William Cunningham of Boston was barely 10 years old when he was sent to reform school in 1870 for “larceny and disobedience.” His parents were alcoholics, the family was destitute and sometimes homeless, and William had run away regularly for weeks at a time. Two years into his stay at the State Reform School at Westborough, he suffered an accident with a mowing machine and lost his leg. (He would later claim he was crippled in a heroic act stopping a team of horses.)
Just before his 14th birthday, Cunningham was “bound out” to Rodolphus Crocker of Vineyard Haven to learn the harnessmaking trade. Crocker took in many wards of the state, both from the State Primary School at Monson and the State Reform School, and his crew of “Monson boys” made up a large part of his sizable workforce.
Cunningham quickly soured on Island life. According to his state files, Cunningham was initially “quarrelsome and discontented,” and got into “rows” with the other boys. He was caught stealing tobacco, and Crocker wouldn’t let him attend school that winter “on account of his disposition.” But neither Crocker nor the state authorities would allow him to leave, even as Cunningham wrote imploring letters to state authorities stating he was “dissatisfied and wants to be taken away.” It was later testified that Crocker “thrashed” him and that “he preferred the reform school to Crocker.” But as the years passed, his complaints became more tempered, and eventually ended.
When Cunningham turned 16, he requested an artificial leg to replace his old wooden stump. State authorities balked at the enormous cost (nearly $100), but Mr. H. Levin of Vineyard Haven and a group of local “ladies” — probably with the Vineyard Haven Baptist Church, in which Cunningham had become involved — began a fundraising campaign, and in a special act of the Massachusetts legislature, the state agreed to contribute matching funds. In early 1878 he was fitted with his new Palmer Artificial Leg, which Cunningham declared “perfectly satisfactory.”
Upon turning 18, Cunningham continued on as a professional workman with Crocker. He married Winnie Smith of Vineyard Haven, the daughter of highly respected town leaders, and they had two children. “Happily married. Keeping house. Respected by everybody,” reads the end of his file, made by the State Visiting Agent in 1881 before closing his case.
But his story didn’t end so happily.
In 1884, in what the Boston Globe called “about the only scandal that ever shocked the town,” it was charged that Crocker had abused, beaten, and overworked his boys, keeping them as “virtual prisoners.” It was even alleged that Crocker’s friend, the Vineyard Haven Postmaster, had intercepted outgoing complaint letters. But Cunningham defended his boss, and denied all the allegations of abuse. The charges against Crocker were eventually dropped, and Cunningham soon became superintendent of the harness factory.
Cunningham’s marriage failed next. Winnie alleged he choked, kicked, and tried to cut her throat in “insanely jealous” fits, and that he threatened to shoot her father with the twin bulldog revolvers he carried (and practiced shooting with on prowling cats). He was arrested, but the charges were evidently dropped. They were divorced about 1888.
Cunningham left the Island and moved to Boston, temporarily finding work with a Charlestown harnessmaker. He met a 20-year-old Welsh “domestic” named Maggie Williams, and they soon became engaged. He didn’t tell her about his artificial leg, nor when he lost his new job.
One day he slipped on the sidewalk and broke his Vineyard-bought leg. Lacking the funds to pay for a new one — or his rent — Cunningham stayed in bed for two weeks, pretending to be healing from a broken bone. He borrowed Maggie’s gold watch and ring, and $22, and (using a borrowed crutch) secretly went out and bought a new leg, then quietly moved out of his room without paying his back rent. His ruse fell apart when Maggie went to visit and instead discovered the truth from his angry landlord. She became incensed by all of his deceptions, but particularly about his secret wooden leg. Their upcoming wedding was canceled.
On the morning of April 25, 1892, Cunningham arranged for a reconciliatory meeting with Maggie at the home of their mutual friend Mrs. Solomon in Cambridgeport. On his way to meet her, he purchased a 32-caliber Colt revolver, and then stopped into a neighborhood pharmacy to have his knee oiled. They met, he begged her forgiveness, she refused, and he shot her twice, and then himself. She died on the way to the hospital, but Cunningham eventually recovered. Newspapers as far away as California picked up the story over the next few days, as Cunningham pled not guilty on the grounds that an accident occurred when he was trying to intimidate her, or alternately that she “got in his way while he was trying to commit suicide.” He eventually withdrew his plea and pled guilty to second-degree murder. He was sentenced to the State Prison for life.
Twenty years later, in 1912, Governor Eugene Foss pardoned Cunningham. His lawyer picked him up at the prison gate, and in the first automobile ride of his life he drove to the State House to thank the governor for his freedom. His whereabouts afterward are unknown. His two Vineyard-born children moved to Oak Bluffs and changed their name.
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.