The historical perspective: A Valentine’s Day Mystery

— Photo courtesy of MV Museum

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. In a regularly appearing series, The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history called to mind sometimes, but not always, by present dates.

Within the walls of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum lie thousands of stories that reveal our history. Some of them have been well documented and told over time: shipwrecks and agricultural fairs, many hurricanes, the beginnings of the grand Illumination. However, for every story that brings our history to light, there are just as many, if not more, that bring questions. With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we thought we might delve into the Museum’s archives and share a mystery, written on the back of a valentine.

Julia and her “M.M.P.”

The tradition of giving loved ones handwritten valentines has been around for hundreds of years, but the industrial revolution brought the convenience of mass-produced, ready-made valentines. Often these cards came with pre-printed messages to help less eloquent suitors express their feelings. The valentines in the Museum’s archives are colorful, whimsical, endearing and often humorous. Many bear messages of love from family and friends, but it was a small collection that belonged to a woman named Julia Dunham that caught our eye.

With the help of detective work from genealogist Kay Mayhew, we were able to find that Julia Avila Dunham was born in Connecticut in 1859, the sole child of Lewis and Lucy Dunham. After moving with her family a number of times, a 1910 census shows that 51-year-old Julia was single and living alone in Providence, Rhode Island. It was around this time that the mystery of Julia’s valentines begins. Amid warm greetings and well wishes from cousins are a few dozen cards signed only with the initials “M.M.P.” The pre-printed messages on the front of these valentines give an idea of the sentiments this mysterious writer had for Julia:

“Six letters from your lips, sweetheart, would thrill my being through, and gladness to my life impart – I Love U”

“Except the world is very much the same, except that things here are quite tame. They have the moon and stars at night. To gladden things with gentle light, and in the day the sky is blue — but it’s imperfect without you.”

“To my Valentine: The sweetest word in all the world, I wonder if you’ll guess, tis what I wish you’d say to me, three letters: yes”

“For You: I wish I could say what would make you so cheery that never a sorrow would fall on you weary: But all I can say from my heart is now springing, and all through my being the thought is now singing: O peace to her, peace to her! Love and all joy to her! Everything dear to her! Ever be near to her!”

“For somebody’s sake I would gladly do the utmost that in me lies, and bring to that somebody all the joy there is beneath the skies. I would, work and worry and bear each ill. That somebody might be free to have each pleasure that life can bring, as far as could be through me. For my heart is never so much at ease, as when that somebody I can please. And life is never so sweet and clear as when that somebody is near.”

A few have short personal notes to Julia, as in this card:

On the front, M.M.P. wrote, “I dream of you I Think of you I long for you Is there anything else I can do for you?”

On the back, he or she wrote simply: “I did dream of you last night”

On others M.M.P. wrote:

“I stopped in the pouring rain last night and got your post card, don’t you think I wanted to hear from you? Pretty cold… this A.M. wish you were here. Sweetheart I want to see you. Take good care of yourself, dress warmly so as not to get sick.”

“Have you forgotten me so soon? Looked for a letter all last week, it is so lonesome not to see you or hear from you often. I wish you would come home I am not feeling as well and it is pretty hard to think of the long dreary winter with you away. Please write soon.”

Julia received cards from M.M.P. until 1915. None give insight into the relationship they may have had. What became of Julia’s mysterious suitor is unknown. We don’t know much more about Julia either: in fact, no known photograph of her exists. Sometime between 1910 and 1915, she moved to Martha’s Vineyard and the census shows that she remained single until her death in 1937. She is buried at the West Tisbury cemetery, along with her parents.

Though an only child, with no children of her own, Julia did have uncles, aunts and cousins who lived on the Island. Perhaps some day one of their descendants will come across information about her and unlock the mystery of M.M.P. Until then, we can only wonder.

Julia’s valentines, along with the others in the museum’s collections, are available for research during the hours when the library is open: Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 4 pm. Contact Dana Street at 508-627-4441, ext. 115, or to make an appointment.

Anna Carringer is assistant curator at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum on School Street in Edgartown. The Museum is open Monday through Saturday. Go to or call 508-627-4441.