Francis Abbott – The Hermit of Niagara

Horseshoe Falls, Niagara
by Sir James E. Alexander. Colour tint by Erna Jahnke. Courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library
Note Francis Abbott hanging from the Terrapin Point boardwalk in the top left corner (detail below) Click to enlarge

Francis Abbott, The Hermit of Niagara, lived in Niagara Falls from 1839 until his death in 1841. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, NY. An article about him is on their website  (search for Abbott on that page).

From Tunis, W.E. Tunis’s Topographical and Pictorial Guide to Niagara.  Niagara Falls, NY: W.E. Tunis, Publisher, 1855

Beside his once favorite haunt, we will, with your permission, relate his story. The history of this singular individual has been given in various forms, from the hurried compilation of a guide-book to the extravagances of a romance. We present you with only what is known of him by all who lived in the village at the time of his residing here.

His first appearance at Niagara was in the afternoon of June 18, 1839. He was a young man then, tall and well-formed, but emaciated and haggard; of an easy and gentlemanly deportment, but sufficiently eccentric in his appearance to arrest the gaze of the stranger.

Clad in a long, flowing robe of brown, and carrying under his arm a roll of blankets, a book, portfolio, and flute, he proceeded directly to a small, retired inn, where he engaged a room for a week, stipulating, however, that the room was to be, for the time, exclusively his, and that only a part of his food was to be prepared by the family. Soon after, he visited the village library, entered his name, and drew books. About the same time, also, he purchased a violin. At the expiration of a week he returned to the library, where, falling into conversation, he spoke with much enthusiasm on the subject of the Falls, and expressed his intention of remaining here some time longer.

Shortly afterward he asked permission of the proprietor of these islands to erect a cabin on Moss Island, that he might live here in greater seclusion than the village afforded him. Failing in this request he took up his abode in part of a small log-house, which then stood near the head of Goat Island. Here for nearly two years he contunued to live, with no companions but his dog, his books, and music —blameless but almost unknown. On this island, at hours when it was unfrequented by others, he delighted to roam, heedless, if not oblivious of danger. At that time a stick of timber aoout eight inches square extended from Terrapin Bridge eight feet beyond the precipice. On this he has been seen at almost all hours of the night, pacing to and fro beneath the moonlight, without the slightest apparent tremor of nerve or hesitancy of step. Sometimes he might be seen sitting carelessly on the extreme end of the timber —sometimes hanging beneath it by his hands and feet. Although exquisitely sensitive in his social habits, he seems to have been without an apprehension in the presence of danger. After residing on Goat Island two winters, he crossed Bath Island Bridge, and built him a rude cabin of boards at Point View, near the American Fall. Although brought into the immediate neighborhood of the villagers, he held but little intercourse with them; sometimes, indeed, refusing to break his silence by oral communication with any one. At times, however, he was extremely affable to all, easily drawn into conversation, and supporting it with a regard to conventionalism, and a grace and accuracy of expression that threw a charm over the most trivial subject of remark.

Horseshoe Falls, Niagara (detail)
by Sir James E. Alexander. Colour tint by Erna Jahnke. Courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library. Notice Francis Abbott hanging from the Terrapin Point boardwalk. Click to enlarge

The late Judge De Vaux was perhaps the only person with whom he was really familiar. With him he would often interchange arguments, by the hour, on some point of theology — his favorite topic of discussion. His views on this subject were by no means stable ; but as far as they assumed a definite form they seemed nearly akin to those held by the Society of Friends. But it was in his brUliant remmiscences of foreign lands and scenes that he was especially glorious. All his subjective speculations were tinged by shadows of melancholy or despair; but in describing the glories of nature and art, the scholar and the amateur lifted off the cowl of the hermit, and revealed the enthusiasm of a spirit still exquisitely alive to the kindling touch of Beauty. He had wandered among the ruins of Asia and Greece, and studied the trophies of art in the celebrated picture galleries of Italy.

Of music he was passionately fond, and played his own compositions, in the opinion of some, with exquisite taste; while others declare his execution to have been only mediocre, if not absolutely inferior.

Every day, after his removal to the main-land, it was his custom to descend the ferry stairs to bathe in the river below; and it was while thus engaged that he was accidentally drowned, June. 10, 1841. Ten days afterward his body was found at the outlet of the river, and brought back to the village, where it was committed to the earth in sight of the scenes he so much loved.

After his decease a number of citizens repaired to his cabin to take charge of his effects. Little however was to be found: his faithful dog guarded the door; his cat lay on the lounge; and bis books and music were scattered around the room. Writing was sought for in vain. It is said, notwithstanding, that he wrote much, but always in Latin, and committed his productions to the flames ahuost as soon as composed.

You will now ask, ” What caused him to lead the life of a hermit ? ” This question has never been answered. It is commonly supposed that he had been the victim of some disappointment; but we have nothing to relieve the supposition. Members of his family have, since his death, visited Niagara; from whom we learn only that Francis was a son of the late John Abbott, of Plymouth, England, a member of the Society of Friends, and that in his youth he alternated the most indefatigable devotion to his studies with the most excessive dissipations of a gay metropolis. If we were to decide from our present knowledge of his history, we should say that his social eccentricities were owing rather to the constitutional tendencies of his mind, developed by the tenor of his early life, than to any one controlling circumstance ; that study, dissipation, and, possibly, disappointments, had so far destroyed the harmony of both mind and body, that, with Childe Harold before him, he

” From his native land refsolved to go,
And visit scorching climes beyond the sea;
With pleasure drugged, he almost longed for woe,
And e’en for change of scene, would seek the shades below.”

We have given only what we know of his life. There still remains a wide margin which each may fill up, as best suits himself, with the speculations of romance.

Poems on the Niagara Falls Poetry Project website about Francis Abbott

Francis Abbott: The Recluse of Niagara  by James Bird
The Hermit of Niagara  by James A. Martling
The Hermit of the Falls  by Lydia Huntley Sigourney
Stanzas by Almira

Brock University’s Hermit of Niagara virtual exhibit
Niagara Falls Museums Francis Abbott – The Hermit of Niagara Falls