May 20, 2012

Malaga Island: A century of shame

A new exhibit at the Maine State Museum tells the story of the eviction of Malaga Island's residents, one of the state's most disgraceful official acts ever.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Stones mark the graves of island residents whose bodies were dug up and reburied at what became Pineland Farms in New Gloucester.

Telegram file photo/Jack Milton

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Kate McBrien and Linda Carrell arrange artifacts from Malaga Island for the exhibit “Malaga Island, Fragmented Lives” at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

'MALAGA ISLAND, FRAGMENTED LIVES'

WHERE: Maine State Museum, 230 State St., Augusta, 287-2301

WHEN: Now through May 2013.

MUSEUM HOURS: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, closed for state holidays

AUGUSTA -- A century ago this spring, Maine Gov. Frederick Plaisted oversaw the destruction of a year-around fishing hamlet on Malaga Island, a 42-acre island in the New Meadows River, just off the Phippsburg shore. The island's 40 residents -- white, black and mixed race -- were ordered to leave the island, and to take their homes with them, else they would be burned. A fifth of the population was incarcerated on questionable grounds at the Maine School for the Feebleminded in New Gloucester, where most spent the rest of their lives. The island schoolhouse was dismantled and relocated to Louds Island in Muscongus Bay.

Leaving no stone unturned, state officials dug up the 17 bodies in the island cemetery, distributed them into five caskets and buried them at the School of the Feebleminded -- now Pineland Farms -- where they remain today.

Several islanders spent the rest of their lives in this state-run mental institution. One couple, Robert and Laura Darling Tripp, floated from place to place in a makeshift houseboat, but, unwelcomed, wound up moored to another scrap of an island. Malnourished, Laura fell sick during a gale; when her husband returned with help, he found the couple's two children clinging to her lifeless body. Many others suffered from the stigma of being associated with the island.

"After the island was cleared, people did not really want to talk about this incident, especially the descendants, because to raise your hand and say you were from Malaga supposedly meant you were feebleminded or had black blood in you or both," said Rob Rosenthal, whose 2009 radio documentary "Malaga: A Story Better Left Untold" helped draw attention to what is one of the most disgraceful official acts in our state's history. "Nobody wanted to declare that."

Now the Malaga story is being told, openly and thoughtfully, in the shadow of the State House dome, from under which the evictions were hatched. "Malaga Island, Fragmented Lives" opened Saturday at the Maine State Museum, with descendants and Gov. Paul LePage in attendance. The exhibit tells the story not just of the eviction, but of the community it destroyed. Malaga, the artifacts, documents and photographs on display make clear, was a fairly ordinary coastal settlement at the time of the eviction.

In the late 19th century, the islands of the midcoast were dotted with the homes of hermits, squatters and fishermen. Malaga's people lived like so many others, eking out an existence trapping lobsters, hooking cod, digging clams or laboring at boardinghouses and farms on the mainland. But the fact that many islanders were of at least partial African descent put the community afoul of the burgeoning eugenics movement, whose practitioners married racist assumptions with a social Darwinist policy agenda. And the island they occupied -- and may well have had title to -- was thought ripe for development as a summer colony.

"Racism is an undeniable linchpin to this story, but it is far from the only reason things happened the way it did," said Allen Breed, a North Carolina-based reporter for The Associated Press, who has been researching a book on Malaga for more than a decade, and said there were other mixed-race hamlets on Great Yarmouth and Hen islands that were left alone. "They were on a very visible, potentially valuable piece of real estate near the mouth of arguably the state's tourism crown jewel, Casco Bay."

Malaga's people were certainly poor. The island's soil is inappropriate for farming, and fishing, laboring or doing laundry and carpentry for mainlanders didn't pay well. Their homes were modest, and one family lived in a converted ship's cabin. Some relied on charity from the town to get through the winter, and in 1908 private donors stepped in to help build an island school. School ledgers have survived.

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Additional Photos

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Kate McBrien, front, and Linda Carrell evaluate the placement of a cemetery burial book from the Maine School for the Feebleminded, circa 1915.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Students gather on Malaga Island in 1910.

Courtesy of Peter Roberts

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Rosella and John Eason pose with their children in 1911.

Courtesy of Peter Roberts

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The Loring Wallace family in 1900.

Courtesy of Peter Roberts

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A 1907 postcard is part of the Maine State Museum’s collection.

Courtesy of Peter Roberts

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The Murphy family poses on Malaga Island in 1910.

Courtesy of Peter Roberts

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John Eason repairs a building on Malaga Island in 1908.

Courtesy of Peter Roberts

 


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