William Wilson: "The Pennsylvania Hermit"
William Wilson became a fixture in the folklore of southeastern and south-central Pennsylvania in the late 18th Century and early 19th Century. From 1802 until his death in 1821 he lived the life of a hermit in a cave near Hummelstown, Pennsylvania. He is often referred to as The Pennsylvania Hermit and how he came to achieve this status is a very unfortunate and sad story indeed.
Many key elements of the story of William Wilson and his sister Elizabeth are documented in the records of the Chester County Courts and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. However, the story quickly became a part of local folklore and was embellished by generations of storytellers. Sometimes it is difficult to discern that which is factual from that which is embellished. The story of the Wilsons should be considered historical fiction, not like that of Paul Bunyan but rather like that of authentic individuals such as Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone whose lives have taken on a fabric woven by generations of storytelling.
In the 1780s William Wilson and his sister, Elizabeth, lived with their family on a farm in Chester County. During this time period present-day Delaware County was the southeastern portion of Chester County.
Elizabeth Wilson left her family home in her late teens to journey to Philadelphia where she indentured herself as a servant to a wealthy family. There she fell in love with a young man. She never married this individual but she did become pregnant by him and gave birth to twin sons in 1784. Shortly after the birth of her sons she learned that her lover was married. She then returned to her family home with her two infants.
What is absolutely known is that in October 1784 Elizabeth disappeared for a few days and when she returned she no longer had the babies. Supposedly her lover had contacted her and asked that she meet with him with the children. When she arrived the father killed the infants, burying them in the woods.
He then threatened to kill Elizabeth if she talked about the murders; however, he had nothing to fear as the sight of her children being murdered caused Elizabeth to lose the ability to speak. Several days later, after the children’s bodies were discovered by a hunter, Elizabeth, still unable to speak, was accused of the crime. A year later, still unable to speak and therefore unable to defend herself, she was tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
William had been working out of the Philadelphia area and did not learn of his sister’s difficulties until months after the sentencing. He returned and, when he visited her in jail, Elizabeth spoke for the first time since the incident. William was able to extract the truth from her: that the boys’ father had indeed met her in the woods, killed the infants and then instructed her to remain quiet about it. William immediately started procedures to have the conviction overturned but had to ride from town to town collecting witnesses and talking to judges.
William had to appeal for a pardon to the Commonwealth’s executive authority, the Supreme Executive Council, then under the leadership of Benjamin Franklin. He found a sympathetic audience, Charles Biddle, Council Vice-President stated that he firmly believed her to be innocent and personally did not believe that a mother after suckling her children for six weeks would then murder them. He stated that several members of the Council felt as he did.
The Council did not grant an outright commutation but rather a stay of execution to allow William more time to gather evidence. Upon further investigation William was unable to learn anything more than what was already known.
With the stay of execution in place the execution was rescheduled for January 3, 1786. Charles Biddle would become a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania and his son, Nicholas, would be born on January 8. Nicholas would go on to become one of the foremost bankers in American history. But at this time Charles Biddle was concerned with Elizabeth Wilson. In his notes on the case it can be seen how Biddle struggled with what was a just response to infanticide for an unmarried woman. He felt that maybe death was too great a punishment under the circumstances but that as long as it was on the table any jury would find for it.
On the eve of Elizabeth’s hanging Biddle was sure she would be issued a pardon and so issued another stay and personally handed it to William to deliver to the Chester County sheriff at Chester, PA , the site of the execution. According to the record William raced through a fearful storm trying to cover the 15 miles from Philadelphia to Chester as quickly as possible.
The storm swelled the Schuylkill River to the point that it made ferry traffic impossible. When William finally crossed the last road to the jail he saw Elizabeth’s body hanging from the rope. His horse reared in the air and tossed William at his sister's swinging feet. The sheriff cut her down and they tried to revive her, but it was to no avail. It's said that when Wilson arose, his hair had turned white, his face had become lined and he could only utter gibberish. He was in a state of delirium for months, and when he recovered he had lost all interest in society. He roamed the countryside for the next 17 years, before slowly making his way out to Hummelstown in Dauphin County.
Indian Echo Cavern
Wilson retreated to the caverns in 1802. He worked for a farmer who owned the nearby land by day doing odd jobs for food and clothing and retreated into the cavern at night. He attached a rope ladder to the cavern wall that allowed him to reach a level ledge which juts out over the cavern floor about 10 feet off the ground.
There is evidence from soot and blackened walls that he built a fire underneath the ledge upon which he slept. The temperature is a constant 52 degrees and it is always damp inside the caverns. These caverns are made from limestone. They are an example of the erosive power of water as it cuts through Beekmantown limestone, formations that are over 440 million years old. Geological forces uplifted the surrounding limestone causing more water to flow through the area and over millions of years turning small crevices into vast caverns. You can still see evidence of this erosive power inside the caverns today.
The air circulation is poor and it is very probable that Wilson eventually died from smoke inhalation. One day, October 13, 1821, he did not show up for work and the farmer found him lying on his ‘bed’ dead. It is believed the farmer removed his body and buried him in an unmarked grave on his farm.
The farmer also found William’s journal and documents relating to Elizabeth’s trial and execution. One of his writing is entitled “The Sweets of Solitude: Instructions to Mankind How They May Be Happy in a Miserable World” and was published posthumously. Since then, visitors to the cave have said that one of the cave formations resembles Elizabeth's portrait and that another looks like a woman's slipper, and the legend has persisted that perhaps the ghosts of the brother and sister still wander the cave searching for peace.
For the past 200 years there have also been reports of spectral sightings in Chester at the site where Elizabeth was hanged and in East Fallowfield Township where the bodies of the two infants were discovered.