Monday, February 7, 2011

Sarah Bishop In Winter

Usually people who interest me are travelers of some sort. Sometimes they're explorers, but they don't have to have a purpose or a destination. They can be wanderers, drifters, unsuccessful searchers for what they can't define. Just as long as they don't stay in one place. So I don't know why I'm fascinated by Sarah Bishop, a Revolutionary War-era hermetress. (I might just like the word hermetress.) Bishop only traveled once. Originally from Long Island, she left after her father's house was burned down and she was raped by British soldiers. She ended up in Connecticut, or close enough on the state line, living alone in a cave. A cave in Ridgefield. (If there's any more perfect modern day example of a bunch of self-satisfied people staring at the flickering on the wall and convincing themselves there is no better place, I can't think of one.)

There is a distasteful, though predictable, tendency to make Sarah Bishop's story more exciting and less horrible than it must have been. People invented for her a failed romance with a British officer, and a trusty slave, and adventures involving pirates. She lived in a cave, but she had a secret stash of ball gowns, they said. Of course the actual contemporary evidence contains nothing like this. She had a bit of slightly cultivated land and she occasionaly visited a family and a church in the town. She rarely spoke. She lived in a cave in Ridgefield - and in her own mind - and she died there.

Sarah Biship's story is often lumped in with that of the Leatherman, that guy who traveled, in the mid-late 1800s, a continual loop around several New York and Connecticut towns. They're sometimes presented as a pair of historical local curiosities. I should be intrigued by the Leatherman and his endless circuit, but I'm not. Maybe it's because his perpetual motion between New York and Connecticut is too much like my college years, minus the Metro North train, to hold any mystery. Bishop, on the other hand, though she never left Ridgefield (aside from attempts by writers to sugarcoat her life with fictional journeys to sea) seems more like the traveler. I keep thinking of her, in the depths of this frigid winter. Her cave had no amenities, no blankets, no fire. In the cold weather she holed up inside it. Did she feel like she was moving, traveling to a harsh far-away land, when snow covered her wilderness and icicles formed on the rocks?

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