I trust you have all been well and good.
I’ve been asked lately about an embedded story in my novel “Bridges – a Tale of Niagara” http://www.bridgesataleofniagara.com/ which recounts a strange man called the Hermit of Niagara, whether he was a real person or if I just made him up.
Let’s talk about him a little today…
WAS THERE REALLY A ‘HERMIT OF NIAGARA’?
Oh yes! There certainly was.
He came from England – he lived on Goat Island – he was musically talented – he frolicked in the brink of Niagara Falls – he spoke to no one – and he’s buried in Niagara Falls.
“He was real enough, fellas—a certified nut case for sure, but real all the same he was. Lived on Goat Island all by himself, ya know. Didn’t talk to no one, and he sure ’nough died there, too. The Hermit of Niagara is what they called him.” Ol’ Gordy; Bridges – a Tale of Niagara
Arriving in June of 1829, Francis Abbott shunned society. The villagers had this knowledge of him: He was an English gentleman. He was educated, skilled in music and drawing. He had visited Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France. He wrote in Latin but destroyed his compositions. After his death, when the towns people investigated his hut they found his dog guarding the door (which took considerable effort to remove) and his cat on the bed. There was a guitar, a violin, some flutes, and a number of music books scattered about. The pages were blank. He explored Goat Island extensively, which was a thick forest at the time and had relative solitary confinement due to the only access being a scary bridge crossing the fierce rapids.
“A narrow, rickety foot bridge crossed the treacherous rapids, dividing the mainland from the island. Few dared cross it—so violent were the rapids below, so unstable was the bridge—as it were mere yards away from the brink.” The Hermit’s Story; Bridges – a Tale of Niagara
He did, in fact, find and live in a small log cabin that had been previously erected by a pioneer family before the island was purchased by Peter and Augustus Porter. He lived in it for almost two years before being evicted by the Porters.
Did he hang on to those boards over the Falls like in the book?
According to many witness reports – he did!
The sketch below is the one that ‘Sam’ bought in the novel and was drawn by James Edward Alexander in 1831, shortly after the hermit’s death. Look closely and you’ll see the Hermit hanging off the wooden planks located on the brink of the Falls at Terrapin Point.
“The walkway ended in a single twelve-foot beam, a mere ten inches wide, extending out like an accusing finger from the tempest. Francis walked the length of the beam for hours, as if strolling down a country road. Spectators were shocked and fearful and often broke into hysteria. He’d sit on the end of the beam, dangling his legs over the edge, and on occasion, he’d suspend himself off the beam, kicking his feet into the roaring maelstrom that spewed and tumbled down past him. Women swooned and fainted; brave men trembled, their knees buckling as they watched Francis casually pull himself back onto the beam with no more concern than if he was rising from his dinner table.” The Hermit’s Story; Bridges – a Tale of Niagara
Did he really drown in Niagara?
Yes he did – but by the best accounts – he didn’t drown going over the Falls. I took a little literary license with that. After getting booted off the island, he resumed his hermit lifestyle at the base of the Falls. It was down there on June 10th, 1831, he was observed ‘bathing’ by a passing ferryman who saw Francis go under the water surface and not come back up. A search for Francis was conducted – without success. On June 21st, 1831, the body of Francis Abbott did surface at Fort Niagara and he was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, New York.
There is a headstone but it’s been knocked over and neglected so that it is unreadable now. It read:.
“Francis Abbott, the Hermit of Niagara Died June 10, 1831 He died in his 28th year”
What happened? Suicide or accident?
“What, it will be asked, could have broken up and destroyed such a mind as Francis Abbott’s? What could have driven him from the society he was so well qualified to adorn — and what transform him, noble in person and in intellect, into an isolated anchorite, shunning the association of his fellow-men? The history of his misfortunes is not known, and the cause of his unhappiness and seclusion will, undoubtedly, to us be ever a mystery.” New York Mirror 1890
Of interest is that found on a rock on Luna Island was the following inscription:
“All is Change, Eternal Progress, No Death”
Did the hermit leave this?
Why was he here?
What was he looking for – or running away from?
To this day, no one knows. ‘The Hermit’s Cascade’, located between Goat Island and First Sister Island, is named after Francis Abbott, the Hermit of Niagara. If you’d like to read further about the ‘hermit’ let me suggest the following:
“Niagara – A History of the Falls” by Pierre Berton