Esopus Island


by Gary Alexander

The banks of the Hudson River have seen many celebrated and I historic visitors. Often the presence and activities of such guests are respectfully recorded for prosperity. This, however, was not the case in the summer of 1918 when a particularly notorious wizard canoed on the river and made camp for what he considered a symbolic 40 days and nights upon a midstream island some six miles to the south of Kingston.

This magnetic and flamboyant magician, the subject of extensive coverage and well over a dozen biographies, arrived as a stranger of rather peculiar appearance and behavior during wartime and created an immediate impression upon the local gentry. Yet, for all of the beloved ghosts, devils, and headless fantasies revered in the region, it would seem magical scoundrels (for that is the image he most commonly conjures) escape the romantization process of legend-building. There is scarcely a trace of his 'vacation' in the official record despite some rather blatant efforts to leave his mark. Even that eminent scrutinizer of local event and author of the most authoritative historical works on Woodstock and the Catskills, Alf Evers, had to admit that, while he certainly knew of the famous wizard, he was entirely unaware of his visitation to the Hudson Valley area.

There are two obvious reasons for this state of affairs. Firstly, the writer-magician, being one Aleister Crowley, notioned himself a nemesis of the polite society whose values he so bluntly rejected and in return was largely ignored by the polite scholars and historians of his day. In the 1990's, however, Crowley still commands a legion of highly visible followers and advocates including filmdom's Kenneth Anger, the Prometheus of new-wave literature, Robert Anton Wilson, and innumerable rock stars from Jimmy Page to John Lennon. In the 1990s, Crowley's magnetic appeal to counter-culture advocates, occultists of varying stripe and hordes of readers who are merely openly inquisitive continues to promote the publication of numerous books relating to his writings, thought and exploits.

A second reason for Crowley's local adventure going comparatively unnoticed may be that the island he based himself upon, being Esopus Island, was referred to as "Oesopus" by the illustrious camper and his biographers, mostly British, have dutifully respected his spelling acumen and followed suit. His reasons for this misspelling may have been deliberate. He was known to agonize over the precise spelling of words for qabalistic or 'magical' reasons, and, for whatever other shortcomings he may have been charged with (and we'll get to these), his erudition was never in question. Or, he might have been making some sort of obscure pun, which was a compulsive characteristic of his writings, double-entendre, or merely an unconscious referral to the spelling of Oedipus. Given that he renders Dutchess County as "Dachers County", we may be looking at careless phoneticism or a sly comment on the quantity of locals with Dutch ancestry he encountered. With Crowley it is difficult to be certain. Regardless, most, if not all, histories of him wrongly record the site of his retreat. Let the record be cleared.

Aleister Crowley was 42 the summer he haunted the Hudson Valley shores, swaying and chanting his 'purifications' of ancient pagan ritual in the moth-swirling smoke around his Esopus Island campfire. His bullet-like head was shaved except for a phallic forelock and an irregular and untended growth of new beard. He often wore a robe-like shirt, climbing shoes, shorts and scarlet tassels on his golf socks.'Magically' he was still approaching the height of his powers. In terms of fashion-sense, he was digging his own moats.

Brief profiles of Crowley tend to be a bit unsettling but a focus upon his Esopus Island stay leaves us little room to settle. Born Edward Alexander Crowley at 10:50 pm on October 12, 1875 in Leamington, Warwickshire into the family of a British alemaker who pronounced the name to rhyme with 'holy', the young Crowley first embraced and then violently and forever rejected the strict fundamentalist doctrine of the Plymouth Brethren sect to which his parents adhered. After studying numerous religions of the world and later specializing in the translation and interpretation of pre-christian, oriental and medieval documents, his youthful hostility stayed with him and led many to the mistaken belief that his interests were satanic. Crowley seldom bothered to correct the impressions of the popular press even when they labeled him "the wickedest man in the world." Sardonically, in childhood, he had adopted the biblical epithet of "the Great Beast" flung upon him by his exasperated mother and clung stubbornly to it throughout life. So, too, did an adolescent delight in shocking people.

While feeding his insatiable intellect as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, Crowley joined an occult society called the Golden Dawn (which numbered W.B. Yeats and MacGregor Mathers among its members) and self-published what he considered to be the wry poet's answer to Kraft-Ebing's recently emerged Psychopathia Sexualis. AC's treatment, in language devoid of the license of clinical science, was promptly suppressed as pornography. It was to be only the first of Crowley's many works to be banned. In fact, his name was to become so tainted by the popular British press that the smoldering existentialist Colin Wilson sadly observed that even biographies about "the Beast" were kept off of library shelves.

Although most of the dark rumors and sensational hyperbole that surround Crowley's career suggest some degree of manufacture, his lifelong pursuit of the lost secrets of ancient magic (or 'magick' in his own terminology, as distinct from the prestidigitation and trickery of stage magicians) was apparently sincere and his mastery of some unusual talents is testified to by a perplexing number of otherwise trustworthy sources. Within our own realm of interest it is sufficient to know that he came to Esopus Island to hone his powers in magical retreat and to work on his translation of and perceptive commentary upon the ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu.

Since coming to America in 1914, Crowley had taken such occasional retirements from his New York City base to Lake Pasquaney in New Hampshire and to the tip of Long Island. He was consistently broke at the time, writing an astrology book with Evangeline Adams that never saw print and selling articles to Vanity Fair magazine. If this latter connection seems unlikely, it was also so to the Beast, who wrote of its editor, Frank Crowninshield; "He treated me, through some inexplicable misunderstanding, as a human being and asked me to write for him." A good deal of controversy was to arise from the fact that he was also at the time contributing to the pro-German paper The Fatherland, a service which his detractors considered treasonable and which he was forced to defend with no little exacerbation ever afterward.

It is difficult today to understand how AC's ludicrous and obvious satires were taken to be seriously pro-German but Crowley-haters could seemingly read traitor into his words with the ease of natural reflex. For instance, a British patriot named Bottomry, in condemning this unspeakable bane to decent society, quoted a passage from the Beast's criticism of Count von Reventlow's Vampire which presented reasons for England to become a German colony. An amused Crowley referred to the piece in his journal; "The Germans printed it without a smile! I was very proud of that article. It proved that all island races were primarily fishermen, who lived by snatching fish and must therefore become pirates. The argument is quite in the style of a real German professor.

Many years later, British intelligence expert Richard Deacon would cite evidence that Crowley was trying to aid the Allied cause (and was in fact in touch with the American Department of Justice) but at the time of his upstate adventure there was a wartime concern about strangers to contend with (2,576 from Ulster County alone served in WWI) and the question of his political allegiance was a factor not to be ignored.

Rhinebeck author, William Seabrook, who met Crowley through novelist Frank Harris, was among a sympathetic group that staked the financially embarrassed Great Beast that summer to a tent, a 'sailing canoe,' and cash for his trip's provisions. It was Seabrook who introduced the word "zombie" to the English lexicon and a careful reading of his works leaves the impression of a well-informed and level-headed skeptic in matters occult. He described Crowley as "a strange Englishman who devoted a great part of his life to 'white magic' and was accused ignorantly by his many enemies of practicing black magic too."

Seabrook was at pains to explain demonstrations of Crowley's 'powers' rationally as his apparently flexible sensibilities found nothing unnatural in the charm of the Great Beast. During a summer they spent together near Atlanta, Seabrook felt they communicated remarkably well for a full week conversing solely with different intonations of the monosyllable "wow", an experiment which drove guests, servants and Seabrook's wife to distraction but later formed the basis of a much anthologized fantasy Seabrook sold to H.L. Mencken.

On the occasion of Crowley's departure to Esopus on an Albany day boat, Seabrook made much of Crowley's poverty of pocket, noting that when friends saw AC off that morning they were distressed to find that, having spent every cent of his provisions money on large brushes, thick rope and 50 gallons of red paint, he expected to be "fed by ravens" as was the biblical Elijah who disappeared in a chariot of fire. (This also as the appearance of a Crowleyish joke --for the consonants of the Hebrew word for Ravens, as AC must certainly have been aware, are the same as for Arabs, the equivalent in Elijah's situation of 'local yokels.' So, in context, what AC seemed to be saying was he would count on area farmers for sustenance as the record indicates he did successfully. Or, stretching his glee with obscure wordplay another tad to the "crow" in his name, he may have been saying something about self-sufficiency.)

One of Crowley's more celebrated accomplishments was the acquisition of several world records in mountain climbing, so it was little bother for him to rig a sling upon his arrival and paint his favorite slogans in enormous letters on the cliffs around Esopus to bedazzle and provoke the passing day boats. It also had the effect of stimulating the curiosity of neighboring families who took to bringing him fresh eggs, milk and sweet corn throughout his stay as he sat endlessly by the roadside in an unshifting lotus position.

On the cliffs, his trademark libertarian sayings rang out: EVERY MAN AND WOMAN IS A STAR! which he explained to mean a sacred and sublime nature existed in every human being which was to be respected. DO WHAT THOU WILT SHALL BE THE WHOLE OF THE LAW, a vital principle of his philosophy which Susan Roberts' biography of the Beast defines as a declaration of rights for that inward star; "-the internal stability of every human being was regulated by its own nature, and when compulsory, arbitrary man-made codes were imposed, the result was a warped human soul. Thus, the phrase was the expression of the right of every person to live, not as an outlaw, but by his or her own internal integrity." Consummate conversationalist that he was, AC could weave compelling dialogues around the farmers' inquiries, smile, and accept an unsolicited entertainment tax.

During the early part of his stay, Crowley's diet was supplemented on weekends by canned goods brought up by a "near artist" he called The Camel. It is perhaps telling that he mentions not only her food contributions but is also given to praise her pharmaceutical knowledge and the fact that she worked in a medical laboratory. It reminds us that prominent among his personal failings, Crowley's enthusiasm for drugs of every description was a lifelong passion which he excused in the interest of alchemical pursuits which saw him testing his robust frame with every imaginable combination and dosage. His expertise was such that on a visit to Detroit he was able to persuade the chemists at Park Davis to prepare him a quantity of his improvement upon their peyote formula. We can only speculate about what may have been in his system as he sat as motionless as one of his sculptor friend Rodin's statues for full days next to the road. He pioneered the use of 'psychedelics,' making him something of an icon of the sixties generation, criticized authorities who proselytized the "harmlessness" of cocaine, which should also be of interest to a later generation, and, at the time of his death of myocardial degeneration and chronic bronchitis at age 72, he was also addicted to a daily intake of heroin large enough to kill a truckload of college athletes.

Another visitor to his island campsite upon a rocky ridge which walled a lillied creek, was a young lady he had never met and seemed surprised to hear from despite the fact he had, with invocation nod doubt, added her name MADELINE to his cliff paintings as if to conjure her from Manhattan.

Crowley had heard her name during a one-day respite to tend to city business when he dropped in on his artist friend, Tony Sarg, and alluded to his Eveless existence in the wilderness. Sarg described her and evidently mentioned the Beast to Madeline because AC was soon startled by a telegram rowed out from the mainland announcing her imminent arrival at Hyde Park Station. She arrived with a trunk which nearly sank Crowley's canoe and enjoyed a lunch of burgundy, old brandy and absinthe that was apparently a byproduct of the vacationer's business trip.

While awaiting the train, AC was approached by a "military-looking man" he dubbed "the colonel" who had an Intelligence interest in his presence in the area. Staatsburg was abuzz with rumors about this curious individual and flashes of light from the west had excited concern that a spy watching troop trains pass southward was signalling estimates to some wireless operator to the east. To demonstrate his loyalties, Crowley revealed his connection with the Justice Department and investigated on his own. He found that the flashes corresponded to passing trains and gaps in the treeline but, his vigilance thusly aroused, he continued to keep his own patrol of the river. There was one night report of a football on a stick moving against the current and the Beast wrote: "The word 'submarine' was whispered by the pallid lips of patriots." In the same spirit we might suggest that this was Nessie, having followed him across the Atlantic, on her way to take roost in Lake Champlain. Crowley, you see, had performed a rare and difficult Sacred Magick ceremony on the bands of Loch Ness just prior to the time monster sightings began there in earnest and there are occultists who still insist that these apparitions are merely the residue of Crowley's experiment.

The Great Beast's account of his canoeing adventures from Poughkeepsie to Newborough Bay are little different from those of other mariners on the Hudson but few would argue that his persona was uniquely colorful. Writer, world-class mountaineer, painter, subject of W. Somerset Maugham's novel The Magician, perhaps the major occult figure of the 20th Century, the 'wickedest man in the world,' prankster deluxe whose books have become so neglected and rare that some of the (by 1970) were valued above $10,000 a copy; Aleister Crowley came not to some Olympian myth of an upstate island named "Oesopus" for magical retreat but to our own Esopus Island right here in the Hudson Valley.

Today, Esopus Island, a small rocky streak of land in the Hudson, is still uninhabited and officially off-limits. Coast Guard markers are sunk into the rock at the southern end. Visitors have left carvings in stone and painted graffiti, but one searches in vain for traces of Crowley or his campsite. There is an odd feel to the place, however, doubtless the product of excited imagination as a trespasser attempts to squint into the past for glimpses of the goat-footed Crowley moving with ease over the island's jutting tilts of rock. There are also perturbing little physical mysteries for which explanatory records are elusive; an apparently hand-worked megalith-sized stone on the east shore, the puzzling ruins of a stone wall (see photos) and a number of other features which beg elucidation. The enigmas remain unattended and little disturbed but other parts of the isle bear ample traces of the disgrace of refuse and litter.

Gary Alexander is a freelance writer who lives near Woodstock, New York. He is also the editor of The Woodstock Seasoner, a literary magazine in which this article first appeared. The article is adapted and condensed from Alexander's The Hungry Soul & The Ebony Flame: Aleister Crowley's Declaration of Independence. For more information about these publications, send SASE to Seasoner Diversions, P.O. Box 194, Woodstock, NY 12498- 0194.

Editor's note: The spelling of "Oesopus" is an archaic form of the name of an ancient river god, corrupted or modernized to "Esopus" by American settlers. Stone walls, carvings and other features on the island may have been left by the frequent visitors that the island has seen since before Europeans arrived in the area. The island reportedly was a neutral meeting place for the Native American tribes of the area, and was, much later, a favorite partying place for F. Scott Fitzgerald and others who toured the river by boat. -- PHF

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