It’s remarkable how strings of events in a small town are related. Smarting from WMVY-FM’s transition to online instead of on-the-air, fading memories of the Pit Stop and changing plans at Season’s lead to memories of Circuit avenue’s famed coffee shops, the Unicorn and the Mooncusser. “Mooncussers” (the pirates of Martha’s Vineyard in the late 1600s and early 1700s) would set beacon fires on beaches to lure ships onto the rocks, and when the ships beached, would grab whatever cargo survived. Sailors didn’t sail into rocks when there was a full moon — so the pirates cussed the moon.
The Volstead Act in the early 1920s banned the sale of alcoholic beverages and created new financial opportunities for struggling Vineyard seamen and fishermen. The waterways between Vineyard Sound and Noman’s Land became known as ‘Rum Row’ and the Eastville neighborhood docks of Oak Bluffs had a new breed. Fishermen ( Rum Runners) who would meet mother ships from the Caribbean or Canada and fill their holds with rum or whiskey, cover them with fish and ice and transport the cargo to New Bedford, Long Island and, of course, Circuit avenue’s hotels and bars, where Prohibition was more of a suggestion than an act of congress. One night in 1923 an unexplained mini battle between the steam yacht Flit, owned by a New York company, and the steamer John Dwight resulted in the John Dwight’s entire crew being murdered and the boat being sunk near Cuttyhunk. The Flit was beached and abandoned on Noman’s Land. While the murders cannot be traced directly to Oak Bluffs it is easy to imagine that others could be.
The rape and murder of 72-year-old Clara Smith on June 29, 1940 at the Phidelah Rice School of the Spoken Word on Arlington avenue in East Chop resulted in the first media circus on Martha’s Vineyard. The Rice summer theater and school of acting was the second of its kind in the country and warrants its own attention in another column. The trial of Ralph Huntingdon Rice, a mild mannered diction teacher and son of the institution’s founder, was well covered by the eastern press until Oct. 9, 1940 when Mr. Rice was acquitted of all charges. One Harold Tracy, an electrician who had used the alias “Jan Thomas” and who lived and worked at the school, was indicted for the crime in 1942. On May 3, 1946 his hearing in Edgartown was dropped for lack of evidence and the murder remains unsolved.
George De Souza Centeio of New Bedford was stabbed to death in the Highlands on Thursday Dec. 10, 1998 by Rennard Stephenson in an argument over money soon after sharing drugs. They had been friends and worked together — and had planned renting a house. Claiming self-defense, Mr. Stephenson was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to a 14 to 15-year term in prison.
Other Island towns have had recorded publicized deaths caused by others. For example, Harold Look killed Knight B. Owen in Vineyard Haven in 1935. In Edgartown in 1978, the younger Brady shot his father. The Eghill-Trusty affair in Vineyard Haven occurred in 2011 and the Bloomquist self-defense shooting in West Tisbury was in 2012. Not counting what the European settlers did and the Rum Runners, there have been nine reported deaths at the hands of others on Martha’s Vineyard, five of which happened to folks closely related to, if not people associated with Oak Bluffs. All things considered, that’s remarkably good for a town 133 years old.
In more recent and more uplifting news, the MV Cancer Support Group celebrates more than 25 years of survival and support with a potluck party of life on Saturday at 5 p.m. at the P.A. Club. The group has given out over a half million dollars in grants since 1966; $58,000 in 2012 alone. For more information, contact Jane Carroll at 508-696-9849 or Leslie Stark at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Truly, the MV Cancer Support Group knows how to…Keep your foot on a rock.