Mary “May” Cullen Brown
Bootlegger, Midwife, Photographer, Hero, and All-Around Good Person!
Daughter of Jim Cullen, New England’s Only Lynch Victim
Dena W. Winslow, Ph.D.
Copyright 2015 – All Rights Reserved.

mary cullen brown 1 

The little girl sat waiting in her uncle’s 1930’s car in front of the apartment complex in Fort Fairfield known locally as “The Syndicate.”  The building had once been the barracks for the soldiers during the Bloodless Aroostook War.  Her uncle was dating a young woman who lived there and she was waiting patiently for him to return from his visit with his sweetheart.  Suddenly, the car came out of gear and lurched forward beginning to roll down the hill towards Main Street.  She sat there terrified… unable to stop the vehicle which was gaining speed as it carried her toward certain death. 

Out of nowhere a tall thin woman with bright red hair stepped in front of the moving vehicle and, using what seemed like superhuman strength, stopped it from rolling any further.  That woman was May Brown.  May yelled for help and the girl was soon rescued from eminent danger.  That little girl never forgot the heroic woman who saved her life. 

Mary Cullen Brown the Syndicate

Barracks built during the Aroostook War in Fort Fairfield.  The building was later used as an apartment house.
Mary Cullen Brown the Decker BlockThe old barracks in Fort Fairfield can be seen at the top of the hill in this picture during the time it was being used as an apartment building known as the “Decker Block” or sometimes called, “The Syndicate.”

There were many other Fort Fairfield residents who also never forgot the tall red-haired woman whom many described as a local “character.”  People remember her fondly as a kind generous woman.  One person who remembered her said she was a “cherished and loved” woman.  She is also remembered as a hard-worker.  She cut seed for a local farmer, along with her husband, Frank Brown; and she did housecleaning for various businesses in town, including the Paramount Theatre and Towle’s Barber Shop.  Neighborhood children recalled that she used to make cookies for them.  Other folks recalled her delivering a few babies as a midwife.

The Depression Era when May was living in Fort Fairfield was a hardscrabble time and people made a living however they could.  For May and her husband Frank that living included bootlegging to supplement their meager income.  One informant, age 90, said that when she attended school as a child in 1931 or 32 they didn’t always plow the roads.  When a storm “came up” her mother had arranged for her to stay with May and Frank in town rather than trying to get home. 

She explained that when she wasn’t staying at their home, the window shades were down and lots of folks went in and out of the apartment.  However, when she was there, the shades were always up and no one came.  She said she never saw any moonshine nor it being sold, but she was not allowed to go into the cellar where she supposed the booze was manufactured or stored.  Bootlegging was a fairly common source of income during that period of time in Aroostook County so no one would have thought badly of May and Frank.

In addition to their other methods of supplementing the family income during the Depression, May and Frank also had a boarder named Percy Chambers.  During that time period, it was the usual custom for people in the community to get dressed up on a Saturday night and go downtown.  Percy would prop open his window in his room and sit a mirror on the window ledge and shave there.  While he shaved, he would “sing or actually shout rather than sing,” Rock of Ages – “like a preacher.”  Percy’s renditions provided amusing entertainment for the neighborhood.

May and Frank also kept a “beautiful garden” and canned and preserved vegetables, as many families did during that time.  One woman recalled that May had some “cherished chokecherry trees.”  In spite of the family poverty, May managed to eke out enough money to buy herself a camera.  Folks remember that she was the only person in the neighborhood who had one and she used to like to take pictures of the children.  So far as anyone knows, May never had any children of her own. 

It was generally known around town during her lifetime that May was the infamous Jim Cullen’s daughter, but no one ever spoke with her about it.  When May was a baby, on April 30, 1873 Jim Cullen, a twenty-six year old Irish man from Peel, New Brunswick became forever part of the folklore and legend of Northern Maine and nearby New Brunswick, Canada.  He was accused of killing Sheriff Granville A. Hayden and William Thomas Hubbard with an axe in a small woods camp in Chapman, Maine where they had gone to arrest him.  He was also accused of burning the camp where the bodies lay, in an effort to destroy the evidence of his crime. 

Two men, also in the camp at a location today referred to as “Bloody Half-Acre,” escaped the grisly scene.  They were John Swanback, who would later shoot his brother-in-law dead in nearly the same location, and twenty-year old Minot Bird.  The two men spread the alarm and soon armed citizens were searching for Jim.  He was eventually located hiding in the cellar of the home he shared with his wife, Rosella Twist Cullen, and their small children.  Rosella reportedly loudly told authorities, “He’s not here!” while pointing to the cellar where Jim was hiding, thus, giving him away.

Once captured, Jim was taken to David Dudley’s store in Mapleton where he was tied to a post for the remainder of the day as the curious and angry mobs squeezed in to have a look at the desperado.  By nightfall when the party left for Presque Isle with Jim securely tied to the floor of a farm wagon, everyone knew he would not arrive alive.  The gruesome tale of Jim’s lynching, the only lynching in New England, lives on in the folklore to this day through stories, songs, poems, and in historical research.

Jim Cullen left only one child following his untimely death, a baby daughter who inherited her father’s infamous bright red hair.  Mary “May” Cullen was born on September 7, 1872 and was seven and a half months old when her father was killed.  This is what is known of her previously untold story.

Mary “May” Cullen - Family

“May” Brown, as she was known during much of her life, along with her older half-brother Edward Oswell Twist, who was five years older than she, was raised by her father’s close friend Millard Fillmore in Mapleton, Maine.  When she was young, she was listed on the census as Mary M. Cullen.  The two children had another sibling, known in the folklore of the area as “Dummy Cullen” due to him being deaf and mute.  It is uncertain where this child lived during the time his siblings were living with the Fillmore family, however, later in life, he lived at the Presque Isle Poor Farm until his death.  The 1880 census lists Mary and Edward as “Paupers.”

Mary “May” Cullen appears to have been named after her grandmother, Mary Cullen, her father’s mother.  Mary Cullen, the grandmother, lived to be 105 years old.  When she died on December 28, 1900 in Blaine Maine, she was the oldest living woman in New England.  Mary the grandmother, was the first white child born north of Woodstock, New Brunswick when she was born, one of 11 children, the daughter of a Loyalist soldier who had served in the British army during the Revolutionary War.  She was born October 14, 1795.  Like her mother, she had 11 children.  The night Mary Cullen (the grandmother) died the church bell in Mars Hill tolled 105 times, once for each year of her life.

Family tradition tells that Mary (the grandmother) and her husband, Michael Cullen, were in the Miramachi fire of 1825.  This major forest fire in New Brunswick, Canada devastated about one-fifth of the forests in New Brunswick and cost the lives of hundreds of people.  Michael was working in the woods with an oxen and ran to the river where he found his wife, Mary, with their two children.  She had one of them strapped to her leg and an infant girl in her arms.  Mary (the grandmother) is reported to have had a remarkable memory even up to the time of her death which resulted from a fall.

In May of 1873, following the lynching of her husband, May’s mother Rosella was called to court, as reported in the local newspaper.  However, the paper gives no reason for her being called into court.  She was ordered to pay $300 which was quite a lot of money at that time.  Several citizens stepped up and paid the fine for her.  She was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “… my two little children are at home, and a deaf child, and no one to take care of them…”  The Carleton Sentinel in New Brunswick for May 3, 1873 reported:  “…Cullen was from the province, but had lived in Aroostook two years; he leaves a wife and one child.”  This would seem to indicate that May was Jim’s only biological child.

The existing records refer to both Edward Twist and Edwin Twist—both born about 1868.  So, it remains unclear if Edward and Edwin are one and the same or if they were twins, or perhaps one of them was a third child.  Based upon Rosella’s reported statements, it would seem there was a third child.  Census records in 1871 in New Brunswick indicated that Edwin R. Twist was also living with Jim and Rosella Cullen in Peel at that time.  Edwin Twist is listed in the 1900 census for Presque Isle as having a sawdust business.  If he is the same man, he would have been thirty-two years old at that time.  He was living in the same household with his mother and was reported to be single, having been born in September of 1867 in Maine.  His father was reported to have been born in “English Canada,” and his mother was reported to have been born in New York.  The census taker reported that Edwin could not read or write English but could speak English (which would seem to refute the possibility that he was the deaf and mute child); and that he had been doing day labor for the prior four months.  The family also had a boarder named Ethel M. Booker who was 25 years old and had been married for 7 years (although not to anyone living in that household at the time) with one child. 

In the same 1900 census, Rosella is listed as “Rose L Lavaway”.  She was listed as “head of Household” and her husband, Mike Lavaway, was listed as “husband,”  It was rare to see a woman listed as the head of the household at that time.  Rosella was 48 years old and reportedly had been married for 16 years.  The marriage record indicates that Rosella and Mike were married on October 31, 1883 in Presque Isle.  At that time, her last name was Goodwin – which would seem to indicate she had been married to a Goodwin before marrying Mike.  Her presumed fourth husband, Mike, was born in January 1855, so she was approximately three years and three months older than him.  He was born in “French Canada” of French parents and had lived in the United States for thirty-four years and had been naturalized.  He could not read nor write English but could speak it.  He had been employed for six months as a day laborer.

There is also a record of Rosella Cullins Hewett of Fort Fairfield who married in Andover, New Brunswick to William Hewett.  They were divorced in September 1921 and had no children from the marriage.  A document in the Probate Office in Houlton, dated February 20, 1922, indicates that this Rosella wanted to “take back her maiden name of Cullen,” and her request was granted.  Thus, it is possible that May’s mother married a fifth time to Mr. Hewett.  She would have been approximately seventy-one years old at the time she took back her name if this is the same woman.  It is also possible that another of the Cullen family had named a child Rosella, although no records of the second Roeslla have surfaced – if there was a second Rosella.

Edward Oswell Twist, May’s half-brother, died in Presque Isle on November 11, 1935 of cerebral thrombosis.  At the time of his death he was 67 years old, 1 month, and 17 days.  This places his birth date at September 25, 1868.  Thus, he was about 4 and a half when his step-father, Jim Cullen, was killed in 1873.

Rosella, May’s mother, was born in New York in August 1851.  According to the 1900 census, both of her parents were born in Maine and she could read, write, and speak English.  Her first husband, John Twist, was born in 1836 in New Brunswick, according to the 1851 census of Peel, New Brunswick.  In 1851 he was fourteen years old and living with the family of John Flannaghan where he worked as a servant.  Rosella and John were married sometime before 1871 when Rosella was living with Jim in Peel.   In the 1871 census for New Brunswick, Jim is listed as single, while Rosella is listed as married.  No divorce records have been located for Rosella and John Twist, so it is entirely possible that she was still married to John when she married Jim Cullen.

Rosella was fifteen years younger than her first husband, John Twist, and she was only seventeen years old when Edwin and/or Edward were/was born.  John eventually ended up in the Millinocket, Maine area and he also re-married.  According to family descendants he named his first daughter Rosella, after his first wife.  The 1880 census does show John in Woodville (located near Millinocket), Penobscot County, married to Ida Twist.  They had a 5 year old daughter, Ella Twist who would have been born in about 1875.  This “Ella” could be the daughter that the family tradition says was named after John’s first wife Rosella.

Jim Cullen was born about 1846, and was approximately 5 years older than his wife, Rosella.  At the time May was born, Jim was about 26 years old and Rosella was about 21 years old.  Rosella and Jim were married on August 2, 1871 in Presque Isle, a little over a year before May was born.  However, the couple had been living together in Peel, New Brunswick earlier in 1871 before they were married.

It is uncertain when and where May’s mother Rosella died, and is buried.  Her father was buried in an unmarked grave after his untimely death in 1873.  The site of Jim Cullen’s grave is today located not far from the Presque Isle airport runways at what was the town dump when Jim was unceremoniously buried there.

It is also uncertain when May married her husband, Frank Brown.  She had no known children.  She died on February 22, 1944 at age 72 years, 5 months and 15 days.  She died of malnutrition and senility due to a gastric ulcer and a gastrointestinal obstruction.  Her husband, Frank Brown, buried his wife in Perth-Andover, New Brunswick Canada in the Presbyterian Cemetery.

Mary Cullen Brown Headstone

May Brown’s gravestone in Perth-Andover, New Brunswick, Canada.

May lived in Fort Fairfield, Maine with her husband, Frank Brown in an apartment building that had previously been the barracks for the troops during the border war between Maine and New Brunswick.  She is shown here (top row to the right) in this 1930’s or 1940’s picture with a group of friends including Gertie Trask in front, Delia Florence and Helen Morrison in back with May.  May appears to be sucking on a lollipop.