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In Maine we are famous for our tall tales, and sometimes it is hard to tell truth from fiction. In 1945, Edward Rowe Snow published a “true” story in his book, “Famous Lighthouses of New England.” It involved the Hendricks Head lighthouse in Southport and a shipwreck that occurred in the 1870s.
The lighthouse keeper lit a bonfire as a signal to the people on the distressed ship, who were climbing the rigging. Sadly, the ship sunk out of sight. Before it did, however, the passengers threw something in the water. When it washed ashore, the object turned out to be two mattresses tied together with a box in the middle. When the keeper opened the box he discovered a baby inside. As the keeper and his wife had lost their own child, they adopted the baby as their own and lived happily ever after.
A local Boothbay historian named Barbara Rumsey decided to track down the truth about this improbable tale. First she discovered that Jeruel Marr, who kept the light from 1866 to 1895, had five children. This did not fit with the story of a childless keeper. Next she spoke to Ethelyn Pinkham Giles, an elderly lady who had spent time at the lighthouse in the early 1900s. Ethelyn had never heard of the baby. Neither had any of the other elderly residents that Rumsey interviewed, even though some were relatives of the old lighthouse keeper.
Rumsey began to suspect that the story was just a legend. But where did it come from? She thought it might have been inspired by a fictional story in Drake’s Magazine from 1888, in which a woman is set adrift at sea by a vengeful husband and rescued by the Hendricks Head lighthouse keeper. The true source, though, turned out to be an old romance novel by Charles Clark Munn called “Uncle Terry – A Story of the Maine Coast.” In the book, the lighthouse is several miles from the real light, and the keeper is a man named Uncle Terry. The baby who washes ashore is named Etelka Peterson from Stockholm, Sweden. Most of the story takes place 18 years later, when the girl’s grandfather is looking for her. An evil lawyer gets involved, and a dashing young man on a yacht arrives to sweep the girl off her feet. The evil lawyer is defeated, the girl inherits a fortune from her Swedish grandfather, and the two lovers sail off into the sunset.
Although the book is forgotten, it might make a good movie: perhaps a gritty reboot from Hollywood. At any rate, the story of the baby washed ashore is a good illustration of how the truth can be twisted over the years, and how even romance novels can distort historical facts. Hats off to Barbara Rumsey, who discovered the truth and published her findings in the Boothbay Register. Many of her other interesting articles can be found in “Boothbay Region Historical Sketches,” published by the Boothbay Region Historical Society.
Zac McDorr is the founder of the Bath Maine History Center on Facebook.You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.