Auditions on for premiere of play that recalls 1873 lynching in Aroostook County

Posted March 28, 2012, at 11:11 a.m.

DAMARISCOTTA, Maine — The crimes of James Cullen were deemed too terrible by locals for them to let the legal system run its course, so a group of Aroostook County natives in the Mapleton area lynched him, which according to County legend stands as the only known lynching in New England.

That was in 1873. Now, a coastal Maine playwright who grew up in the Mapleton area is reviving the story for the stage.

Griff Braley, artistic director of the Damariscotta-based Heartwood Regional Theater Company, has put Cullen’s story to paper and over the weekend will begin casting for a full-length production of the original play “The Legend of Jim Cullen.”

Cullen, according to Braley, was a young New Brunswick immigrant lost in poverty, anger, lust and ignorance. Mired in destitution, his transgressions started with the theft of a pair of boots in Mapleton. The local sheriff caught up with Cullen and told him to go home and never come back again, but an ice storm mired Cullen in a shack. In the middle of the night, Cullen killed the sheriff and his deputy, which led to Cullen’s lynching.

“This story is part of the oral tradition in northern Maine,” said Braley, who was raised in the town of Chapman Plantation near Mapletown, and is a descendant of some of the region’s early settlers, including people involved in Cullen’s lynching. “The story is pretty much all true. There are certainly aspects of it that are very easily proven out.”

This isn’t the first time Cullen has been researched and written about. In 2000, Dena Lynn Winslow published a book titled “They Lynched Jim Cullen: New England’s Only Lynching,” which is for sale on the Maine Historical Society’s website. In 2006, Braley, who is a drama teacher at Lincoln Academy, wrote a shorter version of the play and staged it as the school’s one-act submission in the Maine Drama Festival. Braley has revived the project in the past couple of years and is planning a lavish production that includes live music and the use of cutting-edge multimedia that will include period and contemporary images.

“This story is very much a part of my family history and very much a part of Aroostook County lore,” said Braley, whose great, great, great grandfather knew Jim Cullen. “In 1873 there were a lot of towns in the area that were just about to incorporate. This happened at a really important moment in history.”

To kick off the play, Heartwood Regional Theater Company will host a workshop on Friday that is open to the public and will include an open discussion about the history behind the play as well as readings of certain passages. The free event is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at the Parker Poe Theater at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle. Open auditions for the play are scheduled for the following day from noon to 3 p.m., also at the Poe Theater. More details are available on the Heartwood Regional Theater Company’s website.

Braley said the project has revealed some interesting history aside from Cullen’s story. He said life in the Mapleton area in the late 1800s was hard and the residents rugged.

“A central question for me has been why did this happen?” said Braley. “It doesn’t seem to be racially motivated and it was not about integration. It was just sort of this sudden eruption of evil in this sort of simple time. The motivation has been really difficult to discern.”

Heartwood Regional Theater Company’s staging of “The Legend of John Cullen” is scheduled for sometime in July or August.

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