This Was Then: The artist mystic

A story of ghosts, poisonings, secret codes, hidden chambers, and the “Black Hand.”

“Scene at Cuttyhunk” by Frederic Thompson from the Edgartown Library's Simpson Collection. —Frederic Thompson

Hanging in the staff room of the Edgartown Library is a 10” by 16” oil painting titled “Scene at Cuttyhunk” signed by the artist, Frederic Thompson. Painted about 1908, this innocuous landscape belies a colorful Chilmark artist with a curious and convoluted story involving ghosts, poisonings, secret codes, hidden chambers, and the Mafia.

A New Bedford native, Frederic Louis Thompson attended the Swain School of Design (later integrated into UMass Dartmouth), and from the age of 14 worked as a trophy designer, engraver, and modeler in both silver and gold. He married glass decorator Caroline Leonard of Cleveland, and they soon moved to New York City, where he found work designing for Tiffany & Co. and other jewelers before opening his own short-lived jewelry and engraving business. But shortly after the turn of the century, Thompson sold his business, quit work, and began full-time oil painting.

Thompson declared he had become possessed by the spirit of famous landscape painter

(and Nonamesset Island native) Robert Swain Gifford, who had recently died in 1905. His formal art education conveniently forgotten, Thompson was portrayed by the press as an untalented tradesman who became suddenly and supernaturally endowed with Gifford’s artistic gifts. He devoted all his time to landscape painting in Gifford’s style, claimed of hearing the voice of the dead artist in his mind, and of dreaming and hallucinating windswept landscapes on the Elizabeth Islands and the Vineyard where Gifford had visited during his lifetime. He sketched to violin melodies no one else could hear, and said he sometimes felt as if he himself was Gifford. He became the subject of a full chapter in the popular 1919 supernatural text “Contact with the Other World,” written by Columbia University Professor James Hyslop, who personally examined Thompson’s behavior in great detail.

Thompson became an artistic success, making a lucrative living selling “spook pictures” in a number of prominent galleries around New York City, even selling one painting to author Mark Twain. The Thompsons began summering in Cuttyhunk. In 1908 they closely befriended a wealthy socialite 25 years their elder, Colonel Horace Brookes. (“Colonel” was an honorary rather than a military title, but that didn’t stop Brookes from commissioning an oil portrait from Thompson in which he posed in an elaborate, gold-laced colonel’s uniform.)

The Thompsons and Colonel Brookes began summering together in Menemsha in 1911, first at the boarding house known as the Homestead, and soon in a small summer cottage which Thompson built nearby for the three of them. In 1917 Brookes bought a lot of land on South Road bordering Chilmark Pond, where they moved their home and expanded it to include a large fieldstone fireplace, carefully built by Thompson. They named the house “Crow’s Pocket Camp,” and the three lived together here every summer until 1925. Thompson soon gave up painting altogether, instead spending all day measuring lobsters, fish, crabs, and leaves for a obsessive new theory he was developing on the “proportional growth of life” which he felt “coordinated” with Einstein’s theories and could be applied to automobile and airplane design.

In 1925 the Thompsons’ marriage fell apart. Caroline would later allege that he choked her, hit her, tried to force pills on her, tried to smash her head with a rock, and threatened to kill her on a number of occasions. He moved abruptly to Florida that fall. He claimed afterward that he had received a threatening letter with a West Tisbury postmark signed by the “Black Hand” — reputedly an appendage of the Mafia — threatening to kill Caroline if he didn’t leave for Miami immediately and cease all contact with her. Caroline quickly divorced him in his absence, on grounds of cruelty. When Thompson learned of the divorce, he filed a half-million-dollar lawsuit against Colonel Brookes for “alienation of affection,” claiming the 83-year-old man’s affair with his wife had ended their marriage.

Then Caroline discovered a loose stone in the Crow’s Pocket fireplace revealing a large hidden chamber. Inside she found incriminating letters to Thompson’s alleged mistresses, some in “hieroglyphic” code, together with “obscene literature” and other odd items. More letters soon came to light, suggesting that Thompson had attempted to poison his wife with arsenic-laced fruit on a number of occasions in 1925, and that he had attempted to mail her a box of poisoned candy during his absence in Florida.

Thompson was arrested in November 1929 in New York, extradited, and locked in the

Edgartown jail to face two charges of attempted murder. He was confined to the Massachusetts Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater for observation, remaining there for 52 days.

The trial of the “psychical artist” in Edgartown the following spring was followed by newspapers in Boston, New York, and beyond. In his defense, Thompson claimed that Caroline had forged all of the incriminating letters, and produced a handwriting expert to testify on his behalf. After three days of heated testimony and three-and-a-half hours of deliberation at the Edgartown courthouse, Captain Hartson Bodfish, foreman of the jury, announced the verdict: Not guilty on both counts.

Thompson immediately sued Caroline and Brookes for $1 million in damages. Caroline countersued for a million. The lawsuits dragged on for years in court, with little satisfaction on either side. Brookes and Caroline continued to live together in their South Road home until their deaths in 1935 and 1954, and the three were embroiled in suits, countersuits, and appeals for the rest of their long lives. In one of the last countersuits, Caroline sued Thompson for $1,000,000 on the grounds that he had “annoyed her to an unbearable degree.”

Thousands of pages of colorful testimony and bizarre evidence from Thompson’s trial in Edgartown and subsequent suits can be read for free in Google Books. (For the first 1,314 pages, for example, see Enjoy!)

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.