understands the motive too.

JEFF: So what’s the problem?

RAY: The problem is the court of public opinion. There’s a lot of anti-Shaker sentiment going around, and though no one is advocating murder… they do understand where Thomas Weir is coming from. I mean, he couldn’t be with his children.

JEFF: Plus, in the eyes of the public… Shakers are weird. Their idea of Quote “Family” is something entirely different. Shakers don’t recognize the bonds of marriage. They don’t recognize the bonds of mother or father and child. Everything is communal including raising the children.

RAY: Still, the law is the law. No matter what the court of public opinion may say, Thomas Weir is sentenced to hang for the murder. Everyone is shocked. Shocked enough to offer Weir a second trial where he pleads guilty to murder in the second degree where he’s then sentenced to 30 years in jail. BUUUUT… this isn’t the end of the story. From here we jump ahead to Mach of 1878.

[JUDGE GAVEL ON BENCH]

JEFF: Thomas Weir, now 65 years old, is back in court, this time seeking a pardon for the murder that took place 15 years earlier. 300 people from the Enfield area have signed a petition stating Thomas Weir should go free. Many of the signatures on this petition are Shakers inclined to forgive.

RAY: But there’s opposition to the pardon as well. Other Shakers claim they feel they would be in danger if Thomas Weir is released from prison. The most notable person opposing the release of Thomas? His daughter, Sarah Weir. She’s now 27 years old and still living in the Shaker community. She said…

SARAH: I cannot trust any man who has taken life, not even my father.

RAY: The judge does NOT grant the pardon. And that brings us back to today.

[TRANSITION]

JEFF: Today this former Shaker village is still haunted by the murder of Caleb Dyer. Witnesses have reported hearing the gunshot, they’ve seen a ghostly man stumbling around as if he’d just been shot, and there’s the uneasy feeling that someone else is in the room when you’re inside the Great Stone House.

RAY: Today the museum that runs the Enfield Shaker Village offers an annual Halloween tour they call “Ghost Encounters.” So clearly they don’t mind discussing the murder and the haunt especially if it brings in a few more visitors.

JEFF: There’s so much dichotomy here. When one thinks of a Shaker village, one does NOT think about violence and murder. Enfield is the exception.

RAY: Today the Shakers are all but gone. While clean living and communal property does appeal to some people, and equality of everyone in the community should appeal to ALL people, the no sex, drugs, drinking, or rock n’ roll, leaves most of us out on being a Shaker.

JEFF: They banned rock n’ roll?

RAY: I threw that last one in. I’m assuming.

JEFF: I struggle with this legend. On the one hand, I understand being so desperate to protect and provide for your children that you sign them over to a group if you felt that’s their best chance for survival. AND I understand being angry enough to kill to get your children back from anyone. And I understand how a prominent and respected leader who believes in the rules of his group can’t afford to make exceptions. This feels like one of those moments in history where everyone loses… and that haunts me most of all.

[OUTTRO]

RAY: I get that. Some events are simply tragic. You know what else is tragic? That we don’t have more of you in our community of Patreon Patrons! These folks kick in just $3 bucks per month for 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.

JEFF: Please also subscribe to our podcast, because it’s free and we don’t want you to miss a thing. And tell a friend or two about our show. It helps a lot. Speaking of podcasts, Ray and I have a new feature where we tell you about some of the podcasts we’re listening to.

RAY: I’m listening to The Film Crickets with my friends Jay and Chris. They review the movies of the past and ask the ultimate question…do these movies stand up to the test of time? I was proud to be a guest on their February 4th show where we examined the Richard Dreyfus and Emilio Estevez classic, Stakeout.

JEFF: And does it stand the test of time?

RAY: I don’t want to spoil it for you Jeff, but… no…

JEFF: Ha! We’d like to thank Megan Belanger for lending her voice acting talents this week. We’d like to thank our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals, and our theme music is by John Judd.

RAY: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.

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