This Was Then: Sleeping in

Islanders who took to their beds … for years.

Diminutive bed owned by the famous Adams Sisters of Chilmark.

An old Edgartown record noted something unusual about Mrs. Anna (Pease) Arey (1755-1807) of Chappaquiddick: “She had been confined to her Bed for about 24 years in which Time she had three Sons, (not at one Birth), all of them large healthy Children.”

Mrs. Arey outlived her husband Elijah, a Chappaquiddick mariner, by six months, and died at the age of about 52. Weeks before she died, “being weak in body but of sound and perfect memory,” she penned her last will and testament, presumably from the bed wherein she had spent nearly a quarter-century.

To her 20something daughters Betsy and Polly, she bequeathed the house, “so long as my said daughter Betsy continues detached from or disconnected with the man she married.” (If Betsy “ever be reunited to or Cohabit with the man she married,” she stipulates, the property would automatically go to her younger brother Thomas.) She had special instructions for her youngest child, 15-year-old Martin: “I further will & require that my son Martin should live and abide in the House until he goes to learn a trade [provided] he behaves and conduct himself kindly toward his said Sisters.” The only item in her estate which she refers specifically to is “one feather Bed, which I reserve for the use and improvement of my Sons, that are now single as they may think convenient & during their pleasure.”

But Arey did not hold the record for bed-bound Islanders.

Lucy Allen of Tisbury (1779-?) was the only surviving daughter of Zachariah Allen of New Jersey (unrelated to the Island Allens, he spent little or no time on the Vineyard) and Joyce Athearn. Apparently abandoned by her father, Lucy resided with her mother, who lived under her maiden name.

A 1826 newspaper article, originally attributed to the Nantucket Enquirer but soon picked up by newspapers across the country, told Lucy’s odd story: “A Singular Case. – There is now living in the town of Chilmark, Martha’s Vineyard, a woman by the name of Lucy Allen, who went to bed at the age of 16, slightly indisposed; and has remained in it to the present time, being a period of 32 years. Her friends, at first, were apprehensive of the approach of a fever, and sent for a physician. But, as it proved, she had nothing more than a cold. The doctor gave her a little medicine, and advised her to keep her bed that day. She did so; and moreover, declared she would never rise from it again. On one or two of the succeeding days, however, she was prevailed on to sit up for a short time, but never afterwards. She appears highly offended if the thing is even proposed. Notwithstanding this, she evidently enjoys good health, and the exercise of her mental facilities. Whenever she wishes her bed made, she transfers herself to another standing near, without any assistance. Who else can say they have lain a-bed 32 years without rising?” (One newspaper concluded, “This is the very essence of laziness.”)


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.