Out of Our Past

Boothbay Region Historical Society

The Baby That Washed Ashore at Hendricks Head

Part I

 

Barbara Rumsey

 

        One of the more disheartening aspects of spending time on local history is how real history is often ignored in favor of tales of "mystery, romance, intrigue, and adventure," always with the obligatory dash of death.  Ordinarily, daily life is rather mundane and repetitive, and I actually like it that way; it's restful.  But many people think that's too pallid and that around the corner is something really fantastic.  In the same vein, people like to imagine that grand dramatic things took place long ago.  This urge to embroider, to aggrandize, eventually results in created stories that become regarded as history by some.

 

        In my years of manning the museum, reporters have dropped in from out-of-town papers, and the pattern is almost always the same.  They're after history as entertainment - such as ghost stories and pirate treasure.  I tell them that I think real history is more interesting than phony history, and urge them to write the real Boothbay story.  I actually think it's an insult for them to come to town, ignore the true history, and spin a yarn from cloudcuckooland.  They needn't come to Boothbay to write imaginary tales!  I guess you'd call me a spoilsport.

 

Shipwreck, 1870's

        A good example of this kind of story is, "the baby that washed ashore an Hendricks Head."  Both we and the Southport Historical Society have gotten repeated requests for information about this "incident."  The trouble seems to have started in 1945 when Edward Rowe Snow included the story as fact in Famous Lighthouses of New England.

 

        According to Snow, in the 1870's the lightkeeper at Hendricks Head saw a vessel going to pieces on the rocks nearby; it had earlier struck a ledge near Cuckolds, at the tip of Southport.  The keeper saw a bundle put overboard, lit a bonfire to let the people aboard (most clinging to the rigging) know they were aware of them and to guide them, but soon saw the vessel go under.  Not long after, two mattresses came ashore tied together.  When the lighthouse keeper untied them, he found a box with a live baby girl inside.  Having just lost a baby, the lightkeeper and his wife took it as their own. 

Shipwreck!-death!-a saved baby!-drama on the high seas!-irresistible story elements.

 

        This "incident," supposedly happening not more than 120 years ago, is recent enough to be checked, and I think it's a worthwhile exercise.  I hope to show that once something is in print, no matter how outlandish, it's extremely difficult to debunk it.

 

        First of all, were it true, the Boothbay Register, founded in 1876, certainly would have devoted some space to it.  If the event predated the paper's existence by a year or two, still the girl and the family would have been newsworthy and would have been interviewed at times over the years.

 

The Marr Lightkeepers

        The lightkeepers at Hendricks Head were local and there to stay.  From 1866 to 1895, Jeruel Marr ran the light, so he would have been the shipwrecked baby girl's adoptive father.  Jeruel had five children between 1852 and 1871, two of them daughters, Verona and Clarinda, born in 1853 and 1855.  All three of Jeruel's sons were lightkeepers.  From 1895 to 1930, Jeruel's son, Wolcott Marr, was lightkeeper at Hendricks Head.  Ethelyn Pinkham Giles, born 1904, spent many an afternoon as a youngster at the lighthouse, as did other neighborhood children, since Wolcott had eleven children, with Clara and Arthur Marr near Ethelyn's age.  Additionally the Pinkham and Marr families were closely related.  When I spoke with Ethelyn in April, she had never even heard of the story.  If the story were true, the shipwrecked baby would have been a sister to Wolcott and an aunt to all the children Ethelyn played with.

 

        The Marrs ran heavily to lightkeeping.  Besides Jeruel and his son Wolcott, Jeruel's son Clarence and Preston were lightkeepers at Pemaquid and Cuckolds.  Clarence, Preston, and Wolcott Marr had a brother-in-law, Sidney Pinkham (great-uncle of Ethelyn Giles), who was lightkeeper at Seguin; Sidney's father Ephraim Pinkham had briefly been lightkeeper at Hendricks Head in the mid-1850's.  It should also be remembered that Southport was a very marine-oriented town.  If the men weren't running lighthouses, they were fishing or coasting.  Things of the water were of paramount importance, and Southport had a reputation as the home of the highest-earning fishermen in Maine in the late 1800's.  There wouldn't have been much that they missed.

 

Cecil Pierce and Albert Orne

        Cecil Pierce, born 1906 and associated in people's minds with Southport history, never heard the story, though his family had been involved in lightkeeping.  Cecil's grandfather, Albert Orne (1850-1938), was often employed at lighthouses, and Orne's grandfather had run the Hendricks Head Light earlier in the nineteenth century.  Many years ago I took down some remarks Cecil made about his grandfather.  "His livelihood for thirty years was as a maintenance man for lighthouses.  He traveled up and down the coast of Maine doing carpenter and slip work the four months of the year that the weather allowed.  The winter storms would stave things all to pieces, such as the head houses where the winches were.  Just the transportation was a job in itself made more awkward by his wooden toolbox which took two men to lift it.  [It was later lost in the 1940's Goudy & Stevens fire when Clayton Orne worked there.]  In order to get to Sequin, for instance, he would have to hire a man and horse to get his toolbox to the steamboat landing, steam to Bath, take another steamer to Popham, and hire an idle dory to row him to the island.  When he retired, he was the first man to draw a pension in town, outside of Civil War veterans.  Although he probably made no more than thirty-five cents an hour top pay, he had a sizeable sum accumulated at the time of his death, even though he'd fallen into the hands of traveling stock market brokers."

 

Royal Luther

        In 1875 Royal Luther was named Superintendent of Lighthouses in the First and Second District, which included Maine and Massachusetts.  He ran the lighthouse service for 53 years, arriving in Southport in 1875 to take charge of rebuilding Hendricks Head Light.  Soon after his arrival, he married Annie Marr, daughter of Nahum Marr and niece of Jeruel Marr.  The Luthers lived principally in Malden, Massachusetts, but summered in Southport, with Royal joining them weekends by steamer.  Surely he, the head of the district, a summer resident, and related by marriage to five local lightkeepers, would have known of this incident.  One of Royal Luther's daughters was Evelyn Luther Pratt, born 1890.  Her daughter, Evelyn Sherman, once said to me, "my mother would have known that girl and she would have told me about her."  The shipwrecked girl would have been Evelyn Pratt's first cousin.

 

        With all those people-lightkeepers, maintenance worker, head of the district, seamen-intimately knowledgeable about sea life, local lighthouses, and wrecks, it is simply unbelievable that such an event could have happened without their knowledge and comment.  It is not the kind of thing you keep to yourself.

 

        Next week:  More on problems with the story, and how the story rose.