When Edson Chick arrived on the Vineyard in the summer of 1887, Islanders found him to be charismatic, well-spoken, impeccably dressed, and extremely outgoing. A man of unusual intelligence, Chick attracted attention and friends wherever he went. He was a wealthy and distinguished writer and journalist, a talented musician and showman, and he was about to publish Vineyard Haven’s first newspaper, “Chick’s Vineyard Haven News.”
What Vineyarders didn’t know was that Edson Chick was also a committed maniac who had escaped from his last insane asylum by picking the lock with a tool he had made from his toothbrush. Rearrested and released, but unwelcomed at home by his wife and children, Chick’s half-brother agreed to pay him a weekly pension to go live in a quiet place “to be kept away from a big city”: Martha’s Vineyard.
Chick’s newspaper was published from October 1887 until March 1888 out of an office in Lane’s Block, where Leslie’s Drug Store is today. It was an immediate hit. He became a dedicated local journalist, carefully and accurately (if often colorfully) following the stories of the day, including local politics, gossip, and pointed editorial commentary. Chick gushed over the Island, the town, and most of its industrious inhabitants, contrasting it with “the cold shores of distant America.” He printed his motto, “Go Work in the Vineyard,” in the masthead.
Chick suffered from a debilitating form of bipolar disorder — known in the 1880s as “circular insanity” — and had been institutionalized half a dozen times before coming to the Island. The Brooklyn Eagle wrote about Chick and his Vineyard newspaper, “There was nothing the matter with him except a slight ailment which Philistines called ‘rats in his garret.’ Now and then one of these mental ‘rats’ would escape and run across the editorial page of his paper, to the wonder of the rural readers whose respect for Mr. Chick’s profundity prevented their suspecting that anything was wrong with him.”
His paper was full of playful and insightful (if sometimes sarcastic and troublemaking) wordplay:
Under the Vineyard Haven column “Points”: “A cyclone of fair clerks, crowds of customers, and a beautiful array of tempting goods sweeps over Frank P. Norton’s store. One can’t help buying of Nobby-Tasty-Tidy-Fly-Brushed-Off-Frank.”
Under a regular column titled “Thinks”: “In a store here, a man said that some coffee he bought ‘tasted like ground-up shoe taps and state religion.’ He knows his name. We forgot it.”
Chick’s newspaper, which he claimed to print more than a thousand copies of each week, lasted less than 25 issues. He ran out of money, and his printer refused to publish the paper without further payment. Unable to pay his bill at the Mansion House, Chick left the Island and was forced to leave all of his clothes at the hotel for board.
[Disclosure: This was adapted from a much longer piece I wrote about Chick’s adventures, titled “Incurable But Not Dangerous,” for a 2012 Martha’s Vineyard Intelligencer.]
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.