This Was Then: Welcome and the ape

What's that lurking in the Chilmark woods?

Dr. Charles Putnam holds his daughter Cornelia at his farm on North Road, 1933. —Courtesy Chris Baer

Welcome Tilton of Chilmark (1856–1949) was a whaleman, trap fisherman, lobsterman, cod fisherman, coaster, fishmonger, and later in life, door-to-door vanilla salesman. He came from a family of colorful characters — his brothers George Fred (who walked home from the Arctic) and Zeb (the cross-eyed schooner captain) perhaps the most famous among them. But Welcome was the first to see the Chilmark ape.

In late August 1915, Welcome was working in the woods when he spotted a large animal. At first he thought it was a young black bear, unseen on Martha’s Vineyard for at least 300 years. “It was heavy-limbed and black. Stood I should judge about three feet in height. The head was big and rounded, his teeth were white and prominent,” he would tell a Boston Globe reporter. Then the animal turned on him; “It made for me.” Welcome fled to his house, fetched a gun and his brothers, but when he returned the animal had vanished.

Retired “country gentleman” George Eustis of Hollyholm Farm in Chilmark spotted it next. In the middle of the night, he heard a commotion in his henhouse, and saw a dark form about three feet tall scampering across his field on all fours. He then found his turkey nest robbed of eggs, and a trail of sucked eggs leading into the woods. The next morning he found a footprint, the size of a child’s.

Not long ago the Vineyard was home to both red and gray foxes, mink, red squirrel, muskrat, otter, and possibly black bear. Early European explorers also reported beaver, bobcat, and martens on the Vineyard, as well as an extra-large, stripeless variety of native skunk. Going much further back in time, fossils of wild horses, camels, rhinoceri, and even gomphotheres (close cousins of mastodons and elephants) have been unearthed at Aquinnah. But nobody had ever reported a wild simian on Martha’s Vineyard before.

That’s not to say the Vineyard hadn’t had any primate pets. Rural mail carrier Fred Luce recalled a sailor at the Marine Hospital in Vineyard Haven who had a pet ape. “This animal was so obnoxious that the authorities killed him and his body was cremated in the hospital furnace,” he reported.

The colorful Putnam family also kept monkeys and chimpanzees at their home at Valleydale Farm, off North Road (now part of Spring Point). Dr. Charles Putnam, a wealthy ear, nose, and throat surgeon from Manhattan, and his wife Angelica owned a sprawling farm where they raised a large family of children and kept monkeys as pets. (Their son Patrick would later become a famously eccentric anthropologist who lived in the Belgian Congo with the Mbuti pygmies, and would occasionally bring home chimps to live in their Chilmark farm, and later to his sister’s home in Vineyard Haven. Patrick also gave his parents an alligator, which lived in their New York apartment until it escaped.) But in 1915, the Putnam family’s pet monkeys were safe and secure in their cage. Mrs. Putnam begged the public not to kill the creature should it be found. She offered to help capture it, and felt confident that they could succeed.

Forrest Bosworth saw it next in broad daylight on North Road. He reported it as “big as a man, but rather short” with big white teeth, hairy body, and long tail. It scampered away into a swamp, frightened by Bosworth’s dog. Bosworth and Ernest Cardoze spent the next day armed with guns hunting the animal, but found nothing.

The Boston Post took the story less seriously than the Globe, and printed a long, snarky, tongue-in-cheek report. “There is an ape running amuck down in the vicinity of the Chilmark jungle,” reported the Post; “it measures anywhere from one foot to 11 feet in height. It steals eggs, kills hens, and scares men, women, and children.… If stories keep going the rounds about the ape a few more days, a herd of elephants will be running amuck down off Gay Head.”

But the Post was accurate in its assessment of the hysteria that had enveloped the Vineyard — “a regular Edgar Allan Poe ‘Rue Morgue’ gorilla mystery.” Ape stories grew “thick and fast.” Eustis had to put a sign up to keep curious trespassers away. Eleven-year-old Martha Murray saw a figure off North Road, and declared, “It wasn’t a man.” The animal was seen the same night in Squibnocket and in Edgartown. (“If these stories are true, I’ll have to lay for Mr. Ape and arrest him for over-speeding” the Post quoted Chief Osgood Mayhew of the Oak Bluffs Police.) Blacksmith “Tut” Chase of North Tisbury deduced that it must be an orangutan. The leading theory was that the animal dropped or was thrown from a passing ship, and swam ashore. “Remarkable stories were rife,” concluded the Globe.

Unless a reader has further information, the ape was never seen again. But keep an eye on your henhouse.

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