Great American Eccentrics
Eccentric American Hermits: 18th & 19th Centuries

The book American Eccentrics by Carl Sifakis (1984, reprinted as Great American Eccentrics in 1994) includes eight hermits -- plus many recluses (in this book typically hidden in hotels within New York City) and many "eccentrics" who do not classify as either hermits or recluses. Here are the selections about hermits.

1. Anonymous (early 19th century) - VIRGINIA
We know not why or when the Old Hermit of Western Virginia went to his cave, but a broadside around 1817 tells his tale. In June 1816, John Fielding and Captain James Buckland went west from their Virginia homes to explore the wilderness. Their mapmaking was not as hardy and disciplined as their chronicling, and we do not know where precisely they were after 73 days of forded rivers and streams, scaled peaks, crossed flatlands, and battles with and evasions of wild beasts. But on an unnamed mountain they happened upon a cave and were startled indeed when, in answer to their shouts a precaution in case of animals dwelling within a hermit stepped out to greet them.

He was ragged and bearded, but extremely talkative. He was only too happy to tell them who he was, save for his name. He said he was born in London in 1589. His visitors were a bit puzzled. Did he not know that it was now 1816? The hermit nodded in agreement, noting that that was about the date he thought it to be. Then he went on. His father was an ordinary laborer, but he was fortunate enough to be placed with a landed gentlemen who saw to it that he received an education.

The boy thrived in his wholesome surroundings and, as was probably inevitable, he fell in love with his master's daughter. The noble's charity soon turned to boiling anger, in response to this. He forced them apart, a fate that proved too stern for the daughter, who died of grief. The boy too was sorrow-struck, and he ran away, shaking the dust of the English countryside from his boots. He made his way to the Continent, living by his wits until he reached Italy, where he shipped out as a sailor.

He was aboard a vessel that foundered off the American coast, and the youth, separated from the rest of the survivors, if indeed there were any, began a long vagrancy that pulled him further and further west. He evaded Indians, and when at last he came upon the cave that was to be his home, he decided to remain there; it seemed to be a safe refuge from the savages. The more the men questioned the hermit, the more he convinced them that his knowl edge of the outside world ended in the early 1600s. He knew of Good Queen Bess and allegedly of little thereafter.

Some observers have speculated that "Messrs. Buckland and Fielding might have fabricated their tale, but they seemed to be of "sound reputation." It could be that the hermit had heard of En gland s magnificent old man, Thomas Parr, who lived to be 152 years old and died in 1635, after having been presented at court, and who was honored by being buried at Westminster Abbey. Per haps the hermit of the cave thought to outdo Old Parr, moving back his birth year in order to do so. But a man seldom achieves fame by hiding from the world. The blandishments of his visitors were not enough to lure the hermit the oldest American? from his wil derness home for the trivial comforts of civilization. As he pointed out, the animals were most gracious to him. Nightly they emerged from the forests and danced before his cave. Our anonymous hermit, whoever he was, evidently knew his Orpheus as well.

2. John McQuain (fl. 1770s) - MASSACHUSETTS

The word "mankind" is no favorite with present-day feminists, but in the 1770s, in the neighborhood of Waterford, Massachusetts, there thrived a hermit farmer who can only be described as a dedicated hater of womankind. John McQuain left Bolton and showed up in Waterford as a young man in his twenties. He clearly demonstrated a dislike for women, shuffling away with downcast eyes when one approached him. What caused this strange but consistent reaction, which clearly went beyond shyness an uncaring mother, an object of his affection who did not return his love? No one knew,  but it soon became apparent to McQuain that he could not hope to avoid females in Waterford or anywhere else in civilization. And so he moved deeper into the forest, building a hut on a distant plot of land for $40. He owned no household furnishings other than a pail, a dish, and a spoon; all else he apparently held to be too feminine. His only companion was a dog male.

For a number of years McQuain worked his land alone, clearing away trees and sowing crops. As he prospered, he kept extending his holdings, until he had 800 acres and 40 head of cattle. As his work load increased, he brought in day laborers, men only.

However, none of the workers would take care of the cows, since they considered that to be a dairymaid chore. But McQuain would have no maiden, spouse, spinster, or widow on his land, and was content simply to dump the milk as feed for his hogs. The hogs waxed enormously on this rich diet and fetched huge prices.

Not once is it recorded that McQuain ever left his tract, although he proved to be a generous host whenever male passersby visited him. Food and liquor issued forth in generous volumes, but whenever McQuain was invited to return the visit or come to town, he demurred, explaining the farm required his constant presence.

If McQuain lost popularity with the women of Waterford, the townsmen and certain of the town fathers thought highly of him. His farm was so prosperous that he paid double the tax for any other landholding of like size. On several occasions, married men tried to imitate McQuain s success in deep-forest farming, taking their wives along. But all failed miserably. On the McQuain farm, cider and liquor flowed freely when McQuain learned of each failure, but he was never recorded as saying what he thought accounted for the misadventures of the married men.

With the passing years McQuain s history becomes lost, perhaps because he became a pariah to some. He made his own way, with a lonely sort of dignity, but his was clearly not the way for all mankind.

3. Francis Adam Joseph Phyle (d. 1778) - NEW JERSEY

For almost 25 years in the 18th century, Mount Holly, New Jersey, hosted a penitential cave dweller about whom little was known. The local citizenry knew not his name, and he, speaking no more than a few words of English, provided them with none. Yet from the 1750s perhaps 1755, but no one was sure when the hermit took up residence he was treated with general kindness and charity.

In 1758, 21 year-old Hannah Callender of Philadelphia recorded in her diary a trip through New Jersey, during which she "Went to see the Hermit in a wood this side of Mount Holly. He is a person thought to travel along from Canada or the Mississippi about ten years ago, living in the woods ever since, partly on the charity of the neighborhood, partly on the fruits of the earth. He talks no English and will give no account of himself."

For the next 20 years the hermit resided in his cave on some land belonging to Joseph Burr. There is no record of Burr himself learning very much about his tenant, but this hardy farmer never allowed his farmhands to clear that portion of the land or disturb the hermit in any way.

One who finally did get some facts out of him was Surgeon Albigence Waldo of Connecticut, who conversed with him in Latin and German, although he found the hermit also spoke Italian and Spanish. It later was learned that he spoke French as well By the time of his conversation with Surgeon Waldo, he had survived some 20 years on wild berries, water, bread, and whatever other food neighbors brought him.

The hermit s home was a cave that he had dug out under a large oak uprooted by a storm. So shallow that it just allowed him to sit up, it was covered over with boards and bark, to provide him with both blanket and roof. The cave was lined with old clothes and rags given him by neighbors. This provided him with his sole additional source of warmth; he never lit or even approached a fire, regardless of how extreme the cold weather was.

The hermit described his small cell as his "grave," informing Surgeon Waldo that God had ordered him in a dream to live in that fashion. He was a man of deep religious convictions. He had a number of Latin books as well as others, and each day he knelt before a certain tree to pray. He wore a crucifix around his neck; he would kiss the hand of any visitor and then his crucifix. He accepted all gifts except money, but he seldom left his wooded area unless completely out of food, when he went begging from door to door. Whatever he was handed, he accepted with gratitude and blessed the giver. Only once was he subjected to any cruelty. That happened when he was still wearing a long beard, which he did up under his chin. A group of boys fell on him and cut it off. There after he kept his beard trimmed short.

After Surgeon Waldo's visit, the hermit talked to others who could understand him. He explained that God had informed him that if he remained in such a penitential state until he was 80 he could come out purified and live in general society.

With the outbreak of revolutionary fighting, the hermit was subjected to fierce firepower when an engagement took place in his area in 1777. The hermit simply remained underground as musket balls whistled above him.

Neighbors were much relieved when they (bund he had survived the battle, but the hermit s days were numbered; he was not to reach the age of 80. On January 19, 1778, a neighbor trudged through the snow to bring him food, and he found the hermit prostrate and feverish. He refused the neighbor s offer to come to his home, however, and the following morning a number of neighbors found the old man dead, crucifix in his hand. He was buried in the Friends burial ground at Mount Holly.

Only after his death was the hermit identified. There was a welter of wrong accounts, some of which dubbed him Francis Furgler. Actually his name was Francis Adam Joseph Phyle. He had revealed this in 1756, through an interpreter, to Colonel Charles Read. Read, a member of the Supreme Court, had respected Phyle's desire to lose himself and his identity.

In 1756, though, he had explained to the colonel that he'd been born in Lucerne, Switzerland; he had joined the French Army and seen duty in Canada. After killing an opponent in a duel, he deserted the army and took to wandering in New York and New Jersey, searching for a place of penitence for his awful sin. A 102-page pamphlet entitled The Hermit Or an account of Francis Adam Joseph Phyle appeared in 1788. It proved so popular it went through a second printing.

4. Sarah Bishop (1753-1810) - NEW YORK & CONNECTICUT

It would be difficult indeed for the world to experience a war that  did not suffer from predictable atrocities. For young girls the fate is an obvious one. For Sarah Bishop of Long Island, N.Y., about 27 years old in the middle of the American Revolution, that suffering was to lead to her isolation from society, years later gaining for her the sobriquet of the "Atrocity Hermitess."

In the argot of the time it was noted, "Her father s house was burnt by the British, and she was cruelly treated by a British officer." Sarah herself attested to that fact in later years, when she occasionally talked to strangers about why she took up the solitary life. The English, entranced as always by the acts of an eccentric, studied her case with deep interest; an early 19th century publication in that country explained her motivation for withdrawal from life by reporting that "she was often heard to say that she had no dread of any animal on earth but man."

Dispossessed of home and virtue, Sarah Bishop left Long Island and ended up trudging the hills around Ridgefield, Conn., finally taking her abode in a cave located in a perpendicular descent of rock just across from the New York state line. The country, which is still wild today, was even thicker then, and offered shelter for deer, bear, and foxes. Like Albert Large, the Pennsylvania "Wolf Man," she feared no wild beasts and, according to a contemporary account, they "were so accustomed to see her, that they were not afraid of her presence." Indeed, they could count on her sharing the remains of her rations.

Ridgefield over the years got occasional glimpses of the hermitess; she appeared in town once in a while to attend Sunday church services. Seldom did she speak a word to anyone, quickly returning to her solitary refuge.

She had cleared a section of woods, a rich half-acre, and there cultivated all the provisions she required. She grew corn, cucumbers, potatoes, and beans. Peach trees and wild grapes abounded nearby, and close to her cave was a fine spring which she shared with the wild beasts.

As she aged into her fifties, she was not a graceful sight. Her clothes were a mass of rags done up in patchwork, and her uncombed gray hair fell around her face and below her shoulders. Her cave was not kept secret from the curious for long. The presence of strangers frightened her so that generally she retreated to her cave, barricading its opening with tree stumps she had removed from the land. At times, however, she could be coaxed to talk by those who gained her confidence. Some people even entered her cave, which consisted of a single room devoid of all furnishings. Her bed was made of rags on a rock ledge. She had no utensils but an old pewter basin and a gourd shell. Only in the stormiest and coldest of weather did she indulge herself with a fire; when the heavy snows hit, she hibernated for weeks at a time, surviving on vegetables, roots, nuts, and berries she had gathered in the woods.

Visitors to her cave in 1804 were quoted in a Poughkeepsie, New York, newspaper as saying, "We conversed with her for some time, found her to be of sound mind, a religious turn of thought, and entirely happy in her situation; of this she has given repeated proofs by refusing to quit this dreary abode. She keeps a Bible with her, and says she takes much satisfaction, and spent much time in reading it."

There is no evidence of anyone ever persecuting or harassing Sarah Bishop. Though it may be hard to prove, there seems to have been a greater tolerance of "touched" people in the early years of this nation. Her withdrawal from life may not have been approved of, but there existed a general attitude of letting "a body lead a body s own life." The Atrocity Hermitess was accepted for what she had been and what she becameright up until the time of her death in 1810.

5. Robert the Hermit (1769-1832) - WASHINGTON, DC to NEW ENGLAND
[see also this Hermitary article for more on Robert the Hermit]

One of the most famous of New England's recluses, Robert the Hermit could tell a tale that had all the makings of a tragic epic. It explains why New Englanders referred to him as the "bitterest hermit in America." During the last 17 years of his life Robert was virtually devoid of any interest in humanity. Occasionally, when a person happened upon him, Robert looked through the passerby as he might a pane of glass. There was a rare exception, however. He made the acquaintance of a now-unknown author, which resulted in a 36-page pamphlet telling his life story, explaining why he wanted no intercourse with his readers.

He was a bitter man, having been buffeted by the fates; few who knew his story saw fit, during the hermit s last years, to challenge his right to his feelings. Indeed, concerned parents threatened their young with strict punishment if they ever threw rocks at Robert's abode. Some New England abolitionists saw in his story the evils of slavery, which would not be as movingly portrayed again until the 1850s, with Eliza's sad plight in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Robert was born in Princeton, New Jersey, around 1769 or 1770. His mother was of African descent and in bondage, and his father was "a pure white, blooded Englishman," a man of considerable eminence. His master moved to Georgetown, D.C., when Robert was four years old, after which time Robert knew no more of his mother.

For a time in his early teens Robert was apprenticed to a shoemaker, but eventually he was returned to his master s estate, where he worked as a gardener until he was 20. By that time Robert had met Alley Pennington, a black freewoman, who agreed to marry him if he could gain his freedom. But his master had no interest in losing his investment in Robert without reward; finally the young bonded black got a supposed good friend, James Bevens, to lend him 50 so he could buy his freedom.

Robert pledged to eventually pay off his bond, plus interest, through his labors, and he was able to marry Alley. Within three years the couple had two children and Robert had managed to pay off a large portion of his bond. However, he neglected to obtain receipts, considering Bevens an honest and true friend.

Late one evening as Robert and his family sat at the dinner table, Bevens and another man descended on their cabin, seized Robert and hauled him in shackles to a schooner bound for Charleston. There Robert was sold into slavery once again.

After a few weeks Robert escaped from his new owner and managed to smuggle himself aboard a sloop bound for Philadelphia. Doing without food and water, he made it to Philadelphia undiscovered. There he met a Quaker to whom he revealed his  plight. The man gave him some money and promised to bring him more aid the following day. However, people in Robert's lodging suspected him of being an escaped slave and reported him.

Robert was jailed and finally returned to his Charleston master. Deciding Robert was incorrigible, his owner had him auctioned off again. This time Robert was bought by a Dr. Peter Fersue, for whom he labored eighteen months until escaping, this time by secreting himself in an empty cask on a Boston-bound vessel. After five days in hiding, hunger and thirst forced him from his hiding place. Fortunately, the captain was a Quaker who offered him food and drink and, on landing, turned him free on the docks.

Robert dared not try to get back to the Washington area to his family for fear of being retaken. Instead he signed aboard a ship for India. When he returned, he shipped out a second time; for a total of nine years he was a deckhand on ships traveling all over the world.

When on shore he generally stayed with a Salem woman who had three daughters. Despairing of ever seeing his wife and children again, he finally married one of the girls. He rented a small house for his wife, her mother, and her sisters; he sailed off again, returning to find he was a father.

After that he shipped out for China, a voyage that took 18 months. This was too long a time for his young wife who refused to accept him back.

Disconsolate, he moved out and took a berth with a shipping line operating out of New York. Nine more years passed a full 20 since he had been ripped away from his beloved Alley and their two children. Finally, he shipped to Baltimore and then headed for Georgetown in search of his long-lost family. All he found were rumors that Alley had died of despair shortly after he was taken. The children, left alone and helpless, soon suffered the same fate as their mother. Bevens had long since gone West.

Robert moved to Rhode Island, where he built a hut on the tip of Fox Point. "I then felt but little desire to live," Robert says. "There was nothing then remaining to attach me to this world and it was at that moment I formed a determination to retire from it, to become a recluse, and mingle thereafter as little as possible with human society."

Later on, some rowdy youths forced him to seek out a yet more isolated hut near the Washington Bridge. Once a week or so he wandered into Providence for a few necessities and talk to one or two acquaintances. Most persons, however, he totally ignored. With the publication of Robert the Hermit s story in 1829 he aroused a good deal of sympathy, and parents took care that their young left him in peace.

Still Robert the Hermit remained embittered with society and the fate it had saddled upon him.

He died April 1, 1832. An obituary in the Providence Journal read:

In Seekonk, yesterday morning, at his Hermitage, near Washington Bridge, Robert, generally known as Robert the Hermit, aged three score years and ten. He lived a solitary life, rejecting the society of man and communing alone with his God. Funeral this afternoon at one o clock, from his late residence.

The funeral was well attended.

6. Albert Large (early 19th century) - PENNSYLVANIA

An unrequited affair of the heart caused Albert Large to trek off into the Pennsylvania woods to become a 19th-century "wolf man." He was, at the time, in his thirties and, to the residents of Bucks County, a bit queer. He d been that way since early youth. The effort to keep him in school was truly a lost cause. Sent off to the little red schoolhouse, he followed his feet on other paths, straying into the woods away from the cares and worries of book learning. His mother died and was replaced by a stepmother who cared little what he did save that, as he got older, she undoubtedly wished he would leave the family fireside.

Albert himself got to thinking that way when, in his thirties, he set his sights on a girl living down the valley. A beauty she was, so it would be hard to imagine what she could see in Albert. Rejected time and again, Albert finally concluded he was unwanted by her, his own family, almost everybody. So Albert left.

There was in Bucks County a certain hilltop popularly called Wolfs Rock because it was known that she-wolves found it a safe area for their litters. Humans, even hunters, generally avoided the area, Albert however had often trekked over the hill in quest of solitude, and now that he wanted to make the condition permanent, he set up housekeeping there.

The wolves? There is no evidence they wanted any more to do with him than had their human counterparts.

Albert cleaned out a small cave and proceeded to fix it up for housekeeping. It sported a kitchen, with a crevice for a chimney, and a separate, boarded-off bedroom, just in case wolves slipped into the cave at night.

Albert was not a true cave dweller. By day, he shut off his cave with a large rock and trekked through the woods. By night, he slipped down into the valley and raided hen roosts, stealing other provisions. He even stole jugs of liquor. Albert was not the sort to be without the human comforts, even if he had forsaken human company.

Albert proved a good provider and, when winter set in, he could hole up in his cave for weeks on end, gorging on stolen food and slugging down stolen liquor.

Remarkably, Albert managed to stay out of sight for more than 20 years. Indeed, his family and neighbors had searched for him when he was first missed. They scoured the countryside but never found his cave up in Wolfs Rock. In time, he was presumed dead.

So it was electrifying news when on April 9, 1858, some hunters followed wolf tracks up to Albert s cave, to encounter the love sick Hermit of Wolfs Rock, as he was subsequently called. To the folks of the valley, it was as if Albert Large had returned from the dead. He became something of a folk hero, queer perhaps, but a
man of some accomplishment, having conquered the wilds for two whole decades.

Of course, in time, some thought was given to the 20 years of farm and town depredation. There was no way to gauge how many people had falsely suspected their neighbors of stealing from them. This was no concern to Albert Large however. He soon vanished into the woods again. Wolves, he discovered anew, were better company than humans.

7. Joe Higginbotham (mid-19th century) - COLORADO

Like another nomadic prospector named Dan Pound, Joe Higginbotham, called Buckskin Joe because he always wore buck skins, wandered the high mountain country of Colorado in search of gold during the Rush of 59. However, he was at heart not a prospector but a man seeking the freedom of solitude.

The world Buckskin Joe craved was that consisting of a burro, bag of beans, water cans, pick, shovel, gun, and blanket. He loved this new land, and he loved the mountains; he undoubtedly reveled in being the first white man, maybe even ahead of the red man, to explore this particular mountain or to happen onto that small valley or drink from this spring. No one thought Buckskin Joe queer. After all, he was prospecting and that meant "goin where others ain t."

Imagine Higginbotham's surprise -- no, horror -- when he awoke one morning by a huge rock he had used as a windbreak during the night, and he caught the unmistakable glint of gold in some crevices. Just below was a stream and sure enough, there was gold, lots of it, in the water too. This was exactly how many claims were found by pure blind luck.

Joe got hold of a jug and got himself liquored up and promptly told the first prospector he ran into of his find. Higginbotham knew what he was doing. Soon men would be all over the area mining for gold. In fact, the mining camp was named Buckskin Joe in honor of its discoverer. Not that that meant anything to Higginbotham; he had long vanished, never earningfor himself evenan ounce of gold.

Happily, there was still unmapped country out there, where the true richness of life could be found. And while men dug and fought and killed back in Buckskin Joe, Buckskin Joe himself was trudging the wilderness. What he was seeking, perhaps even he did not know, but he was content. He could hardly care that back in
Buckskin Joe they were calling him a "crazy coot."

8. Dan Pound (mid-19th century) - COLORADO

They were dubbed prospectors or desert rats, but among them were many who were more like hermits, eager to escape civilization. As disguise, these men called by Irving Stone the "breed of hunter-nomad who pretend to search for gold but do not really want to find it" went about with their jackasses, picks, shovels, guns, and blanket rolls. They lived in the great outdoors, hunted and survived on game. When they so much as saw smoke curling upward on the horizon, they moved on, viewing it, whether of white or red man s origin, as the unwelcome sign of civilization.

Grizzled Daniel Pound was one of these, having for years prospected, first in the California hills apparently and later, in 1859, in the Pike s Peak area of Colorado. He carried through his hoax of prospecting to the extent of sometimes even building sluice boxes to wash out the dirt from the rocks he mined. It made for a cover
story that indicated there was nothing queer about him, that he led his solitary life because of a need for secrecy to protect his potential finds. What Pound was really searching for was solitude.

But even in the mountain paradise where few men trod, some times another prospector, one serious about his vocation, found him. One day in South Park, a prospector gazed into Pound's panand cried; "You've got gold there!"

"The hell you say," Pound answered. It was for him the moment of truth. Pound kicked over his sluice boxes, loaded his pick, shovel, blanket roll, and rifle on his patient burro and disappeareddeeper into the mountains.