Local author Jeff Ryan poses with his latest book at Frontier in Brunswick. Ryan’s book follows the mystery behind Jim Whyte, a hermit who inspired speculation of a global smuggling operation up until his death in the 1930s. Kelli Park photo

BRUNSWICK — Local author and hiker Jeff Ryan has covered a lot of ground in his life, including the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. In his most recent endeavor, Ryan follows the mysterious trail of Jim Whyte, also known as the Hermit of Monson, whose secret life was imbued with tales of buried treasure and drug smuggling in the Maine woods.

Ryan will discuss his latest novel, “Hermit: The Mysterious Life of Jim Whyte,” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5, at Frontier in Brunswick.

“Jim Whyte was so utterly fascinating,” Ryan said during a recent interview. “I actually couldn’t believe that nobody had written a book about him yet. I was so intrigued by this guy.”

Jim Whyte is shown here in an undated photo. Courtesy of Richard Shaw

Whyte’s life of intrigue began when he ran away from his home in New York City to join the German navy.

“I can understand the running away from home part, which is quite plausible, but the idea of somebody at age 16 in 1872 going to Germany to join the German navy is pretty wild,” Ryan said. “That’s pretty indicative of his life.”

Whyte spent the next 17 years indulging his adventurous spirit on the high seas. He learned to speak six languages fluently during his time with the German navy and the U.S. Merchant Marines, between stints on whaling ships and diving for pearls in Argentina. He returned to New York City as a wealthy man in the early 1890s, where he had a child. He left his partner and child behind a few years later and hopped onto a train North, arriving in Monson for the first time in 1893. After a stint in Maine, he left for Idaho to spend two years prospecting silver and gold.

In 1895, Whyte returned to Monson with a woman named Dora, who he introduced as his wife, and a deed in hand for 30 acres on Borestone Mountain. With the arrival of spring Dora left, and was soon replaced by Whyte’s new wife, Tessa of Milo. Tessa and Whyte lived together for 20 years and kept to themselves on the mountain, with their only social interactions being sporadic trips to town for groceries.

“Jim was viewed by locals as mysterious and eccentric,” said Richard Shaw, a Bangor-based author and historian who has written about Whyte, “but those who knew Jim liked him, and admired his intellect and his colorful stories of having traveled the world.”

Though Whyte lived a simple life, his taste for luxury didn’t cease during his time on the mountain. He spent $3,000 on an automobile in 1910, equivalent to $81,000 today. Some claimed Whyte was the first man north of Portland to own a car.

Shortly before World War I broke out, the FBI showed up at Whyte’s door asking if he was sympathetic to the German cause. He had no involvement with the Germans at that point, but did lose his fortune because he had invested in German shipping. After his second wife left him, Whyte began pawning emeralds and diamonds and soon realized that he needed to recover from his financial loss.

Jim Whyte (center) is photographed at his Elliotsville cabin around 1924. Courtesy of Richard Shaw

According to local legend, Whyte started an international drug smuggling operation in the 1920s. His 30-acre lot, known locally as the “Lookout” because of its view of incoming trains, was adjacent to the railroad.

“Did he orchestrate living near the railroad for the smuggling operation?” Ryan said. “The train went by at the bottom of the mountain. That’s a secret he carried to the grave.”

Passing trains were also loaded with goods from California and overseas. Locals speculated that barrels of opium were thrown from the train onto Whyte’s property, at which point he would collect, package and redistribute the drugs during trips to New York City.

“The woods of Elliottsville Plantation and Jim Whyte’s desire to escape society was a marriage made in heaven. The forests keep their secrets and provide an opportunity for locals and people ‘from away’ like Jim to find themselves,” Shaw said.

Ryan first learned of Whyte’s story while working on a different book about the history of the Appalachian Trail. Ryan was working late nights at his office when Chuck, the man cleaning the office after hours, asked him about his current project.

“Chuck’s eyes got huge and he said, ‘I have something for you!’ The following week he came in and handed me a book he got at a yard sale for $5, and he said, ‘This is yours now,’” said Ryan. “He handed me this 1934 guide book to the Appalachian Trail in Maine … which mentions the hermit’s cabin in Monson and that the hermit was a notorious character who was involved in some illegal activity. That’s what got me on the trail of Jim Whyte.” 

Ryan researched digitized articles in The Boston Herald from the 1930s at the Library of Congress and connected with the Monson Historical Society as he built the foundation for what would evolve into his third novel.

Ryan framed his novel from the perspective of Ben, who researches the life of Jim Whyte, and weaves the tale together with facts and fiction.

A copy of “Hermit: The Mysterious Life of Jim Whyte.” The author will discuss the book at an event at Brunswick’s Frontier on Dec. 5. Kelli Park photo

In his later years, Whyte also began to more actively participate in the community, working as the assistant postmaster and town councilor. Legend has it that Whyte buried $40,000 on his property before having a stroke and relocating to a home for Freemasons in New Jersey. He passed away two years later in 1933.

“The thing that I think is so wild about Jim Whyte is that he’s a man of so many incredible paradoxes. No matter what, he was unquestionably brilliant,” said Ryan. “He was smart enough to make a fortune twice. He was language-savvy. He knew how to fix things. He was a Renaissance man.”

“He took me on a wild ride, which as a writer, I think, what a tremendous honor it is to stumble upon a story like this,” Ryan said.

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