An Engrossing Compendium of Dogtown’s Artistic, Romantic, Swashbuckling Background

Elyssa East’s well-researched, suspenseful Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town contains a broad stream of history that threatens to swamp a small but significant boat: the murder of a young teacher in 1984 by a local misfit in an area of Cape Ann called Dogtown.

The book is an engrossing compendium of Dogtown’s artistic, romantic, swashbuckling background — 17th-century colonists and Puritans who tried to worship there; 18th-century pirates, marauding French and Indians; hardscrabble settlements of freed slaves and Civil War widows; hippies and druggies and runaways who made it their home; artists who painted there, and poets who wrote about it.

The murder, by contrast, was a blandly brutal act as uninspired as it was senseless. As she took a morning walk with her dog, Anne Natti was attacked from behind by an assailant who bashed her head and face in with a rock, tore her clothing off, then dragged her into a border of trees and left her for dead, face down in the mud. Though searchers, including her husband, went looking for her, the location of her body escaped notice. When no one found her, she died. Her murderer, a local man known for his bizarre behavior, vanished.

Or as Elyssa East tells it, “anxious and terrified, the man ran from the scene”. It is the first of many descriptions that make Natti’s murderer, Peter Hodgkins, sound like a man who left the scene of a hit-and-run rather than someone who committed a vicious murder. In alternating chapters that chronicle the history of the place, then return to the murder, East attempts to establish the idea that sinister events which took place in Dogtown over centuries may have influenced Hodgkins to commit the crime.

East was originally drawn to Dogtown not because of what happened to Anne Natti, but because as an art history major, she wanted to visit the inspiration for Marsden Hartley’s painting, “Mountains in Stone”. A painter whose “stark and arresting Dogtown landscapes” — largely of boulders — were East’s first exposure to the legendary place, Hartley claimed that the area was responsible for his recovery from a paralyzing depression. East never gives up her search for the exact site of the painting, though she eventually concedes, “it was wholly plausible that the painting was more the product of Hartley’s imagination than Dogtown’s reality”.

East’s description of the Natti murder, which may be the worst of all Dogtown’s legendary evils, is comparatively brief, as is the amount of space she allots the Natti family: Anne and her husband Eric were newly married; their families, especially his, were natives; he was intensely private and dealt privately with his anguish. The murder itself is only one more historical factor in the area’s reputation for being haunted, doomed, godforsaken.

East focuses in on Natti’s killer, Peter Hodgkins, but she never seems satisfied that he attacked the teacher for reasons of his own. She frequently treats Hodgkins like a disturbed, impressionable vehicle for Dogtown’s malevolent spirit, which possessed him and made him do its bidding. Though Hodgkins confesses, recants, and confesses again, and despite his background of dangerous behavior, East continues to look to Dogtown for the source of his psychosis.

While the history lessons are meticulously detailed and explain why, over centuries, the area acquired its eerie reputation, they never add up to East’s conviction that something forced Peter Hodgkins’ hand. Instead, it begins to look as if, with the murderer on tape admitting his guilt, East is more interested in building her case for Dogtown’s possible inclusion in the Blair Witch Project files.

The most interesting — and sensible — point East makes in Dogtown is that no one took steps to stop Peter Hodgkins when it was clear to everyone who knew him that he presented a real danger to others. His escalating madness was left untreated because the inhabitants liked the idea that they lived in an area where oddness was okay, where everyone knew everyone and therefore could predict just the extent of how odd someone might get. To have locked Peter Hodgkins up — he was caught time after time exposing himself, lunging at women, creeping around — would’ve been to lock up the unique wild spirit of Dogtown.

It’s a spirit that seems to have captured East as well. When it begins to look as if the murder isn’t getting her where she wants to be — she’d hoped Dogtown would “complete some part of me” — East loses patience with the process. She bristles when, questioning people about the area, they ask if she’s aware of Natti’s murder: “One woman dies in the woods 20 years ago,” she writes irritably, “many people around this town did not even know her, but people still talk about it. Why is that?”

Still, it comes as a shock when East gets just as fed up with Dogtown itself: “Suddenly creepy,” she determines after a flock of starlings scare her during one of her spooky walks. “No longer inspiring to me.”

She wraps up Hodgkins’ story by relating the particulars of his trial in 1985. Despite three attempts at suicide during the proceedings, Hodgkins was convicted of Natti’s murder.

In May of 2006, East was granted an audience with Hodgkins, then in medium security at the Massachusetts Correctional Facility at Norfolk. She finds him to be “an extremely likable person full of childlike love and tenderness for Dogtown”. He seems embarrassed, or “painfully shy”. She believes he has “the kind of vulnerability that could turn extremely dangerous”. She remarks that the institutions which should have prevented his decline failed him.

Note: There are no photos in the book of Anne Natti or her family, of Peter Hodgkins, of Dogtown, or a reproduction of the Marsden Hartley painting “Mountains in Stone”.

RATING 5 / 10