A Body on the Beach
Sandy Cove Nova Scotia
In the summer of 1989 newspapers and the airwaves daily reported developments in a mystery that had surfaced in St. John’s, Newfoundland, when a handicapped, teenage girl had been found on the steps of a church in that city. Nobody knew her or whence she came. This appearance became a nine-day wonder, as the girl, who apparently could not speak, was checked out by a battery of experts, and the word of her strange arrival went out far and wide. Her name, it appeared, was Christine; she conveyed that she had come from England in a boat with her mother, a nanny and three men. This was told in sign language, in which she showed proficiency, and she appeared to understand several languages. She indicated that she was fifteen years old and was expecting her mother to come for her.
Subsequent dental examinations revealed that she was at least nineteen, which she then admitted. After making international headlines, with people from diverse places claiming to recognise her picture, a few weeks later Christine was identified as coming from the United States, not from England at all. A young woman with health problems, she had apparently been institutionalized. She had then vanished from the hospital. It was discovered that once before she had vanished and had popped up in another place. How she got from her point of origin to St. John's was not revealed, but what was, for a short period, an entrancing mystery, was solved.
Qualifying as an abiding mystery is a story that has intrigued Nova Scotians for over a century. Somewhere there was an explanation for Jerome, a castaway found on the beach at Sandy Cove, Digby Neck, Nova Scotia, in the mid-1800s. But there was a conspiracy of silence; somebody knew his story, he certainly knew it himself, but no one revealed anything. There were many guesses and theories, but he was never identified. It is a fascinating tale, beloved by local storytellers and generally known to an older generation in the district. Very little in the way of contemporary written record was kept; the tale obviously grew and was embroidered in the telling. It is hard to resist the temptation to embellish a good story, to make it even more mysterious; this is apparently true in this case, because although the main facts are consistent, the details are widely dissimilar, so that today we have to pick our way and make a choice among alternatives. Here then is the story of Jerome.
One summer morning in 1854 (or 1863 or 1866) a young fisherman named Martin Albright (or his name could have been George, or Robert) looked from the window of his cottage facing the beach (or he was wandering along the beach, he was searching for a lost skiff), when he saw something he took to be a large otter. Upon investigation he was horrified to discover it was the unconscious body of a man with legs amputated above the knees, the stumps heavily bandaged (or the man was in pain and moaning, or he was endeavouring to hobble on his stumps to the water to drown himself). Albright summoned two friends (or a band of neighbours) to carry the unfortunate man back to Albright's cottage, where he was cared for for many years (or he was placed in the care of William Gidnee or Gidney; or a Corsican named John Nicholas, who spoke many languages, cared for him; or Willie Comeau cared for him for fiftv-four years; or he was given a home with Mr. Morton of Centreville).
It seems that Jerome spent over half a century — the rest of his life — in the district; it is probable that during that time he was housed in all those places. The concensus seems to be that he spent most of the time with the Comeau family.
When found, the legless man was not over nineteen years of age (or he was about twenty, or he was in his mid-twenties), he had fair hair, blue eyes and fine aristocratic features (or he had flaxen hair and a fair skin, or he looked like a central European, either Spanish or Greek, or he was thought to be Greek, Italian, Spanish or French, or, from his complexion and mannerisms, he was thought to be Italian). He was dressed in the very finest navy blue serge, apparently a naval uniform (or from the quality of his clothes, the people thought he might be of royal blood, or his linen was of the finest, or his garments were of a very fine material and a different cut from any the fisherfolk had ever seen). He did not speak then, and he never spoke thereafter (or he was both mute and deaf; or he gave no sign that he could talk or understand; or he utterly refused to talk or write; or when asked his name he did utter some sounds which made those listening think it might be Jerome; or he never spoke, never read and never took any interest in anybody or anything; or once, when asked where he came from he said, "Trieste," and when asked the name of his ship, he said, Colombo; or when asked about the amputation he said, "Fretto, fretto," indicating that his legs had been frozen.) He would growl like a dog at people he didn't like; he was fond of children and had a love of music (a deaf man?).
We are further told that it was clear he understood everything that was said, either in French or in English. He was moody and would fly into rages at the mention of pirates or pirate ships. He hated the rattle of chains. Jerome also disliked cold and would stay inside in cold weather. When he was discovered, his fine clothing bore no buttons, labels or ribbons, and he carried nothing by which he could be identified. His hands were fine skinned and delicate, giving support to the idea that he was a nobleman, one unused to hard work. All sources agree that he was well nourished and had a splendid physique.
Members of the family Jerome lived with did not subscribe to his muteness; one boy said they often heard him talking to himself during the night. One woman, who had been a girl when he appeared, and who had known him for forty years, said he had a good clear voice and sometimes would answer them absent-mindedly. He was always angry when a reply was surprised out of him. From this source we are told that he was very fond of children and always talked to them out of doors, out of earshot of the adults. "With us children he was not careful about keeping silent. When we were alone together he would tell us the names of things in foreign languages."
Even the year of Jerome's death is not agreed upon; one account says he died in 1908, but others say he died in April of 1912, either the twelfth or nineteenth. This latter seems to be corroborated, since the comment is made that the Titanic disaster, on April 15, 1912, pushed the news of his death out of the newspaper. Jerome is buried in the Catholic cemetery at Meteghan, Nova Scotia.
Ignoring the conflicting details, we are left with the story of a young man of good appearance and strong physique, who, with legs amputated, was placed on the shore of a remote island during a summer night in the middle of the last century. He was obviously not abandoned to die, since a tin of ship's biscuits and a bottle of water were placed within his reach. The amputations, which had been done skillfully by someone with surgical knowledge, were recent, since they appeared to be freshly healed and he still suffered pain with them. He was placed within sight of human habitation on a shore where there were both English- and French-speaking residents. In discussing the arrival afterwards, some of the fisherfolk remembered seeing a large vessel, a foreign-rigged ship, like a pirate ship or man-o'-war, cruising in the vicinity a couple of days earlier. Some thought the vessel was from the United States.
It seems that Jerome was treated kindly by the various people who looked after him, although he was unresponsive and very moody, often flying into rages. Most accounts say that he did nothing; he did not read or write or show interest in anything, although he was obviously aware of everything that was said and done around him. He could understand English and French. We learn that once he spoke angrily in perfect English. He was provided with leather caps for his stumps and got around quite well on them; one story says he helped with the chores. The comment that he was of high intelligence is made more than once, although a doctor who knew him dismissed him contemptuously with the comment, "He was an idle man with an idle mind."
The Nova Scotia government was petitioned for maintenance and subsequently made an allowance of $104 per annum ($2 a week), to be paid for his keep for the rest of his life.
The story of the castaway was well publicized from time to time, in the hope that somebody, somewhere, would come forward and identify him. There is an odd little twist to the tale, however, for we learn that years after his arrival, two "foreign" ladies turned up in the village and asked to speak to Jerome in private. One can imagine the eager curiosity, the suppressed excitement, of Jerome's keepers as they listened beyond the closed door. They heard an animated conversation in a language they didn't understand, so the words told them nothing. However, they did hear a man's voice raised in argument with the visitors. Dumb Jerome had regained his voice on this occasion! After an hour the ladies left, with token thanks, giving out no information whatever, to the undoubted frustration of all concerned, who thought the secret of Jerome's identity was about to be revealed.
In 1905 an American visited Jerome, who was then at Centreville, Digby County, at the home of Joseph Comeau. This man described Jerome as having attractive white hair with a closely cropped pointed beard. The visitor had brought gifts of candy and tobacco, probably in an attempt to make a friendly approach. This was definitely not appreciated. He was ignored, his outstretched hand slapped off. He departed no wiser than any of the others.
Jerome was obviously moved around the neighbourhood; he is reported to have lived at Sandy Cove, Mink Cove, Meteghan, which is across St. Mary's Bay from Sandy Cove, St. Alphonse de Clare and Centreville. He was very well known in the district and, by reputation, throughout Nova Scotia and beyond. Naturally there had to be an explanation for this bizarre abandonment; conjectures were plentiful:
He was a nobleman illicitly deprived of his inheritance; his legs and voice had been removed to keep him out of the way.
He was a political prisoner being punished for a crime.
He was a seaman who had lost his legs in an accident; being no longer able to work he had been abandoned on shore.
He had committed murder in his native land and was fleeing from justice.
He was landed from a pirate ship, where his legs had been amputated as a punishment.
He had led a mutiny aboard ship; his legs had been amputated and he had been abandoned as a punishment (it was rumoured that his palate had been cut to prevent him speaking).
He was a spy or an army deserter.
Were any of these suppositions true, or could any two have been partly true and combined to make the answer?
In 1879 a member of the Gidney family, putting into port in Maine, was visited aboard his vessel by two men who were interested in speaking to somebody from Nova Scotia. They questioned him about a legless castaway. One of the men confessed that he had been paid to take this man to Nova Scotia and leave him there, sixteen years before. The story he told was that this man (Jerome) had been a stowaway on an Italian ship sailing for New Brunswick. When he made his way ashore he worked at odd jobs around Saint John, then worked in a lumber camp. One bitterly cold night he had become lost and soaked in the dark woods. The temperature dropped; exhausted he stumbled into an old sawmill and collapsed. He was almost frozen to death when he was found. His rescuers rushed him to Gagetown for medical treatment. Here a Dr. Peters amputated his legs to save his life. Somebody had to look after him, feed him, clothe him and pay his expenses. He became the responsibility of the community. Unwilling to continue to accept this burden, they hired some American sailors to convey him across the Bay of Fundy and leave him there, which they did, leaving bread and water beside him.
Another version says that in about 1848 some brothers who were lumbering near Chipman, New Brunswick, found a stranger collapsed upon one of their timber brows. He was suffering from exposure and frostbite. It was thought he had left a foreign ship at Chatham. In Gagetown a Dr. Peters amputated his legs. The stranger was cared for in Gagetown for two years by a family named Gallagher. They wanted to be rid of him, so he was taken to Saint John, where arrangements were made with the captain of a schooner to take him to Nova Scotia and leave him there.
There are a few inconsistencies here, one being the conflict of dates, another the oft-repeated observation that when found on the beach at Sandy Cove the amputations had been freshly done. Yet again, the soft delicate hands ascribed to Jerome hardly tie in with a man who had been working as a lumberjack, and neither do the clothes of fine quality, one detail all the biographers agree on.
But could there have been two legless men abandoned on a lonely Nova Scotian shore within a decade?
Yet another story has a son of the Comeau family being visited in New York by two women who questioned him about Jerome. They gave their name as Mahoney and said they had known this man in Alabama, where he had run away to sea as a boy. In the opinion of Comeau, one of the ladies looked enough like Jerome to be his sister. She asked Comeau if he would take a letter to Jerome and gave him a sealed, unaddressed envelope. This was duly delivered, but the legless man, after turning the envelope over and over, tore it into small pieces, unopened.
Obviously he had no wish to reveal his identity -- rather, he went to the extreme to conceal it — and he wanted no contact with anyone who might have known him.
There was a great tragedy here. For a man to endure total isolation and noncommunication all those years indicate a very strong motivation, most probably fear. He voluntarily imprisoned his mind within his mutilated body, cut off from his past, everything he had known, all his possibilities. If he was a murderer and this was his life sentence, could anyone doubt that he was not fully punished? It is a conundrum that will continue to fascinate mystery lovers. Given modern knowledge and technology, his secret could probably have been discovered, as was the identity of Christine. Lacking them, we shall never know.
I am indebted to Edward Rowe Snow, William Borrett, Clara Dennis, Helen Creighton and Roland Sherwood for the various versions of the Jerome story.