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The mysterious ‘Hermit of Monson’ may have smuggled opium out of Maine in the 1920s

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He moved to town in 1895, taking up residence in a cabin on Lake Onawa, about 8 miles from the Piscataquis County town of Monson. Nobody in town knew where he came from or why he chose to live in the Maine wilderness.

One thing was almost certain, though: Jim Whyte was hiding from something.

Whyte, known as the Hermit of Monson for the 30-plus years he lived in Maine, is the subject of a new book by Maine writer Jeffrey Ryan: “Hermit: The Mysterious Life of Jim Whyte,” published last month by Maine Authors Publishing.

Monson Hermit Jim Whyte

Photo courtesy of Richard Shaw
MONSON HERMIT BOOK — Jim Whyte, center, with two unidentified men at his remote cabin near Monson, in 1924. Whyte, known as the Hermit of Monson for the 30-plus years he lived in Maine, is the subject of a new book by Maine writer Jeffrey Ryan: “Hermit: The Mysterious Life of Jim Whyte,” published last month by Maine Authors Publishing.

Ryan, a Portland native, discovered Whyte’s story while writing his second book, “Blazing Ahead,” about the creation of the Appalachian Trail. The site of Whyte’s famed cabin lies not far from the trail.

Knowing Whyte’s story was excellent fodder for his next book, Ryan began to research the man — only to discover that there’s as much myth about Whyte as there is fact. That’s why “Hermit” is written as a semi-fictional account through the eyes of a character named Ben, who traces Whyte’s steps and interviews townsfolk in order to piece together the story.

“It dawned on me that the best way to tell the story would be to create this character, and tell this story through his eyes,” said Ryan, who has written extensively on the outdoors and is an accomplished hiker. “So much of what we know about this man is based on the different stories people tell. He’s a bit of a tall tale. He’s a legend that also happened to be a real person.”

Whyte was born William Bosene in New York City in the mid-1860s, the son of German immigrants. At age 16, he left the U.S. to go to Germany, and joined the German army, where he spent several years in service before growing restless again. Over the course of the 1880s and ’90s, he sought adventure on the high seas, including stints with the U.S. Merchant Marine, working on a whaling ship and working on a trunk steamer.

According to Bangor historian Richard Shaw, whose family used to own a camp near the Whyte property, Whyte roved around the globe, diving for pearls in the South Seas and prospecting for gold in Idaho. It’s not known exactly how Whyte made his money, but by 1895, he had amassed a fortune — perhaps from the gold and pearls, or perhaps from business deals that may not have been above board — and had returned to New York.

“He seemed to be the kind of person to take big leaps. He was a ‘no risk, no reward’ kind of person, and it seemed to really pay off,” Ryan said. “I do get the sense, however, that he was hiding from something when he came to Maine.”

Whyte arrived in Monson in August 1895, assuming the name that Mainers knew him by, and moved into a cabin on 30 acres near Borestone Mountain with his new wife, Dora. Less than a year later, Dora left him, and a few weeks after that, a woman named Tessa moved in, who would be Whyte’s companion for the next 20 years.

Whyte was the talk of the town for most of his life in the Monson area, despite keeping an extremely low profile. That’s what got him the “hermit” moniker, though Whyte did not live alone, and left town once a year to visit his family in New York. Whyte reportedly was the first person north of Portland to own a car, driving into town in 1910 with a car that he paid $3,000 for — around $81,000 in 2019, adjusted for inflation, a whopping sum for the time. Townsfolk whispered about his collection of firearms and his supposed piles of diamonds and emeralds. He spoke six languages.

“He was holed up in this remote cabin, sitting on top of a pile of money. There was just no one else like him. People were incredibly curious about him. There were a lot of local legends,” said Ryan, who worked extensively with the Monson Historical Society to compile those stories.

Whyte’s distrust of the law seemed to arise during World War I, when he was visited by the FBI, who reportedly interrogated him about his loyalty to the U.S. due to his service in the German army. Sometime around 1916 or 1917, his wife Tessa left him, and though he became more sociable in town, his financial situation deteriorated. Whyte was reportedly seen pawning some of his valuable possessions throughout the region.

That’s probably why, in the 1920s, Jim Whyte began smuggling opium.

According to the legend, a Canadian train coming in from the West Coast, loaded with goods shipped from California and the Far East, would throw barrels full of opium off the train and into the Bodfish Valley, beneath the shadow of Borestone Mountain, less than a mile from his cabin. Some historians have speculated that part of the reason Whyte bought the property in the first place was for its excellent views of incoming trains — locally, his 30-acre lot was known as the “Lookout.”

Whyte would retrieve the barrels, package up the drugs and then deliver them to New York City, where he would travel under the pretense of visiting his sick mother. He would return with wads of cash. Whyte’s paranoia increased, and he began posting signs on his property warning potential trespassers that there was “active target shooting” going on — meaning that if he shot someone coming onto his land, it would just be an accident.

The smuggling operation continued throughout most of the 1920s, until Whyte suffered a stroke in the late 1920s and went to live at a Masonic hospital in New Jersey, where he died in 1933. His exact age is not known, but he was likely in his late 60s or early 70s when he died.

When word of his death reached Monson, townsfolk rushed to the cabin, plundering what was left of Whyte’s possessions and searching the property in an attempt to find a supposed $40,000 in cash stashed somewhere. The money was never found, and in 1973, the remnants of the cabin were torn down. A replica cabin was built soon after, but the land itself is now private property and is not accessible to the public without the owners’ permission.

More than 80 years after his death, and decades after the last of those who actually knew Whyte died, the legend of the Hermit of Monson lives on.

“There are so many different stories that have been passed down,” Ryan said. “That’s why I wrote this book as a semi-fictional account — because it’s hard to separate truth from fiction.”

Ryan will give talks about his book at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 12 at the South Portland Public Library, and at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 16 at the Lithgow Library in Augusta. “Hermit: The Mysterious Life of Jim Whyte” is available online or at Sherman’s Bookstores in Maine.

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