Ghosts of New York

Credit: Laura Frankstone

The Lost Pondshiners

New York’s Hudson Valley has long been haunted—by headless horsemen, and living terrors, too. In the hills between Poughkeepsie and Albany existed a clan of artisans known for their semi-wild existence—and for being a real-life connection to the region’s supernatural past.

New York’s Hudson Valley abounds in spooks, from the wailing Maid of Kaaterskill Falls, to the dreaded Horseman of Leeds, to ongoing rumors of a poltergeist in the Education Building in Albany. These, along with more familiar specters like Rip Van Winkle and the Headless Horseman, prompted historian Maud Wilder Goodwin to write in 1919 that the Hudson River was “endowed [with] more of the supernatural…than haunts any other waterway in America.”

How the region became such a cradle for fireside tales is a matter of conjecture. Washington Irving, the most famous contributor to the area’s spectral reputation, offered one potential cause: “Some…believed these mischievous powers of the air to be evil spirits conjured up by the Indian wizards, in the early times of the province, to avenge themselves on the strangers who had dispossessed them of their country.”

More prosaically, it may be that the various Dutch, German, English, and Irish settlers each brought their Old World hobgoblins with them. This transformed the valley into a haunted melting pot, creating what Henry James described as a “shimmer of association [that] refuses to be reduced to terms; some sense of legend, or aboriginal mystery, with a still earlier past for its dim background.”

But when it comes to aboriginal mysteries, the Hudson Valley has almost as many flesh-and-blood frights as it does phantoms. Strange backwoods clans have been found in hollows throughout the region, from the ornery so-called Jackson Whites in the Ramapo Mountains, to the Eagle Nesters—supposedly descended from Indians and escaped slaves—perched above Kingston, to the exceptionally blond-haired Van Guilders around Glens Falls. But maybe the most peculiar of these communities was the wild Pondshiners of the Taconic Hills in southern Columbia County.

The Pondshiners’ origins are obscured, to say the least. All that’s known is sometime in the 1700s or early 1800s, a small group of families—mostly named Hotaling, Proper, and Simmons—settled on “the Hill,” an isolated height above a lake in what’s now Taconic State Park. Why they retreated to the woods is a mystery. One story was that they were Yankee ne’er-do-wells on the run from Connecticut’s puritanical censures. Another tale, likely apocryphal, said they fled Hudson Valley rent collectors during the 1840s anti-rent wars between tenant farmers and the upstate landed gentry. The few times anyone was able to get close enough to ask about their origins, the Pondshiners said they had no clue how they’d come to live on the Hill.

The few times anyone was able to get close enough to ask about their origins, the Pondshiners said they had no clue how they’d come to live on the Hill.

It’s not even known why the families came to be called “Pondshiners.” They were called that and also “Bushwhackers” by villagers living along the lake, who were probably just looking for another way of calling the clans a gang of hillbillies.

Wherever the Pondshiners and their name came from, once they made their exodus into the wilderness that’s where they stayed, brooding, in-breeding, and growing increasingly hermitic. Fair-skinned with bright blue eyes, they survived by hunting and by farming hardscrabble plots. Their income was virtually nil with one notable exception: basket weaving. Myth says they learned their skills from Indians who’d also retreated to the lonesome hills. The rounded baskets, which were woven from strips of hardwood, were superior even to Shaker handiwork, and modern collectors often confuse the two. The baskets were brought down the mountain and sold in the lakeside villages, usually by the unofficial patriarch of the clans. Today antiques dealers can bring in between $500 and $1,000 for a genuine Pondshiner product.

The Pondshiners’ workmanship wasn’t widely appreciated back then, though, and they remained impoverished and secluded through the First World War. Only the villagers in Columbia County were aware of their existence, and except for buying baskets they wanted little to do with the furtive woodlanders.

But time and the Hudson’s tides wait for no man, and after the establishment of the New York State Police in 1917, the Pondshiners began to receive unwanted attention. The new constabulary had a rough-and-tumble glamour, and after the war the journalist and historian Frederic Van de Water accompanied the “Grey Riders” on a series of missions into New York’s fearful backwaters. One of those raids was an investigation into a series of lakeside burglaries attributed—falsely, as it turned out—to the Pondshiners. When Van de Water asked one local what he thought of the accusations against the Hill people, the villager snorted, “Steal? Shucks, no! They ain’t got spunk enough.”

Nonetheless, Van de Water had struck a gold mine of sordid Pondshiner details, and his initial 1919 article in the New York Tribune was a sensationalistic expose of what he characterized as rural degeneracy. More pieces followed with tawdry headlines like, “The Bushwhackers of Columbia County! Strange People Populate Taghkanic Hills!” and “They Have No Religion, No Morals, No Education and Run Like Rabbits at the Approach of Strangers.”

In 1921 the troopers returned to the Hill to enforce truancy laws and Van de Water rode along. He included descriptions of both visits in his bombastic volume Grey Riders: The Story of the New York State Troopers, which featured a chapter called “The Frightened People.”

The hills were laced with little blind paths, running in and out of ravines, between boulders, twisting and branching endlessly. These were the highways of the Frightened People, used for mysterious ends of their own. We came out on another trail and met the Frightened People, face to face. Their clothing was ragged and dirty past all identification. Lank hair streamed over sallow faces that bore no evidence of even a remote acquaintance with soap. The eyes that watched us were not humanly curious. They held the blank terror of wild things… Birth and mating and death come to them as they come to the furred and feathered wild creatures of these hills. They keep no livestock, no poultry, and their efforts at agriculture are limited to draggled little patches of corn and potatoes, which live or wither as rain and insects see fit. Thus have they lived, for perhaps ten generations, shrinking in fright from outside contact...

Later in the chapter, Van de Water described the family patriarch, the one who delivered baskets to the village: “He was blond to the verge of albinism, with the face of a feeble baboon. His faded blue eyes peered up beneath sparse brows and, meeting yours, flickered down again. He was stunted and thin and wizened… He himself had never seen a railway train. He had no idea who was president of the United States…”

Admittedly, by that time the community had been reduced to conditions that were miserable even by Pondshiner standards. As isolated as the Hill was, it still wasn’t able to protect them from the post-war influenza pandemic.

“The flu wiped out about half of them a couple of years back,” the sergeant remarked. “They died like flies,” the sergeant added. “They buried their dead sometimes…They took the dear departed and stacked them up in the shed outside the cabin, just rolled them up in blankets and left them there. There they stayed, all through the honeymoon [the full moon in June], and then some. They’d have been there yet if a hunter hadn’t passed and found them…”

After the epidemic, only a few families remained on the Hill. But the Grey Riders evinced little sympathy. “After all they’re just animals,” said the sergeant that night at supper. “They’ve slipped so far you couldn’t bring them back. Better if the flu had wiped them all out.”

Van de Water did admire, however, the extraordinary quality of Pondshiner crafts he came across in the village. Along with baskets woven so tightly they held water without leaking, the journalist noted: “A tea tray stood on a side table. Its base was delicately plaited withes; its rim of finer fiber, perfectly woven. A handle of braided sweet grasses curved gracefully above it. The lines and workmanship were beautiful and fine. ‘The bushwhackers made this for me,’ our hostess said, ‘from a sketch I gave them.’”

Perhaps unhinged by the attention—and who wouldn’t be with newspapermen and police their only worldly contacts—the Pondshiners let their superstitions run wild.

Vividly portrayed in Carl Carmer’s landmark 1939 chronicle of the valley and its people, The Hudson, the families were trapped in a dread-filled limbo, not part of modern society but not entirely wild anymore either. By this point some of the families had moved down the Hill to live along the state road, but the increased contact only seemed to add to their anxiety. A schoolteacher familiar with the community told Carmer, “The woods they live in frighten them and the people who live outside the woods frighten them more. They are always looking behind them to see if they are being followed or to find a way to escape.”

As Carmer tells it, more than anything, what was bothering the Pondshiners was a witch. Far more equable than Van de Water, the writer listened patiently when a Pondshiner wife named Flo greeted him by saying, “That school teacher told me you’re goin’ to do somethin’ about the witchin’ goin’ on around here and I’ll tell you it’s about time.”

When Carmer asked why the Pondshiners didn’t have the so-called witch arrested, Flo scoffed. “‘Twouldn’t do no good. You have to kill a witch to get rid of her and none o’ them state troopers has got anything but lead bullets. It takes a silver bullet to kill a witch.”

Flo went on to describe the witch’s terrifying attacks. According to her, the old woman transformed herself into six cats which assaulted Flo’s cabin, hurling objects around the room, blowing lamps out, and flinging manure across the food on their dinner plates. When Flo told them to stop, the cats said they were going to witch her to death, then went down into the cellar and bowled balls of fire.

The families were trapped in a dread-filled limbo, not part of modern society but not entirely wild anymore either.

Nearly every other Pondshiner told Carmer similar tales about the old woman. Many of them said it was high time someone stopped the witch in her tracks, which according to Flo, were “like when you draw a star—witches make star tracks.” The sorceress’s powers went beyond cats, the Pondshiners believed. One man claimed he saw “a man without no head. It was a beautiful sight and had on beautiful pants and shirt—all white.” With the sound of flapping wings, the apparition then flew away into a blinding light. “It went off and left us,” he said, “and we been worried ever since whether it was an angel or a witch.

“You can’t be too careful around here,” the Pondshiner warned Carmer.

Eventually Carmer went into the woods and interviewed the accused witch. Living alone in a cabin in the scrubland, the old woman initially said the accusations were a lot of nonsense; that Flo and her friends blamed her for every household mishap. But then she went on, saying those Pondshiners by the road were a “bunch of hard drinkers and card players,” and that she had heard, just heard mind you, that those self-same drinkers were recently attacked during one of their card games.

“All of a sudden all them kings and queens and jacks come alive and treated ‘em all shameful and such carryin’s-on you never did see. They better watch out if they know what’s good for ‘em,” the old witch concluded.

Sadly for folklorists, such wild happenings eventually disappeared along with the distinct Pondshiner community. Forced into society by compulsory schooling, the clans slowly integrated. The art of basket-making disappeared also, at least partly because the younger generations were so upset at being called Pondshiners that they no longer wanted to be associated with the craft. The last true Pondshiner artisan was Elizabeth Proper, who sold baskets to Columbia County shopkeepers well into the 1980s. Lizzy Proper also carried on the tradition of Pondshiner obstinacy, refusing to let anyone observe her weaving methods. One store owner who knew her laughed, “If she liked you, she liked you, and if she didn’t… you didn’t get baskets.’’

Hardly more phantasmal now than when they were alive and hidden on the Hill, the Frightened People are yet another legend to add to the Hudson Valley’s macabre list. Should you decide to hike into Taconic State Park, watch out. Whether dealing with the living or the dead, the bewitched or the witching, you can’t be too careful around these parts. As a local warned the Grey Riders when they went in search of the Pondshiners, “They’ll hear you on the trail but you’ll never hear them. They’ll see you, too, but you’ll not know it.”


Tobias Seamon recently published the novella The Fair Grounds. More can be found here. More by Tobias Seamon