In Episode 300 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger sail out to Monhegan Island, about ten miles off the coast of Maine, searching for a hermit named Ray Phillips who lived 40 years on a desolate nearby rock of an island called Manana. From 1931 to 1975, Phillips lived out there in a shack with his flock of sheep and a pet goose. Over the years the old hermit became a celebrity as curious tourists ventured over to talk to him and try to find out what makes him tick. Think you could walk away from it all?
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[OCEAN SOUNDS / SEA GULLS]
JEFF: Ray, do you think you could live alone… you know, like a hermit?
RAY: I think if I lost everything I could make a go of it.
JEFF: For a social butterfly like you?
RAY: Yeah, I could see shutting it all down in extreme circumstances.
JEFF: I don’t think I’d last much longer than a day or so as a hermit before I’d go nuts from loneliness.
RAY: It’s not for everybody. But being out here on this tiny island off the coast of Maine, it’s pretty easy to feel isolated.
JEFF: Isolation is a good description for Manana Island, which sits just a stone’s thrown across the water from Monhegan Island which is about 10 miles from the coast of Maine.
RAY: We’re isolated out here no matter how you slice it. Manana Island is about 1800 feet long and about 1000 feet wide, and the only structures on the island is a fog horn and the ruins of a small house. I don’t even see any trees, just some bushes and grass.
JEFF: It’s not much, but this was once home to a man named Ray Phillips. A man who got famous for living out here all alone for 40 years. We’re searching for the Hermit of Manana Island.
JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to Episode 300 of the New England Legends podcast!
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. 300 episodes is a lot! We thought about doing some kind of special episode or best-of, but we figure every episode could be someone’s first visit with your townie buddies Jeff and Ray, so we’ll do what we’ve done for the last 300 weeks—explore ghosts, monsters, eccentrics, aliens, true crime, roadside oddities, and all the other weirdness that makes New England great.
JEFF: Hear hear! It’s been an amazing ride so far. To those who have been with us from the start – thank you! And to everyone who’s joined us somewhere along the way, we’re glad you’re here. We can’t do this without you. So please like, share, subscribe, and post a review for us. It’s how you can help us grow.
RAY: Before we go looking for the Hermit of Manana Island, we want to take just a moment to tell you about our sponsor Nuwati Herbals!
JEFF: Buuut before we do that, Nuwati Herbals founder Rod Jackson has a quick message for us, Ray.
ROD_300: Hey Jeff and Ray, Kimberly and I want to congratulate you on Episode 300. Another milestone. We were with you before the 200th episode and we’re still with you at 300. So let me say: It is an honor to be your sponsor. Congratulations guys. Keep it up! The legends need to be told.
RAY: Thank you Rod, Kimberly, and the entire Nuwati Herbals family. Jeff and I appreciate having you and your great all-natural products in our lives.
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[OCEAN / SEAGULLS FADE IN]
JEFF: So Manana Island is not just remote. It’s desolate. It’s like a hump of a rock sticking out of the ocean with grasses and shrubs growing on it.
RAY: As we pulled up to the island I thought it almost looks like a turtle shell sticking out of the water.
JEFF: That’s a good way to put it. Today the weather is beautiful. It’s a great spring day, and of course summer is coming. But can you imagine this island in January or February?
RAY: No way. Especially if there’s a storm or something? There absolutely no protection from the wind or the rain out here.
JEFF: Yet just across this small straight that’s literally less than two football fields away, there’s the island of Monhegan where there’s a small town. A few houses, a post office, a couple of inns. The population at last count was 64 people year-round, though that swells in the summer months.
RAY: But the population of Manana Island is zero.
JEFF: That’s true. But it wasn’t always zero. Between 1931 and 1975 the population of Manana Island exploded… to just one. A man named Ray Phillips who tried his best to walk away from the rat race and in the irony of ironies, he wound up becoming a celebrity. Let’s head back to 1931, and meet the hermit of Manana Island.
RAY: It’s the spring of 1931 here in New York City. And 39 year-old Ray Phillips has had enough. He’s tired of pounding the pavement. Tired of the rat race. So be he buys a small sloop.
RAY: He sets it in the water. And begins sailing north.
JEFF: Here’s a little more background on Ray Phillips. He was born in Maine, he served as a soldier during World War I and was hurt enough to receive a monthly government pension. After the war he attended the University of Maine where he got average grades, then after graduating he moved down to New York City to live with his mother who was a fortune teller. Phillips found work as a teacher and food inspector, and though the 20s were roaring for everyone else, they weren’t for Phillips. He wasn’t dating anyone. Never married. No children. He wasn’t one for wild parties or anything like that. When the stock market crashed a year and a half ago, the Great Depression ushered in a rough time for the whole nation. Phillips saw breadlines in New York. He saw plight everywhere he looked. And one day he just had enough. So he bought a boat.
JEFF: And here we are sailing north on his sloop. Putting as much water between us and New York City as possible.
RAY: Somehow we all find our way back home. Phillips isn’t following a star or even the compass very much. His boat is small enough that he keeps the coast in sight. After a few days on the ocean, the familiar sites of Maine pop up to the west. By the end of the day, he sees a small cluster of islands dead ahead. It’s Monhegan Island.
JEFF: Phillips pulls his boat into the docks at Monhegan to find a small community of people living there. It’s a cute little town. Just a few streets and houses. It’s still Maine, so it’s somewhat familiar, but it also feels a million miles from the rest of the world. At 10 miles out, you can’t really even see the mainland.
RAY: Still, even Monhegan is a little too crowded for Phillips’s tastes, so after a few years of fishing and saving money, he takes his sloop about 150 yards across the strait to Manana Island. Any empty rock of a place. But perfect for him. He takes some of the money he’d saved and purchases an area about 1/6th of the island on the eastern shore facing Monhegan. He finds some driftwood…
RAY: And begins to construct a shack for himself. Though he legally only owns 1/6th of the island, he sees it a little differently.
PHILLIPS: In practice I own it all because the other owners never bother to come.
JEFF: And so the hermit’s new life begins. Plenty of driftwood and lumber washes up on shore, which gives him materials to build additions on to his shack. Each month he receives $109 dollars for his veteran’s pension, and $77 dollars per month for his social security. When he needs supplies, he rows his boat across the strait and buys what he needs in Monhegan.
RAY: Pretty soon, Phillips makes a journey to the mainland where he purchases some sheep.
RAY: And starts his own little flock on Manana island.
JEFF: The folks in Monhegan come to know Phillips as one of their own, even if he keeps to himself most of the time. He’s friendly enough when he comes over, and always returns a wave across the water when he sees you. As his little shack grows, so too does the curiosity about the hermit of Manana.
RAY: In the summer months, Monhegan’s population swells. People come out here to get away from it all. And plenty of people see the lone shack just across the water. And a strange bearded man tending to sheep.
JEFF: Phillips isn’t really the only person on his tiny island. Coast Guard personnel are there almost daily to check on their fog horn and facility. They also check on Phillips who is always friendly with a wave or a chat. This island life suits him. As more drift wood washes ashore…
JEFF: He builds additions on to his shack. He builds a system to collect rainwater for drinking and cleaning because his shack has no running water or electricity. He lights his humble dwelling with oil and kerosene lamps.
[COLD WINTER WINDS AND OCEAN SURF]
RAY: When winter sets in, the population of Monhegan Island dwindles to the few dozen locals who get their island back until the late spring. But winter can mean some harsh conditions. Brutal winds and cold. And Ray Phillips is over there on Manana Island all be himself.
JEFF: On the worst winter days, Phillips brings the sheep into his shack with him to keep the animals safe from the bite of the harsh weather. That’s when he discovers something.
RAY: Heyyyy… it’s pretty warm in this shack right now even though it’s freezing outside!
JEFF: That’s exactly what he discovers. A flock of sheep huddled in your shack throw off a lot of body heat. Phillips finds himself pretty comfortable even in the worst weather.
[WINDS FADE, SEA GULLS AND OCEAN COME UP]
RAY: Winter melts into spring as it does, and Phillips moves his flock back outside. He even finds himself a pet.
[HONK OF A GOOSE]
RAY: A goose who turns into as much of a watch dog as anything else.
JEFF: It’s quite a site. A lone man, his shack, a flock of sheep, and a goose running around. Each summer more people come to vacation and visit Monhegan Island, and more people see Ray Phillips, the hermit of Manana Island. And his legend grows.
JEFF: Years pass, and Phillips continues to build onto his shack. His friends across the water give him old windows and doors to help him along. He’s a good neighbor in every way, he just likes to live alone. No one sees any harm in that. But as years go by and it becomes clear that Ray Phillips has no intention of living his life any other way than over there alone as the Hermit of Manana Island, folks get curious about him. They want to know what makes him tick.
RAY: The tourists are taking rowboats over from Monhegan to visit the hermit. And he doesn’t mind at all. He poses for pictures. He chats with anyone who wants to talk to him. When his hair and beard get too long for his liking, he sometimes will take a boat over to the mainland for a hotel room, a shower, a shave and a haircut.
PHILLIPS: I call it a night on the town.
RAY: Then it’s back to his island.
JEFF: Journalists soon start coming by to ask questions. How can someone live like this in these modern times? Phillips is always happy to talk.
PHILLIPS: I wanted to be independent, have a pleasant life outdoors. There was just me to think about. I was never skillful enough to get married—I never had enough money to get married and anyway, women are expensive.
JEFF: His battery-powered radio keeps him informed about what’s happening in the world. And he rows his dinghy over to Monhegan for groceries and to pick up his mail. As years pass, Phillips is getting more and more mail from people who read about him in the newspapers and want to know more. And Phillips writes back. He’d write on the back of the letter you wrote to him, turn your envelope inside out, and send it back to you.
RAY: Once in a while, Phillips will make his way all the way down to Boston for some time in the city.
PHILLIPS: I’ll spend one or two weeks in Boston and probably see the dentist in Thomaston or Rockland before I return. Nothing could induce me to leave during the summer. But I want to hear the crashing and clanging sounds of the city for a couple of weeks and that will do until fall.
RAY: Phillips is plenty busy on his island. He searches for driftwood daily. He tends to his sheep. He fixes and adds on to his shack. When it rains or the weather is particularly bad, he stays inside. When it’s sunny and nice, he’s outside. Each year. As his legend grows, more and more tourists come over to Manana to meet him.
PHILLIPS: The better I know my sheep, the less I like tourists.
RAY: And if too many people came over and it started to bother him, Ray would switch from talking to them in English to another language just as familiar to him.
PHILLIPS: Bahhh Bahh bAHHHHHH
JEFF: He bahs like a sheep?
RAY: That usually makes the tourists cock their heads, and then walk away.
JEFF: It’s mid-April of 1975. Ray Phillips is 83 years old now, and just about every single chore is harder than it used to be. After slipping into the ocean, he catches a cold that turns to pneumonia. His neighbors from Monhegan beg him to get to a hospital on the mainland and properly recuperate, but Phillips insists he’s not leaving. Still, he appreciates the concern of his neighbors.
PHILLIPS: Each night I’ll put a kerosene lamp in my window. If you see the light, that means I’m okay. If it’s not on, then it means I need help.
JEFF: For almost two weeks the lamp is there every night. Until the evening of May 4th, and Monhegan resident notice there’s no lamp light coming from Phillips’s shack. They head over to check on him.
[KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK]
JEFF: With no answer at the door, a few locals walk inside to find the hermit lying on the floor… passed away. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: At 83 years of age, Ray Phillips lived more than half of his life as a hermit on a desolate island. He got famous for wanting to be alone. He had no great accomplishments other than to walk away and live off the grid the rest of his days.
JEFF: His only regret was that he didn’t leave the city and go fishing five years sooner. And THAT reminds me of a song. Ray, I know you’re a fan of the Zac Brown Band.
JEFF: One of their biggest hits is the song “Knee Deep.” Jimmy Buffet even sings a verse on it.
RAY: That’s right he does! “Wrote a note said be back in a minute / Bought a boat and I sailed off in it / Don’t think anybody gonna miss me anyway.”
JEFF: “Mind on a permanent vacation / The ocean is my only medication / Wishing my condition ain’t ever gonna go away.”
RAY: Ray Phillips’s only worry in the world was if the tide was gonna reach his chair. That and surviving harsh Maine weather on an island where he lived all alone for more than four decades. Today we remember… the Hermit of Manana Island.
JEFF: And that brings us to After the legend where we explore this week’s story a little deeper and sometimes sail off-course.
RAY: After the Legend is brought to you by our patreon patrons! This group of legendary people support us financially each month. They keep our lights on and the servers humming. They help with our travel, hosting, production, and marketing expenses. Everything it takes to bring you two podcasts each and every week. It’s just $3 bucks per month and for that they get early access to add-free episodes plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. Just head over to Patreon.com/NewEnglandLegends to sign up.
John Donne wrote way back in 1624 the famous poem “No Man is an Island.”
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
If you’ve got a strange tale we simply must check out, please reach out to us anytime through our Web site. So many of our story leads come from you! Please keep them coming. Also subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts because it’s free. And it helps a lot when you post a review for us and share our episodes with your friends on social media, or tell them about us. That’s how we grow.
We’d like to thank Michael Legge for lending his voice acting talents this week. Thank you to our sponsor Nuwati Herbals, thanks to our patreon patrons, and our theme music is by John Judd.
Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.