This Was Then: Hinckley and Renear

Vineyard Haven’s undertakers and the rumrunners.

Advertisement in the Martha’s Vineyard Cook Book, by the Lambert's Cove Church’s Ladies' Aid Society. Bon appetit! Courtesy Lambert's Cove Church’s Ladies' Aid Society

Hinckley and Renear’s Vineyard Haven undertaking business was established in 1896 by Walter Renear, sheriff of Dukes County, and building contractor Herbert Hinckley. From 1920 until 1953, their parlors were located in the Main Street building occupied today by Brickman’s toy store, La Choza Burritos, and Found It. Hinckley inherited the business from his father-in-law, carpenter Moses Vincent. In Vincent’s era, it was common for carpenters and cabinetmakers to also serve as coffin makers and undertakers. Hinckley and Renear buried virtually all of Tisbury’s departed until World War II.

In 1923, eight corpses were found floating in Vineyard Sound off the Chilmark shore, Cedar Tree Neck, and Menemsha, together with a score of barrels of bottled Canadian ale, all evidently from the rumrunner John Dwight, which had rolled over and sunk off Cuttyhunk the day before. Seven of the bodies were wrapped in life preservers, and an eighth was found face-down in a small boat, with the back of his skull crushed. Several days later, a large lifeboat was found at Quick’s Hole with two holes stove in its sides, suggesting some survivors may have escaped the wreck.

Over the next few days, well-dressed strangers arrived on the Island at odd hours, making inquiries. The Boston Globe reported, “Two men came on a special trip to the island in a catboat to view the bodies at the morgue. It is believed that they gave false names, because, under questioning, they continuously contradicted themselves. After one was allowed to see the bodies, both went away in a catboat … They seemed in a great hurry to get away, and this awakened suspicions of every one around.”

The bodies were shipped to Cambridge, where authorities examined one body and “found the hands had been burned to prevent fingerprinting and the eyes burned out. It is interesting to note that every man in Vineyard Haven who had anything to do with the body” — including Leland Renear and Nelson Hinckley, who both testified to authorities — “say it left here in perfect condition … A careful examination of the entrances and windows of the undertaking establishment failed to show any indications of any attempt to force an entrance. Leland W. Renear said tonight that the body was free from mutilation when it left the shop.”

It was soon found that some of the other victims had died violent deaths, and had not drowned, as was first assumed. Although the event was never fully explained, most Islanders concluded that the John Dwight suffered not from an accident but rather from a massacre and robbery from competing rumrunners.

After the deaths of the original partners, sons Nelson Hinckley and Leland Renear formally took over the undertaking business from their fathers. Leland graduated from the New England Institute of Anatomy in 1911, and had become a registered funeral director, but in addition to managing the undertaking business, he was also president of Renear Ford Sales, president of the Martha’s Vineyard Cooperative Bank, a Realtor, and justice of the peace. In August 1945, Hinckley sold his share of the business to Renear.  

In 1953, Brickman’s bought the building, and Edward Sylva Jr. bought the undertaking business. Sylvia renamed it the Island Funeral Home, and moved it initially behind the Mansion House, and later, to Causeway Road. In May 1954, Brickman’s Annex and Bike Shop opened here, operated by Jack Levett and David Levine.