There are many myths and legends in these dark hills and hollows, especially here in western Connecticut where the ridges that divide us from New York are the Devil's own playground of twisted trees and jumbled stone. Our local folklore, though receding now from modern memory, still has the power to captivate and mystify that it possessed hundreds of years ago in first telling. Washington Irving's Hudson Highlands ghost stories have their counterparts here, but one story above all stands out from the rest, as much for what it omits to say about its reclusive protagonist as for what it embellishes.
The legend of Sarah Bishop, the hermit of West Mountain, has a long association with these cold, gray hills. She belongs as much to the folklore of Ridgefield, Connecticut as to North Salem, New York, for the mountain where she lived lies on the frontier of both communities. She was the source of much speculation and curiosity during her lifetime and long afterward. Why would anyone, forsaking society and the comforts of home, choose to live in a cave with a ceiling barely three feet high? How could a person survive for decades in such a state? And why would a young woman, considered by many accounts to be both fit and attractive when she first took to the wilderness, choose to do so during the American Revolution on the exposed slopes of West Mountain?
The facts of her life are difficult to tease apart from the enigma she represented to New Englanders and New Yorkers of her day, and she has been the subject of romantic imagination for generations after her death. The image of her cave, above, comes from the Bi-Centennial Celebration of Ridgefield published in 1908, and the accompanying text rather fancifully imagines her as pining for the unrequited love of a British officer. More recently, Scott O'Dell based his fictional eponymous novel, standard fare for young readers today, on the historical Sarah Bishop, but the facts of the tale had changed in the telling long before he created his own version. Some said she was a religious hermit in her cloister of natural stone: others that her mind had become unhinged from jilted love, or worse.
The generally accepted elements of her story are these: She first appeared in Ridgefield in 1780 as a young woman and was thought to have come originally from Long Island. She avoided the settled areas in the valley and the companionship of society and took to the ridge, where she survived almost as an animal in a small cave with hardly any amenities for almost 30 years. Daniel Teller's The History of Ridgefield (1878) describes Sarah in her later years as townsfolk remembered her:
Her whole appearance was to the last degree peculiar. Poorly clad, her form slightly bent, her face pale and careworn, her brow wrinkled and nearly hidden by long locks of gray hair, which were allowed to fall carelessly over it, her step quick and agile, she would seem to glide rather than walk through the town in quest of such articles of food as were absolutely indispensable to the sustenance of the body; or a few crumbs of that spiritual bread which is no less indispensable to the soul. She is said to have reminded one more of a visitant from the spirit-world than of a being of actual flesh and blood."
Teller goes on to reprint a piece of poetry about Sarah Bishop by Ridgefield's native son Samuel G. Goodrich, who wrote under the pseudonym Peter Parley:
For many a year the mountain hag / Was a theme of village wonder, / For she made her home in the dizzy crag, / Where the eagle bore his plunder. /Up the beetling cliff she was seen at night / Like a ghost to glide away; / but she came again in the morning light, / From the forest wild and gray...
Goodrich lets his fancy fly away with him, until a rattlesnake coils in her lap and she sleeps with a tattered Bible for her pillow, muttering a foreign name "and a tale of horror - of madness and shame." Here he hints at what others suspected: that she had been "cruelly used", as one 19th century account delicately puts it, and the only way to retain her tattered virtue in society's eyes was to lose her mind in response to her violation and so and remove herself from the world of men.
I have found one account of her ordeal that puts flesh on the bones of her story to surpass the pious imaginings of the people in the valley. Dr. Linda Grant De Pauw, in Seafaring Women, provides the following account of her rape and abduction by the crew of an English privateer:
"Sarah Bishop of Long Island, New York, was the victim of a British raiding party in I778. Rape had become an everyday event in the war zones; when Bishop was taken aboard a British privateer, she became a member of the crew with certain additional duties. Although she handled the wheel and stood watches, she was also expected to be a communal sex object. Eventually she and the captain of the privateer came to an understanding, after which she was strictly the captain's woman. The captain was killed, however, in an engagement with an American privateer, and it was another six months before Bishop found an opportunity to escape. Two years after her capture, Sarah Bishop slipped over the side of the ship and swam ashore at Stamford, Connecticut. Her experience had been so traumatic that she could not bear to return to normal human society. She made her way to Ridgefield, Connecticut, and climbed to a rocky cave, where she lived the rest of her life as a hermit."
Despite the horrors she endured, it is far from clear that the experience drove Sarah Bishop insane. So many externalities have been projected on her by contemporary and latter day chroniclers that it may be impossible to know for sure her state of mind. There are views of Long Island Sound for forty miles on clear days on the heights of West Mountain, nearly 15 miles inland. Sarah Bishop could have gazed out over the water toward the land of her childhood had she wished, but if the tales are true they may also have held memories of what befell her there.
Teller reprints a newspaper account recorded earlier in Barber's Historical Collections of Connecticut (1836) of a visit to her cave in 1804 that found she had cleared a 1/2 acre for the cultivation of a few peach trees, cucumbers, beens, potatoes and wild grape vines. Although she seemed timid as a wild beast on the approach of the curious gentlemen who trespassed on her mountainside and they shook their heads in wonder at her lack of nearly any amenity or comfort of civilization, they "found her to be of a sound mind, a religious tune of thought, and entirely happy in her situation; of this she has given repeated proofs by refusing to quit her dreary abode."
There are other accounts that Sarah Bishop did not always remain a recluse, and would attend religious services over on the New York side of the mountain. One history reports that:
"Sarah kept several dresses of rich silk and satin at the home of Jared Hoyt, which she would change into from her cave clothes in order to attend the Lower Salem Presbyterian Church. She was skilled at knitting, sewing and spinning, and would visit members of the congregation often spending the night but saying little. When her brother finally found her she refused to return home with him."
The years passed and still she remained in her cave on the mountain. A generation grew up in the valleys on either side re-crafting her story as part of the fabric of their lives. Finally, Teller reports:
In the year 1810 this strange life ended, and ended in a manner sadly in keeping with all which had preceded it. One stormy night she left the house of a Mr. Williamson, living where Mr. Timothy Jones now lives, some two miles away, to return by a nearer route across the fields to her own wretched den. A few days after, much anxiety having been felt as to her condition, search was made for her. not finding her in the cave, those in search started down across the fields towards the house at which she had been last seen. They had proceeded but a little way before they discovered her lifeless body literally wedged in between masses of rocks. She ad never reached her home. the things which the kind neighbor had given her were with her. In attempting to climb the steep and rocky hill-side she had missed her footing and perished."
She was buried by her neighbors in the Episcopal Church cemetery in North Salem, New York, although no stone marks her resting place. Her legend has grown since then, until the historical Sarah Bishop seems as anonymous as her grave. Her story still haunts the imagination, and remains a tantalizing mystery. A road in Ridgefield and the cave on the mountain still bear her name.