Affiliation: Taconic Postcard Club
First: TPC Matters, Vol. 3, Issue 4, April 2003
Post card club newsletter editors may copy all or part of this
article for use in any club publication. Lockkeeper requests that
you notify firstname.lastname@example.org
of any intention to use this article and please, ascribe the article
to the original author.
A three part story of courage and determination.
Part I: Sarah Bishop: Hermitess of North Salem, New York by Denis Castelli
Introduction to Sarah Bishop and the stories told of her.
Number of words: 434. Illustrated with one postcard.
Part II: AMERICAN HERMITESS
Reprint of an account published in "The Telescope" Vol. IV - Saturday, May 3, 1828 - No. 49
Published weekly, by W. Beach, Editor and Proprietor
Number of words: 778. Illustrated with one photograph.
Part III: Sarah Bishop: from Recollections of a Lifetime by S. G. Goodrich
Reprint of Vol 1, pp. 292-299. NY: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1856.
Number of words: 1455. Illustrated with one photograph.
Bishop: Hermitess of North Salem, New York
BY Denis Castelli
The story of Sarah Bishop is an intriguing one, tied to the folklore of North Salem, South Salem and Waccabuc, New York and to Ridgefield, Connecticut. She lived for more than two decades as a hermit in a small cave beneath an outcropping on a mountainside in North Salem.
Few postcards exist to preserve her memory, and those that do were produced nearly a century after her death - nearly a century ago.
The records that tell her story are varied and most frequently appear in the form of a diary entry or newspaper account written by one of her contemporaries. Most reports are very brief and not very informative, but at least two sources survive that provide wonderful insights into this woman and her lifestyle.
In 1856, a Ridgefield resident named S.G. Goodrich published a substantial multi-volume memoir entitled "Recollections of a Lifetime." It included an eight-page section devoted to his encounters with Sarah Bishop when he was a youngster.
In 1828, a weekly newspaper called "The Telescope" included a story about Sarah Bishop that, upon reading, appears to result from a recent visit and interview by an unnamed reporter. However, the text of that article (almost verbatim) appears in Bolton's "History of Westchester County" published in 1848 and is there described as having been taken from a Poughkeepsie newspaper of 1804. That year provides a significant reference point, because the article estimates her age and the span of time she lived as a hermit.
Postcard of Sarah Bishop's Rock, North Salem, N.Y. (The right margin presents a brief biography of Sarah Bishop concluding with an account of her demise in 1809)
The reports are substantially consistent about Sarah Bishop's lifestyle, living quarters, personal habits, religious observance and her interaction with surrounding communities and families. These tales provide a snapshot, not only of this unusual woman, but also of those who encountered her in her travels.
Mr. Goodrich's account of Sarah Bishop clearly indicates that she was an "adopted" resident of Ridgefield, though no one disputes that her home was actually in North Salem. Ridgefield residents called the hill "West Mountain" and identified her cave as appearing on its eastern slope.The two accounts of Sarah Bishop, one from 1828 and the other from 1856, are so full of charm and character that it would be a disservice to the reader to summarize them in modern idiom. I chose instead to present them in their entirety.
The articles pre-date even the earliest American rules for punctuation and the use of capital letters, so modifications were made sparingly to make the text more readable. Where obsolete units of measure were presented, modern equivalents were added. Where age or spans of time are noted, an approximate year has been added. Each of these "footnotes" appears in square brackets within the text.
"The Telescope" Vol. IV - Saturday, May 3, 1828 - No. 49
Published weekly, by W. Beach, Editor and Proprietor
Sarah Bishop is a person of about 50 years of age. About thirty years ago [ca. 1774], she was a lady of considerable beauty, with a competent share of mental endowments and education.
She was possessed of a handsome fortune, but was of a tender and delicate constitution.
She enjoyed but a low degree of health, and could be hardly comfortable without constant recourse to medicine and careful attendance, and was often heard to say that she dreaded no animal on earth but man.
Disgusted with men, and consequently with the world, about twenty three years ago [ca. 1781] she withdrew herself from all human society, and in the bloom of life, resorted to the mountains which divide Salem from North Salem, near New York, where she has spent her days in a cave or rather cleft of the rock.
Yesterday I went in company of two Captain Smiths of this [New York] town to the mountain to visit the hermitage.
As you pass the southern and elevated ridge of the mountain and begin to descend to the southern steep, you meet with a perpendicular descent of a rock, in the front of which is this cave.
At the foot of this rock is a gentle descent of rich and fertile ground, extending about ten rods [165 feet] when it instantly forms a frightful precipice, descending half a mile to the pond called Long Pond. In the front of the rock, on the north where the cave is and level with the ground there appears a large frustum [geometric configuration] of the rock, of a double fathom [12 feet] to size, thrown out by some unknown convulsion of nature, and lying in front of the cavity from which it was rent, partly inclosing the mouth and forms the roof of this humble mansion.
This cavity is the habitation of the hermitess, in which she has passed the best of her years, excluded from all society. She keeps no domestic animals, not even fowl, cat, or dog. Her little plantation, consisting of half an acre, is cleared of its wood and reduced to grass where she has raised a few peach trees, and early plants a few hills of beans, cucumbers and potatoes.
Circa 1912 photo of Sarah Bishop's Rock
This photo is from the Keeler Collection at the
North Salem Historical Society
The whole is surrounded with a luxuriant grape vine, which overspreads the surrounding woods and it is very productive.
On the opposite side of this little tenement, is a fine fountain of excellent water. At this mountain we found the wonderful woman whose appearance it is a little difficult to describe. Indeed like nature in its first state, she was without form.
Her dress appeared little else than one confused and shapeless mass of rags, patched together without any order, which obscured all human shape excepting her head, which was clothed with a luxuriancy of lank gray hair depending on every side as time had formed it, without any covering or ornament.
When she discovered our approach, she exhibited the appearance of a wild and timid animal. She started and hastened to her cave, which she entered and barricaded the entrance with old branches pulled from the decayed trees. We approached this humble habitation, and after some conversation with its inmate, obtained liberty to remove the palisades [wooden obstacles] and look in for we were not able to enter, the room being only sufficient to accommodate one person.
We saw no utensil either for labor or cookery save an old pewter basin and a gourd shell; no bed but the solid rock, unless it were a few old rags scattered here and there. No bed clothes of any kind and not the least appearance of food or fire. She had indeed a place in one corner of the cell where a fire had at some time been kindled, but it did not appear there had been one for some months.
To confirm this, a gentleman says he passed her cell five or six days after the great fail of snow in the beginning of March, that she had no fire then, and had not been out of her cave since the snow had fallen. How she subsists during the severe seasons is a mystery; she says she eats but little flesh of any kind. In the summer she lives on berries, nuts and roots.
We conversed with her for some time, and found her to be of a 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 spends much time in reading it.
* * *
Sarah Bishop: from Recollections of a Lifetime by S. G. Goodrich
(Vol 1, pp. 292-299) NY: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1856.
Men hermits have been frequently heard of, but a woman hermit is of rare occurrence. Nevertheless, Ridgefield could boast of one of these among its curiosities. Sarah Bishop was, at the period of my boyhood, a thin, ghostly old woman, bent and wrinkled, but still possessing a good deal of activity.
She lived in a cave, formed by nature, in a mass of projecting rocks that overhung a deep valley or gorge in West Mountain. This was about four miles from our house, and was, I believe, actually within the limits of North Salem; but being on the eastern slope of the mountain, it was most easily accessible from Ridgefield, and hence its tenant was called an inhabitant of our town.
This strange woman was no mere amateur recluse. The rock-bare and desolate-- was actually her home, except that occasionally she strayed to the neighboring villages, seldom being absent more than one or two days at a time. She never begged, but received such articles as were given to her. She was of a highly religious turn of mind, and at long intervals came to our church, and partook of the sacrament.
She sometimes visited our family - the only one thus favored in the town - and occasionally remained overnight. She never would eat with us at the table, nor engage in general conversation. Upon her early history she was invariably silent; indeed, she spoke of her affairs with great reluctance. She neither seemed to have sympathy for others, nor to ask it in return. If there was any exception, it was only in respect to the religious exercises of the family: she listened intently to the reading of the Bible, and joined with apparent devotion in the morning and evening prayer.
Circa 1945 photo of Sarah Bishop's Rock
From "When Our Town Was Young"
I have very often seen this eccentric personage stealing into the church, or moving along the street, or wending her way through lane and footpath up to her mountain home. She always appeared desirous of escaping notice, and though her step was active, she had a gliding, noiseless movement, which seemed to ally her to the spirit-world.
In my rambles among the mountains, I have seen her passing through the forest, or sitting silent as a statue upon the prostrate trunk of a tree, or perchance upon a stone or mound, scarcely to be distinguished from the animate objects - wood, earth, and rock--around her.
She had a sense of propriety as to personal appearance, for when she visited the town, she was decently, though poorly clad; when alone in the wilderness she seemed little more than a squalid mass of rags. My excursions frequently brought me within the wild precincts of her solitary den. Several times I have paid a visit to the spot, and in two instances found her at home.
A place more desolate - in its general outline - more absolutely given up to the wildness of nature, it is impossible to conceive. Her cave was a hollow in the rock, about six feet square.
Except a few rags and an old basin, it was without furniture--her bed being the floor of the cave, and her pillow a projecting point of the rock. It was entered by a natural door about three feet wide and four feet high, and was closed in severe weather only by pieces of bark.
At a distance of a few feet was a cleft, where she kept a supply of roots and nuts, which she gathered, and the food that was given her.
She was reputed to have a secret depository, where she kept a quantity of antique dresses, several of them rich silks, and apparently suited to fashionable life: though I think this was an exaggeration. At a little distance down the ledge, there was a fine spring of water, in the vicinity of which she was often found in fair weather.
There was no attempt, either in or around the spot, to bestow upon it an air of convenience or comfort. A small space of cleared ground was occupied by a few thriftless peach-trees, and in summer a patch of starveling beans, cucumbers, and potatoes. Up two or three of the adjacent forest-trees there clambered luxuriant grape-vines, highly productive in their season. With the exception of these feeble marks of cultivation, all was left ghastly and savage as nature made it.
The trees, standing upon the tops of the cliff, and exposed to the shock of the tempest, were bent, and stooping toward the valley - their limbs contorted, and their roots clinging, as with an agonizing grasp, into the rifts of the rocks upon which they stood. Many of them were hoary with age, and hollow with decay; others were stripped of their leaves by the blasts, and other still, grooved and splintered by the lightning.
The valley below, enriched with the decay of centuries, and fed with moisture from the surrounding hills, was a wild paradise of towering oaks, and other giants of the vegetable kingdom, with a rank undergrowth of tangled shrubs. In the distance, to the east, the gathered streams spread out into a beautiful expanse of water called Long Pond.
A place at once so secluded and so wild was, of course, the chosen haunt of birds, beasts, and reptiles. The eagle built her nest and reared her young in the clefts of the rocks; foxes found shelter in the caverns, and serpents reveled alike in the dry hollows of the cliffs, and the dank recesses of the valley. The hermitess had made companionship with these brute tenants of the wood. The birds had become so familiar with her, that they seemed to heed her almost as little as if she had been a stone.
The fox fearlessly pursued his hunt and his gambols in her presence. The rattlesnake hushed his monitory signal as he approached her. Such things, at least, were entertained by the popular belief. It was said, indeed, that she had domesticated a particular rattlesnake, and that he paid her daily visits. She was accustomed - so said the legend - to bring him milk from the villages, which he devoured with great relish.
The facts in respect to this Nun of the Mountain were indeed strange enough without any embellishments of fancy. During the winter she was confined for several months to her cell. At that period she lived upon roots and nuts, which she had laid in for the season. She had no fire, and, deserted even by her brute companions, she was absolutely alone, save that she seemed to hold communion with the invisible world.
She appeared to have no sense of solitude, no weariness at the slow lapse of days and months: night had no darkness, the tempest no terror, winter no desolation for her. When spring returned, she came down from her mountain, a mere shadow--each year her form more bent, her limbs more thin and wasted, her hair more blanched, her eye more colorless. At last life seemed ebbing away like the faint light of a lamp, sinking into the socket.
The final winter came - it passed, and she was not seen in the villages around. Some of the inhabitants went to the mountain, and found her standing erect, her feet sunk in the frozen marsh of the valley. In this situation, being unable, as it appeared, to extricate herself - alone, yet not alone - she had yielded her breath to Him who gave it!
The early history of this strange personage was involved in some mystery. So much as this, however, was ascertained, that she was of good family, and lived on Long Island.
During the Revolutionary war - in one of the numerous forays of the British soldiers - her father's house was burned; and, as if this were not enough, she was made the victim of one of those demoniacal acts, which in peace are compensated by the gibbet, but which, in war, embellish the life of the soldier.
Desolate in fortune, blighted at heart, she fled from human society, and for a long time concealed her sorrows in the cavern which she had accidentally found. Her grief - softened by time, perhaps alleviated by a vail of insanity--was at length so far mitigated, that, although she did not seek human society, she could endure it.
The shame of her maidenhood - if not forgotten - was obliterated by her rags, her age, and her grisly visage in which every gentle trace of her sex had disappeared.
She continued to occupy her cave till the year 1810 or 1811, when she departed, in the manner I have described, and we may hope, for a brighter and happier existence.
* * *