By Sarah Erkhart
This blog post was cross-posted from the Lizzie Bright Dramaturgical Blog.
Hello and welcome to the dramaturgical blog for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, the third show in Emerson Stage’s 2013-2014 season! I’m Sarah Erkert, the production dramaturg for this show, and I will be your guide to the history, social context and relevance of the play. But before we can dive into some of the larger social issues and understand why the story of Malaga is an important one to tell, it will help to understand more about the setting of the story.
The Founding of the Malaga Island Community
Malaga Island is located just off the coast of Phippsburg, a small fishing town 20 miles north of Portland, Maine. Though Native Americans inhabited the island for thousands of years prior to European settlers, the first modern settler of the island was Benjamin Darling. Rumored to be a freed slave after heroically saving the captain of a shipwreck, Darling bought the neighboring Bear Island in 1794. His son, Issac, later sold the island and moved to the unoccupied Malaga.
The Rooted Community of Malaga
By the early 1860s, the island began seeing permanent residents, with Henry Griffin settling on the east side of the island. In the next few years, other small families began moving to the welcoming sanctuary, including the Murphys, Dunnings, Johnsons, Easons, Marks, McKenneys and Tripps. By 1900, the island was called home by more than forty people, many of whom by virtue of race or poverty would have found it difficult to find community in the small fishing towns of mid-coast Maine. The Malaga community included African Americans, whites and several mixed race families, most of whom struggled with poverty. They survived off the land, despite its thin soil, and by fishing and harvesting marine life to sell and eat. Many also worked odd jobs, including carpentry and laundry services, for those on the mainland, but in spite of their efforts, many were also recipients of Phippsburg’s pauper’s relief fund.
Tensions with the Mainland Community of Phippsburg
As the people of Phippsburg themselves were mired in economic difficulties caused in part by declines in fishing and shipbuilding at the turn of the 20th century, many began to resent the proportion of welfare relief that went to Malaga Island. Some in the community proposed that Phippsburg should try to attract wealthy summer vacationers to the area by building a resort on the mainland near Malaga. For that to be successful, they argued, the people and their shanties on Malaga Island would have to be removed. The yellow journalism of the day and the rise of the eugenics movement fanned the flames of prejudice against the Malaga Islanders.
To decrease the impact on Phippsburg’s welfare funds, the town argued in court that the island actually belonged to the neighboring town of Harpswell. But when their suit was unsuccessful, the State of Maine stepped in and declared the island to be under the control of the governor and its people “wards of the state.” On July 11, 1911 Governor Plaisted and other state representatives visited the island to assess the conditions of its people and their homes. After the visit, the State declared Eli Perry, a resident of Phippsburg, the legal owner of Malaga, even though some of the residents of Malaga offered to buy the island and no deed was ever discovered under Perry’s name. Just three weeks after the Governor’s visit to Malaga, Perry ordered the people of Malaga evicted and demanded they vacate the property by July 1, 1912.
The End of the Malaga Community
After the Governor’s visit, the mental and physical health of the people of Malaga were assessed by the State of Maine to determine if they could care for themselves. The state declared eight of Malaga’s residents to be “feeble minded,” and they were placed in the residential School for the Feeble-Minded in New Gloucester. The remaining families were paid a small sum, and some moved to the mainland or other islands, though many of these families could never forget Malaga as their home. The State then purchased the island from Eli Perry to keep people from resettling Malaga after the eviction.
By July of 1912, the island was abandoned, and the remaining structures were razed, except for the newly built school, which was relocated to Louds Island in Muscongus Bay. The bodies buried in its cemetery were exhumed and moved to the cemetery behind the School for the Feeble-Minded. For many years, the history of the island was then forgotten. One hundred years later, the Maine State Museum won several prestigious awards for its exhibit that brought this story back into the spotlight. In 2001 the Maine Coast Heritage Trust purchased the island to keep the land as a preserve and to protect its history. Descendants of Malaga residents have come forward and shared the stories they were told of the island. These stories will help keep the lessons of the island alive for future generations.
— Sarah Erkert
“Fragmented Lives.” The Maine State Museum. Web. 16 Sep 2013. http://www.mainestatemuseum.org/exhibits/malaga_island_fragmented_lives
“Malaga Island – Preserves.” Maine Coast Heritage Trust. MCHT, n.d. Web. 16 Sep 2013. <http://www.mcht.org/preserves/malaga-island.shtml>.
Rosenthal, Rob, and Kate Philibrick. “Malaga Island – A Story Best Left Untold.” malagaislandmaine.org. The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, n.d. Web. 13 Sep 2013. <http://www.malagaislandmaine.org/index.htm>.