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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Lost Souls

Buried in Maine vital records (those between 1892 and 1955 are readily available on microfilm) are dozens of death records few genealogists consider. Lacking surnames, they are filed under "U" for "Unknown," and include some of the most disturbing cases of crime and misadventure the state has witnessed.

A large proportion of the records are of infanticides. The exact place of discovery was usually noted—often a river or seashore, a pasture or woods. Newborns were found in a box, "in a tin dinner pail," and in a "kettle in Back Bay." They were found in the bushes in Houlton, a snow bank in Portland.

Another large category of deaths includes travelers, transients, and tramps, who often found their end on the railroad tracks. A boy of about 17 years died in Clinton after "falling from MCRR train, while riding between freight cars." A tramp was killed in Berwick "by striking overhead bridge on B & M Railroad." Another died at Long Pond who was "Evidently stealing a ride." The death record of a man killed by the cars at Wells while "Attempting to board or alight from a moving train" is made more poignant by the notation that he was "by tools found in his pocket supposed a shoe laster."

Sometimes a first name is given. A man "Called John" died in Hermon of heart disease in 1901. The records of adult deaths are almost always for men, but there are a few women, the deaths of some filed here because their married names were unknown, though their given names and even their parents are noted. Both first and last names are given for nine bodies transferred from "P. M. S. to Bowdoin Medical School" in 1921. (Presumably "P. M. S." stands for Portland Medical School. Why these death records are filed here is unexplained.)

In the fall of 1920, sixteen woodsmen died when their motor boat caught fire crossing Chesuncook Lake. Seventeen others were saved. Of the dead—many of them Lithuanian immigrants—five found their way into the Unknown file, identified only as #1, #4, #14, #16, and #19.

An especially sad case is that of a 72-year-old man, thought to be a Maine native, who died at the National Soldier's Home (now the Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center) Nov. 18, 1916. One hopes that he found his way home.

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