In Print : True mystery from the Island's past
"Mystery on the Vineyard: Politics, Passion and Scandal on East Chop," By Tom Dresser, History Press, 2008
On the last day of June 1940, the Vineyard was shocked by a brutal murder. Clara Smith, 72, of Dorchester, was found murdered in her small room in the Sumner Hall dormitory for students of the Phidelah Rice School of the Spoken Word on East Chop.
Discovered by a companion impatient to begin an anticipated trip to Nantucket, Mrs. Smith's "ravished" and bludgeoned body is a grisly discovery. After a fairly inept preliminary visit by the local police, the chief Augustus Amaral leaving his own fingerprints on key surfaces, the state police are called on scene. A politically ambitious district attorney, William Crossley, wants a perpetrator. Within a week they have one: Ralph Huntingdon Rice, Phidelah Rice's younger brother. Based on the thinnest of circumstantial evidence - e.g. sweating under interrogation, a funny look on his face, and on recovery of a letter to his Christian Science practitioner that may or may not prove knowledge of the murder before Rice claims to have had it - Rice is indicted.
It doesn't help that Ralph Huntingdon Rice is a bit eccentric, an odd man and very private. He had suffered a nervous breakdown the year before, and was recovering at the school, while working as a member of the faculty. Rice was a professional singer and taught music at the New England Conservatory until he left Boston for New York in 1928. In New York he sang for NBC and worked in the theater. Dresser quotes Rice: He suffered "nervous disability, insomnia. I overworked in New York. Sort of a nervous breakdown. I have to avoid being in crowds. I can't go to parties. In New York I can't go anywhere much. I have to lead a very secluded life. Down here it is hurly-burly, everybody after me, and it bothers me." A jittery, over-tired, solitary man.
Founded as a school for elocution by a nationally known 'monactor' Phidelah Rice in 1912, the school was popular with Christian Science practitioners who came to learn to read Bible passages more effectively. Its partner in all things vocal, the Rice Playhouse was a familiar institution, offering excellent summer theater, featuring popular actors of the day. In the weeks that followed the murder, the Vineyard Gazette frequently ran stories about the investigation alongside advertisements for the plays being run at the playhouse. Situated on East Chop, the playhouse summer program included a children's theater, as well as top-notch productions of popular plays of the time; A Bill of Divorcement opened the season the day after the murder.
In 1940, the crime scene investigation techniques were about the same as they had been in Sherlock Holme's day - fingerprints, photographs, observation, and a limited science. No DNA, no black lights and earnest young CSIs to comb a scene for the truth. Cases had to be made on witness reports, and circumstantial evidence. Motive, apparently, was the least of their concerns. There is another "person of interest" in the case - a man with an assumed name, a record of violence, a bad drinking habit but very suave manners and good looks. Harold Tracy, aka Jan Thomas, is incarcerated at the same time as Huntingdon Rice on a concealed weapons charge, but the district attorney, who is busy running for attorney general, prefers Rice.
The Gazette's Henry Beetle Hough keeps his eye on what he deems is good for the Vineyard. His editorials and his story decisions reflect his opinion that summer visitors were to be protected from the harsher realities of life, that their bucolic refuge should remain so. Hough understood the attraction of the Vineyard to the vacationer, understood the value of those summer dollars.
"In his editorials that week, Henry Hough decried the lack of steamboat service for excursions out to Cutty Hunk...praised standards at the Dukes County jail, but made no mention of its current occupants...with a murder in its midst, the Gazette sought to soften the tone of the summer with a homily on island breezes." Hough also believed that the district attorney had the wrong man on trial.
Tom Dresser has done a great deal of CSI work himself on this unsolved murder case over 60 years old. He has unlocked the vaults of time and brought the age and era of 1940 Martha's Vineyard to life. Dresser weaves tidbits of world and local events into the narrative. Like a good historian, he recognizes that context is a critical matter in making a story comprehensible to modern readers, and colors in the picture by keeping the reader abreast of the Red Sox and Hitler's relentless march, the addition of another run by the steamboat and the weather during the summer of 1940. Well organized and tightly written, Mystery on the Vineyard, isn't just a story of a forgotten crime, but a glimpse into another time - a time when the Vineyard was a more divided society than we think it is today. Summer people and year-rounders had little deliberate contact. This outrageous murder was something that had happened to off-Islanders, although, until Rice was jailed there was a run on locks at Phillips Hardware, the inevitable intrusion of fear into a community with so little crime that few people locked their doors.
By spending untold hours of research in the Gazette files, the archives of the Martha's Vineyard Museum, traveling to Kentucky and Ohio to find the history of key players, and by interviewing primary sources, Dresser has honed the skills of a true historian. But after all the research comes the writing and Dresser has avoided the worst flaw of an amateur historian, relying on conjecture. He presents the facts bolstered by good story-telling.
Tom Dresser will be speaking at the Martha's Vineyard Museum on May 7, at 7 pm.