Nova Scotia's Mystery Man


TO-DAY WE TAKE another trip some distance from the Old Town Clock, for the location of the story of Jerome the mystery man!

I was traveling on the Dominion Atlantic Railway coming from Yarmouth some little time ago, and my fellow passenger was Mr. F.G.J. Comeau, then general freight and passenger agent of that line.

When we were not far from Digby, Mr. Comeau, who was greatly interested in the history of Nova Scotia, said to me: "Did you ever hoar the story of Jerome, the mystery man who landed on the shores of St. Mary's Bay, and whose identity was never lmown, and who was put ashore from a mystery ship?" Immediately I sat up and took notice, and this is the story that Mr. Comeau told me:

It was in the early summer of 1854 that Jerome first came to Digby County. One evening the fisherfolk who lived along Digby Neck noticed a large vessel sailing up St. Mary's Bay. She was strange to them and looked something like a man-of-war or a pirate ship… However she made no attempt to land a boat but simply hovered off shore. She was still there when darkness fell but in the morning she was gone, and her apparently meaningless visit caused some mild wonder amongst the people along the coast. This was changed to intense excitement when, later in the day, one of the settlers, named Albright, happened to go down to the shore at Sandy Cove.

As he approached the water's edge he was startled to hear a moan, and on looking about him, he saw lying on the beach -- a man. The stranger was young -- apparently not over nineteen -- with fair hair, blue eyes, and fine aristocratic features. All of this was apparent at a glance, but there was something else which caught and held Albright's horrified gaze -- both of the man's legs were amputated slightly above the knees and the stumps tied up in bandages. When Albright finally mustered sufficient self-assurance to speak to him, the stranger said not a word, but simply lay there and moaned again.

Quickly, some of the neighbours were summoned and the poor fellow was carried to the home of a Mr. Morton living at Centreville, then called Trout Cove, where he was cared for and given a home. Apparently the operation had been newly performed by someone fairly skilled, for, though the victim at first suffered intensely, the wounds gradually healed and he became at last physically strong and well.

There was no clue to his identity beyond the fact that his clothes were of the finest material, nor did his protectors ever find out who he was despite the fact that he lived in the district for fifty-eight years. For in all that time he utterly refused to talk or to write and evidenced a desire to avoid anything which might throw light upon himself or his history. How he could remain so long silent is a question, but it has been suggested that he was unable to speak, either because of some natural defect of his vocal organs or as the result of an operation.

Only two or three times did he ever try to say anything and then it was apparently when taken by surprise, for he would immediately lapse into his former silence and appear to be angry at having been so caught off his guard. On one of these occasions he was heard to mutter something which sounded like Jerome, and from then on, that became his name. At another time, years later, he was suddenly asked where he came from, and murmured what sounded like Trieste, while on still a third occasion, when asked the name of the ship from which he was landed, he was thought to say Colombo. This last word led to the belief that he may have been of Italian descent, though people who knew him claimed that he looked more as though he might be Irish.

In an effort to establish some conversation with him, the Mortons called in Jan Nicola, a Corsican nicknamed "the Russian," who was then living at Meteghan, and who spoke several European 1anguages. Nicola had fought in the Crimean War and had later escaped from a War prison to find rest and shelter in Nova Scotia. He could elicit nothing from Jerome but his own former hardships made him sorry for the man, and although he had little enough himself, he made arrangements for the castaway to live with him. There, then, for the next seven years, the stranger made his home, and when Nicola died, he was taken by a family of Comeaus at St. Alphonse-de-Clare, Digby County, where he lived for over forty years.

During this time he was visited by thousands of people who heard his story but no one was able to identify him… He did not seem to mind their coming nor did their conversation usually disturb him, except that he would fly into uncontrollable rage at the mention of pirates or pirate ships.

The Nova Scotia Government learned of Jerome and several times published short accounts of him in an effort to locate his relatives, but without avail. Failing this, they granted to his benefactors the sum of $104.00 a year to pay for his board. This amount being yearly passed by the Provincial legislature.

In later years a son of the Comeau family was working in New York when he was visited by two women who questioned him concerning Jerome. They said that their name was Mahoney and that they had known the man in Mobile, Alabama. According to them, he had run away from home when still a boy and had gone to sea. Comeau afterwards said that one of them looked enough like Jerome to have been his sister. This one asked him if he would take a letter to Jerome and, on receiving his assurance that he would, brought him one sealed in an unaddressed envelope. This he took with him when he returned home, feeling that here might be a solution to the mystery, but such was not to be. Jerome took it when it was handed to him, looked fixedly at the envelope for some time, then tore it unopened, into little pieces, and threw it in the fire.

This same man, who had brought the letter, always felt that his mother, who cared for the stranger, knew something of the mystery about him, but if she did, as far as has ever been known, she did not tell a soul.

On April 19, 1912, Jerome died and was buried in the Catholic Cemetery at Meteghan. With him his secret also died, to be locked forever from human ears. Many explanations have been suggested concerning him, but they are all purely imaginary. Some say that he may have been a nobleman whose lands had been wrongfully seized by a powerful rival and that his legs and voice were removed as a means of putting him out of the way forever. Others suggest that he was a political prisoner punished in this way for some crime. It has even been suggested that he was just a seaman who, as the result of an accident, had lost his legs and, being of no further use to his ship, was put ashore where the captain knew that he would receive good care. This, however, does not seem probable when one considers the fineness of his features and clothes and the total absence of any sign that he had ever done hard physical work, for his hands were white and shapely as those of a girl.

The whole story, which is worthy of the talents of Sherlock Holmes, bears all the marks of some diabolic revenge. And if revenge it was, possibly not a state but a private one, or one wrought by some powerful secret society. When one considers the man's personal appearance, his apparent unwillingness to try and talk, and his annoyance when a word was surprised from him, this idea becomes at least slightly probable. He would at times be lost in thought, when his mood was one of sadness, and he disliked any possible reference to his past, as is evidenced in his destroying of the letter unread.

If then, there were revenge, he may have felt that it was at least partly deserved. Yet it is evident that whoever left him on shore at Sandy Cove did not wish him to die as they left him the biscuits and water -- not perhaps the daintiest of food, but still, nourishment -- and bandaged his wounds carefully. If the mutilation was indeed deliberate, it is apparent that the perpetrators wished their victim to live. Perhaps Jerome had committed some offence, or had interfered with the plans of someone, for which the punishment was that though he should live, he should never walk nor speak again.

All of this is mere fancy, but it is interesting at least to wonder what was the true story of the origin of Nova Scotia's mystery man -- Jerome.

My thanks to Mr. Comeau, for a very interesting story and for a pleasant trip on the Dominion Atlantic Railway.

By the way, have you noticed that, if you come via the Dominion Atlantic Railway, when you get out of the train at the station in Halifax and look at the engine that brought you here, that every D.A.R. engine has a name on it, not just a number? The names on these engines perpetuate the names of men who made history in this province, and I respectfully suggest that you look a little more closely at these engines and look up the history of the different men whose names you find there. It is quite usual to see a name on a ship, but to see a name on a railway engine is not so usual. If you take a trip on one of the Dominion Atlantic trains, pulled by these engines with interesting names, be sure to look at the map of the line and find Sandy Cove and Saint Mary's Bay, where Jerome, The Mystery Man was landed in 1854.

Source: William Coates Borrett, "Nova Scotia's Mystery Man" in Tales Told Under the Old Town Clock, (Halifax: Imperial Pub., 1942), 121-126.

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