Finding stories in a cemetery

I’ve always had a fascination with old New England graveyards, if for no other reason than they are, well, old.

Last week, while vacationing in neighboring Maine before coming down to spend a week or so in New Hampshire, I had the chance to check out the cemetery at the First Congregational Church of Machiasport.

The Machias area in Maine was settled back in the 1600s and enjoys a very colorful history. Pirate Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy used Machias as a safe haven in the early 1700s. Tales of hidden treasure buried in the woodlands of Machiasport persist to this day.

The waters off Machiasport also were the site of the first naval engagement of the Revolutionary War. A bunch of rowdy Machias yahoos set sail after the British sloop The Margaretta tried to escape down the Machias River when it grounded out on a sandbar at low tide.

Mortally wounded in the ensuing battle, the Margaretta’s commander, Midshipman James Moore, was brought to the Burnham Tavern in Machias, where he died of his wounds. Burnham Tavern remains and is lovingly preserved by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

One day, while still with the Bangor Daily News, I stopped by to chat with Gerry Knowles, who was digging a grave by hand in the old church cemetery. There was a funeral planned for the next day, so he was hard at it, with shovels and such, and a paper showing where every grave was located.

Gerry told me about a woman buried in the old cemetery. She was from "the Port," as locals call Machiasport, but had died overseas a couple of centuries back. She wanted to be buried back in Machiasport, so she was placed in a barrel of rum, which was then sealed, and brought back to the Port by ship. She was buried in the cemetery with the still-sealed rum barrel serving as her coffin.

Many of the names on the oldest stones include the title "Captain," which isn’t surprising, considering that most everyone in the Port made their living on the ocean back then. I also saw too many stones marking the death of newborn infants and young children in the 1700s and 1800s.

And there were some newer stones. One had gorgeous etchings on black stone of a coastal seascape with a lighthouse and seagulls. Another had a miniature skiff and a broken fishing rod on permanent display. I’m guessing this soul was a devoted fisherman.

However, a marker in a far corner of the cemetery brought back a ton of memories as fresh today as they were nearly 26 years ago. This headstone marks the final resting place of Mike and Flo Phillips, who were gunned down as they took an after-supper walk on Aug. 29, 1989.

This was the first major story I ever covered for the Bangor Daily News. Richard Uffelman claimed he’d been harassed by the Phillips and one of the couple’s friend, Colby Kilton, from across the road. The harassment included an incident in which Mike Phillips allegedly shot at Uffelman and his family about a month earlier. Uffelman called the police that night but no arrests were made.

On Aug. 29, the couple walked past Uffelman’s house before turning around and passing by it again. Uffelman claimd Mike Phillips pointed a gun at his house, causing Uffelman and his 8- and 10-year-old sons to open fire from inside their house. Uffelman’s large picture window was blown out in the process. Though wounded and bleeding profusely, the Phillips managed to get off the road and into a thick alder field.

This might have been self-defense initially, but Uffelman crossed the line when he made two trips into the field and shot the dying couple at point blank range.

Curiously, the slain couple had a video camera in their kitchen pointed at Uffelman’s house.

Colby Kilton was there that night, as well, and can be heard saying, "You be good little targets," as the couple set out on their after-supper walk. Flo Phillips was unarmed but Mike Phillips brought a .357 magnum with three speed loaders and a .25 caliber pistol with him.

Uffelman was received a 25-year sentence for killing Mike Phillips, who was armed. However, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for shooting Flo Phillips, who was unarmed.

This case eventually caught the attention of national news media and also was recently featured on one of those Discovery ID crime shows. It has been almost 26 years since that incident, yet it is still remembered locally in Machias, and by this former reporter who spent an afternoon simply walking among the stone.

Nashua native Paul Sylvain writes from his adopted home in Euless, Texas. He can be reached at psylvain.telegraph@yahoo.com.