Philip Higgins of Westfield was 13 years old when he was arrested for robbing $40 dollars from a local store in 1879. One of six children in a family of Irish immigrants, his mother was a cotton mill worker and an alcoholic, and his father was in jail when Philip was sentenced to the State Primary School in Monson, a public orphanage which was increasingly being used as a dumping ground for young juvenile delinquents. “A very poor home,” read his intake report; “the boy lacked schooling and is not properly fed.” Disease or injury in his hip had left him lame, with his left leg shorter than his right.
Little Tommy Myers of Boston didn’t even know his parents’ names; they were long dead when the woman in whose house he had been living declared she couldn’t keep him any longer. He was 14 when the courts sent him to Monson.
John Henry Lynes of Northampton was 13 years old and working in a paper mill when he was arrested for assault and battery. He and two friends had thrown a snake, an apple, stones, and clay at an old man driving a team, startling the horses and throwing the old man into the road. “The agent thinks him not a bad boy, but headstrong and impulsive.” He, too, was sent to Monson.
Fourteen-year-old John Rome of Pittsfield had lost both of his parents and was working in a woolen mill when he ran away from his uncle’s home. “Has been wandering about since,” wrote the agent. He was sent to Monson in 1881.
The four boys didn’t remain long at Monson. They were soon each “placed out” to harnessmaker Rodolphus Crocker of Vineyard Haven, in a relatively new program to deinstitutionalize the state’s wards. Crocker housed and fed them in exchange for long hours of labor in his massive factory on Main Street, where today stands the stone bank building. After their first year, some were offered a contract, which provided an annual salary of $10 beginning their second year.
At first, Higgins did very well in his new Island home, although his lameness limited his physical work. He was well-liked, a hard worker, and became adept at using Crocker’s stitching machine. Lynes did OK, too, although he lodged a formal complaint about Crocker’s “hard treatment,” and Crocker reported in return that Lynes was “hard to manage.”
Myers was less fortunate. Tasked with another boy to pare apples, they stole a couple. When Crocker discovered what happened, he whipped their backs until they bled, and broke two horsewhips doing it. Myers “is a very unreliable boy indeed, the worst in the shop for deviltry,” reported a visiting state agent. In the fall of 1882, Myers and another boy stole Shubael Vincent’s dory in the harbor, boarded a vessel headed to New York, and stowed themselves away. The ship left, but was forced to return on account of the weather. Tiring of their confinement, Myers and his friend made themselves known, and were soon returned to Crocker.
By early 1883, the situation had deteriorated further. Crocker thrashed Higgins repeatedly with both a stick and a whip. He mailed a letter to his parents, but the boys later found it in Crocker’s coat. Higgins had developed a “quick temper,” it was reported, and he once tried to assault Crocker with an awl and a knife. A report concluded that Higgins “is so crippled that his future is not promising.”
On August 11, 1883, the most destructive fire in the history of the Island struck Vineyard Haven. The town had no water system, no fire department, and virtually no fire-fighting equipment — just wells and buckets. Few had fire insurance. The New Bedford Evening Standard reported, “People did not get insured. And why should they? It was 80 years since a dwelling house in the village had been burned, and nobody expected that any more would ever be burned.“
The fire evidently began near the boiler of Crocker’s factory, but various theories as to its exact cause were all ultimately discredited. The New Bedford Evening Standard wrote, “The cause of the fire is not known. A person was in Mr. Crocker’s shop at 8 o’clock, without a light, and saw no fire … [Crocker] says there could have been no burning chimney, for no fuel but coal was ever used in the chimney; and the story about hot ashes and leather chips thrown together is also incorrect, the ash heap being 30 feet from the chip heap. There was a cement floor for three feet round the boiler.” “The origin of the fire remains a mystery,” concluded the Standard reporter. Some looked with suspicion upon Crocker’s Monson boys, although no allegations were made public, nor did evidence ever come to light that might implicate them.
A “brisk northeaster” blew the night of the fire, and the gale-force winds gusted to near hurricane strength by midnight. The fire was clearly visible in the sky from Edgartown to New Bedford to towns on the Cape. More than 60 buildings were destroyed, including 26 stores and 32 homes, over some 50 acres across the heart of downtown Vineyard Haven. Looting was rampant. Hundreds were left homeless. The Boston Herald described the town the next morning as “a mass of smouldering ruins, out of which arose scores of blackened chimneys, standing as silent monuments of desolated homes.”
Higgins disappeared the night of the fire. “Philip is missing,” wrote Crocker to the state authorities less than 48 hours after the fire. Three days later he was taken into custody by the Brockton city marshal and returned to Monson.
The future of Vineyard Haven looked very grim in the days immediately after the fire. The Boston Globe wrote, “The village will never recover from the blow, for there is no business carried on to warrant an entire rebuilding.” The New York Times added, “The fire strikes almost a deathblow at this ancient village.”
A week after the fire, Rome, Lynes, and Myers disappeared as well.
Crocker’s factory, the two tenements which housed his workers, and the machinery and stock inside the factory were valued at $23,000, the largest single monetary loss from the fire. Crocker’s property was insured for less than half its value. The Boston Herald wrote, “There were 75 people thrown out of employment from R.W. Crocker’s harness factory, nearly all of whom, with their families, were in a destitute condition.”
But Crocker was not defeated. Charles Banks wrote in his book, “The History of Martha’s Vineyard,” “With characteristic energy [Crocker] began work on a new structure while the unburnt timbers were yet smouldering, and others followed in quick order. The quaint street had vanished, but a new line of buildings soon arose on the old thoroughfare.” Two weeks after the fire, Crocker wrote another letter to the state authorities: “I shall be at work in my new factory, a week from today + would like two new boys. If those who ran away turn up, send them also if you think best. Please see to the matter at once + oblige.”
In 1884 Crocker was charged, as reported by the Boston Globe, with “extreme cruelty in his treatment of the reform school boys bound out to him.” Thomas Talbot, the ex-governor of Massachusetts, oversaw the high-profile investigation, but the Board of Health, Lunacy and Charity, even after hearing shocking testimony from many of Crocker’s former charges, soon declared Crocker’s treatment to be “not brutal, nor unnecessarily severe.” Six years later Crocker retired comfortably, and the company was formally dissolved in 1896. (The newspapers lamented, “All that will remain of this organization will be the bitter regrets of the honest stockholders.”)
What became of the boys? Myers joined the Navy in Boston three months after the fire, and Higgins soon found work at a shoe factory in Brockton, but their whereabouts afterward are unknown. Lynes got a job at another harness shop off-Island, but was found to be “unsteady and a wild boy.” He returned to Vineyard Haven the following summer to work for Crocker again. A year later he married a 16-year-old Island girl and fathered a daughter, but their marriage quickly dissolved, and Lynes disappeared for good.
Rome returned to his native Pittsfield, where he married and had a family, ultimately opening an upholstery and cabinetmaking shop. I tracked down his granddaughter, Martha Rash of Harrisburg, Pa. She writes, “He had passed away before I was born, and my mother told us nothing about him. As far as I know, he was a good father and provider, and did not have any trouble with the law.”
“It is sad to think of all that my grandfather went through,” she wrote after learning about his Vineyard misadventures. “It was reminding me of Charles Dickens.”
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.