J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Sarah Bishop: cave-dwelling recluse

By way of the 11th Carnival of Bad History, of all things, I learned about Walking the Berkshires’s posting on Sarah Bishop, the Hermit of West Mountain straddling Ridgefield, Connecticut, and North Salem, New York.

Bishop was turned into a romantic figure by writers in her own time and since (including Newbery-winning novelist Scott O’Dell, in the book at right). In 1839, the New England Gazetteer reported:

She lived on Long Island at the time of the Revolutionary war. Her father’s house was burned by the British, and she was cruelly treated by a British officer. She then left society and wandered among the mountains near this part of the state: she found a kind of cave near Ridgefield, where she resided till about the time of her death, which took place in 1810.
Later accounts say Bishop was forced to serve the crew aboard a British privateer. Some websites list her among female pirates. Linda Grant DePauw’s Seafaring Women interpreted this account more realistically to present Bishop as a victim of rape and, possibly, post-traumatic stress syndrome.

But when did that explanation of her behavior arise? The Democrat of Boston published an essay about Bishop, “The Hermitess of North Salem,” on 22 Sept 1804, crediting a Poughkeepsie newspaper as the source. That article suggested a different history for her reclusiveness:
Sarah Bishop, (for this was the name of this Hermitess) is a person of about fifty years of age. About thirty years ago [i.e., 1774] she was a young lady of considerable beauty, a competent share of mental endowments, and education; She was possessed of a handsome fortune, but she was of a tender of delicate constitution, and enjoyed but a low degree of health; and could hardly be comfortable without constant recourse to medicine, and careful attendance; and added to this, she always discovered an unusual antipathy to men; and was often heard to say that she had no dread of any animal on earth but man. Disgusted with them, and consequently with the world, about twenty-three years ago [i.e., about 1781], she withdrew herself from all human society...
This early account makes no mention of wartime trauma or years on a British ship. Instead, it implies that Bishop’s “delicate constitution,” “low degree of health,” and “constant recourse to medicine” appeared before or early in the Revolutionary War—and she always showed an “unusual antipathy to men.”

Of course it’s possible that Bishop developed her “unusual antipathy” because of trauma during the war, and the Poughkeepsie writer either didn’t know about that event or chose to keep it secret. But we humans have a tendency to seek a reason for people’s mental or emotional difficulties—such as finding an event to explain why Bishop came to dread men so much. (The case of James Otis, Jr., offers another example.) But we also know that such behavior can arise from brain chemistry, not from an outside cause. So there may be more—or less—to the story of Sarah Bishop to discover.


pilgrimchick said...

I think there are other possible reasons why this "contemporary" account should be "read" within its own time. I think you will be hard-pressed to find any account anywhere--even in private diary entries--of someone having experienced a rape of any kind. It may simply have been a "sign of the times" that certain things were not written about in this case that have to do with this individual's experience, including the alleged employment on a ship. Unfortunate, events like that in anyone's--let alone a woman's--life in that time period would have to be speculative on the part of the reader/researcher.

J. L. Bell said...

Understanding the context of the times is indeed important, and I did a bit more of that necessary work for my next posting.

J. L. Bell said...

I found that the 1839 text quoted above was published earlier in an 1831 schoolbook.