Back in mid-January, an arsonist set fire to a well-known house in Poughkeepsie’s so-called “Witchcraft District.” It’s an area where some Church of Satan members reside, as well as residents who have a penchant for the macabre. WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne spoke with one of the residents who lives near the now ruined local landmark.
Peter Gilmore says on that cold January early morning, he heard the fire trucks go by his house, later learning they were headed to a house he knows well on South Clinton Street
“Down the block from our house was a home that belonged to Joe Netherworld as he was well known, Joe Mendillo. And he had bought that house in 1999. It's a Victorian that was really, had been a rooming house but was really a mess. And he fixed it up in his own kind of Munsters aesthetic to be this wonderful treasure trove of oddities and art, and that reflected his nature. And it was burned down, and by an arsonist. The arsonist was caught on the camera of video surveillance, showing that they brought a couple of canisters of gasoline up onto the front porch and spread it around and lit it alight. They also seem to have gotten towards the back of the property. There's a large garage there that says the Devil's Driveway over the doors that had been stable for the building many years ago. And they set the edge of that on fire, too,” Gilmore says. “So the owners, current owner, Matthew Camp, who was a good close friend of Joe's for many years, and purchased the house back in October, he and his assistant, Six, barely escaped with the clothes on their backs.”
Gilmore is the high priest of the Church of Satan, which is not based on devil worship. Rather, he notes. It's an atheist philosophy that emphasizes individualism, liberty and fulfillment.
“Joe had become a member of the Church of Satan before we met him. He, we actually corresponded with him before we ever went to his house. And we, you know, we could see that he basically had a lot of the same tastes that we did, especially with the way he was renovating his home. And also, he used to do work with sculpting. He would do model figures, he did things about Clive Barker, and some of his Hellraiser concepts, and Elvira and Vincent Price, like lots of kind of horror aesthetic things. That's something that was near and dear to Peggy and I, and we both are, we were all fans of Halloween, my wife and I were married on Halloween. And as of this coming Halloween this year, it'll be 40 years that we'll have been married. So nowadays, lots of people get married on Halloween, but I like to think that we kind of started that tradition 40 years ago,” says Gilmore. “But essentially, it', it's not tied necessarily to Satanism at all. It's just our kind of like the horror movie monster kid kind of approach. If you find somebody and notice they were Satanist, you might not, it might not be so obvious to you. You could be visiting people, especially if they're kind of creative, intelligent, perhaps a little offbeat, and you might find, oh gee, there's a certificate on the wall that says they might be a witch or a warlock in the Church of Satan, Oops. It's not something that's a cause. It's a philosophy that's user friendly and meant to be something that helps you get the most out of your life. It's not something you have to parade around. You don't have to dress in black or wear our Sigil of Baphomet, which is the goat face and the five-pointed star with the characters spelling leviathan around it. You could be completely underground.”
“Was Matthew's house called the Halloween house?” asks Dunne.
“Yes, yes. Joe is a big Halloween fan. And he always put up this countdown clock on the front porch that several months before Halloween that would count the days down to Halloween. And he always had these sort, he had sort of a weird, wonderful pumpkin figure, kind of a jack o' lantern man that was made of twisted branches that had a pumpkin head on it. It actually had fish hooks in the mouth. It was really kind of creepy and wonderful," says Gilmore. "And he felt that on a certain level when he first bought his house that keeping it spooky and scary kind of helped protect it because the neighborhood was really terrible when he bought the house. When he’d leave it, you’d have to screw gun the door so that people wouldn't break in. And the post office wouldn't even deliver mail to his home. It was on this kind of red zone that meant that it was not safe for postal workers to even come to the house to deliver mail. Very rough neighborhood when he bought the house in 1999. When we bought our house in 2009, things were a great deal better, which is kind of why we decided that it was fine to move here.”
He and his wife Peggy had lived in a railroad flat in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood for 35 years before moving to Poughkeepsie to purchase their Addams Family-type Victorian.
“And what Is this Witchcraft District? What does that even mean?” asks Dunne.
“Oh, okay, well, the Witchcraft District was something that Joe coined, to kind of mean the state of mind of a number of us who live here, who kind of are interested in that sort of thing. Like, it was a catchy phrase. Joe considered himself a witch, rather than a warlock. That just seemed to work for him, that terminology. He was of Italian descent, the whole Strega kind of idea, witches who throw curses, he kind of liked that idea. That was sort of part of his, his very much larger than life persona,” says Gilmore. “And we have other friends who are interested in, in various aspects of occultism and spell casting and all these sort of witchy things, like Ouija boards and Tarot decks and such. So we kind of loosely started calling ourselves the Witchcraft District. It's not necessarily a geographical location, but more like a state of mind. So we had kind of cooked up the, an idea for a logo for it, especially because Poughkeepsie has these sort of historic interest signs around town. So we did our own parody of it. And one of our good friends, actually, she was a graphic designer, worked it up and it looked perfect. It was done in imitation, you know, a very close imitation, but to be a parody of the local Poughkeepsie historic interest signs, and we have some on our houses. Actually, Joe received his a year from a year from, a year ago, not last Halloween, the year before, because he had stroked the day after that Halloween, and never even got the hang the sign on his house.”
Gilmore wonders about a motive.
“I can't be sure, I would think that if it had been something that was related to Joe, you know, he's been, who’s been dead for about a year, so it's kind of late to be trying to go after Joe. Although it could be somebody wanting to erase the legacy of the house, which was essentially Joe's greatest creation, but the collection of things in it, the look of the house, the gardening and plantings. Joe was really somebody who was very interested in, in plants and gardening. And the place when it was in full bloom was amazing, with all kinds of rare things throughout the property," Gilmore says. "He kind of saw himself almost like a dark side, Martha Stewart and giving gardening suggestions for people. And we'd go to all the major gardens in Dutchess County, and north and south of here, just for inspiration. So he actually stimulated us to be to do some interesting plantings in our property.”
“He was in the house, you said you know that they, they got out…” says Dunne.
“Oh Matthew, yeah, yeah,” says Gilmore.
“Yeah. So I mean, you know, any enemies there?” Dunne asks.
“Matthew Camp is a well-known LGBTQ+ performer. His Twitter feed has all kinds of very graphic sexual imagery because he performs in porn films. He's also a clothing designer. He does scents and things. But he's very, very well known in that field. He has many, many followers on social media. And of course, when somebody has that kind of fame, it also brings negative attention. They'll be jealous people, they'll be stalkers,” says Gilmore. “And so it could be somebody who's anti-LGBTQ, somebody who's anti-pornography, somebody who didn't like the aesthetics of Joe's house.”
“How much do you contribute to the revitalization of Poughkeepsie?” Dunne asks. “I mean, this is an area you described in 1999. I mean, postal workers wouldn't deliver mail there. So obviously, it's undergone revitalization.”
“Well, the folks who are part of the Witchcraft District have contributed to Poughkeepsie by buying homes and fixing them. Most of the homes that we've all purchased have been, generally speaking, broken down, in need of a great deal of assistance, or they would have probably been torn down. So Joe's house was built in 1870, ours from 1877. Ours is on the National Register. And it was a crack house when we bought it. There was a meth lab in the dining room, with windows all boarded up,” says Gilmore. “So what we did is we saved architectural gems, and brought them back, even though we've taken kind of a phantasmagorical approach to revitalizing them, we've made them interesting with, with fixing up the yards, doing exotic plantings, putting in beautiful fencing. So these homes that were becoming eyesores and dangerous spots, because they were filled with criminals, are now oases of sort of dark splendor in the neighborhood.”
“Did Joe do his house kind of as a testament to Ed Wood because wasn't Ed Wood born in Poughkeepsie? asks Dunne.
“Yes, well, actually, Joe didn't really do his house as a testament to Ed Wood. He did it as a testament to himself because Joseph aesthetics were that way. I mean, Joe was well known for designing one of the first gay-themed greeting card lines in the world when he worked for Rock Shots company. So it, it, and he's, his, his approach has always been a very Vincent Price approach, He would watch Vincent Price’s movies and know Vincent Price for also being an LGBTQ person, that he was kind of his avatar,” Gilmore says. “But Joe really admired Ed Wood’s movies. And because he was from Poughkeepsie, he was trying to create a monument to be placed here in Poughkeepsie for him. We even did a screening of ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’ to raise the money. We had to design for a monument, but, ultimately, it never really fully got off the ground. But Joe, even though he wasn't born in Poughkeepsie, he's a Westchester guy, he really kind of felt very much in simpatico with Ed Wood, who was somebody who was, again, an outsider, who was very creative and considered very bizarre by the people who knew him. So there was a very much a link of interesting fellow outsiders between the two.”
“What would you like to see in that spot?” Dunne asks.
“Joe's home looks to me to be very seriously structurally damaged. So I don't expect that it's something that could be renovated and brought back. I would think that that's highly unlikely. So since Joe was so much involved with gardening, he would have loved to have seen the, what's left on the property of his beautiful plantings. And he did in the back of koi pond, and he built in by itself an arched bridge that goes over it. And he also had a waterwheel that came off the house that whenever it rained, the rain would cause it to spin. It was really kind of fantastic to see. And he, for his firewood, he built kind of a building with like a witch hat roof, that all of the cord wood was stored around to make the walls of. So he really had this amazing setup of a garden and pathways,” Gilmore says. “So if the house is bulldozed and filled in, just filling in the rest of the garden, and making it a little mini park that would celebrate the essence of Joe and maybe Ed Wood well, the kind of a place that celebrates the wonderful, unusual people who found Poughkeepsie to be their home.”
In fact, plans for a museum were in the works before the fire.
“Joe's house was, again, this amazing museum of his collections of things that he created and things that he collected, from oddities to artwork and sculpture and such. But, it was, the catalog was just about done, all of the contents of the place, and the beginnings of the ground floor being a museum to Joe were well underway, that there was some showcases set up with some of the most wonderful choice selections from his collection. And there were new arrangements being made of some of the, the objects there to make it not so much a living space but as a place that people could come in and experience them in this museum-like setting, definitely a museum of the macabre," Gilmore says. "And having that destroyed by fire really robs people of getting to experience the legacy of Joe Netherworld.”
Joe Mendillo died in January 2020.