The Murphy family, one of several members of a mixed-race community that lived on Malaga Island, poses in this 1910 photo. Peter Roberts photo

FREEPORT — On Malaga Island more than a century ago, the children lived underground in tunnels and had horns growing out of their heads. Thievery, incest, wife swapping and illiteracy ran rampant in a “degenerate colony.”

“This was in Maine newspapers,” Kate McBrien told a stunned audience Jan. 17 at the Freeport Community Library, during one of many talks the Union historian has given on the tragic tale of Malaga. “This is what they were saying about this community.”

Those absurd myths sprung up around the island – whose 50-something mixed-race members lived at the mouth of Phippsburg’s New Meadows River – simply because they were considered different, McBrien said: “They stood out for being black and white people, marrying, living together, raising families.”

Karen McBrien, who has spent nearly 20 years researching the history of Magala Island, gives a talk in Freeport about the state’s eviction of the island’s residents in 1912.

What McBrien called a “sad and complicated story” culminated with the state’s eviction of the entire island population in 1912. One hundred years later, McBrien – former chief curator of the Maine Historical Society – helped organize the exhibit “Malaga Island, Fragmented Lives” at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.

“I really feel that it was a terrible thing that our state did to those people on the island,” Jean Scott of Phippsburg, whose uncle-by-marriage’s father was Jerry Murphy, the “Prince of Malaga,” said Tuesday. “… We all stand behind that island and hope that someday, we would be able to clear it up and let everybody know what really happened.”

That’s what McBrien, who has spent nearly 20 years researching the history of the 42-acre island, has been aiming to do. Henry Griffin, his wife, Fatima Darling Griffin, and their family were most likely the first to live there in the 1860s.

“Islands in Maine in the 1800s were not really attractive places to live,” McBrien said, noting the difficulty in transportation and the challenge of farming there. “So if someone just set up a home on an island, that was fine. No one really cared.”

The heirs of Eli Perry of Phippsburg, whose family had a deed to the island from about 1810, had neither used it nor cared that a community had grown there, according to McBrien. Soon after the turn of the 20th century, Christian missionaries raised money to build a school there and fund clothing and food for Malaga’s poorer residents, but the islanders had gained notoriety in regional and statewide newspapers, which deemed them degenerates who needed assistance to live, according to the Maine State Museum.

Phippsburg in the 1890s had begun efforts to rid itself of the island. As shipbuilding jobs were disappearing and Phippsburg needed a new industry, it turned to tourism. But “they became known as the town with this different community on an island; they were afraid that would keep people away from buying land, building summer homes, visiting resorts.”

The community became wards of the state in 1905. Gov. Frederick Plaisted visiting the island in 1911 and saw it as a blight. The state ruled that year that the Perry heirs owned it, and the family filed papers to have its residents evicted. Some were sent to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded in New Gloucester – now Pineland Farms – and the bodies of Malaga residents who’d been buried on the island were exhumed and reburied at the school.

Jean Scott was raised by John Murphy, her uncle by marriage, whose father, Jerry Murphy, was considered “the Prince of Malaga.” Contributed

The island is now owned as a public preserve by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

As she gives talks across New England, McBrien almost always finds an island descendant in the audience. “They are scattered all over the country now,” she said.

And it’s important that they take an interest, McBrien added: “This is the story of a group of families who lived on an island in Maine, tried to make a small community themselves, and in the end, the state stopped them . . . and the community dispersed.”

It’s a story many descendants chose to forget and bury; only more recently have they felt more comfortable discussing it, McBrien said.

Scott’s family did talk about it, and in her youth she played with a lot of the Malaga descendants, she said.

Still, “a lot of people don’t believe this happened,” said Scott, a member of Phippsburg’s Historic Preservation Commission. “And I feel, it’s just like the Holocaust; if we don’t get the word out, it could happen again.”

Carol Brown dubs herself “The Princess of Malaga” – a nod to her great-grandfather, James Eli McKinney, a Malaga resident well-regarded enough on the mainland to be called the king of Malaga.

Brown said Malaga Island “was 100 years ahead of its time.”

“They were a mixed-race people, they were living together, they were doing the best they could, they were taking care of one another,” Brown said. “Everybody else was way behind.”

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