When a mysterious man with no legs was found on a beach in Nova Scotia, the locals took on the burden of caring for this stranger who seemed to come out of nowhere.
Over the centuries there have been many famous Jeromes. For example, who could forget the famous Apache chief who successfully fought the U.S. cavalry for years? (You mean you didn’t know Geronimo is Spanish for Jerome?)
This story is about a less well known but certainly more mysterious Jerome. He was discovered on the beach at Sandy Cove, Digby Neck, Nova Scotia by an eight-year-old boy named George Colin Albright, or “Collie” as he was popularly known. Young Collie was doing a little beach combing when he spotted something odd perched in the sand. Closer inspection revealed a swarthy young man, minus both his legs. Collie ran off, trying to get help, but had a hard time making himself believed. Eventually two farmers accompanied him to the shore, and when they realized he was telling the truth, rescued the castaway.
Thus started a controversial mystery which has not been completely solved to this day. The young lad’s hands were soft, suggesting he had never had to do manual labor, and soon speculation rose that he may have been a wounded officer of some European war, or perhaps even the Civil War which raged in the United States at the time. Some thought he might have been a royal embarrassment to some European royal house, and had been unceremoniously mutilated and dumped on a far-off shore. Questioning the lad provided little additional information as he did not seem to speak English.
Half dead from hypothermia, the young man was nursed back to health in the Albright home and received many visitors, including newspapermen, local clergy and scholars. Although swarthy and Mediterranean in appearance he did not seem to understand French, Latin, Italian, Spanish or any other language. He appeared to shun the attention he received and was a surly house guest, showing gentleness only to small children with whom he loved to play. He was morose, growling like a dog at unwelcome visitors.
The Albright’s house guest was a major burden for a poor fisherman to support, and after going through several different homes, the good Baptists of Digby Neck decided such a swarthy fellow must indeed be Catholic and shipped him off to the neighboring French community of Metghan, where he would live out the rest of his days. Indeed, the government of Nova Scotia voted a special stipend of two dollars a week to support Jerome.
Jerome ended up ensconced in the home of Jean Nicola, a Corsican deserter who was known locally as “the Russian”, probably because of the few words of that language he had picked up in the Crimea. Though Jerome and Jean were constantly at odds, the mysterious man soon became a favorite of Nicola’s wife, Julitte and his stepdaughter, Madeleine.
Jerome spoke very little, but over the course of time he revealed in fragmented and hesitant speech he had come over on a vessel named the Columbo and that he was originally from Trieste.
After the death of Julitte, Nicola returned to Europe and Jerome found himself in the keeping of Dedier and Zabeth Comeau. His two dollar weekly stipend came in handy to support the Comeau’s burgeoning family, which included a son studying for the priesthood. As well, there was no shortage of curiosity seekers who were willing to pay admission to see Jerome, who many still believed to be European royalty.
Despite his exploitation, Jerome was content to play and enjoy the company of the Comeau children. On one occasion two mysterious ladies visited and asked to speak to Jerome in private. They spoke in hushed tones, and as they were leaving they said, “He is well here. Let him be.”
As time passed, more clues materialized as to the origin of the stranger. Word came that in 1859 a young foreigner wandered into the town of Chipman, New Brunswick, across the bay from Nova Scotia. The young stranger somehow managed to fall through river ice but was miraculously saved when discovered by two brothers. Eventually, he developed gangrene in both legs and had bilateral amputations performed by Dr. Harry Peters.
Here he became known as “Gamby”, probably because on wakening he kept calling for “gamba”, Italian for “legs”. Gamby proved a burden for the good people of Chipman as indeed he did to the good citizens of Digby Neck. It would appear a passing schooner captain was paid handsomely to transport the disabled man to friendlier climes. The schooner captain appears to have simply crossed the Bay of Fundy and dropped him off on the beach at Sandy Cove.
Putting our clues together, and checking shipping records, it would appear that Jerome had come over an a vessel called the Columbo which sailed from Europe, landed in Halifax and went on to New Brunswick where he jumped ship.
After his unfortunate accident, he must have been extremely traumatized to find himself waking, minus his legs, in a place where nobody spoke his language. Indeed, his inability over many years to learn French or English — or, indeed, to have been unable to communicate in his native language — would suggest that he may have suffered a stroke affecting his speech centers.
This could have occurred due to hypothermia, arrhythmia upon rewarming from hypothermia, or blood loss from his amputation. Interestingly, despite his limited speech, he was occasionally heard late at night singing beautifully in a foreign language. Dr. Oliver Sacks has described this very phenomenon in his book Musicophilia.
Jerome’s emotional difficulties, which were to last his lifetime, no doubt reflected the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition which occurs after extreme life stressors, subsequently marked by anxiety, depressed mood, disrupted sleep and limited ability to relate to others.
Jerome spent a total of 49 years in his involuntarily adopted home of Nova Scotia before finally passing away on April 15, 1912, the very day the RMS Titanic went down.