If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home.
This week we’ll gather the Scooby Gang in the northeastern-most part of the United States to solve the mystery of The Phantom of the Maine State Library.
In the fall of 1991, employees at the Maine State Library in Augusta wondered if there was a ghost among the aisles. Odd things, like flashlights, extension cords, and food from the break room refrigerator (mainly pudding cups), were disappearing on a daily basis. At first, security thought the culprits could be some of the workers hired to remove asbestos from the building. But their suspicions changed when, overnight, two refrigerators and a candy machine were nearly cleaned out, and a handwritten note of apology was left behind. As the thefts continued without any signs of a break-in, it became clear that someone was living in the library.
Delores Pushard, the library’s business manager, claimed this had become such an accepted notion that employees were talking to the ceiling, telling “him,” "If you’re up there and you can hear us, if you need something, let us know." Meanwhile, security scoured the building, checking every nook and cranny, but were coming up empty. Finally, they looked behind a 1 1/2-foot by 2 1/2-foot panel on the third floor, designed to allow access to the bathroom pipes. It was here, in a cramped crawlspace with barely 5 feet of overhead clearance and temperatures that reached nearly 100 degrees, they found “The Phantom of the Library”: 20-year old Andre Jatho. As the frightened young man tried to hide from the guards, Jatho’s foot broke through a suspended ceiling tile, trapping him until he was apprehended.
Jatho, a former bookstore employee from Santa Clara, California, had traveled to Maine in the hopes of finding a better job. However, his money ran out along the way, and he had nowhere to live. Jatho soon met a mysterious accomplice who showed him the corridor in the library’s ceiling, saying it had served as a free place to stay before. The two men had lived in the ceiling until the accomplice moved out just a few days before the guards tracked them down.
Aside from pudding cups and flashlights, Jatho and friend had pilfered a TV, three VCRs, an electric fan, steak knives, coffee cups, a crock pot, an overhead projector, and movies and books from the library’s collection, including authors like Twain, Dickens, and Joyce. In addition, they used stolen mail bags to make hammocks that held them suspended above the ceiling so they could safely sleep all day before making their nightly raid for supplies.
Upon his arrest, Jatho was charged with felony burglary and theft. However, as he gave interviews with the press, the people of Maine were impressed by his soft demeanor and ingenuity, and began to see him as a sort of folk hero. The judge in the case acknowledged Jatho’s reputation in the community, and wound up only charging Jatho with criminal trespassing. He was given a suspended $500 fine and had to serve 25 hours at the local elementary school as a reading tutor.
After his release, Jatho hoped to stay, saying he’d been “treated very nicely” by the people of Maine. However, he wasn’t able to parlay his local fame into lasting employment, and went back home to California a few months later.
Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state? Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!
See all entries in our Strange States series here.