Exploration Mysteries: Bennington Disappearances

Southwestern Vermont is known for its bucolic setting, but one 93 sq km area of thick woods was also the scene for one of America’s great enduring mysteries. Between 1945 to 1950, a string of unsolved disappearances occurred in what became known as the Bennington Triangle. It shook the surrounding communities and has puzzled everyone to this day. 

Since he was a child, the unknown had fascinated New England author Joseph A. Citro. This Bard of the Bizarre began by writing horror stories. Then like Charles Fort before him, he doggedly collected regional folklore, paranormal stories, and generally strange occurrences.

To Citro, this part of Vermont’s Green Mountains was a hotspot for unaccountable disappearances and sightings of supernatural creatures. He called the area “the Bennington Triangle”. 

Bennington had had bad luck since the 1800s. Its local economy, mainly mining and logging, collapsed. Tourism failed and a huge flood devastated the community at the close of the 19th century. This bad luck followed into the 20th century.

Six disappearances

From 1945 to 1950, six people disappeared, one after the other. The first was Carl Herrick in November 1943. This incident is often overlooked in discussions about the Bennington disappearances because a body was found and a definitive cause of death was given.

Carl was hunting with his cousin Henry 16km northeast of Glastenbury Mountain, which lies at the centre of the triangle. The pair got separated and Henry contacted authorities to look for him. After a few days, searchers found Herrick’s body. His gun was nearby with no bullets discharged. The autopsy determined that the cause of death was squeezing: His ribs had punctured his lung. The townsfolk did not show any particular concern afterward. 

Two years later, an experienced hiker and hunter named Middie Rivers went missing on November 12, 1945. The 74-year-old was guiding a group of four hunters on a mountain trek. He was very familiar with the trail, as he had walked it multiple times. However, after going ahead of the group at a spot called Hell Hollow Brook (near the Long Trail and Vermont Route 9), he was gone.

Firemen, local volunteers, and eventually the U.S. Army searched for Rivers for over a month. The only clue they found was one rifle cartridge. No body was found and the case remains unsolved.

The vanishing hiker

A year later, in 1946, an 18-year-old student at Bennington College named Paula Jean Welden told her roommates that she was going to the Long Trail for a hike. A local man named Louis Napp gave her a ride and dropped her off a few kilometres from the trail.

On arriving, she spoke with some hikers before she ventured off on her own. She was last seen on December 1, wearing a red coat. A four-week search, led by her father and the police, began. However, all leads became dead ends.

With no hope in sight, Paula’s father believed that she might have had a secret boyfriend whom either she ran away with or who killed her. Paula’s father left Bennington, never to return. Her case is unsolved as well.

Paula Jean Welden.

 

The strangest of all

The tale gets stranger. Exactly three years after Paula’s disappearance, a 68-year-old World War II veteran named James Tedford disappeared on a moving bus. He was visiting friends out of town and was heading back to Bennington by bus. Fourteen passengers confirmed that he did not get off the bus before Bennington and was sleeping throughout the trip. His belongings were still on his seat. To this day, there is still no explanation for his disappearance, unless all the witnesses thought wrong or were lying. 

On October 12, 1950, eight-year-old Paul Jepson was with his mother while she worked on their family farm. She left her son in her pickup while she fed the farm’s pigs for an hour. When she returned, he was gone. He was last seen wearing a red coat.

More dead ends

An immediate search of the farm and surrounding area was conducted. A police bloodhound followed the scent to a crossroads, where it eventually faded. The trail was in the general direction of Glastenbury Mountain, which Jepson was obsessively talking about for several days before his disappearance.

Police theorized that a passing motorist could have whisked Paul away as he tried to reach the mountain. However, the case went cold, and there were no more developments. 

The Green Mountains of Vermont. Photo: Shutterstock

 

More than two weeks after Paul Jepson’s vanishing, 53-year-old Freida Langer, an avid hiker, met a similar fate. She and her cousin, Herbert Elsner, were hiking 17km from Glastenbury Mountain, at the Somerset Reservoir. After getting wet from falling into a creek, she went back to the campsite to change.

Herbert stayed behind to wait for her on the trail. When Freida did not return, Herbert reported her missing. For the next two weeks, 400 people scoured the area extensively. Six months later, her body was found 5.5km from the campsite. Coroners could not determine the cause of her death because of the corpse’s accelerated decomposition.

Theories

The folklore around the Bennington Triangle stems from UFOs, curses, Bigfoot, and more. The Abenaki tribe believed that Glastenbury Mountain was cursed, as it housed their dead at its base. However, there are several connections we can draw from these incidents.

Two victims, Paula and Paul (ironically) were both wearing the color red. All five victims disappeared in mid-afternoon around 3 pm or 4 pm, not far from each other and during the last three months of the year.

The first thought that comes to mind is the work of a serial killer. However, the variety in sex and age does not fit the usual modus operandi of serial killer behavior. There is no set pattern. It seems more to do with geographical location. 

The Long Trail in the Bennington Triangle. Photo: M. Thompson/Shutterstock

 

The rough terrain and unpredictable weather are the most plausible explanations. The wind patterns and temperature in the region are very erratic, particularly in winter. Because of the wind, plants have also grown in odd angles.

Lost in the woods?

It is possible that the wacky winds and dense forest disoriented these hikers. In 2008, Robert Singely got lost in a heavy fog and spent the night in the woods huddled around a small fire he made. He luckily made it back to his car in the morning. Others might have succumbed to hunger, thirst, and hypothermia. But why aren’t there any bodies or other clues?

The second most popular theory is that the hikers fell down unmarked mine shafts and wells. Considering how remote the area is, if the hikers fell down one of these shafts, no one might ever have found them. 

A third, less plausible theory is an animal attack. The area contains cougars and black bears. But eastern cougars are extremely rare, and 60 years ago, they were even rarer. They may have vanished entirely from New England for some decades around that time. That aside, cougar attacks are unusual. And while black bears have killed people on rare occasions, there has never been a serial killer black bear, unlike the occasional tiger in India or crocodile in Africa.

Renewed interest

On September 17, 2019, the remains of a modern victim, New York resident Jessica Hildenbrandt, were found near the Somerset Reservoir. Police determined that her death was a homicide. No leads have turned up about her killer. She was nicknamed “Red” by her family and friends. In August 2021, Joseph Schoenig was found in his truck at Somerset Reservoir with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He had been missing for several weeks. His truck was also red. Despite the variety of circumstances, the color red still remains consistent. 

Kristine De Abreu is a writer (and occasional photographer) based in sunny Trinidad and Tobago. Since graduating from the University of Leicester with a BA in English and History, she has pursued a full-time writing career, exploring multiple niches before settling on travel and exploration. While studying for an additional diploma in travel journalism with the British College of Journalism, she began writing for ExWeb. Currently, she works at a travel magazine in Trinidad as an editorial assistant and is also ExWeb's Weird Wonder Woman, reporting on the world's natural oddities as well as general stories from the world of exploration. Although she isn't a climber (yet!), she hikes in the bush, has been known to make friends with iguanas and quote the Lord of the Rings trilogy from start to finish.

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Thrill seeker
Thrill seeker
3 months ago

I’m not going there….

Steve
Steve
3 months ago

Sounds like H.P. Lovecraft!

gee
gee
3 months ago

“…a 68-year-old World War II veteran…” = in 1949…?
so he would have been 64 at the end of the war…
were 60 yr. olds were enlisted back then…?