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muriel j smith 120With all the references to James Fenimore Cooper’s book, “The Waterwitch” among the streets in Highlands…Seadrift ave., Waterwitch ave, the Waterwitch section of the boro, Barberie avenue…we sometimes forget there’s another street in neighboring Atlantic Highlands named after another of Cooper’s characters from the book: Beverout Place. Former Mayor Dick Stryker reminded us of that story, which is as fascinating as Lust in Rust itself.

What’s more…there were actual US Naval ships named the Water Witch as well, one of which later became the CSS Water Witch!

css water witchPHOTO: CSS Water Witch

Lust in Rust was actually Beverout’s country estate located in the hills of Highlands. And Beverout, in the book, was actually Myndert Van Beverout, a wealthy fur merchant and New York city official. It was Beverout who was buying all those silks and other magnificent luxuries from Tom Tiller, the mystery man on the Water Witch, the ship used for smuggling and other excitement and affairs throughout the book. The ship itself was named for its figurehead, a not very pretty but indeed very ominous looking water witch. And it was British naval officer Captain Cornelius Ludlow and His Majesty’s ship the Coquette, who had made it their mission to capture the smuggling ship WaterWitch and put an end to her activities at sea and in the ports up and down the coastline.

The love interest in the book…and there’s always a love interest in novels set in the 18th century….is Beveraut’s beautiful niece, the Lady Barberie, or, to be perfectly proper, Alida de Barberie. She suddenly vanished after one of those negotiating sessions over silks and things and it became known she was off on the Water Witch with the very handsome captain, Capt. Seadrift.

The rest of Cooper’s novels details the chase and sea battles around Sandy Hook and Long Island until the ending when the reader learns who marries whom who’s in love with whom and what happens to the Water Witch. It’s enough that Beverout’s name remain famous in a street in the hills of Atlantic Highlands named in his honor!

While the book does not have the excitement and easy readability of 21st century novels, it’s one of Cooper’s lighter works, and reviewers have noted that in spite of the very authentic sea chases and sailing adventures, it is a book filled with whimsy.

Actually, Cooper wrote the book in Naples, Italy, a place the author considered to be the most beautiful of anything he had seen around the world. He stayed many months there in the 1820s, enjoying life with his wife and children in what appears to be the happiest time in his life. Yet while he drank in the beauty and charm of the Bay of Naples and Sorrento itself, strangely enough he set the book’s location in the Sandy Hook Bay and New York area around the beginning of the 18th century. Which only proves that no matter where you are, no matter how magnificent the setting, there’s just something so very special about the Bayshore that makes you always want to be a part of it.

As for the Water Witch, there were in actuality three real ships in the American Navy with that name, the most famous being the one built in the 1850s and launched at the Naval Yard in Washington DC. She was in and out of service for a few years, used to conduct surveys of South American coastlines and rivers before the Civil War, then used as a delivery ship after Fort Sumter, carrying mail and messages through the blockade between there and Key West. Successful in that mission, she was on yet another mission a couple of years later when she was boarded and captured by the Confederate Navy, who kept the name and she became the CSS Water Witch. She was used by the Confederates until nearly the end of the Civil War when she was burned to prevent her recapture by the Union. There’s a full scale reproduction of the wooden-hulled steamer at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia. The museum also is home to the original bell from the ship, one of her flags, and a Bible, all taken from the ship before she was destroyed.

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