The tradition of “witch doctoring” in the Catskills dates to the earliest days of European settlement in the unforgiving valleys and hollows of our celebrated mountains. Numerous sources, notably from Schoharie and Ulster counties, detail the exploits of this peculiar regional flavor of supernatural healers — earnest folk endowed with remarkable powers which were always leveraged for the benefit of their far-flung neighbors. These so called “witch doctors,” as Alf Evers describes in his book The Catskills, were lauded as curious but valued members of the communities they ministered to. In essence, they were “good” witches.
The abject oddness of this regional phenomenon cannot be understated. The exploits of several of the Catskills’ witch doctors in the years after the Revolution occurred a mere two hundred miles from the Massachusetts Bay region where a century prior a fit of mass hysteria led to the execution of nineteen people on suspicion of being witches. There are myriad reasons for the strange tolerance of Catskill Mountain communities towards the witches who lived alongside them, and the influence of Palatine German and Dutch cultural values cannot be understated, but at the end of the day the reality of this phenomenon still almost defies credulity.
Dr. Jacob Brink, who wasn’t an actual MD by any stretch of the imagination, is perhaps the most famous of the witch doctors who practiced in the Catskills. Mr. Evers cites numerous stories and written accounts of the fantastical exploits of the “Old Doctor” — from “chasing the witches” out of butter churns that produced sour butter, to speaking and laying on hands to cure an illness, and even stopping a hemorrhage through incantations while miles away from the bleeding victim. These stories were all remarkable, but the one that takes the cake was Doctor Brink’s ministrations over the North River Sloop MARTIN WYNKOOP, a reviled hulk of a ship which was plagued for all its years by spirits and dark forces. That Doctor Brink’s storied career and the tale of the MARTIN WYNKOOP should overlap is a fascinating crossover which lends a certain degree of authenticity to an otherwise fantastical legend.
Folk tales like those which have grown over the last two centuries concerning Doctor Brink’s exploits and the tribulations of the MARTIN WYNKOOP are difficult things to grapple with. They are always furnished by tellers as the truth and have grown and transformed with the telling like a knotted old yellow birch on a mountainside. Like the birch these tales are lovely to witness, but their roots are sometimes obscure and far-reaching. At the archives of the old Senate House in Kingston one of the roots of this particular tale lay hidden in the pages of a diary from 1850. This diary, one of several kept by Mr. Nathaniel Booth of Twaalfskill, is in and of itself an absolutely astounding piece of writing, but within its pages appears one of the earliest written accounts of the MARTIN WYNKOOP, its haunting, and Doctor Brink’s attempts to cure the ship.
The MARTIN WYNKOOP was an actual sloop. Constructed at Kingston in 1822, the 113-ton vessel was enrolled at New York in 1823 probably while under the ownership of Kingston businessman Abraham Hasbrouck. According to resources not directly involved in perpetuating the WYNKOOP’s legend, deckhand Zebre Simmons drowned while in service on board in the summer of 1826. He is the only verifiable human casualty of the MARTIN WYNKOOP.
Hasbrouck, already a wizened veteran of the merchant’s line of business, decided to retire and divest himself of his buildings and wharf at Kingston Landing in 1829. The lengthy advertisement for his property ran in the New York Statesman in 1829 and 1830, the final paragraph reading: “The subscriber [Hasbrouck] also offers for sale, the sloop MARTIN WYNKOOP, in complete order. She is too well known on the river to need any particular description or recommendation.” It is difficult to discern if Hasbrouck’s advertisement is alluding to the eight year old sloop’s widely regarded fame or infamy.
The MARTIN WYNKOOP falls out of the news for two decades following her sale, but reappears in 1850 following a collision with the schooner MARION which resulted in a lengthy and expensive court case among the respective owners. By many accounts the MARTIN WYNKOOP subsequently sank in New Jersey sometime in the 1880s, though even this is difficult to confirm.
Nathaniel Booth, finding himself on a wharf at Rondout on a deceptively springlike day in February of 1850, sat and listened to some of the boatmen gathered on the warm side of a warehouse trading stories. In his diary that night he related ten pages of what he heard regarding the MARTIN WYNKOOP, mostly furnished by one of the aged veterans of the river trade seated among his compatriots. Booth quoted the man: “she is haunted and there is no use talking about it. I have known her for thirty years and she has had ill luck all the time; she has never paid expenses, she has broke more legs and arms, ruined more freight and done more damage generally than any craft between Troy and New York. ‘You don’t believe this and you don’t believe that’ is all fudge — facts are stubborn things and what a man sees with his own eyes he is apt to believe in, and what he knows can’t be argued out of him; and I know she is both unlucky and haunted.”
More on the Hudson’s most famous haunted sloop and Doctor Brink’s efforts to cure her next week.
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