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

"The papers written by the students show their penmanship was perfect and their spelling was better than mine," said Lynda Wyman, a trustee at the Phippsburg Historical Society, which also will have a small Malaga exhibit this summer. "It absolutely shows that kids were educated, not illiterate or so-called feebleminded or any of those things."

Archaeological digs by University of Southern Maine researchers Nathan Hamilton and Robert Sanford show the islanders caught lobsters, shellfish, cod and even swordfish. Thousands of buttons near the home of the island's laundress attest to how much washing she took in from Phippsburg's boardinghouses.

They built their homes on piles of discarded clam, mussel and scallop shells because they could be made level and provided excellent drainage. In doing so, they inadvertently gave a valuable gift to 21st-century archeologists.

"The shell middens protected almost all the artifacts and household stuff they mixed into it, and we actually know who lived on each spot," Hamilton said. "To actually have a patch of ground where we know the name and age of the individuals associated with it, their race, their jobs and when they lived there -- that's really interesting and unique."

The fish and shellfish remains have proven a boon to fisheries ecologists and geneticists seeking to reconstruct what area fisheries looked like in the late 19th and early 20th century. "I got into this research because I thought it would enhance the university's African-American collection," Hamilton said. "But when we got into this, I realized it was fantastic bioarchaeology."

But the shell middens offered no protection from Gov. Plaisted, who visited the obscure island with his entire executive council in July 1911. That December, the governor ordered the eviction of the community, and officials institutionalized eight residents, some for failing to identify a telephone (which none had likely seen) or for not knowing that William Howard Taft had succeeded Teddy Roosevelt as president. Those who remained were given payments for their homes and ordered to leave -- with or without them -- by the first of July, 1912.

Later that year, the cemetery was cleared and the island sold to a close friend and business partner of the chair of Plaisted's executive council, Dr. Gustavus C. Kilgore of Belfast, who played a central role in the creation of the governor's policies, including signing the commitment orders for those sent to New Gloucester.

Nobody has lived on the island since.

"It's heartbreaking to think about family members having gone through something like that that could have been avoided," said Charmagne Tripp of Hartford, Conn., a singer/songwriter whose grandfather Harold was one of the children on that houseboat when her great-grandmother Laura died a century ago. "When you think about the greed and how you can make people so insignificant for their own gains, that's a painful discovery."

Over the past decade, more and more people have been discovering the Malaga story. There were articles in Island Journal, Down East, and this newspaper. Gary D. Schmidt's children's book on the tragedy -- "Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy" -- won a Newbery Honor in 2005 and a lyric play based on it premiered in Minneapolis this March. Descendants spoke out in Rosenthal's documentary, which aired on WMPG and later on Maine and New Hampshire's public radio networks. Many descendants networked via Facebook and met in person. Others were discovering the story for the first time.

"My aunt would take me to visit my uncle in Maine, and it was one of the friendliest places I've ever been; everyone was so nice," said Akinlawon Tripp, Charmagne's brother, who also lives in the Hartford area. "You go through a series of emotions when you learn about all this that happened, that this fate came from a state that's known as 'Vacationland.' I mean, the North was supposed to be the free land -- what the heck went on here?

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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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