Burke O. Long
More than a century ago, Governor Frederick Plaisted of Maine and his Executive Council destroyed an impoverished fishing community on Malaga Island. A hump of granite and wind stunted trees, the 41 acres lay in shallow water of the New Meadows River near Sebasco and Phippsburg to the east and Cundy’s Harbor to the west.
The Cumberland County Sheriff delivered the Governor’s official writ near the end of June, 1912: leave within 30 days, taking your houses with you, or be forcibly removed.
About 40 hapless families—white, black and mixed race—departed. The island schoolhouse, which since 1908 had been the instructional home of some 15 children, was dismantled and moved to Louds Island off Round Pond, Maine.
The State paid out meager sums to a few owners of houses and makeshift shelters, but made no provision for relocating the people elsewhere. Parents and children drifted like exiles up river and along the shores of Casco Bay, looking for places to land. They found little welcome. Determined to limit welfare spending, some mainland towns even refused pauper status to the families, thus declaring them ineligible for public assistance.
In a final act of cleansing, excavators exhumed bones from eighteen island graves and reburied them in five boxes at Maine’s School for Feeble Minded (now Pineland Farms) in Pownal. The Malaga head stones were inscribed simply—a family name and date, Nov. 1912. Each stone masked a macabre history: state ordered re-dying for the already dead, and exile for the still living.
This abrupt end to about seventy-five years of continuous habitation on Malaga Island is a shameful chapter in a not uncommon, ongoing story. The forces of abject poverty, pressure to develop resorts on shore properties, and resistance to providing public aid to the poor came together in a problematic lather of prejudice, embarrassment, and extreme governmental action. Simply put, by 1910, these island dwellers had become an impediment and an easy target of racial and class prejudice.
Moreover, widely shared notions of eugenics and newspaper reports that were both romanticized and judgmental whipped up feverous hysteria. Writers imagined that the Malagaites, as they were called, were a heathen mix of blacks and whites genetically disposed to crime, laziness, poverty, mental deficiency, immorality, and a fear of soap. They belong to “a degraded class, black and white, all mixed up with the lowest kind of moral ideas,” wrote a reporter for the Bath Enterprise in 1902.
The Malagaites had at least some friends, however. In 1903, Captain and Mrs. George Lane, missionaries from Malden Massachusetts, organized an informal school in the island home of James McKinney, one of the better off long-term Malaga dwellers. Reserving one room for the purpose, Mrs. Lane and her daughter, Cora, rowed out to the island and offered summer time instruction. With singular good heartedness laced with Victorian values, the ladies were determined to help their charges, ages approximately 10 to 13, enter the ranks of middle class respectability. They offered schooling in basic literacy, domestic science, Christian morals and hygiene. A 1907 “State Chat” in the Lewiston Evening Journal praised the Lane’s efforts, citing the “cleanly dressed children who, a year ago, could not read or write…. Today, a majority can read short sentences, can count, spell, and do some excellent written exercises.”
In 1908, the first schoolhouse was built with private donations managed by the Portland based Malaga Island Settlement Association. Miss Evelyn Woodman, young, idealistic, and imbued with the Lanes’ outlook, provided year round instruction. “The Lord showed me what to do,” she told the Lewiston Daily Sun in 1956. For three years she lived in a tiny room attached to the school and taught reading, arithmetic, Bible subjects and social graces. Two young women succeeded Woodman in 1911 and offered similar instruction until the State evicted all the island residents in July of 1912.
Photographs from Malaga Island during the years 1903-1912 make it difficult to distinguish these island youngsters from any other children who might have lived in hardscrabble communities along the Maine coast. Some of the pupils posed for a photographer, certificates or schoolwork in hand, or they playfully arrayed themselves in and around the school building, clinging to the flagpole, sometimes earnestly looking into the camera. They appear dignified, if a little shy, dressed up within their means for the occasion, hardly depraved.
Their youthful voices travel faintly to us in Malaga Island textbooks and handwritten notes that have been preserved at the Phippsburg Historical Society. Penmanship practice—letters and personal names—sums and multiplication figures scribbled in the margins; brief notes thanking a donor for the new blackboard; a letter from Stella McKinney to her friend Mildred, discussing visits and Christmas gifts. In short, glimpses of school day lives lived under the tutelage of teachers.
As the History of Lane’s School indicates, Mrs. Lane wanted to tell everyone, especially her financial backers, a story of “before and after” success. One page shows snapshots of Abbie, a Black child (the same child who had been scurrilously pictured in a racist postcard), “as she was,” and “as she is now,” scrubbed up, well dressed, schooled. And rescued. The Lane family evidently was not as harshly paternalistic as the well to do ladies who reported to the 1907 Boston Journal that the early schoolroom “contained the one bright gleam of civilization in the entire colony.” But they (and Fred Wooley the Scrapbook’s compiler) burned with similar missionary zeal. They apparently labored with little knowledge of, or regard for, the immense forces that would in a few years undermine their efforts.
In the end, their fervent conviction that instruction could raise students into middle class respectability would count for nothing. Reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic would offer the Malaga children no protection from heavy-handed prejudice and State power.
Following a much-publicized 1911 visit by Governor Plaisted to view conditions among the island families, officials met and discussed the situation, especially the mounting costs of public assistance. Minutes of the Governor’s Council show that officials felt that the government was paying too much to aid the poor in towns that they considered a “blot upon the state,” especially Frenchboro, Athens, and Malaga. There was little patience for continuing a “drain on the treasury” that simply encouraged paupers to attract “around them a thriftless, lazy gang, to help them in consuming supplies furnished by the commonwealth.”
Malaga Island took the brunt of such heartless sentiments. “It was decided”, the minutes reported, concealing personal responsibility, “that the good of the State and the cause of humanity demanded that the [Malaga] colony be broken up and the people segregated.” The Council further decided that in order “to rid the Island of its population, and to prevent further squatting, the State should hold title to the property.”
Subsequently, in a questionable real estate transaction the State acquired Malaga Island from the heirs of Eli Perry. Though they claimed ownership, the Perry heirs may not have held clear title to the property according to a 1911 report in the Boston Evening Transcript. Nonetheless, when the State Attorney General officially ruled in their favor, they quickly sold to the state. On September 16 of that year, Maine took possession. Within weeks, the first evictions began.
In December, the State committed Jacob and Abbie Marks and their family, including grandson William (“Willie”), to the School for Feeble Minded. Jacob and son James, both apparently ill, died early in the following year. Three daughters, Lizzie, Lottie (seventeen years old), and Eta, were likely competent, if modestly educated girls. They appear on the pages of History of Lane’s School as shiny testimonials of achievement. However, all it took was a standard petitionary form, a physician’s signature, and a willing probate judge to proclaim an entire family suitable for incarceration. The fill-in-the-blank physician’s certificate simply attests that the girls, their parents, and brother James were “not a proper subject for commitment to an insane hospital…[but] a proper subject for the Maine School for Feeble Minded.”
One wonders if anyone offered, or was required to defend the Marks family. The Probate Court file offers no answers. But, given the powerful forces at work, such a defense might have been impossible anyway.
Six months later, in late June 1912, the State set adrift the remaining families. By November of that year, crews exhumed the remains of eighteen Malagaites and reburied them in the cemetery at the School for Feeble Minded.
In little more than one year, Malaga Island had been cleared of its inhabitants and their ancestral remains. Structures left behind were dismantled, including the schoolhouse, which had operated as a public school for barely three years. As William Barry noted, a newspaper account from 1913 reported the demise under a self-satisfied headline: “Cleaning Up Malaga Island—No Longer a Reproach to the Good Name of the State.”
Many of the exiles survived, making new lives wherever they could. For years their descendants suffered in silence, victims themselves of persistent suspicions that somehow they had inherited racially mixed, tainted blood and moral depravity. As late as 1935, the Lewiston Evening Journal recalled Malaga as a place where it was common to see a “renegade white for a father; a fat frau black as night for a mother; three children all white the offspring! What a blood endowment for the youngsters.” Ten years later, the same newspaper perpetuated this perception. Understandably, the descendants, whose Malaga Island names had long become common on the mainland (Darling, Eas(t)on, Griffin, Murphy, McKinney, Tripp), chose to live with a “story best left untold,” as a Salt Institute documentary put it.
Nearly a century after the expulsions, in 2010, the State of Maine tried to make amends. Governor Baldacci traveled to a gathering of descendants on Malaga Island and offered an apology for the actions taken by his predecessor. Today, a commemorative sign identifies Malaga Island, now a nature preserve. A similar sign and lichen encrusted memorial stone stand in the old inmate cemetery just north of present day buildings of Pineland Farm.
The landscape itself preserves something of the stigmas that still follow the poor and mentally ill. Tucked downslope and behind an imposing modern burial ground that is clearly visible from the highway, the rows of plain, almost identical headstones marking the inmates’ burials lean this way and that, assaulted by years of neglect and frost heaves. In relation to the polished marble and granite monuments that dominate the nearby Pownal Cemetery, the inmate dead seem as rigidly segregated from the more well-to-do as when they were first laid to rest.
As for teenager Lottie Marks, she was eventually released from the School for Feeble Minded, but her sisters Lizzie and Lottie died in the 1920s while still institutionalized. Lottie married William Griffin of Malaga Island, was widowed c. 1940, and married Levi Blackwell of Brunswick in 1942. She died in Augusta at the age of 103, on July 9, 1997, and was buried in Growstown Cemetery in Brunswick. Other than connecting her first husband to Malaga Island, the obituary made no mention of the dishonorable history in which Lottie, one of the children of Malaga, had been a pawn.
Resources and Works Cited
“Buxton Woman Recalls Three Years Service on Maine ‘Malaga Island’” Lewiston Daily Sun, February 16, 1956.
Barry, William David, “The Shameful Story of Malaga Island” Down East Magazine, November 1980: 53-56, 83-86.
“Cemetery Burial Book, Maine School for the Feeble Minded.” Collections of the Maine State Museum.
“Charlotte [Lottie Marks] Blackwell” Kennebec Journal, July 10, 1997.
Debrule, Deborah, “Evicted: How the State of Maine Destroyed a ‘Different’ Island Community,” Island Journal 16:1999.
Heflich, Adrienne et al, “Malaga Island: A Brief History Compiled by the Students of ES 203 Service Learning Project. Typescript. Bowdoin College, 2003.
History of Lane’s School on Malaga Island, Mss A 1900, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston. Pp 31. [scrapbook compiled by Fred H. C. Wooley, 1906-1907]. www.AmericanAncestors.org
“ ‘King Jim’ of Malaga” Lewiston Evening Journal May 19, 1945.
“Island Residents Poor but Happy and Contented” Lewiston Evening Journal, March 13, 1935.
Malaga Island: A Story Best Left Untold. A project of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, Portland, Maine. 2009. http://www.malagaislandmaine.org/index.htm
Malaga Island Collection. Phippsburg Historical Society, Phippsburg, ME.
“Malaga Island A Problem” Boston Evening Transcript, September 29, 1911.
“Malaga Island Revisited at Descendants’ Gathering” Coastal Journal, September 29, 2011.
“Malaga Island School” Boston Transcript, November 24, 1908.
McBrien, Katherine, Malaga Island: Fragmented Lives. Augusta, ME: Friends of the Maine State Museum, 2013. Published to accompany an exhibition by the same name. http://www.mainestatemuseum.org/exhibits/malaga_island_fragmented_lives_-_educational_materials/
Mosher, John P., No Greater Abomination: Ethnicity, Class, and Power Relations on Malaga Island, 1880-1912. (M.A. Thesis, University of Southern Maine, 1991)
“Poverty and Degeneracy” Boston Journal, August 11, 1907.
“Poverty, Immorality and Disease” Bath Enterprise 1 March 1902.
“Report of Council Committee on State Beneficiaries and Pensions” in Reports of Committees of Council, State of Maine, 1911 and 1912. (Waterville: Sentinel Publishing Co., 1913). Pp. 10-15.
Records of Sagadahoc Probate Court, 1911, Bath Maine; Docket M-452, proceedings for committal of the Marks family to the Maine School for Feeble Minded.
“State Chat” Lewiston Evening Journal August 23, 1907.
“State School on Malaga” Bath Independent, June 3, 1911.
Woodward Colin, “Malaga Island: A Century of Shame” Portland Press Herald, May 20, 2012.