Weeks ago a gentleman visiting the Essex Shipbuilding Museum inquired about a man by the name of William Luscomb, otherwise known as “Catnip Bill”. This led Jim Witham, the Curator at the museum, to inquire around town. It seems that Catnip Bill was a well-known and somewhat beloved Essex resident with a rather wonderful story.
Some say he was a hermit. Others say he was a handsome (in a Rumpelstiltskin kind of way) wanderer. Most say he was both. What we do know is that he was one of the many wonderful Essex characters of old. In 1940s and 50s Catnip Bill lived off of Lufkin Point in a house he built himself. It spanned a mere 10 feet in diameter, had a small lean-to, and a teepee; Bill was part Mohawk on his mother’s side. He was born in Salem and had quite an adventuresome early life which began with gold mining. This took him to Colorado, Nicaragua, and then British Columbia where he mined for not only gold, but diamonds as well, in the same vein. While in Nicaragua he shot and killed two black tigers, the skins of which were displayed in his tiny cabin. Bill said that after mining, he toured with none other than Buffalo Bill, joining him in France, Germany and England.
As a fourth-generation herb doctor, Bill found his way back to the North Shore where he built his humble home and enjoyed a simple life. His catnip grew everywhere. He would sell it fresh in the spring and summer and dried in the fall and winter. Older folks in Essex absolutely remember him. Sylvia Martin clearly recalls his walking around town and selling his catnip. He had a friendly eccentricity about him with a beard that came halfway down his chest. He walked everywhere; to and from Ipswich, to and from Gloucester, to and from Beverly. Some say he was followed by a clowder of cats.
In 2005 a painting surfaced at an auction in New Hampshire and was purchased by Ann Flood, who, along with her husband, ran a collectibles shop in Oregon. The painting is of an elderly man with kind eyes and a long gray beard. On the back of the painting it reads, “Starry Luscomb. The Catnip Man. For years he stood in front of Salem Five Cent Savings Bank and sold tons of fresh green catnip.”
Back at his home Bill did all of his own cooking over an open fire in the ground using vegetables and herbs he grew in his garden. He would speak often of how much he enjoyed this simple life. In his twilight, Bill lived in a rooming house in Beverly but remained a familiar site on Cabot Street, selling his catnip until his death in 1962.
In addition to helping the locals with his herbs, Bill also made special mixtures for animals, whom he loved. His kindness was celebrated in a children’s book written by Ruth Langland Holberg called Catnip Man, published in 1951. And so, his spirit lives on, certainly in the colorful and kind memories here in Essex, but also in his grandson who owns and operates a medicinal herb company named after his wise and benevolent grandfather. As for those of us who missed the days of Catnip Bill, we can celebrate his free spirited and earthy life by drinking catnip tea. Susan Davis, of the Common Crow Natural Market, explains that while catnip makes animals especially happy, it has the exact opposite effect when metabolized by humans; catnip is a sedative. Often recommended for anxiety, insomnia and headaches, catnip is a perfect calming herb and is even safe for children. Susan recommends a lovely tea blend with catnip, valerian, passionflower and a little spearmint. And so, this weekend, maybe take a moment to enjoy a cup of tea (perhaps with catnip) and give a little nod to Catnip Bill and his herby earthy wisdom; something we can all use a little more of – always.