Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2012

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Murder at Marshall Point Light

By Jim Claflin

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We don’t usually associate lighthouses with crime and murder, but 135 years ago in the area of Maine’s Marshall Point Light Station, officials were dealing with just such a case.

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Keeper Charles C. Skinner.

Keeper Charles Clement Skinner, a Maine native and Civil War veteran, was the keeper at the light from 1874 to 1919, the longest period of service for a keeper at the same lighthouse in the history of the U.S. Lighthouse Service.

After being wounded in the Civil War, Charles returned to Maine and married Amanda Colby. The couple had two daughters, the second of which died in infancy and was soon followed in death by her mother. Charles then married Amanda’s younger sister Arvilla and shortly thereafter accepted the position at Marshall Point. Charles and Arvilla would have five more children while serving at the lighthouse.

On December 22, 1877, in nearby Tenants Harbor, Mrs. Sarah Meservey left her home to go to the post office. On her way back, 14-year old Clara Wall greeted Sarah and walked with her a short way. After the two parted, Sarah would never be seen alive again.

As Christmas came and went, Mrs. Meservey still had not been seen. In time, her mail began to accumulate at the post office and a boy was sent to deliver it. Sarah lived in a well-kept home, at St. George’s, in the town of Tenants Harbor. Knocking on the door, he received no answer and returned to the post office. Although well known and liked in the town, Sarah would still not be missed for over five weeks.

Finally Sarah’s cousin, Captain Albion Meservey, along with the chairman of the Board of Selectmen, decided to go to Sarah’s house. They forced open a window, and there they found Sarah’s murdered body.

Sarah was the wife of a prominent Rockland sea captain who, at the time, was away at sea. She had apparently been strangled to death by a long woolen scarf which was wrapped around her head and neck. Authorities were baffled.

In 1930 a writer for a Rockland, Maine newspaper, John Bantry, looked into the events surrounding the case. He noted that after some time, suspicion gradually fell on Nathan F. Hart, a local sailor who admitted he had been cutting wood in the rear of Mrs. Meservey’s home about the time the murder was committed. In fact, he lived with his wife only two houses away from the Meservey home and knew the dead woman well.

His reputation was fairly good, yet his alibi seemed not convincing as he stoutly denied going to the Meservey yard.

Gradually public sentiment turned against him. At the trial the evidence offered by the government was very scant. The defense only offered a flat and general denial. But Hart stuck to his story - that he was entirely innocent. Soon, however, the jury convicted him of murder in the first degree. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Soon after the conviction though, public sentiment shifted. There grew a feeling that the evidence against him was slender. His powerful protestations of innocence made a profound impression on the locals, many of whom had known him for years. As time went by a great clamor for his release grew. Even a book was written by a prominent man. A. R. Duton, entitled “Nathan F. Hart, An Innocent Man in a Felon’s Cell.”

The book circulated all over the country. It was a very effective plea for Hart, and showed the hollowness of the case against him and pleaded for justice. This resulted in an almost country-wide demand that Maine remove the stigma from an innocent man and set him free.

Hart’s friends soon numbered the vast majority of persons in the immediate counties. Yet, strangely his lawyer made no move for a new trial, which apparently they could have obtained.

Some years after, Hart died in prison, still asserting his absolute innocence. The general opinion was that a terrible mistake had been made and that the State had virtually killed, by severe imprisonment and humiliation, an innocent man. But there is more to this story.

In searching the Archives of the General Services Administration in Washington in the 1970s, well known writer and historian Edward Rowe Snow discovered information that revealed that Keeper Skinner might have been the most important witness in this baffling case, but why did he never come forward with the information?

Marshall Point light was only a short distance away from Tenants Harbor. The same night that Sarah Meservey had walked home from the post office, Keeper Skinner climbed the light tower as he did every night, to light the beacon for the evening. Historian Edward Rowe Snow wrote of that night in one of his newspaper columns: “Keeper Skinner looked out over the ocean, as was his custom, and noticed a strange rowboat silently proceeding toward the nearby beach. Giving it no more than passing attention, he trimmed the wicks and lit the lamp, replacing the chimney before silently descending the tower stairs. He was not to return for four hours.”

As midnight approached “…he noticed that the strange boat was still on the shore and that the tide was coming in. Whoever had left it there had tied the painter around a nearby rock. Keeper Skinner went about his duties. He wound the light mechanism, secure in the knowledge that the light would flash out its warning beam until sunrise. Descending the tower steps, he again glanced over at the mysterious craft on the nearby shore. When morning came the strange craft had vanished.”

Some time later, when working on his station log, Keeper Skinner realized that the mysterious stranger who had landed near his light had made his arrival the very night that Sarah Meservey was last seen alive.

Nathan F. Hart had died in jail with a plea of innocence on his lips. His wife would remain in the town, honored as a brave and faithful woman. She received the sympathy of everyone, and she would be more popular and respected than before because of her heavy affliction.

Life for keeper Skinner and his family would continue as usual, but with a few surprises. In 1879, the original keeper’s dwelling, which at the time of Sarah’s murder, was home to the Skinner family, was thoroughly renovated, receiving two new chimneys, new windows and frames, and new floorings. In addition, a new water closet was built a short distance west of the dwelling.

But in June 1895, Keeper Skinner noted in the station journal “Heavy thunder showers passed over here at 1 o’clock this morning. The dwelling house at this station was struck by lightning and one chimney, the roof, one window, and three rooms badly shattered, lightning entered from rooms besides the cellar, no one seriously injured.”

Repairs were made to the residence, but in July it was evacuated so the present dwelling could be built. The displaced Skinner family moved into a workshop, while their new home was constructed in a Colonial Revival style with a gambrel roof.

In his logs over the years, Keeper Skinner noted many strandings of both man and beast in the area of the station. On October 28, 1884, he wrote: “A fin-back whale stranded on Mosquito Point last night. Sixty-seven feet in length.” And on February 10, 1886: “Steamer Cambridge was wrecked on Old Man Ledge at 4:45 AM. Passengers and crew all saved & landed on Allen Island where they were taken off by Steamer Dallas this forenoon and taken to Rockland. The Cambridge is a total loss, is fast breaking up.”

Keeper Skinner retired from the Lighthouse Service in 1919. His two youngest daughters would live in a cottage that he built on Marshall Point Road until they passed away in the 1990s.

Keeper Skinner might have been the most important witness in this sad case, but why did he remain silent? Would his information have led to a new suspect? We may never know for sure.

Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@LighthouseAntiques.net or visit his web site at: www.LighthouseAntiques.net

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2012 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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