He was the most picturesque of latter-day White Mountain characters—“English Jack”–known to thousands of visitors to the region as the “Hermit of the White Mountains,” or the “Crawford Notch Hermit.”
According to the “Chronicles of the White Mountains,” John Alfred Vials (or Viles) was 90 yrs old when he died in April 1912 (so b abt 1821). Jack spent his summers in an old shanty which became known as the “House That Jack Built,” and which was situated at not great distance from the highway, in the woods above the Gate of the Notch. His house — “ship” he preferred to call it–was reached by paths from several directions, signboards indicating the way thither. Here in a low-ceilinged room Jack received his visitors. From the sale of picture postcards of himself, of a booklet containing what purports to be his life-story, told in rhyme by James E. Mitchell, and of other souvenirs, he acquired what was a considerable revenue at that time.
He usually had some trout in a small aquarium just outside his door. Besides fish, it was commonly reported that snakes were sometimes articles of diet with him. Asked about this rather queer taste attributed to him, he replied, “Well, they never ketched me at it, anyhow.” For a beverage, other than the cool sparking water of the near-by brook or spring, Jack brewed a kind of beer out of hops and roots which grew near the hut, with which stimulant he sometimes regaled his visitors. “Among the Clouds for July 25, 1877 tells of his eating half of an uncooked striped snake, “with apparent relish.” This was done in the presence of a party of people from the Crawford House.
According to the “Story of Jack,” he was born in London and left an orphan at twelve, with one pound in gold as his whole fortune, and with the sole ambition of going to sea. For days and days he frequented the docks seeking an opportunity to shop as cabin-boy, but in vain. Nobody would take him, and at last, tired and homesick, he sat down to cry.
A five-year-old girl came toddling up and told him not to cry, saying that she was looking for her father’s ship and that she was lost as well as he. Hand in hand, Jack and little Mary walked along the hot street, a sad pair. Mary suddenly saw her father on top of a passing omnibus, but he did not hear her call to him, so occupied was he in talking with his sailor mate. With quickness of mind and action, Jack pushed Mary through a door and ran after the omnibus, which he caught and mounted blurting out, “Your little girl is gone!”
At that the father at once started off with Jack to find Mary, which they did to the father’s and little daughter’s great joy. When Jack told his tale, the grateful Bill Simmonds took the friendless lad home with him, and he and his wife cared for him. When Bill went to sea again, he got Jack a berth as cabin-boy on his ship. After sailing together for eight years in different ships, Bill and Jack, who had by this time become an able seaman, shipped in the good ship “Nelson” for the Indian Ocean. Jack, Mary, and her mother had forebodings that all would not be well on this voyage, but the men laughed them off and joined the crew.
Nothing untoward happened until the ship was in the Indian Ocean, when one Sunday afternoon a terrible gale struck it. After running for hours before the hurricane, the ship was wrecked upon a small desert island. Jack, Bill, and eleven others were all that were saved out of a crew of forty-two. Water, fortunately, was found, but the only food to be had, after a water-soaked cash of break was consumed, consisted of mussels, crabs, limpets, snakes and the like. Before the rainy season came on, disease and death had reduced the company to four. For nineteen months the four lived on what they could pick up on the barren shore, and then Bill succumbed, his dying wish being that Jack look after his wife and Mary and tell them about his end.
A week or so after Bill’s death, there came a violent hurricane and when the stored had cleared off a sail was seen. The shipwrecked men’s signal had been seen also, and the ship, an American one, rescued them. Jack’s two companions died before they could reach home, and he alone of all the Nelson’s company returned alive to London. When he had reported to the owners the fate of the ship, Jack started in search of Mary and her mother. After many days he learned that Bill’s wife was dead and that Mary had been taken to the workhouse. Jack at once took her out and placed her in a school, paying her board for a year, and then took ship on a vessel bound for Hongkong. All went well with the sailor both on the outgoing and on the return voyage. Immediately after the ship’s arrival at Liverpool, the anxious Jack took the train for London. When, however, he reached the school, he received the heart-crushing news that Mary had died just a month before.
Eventually, and against his wish, Jack recovered from the severe sickness caused by this blow to his hope and love. He then joined the navy, with the thought that death might overtake him in that service, but although he fought in many skirmishes and battles, his life was spared through all. He tells in the “Story” of fighting in Africa to free the slaves, of going with Inglefield to search for Sir John Franklin’s crew in the frozen North, and of serving through the Crimean War and in the Indian Mutiny. After traveling land and sea for many years, Jack left old England and came to America.
Drifting to the Crawford Notch to work on the railroad, he came to like the region so much that he took up the life of a hermit there in the summer months. He used to spend his winters hunting, trapping, and making souvenirs to sell to his summer visitors. Latterly, in the winter, Jack lived with a family at Twin Mountain.
He was well read, it is said, in history and literature. He had spent much time and money in searching through advertisements and otherwise for his relatives, but, as he met with no success in this, he came to the conclusion that they were all dead. He had a kind heart. One way in which he manifested this was by assisting orphans and other unfortunates among the Mountains.
Jack was a real person, as evidenced by extensive stories about him. Unfortunately I have not been able to find any trace in the U.S. Census of a John/Jack Vials/Vialls/Viles who was living in the white mountains. [And usually the “hermits” WERE included in the census].
If anyone knows the identity of this man, or can direct me to documents or census records confirming his presence, I would be grateful.
Most of the above taken from: “Chronicles of the White Mountains,” by Frederick Wilkinson Kilbourne; Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1916.
Update: August 2013
I located the death record probably of the hermit as follows:
==DEATH RECORD OF JOHN A. VIAL==
Name: John A. Vial
Place of Death: Carroll, NH
Date of Death: Year-1913 Month-4 (April) Day-24
Age: Years-89 Months-3 Days-15
[This would make his approx date of birth as January 9, 1824]
Place of Birth: England
Sex: M Colors: W Single
Cause of Death: Appoplexy, Duration three weeks; contributing cause: Nephritis
Name of Physician: Dr. H.M. Wiggin
Address: Whitefield NH
Place of Interment: Carroll NH
Date of Interment April 26, 1912
Name of Cemetery: Protestant
Undertaker: R.V. Howard
Address: Whitefield NH
Certificate signed by: Dana Brown, Clerk of Carroll NH, May 8, 1912
English Jack, the Hermit of Crawford Notch – from Whitemountainhistory.org
[Editor’s Note: links and information updated January 12, 2014]