The Pennsylvania Hermit: The Woeful Tale of a Grieving Brother’s Broken-hearted Hermitage
William “Amos” Wilson, who is known also as the Pennsylvania Hermit, is a figure in the folklore of Pennsylvania, more specifically of its south-eastern and south-central regions. William lived between the 18th and 19th centuries, and became a hermit following the tragic death of his sister, Elizabeth “Harriot” Wilson. William withdrew from society, and wandered across Pennsylvania, eventually settling in a cave for the last 19 years of his life. Although William “Amos” Wilson was a real, historical figure, his incredible story became the stuff of folklore, and generations of storytellers made their own embellishments to his tale.
William Wilson was born during the second half of the 18th century. According to The Pennsylvania Hermit: A Narrative of the Extraordinary Life of Amos Wilson, an account of the hermit’s life published not too long after his death, William was born in 1774 in Lebanon, Dauphin county, Pennsylvania. The account also states that William had a sister by the name of Elizabeth Wilson, who was two years younger than himself. At the age of 16, William was sent to be an apprentice at a stone-cutter’s.
William Wilson as depicted in an early printing of The Pennsylvania Hermit. (Public Domain)
Whilst William was undergoing his apprenticeship, his sister traveled to Philadelphia, where she found work. According to some sources, she became a servant in the home of a wealthy family, whilst others claim that she became a worker at or the owner of the Indian Queen Tavern. In any event, at the age of 18, she was seduced by a young man by the name of Smith, who was a native of Philadelphia. As a result, Elizabeth became pregnant, and gave birth to a child, who was then killed and buried in a nearby grove. There are a number of variations to this part of the story. For instance, in one version, it was not just one man, but two who impregnated Elizabeth, resulting in two children, instead of one.
When the body of Elizabeth’s offspring was found, she was suspected of murdering him, arrested and put on trial. She was found to be guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging. When William heard about this, he attempted to save his sister. His efforts had all failed, yet William did not give up. On the day prior to Elizabeth’s execution, William managed to obtain a meeting with the Governor, and begged him to pardon Elizabeth. The pardon was finally granted to William, who then hurried to the execution grounds. Unfortunately, he was just a couple of minutes late, and his sister had already been executed.
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Title page artwork from the first edition of The Pennsylvania Hermit, ca. 1838. Note William approaching on horseback, calling, "A pardon." (Public Domain)
As a result of this shock, William was in a state of delirium for many months. When he had gotten better, he declared that the wound caused by his sister’s death would never heal, and that he would quit human society altogether. William began to wander across the countryside, eventually settling in a cave “twelve miles from Harrisburgh”. This cave has been traditionally identified as the Indian Echo Caverns, which is a touristic site today. As it was a place of solitude back then, William decided to stay there for the rest of his life, thus becoming the Pennsylvania Hermit. William lived in the cave for 19 years, before dying in 1821.
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Crystal lake, Indian Echo Caverns, Hummelstown, Pa., near Harrisburg, Pa. postcard (Public Domain)
About 20 years after the Pennsylvania Hermit’s death, a biography of his life was published, supposedly by one of friends. In addition, The Sweets of Solitude, or Instructions to Mankind How They May Be Happy In a Miserable World, was also published alongside the biography, and was supposedly written by the hermit himself.
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Title page of First edition of ‘The Pennsylvania Hermit’, 1839 (Public Domain)
Although the Pennsylvania Hermit’s tale is already so incredible, some have decided to further embellish it. One of the most common forms of this tale-telling is perhaps the association of William and Elizabeth with hauntings. The ghosts of the two siblings are often said to be still wandering in the Indian Echo Cave. Apart from that, Elizabeth’s ghost is said to haunt the site where she was hanged, or where the body of her child was discovered.
Top image: Depiction of the hanging of Elizabeth Wilson, with William Wilson coming with the pardon (from a later edition of The Pennsylvania Hermit). (Public Domain)
By Wu Mingren
Anon., 1839. The Pennsylvania hermit : a narrative of the extraordinary life of Amos Wilson who expired in a cave in the neighborhood of Harrisburgh (Penn.) after having therein lived in solitary retirement for the space of nineteen years in consequence of the ignomin. [Online]
Available at: https://archive.org/details/pennsylvaniaherm00phil
Echo Dell, Indian Echo Caverns, 2017. The Indian Echo Caverns. [Online]
Available at: http://indianechocaverns.com/
Gibson, M., 2015. Cave Legends #5 – A Cave of Many Tales: Indian Echo Caverns in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania.. [Online]
Available at: https://speleofolklog.wordpress.com/2015/05/22/cave-legends-5-a-cave-of-many-tales-indian-echo-caverns-in-hummelstown-pennsylvania/
Neall, 2013. William Wilson: "The Pennsylvania Hermit". [Online]
Available at: https://hubpages.com/education/William-Wilson-The-Pennsylvania-Hermit
slugnut, 2017. Indian Echo Caverns. [Online]
Available at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/indian-echo-caverns