The death book, an intriguing capsule of West Tisbury history
The West Tisbury town clerk has custody of two ruled ledgers in which are recorded as much as is known of the name, ancestry, age, race, marital status, and occupation of every West Tisbury resident who has died since the town separated from Tisbury in 1892, along with the cause of death and the place of burial.
The "death book," as newly elected town clerk Tara Whiting refers to it, is a miniature history of the town. The familiar Island family names are all there: Athearn, Cottle, Look, Luce, Manter, Mayhew, Norton, Pease, Vincent, West, Ms. Whiting's own, and others familiar all across the Vineyard - as well as interlopers who left no other traces. Because the deceased person's parents are almost always listed, a genealogist could use the death book to fill in missing bits of the ancestry of anyone who died while a West Tisbury resident.
The death book also offers a glimpse of the society of the times. At the turn of the century, by far the most common occupation in West Tisbury was "farmer," with "mariner," or "sailor," a distant second. Women, on the early pages, were usually listed without occupation, or occasionally as "housewife" - a function of the times. The newer volume, which picks up after 2001, shows a much different picture - still a few farmers, but almost any occupation one could think of today.
Surprisingly, West Tisbury residents in the 1890s were a long-lived lot. Then as now, many ended their lives "retired." Of the 75 people who died between 1892 and 1899, nearly half (35) were older than 69. During those years more West Tisburians died at above 79 (20) than below 50 (14), and the trend continued through the early decades of the 20th century. According to Charles Banks' history, West Tisbury in 1892 had a population of about 450.
The death book is also a history of rural medicine. Many of the deaths were attributed to pneumonia or heart disease, though sometimes an older person's death was simply listed as "the infirmities of age" or "exhaustion." However, doctors in the early years recognized eclampsia, tuberculosis (sometimes listed as consumption), diabetes, dropsy (edema), septicemia, Bright's disease (nephritis), and stroke (sometimes listed as apoplexy). Even in the years 1892 to 1899, cancer was identified as a common cause of death in West Tisbury. Astonishingly, 11 deaths (16 percent) cited cancer, tumor, or carcinoma. In one year (1895), five persons reportedly died of cancer.
A gold mine of story ideas
In the West Tisbury death book, an historian could find insight and a source for further study, and a novelist could strike the spark of a story waiting for her imagination to build a fire.
For example, who was the Edgar West who died in 1892? His age, his place of birth, and even his parents were apparently unknown. His occupation, unique in the death book, is listed as "idiotic pauper." If not the hero of a novel, he could be a mysterious minor character.
Four entries for February 7, 1895, list master mariner Joseph Boswick, J. Davison, and two unknown others. A note says, "These four bodies were from the wreck of schooner T.P. Dixon at Lamberts Cove." A story in the NY Times for February 8 reports that the Dixon, bound for Rockland, Maine, from N.Y. City, apparently wrecked on Devil's Bridge or Sow and Pigs Ledge in a winter gale. Most of the vessel sank, but the cabin and part of the foredeck broke off and drifted ashore at Lamberts Cove. The bodies of three men and a dog were on top of the cabin, encased in ice, the feet of the men dangling through the cabin skylight. Here's an adventure story with enough gruesome detail for any potboiler.
The death book lists the violent end of Ariel Ballou Scott, 77, a farmer who died July 19, 1902, of extensive trauma - one leg broken in five places, head injuries, and a collapsed lung. The death book doesn't say how it happened, but a story in the NY Times for July 24 reports that Mr. Scott was thrown to the ground when his horse was frightened by an automobile driven by Edward Mulligan, a summer resident of Cottage City, "which, it is alleged, was being driven at a greater speed than permitted by law."
A sidebar reports that Justice Holbrook, presiding in the Court of Special Session, "served notice . . . that in the future [judges] would impose the full amount of the punishment allowed by statute on all offenders charged with speeding in excess of the rate allowed by law." If not the first death caused by the new-fangled horseless carriage, Mr. Scott's was surely one of the first.
A mystery writer might make a novel of the death of Tristram Chase on January 7, 1928. Mr. Chase, a blacksmith, died of "accidental burns on [his] body." The death book doesn't say whether he was burned at his forge. If he was, no doubt his death was indeed an accident. Perhaps at 61 he was getting a bit old for blacksmithing. But if you wanted to murder a blacksmith in a mystery story.... Attention, Cynthia Riggs.
The well-used older volume (1892 to 2001) shows its age. The covers are scuffed and frayed, and some of the pages are falling out. But even the earliest entries are still easy to read, written in a fine cursive hand, no doubt penned by the same method taught at the West Tisbury School, then housed in what is now the town hall and where the death book will soon permanently reside.