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The Strange Tale of Esopus Island
BY HV NEWS STAFF • ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 1/4/17
Most people have never heard of Esopus Island. The tiny swatch of land is located on the eastern side of the Hudson at River Mile 84, southwest of Norrie Point in Staatsburg and opposite the mouth of Black Creek on the western shore. It is approximately one mile long. In an 1894 book its shape was compared to “a great stranded and petrified whale.” There is a beach on the southeast side and shoals at the north end. The island is wooded and has great outcroppings of rock. Now part of the Margaret Lewis Norrie State Park and the Hudson River Watertrail, Esopus Island today has campsites, picnic areas, trails, and fishing access points, but can be reached only by boat.
While there is not a lot of history available on the the island, it is believed that the Lenape Indians made use of it. A large stone on the Island seems to show sign of humans working it into perhaps a megalith. Legend has it that a Jesuit priest may have been killed on Esopus Island by the Indians.
During the Revolutionary War, British war ships used the isle as a makeshift port before they burnt down the provincial capital in the City of Kingston. During the second half of the 19th century, it became known as Pell Island as Robert L. Pell owned the property.
Perhaps the oddest part of the history of Esopus Island lies in the mystic. In 1918, British occultist Aleister Crowley spent 40 days and 40 nights alone on the island translating the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Tao text dating as far back as the 4th century BC.
Crowley was born into a wealthy family and was a Cambridge graduate with a deep love of mountaineering and poetry. He soon became fascinated with the practices of Eastern religion and was trained in Western esotericism and ceremonial magic. Rejecting his own Christian faith, the prolific author claimed that during his honeymoon in Cairo, Egypt, he was contacted by a supernatural entity that entrusted him with a scripture entitled “The Book of The Law.” Based on this alleged encounter, Crowley founded the religion of Thelema and branded himself as a prophet.
At age 42, after moving to the United States, the flamboyant and penniless Crowley decided to take sanctuary on Espous Island as a sort of spiritual retreat. He ferried to the island on an Albany day boat with no supplies except for thick ropes to climb the famous rock outcroppings and 50 gallons of red paint and paint brushes. Crowley believed that the he would be fed by the ravens like the biblical Elijah. Famed Rhinebeck occult author William Seabrook, who had helped to finance the retreat for Crowley, was dismayed that Crowley took with him neither food or tent, but that Crowley had spent the funds on non-necessities.
Crowley held many world records in mountain climbing, so it took very little for him to make a system of pulleys to guide himself up the large rocks of the island. There he put his red paint to work, writing in large graffiti style red lettering slogans like “Every Man and Every Woman is a Star!” Dressed in a robe-like shirt, shorts, tasseled golf socks and his signature shaved head with only a forelock of hair, he became the talk of polite society during his tenure in Hyde Park. It is known that a friend he called “The Camel” in his diaries supplemented his diet with canned goods she brought to Crowley on the weekends.
Interestingly, Crowley had a connection to the United States Justice Department. Reports of bright flashing lights from the west and unfamiliar individuals in the local farming communities near the island may have been the reason Crowley actually took on this colorful camping trip. While camping, Crowley was able to resolve that the lights actually corresponded to trains passing and gaps in the treeline and reported the information to authorities.
Crowley died in 1947. In 2002, he was voted number 75 out of 100 Greatest Britons in a BBC news poll. He is also one of the figures on the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album. Crowley’s motto of “Do What Thou Wilt” was inscribed on the vinyl of Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin III album. Ozzy Osbourne even wrote a song in his honor entitled “Mr. Crowley.” But for 40 days and nights, Aleister Crowley was a resident of Staatsburg.