mysterious tales murder

This series is still alive! Though my “Literary Summer” live-blog of The Winds of War has been getting more attention, I’m still working my way through Edward Rowe Snow’s colorful 1962 pop history book Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast, and with another bottle of wine at my side–suggested, as usual, by Michelle Williams of the RockinRed Blog–I thought I’d delve into another mysterious chapter. The last chapter I did from this book, about “A Mystery of the Mind,” was somewhat less than satisfying, though the wine was good. Previous chapters like mysterious “Dighton Rock” or the fate of the steamship President seemed a bit more substantial than the Civil War fish story Rowe served us up last time. Tonight’s chapter is titled “An Unsolved Maine Coast Mystery” and it involves a mysterious murder from the 19th century. So let’s get started!

Murder and mystery on the Maine coast? Even before we begin I’m envisioning something out of a Stephen King book. But alas, this is not Castle Rock, Maine, but rather Tenants Harbor, This tiny town barely exists even today, and when I looked it up on Google Earth it definitely did seem like a Stephen King type location. Here in a little house in the year 1877, Snow tells us, lived 37-year-old Sarah Meservey, wife of the ship Captain Luther Meservey who was off sailing his ship the Bickmore. The captain had given Sarah a stash of money to meet her expenses during the winter. On December 22, 1877, Mrs. Meservey went to the post office and then walked home, going into her house which was empty except for her. No one saw her alive again. Curiously it was not until five weeks later, in late January 1878, when townsfolk decided something might be wrong, so they sent the constable over to her house. The doors were locked but the constable, a selectman of the town and Albion Meservey, cousin of Luther, climbed in through an unlocked window. There they found the body of Sarah on the floor of the spare room, strangled with a scarf and with evidence of a struggle, blood everywhere. She still had her galoshes on. The murderer had washed his or her hands in a kitchen basin, in which the bloody water had long since frozen solid.

tenants harbor light by david nicholls

The pleasant town of Tenants Harbor, Maine, is the site of a famous lighthouse seen here in 2008. The header image also depicts the Tenants Harbor Light.

A curious message written on brown paper was found near the body. The anonymous note said “I kiled her” [sic], but “not for Mony.” This was the only real clue. No one had any idea who could have done it, as Sarah had no known enemies. In mid-February Sarah’s husband returned on the Bickmore, was told of the tragedy and entered the house with the constable. It was thought perhaps she was killed for the money, but Captain Meservey found it all still there in a drawer. So scratch the robbery motive. Who, then, could have done this, and why?

The plot thickens–it always does. Snow tells us about a mysterious letter received by the wife of Levi Hart, a neighbor to the Meserveys, taunting them “that it is no use trying to catch this chap.” The handwriting was similar to the note found at the crime scene. Unfortunately at this point the chapter gets very confusing. Snow tells us that a Nathan Hart, another “seafaring man” and neighbor to the Meserveys, was arrested for the murder on March 8, 1878. He does not explain the relationship between Nathan Hart and Levi Hart, whose wife got the letter. To make matters more confusing, Snow says he was “a brother of Mrs. Albion Meservey” and that “Captain Nathan Hart was a cousin of the murdered woman’s husband.” Wait, who’s Albion? Luther’s brother? So the accused murderer was Sarah’s brother-in-law, and Luther Meservey’s cousin? Who married who in this family? Is it even relevant?

nathan hart

Nathan Hart, a merchant marine captain, died in prison in 1883. But did he really do it?

He’s also unclear about the motive for the murder. According to him the police began to suspect Nathan Hart because his stepson, Simeon Sylvester (don’t you love these names?), suddenly showed up around town with a bunch of money. But wait, I thought the money was found in the house? Then Snow adduces a very long letter, in which he reproduces the atrocious grammar and misspellings, received by someone called Mrs. Mahala Sweetland (who the hell is she?) on May 16, 1878, purportedly from the murderer. The letter is full of gruesome details about how he strangled Sarah as soon as she walked in the door of her house and claims that Nathan Hart is innocent. At Nathan’s trial, handwriting experts testified that he probably wrote the letter himself, as well as the note found at the scene. Several other letters drift in over the course of the chapter, alleging various things, but by this time I’m so confused that I’m not paying much attention. Suffice it to say, based on the testimony of a handwriting expert–keep in mind handwriting analysis was pretty crude in 1878–Nathan Hart was found guilty. Eventually he wound up dying in prison, being poisoned by a cake brought to him by a visitor to the prison.

I am thoroughly confused. If Nathan Hart did commit the murder, I have absolutely no idea why. If he did not, as Snow tells us that many Maine residents believe, then who did, and for what reason? There’s a bit at the end of the chapter about Clara Wall, a 14-year-old girl whose testimony helped convict Nathan, accused in (guess what?) another letter of trying to poison her cousin with lead-poisoned candy, but I can’t figure out what this has to do with anything. After this rather confusing chapter I found this blog post which explains the situation better than Snow did–and which ironically cites Snow’s book as a source. At this point I’ve given up any hope of trying to figure out who killed Sarah Meservey. I just want some wine!

Penfolds Koonung Hill 2012

So here’s what Michelle picked for me, a Penfolds Koonunga Hill 2012 Shiraz Cabernet. Here are her notes:

This wine was crafted of 66% Shiraz and 34% Cabernet Sauvignon. It poured an inky violet into the glass and opened with dark aromas of black and red fruit, with layers of earthiness and spice. On the palate this brooding wine delivered flavors of blackberry compote, black cherries, plums and black raspberries, along with smoke, licorice, damp tobacco leaves, and mocha; leaving a dry dirt texture lingering on the back of the palate. This was a big, fully body wine that brought layers of flavors and weight in a well-balanced wine with round acidity and integrated tannins; and a great value at $9.99!

I loved this wine! It was every bit as “mysterious” tasting as this confusing chapter, and frankly a lot more fun. The flavors of the wine were quite complex to me and it was even better the second day after leaving the bottle open all night. This could be my favorite wine I’ve tasted so far in this series, and I highly recommend it–I even managed to find it for less than the listed price.

Well, Snow utterly flummoxed me on this chapter, but at least the wine was good. Stay tuned for more Mysterious Tales to come.

The header image is not the cover of any real edition of Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast. I created it myself from public domain images. The photo of the Tenants Harbor Light is by Flickr user David Nicholls and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (attribution) license. The wine photo is owned by the Rockin Red Blog. All other images are in the public domain.