Mystery of Legless Jerome—A Solution

By Arthur Thurston.

Jerome’s case was n mystery at all to the learned Judge Alfred Savary whose voluminous writings reveal the whole story. I have in Historically Speaking paid tribute to the keen and reliable judge who died in 1920 at ninety.

Senator King of New Brunswick knew the full story of Jerome. He told that the man had been found partly-frozen in the lumber woods of Kings County, New Brunswick; was tenderly cared for, had his frozen legs amputated and was set to Saint John. People there did not want the trouble of taking care of the unknown man, so placed him on a schooner, from which he was put ashore on the Nova Scotia coast.

Judge Savary corroborates the above with no important contradiction. He emphasizes there never was any halo of romance of tradition surrounding this poor Italian who was deserted on the shore at Sandy Cove. The people who first found him there, were not fisher folk but were Robert Bishop, farmer, merchant, and Justice of the Peace, and another man, both of whom loved well into the twentieth century. The two were on the hill at Sandy Cove when they saw two small vessels come into the cove, put something into a boat and send the boat ashore. The thought the vessels were coming for water, but after they had sailed away, a man, half-witted and of defective speech, came running to them, pointing to the show and indicating there was a legless man there. Mr. Bishop and his companion, found the stranger propelling himself with his hands, albeit in a sitting position, towards the rising tide. A quantity of ship’s biscuit along with a jug of water were found high up on the beach, doubtless at the spot where he had fist been placed.

The Nova Scotia government, on being informed, employed an Acadian at Meteghan to care for the Cripple, pay him from a special fund for transient paupers. “Jerome” and “Colombo” were the only words he would utter at this time. He may have been a Portuguese from Colombo, Ceylon, or Colombo may have been the name of the ship in which he last served. Again, his own name may have been Jerome Colombo. Mr. Mecchi, an Italian barber residing at Meteghan often tried to converse with the man and succeeded in getting him to say a few words. From his accent Mr. Mecchi felt inclined to the opinion that the stranger was an Italian from the Adriatic coast. As he was once reported to have spoken the word “Trieste” the explanation seems reasonable. According to Judge Savary, a reliable amateur historian, it was August 23, 1863, the day the man was found.

The Italian language does not use the letter “J”… the name would be spelt “Gerome”. Or he may have been saying “Genova” (Genoa) which may have been his home town. He may even have been a descendant of the famous Cristoforo Colombo, whom we know as Christopher Columbus. “Colombo still is a common name in Genoa.

The above was Judge Savary’s thesis and confirmation is found in a letter from the files of J. Murray Lawson, compiler of the Yarmouth Reminiscences. The letter is from C.O. Foss, Assistant Engineer, Transcontinental Railway, Fredericton, New Brunswick. Both Lawson and Foss were amateur historians of stature who loved to delve into the realm of the mysterious. But Jerome’s history was no mystery to those two. Mr. Foss writes to Murray Lawson that in the year 1858 or 1859 two brothers named Conroy, one of whom into the twentieth century and often repeated the story, together found a man lying on the bank of the Gaspereaux River, about 20 miles from Chipman, New Brunswick. The Conroys had very extensive timber holdings, being in effect “timber barons” and were prosperous and reliable men.

It was winter, the temperature was well below zero and had been so for some days. Both the man’s legs were badly frozen and there remained but a spark of life. Tenderly he was conveyed to Chipman and given over to the parish authorities. It was found that in order to save his life it was necessary to amputate both his legs. No local doctor being a capable surgeon, the man whom History called Jerome was moved to Gagetown, Queens County, where the famous Dr. Peters, surgeon, performed the operation. Very slowly the man showed signs of recovery and as soon as he was in a condition to be moved he was returned to Chipman where he was supported for a period of nearly two years as a parish charge. He was lodged with a family named Gallagher, one of whom lived for fifty years following Jerome’s departure, often speaking of him, wondering how he had fared, and apparently not knowing his ultimate fate. Granted, when Jerome was found the wounds of his double amputation seemed fresh, to the layman. But it might take several years for such serious injuries to heal. Men wounded in battle in the 1860s still had unhealed hurts in the 1920s…Governor Champerlain of Maine was one of these. Much would depend on the individuals vitality and state of health. An undernourished seaman might take a long while to recover his health.

The Loyalist New Brunswickers were not so kindly or hospitable towards Jerome as the French folk of Digby County would prove to be. The parish authorities callously decided to dispose of him, probably telling themselves, “After all, he is not one of ours”. In any case, an arrangement was made with a schooner captain to convey him across the Bay and drop him off in Nova Scotia. This schooner captain always felt embarrassed at the role he was coerced into playing.

While he lay in Chipman, at Gagetown, and back in Chipman again, Jerome was questioned but was either unable to understand or refused to heed any language spoke to him. Even the parish priest was unsuccessful. “Putting together the pieces” the probability grew that he had left a ship, foreign or otherwise, at Chatham, and was trying to make his way to Saint John when a spell of sub-zero weather overtook him. The route he was following had been a well traveled passage from Nova Scotia to New France in ages past. When he was returned to Chipman, people began to term him “Gamby” from the fact that in trying to make himself understood he would often utter a work that sounded like that. The meaning is clear to us know, the word “leg” in Italian is “gamba”.

Jerome was lodged with a French family simply because it was felt he might be French. No one had the sophistication to solve the mystery of his origin and possibly no one cared. Records are a trifle contradictory… one report reads he was found in November, 1861. There was even a report a gunboat had put him ashore but the people of Digby County knew nothing at all of gunboats. He became a hero in the traditional sense and the people in his own tight little circle never tired of discussing him. There was a report he had given his last name as “Mahoney”. When he was found at Digby Neck he indicated in some way to the parish priest who had crossed to visit him that he was a Catholic. For some unknown reason, possibly small hands or lack of work worn hands he was thought to be a gentleman.

For seven years he lived with the French family he was first lodged with, and then, as they were going away, there came talk to removing him to the poorhouse. But as people wanted to believe, for romantic reasons, that he was or had been a gentleman, for a small sun, toward the end of his life $140 a year, the family of Joseph Comeau agreed to take him.

It was not until after the year 1900 that the story of the mysterious Jerome became widely known. Father Cole of the Star of the sea parish, made his famous photograph of Jerome at this time, but was able to learn nothing from him. The Italian barber, Mecchi, whom folklore credited with being conversant in seven languages, had little to add to the meager store of knowledge already gleaned. The Arabian storekeeper at Meteghan Station, Mr. B...... had no luck. Jerome had been addressed in French, Gaelic, Italian, Spanish, German, Arabic, English. He broke silence only when molested and showed evidence of quite a temper.

Jerome’s story gradually became known beyond Meteghan Station. Captain MacKinnon of the Prince George did not hear of him until Jerome was middle aged. Murray Lawson did some work along investigative lines but declined to visit him.

Jerome had a great horror of cold weather. Even in mid-summer he was to be found by the cook-stove, his stumps of legs under it. “Not surprising”, psychiatrists tell us, in view of his suffering during his mid-winter experience in the New Brunswick woods. When offered presents of tobacco and candy he would blush in appreciation. His general behaviour, as witnessed by those articulate enough to verbalize, was of a man highly-strung and emotionally unstable. As he spoke in a very guttural manner, in all probability he was defective in speech, and, being illiterate as well, there was no way he was able to communicate.

As I have written, he early gave the impression of being a Catholic. He sometimes was seen to pray. He often made the sign of the cross. He never accepted the rosary for his prayers nor would he read the prayer book, nor any other book or paper for that matter.

He probably was not able to do so. When he was younger he used to go out on the porch and sit in the sunshine on a pleasant day, but he lived the final 20 years of his life, without once venturing beyond the door, a few feet away, preferring to sit by the stove all day. In the nighttime he seemed often to be talking to himself, but as he was unusually sensitive to noise, the act of anyone approaching would at once bring him to silence. He died in 1912 and lies buried in Meteghan.

Source: Arthur Thurston, "Mystery of Legless Jerome -- A Solution," The Vangard, January 19, 1977.

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