Photo courtesy Lyme Heritage Center
In 1914 the Little White Church by the Lake was still known as the Point Peninsula Methodist Episcopal Church. Its new minister was the Rev. Mr. Benjamin J. Clearmont, who claimed to be a native of Geneva, Switzerland. He also said he was a former Catholic priest with a mission to reveal the evils of the church he’d left behind.
When he wasn’t ministering at the church, Mr. Clearmont travelled widely to give anti-Catholic lectures. He had handbills printed in Watertown and distributed throughout the North Country to precede him. The handbills claimed that during his lectures he would divulge secret Catholic practices and sinister plots he’d learned about during his time in the priesthood.
His handbills riled towns in advance of his visits. The notoriety brought Clearmont to the front page of local newspapers, and some began to investigate this North Country newcomer. In its research, the Canton Commercial Advertiser found “some discoveries which do not exactly tally with Mr. Clearmont’s own account of his early life.”
It was discovered that he had fabricated most of his history – he was in fact a French-Canadian native of Manotick, Ontario who had never been a Catholic priest and who had no training in any Protestant denomination either. His mother told an Ontario newspaper that she had not seen him since he’d run away from home at age 12, after he fought with their parish priest, but that “he had always been a very bad boy.” (Immigration records show that he entered the United States from Canada at Ogdensburg with an 18-year-old wife.)
On March 24, 1914 he was in Potsdam to give a lecture; he was grabbed off the street by a group of men, bundled into a car, and taken to a secluded farmhouse in Norwood. The police located him about two hours later; they took him to his hotel and guarded him overnight. At 6:15 the next morning he was placed on a train to return to Point Peninsula.
Nine men were later convicted of his kidnapping. They pled guilty, but were given only minor fines. One Potsdam police officer was charged with neglect of duty for witnessing the event and failing to act to protect Mr. Clearmont; he was fined but allowed to keep his job. Clearmont’s case was reported nationally and picked up by muckraking antiimmigrant journalists, who called his kidnappers “a Catholic mob.”
After their slap-on-the-wrist convictions, Mr. Clearmont sued his kidnappers for $25,000. However, neither he nor his attorney appeared in court to support the case, and the action was dismissed.
In October 1914 he was fired from his Point Peninsula ministry; he then sued his former church for back salary and for payment for work he’d done on the building. The church countered that not only had Mr. Clearmont lied about being an ordained pastor, but that his “work” on the church had been disastrous, resulting in little more than removing the church’s furnace (to his own house) and leaving the building with holes in the walls. The church’s lawyers called Clearmont “a faker acting as a firebrand.” This lawsuit also seems to have come to nothing.
Clearmont left the North Country and settled in Rochester. By 1925 he was listing himself in documents as a carpenter. That same year Clearmont married again. His marriage certificate contained two lies: he claimed to have been born in France, and he also stated that he had never been married before. It’s unclear what became of his first wife (Edith May Lewis Clearmont, whom he married in Ottawa in November 1912); I can’t find a record of her after they left Point Peninsula.
By 1942 Clearmont was living in Tempe, Arizona. He died there in 1964.
Canton Commercial Advertiser, March 24, 1914 and January 25, 1916
Cape Vincent Eagle, August 5, 1915 The Ogdensburg Journal, May 9, 1914
Watertown Reunion, July 31 1915
The Watertown Herald, April 18, 1913
The Madrid Herald, April 9, 1914
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