Jerome, Mystery Man of Digby County

[ Vue aérienne de la baie Sainte-Marie avec Meteghan à l'avant plan s'en allant vers la Pointe-de-l'Église (Nouvelle-Écosse, Canada) ]

Aerial view of St. Mary’s Bay towards Church Point, with Meteghan in the foreground (Nova Scotia, Canada), D.B. Field, Centre Acadien, Université Sainte-Anne Coll. 3, Série A #49, Div. 4

Perhaps no man in the entire history of Digby County has had so much written about him as Jerome, Digby County’s mystery man, and yet, despite all that has been written; despite all the investigations that have been made of him, nothing is definitely known of him or of his background or of the strange circumstances that prompted his being left on the shores of Digby Co. many years ago.

It was in the summer of 1866 that a strange ship was seen in the Bay of Fundy off the coast of Digby Neck. The vessel was first seen at sundown and her strange appearance and suspicious maneuverings drew the attention of the fishermen.

Some of them thought she was a man of war, others guessed her to be a private ship. Her appearance was unlike any other ship that had ever been seen in the vicinity. She hovered along the coast until the sun had gone down and she could no longer be seen from the shore.

The nest morning two fishermen of Sandy Cove, Eldridge and Allbright, coming down to the Bay of Fundy Shore to gather rockweed, found, not far from the ring of seaweed that marked the reaching of the high tide, the huddled form of a man. On closer inspection they found that the man’s legs had both been amputated just above the knees. Beside him was a jug of water and a loaf of coarse black bread.

His legs had been amputated by a skilled person and only recently had the job been done for the stumps were still bandaged and were bleeding. He was also suffering from cold and exposure.

The two fisherman carried the man, who did not utter a word in response to their questions concerning him, to the home of a Mr. Gidney in Mink Cove where he was wrapped in warm blankets and given hot drinks. He again was questioned as to who he was and where he had come from and still no answer was forthcoming. All that could be understood from what he said was a word that sounded like the name, Jerome, and by that name he was henceforth called.

He was cared for in the Gidney home for a time and then it was decided it might be wise to send him to the Acadian side of the Bay where someone might be found who could perhaps converse with him in a tongue he might understand and to which he might respond.

From his dark, swarthy complexion it was thought by some he might be an Italian so he was taken to Meteghan to the home of a Corsican who was living there by the name of John Nicholas. This Corsican, nicknamed “The Russian,” spoke not only Italian but several other European languages. He cared for the mysterious castaway and tried in every tongue that he knew to probe the mystery that surrounded him but without success. After some time the story of Jerome reached the ear of the Nova Scotia government and an allowance was officially set up for the family who were giving him shelter to the amount of $2.00 a week.

After he had been with Nicholas for some time it became evident to The Russian that his strange guest understood Italian from, when spoke to in that tongue he seemed to understand. It was also evident from him manner that he lived in deadly fear of someone or something and the only times he ever spoke, and then only in guttural utterings, were when he was taken off guard. It is said that he did answer, in response to a question in Italian as to where he came from, “Trieste” and as to the name of the ship which brought him to the Nova Scotia shore, “Colombo.” After these utterings he became terribly fear stricken and for days would tremble with fear.

Jerome learned to walk quite well on his stumps, but never went anywhere. He shunned all companions and spent most of his time crouched behind the stove in the kitchen with his head bowed and hands folded.

Persons in Digby who saw him during his stay in Clare report that when they would visit the house where he was he would hide behind the stove and, if spoken to, glare angrily.

He spent seven years at the home of John Nicholas. After the death of Nicholas’ wife he was boarded with Mrs. Didier Comeau of St. Alphonse de Clare, then known as Cheticamp. At this home, he seemed to enjoy watching the children play and would mingle with them quite freely.

Sometimes, when no adults were around, he spoke to the children, but would revert to his taciturn manner with the approach of grownups. It is reported the children on one occasion asked him why he would not speak to their parents and he replied with a shake of his head and the words, “No, no.” Another report is that, when the children asked him how he lost his legs, he answered “chains” and then answered then “sawed off on a table.”

It is also said that proof he understood and could speak English was had when, on the occasion of a visit from someone who wanted to see him, Mrs. Comeau coaxed him to come out of his room and he replied in perfect English, “I’ll bite you.”

He was a man of extraordinary strength but never at any time offered to help with the chores or work about the Comeau home. He also was possessed of a violent temper but his outbursts were shortlived except when the weird “forban” (pirate) was mentioned, when he would fly into a rage that lasted for days. He spent many long hours gazing from the windows at the ships passing up and down the bay.

Occasionally the government printed notices in the press of Jerome, in the hope that some information could be obtained.

As a result of these many persons visited the Comeau home and tried to converse with the strange men. Many letters were also received with suggestions the mystery man might be some particular person who had disappeared.

One of these was received from two sisters in New York named Mahoney, who thought Jerome might prove to be their long lost brother. Mr. Comeau and his brother, Francois, visited New York and talked to the two sisters. They learned from them that their brother, Jerome, had run away from home three times before he was 11 and had finally disappeared completely. Although their father had spent the remained of his lifetime trying to trace him he had been unsuccessful. The age of this Jerome when he left home for the last time and the apparent age of the Jerome found on the St. Mary’s shore—25—would tally satisfactory but the mystery of the life of the mysterious Jerome of Digby County who had evidently lived in foreign lands and traveled the high seas before his strange abandonment and the equally strange amputation of his legs, were still as much a mystery as ever, even were he the brother of these women.

Many other theories were advanced as to whom this strange man might be. It was suggested he might be a lumberman from the New Brunswick woods, injured in a logging accident and brought to Nova Scotia so that he would not be a charge on his own district. Another theory advanced is that he was of the Hapsburg family.

Not long before his death in 1908 Mrs. Doucet, daughter of John Nicholas, called to see him. She had plated about him as a child and was one of the children who he had befriended and she had many kindly memories of him. As she entered his room he raised his eyes and looked at her and then dropped them down again. At her repeated appeals for him to speak, he uttered something which to her sounded like “I cannot” and it is thought the long disuse of his vocal cords had rendered it impossible for him to speak.

In 1908 when he died, after living forty-two years in the district, he carried with him to his grave in the peaceful Acadian land the mystery still unsolved. Since his death countless numbers have tried to unravel the threads but without success. The mystery of Jerome, of who he was, where he came from, why he refused to speak an why his legs were amputated still remain an unsolved one, locked forever in the tomb of this strange man. Perhaps some pirate bad of his day could have told his story, perhaps some hidden treasure still lies guarded by his silence, perhaps a simple, prosaic happening holds the key to the mystery—who knows?

Source: "Jerome, Mystery Man of Digby County," Digby Courier, September 19, 1974.

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