Maine’s caves could tell some stories, if they were the talking sort. But they’re not saying a word.
Caves are nature’s secret-keepers, their recesses running deep and dark and silent, making them the perfect place to tuck things away. Caves shelter sleeping wildlife, stolen treasure, and jugs of Prohibition-era rum.
And sometimes, they hide people.
At Thorne Head Preserve in Bath, casual hikers and curious cave explorers might find themselves poking around the former hideout of a murderer.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Thorne Head Preserve is a 96-acre plot of land between Whiskeag Creek and the Kennebec River. It’s a quiet pocket of the city that feels removed from the bustle, even though it’s just a short drive from the grocery store. The property was purchased by the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust almost two decades ago and boasts a few miles of easy-to-moderate terrain that skirts wetland, rises through forest, and offers calming views of the Kennebec and beyond.
The Abenaki once gathered wild rice from these shores and early European settlers harvested the largest white pines for the King’s navy, according to KELT. Hikers can traverse the same waterfront on the 0.75-mile Narrows Trail. The Whiskeag Trail follows the creek and connects the preserve with the Bath Area Family YMCA (a total one-way trip of 5.1 miles).
The short and steep Mushroom Cap Trail features a unique sight: a mushroom-shaped stone sculpture, painted with colorful dots and plenty big to sit on. It’s a good spot to sit, too, and enjoy the scenic overlook. Both the Stone Steps Trail and Mushroom Cap Trail lead down toward the water’s edge, where you can sit and relax on the rocky shoreline and watch boats go by.
But there is something else noted on the trail guide that warrants attention. It’s a black dot just off the Ridge Runner Trail: Murderer’s Cave.
At first glance, Murderer’s Cave amounts to a neat, naturally occurring pile of really big rocks. It’s not a cavernous cave, the likes of which might harbor One-Eyed Willy’s pirate ship. But the opening belies the space behind it – to some extent, at least. It’s still small in cave terms, but there’s plenty of wiggle room inside. Or hiding room.
If you’re a Dateline watcher, or your imagination tends to bend toward the macabre, it’d be easy to dream up a slew of homicidal ways the cave got its name. A peek inside doesn’t offer any clues. Nothing but dried pine needles, lichen and a few flustered spiders who aren’t interested in human company.
The cave isn’t revealing anything. Luckily, Google is happy to share.
Back in 1883, this cave was the hideout of two “ne’er do well sailors” named Daniel Wilkinson and John Ewitt. On the night of Sept. 4, 1883, the duo attempted to rob the D.C. Gould Ship Chandlery and Provision Store in Bath. Constable William Lawrence (known to the townspeople as “Uncle Billy”) happened to be patrolling the area and came upon the two thieves as they ran from the building. Wilkinson pulled out a .32-caliber revolver and shot Constable Lawrence in the head, killing him.
Both Wilkinson and Ewitt fled the scene – Ewitt all the way to England. Wilkinson was captured less than a week later (accounts differ as to where he was captured – some say he hid out back in Murderer’s Cave, others report he was arrested in Bangor). Wilkinson was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging (all of the 21 people executed in Maine were hanged).
The death sentence was carried out at the Maine State Prison in Thomaston on Nov. 21, 1885. It did not go as planned. Instead of dying instantly from the hanging, as was intended, Wilkinson died slowly of strangulation. His botched execution, along with two others the previous April that went similarly awry, was used by death-penalty opponents to argue that Maine should abolish the practice. Two years later, in 1887, the state did so, making Daniel Wilkinson the last person executed by the state of Maine.
(The first person executed in Maine was a woman who was convicted of murdering her husband. The evidence against her: His corpse purportedly bled when she was made to touch it.)
It’s remarkable what you can uncover when you get a little curious about a neat, naturally occurring pile of really big rocks. And if you’d rather wander the trails, scout for birds, admire the trees and gaze out at the river while thinking about nothing but the present, that’s just fine, too.
Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.
How to get there
Thorne Head Preserve is at the end of High Street in Bath.
From downtown, take High Street north. High Street dead-ends into the parking lot of the preserve.
The trails are free to use and open to hikers and mountain bikers. On-leash dogs are welcome.
For more information, including a trail guide: kennebecestuary.org/thorne-head-bath/.