While the world has been memorializing the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I’ve been thinking about a quieter, yet equally mysterious passing that happened on the same day.
In the mid-nineteenth century a man who became known as “Jerome” was found on the shores of Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia, mute and missing both legs. He lived for over forty years with a local family. Many attempts were made to locate his relatives, with hopefuls rumoured to have travelled from as far away as Alabama and Milan, but when he died on April 15, 1912, the mystery of his background was still unsolved. No one knew who he was or where he had come from, and Jerome took the secret of his identity to his grave.
When Ken Schwartz, artistic director of Two Planks and a Passion Theatre Company came to me with the idea of setting the story of Jerome for his off-the-grid outdoor stage, I immediately said yes. In 2008, Jerome : The Historical Spectacle premiered at The Ross Creek Centre for the Arts.
What I loved most about Jerome’s story (or “stories” to be more precise) is that he led me to explore questions of humanity and intention…how do we measure the worth of an individual’s life? what compels us to abandonment? to action? to compassion? When lives intersect, who can say if we are curses or gifts to one another? Is it happenstance, fate, magic, or divine intervention?
Some people thought Jerome was a pirate, others guessed he was a lost soldier from the American Civil War, still others believed he’d suffered a terrible logging accident and had been cast off by people who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) properly care for him. The longer this varied collection of historical facts and stories about Jerome stewed in my thoughts, the more I found I needed to step away from historical records and create my own kind of tale – one that reflected what Jerome had come to mean to me. I would soon discover that what had begun as an exercise in historical research was about to turn into a journey of unexpected twists and turns.
Melodies and lyrics came to me in my sleep…
An old newspaper article sparked my imagination…
“JEROME” TO BE EXHIBITED
Jerome, the unfortunate individual whose name has appeared in every Canadian and American newspaper at various times for many years, will shortly visit Yarmouth. Eleazer Comeau, representing the C. M. B. A., has been to Cheticamp to arrange the matter with Dedie Comeau, who has the custody of Jerome. On his arrival he will be placed on exhibition in McLaughlin’s hall and will undoubtedly attract a large number of people. He is expected in July. A short time ago a lady who resides in New York claimed him as a brother, saying to people in Digby county that when twelve years old he left his home. The lady says further that her family is of Irish descent. It would not be surprising if Jerome, who is a charge of the Nova Scotia government, finds his way to the United States and once there would make a fortune in the various dime museums throughout the country.
– From The Yarmouth Times – June 19, 1899
Uncovering this bit of Jerome’s history haunted me from the start, taking me on a journey from the world of Acadian folklore to the world of sideshows and Victorian circus performers. In the end, I chose to give Jerome a family he never had, and an ending to a story where he was the star. I hoped that somehow my attempt to tell his tale, with all its wild, varied facts and fictions, might bring forth the ghosts of his truth.
Long after the performances of the play were over, Jerome continued to stay on in my imagination. In many ways, it made perfect sense. The time period for the play and my novel The Virgin Cure are essentially the same. The research for one project bled into the other, as well as certain themes and ideas and even a character or two. If you read The Virgin Cure closely, you’ll find that Jerome makes a special appearance…leaving quite an impression on the young protagonist, Moth.
So here’s to Jerome, one hundred years after his passing. Dear, silent muse, may you never be forgotten.