Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings
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The Hermits of the Dismal Swamp

In solitude, where we are least alone.
Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824)

Around the turn of the century two hermits lived in the Dismal Swamp. One was known as the Hermit of Lake Drummond, and the other the Hermit of the Dismal Swamp. As I was reading about these two different men, known as hermits, I quickly wondered if they were anything like Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) an American naturalist, essayist and poet. He too lived like a hermit on Walden’s Pond in Massachusetts. But Thoreau wrote down his thoughts and feelings while living alone, unlike our two Dismal Swamp hermits.

What is a hermit anyway? It’s a word you never hear about anymore. A hermit is a person that wants to be alone, far from people, sometimes because of their religious beliefs, or they just want privacy. This type of behavior has been around for centuries. And many hermits have found sanctuary in caves, woods and in deep forests. A “solitary” life isn’t for everyone, but many hermits have been hurt badly by humans and felt like an outcasts all their lives. They turn their backs to the world and find a quiet sanctuary of their own.

Our two hermits lived alone in the Dismal Swamp. One lived by a large pond called Lake Drummond. They lived alone and were naturalists in a way, but did not write down their thoughts like Henry Thoreau. In fact, they never wrote down anything.

On February 19, 1911, Virginian-Pilot had a rather large article of the Hermit of Lake Drummond. People knew this man as Fletcher Lassiter, age 60 years old when found dead near Lake Drummond, his home. He spent all his life in the swamp living alone in a comfortable but very crude bungalow. A few years ago the old hermit was taken sick and the good neighbors and a few relatives nursed him back to health. When he felt well againl, he disappeared back to his home in the swamp by Lake Drummond. As the newspaper stated, “The hermit made the swamp jungle his and the Dismal Swamp beasts and reptiles that roamed the night were his companions.

Fletcher Lassiter loved the simple life and on his death bed he could hear the songs of the wild. All sportsmen throughout this section of the swamp knew him. As one person said, “He was an expert fisherman, pleasant companion and was wise to the ways of the swampy woods.

Old Fletcher Lassiter passed away one evening in his beloved swamp. A notice in the Virginian-Pilot announced his death. He was buried at the old Riddick Lassiter homestead. Rev. W.W. Staley said the final rites for this man who was the Hermit of Lake Drummond.

Another interesting hermit character also made the news at this given time as the No Name Hermit, a hermit without a name. The Virginian-Pilot reported his death, “The Dismal Swamp hermit is dead, and with his passing is one of the most mysterious and unusual personalities imaginable.” He was called the Bird-man because he slept on plant bed saplings built high above the ground in trees, just like gorillas and monkeys. On October 31, 1910, a reporter did a story on the Hermit and was able, without him knowing, to snap a few pictures of this lonely man who detested and was very suspicious of people with cameras.

Our No Name Hermit was always up before sunrise and headed to a market and to see what he could bag at a local city market. Many folks know this man and were good to him, giving him a little of their produce which he accepted graciously with a few nods in silence. He was bent over by old age and went about his business as always.

Not a word of English was spoken by this man. Everyone knew he is a foreigner with a different tongue. One day someone recognized his speech as Italian. A few months later the hermit had a stranger visitor, Mr. Arthur Parati, the Italian Consul of Norfolk. Our hermit was so surprised to hear his native tongue spoken it brought tears to his eyes. He told the consul Parati a little of his life. His name was not given. The old hermit said he was born in Italy and was a hard worker. His father was a soldier with Garibaldi and he had met the famous Garibaldi as a boy. Unfortunately, he could not read or write and was uneducated. His worst fear he told Arthur Parati was bad boys coming into the swamp destroying trees. He ate the fruit of a special peach tree that was destroyed by these mean guys. This is why he built his bed in the limbs of the swamp.

On December 3, 1912, Luther C. Channel and William Travid, two African Americans, were tramping through the Dismal Swamp near where the Italian Hermit lived. They came across his remains lying in a clump of weeds about 50 yards away from his home up in the trees. Buzzards had preyed upon his body, but his old cloths gave him away.

In his pockets they found 3 pocket knives, and $1.53 in change. His strange abode high up in the tree tops had been torned down. Could it had been the bad boys he had talked about? We will never know.

The Italian Hermit is dead, and with his passing has gone one of the most mysterious and unusual personalites imaginable in the great Dismal Swamp. This recluse, talked very little and did not court company, and what secrets he had died with him.

Our Old Italian hermit of the Dismal Swamp had cleared a small place in the densely wooded area as his own. He stretched out his bed among the tree tops until he was completely hidden. He built his own hermitage of knotted and twisted saplings as a bed, and on the ground he had made an improvised oven for cooking his food. He had been a recluse for long time, no stranger in the woods, and lived a solitary life among the creatures of the day and night in the great Dismal Swamp.

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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com