The Original Social Distancers: The Bizarre Tales of America's Modern-Day Hermits

Oddballs, eccentrics, and visionaries alike have taken to social distancing before it was mandated.

famous hermits
  • Photo Credit: National Park Service

For nearly the entirety of human civilization, people have taken to isolation, living as hermits. Some were in search of a connection to God while others escaped the prying eyes of the government for nefarious purposes. Their extraordinary lives can teach us all something about being isolated.

Richard Proenneke

Alaska

Long before a young Christopher McCandless made his way to an abandoned bus, Richard Proenneke (pictured above) retired to a remote part of Alaska in 1968 after serving in the U.S. Navy and working as a mechanic. He built a log cabin using found materials, interlocking the pieces with cut joints. Proenneke also put in a fireplace for warmth and cooking. Friends brought him items he couldn’t forage and he continued to visit friends and family periodically.

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In 1999, now in old age, he moved to California to live with his brother, abandoning his cabin. It became property of the National Parks Service and is a popular landmark in Lake Clark National Park. Proenneke died in 2003 but his legacy continues through his published journals and documentaries. Lake Clark’s Museum Collection has some of his belongings on display, as does The Richard Proenneke Museum in his hometown of Donnellson, Iowa.

William Pester

California

famous hermits
  • An article showing Pester playing a guitar in 1919.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Hermit of Palm Canyon was one of the most well-known hermits of the twentieth century, mingling with celebrities and fellow hippies. William Pester was born in 1885 in Germany, leaving for the United States to avoid the military draft.

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He traveled around the country before settling in California’s Coachella Valley. Pester lived in a palm hut along the river on the Cahuilla Indian Reservations, eating fruits and vegetables and spending his days playing guitar, selling postcards, and welcoming tourists for conversations about astronomy. Western author Zane Grey was among Pester’s regular visitors. It's even believed that Pester may have been the inspiration for a Nat King Cole song

In 1940, Pester was arrested for sexual perversion and suspected spy activity. He was imprisoned until 1946 and upon his release, he moved out of the desert to Los Angeles. He felt Coachella Valley was being overdeveloped and chose to give up his life of solitude for marriage. Pester died in Arizona at age 78.

Christopher Knight

Maine

The North Pond Hermit made headlines in 2013 when he was discovered living in the Belgrade Lakes area. Christopher Knight’s early life had been fairly ordinary, with what he called a normal upbringing and a job installing security systems in Boston. He moved into isolation in 1986 at age 20 in a makeshift camp near summer homes. Knight didn’t tell anyone he was leaving and was never reported missing by his parents or community.

Most of the essentials he needed to survive were stolen from those nearby homes and cabins. He committed over 1,000 burglaries over the years, traveling by night to avoid being spotted, covering his tracks with pinestraw, and keeping his fires to a minimum. He only spoke to other humans twice during 27 years, wanting simply to be left alone.

In 2013, Knight was arrested by a local game warden while he was carrying out another burglary. He served his seven-month sentence before taking a job back in society. Knight’s unique story is told in The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel.

Dorothy Molter

Minnesota

famous hermits
  • Moulter greets a visitor to her cabin, circa 1986.

    Photo Credit: Dorothy Molter Museum

One of the few well-known female hermits, Dorothy “The Root Beer Lady” Molter grew up in Pennsylvania and first visited the area along the United States-Canada border that would become her home in 1930. Molter returned the next few summers before settling there four years later. She lived at the Isle of Pines Resort with the owner until his death in 1948, at which point it became hers.

Countless visitors came to stay there every summer, where she sold homemade root beer. She even braved the winters there alone and became the only full-time resident of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness’s one million acres. Her cabin had no electricity and she relied on bottled propane.

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Wilderness protections went into place in 1975, and the government tried to get her to leave. Molter was allowed to stay until her death in 1986. The cabins she lived in were moved by dogsled to the nearby town of Ely and converted into a museum.

Jean R. Guilhot

Mississippi

famous hermits
  • Guilhot, aboard his boat.

    Photo Credit: Find a Grave

Born in France, Jean R. Guilhot came to the United States in 1898 at age 21. Rumored to have served time in the grisly Eastern State Penitentiary, he moved to Biloxi upon his release in 1920 to work as an oysterman.

He took up residence on Deer Island, a 400-acre barrier island in the Biloxi harbor. A few other families lived there until a 1947 hurricane that destroyed homes across the island.

Unlike others who left, Guilhot took to living in a shack rather than rebuilding and became known as the “Hermit of Deer Island.” A local tour boat operator would drop off groceries and include Deer Island in his tour route, benefiting both parties.

Guilhot died in 1959 at the age of 81 and was buried in Biloxi. His shack remained on the island for another decade until Hurricane Camille destroyed it. Deer Island has not been inhabited since and is now protected as a nature preserve.

Robert Harrill

North Carolina

famous hermits
  • Harrill, seated outside his abandoned bunker.

    Photo Credit: Find a Grave

The “Fort Fisher Hermit” started his solitary life in 1955 after he escaped a mental institution, where he had been involuntarily placed after a messy divorce and family tragedy. He hitchhiked nearly 300 miles from his home to the coast.

Harrill made his home in a one-room concrete bunker at Fort Fisher Recreation Area, originally built to watch enemy ships during World War II. He lived there for nearly 20 years, subsisting on foraged plants and seafood.

Harrill had plenty of contact with the outside world, becoming one of the state’s biggest tourist attractions. Visitors came from all over to meet him, signing his guestbook, taking photos, and giving him donations.

But not everyone was happy to see him. Local authorities tried to run him off. Drunken teenagers also vandalized the bunker.

In 1972, Harrill died under mysterious circumstances. There seemed to be evidence of a struggle, but no charges were ever brought and no suspect named. His official cause of death was listed as a heart attack.

Harrill was buried in a nearby cemetery. His bunker remains accessible by a short trail from the Fort Fisher Recreation Area's visitor center.

Feature photo of Richard Proenneke via the National Parks Service

Published on 10 Jul 2020