This Was Then: Names, Wood, and dynamite

No Vineyard man had ever become so rich and powerful.

It was not uncommon in the 19th century for Vineyard whaling captains to bring home boys from abroad, sometimes informally adopting them, all the while employing them aboard ship.

Ramón Insua, an Argentinian boy brought to Edgartown in 1833, lived with the family of Capt. Alexander Weeks for more than 30 years. He became a U.S. citizen in 1843, and bought a house lot in Edgartown, but was ultimately lost with Capt. Weeks and others aboard the bark Fanny in 1856, “supposed to be lost at sea in a gale of wind.”

In 1835, 7-year-old Francis Pereira of St. George in the Azores was brought to Edgartown by Capt. Shubael Norton, and adopted by him. Capt. Norton gave the boy his surname as well; he became Francis Perry Norton.

Many immigrants changed their names upon coming to the Vineyard. Some were just simple Anglicizations, like Correira to Corey, or Pereira to Perry. Vineyard immigrant José Pimental, born on the island of Flores in the Azores, took on the sound-alike name “Joseph P. Metell,” coining a virtually unique surname in the process. (If you ever meet a Metell anywhere in the world, odds are excellent that they’re from the Vineyard.) The Alley family of Martha’s Vineyard, one of whom would give his name to Alley’s General Store, was originally Medeiros. (The story goes that “Alley” was a play on “halibut,” which they once sold on the streets of Oak Bluffs.) Other immigrants took on local surnames, like Manuel Machado of St. George, who took the surname “Norton” when he settled in Edgartown; he passed it on to his descendants, forming a second Azorean branch of the Norton name.

Nobody is sure of what William Wood’s name was before he arrived in Edgartown from the island of Pico. His original surname has been variously claimed to be Garcia, Madeira, or Silva, and his first name was reported to be “Jacinto.” But it’s known that he came to Edgartown as a young cook, recruited in the Azores and employed for years by Capt. Thomas Pease of the whaler Champion. Wood’s wife was Azorean as well; she bore 10 children, several of whom were born in the home they bought on Pease’s Point Way. While the Woods were, by all accounts, one of many poor Azorean immigrant families on the Vineyard, one of their Edgartown-born children, William Jr., would eventually become a fabulously wealthy, nationally known figure in the early 20th century.

Just for the record, they were no relation to Frank Wood, respected superintendent of the Edgartown Water Co. during the 1920s, who was arrested in 1931 for bungling a stickup of the Holliston Savings Bank with his teenage partner. Frank Wood had worked as a grocery clerk and then manager for the S.M. Mayhew Co. in West Tisbury and Chilmark, and was also assistant Chilmark postmaster, before starting with the water company. After several years, he was dismissed by the company for “irregularities” — none criminal — and left the Island. He tried to interest a female Boston doctor to back him in a “freak museum” venture, but when that fell through, he took to bank robbery.

Nor should they be confused with another William Wood, an alias of William Dubois, who was arrested for burglarizing homes, and St. Elizabeth’s Church, in Edgartown in 1923. (He was carrying a church censer when he was arrested.)

No, William Wood Sr. of Edgartown was the hardworking steward of the steamer Eagle’s Wing; his wife was a scrubwoman aboard the same vessel. But in 1861, with William Sr. in failing health, the family left the Island and moved to New Bedford, where he died when William Jr. was 12.

William Jr. dropped out of school to work in the mills of New Bedford. Through hard work and lucky breaks, Wood soon became a salesman, then a mill manager. Then he married the millionaire owner’s daughter. Then, in the words of Island historian Art Railton, “in wealth and in power, [Wood] became the most successful person ever born on the Vineyard.”

Wood founded the American Woolen Co., the world’s largest textile company, producing some 15 percent of all woolen goods in the U.S. He merged 50 textile mills into one company in Lawrence, where he built the largest woolen mill in the world, the Wood Mill, a vast building employing some 7,000 workers.

He began vacationing on Cuttyhunk, where he was turned down for membership by the elite New York sporting organization known as the Cuttyhunk Fishing Club, reportedly because of his Azorean heritage. Nevertheless, Wood began buying up land on the island, where he built two large summer homes. (One, known as Avalon, exists there today as an inn.) He even planned to build a stone castle on Cuttyhunk, but as his wife didn’t care much for the island, that idea was eventually vetoed.

Nearly half of Wood’s labor force in Lawrence were women, and one in eight were under 18 years old; many were immigrants. Pay was $6 a week for a 56-hour standard factory week, paltry even then. Work conditions were appalling. When Massachusetts legally changed the workweek from 56 to 54 hours for women and children, the mill cut pay accordingly.

That act triggered one of the most infamous strikes in American history. Known as “the Strike of 1912” or “the Bread and Roses strike” (reflecting a line from a popular women’s suffrage slogan), it was a massive, organized protest for better pay and working conditions. Several people were killed in the violence that followed.

Acting on a tip, Lawrence Police found caches of dynamite in three different buildings, all owned by Syrian immigrants connected to the strike leaders. They denied all knowledge of the explosives, and charges were soon dropped. They had been framed.

The strike was eventually settled, but the dynamite plot was traced back to company officials. Wood himself was indicted for conspiracy. Prosecutors charged that he paid $2,600 to operatives to plant the dynamite. The jury in the widely publicized 1913 trial initially deadlocked, but then found Wood not guilty. While some of his alleged co-conspirators were convicted, and while there was solid evidence that Wood had at least authorized the payments, he was fully acquitted.

Wood’s business continued to boom. World War I created a huge demand for wool to make army uniforms and blankets. But the violent strike was never forgotten by the public, especially in Lawrence, where he was named the “best-hated man.” Wood became one of the richest men in the country. “No [Vineyard] native, before or since, ever became so rich and so powerful,” wrote Railton. But he would never find peace. After a pair of strokes and the death of his son in a Rolls-Royce accident, Wood took his own life at a “lonely spot” near Flagler Beach, Fla., in 1926.


Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in June 2018.