North Bridgton’s Mystery Man

Prepared by Michael J. Davis

Regarding scholars at Bridgton Academy, ““Some were highly gifted, some were handicapped, all were interesting, and one was no less than mysterious...”

  • A Brief History of Bridgton Academy

Our subject today is a local character who briefly called Bridgton home back at the turn of the last century.  While he only lived in Bridgton for a few years, the events which took place during his time here made such a mark on our community that he has since attained something of a mythic place in local history.  And, as is always the case mythic figures, he had also earned an equally dramatic title; the Mystery Man of Bridgton Academy.  Our research on this project is ongoing, and while many questions still remain what we’ve uncovered so far is, well, intriguing doesn’t really do it justice.

N.B.  As a brief aside before we get started, while it is customary for historical essays to favor an anti-personal style of reporting, I will be breaking from my customary style in this instance only.  This essay is the product of extensive private research and much of the basis of it was begun long before I was first requested to prepare a series of articles on North Bridgton history.  As such I have elected to present it from my own perspective, to the hoped-for effect that my readers will get the chance to “go-along” with me as we uncover more about our missing man.  I hope that I have done the story justice, and that I will be able to expand on my research in a future paper.

What we’re looking at in this paper started off as an ‘unexpected houseguest’ kind of story.  On a cold evening in Mid-September, 1900, a man appeared at the narrow gauge railway station in North Bridgton and walked suitcase-in-hand up the hill and onto the grounds of Bridgton Academy.  He went up to Academy Hall and requested to see Headmaster Spratt.  What he said to him in their conversation behind closed doors is unknown, save that he came bearing the recommendation of one of BA’s former headmasters, the eccentric poet Isaac Bassett Choate, then living in Boston.  The man walked out of the headmaster’s office as the newest enrolled student at Bridgton Academy.

Four years later, just after graduation, he would be dead, and when his closest friends buried him at a private ceremony in North Bridgton even they didn’t know who he was.  We’re calling this story; the Case of Berkeley Thorne.    

Now, down to research.  What do we have in the archives?

A 1901 Academy Student Catalogue,

A faded photo album,

A dusty pamphlet of local history,

A death certificate from Boston,

A grave in Bridgton.

What do these things have in common?  What binds them together?

Stories of England, France, Germany, Switzerland, and China.  Stories of Boston, Chicago, Galveston, San Francisco, and our very own North Bridgton.

A splintered walking stick, a tattered restaurant matchbook, a Columbian World’s Fair programme.  Echoes of memories made faint by decades, all left behind by a vanished person who lived in an equally vanished world.

Berkeley Thorne.

Who was Berkeley Thorne?  Well, that’s a question that even those who knew him asked, and it’s a question he never answered.  When he arrived here in September, 1900 and took up residence as a boarder at the home of Luther Monk in North Bridgton, he wouldn’t tell anyone where he was from.  All he allowed was that he’d come from Boston, but people knew he couldn’t have been raised there.  He talked too softly, with a hint of an accent that spoke of a European upbringing, if not also birthplace.  He didn’t look old, but he wasn’t young either and in comparison to his classmates at the Academy he was certainly at least a decade older, if not more.  Most people guessed that his age was somewhere in the early 30’s, though some swore he must be at least 40 while others seemed convinced he was somewhere in the 20’s.  For his part, he never answered the question directly.  As for his name, while he maintained that Berkeley Thorne was truly his own, no one very much believed that.  It was too outlandish, too unheard of, and it didn’t help that he never seemed to care how anyone spelled it.  Berkeley with one E, two, or even three didn’t seem to bother him, and we have seen examples that many people, including school officials, seem to have had different ways of spelling it.  He didn’t always spell it the same way either, which was strange because his spelling and grammar were notably excellent.

His closest friend, at least in proximity, was one Guy Monk, then 14, son of Luther Monk.  Because Berkeley was boarding with them – this was back in the days when BA didn’t have its own dorms and students had to pay their way with families in the village – Guy was soon able to jot down a list of everything he knew about the strange person who’d so suddenly taken up residence in their home, one door down the hall.  From these notes Mr. Monk would, fifty years later, prepare a small pamphlet about Berkeley, which today stands as the only account of his life made by one who knew him.  Mr. Monk graciously allowed portions of this pamphlet to be quoted in Ernest Stevens’ Brief History of Bridgton Academy, and in the main we will draw from these selections, though there are a few points where have been forced to quote from the original essay.  Its copyright status being unknown at this time, we are unable to here print a complete rendition, but the passages we have selected are those we have deemed most interesting and important.  These selections notwithstanding, if you are curious about the further details of his life we encourage you to pick up a copy of the pamphlet if you can find it – we have seen them turn up occasionally at local yard-sales – or stop by Bridgton Academy or the Bridgton Historical Society to view the copies kept there on file.  I have used this pamphlet, and certain photographs kept in the Academy archive, as a starting point for a line of inquiry which has culminated thus far in over a year of research, during which time I have written the national museums of England, Switzerland, and the United States, physically travelled down to Boston, and spent countless hours pouring over stacks of manuscripts and imported scans in search of this elusive figure.  In conclusion, I have determined that the reason Berkeley Thorne is not easy to find is because, quite simply, he did not want to be found.

Berkely’s physical description was short; “a man of uncertain age, six feet tall, about 170 pounds, round face, blue eyes, sandy complexion, reddish brown hair, very thin on top and always clipped short… Thorne’s language, manners and tastes indicated refinement.  He neither smoked nor used profanity.  On rare occasions we might detect the faint odor of liquor, probably used for medicinal purposes.  While his wardrobe was limited in quantity, the quality, throughout, was the best, and he always looked immaculate.”

The odd figure which Berkeley Thorne was naturally posed a question for the students of Bridgton Academy; his background uncertain, his motivations unknown, and his given identity highly dubious.  He gave evidence of having traveled in Europe, he knew more about China and the customs of its people than anyone thought he should, and somewhere or other he had picked up “a plate bearing a coat of arms, which he said belonged to the Duke of Martinique.”  He gave the impression of a man of the world, but was not keen to discuss his past with anyone who asked.  “He was always courteous to his fellow students, but never chummy.  He held himself aloof from the social life of the school.”

Thorne was put up in a second floor room in the old Monk place, a room he soon filled with books and many “strange ornaments.”  So great was his collection of books that four months after his arrival, Luther Monk was obliged to install an entire new bookshelf in Thorne’s room just to contain them all.  A dedicated scholar, he read extensively and spent many nights up late, “burning the midnight oil” at work over his textbooks, which he paired with an eclectic mix of philosophy, foreign history, and poetry.  One of his favorite poems was the Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam, “which he often quoted,” and it is here that the first link in the chain leading to Berkeley’s past was forged. 

The Rubiyat is a long-form Persian poem translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald, first published in 1859.  A beautiful and haunting piece, Fitzgerald’s artful translation tells the story of the Astronomer-Poet of Persia, Omar Khayyam, after his quest to find meaning in the world through religion fails and he is left to wonder on the meaning of the human condition.  Written sometime in the 12th century, Omar’s skepticism and epicurean philosophy captivated the minds of his readers in the 19th century, and by the late 1880’s, following the third edition’s first publication in America, “Omarism” had become something of a cultural phenomenon.  Capturing perfectly the dreamy feelings of the fin de siècle period, the belief that with the end of the century had come a state of decadence and growing disillusionment, the Rubiyat quickly entered into popular culture and influenced the works of countless other poets and authors during this period.  One of whom, a poet and educator living in Boston, was named Isaac Bassett Choate.

Originally from Bridgton’s neighboring town of Naples, where he been raised in his youth, he had attended Bowdoin College and served as Headmaster of Bridgton Academy in 1873 before removing to Boston to write educational textbooks.  When the Rubiyat started making waves on the American literary scene, Choate – described in the BA History as “a gentle, retiring scholar and a poet” – was captivated.  We have found evidence that his fascination with the rubai quatrain style of poetry (AABA) dates back to at least 1892, when he published a poem named simply “A Turkish Ruba’I” in the Ladies’ Home Journal.  This style seems to have predominated amongst his published poems for the remainder of the decade, culminating in his publication of a slim volume, “Obeyd, the Camel Driver,” in the autumn of 1899.  This piece is wholly in the tradition of Omar Khayyam; recognized by Mukhtar Ali Isani in his 1977 study “The Vogue of Omar Khayyam in America” as having been an “experiment” into “the philosophy of Omar” and “an excursion into the FitzGeraldian metre.”  In his own time, Choate’s poetical magnum opus was praised in both America and England, where the London Academy described it as “A most laudable attempt… in the modern cult of Omar Khayyam,” with its “rich material of tragedy, comedy, and humbug.”

Berkeley Thorne, before coming to Bridgton Academy in the autumn of 1900, had been living in Boston, and Monk tells us that while there he had worked as a waiter.  When he left BA over summer break in 1901, he didn’t tell “the folks his plans, but we assumed he might be working as a waiter.  He remarked once that he had been a waiter at the Touraine Hotel.  The Touraine at that time was the finest hotel in Boston.  Thorne said the tipping was so good that waiters were glad to work without wages.”  This off-hand comment allows us to place Berkeley Thorne in Boston as early as 1900, just months after Isaac Bassett Choate’s Obeyd the Camel Driver was published there.  Knowing that Thorne had a deep love of Omar Khayyam’s poetry, it is not difficult to assume that he would have read the work of a fellow Boston “Omarite,” especially when we learn that Choate frequented the Touraine during the time Berkeley worked there.  The Hotel Touraine was noted for, beyond such traits as the quality of its architecture and the excellence of its food, the strange decision by the hotel’s managers to install a full reading library on the ground floor, just outside the restaurant.  Consequently this library became the frequent after-dinner gathering place for many of the Touraine’s more scholarly minded guests, whereat they would often discuss the new books then circulating in the city.  Its academic popularity is plainly seen in the fact that in 1903, no less than the esteemed Tavern Club held a meeting there, among whose members numbered Mark Twain, Arlo Bates and, significantly, Elihu Vedder, the very illustrator for FitzGerald’s American edition of Rubaiyat.  Mr. Choate himself describes some of these languid after-dinner meetings in a short piece which appeared in the Fredonia Weekly Herald of Feb. 28th, 1902, wherein he revealed that “a couple of years ago” [i.e. 1900] he used to play cards in Boston with an old man “who has for years been in the hotel business.”  This same issue, focusing on the hotels of Boston, even features a letter from a woman who had stayed at the Touraine in 1900, which other than giving a description of the “magnificent hotel” also describes a very handsome “unknown whistler” who “passed our table as we were at dinner.”  Could this be Berkeley at his job as a waiter?  Likely not, though it is an amusing thought.

Levity aside, there is very little doubt in my mind that it was amongst this circle of authors, poets, and philosophers, all gathered together and having dinner at the very restaurant where Berkeley worked, where he must have made the acquaintance of Mr. Choate, then the toast of Boston for his work in the Khayyam school of poetry which Berkeley loved so well.  Guy Monk notes that Berkeley lived his life in a way which accords very well with the agnostic beliefs promulgated amongst the Omarites, for “to the best of my recollection, he never went to church,” carried about him “the faint odor of liquor,” and also frequently read Elbert Hubbard’s “little magazine, the Philistine, from which he often quoted.”  Hubbard, “that strange philosopher, dreamer, and genius” who founded the Roycrofters, was then the US publisher for FitzGerald’s Rubiyat, and Guy notes that “It may have been the life and writings of Elbert Hubbard that inspired Thorne to return to school, in middle age.”  Driven by the curious strains of Khayyam’s poetry, and motivated by this new school of thought towards self-improvement, it seems no wonder that, after meeting Choate in Boston, it was not long before Thorne received a letter from Choate urging him to go to Maine and take up school at Bridgton Academy.  We know they discussed this, and while we may never know the exact details of the after-dinner conversations which must have passed between them, it is clear that somehow Choate came to know of Berkely’s desire to “study mathematics and science and eventually take the entrance exams for Harvard.”  Choate, a lifelong educator, knew just where he should go.  Guy notes “the fact… that he came to the Academy on the recommendation of Isaac Bassett Choate, then a well-known teacher and writer in Boston.”  And so it was that in mid-September, 1900, Berkeley left his job at the Touraine and boarded the Boston and Maine Express at North Station, bound for Bridgton.  He arrived a few days later on the Bridgton and Saco River Railroad, having made the switch at the Maine Central Railroad spur at Hiram.  Berkeley Thorne had come to Maine.

But where, I wondered, had he lived before this?  Boston certainly, likely near the Touraine, but where exactly?  What was his story before 1900?  How did he come to know so much about the world?  Luckily, it turned out that I was not alone in having wondered this.  Zoe Silvia, daughter of the last librarian of the North Bridgton Public Library, asked the same question three years ago, and recognizing that he lived in Boston in 1900 she had the good sense to check for his name in the 1900 decadal census.  I am indebted to her research on the census for the following information, and I am pleased to report that on the subject of Thorne in Boston I have followed out and made further developments upon the line she first established in 2016.

In the 12th Census of the United States, State of Massachusetts, Suffolk County, Boston, Ward 7, Precinct 2, we find the entry for one “Rabuffetti” family.  The Rabuffetti’s were a family of Italian immigrants who lived at 82 Warrenton Street, and the 1912 Boston Directory shows that they made their living operating their home as a “lodging house” for borders passing through the city.  In 1900, when the Federal Census takers had canvassed the whole of Boston, these lodgers had been recorded.  The entry for the Rabuffetti family is very long, running to 18 persons, all living in the same apartment block.  First comes Caesar, then 37 years old and listed as Head of Household, then his wife Lucia, followed by his daughter and four sons and two nephews.  Then come nine more names, many of them also from Italy, with a smattering of others representing various American states.  But I had no eyes for them.  There, looking back at me in faded black ink, was the name I sought.

“Berkley Thorn – Lodger”

It was him.  Decidedly less ‘E’s in the name, that was certain, but I soon found confirmation. Moving across his entry to the column for Occupation, Trade, or Profession, there it was: “Waiter,” recorded June, 4th 1900, exactly when he was known to be living in Boston and working as a waiter at the Touraine. 

But what was he doing there?  What was his life like with this adoptive family?  Were they close?  Well, as fate would have it, the strange household of Caesare Rabuffetti and his many boarders are not unknown to history, nor has the story of their lives in Boston, 1900 been entirely lost.  The Rabuffetti family was used as a case study on turn-of-the-century immigrant homes by Ernesto R. Milani in his “Notes for a History of Emigration from Albizzate to the United States,” lately included as a contribution to Sabatino Alfonso Annecchiarico’s Breve storia dei migrant albizzatesi, 2016.  In this essay Mr. Milani uses the Rabuffetti household of 82 Warrenton Street, Ward 7, Precinct 2 to illustrate a typical Italian home in turn-of-the-century Boston.

Milani writes; “Uncle Cesare is the cook while Aunt Lucia, in addition to domestic care, takes care of eleven "Bordanti," or individual emigrants who prepare meals, tidy up the rooms, wash and iron garments to round up family income.”  This is a snapshot of the lives of these “Bordanti,” the group of boarders that in 1900 included Berkeley Thorne.  This is how he spent his days in Boston, cleaning, folding laundry, and cooking meals to please the spare and frugal diet of the poor family he lived with.  We would see a flash of this experience shine through later, in Bridgton, in an episode when he once “Came into our kitchen with a can full of mushrooms which he wanted Mother to cook.  Mushrooms, to my mother, were just toad stools, and all toad stools were thought to be poison.  He laughed at her fears and finally, under his directions, she prepared and served them.  He suffered no ill effect, so they must have been edible.” 

Another crucial fact learned from Milani’s paper is the fact that in 1900 one of Caesar’s nephews, Giulio, then worked as “a stocker in a hotel.”  Comparing this with the census records, we find that Gulio’s brother Virgil also worked as a “Kitchen Man,” and looking at the list of their boarders we find that three are listed as “Fireman (Hotel)” and two others besides Berkeley as “Waiter (Hotel).”  From Milani’s later description of Virgil we learn that he was associated with the Touraine, where he worked as the “cook’s assistant.”  Putting this paper and the census records together, another piece of the puzzle drops into place; Berkeley was able to get a job working as a waiter at the Touraine because almost all of the other boarders, and some of the Rabuffetti family themselves, were also working there.  Virgil had worked there since 1895, and was likely the force which brought his brother and the other boarders on as stockers and waiters when vacancies opened up.  Now we have context to better understand Berkeley’s familiarity with the thoughts of the other waiters; when he so familiarly says that all the staff “were glad to work” under the tipping arrangement, he says with from the authority of having personally known and lived with many of the other waiters at the time. 

But the census record does not stop there.  Not only does it list Berkeley’s name and profession, it also provides us with a spare list of his particulars, making this the most important document regarding Berkeley which has yet been found.  This census record is a window into his past.  He reported that he had been born in August, 1864, and was at the time of his last birthday 35 years old.  As this data was taken in June, this means that by the time he stepped off the train and began his career at North Bridgton he was fully 36 years old.  He reports that he had immigrated to the United States in 1888, but that he had not been naturalized to become a citizen.  He gives the amount of years he had been in the US as twelve, which implies a date of arrival between January and June of 1888, though the month is not specified.  The document also notes that, at least since being put up as a lodger in Boston, not a single month had passed during which he was unemployed, meaning he must have taken up Virgil’s offer very quickly.  Most notably, he gives his country of origin as Germany, though for reasons which will be explained later I believe this means that he had come to America from there and not, as the census-taker has written, that he was born there.  It will suffice for now to put a pin in the topic of Berkeley’s origins, which we will come back to later when we have more information at hand.

Still, this record tells is essential to understanding the story of Berkeley, and serves to confirm that he did not, originally, come from America.  He was foreign, as all the students at BA suspected, and regarding his time in our country I now had a fixed timeline.  Bridgton in 1901, Boston in 1900, and some unknown port of entry in 1888.  Twelve years of wandering around America before coming to Boston and picking up the story of his life where we know it began.  Returning again to Monk’s pamphlet, he furnishes us with some details which reveal another point in-between.

“He seemed to know a lot about the Chicago Fair.  He had dozens of folios of colored pictures of the buildings, grounds, and exhibits of the many nations represented.  Was he there as a tourist?  Was he a guide?  He never said.”  The Chicago World’s Fair, or World’s Columbian Exposition, had been held in Chicago in 1892 to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America, and was the largest exhibition ever put on in the country to date.  It remains the largest attended event in American history, having drawn in over its six month run over twenty-seven and-a-half million people.  Berkeley Thorne was one of them, which meant I now faced possibly the biggest “needle in a haystack” problem one could possibly imagine.  I would need to know more about him if I ever hoped to find him in Chicago.

Guy’s pamphlet revealed that several of Berkeley’s personal effects and papers ended up being given to the Monk family, but unfortunately their line seems to have removed from Bridgton sometime in the 1970’s.  Efforts to track down any surviving descendants who might have preserved anything else regarding Berkeley in the way of family stories have thus far proved unsuccessful, and as yet the letters I have written to possible relatives of Mr. Monk have gone unanswered.  It may be that no one now living still remembers Berkeley Thorne.  But there was another approach, much closer to home, and I am somewhat ashamed to say how long it took me to realize where to look.  Museums are places where the effects of the dead are preserved, and in our case it just so happened that upon his death, Guy Monk had given to the Bridgton Historical Society a large trunk full of his personal papers.  Over the intervening decades these have been systematically filed away in various collections in the museum’s vault, and upon looking up their reference numbers I found a vast frontier to research spread before me.  What, if anything, could Guy tell me about Berkeley beyond the contents of his well-worn pamphlet?

The result of these many hours spent combing through the Monk papers was singular.  Out of all the papers, letters, histories, and notes which he produced over the course of his life and later saw fit to preserve for us, I found only one further reference to Berkeley Thorne.  But what a reference it was.

In the Monk genealogy file, likely included there because it fits nowhere else, is a manila envelope containing 36 pages of typescript notes.  It is titled, “Confessions of an Agnostic,” and comprises something of a life’s work or memoir dictated by Guy Monk in the last year of his life, and recorded by self-professed “amateur typist” Ms. Hildred Campbell.  It is a meditation on the meaning of life, and appears to be an effort by Mr. Monk to come to terms with his lack of belief in any afterlife or deity with power over mankind.  By its very nature it is highly personal and Mrs. Campbell notes that it “is not for publication,” so we will refrain from quoting any portions of it here.  It will suffice to relate only that in his youth, he describes having been a firm believer in God, but that as he grew he came to doubt his faith and found insufficient the proofs offered him in scripture and the small church at North Bridgton.  Most notably, in many places throughout this memoir Guy Monk quotes in support of his doubts several passages from a book we have become very familiar with; the Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam.  This is no passing association either; in his pamphlet on Thorne, Guy notes regarding the books in Berkeley’s library “I read them all with great enjoyment.  There was less reading available to a country boy in those days, but more time to enjoy what we had.”  Immediately following this Guy describes Thorne’s fascination with the Rubiyat, and also mentions Hubbard’s philosophical works which “I read later and found very enjoyable.”  This alone seems evidence enough to connect Monk’s knowledge of the Rubiyat to Thorne, to say nothing of the great impact which the famed agnostic verses seem to have had on Monk’s development and ultimate worldview, but there is a further connection to make.  Throughout the manuscript there appear notes in a blue pen, written in a woman’s hand.  The title page dates these additions by Ms. Campbell to 1970, and in the main these editorial marks are used to correct mistakes in grammar or typing.  Occasionally however, Ms. Campbell uses them to add words, include new sentences, or better explain a concept Monk is describing.  It is my belief that, as she was writing this by dictation, she and Guy must have read through it at the end and these are the additions which Mr. Monk felt he needed to make.  In part six of the paper, which asks the question “Is Man a Free Moral Agent,” Guy offers as evidence the longest passage he would quote from the Rubiyat.

“For in and out, above, about, below,

‘Tis nothing but a magic shadow-show, etc…”

He gives eight lines in total, or two Rubai, which he signs “Omar K.”  Below this, in Campbell’s secretarial hand, she has penned the name “B.T. Thorne,” as if in attribution.  Ms. Campbell could have had no knowledge of Berkeley Thorne on her own; this must be a note by Guy himself intended to explain something further about the origin of the passage.  I remembered again the line from his pamphlet, “One of [Thorne’s] favorite poems was the Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam, from which he often quoted.”  Might not this have been one of the wise lines which Berkeley so often pronounced to impress and startle his classmates?

I was so pleased at this initial discovery that it took me some minutes to realize its importance.  This was a full name.  A name with a middle initial.  B.T. Thorne.  Berkeley T. Thorne.  Mr. Monk, that great North Bridgton historian, had just given me my clue from fifty years beyond the grave.  One final service to the interest of history in Bridgton.  If I was to plunge into the polyglot crowds of 1890’s Chicago, then the fifth largest city in the world, this was all the help I was going to get.  I began with a letter to the Chicago Historical Society, then a second to Erik Larson, author of the groundbreaking “Devil in the White City,” one of the best descriptions of the Columbian Exposition ever written.  While waiting for his response, Chicago’s historians got back to me, and to their credit the archivists at the Chicago History Museum and Newberry library did a wonderful amount of research work, though sadly the employment records of the Exposition have not survived, and no attendance sheets were ever taken.  After weeks of looking I had to call the search off.  Likewise Mr. Larson, besides the observation that Berkeley Thorne “has got to be an assumed name, it’s too perfect!” was unable to find anything in his research material which even mentioned a Thorne. 

I sat down to prepare a timeline of all I knew about Berkeley.  If his report to the census takers in 1900 was accurate, he had left Europe and come to America in 1888.  We know he was in Chicago in 1893 for the Worlds Columbian Exposition, but was he there earlier?  At the time Berkeley arrived in America, Chicago was swiftly growing in size, and at a rate which made many say it would soon become the largest city in the United States.  News reports of the era made much out of this fact, and told of the many opportunities for work which could be had there.  I asked myself, might Berkeley have gone to Chicago in advance of the Columbian exposition?  Might he have lived there, worked there, before 1893?  I hoped so, because if he had, the prospect of 1890 loomed up before me.  With two years to reach it, could Thorne have lived in Chicago in time for us to reproduce our earlier breakthrough?  Could the decadal census to save us for a second time?  

Sadly, inquiry with the National Archives proved this avenue likewise a dead end, though for a different reason.  In researching the life of Berkeley Thorne there are often points where I, like Mr. Monk seventy years earlier, must pause and consider that I may never find the answer I seek.  I must, in the face of overwhelming odds, admit that it is likely there are some answers I will never know.  But this hurdle is unique.  Regarding the 1890 Federal Census, and Thorne’s possible place within it, I can say with absolute certainty that no one will ever be able to find out if he was in it.  This is because, in 1921, roughly 95% of the census records for 1890 were destroyed in a freak fire at the National Archives.  They were the only copy on file anywhere in the nation. 

I was stopped, and in disappointment I began to draw my research to a close, contenting myself with the re-assurance that at least I had found something further about Thorne, even if it was just a middle initial.  But then, as if by way of providence, I received a new letter from the Chicago History Museum.  Though I may have been done with Thorne, it seemed that he was not yet done with me, for the archivists in Chicago had, it seemed, not concluded their search after I called it off.  They were writing to tell me that, although they had found nothing on him, there was a bank of data on file which might contain his name, and that I was free to look through if I liked.

The story goes that, with Chicago then growing at the fastest rate in its history to date and on track to hold the title as the fifth largest city in the world by the time of the Fair, City officials in the 1880’s were at a loss for how to document the rapidly expanding population.  The enumerations of the census takers were only good every ten years, and weren’t being made public, and the city directories were by their very design flawed and only caught the names and addresses of business owners in the city.  But there was another catalogue of names and dates being taken during this window; every two years the city of Chicago conducted Voter Registration – a process which, in theory, should have accurately canvassed the whole of every neighborhood in the city for the names and addresses of new residents.  These registration tables were not intended to be saved, and indeed most of them were thrown away or sent to the paper mills during the early 1900’s, but in the late 1980’s an amateur genealogist went looking through the archives of the Cook County Building on a hunch and, in a back room of the Voter Registration department, stumbled upon twenty handwritten ledgers crated for storage amongst other long-forgotten administrative records.  These twenty ledgers proved to be a collection of voter registration tables comprising several hundred thousand prospective Illinois voters, compiled for the years of 1888, 1890, and 1892.  Perhaps most importantly, these records were primarily those of citizens residing in the city of Chicago and its surrounding towns of Lake View, Lake City, and Hyde Park.  By the time of the Exposition in 1893 Chicago had consumed these other towns in its ravenous outward expansion, meaning that for the years 1888-1892 a partial database of Chicago’s residents existed.  This collection was, appropriately enough, named the 1890 Chicago Census Supplement, and had been digitized as part of a greater national attempt to reconstruct the missing material of the 1890 Federal Census.  Fate, it seemed, was on my side once again.  What a chance encounter!  It was an opportunity that I could not let go unexplored.

While these ledgers had not been properly indexed online, I did receive a link to the digital collection of their archival scans from the archivist.  The twenty books had been compiled together into three separate collections, one for each of the three years available, and so far as I could tell the pagination of the books in each collection was cohesive, with each volume picking up in series where the one before it left off.  As the books were handwritten there was no plaintext, and a quick check revealed that the digital scans were not searchable.  I could tell the archivist was trying to be optimistic when he told me that I could look through them page by page, if I wanted. 

I had a job to do.

Believing that it was unlikely Thorne had made his way to Chicago in 1888, the same year he had first arrived to America, I began with the Voter registration collection of 1890, the year of the destroyed census.  First page, nothing.  Second page, nada.  Third page, zip.  It was going to be a long night.  Undeterred, I pressed on.

By the time I’d hit the 100th page I was starting to have my doubts.  Somewhere in the mid 200’s these doubts became nagging little voices as page after page of meaningless names flashed by forty at a time.  It didn’t help that the registrar had, in some ultimate gesture of supreme peevishness against historians, elected to pen their records in cursive.  I began to hate the job, but there was no other way.  Even if he wasn’t here, I had to know for sure.

Finally, on page 382, I found relief.  It was well-past midnight now, and my eyes were beginning to film over from the effects of the over-exposed scans’ stark white-on-black contrast.  I felt like the sufferer of some modern, digital analogue of that dreaded snow-blindness common in old arctic explorers.  It had gotten so bad that I almost missed the entry the first time around, given the faintness of the pen.  I wiped the rheum from my eyes and checked again, bleary and doubting.  Could it be? 

Yes, there it was.

Entry number 20 on page 382 of the 1890 Record of Persons Registered and of Poll Lists of Voters for the City of Chicago, Northern District of Illinois.

Thorne, B.T.

There he was.  I’d picked the thread of Berkeley T. Thorne out of the web of history once again, and now I’d found him happily dwelling in Chicago’s Administrative District 1, Ward 32, Precinct 10.  The date was October 14th, 1890.  Another piece of the puzzle had fallen into place.

The page, divided at the top into columns of information and down the side into lines of prospective voters, told me much about Berkeley’s particulars.  Column eight told me he’d been in the Precinct only seven months, putting his arrival in Chicago sometime in March of 1890, but columns nine and ten showed he’d claimed a term of residence in both Cook County and the entire State of Illinois for an entire year, indicating he’d arrived in the Prairie State sometime in late 1889, roughly a year after his immigration.  It also showed that his place of previous residence was Wisconsin, where he must have lived during the first two thirds of 1889.

In support of Thorne’s travels in the northern mid-west during this period, I have found evidence which may indicate he briefly stayed in Michigan, perhaps on his way to Illinois.  The collections of the American Antiquarian Society hold the files of the Daily Inter Ocean, a Chicago newspaper, which during 1889 made a weekly column out of tracking Chicago’s newly arrived citizens by publishing the guest-book entries from nearby area hotels and boarding houses.  On July 28th, 1889, Plank’s Tavern in St. Joseph Michigan received an incredible number of guests who listed Chicago as either their place of origin or intended destination.  Buried in the midst of all these names, sandwiched between “L.S. Lynch” and “Mr. and Mrs. T.B. Pettibone,” is one “B. Thorne.”  Maybe this is Berkeley?  Who can say?  Even with so unique a name, tracking Thorne through the years has been very difficult, and some of the most vital documents still elude me.  Despite diligent research into the arriving passenger lists of Boston Harbor and New York’s Castle Garden center, the two primary immigration centers in America during the 1880’s, I have been unable to find any record of Thorne’s immigration.  Perhaps they have not survived.  Nevertheless, just as the Census of 1900 preserved the year of his immigration, the 1890 Chicago Voter Registration sheet helps to fill in some of the missing document’s particulars.  Under the column for Naturalized, I found the record-keeper had firmly written: No. 

So he wasn’t a U.S. citizen.  Well, I guess that made sense.  If his name really was assumed, he wouldn’t have had much in the way of paperwork when he arrived.  Running from a life abroad, he wouldn’t have been able to meet the credential threshold for naturalization even if he’d wanted to; a thing I was beginning to suspect he didn’t.

But in Chicago in 1890 he’d applied to be registered as a voter, lack of citizenship not-withstanding, and looking down the list of others who had filed alongside him it appears that citizenship in the United States was not a great concern in those days as regarded eligibility to vote in Chicago’s elections.  Many who were not citizens and were still allowed to vote, though there were also several columns on page 392 where an authority could make a mark of disqualification for various causes.  None of these appear on Berkley’s entry.  There is no stay in his file from either the circuit or superior courts of Cook County.  There are no marks indicating any run-ins with the law and the category of Disqualified is not checked, nor are there any comments in the remarks box from the registrar himself.  Still, unlike most of those who were with him, the last box on Thorne’s line is different.

Under the heading, “Voter,” the answer read “No.”

He’d been denied, and issued no Ballot number.  And unless my following day spent pouring through the 1892 collection is in error, it does not appear that he ever tried to register again either. 

But there was one final piece of information available on the registration sheet of Berkeley Thorne, and it is one which I valued above all others.  It may have even been the reason he’d been denied, but even if that is true it’s of secondary importance.  Under residence, the registrar had recorded an address.  Moreover, it was an unusual address.  Admittedly, at least two of the other people on the page who had been similarly rejected had also provided an unusual address, but there were none quite like Thorne’s.  His address was not a numbered house or even an apartment block; merely the oddly vague description “South East end, East 54th Street.”  Not much to go on, but it gave me a neighborhood to start looking at.  Hyde Park, 1890. 

I didn’t expect to find much linking Thorne with this area. As it turns out, pulling up a map of the area, I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Chicago is laid out in a grid, and this grid on its eastern end runs directly into the shore of Lake Michigan.  In the Hyde Park neighborhood, which encompasses the eastern shoreline, a large portion of this shore had been set aside as a public park, named Jackson Park.  Jackson Park is linked to another park about eight blocks deeper into the city, Washington Park, by a long greenspace called the Midway Plaisance.  The geography of this neighborhood is very important to understanding Berkeley’s address.  It was in Jackson Park, on the lakeshore, that the Columbian exposition was held in 1893.  The Midway Plaisance was then turned into a carnival, and is the origin of the word Midway, and at the opposite end Washington Park was also used for some Fair activities, and also for recreation for many of its guests.  Importantly, East 54th street also connects with Washington Park, and runs parallel to the Midway Plaisance just five blocks north of it.  It connects with the famous Lake Shore Drive just two blocks above Lincoln Park, quite literally within sight of the grand exposition hall.  During the Fair, many of the homes along the Midway Plaisance, East 58th street, 57th, 56th, 55th, and 54th streets all opened their homes as makeshift boarding houses for those visitors to Chicago who wanted to stay within walking distance of the Exposition.  If Berkeley lived as he said he did on the south east end of East 54th street, this would have meant he was staying almost directly opposite Promontory Point directly above the World’s Fair, and in the same block of houses which fronted on the main highway into the fairgrounds, Lake Shore Drive.  A better place to live during fair-time you simply couldn’t imagine.  No wonder he’d attended it so regularly; every morning he woke up he could simply and look out the window to see the gleam of the White City and the slow-turning arch of Ferris’ giant Wheel, and he’d have hear the fireworks and naval cannons on Lake Michigan every night before going to sleep. 

It must have had a tremendous impact on him, all the more so when we consider that at this Fair, nearly all the nations of Earth, and indeed all of the European ones, had operated booths introducing their culture and showing off the many developments of their countries.  Wherever Berkeley was from; Germany, England, Switzerland, he would have been able to see a taste of home once again from within the safe anonymity of a crowd of millions.

There was another detail about Berkeley’s Chicago life that had me wondering; Monk wrote that on one occasion, a package addressed to Thorne had arrived for the Monk household containing a rather unique memento;

“About this time [1903] a large crate arrived at the depot, by express, addressed to Berkeley Thorne. When it was delivered and opened, it proved to contain the strangest article we had ever seen. It was a huge vase or jardinière, about three feet tall. It was made of a material which Thorne called Satsumaware. The outside was covered with Chinese scenes and a dragon, all embossed in gold. This object d’art came to rest beside the fireplace in our parlor, where it remained about a year. Then it was crated again and sent to Boston. As Thorne was then short of money, we assumed he sold it, but we never knew. To say it attracted attention and excited curiosity would be an understatement. Nevertheless, our curiosity had to be satisfied with these meager facts. According to Thorne, this vase was one of a pair sent to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892, as part of the Chinese Exhibit. As to its value, he claimed Mrs. Potter Palmer, a wealthy Chicago society woman, paid $1500 for its mate. How he came by it, or what he paid for it, he never said.”

Mrs. Palmer, one of the organizers and lead funders for the Exhibition, lived in a grand estate on Lake Shore Drive and quickly made a name for herself in Chicago and America at large as a patron of the arts.  The Chicago History Museum has photographs from the inside of her lavish mansion, and while none of these photographs contain the vase in question the archivist there was able to pass along a description a large Chinese vase Mrs. Palmer once bought at auction, which I reproduce here;

“Grand Temple Vase, bottle form, with an elaborate color decoration painted in relief.  Every object on this remarkable vase has been modeled in relief before painting.  The body is of the purest white and rose-pink, and the colors applied on the designs are of the most delicate as well as of the most positive tints; these are as gentle, or again as vivid, as when the vase came from the kiln; at the neck rim will be found in deep enamel the characters of Yung-ching, 1723-1736.  Two flying phoenixes complete this top decoration: below this ornamentation are immortals accepting gifts, or acts of adoration.  The white bearded figure of longevity is seated upon a deer.  In the treatment of this vase nearly all the colors employed by Chinese artists of the period have been used.  The body is illuminated with flying clouds, dragons, sacred storks, bats, and gorgeously dressed figures; the latter seem to be offering gifts and incense.  The base has a drawing of turbulent waves and foam.  The vase was created for a grand present, and the ideas of gilt-making and good wishes prevail in the elaborate illustrations.  It may justly be called a monarch in its class of decorative porcelains, a variety so widely esteemed by collectors in every land.  It has an elaborately carved stand with the symbols of good favor cut in relief.  Height and diameter, 21x14 inches.

If Monk’s childhood remembrances can account for the growth of the vase from just under two feet to “almost three feet,” then this may perhaps be a description of the vase, or rather the vase’s twin, which Mr. Palmer bought for his wife at the close of the Chicago World’s Fair. The pink and gold colors, phoenixes which Monk recognized as dragons; this is a close enough fit to perhaps be the vase in question.  What an “object d’art” indeed, and how funny it is to picture it sitting quietly beside the fireplace of a home in North Bridgton.  Interestingly, at the time this would not have been the only ancient Chinese relic then located in a house on Long Lake, but that is a story for another time.  It will suffice to say at this point that the story of Thorne and his connection with the Fair is, while still largely hidden from us, clear enough to understand.  Thorne comes to America in 1888, arriving somewhere on the East coast, perhaps Boston knowing his later affinity for it.  He then heads immediately for Chicago, soon arriving in Wisconsin where he stays through 1889 likely working odd jobs and staying at boarding houses to finance his trip.  In summer of 1889 he makes it to Michigan and arrives in Chicago by fall.  He sets himself up at a boarding house in Hyde Park by 1890, and given his proximity to the Fair and the truly staggering number of men the fair commission put to work building it, was likely employed in the construction of the World’s Columbian Exposition.  When the fair ends at the close of 1893 there is a blank spot in our narrative, but were we to continue investigation Monk mentions that Thorne had several blankets he received from a Navaho chief in Arizona, and also that a package once came for Thorne from Galveston, Texas which had been damaged in the flood of 1900.  From this we draw that he must have left for the American Southwest in 1894, where he stayed and worked until making his way back to Boston in 1900, taking up residence with the Rabuffetti’s.  While there he met Choate at the Touraine and the rest, as they say, is History.

This is the story of how Berkeley Thorne came to Bridgton.  If you are interested in this figure, and want to know more about him, what he did in Bridgton, and what his ultimate and untimely fate was, please stay tuned for a follow-up paper.  This investigation has produced more material, and has required more time, than any research product I have yet undertaken, and in my commonplace book of research notes I have charted out the remaining years of Thorne’s life, as well as attempted to pierce the veil which covers the bulk of his life before coming to America.  I believe I know where he went to school in Europe, I believe I know what country he was from, and I even believe that I know what his mystery initial stood for.  Furthermore, I understand the circumstances surrounding his death much better than Monk did, and have even read an obituary, written by someone who knew him, which I do not believe anyone still living has seen.

Part II of this paper is presently being written, and will hopefully be presented in the fall of 2020.  Perhaps one day I will make a pamphlet out of all of this which, together with Monk’s foundational work, will set up a question for some other future Bridgton historian to answer.  Even if that is all that comes of this, it will have been worth it, because the story of Berkeley Thorne is a story worth telling; it is a story of North Bridgton.  For the few years he spent here, Berkeley was one of our own, and at the end of his life this was the one place from among the thousands he had visited where he wished his bones to spend eternity.  What better a story could there be?

Mike Davis

Bridgton, 2019.

© 2020 by the North Bridgton Historical Society