The Mysterious Lives of Appalachian Hermits

The Appalachian Mountains are rich in hermit history and lore, most of which has been forgotten by scholars and historians. And this isn’t surprising, since hermits, due to their status as self-imposed exiles and social critics, often function as mere footnotes to the mainstreams of cultural narration. The Appalachian hermit tradition isn’t one of religious mysticism or Transcendentalism, nothing that can be encapsulated in a fancy term. It features no famous recluses like Henry David Thoreau, whose experiment at Walden Pond was short-lived and barely displaced from civic networks. It is, rather, a gritty folk tradition characterized by wild eccentricity and fantasy. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century travelogues and newspapers—typically in late chapters or in odd corners, such as obituary columns—are the primary conveyors of these historical fairy tales.  

William Wilson as depicted in an early printing of The Pennsylvania Hermit, ca. 1838.

In 1786, The Vermont Journal published an account of a vegetarian hermit in an unknown part of the Allegheny Mountain frontier who claimed to have lived for 228 years on a diet of roots, acorns, and fruits. Similar to Rip Van Winkle, he had received no news of the budding nation called the United States. A hermit in West Virginia invented a revolutionary embalming fluid; an undertaker visited him to learn the secret, and found a collection of perfectly-preserved human and animal corpses like princesses in glass coffins, which the hermit claimed “he had obtained years ago.” 1 Another West Virginia “hermit scientist” abandoned civilization in the late 1890s to construct a flying machine. His machine, which had an internal system of muscles, was a kind of Batman suit with wings that spread like kites, allowing him to “soar” on the wind.2

Early American broadside: “Account of the Wonderful Old Hermit’s Death and Burial—Aged Two Hundred Twenty Eight Years,” 1788.

An obscure hermit from Maine squeezed himself into a wooden barrel during the winter months.3 And Maine, like West Virginia, produced a hermit scientist when Galileo appeared to the anchorite Samuel Fall in a vision sometime in the 1860s: “the philosopher’s ghost then promised to impart to Farmer Fall the long-sought secret [of perpetual motion] and then disappeared,” thus inspiring Fall to dedicate his life to the mechanical mystery.4 A cave-dwelling wild man from Tennessee was captured by two rogues intending to exhibit him in circuses across the nation. Oliver Elmore dug a hole in a hillside and lived there, hobbit-like, sharing his hole with animals. One Pennsylvanian hermit charmed birds. The obituary of another Pennsylvania recluse communicated no personal information—we only know he was eaten by rats. And in the Pennsylvania mountains a hermit claimed to be the nearly 2,000-year-old Wandering Jew who couldn’t die until Christ’s resurrection. Even the oldest pioneers that “penetrated the virgin forests” remembered him; he kept a cache of ancient Hebrew manuscripts and an expression of “unutterable sadness” never left his face. 5

The Hermit of Maine playing his unique instrument, combination of two organs and a piano, 1936.

The blend of fiction and nonfiction surrounding Appalachian hermits lends their stories the qualities of tall tales, reflecting the countless exaggerations of fact and scale in early American history, a time when many geographic spaces were mysteries in Euro-American minds. It was thought, for instance, that a “ledge of rocks [was] 12 miles high” in New Hampshire, that certain rivers ran so thick with fish one could walk across their backs, and that the mountains of Georgia and North Carolina held ten times more gold than they actually did.6

George Washington’s map, accompanying his “Journal to the Ohio,” 1754.

The majority of American hermits, real and imaginary, past and present, materialize in the mountains. The geographies of mountains are labyrinthine, like gothic castles with imposing obstacles, secret dungeons, and strange nooks (a trope that 18th-century novelists like Charles Brockden Brown made astonishing use of in his depiction of the Pennsylvania frontier). Hermits, so in touch with the land, molded themselves to the intricate folds of rock and forest. Some viewed themselves as kings of their particular mountain (and therefore offshoots of the imperialist legacy). Others adopted various Native American lifeways, or, being part-Cherokee or Catawba themselves, expressed environmental philosophies that were not a far cry from progressive eco-politics today.

Sign erected by the Hermit of Maine, 1936.

Scholars working within the field of Appalachian studies typically restrict their purview to the mountains south of the Mason-Dixon line or south of the Appalachian Regional Commission boundary in New York State; the justifications for this demarcation stem from perceived historical, cultural, and economic incoherences between the northern and southern mountain regions (and especially the strict regional logic reinforced by the Civil War and its aftermath). But the accounts of Appalachian hermits form one of the small links connecting the disparate histories of the Appalachian chain, from Alabama to Maine. Nineteenth-century documents show that southern Appalachian hermits varied in minor ways (if at all) from their northern counterparts. They tended to be less literate, to quote less poetry, but this wasn’t always the case. For example, a hermit from the Smoky Mountains, who was well-versed in Shakespeare, religion, mythology, philosophy, and geology, walked hundreds of miles to Atlanta to procure forty pounds of books and stopped in Macon, Georgia on his return journey, impressing the local elites with his extensive knowledge and oratorical prowess.7 Such stories undermine regional stereotypes of the time, which figured the southern backwoods population as foils to national intellectual ideals.

After reading dozens of hermit tales and obituaries, it’s hard to escape the impression that all these hermits are one hermit, or refractions of a single hermit prototype, protesting socio-cultural norms and offering alternatives to the mania for mass consumption, the subjugation of wage labor, and the proud aspirations of modernity.

1. “A Hermit’s Secret” in Mullica Hill Observer, April 1895.
2. “Has Learned to Fly: A Hermit Scientist Has Discovered the Secret of the Birds” in Pittsburg Commercial-Gazette, December 1892.
3. “A Hermit in Maine” in Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, August 1873.
4. “A Busy Hermit: Queer Maine Character Who Is Studying Perpetual Motion under the Tutelage of Galileo” in The Owyhee Avalanche, March 1899.
5. “Old Myth Recalled: A Pennsylvania Hermit Claims to Be the Wandering Jew” in The Atchison Daily Globe, July 1897.
6. Gorges, Thomas. The Letters of Thomas Gorges, Deputy Governor of the Province of Maine, 1640-1643. Edited by Robert E. Moody. Portland, Maine: Portland Historical Society, 1978, p. 115.
7. G “Queer Old Hermit” in The Macon Telegraph, April 1897.

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