Fishermen tending to their nets and lobster pots in the Bay of Fundy off Digby Neck one fine summer afternoon in 1850, noticed a strange white ship with clipper-like lines and the billowing canvas hovering off shore.
Full-rigged ships were common sights in the turbulent bay in that era of windjammers and, at first, little attention was paid by the fishermen busy at their tasks. But there was some murmured speculation that this was likely a vessel from a foreign place.
All afternoon it hovered off shore, sailing back and forth along a three or four mile course. This aroused curiosity, and there was talk of this strange ship and its even stranger antics. But the fishermen could not figure out an explanation.
It was not until the next morning that tongues began to wag and have continued to wag until this day. What started the talk was the discovery by a man named Albright of a figure huddled on the beach next to a rock. He thought at first that it was a seal but upon closer inspection he found it was a man. He was thought to have been around 25 years old. He was partially conscious and was mumbling in a foreign language. The sand around him was stained with blood issuing from the stumps of his recently amputated legs. Beside the man was a jug of fresh water and a loaf of coarse black bread. There were footprints on the beach and blowing about were a few strips of linen that could have been bandages. Although his legs were bleeding they had been skillfully bandaged.
Before noon word had spread all over Digby Neck. Villagers hurried to see the wounded stranger, who had been taken in by a Mr. Gidney in Mink Cove. People clustered around the Gidney house, speculating on who the man might be and how he got to Sandy Cove. There was plenty of discussion, but no one knew. The only point that was agreed upon was that the strange white vessel hovering in the bay the previous day had had something to do with it.
The stranger’s clothing was also curious. His waistcoat was delicately lined and was unmistakably of a foreign pattern. His shirt was of the finest linen, while his knee length pants were made of a material unknown to the people of Digby Neck.
His features were very finely chiseled, and his delicate, soft hands were obviously not the hands of a man who had known hard work.
After hours of sleep in the Gidney cottage, the stranger awoke in his new surroundings quite perplexed. He tried to raise himself from the bed. Finding this impossible he sank back with a sigh.
The Gidney’s questioned him as to his name. He uttered one word. To them it sounded like "Jerome." That is what he was to be called from then on. Queries were made as to where he came from, who put him on the beach, and if he had come from the ship they had seen in the bay. He smiled sadly at the questions but did not break his silence.
Jerome’s complexion was dark. This led the villagers to believe that he was of Latin origin. It was decided to send him to Meteghan on the "French Shore", where there were people who could speak several languages in addition to English and French.
Jerome was taken in by John Nicholas. Mr. Nicholas was of Corsican - Russian parentage and had fought as an officer in the Czar’s army in the Crimean War. The ex-Russian officer was a man of languages. He tried them all on Jerome - English, French, Italian, German, Greek and Russian - but Jerome remained silent.
Months went by. Jerome’s legs healed and he hobbled about on the stumps. On fine days Jerome would make his way down to the water's edge. There he would sit for hours gazing towards the sea as if he were expecting visitors from beyond the horizon.
The man’s plight eventually came to the attention of the Nova Scotia government. A special bill was passed providing John Nicholas with two dollars a week for Jerome’s keep.
Nicholas thought that Jerome did understand French and Italian and he was also convinced that the legless man lived in constant fear of someone or something.
Seven years passed and Nicholas’s wife died, breaking up the home. Jerome was then sent to live with Mrs. Deider Comeau. Jerome remained aloof and spent much of his time on the beach watching the ships go by. The villagers had sized him up as a man slightly touched in the head who could neither speak nor hear.
The villagers were wrong, the children of the village proved that. Jerome seemed to display an interest in children. He watched them play, and sometimes would let them accompany him to the beach.
It was only with the children that Jerome would put aside his guard of aloofness. Once sure that there were no grown-ups about, Jerome would join the children in their laughter. Pressed by them as to why he wouldn’t speak to adults, he would shake his head and say in French: "No, no, no." On occasion, when a child asked him why his legs had been cut off, he replied in one word: "Chains." He would elaborate no further.
Word soon got out that Jerome could speak. Older people plied him with questions. He would hide his face in his hands and shudder. On one or two occasions he was taken off guard by a quick question. Once, when asked where he came form, he snapped a reply: "Trieste." Another time someone asked what ship brought him to Nova Scotia, and he answered: "Colombo."
After each of these disclosures, Jerome sank into a mood of depression that lasted for weeks. He would hide in his room and refuse to come out, even for food.
That Jerome could speak English was clearly demonstrated during these fits of depression. One of the members of the Comeau family went into his room and placed a hand on the castaway’s shoulder in an effort to show friendliness. But Jerome shook it off and cried out in perfect English: "I’ll bite you!"
As Jerome grew older his temper became more erratic. He would fly into rages when anyone did or said something that displeased him.
As the years went on Jerome withdrew farther into himself. He would spend days in his room gazing from his window toward the sea. Other times he would sit on the floor, his head bowed and his hands folded.
About the last thirty years of his life were spent in absolute silence. His eyes held a tortured look as if some terrible burden rested on his soul. On one occasion, as if in expiration for some evil done in the remote past, he pressed his hands against a hot stove. His hands were horribly blistered, but Jerome did nothing to acknowledge the pain.
Not many months before he died, a Mrs. Doucet visited Jerome. She was the daughter of John Nicholas, and had been a child when Jerome lived at her father’s home. Mrs. Doucet had pleasant memories of the strange man who loved to watch children at play.
Jerome’s eyes lit up as she entered the room. She appealed to him to speak to her. Tears came to his eyes as he leaned forward and tried to speak. But the words would not come. Evidently the vocal cords, idle so long, would not respond.
Death came to Jerome one stormy night in 1908, when the waters of St. Mary’s bay seethed like boiling milk. It was almost 47 years to the month from the time he was found bleeding on the beach in Sandy Cove.
Jerome’s secret died with him. Who he was, where he
came from, and what sinister circumstances had led to his abandonment,
remained a mystery. Those who knew him best believed Jerome had
carried within his heart a secret too terrible to divulge. And if
silence had been his pledge, he had kept it well. For 47 long and
monotonous years he had waited for death, and when it came it had found
a silent and inscrutable Jerome.