In Mystery on the Vineyard, author Tom Dresser delves into a grisly unsolved murder. Here is an extract from the new book. It was pre-World War II and a dapper off-Islander arrived, impressing the locals. Drawn to the prettiest girl, he was upset when an elderly woman tried to break up the romance.
This story happened on East Chop in Oak Bluffs nearly 70 years ago. The Red Sox led the American League in early June and John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath had recently been released as a movie, starring Henry Fonda.
Oak Bluffs, population 1,500, prided itself on its staid Methodist Camp Ground, the Baptist Highlands and a small Christian Science community nestled between the two. The Rice Playhouse was a cultural enclave in Oak Bluffs, where Broadway actors performed summer stock shows. At the adjacent Rice School of the Spoken Word, instructors taught elocution with a Christian Science bias.
Circuit avenue hosted a honky-tonk, post-Prohibitionist fervor. It was a brazen time, but not a dangerous one. Houses were left unlocked, crime was negligible and Vineyarders all knew one another.
The brutal robbery, rape and murder of an elderly widow shocked the summer community and drew the rapt attention of the East Coast press. Yet to this day, the crime is still listed as unsolved.
An intruder slunk through the unlocked screen door into Sumner Hall. He walked across the common room, past the great stone fireplace and then slowly took the stairs to the second floor of the dormitory. He pushed open the first door at the top of the stairs, room 15, where Clara Smith slept soundly. The intruder closed the door behind him. What happened next is based on conjecture, the condition of the room and the earwitness accounts of two dozen women who slept in the dormitory that evening.
He attacked her. That the intruder raped Clara was proven by semen found on her body. She scratched at him, plucking hairs from his head. As he committed his violent deed, the intruder clamped his hand over her mouth. Her cries were muffled, indistinguishable moans and groans.
“At the time I thought of it as being a nightmare,” her companion Pearl Blakeney later recalled. “Like someone trying to talk and couldn’t. It sounds as though someone may have taken their shoe and hit on the wall or the floor with the heel of it.”
Blood splattered the wall and floor. The wastebasket and bedside table were knocked over. Sheets were yanked off the bed. Books were scattered across the floor.
The intruder struck Clara on the head with a sharp object, the edge of a board or spine of a book. That blow fractured her skull. Then he put his hands around her neck and strangled her. Whether it was the shock of the rape, the blows to her head or the stranglehold on her neck, Clara Smith died within minutes of the attack.
The intruder made off with her ring and gold watch. A few girls in the dormitory stirred in their sleep, but no one saw or heard him leave the premises.
Clara M. Smith was a short, obese woman, reputedly wealthy, who originally came from a suburb of Philadelphia on the Schuylkill River. She lived in Dorchester. For 20 years, she and her late husband William had been readers in the Second Church of Christ Scientist.
Clara had never been to Martha’s Vineyard before. She arrived on June 12 for a vacation-education at the Rice School and was met at the boat by the school secretary, Lydia Kipp. Handyman Jan Thomas drove her in the beach wagon to Sumner Hall, the shingled school dormitory right on the shore, then carried her bags upstairs to room 15.
Pearl Ella Blakeney resided less than a mile from Mrs. Smith in Dorchester. She was a Western Union file clerk, born in Canada, who had attended the Rice School the previous two summers. It was at her urging that Clara joined her for the summer term.
The women had registered for a two-week diction class that consisted of a dozen hour-long sessions. Twenty-four students were enrolled in the school that term. The school brochure described the diction class as one that included “correct breathing, vocal support, breath control, vocal placing and the education of the tongue, lips and jaw in correct vowel formation and consonantal articulation.” Board was $18 per week and tuition amounted to $40 for the two-week program.
Clara and Pearl had met a decade earlier through the Christian Science Church in Dorchester. Clara was 72 and Pearl only 32. They were both devout Christian Scientists. At the Rice School, their instructor, Ralph Huntingdon Rice, younger brother of Phidelah, described Clara as one who took her religion very seriously. She “talked about it too much,” he said. Pearl ministered to Clara’s medical needs, which included a weak heart and shortness of breath. They viewed their time on the Vineyard as a healthy vacation.
They sat together in the crowded dining hall that Saturday evening amid fellow students and playhouse employees. The frankfurters, beans, brown bread and cole slaw were typical Saturday night fare. For dessert they enjoyed strawberry shortcake, as local berries were just coming into season.
By six o’clock on that warm June evening, the dining hall was full of anticipation. Those students of the Rice School of the Spoken Word who had just completed their first semester enjoyed a break between terms. For others, actors and set builders who worked for the Rice Playhouse, this was a time to gear up for the opening performance of the eight-week summer season. Thespians took a break in the preparation of the production of A Bill of Divorcement. Coincidentally, a movie of the same name was screened that same weekend, in the same town, a quarter mile away in downtown Oak Bluffs.
With their classes over, Clara and Pearl planned to travel together to Nantucket. They were booked on the morning boat, which was scheduled to arrive in Nantucket before noon. They dawdled over dinner, not wanting the evening to end. Around 7:30 p.m., the two women left the dining hall to pass through French doors and stroll along the verandah to soak up the salt air in the lingering sunlight.
Later Clara opened the door to room 15, while Pearl proceeded down the hall to room 14. It was dark outside now, and the dormitory quieted down, though an occasional student disturbed the silence by opening the side door and taking stealthy steps on the stairs.
Pearl read for a while, finished her packing and then went to bed about 10.
Clara piled her Christian Science books neatly together on her bedside table. She packed her clothes in a large satchel, but left her slip on the chair, a paper clipped to one strap with $15 wrapped inside. She removed the screen and opened the window to allow the soft breeze in. Then she slipped into her nightclothes, pulled the cord on the light over her bed and fell asleep.
After midnight the back door slapped when a couple of latecomers returned. Marjorie Massow came in the side door and went up to her room on the third floor. She and her roommate Ruella Robertson had been to the movies with a couple of boys from the school. The girls talked in their room for a while, and then Ruella fell asleep. Marjorie wrote a couple of letters, did her nails and then went downstairs for a glass of ice water in the cooler in the dining room. When she tiptoed back upstairs, it was after 1:30 a.m.
The women on the second and third floors slept soundly. The night sky was lit by the meek waning moon. This was the coolest time, the darkest time, the quietest time of night. The sky gradually lightened and pinked, and a brilliant sun gradually rose from the ocean horizon. It was going to be a gorgeous day.
Breakfast was served at 8 a.m. Pearl and Clara always waited for each other. Pearl sat patiently, awaiting her traveling companion. She thought perhaps Clara still had packing to prepare for their departure. Perhaps Clara had overslept. Pearl went upstairs to wake her.
She paused for a moment outside room 15, listening. Only an eerie silence greeted her. Pearl knocked. No response. She knocked again. Then she opened the door.
Tom Dresser will discuss and sign his books on April 27 at Featherstone.