BAR HARBOR — “Ed was a hell of a person in a very private world,” Ernie Brooks recalls when he speaks of his best friend, who perished last month in a fire here.
A man of great dignity, a self-styled bohemian, a Southern gentleman, a man who loved books, a genius — Brooks uses all of those descriptions when he remembers William Edward Snell, his friend for the past 15 years.
Snell died Feb. 26 in a shack off Greeley Avenue. Fire investigators allege defective electrical wiring caused Snell’s electric blanket to ignite, burning him beyond recognition.
Officials said they expect to file criminal charges against the owners of the building, John and Paul Pelletier, brothers who own the Anchorage Motel behind it on Mount Desert Street. The shack that had been Snell’s home for at least 10 years lacked insulation, proper heating or plumbing. His latrine was a hole cut into the floor, filled with wood ashes and lime.
Authorities are still searching for Snell’s next of kin. Although his age first was reported to be 53, Paul McFarland of McFarland’s Funeral Home in Bar Harbor has now established it as 63. If no relatives are found, Snell will be given a spring burial at the Hillside Cemetery in Bar Harbor.
Brooks, a retired carpenter who lives in Seal Cove, has pieced together some anecdotes from Snell’s life that offer a glimpse into the man and the choices he made.
Snell was born in May 1931 in Atlanta, Ga., into an upper-middle-class family, Brooks said. He spent his childhood there, growing to 6 feet tall with finely chiseled features. Of Germanic descent, his hair was a sandy red, his goatee fading to gray in recent years. Snell fondly recalled his love for his mother and an uncle, but he seldom mentioned his father, according to Brooks.
Snell gravitated to the bohemian life of New York City after serving in a noncombat role in the Korean War. It was the 1950s when the Beat movement celebrated individuality and snubbed middle-class values. Writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg helped shape the thinking that influenced a generation.
A man of sweeping intellect, Snell embraced the bohemian life and the ideas, his friend said. He may even have worn himself out in the process.
Snell married and divorced a black woman during those days, while he was trying his hand at writing. Fidteen years ago or more, he moved to Bar Harbor and opened a secondhand bookstore called the Unicorn, where Brooks met him.
Snell rented space in the Criterion Theatre building, setting up a cot for himself in the cellar. When the rent got too high for the hole-in-the-wall store, he closed shop and took his massive collection of books to a new dwelling — the Greeley Avenue shack.
By that time — between 10 and 12 years ago — Snell had started doing odd jobs for the Pelletier brothers. Eventually, he became the night desk clerk at their motel.
Snell lost himself in books, going out only to the public library, the grocery store, the post office or for occasional visits with Brooks. “Ed said he was living in the fantasy of the books he read,” Brooks recalled.
He liked adventure novels, especially science fiction. Brooks said at least 2,000 volumes of science fiction were stacked in Snell’s bedroom at the time of his death.
When Snell’s bookstore closed, he hiked two-thirds of the Appalachian Trail, Brooks said. Snell took a bus to north Georgia to start the trek there. He quit after aggravating an old foot injury.
With no driver’s license, Snell walked the sidewalks in Bar Harbor, or Brooks drove him to the library and grocery store. Usually he was wearing his favorite grimy camel-colored wind jacket.
It was only with great effort and cajoling that Snell would agree to have a cup of coffee at a local restaurant, an experience he wouldn’t repeat even though he seemed to enjoy the social interaction.
“He was very sensitive and had a great sense of humor.” Exceedingly hesitant to visit another’s home, Snell upheld his privacy with great dignity, Brooks said.
His half-pack of cigarettes was doled out by the hour, holding in check a habit that once had included several packs daily. Over the past few years, Snell’s emphysema sapped his energy, sending him into debilitating coughing fits. Walking with a stoop, he didn’t seek medical care, and wouldn’t wear glasses even though his vision was limited to about three feet, Brooks recounted.
Feb. 15 was the last day Brooks saw his friend. Snell’s stove had blown a circuit and three radios had burned out. Two weeks before that Snell had suffered frostbite on the tip of his nose, the only part that was exposed to the frigid air in the unheated shack as he huddled under his electric blanket.
While examining the wiring, Brooks said, he realized the extreme hazard it posed, a concern he passed on to John Pelletier and to Snell.