The Mystique Of Zippy Lewis
Legend and Lore of Ocean City, MarylandWhen I was a young girl, in elementary school, my teacher, Dorothy Mumford used to tell us that Zippy Lewis ate seaweed stew every day for supper. In my world of chicken and dumplings, pork chops smothered with onion-tomato gravy and hot fudge sundaes, I could not imagine anyone having to eat such a meal, and I worried and fretted about Zippy's diet many times during my childhood.
There is an oil painting hanging in the Zippy Lewis Lounge in the Dunes Manor Hotel. It shows Zippy wearing a linsey-woolsey dress and an apron in which she gathered, among other things, coins she found on the beach. She is very pretty, very fair and lady-like. She, however, is not my Zippy. Not the image I have conjured up of this legendary person who once lived upon the beach. Many people, who have spent most of their lives on the barrier islands, feel as I do, that Zippy was a hardened and weather-worn woman.
Zipporah Lewis, as the legend goes, lived as a widow, in a little house, way up the beach, north of Ocean City. Her husband went to sea one day and failed to return. Daily, she would stand upon the highest dune and keep her vigil, hoping against hope that he would appear. Left with no visible means of support, Zippy began to prog the island, in search of food and "treasures". She lived during the time when shipwrecks were common place. Spillage from these disasters often washed upon the shore. Her husband, before his passing, had built their home from such debris. Crudely constructed, the two room shack was an assemblage of oddities recovered from the wrecks.
By word of mouth, from mother to daughter, father to son, friend to friend, for many generations the stories of Zippy's beach treasures have been told. Once, it is said, she laid claim to a cargo of cow hides and later parlayed them into cash by selling them to a tanner on the mainland. Many are the tales of stand-offs with the local wreck master over sea chests and ships' furnishings. But, the best story of all is that she found hundreds of Spanish coins, the silver ones with the likeness of Carlos III and Carlos IV imprinted on them. These she sold, it is said, to a dentist from Berlin, named Derrick son, who then melted the silver down and sold it.
Research shows that the Zippy Lewis house was located eastward of Devil's Island at 117th-118th Street near the present day Gold Coast Mall. The Land Records of Worcester County show that in 1856 and 1857 and again in 1858 three tracts of land were patented to Zipporah Lewis: one LEWIS'S HARD BARGIN containing 15 acres of land, ADDITION TO LEWIS'S HARD BARGIN for 3 acres, 2 perches and for LEWIS'S HARD FORTUNE containing 52+ acres. Previous to these patents the land had been held by the Fassitt family who had maintained a salt works on the beach and who also used that portion of the island for grazing large numbers of cattle. Sometime after the turn of the nineteenth century, historians believe that a storm of great magnitude, possibly the storm of 1821, swept the island, killing the livestock. Patent holders, then having no economical use for the island, refused to pay their taxes, and so the land reverted back to the state, which after a time reissued new patents to other interested parties, Zipporah Lewis being one.
Please note that the land patents were issued to Zipporah Lewis only. There is no evidence that suggests that she was married at the time (1856) when the land patents on the beach were issued. Widowed, with five children, is an accurate assumption. Her will suggests that all of her five children were born prior to this date. By 1877, four of the five children had married and had families of their own. One of these four, a son, Jacob Lewis was already dead.
Through the years, tales of Zipporah finding treasures strewn along the beach have prevailed and are today taken to be God's truth. There is no doubt that she, who lived on the beach for twenty odd years, did occasionally find a handful of coins, but not in the exaggerated amounts that are spoken of today. An inventory of her estate taken in 1879 shows that she had $2.50 cash in hand, and no foreign coins, jewelry or sea chests or the like in her possession.
Lore and legend also say that Zippy burned to death in her shack upon the beach. This suggests that both her body and the home were completely destroyed. This tale is dispelled by the accounting of debts paid by the estate to various individuals. S. J. Evans was paid $30 for making her coffin (a large amount of money for a coffin in that day and time). E. E. Bell was paid $3.98 for material for the deceased shroud. Mrs. M. J. West was paid $1 for making a funeral cape and such for the deceased, bricks for the grave were $4.24, and the brick mason, Peter Long, was paid $2.20. As of this writing, where she is buried has not been determined. The shack/house did burn, however, but not until about sixty years after her death. The source, I believe, of the burning story comes from the more accurate fact that Zippy did accidentally fall into the fireplace and was burned badly enough to cause her death.
From the fairly accurate Census of Worcester County taken during August of 1850, it has been determined that Zippy was born in Delaware during the year 1813. Since her oldest son, Jacob W. was also born in Delaware during 1829 we can accurately assume that Zippy was sixteen years old when she married Mr. Lewis. I believe that the Lewis family moved into Maryland sometime between 1830 and 1833 as their second child, Jonathan was born here in 1833. George W., the third son, was born in 1837; a daughter Mary E. in 1839 and Jinsey C. was born later during 1846. I think it is safe to say that Mr. Lewis died after the birth of Jinsey in 1846 and before the 1850 census.
If her husband was dead by the time she purchased property on the beach, who then built her house? It is logical that her sons constructed the dwelling, as the legend goes, and I agree, from driftwood and lumber washed ashore from passing ships. Also, bear in mind that in the 1850s and 1860s the beach, especially in the area of her house, was heavily wooded, known as the Big and Little Pines, so construction materials were easily at hand. The house, to be sure, was crudely constructed and its contents meager.
During Zippy's time upon the island she had few neighbors. Mr. J. Howard, who was her closest neighbor, lived to the south and a Dr. F. Gum to the north. It is known that Dr. Gum's house was standing and occupied in 1858, but the year that the Howards moved to the island has not been pinpointed. The Howard family is mentioned in the account of the shipwreck SALLIE W. KAYE, on January 10, 1883, when the schooner struck a bar opposite their house. The Howard's small son was sent, during a blizzard, to advise the Ocean City Life-Saving Station of the disaster.
The life-saving station at Ocean City, seven miles to the south, had just been completed in December of 1878, six months before her death. Perhaps many of the tales concerning her originated from the surfmen walking their beat along the beach. More than likely though, the stories were passed by the lighthouse keeper at Fenwick, which was of a more approximate location to Zippy's house. He and his family had dwelt at the lighthouse during the time Zippy had lived on the beach.
Zipporah Lewis wrote her will on the seventh day of November in the year 1877. She left to the heirs of her son Jacob Lewis, deceased, one dollar. To her sons Jonathan Lewis and George Lewis, she left each one dollar. To her daughters Mary and Jinsey she left all her personal property and her land upon the island, with instructions on the division. Mary had married James Savage and after Mary's death the land was to go to Sarah M. Savage, a legitimate daughter of Mary. Jinsey had married John Pointer and after her death, the land was to descend to her son George W. Pointer. Jinsey inherited the land that had the dwelling(s) on it. Zippy lived another year and a half before she died. The will was probated in Worcester County on the 17th of June 1879. Zippy was illiterate as she signed her name with an X, her mark.
At the time of this writing we are trying to find the location of Zippy's grave since the inventory states that there was one. It is known where several of her children are buried, but her burial site is a mystery. Several great-great-grandchildren of Zipporah Lewis live in the Ocean City area today. Those we are aware of are the descendants of Vesta Lewis Adkins and Raymond Savage.
It is interesting to note that if the descendants of Lewis had held on to the land, containing twenty city blocks at Ocean City, they would today be wealthy beyond belief.
Related StoriesRead Carole Hitchens' Quillen's article on Zippy Lewis.