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.
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.”
Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.
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