Tag Archives: Portland

Pirates in Casco Bay in 1817

Marauding under an alledged foreign flag

Mainers have heard stories about pirates Dixie Bull, Captain Kidd and Samuel Bellamy cruising the coast in the 17th and early 18th centuries, but little has been written about the pirates caught trying to smuggle stolen Spanish cargo into Portland, Maine in September 1817.

During the War of 1812, patriotic privateering was a lucrative business for American mariners. The United States Congress issued Letters of Marque and Reprisal authorizing designated ships to attack and pillage enemy vessels. The law required that prize ships be condemned and that booty proceeds be divided between the privateer owners and crew. Goods seized were often delivered to reputable merchants at a lower than usual cost in exchange for financial backing for the privateer. No matter how temptingly profitable it may have been, it was never legal to plunder vessels from countries the United States was not at war with.

When U.S. peace was restored in 1815 some of the privateers and their U.S. merchant partners could not bring themselves to give up the huge profits of privateering. They set up dummy registrations and residencies in South America to subvert U.S. piracy laws.

Buenos Aires was fighting for independence from Spain after the War of 1812 and it proved a convenient location for Baltimore, Maryland pirate, Joseph Almeida, to set up a second home. Whenever necessary to avoid conviction for looting Spanish ships, Almeida would claim citizenship in Buenos Aires even though his family still lived handsomely in Maryland and his 10-gun Privateer El Congresso, was built and armed by Baltimore merchants.

Five American sailors, who had all arrived in Portsmouth, N.H. on the sloop Aurora, out of Portland, aroused suspicion on Sept. 7, 1817 when they each tried to exchange $1,000 in Spanish gold and silver coins at a Portsmouth bank. The purchasing power of $1,000 in 1817 would equate to about $170,000 today; an unusual sum for low-level seamen to receive in payment for a voyage.

The Portsmouth Customs collector was alerted to the suspicious circumstances and he immediately seized the Aurora under the command of a Capt. White from Portland. All her passengers and crew were rounded up for interrogation. As a result of the investigation, three of the crewmembers, John Palmer, Thomas Wilson and Barney Colloghan, all of Massachusetts, were indicted for piracy. The following details of the case were revealed in newspaper reports and court transcripts.

The three accused pirates had sailed the previous May from Baltimore, in the ship El Congresso, under the command of Capt. Joseph Almeida. During the cruise, the Congresso captured several Spanish vessels and after having taken valuables out of them, sank, burned or destroyed them.

On July 4, 1817, the Congresso captured a most valuable Spanish ship, the Industria Raffaelli, as she sailed from Havana to Cardiz. Her cargo included 500 boxes of sugar valued at $20,000; 60 pipes of rum worth $6,000; honey, coffee and hides that together were valued at $6,000; and $60,000 in gold and silver specie.

The Industria’s Spanish crew was replaced by a prize crew under the command of Capt. Diggs. According to the prisoners’ testimony, Capt. Almeida ordered the prize to sail for Buenos Aires, but four or five days later, a Portland man named Davis took control of the Industria and sailed for the coast of Maine. She came to an anchor in Hussy Sound, between Peaks Island and Long Island in Casco Bay. There, a fishing boat met them and carried Capt. Davis ashore. The next morning the captain returned with three sloops. Cargo, sails, rigging and iron salvaged from the Industria was loaded onto the Betsy and the Abby and brought quietly into port without attracting the attention of the customs collector.

The whole crew except for Capt. Davis was put on board the sloop Aurora, with their cut of the Spanish gold and silver. What was left of the Industria Raffaelli was disguised and abandoned. When she was recovered some time later near Cape Elizabeth, it took a while before she was identified. Her name had been blacked out and a piece of canvas with the name John of Norfolk painted on it, had been nailed to her stern.

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that an act of piracy had been committed, but the United States piracy laws in force at the time only applied to acts of piracy against the United States. Because El Congresso sailed under the Buenos Aries flag and attacked a Spanish vessel, the American pirates were acquitted. The only action that could be taken was to condemn the sloops Betsy and Abby for knowingly subverting U.S. Customs collection. As a result of the impotence exposed in U.S. Piracy Law by this case, an expanded legal definition of piracy was adopted by U.S. Congress on March 3, 1819.

Joseph Almeida, also known as Don Jose Almeida, plundered hundreds of Spanish vessels before he was captured in 1827. He was imprisoned at El Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and was finally executed for piracy against Spain on St. Valentine’s Day 1832.

Civil War battle in Portland Harbor

Stolen cutter blown up to avoid re-taking
Stolen cutter blown up to avoid re-taking

Coastal Maine does not instantly come to mind as an American Civil War battleground, but one explosive encounter in Portland Harbor put Maine on the map.

Confederate Second Lt. Charles W. Read was barely yet able to grow a beard when he convinced his commanding officer to put him in charge of the captured brig Clarence, and let him run it up the coast as a privateer cruiser. The bright-faced rebel captain burned or captured 22 Union vessels between May 6 and June 25 of 1863, moving his crew from prize to prize to avoid detection. He and his crew, disguised as hard-working fishermen, were sailing the captured fishing schooner Archer of Southport, Maine on the morning of June 26, 1863.

Two Falmouth fishermen, Albert T. Bibber and Elbridge Titcomb, who had been out hauling trawls, later testified that there was nothing to indicate the Archer was a vessel of war. So when they saw the schooner approaching them at a reckless pace, they assumed her crew consisted of “drunken fishermen on a frolic.”

Bibber and Titcomb were taken aboard the Archer for questioning by the captain. They told him about the gunboats being built at Portland and about the two passenger steamships in the harbor, the Chesapeake and the Forest City. They also informed him that the captain of the United States revenue cutter Caleb Cushing had recently died, and that the ship was lying in Portland Harbor awaiting a new commanding officer.

The schooner Archer came to anchor off Fish Point after sunset. Her sailors quickly transformed themselves from fishermen to an armed crew of the Confederate Navy while their Falmouth captives were confined in the cabin. When Bibber and Titcomb were finally brought on deck to help guide the rebels into the harbor, it was after midnight.

Capt. Read was most interested in destroying the gunboats Agawam and Pontoosic at Franklin Wharf and taking the propeller steamer Chesapeake as his new privateer cruiser, but First Officer Brown was not confident he would be able to get the cold steamer engine running without being detected. It was decided that the cutter would be quietly taken out beyond the harbor’s armed forts under the cover of darkness before any attempt was made to burn shipping at the wharves or seize the coveted Chesapeake.

The Caleb Cushing was boarded at 1:30 am. She was taken quietly without resistance and her sails set, but the incoming tide proved a challenging deterrent and even with two boats towing her she didn’t pass through Hussey Sound till dawn. Aware that he could not return for the steamer in daylight, Capt. Read sailed seaward.

Confusion reigned onshore. Customs Collector Jedediah Jewett was alerted around 8 a.m. that the Caleb Cushing had sailed out during the night without orders. His first inclination was to suspect that Georgia born Lt. Dudley Davenport, who had temporary charge of the cutter, had deserted.

Word was sent to Fort Preble to prepare arms and soldiers of the 7th Maine Regiment. The side wheel steamer Forest City set off after the Caleb Cushing, but she was in no position to fire on the rebels. The better-equipped propeller steamer Chesapeake followed with 50 civilian volunteers, 27 soldiers and 2 brass six-pounders ready for battle. They knew their fire power was no match for the U.S. revenue cutter, which had a 32-pounder pivot gun and was said to be carrying 400 pounds of gunpowder, but Yankee zeal fueled their resolve.

Fortunately, the yet loyal Lt. Davenport had refused to disclose to the rebel privateers the secret onboard location of most of the solid shot and powder. They fired through the available ammunition while the Forest City and the Chesapeake were attempting to run them down.

When the steamers were within firing range of the Caleb Cushing, Capt. Read could see he was running out of fire power. He set the cutter on fire hoping the fire would find the hidden gunpowder before the cutter was recaptured. He loaded his crew and captives into small boats and rowed away from the ticking time bomb.

For an hour, Portlanders watched as the cutter burned, acutely aware that the 400 pounds of gunpowder she carried made it imprudent for them to approach.

“Finally,” it was reported in the Eastern Argus, “a terrific explosion shook the very heavens at 2:15 pm. Fragments of shells, masts, spars and blackened timbers are seen hundreds of feet in the air. The cutter begins to sink stem first, her gleaming guns slipping off the deck and into the deep.”

The steamer Forest City picked up the boated rebels and then captured the fishing schooner Archer. The rebel captain and his crew were sent to Fort Warren in Boston for 16 months before being traded for northern prisoners in 1864. Charles W. Read concluded his Civil War service before his 25th birthday and died a Confederate War Hero before his 50th.

 

 

Transportation growing pains in southern Maine

A Fatal Act of Sabotage
A Fatal Act of Sabotage

The 1842 arrival of the railroad in southern Maine was met with greed, fear, anger and even violence.

Maine’s first railroad was run from Bangor to Old Town in 1836. During the same year, two competing companies petitioned the Maine State Legislature for charters in a frenzied race to control the coveted run between Portland and Boston.

The interior line, proposed by what would become the Boston & Maine Railroad Company (B&M), was to pass through Gorham, Alfred and North Berwick to Dover NH. The Portland, Saco, Portsmouth line (PS&P), a Maine enterprise, was to pass along the coast through Saco, Biddeford, Kennebunk and York to Portsmouth. Both petitions were approved after acrimonious wrangling even though there was only business enough to support one road. The stock of both companies was widely owned in Maine and investors, some of them legislators, had a lot at stake.

PS&P started building tracks in Portland while B&M was preoccupied by territory contests in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The proprietors of the Maine railroad complained to the legislature that certain geographical obstacles, namely Mt. Agamenticus, necessitated an adjustment to their proposed course. Residents of coastal southern Maine supported plans to move the line inland, into the woods. They feared the railroad would “poison the land for miles around on each side.”

PS&P slipped an amendment to their charter through the legislature with wording so unspecific that it allowed construction of their road on B&M’s chartered line. When their competitor reached North Berwick in 1842 they found PS&P already legally operating a direct line between Portland and Boston in connection with yet another competitor, Eastern Railway.

The first Portland train arrived at the Saco depot on the morning of February 7, 1842. City officials, railroad executives, and gentlemen of the press were on hand to celebrate the official opening of the Portland to Saco leg of the PS&P. By November 22, the railroad was connected to the Eastern Railway. An announcement in the Boston Advertiser read “A continuous line of communication is open from Boston to Berwick, Wells, Kennebunk, Saco and Portland. Cars leaving Boston at noon will reach Portland at half past 5.”

The train went through Wells in a wooded area that would later be known as Highpine. At 8:30 on the evening of September 12, 1843, a train violently struck an obstruction on the new track. Engineer Horace Adams was instantly killed, being trapped under the upset coal car. The accident was reported in the Portland Bulletin.

“Two baggage cars and the first passenger car in which were six or eight persons, were shivered to pieces. One lady in the latter, the wife of Col. Tyler of Brownfield, was seriously injured and another slightly injured. The preservation of the occupants of the first saloon was most extraordinary as it was much broken up. A child nineteen months old, which was sleeping there, did not wake during all the horrid confusion, and was passed through the window, sleeping as calmly as if reposing on its mother’s bosom. Mr. Adams, approximately 35, resided in Portland and bore an excellent character. He was married about a year since and has left a young widow, with a babe in her arms, to lament his loss.”

The accident was clearly a case of sabotage. One of the rail connections had been pried up a foot and a half and several sticks of wood had been thrown onto the track. Motive was at first unclear. Some speculated that the target had been a party of landowners through whose property the road passed. They had been invited to make an excursion over the road on that day.

A Mr. Hatch was arrested at his home near the Wells depot and brought to Saco to be examined under suspicion of having caused the accident. One witness testified that Hatch had publicaly threatened to do mischief to the railroad.  It would be, he said, in retribution for his pay being docked while he was employed in the construction of the railroad. Another witness claimed that Hatch had admitted to the murderous deed but there being no physical evidence of his guilt, he was released. Hatch was not the only Wells Depot resident who felt cheated by the railroad company. Many of his neighbors believed that the train devalued their property; that rich city investors were getting richer on their backs.

Thirty years later the B&M Company laid tracks along the shore running parallel to the PS&P railroad. PS&P had cancelled their 6% lease to connect and wanted to renegotiate at a higher rate. By 1872, coastal residents were delighted to have the train stop close their tourist businesses. Their fear had been replaced by visions of Boston dollars arriving by train every summer. Mr. Hatch and his like-minded neighbors, still living at Highpine didn’t mind either.

USS Constitution has Maine ties

Old Ironsides: A frigate with Maine links
Old Ironsides: A frigate with Maine links
     The historic USS Constitution has been tied to Maine history since 1796, when her original eastern white pine masts were hauled out of the woods of Kennebec County.
     According to an article published in the Bangor Historical Magazine in 1891, trees for the masts were cut in the town of Windsor, on the north side of Augusta Road between Cooper’s Mills and Bryant’s Corner. “Thomas Cooper, of New Castle, and a man named Gray, who afterward moved to Windsor or Whitefield, cut them and got them to salt water by swamping a road to Puddle Dock (Alna) during the winter of 1796/97.” The following spring, the trees were taken to Wiscasset, where they were yoked together with oak mortises and towed down the coast to the Boston shipyard of Edmund Hart.
     Young Edward Preble, of Portland, watched his hometown burn to the ground at the hands of British Navy Commander Henry Mowatt in 1776. On that day he vowed to join the United States Navy to defend his country. By the time the First Barbary War broke out, Commodore Edward Preble was already a seasoned veteran. He was sent to Tripoli in 1803 as commander of the 3rd U.S. squadron, with the frigate USS Constitution as his flagship. The Maine commodore ordered the strategic burning of the USS Philadelphia when it fell into enemy hands.
     The USS Constitution served her country nobly during the War of 1812. She earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” when fire from the HMS Guerriere literally bounced off her 21-inch-thick, live oak hull.
     On June 2, 1855, Old Ironsides sailed into Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery for repairs. Her arrival caused quite a commotion on both sides of the Piscataqua River. Her Navy sailors, on leave after long, loyal service, enthusiastically drank, gambled and caroused. Petty Officer Edward Welch became intoxicated and fell to his death through the hatchway of Old Ironsides. Other sailors were cheated out of their pay in a rigged card game onboard, and the swindlers were chased all over town. Local reporters wrote that the police would have their hands full until the seamen dispersed.
     On June 2, 1858, an article appeared in the Charleston Mercury indicating that the frigate Constitution was on the ways at Kittery, having been thoroughly repaired and coppered: “Planking inside and out has been taken off and between six and seven hundred timbers have been replaced. She is now as good as new when first launched in Boston sixty years ago.” Old Ironsides was already regarded as the oldest ship in the Navy when she served as a training vessel during the Civil War.
     The old girl returned to Kittery in 1882 after completing her final high seas training cruise and suffered the indignity of being reconfigured into Navy receiving barracks. A large, barn-like structure obscured her graceful lines. On one occasion in 1891, she was adorned with paper lanterns and transformed into a dance hall for the ladies of the G.A.R..
     Congressman John F. Fitzgerald of Massachusetts infuriated Portsmouth and Kittery natives in 1897 when he declared the Navy frigate to be on the verge of sinking at her Kittery pier. Her removal to Boston for her 100th birthday was begrudgingly announced in local papers with the caveat, “they had better return her to her rightful home after the celebration because her deteriorated condition has been exaggerated for political reasons.” Old Ironsides would not return to the Portsmouth Navy Yard for another 35 years.
     The public was outraged  to learn that the Secretary of the Navy recommended the tattered USS Constitution be towed out to sea and used for target practice. Fundraising efforts were undertaken to provide for her complete restoration. Schoolchildren sent in their hard-won pennies and the silent film “Old Ironsides” was produced to raise awareness about the historic ship. Over $600,000 in private funds was raised and Congress approved an additional expenditure of $300,000 to complete the project.
     John Abel Lord of Bath, ME was put in charge of rebuilding the USS Constitution in 1925. He researched 18th-century shipbuilding tools and techniques extensively before handpicking skilled shipwrights from Bath to do the work.
     The new Secretary of the Navy, Charles Francis Adams, recommended that the restored vessel be towed from port to port to show the people of the United States what their pennies had bought.
     Old Ironsides made the first stop of her national tour at the Portsmouth Navy Yard on July 3, 1931. Captain Louis J. Gulliver, of Portland, was at her helm. Some 32,000 people came to see her during the week she spent at Kittery. She was next towed to Bar Harbor and then to Bath, where a huge celebration honored the home boys who had rebuilt her. Old Ironsides spent another week tied up to the Maine State Pier in Portland before being towed away from Maine for the last time.
     Many penny donors were disappointed to see Old Ironsides towed on her national tour. Authorities had not thought it prudent to sail the 134-year-old vessel. On July 21, 1997, she finally did sail under her own power for the first time in 116 years, flying a suit of sails made by Nathaniel S. Wilson of East Boothbay.

Nazi U-boats plagued Maine coast during WWII

A Night Deposit
A Night Deposit

German submarines swarmed to American waters when the United States formally declared war on Germany and Italy on Dec. 11, 1941. By the following June, 171 American vessels had been torpedoed off the east coast of the Unites States. Coastal Mainers, many of whom made their living from the sea, felt like sitting ducks.

Maine’s director of civilian defense, Col. Francis H. Farnum, announced on May 22, 1942, that foreign agents both male and female had already landed on the coast of Maine and were investigating shipping prospects. Others, he warned, had come into the state over the Canadian border. No details were disclosed, but he certainly inspired vigilance in coastal Mainers.

Minefields and indicator loops designed to magnetically detect submarines, were installed on the floor of Casco Bay. A mobile artillery unit was quickly deployed to Biddeford Pool. Nearby, an observation tower was constructed of reinforced concrete to look like a church. The whole coast was patrolled by sub-chaser boats and dirigibles. Windows were blackened, civilian lookout posts were manned and curfews were strictly observed.

At about 10 p.m. Nov. 29, 1944, the coning tower of U-1230 pierced the surface of Frenchman’s Bay off Crabtree Neck. Two uniformed German sailors pulled a rubber raft through the hatch and quickly inflated it on the bridge. Two men in American streetwear emerged next, carrying satchels that virtually bulged with handguns, diamonds, and $65,000 in cash supplied by the German government to finance their espionage mission.

William Curtis Colepaugh, an emotionally unstable 26-year-old native of Niantic, Conn., had flunked out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and enlisted in the United States armed forces. He soon became disillusioned with his potential for upward mobility and decided to give the occupation of Nazi spy a whirl. Erich Gimpel was at least the genuine article. Born in Merseberg, Germany, some 35 years earlier, he arrived in the United States intent on sabotaging America’s atomic bomb program.

In a 2004 interview, former CIA covert operative Richard Gay, who has researched the incident extensively, asserted that as the Germans pulled away from the U-boat, a dog started barking on shore. The sailors, Fritz and Konrad, rowed the spies back to the sub to get sausages to quiet the frantic animal before proceeding to the beach.

By the time the four men landed it was snowing hard. Fritz and Konrad earned bragging rights by stepping onto American soil for a moment to flash a “Heil Hitler” before rowing back to their vessel. The plain-clothes spies grabbed their satchels and started off on a four-mile hike to Route 1.

Their city-folk attire was not typical snow gear for a Hancock native, and they were soon spotted by 17-year-old Harvard Hodgkins, who was driving home from a dance. A few miles up the road, Mary Forni drove by them on her way home from a card game. She almost offered them a ride, but something told her to keep driving. When she later mentioned seeing the inappropriately dressed strangers to her husband, he dismissed her concerns.

Gimpel and Colepaugh were resting for a moment in the village when a taxi serendipitously pulled up and agreed to take them to Bangor for $6. Once there the spies caught a train to Portland, where they had breakfast before boarding the 7 o’clock regular to Boston. They travelled on to New York the following day and would have disappeared forever into the city if William Colepaugh had not tried unsuccessfully to slip away from the mission with the bag of diamonds and the $65,000. He approached the FBI and disclosed Gimpel’s whereabouts, claiming to be a double-agent. Both men were sentenced to death but were eventually released after many long years of incarceration. The German, Erich Gimpel, was deported. He published a memoir in 2003 titled “Agent 146: The true story of a Nazi spy in America.”

The U.S. Navy was secretive about just how close the U-boats were to Maine civilians during the war. On April 23, 1945, the U. S. Navy sub-chaser USS Eagle exploded three miles off Cape Elizabeth, tragically killing 49 of her crew and injuring 13. For more than half a century the Navy insisted that a boiler had exploded onboard, but recent exhaustive research proved that the vessel was torpedoed by a German U-boat.

Eye-witnesses recall the night the wreck of the USN sub-chaser blimp K-14 was salvaged at Southwest Harbor. She was “riddled with bullet holes,” but to this day, the Navy blames pilot error for the loss of the dirigible.

When Nazi Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery was the largest American submarine base on the Atlantic coast. Four German U-boats operating in the Gulf of Maine surrendered at the shipyard. One of the subs was displayed in the Piscataqua River and thousands of Mainers travelled miles to see what had so long been the object of their terror.

 

Victor Vernon, guest aviator at Kennebunk Beach

Mr. Atwater Kent to the rescue
Mr. Atwater Kent to the rescue

Kennebunk Beach had its usual array of summer sojourners in August 1914 but the fresh sea breezes were tainted by the scent of trepidation. Even though President Woodrow Wilson had quickly tried to balance declarations of war in Europe with his own declaration that the United States would remain neutral, the specter of war was omnipresent. As a diversion, the manager of the Atlantis Hotel invited aviator Victor Vernon to stay at the hotel for free with his family if he offered tourist rides on his new-fangled, Curtiss Flying Boat, The Betty V.

Before World War I, aviators were fearless pioneers. Some might even call them reckless. Vernon had been a car salesman for the American Automobile Manufacturing Company only a few months earlier. When the company went into receivership, Victor, who had seen a plane land on the water the previous summer, went to Hammondsport, N.Y., took a few flying lessons from a Curtiss test pilot, and purchased the newest model “hydro-aeroplane” money could buy. He had given just a few exhibitions flights on Lake Erie when he disassembled his Flying Boat and had her shipped by railroad to Portland, Maine.

Little more than a decade earlier, the Wright Brothers had made their first 20-minute flight. The Curtiss Flying Boat was touted the world over as “the sportsman’s vehicle of the future,” and “a marvel of engineering.” The mahogany-hulled, hydroplane was as beautiful as she was fast. Equipped with a 90-horsepower motor she could reach speeds of 60 miles per hour on the water and 75 mph in the air.

Vernon hoped to make a pretty penny flying passengers over Kennebunk Beach or at the very least, enjoy a luxurious summer holiday with his family for free. The Atlantis Hotel, advertised as “a hotel of the very best class,” was built in 1903 in the Spanish mission style. Private bathrooms were available for those willing to pay extra; a rare luxury in 1914. Victor Vernon offered rides from Middle Beach where privileged hotel guests could watch him take off and land from the veranda. His best customer was Atwater Kent, who owned a cottage near St Ann’s by the Sea, in Kennebunkport. Kent had made his fortune by inventing an automobile ignition system that could be engaged from inside the car. He loved any cutting-edge thing with a motor and couldn’t get enough of the Betty V. He showed up day after day to fly with Vernon, sometimes with Mrs. Kent and sometimes alone.

“During Mr. Kent’s first ride with me,” Victor Vernon wrote in his memoirs, “a wave top broke over the Betty V when landing and dampened the magneto. The motor stopped and we started drifting toward a rocky section of the beach near our point of operation. I shouted to Mr. Kent what was most undoubtedly the trouble, but he, an electrical expert, already knew and offered to climb up alongside the motor, remove the magneto cover, clean and dry it out and replace — no easy job in a pitching, rolling ‘boat,’ and not good for his flannels, either. He did an expert job just in time as when I cranked the motor and she caught with welcomed roar, we were only a few feet from huge, jagged boulders and rocks stretching out from shore into deep water and being swept by the waves. He was the highest priced, but unpaid mechanic ever voluntarily serving under similar circumstances, I’m sure.”

After several weeks at Kennebunk Beach, Victor received a phone call from the Chairman of the Labor Day Celebration Committee, Bar Harbor, Maine. He was offered $500 to fly there in time to make an exhibition flight on Labor Day. All his expenses were to be covered. With the economic uncertainty of war looming Vernon accepted the offer, even though no such flight over the ocean had ever been attempted. Nationwide newspaper coverage of the flight made Victor Vernon a household name.

“Victor Vernon made an over-water flight of 150 miles yesterday from Kennebunkport to Bar Harbor,” wrote a reporter for the Lowell Sun on Sept. 4, 1914. “The hydro-aeroplane flight made at 2,000 feet took 2 hours – 32 minutes of actual flying time. Three stops were made; the first at Port Clyde for supplies, a second at Rockland and the third at Northeast Harbor, which the aviator mistook for Bar Harbor.”

By 1916, American participation in World War I seemed probable. Vernon was approached by the Signal Corps, which at that time was the aviation branch of the U.S. Army. The U.S. Air Force had not yet been organized. He accepted the position of chief civilian instructor in its new aviation training program. During the war, Victor Vernon tested Flying Boats built by the U.S. Navy to patrol for U-boats and deliver torpedoes.

The King Kleagle of Maine’s Ku Klux Klan was an opportunist

The Evolving Mr. Farnsworth
The Evolving Mr. Farnsworth

Governor Percival Baxter dismissed the validity of the Ku Klux Klan in 1922.  “I do not believe that any level-headed citizens of Maine will allow themselves to be influenced by such an organization,” he told a reporter.  Two years later Baxter’s gubernatorial successor, Ralph O. Brewster, was swept into office by an army of White Knights.  Most of them had been seduced by the flimflammery of F. Eugene Farnsworth.

The first Klansmen organized in the southern states after the Civil War.  Their bigotry was aimed at newly freed African Americans.  When the federal government started prosecuting Klan crime in the 1870s, the organization was suppressed.  The “Second Klan” was formed after World War I in response to growing immigration to the United States.  In addition to feeling threatened by African Americans, the new Klan objected to equal rights for Catholics, Jews and immigrants of all nationalities.

French Canadian Catholics were gaining influence in local Maine politics and were lobbying for state funds to support their parochial schools.  F. Eugene Farnsworth, who claimed to be a native of Columbia Falls, appealed to Protestant ministers all around the state as Maine’s King Kleagle.  He promised to eradicate parochial schools and to fight for the right of “100% Americans” to teach the bible in public schools.  In exchange, he asked that the clergy declare their support for the Klan from the pulpit.  Many of them did.  Their support and Farnsworth’s memorizing oratory gifts led to the initiation of thousands of Klansmen in a matter of months.

There was broad social acceptance of the “Invisible Empire” and their claims of patriotism.  One newspaper advertised an impressive list of activities available to vacationers at the Merriland Camp for girls in Wells; “Tennis, croquet, golf, bathing, volleyball, dancing, canoeing, masquerades, Ku Klux initiations, pool and music.”  Farnsworth addressed appreciative crowds in Kittery, Saco, Hollis and Sanford.  The Klan purchased a very visible headquarters on Forest Avenue in Portland, with new membership proceeds.  At the August 1923 opening ceremony, followers were initiated by the light of a fifty foot burning cross, while ten thousand spectators looked on.

A month after the flamboyant spectacle in Portland, a story broke in the Fitchburg Sentinel that changed everything.  Maine’s King Kleagle was well known in Fitchburg as Salvation Army recruiter and local barber turned travelling hypnotist, Frank Farnsworth.  He had left town in shame in 1901 after his memorized assistant, Tom Bolton, was killed onstage.

Bolton’s job was to pretend to be hypnotized.  He was laid out between two chairs and a huge boulder was placed on his stomach.  A volunteer from the audience, who was actually employed by Farnsworth, then tried to break the rock with a sledgehammer.  During his final performance, the chair under Bolton’s head slipped and his skull was crushed by the rock.  To avoid a manslaughter conviction, Frank Farnsworth was forced to admit that his hypnotism act was a sham and that his assistant had participated in the trick with his full faculties.

After leaving Fitchburg, Frank travelled to South America on an expedition to photograph headhunters.  He then returned to the U.S. and as F. Eugene Farnsworth, performed an illustrated magic lantern show about exotic travel destinations.  His dramatic delivery earned rave reviews in Washington D.C.  It was not a lucrative occupation but it satisfied his lust for an audience.  Farnsworth also had a short career as a movie producer in Connecticut.

National Klan officials took a closer look at Maine’s King Kleagle. Farnsworth’s daylight parades in full Klan regalia and his show biz approach started getting him in trouble with the usually clandestine organization.  Then the Klan discovered he had formed an independent women’s Klan in Maine that allowed Canadian Protestants to join.   American citizenship was not exactly a flexible requirement for the Ku Klux Klan.

Farnsworth’s wife and daughter were stripped of their Klan membership for belonging to the rival group.  As it turned out, they had never been eligible for membership in the first place since both had been born in St Stephen, New Brunswick.  F. Eugene Farnsworth quit the Klan for “health reasons” when it was reported that $4 of every $10 Klan membership fee had found its way into his pocket. He tried unsuccessfully to organize his own copycat Invisible Empire but was eventually run out of Maine.

The Klan supported candidate had enough momentum to carry the 1924 gubernatorial election but the hooded honeymoon was almost over.  Without charismatic leadership, the Klan all but disappeared in Maine by 1930.

Family records held by the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick indicate that Farnsworth’s parents had moved from Columbia Falls to New Brunswick long before his 1868 birth. Like his wife and daughter, Maine’s King Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan was probably Canadian.

Mainers engaged in the slave trade

From East Africa to Paris Maine
From East Africa to Paris Maine

An act of Congress made foreign slave-trade illegal in 1794 and a federal law passed in 1820 made it a capital crime of piracy but some Maine mariners managed to profit from the abhorrent business in a shell game of Brazilian intermediaries and falsified documents.

Juries were reluctant to convict traders while slavery was still legal in the southern states.  In fact, when Captain Cyrus Libby of Scarborough appeared before the Portland, Maine Circuit Court in 1846, no American had ever been hanged for the crime.

As captain of the Brunswick brig “Porpoise,” Libby had sailed to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil and remained onboard as master while the vessel was chartered for a year to notorious Brazilian slave dealer, Manoel Pinto da Fonseca.  Defense attorneys presented evidence at the trial that a lease signed by both parties, included a clause prohibiting any contraband trade.  Captain Libby claimed he had only been following the instructions of the vessel’s owner, George F. Richardson, a merchant born in Limington, Maine, who had since passed away.

Libby was acquitted by the First Circuit Court, even though the “Porpoise” had been seized with two East African boys aboard. The branded young slaves, Pedro, and Guilherme, testified that the Maine brig had sailed along the eastern coast of Africa as tender to the slaver, “Kentucky”.  They told the jury that their job had been to serve Captain Paulo Rodrigues, agent to Fonseca, who sailed aboard the “Porpoise”.  The crew had not been told they would be working for a slave-trader until they had no other way home.  They testified that Captain Libby often accompanied Captain Paulo to the African slave factories.  He had clearly been aware of the true nature of the voyage, they said, when the “Porpoise’s” boats were used to load slaves onto her sister vessel. Cyrus Libby denied any knowledge of the cargo on the brig “Kentucky” and claimed he had been shown official documents indicating that Pedro and Guilherme were free.

While on the outward voyage, some of the 500 slaves aboard the “Kentucky” revolted.  The armed crew easily regained control but forty-six African men women and children were publicly executed and dismembered to discourage further rebellion.  The “Kentucky,” hailed from New York but was built in Prospect, ME.  She avoided capture by the over-painting of her name with “Franklin of Salem”.

The “Porpoise” was seized when a disgruntled member of the crew slipped a note to American authorities at Rio de Janeiro.  George W. Gordon, American Consul to Rio, on board the U. S. Frigate “Raritan” fought the Brazilian Government for jurisdiction over the slave-traders.  For the sake of international diplomacy, Secretary of State James Buchanan insisted that he release the crew but the Consul refused to hand over the “Porpoise” or the slave boys onboard.

After the trial, Cyrus Libby was a free man but the “Porpoise” was not returned to her owners.  It had already been sold by the government for court costs.  A decade later, a Boston Court ruled that the vessel had been rightfully seized.

The slave known as Guilherme moved to Milton, Massachusetts and became a well respected barber.  Pedro was taken in by the U. S. Marshall for the District of Maine, Virgil D Parris, Esq., of Paris, Maine.  Pedro Tovooken Parris learned to speak English with his new family.  He studied reading, writing and arithmetic at public school and joined the debating society to hone his public speaking skills.  During the 1856 Massachusetts Gubernatorial Campaign he worked for candidate George W. Gordon, telling voters how the former Consul had rescued him from slavery.

Pedro died of Pneumonia in 1860, while still a young man. Almost everyone in Paris, Maine attended his funeral.  His adopted brother, Percival J Parris wrote an account of the former slave’s life and illustrated it with drawings by Pedro himself.  The article was published in “Old-Time New England” in 1973. (digitized by Historic New England)

The first American ever to be convicted and hanged for the crime of trading human beings was also from Maine.  Nathaniel Gordon of Portland was convicted for carrying 897 slaves aboard the 500 ton merchant ship Erie.  Half of Gordon’s captives were children.  Lieutenant Henry Todd, of the U. S. Navy reported that the main deck was so crowded that one could scarcely put his foot down without stepping on their naked bodies.  Abraham Lincoln sealed Nathaniel Gordon’s fate.  After a long, horrific career he was executed in New York City on February 1, 1862.

Lindy’s quest for privacy on the Maine coast

The not so secret honeymoon
The not so secret honeymoon

Charles A. Lindbergh completed the first solo transatlantic flight on May 21, 1927. The handsome 25 year-old air mail pilot and his single engine monoplane, Spirit of St. Louis, became world-famous, overnight. Along with fame came public adoration and the omnipresent paparazzi… even in remote Maine waters.

“Lindy” – as the press had nicknamed him- was already overwhelmed by all the attention when he flew to Maine two months after his record-breaking flight. A man had been killed by an unruly crowd during his public appearance on the Boston Common, July 22, 1927. The tragedy was fresh in his mind as thousands gathered to see him land his famous monoplane at Scarborough Airport. Pea-soup fog obscured the runway for two days and the pilot was finally forced to land at the less secure Old Orchard Beach airstrip. After dutifully fulfilling several promotional obligations to massive crowds in Maine, the pilot made his way back to his plane at Old Orchard Beach. There he found another mob pressing up against the Spirit of St. Louis as he tried to take off.

When Lindy asked Ann Morrow to marry him in 1929 the whole world speculated about the details of their nuptial plans. Rumor had it that the Lindbergh wedding would take place in late June at the Morrow summer cottage in North Haven, Maine. One Monday afternoon in late May, a small group of family and friends were invited to attend a charity event hosted by the bride’s mother at her Englewood, NJ home. After lunch, they were surprised to discover that they were all guests at a wedding. The understated affair was over in a flash. Ann wore a simple dress and carried a handful of larkspur that the groom had picked from his in-law’s backyard.

By the time the press got wind of the secret marriage the couple had slipped away on a 38-foot honeymoon yacht Lindy had purchased a week earlier. The owner of Elco Boatworks in Bayonne, NJ, resisted the free publicity as long as his professional ambitions would allow but finally gave reporters a very detailed description of the aviator’s new yacht, the “Mouette”.

The honeymooners were tracked from New London, Ct to Provincetown, MA by land, sea and air. In an effort to thwart positive identification the Lindberghs broke marine law by covering the name of the vessel with a piece of canvas. Newspapers all over the world carried a daily account of the little boat’s movements.

They were spotted off Isle of Shoals on June 6th by two New York press planes. The next day the Mouette tied up for gas and provisions at Hartley Philbrick’s fish wharf in York, Maine. Try as he might, Hartley could not engage Mr. Lindbergh in meaningful conversation. While they were loading supplies in relative silence, a 13 year old girl recognized Lindy and ran off to spread the word at the town’s high school graduation celebration. Within minutes, more than 100 people crowded onto Philbrick’s wharf to get a snapshot of the elusive aviator. Anne Lindbergh remained inside the cabin until the Mouette was safely offshore.

The boat put into Cape Porpoise Harbor and anchored very near Goat Island Light for the night. Melville Freeman wrote in his 1953 “History of Cape Porpoise” that residents of Cape Porpoise were unimpressed by Lindy’s visit and were completely discreet out of respect for his privacy. An article that first appeared in the Portsmouth Herald June 8, 1929, told a different story.

Captain Jim Anderson, keeper of the lighthouse, was offended that the little launch failed to answer his customary salute of three bells. He grabbed his powerful binoculars and was able to identify Lindy and Anne moving about the boat. Anderson called to his wife and children so that they might get a glimpse of the celebrities. The following morning, the lighthouse keeper revealed to a Portsmouth reporter that the honeymooners turned out their cabin light at 8:25 p.m.

Jack Seavey and John Martin rowed out to the Mouette under a cloak of darkness. They quietly made their way to the stern of the yacht and lifted the canvas that covered her name just as Lindbergh appeared on deck. Thinking quickly, the Kennebunkport boys claimed they were there to see if he needed assistance. After thanking them wryly for their kind offer, Lindy said if they wanted to help they could leave him alone. The boys left as requested but not before studying the woman silhouetted in the cabin door.

The Lindberghs left Cape Porpoise Harbor first thing the next morning and made their way up the coast to Cape Elizabeth, Pemaquid Point, Rockland, and Swan’s Island. Everywhere they went they were greeted with prying eyes.

On June 13th, the honeymoon cruiser was spotted offshore near Old Orchard Beach. The Linberghs witnessed the lift off of aviators, Jean Assolant, Rene LeFevre and Ameno Lotti on the first French transatlantic flight. The tail of the plane “Yellow Bird” dipped perceptibly as she became airborne. Lindbergh and the rest of the world would later discover that Arthur Schreiber, 22 year old son of a Portland fur salesman, had stowed away on the French plane and was not discovered until some time after takeoff.

Later that afternoon, the Mouette tied up at Cape Porpoise Pier for two hours to get provisions and fuel for the trip back to New York.

When the Lindbergh’s first born son was kidnapped and tragically murdered in 1932, the press mercilessly dissected the family’s every moment of grief, driving them to move to England. Lindy lost public favor for his vocal opposition to American involvement in WWII but he changed his views after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and flew many celebrated combat missions in the Pacific Theater.

George Williams and his Kennebunk River Shanty boat

The Episodic Uncle George
The Episodic Uncle George

A little shanty boat shows up in old photographs of the Kennebunk River like an 1890’s version of “Where’s Waldo.” Portuguese born George Williams (likely not his birth name) lived in the homemade houseboat year-round. During the summer months his rectangular shack, sitting atop an old flat-bottomed scow, was tied to four sunken posts near the mouth of Gooch’s Creek. Riverine habitation was but one of the surprising aspects of this man’s life.

A correspondent for the Boston Globe wrote his story in 1900, during its final chapter. The reporter was impressed by the old sailor’s dramatic delivery and Yankee-like humor. He lowered his voice to pull his audience into the suspense and then released them suddenly with a laugh.

Portugal’s civil war was raging when George, an orphan, turned 17. The usurping government had set up headquarters in his homeland, the Azore Island of Terceira, and his impressment into the army seemed inevitable. The boy’s spirit could not tolerate domination. He abhorred the prospect of military service. One moonless night he swam out to a whaler anchored in the harbor and offered his services to her captain. George got out of going to war, but his contempt for authority got him into trouble on ship after ship with captain after captain. Consequences included time served in an English prison for breaking one captain’s nose. Though unable to read or write, the sailor had a highly adaptable intellect. He quickly became competent when a new skill was required and outsmarted his superiors in Greek, Italian, Portuguese and English.

The United States had always been George’s ultimate destination, but it took him 15 years to get here. While visiting the zone in Boston, where sailors went to spend their money, he met the captain of the Kennebunk schooner “Empire” and joined her crew. After barely surviving the great 1851 gale at sea, he learned shipbuilding trades and settled on the banks of the Kennebunk River for 10 years. The American Civil War made George once again yearn for the sea. He acquired a fishing boat and purchased Basket Island in Portland Harbor, upon which he built a wharf and a little hut. Apparently, the location of his new home was not widely advertised because it does not appear on the 1871 map of the Portland Harbor islands and George avoided 1870 census takers. He lived on Basket Island for 27 years, fishing, lobstering and catching porgies, from which he extracted lamp oil. One cow and a tiny patch of pastureland provided balance in his diet.

Three wives and at least four children shared his life, but their chapter got cut from the version of the story “Uncle George” told the Globe reporter. Records confirm their existence, and in the early 1890s, a Bangor, Maine reporter wrote about the Fishermaid of Basket Island. George’s wife Eliza had not left the island in 17 years even though the city of Portland was almost in sight. Pretty 16-year-old Clara, George and Eliza’s youngest, had never been to the mainland. Her only contact with the outside world was correspondence with a half-sister whom, she was told, lived out west. Ida did live west of Basket Island — in Kennebunkport.

In addition to fishing, George ran the “water boat” between Portland and Kennebunk, meeting passing vessels to fill their onboard tanks with fresh water. Water-boaters frequently made quiet money by transporting liquor to the dry Maine coast. Canadian vessels lying outside custom’s line of sight supplied them with contraband for summer resort vacationers. George admitted to having made covert deliveries to the Kennebunk River. He told the Globe reporter, “More anxiety was felt along the waterfront at Kennebunkport when Uncle George and his fragile cargo happened to be overdue than when trans-Atlantic liners were 21 hours late into New York.”

In the early 1890s Basket Island was identified as a perfect location for a summer resort and the estate of Portland hotelier, John W. Lane, offered George an irresistible sum. He sold the island and moved alone to his houseboat on the Kennebunk River. In its three tiny rooms he sustained himself for nearly a decade by fishing and doing occasional odd jobs. George’s summer location near the big hotels ensured him a front row seat to all the river festivities. Before first snowfall every winter the house was untied and pulled to Government Wharf. George, already in his ninth decade, rowed his dory to Dock Square for provisions. When ice made the river impassable, he trudged through the snow on foot until 1900 when he moved his house closer to the village for the last three winters of his life.