The term ‘hermit,’ generally conjures up in one’s mind, a recluse, a person whose self-induced isolation has occurred primarily as the result of mental instability or enhanced eccentricity. Yet individuals have become ‘hermits’ for a variety of reasons throughout the ages. Those in America’s past often became such out of tragedy, in an attempt to flee from those sites and individuals which reminded them of their loss, pain, or crime.
To the early Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches, ‘hermitage’ and ‘monasticism’ were not frowned upon, but revered as a ways & means by which one could focus on the spiritual, free from outside temptations or distractions. Much of our Classical history & literature derives in part from such individuals, who were willing to painstakingly copy by hand, the works of past scholars.
In the late 17th-century, a group of ‘German Pietists,’ steeped in alchemy, along with Christian & Jewish mysticism, would immigrate to Philadelphia, and become known as the ‘Hermits of the Wissahickon,’ with their leader, Johannes Kelpius, choosing to reside in a cave, or the Laurea, near Germantown, awaiting the coming of “the Heavenly Bridegroom” or Christ.
Though he firmly believed he would not die or his body decay, Kelpius not long before his demise, instructed his disciple, one Daniel Geissler, to cast a box or casket, known as the Arcanum, into the Schuylkill river, which afterwards “exploded, and for a time flashes of lightning and peals like thunder came from out of the water.”
Not all American ‘hermits’ isolated themselves for religious purposes, such as Francis Adam Joseph Phyle (also known as Francis Furgler), who died at the age of sixty-six in 1778, having lived near Mt. Holly, in Burlington County, New Jersey for over twenty-five years, secluded in the forest, where he made his bed within a hole dug into the earth, “under a large white oak,”covered only by a wooden board.
Famed Revolutionary War surgeon, Albigence Waldo, in his diary entry for November 19, 1777, states that Phyle professed he had been “warned of God in a remarkable Dream,” when he arrived in America from Germany to lead his life of isolation, until the age of eighty, when he would then be “purified” enough to live with the rest of humanity, since it was reported that he had either, “murdered his own sister,” or had “killed a Gentleman in a Duel” while serving as an officer in the French army.
William Hewitt, who died in 1834 at the age of seventy, was known far and wide as the “Scioto Hermit,” residing primarily in a cave in various counties in southern Ohio. He was a large man who dressed like a stereotypical frontiersman in deerskin, “from his cap to his moccasins,” described as a “buckskin clad Robinson Crusoe,” that purportedly fled Virginia after having killed his unfaithful wife’s “paramour” or lover and went Westward. Others who knew him stated Hewitt had left Virginia to lead a solitary life, after the death of his father, in order to escape his ‘avaricious’ relatives who quarreled over the estate.
Perhaps the most tragic account of a ‘hermit’ in American history, comes from the Diaries kept by Robert Patterson, whose former mansion site is now occupied by ‘The Historical Society of Pennsylvania,’ on 13th & Locust Streets in Philadelphia.
Patterson kept a number of very detailed journals, of a trip he’d made from Philadelphia to various ‘Western’ states, from Kentucky to Iowa during the year 1835. Some fifty miles north of Alton, Illinois, he came to a sparsely settled community called ‘Cassaw Gris,’ the home of a mysterious but respected individual referred to as the ‘Hermit of the Cape.’
As Patterson relates, “the history of this unfortunate individual would furnish a good ground work for a sensation novel.”
Robert Patterson Journal
, Volume II
It appears that the unnamed ‘Hermit,’ years previous to Patterson’s visit, was holding a party on his wedding night, when “a band of Indians rushed into the house, seized the bride that was to be and some others and fled to the prairie.”
After collecting a party for pursuit, the newly married husband retrieved his bride, but all were “waylaid, forced into a large sink hole…and all shot but the groom. Some days afterward he was found in a state of derangement, with the corpse of his betrothed lashed to his back.”
The rescue party found the remains of the family & friends of the groom and deceased bride, “by observing a number of birds of prey who were hovering over the sink, circling the spot and occasionally descending to partake of the hideous feast.”
Later, the widower or “bereaved groom,” built a small hut at ‘Cape Gray,’ where he remained in seclusion until his death, a few years prior to 1835. According to Patterson, the only time the ‘Hermit’ was known to have ventured out of his place of solitude after the above trajedy was when in association with other pioneers, he went on an expedition,
“against the same tribe of Indians who had murdered his bride. In the battle that ensued he behaved with distinguished bravery and killed the Chief who had led the assault on his family.The settlers speak of him with great respect. Some call him the ‘Indian Hater,’ others have given him the more romantic appellation of the “Hermit of the Cape.”
Truly ‘American History’ is filled with colorful and tragic accounts of many individuals whose experiences in life determined their actions. But other ‘hermits’ (and there were many) passed away on the frontier and elsewhere utterly nameless, and the motives for their conduct are now lost to the curious seeker, as well as their bones or places of burial, if interred at all.
The above narratives and their documentation, like those of previous entries contained within this ‘blog,’ may be found here at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, along with many other examples of ignored, forgotten or little-known, ‘Hidden Histories.’