Harpswell Historical Society

Incorporated 1979

929 Harpswell Neck Road
Harpswell, Maine  04079

The Harpswell Historical Society is dedicated to the discovery, identification, collection, preservation, interpretation, and dissemination of materials relating to the history of Harpswell and its people.
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John Darling Hermit of Pond Island 
Fact from Fiction

by Gerry York

The story of John Darling is a mixture of fact and fantasy that is hard to sort out. Some folks were embarrassed by it, some were angered by it and some seemed to take delight in sensationalizing and embellishing it. The media of the time (and today as well) used the tale of the "Hermit of Pond Island" to scare and amaze readers. The "Hermit was featured on postcards, in histories and as an example of what might happen to a child that didn't work hard and learn those ABC's. The story of finding John frozen solid in his bed of rags and eaten by everything from rats to seagulls has been told around many a campfire.

The photos of John Darling standing next to a rude building on Pond Island show a large man perhaps six feet or more and 250 pounds, dark complexioned with large hands, and a full beard. His signature has not been found on any town records or petitions and it is quite likely that he did not read or write. It may also be that he was just not a very sociable person and did not concern himself with the affairs of others or the town preferring to keep to himself and therefore did not sign or make his mark on the public record.

John was a third generation descendant of Benjamin Darling, a freed slave who had settled on Horse Island (now called Harbor Island) in the New Meadows River in about 1794. He was born about 1850, the son of Isaac and Rebecca Wallace Darling at Sebasco in the town of Phippsburg. To the best of our knowledge he had one brother, Darius born about 1838 and a sister, Angenette born in 1853. Darius married and had a family the descendants of which still live in this area. Of Angenette there is no further information. She may have died young or married but the thread of her line has vanished.

The remainder of John's early life is unknown but on August 28, 1871 at the approximate age of twenty-one, John married his first cousin Aurilla Darling who was younger than he by several years. One month later Aurilla gave birth to stillborn twins. Two years after that in September of 1873 she again gives birth. This time to a son named James. James lives but Aurilla dies soon after the delivery. So we find John at the age of twenty-three, widowed and with a new born son. Again over the next six years we loose track of John Darling and family.

The next recorded event takes place on August 3, 1879 when John weds Albertina Gilliam of Orr's Island. Known as Tina, she is the youngest child of nine and the fifth daughter of William Gilliam and Hannah Dinslow. She is born about 1864 which makes her fourteen years junior to John and fifteen years old at the time of her wedding. The Darlings will now make their home on property belonging to Tina's parents on the back shore at Orr's Island. Six year old James now has a mother but we do not know who has cared for him since his own mother's death.

Between 1879 and 1897 John and Tina survive the struggles of making ends meet while having either four or six more children. Charles Nelson Sinnett records six children,

Tina, Loiza Ellen, Anna May, Fred Wilbert, Arthur Edward and a child born June 2, 1897. Arthur Edward Darling and the child born June 2, 1897 are the same person. (The obituary for Arthur confirms the date of birth.)

There is no additional information listed for Tina and other than Sinnett none has been found. While she may have died young or at birth, the lack of any other reference to her life leads me to wonder if Sinnett didn't record the name Tina as an additional child rather than as Albertina's nickname.

The next child listed by Sinnett is Loiza Ellen. He records her birth as April 5, 1883. Again, other than Sinnett there is no other reference to Loiza anywhere. There is an obituary for Loring Ellis Darling of Westpoint, Phippsburg, son of John and Albertina with a date of birth of April 3 1883. Either Loiza and Loring are twins or again Sinnett has made a mistake. Loring is mentioned in several later news accounts about the Darlings but Loiza is never mentioned outside of Sinnett.

Anna and Fred are both established children of John's. By working out her date of birth from the age at time of death we know Anna was born in 1888 and Fred was born November 7, 1891

Arthur Edward Darling born on June 2, 1897 died April; 27, 1969 in Brunswick at the age of 71. He was married twice and had fifteen children.

By the end of 1897 John is now forty-seven years old, Tina thirty-three and they have been married for eighteen years. Their six children range in age from twenty-four years to less than one year. They are living on Orr's Island on Tina's parents land and now they are told the land has been sold to a syndicate of Philadelphia businessmen who will be selling off lots for summer cottages. The Darlings must move but to where? Who knows what options were open to them but the one John chose could not have been the only one he had. Perhaps he was angry with his in-laws for selling the land where he had settled and he wanted to remove himself and the family from them. Whatever the reason, John chose to relocate to Pond Island, a treeless rocky low island about a half mile to the south of Orr's Island. At this point in time no one may have owned the island which could have made it attractive to John. He built a two room shelter in the middle if the barren ledge and banked it well with seaweed and driftwood. It was probably insulated with newspaper, rags or earth. The roof was flat and there must have been some sort of wood stove. Quite likely one room was for sleeping and one was for cooking and eating.

Exactly when the shelter was finished and when John was required to move to Pond Island is not known. It may have been immediately upon the sale of the Gilliam property or he may have been granted some leeway in vacating the premises and therefore there is no knowing if Albertina or the children had actually moved out to the new home by the spring of 1900. Sometime during those two to three years Tina discovers she has cancer and being on Pond Island would make doctors visits difficult. Tina moves in with her parents and theTown of Harpswell began paying for a doctor to treat her. The local newspaper has an unnamed Orr's Island correspondent who writes what is for the most part a gossip column.

Sometimes cryptic comments are made referring to events which the island residents may understand but which are rather difficult to understand for others. In one such column dated March 9, 1900 we find that "W. H. Doughty made some remarks about the Darling scandal which acted like stepping on a gouty mans toe" and a week later "Many unjust remarks

have been made as to the men who have insisted on the Darling family being kept from absolute want. Much of it was caused by a Portland reporter who exaggerated the situation"..."The truth was well enough known before and the town has only been damaged without doing any good by his sensational lies." The column concludes by making reference to the town farm and how without it it is hard to see how the Darling family can be kept in a civilized condition. The column for March 23 tells that a move has been made to provide for the Darling family and that Anna, the oldest girl, has been sent to the House of Industry in Hallowell.

Lets look again at this information. First, apparently the Darlings are unable to fend for themselves. Second, although no reason is given, some town residents feel compelled to have the Selectmen deal with this, (they are, in fact, overseers of the poor) while others feel strongly that the town should not assume any responsibility. It is also apparent that the story has spread beyond the town and is considered a news item in Portland. Harpswell is also having some questions concerning whether or not it needs a town poor farm.

We have to assume that Tina is no longer able to take care of her children and John is not able or not willing. By this time James is old enough to be out on his own unless he has some mental incapacity which prevents this. (He is the offspring of first cousins) Later in life James is in fact a resident of the Pineland Center in Pownel. The reason I bring up the status of James is because about six months after Anna goes to Hallowell, Harpswell

selectmen receive a receipt from Henry Allen whereby he has paid Fred Fides of Orr's Island to transport the John Darling family to the poor Farm and in a newspaper article titled "The Myth of Pond Island dated April 1, 1948 Margaret Todd of Orr's Island records that while Loring went to Small Point, Fred, Anna and James became wards of the Town. James, even at age twenty-seven does not appear to be capable of being on his own.

The Town also is paying for doctor visits for Tina in 1900. She hangs on until August 2, 1901 when she passes away we assume at her parents home. It is unlikely that John had a burial plot and there is no grave marker for Albertina in the Orr's Island Cemetery but William Gilliam had one and it would seem logical William buried Tina in his plot. There is no more John Darling family.

News accounts say John then spent the next 20 years on Pond Island. But, with the possible exception of maybe one year his wife and children did not. Edward Rowe Snow in The Romance of Casco Bay relates that John was marooned on the island because he was constantly in trouble in town. There is no other evidence to suggest this was true. As a matter of fact, with one exception, no record of any criminal activity has been found. John's obituary in the Brunswick Record states that at age 55 (about 1905) John was called to Portland to answer charges that he was using a lobster car without his name upon it. The county attorney did not prosecute the case but recommended that John be shown the city as it was his first visit there. One of Albertina's nieces has said that John never had a cross word to say about anyone even though many people played tricks on him. "If Uncle John had ever wanted to he could have broken any one of them in two but he never did. He always had a nice even temper." John found seasonal employment with SJ. Prince and Sons on Orr's Island salting fish, unloading fishing vessels, shoveling coal and other laboring jobs. He lobstered and fished the waters around Pond Island from his dory and, while there is no doubt his was a rugged life, he apparently found it suited him well. Edward Rowe Snow also paints a picture of John as a businessman. It seems that John would hire out to the folks that came to the island looking for pirate gold and for fifty cents a day he would dig a hole as deep as the customer wanted.

Eventually John was unable to continue living on Pond Island. At some time before his death in 1918 (probably about 1914) the Town of Harpswell provided him with a small cabin on Long Reach Mountain at the south end of Great Island near the Joel Alexander place and Thomas Alexander was contracted to look in on him. The 1948 article by Margaret Todd states that John became seriously ill and was taken to Maine General Hospital in Portland where he died. He may have been "seriously ill" and he may have gone to Maine General but he definitely did not die there. His death certificate records the place of death as Harpswell, Long Reach Mountain and indicates he was a resident there for four years and gives the date as January 15, 1918. It is signed by Dr. GM. Elliott of Brunswick and gives the cause of death as an uncared for Vented Hernia with Excessive cold of two days duration as contributing cause. It appears that Thomas Alexander either did not check on John all that often or perhaps the weather prevented him from doing so. Either way it appears that at least part of the legend of the hermit is true. John did die alone and was likely frozen when he was found. The Brunswick Record obituary does give his date of death as January 9, 1918 and so directly contradicts the death certificate. It also states that the interment was on Orr's Island. This agrees with the death certificate which says the date of burial was on January 18 1918 at Orr's Island and is signed by the undertaker WE. Gordon of Brunswick. There is no stone for John at Orr's Island and no record of his burial in the Orr's Island Cemetery. Again, as with Albertina we might suspect that John is buried with his wife on her father's lot. Then again they may have been buried in unmarked paupers' graves. One account says the casket lay over night in the Gun Point Community Church and lay minister Charles Huff read a burial service. Another account says the service was in the Union Meeting House at Orr's Island. The obituary states that John left three sons. Arthur, James and Fred. Loring who lived in Phippsburg until his death in 1942 is not mentioned. Lorings obituary says James and Fred reside in Pownel. James obituary says he died at Pineland Center in Pownel in 1953. The Harpswell Town Report for 1946 lists Fred's death on November 20.

An unofficial Harpswell town census for 1904 lists a Loring Darling as a fisherman living on Orr's Island but not part of a household. It also lists a James Darling, Seaman, on Orr's and Fred as a pupil (no location given). Arthur is listed as a pupil at North Harpswell. We might conclude from this that in 1904 Fred and Arthur were still on the Poor Farm at North Harpswell and James has been released. Loring who had not been sent to the "Farm" had returned to Orr's Island.

Questions

  1. When did William Gilliam sell the back shore property?

  2. Did Fred go to Pineland?

  3. Was there a daughter Loiza?

  4. How long did Anna spend at the Maine Industrial Center?

  5. Where is Anna buried?

  6. Where is John buried?

  7. Where is Albertina buried?

  8. Where was Joel Alexander's house and where was John's house on the Mountain?

Bibliography

  • Charles Nelson Sinnett, Benjamin Darling of Casco Bay and Descendants

  • Edward Rowe Snow, The Romance of Casco Bay , pg. 175

  • Herbert G. Jones, The Isles of Casco Bay (in fact and fancy) , pg 95

  • Dorothy Simpson, The Maine Islands (in story and legend), 90

 

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