One summer afternoon in 1854, Jean Nicolas, a former Corsican soldier who lived on the coast in Meteghan, was staring intently at the ship sailing in the middle of St. Mary’s Bay.

There was something familiar and sinister about this ship. He recognized it as a European man-of-war that did not belong along these coasts. He had seen others like it, but where? He couldn’t remember. He watched the intruder tack back and forth until nightfall. That night he slept poorly. As soon as the sun rose, he was on the shore but the bay was deserted. He breathed more easily, although the ship’s dark hull continued to haunt his dreams.

Jean Nicolas had taken refuge in Meteghan, for reasons unknown, after having been a prisoner of war in the Crimea. Originally from Corsica, he spoke Italian, French, Russian, English and German. A few days later, a Mr. Morton from Sandy Cove arrived in Meteghan looking for Nicolas. Why? He explained his mission. The people of Sandy Cove had also noticed this foreign ship. The morning after, Mr. George Albright had noticed a strange shape next to the only rock on the beach. He had gone closer. To his great surprise, it was a young man, but without legs. His navy blue uniform had no buttons, no paper in its pockets, only a tin box with biscuits. And the man said absolutely nothing.

Taken to the home of Mr. Samuel Gidney, the unfortunate man was well taken care of, but not a word left his lips. Perhaps Nicolas, with his knowledge of languages, could get him to speak and reveal his secret. Would he agree to come to Sandy Cove to see this poor fellow? Nicolas went and was left alone with the stranger. He tried every language he knew but could not get the unfortunate man to speak. But Nicolas saw in him a fellow sufferer, and took him with him to share his humble home on the coast in Meteghan.

Jean-Nicolas tried his repertoire of languages on various occasions and concluded that his companion understood several of them. The only sounds Nicolas could get out of him sounded like “Jerome”, whence the name that has become famous in the annals of sea mysteries. This “Jerome” had blond hair, blue eyes and an aristocratic face, and his clothes were of fine cloth. Everything about him spoke of high social standing. His legs had been amputated above the knees in a manner that suggested the work of a skilled surgeon.

Seven years after Jerome arrived, Nicolas died and the family of Didier Comeau in St. Alphonse took in the unfortunate man. The federal government paid the Comeau family $104 a year for the keep of this human derelict.

Once, somebody suddenly asked him where he came from, and he answered, “Trieste,” a word that sounded like it. However, when he realized that he had been caught speaking, he went into a black rage that lasted for days. On another occasion, he was asked the name of the ship that had abandoned him on the coast. He let slip a word that sounded like “Colombo.” But as soon as he realized this, he became angry, expressing himself in unintelligible gibberish.

It appears that Jerome would go into one of his famous rages when he heard the words “pirate” and “traitor”. Aside from that, he let people talk around him as though he didn’t hear a thing. Those who watched him noticed that when he thought he was being spied on he would hold a book or newspaper upside down, but when he thought no one was looking he would read, whether in English, French, Italian or German.

Mgr. Daly Comeau remembers his encounters with Jerome during his visits to the home of Mr. Didier Comeau. This is how he describes him: “He would never look you in the face. He always kept his eyes on the ground. When Mrs. Comeau called him for his meals, he would respond by grumbling grumpily, but would obey. When she told him, ‘Change your shirt, I want to wash it,’ he would answer with yet more grumbling. Every time I saw him he was in a pretty bad mood, or else showed complete indifference toward those who were in the same room.”

A number of strangers came to see Jerome during his stay in Clare, without being able to discover who he was or where he came from. One of these visits deserves to be told here.

One day two unknown women, richly dressed and speaking French, turned up at Didier Comeau’s home and asked to speak privately with the mute man who lived there. They shut themselves in a room with Jerome and a long conversation followed, in which Jerome is said to have actively taken part. But the Comeaus understood nothing of the conversation, which was in a language they didn’t know. When these women left the house they were arguing fiercely, then suddenly reached a decision, which seemed to be, “He’s all right here. Let’s leave him be.” Then they left, leaving the mystery deeper than ever. 1

Another incident throws this affair into still greater obscurity. One of Didier’s sons, Charles, went to work in the United States, and while he was in New York received a visit from two ladies, who assured him that they knew Jerome, that his name was Mahoney and that they had known him in Alabama. They gave him a sealed letter, with no name on the envelope, and asked Charles to deliver it to Jerome. When Charles returned home, he presented the letter to Jerome and waited. Jerome took the letter, turned it over in his hands, then without showing any emotion tore it up and threw it into the fire without reading it.

So who was this Jerome? No secret could have been better kept than this one. He himself, first of all, during the 58 years he spent in Clare, left no clue whatever that might reveal his identity, and since his death on April 19, 1912, nothing has emerged to pull back the veil of mystery that hangs over his grave in the Meteghan cemetery.

However, if we collect all the facts about him, we can make certain conjectures.

To begin with, we know that he was put ashore on Sandy Cove by the crew of a foreign ship that was unfamiliar to the people in the region. He was found by the water’s edge, with a jug of water and a few dry biscuits in a tin box. Both his legs had been amputated but carefully wrapped, as though by a surgeon. He was dressed in a uniform cut from the highest quality cloth. His shirt and undergarments were of silk. His haughty manner, his hands (“delicate as a girl’s”, it was said), and his disdain for any concern shown to him, all indicate that in his country of origin he was a man of high standing. His knowledge of several European languages from the Adriatic region suggest an above-average education. And he appears to have said two very significant words: ”Trieste” and ”Colombo”, the first being where he was from, the second the name of the ship that had brought him. But the moment he had pronounced these words, his anger was boundless and lasted for days. Clearly he didn’t want to reveal even that much information.

At that time, in 1854, Trieste was part of the Austrian Empire; it was a city with an Italian population in the midst of a Slavic territory. Both the Italians and the Slavs were struggling to free themselves from the yoke of Austria. To achieve this goal, both groups had organized their own secret societies. The Italians had the “Carbonari”, while the Slavs had the “Black Hand.”

Each would punish mercilessly any of their members who failed in a mission or betrayed a secret. Only an oath such as the one these societies required of their members could explain a 58-year silence.

In addition, among the Slavs there was a bitter rivalry between two families who were struggling to free the Slavs from Turkish domination. Around 1854, the Obrenovich family triumphed over the Karageorge family and the latter was expelled from the country. Might this Jerome have been a member of that aristocratic family, or could he have been an Italian nobleman who had failed in some attempt against Austria? His fellow countrymen would have wanted to get rid of him, ensuring that he would no longer be a problem by removing his means of locomotion, without however taking his life.

These conjectures are as good as the others, leaving the “French Shore” with one of the most famous mysteries in the annals of the sea.

1) This incident was told to the author by his aunt, who married Charles, the son of Didier Comeau. The same incident is related by R. W. Blaudvelt in an article in the Vangard on December 6, 1966.

Source: Alphonse Deveau, "Jerome" in La Ville française, (Québec: Ferland, 1968), 228-232.

Return to parent page