My recent post on cities reminded me of a curious story from the town of Leyden, Massachusetts.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts (for that is the official name of this state, a peculiarity shared with Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky) is completely divided up into municipalities, the smaller ones being towns, the larger ones cities. Since 1938, there have been 351 municipalities. Some of the towns are very small (Nahant is 1 1/4 square miles and Gosnold has only 75 inhabitants) but they are all fiercely independent.
Although I had lived in the state most of my life, I realized some years ago that I had visited less than half the municipalities in the state. I decided to visit them all. It took me a few years, not to mention at least three ferry rides to reach towns on the islands off Cape Cod. Along the way, I picked up some curious stories about some of the lesser-known towns.
Leyden certainly is not well known. With a population of 711 in 2010, it is a sleepy little town on the Vermont border. It’s not even easy to find, because no numbered state highways run through the town. Back in the 1790s, it was a somewhat more important place, with a population of about 1000, which made it one of the bigger towns in the western part of the state in those days.
It so happened that in the year 1797, Sgt. Dorril, a former British Army soldier, said by some to be a deserter, appeared in town, proclaimed himself a prophet with divine powers, and organized a communal society. This society practiced the sharing of property in common. They were also vegetarians, even giving up leather shoes so not as to exploit animals.
According to the most common versions of what happened, Dorril’s downfall came about in classic fashion. Dorril was speaking one day to his followers from a platform. He proclaimed his physical invulnerability as part of his divine attributes. It so happened that Captain Ezekiel Foster, one of the townspeople who did not accept Dorril as a prophet, was in attendance. He promptly got up on the platform, and beat up Dorril until Dorril agreed to renounce his claims to prophetic and divine powers. Naturally, his community swiftly disbanded. This was in 1798.
Dorril dropped out of sight. But some decades later, a newspaper reporter tracked him down for an interview. And this is where Dorril’s story takes on a sulfurous tinge. According to the reporter, Dorril claimed that he had deliberately taken on the role of one of the false prophets mentioned in the Bible, whose coming was a presage of the End Times. In effect, he was claiming to take on the role of one of the Damned to bring on the triumph of God.
Why he made this claim is unclear from what I’ve been able to find out. Perhaps he was trying to justify his ultimately ridiculous role by making it seem more important. Perhaps he was trying to capitalize on the Millenarian thinking so popular in the United States in the decades before the Civil War. If so, he failed, for he vanished out of the historical record. And so far as I can tell, the End Times haven’t yet arrived.
My own visit to Leyden was unremarkable, apart from needing street maps of the towns in the region to find my way there. Coincidentally, another religious commune had formed in Leyden around 1968, but it had broken up for good only a few years before I visited. So I saw nothing remarkable. And because it is so out of the way, I’ve not been in Leyden since.