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The hermit who died in a cave in Harrisburg

Here I go again, being sidetracked by an intriguing story I came across while searching Archive.org for old family history books. This one is unrelated to my family like my previous blog about The Bissinger Suicide, but equally as interesting.


Before researching my family's history, I was under the impression that people in America in the 1800s were good, righteous, God-fearing people who did no wrong. Only true outlaws like Bonnie & Clyde and Billy the Kid broke the law! From my grandparents and other elders, I heard all about how up until the 1960s people could leave their doors unlocked and they could let their children play outside and roam the neighborhood all day long without worrying about them being kidnapped or murdered. They abstained from premarital relations and they never ever got divorced. This is what I heard about the good old days as I was growing up, so I'm always shocked when I read these stories. Yes, morals in America have suffered tremendous decay with each passing decade, but the people in the past were definitely not as righteous as I thought.


If we all made an effort to learn from the mistakes of those who came before us, we might have achieved a Utopian society by now, but instead we prefer to make our own decisions and our own mistakes, which can cause major setbacks in life, if not our total total destruction.


This book I found is called "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 ignominious death of his sister". It was published in 1839, author unknown.


This short story is only 24 pages and gives us a personal look into the events that occurred in a small town in Pennsylvania in the late 1700s. It all started with a young woman named Harriot* Wilson. She was born in Pennsylvania, possibly in Lebanon (Dauphin County), in 1776, according to the author. Growing up she was a well-respected, virtuous young woman, that is, until she reached the age of 18. It was then that she became acquainted with a young man by the name of Smith, who lived in Philadelphia. Mr. Smith charmed and seduced young Harriot, by pledging his love and promising to marry her. She "surrendered to her vile seducer all that could render her respectable in the eyes of the world". Afterwards, she was devastated to learn that Smith was a married man with no intention of marrying her and the situation became dire when she realized she was pregnant with his child. The author reminds us of society's treatment of "tarnished" women in those days, in some ways, still do today:

"The tenderness and sensibility that prevails in the minds of females, subjects them to many temptations and dangers from which men are in a manner exempt. Their weakness and dependent state places their reputation on a foundation so slender, that the smallest breath of wind will overturn, and the slightest touch indelibly tarnish. While lordly man can sin with impunity, and his most indecent deviations from modesty and virtue, set down as trifling indiscretions, and oftentimes, the more he sins the more he is caressed. He can, without any scandal to himself, seduce the innocent virgin from the paths of virtue, while the unfortunate victim of his arts is expelled from society, and doomed either to end her days in a brothel, among the most depraved, or be made a sacrifice on the altar of justice".

When the child* was born, Harriot secretly laid the body in a neighboring grove. Whether it was living or not, I found no mention but she was immediately suspected of being the perpetrator and was put on trial for murder. The trial lasted 11 hours and in the end, the jury delivered a verdict of "guilty". Distinguished people sought her pardon and, her brother, Amos* Wilson, fought adamantly to prevent her execution. He was two years Harriot's elder, born in 1774* in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.


On the morning of the scheduled execution, Amos went to Philadelphia and "prostrated himself at the feet of the Governor", begging for a pardon for Harriot. The Governor had mercy and issued the pardon. With no time to waste, Amos raced back home to stop the execution. On his way, however, heavy rain fell, making the Schuylkill River impassable. He had to wait for the rain to stop and the waters to calm enough for him to cross and continue his race home. As he raced to the place where the execution was to take place, pardon in hand, he witnessed the invisible departure of his sister's soul, while her lifeless body hung from the gallows. He was five minutes too late to stop the execution. He fell from his horse in shock and disappointment and was never the same again.


For a time he remained at his parents home, delusional and inconsolable. Finally, he decided his perception of the world was now too tainted to participate in society. He went into the forest and found a cave near Harrisburg and there he stayed for 19 years. He rarely had visitors, except the author of the book, a friend. He would have been only about 39 years old when he died, but the illustration provided by the author, who was reportedly a personal friend of Amos, depicts an older man, in my opinion.


The discrepancies were enough to entice me to search for the family in historical records, to confirm whether or not it was true. First, I tried Findagrave but found no matches for Amos Wilson (born 1774) or Harriot Wilson (born 1776). Next, I tried to find the family on the 1790 census before the murder. This, I found, to be very difficult because on the 1790 census, only the head of household was named and since the book doesn't mention their parents' names, I was unable to identify the family, even with the help of my 1790 Census Helper. There were more than a dozen Wilson (and Willson) families in Dauphin county in 1790 and none of them contained two males and two females, as described in the book.


Next, I searched the web and found that both Amos and Harriot have articles on Wikipedia, which provide more information, some conflicting with the information in the book that had first brought the story to my attention. (I marked those items with an asterisk* above). Yes, I realize academia frowns upon Wikipedia, deeming it unreliable because it is user-contributed data, but when properly cited, it can be a great resource for information. At any rate, there is much information about the tragedy in the articles for Harriot and Amos, including variations of the story passed along the grapevine.


First, Harriot's name was actually Elizabeth Wilson and she was not born in 1776, as stated in the book, which did not state the year of her execution. She was scheduled to be executed on December 7, 1785, but when people began to doubt her guilt, it was postponed until January 3, 1786. Since we know she was at least 18, she was born no later than 1767, but varying accounts are given for her age. Some say she was born as early as 1758.


Next, her brother's name was William Wilson - not Amos - and he was not born in 1774, as stated in the book. He was born in or around 1762 and died in October of 1821. So he was about 59 when he died in the cave he lived in for 19 years.


The cave was said to be near Hummelstown. Today it is a tourist attraction called Indian Echo Caverns, located about 8 miles east of Harrisburg. It is a place of natural beauty with underwater lakes, stalactites, and minerals and the temperature is a constant 52 degrees (Fahrenheit) year-round.


The most shocking allegation that conflicts with the account written in the book is that it wasn't "a child" that Harriot left in the woods, it was "children" - twin boys. According to one version, she confessed that Smith met her in the woods because he wanted to see if the boys resembled him and then he ordered her to kill them. When she refused, he trampled the boys to death. Many people, including the judge and the sheriff of Chester, believed she was innocent.


I believe the unnamed author of this book may have been attempting to protect the identity of the family by changing the names and omission of dates, but the fact that the book's account only mentions a child and not twins, makes me wonder if this person really knew "Amos" at all or if the author just recounted the story from local legend. It was, after all, published 53 years after her execution and 18 years after William "Amos" Wilson's death.


See also:

Elizabeth "Harriot" Wilson [Wikipedia]

William "Amos" Wilson [Wikipedia]


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