Friday, 04 November 2011 00:00
“You may get drowned in it there/And sent to regions of despair.”
Bloodgood H. Cutter wrote a lengthy poem about Lake Success and the public battle then being fought over it in 1902. At the time, this “Poet Farmer” was among Long Island’s most famous individuals because his friend, Mark Twain, wrote about his fairly awful poetry in a best-selling book. Cutter, who lived much of his life a short distance from the former Success Pond and fished there as a boy, used his cornpone image to parlay an inherited grist mill into a local real estate empire. The image did not match reality.
It’s Halloween week, and we pick up the intermittent floating series about this large pond, which for a short time, was the most famous pond on this continent, with reverberations that affect every Nassau County taxpayer today.
“Mysterious Lake Success…Supposed Bottomless,” “Ghosts Tie Up Vanderbilt Work…Run From Evil Spirit,” “Lakes Victims Haunt It…All Fear the Ghosts.” All headlines from 11 decades ago. Got lots more.
Consider the common story, predating the Civil War, that Lake Success was in places perilously deep, and even bottomless. Attempts to take soundings with miles of rope were fruitless. Swimmers who drowned disappeared and their bodies never recovered, and “two teams of horse and wagon have disappeared into the lake and never been found.” Scary. Interesting. Intriguing. Bogus.
I’ve found a bunch of contemporary reports about drownings in the pond over a dozen decades, and none mention missing bodies. When one of the adjacent small farms went up for auction in 1836, the advertisements describe the pond as “in some places 100 feet deep.” In 1857, The Knickerbocker, a popular monthly magazine, pointed out that Success Pond, “like all hill-top ponds, was said to have no bottom, but several persons were drowned in the middle of it, and were usually found on the bottom.”
By the mid-19th century, even middle income city families commonly rented a house, cottage or hotel room in the country during the hot summers, and the newspapers were filled with reports and reviews of vacationing spots. Success Pond is never described as dangerous or haunted or anything but “a delightful and fashionable summer resort.” So what gives?
There are clues. A strange short story, entitled, “The Boy Who Fished in Success Pond,” was published in 1850 and reprinted in several anthologies. I even found it in an 1869 Australian literary magazine. It’s about a boy who encounters a Naiad (a water deity) in the pond. Don’t worry about most of the story. The key part is that as proof of her existence, the “public-spirited innkeeper of Lakeville” keeps on display a relic of the Naiad on the mantle of his best parlor.
The hotel on the north side of the lake could provide boats and fishing tackle to visitors, but when the sun went down, the management kept guests entertained with tall stories about the lake.
In 1902, newspaper men and photographers descended on the area around Lake Success, asking anyone they could find what they knew about the lake. There were more curious (paying) visitors from the city than ever before, intrigued by the newspaper stories.
A correspondent for the New York World (Joseph Pulitzer’s paper, with a circulation of over a million), found Belmont Pierce, an elderly gentleman who had lived near the lake for 75 years. Pierce recounted in detail firsthand knowledge and stories told by “old Indians” about ghosts and mysterious drownings and how only outsiders would venture into the lake to swim (local people knew better). Great stuff.
Nobody named Belmont Pierce or anything close to it lived on the lake, on Long Island or in New York City dating to at least 1790. And local people swam, fished and skated at that lake all the time.
Was this a local person fed up with being pestered about the lake? A plant? Another guest having fun? Stories from the big city newspapers were fed to little papers across America, and maybe millions read about how “many of the residents of Lakeville have told of seeing ghosts around the shores of the lake.” Yep.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org