A Mystery of the Nova Scotian Shore
By J.C. Mackay
Who was he? What was the secret which held him silent through forty-seven long monotonous years on the shore of St. Mary’s Bay, Nova Scotia?
The mystery will probably never be solved now, yet for sixty seven years these questions have at frequent intervals engrossed the attention, not only of the inhabitants of Digby Neck—on the shore of which he was found—but also of those living on the mainland amongst whom the mystery man spent almost five decades.
It was in the summer of 1861 that a large ship was seen skirting the long strip of land called Digby Neck, which lies between the Bay of Fundy and St. Mary’s Bay.
The fishermen were attracted by her appearance for she looked unlike any vessel to which they were accustomed. Some thought her a man-of-war, others a pirate ship. Perhaps the ship might have been forgotten had not a startling discovery been made early the next morning.
A man by the name of Albright, coming down to the shore to collect rock weed found not very far above the tide mark, the huddled up form of a man. Both legs had been amputated just above the knees. Beside him on the sand was a jug of water, and a loaf of coarse black bread.
For a long distance along Digby Neck, particularly on the Fundy side, the shore is precipitous and rocky, but at Sandy Cove where the stranger was found there is a beautiful sandy beach, semicircular in shape, shut in on either side by towering cliffs.
The man was evidently suffering intensely from cold and exposure. His legs gave evidence of having been very recently amputated for they were still sore and bleeding though rather skillfully bandaged.
Carried by kindly hands to Mr. Gidney’s home he was wrapped in blankets and given warm drinks. When conscious, in answer to the questions as to his name, and the cause of his abandonment, no answer could be obtained but one word which sounded like “Jerome.” It was therefore by the name of Jerome he came to be known. As he made no further attempt to speak and nothing could be learned of his nationality, it was decided to send him to Meteghan, where, amongst the Acadians on the French shore—mainland—someone might be found who could speak his language and the mystery of his strange casting away could be solved.
As his complexion was dark, it was thought he might be an Italian, and as John Nicholas, a Corsican by birth but by nicknamed “The Russian,” spoke not only Italian but several other European languages quite fluently, it was decided to send him there.
John Nicolas himself had had thrilling adventures having fought in the Crimean war. Escaping from a war prison, he had found a haven of rest among the dispersed Acadians “on the French shore.” Perhaps it was because “a kindred feeling makes us wondrous kind” that John Nicolas received him cordially and, though not a man of means, he and his family cared for the castaway till the case having been brought to the notice of the Nova Scotia government, he was thenceforth paid two dollars a week for the Mystery Man’s keep.
John Nicolas tried all his languages on his guest but in vain. He would not speak; that he did understand both French and Italian was certain and that he lived in deadly fear of someone or something that was made equally certain.
Only three or four times in all his forty-seven years on “the French Shore” was any information obtained from him. Each occasion was when he was off guard and left him in a pitiful panic of fear for weeks afterward.
On one occasion suddenly asked where he came from he answered immediately “Trieste.” On another, “What ship brought him to the shore of Fundy?” his answer was “Colombo.”
Jerome’s legs took a long time to heal. Then he learned to walk quite well on his stumps, but he never went anywhere, shunning companionship, he sat on the kitchen floor, his head always bowed, his hands folded.
Jerome remained seven years at Meteghan, then John Nicolas, having lost his wife, the castaway was taken to St. Alphonse (Cheticamp) to board with Mrs. Didier Comeau.
The common belief in the neighborhood was that Jerome was both deaf and dumb, but the children of the household told a different story. He watched their play with evident interest and occasionally spoke to them. When absolutely certain that no grown-up person was within hearing distance, pressed by the children as to why he would not speak to the “grown-ups” his reply was always a sad shake of the head and “No, No!” In answer to their questions as to why his legs had been cut off, he answered, “Chains” and then “sawed off on a table.”
That Jerome could speak English was proved conclusively on one occasion. Visitors called to see the castaway, but Jerome refused to leave his room. Francois Comeau coaxed. Jerome was obdurate. When Francois placed his hands on his shoulder, Jerome cried out angrily in perfect English, “I’ll bite you.”
Although Jerome was a man of extraordinary strength, he never offered to do work of any kind whatever. He had a violent temper, and when angry would pitch dishes or anything else that came handy about the room. His anger was generally short-lived, however, except when the word “foran” (pirate) was mentioned; then it was days before his anger and excitement would cool.
He would stand for hours on his poor stumps of legs gazing through the window towards St. Mary’s Bay at the ships passing and repassing, when he thought himself alone.
As to his status in society, there was a wide difference of opinion. Some of his visitors thought him intelligent and refined looking, others the reverse. As to appetence, his head was large and well formed, eyes large and dark. He worse a pointed beard and moustache and his fingers were long and slender.
The Government occasionally published a short account of the castaway, hoping to elicit information for some quarter. On one occasion a letter was received from two sisters in New York by the name of Mahoney, who thought Jerome might prove to be their long lost brother.
As Mr. Comeau and his brother Francois, purposed going to New York to work, they decided to call on the sisters. From Miss Mahoney they learned that they had had a brother Jerome who had run away three times from his home before he was eleven years of age. The fourth time he disappeared completely, and though the father had searched all his life and spent money lavishly, his son had never been found. The younger brother was left in total ignorance of his elder brother’s unceremonious leave-taking and was filled with surprise to learn of his existence.
The Mahoney sisters were of the opinion that the castaway was their brother, as the age when he left home and his apparent age--twenty-five—when found, would tally satisfactorily. But the mystery of his life, which was evidently spent in foreign lands or on the high seas, the amputation of his limbs, and his abandonment on the Nova Scotia coast are puzzles which have never been solved.
It may appear strange that enquiries were not instituted sooner particularly as to the strange vessel, which Jerome acknowledged as the Colombo, but in the early sixties Digby Neck was far from the madding crowd, though today there are several comfortable boarding houses near where the castaway was found.
The last twenty-five years of Jerome’s life were spent at the home of Mrs. Didier Comeau. Here he relapsed into absolute silence, not one word having been uttered by him as far as in known.
Not long before his death, which occurred in 1908, Mrs. Doucet, daughter of John Nicholas, called to see him. She had plated about him as a little child. She was one of the few children to whom he had spoken and she had very kindly memories of him. As she entered the room he raised his eyes to look at her, then dropped them again. To her repeated appeals for him to speak to her, he leaned forward as though anxious to comply, making several supreme efforts to articulate, but evidently the vocal chords, long is disuse, refused to function, and the murmur she construed into “Je ne peux pas,” and she turned sadly away.
The idea was held by those who knew him best that he held in his possession a secret which it was feared he might divulge, hence his casting away. His admittance that his legs had been injured by chains in some way confirms this theory. That some terrible secret was in his keeping seems reasonable to suppose, how otherwise can the silence of almost half a century be accounted for. That conscience troubled him and that he was doing penance for past sins was construed from the fact that he held his hands on a red-hot stove on one or two occasions, and he seldom was known to smile. Whatever the sins of his youth were, he had ample time to review and repent of them in that pathetic silence of forty-seven years, spent with the kindly Acadians on “the French shore,” Nova Scotia.