Teller of Tales

From the Vineyard Gazette editions of April, 1932:

While many of Vineyard Haven lawyer Charles H. Brown’s recollections are of his own town, not all of them are, and not all are tales of his own time.

One particularly amusing story is of the eccentric elderly man whose home had fallen into a state of disrepair. A visitor calling at the house one day during a rainstorm had difficulty in locating the householder, who lived alone. He was finally discovered inside an old-fashioned brick oven. In explanation he said that his roof leaked some and wishing to keep dry and comfortable, he had crawled into the oven. Not long afterward the cemetery board of West Tisbury received a call from the man, who incidentally did not live in the town. “I am getting along in years,” he stated, “and I believe that I can rest better with my ancestors buried here than with those elsewhere. Now a while ago I crawled into my brick oven during a storm. It was warm and comfortable in there and the thought struck me that such a place to lie in through eternity would just satisfy me. And so I am going to buy a cemetery lot here and I want you to have a catacomb like that brick oven built in it to receive my remains when I am laid away.”

Not so many generations ago residents of all Island towns were assessed parish taxes in addition to other taxes, the same being applied to the support of the churches. It was a distant relative of Mr. Brown’s who came home from a sea voyage to be visited by the sheriff. “I have a bill here for four years parish taxes,” explained the officer. “But I have been at sea for four years, why should I pay it? Besides, what church is it for?” The sailor declared that he did not attend that church and protested against paying the bill. But the sheriff was adamant. “It must be paid or I will have to put you in jail.”

Having been duly incarcerated in the county jail at Edgartown, the prisoner called the jailer to him. “I’ve been away at sea for several years and have just returned. A great many of my friends would like to see me and celebrate a little. I can’t go to them, but why can’t I get a little rum and a few other things and have them come here?” This seemed reasonable to the jailer, who allowed his prisoner to go down town and purchase his supplies, after which there was a joyous gathering in the jail and a celebration that lasted until far, far into the night. For some unknown reason the sailor was released on the following day and did not have to pay his parish tax after all.

Mr. Brown began his law practice in Boston, taking as a partner another young fellow of about his age. As was common with young lawyers, the partners did considerable business in collecting bills and this business brought them in contact with some extraordinary people. It was a big Italian who actually started the wheels of business turning for them. Presented with a claim for unpaid bills he was astonished to find that he was not to be jailed, but would be allowed time in which to make settlement. His pleasure and gratitude was so great that he began to send men of his race to Mr. Brown and his partner whenever legal tangles vexed them.

These men were from every social stratum, some were decent middle class merchants, and at least one was a count with a bona fide title. Still others were of entirely different character, as Mr. Brown discovered. One man had a claim against another who was known to be not only tough but dangerous. Mr. Brown was warned to look out for this man, who had previously run afoul of the law when he bit the nose off another. But in the pursuit of business it does not do to back away and Mr. Brown called upon the cannibalistic gentleman who was in his store. On being presented with the claim, the matter was treated with indifference, which prompted Mr. Brown to offer a mild warning. No words where wasted, but snatching a curved banana knife from a bunch of the fruit, he made a slash at Mr. Brown’s throat. It failed to reach its mark, but it came close enough to convince the attorney that a change of scene would be beneficial to his health and nerves and he beat a hasty retreat.

Opportunity knocked at various times during these years and was unrecognized, being disguised beneath an exterior that was both new and strange. One day Mr. Brown’s Italian friend came to him with a story of another native of Italy, who, he said, had been smuggling paintings into the country. They were supposed to be old masters, and the custom officials had discovered and confiscated them, and were about to put them up for auction. He proposed that the three purchase them. As neither of the three knew anything about such things, Mr. Brown got an appraiser to look over the collection before the sale. This gentleman returned with the report that if old masters painted the pictures they must have been entirely decrepit when they performed the work. No more interest was taken in the matter. Years later, however, Mr. Brown learned that someone had secured just a few of the paintings, had identified them as old masters and sold them for many thousands of dollars.

Compiled by Eulalie Regan