George Magoon and the Downeast Game War by Edward Ives

This book, both well-researched and fun, gives readers a well-rounded picture of George Magoon and other poachers who lived in Downeast Maine when game laws were first introduced.

Edward Ives’ book begins with a brief history of Wesley and Crawford, two settlements in the remote part of Maine where the George Magoon stories take place. This was a land of tough living, deep woods, and a life scratched out of nothing.

The author then examines the evolution of game laws. After the Civil War, the idea of the ‘Gentleman Hunter’ became popular in the United States. Game laws were introduced in part because those in charge believed that rich city folk were better stewards of natural resources than their poor country brethren whom they accused of slaughter for profit, a far less worthy pursuit than hunting for sport. Prior to their introduction in the state of Maine, large amounts of game were mowed down and put up for sale in the Boston Market – where they were presumably purchased by the rich city folk, but that’s a different topic.

With a solid backstory behind us, Ives then moves on to a factual account of George Magoon’s life. George Magoon was born and raised in Downeast Maine and lived along the Airline Road. He had the largest family in town and an ailing wife. He was a subsistence farmer who always owed money to someone and poaching was a way to supplement his income and feed his family. Despite his slight criminality, his neighbors seemed to respect him, electing him to road commission and other similar positions.

From newspaper articles and court records, we know that George Magoon was sentenced to four months in prison for moose poaching because he couldn’t afford to pay the fine. A month into his sentence, he walked out of the prison yard and went home. A month after this straightforward escape, two wardens came to his home to arrest him and make him serve the rest of his sentence. Magoon took off running and one of the wardens shot him in the shoulder.

Despite his injury, he kept running and made it into the woods. No attempt was made to capture him after this, the remaining part of his prison sentence unserved and forgotten.

A year later, Magoon sued the two wardens for $5,000 each, a huge sum of money in the 1880s. While he did not win that amount of money, he did collect damages from each of the wardens.

Once we know what ‘really’ happened, we move on to the many folktales Ives collected from Magoon’s family members and other locals in the 1960s. Now we can really appreciate the factual groundwork Ives has laid out for us ahead of time as we compare and contrast the different versions of stories about George Magoon. Out of 20+ iterations of the tale, that fantastic ending to the prison escape story, the lawsuit, was only in two. Was that because it happened a year after the main event or because it is too outrageous a coda to be believed?

In addition to George Magoon, the author includes stories about two other folk heroes who battled against the wardens, Wilbur Day and Calvin Graves. Like in the George Magoon section, the author first establishes a factual account of the men’s lives and actions before moving on to the stories about them, comparing what is true with what has been added and showing how opinions have changed over the years.

The stories about George Magoon are about a good man who stood up to the Law telling him to stop doing something he’d always done. They are comedic compared to the more menacing and downright criminal stories about Wilbur Day or the cold-blooded murderer Calvin Graves. By presenting facts alongside each set of folktales, Ives helps us to see how much truth is in a legend and how much legend is in a man.

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