Recently, I interviewed maritime expert Jeremy D’Entremont about his book Ocean-Born Mary: The Truth Behind a New Hampshire Legend. (Listen to the interview here.) The book details the items most likely based in fact about Mary’s ocean birth, the pirates and the ghosts surrounding the story and reveals the embellishments based purely in fiction.
With this Post Script interview we dig a little deeper into the importance of researching legends and Jeremy provides advice for those getting started in this kind of research.
Post Script: Researching Legends with Jeremy D’Entremont
MPL: Why did you think it was important to document which aspects of Ocean-Born Mary were true and which were fiction?
JD: I love legends and myths, but I think it’s important to try to separate them from factual history when we can. When we’re unsure of the dividing line between truth and fiction, I think we need to clearly say so. Also, it can be fascinating to trace the development of a legend over time, observing how embellishment is repeated to the point that it becomes “truth.”
MPL: Can you take us through the process of how you narrowed down which pirate was the most likely fit for the Ocean-Born Mary story?
JD: I had no preconceived notions about this. I simply went by contemporary newspaper accounts that showed a Scottish ship being attacked by pirates in July 1720, and determined that the captain, called “Thomas Roberts” in the accounts at the time, was, in fact, Captain Bartholomew Roberts. The only other strong possibility, as far as I can determine, would be Montigny LaPalisse, a French pirate who was possibly in command of a ship sailing with Roberts. I haven’t found any evidence that places any other pirate captain off the northeast coast around that time.
MPL: If someone were going to research a legend to determine the truth of it, what advice would you give to help get them started?
JD: The important thing is to assemble all the evidence first, without any preconceptions. I think it’s very similar a crime investigator would work by gathering evidence without any preconceived notions about how it all fits together. Scour every possible source and see where it leads you. These days you can do much research online, but you also need to get out to historical societies, libraries, and other repositories of old newspapers, genealogical publications, etc. It’s amazing what you can do on your computer from home these days, but you still need to get out in the field.
MPL: Ocean-Born Mary is based on a legend that combines both fact and fiction. In your research on historic lighthouses have you found similar legends? If so, do they tend to fall more into the realm of fact or fiction?
JD: Yes, I have run into some similar legends involving lighthouses. Sometimes it’s virtually impossible to prove or disprove some of the stories that have been passed down, but that’s where critical thinking becomes important. An example is the famous ghost story of Seguin Island Lighthouse in Maine. The story as it’s usually told involves a keeper’s wife who played the same tune over and over on the piano until it drove her husband insane, and he supposedly took up an axe and killed his wife and himself. It seems to me that if this was a true story, someone would have produced a newspaper account or other proof of it by now, but nobody has. But can I say that it absolutely isn’t true?; No, I can’t. It may have some basis in fact.
MPL: Have you ever discovered a legend, perhaps related to a lighthouse, where the true story was more interesting than the fiction?
JD: Hmmm… I’m not sure about that. But I will say that some of the true stories of rescues of shipwreck victims near lighthouses are as dramatic as any fiction. An example is a famous rescue carried out in January 1885 by Marcus Hanna, keeper of the Two Lights Station at Cape Elizabeth, Maine. He waded out waist-deep into freezing water during a blizzard to get a rope to two desperate, shipwrecked sailors, and he was able to get them safely ashore. Some of these true stories are so amazing that you would probably disbelieve them if they occurred in a novel or movie.
Direct link to blog post: http://www.FieldstoneCommon.com/researching-legends-jeremy-dentremont