On growing up in Cornish, Maine (Yes, where they found those corpses)


UPDATE [October 15, 2014, 6:10 PM]: Please see the update about 6 paragraphs down, which indicates that more corpses have been excavated at the site.

Yesterday, a contractor doing some work on the Cornish Town Hall found an old corpse from a burial ground that was supposedly moved in 1905. It turns out that the town hall building, which once housed a school, was built on an old cemetery. In the Portland Press Herald, my neighbor Glenna Googins, a town historian and possessor of one of the best names on record, was quoted as saying:

“Not much is known about that cemetery. We do know the stones are (now) in Riverside Cemetery.”

So for about 12 hours, it sounded as though the stones had been moved, but not the bodies. If that sounds familiar, it is because it is nearly the exact backstory of The Poltergeist.

In response to the scenario — before it was corrected in an MPBN story that aired this morning confirms that both the stones and caskets were moved and this straggler happened to have been overlooked — my friend Ken, a fellow Cornish resident, made reference to the iconic phrase from the climax of that film:

“You son of a bitch! You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t you? You son of a bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones! You only moved the headstones!”

Not to be morbid, but — as an appreciator of grand last laughs — I hope that, like our freshly rediscovered friend here in town, my body is also unwittingly stumbled upon during an accidental excavation a century after I die.

UPDATE [October 15, 2014, 6:10 PM]: WMTW has reported that 6 additional bodies were excavated today. A local source suggested that one of the bodies appeared to be that of a child. So apparently that Poltergeist quote still applies..And Cornish has a one hell of a historical scandal on its hands.

For the uninitiated, Cornish is scenic and beautiful and well-regarded for it’s Apple Festival and breathtaking downtown. But it also possesses a darkness that lingers not too far under its peppier veneer. Not long ago, I had suggested half in jest — though also half sincerely — that I hoped to be the Bill Nemitz or Maine Magazine of Maine’s dirty laundry. This was to say that for every few beautiful, inspiring profiles human kindness, every handful of autumn-drenched roadways of awe-inspiring golds, oranges and reds, there is a glaring reminder of rampant opioid abuse, mental instability, and a recurring assault against against our mental and emotional well being that a few fortune folks call ski season and the rest of us recognize as profound seasonal depression. That desire to examine the intersection of where Larry Clark meets Maine Magazine doesn’t come from ill-will towards the state, but from having grown up here in Cornish and feeling as though popular representations of Maine—unless they are penned or produced by Stephen King—generally fail to illustrate the darkness that is as characteristic of this state as its lightness.

When I first heard the story about the corpse, before I realized that the body was from a hastily transplanted cemetery, I was curious to know who had been found. Not long ago, my friend Jeremy — an amateur historian and fellow appreciator of the grotesque — had come by and we recalled all the great things about growing up here: the endless Summer, Spring and Autumn nights outside where we were seemingly unmonitored at all times, fond memories of teachers and classmates, and everything else inherent in recollections of warm childhood memories. The conversation, as it always does, inevitably turned to the aforementioned dirty laundry — to the two young men who, as boys seemed ever present and seemingly lawless and terrifying, and who went to Florida with a friend, all of whom were shot to death in a skirmish that appeared to some to be a violent setup. We recalled the murder of an elderly woman on Long Pond Road back in the 80s, where a young sociopath smashed her poor face in during a thrill-kill. In less sinister, though equally off-putting tales, we remembered friends who died prematurely — young members of the military who had taken their own lives, a homeless classmate who burned to death in his car. For all of the beauty our memories housed, we were also confronted with a good deal of insanity.

What always struck me about this town is how vast it is, and the vastness of the larger region it is connected to. When I was in school, some kids would spend hours on the bus ride home, as they lived miles and miles from the school. And while there is some police presence, it generally feels lawless, like you can do anything you want as long as you don’t bother anyone else. Only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I often refer to Cornish as a libertarian’s paradise. The attitudes of the townspeople seem to match that feeling too. I worked at a local restaurant without papers starting at age twelve. A few years later, at another restaurant, I remember one patron who would store his sizable life savings in a backpack, and order a few cans of beer to go before getting into his truck to go plow the snow with his young kids in tow. One group of my friends, all brothers and sort of like the Hansons from Slapshot — violent goons, but handsome, charismatic and insanely smart — brought Hell to wherever they traveled by Chevy van. One time I revealed to my father that it was suspected by many that a local merchant was a child molester and he said, “This town will probably handle it how it used to be done — with a knife to the throat and a body buried in the woods, no questions asked.”

A while back I watched Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik’s film adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel, and a number of people had told me to brace myself as the portrayal of a girl pitted against a violent, back woods meth gang in a small rural town was a brutal one. I was surprised when its beautiful scenery, and the portrayal of its strong and complex lead juxtaposed against equally complex and abstract neighbors — some dark and some terrifying — resonated with my memories of the town I grew up in and have since moved back to. That took place in the Ozarks, sure, but I felt at home in that beautiful and terrifying universe. I saw in that film the Cornish that existed in my imagination, and occasionally in reality — a flower as beautiful as it is thorny and poisonous.

Cornish is basically exactly like Winter’s Bone, but with better antique shops, an Apple Festival, and on the occasion, a scarier cast of characters.

Photo Credit: “Cornish, 1937” via Maine Memory

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.