Mystery Man

Hazel B. Shaw relates a true Nova Scotian mystery. Who was Jerome? Why was he disfigured and abandoned?

[ Le bateau vapeur

The steamship "Lawrence", Allison M. Colwell, New Brunswick Provicial Archives P112 #22

Along the western part of Nova Scotia, between Yarmouth and Digby, stretches the French shore. Popularly known as the “Longest Main Street in the World,” the majority of the inhabitants are descendants of the exiled French Acadians.

If you were to visit this region today, undoubtedly one of the shore residents would inquire if you had ever heard the story of Jerome the mystery man.

For although this mysterious event happened over a century ago, the story has passed from generation to generation and is still discussed today. Indeed, Nova Scotia abounds in past mysteries of the sea. It’s an historical face, however, that the Jerome story is the strangest that has ever occurred in this province by the sea.

Jerome’s story begins on the shores of Digby Neck, a jagged finger of land jutting out into the Bay of Fundy. One day in the summer of 1854, a low-lying, foreign appearing ship was noticed sailing up and down the Bay. A ship of this type had never been sighted in these waters before.

Speculations immediately arose. Where was the ship from? Was it a man-o-war, or perhaps a pirate ship? And why was she there?

The following morning the ship had disappeared, but Martin Albright, a fisherman, gathering rockweed along the beach, made a discovery that was the give Nova Scotia one of the greatest mysteries of its entire history. He came upon the unconscious form of a young man, perhaps 19 years old, lying near the water’s edge. When he came closer he saw the youth’s legs had been recently amputated at the knees! He was dressed in the finest linen, but all buttons, badges and other means of identification were missing. A can of ship’s biscuits and a jug of water were within his reach.

With the help of other residents the unfortunate youth was removed to Mr. Albright’s home. Here he was restored to consciousness.

The people gathered around waiting for the young man to speak. They repeatedly asked him questions. Who was he, and who was responsible for this horrible mutilation? And had he been abandoned by the strange ship? But although they probed and insisted, the youth refused to speak, except for one word that sounded like “Jerome.” And thus he became Jerome. Nothing else. And in all the years that followed he spoke only two words. At one time when asked where he came from he replied quickly, and with out thinking perhaps, “Trieste.” At another time, no doubt caught off guard, he spoke of his ship with just one word, Colombo.

After a few years Jerome was transferred from Digby Neck to live with the French Acadians in Meteghan, a small town 40 miles down the coast.

John Nicholas, a Corsican who spoke several European languages fluently, lived in Meteghan, and Jerome was made welcome in the Nicholas home. Mr. Nicholas tried desperately to break down Jerome’s barrier of silence. He was certain he understood French and Italian, but Jerome still refused to speak. From his apparent knowledge of these languages, his general appearance, and his manner that pointed to good breeding, the people arrived at the conclusion that he was someone above the common. From his foreign looks, they felt he must be French. Or possibly Italian.

Jerome was a splendidly built man. His manners were nice, and he showed an intense response to fine music. He conducted himself with dignity, and his personal pride shone forth on various occasions. When offered gifts of money, he would refuse and appear humiliated. However, he would accept gifts of candy, tobacco and fruits with deep appreciation.

The normal occurrences of everyday life – sorrows, suffering and happiness – seemed not to touch him. He was apparently shit away in his own world, where perhaps even greater mental torture was being endured, than any mere outsider could observe.

To the kindly Acadians, he became a special charge, touched by the hand of God; sent to them to be cared for and loved. He spent much time with the children and seemed to share with them a pathetic understanding.

He moved about fairly well on his stumps. His fame spread along the coast and he became known as the “legless mystery man.” Many came and endeavored to uncover his secret. But to no avail. He still would not speak.

After living for 7 years at Meteghan, he was taken to St. Alphonse de Clare, another French town 4 miles south. Here he spent the remaining 40 years of his life with Dedier Comeau and family. In all this time the Provincial Government provided for his board.

The Comeaus noticed strange things about this strange man, too. At one time Mrs. Comeau found him sitting on the grass writing on a stone. He quickly erased what he has written as she approached. On another occasion he almost crawled into the sea.

The people of the town watched him and commented on his strange behaviour. The way he would gaze out over the sea for long periods; his intense interest in the arrival of the mail by stagecoach.

His frequent fits of despair, as if he was carrying a burden too great for any human being to hear. How he would become furious at the slightest provocation, and how quickly he would become docile again. How the word “pirate” would plunge him into rages that would last for days, and his strange angry resentment at the rattling of a chain.

Jerome lived with the Acadians for over forty years. He was treated well, and in all that time his health was excellent. Over the years many theories have been advanced about him. But they still remain only theories. No one really knows. There have been speculations that he was of noble birth; a high ranking officer in some European court. Other theories claim he was a pirate. Still others that he was in possession of valuable military facts. His silence over the period of half a century certainly indicated some important secret.

In 1908 when his life was drawing to a close he seemed ready at last to break his long silence. But he had been silent too long. His coal chords rebelled from the disuse of fifty years. He couldn’t speak. And thus he died – still silent.

He was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery at Meteghan. He sleeps there today in an unmarked grave – his secret locked safely away; known only to God.

And in Meteghan today, the descendants of the Acadians who so tenderly cared for this unfortunate man, still wonder about him. Jerome’s story has grown almost legendary along the French shore.

Helireon Robicheau, 101 years old, remembers Jerome well. Mr. Robicheau, a retired ship’s rigger still spry and active, has his own theory of the mystery man’s secret.

“I think he was an Italian pirate,” he said. “If they kept him in chains for some reason, the chains may have injured his legs. That’s why they cut them off. The doctors said it was a good job, though, for those days. I remember the way he used to sit and watch the sea at sunset. I think he was scared they were coming back after him.

Mr. Robicheau leaned on his cane and pointed to the old graveyard just beyond his house.

“That’s where he’s buried,” he said. “I used to know where the grave is. But it’s all grown up now.”

Mr. Robicheau spoke of the time two women from Boston came to see Jerome.

“They said he was their brother,” he said. “But he wouldn’t talk to them, so they went away. They wouldn’t tell us anything about him. That night, the folks he was staying with heard him crying in his room.”

At another home in Meteghan, camera-shy Mrs. Margaret Saulnier, a mere youngster at 82 compared to Mr. Robicheau, remembers Jerome, too. Mrs. Saulnier, a pleasant French woman, dressed in plain black, spoke of him as if it had happened yesterday.

“It’s so strange you should call today,” she said in French. “Why we were just speaking of him. Yes, I remember him well. I was about 12 years old, and going to school. We used to tease him a lot and try to make him talk. But he never spoke.”

A dark-haired intensely interested young French woman sitting with Mrs. Saulnier in her snug kitchen, inquired if we had discovered if Jerome was of noble blood. A negative reply brought looks of disappointment. The amazing fact is that these young people are still trying to solve the Jerome mystery.

Then the four miles to St. Alphonse de Clare, where the house still stands that Jerome occupied for the last forty years of his life. An attractive two-storey building, it is situated on a gill not far from the sea. The Louis Boudreaus have lived in this famous house for ten years.

Mrs. Boudreau, a friendly dark-haired young woman, seemed thrilled to be living there.

“Yes, this is where Jerome lived,” she said brightly. “We’ve had it remodeled of course. I have my bathroom where his room was. It was a small room with one window. When we were tearing things apart, I found a good picture of him.”

As we left Mrs. Boudreau, our thoughts were in the far distant past.

And thus the strange story of the mystery man lives on in Nova Scotia. In this modern space age his secret would have been uncovered. But even now – over 100 years later – it would be interest to know who Jerome really was, and what was the reason for his horrible mutilation, and final abandonment on the wind-swept shores of Digby Neck.

Source: Hazel B. Shaw, "Mystery Man," Free Press Weekly Magazine Section, August 15, 1952.

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