While he was principal of Adams School in Castine, Todd Nelson began a tradition: Every year on the night before Halloween, the sign above the school would mysteriously change. The sign would announce a Halloween theme, just in time for the school costume parade and all-school photo on the front stairs. And then it would change back before the next school day.
And every year, Nelson wrote a mysterious epistle relating to the theme. “Pirates of the Bagaduce” entered the literature.
How many adults get to relive (or create) a childhood like this in their professions? Some admit to being the biggest kid in the school. It’s part of sponsoring imagination and modeling the freedom to play. Nelson had accomplices. Brian Olivari, Agent O, an engineering professor at Maine Maritime Academy, and husband of the town doctor, helped swap signs under cover of darkness. Parent Lance Burton, or Mr. Halloween, also reveled in the holiday. For the pirates, he created a ghost galleon (The Naughty Lass) on a trailer and towed it behind the parade with his pickup truck. The kids donned their costumes after lunch and paraded down Main Street to the town dock. The merchants showered them with candy. Parents had an incredible photo op. None of this is in the Maine principals handbook.
*The Bagaduce River flows past Castine Harbor and into the mighty Penobscot River.
. . .
Squire Trevithick, Dr. Trips, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about the treasure of Nautilus Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 1906, and go back to the time when my father kept the Pentagoêt Inn, and the brown old seaman, with the saber cut above his eye, first took up his lodging under our roof.
“Young man! Have you heard about the ghost galleon of the Bagaduce—The Naughty Lass?” said the gruff old seaman one evening, after a few pints of grog in the Passports pub. He hardly waited for my answer, but launched into a story, careful not to be overheard by the other mariners drinking at nearby tables, whispering urgently across the bar.
“On October 31, every hundred years, the galleon appears on Main Street just as the moon rises,” he whispered. And then, drawing me near, so I could smell his foul breath and see the gaps in his morbid gums, he added, “and the pirates of the Bagaduce sail again—right down to the harbor and across to their treasure lair on Nautilus Island.”
So the stories were true! Though the galleon had not appeared in living memory, it now seemed as if it was more than the yarn told by locals to perturb the young and deter the unwary from foolhardy jaunts to Nautilus in search of doubloons—No, it was a legend worth heeding. And perhaps it explained some of the more fabulous episodes in the history of the Bagaduce River and the island fabled to hold the treasure of Blackbeard Leach. Could the ghost galleon be the explanation for the sudden onset of madness in Caleb Wardwell, who fished the outer islands in my grandfather’s time? Could the ghost galleon explain the purported terror in the eyes of my great-grandmother at any mention of all hallows eve, ’06? Could the ghost galleon explain the disappearance of a whole fleet of seiners in the autumn of 1806?
Naysayers comforted themselves with science or denial. “Madness ran in the family,” says the doctor.
“That was the year of the whooping cough epidemic,” say my aunts. “Great Gran was hallucinating.”
“The autumn storms that year were the worst this coast has ever seen,” say the old fishermen. “Ghost galleon—bah!”
“Aye, I can see you’ve heard all the reasons not to believe,” said the brown old seaman, that night in the Pentagoêt. “But let me tell you the reasons why you should believe, and you’ll want to lock the doors tight tonight,” he said, pounding the table. “Because the ghost galleon is due.”
The look in his single, fiery eye riveted me to the spot as I peered out the pub window to Main Street. The soft gleam of the rising midnight moon lay thick on the slumbering town. “Leach and his crew are coming,” he said, his hand trembling on his pistol. “I can feel it.” The wind outside whipped into a howl, as if it were whistling through a ship’s rigging. A house-high shadow was floating by the inn, gliding towards the harbor.
—Todd Louis Stevenson
The year after the Pirates of the Bagaduce sailed down Main Street, a mysterious (real) steamer trunk was discovered near the (real) lighthouse in town. It had been left on the curb on trash day. Treasure day, that is, to a beachcomber like Nelson. Back to school it came. Details and story didn’t need to be real to be true, as any Adams School student knew by now. Inquiring minds wanted to imagine stories and intrigue behind the dowdy trunk. The kids would set to work on fabulous names of its prior owners, and origin hints for its provenance and voyage to our shores.
“This is all true, even if it never happened.”
—Big Chief in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
“Whether we shall turn out to be the heroes of our own tale, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. So I will simply begin with a retelling of the events of the nineteenth of October and allow the reader to make the final determination. Hopefully, the details and their outcome will be sufficiently enlightening.
“The discovery of the mysterious, near-empty steamer trunk occurred as follows. It came into our possession when we were least expecting: during a simple outing to the lighthouse in order to take our class photograph. The sun was shining; the full moon just setting over the Camden Hills; the oak leaves rustling on the branch. No one had seen it before—not the residents of Battle Avenue, in front of whose house the trunk had appeared, or any of the thirteen members of our party. Thus, its provenance was, from the start, shrouded. It was at least to be, we supposed, the beginning to a trail of perplexing facts.
“The trunk itself yielded the following tidbits. Its exterior bore a label, scarred by many a journey and rough handling, on which was penciled a single wave-worn name: Montgomery Stallman. Inside the trunk, once it had been pried open, were two keys, to what we could not fathom. The most recent shipping label was dated October 31, 1956, at which time it had a weight of 207 pounds and declared value of $550. What contents would account for such a heavy cargo? Shipping destination: New Concord, Ohio. Mr. Stallman, evidently, once resided at 28 Dodd Street, East Orange, New Jersey. It was a neighborhood, we eventually determined, which, at least to contemporary observers, seemed like a transitional suburban block. Wood-frame residences once in good repair, hard by vacant lots and commercial properties, and within the sound of an interstate highway, which must have bisected the tree-lined streets of a sleepy post-war neighborhood at some point in the sixties. The former (or current?) Stallman house was now divided into apartments, and sided with asphalt shingles; the cars parked in front lackluster, economy models; the yard derelict and overgrown, like every other yard on the street. It had a shabby aura.
“How then did this old trunk wash up on our shore, sitting like some forlorn vessel, high and dry, beside the lighthouse in Castine, Maine? What was that faint, lingering aroma pervading its worn compartments—Cinnamon? Vanilla? Rum? And the contents of those inner drawers—a woman’s white glove, an Italian coin, a postcard written in French, and a dried corsage—what was their story and significance? The trunk, the house, the tantalizing objects linked to a single, man’s name—were they spectral witnesses to something more than decay, age, and dissolution?”
—Hugo James Rutherford
Editor’s Note: We would be grateful for any information that might help us identify the author of the above fragment, or the history of this curious trunk. It can be viewed in the eighth-grade homeroom.