This Was Then: Cold case

A murder on South Beach.

South Beach, Chilmark. Early 1900s postcard.

In late July 1810, a body was discovered buried near South Beach. The newly dead man had a straw hat on, lined with green silk. He wore duck trousers and a short jacket. His throat was cut, but in the way one leg and one arm had been drawn up after burial, it was evident that he had been buried alive. A knife and sheath were found near his body.

A jury was called to view the corpse. They promptly concluded that this was a murder.

Locals recalled that about a week earlier, a group of three men had been reported landing very near this spot at about three o’clock in the morning in a longboat. They had abandoned their vessel in the surf, and made westward, avoiding attention until they reached Gay Head, it was recalled.

At first the three men pretended they could not speak English, and were assumed to be Spaniards. But upon arranging for a boat to New Bedford, at least one spoke good English. They explained that their ship had been wrecked on the shoals south of Nantucket. The captain, the mate, and a few other crewmen had taken one boat east, they said, but the three men had steered theirs west, to the Vineyard. By one report, they carried $5,000 or $6,000 in coin with them.

The men were directed to George West of Chilmark, who transported them to New Bedford in his own vessel.

Their abandoned longboat at South Beach was salvaged, and wound up in the custody of William Mayhew of Chilmark. It appeared to be newly repaired, its timbers made of red cedar. The name “Ervine Bush” appeared on the inside of the stern. Within the vessel were found four oars, a compass, a knife, and some spoons.

Island officials requested that printers throughout the U.S. insert the story into their newspapers, but the murder remains unsolved.


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 June 2018.