weird Maine news

The Steamer “Royal Tar”

Tourism being the currently touted gem of Maine business, we pay close attention to the port of Portland, and its cruise ship business. For many years, the Maine attraction at that port was the ferry service that docked near the bridge. It was replaced by the high-speed cat, but now we can ogle over the gigantic liners that visit the Old Port. Back in the 1800s there was also regular steam service through a string of steamers between St. John’s New Brunswick and Portland Harbor as well.

One of the most famously known of these steamers was the steamer Royal Tar, which burned on a trip during a gale (shown to the right burning during the tragedy). Francis B.C. Bradlee writes this of the event in his book Some Account of Steam Navigation in New England:

Although many of the early coast of Maine steamers previously mentioned may have, and probably did, make sporadic trips to St. John, N. B., and ports in southern Nova Scotia, the first regular service of which there is any knowledge was in 1836, when the wooden sidewheeler “Royal Tar” (named for King William IV of Great Britain) was built at St. John, N. B., to run regularly between that place and Portland, Maine, where she connected with the Boston steamers. The “Royal Tar” was 164 feet long, 24 feet beam, and measured 400 tons; she cost $50,000 to build, and was owned by John Hammond and D. J. McLaughlin of St. John; she made her first trip to Portland in May, 1836; with over 200 passengers.

A few months later this steamer was lost under such tragic but curious circumstances as to render the disaster long memorable in the annals of New England steam boating. On Friday, Oct. 21, 1836, the “Royal Tar” left St. John for Eastport and Portland, having on board a crew of 21 persons and 72 passengers. She also carried Burgess’ collection of serpents and birds, Dexter’s locomotive museum and a brass band. Among the animals on board were an elephant, six horses, two dromedaries, two lionesses, one royal Bengal tiger, one gnu, and a pair of pelicans. As a result of a high northwest wind, the “Royal Tar” remained at anchor at Eastport until Tuesday, the 25th, when at 2 P. M. she got under way and resumed her voyage. She had not much more than got outside when the gale increased in violence and she ran in for shelter near Fox island.

The story of her loss was told by Capt. Thomas Reed, her commander, in these words: “The steam being down after we had been at anchor about half an hour, the boat was discovered to be on fire immediately over the boiler, under the deck. The cable was slipped instantly and the fire engine set to work, but in five minutes the men could not stand at the pump, which was below, the smoke nearly suffocating them. At this awful juncture there was a rush for the boats, there being only two. Sixteen of the passengers and crew took the largest boat and went away before the wind, which blew so hard they were afraid to bring her to. I got possession of the jolly boat, with two men, and picked up another man belonging to the caravan who had jumped overboard.”

“In about half an hour we saw a schooner coming to us, which proved to be the United States revenue cutter Veto, Capt. Dyer, who rendered us every assistance in his power. He ran the cutter close to the burning steamer, then in a sheet of flames, and succeeded in taking out forty passengers, who must have perished had not the cutter come to our assistance.”

One of the passengers, Hinson Patten by name, gave an account of the affair which explains the conduct of Capt. Reed in taking the one remaining boat. He says: “Capt. Reed took charge of the stern boat, with two men, and kept her off the steamboat, which was a very fortunate circumstance, as it was the means of saving from forty to fifty persons, and to him all credit is due for his deliberate and manly perseverance throughout the whole calamity.” Another account mentions that the elephant jumped overboard, crashing down upon a raft that was being hurriedly constructed, thus destroying the raft and losing the lives of several passengers. The horses also leaped overboard, and it was said that the elephant and a pony succeeded in swimming ashore. That statement was contradicted by an item in a St. John newspaper, which stated that every animal belonging to the menagerie was doubtless lost. The elephant was seen a few days ago floating near Brimstone island. Other accounts state that when the horses jumped overboard in their wild panic, instead of making for the shore, they swam round and round the burning steamboat until they became exhausted and were drowned.

Twenty-nine passengers and eight of the crew of the “Royal Tar” perished in this dreadful disaster, and the money loss was estimated at not less than $125,000. Capt. Reed was presented with a purse of $750 in gold for his gallantry in saving so many of his passengers; at a later date he was made harbor roaster of St. John, a post he filled acceptably for many years.

A steamer named the “Gazelle” took the place of the “Royal Tar,” and she also was wrecked by running ashore near St. John in June, 1838; there was, luckily, no loss of life.

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The Purrinton Tragedy: Augusta, 1806

I came across a good story while doing some research on the Augusta area, just the type of stuff you ghost hunters out there love to hear about. According to the story, A James Purrington moved from Bowdoinham to a farm on the Belgrade road and subsequently massacred his family with an ax and the committed suicide with a razor. Just another in a long line of oddities coming out of that little burg on the Kennebec River. Have you ever noticed that Bowdoinham’s phone numbers start with 666? 😮 Spooks a lurking behind every door, and a skeleton in every closet, as they say.

Stories like this one, and the Mary Knight murder I posted on a while back are just a few of the interesting events that have occurred across Maine throughout her history. These two excerpts are from a couple of different texts that touch upon this event. You can click on the links to read the story in the original publications from the 1800’s.

I found it particularly interesting that Purrintons body was buried near the road, with a mention that gossip claims that Bowdoin College had secretly exhumed the body and taken it to the college for scientific research. Did the college indeed take the body? Maybe, maybe not, but this story would make a good research project for those interested in these sorts of events in Maine history. A century and six years have passed since that tragic day, and we ask, could the spirits of those poor children and Betsy Purrinton still roam that farmhouse on the Belgrade road?

The Purrinton Tragedy

The year 1806 was made melancholy in the annals of the town by an awful tragedy committed by a maniac. James Purrinton (aged forty-six) came to Augusta with his wife (aged forty-five) and family from Bowdoinham in 1805, and occupied the farm on the Belgrade road that was owned by the late George Cony (who built the Cony House). Purrinton had eight children: Polly, aged 19 years; James, aged 17; Martha, 15; Benjamin, 12; Anna, 10; Nathaniel, 8; Nathan, 6; Louisa, 18 months.

On the morning of July 9th, between two and three o’clock, the maniacal monster stealthily assailed with an axe every member of his family, and killed instantly all except two— James (who recovered from his wounds), and Martha, who died July 30th. The maniac then cut his own throat and fell dead in his blood. The news of the deed spread horror everywhere. Elias Craig, as coroner, summoned a jury of inquest, consisting of John Eveleth (foreman), Theophilus Hamlen, James Child, Kendall Nichols, Shubael Pitts, Caleb Heath, Jonathan Perkins, Oliver Pollard, Samuel Bond, Ezekiel Page, Ephraim Ballard, jun. This jury found that Purrinton “of his malice aforethought” did kill and murder his wife and children, “and as a felon did voluntarily kill and murder himself.”

The selectmen caused the bodies to be carried to the meeting house, but that of the suicide was denied admission beyond the porch, where it was detained with the axe and razor spectacularly displayed on the coffin. The funeral was held the day after the tragedy, attended by many hundreds of people from the surrounding country. A platform was set up in Market Square for the minister. Daniel Stone offered prayer and Joshua Taylor (Methodist) preached to the multitude. The procession was headed by the coroner and his jury, behind whom were the seven victims’ bodies, “supported by bearers and attended by pall-bearers,” and they were followed by the surviving son (James} and relatives and people. Purrinton’s body was hauled on a cart behind.

The procession marched across the bridge to Fort Western, and having passed by it returned over the river and went via Bridge and State streets to the Winthrop road, and from thence to the burying ground (Mt. Vernon Cemetery), where, in the northeast corner, and near to the powder house (built in 1805) the bodies of the mother and her six children were buried side by side in graves that are unmarked. Purrinton’s body, with axe and razor,was buried between the road-side and the cemetery, but tradition hints that it was secretly exhumed in the darkness of the following night for the benefit of science at Bowdoin College.

Purrinton Tragedy of 1806 is Recalled

The State Librarian on a recent trip to Boston secured at an auction book store a very rare and valuable pamphlet, one recalling a long forgotten tragedy in Augusta. It is printed in the style of that day, with the coarse white paper, now browned with age, the queer faced type, with the old-fash1oned small s, and has 22 pages. Beyond the mark of age it is remarkably well preserved. The first and outside page is a gruesome affair. It is surrounded with a heavy black border and covered with heavy mourning rules. Near the top are cuts of seven coffins in a row and of varying sizes, probably representing the ages and sizes of the victims of the tragedy. At the bottom of the page is a single coffin, on which is cut a razor and an ax, the weapons with which the deed was committed. The title page inscription reads as follows:

Sketches of

The Life

Who on the Night of the Eighth of July 1806

Murdered His Wife, Six Children and Himself.

With a Particular Account of that Shocking Catastrophe to Which are Subjoined REMARKS on the fatal

tendency of erroneous principles and motives for receiving and obeying the pure and salutary precepts of the gospel

Copy Right Secured

Augusta (Kennebec)

Printed and Sold by Peter Edds

The article tells of the terrible murder by Capt. James Purrinton of his wife, seven children and himself one child escaping death, though wounded.

Captain Purrinton was born in 1750 in Bowdoinham and married Betsey Clifford of Bath. Twelve children were born to them, of which four died in infancy. The family in August, 1805 moved to Augusta and located on a farm about a mile and a half above the village. There they lived peacefully for some time, until the following year Mrs. Purrinton noticed that her husband was acting peculiarly and at one time found him sharpening a knife. When taxed with intending to make way with himself he denied it, but on the morning of July 9, 1806, Dean Wyman, a near neighbor, was aroused by James, the eldest Purrinton boy, who, wounded, had just escaped from his home and told of the terrible deed his father had just committed.

Wyman secured help and they proceeded to the Purrinton home, where Capt. Purrinton, his wife and six children were found dead and the second daughter, Martha, apparently dying.

The deed had been committed with an ax and the captain had cut his throat with a razor. The bodies of the victims were terribly mutilated, and almost all had put up a terrific struggle against their maniacal father. The list follows:

Dead—Mrs. Purrinton, aged 45; Polly, 19; Benjamin, 12; Anna, 10; Nathaniel, 8; Nathan. 6; Louisa, 18 months. Martha, aged 15, died the following July 30 from her wounds. James, aged 17, was but slightly wounded and recovered.

A letter was found written by Capt. Purrinton giving in a rambling way his religious views and expressing the hope of future happiness for all his family.

Coroner Elias Craig empaneled a jury, consisting of Theopilus Hamlin, James Child, Kendal Nichols, Shuball Pitts, Caleb Heath, Frederic Wingate, Jonathan Perkins, Oliver Pollard, Samuel Bond, Ezekiel Page and Ephraim Ballard, Jr. Wingate was foreman. The verdict was that Purrinton “Of his malice aforethought” did kill and murder his wife and children, “and as a felon did voluntarily kill and murder himself,” though the general opinion was that he was seized with an attack of hereditary insanity and was a maniac when he committed the deed.

The work then goes on to give the writer’s personal views on religion and the lessons taught by the tragedy, in a more or less interesting manner, filling greater part of the 22 pages.

Much additional information concerning the tragedy is contained in North’s History of Augusta, Among other things it states that the selectmen on the day of the tragedy placed the remains of the victims in the meeting house, leaving the remains of the father in the porch, with the ax and razor on the coffin. The next day “a vast concourse of people” gathered for the funeral, so great the throng “that the street and adjoining houses were filled and many were on the house tops.” Rev. Joshua Taylor, a Methodist minister, preached the funeral sermon. The remains of the mother and six children were taken across the bridge and returned, then going by way of Bridge and State streets to the Burnt Hill burying ground, in the northeast corner of which the remains were interred.

The remans of the father were taken without ceremony, with the ax and razor, and buried together in the highway, near the southwest corner of the burying ground, at the corner of Winthrop and High streets. The procession then returned to the meeting house and the multitude was dismissed, after prayer by Rev. Eliphaet Gillet.

North’s History also states that Purrinton frequently changed his religious belief, but had finally settled down to the belief of universal salvation. His manners were reserved and he was “obstinately tenacious of his opinion.” He was known to be elated or depressed according to circumstances and was, before the tragedy very despondent over the severe drought, fearing that his crops would be cut off and his family suffer from want.

North’s History further locates the home of the Purrintons by stating it was “a farm on the Belgrade road now owned and occupied by George Cony.”

Categories: events, history, Maine oddities, stories, Uncategorized, weird Maine news | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Maine’s Part in the Fenian War of 1866

Civil War history is all the rage this year as we celebrate the sesquicentennial of that great conflict. It’s funny how we call it the Civil War, when in fact it was anything but a civil war. In reality, it is more properly called the War for Southern Independence, or secession. We seem to forget as we gloss over history and change the story to fit our agenda that the southern states decided to secede from the union and form their own nation for many of the same reasons that we declared independence from England and formed the United States. We became a nation of rebels, just as the southerners became rebels upon the firing of Fort Sumter in April of 1861.

However, I digress. One of the outcomes of the War Between the States was the lingering ill feelings between England and the United States over the English support of the Confederacy, albeit unofficial from the Crown’s public stand. There were many factions in this nation that would have enjoyed a new war between England and the US, and one of these groups was an Irish and Irish-American society called the Fenian Brotherhood, hailing mostly from New York. They had already attempted to invade British America on several occasions, and in this following article, we read how they used the State of Maine as a staging point for a failed attempt to maybe rile the two nations into warfare against each other one more time. It comes from The Canadian magazine, written by J. Vroom.


It is now more than thirty years since the Fenian’s added their borrowed name to the story of the river St. Croix; yet the older men among the dwellers on the New Brunswick shore, looking back over that time, must find it hard to realize that their memory covers the longest period of unbroken peace in the history of the province.

Four times since its Loyalist founders settled on its rocky coast have the people of New Brunswick been aroused by threats of armed invasion.

In the war of 1793, French privateers, or lawless New Englanders sailing under French letters of marque, appeared in the Bay of Fundy. Men and money were quickly raised to defend the seaport towns; and one vessel, La Solide, was captured by New Brunswick militiamen and carried into St. Andrews as a prize. Again, in the war of 1812, the bay was infested by New England privateers; and the people stood ready to defend their homes, until the British occupation of Eastport deprived the enemy of a port of refuge, and the boundary line, for the time being, was carried west to the Penobscot. Once more, in 1837, the Aroostook war brought a call to arms; and once more it found a ready response, as volunteers from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia hurried forward to repel invasion. And when, in 1866, the rumors of Fenian activity in the United States proved to have some foundation in fact, the people of New Brunswick answered to the call, and their province was the first to meet the threatened danger.

In the autumn of 1865, the movements of the Fenian’s in New York first aroused suspicions that they were planning a raid on some part of British America. Early in December of that year, Sir Arthur Hamilton-Gordon, at that time Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick, visited the border towns to urge upon the inhabitants the wisdom of taking some precautions.

The question of the Confederation of the provinces of British North America was then before the people. Many were disposed to laugh at the “Fenian scare,” as it was called; believing it to be a political move, planned and subsidized by the promoters of the Quebec Scheme for the purpose of influencing the electorate. Many who were willing to believe that the Fenian leaders would really attempt an invasion of British territory were still unwilling to see in the common danger an argument for union, and felt sure that Upper Canada was the province most exposed to their attack. So it happened that when the spring of 1866 brought the report of a Fenian plan of campaign to include the occupation of St. Andrews or Campobello, looking to the conquest of New Brunswick as a convenient base of operations against England, there was very much incredulity mingled with surprise and alarm.

The military authorities, however, had not been idle. Volunteers were already enrolled in all the border parishes; and the news from New York, Buffalo, and other centres of Fenian activity was awaited with eager interest.

The sudden appearance at Eastport of B. Doran Killian, with a few followers, at last convinced the people of the need of action. This was on the 6th of April, 1866. Four days later, another detachment of Fenians arrived by the steamer from Portland; and H.M.S. Pylades, from Halifax, anchored at Welshpool, Campobello, on the opposite side of the narrow strait which here forms the international boundary line. Business was immediately suspended at St. Andrews, where two companies of volunteers were on duty under Col. Anderson; and the volunteers at St. Stephen, St. George and Woodstock were called out for active service. The Fenian scare was now found to be a serious matter.

The Pylades was followed by the Rosario, which anchored off St. Andrews, nearly opposite the Maine town of Robbinston.

Fenians continued to arrive from the westward, and were quartered at hotels and private houses in Eastport, Lubec, Robbinston and Calais, or encamped in small parties along- the Maine side of St. Croix. They were a rough-looking lot of men, but quiet and well disciplined; and as they seemed to have no commissariat, but depended upon the ordinary local sources of supply, it may be safely estimated that their number did not exceed 500 in all.

The officers, Gen. Killian, Major Sinnott, Capt. Gaynor, and others, paraded their titles and proclaimed their plans and motives, announcing to the world that they had come to prevent the British Government from dragooning the colonists into Confederation; but they were evidently disappointed at the lack of sympathy and support from the people on both sides of the line.

Strengthened by Killian’s reference to the matter of Confederation at a public meeting in Calais, there was still a lingering doubt with some as to whether the threatened invasion was more than a sham; when, one night in April, a party of armed men, supposed to be Fenians, made a descent upon Indian Island, a little island in Passamaquoddy Bay, lying nearly opposite Eastport.

Campobello and St. Andrews were protected by the warships; volunteers were on guard at Deer Island, and at every important point along the shores of the river and bay; but Indian Island was unguarded.

About two o’clock on Sunday morning, the 15th of April, a few men stepped ashore from a boat, went to the house of the collector of customs, demanded and received the custom-house flag, and rowed away with it. It was a bloodless foray, ridiculously trifling in itself; but it was the cause of intense excitement in the neighboring towns. Capt. Hood, of the Pylades, reported to headquarters at St. Andrews. At St. Stephen the volunteers were at church on Sunday morning, when a dispatch reached the commanding officer and was read aloud. The Fenian’s had landed on Indian Island, and carried off the British flag. The effect was magic. The men were no longer playing soldier. As they returned to barracks, others gathered at street corners, eager to be enrolled; and before an hour had passed there were all the volunteers required to form another company if needed.

More ships were sent from Halifax, including the flagship Duncan, which brought Admiral Sir James Hope and Major-General Sir Hastings Doyle, with 570 men of the 17th Foot, a company of Royal Engineers, and a battery of artillery. A Fredericton volunteer company, called the Victoria Rifles, was also sent to the front, and Governor Gordon followed them by special train to St. Andrews.

But Indian Island was still unguarded; and, a week after the affair of the flag, the bonded warehouse and three storehouses were burned by incendiaries. Then earthworks were thrown up by men detailed from the Rosario: and the Niger, the Pylades, the Fawn, and the Cordelia in turn furnished a guard until the arrival from St. Andrews of twenty men of the Gordon Rifles, under Ensign Chandler. These St. Andrews men, by the way, carried off the honours of the campaign for the only real encounter with the enemy; as, a few nights later, their sentries fired upon and drove off two boats from Eastport that were trying to effect a landing.

Gen. Meade now arrived with a force of United States regulars, making his headquarters at Eastport and stationing a guard at Calais. The Fenian’s at Eastport had been waiting all this time for arms and ammunition that had been shipped from Portland by sailing vessels, because the passenger steamers had refused to bring them; but when at last the guns arrived, they were promptly seized by the United States authorities. Killian, boldly demanding to have the guns restored, was threatened with arrest; and so, deprived of his arms, and disappointed in the attitude of the Provincialist’s, and in his hope of easily involving the United States in a war with Great Britain, he found himself obliged to give up his scheme of invasion. Finally, he sent his followers back to Portland.

In May three companies of the 17th were sent to St. Stephen, to prevent a possible raid from Calais. Their services were not needed, as the last Fenian’s had left Calais before their arrival. Gen. Meade and his men, a few days later, were ordered to the Niagara frontier, where the Fenians were gathering in force; and the British troops and vessels along the border were gradually withdrawn. The 17th and the artillery were relieved by St. John volunteers of the 66th, and returned to

Halifax by the troop ship Simoon; the St. John men were in turn relieved by two companies of the 15th Regiment; and by the middle of June they also were recalled and the local volunteers disbanded.

The presence of the Fenians on the St. Croix was a matter of much more consequence than was apparent at the time. It drew the people of New Brunswick closer to the mother country, and to their fellow-subjects in the upper provinces; it elicited a display of loyalty worthy of the descendants of United Empire Loyalists; and it undoubtedly influenced the pending election. The election went strongly in favour of Confederation. Killian’s ambitious and absurd attempt to wreck the British Empire, so far as it had any permanent effect, only tended to strengthen that Empire at its weakest point, by its bearing upon the political movements of the day which led up to the formation of the Dominion of Canada.

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The First Mass Said in Maine

400 years ago this month, the first Mass was said in Maine on an island in the Kennebec River, some three leagues from its mouth in Popham. There is a lot of discussion, along with reams and reams of documentation considering many of the aspects of Maine’s history, including religion. I found it interesting that the first Catholic Mass was celebrated by the French on the Kennebec, as opposed to some place further north, where their territory was held. The Popham Colony by then had gone by then and there was no opposition to the French presence on the river, so they had been left in peace. This excerpt is from The Makers of Maine, by Herbert Edgar Holmes, published first in 1912 by the Haswell Press in Lewiston. Also of interest to Maine Catholic history is the fact that the first consecrated host made in the new world was made by wheat grown by the same Father Biard, in the Fall of this same year, 1611.

The First Mass Said In Maine

The first Mass that ever was said in the country of what is now the Province of New Brunswick, and the first administering of the sacraments of Penance and Holy Eucharist, took place in the Fall of the year 1611. Biencourt and a ship’s company, together with Father Biard went on an expedition to the west to trade with the Indians living on the Kennebec River for corn and what other food they could get to help through the famine which they knew would come upon them during the next winter at Port Royal. On the way, Biencourt determined to hunt up the Maloans, (people from Malo in France) who were poaching, as we would say now, upon the lands and waters owned by Biencourt’s father, Poutrincourt. These people gave the men who had rightful grants from the Crown great trouble, as they hunted and fished, and what was a worse offense, traded with the Indians, over the lands reserved by lawful grant, illegally and wrongfully, without permission and without making compensation. Biencourt sailed up the St. John River several leagues and came upon their encampment. Their commander, Captain Merveille, was away at the time, but came into camp during the night, and was immediately taken prisoner by Biencourt. The next morning a peace was patched up between Biencourt and the Maloans and the latter agreed to recognise the superior title and authority of Biencourt and to make compensation for their illegal trading. Father Biard then said Mass and Captain Merveille made his confession to the Father and received communion together with three of his men.

However, to us who are studying the early history of Maine, it is of greater interest to know that the first Mass said on the soil of the State of Maine was said in the month of October, 1611, on an island in the Kennebec River, three leagues from its mouth. It is a pity that Father Biard leaves us no description of that island by which we can identify it today from among the great number of islands in the lower Kennebec. It lies between Bath and the sea, about three leagues from the mouth of the river, and imagination must supply the rest. The Jesuit relates it in these words:

“We arrived at the Kinibequi towards the end of October. Kinnibequi is a river near the Armouchiquois, in latitude forty-three and two third degrees, and southwest of Port Royal about seventy leagues or thereabouts. It has two quite large mouths, one distant from the other at least two leagues; it is also cut up by numerous arms and branches. Besides, it is a great and beautiful river; but we did not see good soil there any more than at the St. John River. They say however, that farther up, away from the sea, the country is very fine and life there agreeable, and that the people till the soil. We did not go farther up than three leagues; we whirled about through so many eddies, and shot over so many precipices, that several times it was a great miracle of God that we did not perish. Some of our crew cried out at two different times that we were lost; but they cried too soon, blessed be our Lord. The savages cajoled us with the hope of getting corn; then they changed their promise of corn to that of trade in beaver skins. Now while this trading was going on, Father Biard had gone, with a boy, to an island nearby, to celebrate Holy Mass.”

The company traded with the Indians and once came near to having trouble with them, but the peace was not disturbed, and they sailed away leaving behind them a good opinion in the minds of the Indians. It seems that these Indians had good reason to fear and hate the white men because (as I have stated in a former chapter) the English in 1608 had abused them shamefully. Father Biard says: “These people do not seem to be bad, although they drove away the English who wished to settle among them in 1608 and 1609. They made excuses to us for this act, and recounted the outrages they had experienced from the English; and they flattered us, saying that they loved us very much, because they knew we would not close our doors to the savages as the English did, and set our dogs upon them.” This is a different description from what has come down to us from the English writers, as I shall show later.

Maine History News Headlines

Wood Island preservation group gets help from Old York
By Deborah Mcdermott KITTERY, Maine — The board of the Old York Historical Society last week voted for the first time to help an organization outside the town’s boundaries, agreeing to assist the Wood Island Life Saving Station Association in Kittery

Column: History Buffs discuss the new Swampscott calendar
Wicked Local
The cover for the 2012 Swampscott Historical Society Calendar shows the passenger ferry Swampscott in Maine in about 1910. By Betty Dean Holmes/Wicked Local At the History Buffs October meeting, a dozen of us discussed the 2012 Swampscott Historical

Clubs and groups
Foster’s Daily Democrat
ELIOT — The Eliot Historical Society invites you to join them on Nov. 7 at 7 pm at the John F. Hill Grange, State Road. Eliot Maine. Stephen Dow will present the “27th Maine” , the volunteer regiment of York County during the Civil War

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The Murder of Mary Knight

The Murder of Mary Knight

Every year at about this same time a flurry of stories arise from the Poland, Maine area regarding a supposed specter wandering the highway and back roads of this sleepy little community of just a few thousand living souls. Hard telling how many dead souls are wandering around, but some folks say there are quite a few. A poor woman by the name of Mary Knight is just one of these denizens of the otherworld.

The story generally states that a woman in what appears to be a wedding dress is seen wandering down the road, staring vacantly into the distance. Usually this occurs along route 26 in the wee hours of the morning. She has been seen on other roads in the area, and sometimes near a local cemetery, of which there are several scattered around, as there usually are in these older communities.

Who was Mary Knight, and how did she die? Going by some of the more or less current newspaper articles, I’d say there is a tremendous amount of conjecture, but little research being done to tell the story as it really happened. That’s OK though, I’m working on a piece that will set the story straight.

Here are a few points in fact that pertain to the real story, though.

Mary Knight was murdered by her Husband, George, (who was twenty years younger than Mary, by the way) on October 6th of 1856. In reading over the available works on this case, several facts come to light which can be used to summarize the story.

Mary Knight had been ill for some time before her murder, as a local doctor (a Dr. Stedman of mechanic Falls) had testified to her being seen by him as early as the first part of June. It can be surmised at this point that Mr. Knight had been administering poison to his wife, but there is no evidence to prove this point. Her complaints had included weakness, headaches and stomach pains with vomiting. Several poisons could produce these symptoms, but again, there was no evidence that Mrs. Knight was being poisoned.

A Dr. Carr, who had been treating Mrs. Knight for about six weeks had visited the Knight home on October 6th and commented on how Mrs. Knight had been improving, and that she should be well again in short time. He had commented on this to George Knight, who had loaded his wagon with shingles and had planned to take them that night to a buyer in Dry Mills.

Later that night, pandemonium would break loose in the Knight household as Mary Knight was murdered in cold blood while in bed with George’s mother, Lydia, age 83. Apparently, earlier in the evening Mary had some reason for not wanting to sleep in her own bed and had crawled into Lydia Knights bed. Perhaps she had a premonition that some evil was to befall her on that night. The window to the outside was opened and the sash was hanging at an angle. Later, after neighbors had been sent for by a boy that was staying at the Knight farm, 10-year-old Sidney Verrill. It was initially thought by those first observing the crime scene that Mary Knight had killed herself, but it was quickly decided that she had been murdered.

George Knight was away, delivering the wagonload of shingles to a Mr. Hancock. He was gone after, and brought home after conducting his business.

There was a coroner’s inquest, where it was determined that Mary Knight was in fact murdered. A few days later George Knight was arrested for the murder of his wife, and subsequently found guilty, and sentenced to a term of life in the state prison. The story in its entirety is full of juicy tidbits, but I’ll let you wait until the full story comes out for now. Suffice it to say that old George was prone to chatting up the ladies of the village and was looking for a replacement even while Mary Knight was suffering from her ailments of that summer.

Mary Knight was indeed murdered by her husband, and he paid the price for his crime. The Knight homestead has changed ownership many times, and the home has long since vanished, with just the remains of the foundation left for those looking to find this link to the past. Perhaps Mary wanders the backroads of Poland looking for the home she once called her own? I cannot say that Mary knight is indeed a restless spirit, but there are things that go bump in the night. Stay tuned for the whole story!

Categories: articles, Books, history, Maine oddities, stories, Uncategorized, weird Maine news | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Maine History News…Events…A Unicorn Bull in Maine?

Rockland historian named Person of the Year

ROCKLAND- Local historian Thomas Molloy, a fixture on the city’s political and educational landscape for more than four decades, has been selected as the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Chamber Person of the Year. Molloy was honored at the Chamber’s 84th annual awards dinner held at the Samoset Resort in Rockport on Saturday night. A number of area businesses and individuals also were cited for recognition during the banquet……………

Maine Maritime schooner to sail to Newfoundland

CASTINE- The historic schooner Bowdoin will sail to Canada this summer to take part in a celebration of Canadian Arctic explorer Bob Bartlett. Maine Maritime Academy says the 88-foot Bowdoin will visit 12 ports in Newfoundland and Labrador as part of a summer-long initiative called Celebrating Bartlett 2009. Bartlett is best-known for taking Adm. Robert Peary within 150 miles of the north pole. The Celebrating Bartlett event coincides with the 100th anniversary of Peary’s 1909 trek to the pole…………

Milo Historical Society seeks funds for repairs

MILO- Maine’s historical societies are seldom wealthy. The responsibility of guarding a community’s heritage and memories is one that members take on gladly, though it comes at a high cost. When the Milo Historical Society underwent an assessment of its building in 2006, they were already struggling. A recent roof job had been poorly done, leaving more leaks after the shingling job than before, which damaged ceilings and endangered the storage area for historical artifacts………….

If you are interested in helping the MHS out, click onto the link at the left or go to

Historical lecture series to open with Bates professor
The Lincoln County Historical Association begins its Winter Lecture Series at 2 p.m. Sunday downstairs at the 911 Communications Center, behind the Lincoln County Courthouse at routes 1 and 27. The series continues on Feb. 8, 15 and 22. The first lecture is “The Politics of Religion in Pownalborough, 1760-1775,” with Jim Leamon, professor emeritus at Bates College department of history. To find out more, visit To learn about schedule changes due to the weather, call Jay Robbins at 737-2239 after 10:30 a.m. on the day of the lecture.

And From Maine’s weird history…

Dr. Dove’s Unicorn Bull
In 1933 Dr. W.F. Dove, a biologist at the University of Maine, conducted an experiment to find out if he could create a “unicorn bull.” He removed the two knots of tissue on the side of the bull’s head that would normally have developed into horns and transplanted them to the center of the forehead. The experiment was a success. A single, massive horn grew there. The unicorn horn made the bull the unchallenged leader of its herd. But Dr. Dove observed that the unicorn bull was actually an extremely docile creature.

He wrote:
Although he is an animal with the hereditary potentiality for two horns, he recognizes the power of a single horn which he uses as a prow to pass under fences and barriers in his path, or as a forward thrusting bayonet in his attacks. And, to invert the beatitude, his ability to inherit the earth gives him the virtues of meekness. Consciousness of power makes him docile.

More from the Unicorn Garden…

Such rumours and possibilities were known to Dr W. Franklin Dove of Maine University who in the 1930s also spotted a flaw in Cuvier’s reasoning. Cuvier, it seems, had assumed that horns grew out of the skull, whereas they actually start as unattached bits of tissue which later root themselves in it. The positioning of horns is quite open to natural or artificial variation, so Unicorns, Dove reasoned, were not a total contradiction of the laws of nature.

To test this, in 1933 he took a day-old Ayrshire calf, surgically removed its horn buds, trimmed them to fit together and replanted them in the centre of its forehead. As the young bull grew, the buds fused and produced a single solid, straight and pointed horn a foot or so in length which proved equally useful for fighting and uprooting fences, far superior in fact to the usual brace of curved ones when it comes to confronting a rival.

From Time Magazine …

Monday, May. 04, 1936
Last week in Scientific Monthly, Biologist William Franklin Dove of the University of Maine showed that Cuvier was wrong. Dr. Dove’s own researches had revealed that at birth the horn buds were not attached to the skull but were independent “centres of ossification.” Accordingly, he decided to try making a unicorn of a day-old Ayrshire. Flaps of skin containing the horn cores were cut out and the cores were joined in the centre, at the top end of the suture in the bone.

That calf is now a fine 2-year-old Ayrshire bull. From the top of its head projects a single prodigious horn (see cut). Dr. Dove describes the character of his artificial unicorn thus: “True in spirit as in horn to his prototype, he is conscious of peculiar power. … He recognizes the power of a single horn which he uses as a prow to pass under fences and barriers in his path, or as a forward thrusting bayonet in his attacks. And, to invert the beatitude, his ability to inherit the earth gives him the virtues of meekness. Consciousness of power makes him docile.”

Maine has a lot of stories kicking around in her attics. Locked away in Grammies old travel trunks or tucked between the pages of old family scrapbooks, these little bits of history can bring a new light to the task of cataloging and recording what has happened here in the Pine Tree State over the last 400 years.

This is just one example of little known factoids hiding in such places that really should be shared. Check out our growing list of historical societies to the left and find one that is close to your home. Check them out, join and support the cause of preserving Maine’s history.

Here’s a great video on the “Ellis Island of the West”….

And for today in history…

Categories: weird Maine news | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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