“‘Stories,’ said Campbell. ‘Every one of us has one. And they die along with us if we don’t share them. Jim Whyte knew. That’s why he told me so much toward the end.’”
— From Jeffrey Ryan’s book “Hermit: The Mysterious Life of Jim Whyte”
Maine is a unique place. Given its vast geographic expanse, a person can easily get lost within its woods and mountains whether they want to or not. Such is the case of one person, the subject of Jeffrey Ryan’s book “Hermit: The Mysterious Life of Jim Whyte.” Whyte most definitely wanted to stay lost.
Stories abound in Maine about people walking away from the life they once knew and creating another world for themselves off-grid and off-people. Ryan’s story is about a man who did just that in the North Woods of Maine, eight miles outside a town named Monson, near Lake Onawa. For the people living there, whispers of stories about Whyte percolated for decades into tall tales or even deeper into all the trappings of a deep-rooted crime drama.
Ryan, a writer who travels and lives in a 1985 VW camper, has written extensively about the outdoors, hiking and history. While researching old trail maps for his first book on his own 28-year experience hiking the Appalachian Trail, a friend of Ryan gave him a copy of a 1930s Maine trail guide written by Myron Avery. Inside he finds a reference to a side trail that led to the cabin of a mysterious character named Jim Whyte. From there, Ryan began researching newspaper articles of that time period, as well as speaking to the Monson Historical Society. With the information he obtained, Ryan knew he had to try and tell this story.
What is known about Whyte is that he was born William Bosene in New York City in the 1850s, the son of German immigrants. He leaves home at age 16 on a journey that takes him to Germany, where he joins the German army. Years later he becomes a U.S. Merchant Marine. From there he travels the world, spending time in the South Seas — where he supposedly dives for pearls — and in Idaho prospecting for gold. Along this circuitous route of an already peculiar life, Whyte does a lot of business — some legitimate, most questionable. But by 1895, when he arrives in Monson, Bosene is a wealthy man who speaks six languages and has a new name — Jim Whyte.
Ryan tells this story by way of a semi-fictional approach through the eyes of Ben, who hears about Whyte while visiting his uncle’s camp on Lake Onawa. Ben is captivated by the stories he hears from his uncle and another longtime resident of the woods, Phil Campbell, and seeks to find out all he can about the mysterious Whyte. We as readers are taken along as Ben retraces Whyte’s footsteps, researching his cabin life and annual city trips and especially his rare interactions with the townspeople of Monson. Along the way Ryan uncovers a tantalizing life unknown to many. Ryan expertly blends facts with trace stories documented through his research. His storytelling is spot on and provides a gripping narrative of a mysterious life as it seeps through the folds of hearsay, finally coming to rest on legendary status.
It is the story of a quiet and elusive man — a hermit — who builds a life on 30 acres near Borestone Mountain. Over the course of these years, two women will live with him. The first, his wife Dora, arrives with Whyte and is not seen again until a year later when she suddenly flees. The second, a woman named Tessa, arrives shortly after and will be his companion for the next 20 years.
With his cabin now built, Whyte lives his life there, rarely speaking to others or visiting town, except when making his annual pilgrimage to New York City, supposedly to visit family. It was said Whyte would leave quietly only to return more prosperous and happier. It is when Tessa leaves him that things begin to turn bad financially, and Whyte, impacted by this, suddenly becomes more sociable in town, pawning his lavish items for money.
It is the story of a Canadian train loaded with Far East goods, train whistles and flashing light signals, barrels of opium and a nighttime rendezvous of a man and a train. There is extravagance, such as the first automobile north of Portland, which Whyte eagerly shows off, a vast collection of firearms and cash, whispers of crimes committed and a $40,000 buried treasure somewhere near his cabin.
Whyte died in 1933, spending his last years at a Masonic hospital in New Jersey. In 1973 Whyte’s cabin was torn down. Many holes were also found around the property, evidence of one story’s continuation. Some say it is a fitting end to a very full and mysterious life. For Ryan, it’s just another chapter to a story he hopes will last forever.
“Hermit: The Mysterious Life of Jim Whyte”
By Jeffrey H. Ryan
Maine Authors Publishing, 2019, softcover $17.95
RJ Heller, BDN Down East contributor
RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.