So what was this rascally archmage doing in our neck of the woods at age 42? Good question. There’s a school of thought that he had been working for either British or American intelligence, perhaps for decades, disseminating disinformation by writing propagandistic essays for pro-German publications. These drew attacks on Crowley as a traitor, but closer reading shows that they were blatantly satirical and absurd — such as one in which he argued that England ought to become a colony of Germany because the people of island nations were fit only to become fisherman or pirates. Was it just his dark sense of humor, or was he a government agent? There are clues indicating the latter but no conclusive proof. And it’s hard to fathom what espionage function he might have been serving by camping out for 40 days and 40 nights on an island halfway up the Hudson River in the waning days of World War I: watching for passing U-boats, perhaps?
In any case, Crowley decided to spend some time, which he called a “magickal retirement,” in the local wilderness meditating and working on his translation and commentary for the Tao Te Ching. He had come to America in 1914, and by 1918 was low on funds. So some Hudson Valley friends — including the almost-as-notorious globetrotting journalist William Seabrook of Rhinebeck, best-remembered for giving the Western world the term “zombie” in his account of a sojourn in Haiti learning vodun practices — staked Crowley to a tent, a canoe and some cash for provisions. To their alarm, he spent the money on gallons of red paint, brushes and climbing rope, which he used to paint Thelemic slogans all over the rocky outcrops of Esopus Island.
As it turned out, Crowley’s gamble that he would be “fed by ravens” while in his self-imposed isolation paid off. Curious locals spotted the graffiti and stopped by to chat with the odd man who was sitting on the shore in the lotus position for hours at a time. They started bringing food and drink (and his biographers also say that this “hermit” didn’t have to forswear drugs or women for 40 days, either). John Burroughs was still alive at the time, and while we have no record of their having met, it’s amusing to speculate what a conversation between these two sages might have been like. When it was all over, Crowley claimed to have experienced some profound mystical revelations on Esopus Island, and went on to further adventures in Sicily, Leipzig, Lisbon and back to England, where he died in 1947 — of either a respiratory infection or a heroin overdose, depending on which biography you believe.
Since those times, the memory of the famed magician’s visit has mostly faded from accounts of local history, but students of his career have come back to comb the island for traces of Crowley’s sojourn. There is graffiti to be found on the rocks, but his red-painted exhortations to “Do What Thou Wilt” have entirely faded away. Hikers can find remnants of stone walls on the island, probably predating his stay. And there is a curious stone on the east shore that resembles a megalith, showing signs of having been worked by hand. But let’s not forget that the Esopus people were here long before, privy to spiritual mysteries of their own. Aleister Crowley may be only one in a long parade of seekers over the millennia who chose this spot as a good place to meditate. Hey, the next one could be you!
If you do visit Esopus Island, whether for part of a day or overnight, please leave the red paint at home and adhere to modern-day best practices for outdoor recreation: Carry out whatever you carry in, and leave no trace of your passage. For more information about the many attractions of the Hudson Valley Watertrail, visit https://www.hudsongreenway.ny.gov/Trailsandscenicbyways/watertrail.aspx.